125,000 rpm centrifuge… powered by hand, made from cardboard

This is outstanding!

One of the first steps in a whole host of blood tests which might be used for medical diagnosis is to ‘spin down’ the sample – to bung it in a high-speed centrifuge and whirl it around, separating out the red blood cells from the blood plasma. Accordingly, you’ll find centrifuge equipment in every haematology lab in the West… but they don’t work so well in places where the electricity supply is shaky.

In 2013 Indian-born Manu Prakash, now a physical biology researcher at Stanford University in the US, stumbled over a centrifuge in a clinic in Uganda. Literally stumbled, as it was propping open a door.

Prakash is the same guy who, a year ago, introduced a microscope made from folded paper and a cameraphone. The result of his discussions about centrifuges is similarly simple yet inspired: his team at Stanford have now adapted an ancient children’s toy to make a hand-powered, cardboard-based centrifuge which achieves 125,000 revolutions per minute. That’s astonishing, and it’s sufficient to prepare samples for a range of tests in just a few minutes.

The ever-marvellous journalist Ed Yong (check out his book I Contain Multitudes!) has the full story at The Atlantic, with more details of all the juicy bits of physics the group had to do to optimise the toy for medical use. It’s one of those simple systems that nobody had thought to study before. Nature have produced the video above, and the invention is written up as a paper at Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The “Paperfuge” can be made for something like 20 cents, and the researchers have even submitted an application to Guinness World Records for the fastest rotational speed via a human-powered device.

Prakash’s group are now testing their design in rural Madagascar, and are exploring 3D-printable plastics in the hopes of being able to cheaply produce centrifuges which are integrated with specific blood tests, or transparent versions which would double as microscope slides.

Awesome invention.

(Raspberry) Pioneers, Bright Ideas: opportunities for secondary students

The lovely people at the Raspberry Pi Foundation – the folks who spend the money made from selling all those zillions of credit-card sized computers – have launched their programme for 12-15 year-olds, Pioneers. The idea is: a group of friends gets together, they find a mentor (an adult who can help them along, and also sign things on their behalf), then they take part in a mass group challenge. There’s a fresh challenge every three months, and the first one’s just been announced; see the film above for details, but the basic idea is, “Use technology to make us laugh.”

There are prizes for the best japes, hence there’s a submission deadline of 22nd March 2017. The plan is also that the challenges produce starting points and examples for a huge range of projects, all using digital technology, so everyone can learn from everybody else. Or something like that.

Interested? There are more details at the Pioneers web page, along with links to register a team, information for mentors, suggestions for starting points, and so on.

We’ve been waiting keenly to see what the Pi Foundation ‘do’ at secondary to follow on from their Code Club offer for primary ages, and we look forward to seeing how Pioneers develops. We’re particularly looking forward to laughing at some of the creations from this first challenge.

Shell Bright Ideas Challenge

Meanwhile, if you’re after a more traditional sort of competition, Shell UK are again running their Bright Ideas Challenge. Unsurprisingly, their challenges are based around energy. Here’s the glossy introductory film:

There are a range of ‘what-if…?’ future technology challenges, along with resources for participants and teachers and further films to introduce each of the challenges, on the project website. Submissions are due by 21st April 2017.

Here at Think Physics orbiting world headquarters we have mixed feelings about competitions for secondary students. They certainly can be of value to students, but there are so many of them it’s hard to know which are worth investing time in. In this case, project resources look comprehensive and well-presented, so it should be straightforward to take a look and see if Bright Ideas seems a good fit for you and your students.

If your school took part in Bright Ideas last year, leave a comment below or drop us a line to let us know how it went, and whether you’d do it again.

Astronauts, sports scholarships, the web, deforestation, and the power of unexpected connections

Here’s a delightful little story from web developer Sarah Mei, posted on Twitter. It starts out being about American university sports scholarships, but heads off in directions you’re really not going to expect.

We all assume, when we’re in school, that we’re going to have ‘a career’, that it’s going to make sense, and that we can map out roughly how it’s going to go. For some people that’s absolutely true, but for many (most?) of us, our lives take twists and turns we’d never have predicted. Some of us rather like it that way, even if we don’t have stories quite as good as this.

Tip of the hat to Elin Roberts for the link.

Connecting with Physics

When I did my A-levels a couple of decades ago, there were only two or three girls in my physics class. The situation has got a little better since then, but many girls still find they are in a minority in their physics class. Whilst this doesn’t stop the students enjoying physics and doing well, it can sometimes feel a bit isolating.

To help the situation here in the North East, Think Physics is running a second year of our Physics Connect Network. This aims to allow girls from different schools to connect with each other through on-campus meetings and an online support group.

The network kicks off on January 28th with a Saturday morning session. Award-winning physics communicator Dr Jess Wade will be talking about her research at University College, London, on flexible solar cells. We’ll also look at where physics can lead to in terms of careers.

Later in the term there will be sessions on practical work using K’Nex, an Easter revision morning, and a visit to a local physics-related industry (watch this space for details!).

You can find more about the network sessions here, and the timetable for January 28th, including a booking link, here.

Reece Engineering Summer School

As well as Physics Connect, Think Physics organises a three-week summer school for Year 12 female Physics and Engineering students. Funded by the Reece Foundation, the course provides an introduction to engineering in its many forms. It’s an intense and hectic few weeks, with industry visits, challenges, individual and group research, presentations… everything we can cram into the time.

Applications are now open for the 2017 school: for more information and the application form, click here.

It’s 2017, the year the Sun goes out

Happy New Year! We hope you’re still flattened under the burden of gifts and groaning with the tonnage of mince pies you’ve consumed, but let’s get straight to the important stuff: this year, the Sun is going dark. August 21st 2017, mark our words.

Sorry, what’s that? Oh, you’ve heard of total solar eclipses, have you? Drat.

OK, so:

That last point is quite impressive, when you think about it. And it’s the subject of the NASA video posted above, which is even more impressive than you might expect. It doesn’t just show the ground track, it factors in (as the video explains) the effects of the angle of the Sun, the elevation of the observer at each point, and the bumpiness of the moon’s surface. The combined result is that the shadow of the sun isn’t elliptical as you might expect, but more… well, watch the film and see.

The next total solar eclipse visible from the UK mainland won’t be until 23rd September 2090. There’ll be a pretty good partial eclipse in 2026, but having seen both partial and total eclipses I can personally vouch that there’s no comparison to witnessing totality. If you ever have the chance to travel to see one, absolutely take it. It’s a (literally) phenomenal experience. You might remember the partial solar eclipse of 2015, which looked like this:

…but seriously, that was nothing like as impressive as a total eclipse.

Come to think of it, I have a friend in Boise, Idaho…

More information: List of solar eclipses visible from the UK; NASA’s site about the 2017 US eclipse.