Hooked on Music: the science of the musical ‘hook’

We all know a catchy tune when we hear one, with its repetitive, attention grabbing chorus that you just can’t get out of your head. Those who work in the music industry call this the ‘hook’, and it’s what all musicians strive for when they’re trying to write a hit song. But what is it exactly that makes a hook particularly successful?

Hit songs are often the ones that are the most memorable, and can often be recalled many years later on hearing just a few opening chords. This apparent connection between popular music and memory is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that our ability to recall autobiographical memories is strongest when the memories are associated with a popular song which we may have heard at the time (e.g. Krumhansl & Zupnick, 2013).

Such effects may be attributed to the fact that listening to music activates multiple areas of the brain at once. In research carried out at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, Dr. Vinoo Alluri and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI–which traces blood flow to measure levels of activity in different areas of the brain) to map the brains of participants whilst they listened to a piece of Argentinian tango music. Dr. Vinoo Alluri found that the music not only activated the areas of the participants brains which process sound, but also the areas responsible for processing emotions, movement and creativity.

Areas of the brain activated by music: http://sciencenordic.com/how-music-touches-brain

Areas of the brain activated by music: http://sciencenordic.com/how-music-touches-brain

But what is it, in particular, that makes one song more memorable than another? What is it that makes a song a hit? Dr John Ashley Burgoyne and Professor Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam hope to find out. To help them, they have teamed up with The Museum of Science and Industry to run a citizen science project called Hooked on Music as part of the Manchester Science Festival (23rd Oct-2nd Nov 2014).

 Citizen Science projects are an innovative way for scientists to collect large amounts of data whilst also allowing wide scale public participation in scientific research. The Hooked on Music project does this by inviting users to take part in a number of online games. Depending on their taste (or age!) participants can select music from any decade (from 40s/50s, right up to the present day). They can then test their recognition and recall of the most popular songs from that decade, and decide on the catchiest segments of individual songs. The data collected will be used to help better understand the hook that helps to firmly embed certain songs in our memory.

Understanding what makes a song memorable has applications beyond making a hit. By exploiting the powerful connection between music and memory and developing our understanding of what properties of particular songs have the strongest effect, therapies are being developed to help those suffering with memory difficulties caused by, for example, traumatic brain injuries and dementia. Charities such as Playlist for Life and Music & Memory encourage people to provide family members suffering from dementia with mp3 players containing playlists of songs that have been meaningful throughout that person’s life. The premise is that music will be a powerful trigger for memories that will bring familiarity and comfort and encourage interaction with other family members.

Post By: Catherine Mcguire

 To find out more about Hooked on Music or to take part visit http://www.hookedonmusic.org.uk.

Posted in Catherine Mcguire | 3 Comments

Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

In this post I will take a look at the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by de-extinction. I’ll address the issue from numerous angles; though I must admit that a post such as this cannot do more than scratch the surface of such a complex issue. What I hope it will do is spark some debate and encourage you to think about where you stand on the matter. This is an incredibly important field of research and one that warrants debate and discussion. As such, I’d invite you to leave a comment at the bottom of the page if you want to weigh in. So, here we go…


A key argument used to defend the theory of de-extinction is that it will allow humanity to atone for past mistakes. Most, if not all, of the species scientists are proposing to bring back went extinct because of human activities. If we can develop the ability to undo the damage we’ve caused then do we not have a moral obligation to do so?

 A light-coloured Cane Toad.  Photo Credit: Bill Waller, via Wikipedia

A light-coloured Cane Toad.
Photo Credit: Bill Waller, via Wikipedia

Well, not necessarily! Just because we have the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. There have certainly been instances in which our ‘meddling’ with nature has had only positive results. For example, we wouldn’t have enough food had we not bred crops that grow at a faster rate and with greater yield. However, there have been many cases in which our attempts to improve our own lifestyle has dramatically backfired, as was the case when we tried to introduce the Cane Toad into Australia.

A Bearded Capuchin Monkey. Photo Credit: Bart van Dorp, via Wikipedia

A Bearded Capuchin Monkey.
Photo Credit: Bart van Dorp, via Wikipedia

Linked into this matter is the horrendously complex question of how morally right de-extinction is as a concept. Mankind is just another species on the planet, naturally selected to achieve dominance in many environments. Therefore, one might argue that any tools and technologies we have developed are the result of our natural intelligence. Other species have learned to use rudimentary tools without us gasping in horror; for example, bearded capuchin monkeys use rocks to open nuts. If you follow this thought process logically you come to the conclusion that ‘de-extinction’ is just another natural application of our intelligence. But, of course, your viewpoint on this depends entirely on whether you set humanity apart from other species.


