What even are cats?

Cats are strange. They constantly seem to be plotting to kill you or to take over the world. They lend their name to quantum physics thought experiments or grinning characters from children’s tales. They come up with creative yet actually very annoying ways to brighten your day, and they only participate in science experiments when they feel like it.

Cats are strange and the scientific community at least agrees on this fact. A 2014 study wondered what the physical nature of cats was, asking the very important question: are cats solid or fluid?*

Fluid dynamics for some very fluid cats.

Marc-Antoine Fardin used a scientific approach to answer the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”

Here was his conundrum:
Cat’s are generally assumed to be solid. You know, you can touch them and they feel pretty solid. But on the other hand, cat’s fit into really small spaces and can seemingly adjust their form to the container they are in – a property usually attributed to fluids. This is commonly known in internet circles as I fits, I sits.”

A kitten fitting in a wine glass to illustrate that cats can fit into any small space.
Who needs a glass of whine when you can drink fur?
(Image credit: unknown)

The author takes a rheological approach (rheology = the study of flow of matter) to try to differentiate between whether the deformation of a cat is solid deformation or fluid flow. Solids can be deformed, especially if they are soft. Think Play-Doh, which can take any shape while keeping the same volume as opposed to honey, which can also take any shape while keeping the same volume but can be poured.

To me, “Can a cat be poured?” is the question worth asking, and this might be difficult to test without ending up with a lot of scratches.

Reading the paper, I was starting to think the author didn’t take his research very seriously (among his acknowledgements he thanks two people – or cats, I don’t know – for “providing a reliable technique to load Felis catus in different geometries: 1.Bring an empty box; 2. Wait.”). That said, studying the physical nature of cats could bring us closer to understanding the nature of matter itself. More recent experiments are promising:

It seems that the duality of cats extends beyond dead or alive.

On the Rheology of Cats,” Marc-Antoine Fardin, Rheology Bulletin, vol. 83, 2, July 2014, pp. 16-17 and 30.

* The study won the 2017 Ig Nobel prize for Physics. The prize awarded to science that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. To be honest, it makes you think that the whole thing was a joke in the first place. It probably was.



The twin paradox states the following:

There are two identical twins. One of them travels through space in a high-speed rocket. When they return home, the Earth-bound twin has aged more. This is a result of special relativity. Very briefly, this is due to time slowing down as higher speeds are reached, and why Matthew McConaughey returned to Earth only to find his 90-something year old daughter on her dying bed.

This thought experiment has long been exactly that, a though experiment. But recently, we actually were able to learn what happens to twins when one is in space (granted, not in a high-speed rocket, but on the ISS) for almost a year, while the other twin stays on Earth.

Real Space Twinsies

On March 27 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), while his brother, astronaut Mark Kelly, remained on Earth. (One can have a discussion on who was the luckier of the two.) They did the same activities, ate the same things, and followed the same schedule*, the only difference being that Scott was 400 km from the Earth’s surface, travelling at a speed of 7.66 km/s, while Mark was 0 km from the Earth surface, travelling at a speed of merely 460 m/second, as we all are.

340 days later, March 1 2016, Scott returned to Earth. For the full duration of his time on the ISS, as well as after his return, numerous samples were collected and tests were conducted to monitor his health and compare the physiological and biological changes that happened as a consequence of spacelife. Using his twin brother, a perfect genetic duplicate, as a control.

twins patch
The Twin Study, a massive undertaking involving lots of collaboration and fancy badge design.

The effects of space

There are many “unusual” aspects about living in space, compared to living on Earth, including the odd noises of the ISS, the isolation (Scott was in contact with a mere 12 people during those 340 days), the ultra-controlled environment, a disruption of the normal body clock (imagine perpetually being jet-lagged because of constant switching of time zones), living in micro gravity and the excess of radiation.

An ultra-combined effort, i.e. a major collaboration between a lot of different labs that looked at all possible aspects of physiological and biological function, the effects of 340 days in space (in this specific set of twins) was published last month. There are a lot of changes that occur to the human body in space, some more severe than others.

An immense effort and a lot of numbers went into creating, collecting and comparing samples from the twins. Credit: NASA

There are some changes that don’t really matter much, like changes in the gastrointestinal microbiome and changes in biomass, which were affected during Scott’s time in space, but rapidly returned to normal after he returned. Not much to worry about.

