# The Science of Santa

We all know Father Christmas is one of the most wonderful and magical parts of Christmas, so we thought we’d use our scientific knowledge to work out how the fastest man in the universe delivers all those presents in one night!

There are approximately 2 billion children in the world. Of those, about 700,000,000 celebrate Christmas (and make the nice list!). With an average of three children per house, that’s a whopping 233,000,000 stops that Saint Nick has to make! Now bear with us…

If those stops are distributed evenly around the world, with a total surface area of 317,000,000 miles, each stop is 0.91 miles apart, making a total of 212,030,000 miles that Santa has to travel.

Because of the time differences across the globe, Santa has approximately 32 hours to complete his trip, maximising the night time (and sleeping children) available. Using speed = distance ÷ time, we can then work out that he has to travel at 6,650,807.72 mph! That’s about 1,800 miles per second.

So, remember to leave out a mince pie or two to help him along on this, his busiest of nights!

# Competitive Edge at Christmas – the mathematical way to beat the family

##### Toilet Trouble is the must-have family game this festive season. Determined not to be flushed away by their families, our Mathematics lecturers, Dr Andrew Baggaley and Dr Nick Parker got ahead of the game to analyse the seemingly random sequence of flushes and squirts.

On Christmas morning many families will wake up to a rather unexpected gift from Santa Claus: “Toilet Trouble”.  This does not involve an emergency call to your local plumber or your GP, but is rather a family game devised by Santa’s most mischievous elves.

Each player nervously awaits their fate as they place their face over the toilet bowl and flush the handle.  If they are lucky, they breathe a sigh of relief at staying dry and the suspense moves to the next player; if they are unlucky, a jet of toilet water comes to greet them.  Is this squirting truly random or is there some hidden order?  Can the occurrence of the next tinkle be predicted?  And can you beat the odds to stay dry, while soaking your nearest and dearest?  Here we self-proclaimed wizz kids combine scientific experimentation and mathematical analysis to give you the edge in this festive problem.

We put the game to the test by flushing the toilet over 1000 times and noting whether the jet squirted or not.   The data was conveniently recorded in binary format as a series of zeros ( = no squirt, dry) or ones (= squirt, wet).  The dataset, shown below, appears random with no evident pattern.  However, just because it looks random, is it random?  A large area of mathematics is devoted to analysing such patterns, seeking out hidden order and the information that this may carry, from identifying the trends in stock markets to deciphering information embodied in secret communications.  On the flip side of this latter example is the branch of mathematics which creates the codes in the first place; cryptography designs tricks to hide information in a jumble of numbers.  Central to this are the “pseudo-random-number generators”, mathematical functions which produce a seemingly random series of numbers but which are nonetheless orderly mathematical functions – if we start the function from the same number we will always get the same random-looking series of numbers being produced.  In this sense, the numbers only appear random.  An everyday example of pseudo-random-number generation is when we play our music tracks on shuffle.  Interestingly, however, a good generator would mean that there was a chance that the same number (music track) would be produced twice in a row, or within a short interval. For example if you create a random playlist from a 10 track album, there is a 10% chance that you would have to listen to the same track twice in a row. To avoid this unwanted effect, the original number generators used for shuffling had to be tweaked to prevent the same track arising in close succession.

We return to the matter at hand – the “random” squirting of the toilet.  As is typical of scientific analyses, we begin our analysis at the most basic level, before drilling down to increasing detail until we reach a required level of understanding of the problem.  From the data (see image) it is evident that the squirts (ones) are relatively spaced out.  In other words, at each flush there is not an equal 50:50 chance between squirt or no squirt – the chance is biased towards not being squirted, which is some good news for the players.  Our 1000 flushes produce 196 squirts, informing us that, on average, there are 5.1 flushes between squirts.  This doesn’t help us to identify whether or not there is a pattern to the squirts, and so next we look at the number of flushes between squirts, shown below.  Several important features now become evident.  There is not an equal chance of a squirt for all number of flushes, and this allows us to ascribe a confidence/concern scale. If it is your turn to flush immediately after a squirt has taken place, you can give your most cocky grin at the toilet bowl and your fellow players – no squirts arise on this turn.  If you flush on the second, sixth or eighth flush after the previous squirt, you can smile with a confidence at the bowl – these turns have less than 5% chance of squirting.  If you take the fourth flush, then have your towel handy – this leads to the highest chance of squirting, over 30%.  Finally, if you are about the take the tenth flush then brace yourself for a guaranteed soaking since all squirts happen within ten flushes.

