Tuesday, 24 June 2014

NERC Planet Earth Online...

The splendid folks from the NERC Planet Earth podcast came over to Manchester to look at our rather fun collection of bones...the said bones will combine to be the centrepiece of our Royal Society Summer Science Exhibit next week...gulp...yes, only a week left to get everything sorted!

If you want to listen to the podcast, please click this LINK.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Face-planted human skeletons, rigid lemons and UV lights...

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition exhibit is slowly taking shape. Each day a new order of wonderfully synthetic fruits arrive in the mail. Today a 'bi-folded' human skeleton arrived in its cardboard coffin...our freebie UV light pens are also winging their way towards Manchester...soon to be despatched to London, all stuffed inside a wonderfully crammed truck...with a dinosaur peeping-out between the debris. The fun really starts next Friday, when all is delivered to Carlton House Terrace and the X-Appeal exhibit build begins...this is when all will be revealed, from dangerous fruit to deadly dinosaurs.

Where on the skeleton(s) do I fit?
Take a look at the image above...one of these bones belongs to Gorgosaurus....do you know which one and what it is? Leave your answers on the comments....or come and see the dinosaur next week and see if you can spot this bone on the skeleton of Gorgosaurus.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Children's Museum Indianapolis (USA)...where children of all ages can learn!

The Gorgosaurus that will form the centre-piece of our Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, X-Appeal,  is a cast of the original skeleton that is on display at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis (USA). I visited the palaeontology curator, Dallas Evans, at this splendid museum last month, where we arranged the loan of some wonderfully real bones from this amazing dinosaur skeleton. These will be placed on display alongside our full skeleton mount at the Royal Society. We were particularly interested in the healed injuries or 'pathologies' that this remarkable specimen acquired during its rough and tumble life.
Gorgosaurus at the Children's Museum, Indianapolis (USA). 
I think it would be fair to say, this dinosaur leapt head-first into the shallow end of the gene-pool when it came to being beaten black and blue during its life. Few fossils of any dinosaur look as beaten-up as this unlucky bruiser of a beastie. This dinosaurs was either very clumsy, extremely unlucky...or maybe both! It is when you start looking more closely at the brain case of this animal, that you start to see a possible cause behind the symptomatic evidence of maladroit locomotor ability.
The braincase of Gorgosaurus.
The brain case of all reptiles follows the shape of the brain rather closely. When you peer inside the brain case of Gorgosaurus using powerful x-ays, it is possible to see the overall shape of the space that the brain once occupied (the endocranial shape). However, there is more than just a cavity, as now it is filled with secondary minerals formed during the process of fossilisation....but there is more to this infill than meets the eye! Within the calcite crystal infill of the endocranial space, there are some rather curious bony struts....these are growing from the walls of the braincase into where the brain once sat.
The circular region marks a break in the braincase, that shows the dark boney mass growing with the paler calcitic infill...
could this be a bony tumour that had our dinosaur tripping over its own feet?
Given we can image the overall shape of the space once occupied by the brain, we can see that these bony growths affected the cerebellum portion of the brain. This part of the brain is associated with motor control...co-ordinating the orchestral distribution of muscle activation that allows for a more coordinated life style. If these bony struts grew during life (which the evidence suggests they did) these would have damaged the part of the gorgosaurs brain that was most needed for locomotion, coordination and general stability....this was a wobbly, 7.4 metre long, predatory dinosaur!

I heartily recommend that if you are within a thousand miles of Indianapolis....go to the Children's Museum! It is one of my most favourite museums anywhere on the planet...and I have visited a fair few splendid museums! If you join us at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, you will get to see a tony potion of their world-class collections...for the very first time in the UK.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mud-less Festivals, Science and Famelab!

Festivals often conjure images of folks clad in wellington boots whilst wading up to their wastes in mud. Having lived most of my childhood in Pilton (Somerset), the location for the Glastonbury Festival, my view of such events is possibly slightly biased. However another kind of festival has successfully co-evolved, albeit in the absence of mud! Many will have heard of the Edinburgh International Science Festival or the Bollington Science Festival, but yesterday it was my turn to have a splendid day in Gloucester! I spent Tuesday taking part in several events at the Times Cheltenham Science Festival that not surprisingly takes place in the charming town centre of Cheltenham.

The University of Manchester had sponsored a lecture on the new technology being applied to the study of dinosaurs. Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol and I were invited to discuss how the study of dinosaurs has been advanced through the application of many specialist areas, that might not normally be associated with dinosaurs, such as high-performance computing or particle physics. After we both pitched our science to the audience, it was their turn to pitch questions at us. It is always splendid when the public engagement in science is a two-way. After the talk and Q&A session, Mike was whisked away to sign some of his many books that fill the shelves, but more importantly populate the minds of many aspirational palaeontologists with splendid fossil facts. I however had to run to the BBC venue to take part in a rather fun panel discussion.

The panel included Sean Carroll,  (CalTech physicist and scientific consultant for the blockbuster Big Bang Theory), Prof. Vince Walsh (neuroscientist at UCL), Hannah Devlin (from The Times science department) and yours truly. It was an 'intimate' audience...in other words we had room for more...but those who came were marvellously active during our discussions that ranged from the differences between science education in the UK and USA to the reasons that directed each one of us into our chosen fields. The hour sprinted by and I was soon whisked away by another super efficient festival folk to my final fun event....Famelab!

I was lucky enough to help judge the Northwest Region Famelab semi-final and the NW final, but also had great fun helping judge the UK final. This superb meeting of inspirational minds focuses upon the public engagement of science and has been successfully running since 2005. Over 4000 scientists have now strutted their funky stuff across the Famelab stage which now extends to international participants from over 20 countries.

Judging Famelab events is extremely tough and the Famelab International Semi-Final was no exception last night. I know how nervous I feel before and often during the delivery of public lectures...and I have been lucky enough to be delivering such talks for over 20 years. Many of the contestants taking part in Famelab are undergraduates, but still have the confidence to deliver 3 minutes of articulate, engaging and simply wonderful science story-telling to a packed auditorium. To judge such an event is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but thankfully Maggie Philbin (BBC, TeenTech and all-round splendid person) and Jennifer Ouellette (scientist, author and blogger) shared this difficult task. The only saving grace with a semi-final, you can choose six of the contestants to step into the grand final...to choose six was tough, to pick a single winner....a horrible task! The contestants all despatched their talks with flair, panache and occasionally with 'pi....' urine (thankfully in plastic vials). This was a semi-final of national final winners, so the benchmark was exceedingly high. The 2 hour event dilated time through the gravitas of each talk. I strongly urge you all to watch them and learn. I think you will soon see how tough it is to choose between such splendid contestants!