Sartorial Science

Are you sick of the lazy stereotypes that surround scientists? That we are all old, white men in lab coats, with fuzzy hair and safety goggles, and that the only thing that we find fashionable are tank tops and boiler suits? Well I was, and so that is why my colleague Sophie Powell and I have created a new blog, to challenge these conventions.

Scientists come in all shapes and sizes…
Scientists come in all shapes and sizes…

I have always been extremely interested in fashion, and at one point I believe that I had the largest collection of bowties in the North West. As well as being a PhD student at the University of Manchester, Sophie is also a keen fashion blogger, posting regularly on her website, The Scientific Beauty. We were both sick of seeing articles such as this one from the Guardian portraying scientists as socially inept and modishly incompetent troglodytes, and so we decided to create Sartorial Science.

The idea behind this blog is that any scientist, from undergraduate to professor can send us a photo of them in their resplendent best, and then answer some basic questions about their research and their fashion influences. It is supposed to be a bit of fun, but like similarly minded projects ‘This is What a Scientist Looks Like’ and ‘STARtorialist’, it aims to showcase to the wider public that scientists are real people, and that many of them have a variety of interests outside of science, including fashion and looking fabulous!

Many might think that sites such as this are a waste of time, and that scientists should only

...and they can even wear science!
…and they can even wear science!

concern themselves with doing their research, publishing results, and applying for grants. However, it is extremely important to humanise the people behind the science, not least because it will help to inspire a future of generation of scientists. If younger students think that being a scientist is all about working in a laboratory and conforming to stereotypes, then many of them might not decide to pursue science any further than compulsory education.

As well as showcasing the sartorial merits of our contributors, we also hope to gather enough data to be able to start investigating the relationship between scientists and fashion, in a more detailed study that would be suitable for publication. But in order for that to happen we need lots more posts, so come on scientists show us your style!

Post by: Sam Illingworth

A Closed Door or an Open Window?

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) have recently announced that they are lessening their proposed stance in relation to Open Access (OA) for the next round of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). If that opening sentence seems like it contains far too many acronyms to be of relevance to you then think again, as effectively what it means is that scientific research will be less accessible by the general public than had previously been hoped for.

What a lot of non-researchers don’t realise is that a lot of scientific articles sit behind a pay wall, which like that of news outlets such as The Times, means that you have to pay in order to access them. These fees vary from journal to journal, but are normally somewhere in the £15-£25 price range (per article), which means that if you wanted to look at four separate articles you could be paying upwards of £100. Of course you may be asking yourself, “yes, but when am I going to actually want to read one of these articles?” But, imagine that you have a terminally ill relative and have just heard of a new miracle cure, or that you are a potato farmer wanting to fully investigate the efficiency of a new type of pesticide. Would you be able to shell out for each of these articles, no matter how spurious the abstracts (which ARE free to access) might appear? Of course you could take up an annual subscription for some of these journals but, with the Nature brand of journals having 91 publications alone, and with most of these subscription costs in excess of £200 per journal, these costs soon become insurmountable.

The Open Access movement demands free and open access to all research articles (and also data) for everyone.
The Open Access movement demands free and open access to all research articles (and also data) for everyone.

I have written more extensively on the topic elsewhere, but the whole point of the OA movement is to make these journal articles freely available for all, with either the researcher or the central government bearing the cost. And, it was supposed to be HEFCE that was helping to bring about the change by implementing restrictions for the REF. For those of you who do not know, the REF is basically a giant study that is conducted every six years, in which the research output of every UK university is assessed and ranked, with funding awarded from HEFCE based on that ranking. Again, more details on REF can be read about here, but the idea was that in order for publications to qualify for REF2020, they would need to be made OA, either by publishing in OA journals, or placing them in a freely-accessible repository within three months of the journal article being accepted for publication.

The 2014 REF top 10; a bit like the Premiership, only less competitive.
The 2014 REF top 10; a bit like the Premiership, only less competitive.

