Bullwhips, breaking the sound barrier, and science in progress

New year resolution: blog more.

We’ve been big fans of Destin Sandlin ever since his original chicken video (seriously: take a look), and into his Smarter Every Day YouTube channel. His latest film is outstanding.

If you were in central Newcastle just before Christmas you might have seen an Australian street performer doing whip stunts. You’ll certainly have heard him, as the tip of his whip exceeded the speed of sound and produced that characteristic crack sound, which echoed down the street.

If you’ve read or thought about that at all you’ve probably worked out that the tapered shape of the whip means that as the wave of movement reaches the tip, the tip is accelerated violently, reaching the speed of sound and beyond. ‘Why whips crack’ is one of those things that’s felt ‘known’ for quite some time.

Yeah, turns out there’s a bunch of detail missing from those sorts of explanations. And all you need to start to uncover it is a curious YouTuber, a high-speed camera, a world record-holding whip performer (who also happens to be a mechanical engineer and fluid dynamicist), and a bunch of academics willing to come together to do some experiments in a motion capture studio.

This film is great. It captures not just new detail about how a whip exceeds the speed of sound, but also offers a glimpse into how science is done.

Kate in Antarctica: Life on Base

Kate’s been stuck inside with bad weather – windy, with visibility down to less than a metre. Not good for science or filming… but great for writing blog posts! Here’s her latest, and for the full set (and some background) be sure to check out our page all about Kate in Antarctica.

Station life is comfortable and well-structured. Everyone sleeps in bunk beds in containers at the back of the station, or rooms which are tucked away in the main structure of the base. Rooms are wood-lined and warm, with windows for light and electricity to charge cameras and radios. The only noise comes from the wind, and sometimes from the sound it makes whipping through the station’s nine wind turbines. Once you emerge from a peaceful slumber you can shuffle your way to the kitchen in slippers if you have a station room, or don your woolly hat, cosy boots and sunglasses for the short commute. It’s always so bright outside – if you leave your sunglasses off for even a few minutes, your eyes start to hurt.

Breakfast is 7-8am Monday-Saturday. After self-serve toast, cereal, yoghurt, coffee and tea, everyone scatters to their place of work: the station office, kitchen, doctor’s surgery, garage, snow-melting room, the science container (where I charge and test all my equipment), the station lab, the airstrip, or the new hanger. Staff and researchers who work outside tend to fill a flask of tea and pop a bar of chocolate in their pocket before they pile on more layers of clothes that will keep them warm until lunchtime. The station is well insulated, maintaining a very comfortable temperature so those working inside tend to be happiest in jeans, a t-shirt and trainers.As James and I travel a little further to our place of work – the mountains – we prepare a packed lunch of soup and a sandwich, with a biscuit or bar of chocolate. We shove this in the top of our metal Zarges kit box (ed — we didn’t know what these were, but they turn out to be really cool metal boxes) which already contains a host of safety and science equipment. Then comes one of me favourite daily tasks: sled organisation and security! Making sure each piece of equipment is in the best place on the sled is like a game of Tetris. Big boxes go first to shelter smaller and more delicate equipment from the snow that’s kicked up by the 30 kph snowmobile. Once everything is in place the rope work can commence. We tie everything down to make sure it doesn’t jump around or fall off the sled on the bumpy journey to the mountains. We travel across wind-blown grooves and ridges in the snow called ’sastrugi’, and the sled must ride up or shovel through peaks and troughs of snow and ice as it’s dragged behind our snowmobiles.

Scott Webster, a field guide at the British Antarctic Survey taught me a few sled-securing techniques when I was researching the Ellsworth mountains in 2014, so I follow his guidance – looping ropes around straps, crossing the rope across the sled from one side to the other and back, before pulling the rope as taut as I can, then tying the whole thing off with a couple of tried and tested knots. The result is a beauty to behold, I assure you!

After a day’s work James and I return from the ‘field’ (geologist always describe their research site as ‘the field’ even if they’re not actually in a field!), usually by about 6pm. Then the sled unroping and unpacking begins! We have to slowly warm up electrical equipment, placing the Zarges boxes in the colder station entrance for an hour before we unpack them and place everything on charge. At this stage we start to back up the day’s data on laptops and hard drives. Whilst the station staff put away their tools, turn off their computers and take off extra layers of clothing, we try to take a quick look at the day’s data before dinner is served at 8pm.

