BBC BLOGS - Gregory's First Law

Archives for March 2010

Glow in the dark chickens' eggs catch conman

David Gregory | 17:30 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010


Today we've been going behind the scenes on the story of the Bromsgrove conman who passed off eggs from battery chickens as free-range or organic.

He's now in prison and will have to pay back £3m in profits from the illegal scheme. There's more here.

It was the Government's "egg inspectors" who cracked (sorry) the scam. Using ultra-violet light to show up tell tale marks left on the eggs just after they were laid. Turns out eggs fluoresce in uv and that also reveals the marks left on the wet cuticle of a just laid egg. Once the cuticle dries the marks are preserved, hidden to the naked eye but visible to uv.

Battery egg under uv light showing marks left by the wire cage floorThe trained eye can spot the marks left on the egg by the bottom of wire battery cages or the hession conveyor belts used to transport the eggs. You should be able to see the two lines left by the wire cage on the egg in this picture.

This isn't the only time ultra-violet has exposed something interesting about birds eggs. According to this research from the Royal Society it helps explain why birds don't recognise cuckoo eggs amongst their own. While cuckoo and robin eggs look very difference to the naked eye in the ultraviolet range they look very similar. Perhaps birds rely more on the ultra-violet for their visual cues than the visible?

Fruit flies and alzheimer's

David Gregory | 10:19 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010


Brain scan from altheimer's patient. Red patches show parts of brain that have died offThose tiny and annoying specks that fly round a slightly fruity fruit bowl are vital to science. Fruit flies may be small but they provide great insight in human genetics.

They're also fascinating creatures to study. Next time you find one hovering over your bananas try trapping it in a tube. Fruit flies are hardwired to avoid light and move in the opposite direction to gravity. Which means they'll cluster at the top of the tube unless you shine a light on them. You might like to speculate why they've evolved like this.

This is the human Tau proteinFor scientists studying how alzheimer's works in humans the attractions of using fruit flies are clear. We know everything about the genetics of these insects and are also able to put human proteins into them. For alzheimer's work this allows researchers to put the human Tau protein and another human protein into the flies and see the results of the interaction of the two.

You find clumps of Tau protein inside the brains of people who have had alzheimer's. These clumps kill brain cells and eventually whole sections of the brain die too. And that causes alzheimer's. But we understand very little about what causes all this. We need basic research which means studying the interaction of these human proteins inside fruit flies.

And while you can dissect a fruit fly to learn what's gone on; it isn't an easy job. Fortunately in this case you can gauge the extent of the interaction of the two human proteins by the amount of disorder caused in the eyes of the flies. You can see just this in this picture, normal fly on the left and disordered eye on the right.

scanning electron microscope images of the eyes of two fruit flies
Of course the physicist in me sees a simple experiment where you just get a load of flies to breed and then bung 'em in the scanning electron microscope for their eyeball close-ups. In fact my lack of experience with biological systems means I had completely forgotten that a major part of the research is breeding up a large population of flies with all the right genes in all the right places to work with in the first place.

As the scientists conducting the study explained to me it is just a piece of the jigsaw. But the stigma associated with alzheimer's means research in this area is years behind the science of other big diseases like cancer. So these jigsaw pieces of basic research are essential to making the big picture that will lead to new treatments.

Giant flying pliers attack West Bromwich!

David Gregory | 15:41 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010


Google Maps glitch

Arrgh! Run for the hills... oh wait. It's another amusing Google Maps problem. Original here. Via Craig Keightley who sent it into the Register.

Privacy, Philosophy, Facebook and the War on Terror

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David Gregory | 16:37 UK time, Saturday, 13 March 2010


Security scannerWhat are you prepared to put up with to protect yourself from terrorist attack? Taking your shoes off to be x-rayed, having your emails analysed or going through a virtual strip-search in a scanner at an airport?

And if you are happy to put pictures of yourself streaking through a student party on Facebook do you have less of a right to moan about a scanner that can see through your underwear?

These and many other questions are being examined by philosopher Professor Tom Sorell from the University of Birmingham. As part of a European funded project he's meeting with manufacturers, government agencies and the police to discuss the impact of this new technology on all our lives.

He's the man from DETECTER which stands for Detection Technologies, Counter-Terrorism Ethics and Human Rights.

Professor Sorell works to make sure the technology being introduced to prevent terrorism doesn't violate the rights we all enjoy. The very rights that terrorists want to attack and that this technology is supposed to protect.

Chewing the fat in his book lined office on the Birmingham University campus I put it to him he's the very definition of an academic in an ivory tower. But he's refreshingly direct and also a practical man. Indeed he introduced me to the idea of "practical Philosophy". Philosophers wrestling with very concrete modern problems.

This particular project will end with suggestions for our Government and for Europe on the sorts of surveillance technology that is appropriate for certain threats and what isn't. And also how laws covering this area should be framed.

In the end what's the point of destroying our freedom with invasive technology that's actually supposed to be protecting it?

Philosophy on the front line of the war on terror.

Bang goes the coffee-powered car

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David Gregory | 16:26 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010


Jem and his coffee-powered carHere's Jem from "Bang Goes the Theory" ready to drive to Birmingham in his car powered by coffee grounds. And very early this morning off they set from BBC Television Centre at around 3am. It's certainly got plenty of attention.

Yan enjoys a coffeeFast forward to 8am and I turn up at Thinktank to welcome the car to Birmingham and wish it all the best as it pushes on to Manchester and its final stop at "The Big Bang Fair".

Word arrives from the support vehicle that the car is having a few difficulties. The M1 has been closed because of an accident and the car isn't coping very well with being stuck in traffic. Eventually the "car-puccino" makes it to Northampton and then breaks down at the service station.

Meanwhile Yan from the "Bang" team and I settle down to wait and generate some more coffee grounds to help fuel the car.

So how does it work? Well the team collected used coffee grounds from coffee shops. These were turned into pellets and are then placed in a charcoal boiler on the back of the car where they are heated up to 700c producing ash and also flammable hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The gases are then filtered and used to power the £400 secondhand Volkswagen Scirocco.

The big problems being the filters which need to be cleaned out every twenty or so miles and the refuelling which is every sixty. Combine this with a top speed of fifty miles an hour and even setting off at 3am it was clear an arrival time of 8am was perhaps optimistic. Here's Jem explaining things in more detail.

Twelve hours later and the car still hadn't arrived in Birmingham and the support team who had made it departed to attempt some running repairs on the M1 and then push on to Manchester. Sadly we can't film on the hard shoulder of a motorway so we had to call it a day.

The good news is the "Bang" team will be back in Birmingham with their live show in the summer and dates will be announced soon on their website.

Will the coffee-powered car be there? Well possibly. As we learnt today innovative new ideas aren't always the most reliable. Perhaps the fastest way to get from London to Birmingham in the future won't be the "car-puccino" but this instead.

UPDATE: The car finally made it to Manchester at 10pm last night. So London to Manchester via Birmingham in around 17 hours!

"Bang Goes the Theory" returns to BBC One at 1930 on the 15th of March.

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