At-Bristol Science Centre

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Could there really be life on Mars?

Blogging science to life

Fri 9 October 2015, Lisa Heywood

What do rocket fuel, gold mine-loving bacteria and antifreeze have to do with finding life on Mars? Lisa from our Live Science Team fills us in. 

This week is World Space Week, meaning it’s time to celebrate all things space! We thought we’d take a look at one of the most exciting and cutting edge space stories of 2015: the discovery of liquid water on Mars. 

"Viking sunset". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So what’s the big deal? Every few months it seems that there’s a new story about water on the Red Planet. Up until now we were confident that there’s frozen water on Mars, and that there used to be liquid water too – maybe even oceans like on Earth. However, this new data proves that Mars has flowing, liquid water on it right now. All life as we know it needs liquid water to survive, so the latest discovery gives Mars a serious level-up on the list of places we might find alien life.

Except… there’s a slight hitch. You might have heard that Mars isn’t exactly the warmest spot in the Solar System, clocking in at an average temperature of -55˚C. So the only reason this water we’ve found isn’t frozen is because it contains salts. We know that salt lowers the freezing point of water – that’s why we put salt on the roads when they get icy. The salts that scientists have found in Martian water are perchlorate salts – or rocket fuel to you and me. So is that really much progress in the search for life?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Well, life as we know it is actually weirder than you might think. Living things are surprisingly good at getting everywhere, and surviving in the most extreme conditions you can imagine. One example of this that seems to be particularly trendy in the world of science reporting at the moment is the Tardigrade. These 8-legged critters measure up at around 0.5mm and can survive deadly ionising radiation, temperatures over 100˚C and under -200˚C, nearly 6000 times atmospheric pressure at sea level and the vacuum of outer space. Now that sounds impressive… but when we’re looking at candidates for an alien life lookalike there’s a sneaky word that can throw us off: survive. We can probably all agree that there’s a difference between living and simply surviving. Tardigrades don’t particularly like to live in those extreme conditions, but they will if they have to.

However, if we delve into the world of microbiology, we find that there are single celled organisms that just love living in extreme conditions. They’re imaginatively called extremophiles (literally “extreme-loving”) and come in all shapes and sizes. If you can think of a completely inhospitable environment, there’s probably a microbe that loves living there.

NASA / Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There’s one extremophile in particular that scientists think might be the closest thing to alien life down here on Earth. It’s named Desulforudis audaxviator, which is more poetic than it sounds. Audax Viator means “bold traveller” in Latin, a reference to Jules Verne’s book Journey to the Centre of the Earth – appropriate seeing as it was found 2.8km down a gold mine. It’s not easy to please, with a preference for radioactive rocks at temperatures around 60˚C, a severe aversion to oxygen, and a diet of sulphates and CO2. These picky requirements are great for the microbe – it’s got the place all to itself as the only living thing in its environment. However, the one thing it does have in common with us, and all other life that we know about, is that it needs liquid water to survive.

So, our antifreeze water on Mars is starting to look more hospitable. In fact scientists have already found bacteria on Earth that can process perchlorate salts, so why not on Mars? This is certainly an exciting time in the search for life beyond Earth, so keep an eye on the news!

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If a tree falls, and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? | Your Questions

Blogging science to life

Fri 2 October 2015,

Do unheard falling trees make sound? Why do people get squeamish? These are some of the amazing questions you asked, that we sent Florence and Will in search of answers to in our latest video!

Inspired by our News & Views area, look out for more videos in the Your Questions series!

Your questions

To keep up to date with all our latest videos, don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel

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World Space Week 2015!

Blogging science to life

Sun 4 October 2015, Jennifer Garrett

Today marks the start of World Space Week! Every year World Space Week is held on 4 - 10 October as an international celebration of all things Space. The dates honour two significant events:

  • 4 October, 1957: Launch of the Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. This event opened the way for space exploration, and provided scientists with valuable information.
  • 10 October, 1967: The signing of The Outer Space Treaty – the basic framework on international space law.

This year we’re celebrating by hosting Mind’s Eye, an exciting science and art installation from the team at Shrinking Space. Wander around an audio landscape of Mars, witness the Rosetta mission and journey past Saturn into interstellar space!