However, under the new guidelines (which can be read here, with highlighted track changes from the original document), which have been revisited after consultation with several leading research institutes, the rules have been changed, and the period of grace is now three months since publication. This may seem like quite a subtle difference, but in some cases it will mean that there is a period of several more months before the research is made freely available. There have also been some other changes, including the admittedly sensible decision that any article that is published via the gold route (i.e. in an OA journal) need not be uploaded to the repository until the final published version has been created. However, I think that there is a very real danger that any softening of the rules is indicative of the fact that HEFCE are probably likely to bend the rules, probably to ensure that any of the larger, and less OA mobilised, research institutes don’t miss out on their slice of the REF pie. The fact that “this additional flexibility will be reviewed in 2016” means that we need to monitor these developments very carefully indeed, in order to make sure that the door is not just slightly ajar, but ripped clean off its hinges so that everyone is welcome.

Post by: Sam Illingworth

Room to breath

Recently, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the government must take immediate action to cut air pollution, ordering “that the Government must prepare and consult on new air quality plans for submission to the European Commission… no later than December 31 2015”. This was brought about when the UK was found to be in breach of its duty to achieve legally binding limits for nitrogen dioxide by an initial 2010 deadline. So what exactly is nitrogen dioxide, where does it come from, and why is it so bad for us?

Nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, is a molecule consisting of one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms. It is produced via the oxidation of nitric oxide (NO) in air – natural sources include; lightning, plants, soil and water. However, overall, only about 1% of the total amount of nitrogen dioxide found in urban environments comes from these natural processes. In urban areas, about 80% of atmospheric NO2 comes from motor vehicle exhausts with smaller amounts arising from other sources, include metal refining, and electricity generation from coal-fired power stations.

Lightning is a (small) natural source of nitrogen dioxide (Photo Credit: Diegojaf22 via Wikimedia Commons).
Lightning is a (small) natural source of nitrogen dioxide (Photo Credit: Diegojaf22 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nitrogen dioxide reacts with moisture, ammonia, and other compounds to form small particles. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide can be extremely harmful to humans, because these particles penetrate deeply into the body, damaging the lining of the lungs through abrasion. This can act to reduce immunity to lung infections, and cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, flu and bronchitis. Increased levels of nitrogen dioxide have even more significant impacts on people with asthma leading to fiercer, and more frequent attacks. However, the impacts of air pollution goes beyond asthma and other respiratory diseases, having been linked to heart attacks and strokes; the world health organisation has also formally classified outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen, causing both lung and bladder cancers.

Traffic in not just bad for our stress levels (Photo Credit: Stephen via Wikimedia Commons).
Traffic in not just bad for our stress levels (Photo Credit: Stephen via Wikimedia Commons).

Current figures place the number of deaths caused by air pollution in the UK somewhere between 29,000 and 30,000 a year – which is more than the number of deaths resulting from obesity and alcohol combined. Even more worryingly, a recent study found that these statistics do not factor in nitrogen dioxide, and only include deaths caused by particulate matter (i.e. particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere). The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants is due to publish its findings later this year, where it is predicts that the premature death toll caused by road traffic pollution will be around twice as high as originally thought.

According to DEFRA the average roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide had fallen 15% since 2010.  In addition both nitrogen dioxide emissions and background concentrations had more than halved in the 20 years since the mid 90s. However, whilst nitrogen dioxide emissions from petrol cars have fallen significantly over past 20 years, the emissions from diesel cars have overall shown little change during the same period.

Greater Manchester residents can find out more about the air quality in their local area at the GreatAir Manchester website, which provides daily pollution indices, as well as host of useful resources and advice. The DEFRA air quality website is also a great resource, and provides daily pollution notifications, as well as five-day pollution forecasts. If you have any respiratory problems and are planning on being outside for a long time, then it is well worth checking these websites first, especially if you plan on doing any vigorous activities.

The DEFRA air quality index id based on measurements made by measurement stations like this one in Edinburgh (Photo Credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).
The DEFRA air quality index id based on measurements made by measurement stations like this one in Edinburgh (Photo Credit: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).

It is important to remember however, that this is not simply a straightforward problem. For example, because of the complex nature of the chemistry that is involved, a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels can actually lead to an increase in surface level ozone, which is also a harmful pollutant, and which in Europe alone is responsible for approximately 20,000 premature deaths a year. You can read more about the relationship between ozone and nitrogen dioxide in this paper.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could be a watershed moment in the UK’s fight to improve air pollution in our urban areas, and with UN statistics showing that over 80 % of the UK’s population is currently living in urban environments, it is important that we act now, before it is too late.