The other major argument in favour of de-extinction is the fact that the techniques developed in pursuit of that end-goal could be used to help prevent endangered species going extinct in the first place. The biggest challenge in cloning an extinct species is getting the body of a living organism to accept an embryo containingmostly the extinct species’ DNA. If scientists can achieve this, then one could assume that they could do so with species that are not extinct, but endangered. We would then have a way of artificially boosting numbers of endangered species.

The counterpoint to this argument is that such an ability might encourage apathy. Leaving aside the question of our moral right to try and stop species going extinct, would we go to such great lengths to preserve endangered species if we knew we could just bring them back at a later date? Many people would argue that we wouldn’t and that, in trying to be more responsible for the world around us, we might become even less so.

Environmental Impact

A model of a Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada. Photo Credit: FunkMonk, via Wikipedia

A model of a Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada.
Photo Credit: FunkMonk, via Wikipedia

Here we come to, in my opinion, the main crux of the argument. We have yet to consider how the revived species and the environment into which it is thrust will cope. For long-dead species, such as the woolly mammoth, the environment in which they lived will have changed drastically in their absence, adjusting to function without them. Regardless of whether they were wiped out by man, these species have lost their place in the world.

Let’s consider for a moment just a few of the ways in which the habitat of a species such as the woolly mammoth might have changed over time. Firstly, the climate may have changed. This could obviously mean that our de-extinct species can no longer survive in its old habitat. However, even if it could, if the average temperature or humidity has changed, then the range of other species that the environment supports could have changed drastically too. Animal species might have migrated or died off; plants might have died off or suddenly found themselves able to grow where they couldn’t before; and bacteria and viruses will doubtless have evolved massively over time too.

This leads onto the second major issue – the food web. If the inhabitants of the environment have changed in the absence of the extinct species, then it has no place in the modern-day food web. Quite frankly, even if the species living in an area haven’t changed, if enough time has passed then they will have evolved to survive without the extinct species, meaning it might still cause massive disruption. It might endanger the indigenous populations by outcompeting them or hunting them in a way they have not evolved to cope with, or it could be threatened with ‘re-extinction’ itself!

Finally, I mentioned earlier that bacteria and viruses would have evolved greatly over such a period of time. Well this offers no shortage of complications when trying to bring a species back from the dead. Obviously, a long-dead species’ immune system will be outdated, what with having missed out on potentially millennia of natural selection. We cannot know in advance but it might be that modern-day microbes could wipe out the resurrected species immediately if its immune system could not cope with these new threats.

Also, animals’bodies contain massive amounts of bacteria, which help our bodies to function. We could not digest our food as effectively as we do without bacterial colonisation. It is headache-inducing to try and work out the ways in which the body of a member of a resurrected species would respond to colonisation by all of these species that its ‘ancestors’ never encountered.

In short, it is very difficult to consider every single factor when introducing an organism into an environment in which it simply does not belong. There are often distant, subtle relationships and interactions between parts of an environment that we cannot anticipate.

Sergei Zimov surveying Pleistocene Park. Photo Credit: Enryū6473, via Wikipedia

Sergei Zimov surveying Pleistocene Park.
Photo Credit: Enryū6473, via Wikipedia

In more extreme cases, scientists may try to make an environment suit the extinct species, rather than going about things the other way round. For example, the Siberian steppe that served as the woolly mammoth’s habitat changed drastically at the end of the Pleistocene epoch (roughly 11,700 years ago). Russian scientist Sergei Zimov has, since the 1980s, been reintroducing flora and fauna into an arctic region of Siberia dubbed ‘Pleistocene Park’ in a bid to recreate the ecosystem that was lost millennia ago. This could, ultimately, include providing a home for mammoths.

Of course, here, we’re talking about manipulating entire environments rather than individual species. It is difficult to know where to draw the line, if one even believes that a line should be drawn anywhere! In my opinion, the line should be drawn before even taking de-extinction beyond being just a theory. I don’t believe that the potential benefits of such an ability outweigh the incredible and unknowable risks that come with playing God in this manner.

