Tag Archives: Institut Laue–Langevin

DNA: You’re Doing It Right

Or: wrapping up salmon semen

When I started out, I justified this blog’s creation by imagining that I would try to make the process of science a bit clearer. This would involve describing what actually happens in that murky void between some clever sod having an idea and the media wildly exaggerating them. In my head, this was inevitably accompanied by self-aggrandising metaphors: imagine beacons lighting the way for lost souls desperate for enlightenment and you’re in the right ball park. All I appear to have produced, however, are a few introspective musings, perhaps better described as sputtering gas flames when it comes to how illuminating and insightful they are. To remedy this, I thought it would be useful to explain what I am doing in Grenoble, as this might just constitute something worth reading.

Ludicrous dreams and badly-thought-out metaphors

My position at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) is a stagiaire – which I am reliably informed is equivalent to an intern, except for the fact that in France they must legally draw a salary. Thus France gains a green tick in my Big Book of Everything and, as my supervisor quipped, “score one for socialism.”

I have a long-suffering  post-graduate on an Erasmus Mundus masters course looking after me and for the past three weeks, her glorious role has consisted of patiently answering my simple questions and coping with my constant lack of understanding. Eventually though, the mists parted and the gist of the experiment slowly permeated into my consciousness.

The institute has a nuclear reactor which produces neutrons, particles that, along with protons, lie at the heart of atoms. These can be focused into beams that are used to investigate certain properties of materials. The principle of this is relatively straightforward: by looking (closely, with a really big lens, if you’d like a nice idea of what isn’t happening) at how the neutrons bounce off the  nuclei of a material, you can infer a lot about its structure and how it behaves. The actual process involves complex quantum-mechanical treatments of the neutron  and target but, thankfully, that’s a story for another day.

A different sort of Neutron

My supervisor, the masters student and myself are looking into DNA (hence the excitement about it in my last post) and its different forms. Although still essentially the same ol’ double helix, it can exist as  A, B, and Z-DNA. The first two are identical aside from the former being slightly more compact, whereas the Z form’s “ladder” twists in a different direction. The plan is to put some samples in front of a beam of neutrons and see whether we can force the molecules to change between the forms by exerting different pressures.

My first reaction was slightly-less-than-perceptive: “This is pretty fucking cool.” We’re investigating the behaviour of the molecule that codes for every single bit of our bodies. This collection of nucleotides is the reason that life is still hanging on here about four billion years after it started out and what allows you to spend about half of your time awake looking at what other people are doing on the internet; it’s pretty fundamental stuff.

Salmon sperm is a very plentiful source of DNA, so large quantities of this are necessary for the experiment (hence the admittedly attention-seeking subtitle) and it all must be aligned in the same way in order for the neutron scattering to reveal anything useful. It is then necessary to catch these DNA threads on a rotating cylinder in order to fix a large amount of it. While being an interesting mechanical process in itself, it literally takes hours to complete and must be meticulously observed in order for the samples to produce results that we can analyse. When sharing my woes with a friend at the ILL, he nodded sagely,  remarking that about 70% of his time was spent cleaning his apparatus. I clearly have a long way to go with understanding the life of a chemist.

Thanks guys!

After a few weeks of this, my enthusiasm has faltered slightly, especially due to my incompetence when it comes to any manual tasks. The noticeable absence of equations from the work also makes me slightly uneasy, as I’ve developed a habit of fleeing to numbers and data whenever I’m uncertain about something. This is tricky when your day’s work involves trying to catch minuscule white threads with a glass rod while swearing as loudly as possible.

However, we have been granted some elusive beam time, which means an end to the production of DNA samples and experimenting with neutron diffraction for up to 48 hours. Expect posts in the coming weeks to contain a hint feverish excitement with tinges of narcolepsy-induced bitterness.

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Science in Europe

So, after a few weeks of panicking and a jaunt to Paris to prepare for life in France, I’ve arrived in Grenoble, my home for the next two months. Aside from the sad realisation that I could remember next-to-nothing of my GCSE French (even with my best Del-Boy accent), it’s hard to overstate how simple this transition has been made for me. The process of confirming my place at the Institut Laue-Langevin consisted of a few emails expressing my interest in studying there, and finding accommodation for the time I was there was equally straightforward. It struck me that this needn’t be the case. Given the amount of paperwork which there must have been, I expected there to be a lot more hassle involved with confirming who I was, or even whether or not I was eligible to be accepted. It’s to the credit of both my university and the institute that the process was so uncomplicated. It’s also exceptionally lucky for me, as I sometimes struggle to find my way back home, never mind organise a few months’ stay in Europe.