Post by: Sam Illingworth

The X-Club

Upon first hearing of ‘The X-Club’ you probably imagine a group of superhumans, responsible for saving the free world from some terrible intergalactic catastrophe. However, they were in reality a group of Victorian scientists that were instead responsible for saving the UK from scientific ambivalence, arguably the more impressive of the two feats.

The Original X-Club
The Original X-Club

Among The X-Club’s nine members were the brilliant biologist T.H. Huxley, the prodigious physicist John Tyndall, and the spectacular sociologist Herbert Spencer. All of the members were driven by a conscious decision to rail against the traditions of the church-driven scientific agenda, claiming cultural leadership for the scientists of the day. As well as campaigning vigorously for the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin (more of which here), they also solicited government support for science, procured jobs for scientists and were instrumental in demanding that science be taught at every educational level.

As well as being brilliant scientists in their own right, these Victorian gentlemen were also outstanding communicators, utilising a variety of media to explain science to a range of different audiences. Amongst other activities, they wrote textbooks, contributed to scientific journals, gave popular lectures and advised politicians. In short, they were science communicators extraordinaire, laying the foundations for the relatively egalitarian environment in which we as scientists now operate. Superhumans they may not have been, but that only serves to make what they achieved all the more remarkable.

The original X-Club had a total of nine members, who were active from 1864 to 1892. In the spirit of this original troupe I now offer the following members for consideration into ‘The XX-Club’, so called because they now welcome into their ranks three female members:

Professor Brian Cox AKA ‘The Dream’

Sir Tim Berners-Lee AKA ‘The Web’

Professor Nancy Rothwell AKA ‘The Balance’

Professor Richard Dawkins AKA ‘The Watchmaker’

Baron Robert Winston AKA ‘The Body’

Dame (Susan) Jocelyn Bell Burnell AKA ‘The Pulse’

Sir David Attenborough AKA ‘The Silver Back’

Baroness Susan Adele Greenfield AKA ‘The Brain’

Professor Stephen Hawking AKA ‘The Fourth Dimension’

My only criteria for selection were that these were scientists who were well known for both their research and also the promotion of their field to the general public. In keeping with the original X-Club, I also limited my selection to those scientists currently working in the UK.

Looking at this selection it is interesting to see that it is fairly dominated by physicists, with a third of the members conducting research primarily in that area. Whilst I admit that part of this might be to do with my own background (MPhys in Physics with Space Science and Technology, PhD in Atmospheric Physics), I also think that it reflects the zeitgeist of the current popularisation of science. Just as the dominance of the original X-Club by evolutionary biologists (three of the nine members were practitioners of either Natural History or Natural Philosophy) reflected the prevalence of Darwinism in the psyche of the public consciousness, so too does the make-up of The XX-Club mirror today’s fascination with the exploration of the very large (via space exploration) and the very small (via particle colliders). Whether or not that is a case of cause or effect is a debate for another day. For now, let’s just marvel at the quality of the current crop of science communicators that make such a debate possible.

Post by: Sam Illingworth

Science Communication in Manchester

The British Science Association (BSA) 2015 Science Communication Conference will be held on the 18th and 19th June at Manchester Metropolitan University – the first time that the conference will have been held up t’North.

The ingenious Sir David Brewster, whose scientific achievements were matched only by his mutton chops.
The ingenious Sir David Brewster, whose scientific achievements were matched only by his mutton chops.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science, as it was then known, was founded in York on 27 September 1831, following a suggestion by the great Scottish polymath Sir David Brewster, who chose York for the first meeting of the British Association “as the most central city in the three kingdoms”. This was the first of a series of annual meetings that has continued for over 150 years. The first meeting to take place in Manchester was in 1842, since then our glorious city has hosted another four, with the last one coming in 1962.

Perhaps the best remembered of all these meetings was at Oxford in 1860, where the English biologist Thomas Huxley debated Darwinism with the then Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley’s speech ended with him stating that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but that he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth, a reference to the rhetoric skill, yet perhaps clouded judgement, of his opponent.

