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!
Over the last month I’ve been collaborating with Astrid Alben and Hester Aardse of PARS to produce a listening experience for their ‘Some Like Dark‘ event that runs over the May bank holiday weekend at the Wellcome Collection in London.
The listening feature is made up from a collection of interwoven readings, poems, sound pieces and interviews that explore light from different perspectives.
Let your imagination loose on an in-the-dark journey with the work of theatre maker Jan van den Berg, lighting designer; Jennifer Tipton, physicist; John Pendry, sound poet; Jaap Blonk; and many more.
The event promises to be a magical and immersive experience featuring science demonstrations and an animation produced by Eleni Kalorkoti entitled ‘Moonlight in a box’ (top image).
Tickets are free and can be booked online or in person over the weekend! The event runs all weekend as part of the larger ‘On Light‘ event taking place at the Wellcome collection – check it out!
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.
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)!
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.
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.
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 extremelyquickly, 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).
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.
I made this film in the first half of the year and it features one of my favourite demos from the 2012 Christmas Lectures – a levitating superconductor flying around a Möbius strip made from over 2,000 magnets. The thing is an absolute joy to watch and perfectly shows off the superconductor which can be seen hovering above and below the track!
The video went on to be one of our most successful pieces – getting over half a million views soon after it was released – it got picked up on a number of popular blogs and websites, from Gizmodo to Boing, Boing!
It took ages to edit mostly because I was getting all caught up with the detail of explanations and how best to condense everything down into as concise a package as possible – I ended up shelving it for several months and nearly didn’t return to it – I’m so glad I did! It really helped coming back to it with a fresh mind and I soon worked round my problems to get it out of the edit.
It was shot all on a single camera which I think also benefited the explanations – we had to repeat these a number of times to obtain variation in shots so we were able to refine these with each subsequent take. Unusually for this series of films I used our 70-200mm lens which gave really nice close-ups, both on the hovering boat/train but also of Andy – these cut in really nicely to give some variation in shots during the longer explanation sections.
A short film I made with materials scientist and science presenter Mark Miodownik demonstrating some of the weird properties of ferrofluid – a liquid with a suspension of ferromagnetic nanoparticles locked within it, causing it to respond to external magnetic fields.
Using a powerful neodymium magnet and a large steel bolt, Mark demonstrates how the fluid behaves in the presence of a strong magnetic field – forming some very strange, but very beautiful patterns. The fluid is pretty messy and has a similar consistency to oil, so it was important to avoid direct contact with the magnet (it would literally coat the magnet and become inseparable) – so the bolt is effectively used to channel the magnetic field and act as a temporary magnet over which to pour the ferrofluid.
So most of our universe (over 70%) is made up of something called Dark Energy. We can’t see it and we don’t really know what it is…
Matter – everything that makes up me, you, planets and stars – appears to make up only a very small fraction of the universe, about 4%. Instead, the universe seems to be filled predominantly by a very strange material known as dark energy and it is this material, with it’s anti-gravity properties, which seems to speeding up the expansion of our universe. We’ve known that the universe was expanding since Edwin Hubble made his observations in the 1920s, however it’s only in the last 20 years that we’ve realised that this expansion is actually speeding up! The problem is that we can’t directly detect dark energy and this makes it very difficult to understand what it is and whether it really does exist.
Instead we must rely on indirect observations, looking at light travelling from the far reaches of the universe to determine whether the properties of this light has changed during the time it has taken to reach us. A good way to measure the expanding universe is to make observations of distant supernovae (huge explosions which follow the death of large stars) which act as ‘standard candles‘ or ‘lighthouses’ because we know how bright these object should be. Measuring light from distant supernovae has allowed us to see that it is different to what it should be if these objects were positioned within a static universe. Instead what we see is changes in this light which indicates that these objects are being flung outwards and away from us via some sort of cosmic expansion.
A nice analogy to describe the expansion of the universe is what happens when two points are drawn on the surface of an inflating balloon. As the balloon is inflated, the two points begin to move further and further away from each other and as the material expands outwards, the distance between the two points also increases. Applying this analogy to the cosmos, we could imagine the same happening with two galaxies being pulled apart from each other as the space they exist in expands.
As dark energy is so difficult to detect, scientists have recently been looking for new ways to independently verify its presence within the universe. Whilst at the BBC I was lucky enough to interview cosmologist Dr Chris Blake from Swinburne University, Australia who has recently published two papers reconfirming dark energy via a new set of methods. Blake and his colleagues produced a galaxy map of over 200,000 galaxies and used this information to look at how these galaxies were distributed and how they grew relative to each other. Through this work Blake and his colleagues were able to reconfirm the presence of dark energy and perhaps most importantly were able to determine some of its properties.