As I said before though, I would be very interested to know what you think of this and if you would like to add to my list of arguments. Here, we really have only just begun to consider the ramifications and justifications behind this incredibly controversial area of research.


This SSApost, by author Ian Wilson, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

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An Energytarian in a Consumer’s World

In a recent twitter conversation, I was discussing with some vegetarian friends about their thoughts on eating insects, when tweets turned to the inevitable conversation about why we make the choices that we do regarding food consumption. This then lead to the rather fabulous phrase ‘energytarian’ (@RosalieTostevin take a bow) being coined to define somebody that eats meat but tries to do so in a sustainable manner, which got me thinking about what it really means to eat sustainably.

Coming soon to a supermarket near you? (Credit: Shan Lung)

Coming soon to a supermarket near you? (Credit: Shan Lung)

I like to consider myself as being a reasonably eco-conscious eater; I don’t buy eggs from caged hens, I buy fruit in season, I don’t eat whale (well, apart from that one time in Japan, but in my defence I thought I was eating duck). But I could probably be doing a lot better. To see how much better I could be doing let’s have a look at my food diary from last Monday (I feel as though I am preparing for an episode of Secret Eaters):

Breakfast: Protein shake with milk

Lunchtime:  Carrot and coriander soup

Dinner: Chicken curry followed by yoghurt for desert

According to this food emissions calculator, the carbon footprint of my food consumption was approximately 2.3 Kg carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e; the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide in terms of global warming potential). I should point out that I have taken into account the fact that lunch and dinner were both shared with my girlfriend, and also that I have not included the carbon footprint of the spices and protein supplement that I used in these meals. It is also worth noting that these calculations do not include packaging and cooking, and were done assuming that I am based in North America (I am not), but as a basic indicator of my carbon footprint it will suffice.

My eating habits seem to sit quite nicely between the ‘Average’ and ‘No Beef’ according to the detailed analysis of carbon foodprints that was carried out by ‘Shrink That Footprint’ (read more about it on this excellent blog post), which seems like a fair assessment. I try to avoid eating red meats more than three times a week if I can help it, but this is not a hard and fast rule.


My food diary saw me fall somewhere between ‘Average’ and ‘No Beef’; a position that oddly mirrors that of my physique.

There is at least one other major factor that we need to consider regarding eating sustainably, and that is the consumption of water. According to a recent report, it is estimated that it takes over 15 thousand  litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef; to put that into perspective many Africans have to survive on 20 litres of water per day.

Using tabulated values from a 2013 report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the chicken curry that I made used up almost 2,500 litres of water in ingredients alone, i.e. before taking into account the water that was used in the preparation and washing up. From this report, red meats would again appear to be a big no-no for any self-respecting energytarian; although chocolate lovers beware, 1 kg of the good stuff uses up over 17 thousand litres of water!

It would be tempting to say that all would-be energytarians should stick to a strictly vegan diet, although by ‘simply’ giving up beef you can reduce your carbon foodprint and food-based water consumption by over a third. Food for thought this summer as you boot up the BBQ.

By Sam Illingworth @samillingworth

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HIV baby cure: One year on

HIV1With over 30 million sufferers worldwide, HIV remains the world’s leading infectious killer. The human immunodeficiency virus attacks the immune system, leaving it unable to fight infections, resulting in AIDS. Improving HIV care is one of the top 10 global health priorities. Therefore, when research published last year suggested a baby had been “cured” of HIV; tabloids quickly began to speculate, with some implying the elusive cure may be closer than we imagined. One year on, with similar cases set to be presented at AIDS 2014, the leading international conference on AIDS, what is the significance of this major breakthrough in terms of tackling the large-scale HIV pandemic?

“Absence of Detectable HIV-1 Viremia after Treatment Cessation in an Infant”

HIV2In 2010, a baby was born prematurely to a mother whose HIV was only discovered during delivery.   With no prenatal care, and therefore a high risk of exposure to the virus, the gutsy call was made to begin aggressive treatment with a combination of three antiretroviral drugs at just 30 hours old.  Infection was confirmed soon after and the child remained receiving therapy.

Surprisingly, within days the level of HIV had rapidly diminished and within a month was non-detectable. However, the successful therapy was unexpectedly ceased after 18 months as the mother stopped taking the child to scheduled appointments. When the child was finally examined again, at 23 months, she remained free from infection despite not being on HIV medication. At the time of the paper the child continued to be in remission, gaining the title “the baby cured of HIV”.

