BBC BLOGS - Gregory's First Law

Archives for August 2009

Robot fish farms and A Levels

David Gregory | 11:48 UK time, Thursday, 20 August 2009

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I'll be out of circulation today as I'm in a meeting to discuss some exciting science experiements we've planned for September. Being tv science we will of course be blowing stuff up. But more seriously we're also looking at how risk is reported by the media and we'll need your help for the experiment. More about that shortly.

To keep you going check out this amazing report on robot deep sea fish farms described here It's a source of sadness that I rarely get to cover stories about our oceans because I work in a landlocked patch. But this is too interesting to pass up.

Large letter AFinally a quick word to anyone getting their A Level results today. Poor results aren't the end of the world. I went through clearing and still managed to do a PhD in Physics before ending up at the BBC. Good Luck!

Identify the mystery moth or butterfly

David Gregory | 16:46 UK time, Wednesday, 19 August 2009

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butterflyfinal.jpgThis was a surprise visitor to my flat late last night. It certainly behaved like a moth with an almost suicidal attraction towards hot halogen lights. I didn't get much of a look at it while I safely guided it outside. But what I thought was a colourful moth looks more like a butterfly, I'd say a peacock, in the cold light of the picture that's just been emailed to me.

Mind you I am notoriously bad at moth spotting. I've been lucky enough to spend the odd night out with researchers marvelling at our moths and the great names the Victorians gave them. But identfying them properly is a skill I can't master. (It's the same with fungi, experts have politely put me right when gathering wild mushrooms less I wake up with a stomach ache or worse I don't wake up at all!)

Studying moths is one of those rather brilliant areas of science when amateurs can still make as much of a contribution as the professionals. Indeed I spent a pleasant lunch hour on the UK Moths website just in case I'd found something new. Moths always surprise, did you know some look like hornets?

Still almost definately an insomniac peacock butterfly. Unless of course you know different...

Friday Fun. Sniffing chemicals

David Gregory | 10:40 UK time, Friday, 14 August 2009

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a bottle of perfumeIt's only natural when you start a science blog to pay even more attention to the rest of the blogosphere. But I didn't expect to learn so much about chemistry from someone writing about perfume and aftershave.

Scent Notes is a New York Times blog written by Chandler Burr. Now my expertise with aftershave is three different squirts in duty-free and buying the least offensive with a litre of vodka.

But Mr Burr really makes you look at smell them again. The writing is excellent. Smell and scent are extremely slippery things when most of us try to describe them but here they are pinned down like a collection of butterflies.

What really interests me is the linking of certain chemicals to particular smells. So there's discussion of steryl acetate, isobutylquinolines, fluorocarbons and synthetic linalool. And all alongside some of the biggest fashion brands on the planet.

Which seems odd. Today companies are very twitchy about how we feel about chemical names. Even the word chemistry itself. But it wasn't always so. In 1982 Dupont changed its famous slogan "Better things for better living... Through Chemistry" and dropped the last two words. Dupont of course was a chemical company. These days its slogan is "Miracles through science". Hmmm.

I have happy memories of identifying new chemical compounds by their smells though I never found anything I'd want to splash all over my body. It's fascinating to see chemicals named and celebrated (and sometimes condemned) for how they smell and the role they play in this billion dollar industry

What science questions do kids ask you?

David Gregory | 13:53 UK time, Wednesday, 12 August 2009

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Just appeared on Radio Stoke to discuss this story with the always entertaining Stuart. According to the BBC website

Four in five UK parents have been stumped by a science question posed by their children, a poll has suggested.
So Radio Stoke wanted me to help their listening parents out.

I ducked out of helping with the most popular question, "Where do babies come from?" Sorry, you're on your own there. But the others were very interesting included one I hadn't been asked before: "Why don't dogs get sore throats from barking?"

barking dogThe answer is they do, but because dog language is a good deal simpler than ours, doggy vocal chords are less sophisticated and rather more robust. So they can bark for longer than we can shout. It means yelling at a dog to stop barking is pretty pointless although a dog will get a sore throat in the end.

But the question that stumped me concerned the weather. "Why does it tend to rain during the day and clear up at night?" I'd never heard that before and frankly I can think of reasons why it might be true and why the reverse might be true too. I suspect it's a mixt of both with local geography having an impact. But if you know more let me know.

Update Simon Keeling who is one of our Midlands Today weather presenters and posts here has been in touch.

Well, normal frontal rain occurs both during the day and at night. (You know the stuff that moves in as bands off the Atlantic.) I think what the listener is referring to is convective rain. This is the stuff borne from the fluffy cumulus clouds that bubble up during the day and unleash their energy as showers. The clouds are created by the heat of the day, building and eventually producing the rain. They rely on the atmosphere above the ground being cool relative to the surface as this 'instability' then allows the clouds to build.

So now you know. Rain does clear up at night. Observant listeners at BBC Radio Stoke.

Why science needed the Royal Show

David Gregory | 12:45 UK time, Thursday, 6 August 2009

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fodder
Filming on a farm in the sunshine is a very different experience to filming in the rain. So I was overjoyed to have to break out the sunglasses for this morning's job on a small-holding near Rugby.

We were looking at a hydroponic system developed by a Coventry company to turn dry seeds into sprouted green-grass to feed to farm animals. The company behind it is already having some success in the dusty Australian outback with large automatic units churning out three tonnes of fresh grass every day.

The idea isn't new, but Fodder Solutions believe they have the hydroponic expertise to make it work on any scale.

To launch the system here they took a stand at The Royal Show which is where I came across them. They say the show delivered some fifty solid business leads for them. Sadly that was the last Royal Show and in the future companies with ideas like this would have to target several more specific trade shows which would cost them more.

And it means there's less chance of farmers stumbling across the one new idea that could have a really big impact on their business.

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