If the squirting were entirely random, then the distribution in the histogram would be flat; the fact that it varies indicates that there is some hidden order which, for example, favours the fourth flush and suppresses the first, second, sixth and eighth flushes.  Closer examination of the squirting reveals a pattern in which the squirting fires around the 10th, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 4th, 4th and 5th flushes.  This pattern then repeats.  So the squirting is orderly after all, it is just the irregularity of this pattern that creates an illusion of randomness.

So how random is our game? In order to understand this we can compute the entropy of the squirt signal, a single number which will quantify this.  If you have met the idea of entropy before then it was probably in the context of disorder.  Indeed one of the most important laws of physics tells us that the natural tendency of any isolated system is to become more disordered. Leave a young child in a tidy bedroom and they will soon provide a definitive proof of this.

However we can also apply this idea to a random signal. Imagine flipping a fair coin lots of times and noting down a 1 if it is heads and 0 if it is tails. This would build up a signal of 1’s and 0’s which is completely random. If we computed the entropy of this signal we would find it is one. On the other hand imagine a coin which is completely biased, it always landed showing the head. This signal would be completely predictable, it would always be a 1, and the entropy would be zero. From our data we expect a squirt roughly with a probability of around 1 in 5, a truly random signal of 1s and 0s with this probability has an entropy of 0.72. What about our game? We find the entropy of our signal is a little lower, almost exactly 0.7, expressing the fact that our data has some intrinsic pattern.

Will this understanding allow us to stay dry on Christmas morning?  Well no.  The number of flushes that a player must make is random, decided by spinning a wheel numbered from 1 to 3.  This serves to ensure that each player has no control over their own destiny.  You can predict when the squirts will fire but you can’t control whether they will fire on you!

# #TryThisTuesday Crystal Christmas Decorations!

## Crystal Christmas Decorations

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… and for this #TryThisTuesday Christmas Special, we’re making beautiful decorations for your Christmas tree using science!

### Step 1

Mould your pipe cleaners into the desired shape, we chose to make a Christmas tree out of green pipe-cleaners, and a snowflake out of white pipe-cleaners

### Step 2

Carefully fill a large container with boiling water then add the salt bit by bit, stirring continuously, until the water is saturated.

This means that the salt stops dissolving and instead sits at the bottom of the water, as the water can no longer hold any more salt crystals.

### Step 3

Tie one long piece of string around your decorations in a row

### Step 4

Dip the decorations in the water, and suspend over the container (as shown in the picture)

### Step 5

This next part will take some patience!

Over the next 24 to 48 hours, watch as the crystals develop around the fibres of the pipe-cleaners, and see your beautifully festive decorations develop!

### Step 6

Tie a piece of string around the top of your decoration and hang on your tree!

### The Science

Salt crystals are formed due to ionic bonding, meaning they form a specific pattern which is always a square shape. When salt is dissolved into water, the water molecules separate the salt molecules. This means that even when it looks like the salt has disappeared in the water, it is actually there all along.  This happens especially well in hot water, as the heat means the water can hold many more salt molecules than cold water. As the water cools and evaporates, the salt crystals bond again as the water can no longer hold all the salt. The crystals stick to the pipe-cleaners because as the water evaporates, it takes some of the salt with it which clings to our suspended decorations, leaving beautiful crystal ornaments!

# A day in the life of… a Mechanical Engineering student

#### In this blog post mechanical engineering student Jenny Olsen takes us through a typical day for her, and explains what she loves about her course and being in Newcastle.

I chose Mechanical Engineering as I wanted to study a degree that covered lots of different areas of STEM. I’m really interested in Bio-Mechanical Engineering, but I’m also a big motorsport fan – studying Mechanical Engineering allowed me to pursue many things I was interested in whilst also keeping my career options open.

In a typical week I’d expect three full days of lectures, a day in the lab working on my group project and one day either on an industrial visit or a half-day practical assessment. The industrial visits were really fun. We got to learn some great skills – my favourite visit was to Caterpillar in Peterlee where I got a tour of the facilities and learned how to weld!

My most varied day is Friday – where I spend the morning in lectures and the afternoon working with my engineering team on our group project in the lab. Here’s a look at what you’d be studying if you decided to join us as a Mechanical Engineering student:

9am

To start the day, a mechanics lecture. I was really worried when I joined University that I’d struggle with mechanics because I didn’t study Physics at A level. Thankfully, first semester is mainly just a recap over topics covered at A level and our lecturer explained them really well. I managed to keep up and actually really enjoy the subject!

