Category Archives: Fun science

How does Santa get to all the boys and girls in one night?


Malcolm and I discuss Santas science secrets starting at 1 minute and 8 seconds into this audio clip:

[audio – Fun ‘facts’ about Santa.mp3]

Once, when Dr. Molecule was younger, he went on holiday in the North and while collecting ice samples from glaciers (which is, oddly, what he does on holiday), he chanced upon a man who he identifies in his notes only as Joe – Joe was collecting ice too, but apparently he only needed ice cubes for his drink. Anyway, below is a small bit (an excerpt) taken from the 3 volume Story of Santa written by Dr. M of which only one copy exists in Joe’s library… (the three dots mean that I could go on but let’s get to the excerpt…)

Excerpt from the 3 volume work – Some interesting mathematical equations explaining how Santa does it.

How does Santa get to all of the boys and girls in a single night?  b_1321273447415

That’s a poser.

Using all of my great powers of scientific reasoning, I have been unable to understand all of the technical issues that Santa must overcome to accomplish this enormous task.  When faced with a situation that I don’t understand, I consult with the experts and that is exactly what I have done in this situation. For a number of years now, Santa has been working with the people at Really Extra-Incredible North-Pole Dynamics, Ltd. who supply Efficient Expediting with RedNose™ Systems. if you find this is a bit of a mouthful, the company is generally referred to by the acronym REINDEERS.

Doris Elfman (what she lacks in tallness she makes up in brains, I can tell you) is the Chief Scientific Officer of REINDEERS and she was able to help me with some of my questions such as the 5 Hows: How fast does Santa go? How does he fit down chimneys? How does he read all of the letters? How does the sleigh hold so many presents? and How many children get presents?

The most important of the Christmastime technologies is RedNose™ which is like BlueTooth™ except that it’s a different colour. Rednose™ sends out a signal that pinpoints the location of houses with children who are getting Christmas presents. These signals are then mapped to a grid that Santa reads using the SatNav feature of his sleigh. The fantastic thing about RedNose™ is that it also detects cookies and other sweeties that Santa needs to keep him going during the long night of delivering presents – he is a big man, you know!

North Pole scientists have been trying to perfect sleigh guidance tech for a number of years. When BlueTooth™ first came out the lead reindeer was William (Billie) the Blue-toothed reindeer. All of the other reindeer used to laugh and say he looked ridiculous with his tiny-little headset. And that wasn’t the worst thing. Billie was addicted to sugar cubes which are bad for your teeth and caused all sorts of problems with navigation. That is why RedNose™ has now taken over and, these days, the new lead reindeer is Rudy who looks smashing with the RedNose™ receiver unit on his nose.

Santa’s sleigh is a marvel of old-time craftwork, not like modern sleighs with all of the cheap plastic dials. It is necessarily quite large but it still doesn’t look big enough to hold all of the presents. That’s because it is like a Tardis – the adult reading this to you will know what a Tardis is but, basically, it’s bigger inside than outside (ask the adult who else has a Tardis. When they answer, say ‘Who?’ and keep saying that… it makes for endless hours of fun).

There are some interesting sleigh accessories that help Santa. Access to the top of the cargo hold is made easier by ladders provided by the Rose Suchic Ladder Company, and reindeer assist thruster technology is similar to the oscillator caboobillator system used by the car in that old film that you’re probably too young to remember. The SatNav is an advanced version of the one that makes adults use bad language. In early days Santa used to get misdirected… to the South pole once because the wires got crossed. Hover technology is simply a reindeer-assistance accessory that allows the sleigh to take off straight upwards meaning that the reindeer don’t need a long runway. It has voice-activation and Santa used to say ‘hover, hover, hover’ when he wanted the reindeer to take off. As he is a film buff, Santa has shortened the activation command to ‘HoHoHo’ because it reminds him of the ‘Go, Go, Go’ command that one often hears in movies.

