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!

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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.

Video: This Film Sucks! – The Science of Leeches

Tim Cockerill returns to take a  look at some leeches in a short piece produced for YouTube’s Geek Week back in August. If you’re a bit squeamish this probably isn’t for you!

We couldn’t really make a video about leeches without showing off their impressive feeding apparatus, a Y-shaped jaw packing in roughly 300 teeth! This was a tricky shot to achieve, we had to persuade the leech to attach to a glass plate, holding it in position by hand, allowing us to shoot from below with a macro lens. It was a great sight to behold once we finally got it and it certainly helps bring something to the film that you hopefully wont have seen elsewhere.

We also had to get some footage of a leech feeding, so we set one loose on Tim’s arm, shooting a time-lapse to demonstrate how much they can expand during the feeding. Once it had attached to feed, we were very much at the mercy of the Leech’s hunger as we couldn’t shoot the final shots until it had detached. As Tim mentions in the film, it’s not a good idea to pull or burn leeches off as this may cause them to vomit their stomach contents back into the open wound – not a good idea if you don’t know what the leech as been feeding on previously. The best course of action to take is to let detach when it’s good and ready.

We also wanted to dispel a common myth about leeches using anaesthetics to dull the pain the sensation of pain whilst feeding – as Tim reports there’s little scientific evidence to support this and he certainly reports to feel a stinging sensation as the leech feeds on him.

After about 3 hours the leech was finally full and very happily detached from Tim’s arm – during ‘the feeding’ the leech utilises an anti-coagulant (called hirudin) and as you can see in the film this prevents the blood from clotting, causing the wound to bleed profusely four a couple of hours after it’s detached!

Video

Dripping with Magnetism

Ferrofluid – The Magnetic Liquid!

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.

Lessons learned from this vid:

  • Definitely need a macro lens to get more detail.
  • Shoot against a lighter background next time.
  • Ferrofluids are cool.

You can learn about more strange materials in Mark’s Ri Discourse here and you should also check out his latest project The Institute of Making.

Flame’n Elements

Flame Tests with Group 1 Alkali Metals

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I recently shot a short series of flame test films demonstrating the different coloured flames produced when burning group 1 alkali metals. The films were shot at the Royal Institution and produced for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Learn Chemistry site.

Here’s what happens when you burn Caesium salts:

Metal salts were disolved into a methanol solution (the fuel) and this was soaked into the wireframe structures of the element symbols (Rb = Rubidium, Cs = Caesium etc.) – these were then lit to produce some really beautiful flame colours, ranging from red (Lithium) to blue (Caesium). Each element has its own unique colour or spectrum – almost like a signature colour which is directly related to its chemical properties.

Rubidium has a sort of red-violet colour:

By burning the metal ions, we’re exciting electrons causing them to move into higher energy states. These are fairly unstable states to be in so the electrons eventually move back down into lower energy states and as they do this they emit light. The wavelength and resulting spectra of light given off during this process are specific to each element (giving a range of pretty colours!) and can be used to identify different metals from one another. If you have a spectroscope (an instrument that essentially lets you look at the make-up of light) you can see the individual spectra given off by the flames.

The RSC has published some learning materials around these videos which will give you a much clearer idea of the chemistry at hand if you’re interested.

Aside from shooting pretty flames, these films also gave me opportunity to play about with titles and compositing – using the flame footage as flickering colour fills for the Element names.

I really like this effect and hope to experiment with it further in future films.

The flame test demonstrations were originally featured in the 2012 Christmas Lectures – which you can view here (around 30 mins in).

Video: When Fish Stopped Being So Lazy and Made it Onto Land

Cast of Tiktaalik roseae fossil

Neil Shubin on Finding Tiktaalik

Recent video shot and produced for the Ri Channel, featuring Professor Neil Shubin who discovered the remarkably well preserved fossil of the transitional organism Tiktaalik roseae.

This monumental find, is believed to bridge the gap in our evolutionary history between sea dwelling and land living organisms, occurring sometime in the late Devonian period (around 375 million years ago). As a tetrapod, Tiktaalik was able to support itself on limb like structures and along with basic lungs was able to make the big move from sea to land.

Essentially, Tiktaalik is the fish that finally got off it’s gills and made the effort to have a wonder about on land, for which we must all be thankful.

Shot on a Panasonic AF-101, with the Lumix GX Vario 12-35mm lens, close up stuff shot on a Tamron 70-200mm.

Taking a Peek Inside the Living Lung

For the final Royal Institution Advent film, I travelled to the University of Sheffield MRI Unit at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, to look at how a very strange element is being used in a pioneering MRI technique to image living lungs.

The film is presented by this year’s Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers (University of Cambridge) who takes part in the research programme by having his own lungs scanned. Conventional MRI is usually pretty poor at imaging areas such as the lungs, which have very little fatty tissue and water (MRI scanners essentially detect radio frequencies given off by protons in Hydrogen nuclei) – and so this novel technique involves the inhalation of hyper-polarised Xenon to image the ventilated lung. Xenon is an inert gas so is relatively safe to inhale, although it does have some unusual effects on the human body, especially on the voice – it’s also a mild anaesthetic – so watch the film to see how it affects Peter!

Xenon Lungs

As the Xenon is only present within the respiratory system, signal is only detected within ventilated areas – areas in which Xenon is not present appear black on the resulting image. This therefore allows medical professionals to identify damaged or obstructed areas of the lung which may be poorly ventilated or not at all, providing a novel method of efficiently and non-invasively examining the lungs of a living patient.

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Images of Peter’s lungs captured through the Xenon MRI method.

The research is being conducted by Dr Jim Wild and his research assistant Helen Marshall (both featured in the film) at the University of Sheffield and is funded by the EPSRC. More information on this technique can be found here.

The films forms part of a series of 24, released daily in the Ri Advent Calendar here. The films are also available on YouTube and on the Ri Channel.