Mucor Mould Magnification

The USB Microscope has been very handy indeed: NOW EVERY CASE OF FOOD SPOILAGE CAN BE TURNED INTO AN INSTANT SCIENCE CLASS!

Here are some images of some mould which I believe (or would like to think) is Mucor mould. The mould colony was extremely fast growing (appeared within two days on Anna’s mashed potato which had been accidentally left in the open), and had very dense upright sporangiophores which had long columella.

Those who are squeamish about mould colonies may be glad to know for a fact that Mucor cannot grow on or inside humans and other warm endothermic creatures – because they cannot live in warm environments which are close to the human body temperature of 37 C.

However it is entirely possible to be allergic to mould, and then again, I suppose if your feet were permanently sequestered in very cold damp shoes, your feet might get mouldy (it would be likelier to be another type of mould then though). Well in any case, the mould is unlikely to grow inside you if you inhale it by accident.

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Scientific Illustrations for the Blind (Natural History Museum, London, Jan 2014)

In the last few months I’ve gotten quite interested in scientific illustration and scientific models. Just as I am fascinated by maps as both art and information, I suppose I really like scientific images because they are also both art and a record of the natural world. I am actually more excited when I see a scientific image/model which is fantastically detailed and beautiful and then discover that its maker says that they consider themselves to be a scientist/botanist/anatomical specialist first and foremost before considering themselves an artist, because more often than not it will indicate more attention to detail and accuracy. (Alas, I have to admit I am quite pedantic and a geek at heart). Even though there can be photographs (and in the case of mapping, satellite data), in the end there is a lot more value and skill involved in scientific illustration and cartography because they often capture details which other methods of imaging cannot. The color and form of a living object can be captured forever and selected important details can be extracted and highlighted so as to make it more understandable and valuable as a record than just a photograph could.

Since school is so very close to the Natural History Museum, it has been my goal to go there as often as I can. Unfortunately its vastness often means that I spend a lot of time just wandering about or blithely finding my way around the exhibits (I am also that annoying sort of person who has to read all the text, which then takes a very long time).

The other day, I FINALLY found the Images of Nature section (how did I miss it before?), which included a very interesting Braille and Tactile guide to its exhibits. I was very excited because I had been told these guides existed but hadn’t really noticed or found them before. This is what they looked like on the inside:

Images of Nature – Braille and Tactile Guide

Fly

Peacocks

Fossils

Textures!

Textures and arrows!
The textures were very interesting to touch, but… I don’t know about you but I seriously cannot imagine what meaning an arrow would have for a person who has been blind since birth. Not to say that a blind person could not learn what an arrow means, but as the most expedient manner to explain something – what is an arrow? An arrow does not exist in a blind person’s world, surely! What meaning would an arrow have to a person who cannot see what it is pointing at? How would that understanding that an arrow means to refer to something, or to gesture towards it or a direction (or to direct one’s gaze towards something). Would it work the same way for a blind person then?

Flowers

More exciting textures

Braille (lots of this)


As you will have noticed, a lot of these images were just outlines of exhibits, with their outlines raised up. I was very amused by it but also not sure if this was sufficient to explain a thing. Perhaps it is – i don’t know myself since I have never had to rely entirely on touching to understand an exhibit. But let’s say a blind man could touch every single part of an rhino on a page. Would it make it any clearer to the blind person that this was a rhino, and this was what it was like? Is this not a bit like that joke where a group of blind men approach an elephant and each of them happens to hold on to a different part, prompting each to say “the elephant is like a long string!” (tail) or “the elephant is like a tree trunk!” (leg) or “the elephant is like a papery flat sheet!” (ear)


There was an exhibit comparing the different representations of dodo birds in scientific illustrations. The guide tries to explain that there are differences (subtle differences) between the two drawings. I am not sure but will one be able to tell the difference through touch? DOES IT WORK? Will someone visually impaired please tell me?

The two different dodo bird pictures in reality.

Touching a dodo…
An interesting fact is that the “original” dodo skeleton they have at the Natural History Museum is actually made up from several different dodo skeleton, and this means that its famous depiction as a slightly dumpy fat bird might actually be flawed, and there have been attempts to reimagine it as something a little more “svelte” than it is thought to be by most. I’ll write about that more in another post about their “Treasures” collection (which is also absolutely fantastic for anyone interested in the history of science)…

The funny part is imagining a blind person touching an embossed impression of a bird that now no longer exists, and on top of that perhaps even the impression of the dodo bird is all wrong anyway, because even the seeing-people don’t really know either!