Our chef Christine serves dinner onto plates piled high to feed the hungry workers. By 9pm everyone is full… and tired. We take it in turn to help clean the dishes and the kitchen, with those ‘off duty’ having some time to relax. This tends to involve chatting around the dining table, reading on the sofas, listening to music or replying to an email or two on one of the station’s two internet-connected laptops.

The 10-hour working day is labour-intensive and almost non-stop, so most people fall into bed exhausted between 10 and 11pm.

Kate in Antarctica!

Kate’s made it to the Princess Elisabeth Research Station, which (if you ask us) looks more like the villain’s lair in the next Bond film than anything so straightforward as a research base. Wait… are we sure Kate isn’t plotting world domination?

Here’s Kate’s update:

Merry Christmas from the Princess Elisabeth Research Station in East Antarctica!           

Did you have a white Christmas in the UK? At 71 degrees south, you always get a bright, white Christmas. The sun circles the sky during the Antarctic summer so it is always bright and sunny – which is strange when you wake up on Christmas morning! Today, we have really good weather, it is -8°C and the wind is blowing at 10 knots so it is not too cold. You can see the kind of weather that I am experiencing at this weather report site. 

As the weather is so good, and our time here is short, everyone on the base went to work today. The research station is expanding, so there are lots of people building new walls, putting in new electrics, maintaining the plumbing system and checking that the wind turbines (which produce most of the station’s electricity) are working. There are four scientists on the base at the moment – me, my field assistant James Linighan and two geologists from Turkey. One geologist wants to date the rocks on the mountains (using a technique called cosmogenic nuclide dating – you can google it if you want to know more!) to see if the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was thicker in the past, and the other geologist is searching for meterorites. Antarctica is a great place to find meteorites because their dark, shiny form stands out on the blue ice and white snow. There are more scientists working close to the coast, where they will camp on the ice for over a month. They are drilling through the ice, to collect ice cores to learn about the past climate.

James and I have been scanning the mountains that stick up above the ice (called nunataks) with a drone. When we come back next year, we will do the same tests, to see if the rocks on the mountain have moved over the space of a year. We expect the rocks to move downhill a little. Over many years, these rocks will roll and fall onto the ice, where glaciers (like big, frozen rivers) will transport them to the sea. We have already collected some rock samples from nearby mountains and from the ice sheet, so that we can see what’s inside the rocks (like minerals) when we get back to the laboratory at Northumbria University. That will tell us if these rocks can help to feed plankton in the Southern Ocean.

 

Kate in Cape Town

Our intrepid geologist Kate has made it about as far South as is remotely reasonable to go, to Cape Town in South Africa. Of course, that’s not nearly remote enough for her, and is merely a staging point on her epic journey to Antarctica. Here’s her update:

My field assistant James Linighan (a Master of Science student at Newcastle University) and I checked in 6 bags at Newcastle Airport on Friday the 14th of December for our flight to Cape Town in South Africa. We arrived (thankfully with all our bags intact) and stepped out into the 25°C heat of the South African summer. It’s quite a shock after the cold we’ve been experiencing in Newcastle, but it will be even more of a shock when we arrive in Antarctica on the 18th of December.

While we wait for our flight we have time to sort out our equipment, listen to safety briefings and even lie by the pool at our hotel. Today, we took a cable car up Table Mountain. It’s very famous and the views were spectacular! Cape Town is a very large city with a population of 433,000. You can see most of the city in this photograph. We also collected some of our more extreme polar clothing at The International Polar Foundation’s clothing store. It’s a fabulous warehouse, where you can borrow anything and everything you need to keep you comfortable and warm in Antarctica. I picked up some winter boots, a down jacket, salopettes, goggles, mittens and some mid-layers to keep me all wrapped up and cosy.