10am

Next, a maths tutorial. Here’s your chance to ask your lecturers or tutors any questions you have regarding the work covered during the week. This year, there are around 150 first year Mechanical Engineering students – this means that having the opportunity to get  1 to 1 help from a tutor or lecturer is really helpful! Most modules have tutorial sessions throughout the week.

11am

Back to lectures for an hour. In a week, on average only 13 of your contact hours are lectures. Mechanical Engineering is a very diverse subject so expect lots of variety in your timetable. In addition to the lectures and tutorials I’ve already mentioned, you’ll have lots of practical sessions to do – for example I recently completed an Electrical Engineering lab where we learned to solder a small circuit board! This was a great experience – it was lots of fun and quite a challenge as it’s something I didn’t expect to learn as a Mechanical student. Like soldering, lots of the practical skills you’ll learn are not only relevant to the course but really useful for everyday life!

12pm

Time for lunch – an hour off to rest before the practical session on the afternoon. My favourite place to have a relaxing lunch would be the Quilliam Brothers Teahouse, just off Haymarket metro. Alternatively, I’d also recommend bringing a packed lunch, sitting outside and taking in the scenery of the campus – it looks amazing in Spring!

1pm

As an engineering student you’ll learn how to use CAD (Computer Aided Design) software to make digital models of your projects. This is a really useful skill for industry as many engineering companies require you to be comfortable using CAD and digital modelling software. Before the practical session starts, we get a short lecture about a CAD technique that we can use when we’re working on our projects.

Then, we all head to the labs in the Stephenson Building to work in groups on our projects. In first year, my group project has been to build a small turbine. This is the most ‘hands on’ part of the degree, and in my opinion the most fun. We started the year by making a turbine from recycled components, then improved our design and made another from new parts. This involved budgeting, sourcing parts and learning practical skills in the lab to assemble our turbine.

5pm

Time to head home – I don’t live near campus as I live at home, but thankfully there’s plenty of transport links to and from the city centre such as the Metro or the Buses. This also makes it really easy to see other parts of the North East! After a long day in lectures why not take a trip to Tynemouth Beach or Jesmond Dene to relax?

I’ve really enjoyed studying Mechanical Engineering at Newcastle, it’s been a challenge, but definitely worthwhile! I’ve learned so many practical skills that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise and made some great friends. I’ve also been lucky enough to take part in some great extra-curricular activities such as being a Street Scientist and having fun with ‘Give it a go’ activities.

# Humanity’s Footprint on Our Blue Planet

##### This series of Blue Planet has enabled us to see so much of the ocean that we are normally unaware of; we’ve been able to truly appreciate the magnificence of the seas all the way from the deepest trenches to the rocky coasts. But for many, with this appreciation has come the realisation of the devastating impact of human activity on our planet’s marine life.

Marine researchers at Newcastle University have been working to assess the extent of human impact on the ocean, looking at everything from chemical and plastic pollution to CO2 levels and increasing sea temperatures.

### Chemical pollution

A research team led by Newcastle University’s Dr Alan Jamieson, used deep sea landers to reach the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana and Kermadec trenches, to bring up samples of the organisms that live there.

The fatty tissue of the amphipods they sampled contained extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants – or POPs – including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the 1970’s. Such pollutants are invulnerable to environmental degradation and will remain in the environment for decades.

Dr Jamieson believes these pollutants will have found their way to the depths of the trenches through contaminated debris and dead animals sinking to the bottom of the ocean, which then work their way up through the food chain.

Find out more.

Sending the deep sea landers down to the ocean floor.

### Man’s plastic footprint

Following on from this study which revealed shocking levels of chemicals in the deep, Dr Jamieson began to investigate whether plastics had also polluted to the same extent.

Using the deep sea landers to bring samples to the surface, the research team examined 90 individual animals and found ingestion of plastic ranged from 50% in the New Hebrides Trench to 100% at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Dr Jamieson explained that this type of work requires a great deal of contamination control, but that the results were undeniable, with instances where synthetic fibres could actually be seen in the stomach contents of the specimen as they were being removed.

Find out more.

