VIDEO: Slow motion chemistry and explosive BBQs!

Some recent work shot over the summer:

Slow Motion Contact Explosive

Working with nitrogen triiodide is pretty nerve racking stuff – it’s prepared wet and left to dry, after which it becomes an extremely sensitive contact explosive. So with some careful tip-toeing about we set-up some high-speed cameras to capture the violent, but undeniably beautiful reaction in extreme slow-motion.

Extreme Physics BBQ

What happens when you pump mains electricity through a piece of steak? We teamed up with the BBC Brit Lab channel to cook meat using some extreme physics, including bottle rockets to grill prawns and parabolic reflectors to sear meat – the results were surprisingly delicious!

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Video: Bringing Science Home

Over the last year at the Royal Institution we’ve published two series of a video project called ExpeRimental which aims to promote the practice of science based activities in the home with children.

Where these videos differ from many ‘try this at home’ series is that they place an emphasis on pedagogy, providing support to parents to help them encourage their children to behave like young scientists, in essence to get them hypothesising, changing variables and testing! Each activity featured also makes use of cheap and ordinary household items to make sure that they were accessible to everyone.

I worked closely with director and film maker Alom Shaha on this series who oversaw the development of the content and scripting. There were a lot of challenges we faced in the production of these films, most notably working with non-professional presenters (often parents) and of course featuring young children on camera!

Adam, 7, Musical coat hangers, Credit_ The Royal Institution

We learnt that the most important element in keeping the young participants enthused was to keep the energy up but also to limit the time they had to spend on camera. As such we’d usually ask the adults to take the youngsters out for a walk whilst we set-up and it was also important that the kids knew nothing of the activities we were filming, so as to achieve as much a genuine reaction on camera as possible.

Naturally many of young children were quite camera shy to begin with, so I found a good way to reduce this was to allow the kids to take control of the equipment, allowing them behind the camera or to listen to the feedback of the microphones. I think this helped to normalise the pretty alien experience of having cameras and lights set-up and pointed at them in their home environment.

In order to edit these pieces successfully and to maintain a sense of ‘actuality’ we tended to shoot with a three camera set-up, including a ‘master-wide’ and two roaming handheld shots, one which would preference the adult and the other the children.

Where first series explored concepts and phenomena in Physics, the second explored chemistry and chemical reactions. A few of my favourite videos can be seen below:

Rufus and the racers

Fizzy Bottle Rockets

Singing Wine Glasses

 

Video: X-rays reveal dance of electrons!

Short animation I produced in collaboration with Design Science and Dr Adam Kirrander from the University of Edinburgh.

The piece explores work being conducted by Adam’s team which hopes to ‘freeze’ the rapid motion of electrons. The principles at play here are not dissimilar to those used in early high-speed photography, but in this case involves measuring how atoms diffract rapid pulses of x-rays. The technique is hoped to revolutionise the ways in which we study and understand chemical interactions, such as the breaking and formation of bonds.

This was my first full scale animation project and I learnt a lot in the production process – individual scenes were animated in Apple Motion and then exported and compiled in a FCPX timeline. There are lots of hand drawn elements within the piece, some of these were drawn on paper and scanned in – while others were drawn in photoshop with a graphics tablet – the leaves and eye at the end were drawn multiple times and then animated – that was a lot of fun!

There were some little touches that I found made a big difference visually, such as adding a subtle background texture and applying a faint vignette with blurring around the edges of the frame – this helped to draw attention to the centre.

The voice over was recorded on a Marantz PMD 661 with an AKG D230 – it wasn’t recorded in the best environment, so I had to work to tidy it up in Ableton Live. Subtle sound design also helped to bring a bit more depth to the animated scenes, this was also composed and produced in Ableton.

Audio: Oxford Sparks – Big Questions Podcast

The University of Oxford’s Big Questions podcast which I’ve been producing is now available online to listen to!

Each episode features narration from Chris Lintott and explores a ‘big theme’ in science, from matters of scale to hidden worlds. Featuring interviews with scientists from the University of Oxford the series incorporates music and colourful sound design to bring concepts and details to life – have a listen to a couple of my favourite pieces below!

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or through their Soundcloud page. Episodes are available both in feature length (30 mins) and as individual parts (three per episode)!

Video: Why science is NOT ‘Just a Theory’

Short animation we just put out at the Ri, written by Alom Shaha and narrated by Jim Al-Khalili.

Art / animation by Jack Kenny and I did the sound design.

Video blurb:

There’s an important difference between a scientific theory and the fanciful theories of an imaginative raconteur, and this quirk of semantics can lead to an all-too-common misconception. In general conversation, a ‘theory’ might simply mean a guess. But a scientific theory respects a somewhat stricter set of requirements. When scientists discuss theories, they are designed as comprehensive explanations for things we observe in nature. They’re founded on strong evidence and provide ways to make real-world predictions that can be tested.

While scientific theories aren’t necessarily all accurate or true, they shouldn’t be belittled by their name alone. The theory of natural selection, quantum theory, the theory of general relativity and the germ theory of disease aren’t ‘just theories’. They’re structured explanations of the world around us, and the very foundation of science itself.

There’s an extended blog post on the project here: http://www.rigb.org/blog/2014/november/its-just-a-theory

Video: The Magic of Consciousness

A short, meditative film I directed and produced with Professor Nicholas Humphrey exploring the scientific significance of consciousness and the problems we face in understanding its existence.