Mid-level risks included known effects of living in microgravity such changes in bone density (you don’t really need to use your skeletal muscles while floating around) and changes in how the heart pumps around blood (you don’t need to fight gravity to pump blood to the head). NASA already knows this and therefore has a rigorous rehabilitation program for returning astronauts to re-acclimatize to Earth’s gravity.

However, it’s the high-risk findings that we all have to worry about, which a mostly due to prolonged floating and prolonged radiation exposure. Due to changes in air pressure as well as that thing I mentioned about blood pumping, a lot of astronauts experience ocular issues after their return, a risk that only increases with increased dwell time off-Earth. This can severely compromise vision. There is also evidence of some cognitive decline. Both those aspects are worrying in the light of long term space travel, we would hope that space-explorers can see and think clearly while carrying out dangerous tasks in dangerous conditions. And that’s without considering a final severe risk…

Who’s the oldest twin?

In addition, the radiation that Scott experienced on ISS is pretty much equivalent to 50 years of normal exposure on Earth. This causes significant genomic instability and DNA damage, and consequentially an increased risk of developing cancer.

One example of this genomic instability has to do with telomeres**. Telomeres are bits of DNA that cap the end of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, and in the process duplicates its whole DNA library, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide. This is something that happens naturally during aging: shortening of telomeres phases out cells until they can no longer divide. Eventually, this leads to cell death.

1 year of space had an odd effect on Scott’s telomeres. Some of them grew longer, while others showed shortening. However, the lengthened telomere returned to normal after Scott’s landing on Earth, while the shortening persisted. So even though Scott was the space twin in our paradox, he seems to have ended up aging faster than Mark…

At a glance, the different effects of one year in space on a human body. Well, it probably takes more than a glance to read this.

A lot happens to a body in space

Overall, the results are pretty surprising, prolonged living in space had more of an effect on the human body than researchers expected. And there is probably a lot more to learn, even just with the data collected from Scott and Mark.

On one hand, the twin study showed how resilient and robust the human body is. 91.3% of Scott’s gene expression levels returned to his baseline level within six months of landing, and some of the changes that occurred to his DNA and microbiome were no different than what occurs in high-stress situations on Earth. That’s amazing, the human body has not evolved to survive in space, but it seems to do pretty well considering how outlandish the conditions are!

On the other hand, the prolonged exposure to microgravity and high radiation does have severe effects on the human health, leading to increased risk for compromised vision, cardiovascular disease, and cancer development. Even with the rigorous preparation and rehabilitation programs astronauts go through before and after spaceflight, some of these effects will be impossible to avoid.

The massive study, combining the effort of 84 researchers in 12 different universities is a feat of collaboration (though nothing compared to the black hole telescope, if I’m honest) and it’s definitely a first that the genomes of space vs. Earth could be compared with a true genetic control. This compiled study, and the many pieces of research that are expected to be published in the next year with the results from the individual studies, provide crucial insight on the effects of space in the long term. If we think that it takes approximately 1 year for a return journey to Mars, this research is valuable for the health of future astronauts and mankind’s ambition to explore further into space.

Want to know more? Watch NASA’s video on the three key findings, or read more in the Science paper or the NASA website (links below).


Markus Löbrich and Penny A. Jeggo. Hazards of human spaceflight. Science 364 (6436) p. 127-128. 2019. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7086

Francine E. Garrett-Bakelman, et al. The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight.
Science 364 (6436) eaau8650. 2019. DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8650

Twin study on the NASA website: https://www.nasa.gov/twins-study

Cover image: The International Space Station crosses the terminator above the Gulf of Guinea, image credit NASA

*I remember reading this somewhere, but I cannot find the source anymore. It is thus possible that Mark just went about his normal life. Regardless, it is amazing that NASA had the opportunity to do this experiment with a perfect genetic control.

** Fun fact, my spelling check does not know the word “telomeres” and suggests that I mean “omelettes”. Well, I guess they both get super scrambled up in space? (Eeeeh for an inaccurate joke, sorry).