Shrinking Space

Here on the blog we’ll have a special Live Science post all about Mars, and on our social media channels we'll be sharing videos each day from our Astronomy playlist on At-Bristol’s YouTube channel.

Want more? Make sure you see our new 3D Planetarium show, Autumn Stargazing, with a special section on the latest news of water on planet Mars! Our other immersive presenter-led shows shows, Blue Marvel 3D show (age 10+) and Space Explorers (under 6s), will also be showing. 

During the week our Live Science Team will be busy rehearsing our brand new Destination Space! studio show. From 17 October you’ll be able to explore what life is like for an astronaut, as part of a programme of events at science centres all across the UK celebrating British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station.

Coming up in October we’re also bringing our adult evening Planetarium Nights back for Autumn. Tickets are available for 15 October and 22 October.

Have a cosmic World Space Week from all of us at At-Bristol Science Centre!

Staff photo

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Why do you spin a rugby ball? | The Physics of Rugby

Blogging science to life

Mon 28 September 2015,

To celebrate the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Ross and Bonnie investigate the science of the spin pass and chat to Jen Palmer from England's touch rugby squad to get some top passing tips!

Why do you spin a rugby ball?


To keep up to date with all our latest videos, don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel!

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Explore, Inspire, Create: 15 years of At-Bristol Science Centre

Blogging science to life

Tue 8 September 2015, Jennifer Garrett

At-Bristol Science Centre turned 15 this summer! Opening in 2000, our vision as an educational charity is to "make science accessible to all". 

From explosive live science shows, to hands-on experiments and trips around the Solar System in the Planetarium, as well as working with community groups around Bristol, we encourage everyone to investigate and engage with science by inspiring curiosity.

15th birthday picture

“We’ve certainly come a long way from where we started in 2000, and we’ve got some exciting plans in the pipeline..." said our Chief Executive, Phil Winfield. 

So, to celebrate, we made a film about what we do here and why more than 4 million of you have visited us since we opened! We asked our visitors, teachers, community leaders, our staff and the Mayor George Ferguson why they love At-Bristol... we hope you like it!

15th Birthday video!
View our 15th birthday video on YouTube

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    We need Your Questions!

    Blogging science to life

    Fri 28 August 2015,

    How many bones are in a giraffe? This is just one of the hundreds of brilliant questions that we get asked every day here in At-Bristol!

    We LOVE answering your weird and wonderful questions, in fact we enjoy answering your questions so much that we're launching a whole new series of videos where we do just that!

    news and views
     Click here to view video

    Send us your questions on social media or leave them in the comments and we'll pick our favourites to answer in an upcoming series of videos called 'Your Questions'

    Get thinking...!

    To keep up to date with all our latest videos, don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel!

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    5 things you don’t want to miss at Bristol Mini Maker Faire!

    Blogging science to life

    Wed 19 August 2015, Jennifer Garrett

    This Saturday we’re hosting Bristol Mini Maker Faire, a free family-friendly celebration of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, set to be the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth!

    Expect hacked hamsters and robotic portrait artists...

    Maker Faire Bristol

    From tech enthusiasts to crafters and scientists to garage tinkerers, they’ll all be showing off their latest projects. With so much going on, we’ve put together our top five things not to miss!

    • Bristol Hackspace: Shonkbot workshops. Want to start ‘hacking’ but don’t know how? Then don’t miss these workshops on how to make cheap, easy to build robots - perfect for beginners. Read more about ‘Shonkbots’ in this feature on Hackaday!
    • Ellie Palmer Puppetmaker: Discover how to make your own muppet-style puppet with local puppeteer Ellie. Ellie will be showing examples of her work and providing an insight into the puppet-making process so that you could have a go at making your own!
    • Rusty Squid: Our harbourside neighbours from across the water will be showcasing their latest project Heartfelt – as seen at Bristol Proms. Meet the team behind these hand-held robotics hearts as they tell the story of their development and reveal the mechanisms inside.
    • Our very own Beth Cotterell: Meet Martin, Bristol’s first tweeting hamster! Chat to At-Bristol’s own Live Science Team member Beth Cotterell, as she describes how and why she hacked her hamster. Follow Martin the hamster on Twitter.
    • Giant sketchy: Take your own portrait home, by local robot ‘Giant Sketchy’ – a giant phone-powered robot that can draw! As seen at UK Maker Faire.