Impact on cases involving babies born with HIV

HIV3The doctors quickly emphasised the therapy proposed was a “functional cure”. With the child recently beginning to shown early signs of infection, it appears the treatment silenced the virus for a substantial period of time rather than eliminating it. In reality, cases involving mother-to-baby transmission are rare. Standard HIV pre-natal treatment can lower the risk to 2%.  Therefore in areas where there are a significantly higher number of cases, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, the main factor is the sub-standard levels of health care rather than the need for new treatment.

Is a new, miraculous treatment now available?

HIV4The therapy itself wasn’t novel as it used readily available antiretroviral drugs; the “novel” aspect of the therapy was the early approach. This is already known to be advantageous as early aggressive treatment is thought to prevent viral reservoirs forming. HIV reservoirs are what hide the virus, making it resistant to the both the immune system and medication, and form within hours of infection.

Can adults now be cured of HIV?

There has been speculation that the immune response of a newborn is more suited to cope with HIV than an adults. Not only are babies immune systems immature, resulting in a milder reaction to the virus, but they lack the memory “defender” cells that are the target of the dangerous viral reservoirs. However, last year several adults were reported to have undergone a similar “functional cure”. Having undergone early antiretroviral treatment, 14 out of 70 patients remained virus free for at least 3 years, following cessation of therapy. This suggests that 5%-15% of HIV patients could eradicate the virus through early treatment.

Early treatment plans would not benefit current sufferers but could help tackle new cases. While treating the virus as soon as possible seems like an obvious idea, it appears it would be difficult to implement. Not only do 1 in 5 sufferers remain unaware they are infected, but the stigma associated with HIV means many people are reluctant to get tested. Therefore, before getting excited over the potential of early treatment regimes, the bigger challenge of identifying the infection promptly needs to be addressed.

The “functional cure” has provided hope and opened new areas for scientists to explore. Importantly, it strengthened the idea that early treatment is vital. However bigger social and development issues, involving improving health care in poorer societies and ensuring early identification, need to be addressed before the findings can be translated into the “HIV cure” that has been widely speculated.

Post by: Claire Wilson


Persaud, D., et al., Absence of Detectable HIV-1 Viremia after Treatment Cessation in an Infant. New England Journal of Medicine, 2013. 369(19): p. 1828-1835.

Saez-Cirion, A., et al., Post-Treatment HIV-1 Controllers with a Long-Term Virological Remission after the Interruption of Early Initiated Antiretroviral Therapy ANRS VISCONTI Study. Plos Pathogens, 2013. 9(3).

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The decline of the antibiotic – taking medicine back to the dark ages?

Anti-bioticAfter being struck down with a particularly nasty chest infection, I initially put off going to see the doctor and instead opted for lots of rest, fluids and self-medication. After suffering at home for a few weeks with no alleviation of my symptoms, I eventually decided enough was enough and went to see the doctor. I was subsequently diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection, after which my  symptoms finally began to ease.

My reluctance to seek medical intervention was due in part to two reasons;

  • My general dislike for going to the doctors
  • Concern over recent news articles discussing the demise of the antibiotic due to over- prescribing.

It is the second of these reasons which seems to be a particular cause for concern.

The evolution of disease-causing bacteria, leading to antibiotic resistance, is a concern which has been high on the scientific agenda for decades. However, the media are only just starting to catch on to the stark reality that faces us. David Cameron has recently taken notice of this impeding issue, referring to the problem as ‘taking us back to the dark ages’. Cameron has called for a review into microbial resistance and has called for drug companies to invest in finding the next generation of antibiotics. But is this too little too late?

If our bodies become infected with foreign bacteria our internal immune system (white blood cells) act swiftly and efficiently to stop the spread of infection – usually before it has the chance cause noticeable symptoms. More often than not, our bodies are able to cope with such an attack without intervention. However, sometimes our bodies become overwhelmed and are unable to cope on their own – this is when we need to seek help from antibiotics.

Antibiotics have been relied on for the last 70 years and are vital in the treatment of bacterial infections (they are useless in the fight against viruses). These drugs work in one of two ways:

  • By interfering with the bacterial cell wall or the contents within – a process which destroys the bacteria (bactericidal).
  • By slowing down the growth of bacteria that can cause illness or disease (bacteriostatic). Thereby, ensuring that the bacteria is no longer able to multiply and infect us.