A tale of four giraffes

I have a sweet spot for giraffes. I’d like to say this is because they remind me of myself. Tall. Graceful. Beautifully spotted. Elegant. Content with strolling around all day slowely and chewing leaves. Have scary but awesome looking neck fights.

I’m taller than average, granted, but other than that I am not graceful, if I have spots they’re definitely not beautiful, elegance has never been used to describe me (clumsy however…), I tend to walk quickly and need a bit more nourishment than just leaves, and whoever even dares to get close to my neck will probably get a face-elbow in reply.

Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t find giraffes interesting, and I was quite excited to read that a giraffe-related discovery had been made recently.

There is more than one kind of giraffe.

There are four.

For years – well, since 1758 – it was assumed that there was one species of giraffes, grouping together nine sub-species. These nine are all relatively similar looking, except for some differences in their spot size and patterns. However, researchers have discovered that there are actually four genetically distinct species. They do not mate with each other in the wild, which was an unexpected finding because giraffes migrate over vast areas and they are able to interbreed in captivity.

You might not find this particularly intriguing, but I can’t help but thinking that it’s a “fun fact” to know that two giraffes, looking very similar, can actually be as different from each other as a brown bear to a polar bear.

Also, it’s like seeing evolution in action. Giraffes are a relatively young species so we are seeing the emergence of different species happen in real time.

Finally, it can give society the boost it needs to protect giraffes. Now that they are different species, three of them can be added to the list of highly endangered species. Which is awful, of course, but can provide the awareness we need to get the numbers back up. We need more of these majestic giraffes in the world. Not more weird tall people who clumsily stumble around in giraffe onesies. (Not me, at all.)

Read more about the four giraffe species in the original publication:  http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)30787-4


Meet disco-mouse and Roboctopus


They could be characters from a Cartoon Network show, but they are just some of the amazing outputs of recent science.


A novel technique called ultimate DISCO (uDISCO) removes pigments and lipids, allowing researchers to image through dead animals. uDISCO also causes shrinkage – and consequentially perhaps odd organ proportions – and prepares the mouse for the ultimate rave.

More info: Nature Methods


This octopus-shaped robot (named octobot by the researchers, but I prefer roboctopus because it’s more reminiscent of a certain cyborg) consists entirely of soft materials and is controlled by a fluidic system and a chemical reaction. It also glows in the dark, apparently.

More info: Nature News & Views and Nature article
If you like cephalopods you might also enjoy my friend’s recent blog about cuttlefish; they apparently have amazing crazy eyes.

I already have a few plot ideas to turn this into a show, in case Cartoon Network is interested…



Last Friday, a few of my colleagues – and by that I mean “a few of those crazy nerdy people who are in the same PhD programme as me and have become my friends over time partially because we’re just stuck in the same boat together but mostly because they are absolutely amazing” -, including myself, have started a course on “Astrobiology and the Search of Life”.

None of us actually works in that field (I was amazed that astrobiology is a field, how cool is that?), and we might be in it for easy credit, but it just seemed interesting. Okay, perhaps the first class was very introductory and didn’t have many take-home messages. I was suffering an episode of my SISS (Sedentarily Induced Somnia Syndrome; I refer you to a post that I will write sometime in the future on make-believe acronyms for make-believe psychological conditions) so I *might* have been dosing off a bit, but I do remember a few key points the lecturer made.

Astrobiology is about answering perhaps one of the most important questions: Are we alone in the Universe? It is however, not about “finding aliens”, it’s about studying the conditions required for life (luckily we happen to live on an excellent repository of information on life) and looking for evidence of potential life, in the past or still to come, out there in space. We’re lucky to live in an age where it’s more than just speculation, we can empirically set out and look for this evidence, or at least to a certain extent.

Actually, I’ve had some notes floating around in my draft scribbles about this very topic. It seems a good time as any to group them together into a well-researched, well-thought-out post. Or maybe just group them together and see what happens…


Q: Why is there still a space programme?

One might wonder why nations invest so much time, resources and money into developing a space program.

