Monthly Archives: January 2017

#TryThisTuesday: Spinning Disk

This Tuesday, you don’t need any equipment to try this experiment at home – you just need to stare at your screen, or more specifically the video clip below:

(don’t worry we aren’t trying to hypnotise you!)

Stare in the dot in the middle of the circle for 20 seconds, you can blink but don’t look away, keep your eyes focused there. After 20 seconds look at someone’s face, if there’s no one around you, get a face up on screen that you can quickly look at.

What did you see?

Hopefully, if it worked you should have seen the face appearing to get bigger. Obviously, it didn’t really grow before your eyes, this is simply an optical illusion playing a trick on your brain.

You see things because your eyes send messages to your brain about different types of light, shapes and movement and your brain makes up an image of the world around you. When you stare at the spinning disk for so long, your eyes continually send messages to you brain to say its spinning. Your brain gets a bit bored of hearing the same message over and over again so kind of stops listening, tunes out the messages and just assumes from now on, this is how it is – everything is spinning.

So when you look away at a face or your hands or anything really, your brain thinks it should be spinning so gets confused and spins the image in the opposite direction, making it appear to grow. After a few seconds, your brain will hopefully catch up and everything will go back to normal.

Top Revision Tips: Get some sleep!

With exam season upon us, we thought we would help you guys out a little bit with a useful piece of procrastination – revision tips backed up with scientific research!

1. Get a good night’s sleep

We spend on average one third of our lives asleep so it must be important. There have been millions of studies looking into sleep and how it effects our minds and bodies.

Sleep is divided into five stages. The final stage is called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, named after the quick eye movements made during it. If you look at someone who is in this stage of sleep you will be able to see their eyes moving behind their eyelids (it’s not creepy if it’s for science). During this stage your brain is super active, brain scans during this phase look similar to someone who is awake but your body is paralysed. This stage is considered to be the point at which you consolidate memories into long-term memories.

Scientists in Italy looked at a range of studies focusing on the effects of sleep on the academic performance of students. The results showed students whose sleep was restricted did worse than usual in exams whereas those who were allowed extra sleep performed better. Further to this, a study by Trockel (2010) looked at lots of variables in 200 students and found those that woke up later performed worse in exams. So you might want to avoid the lie-ins during the exam period!


2. Don’t pull an all-nighter

Although it can be tempting to stay up all night to get some last minute revision in when you’re particularly worried about an exam, I wouldn’t recommend it. Research from Pilcher and Huffcutt (1996) looked at 19 different studies and found sleep deprivation (going a long time without sleeping) can impair your thinking and this is not going to help you in any exam.

The world record for the longest time kept awake without drugs is 11 days and 24 minutes (please don’t attempt to break this record). The record was set by Randy Gardner is 1964 and the severe lack of sleep not only effected his concentration and memory but also led to paranoia and even hallucinations. Of course this is an extreme example but studies looking at just 24 hours without sleep have found worse performance on memory tasks and slower responses after sleep deprivation. Not ideal for an exam.

3. Don’t rely on coffee

Coffee may seem harmless enough but it does contain a drug – caffeine. Although it does have its perks, as with any drug there are side effects that you won’t want around exam time. Firstly, I’ll explain the science behind what caffeine actually does once it’s inside your body. Within your body you have a molecule called adenosine which suppresses arousal and promotes sleep when it binds to its receptors. Caffeine is able to bind to adenosine receptors but does not trigger them, instead it simply sits there and blocks adenosine getting to the receptors so causes the reverse effects. This is clearly beneficial when you want to stay awake but can cause insomnia – not good as you now are well aware how important sleep is. Caffeine also stimulates the release of adrenaline – this already happens when you’re stressed so can worsen the effects and cause anxiety.

So what does the research say? Harrison and Horne (2010) conducted a study in which they deprived participants of sleep and subjected them to memory tests, some with coffee, and some without. They found those who drank coffee felt less sleepy but performed no better in their tests. Even in control conditions where participants weren’t sleep deprived, coffee made no significant improvement in their results.

If you are starting to lag with your revision and feel a little sleepy, try having a nap instead of reaching for the coffee. One study found that having a 60-90 minute nap can improve your memory recall and learning ability much better that a cup of coffee.


4. Manage your time well

Good time management is key to making sure you cover all the topics you need to before an exam and still leave yourself enough time for a good snooze. It can help you keep calm as well if you know you have given yourself enough time. A study of 249 students found that time management behaviours such as planning, organising, setting goals and prioritising helped reduce stress levels better than leisure activities – although leisure activities also helped reduce stress, so make time for fun when creating your revision timetable.

But it’s not enough to just make your revision timetable – you obviously have to stick to it. Another study found that self-discipline is a major predictor of academic performance.

So make a plan, stick to it and get some sleep!

