Archive for June, 2011

New ways to communicate science – Science-Rap

June 17, 2011

This fortnight I thought I’d do something a little different. Rather than a normal article, I thought I’d draw your attention to a group of science communicators who definitely have their own style. These people are part of a burgeoning group of science rappers.

Oort Kuiper
Jon Chase, aka Oort Kuiper, is a science communicator from the UK. Often working with another communicator Mark Brake, Jon takes his unique way of communicating science into the public by performing at schools, libraries and other community centres. Jon has been commissioned by organisations such as NASA to create science raps, and has performed at notable institutions such as the London Science Museum, the Royal Society, and the Royal Institution (GB).

With a background in aerospace, science and science fiction, his raps tend to focus more on human’s place in the Universe and how life relates to it. He gained some exposure for his 2008 rap Astrobiology, commissioned by NASA.

His other notable works include Life – An Autobiography, a six and a half minute journey through life on Earth.

A Better View reveals the world we live in through science and technology.

However Jon’s discography also includes topics as diverse as rain and genetics.

One of the most well-known science rappers is Kate McAlpine, otherwise known as Alpinekat. The Michigan State University graduate was working as a science writer at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland when she first recorded Large Hadron Rap, featuring her and a number of CERN colleagues rapping and dancing as only scientists can. After being posted on YouTube, Large Hadron Rap has gone on to be viewed over 6.6 million times.

Despite initial scepticism from CERN management, Kate received permission to perform and record the video in and around the LHC. After viewing the finished product however, they were won over. “We love the rap, and the science is spot-on”, CERN spokesman James Gillies told National Geographic.

AlpineKat has gone on to make more science rap videos, including Rare Isotope Rap, and Black Hole Rap, below.

Tom McFadden
Tom, an instructor from Stanford University in California, approaches his science rapping a little differently. Not afraid to use technical details, his raps contain many more scientific terms and jargon, so they do require some prior knowledge. This makes them more useful for university students and scientists than the general public.

Nevertheless it is impressive he manages to rap around the jargon, and for those with a cell biology background, they’re quite entertaining.

For example, Put Some ACh Into It explains the two sides of the autonomic nervous system – the signalling system that the body uses to unconsciously control the body. The autonomic nervous system controls things such as heart rate, digestion, breathing rate and perspiration, as explained in the video.

Get Taq explains several commonly used biotechnology tools, such as replicating DNA, connecting pieces of DNA together, producing custom proteins, and even genetically modifying mice to investigate what role particular proteins play in an animal.

These three artists aren’t the only exponents of science rap, but they’re amongst the ones to keep an eye on. And as science communicators forever look for new ways to engage with the community, they’re the ones at the forefront of a new way to connect with the public.

Check out Jon, Kate and Tom’s raps, plus others at

Research update

June 2, 2011

Science is ever moving and ever changing, and we’re always finding new things. In this article I’m revisiting some of my past topics with some recent research.

The structure of skin
One of my first articles on thatscienceguy discussed the structure of human skin and how the sun’s radiation affects it. Skin is the largest organ in the human body, and has a critical role in protecting our body from external threats and stopping excessive water loss. The outermost layer, called the stratum corneum, can actually act like a sponge and absorb quite large amounts of water depending on the humidity of the surrounding environment. This ability to absorb water means it needs to be quite flexible, however it needs to balance this flexibility with being robust enough to be able to protect the deeper layers of skin and organs underneath.

Researchers from the Australian National University examined the structure of the stratum corneum to try to understand how its structure allows these dual roles. They found that the keratin filaments which provide skin its structure have a remarkable three-dimensional weave which allows individual fibres to wind and unwind. While the fibres can individually wind and unwind, they do so cooperatively to allow the stratum corneum to breathe without losing structural strength.

The weaving of keratin in its condensed form. From Evans M.E. and Hyde S.T. 2011

The weaving of keratin in its expanded form. From Evans M.E. and Hyde S.T. 2011

Male motor skills
The study which I rated as the strangest of last year investigated the perfect male dance moves to attract women – they even produced videos which demonstrated these moves. Needless to say, it was quite a popular topic!