Our Antarctic flight leaves tomorrow so as we are all packed and ready to go. I think I will just sit and relax by the hotel pool for a few more hours…

By now Kate should have made it from Cape Town all the way to her destination, but we know she’s going to struggle for an internet connection. With luck she’ll be able to sneak out further updates and maybe even the odd picture or two. We’ll post updates whenever we can, and you can catch up on all things Kate at her page here.

Meanwhile: a very Merry Christmas from us all at NUSTEM. We’ll be back in the new year, rested and ready for another term of shenanigans.

Kate’s heading to Antarctica!

Long-term NUSTEM partners will recognise Dr. Kate Winter’s name as our sometime admin assistant, and might even have wondered where she’s disappeared to in recent months. Well, we have news: we found her.

In Antarctica.

It’s a bit more planned than that. Kate’s returned to geology research, won herself a big support grant, and is heading out to Antarctica for two successive summers – which means, upside-down world and all, that she flies out any day now.

We’ve started a page of information about Kate’s trip and her research. Fingers crossed she’ll manage to get some updates to us while she’s living out on the ice, and maybe even a picture or two: we’ll post updates!

Can parents help ‘nudge’ students into choosing STEM A-levels?

When young people are asked who has provided them with careers advice and guidance, the most common answer is ‘parents and family’, followed by ‘teachers’.

The Behavioural Insights Team (sometimes known as the Nudge Unit) apply behavioural economics and psychology to understand the choices that people make, and help people make sensible choices.  They often run research trials which test out different interventions to see which is the most effective. They have worked with the Department for Education, National Health Service, with HMRC, with local councils, police forces, and many other organisations.

Now the team are looking to see if parents and teachers can help encourage their girls to choose STEM A-levels, and need secondary schools to sign up to be part of the trial.

The two interventions include:

  • Sharing a website with parents that provides information about the usefulness of STEM and guidance on how to talk to their child about A-level subject choices
  • Short classroom based activities targeted at students to overcome the perception that STEM is not ‘for them’

Both of these interventions link closely to what NUSTEM is doing in the North East, so we’re really interested to see the results of the trial.

If your school would like to get involved, there are more details in this pdf, and you can contact Kathryn or Jessica at the Behavioural Insights Team.

Kathryn.Atherton@bi.team  or Jessica.Hunt@bi.team

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week

This week is Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. Back for its sixth year, the themed week is led by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and involving basically everyone else who’s big in engineering in the country. At NUSTEM we have a packed week of engineering-themed support with our partner schools, including:

  • Team newcomer Mel is out delivering her Systems Engineering workshop with several of our partner primary school. Expect mechanical puzzle-solving and plenty of chasing after marbles.
  • Secondary specialist Antonio is delivering an engineering-themed assembly in several of our partner secondary schools.
  • Our resident digital maker Jonathan is running a Maker Club, and will be at Virgin Money’s STEMtastic day on Thursday – both themed around digital networks, Internet of Things, and … musical robots. Because that’s the way we (rock and) roll.
  • Our sixth-form lecture this Thursday is on the mathematics of fractal geometry: book your place at that link!

If we can’t get to you this week (hey, even we have limits… like, ‘being in two places at once’, we’ve not worked out how to crack that one yet), or the evening lecture doesn’t suit, there are still opportunities to get involved. On Wednesday the central organisation is hosting a live-streamed Big Assembly, with features from a ‘Dynamic Dozen’ of young professional engineers. Or – parents and teachers – explore research published this week which indicates the parents’ guidance to their children tends to emphasise careers which they think will make a positive difference to the world, and that ‘engineering’ is high on that list. Or explore the range of careers ideas and information available at the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week forms part of the Year of Engineering, where you’ll find even more engineering-themed inspiration, background materials, can careers information.

Sixth Form Evening Lectures: the 2018 edition

How Physics and Maths Make a Difference in the World

Each year NUSTEM organises a series of Sixth Form Evening lectures for students in North East schools.  With the help of Northumbria University’s academic community and local employers we explore how physics and maths are used in the world around us.  The aim is to show students that Physics and Maths Matters! 

Physics and maths intersect in so many different areas and lead to so many different post-16 choices that we want to showcase that to young people (and sometimes their families).  Here in the North East we have nationally and internationally renowned research and industry, and NUSTEM is proud to be able to host speakers at the forefront of these developments.

