Star waves and hue’s Clues: What can light and radio signals tell us about outer space?

Words by Joe Crutwell, Edited by Lucy Eland

At this month’s SciBar, we were treated to a talk by Dr Nick Walker, a lecturer and researcher at Newcastle University. Dr Walker specialises in both astrochemistry (studying the chemical make-up of outer space) and spectroscopy (the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation). While these may both sound like quite “out-there” topics in their own different ways, Dr Walker brought everything back to earth with an in-house (or rather ‘in-pub’) demonstration.

Recreating an experiment from 400 years ago, Nick showed us how you can split light into a spectrum of colours using nothing more than a camera and an intense light source. For the work Dr Walker discussed, this intense light source was stars.

In the early 1900’s the director of Harvard Observatory, Charles Pickering, hired a group of women to process astronomical data relating to the spectrum of stars. This data helped create the “Hertzsprung-Russell” diagram, pictured below, that charts stars on a scatter plot based on their temperature and visible light wavelength.


It is possible to learn something about the chemical makeup of an object by studying the colour of light it emits. Nick described how scientists in the 1800’s worked out the chemical makeup of the sun by looking at the wavelengths of the colours it does not emit. This process was extended to other stars to give us a stellar fingerprint of our surrounding space.

This act of breaking up and studying visible light can be performed on other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from extremely fast gamma waves to slower radio waves. Radio waves are detected by installations such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, as radio waves are able to permeate through earth’s atmosphere.

These radio telescopes are capable of detecting specific molecules in space. As such, the desire in the scientific community has been to try and detect the presence of organic molecules in space. These molecules are known to be a precursor to life, and may help us answer one of science’s great questions. Did the building blocks of life come into being on earth, or did they land from outer space?

These questions are still to be answered, but spectroscopy is on the case. Telescopes looking at the infra-red spectrum can tell us about stellar dust, the molecules that make up stars. Dr Walker stated that this dust may help us understand where all this complex chemistry originates. Various probes have been sent into space to examine this cosmic dust, including the Cassini probe, which recently was sent crashing into Saturn at the end of it’s twenty year mission.

The next SciBar will be examining one of the most complex products of this sophisticated organic chemistry, our brains! More specifically, Dr Rhys Thomas from Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience will be giving a talk on epilepsy and pregnancy. Join us on the 29th of November!


Genes, stats and rats – with juggling, songs and raps

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Joe Crutwell

This month’s SciBar saw Dr Lynsey Hall explain her research on the genetic basis of depression, through the medium of comedy!

Lynsey, a statistical geneticist from Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine, explained the types of genetic variation that can occur using juggling and references to Mickey Mouse’s uncontrollable broom production spell from Disney’s Fantasia (a stop gain mutation!).

During her PhD research, she hoped to detect the genes responsible for depression using a Genome Wide Association study, or GWAS. This technique takes the genetic data from people both with and without depression, and does a huge ‘spot the difference’ between the two. Though according to Lynsey, doing a GWAS for depression is more like a misprinted ‘Where’s Wally’ with no Wally! After a frustrating period she did a statistical power calculation and realised that the chances of finding genes for depression are extremely small. This is because depression is both very common and difficult to quantify, with symptoms varying widely between different people. Another difficulty is that for the current methods people are only divided into ‘depressed’ or ‘healthy’ groups, and depression is just not that black and white.

The difficulties with statistical power and the need for experiments that can test possible drugs on rats led Lynsey to look for other ways to measure depression. The test that Lynsey guided us through was a rat cognitive bias test. To put it simply, rats are put in a maze of sandpaper-lined tubes and sand-pits. The sand-pits contain either a cheerio and a tube of smooth sandpaper or chocolate and a tube of rough sandpaper. The rats were then trained up to make sure that they knew how to find their favourite treat (chocolate, obviously!). Researchers replaced some of the sandpaper with one of medium roughness, and used this as a measure of how optimistic the rats were. Do the rats go for the tubes with the medium roughness sandpaper in the hope that there is chocolate? It turns out that depressed rats assume that the medium roughness paper will just lead to another cheerio, and the happier rats dare to hope for more chocolate. Endless days of running rats through mazes during her PhD led Lynsey to write ‘Bowl digger’ to the tune of ‘Gold Digger’ about one of her rats, which she performed for us to much applause.

Discussion of the prevalence of depression and mental health problems amongst researchers in universities, a hot news topic at the moment, drew the talk to a close. The trials, tribulations and pains of carrying out scientific research to get a PhD were summed up perfectly in Lynsey’s final song for the evening ‘Friday I make graphs!’ (to the tune of The Cure’s, ‘Friday I’m in love’)

A lively discussion followed about the difficulties of categorising and measuring depression, how rates of depression vary between men and women, as well as whether all rats prefer chocolate to Cheerios.

You can keep your eyes peeled for the next Scibar event on the BSA facebook page. In the meantime you can give Lynsey’s past comedy sets from Bright Club on Youtube a watch, to get a flavour of what we were treated to this week.

Bacterial babble: The science of how microbes communicate

Words by Joe Crutwell, Edited by Lucy Eland

July’s SciBar was on the science of how bacteria talk, and PhD student Ajay  Tiwari’s thought-provoking presentation certainly got the audience gossiping.

Unlike Ajay’s audience, bacteria do not have vocal chords or mouths, so are unable to enjoy chatting about science over a pint, as attendants on the 25th of June did. Instead, they must find other ways of communicating with each other.

This form of communication is known as “Quorum sensing”, and occurs when bacteria secrete signalling molecules into the environment around them, which can then be absorbed by other bacteria close-by.