All of the battery power in all of the electronic toys provides the vital boost of energy needed to propel the sleigh at such high speeds. That’s why batteries in your toys are often flat on Christmas morning. The effect of emptying the sleigh is that it loses power and has to be shipped home on a specially modified hovercraft which is also activated by saying HoHoHo. Captain of the hovercraft Dave Donnerundblitzen comments, ‘have you ever tried delivering something to somewhere that has a top secret location – that’s why Christmas only happens once a year!’

Banbury-SantaSome random musings on Santa himself. Santa looks larger but it’s not the bad kind of overweight – it’s like the water-weight that some adults claim to have. 8 months of the year, Santa basically sits around eating and watching telly. He is awoken from this reverie in about early November when it is time to do the pre-Christmas meet and greet junkets – Santa finds these tiring but acknowledges that it is important to meet kids and talk with them – Mrs. Claus calls this ‘keeping it real’ but I don’t know what she means by that.

Throughout December, Santa slims down by eating Brussels sprouts so that by December 24th he is fighting fit. A little known fact is that chimneys in Brussels are more narrow than normal so it is a good thing they have the spouts. A side effect of eating these is used to heat the sleigh – Santa blames the smell on the reindeer – don’t believe him.

Santa’s red suit uses the old Flannel Red Over-Suit That’s Invisible (FROSTI) technology from the North-Pole Men’s Haberdashery Shoppe (No, I don’t know why ‘Shoppe’ is spelled like that but I suspect it’s because people at the North Pole leave school to work at REINDEERS and never really learn to spell very well). The suit reflects light in a strange way that makes Santa particularly hard to see. What would you do if you could get your hands on a suit like that? Newer versions of these suits use the Camouflage Russet Under-Suit That’s Invisible (CRUSTI) technology but Santa only uses these for underwear.

As well as the hard-to-see red suit, Santa has the big beard. This is surprising in this day and age when men are always shaving with razors that have anything up to 20 blades for a close shave. The reason Santa still has his big beard is simple, duh… it’s so that you don’t recognize him!

How can Santa possibly read all of those Christmas letters? In olden times, letters were delivered to the North Pole by the Post Office. This system is now called snail mail because in some countries they use snails to make the stamps stick. The problem with letters is that people do go on. By the start of December, the North Pole sorting office would be bursting at the seams with great long lists of wishes. It turns out, surprise, surprise, that Santa and his helpers were completely incapable of reading all of the letters. Just ask your adult reader if they ever got something that wasn’t on their list to Santa. I once got a toothbrush (but I digress). To combat the increasing trend towards more and more wishes, the North Pole have recently been moving to an online Christmas letter system in which children are limited to 140 characters when asking for presents. You need to be very succinct! ‘Lalaloopsy Harmony B Sharp’ uses up 26 characters right there – and that’s without saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.

santa-sleigh_1780995cAs to who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, all children are basically good (ask the adult who is reading this to you to ‘please keep the eye-rolling to a minimum’. Remember to say ‘please’ because it is important to be polite – and you are, after all, basically good).

For Santa to get into your home, a chimney is good but there is a small detail. Most modern homes don’t have big chimneys like they did in the old days. Chimneys these days are either small like in Brussels or non-existent. I know you’re worried about this but Santa uses lots of fancy-schmancy science to get around this problem. One neat little device is made by the Managing Access and Getting In Quickly company based in Northern Norway (This company still doesn’t have an acronym – can you think of one?). The device is called iSanta and is no bigger than a smartphone app. Santa gets that familiar twinkle in his eye when he talks about it. It is well known that if you stick an ‘i’ in front of a normal word then the word becomes turbocharged. Well, when you put an  ‘i’ in front of Santa, all sorts of crazy things happen. The device produces a ‘virtual’ version of Santa which is indistinguishable from the real thing and which can project into your home to leave presents (and eat cookies). The only place iSanta can’t project into would be a home completely lined with diamonds (because, obviously, the tight carbon lattice interferes with the signal). Let’s face it though, if your home is completely lined with diamonds, you should be buying the Christmas presents for everyone else! And, no, I don’t know how iSanta works. It’s a heavily guarded technology. If it fell into the wrong hands, anybody could go around leaving presents.