2018 has been recognised as the Year of Engineering. Engineering fundamentally relies on strong foundations in physics and maths, and the transferable skills that people who study them develop. With this in mind the 2018 NUSTEM Sixth Form Evening Lectures will open with a fantastic lecture on fluid dynamics and it applications in Mechanical Engineering.

One lesson we have learnt over the years is that the lectures appeal to a wider range of people than Sixth form students. Even though we have Y12 and Y13 students at the heart of these lectures we encourage schools to extend the invitation to Y10-Y11 students and their parents/carers, to come along and find out how fractals, hydrophobic surfaces, smart materials, waves, and electron scanning microscopes matter in the world around us.

Our series of evening lectures take place every Thursday from 17:30 to 18:30 at Northumbria University starting on the 4th of October. You can register to attend here.

 

Summer Holiday Happenings

One of the great things about working in the university, is that we get to hear about the interesting research that our colleagues do.  Now you can do the same.  Over the summer, our friends in Geography and Computing are running family workshops as part of their research, and they’d love for you to come along and find out what they do.

  1. Craft workshops

David Verwij is running crafting workshops as part of his research into the ‘Internet of Things’ (no electronics involved).  And as a special treat he is offering Stroopwafels – a delicious Dutch caramel biscuit.

Monday 23rd July and Thursday 26th July between 1pm and 4pm at Ampersand Inventions in Newcastle.

For more details and to book tickets use this link.

2. Treasures of Newcastle workshop

Join geographers Jon Swords and Mike Jeffries as they explore the treasures of the North.  What do YOU think makes the north special?  What needs to change?  If you like maps, or colouring, or treasure, or all three then pop in to this drop-in session.

On Thursday 26th July between 11pm and 3pm at Great Museum of the North: Hancock.

3. Great Exhibition of the North Family Expo

Join NUSTEM, and a host of other organisations, at GETNorth Family Expo.  We’ll be taking our robot orchestra along for visitors to have a go at making their own musical instrument playing robot!

On Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th August at St.James’ Park, Newcastle.

For more details, visit the GETNorth website.

 

Do pop along to one or more of these events – they should be great fun.

Plan B

As part of the ESH Building my Skills programme each year, NUSTEM staff take part in a mock interview day with students from North East secondary schools. During the day, students have the opportunity to be interviewed once or twice by representatives from local businesses and other organisations.  At NUSTEM we see the interviews as part-practice and part ‘behind the scenes’ to gives students an insight into what they might be asked and why in an interview.

I ask the students to tell me about themselves, and what career they might thinking about.  As part of Building my Skills they will have already done some research into possible sectors of interest to them, so they all have something to say.  There’s always an wide range of detail in their answers; with some young people knowing very clearly what they want to do and why, and others who have only a vague idea.

Regardless of their answer, my follow-on question is:

‘What is your plan B?’

This often throws the students as I suspect they’re not often asked what happens if they’re not successful.

What is most interesting to me is that, in their answers, students will often change the whole direction of what they would like to do for their plan B.  For example, I’ve had students who had been interested in midwifery suggest that their plan B would be ‘something to do with drama’, or who wanted to be a tennis player, but their plan B would be ‘I dunno, maybe history?’.  Very few give suggestions that are in a similar sector to the one they are planning for.

At this point in the interview, I’ll talk about other possibilities that the students could do that is not their first choice, but that is linked to it.  Often I’ll suggest websites or resources that they might like to investigate.  For example, if a student wants to study medicine, but their predicted grades make that look unlikely we’ll talk about what is it about medicine that interests them.  They could study radiography, occupational therapy, Information management and so on.  (Although I do have to admit that if it’s the salary that they find attractive, then the other options aren’t so well paid!)

I would encourage all students (and teachers and parents/carers) to think about their Plan B.  Just in case.

Some useful websites:

Health careers from the NHS – an invaluable website for students that want to work in healthcare, and for their teachers and families to find out the huge range of careers.

This is Engineering from Engineering UK – looking at the opportunities in engineering from a range of different viewpoints e.g. design, space, fashion, sport

National Careers Service website – a government backed website which includes an A-Z description of over 800 different careers.