Incorrect use of the braille sheets.
What can I say, with all the children and their pencils running around the museum, it was bound to happen…

Scientific and Mathematical Teaching Models at the Whipple Museum (Cambridge, Feb 2014)

Whilst trudging through Cambridge the other day, we stumbled across the small but very entertaining Whipple Museum in Cambridge University, which starts with a very interesting glass sculpture cabinet near the front entrance. We had made a few abortive attempts into some museums in Cambridge, but the highlight for me was most certainly the Whipple, where I was attracted by the botanical models, and then the intricate glass sculptures of fungi (some quite recognizable for any wannabe-mycologists), which for me takes it to a whole new level.

Botanical Teaching Models


Since coming to the Royal College of Art I’ve had the fortune to attend anatomy and facial reconstruction classes, which to be honest, previously seemed to me to be a kind of moot cause, since I was not inherently interested in being able to accurately replicate the shape, color or form of something from nature (unless it was just for FUN).

I don’t consider myself that sort of artist and I certainly have approached traditional forms like drawing, painting and sculpture as nothing more than a dilettante or hobbyist. (Granted, it doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability to apply myself properly with a little effort, but it is not something I would imagine myself devoting my life like the obsessive artist in Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece. I am not so much concerned with colour, shadow, accuracy of hand, and things like that.

In fact, I have always thought it might be better bypassing this entire step of studying natural forms (biology, botany) and going straight to the point where one tries to make up something entirely new. But in the end, in trying to do my recent Kensington Gall project, it was obvious that in order to get to that point where I can make up something completely new, then I’ll still need to study all the other steps along the way in detail. Perhaps to be able to learn it all so that I can unlearn it and rebuild it anew?

Fungi Models


And one very funny thing is that if there is one thing I have learnt from attending a few talks at Imperial, it is that when it comes down to it, even the most complicated science can be explained in simple words. I suppose a lot of complicated subjects are very comprehensible when presented in the right way. Like if it is presented through the right image. At a talk I attended given by a Neuropsychopharmacologist, the ability to map the brain was critical to his job as it was from visualizing the brain that one was able to tell which drugs affected which portion of the brain, and also enabling one to test which portions of the brain are active when one is doing a particular activity. However, at the crux of it, it was still a matter of scanning, making an image of the brain, and testing out drugs by monitoring what effects the drugs had on the resultant images that were produced.

Whilst the technical portion of medical imaging is certainly very impressive, when I think about it, a fair bit of “art-science” collaborations currently out there don’t really seem to go beyond that level of representation or realism. I was not aware of this until this year, but there are even specialised areas such as scientific illustration and science communication – a whole area and perhaps even a profession for people completely dedicated to deciding on each and every delicate nuance to how science is represented or communicated to others!

An artistically rendered book consisting of cross-sections of a human heart might be the epitome the meeting of art and science to some, but for me that is at best mundane, or even boring, largely because it does not challenge the boundaries of perception or accepted notions, which I imagine to be the point of making art. If art does not pierce, does not challenge, does not say things, then why make art? For ornamental purposes? It is much less interesting than someone modeling a heart and launching off into an almost ridiculous premise like, “what if humans lived in zero gravity for a long time – what would the shape of human hearts evolve over time?” Now that would have been much more interesting.

A whole section about Microscopes!

Microscope

Beautiful wax models of starfish embryos


I do delight in going back to school and spending the time going to these museums and lectures (especially in London and the vicinity) and feeling like there is still a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from the simplest, old model used from decades ago. An instructive model says so much not only about the actual topic but also the approaches to teaching and how they intended to present things to students. I was so delighted to see all these botanical models. It reminded me of a book I had read from the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens – the first gallery dedicated solely to botanical art – and staggering to think of the labour and the attempts to accumulate and represent the knowledge that today we take for granted. So much of this is so amazing already, and so beautiful that I can scarcely see myself being able to reproduce such sculptures and images with such finesse. So in a way I think a better contribution I could make to the area would be to extend the understanding of it through some intelligent speculation.

Strange lego model section for english astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon who were apparently surveying the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland and at the time undertaking gravitational experiments with a pendulum from London. Note inexplicable hordes of lego indians loitering in the background.


(I actually grew up with a very similar set of Lego characters! I had the schoolroom lego, the country western lego, the firetruck lego, and the ambulance/civil defence disaster lego set. Best part was when you combined all of the sets and mashed up all the school children and indians on horseback together with the scene of a disaster with all the emergency services and hazmat crew…)

This is one of my personal favourites.

Mathematical amusements

Crafty knitted Interpentrating Surfaces from the 19th century. Knitted by Alexander Crum Brown, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh!