Top Revision Tips: Memory Techniques

With exam season upon us, we thought we would help you guys out a little bit with a useful piece of procrastination – revision tips backed up with scientific research!

1. Don’t keep re-reading – test yourself!

Most scientific models of how memory works agree that we have a short term and long term memory. Short term memory can hold 5-9 items whereas long term memory has a much greater capacity but not everything we see, hear or read ends up there. To help embed things in our long term memory it helps to rehearse them and practice retrieval too. This means that whilst re-reading the same notes over and over again will help rehearse them, it is also important to test yourself to see how much of it you can remember to be sure you can retrieve these memories when you need them.

2. Use Mnemonics

Mnemonics are a technique used to help remember things by association. For example you might have learnt the order of the colours of the rainbow with the phrase “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” with the first letter of each letter corresponding to the first letter of the colour it represents. So it translates to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Or maybe you learnt the compass points with “Never Eat Shredded Wheat”.

If you have to remember things in a certain order for your exam, making up a mnemonic like this can be a great way to help you. Mnemonics work by creating more meaningful associations and giving you cues to help you retrieve the information from your long term memory. Researchers Shetty and Srinivasan looked into the study skills of 137 Dental students and found that the use of mnemonics were associated with higher exam scores.

Here’s a mnemonic to help you remember the geological time periods:


If you use mnemonics to aid your revision, comment and let us know what they are – you might be able to help someone else out too!

3. Don’t rely on cramming

It’s a classic scene – just before you’re about to enter an exam, everyone is sat around stressing over their textbooks and flicking through sheets of scruffy notes trying to get in some very last minute revision. Is this really helpful? Studies have shown that you can generally hold, on average, 7 things in your short term memory and this fades after 30 seconds if not rehearsed and committed to long term memory. Therefore it’s unlikely you’ll remember much of what you read waiting outside the hall after you have taken your seat and read the question.

It’s much better to manage your time to allow yourself to cover everything you need properly and get it into your long term memory before the day of your exam!

4. Use Chunking

Despite the fact I have just said you can only remember around 7 things in short term memory, you can probably remember a phone number or a couple of post codes for 30 seconds right? This is because, whether you notice it or not – that information is chunked, making it much easier to remember. This is why phone numbers are usually displayed with a gap after three or four numbers and why post codes are in two parts.

Chunking, or separating your revision into relevant sections can help you digest everything and remember it more easily. If you can create links between different bits of information and put them in meaningful categories it can help you to recall the relevant information in your exams.memory



Engineering Education Scheme

This week we’ve been helping out with the Engineering Education Scheme. Lots of year 12 students from the local area have been working with industry to come up with a project based on real scientific, engineering and technological problems. The students have come in and had a chance to work in the engineering laboratories and workshops that university students and researchers would use. After lots of problem solving and hard work, they presented what they had done so far. These are just a selection of some of the projects.

Mechanical Engineering – Lifting

This group was working on creating a lifting mechanism for a heavy item/box. The current method of lifting isn’t very good as its centre of gravity is in the middle so it wobbles when they lift it. They created a design with a cradle for the box which spreads out the centre of gravity. It is more stable and quicker to lift, saving the company time. The use of shackles mean the box can attached by hand, no tools are needed, again saving time.


Mechanical Engineering – Shield

A mechanical engineering group created an extendable shield. This is important for keeping people safe in war. In general all shields appeared to be really big or small, but there were none that could adapt to the situation. Use of cogs allowed the shield to be extended or retracted, solving the problem.


Electrical and Civil Engineering – Solar Power

The brief from WSP Global was to provide renewable energy through use of solar panels to the 350 people who work in the office. The students made a to scale model of the office based on blueprints and used a fixed angle light (as the sun) to look at the shading on the roof of the building. They also ran computer simulations to look at which areas would capture the most sun.


Civil Engineering – Leisure Centre

The brief was to design a leisure centre on land near to St James Football Park. There were lots of problems to be overcome in the design. The centre was to be built on top of an old mine shaft, which might mean the building would fall into the ground. They calculated that it was too expensive to fill the land underneath with concrete, so calculations had to be made for how heavy each part of the leisure centre would be.


Marine Engineering – Underwater vehicles

This marine engineering group was helped by engineers from BAE systems. They looked at making an underwater unmanned vehicle. They had to do some problem solving with getting the submarine to sink, working out the exact amount of weight required to make it neutrally buoyant. They used electromagnets to power the vehicle.


Marine Engineering – Underwater pipes

This group worked with GE oil and gas looking at using flexible pipes underneath the seabed. They compared two different materials; thermoplastic and thermoset.  They did lots of tests, looking at things such as compression (squashing) and torsion (twisting) to find out its properties. They also looked at factors such as the price. Testing found that it was really important that there were no faults in the thermoplastic as it broke a lot easier. Underwater pipes are really important for transporting things like oil and gas.