One might not. One might be more like Brian Cox (the astrophysicist, not the actor/Rector of the University of Dundee) and explain how evolution has led us, humans, to explore the universe. Whether that expansion of the anthropic principle, in a certain sense, is something you agree with or not, he raises another point in his book Human Universe. He probably raises the same point in the TV series that it was based on, but I haven’t seen that. The point is that, thanks to the space-program related research and developments, new technologies have become possible. Directly or indirectly, thanks to NASA (just to give one example), we have:

  • LEDs – used for space shuttle plant growth experiments, now absolutely omnipresent.
  • Artificial limbs – robot arms to cyborg arms, not that much of a leap.
  • A lot of improvements in using solar energy (where do you find huge solar panels? in space!), water purification (no natural sources up there) and waste handling.
  • GPS, satellite images of earth (useful for weather forecasting) and other things that require something orbiting the earth.
  • New materials
  • Modelling Software – whether it’s predicting orbits or the stresses on a rocket during launched, be sure it has been simulated in one way or another.
  • Okay, stop the NASA-loving already and answer the question!

A: Why not?

A: (the better one) – Because it feeds innovation; it thrives on the immense curiosity and need for exploration us humans have to push forward technology that not only helps in the actual space exploration, but in everyday life.


Q: But we have all these fancy robotics and whatnot, why would we continue to send people into space?

To answer that, I’d like to quote something I read while I was visiting a friend. When he was asleep, I raided his book closet and ended up reading about 30 pages in an immensely interesting book. It had – amongst a whole lot of other things that I never got the chance to explore further – the following to say:

Despite the immense hazard and cost of manned space flight, most plans for planetary exploration still envision blasting people into the solar system. Partly it’s because of the drama following an intrepid astronaut in exploring strange new worlds rather than a silicon chip, but mainly it’s because no foreseeable robot can match an ordinary person’s ability to recognise unexpected objects and situations, decide what to do about them, and manipulate things in unanticipated ways, all while exchanging information’s with humans back home.

The stuff of thought – Stephen Pinker

A: Because while there are many things that robotics can do, there are some things we are still better at.
*note to future robot overlords: I mean no disrespect to your ancestors in any way, this is a reflection of our inability – at this time – to make you as awesome as you could be. You obviously have surpassed us in any way and I am more than confident that you can succeed in space exploration better than we ever have. But I still dream of going to space, so this helps to make my point at this present point of time. Please do not hold this against me or any future humans.


Q: What are our chances of finding or communicating with aliens?

In our own solar system, I highly doubt it. In our galaxy or universe, to be honest, I doubt that as well. I do believe that there is life out there. And there might be proof of this life somewhere at a distance where we can still find it. But unless we find a way to preform hyperjumps or travel through time, chances of communications are very, very, very, very, very, (…), very slim. Someone has done the math. It was to calculate N, the number of civilisations in the Milky Way with whom some form of communications might be possible, or who have the means to emit electromagnetic signals. But it is easily to extrapolate to our (known) universe. This is it :

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 15.08.29

The explanation of each of these terms is very nicely explained here and in aforementioned Brian Cox book if you prefer paper reading. But just to give an idea of what the stakes are…

First of all, it all depends on the number of planets that bear life. I would guess this number is quite high, there are so many stars in the universe, considering there are an estimated 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone (though the real answer is: “Uuuh, I really don’t know”) and an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Sure, these stars have to have a planetary system, and some of those planets will have to have suitable conditions for life (but we can send a little girl with blond curls to go test that ), and then life actually has to appear. Those are all statistically very rare events, but if you have a one-in-a-trillionth* event over ten-million-billion-trillion* sample size, that still leaves an astronomical number of events that can possibly occur. I’ll leave you to the math.

* completely random numbers produced by typing -illions

So, occurrences of life might be quite high. But the astronomical distances (“astronomical” is used here, again, in the sense of “huge” or “vast”, in case you got confused) pose a problem. Even if life is out there somewhere right at this moment, and they have the intelligence and technology for interstellar communication, by the time any communication signal will reach them, they could be extinct. Or they would send a signal back and we wouldn’t get it until after our sun has already exploded. Simultaneous means nothing when the distances are so, I’ll use it again, astronomical.

What’s the point then? Well, we could find proof of intelligent life perhaps. We can travel (or send our robot overlords) to distant planets that have the right conditions of life, and see if these conditions have ever sustained life, or if they have the possibility to do sometime. And, we can hope that perhaps, maybe, ten million light years from us, an amazing civilisation sent out a signal 10 million years ago. And that we would be able to detect it. We won’t be able to communicate, but it might be enough just to know that we’re not alone (or have proof, at the least).