### The ocean and emissions

Pollutants such as plastic and chemicals are not the only issues our seas face; the oceans also absorb a large amount of heat and CO2 from human emissions. Of the emissions absorbed by the global ocean, the Southern Ocean takes a staggering 75% of the heat and 50% of the CO2.

A team from Newcastle University, comprised of Dr Miguel Morales Maqueda, Alethea Mountford and Liam Rogerson, are in the Antarctic as part of the ORCHESTRA research project (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transports).

Explaining the involvement in the project, Dr Maqueda said: “We have been invited to participate in ORCHESTRA on account of our expertise in the use of surface robotic systems to carry out sea surface measurements.

We use a Wave Glider, which is an unmanned vehicle, to conduct surveys of the ocean surface, measuring properties such as near-surface meteorology (wind, air pressure and air temperature), waves, ocean temperature and currents. The Wave Glider relays this information back to base via satellite.”

The aim is to use these oceanography surveys to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that lead to the transfer of heat and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into the ocean and how they are subsequently distributed globally.

Research vessel RRS James Clark Ross, where the team will be based.

Find out more.

### Hope moving forward

Humans are undoubtedly having an increasingly negative impact on the ocean. When faced with this fact it becomes all too easy to lose hope, but pioneering research such as that from Newcastle University works to highlight the serious issues at hand and as such people are becoming more aware of how everyday actions can have wider consequences for the environment.

We need only take a look at the solutions that Newcastle researchers have developed for the disastrous episodes of coral bleaching around the globe to illustrate that advancements in ideas and technology are being made all the time to work to reduce and reverse negative human impact.

If you feel inspired to make a difference to the marine world, take a look at the courses offered at Newcastle University in Marine Science and Marine Technology.

# Mini-Medical School at the Faculty of Medical Sciences

Our friends over at the Faculty of Medical Sciences hold an annual series of interactive lectures and practical sessions over six weeks, open to anyone aged 15+ known as Mini Medical School. The aim of the programme is to offer the public an opportunity to find out about current research developments at the university and to learn more about clinical approaches and practices. We asked Heworth Grange student Kate Gordon, 16 to give us her account of the sessions:

I recently attended Newcastle University’s Mini Medical School of 2017. I was overjoyed when I received the confirmation email to say I had a place, however, I didn’t realise just how interesting and beneficial it would be.

“One of the best experiences I’ve had”

When I first arrived I was met by a member of the university team. They were so lovely and pleasant which made my friend and me feel comfortable and welcomed there in their facilities. Not to mention, the great variation of snacks that they provided each week!

On the first week we had Forensic Psychologist, Dr Gavin Oxburgh, speak to us about his part in helping the police with their enquiries. This was the best week for me, as I am very interested in Psychology and it offered insights into a new career path for me later in life. Gavin taught us about offender profiles and how to detect if a person is being deceitful. He also made us think of the circumstances of why people would lie. I really loved this session and even though it was quite a serious topic he made it light-hearted and engaging throughout.

On the second week of my visit Professor Louise Robinson taught us about dementia. This was very interesting for me as quite a lot of my family members suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. We learnt about the 3 different stages and how to prevent memory disorders.

On week 3 we learnt about prescribing drugs and how it’s revolutionised over the years. Dr Adam Todd presented this amazingly and made the topic very humorous. He taught us about opioids and how dangerous they can be. I really loved this session.

During week 4 of mini medical school we were presented with a session about kidney transplantation. As I had already learnt about this topic in biology it really helped as I was able to understand more. We discovered how dialysis has changed throughout the past 50 years and the newer alternatives. This helped me learn a lot more than I already knew.

On the fifth week the topic was named “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll” this was a good name for the session as it was unknown to what we we’re going to talk about until we arrived. In this session we spoke about HIV and the treatment possible, along with all the other topics we looked at how it’s changed throughout the years. I really liked this evening as Dr Christopher Duncan and Dr Ewan Hunter included humour as well as knowledge.

“There was a range of subjects for everyone which was brilliant as it enabled anyone to participate”

I then attended a mini medical school practical, I chose the topic of Psychology. My day was split into two, first we looked at how the brain worked and the certain areas of it. In the second part we looked at eating disorders and the psychology behind it, for me that was so interesting as it really opened my eyes how to recognise it early, not in only myself but my peers too.

On the sixth and final week we talked about sun protection and dermatological skin problems. The speakers were amazing and worked so well as a team, they told us that even the most famous celebrities suffer from skin diseases such as acne, psoriasis, etc. We also completed a quiz on how to detect cancerous moles, a very helpful technique to use in life. I found this session very interesting and a great way to end the course.