In many ways, Manchester is the perfect host city for the Science Communication

A caricature of Thomas Huxley, from a 19th Century edition of Vanity Fair.
A caricature of Thomas Huxley, from a 19th Century edition of Vanity Fair.

Conference, not only because of the astounding number of scientists* that it has produced and nurtured, but also because of its commitment to communicating science in all of its various forms and guises – from the Manchester Beacon Network to the Manchester Science Festival.

The 2015 Science Communication Conference will be a wonderful opportunity for all aspiring Brewsters and Huxleys to come and share new ideas from across culture and society, with sessions available for a range of experience levels; from those looking for an introduction to science communication, to experts who want to have in-depth discussions about issues facing the sector. The key topics for the 2015 conference are: communicating through play, science communication for the public good, crowdsourcing, and telling stories with complex science & big data.

From Dalton to Novoselov and all in between, Manchester has been at the forefront of the science scene.
From Dalton to Novoselov and all in between, Manchester has been at the forefront of the science scene.

The call for proposals for sessions at the 2015 Science Communication Conference is now open, with an online form open to anyone who wants to propose a session that they would like to help organise. The deadline for proposals is 9th January 2015, so get submitting!

A handy set of FAQs to the conference can be found here; let’s all work together to ensure that Manchester is able to demonstrate why it is at the forefront of communicating science in this country.

Post by Sam Illingworth

* For my money the Oxford Road corridor must have hosted the highest number of aspirational scientists – from John Dalton & William Sturgeon to Andre Geim & Kostya Novoselov – per square mile in the UK.

Droning On

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are remotely or autonomously piloted aircraft. Whilst UAVs have recently been most associated with military applications, their use in the field of atmospheric science and environmental monitoring is rapidly growing, from the monitoring of carbon dioxide (Watai et al., 2006) and ozone (Illingworth et al., 2013) concentrations, to studying emissions at active volcano sites (Diaz et al., 2010).

Ground-based monitoring sites such as the Automatic Urban and Rural Network (AURN) in the UK, operated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), can provide measurements of surface level pollution concentrations. However, such fixed measurements are limited in their spatial coverage, as shown in Figure 1. Measurements from AURN are often used as validation datasets for regional air quality models such as the Met Office Air Quality Unified Model. Clearly, the inability of such sites to inform on a highly resolute scale can lead to a poor interpretation (and validation) of local environments.

Figure 1: Locations of AURN sites in the UK plotted on Google Earth. Pollution levels correspond to measurements taken on Friday 7th July 2013; data courtesy of Defra (
Figure 1: Locations of AURN sites in the UK plotted on Google Earth. Pollution levels correspond to measurements taken on Friday 7th July 2013; data courtesy of Defra (

An alternative to ground-based measurements is to use aircraft. However, such flight campaigns are not only expensive, but still also lack the required spatial resolution for many applications. Take  Manchester city centre as an example: this area has a diameter of approximately 2 km, while the UK’s atmospheric research aircraft is able to travel at ~ 100 ms–1. This means that a typical 1 Hz instrument (i.e. one that is able to take one measurement per second) would only be able to make approximately twenty measurements during an overpass of the city. Large research aircraft are also restricted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which often means they are unable to fly around urban centres or within the lower boundary layer.

UAVs offer an ideal alternative at such scales, bridging the gap between ground-based and traditional airborne methods, with the potential to deliver detailed, high-resolution and precise measurements at the local scale.

Low Altitude, Short Endurance (LASE) UAVs are relatively simple to operate, with simple ground-control stations and control mechanisms, requiring only a small crew. Their small size means that they can be hand-launched (i.e. thrown) from a variety of terrains, and in the UK, UAVs with an operating mass of 7 kg or less are exempt from the majority of the regulations that are normally applicable to large and manned aircraft.

Figure 2: An RQ-4 Global Hawk flying in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia).
Figure 2: An RQ-4 Global Hawk flying in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs can be larger than many general-aviation manned aircraft and may fly at altitudes of up to 20 km or more on missions that can extend for thousands of km. The NASA Global Hawk, a well-known example of a HALE UAV (shown in Figure 2), has a wingspan of almost 40 m, and a length of approximately 15 m.  The Global Hawk has been involved in a number of scientific campaigns since 2008 and has an operating altitude of 19,800 m and a flight endurance of over 30 hours, with a payload of ~750 kg.