MRSA superbug showing resistance to antibiotics as the bacteria (yellow) overwhelm the white blood cells (red).

The development of antibiotics peaked in the 1950’s, after which there was a sharp decline in their development – no new classes of antibiotics have been developed since the ‘80’s! This is perhaps because there is not much money to be made from discovering new forms of antibiotics, so the pharmaceutical industry tend to focus on other, more lucrative, areas of research.

But how exactly does resistance to these drugs occur? When our bodies become infected with bacteria, there is a small chance that some of the bacterial cells show a natural resistance to antibiotics and therefore remain unaffected by the drug. This resistance could be due to a mutation that occurred by chance, or could be as a result of evolution – effectively the bacteria out-smarts the drug. These few remaining resistant bacteria survive, and rapidly reproduce so that the body becomes overwhelmed by this resistant strain. Drug resistance can then be transferred between bacteria through reproduction, physical connections between different cells and also through viruses called bacteriophages.


The mechanism of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is accelerated by over-use in the health-care and farming industries. Which is a growing concern, as many patients fight with doctors to be prescribed antibiotics for all minor ailments without considering the consequences of using them unnecessarily.

Resistance 2

Bacteria presented with 4 different types of antibiotic. In three cases the bacteria is resistant to the antibiotic and in one case only the drug is sufficient to treat the bacteria.

Antibiotics are also heavily used for intensive farming. With such a demand on farmers to produce lots of cheap meat, animals are housed in cramped conditions where infections are easily spread. Of course to prevent this spread, copious amounts of antibiotics are often used. This overuse facilitates resistance. Resistant bacteria are then able to spread from farm animals to people via our water supplies, which can then spread further from person to person by physical contact, coughing and sneezing.

Now that we know the extent of the issue of antibiotic resistance, what can be done to tackle the problem both in the short and long term? Currently, drug-resistant superbugs such as MRSA and C.difficile cause 5,000 deaths a year in Britain. This has been controlled to some extent by implementing more stringent hygiene procedures in hospitals such as frequent hand washing and anti-bacterial hand scrubs. However, the occurrence of other resistant bacterial strains are on the rise; E.Coli cases have risen by two-thirds over the last few years.

In the short-term, a 5 year Anti-microbial Resistance Strategy has been put in place by the Department of Health which outlines a number of different points that are effective in the fight against antibiotic resistance;

Aim #1 To understand antibiotic resistance: to collect as much information as possible about the mechanisms that bacteria use to become resistant and to understand how the resistance spreads.

Aim #2 To conserve our current antibiotics: by improving hygiene in hospitals and by educating doctors and nurses about the issue of resistance, and encouraging them to only prescribe antibiotics when absolutely necessary.

Aim #3 To encourage the development of new antibiotics: by providing more incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in antibiotic development.

In terms of addressing antibiotic resistance in the long-term, several approaches can be taken. Firstly, we need to tackle the issue of over-prescribing. Currently, there are no diagnostic tests that allow doctors to determine whether infections are caused by bacteria or virus. So, developing a test that could determine the basis of aninfection would help doctors give the correct prescription. Secondly, drug companies need to create new classes of drugs to tackle bacterial infections. Thirdly, we can try to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming. Lastly more research needs to be conducted into a new innovative approach to tackling infections which uses viruses to treat bacterial infections.

A combination of over-prescribing and the lack of development of new antibiotics means that these drugs are rapidly becoming less effective in their fight against infections. There is the fear that, in the very near future, these drugs will cease working completely and simple things to treat such as cuts and flu will be likely to make us very ill and even cause deaths.  With no suitable alternatives to antibiotics we could be looking at a very bleak future for medicine.  With all of this in mind it is clear to see that the pharmaceutical and medical industry needs to make huge investments into developing new classes of antibiotics to fight these super-resistant bacteria. Alongside this, doctors need to be sure to prescribe these precious drugs sparingly and patients need to be careful not to rely on them so much for minor ailments.

