A Review of November’s PubhD

PubhD November

X-Men vs Westworld vs Interstellar

The third Wednesday of the month can only mean one thing – PubhD at The Vat & Fiddle in Nottingham. This month we had three speakers talking about their research in cosmology, evolution and theme park design(!)

Moths get a bad rap, no one makes butterfly balls do they? However, the evolution of the peppered moth following the industrial revolution is one of the best examples of natural selection.

Alex started his talk with the moth example before pointing out how hard it is to research evolutionary biology in animals due to the time it takes. Even fruit flies take 10 days to reproduce. So Alex is doing his research on a virus – Theta x174 (catchy name)

By using genetically modified organisms to turn off the viruses inbuilt error correcting, he can force more mutations and then see what effect this has. So will more mutations mean more beneficial mutations.

Interestingly this virus lives on e-coli and has a genome that can be fitted onto a page of A4 when printed out. This makes it much easier to see where mutations have taken place. As a comparison, the human genome would take up approximately one quarter of Wikipedia.

Key learning: we have more e-coli cells in our body than human cells.

Next up was David, a man whose luxurious hair masked a anger at people who mistake amusement parks for theme parks. Apparently, a theme park without rides is still a theme park, an amusement park without rides is “a parking lot with popcorn”

I like the idea that in a theme park you’re trying to create a world with a narrative that you can step into. And it’s clearly big business. While Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade cost $40M to make, five years later the ride based on it cost $200M.

It’s interesting to learn some of the techniques that theme park designers use to try and get you to go through the park in a certain way. Some of it is very similar to the tactics employed by supermarkets. For example, the use of “anchors” – putting your biggest rides on the outside of the park so that guests have to walk past lots of smaller rides to get between them.

The thing that I found absolutely fascinating though was Disney’s use of forced perspective to make everything look bigger. For example, the ground floor of Main Street USA is built at actual size. The first floor is 7/8ths normal size and the second floor is 7/8ths of that. You’d never know to look at it and similar techniques using different sized windows mean that a castle that is only 180ft tall looks 300ft tall.

Key learning: Disneyland Tokyo has a frikkin’ volcano.

Rounding the night off was Ken who’s opening claim that “everything exciting happened in the past” didn’t go down well with those of us hoping that there will still be excitement in the future. Of course what he was actually talking about was the fact that peak star formation occurred some 3 billion years after the big bang.

So, as part of the “biggest Hubble experiment ever”, he is using UV absorption rates to identify new stars. Then he can see how many stars are forming and looking at red shift (similar to the Doppler effect) he can tell how far away they are and hence how old they are.

But not brown dwarfs. They’re just contamination.

As well as talking about “rock stars” – those that burn twice as bright only last half as long, we also discovered that the replacement for the Hubble telescope, the James Webb, is like Hubble on steroids. Cue a vision in my mind of mild mannered Edwin Hubble buffed up looking for a fight. We also heard that in 1000 billion years, there could be no new stars forming at all. Better start work on that bucket list.

Key learning: there is a galaxy shaped like cock and balls.

There’s no December PubhD due to everybody celebrating the winter solstice but it will return in January, celebrating our first birthday.


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