I explained the importance of that study by likening it to courtship displays by other animals – the males will put on a ‘show’ to demonstrate their prowess to the female, and in the case of humans, dancing may well be one of our courtship displays. But the question remained why exactly do animals (including humans) put on these courtship displays, what exactly are they exhibiting?

Studying the manakin bird, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles found that the female birds preferred to mate with males who performed the courtship display at greater speeds, and were able to tell differences measured in the milliseconds. The speed and energy exertion required by the male to do this courtship display means they have extremely fast heart rates. From this the authors suggested that the courtship display is actually a demonstration of the male’s motor skills, coordination and cardiovascular qualities, and so being able to do it faster shows that the male is stronger and has better quality genes.

And for those wondering what the manakin bird is, from QI:

Sexual attraction
Back at the start of April I blogged about the science of sexual attraction, and in the intervening two months new research has been released which is worth examining.

In the original articles I wrote about the effects testosterone has on males and their attraction to women, and attractiveness to women. Now, new research has shown that men who have higher testosterone are flirtier. Remembering back, testosterone is important for competition between males, so researchers increased men’s testosterone levels by making them compete in computer tasks. The men who showed the highest increases in testosterone as a result of the competition subsequently showed more interest in the woman, made more eye contact with her, smiled more and talked more about themselves. So the testosterone increases induced by competition makes men more attentive to women – maybe this means the best plan before a big date is to do something competitive.

Males have also been found to be able to distinguish whether a female is fertile just from looking at her face. Back in the original articles I wrote how oestrogen levels, which rise during ovulation, slightly change the shape of a woman’s face, making it more rounded and considered as slightly more attractive. Using macaques (a species of monkey), new research has shown that men can recognise these signs of a female’s fertility, but only in faces they are familiar with. Researchers showed male macaques images of females faces which had been classified as being pre-ovulation, during ovulation, or post-ovulation (they found these stages out from measuring the female’s hormones). The male macaques were able to tell the difference between the faces of during ovulation and pre-ovulation, however they could only tell the difference if they were familiar with the particular female. When showed images of an unfamiliar female, they couldn’t tell the difference.

Little is known about the molecular reasons for sexual preference, but research published recently in Nature has investigated how chemicals in the brain may affect who we find attractive. Serotonin, also known as 5-HT, is known to have a huge effect on mood – in fact the most common drug treatment for depression works by making serotonin last longer in the brain. The researchers found that male mice normally prefer female over males as mates. However, when the same breed of mice was modified to make them unable to produce 5-HT, the males lost their sexual preference. When these mice had their 5-HT production restored to normal levels they regained their preference of females over males. This research is the first to show that 5-HT may be involved in sexual preference, and raises the question of whether other brain chemicals are involved in sexual preference.

Lapping dogs
And finally, another update from the strangest research studies from last year, this time the study which examined how cats drank. They found then that cats used the back of their tongues, skim over the surface of the liquid, and then pull rapidly upwards into their mouth. The surface tension would lift the liquid with their tongue straight into their mouth. This seemed much more refined than the simple scooping method that dogs use.

But do dogs really just scoop liquid? It turns out that comment was premature, as new research has now found. Using high speed video it has now been found that dogs too use a very similar method as cats, picking up liquid with the back of their tongue and relying on surface tension and inertia to keep the liquid in place. The liquid travels with the tongue through the oral cavity into the oesophagus, with the tongue then pressing up against the roof of the mouth to prevent the liquid from falling out.

You can see it all in action in these videos:

This is a 300 fps video of a dog lapping. It seems to show spooning of liquid into the mouth but X-ray video tells a different story. From Crompton A.W. and Musinsky C. 2011

This video shows that, contrary to published accounts, dogs do not scoop liquids into their mouths with a spoon-shaped cavity that forms in the ventral surface of a backwardly directed tongue tip. As in cats, an aliquot of liquid adheres to the dorsal surface of the tongue tip and is transported into the oral cavity as the tongue is rapidly withdrawn. From Crompton A.W. and Musinsky C. 2011