Post by: Sam Lawrence

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The Science of Star Trek: – The Trouble with Tribbles

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the science of Star Trek, courtesy of our friends at the Scouse Science Alliance. In this first post we delve into the real-life biology of everyone’s favorite purring ball of destruction – the Tribble!

parsons1These cute, fluffy, purring balls of joy are considered a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire (Klingons are a warrior race who love a good battle, and in Kirk’s era they were often the bad guys). They notoriously multiplied uncontrollably on board the USS Enterprise under Captain Kirk in the episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’. Starfleet considers them dangerous organisms and forbids them from transport. Despite their purring nature towards humans, the same is not true of Klingons. In fact, Kirk used a Tribble to identify a Klingon in disguise. The Tribble reacted with a screeching noise. Now, how exactly do these fluffy little puffs manage to multiply at such extreme rates? Cleverly, each Tribble is ‘born pregnant’ and if given the smallest morsel of food, will give birth to 10 Tribbles, who in turn will also produce 10 Tribbles. Within hours you have hundreds of Tribbles, clogging up every console, air vent, and food replicator [2].

Is such a creature possible I hear you ask? Well, being a hermaphrodite is nothing new. Snails and plants are examples of this. They possess both male and female reproductive organs, although the female organs of one snail will normally mate with the male organs of another snail, i.e. sexual reproduction. However, in some hermaphrodites self-fertilization can occur [3]. Then there are those species that are able to effectively create clones of themselves via asexual reproduction, such as stick insects. The advantage of asexual reproduction is that it is a relatively quick way to populate an environment, and it does not rely on regular encounters with the opposite sex. It is considered most advantageous in favourable, stable environments. The down side is the inevitable lack of genetic diversity, which would be particularly problematic if conditions became unfavourable. Despite this, some stick insects have been shown to survive for a million years without sexual reproduction, suggesting that this method is genetically sustainable [4].

Therefore, it is very plausible that Tribbles are able to produce offspring in the absence of another Tribble. The only questionable aspect is the sheer speed at which they accomplish this. The shortest gestation period known currently for a mammal on earth is 12 days for the opossum. This animal is a marsupial and whilst it has a very short gestation period, its young are born almost foetal-like and therefore require nursing in the mother’s pouch for an extended period of time before reaching maturity [5]. With regards to Tribbles, not only would their gestation period have to take place in a matter of hours, but the ‘baby’ Tribblewould also have to reach maturity in an equally rapid manner.

If this could actually be achieved, then it would be a huge survival advantage. To be able to maximise breeding potential and minimise the energy intake required tparsons2o do so, is the ambition of all species. What’s more, this rapid production of generations would only serve to increase mutation rates, which in some instances can help species adapt. In fact, much of this can be likened to microbes such as viruses and bacteria. Their rapid succession of generations allows them to adapt much more quickly than us, their human hosts. Therefore Tribbles are merely a victim of their own success. All they want is to eat and breed as efficiently as possible, who doesn’t? So in conclusion, Tribbles are quite like microbes, and microbes aren’t so bad. In fact, they can be quite cute and fluffy too!

SSAThis post, by author Bryony Parsons, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.




  1. http://www.edparsons.com/2006/03/google-earth-inspiration-was-star-treks-tricorder/
  2. Okuda, M. and Okuda, D. 1997. The Star Trek Encyclopaedia, a reference guide to the future. Updated and expanded edition. POCKET BOOKS, USA. P 522.
  3. Campbell, N. A. and Reece, J. B. Biology, sixth edition. Pearson Education, Inc, USA. P 975-978.
  4.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14122050
  5. http://www.opossumsocietyus.org/opossum_reproduction_and_life_cycle.htm
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The best laid plans o’mice and researchers: my top 5 chance scientific discoveries.

Most scientists are rarely content until they can say that they have planned for all eventualities. But no matter how hard you try, lab work will often throw you a curve ball, turning up all manner of unexpected curiosities. Yes, it’s true the “best laid plans o’mice and researchers gang aft a gley”*! However, there is no need to despair, for buried in the annals of scientific literature are a number of compelling tales where odd results and downright stupidity have actually lead to some pretty ground-breaking discoveries. So, here are five of my favorite examples of scientific serendipity.

5) The artificial pacemaker:

The first implantable pacemaker

The first implantable pacemaker

The first implantable pacemaker was invented and developed by electrical engineer and prolific inventor Wilson Greatbatch. But this is no ordinary tale of academic prowess. Unfortunate and clumsy scientists can take heart to learn that, despite Greatbatch’s impressive academic repertoire, it was actually a technical mistake which lead him towards this life-saving invention.