Model of a cell

Horses’ teeth

Anatomical Model of a Human

Anatomical Model of a Silkworm

This was a review in their guestbook from a satisfied visitor. (I would have said the same)

Unusual Materials – Rochelle Salt, Thermoplastic Starch

Rochelle Salt (Piezo Crystal)

Sometime ago my classmate Naama tipped me off to how easy it was to grow piezo crystals (potassium sodium tartrate) so I decided to try to grow some. It can be made from two easily obtainable household ingredients – Cream of Tartar (Potassium bitartrate aka potassium hydrogen tartrate) and Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate aka Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate). You will need to bake the Sodium Bicarbonate for at least an hour at 100ºC at about to turn it into Sodium Carbonate (also known as Washing Soda), during the process of which it will lose its water/hydrogen). Avoid the cheap Baking Soda or Cream of Tartar which might have cornflour or other impurities added to it.

(And as for why Cream of Tartar is called Cream of Tartar, its apparently because it is a white “creamy looking” crystal precipitate that comes out of grape juice and wine that is stored at a low temperature. Its function in baking is to be the acid ingredient which activates the baking soda (base), producing bubbles and a quick fluffy rise in whatever you are baking – as opposed to slowly waiting for baking yeast to react and produce gas. Since the function of Cream of Tartar is to be an acid in the process, that’s also why some baking recipes call for alternative acids such as buttermilk or milk soured with the acidic juice of a lemon to be used together with baking soda…)

Baking the Baking Soda

Cream of Tartar


Heating the Cream of Tartar in a pot of simmering water and adding the sodium carbonate. It does need to be heated up, and when you add it it will fizz or bubble up. When it stops reacting when you add sodium carbonate the reaction is complete. And yes it really, really needs to be heated up in order for the reaction to occur.

Filtering the resultant liquid mixture into a glass

Leaving the liquid to cool outside, as it was about 4ºC outside…
You would imagine that such a small amount of liquid would not have worked well. Well, after that I brought the glass into the room and forgot completely about it for 3 days and suddenly I looked into the glass and was shocked to see a big crystal sticking out of the glass.

A large crystal had formed and had risen above the level of the liquid. Piece of cake I tell ya.

Thermoplastic Starch

Packing Peanuts
Do your packing peanuts smell like popcorn? Have you accidentally eaten or inhaled a packing peanut? As silly as this may sound I recently realized that some packing peanuts are indeed made of thermoplastic starch of sorghum or corn starch origin. An easy way to test if they are of the bio-plastic variety is to put it in a glass of water. If it dissolves, it is starch-based. I realized this after I observed out loud that the peanuts smelled edible, and then my classmate Tom put the packing peanut into his mouth (and after that he did not roll over with indigestion or die).

Peltier Tiles and Toroid Beads

Producing a small current from a Peltier Tile

Recently I purchased some Peltier tiles from ebay. A Peltier device is something which is able to change a temperature differential into voltage (Seebeck Effect) and when a current is run through it, opposite sides of the tile have a temperature difference (one side will be hot and the other side will be cold – and in some cases will require a heatsink to prevent it from damaging the unit).

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Image Source: http://www.tellurex.com/technology/peltier-faq.php

The Peltier tile itself is a ceramic coated tile with tiny n-type and p-type semiconductors coupled together with a junction of copper between each pellet of semiconductor. Like the potato battery, the current is generated when electrons flow from the side absorbing the heat to the side that is releasing the heat.

Both n-type semiconductors and p-type semiconductors are extrinsic semiconductors which means they are “doped” or mixed with specific amounts of impurity. In a n-type semiconductor, each impurity atom produces a free electron which can drift to produce an electrical current. It is called n-type because most of the electrons carrying the charge are negatively charged free electrons produced by the doping process. In a p-type semiconductor, each impurity atom has a hole in the valence band. It is doped with a different element such as which has not enough electrons to form covalent bonds with all of the semiconductor’s atoms, thus leaving a hole in the covalent bond structure. Electrons from the n-type semiconductor flow through to the holes of the p-type semiconductor, but because of the arrangement the charge and the heat are all flowing in the same direction…

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Image Source: http://www.tellurex.com/technology/peltier-faq.php

Initial results with the tile were as follows:

PB298192

Hand and cold air – 0.04v

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Hand and cup of ice – 0.23v

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Top of a Bowl of Soup (55ºC) and Cup of ice (11-15ºC) – 0.58v


More experiments may or may not ensue as the main motivation for this experiment was just that I just wanted to see and feel for myself how peltier tiles actually work…


Where to find a toroid bead (ferrite core) in your house

PB288184

I wanted to find a toroid bead to build a joule thief. I eventually found one inside a used fluorescent lightbulb. I’ve been hoarding some broken lightbulbs in the studio – finally they are of some use! My classmate Frank helped me crack up the casing with a pair of pliers. I found this broken bulb in September so the capacitor has had sufficient time to discharge – but apparently you will need to make sure that the capacitor has really discharged if the bulb was recently used.