When a large number of bacteria releasing these signals are close together, there will be a larger concentration of these released molecules. This increased concentration is a signal to the  bacteria that they can ‘work together’ and coordinate responses to their environment. This can happen both within the same species and between bacteria of different species.

A great example of this is the bacteria Allivibrio fischeri, an organism that lives inside squid species such as the hawaiian bobtail. The bacteria communicate and collectively produce enough light to help the squid ward off predators.

Until recently it was thought quorum sensing was the only method by which bacteria could communicate, but recent research has revealed another way: Bacterial Nanotubes. These large biological bridges can form between two neighbouring bacteria and create ‘information highways’, which allows cells to exchange much more information than quorum sensing alone. As Ajay put it, “If quorum sensing is the bacterial wi-fi, then nanotubes are the wired connection”.

So is this bacterial communication just harmless gossip, or sly scheming? What are these bacteria saying behind our back (and in our bodies)? Well, this information has potentially worrying medical consequences, as it allows bacteria to exchange small amounts of their DNA, known as a ‘plasmid’. The movement of plasmid DNA has been shown in labs to allow the passage of genes that make bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, now that scientists are aware of these methods of communication, they are researching ways to make these bacteria gossip a little less. Rather than yelling “shut up!” into a petri dish, scientists have been blocking nanotube formation and quorum sensing, greatly reducing the bacteria’s ability to form colonies. It is this congregation of lots of cells in the same place that causes the most severe aspects of many diseases, due to the concentrated release of toxins.

Whilst for the health of our bodies we don’t want bacteria to congregate and chat, we actively encourage you to come and mingle at the next SciBar, taking place on the 22nd of August. There, Lynsey Hall will be taking us on a fascinating musical genetic journey.

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Sun science; plasma, eruptions and the apocalypse!

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Joe Crutwell

PhD student Thomas Rees-Crockford enlightened the audience at The Old George with his research into the science of the sun. Tom, a first year PhD student from Northumbria University Physics Department, has been studying prominences and eruptions that happen above the sun’s surface, almost 93 million miles away.

The evening began with a pint and a quick physics lesson on the fourth state of matter, plasma. The enthusiastic audience was eager to learn more about this substance, and the other gases that make up our sun.


We were shown some awesome satellite footage of the sun and its prominences, the amazing tubes of densely packed plasma, that are moved around the stars surface by magnetic fields and other forces. These huge structures can be between 10,000 and 100,000 km in length and are a cool 10,000 degrees kelvin! Still too hot to handle, but a lot cooler than the sun’s surface.

When these prominences become unstable, after between a minute and a month of appearing, they either fade out (boring!) or erupt (much more fun!). A successful eruption, known as a ‘coronal mass ejection’ (CME), expels the matter out and away from the sun’s surface and in some cases, towards us. This doesn’t always spell disaster though! When we see the Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) it is as a result of one of these CMEs, as the matter expelled from the sun collides with our atmosphere’s gas particles and results in this incredible light show.

Many more beers and questions followed, including discussions of whether we could use the energy from such eruptions for something useful, how predictors of the northern lights are made, what the methods used to study these eruptions are, and how cool the Kielder observatory is! (

The potentially apocalyptic effect of the earth being hit head-on by a massive CME was discussed at length. The somewhat reassuring conclusion was reached that if we don’t all die, we will just have to live without any of our electronic devices, knocked out by magnetic forces. (A fate worse than death for some.)

Hopefully that won’t happen for a while, which means you will be able to join us for the next SciBar event on the 25th of July, where Ajay  Tiwari will be telling us how bacteria talk to each other.

If you would like to see some of the images and satellite footage used by scientists like Tom, who are studying solar physics, it is available to the public at

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Photo gallery

SciBar May 2016 – “Does detecting gravitational waves mean gravity is more than a theory?” Dr Sam James

SciBar April 2016 – “Taking Stem Cells to the Front Line” Professor Che Connon

Taking stem cell research to the frontline

Our third Scibar saw Che Connon, Professor of Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University, deliver a fascinating talk at The Old George.

Professor Connon began by entertaining us with his personal academic journey, which has led him to lead a research group investigating the application of innovative bio-materials to regenerative medicine. He went on to explain the relevance of his talk’s title – ‘taking stem cell research to the frontline’. Indeed, he hopes that his current research will provide a way to deliver stem cells – which have regenerative properties – to the frontline of, for example, battlefields.

Professor Connon took us through his team’s method of encasing stem cells in an alginate gel. The gel protects the cells from the environment so that they remain viable even after several days at room temperature. There is much evidence that stem cells can induce wound healing and Professor Connon’s lab have incorporated these alginate protected cells in to a bandage. Such a bandage could be applied to a wound, for example an ulcer or burn, to speed up the healing process and may have particular benefit in acute injuries.

In addition to would healing, the alginate method offers many exciting opportunities for therapeutics. The talk was followed by an informal question and answer session that produced much discussion!

A Perfect Storm: Parkinson’s and Mitochondria

Our second SciBar event, as part of Brain Awareness Week and the British Science Week 2016, was presented by Elizabeth Stephen and Nishani

These PhD students from Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience used the analogue of weather to explain the causes and risk factors associated with Parkinson’s Disease.

They then went a step further and explained that the root cause of most of this weather was mitochondria, the “batteries” of cells. Mutations in the mitochondria disrupt the way the mitochondria function ultimately leading to the types of “weather” associated with Parkinson’s.

Following their talk, the speakers answered several questions from the audience. This provoked great discussion and lead to a number of the audience catching them after the close of the official Q&A to discuss the finer points of their research.