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: Playing with the Panasonic GH4

I decided to buy myself a new camera over Christmas and after much deliberation (including watching countless video reviews) I bought myself a Panasonic GH4. It’s a small mirror-less Micro-Four-Thirds DSLR that comes crammed with some incredible features, such as 4k internal recording and a 96fps shooting mode in 1080p! Oh and it’s a pretty cheap piece of kit for what it does.

I took a few walks out with my new camera and cut together a few bits of test footage – take a look below (I’m still getting to grips with the camera, so do excuse the shoddiness)

Both were shot with the Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm f2.8 – it’s a fantastically sharp little lens with image stabilisation built in. The footage was cut together in FCPX and graded with the help of Impulz LUTs.

The camera isn’t perfect, but I’m fantastically happy with it – the 4k footage is beautifully detailed and can be downscaled in the edit for a 1080 export – providing some useful cropping options as well. Here’s an arty picture of me sitting on the ground in Regent’s Park, with my GH4:

me

I’ll likely post more test footage over the coming months.

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.

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: Levitating Superconductor on a Möbius strip

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.