A: Finding, perhaps. Communicating, I wouldn’t count on it.


Q: But then why…

A: You know what, you cares? It’s space. SPACE. It doesn’t need an explanation, it needs exploring.

It might have become clear that I have a slight fascination with outer space. Not to say that I am utterly obsessed. One might say I am ‘astronuts’. Completely Bonkers for space. But who can blame me?

I feel like this post needed a space-related picture. So here’s New Horizons’ Pluto flyby, failing to spot Pluto and Le Petit Prince because they are hiding on the other side. (Photo taken by New Horizons on 13/07/2015)



Make ’em laugh (about science)

Short people have long faces and
Long people have short faces.
Big people have little humor
And little people have no humor at all!
And in the words of that immortal buddy
Samuel J. Snodgrass, as he was about to be lead
To the guillotine:

Make ’em laugh
Make ’em laugh
Don’t you know everyone wants to laugh?
(From “Singing in the Rain”)

It’s really hard to pick a fav song from “Singing in the Rain”, so I won’t even try. But for the purposes of this post, I quoted the first bit of “Make ’em laugh”, you know, that song where Donald O’Connor hyperactively sings and tap dances and slapsticks and runs back and forth on (and through) the set. If you ever feel down, and don’t have the time to watch the full movie, watch that scene. It might not make you “lol” but it will bring a smile to your face. Or at least it always brings one to mine.

That wasn’t going to be my point actually. I wanted to talk about how suddenly science is becoming the subject of comedy.

I guess for me it probably started by watching reruns of QI with Stephen Fry. British panel shows are a strange thing, usually disguised as a quiz but no one really cares about winning, it’s just about getting famous people, mostly comedians, together to talk and joke about certain topics, and in this case that includes anything that Stephen finds quite interesting. Quite. I like Stephen Fry. I like random interesting facts, and this was a show where I felt like I was learning things – quite useless bits of knowledge – and being entertained at the same time. Years later in Belgium a similar show originated, Scheire en de Schepping, random science facts and cool little experiments (walking on water was one wonderful example) and to top it all, the “totally arbitrary winner designation round”. Just to point out that it was not about the quiz aspect at all.

In any case, science and nerdism is the new cool, and a new source of endless jokes. Just think about The Big Bang Theory, or at least the first few seasons if it pains you to think about it now; laughing at and with physicists and engineers has become very popular.

Another example, this year at the Edinburg Fringe Festival (a ridiculously elaborate comedy festival that is held in Edinburgh every August, for almost a whole month), I was astonished about how many shows were describable as “nerdy”. Mathematics, physics, biology, computing, geekery, … They have all become the subject for the next generation of comedians.

I have played my own little part, by participating in a Bright Club event. Bright Club is an initiative run by Steve Cross, that has spread out over multiple cities in the UK – and one in Brussels as well, actually – that allows academics to climb up on a stage to deliver an eight-minute set of stand-up comedy inspired by their own studies or work. It’s incredibly scary and fun to do, and it’s amazing to hear how “boring” academics, the ones you image spending their whole day behind a computer or in a laboratory, can be extremely funny.

That’s the thing; scientists are people too. They come in all flavours and colours and some of them are quite humorous. Moreover, they have an infinite range of subjects they can talk about, and they will never run out.

“Research is never going to stop, so you’ve always got new material. The universe is an interesting place – and it’s always going to be.”
(Simon Watt)

So don’t be afraid to approach a scientist once in a while. Have a chat. They might be shy at first, but who knows, they might turn out to be extremely funny once you give them the chance. Don’t we all just love to laugh?

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

… and all it takes is for someone to show it to the world.

Pursuing a career in research involves more than working in a lab or sitting behind a computer all day, it also involves disseminating results and promoting the research. Within the scientific community, communicating research happens through the publication of papers and participation at conferences, but it is equally important to engage to the general public through outreach activities. Part of my PhD project includes participating in outreach, and I have to say I’ve quite enjoyed the projects I’ve been involved in so far (even though I’ve actually not done any outreach yet, just preparation of). Therefore, a bit of internet ramble on outreach.