How far and fast does Santa travel? Of course there is a mathematical equation to describe how Santa can possibly visit all of the children’s homes in one night. It looks complicated but I can assure you that it is quite simple really:

Santa equation v2

I don’t know what the sideways 8 at the end means but I suspect that Santa ‘ate’ and then needed to have a lie down. Otherwise, if you’ll be patient, I think I can explain the rest of this gobbledeegook…

dt means ‘change in time’ and refers to the way Santa can alter time so that the presents all get delivered in one night. A very clever man called Albert once said that if you travel very, very fast – then time slows down for you. Santa uses this principle in reverse – he travels very, very slowly which causes time to speed up for him. Albert isn’t sure why this works but he is content that the world is a weird place. dt equals all of the stuff to the right of the equals sign added up.

Π – This symbol is called pi and means the number 3.14159265359 (memorize that and wow your friends at parties!). It is used in math when circles like the Earth need to be measured. This would come in handy if you were trying to, for example, calculate how far Santa has to travel to deliver all of the presents. In reality though, pi is just in the equation accidentally. It turns out that Santa likes pies (eskimo) and the elf writing the equation misinterpreted what he was saying.

J – This symbol stands for Joule and it means energy – the amount of energy needed to propel Santa’s sleigh at such high speeds. Unfortunately, that same elf writing down the equation wrote J for Joule when Santa actually said ‘jewel’ while finalizing the Christmas present list for Roger Stevens (no, I don’t know what kind of jewel Roger was getting).

Θ is a symbol called theta and a professor would use it to calculate an angle like, for instance, the angles needed for reindeer to speed off at after HoHoHovering.

∑ is a symbol that teachers use to confuse you. It really just means ‘sum’ like when you add things up. Santa was just saying that he would have ‘some’ of Mrs. Clause’s fabulous pie and the elf… well you know what the elf did.

People that know a lot more about math than you and me do have observed that if you squint at the end of the equation you see JΘ∑ – which looks like JOS – and which has historically been the reason that Santa is known as a Jolly Old Soul (I personally think it looks more like JOE and think that Joe is what we should call Santa from now on).

I hope this excerpt helps with some of your questions about Santa and his technology. May you have a jolly holly Christmas and may your house not be lined with diamonds! Hover, Hover, Hover…

Girls’ world record attempt to measure gravity


Malcolm and I discuss the giant physics experiment starting at 7 minutes and 37 seconds in this clip.

[audio – Science in UK and GSDT giant physics experiment.mp3]

At 11:30 this morning, more than 2,300 schoolgirls between the ages of 10-15 attempted to set a new world record. They set out to measure the force of gravity… The good thing about this attempt at classical physics experiments was that it was going on simultaneousley in 26 different academy schools of the Girls’ Day School Trust in the UK. If successful, the girls will have set the record for the largest (most participants), multi-location physics lesson/experiment ever conducted.

A couple of things that I would like to address:

i) How does one measure the force of gravity?

ii) Why is it significant that the Girls’ Day School Trust is carrying out this experiment?

(I’ll finish this blogpost later but wanted to get the clip up so that the GDST students could listen if they want)

#organellewars – a fun school project in cell biology


Malcolm and I discuss #organellewars starting at 6 minutes and 15 seconds in this clip.

[audio – Star Trek tech and organellewars.mp3]

Lysosomes for the win

I don’t need write very much more about #organellewars because my colleague Dr. Anne Osterrieder has explained it on her blog at Anne describes this innovative approach to teaching as ‘The organelle presidential campaign 2012‘.

Mighty Mitochondria

Briefly, high-school science teacher Brad Graba, who teaches AP Biology at William Fremd High School in Palatine, IL., has conceived a biology learning project that involves social media in an innovative way. His instructions to his students (#organellewars – Cell Organelle Campaign) are straightforward. Each group is to assume the identity of a cellular organelle (nucleus, mitochondrian, chloroplast, whathaveyou…), and to wage a campaign about that organelle. The campaign is intended to teach about that organelle and here’s the fun part. Among tasks that the students are expected to carry out is a mudslinging smear campaign against the other organelles! This aspect of the project has been largely carried out on twitter and I am absolutely amazed by the sheer volume of tweets that this has generated (See some of these storified).