Whilst UAVs undoubtedly get a bad rep because of their recent and well-documented use in military manoeuvres, with the continued miniaturization of highly accurate and precise sensors, the potential effectiveness of UAVs to make low-cost measurements, especially in remote, hazardous and politically unstable regions, continues to be the subject of much scientific and technological interest. And with Amazon recently getting in on the act, with Amazon Prime Air, their drone delivery service, it looks as though UAVs are here to stay.

Post by: Sam Illingworth


DIAZ, J. A., PIERI, D., ARKIN, C. R., GORE, E., GRIFFIN, T. P., FLADELAND, M., BLAND, G., SOTO, C., MADRIGAL, Y. & CASTILLO, D. 2010. Utilization of in situ airborne MS-based instrumentation for the study of gaseous emissions at active volcanoes. International Journal of Mass Spectrometry, 295, 105–112.

ILLINGWORTH, S. M., ALLEN, G., PERCIVAL, C. J., HOLLINGSWORTH, P., GALLAGHER, M. W., RICKETTS, H., HAYES, H., LADOSZ, P., CRAWLEY, D. & ROBERTS, G. 2013. Measurement of boundary layer ozone concentrations on-board a skywalker unmanned aerial vehicle. Atmospheric Science Letters, 15, 252–258.

WATAI, T., MACHIDA, T., ISHIZAKI, N. & INOUE, G. 2006. A lightweight observation system for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration using a small unmanned aerial vehicle. Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 23, 700–710.

A Scientist by Any Other Name…

Think of a famous Manchester-based scientist and your mind almost certainly conjures up
John Dalton (famous for his work on Atomic theory), Alan Turing (famous for the Engima
machine, and for being a mathematician and NOT a scientist) or Ernest Rutherford (famous for his work on radioactivity). Some of the more cerebral of you might even have thrown William Sturgeon (an English physicist, responsible for the first electromagnets) or Hans Geiger (a German physicist who helped to discover the atomic nucleus) into the mix. I would be surprised if anyone would have named Peter Mark Roget, yet we all use his research on an almost daily basis.

Peter Mark Roget (1779 – 1869) (Photo credit: Medical Portrait Gallery)

Roget, the son of a Swiss pastor, was born in London in 1779. He read Mathematics and Medicine at Edinburgh University, where his prestigious talent saw him graduate as a Doctor of Medicine at the ripe old age of 19. After his time in Edinburgh, he moved back south of the border and settled into a role at the Manchester Infirmary, where he was made chief surgeon in 1804, at the preposterous age of 25. His main work at the Manchester Infirmary was concerned with tuberculosis, and the potential effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic, publishing several papers on both topics. He also found time to form the Manchester Medical School.

In 1808 Roget moved back down to London, where he helped to establish the London Royal Society of Medicine as well as the University of London, whilst continuing to publish work on human, animal, and plant physiology and health. He also found time to serve as the secretary to the Royal Society, invent a pocket chess set and provide inspiration for the development of the Zoetrope (a cylindrical-shaped toy which displayed a set of pictures giving the illusion of movement – a precursor of modern cinema).

Inside the beautiful Portico Library (Photo credit: Jacqueline Poggi)

In 1840 Roget retired, enabling him to begin work on his greatest accomplishment – the snappily titled “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition”, which was first  published in 1852 (you can see its original format here). He first began compiling his thesaurus when secretary of the Portico Library in Manchester, which – for those of you who have yet to visit – is the perfect way to spend an afternoon over a book and a pot of tea.

Roget’s remarks in the preface to the first edition, in which he observes that, “Since my retirement from the duties of secretary to the Royal Society… I resolved to embark in an undertaking that has given me incessant occupation”, give some indication as the man’s formidable work ethic. He sadly spent most of his life battling depression (both his father and his wife died young, whilst his uncle committed suicide in front of him), and there is some thought that this gave rise to his work on the thesaurus.

A quite exceptional polymath, whose professional life and accomplishments leave a lot to be admired (not to mention envious of), I would like to extend my personal gratitude to this great man, without whom my lexicon would be as empty as a pachyderm’s trunk.

Post by: Sam Illingworth

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