After working with each other last year Nick and I were keen to explore consciousness in a short form piece – quite the challenge considering the complexity of the subject matter.

Our intention was not to be too heavy handed with the facts and figures, but instead to present the viewer with some of the key questions and problems that scientists face in understanding consciousness from the perspectives of evolution and neuroscience.

One of the greatest challenges with this piece was always going to be in constructing compelling images to go alongside the narration and pieces to camera. It was with this in mind that we chose the Botanic Gardens as the lush and colourful backdrop in which to explore these ideas against.

The film was shot primarily on a Canon 6D over a couple of days, on location at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens and at the Royal Institution. I was really impressed with the footage coming out of the 6D (aside from a few moire problem) and it received very little grading. I also paid a little extra attention to the audio, mastering it outside of FCPX and in Ableton Live – just to give it a bit more polish!

Video: Structure and Order – A Century of Symmetry

Chemical crystallographer Judith Howard reflects on the beautiful aesthetics of crystallographic exploration and her career, including time spent with Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin.

The end of the video provides links to some of the other videos in the crystallography collection!

Crystal Clear: Exploring Crystallography on Film

X-ray Crystallography – ever heard of it? Perhaps not, but it’s arguably one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 20th Century. Why? Well, it’s an incredibly powerful technique that allows us to look at really small things, like protein molecules or even DNA! Once we know how these molecules are assembled, we can begin to better understand how they work.

How does it work? Essentially you take your sample, crystallise it and then fire X-rays at it. You then measure the way in which the crystal scatters or diffracts the X-rays – the resulting ‘diffraction pattern’ is what you need (and a bit of maths) to work back to the structure of the molecules that make up the crystal. So in theory, as long as you can crystallise your sample – you should be able to work out the molecular structure!

To find out more watch this simple animation we recently published:

The technique was developed over 100 years ago and it has led to some incredibly important discoveries, including the structure of DNA – since it’s inception, work relating to Crystallography has been awarded 28 Nobel prizes. To mark the continuing success of Crystallography – we received funding from the STFC to produce a series of films that helped explain and celebrate this technique.

The above animation was scripted in house and animated by the awesome 12foot6 – it also features the voice of Stephen Curry, a structural biologist based at Imperial College London.

Understanding Crystallography

I produced and directed this two-part series, working with Elspeth Garman of Oxford University and Stephen Curry. The two pieces aim to explain how the technique works and what’s needed to grow your crystals and subject them to X-ray analysis. The films take us from a microbiology lab at the University of Oxford to the Diamond Light Source, a huge facility that hosts a particle accelerator designed to generate incredibly powerful beams of X-rays.

As always, the hardest part in producing these pieces was in deconstructing the explanation of what is a very complicated process… hopefully we pulled it off – see for yourself below!

Part 1 – why proteins need to be crystallised and how this is done.

Part 2 – what it takes to shine x-rays at your crystals and how we work back from diffraction patterns to determine structures.

Crystallography and beyond

Producer Thom Hoffman also worked on this project – he produced two pieces, one exploring the history of farther and son team who helped develop the technique

and the other looking at the application of this technique on the recent Curiosity Mars rover.

 

Video

Video: Exploding Baubles at 34,000 fps!

Christmas is over – but here’s a very quick film I put out just before the holidays:

The glass baubles (unused props from the 2012 Christmas Lectures) were each sealed with a tiny amount of water inside. As the water was heated under pressure it boils at a higher temperature and when it does evaporate within the sealed space, the internal pressure builds until the glass structure fails. At this point the water (heated beyond it’s normal boiling point under atmospheric conditions) flashes into steam with explosive force and the bauble is shattered into a shower of glass fragments. All this happens extremely quickly, you hear a loud bang and then see a shower of glass – far too fast to be seen by the human eye (or a camera shooting at 25 fps).

Enter Phantom

It requires the muscle of a specialist high-speed camera to really catch a glimpse of what’s going on here. For this film we used a Phantom v1610 – which provided extremely high frame-rates, just what you need to get a better glimpse of the action! However, even at a blistering 34,000 fps you can see just how quickly the explosion event occurs – within the space of 1 -2 frames! A rough calculation shows just how fast this is, with one frame at 34,000 being the equivalent of around 29 microseconds in real time, that’s 0.000029 seconds!

You can see the unedited footage below:

As you increase the frame-rate on these cameras, you’re reducing the amount of time each individual frame is exposed, so you need to shine a lot of light on your scene with the higher frame-rates in order to see anything. As you go up to the higher frame-rates you’re also capturing a lot more information and to handle this the camera usually has to lower the resolution – this provides a rather agonising compromise between capturing something at very high-speed and retaining acceptable image quality.

Regardless of this, the results were simply breathtaking and why wouldn’t they be? It’s like being able to slow-time down and observe our world from a totally new perspective. Watch this space for more high-speed footage over the coming year.

Video: Chromosome Trailer (RiAdvent 2013)

It’s almost December which means we’re bringing back the Royal Institution Advent Calendar series. Watch the the trailer below to preview some of the stuff coming up over the days of December – it was a lot of fun to make.

Inspired by this year’s Christmas Lectures ‘Life Fantastic’ by Dr Alison Woollard we’ll be releasing a new video each day throughout December, taking a look at the human chromosomes, one by one.

You’ll be able to access the films through an interactive calendar or through our YouTube Channel.