Go Go Golgi

Not only has the twitter-based discussion and mudslinging fest been popular with the Grade 10 students, but scientists worldwide have jumped into the fray. Go onto twitter and search #organellewars for just a small fraction of the tweets that make up this campaign.

Whether the kids realize it or not, to smear another organelle, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. In other words, they are learning about cells and organelles and having a lot of fun while doing so.

What’s my favorite organelle today… let me see, perhaps the pre-vacuolar compartment or the early endosome…

What’s yours? I’ll write later to let you know the final outcome of the campaign.

Google… how did the internet work before?


Co-founders are multi-billionaire mathematicians and computer scientists.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Google after 1 minute 30 seconds of ridiculous intro chat about Kenny Rogers in this clip:

[audio – Google and artificial hearts.mp3]

How do you get to be one of the biggest companies on the planet when your website looks like this?

Google grew out of the vision of Larry Page and Sergey Brin who met as PhD students at Stanford University in the early 1990s. Since its inception, it has grown to become one of the world’s biggest tech companies. You know you have achieved a milestone when your company name becomes a verb – this has happened with Hoover (must irritate Dyson), Xerox and Skidoo among others. When we refer to searching for something on the web, we almost invariably say that we ‘googled’ something – even if we used a competitors search engine!

How a search engine works

For 5 or 6 years before Google came along, the internet worked differently. If you found a webpage about a subject you were interested in, you bookmarked it immediately. Webpages were only discoverable by entering their exact html address and it became very tedious listening to people read out all of the words and slashes (is it a backslash or a forward slash?). Gradually, early search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista started to group links by interest category and this is when the internet took off – companies recognized the need to have their names grouped with competitors. I recall hearing a pundit in 1995 saying ‘any company that isn’t on the web won’t survive.’ I was shocked at the time about the prophecy of the importance of the world-wide web but I very quickly came to see the truth in what was said.

As a student looking for a PhD project, Sergey Brin was interested in data mining. At the same time, Larry Page was studying the idea that the importance of publications was linked to the number of times they were cited… These two interest sets mesh nicely and, in retrospect, I can see how the two came up with the idea of Google. Personally, I’m too thick to have even appreciated what they had done when I saw it in action — even when I started using it habitually. Gradually I stopped using the bookmarks feature in web browsers. It was actually easier just to type in the keyword or a company name and the website would magically appear.

Brin and Page’s idea was that web searchers needed a prioritized list of websites that match search terms entered by the user, i.e. if I search for Hoover, I probably am more interested in the actual Hoover website than just a randomly ordered list of all websites that mention the word ‘hoover’ (noun or verb – for any North Americans that might have accidentally strayed into this blog, we in the UK ‘hoover’ rather than ‘vacuum’). But how do you prioritize the results of a web search? Simple, you could list web pages that mention a search term based on how many other web pages refer to them. The more a page is refered to, the more important it must be – right? Of course, nowadays, the algorithms (methods) that search engines like Google use are much more ‘intelligent’ than that in my simplified example but that was the genesis of an elegant idea.

A web-crawler. These guys do the work so that a search engine can make your life easier

All the search engine company needs to do is to read every webpage on the internet, catalogue every word that’s written into a giant index, and be able to instantaneously deliver your web search results. Sounds daunting but computers are fast and getting faster all of the time. Companies like Google employ spiders – well software that they call web crawlers or web spiders – to systematically search the web for purposes of cataloguing words. That’s why we are told to be sure our web pages have pertinent titles and keywords – so that the spiders find us and display us on Google. This page, for example, has tags like ‘fun science’ and ‘technology’ that the spiders will read. It won’t be catalogued immediately but within a few days it will start to appear in Google searches (how did you get to this page?).