1. What is outreach?

In this context, I guess outreach can be defined as raising awareness on a certain topic, such as science or academic research. It involves disseminating information about that topic to the general public and people outside the field to increase understanding and interest. Additionally, it could help engage children to the field. Outreach tools would include advertisement leaflets, newsletters, stalls or exhibitions in community centres, university open days, and the organisation of lectures and workshops at schools. Just to give a few examples.

2. Why even do research?

There is a discrepancy between how science is communicated through media and the actual reality of the research. Increasing the understanding of the topics of research, how research is done and how results are generally interpreted can perhaps help solve this problem. Additionally, outreach towards primary and secondary school pupils can perhaps shed a light on how research works and open up prospects of future studies and jobs. Research isn’t at all like the science you learn in school, and it can help get a few nerds enthusiastic about pursuing a career in science by showing them what’s in store.

3. Does outreach actually have an effect?

Let’s hope so. I’m sure there’s numbers out there, but I don’t know how to find them. And as I haven’t actually participated in any events yet, I can’t draw on personal experience. But even if all outreach does is raise awareness, I think that’s already a worthy cause. And if I can get even one child enthusiastic about science, I would consider that an accomplishment. “Did you know you can actually walk on water, if only you add enough cornstarch and turn it into a non-Newtonian fluid, isn’t physics awesome?”

4. My favourite outreach project

I guess it all started when I was 17 and went to the university open days. I already knew what I wanted to study, it wasn’t a hard choice, but had never considered anything further than the 3 year bachelor. Something a master student told me that day just stuck. She was studying nanoscience and when we asked her why, her answer was something along these lines: “It’s just fascinating. You know how the universe is infinitely large, well the nanoworld is sort of the same, just infinitely small.” And I could never get that out of my head.

An extract of my motivation letter to do my own master in nanoscience:

“I have always been fascinated in the aspect of infinity: the infinity of the universe, the infinite amount of atoms inside it, and the infinite amount of even smaller particles we’re only just beginning to understand. I have read several books on astrophysics in my spare time, for example “The Universe in a Nutshell” by Stephen Hawking, and have come to understand that there is a great analogy between the infinity of the universe and the infinity of what happens on atomic scale. The study of the infinitely small is a field that is particularly intriguing to me.”

I got in and 3 years later I was asked to get involved in a project linking images from outer space to images of “inner space”, i.e. the world inside a cell. Think about it, haven’t you ever seen a picture of a cell and though that it looked like a far away galaxy? Or noticed that certain patterns and structures seem to reappear at every size dimension? It’s almost uncanny how images on such different size scales can look so alike. As an example, some time ago I came across the following image on my second favourite waste-of-time website:

The images on the left are representations of “the Flower of Life” as described in Sacred Geometry. The images in the middle are of structures in outer space, the images on the right depict multiple cell divisions.

I guess it suffices to say that I didn’t need much convincing to get into this project.

So, the Outer Space Inner Space (OSIS) project makes the link between the macroscopic world of outer space and the microscopic world as viewed through a microscope. We (a bunch of people from different schools within the University) are planning to convert the Mills Observatory seminar room into a platform for multimodal and immersive engagement. This will include a room-filling presentation screen to show images of the macro and micro cosmos, and space for workshops and exhibitions. It will also feature human-computing interfaces, ensuring that all audiences can experience and interact with the presentations. Within this framework, we also plan to organise activities within the International Year of Light. We have already started setting up an exhibition that aims to teach the general public about the principles of optics, and how this can be used to look at both things that are very far away as things that are very small. As my supervisor once pointed out: there’s not much difference between trying to look at something very small or trying to look at something very far away. A lot of principles in astronomy are being applied to microscopy as well, such as adaptive optics. And to throw in another quote, this one’s by Oliver Heaviside:

“There is no absolute scale of size in the Universe, for it is boundless towards the great and also boundless towards the small.”

I’m involved in a few other outreach projects as well, this blog might be considered as one of them I guess, though I’m not always – not to say hardly ever – talking about science or my life as a researcher. I’m involved in another project, in which we will try to organise a lecture series on the topic of “Science of Sci-Fi movies,” exploring the reality and feasibility of science and technology that appears in science fiction popular culture, and hopefully proving that some these nerd’s dreams have the potential to become reality. Finally, next month I will be participating in a “Bright Club” training, in my own small effort to prove that scientists can be funny too.