It was interesting to see what was inside the lightbulb. It was a bit like discovering the existence of a new fruit or something; cutting it open to see what this strange fruit looked like from the inside and only eating the tasty bits. Note that it has to be a fluorescent lightbulb because a glass lightbulb obviously would not have the circuitry or the ferrite core for us to take out.

PB288186

Toroid bead


When I hear the word toroid I think of of torus prims in Second Life. I imagine big inflatable torus shapes floating about. WHICH IT IS. And speaking of donut shaped things…

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DONUTS! INFLATABLE MENORAH! DREIDEL!


It is Hanukkah in Stamford Hill and we noticed this because there were suddenly a lot of exciting donut flavours being displayed at Grodzinskis. Happy Hanukkah!

Potato Battery and Lasagna Cell

Today I decided to do a preliminary experiment to see how difficult it would be to build a potato battery out of household items. This is probably something everyone does in science class when they’re a kid but I don’t remember it anymore and I wanted to see firsthand how effective (or ineffective) it would be as a kind of alternative vegetable power source. For some reason I lacked some very basic things such as a WORKING MULTIMETER (the battery has run out and we cannot open the screw compartment because it has been screwed together by an overzealous cretin) or COPPER WIRE (have left all of my gear in school, in desperation I began trying to strip down some random old electrical appliances for copper wire and then decided it doesn’t matter if I have or do not have wire if the circuit just connects). In fact making a potato battery will be very fast if you don’t have to spend half an hour rummaging in your house for a goddamned crocodile clip.

So, if you have four potatoes and a bunch of pennies and household screws/nails, you will be well on your way to spending an hour trying to use some potatoes to light one extremely tiny LED. WHAT FRUITFUL USE OF YOUR PRECIOUS TIME! Fortunately, if you do not wish to replicate this experiment, you can take it on my good authority (and based on the following documentation) that it works. Do note that the smaller the LED, the likelier you will be to be able to use all your combined potato power to light it. Also, I actually only had FOUR potatoes so it was a good thing that four potatoes was exactly what it takes to light this one LED. (3 baby potatoes seem to be insufficient…)

PB218021

Potato Battery

4 baby potatoes
4 shiny 1p or 2p coins
4 galvanised screws/nails
1 very tiny led
Some random bits of wire or a crocodile clip
A rolled towel to hold the potatoes in place

Poke the nail/screw on one end of each potato, and jam a penny halfway into the other end of each potato. Gingerly arrange the four baby potatoes in a sort of daisychain in which the penny of the previous touches the galvanised nail/screw of the next potato. Make a wire connection between a very very low power LED – and connect the longer leg to the first penny in the potato chain and the short leg to the last galvanised nails/screw.

PB218023

RESULT! Potato Battery

The electricity is generated because there are two electrodes – the copper coin and the galvanized (zinc coated) screw – and there is an electrolyte (the potato) between them. [FYI: The british 2p and 1p are technically made of bronze, which is 97% copper, so that is why it still works in this experiment]

From Wikipedia: “The energy for the battery comes from the chemical change in the zinc (or other metal) when it dissolves into the acid. The energy does not come from the lemon or potato. The zinc is oxidized inside the lemon, exchanging some of its electrons with the acid in order to reach a lower energy state, and the energy released provides the power. In current practice, zinc is produced by electrowinning of zinc sulfate or pyrometallurgic reduction of zinc with carbon, which requires an energy input. The energy produced in the lemon battery comes from reversing this reaction, recovering some of the energy input during the zinc production.”

Apparently, all this electrochemical reaction can also lead to galvanic corrosion. The same principle for building a potato battery can apply to other foods such as lasagna. Apparently, if you cook a lasagna in a steel pan (cathode) and wrap it in aluminum foil (anode), the tasty and salty tomato-acid-laden lasagna will act as the electrolyte. The few points at which the aluminum foil touches the lasagna will cause a concentrated reaction at the point and eventually result in galvanic corrosion at that spot alone, where the aluminum foil will eventually appear to have melted onto the lasagna.

DSC_5062.JPGreynolds wrap aluminum foil attacks food!
reynolds wrap aluminum foil gone wrong

Example of Lasagna Cell (Image Source: Flickr – Tom Arthur)
Finally, I’ve realised that this also explains why I have never enjoyed chewing aluminium foil or putting it into my mouth whilst I’m eating, as I have permanent retainers at the back of a number of my teeth. The steel wire ends can be said to be slightly exposed since it has been many years since I last saw an orthodontist and I have also rigorously chewed on it over time. The tasty salty tinfoil wrapped food reacts in my mouth with the salty and acidic food and saliva being the electrolyte, the tinfoil being the anode, and the surgical steel retainers (or any of my other potentially metal fillings) at the back of my teeth being the cathode, culminating in a strange taste/unpleasant sensation of a small potential difference in one’s mouth.