How many computers running crawlers and answering search queries must a company like Google have in order to keep up with the demand? The answer is astounding. Probably more than a million – running 24/7 – and they’re not insignificant computers either. All spread across at least 6 sites around the world.

How does Google make money? Simple, they will prioritize your website to a higher level if you pay them to. Notice the sites that appear at the top of you Google search that are just slightly shaded in color – they’ve paid for the privilege of being at the top of your search return. Many of us just click the first link we see when our search is returned and, chi-ching for that company.

How big can Google get?

Where is the internet going? Not-so-simple. I don’t know, but then again you know that I’m not very good at seeing the need or the promise in new web ideas. I can tell you that I’ve just gotten a new smartphone that runs the Android operating system developed by Google. That purchase was so that I could more easily interface with my email and calendars at work because we’ve switched over to Gmail (what would you guess the ‘G’ stands for?). I am now a member of Google ‘circles’ although I haven’t yet figured that out completely (Twitter takes all of my time!).

So from small things big things come. Will Google get as big as Cyberdyne Systems? Should I get a Google tatoo…?

Did moon landings really happen?


Apparently 25% of teenagers aren’t certain whether the moon landings really happened. They did, and new images put this completely beyond doubt.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss moon landings at 7 minutes 10 seconds in this clip:

[audio – World sports records and faked moon landings.mp3]

Were the Apollo moon landings shot in Hollywood?

Very shortly after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon (July 20th 1969), conspiracy theorists started to claim that the whole thing was a massive hoax perpetrated by the American government in their Cold-war era one-upmanship dance with the Soviet Union.

I guess the reason for attempting a hoax on such a grand scale would have been that the technology just simply wasn’t up to an actual moon landing. As far as I’m concerned, all of the points that conspiracy theorists have made to illustrate the hoax have been completely de-bunked – most thoroughly by the Mythbusters in Episode 104 NASA Moon Landing (Aug. 27) in which Adam and Jamie investigate if the U.S. government shot the footage of the astronauts in a studio.

Those that doubt the veracity of moon landings have suggested many things that are apparently wrong with the evidence presented in the media:

Photos from the moon look faked,
The flags shouldn’t flap in zero-gravity,
Lighting is incorrect and there are no stars in the photos,
Identical backgrounds in photos from different sites on the moon,
Travel to the moon would be impossible for a Human being to survive,
Landers made no blast craters,
Suits as designed would not have worked… etc.

But stop… think about it. Since it is nigh on impossible to have even three people keep a secret, how is it possible that the 1000s of people that have worked for NASA and the US government on getting men to the moon have kept this hoax secret? The answer is that it wasn’t a hoax.

From a science perspective, the moon landings were an incredible achievement. Objections to the claims that we have walked on the moon have often been put forward by scientists who believe that they see inconsistencies in filmed images. The beauty of the scientific method is that when claims are in doubt, other scientists will examine those claims. That is what has happened here and there are perfectly reasonable explanations for every one of the inconsistencies listed above. New pictures from the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter now show that the flags are still there.

For the younger generation who might be in doubt about whether or not we’ve been to the moon – we have. Their doubt is, no doubt, because of that peculiar thing that affects us all. Anything that happened before we were born is ancient history. I still wrestle with the idea that my parents didn’t have TV when they were growing up – how did they survive?!

‘One small step for a man – one giant leap for Mankind’ Oh… except that whether it happened will be debated and the youngsters will forget about it anyway.

How to succeed in science (a bit of fun)


When I first read Keith Crutcher’s award winning essay more than 20 years ago I laughed my head off. It’s when you stop laughing and think about it for a moment that you see why he won the essay contest – there is an underlying ring of truth.