End of internet ramble.


This post is based on an article that I’ve written for the PHOQUS newsletter that will be published soon, I have therefore plagiarised myself and apologise for anyone who has or will read certain sentences and ideas twice.

The quote in the title is attributed to Carl Sagan.

Cheap is good, almost free is better!

Working in a research environment definitely changes your perspective on the meaning of “cheap” and “expensive”. If paying £194 to go to a festival seems like a lot of money, then consider that you need to pay at least half more to buy an antibody. “Cheap” purchases include most things under, say, £200. And I don’t even want to think about how much money gets spent on consumables like pipets and petridishes. If you want to really do something, you need to buy equipment like microscopes or PCR meters and you can probably buy a car with the same amount of money. Or a jet. Needless to say then, that conducting scientific research is quite an expensive endeavour and it’s no bit surprise that a lot of time goes into applying for grants.

Does it really have to be this expensive though?

The simple answer is: probably.

The fun answer, however, is NO!

I’ll give you an example (and let’s pretend to ignore the fact that I’m too lazy to find another example): easy-to-make, affordable, microscopy lenses. It is quite similar to the water drop hack, which is even cheaper than the method I am going to purpose, but not quite as versatile. I am talking about a lens made out of PDMS.

Bear with me, I am going to explain.

The idea was published last year. It makes use of polydimethylsiloxane (also known as PDMS), which is a elastomer used commonly for making microfluidic devices. The elastomer is made by mixing to reagents together and exposed to heat to allow it to polymerise and form a stable, flexible, clear, rubbery bit of stuff.

An example of a microfluidic device made of PDMS (as a result of a quick google search).

As it is clear and has a high refractive index, making a droplet-shaped bit of this PDMS might very well be used as a lens in combination with a smartphone. And it is cheap, a 1.1 kg bottle of this PDMS might cost a little bit (around £100, but I have already that this is cheap in scientific consumables terms), but you can make so many lenses out of this, it results in about £0,05 per lens. Cheap huh.

So yesterday evening, we spent some time trying to make some of these lenses, which worked quite well. It is very easy to make (we are going to try this as an outreach workshop) and it is also absolutely cool. From just a few hours of messing around – and it is quite a sticky substance to work with – with cover slips, the PDMS, a syringe and a lamp to provide the heat, we made quite some lenses and took quite some pictures.

Wait, I’ll give you another example (it isn’t really though): so using these lenses, you can make a simple (and cheap!) optical trap. An optical trap uses a laser to trap, for example, a bead*. This can be used to measure the viscosity of fluids, measure forces involved in cellular processes (protein folding, motor proteins, adhesion, cytosol viscosity, motility forces, …) or to play a game of tetris. It’s quite a cool technique, and now you can save on costs by making your own lens! (I’m sure the paper will be accessible soon.)

Anyway, this is just to say that research doesn’t always have to be expensive. And obviously it was already fun, but it can be even more fun (who knew)?

The result of mucking around. Top left: a PDMS drip lens. Top right and bottom left: pixels from some text on a paper. Bottom right: some of my finger print lines.

Another example: the fabric of my watch. Left is taken in macro mode without the lens (even a bit out of focus), right is with the PDMS lens.
Another example: the fabric of my watch. Left is taken in macro mode without the lens (even a bit out of focus), right is with the PDMS lens.

We live in exciting times. Nostalgia-drenched movies are out now or being released soon. Our childhood hero is returning in the form of theatre. Certain fantasy characters might have actually existed**. Advances that we could only dream of (or write Sci-Fi novels about) seem within reach. And new awesome ways are being developed to make science cheap and accessible for anyone.

Finally, I’ll end with a teaser:

We are currently setting up an outreach project bringing these things together:

But I enjoy the far away things too! (source)

And it’s already been so much fun! Learn more on twitter or wait until I dedicate a post on the subject (sometime I will!)


*Yes, this is in no way an adequate explanation of optical trapping. I could say it uses “magic” to trap beads, though I’m sure you won’t believe me.

** Yes, I just rushed over multiple topics that I not-so-secretly wanted to mention in one way or another.