#TryThisTuesday: Birthday Binary

Here’s a little trick you can play on your friends, or someone you don’t know well enough to already know their birthday…

With the five cards below, you can “guess” anyone’s birthday. Just go through each of the cards in turn and ask them if their birthday (as in the date they were born, not the month, so if they were born on the 17th January, their number is 17) is on the card. Discount the cards their birthday is not on.


With the remaining cards, the cards their birthday is on, add up the numbers in the top left corner and the number you get should be their birthday!

For example, my birthday is the 30th April so 30 in my number. Its on card 1,2,3,4 and not card 0 so you would add up 2+4+8+16=30.

Is it science or is it magic?

Of course it’s science! This actually works on a system called binary, which is the language computers use. Binary is written in 0s and 1s and these together look just like 101001010010010101010 to us but to a computer that might actually mean something.

In this case, when you discount a card, that becomes a 0 and the remaining cards are a 1. So going back to the example of my birthday the cards would read 11110 (reading it backwards) and in binary this means 30.

#TryThisTuesday: Book Pulling

You’ve probably got exams coming up, maybe you’re supposed to be revising now, chances are you’re surrounded by textbooks. If so here is a quick little experiment you can try.

All you need is two large books with lots of pages, around 200 or so.

Start by interleaving the pages one on top of the other to sandwich the books together, like so:

This doesn’t require any kind of glue or tape but the two books should now be securely stuck together. Challenge your friends to try to pull the books apart – no matter how strong they are, they won’t be able to do it!

So if there’s no glue, why is this? It’s all because of friction. Friction is a force that occurs when one object moves over another – it is the resistance that is felt. When you try to pull the books apart there is friction acting on each page opposing the movement. If you consider there are over 200 pages, this force is multiplied and so becomes super strong!

When you pull the books the pulling motion squishes the pages in the middle with a greater force, this in turn makes the force of friction greater as it acts to oppose this force. So the harder you pull, the more difficult it is to separate the books!

Dippy the Diplodocus

Dippy is a famous diplodocus skeleton cast that has been on display in the London Natural History Museum since 1905. Today it was disassembled as Dippy is going on tour throughout the UK! Dippy is visiting eight places across the UK between February 2018 and October 2020. We are very excited as Dippy is coming to the Great North Museum between May and October 2019.


History of Dippy

Dippy’s history begins when a skeleton was discovered in Wyoming, USA in 1898. It was a new type of diplodocus and at the time it was described as ‘the most colossal animal on earth”. Andrew Carnegie acquired the bones for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg, USA, hence the new species was named Diplodocus carnegii  after him. King Edward VII saw a sketch of the diplodocus and mentioned how he would like a similar specimen for the Natural History Museum in London. Andrew Carnegie then made a cast of his specimen and Dippy was created.

Dippy was disassembled during World War II to protect it from bomb damage. It made the move to Hintze Hall (the main entrance hall of the museum) in 1979. Dippy was taken down today, as it is going on a two year tour of the UK.

The unveiling of Dippy in 1905
The unveiling of Dippy in 1905

Diplodocus Facts

  • They were up to 27m in length
  • They weighed about 10,800 kg (as much as a large truck).
  • Lived at the end of the Jurassic period (154-150 million years ago)
  • Its heavy tail was used to scare off predators.
  • They were vegetarian.
  • Diplodocuses lived in North America.
  • Its name means double beam, due to the unusual double row of bones on the underneath of the tail.
  • It was a slow moving dinosaur, moving at 5-9.3 mph.

#TryThisTuesday Mini Fire Extinguisher

You will need: large tall glass, bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), vinegar, a candle and some matches

image11. Add 4 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda to the glass

2. Pour in roughly 150ml of vinegar, the mixture will fizz.

3. Light the candle.

4. Once the mixture has stopped fizzing, pick up the glass. Without pouring out the vinegar, gently tip the glass from a few centimeters above the candle. Imagine that there is an invisible liquid inside above the mixture. The candle will go out!

The Science

You have produced a gas, carbon dioxide, by mixing the bicarbonate of soda with vinegar (also known as acetic acid). Bicarbonate of soda contains carbon dioxide, but it is attached to other molecules. When you mix it with vinegar the bicarbonate breaks down and releases carbon dioxide as a gas.

The following reaction takes place:

bicarbonate of soda + vinegar → sodium acetate + water + carbon dioxide

NaHCO3 + HC2H3O2 → NaC2H3O2 + H2O + CO2

Carbon dioxide is heavier than air so stays in the glass until you tip it over the candle. When you pour carbon dioxide on a candle it stops the flow of oxygen which is needed for a flame to burn, and the candle is extinguished.

Real fire extinguishers also use carbon dioxide to put out fires, it is compressed (squashed) into cylinders and sprayed at fires.