Two months of thinking I live near the Misty Mountains

This level of connectivity is useful when it comes to any international collaboration, but it is vital in science. In order for research to be conducted efficiently, it must be as easy as possible for scientists to be able to cross borders, whether geographical or political. Otherwise, the variety of perspectives on a problem and disciplines with which it can be solved are instantly lost. The hugely international nature of such institutes as the ILL is reflected in their list of member states and also partly in the advice given to my Russian housemate that he would do well to learn German, French and Spanish, on top of  his flawless English. I was left feeling a bit short of the mark when I realised that j’ai un chat blanc* reflects my current ability with languages.

However, arriving here did make me feel very proud of being part of the European Union (um, politics, right?). I have the luxury of being able to learn from people at the forefronts of their fields in science (and even get paid for doing it) in a country I’ve never been to for more than a few days and this would be hard to imagine if weren’t for the freedom of movement within the EU. Just so you know, voting and retiring here is also very easy for me. Brilliant.

No, I’m not being paid to say this. If I was I’d do a much better job.

This post is obviously lacking depth and/or any real point (I’m hoping to develop the latter sometime before my two months are up), but I thought it was worth reflecting on. As long as everyone steers clear of the cretins behind the “Science: It’s a Grrl Thing!” campaign, obviously.

Look on in amazement and despair.

P. S. All of you guys clamouring for a more concise, and generally better prepared reflection on this should jet on over to Jon Butterworth’s blog page about it. He also has the benefit of knowing what the hell he’s on about.

*I don’t even have a white cat.

Introductions, Introductions…

Hello.

You are the internet. A gargantuan, frothing heap of constantly changing information, communication and cats. You document some of the greatest leaps in intellect since some slightly disorientated apes decided that walking didn’t seem such a bad idea after all, while ensuring that anyone can have the entire works of Shakespeare at the touch of a button (virtual or otherwise). You’ve also slowly taken over our lives, allowing us spark riots or condemn men after physically speaking to precisely no-one within a few decades. You are what makes us feel like we’re in the future. So this introduction is quite an important one, I feel.

I am a man (but don’t hold that against me), studying physics at undergraduate level in London. I occasionally attempt to contribute to other intelligent conversations in a bid to convince myself that I’m a Well-Rounded Person, but find myself starting to veer towards quantum information or 3D printing and hence, veering back towards the kitchen after a room’s worth of blank faces.

Science – as seen in Real Life™

This blog was quite a spontaneous decision that followed my flatmate’s proposal to write about her placement, but personally I think the narcissistic impulse to talk solely about myself for an extended period of time would have won me over sooner or later. The logic that led to this being created was a bit convoluted but essentially followed three simple steps.

  1. I know a bit about science
  2. I still don’t know what the hell “being a scientist” really consists of
  3. I would like someone to tell me what the hell “being a scientist” really consists of

1. I like science (yeah, this is going to come up a lot). It really is fantastic, from the historical um-ing and ah-ing of the natural philosophers, through the unfathomable leaps forward in almost every section of science during the renaissance and arriving at where we are today, paradigm-shifts and technological revolutions to boot. I like hearing people talk about it, whether it’s a new discovery that has popped up on someone’s news feed, or a new “moral issue” raised by a questionable publication that needs to be looked at rather more closely, it’s genuinely satisfying to listen to someone rambling on about something that interests them. And a huge part of why I got into it in the first place boils down to pictures like this:

*Only to be read in a mancunian accent

Oooh, look at the stars.

Either in spoken form, from my parents, or teachers or watching documentaries, this sort of imagery got me hooked. The “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW WAS BORN IN A STAR” talk, or the “YOUR BRAIN IS A BUNDLE OF NERVES AND CHEMICAL REACTIONS THAT CONJURES UP CONSCIOUSNESS” revelations – all in capslock. I was captivated and began to find out as much as I could about well, everything, subsequently become a massive pain to anyone who knew me.

2. This is obviously brilliant. The fact that there is a concerted effort to evoke strong enough reactions from children to get them into science for life is almost a wonder in itself (leaving the current disregard of the humanities aside – that deserves a hell of a lot more time spent on it than one self-centred blog). However, once I found myself Doing Science (in reality meaning as much as Doing Admin or Killing Time), I realised I still had very little idea about it. Aside from a few anecdotes in lectures, I had nothing more than the stereotypes of lab coated, glassware-wielding people looking intelligent to guide me as to what being a scientist actually involved. If I were to take television seriously, I would expect a lifetime striding across the continents, mingling with Brian Cox and David Attenborough as I stumbled across new wonders. I was unaware of even the process of becoming a scientist; of course I knew you needed a few letters here and there after you name but other than that, it was shrouded in mystery, and seemed far too much like the training of a terrible kung-fu B-movie protagonist.

On location, where else?

3. So, after (very fortunately) being allowed into France’s Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) to follow real, live scientists around as they fire X-rays and neutrons at various objects, I decided to document my experiences, in the hope of, perhaps, making it more evident what a young scientist actually gets up to in this day and age. It might well have some actual reliable FACTS in it, but will also (hopefully) be interesting to see what life is like in these sorts of institutions.

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?