How to succeed in science!
Advice for the young scientist… by Dr. Grant Holder

Originally published as
Keith A. Crutcher. How To Succeed In Science
(Perspectives in Biol and Med, 34:2 Winter 1991, 213-218)

It seems that many of our scientists have not received basic training on how to succeed in
science – for example, obtaining grants, receiving peer recognition, having a bibliography that
is longer than any particular publication listed in it, etc. In order to correct this deficiency, the
following guidelines are presented. Of course, there will always be the occasional black
sheep who decides to embark on an entirely original course of work or chooses to forgo the
rewards of being recognized as a successful scientist, in which case these guidelines do not
apply. But attention to the principles set forth below should provide a solid framework for
most aspiring scientists to build on.

1. Relax! We’re Only between Paradigm Shifts Anyhow
Much of the stress and anxiety that have traditionally been associated with the conduct of
science are now relieved by the tremendous insight provided by Thomas Kuhn. Since the vast
majority of scientists are currently doing “normal” science, akin to treading theoretical water,
true advances must await the next shift in paradigms and most of us can relax as we realize
that our work is unlikely to have any lasting influence. Of -course, there may be some who
seek to contribute to, or actually precipitate, a shift in paradigms, and it is unlikely that they
can be stopped, but the rest of us should recognize that the clarification of an existing
paradigm is necessary for subsequent scientific revolutions. Just imagine how difficult
science would be if every investigator made some fundamental contribution that involved a
shift in paradigm or forced us to analyze our basic assumptions about the area in which we

2. Become Famous
Once you have the appropriate relaxed attitude about the importance of your own work (see
1) it becomes much easier to focus on the business of being a scientist. In this regard, being
famous ranks second only to being relaxed. Unfortunately, many scientists have overlooked
the importance of being famous in order to succeed, especially in the areas of obtaining
grants and getting to travel (see 5, below). And becoming famous is really much less
difficult than most realize. There are several options. One of the quickest and surest is to
work with someone who is already famous. This will guarantee a certain amount of
secondary fame that can be used as a foundation for establishing your own fame. Another
method is to organize a symposium on a “hot” topic and invite the most famous people in the
field, including the famous person with whom you work, to participate. Then list yourself on
the same program. This technique has had marvelous results for countless numbers of now
famous scientists. Another effective option is to publish a paper or abstract every week in your
selected area (see 3). This method takes more effort, but with attention to the following
guidelines the work can be minimized and the results guaranteed to make you a recognized
expert in any particular field.

3. Publish Often (Preferably Abstracts)
It is common knowledge that modern scientists do not have time to read the rapidly growing
literature in their field and, with the realization that most research will have no lasting effect
(see 1), it is clear that to do so would be a waste of time. Therefore, take advantage of the fact
that most of your peers are going to be influenced by your work primarily through name
recognition. The same principle that advertising agencies use, namely, repeated exposure, is
vital to success in science as well. The more times your name is seen in print, the more
influence you will have and the more famous you will be (see 2). Of course the choice of
medium is critical; ideally you should publish as often as possible in newspapers and popular
magazines, but scientific journals can have their place as well. You should try to average one
paper or abstract every week, and your name should appear last. The more coauthors you
have, the better, because everyone knows that the last author is the one who really
counts, and it shows that you must already be famous to have so many other scientists
working with you. Some will argue that each publication should contain new information,
but, again, this view does not take into account the lessons learned from Madison Avenue. In
fact, the more often you say the same thing, the more likely your chances of being
remembered. Once the same set of data have been published several times, with no more than
slight variations, they begin to take on greater credibility, both in the minds of your
colleagues and in your own mind. In addition, the particular area that you work in, even if it
had formerly been considered obscure and uninteresting, takes on increasing importance each
time it appears in print.
Of course, the format can play a vital role in your ultimate success. The many advantages
derived from publishing your work, in abstract form, for example, are often overlooked.
First, it provides the opportunity to travel (see 5). Second, it is rarely reviewed (and we all
have horror stories to tell about critical reviews we have received on even our best papers).
Third, and most important, it provides a published document that can either be cited in
establishing precedence for an observation, if it turns out to be correct or important (or both!),
or can just as easily be left uncited if ultimately found to be in error. In some cases,
particularly once you have gained some experience, it is possible to publish several abstracts
at one time, each dealing with a slight variation on the same theme. Some scientific societies
permit you to submit only one abstract with yourself listed as first author but this restriction is easilyovercome. Most scientists, for example, are already aware of potential coauthors from the
ranks of students and associates, often overlooked are administrators and members of the
custodial staff, some of whom would be happy to see their names in print. With a little bit of
planning you can have several abstracts published simultaneously, one with your name first
and the rest with your name listed last. Legend has it that one scientist was able to fill two
entire sessions at a single meeting with abstracts solely from his laboratory.