    So don’t miss all this and so much more on Saturday 22 August from 10am to 5pm – still time to book your FREE ticket here.

    Bristol Mini Maker Faire

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    How do robots copy animals?

    Blogging science to life

    Fri 14 August 2015,

    Falcons, walruses, lobsters; they all have one thing in common. They are helping engineers to design and build the next generation of exciting robots!

    Beth of the Live Science Team visits the Bristol Robotics Laboratory to find out more about the cutting edge science of biomimicry.

    Expect lots of awesome robots and one amazing peregrine falcon!

    Robots V animals

    This video was supported by UWEUniversity of Bristol, and Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

    To keep up to date with all our latest videos, don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel!

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    How to make a water filter | Do Try This At Home

    Blogging science to life

    Mon 20 July 2015,

    Water is essential to life on Earth. But how does the water get from the rivers and streams to your tap at home? Ross & Heather of the Live Science Team show you how to make a water filter and visit Bristol Water treatment works to investigate the science and engineering behind a glass of water.

    If you're around At-Bristol and Millennium Square, you can fill your water bottle from the new, free, public water fountain on Millennium Square, thanks to the folks at Bristol Water. 

    How to make a water filter



    To keep up to date with all our latest videos, don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel

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    Steak, cake and brown sludge!

    Blogging science to life

    Fri 10 July 2015, David Judge

    David from Live Science Team explores why browned food tastes so good!

    Almost every day I walk past the back of a bakery and I’m tempted by the delicious aromas of freshly baked goods. Sometimes I give in. I love baked foods and I love baking. But it has always seemed like a bit of a dark art to me. You put a soggy mess into the oven and out comes something delicious. As it turns out, chemistry has an awful lot to do with it. One reaction in particular, which was discovered over one hundred years ago, is responsible for the whole variety of aromas which lure me through the bakery door.

    Cake chemistry
    Find out more about the chemistry of baking on our YouTube channel

    The story of this chemical reaction takes us on a journey through the 20th Century, back to France, 1912, when chemist Louis-Camille Maillard was trying to imitate in the lab how the body makes the proteins it needs to live and grow. Maillard noticed that instead of reacting as he expected, the sugars and amino acids which he had mixed together slowly turned into a brown sludge.

    Brown sludge, politely called melanoidin, unsurprisingly failed to capture many scientists’ interest, and the Maillard reaction, as it is called, remained unstudied for several decades.

    That's Maillard... not Mallards.

    However the Second World War revived interest in the reaction when it was noticed that processed foods eaten by the troops, such as powdered eggs and tinned food, would slowly turn brown and taste unpalatable. Once they had worked out that it was the same reaction which had made brown sludge in the lab, scientists focussed on how to stop the Maillard reaction from happening at all. It seems strange that the same reaction which makes the crust on a nice bread roll so delicious is the same reaction which can make some foods taste bad.

    It wasn’t until 1953, when an African-American scientist, John Hodge, put together all of the pieces of the puzzle, that we really understood exactly what was going on. During the process, which works best between 140 and 165˚C, amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, react with sugars. Both of these types of chemicals are found in almost all types of food, in an abundance of variety. When this reaction occurs, hundreds or even thousands of products can be formed, each depending on the amino acid which they came from. These contribute to the aromas and flavours of foods such as meat, popcorn, caramel, cake, onions, chocolate, bread...

    Roast dinner
    We can thank the Maillard reaction for roast dinners and pints too!

    ...Basically, if it is brown, the Maillard reaction probably had something to do with it!

    Nowadays scientists aren’t just interested in stopping the Maillard reaction when it makes food taste bad, but they also try to control it to create certain flavours and aromas. In fact every time we cook we are using this reaction, even if you’ve only ever just made toast.

    I’m not sure if knowing about the Maillard reaction will help me to resist what’s on offer at the bakery, but maybe next time I’ll at least pause for thought before wolfing down a tasty treat.

    Find out more!

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