In 1956, Greatbatch was working on a device to record heart-rhythms when he accidentally connected an incorrect electrical component (for the geeky this was an ill-fitting resistor). This mistake meant that his device actually emitted electrical activity instead of recording it.  Greatbatch worked on miniaturising and testing his creation and by 1960 the first artificial pacemaker was implanted into a human patient. The recipient, a 77  year old man  went on to live for a further 18 months.

This is a great example of when a technical error actually translated into a ground-breaking discovery. But be careful, 99% of the time such mistakes are still significantly more likely to end in blown fuses and angry screaming than medical breakthroughs!

4) The discovery of penicillin.

Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming

No list of accidental scientific discoveries could be complete without the tale of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. Fleming, who at the time was described as a careless lab technician (charming), returned from holiday to find that one of his badly tended experiments had grown mould. Although in this instance, his inability to maintain a sterile work environment actually revolutionised modern medicine.

Fleming noticed that the Staphylococcus bacteria  in this particular sample did not grow around the mould. Indeed he noted that the Staphylococcus colonies became transparent and were obviously dying.  The mould was soon identified as a rare strain of Penicillium notatum, which appeared to secrete a compound capable of stopping bacterial growth. In fact Fleming’s mucky lab practices had lead him to stumble upon the first known antibiotic – a discovery which has since changed the course of medicine and allowed for previously life-threatening diseases to be completely curable.

Fleming himself is quoted as saying: “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did” (he was obviously a humble chap).

3) Cosmic background radiation.

IMGP0003Any scientist can tell you how annoying inconsistent or noisy data can be, but not many could boast that noise actually won them a Nobel Prize.

In 1965, Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson were working for Bell Laboratories using a sensitive horn antenna to detect low levels of microwave radiation. As they scanned the sky with this device their findings were constantly overshadowed by a low level of background “noise”. Both scientists assumed that this persistent “noise” was an unwanted artifact and tried a huge range of techniques to eliminate it but their attempts were to no avail. However, after much head-scratching they finally discovered that another group of scientists from Princeton had already predicted that such “noise” should be detectable as a remnant from the Big Bang and were about to start looking for this themselves.

So it turned out that the annoying artifact that Penzias and Wilson spent so much time trying to eliminate was actually background radiation left over from the Big BangIf only experimental noise was always this interesting!

2) Drunk scientists discover wine improves super conductance

A wine label only a scientist could love!Contrary to the popular mathematician’s saying ‘don’t drink and derive’, it seems that, in some cases, a little bit of alcohol (or perhaps a lot) can actually facilitate scientific discovery.

A few years ago, scientists at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science got a little bit tipsy at an office party and, instead of stealing office supplies, they decided to head back to the lab and do a few unauthorised experiments.

Their lab was working to develop a new type of superconductor by soaking a compound in hot water and ethanol for several hours. But, after a few drinks, one bright spark decided that it would be much more fun to see what happened when they instead soaked this compound in whatever left-over booze they could find from the party.

Amazingly the next morning, alongside the customary hangover, the researchers also discovered that commercially available alcohol seemed significantly better at improving super conductance than anything they would commonly use in the lab. Indeed, using lab- grade ethanol improved the material’s superconductivity by about 15%, while red wine improved it by almost 65%. These results were certainly not expected but were, without doubt, a big step forward for these scientists – I think it may be time for another party!

1) Common worming tablet inhibits growth of cancer cells.

3667927147_e452ddc04eScientists from Johns Hopkins University’s East Baltimore medical campus were left scratching their heads a few years ago when techniques used to grow tumors in mice failed to work on one particular group of research animals. After a number of failed attempts, the researchers decided that there was something kooky about these mice and set about finding what it was.

It turned out that these specific mice had been treated with a cheap, mass-produced, medication used to prevent pinworm infections and that this had been preventing tumor growth in these animals. Spurred on by this unexpected breakthrough, researchers soon found that a related drug – mebendazole – was particularly effective at treating an aggressive type of brain tumor (glioblastoma multiforme).

Years down the line and new drugs, stemming from this unexpected discovery, are now being trialed on terminally ill cancer patients with the hope that this will lead to more widespread use.

So there you have it. If you want to be a top-notch scientist remember that keeping your workspace sterile is totally overrated, regular office parties are a must and don’t forget to love your noise – you never know where it may lead you.

Post by: Sarah Fox
*Often go awry.

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