4. Publish Only What Cannot Be Refuted (at Least in Your Lifetime)
Many young scientits sadly misinterpret this principle to mean that one should publish
careful, well-thought-out papers. On the contrary, much time and effort can be saved by
publishing results without any attention to their significance or relevance at all. Odds are, no
one is going to read the paper anyway (see 3), so don’t waste your valuable time analyzing
the results. More important, as long as you restrict your discussion to what you saw, with
enough methodological differences from previous work so that any discrepancies can be
explained if the need arises, you will never be found in error, particularly if you refrain from
discussing the potential significance of the results. The simplest way to avoid any
embarrassment is to publish new and improved techniques. The publication of new methods
rarely leads you into strong theoretical disputes with your colleagues but still permits lively
discussions about whether the pH was optimal. Even better, develop a desirable reagent that
your colleagues can use and then distribute it to them with the modest request that you be
included as an author on any paper that mentions the reagent. You will be amazed at how
quickly your bibliography lengthens and your fame correspondingly increases. If for some
reason you feel compelled to speculate on your data in print, be sure to limit your speculation
to ideas that cannot be tested in your lifetime, if at all.

5. Present Your Work at Every Opportunity
One of the many benefits of doing science is the opportunity to travel. Of course, the more
famous you are, the more opportunities you will have to travel. Conversely, the more times,
you are seen in public, the more famous you will become. In addition, most conferences
provide the opportunity to publish at least one abstract (see 3). When presenting your work,
be sure to use attractive slides that are not cluttered with detail. One helpful hint: leave off
any statistical information, especially for graphical data, since it often detracts from the main
point of the slide. Contrary to the situation for your published work, feel free to speculate
during your presentation. In fact, don’t be constrained by the data. Remember that your effect
will be much greater if you make sweeping statements and generalizations unrestrained by
the facts or by what you have published in the abstract. If anyone seriously questions a
statement you have made or presents contradictory results, you can avoid any embarrassment
for yourself by pointing out that he or she did not use the optimal pH. Presentations are
necessary, but not sufficient, for success in science. When you have been invited to
participate at a meeting, be sure to keep track of who invited you so that you will be able to
invite the same individuals to present at the next conference you organize. Eventually you
will find that there are enough of you to invite each other to several conferences during the
year, and, if you are really successful, you may even decide to establish your own society
consisting of only the most successful scientists (mainly those who are invited to several
conferences during the year).

6. Submit a Grant Proposal Only on Work You Have Already Done
This would hardly seem to require stating, but there are still a number of scientists, especially
unseasoned rookies, who actually propose experiments that have not yet been conducted.
Most reviewers of grant applications have finally weeded out the ones who continually
propose novel work, but there are still some who do not quite understand that the surest bet is
on a horse that has already won. Naturally, you need to be a little careful in timing the
publication of the proposed work so that it doesn’t actually appear in print before your grant
is reviewed (except, of course, in multiple abstract form). The rookie scientist may encounter
the dilemma of not having been able to do the experiments before obtaining grant support.
The most common solution is to propose work similar to what you have already done
working with someone who is famous. If that option is not available, then you may be forced
to propose work that is original. If so, be sure that the research is only a slight variation of
work that someone else has already done. This assures the reviewers that your particular
experiments fall within the existing paradigm. A good example would be finding the optimal
pH at which to run a new and improved technique.