I thought I’d use the audio from this telephone interview and spruce it for the next sounds of science episode:
It probably sounds better with headphones (or obviously decent speakers).
Physicist Lily Asquith recently wrote an interesting and accessible piece on quarks, which was featured on Jon Butterworth’s excellent Life and Physics blog. Included within the post was an interesting depiction of physicist Murray Gell-Mann, as provided by illustrator and artist Toya Walker. Toya also happens to be the individual behind the imaginative and colourful imagery associated with the LHCsound project – many of which are used to help explain some of the complex concepts behind the process of sonification and particle physics.
When attempting to communicate complicated ideas and concepts we often turn to visual aids to help translate information into an easily digestible format. We perceive the world from a predominantly visual perspective, meaning that illustrations and diagrams are an often more effective mode of communication, especially when dealing with higher levels of complexity. For example, an annotated diagram of the heart is often much easier to understand than a detailed description of it’s anatomy. However such ‘diagrams’ can be uninspiring and do little to engage with those not already interested or familiar with the subject concerned.
The use of visual metaphor and analogy can thus be very helpful in reaching out to a wider audience; for example one of Toya’s images depicts the Higgs Boson as the ‘Golden Snitch’ (as found in Harry Potter) in a humorous and accessible reference to the elusive nature of the particle. As such visual imagery is tasked with the responsibility of translating specialist information into a language that is easily comprehendible but also appealing to non-specialist audiences. This is what I appreciate in Toya’s work. Even in a project that is primarily concerned with conveying information through sound, there is still significant emphasis dedicated to the use of visual imagery to explain key concepts. As a result, the project opens up the Large Hadron Collider (and the excitement associated with it), to those who may have once been alienated by it’s complexities (like me!).
I obviously really like the work Toya has produced for the project, so I got in touch with her to find out a little bit more about how she got involved and developed her illustrations. You can check out her website and blog to have a look at of her artwork, but in the mean time she was kind enough to answer some of my questions and provide some early sketches; you can read her responses below:
Do you have a background in science?
I always enjoyed science at school and took physics at A-level, but not beyond that.
How did you come to work on the LHCsound project?
I met the initiator of the project, physicist Dr. Lily Asquith. The project, of course, was fascinating but what really made me want to get involved was Lily’s passion for communicating the ideas of the project, and indeed the work going on at the LHC, with as large and diverse an audience as possible.
Did your perception and understanding of the LHC change as you developed this work?
Yes, definitely, I did quite a lot of reading to try and understand as fully as I could some of the concepts we were trying to communicate. Learning more really ignited my sense of wonder, its almost like magic, but real. I think physics is often seen as difficult and therefore dull, part of the reason for doing the project was to communicate how exciting it actually is.
A lot of the science and ideas associated with the LHC are quite abstract in nature; did this make it easier or more difficult to create a visual aesthetic?
A great deal of my working practice involves images drawn from observation so the abstract nature is definitely challenging, but in some ways liberating too. With the project, there were so many approaches that sprang to mind, the real difficulty was choosing a direction. I felt my role was to realize the artwork in the way Lily would visualize it, as she has a very unique and approachable way of talking about particle physics.
In one of your images you’ve depicted the Higgs Boson as the ‘Golden Snitch’ (from Harry Potter), what was the reason for this?
To add humour, I guess, and a reference that might communicate the idea of the search for the elusive Higgs in an accessible way.
Your work in this project has been important in helping to communicate complex ideas in a simpler manner – how do you think art and illustration can help communicate complex ideas and allow people to engage with them?
I think its fundamental, particularly if the goal is to communicate to as large an audience as possible. I’m involved in education work, including the Picture It project run by The House of Illustration. The aim of the project is to use illustration as a learning tool in the classroom for cross-curricular benefit. They’ve done some wonderful work including sessions where primary school children made their own books, with every page showing a different stage of the process of a volcano erupting. Or secondary students used collage to show the effects of different forces. I think it’s such a brilliant and effective way of learning.
In science information is often communicated graphically in visual form. Scientists would often see this as an objective representation of information – but as an artist do you think such representation can take on an additional expressive form?
I find data visualization really interesting and I often look at the work at http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/. There are brilliant ways of communicating vast amounts of information. None of the imagery made for LHCsound was trying to communicate data, just ideas and we definitely made a conscious effort to develop the pictures in a different way, or a style not traditionally associated with science textbooks for instance.
Toya Walker is an illustrator and artist who lives and works in South London. A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art she has an eclectic approach to image making but drawing and painting form the basis for all her work. Her illustrations have been used by The Viral Factory, Atlantic Records and the LHCsound project and work has been shortlisted for The Jerwood Drawing Prize, The Dulwich Picture Gallery Summer Exhibition and The Mall Galleries Royal Society shows.