Overall, the Mini Medical School is one of the best experiences I’ve had. I have loved every single minute of it and learnt so much from attending the sessions, it was very enjoyable and didn’t seem like a chore each week – I’m looking forward to next year!

To be added to the mailing list for next years Mini-Medical School, please email minimedicalschool@ncl.ac.uk

# Unravelling Deep Sea DNA

DNA is the building block of all living things. Our own DNA dictates what we look like, how we behave and even how we think. The Human Genome Project sequenced all of our DNA to unravel the code that creates us to give a better understanding of how it all works. From this we’ve learned more about how we’ve evolved and which animals are our closest relatives.

The Wellcome Trust are planning on sequencing the DNA of 25 more animals next year and you get to have a say in which animals will be studied. Scientists from across the country have been championing species which they believe should be sequenced next. Our very own team of researchers from Newcastle University are campaigning for the Abyssal Grenadier, a deep sea fish which has evolved to live in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

The competition is being held online on I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here where our researchers, Johanna Weston and Thom Linley have already participated in 19 online chats with school children. Anyone can vote and ask the scientists questions about their chosen species.

Here are Joanna’s top 3 questions that they’ve been asked:

### 1. How did the fish come to be named grenadier?

This question totally stumped us and I have been on an adventure finding the answer! I have been asking ichthyologists (fish scientists) all over the world and the answer I got was from the head of fishes in Te Papa Museum in New Zealand (told you I looked far and wide!).  The first grenadier described was the roundnose grenadier in 1765! That’s where we first get the name.  The grenadiers were a type of soldier that specialised in grenades in France in the 1700’s. They wore pointed hats based on the Mitre (a Bishop’s hat). The pointy hat looks like the high triangular first dorsal fin of the grenadier fish!

### 2. Why do they use their eyes less?

The deep sea is a very difficult environment to live in for a variety of reasons – not a lot of food, lots of predators, and the crushing weight of all the water above these animals. But one of the main problems with living in the deep sea is that below 200m of water there is very little natural sunlight getting that deep. The abyssal grenadier lives all the way down to 4000/5000m where there is no natural light so it is hard for them to see anything. (Although some other deep-sea animals produce their own light using bioluminescence!) Because it’s very dark the abyssal grenadier relies more heavily on its sense of smell to detect food.

### 3. What is your most unique feature and why has it happened (what genes cause it)?

We have lots of cool unique features!

We can survive under high water pressure. At the moment we know that we store a lot of an enzyme called TMAO which helps to keep our cells happy and stop them from being crushed by the pressure. We also live in the complete darkness, except bioluminescence which is light produced by some bacteria that live in some deep-sea species, but we can still see these flashes of light. We can go very long periods of time without eating so we have become very good at storing energy in our bodies. And we can also swim really slowly to help keep our energy stores high too.

At the moment we don’t know all the genes that help us live in such an extreme environment! That’s why we would love to have our genome sequenced so we can start to understand how animals can live in such a difficult environment. Because we are closely related to cod it would be really cool to compare our genome to the genome of a cod to see what lets us live deeper! This could be really valuable in understanding fish, like cod, as well as the abyssal grenadier.

If you would like to ask a scientist or place your vote for the next genome to be sequenced you can do so imascientist.org.uk. Voting closed on the 8th December.

# Capturing Our Coast

#### Capturing Our Coast

Newcastle University is the lead partner in Capturing Our Coast, a marine citizen science project which works with members of the public to contribute to the greater understanding of our UK seas and the rich diversity that they host.

Capturing Our Coast is the largest marine citizen science project of its kind, facilitating as it does, members of the public to contribute, not only to collecting information on where marine species occur, but also to addressing scientific questions through experimental approaches on our shores.

A national network of marine research labs, NGOs and research institutions, provide training and support which allows thousands of volunteers to map abundances of a number of key species around our coasts. This will provide a database against which changes in the future can be measured, allowing conclusions to be drawn on the effects of human activities on biodiversity.

Dr Jane Delany, Project Lead said: “Huge value is derived from having lots of people out and about, collecting more results than scientists working alone could ever hope to gather. We need these large scale data sets collected over wide geographic areas, to pick up patterns and trends that have a lot of natural ecological ‘noise’ or variation;  the findings will be particularly useful as the effects of climate change alter the way in which our coastal habitats and species communities are structured.”