7. Don’t Waste Your Time Teaching
Remember that your goal is to succeed in science. Although a certain amount of teaching can
be beneficial, in that it gives you some exposure to students who may decide to work for you
(and provide potential authors for your many abstracts), it is terribly time-consuming to make
more than cameo appearances. There will be some pressure by other faculty and your
chairman to contribute to the teaching program, especially, before you receive tenure, but this
pressure can be relieved to some extent by the way in which you teach. For example, always
present your material in a fashion that obscures any relevance to matters that concern the
students. In medical teaching this has become common practice. Another effective approach
is to provide details of the methods that you use in the laboratory, especially emphasizing the
importance of optimal pH. Usually students are so overwhelmed by the volume of
information that they will have difficulty asking intelligent questions. The advantage of this is
obvious. Eventually you will find less teaching is required of you, and you will have more
time to spend writing abstracts and going to conferences.

8. Go Commercial
Fame is nice but is so much more enjoyable when accompanied by wealth. The traditional
role of scientist has not always been as lucrative as other careers. This is changing. One of the
very exciting options in science is to identify potential commercial applications of the work
you do and market them. Numerous scientists are discovering the monetary advantages of
forming their own companies with initial research and development funds provided by the
federal government through grants and contracts. The beauty of this system is that there is
very little risk. If the commercial application does not generate a profit, you can always apply
for another federal research grant to keep going. On the other hand, if you are able to
capitalize on your scientific successes and establish a profitable company, you can use your
academic affiliations, and your positions on editorial review boards and study sections, to
keep abreast of the hottest developments in the field to feed into your company. The
competitive advantage this gives you should be obvious.

Adherence to these principles will not guarantee success, but the testimony of many famous
scientists supports the hypothesis that these guidelines can significantly (p<0.03,
Wilcoxon unpaired X-test run at pH 5.6) increase your chances of achieving recognition,
acquiring wealth, and ultimately being known as a successful scientist. At the very least, they
should prevent you from falling too far outside the boundaries of “normal” science where you
could easily be branded for life as a troublemaker or heretic. ‘Few scientists are aware of the
illustrious history of the abstract. The word is a contraction of the Original “Abe’s tract,”
which was a little known pamphlet circulated by Lincoln when first running for political
office. Although the contents of the tract are not known, its influence can hardly be
underestimated since Lincoln’s remaining political career was said to derive entirely from this
little tract. Some say that several ideas in the tract were actually plagiarized from an
unpublished work of John Wilkes Booth, but this allegation has never been substantiated.

Originally published as
Keith A. Crutcher. How To Succeed In Science
(Perspectives in Biol and Med, 34:2 Winter 1991, 213-218)

Scientists create an artificial jellyfish from a rat’s heart cells!


Synthetic Biology

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about the jellyfish at  1 minute 52 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

What are those wacky scientists up to now?

For the past 2 years I’ve been hearing the term ‘synthetic biology’ but it is just in the last few weeks that it is really becoming a buzzword. Scientists have this week created an artificial jellyfish. Any normal person’s response upon hearing this would be… huh?

Why do we need a fake jellyfish? Basically as a proof-of-concept. If scientists can convince a small set of heart cells coated onto a silicone support to beat like a heart, and therby impart a jellyfish-swimming-like motion, then they are one step closer to designs for more efficient artificial hearts than the ones that we have now.

Synthetic biology is all about creating novel biological organisms or metabolic processes that will make our lives easier…

Anybody ever seen Terminator!

July 25th, 2012 – What would it take to really build an artificial jellyfish?

World’s most prolific inventor – Dr NakaMats


Dr NakaMats – certainly a colourful fellow!

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss NakaMats starting at 4 minutes and 44 seconds into this clip:

[audio – Cousteau and NakaMats.mp3]

Inventor of the floppy disc?


Coca-cola used to have what in it?!


Before Red Bull gave us wings, Coke was the real thing

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Coke and Dorothy Hodgkin.mp3]

Cheap at twice the price!


Cane toads – don’t lick ’em!


Cane toads

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Flying cars and cane toads.mp3]

Cane toad – you little beauty