• scissors
    April 30th, 2014ImogenUncategorized
    Someone please buy me a donkey

    Donkeys have the best ears

    Do your ears ever jump? Occasionally, when I hear a sudden sound I feel something in my ears twinge. This seems to happen more frequently when the sound might be attention-worthy. I’ve asked several people about this and they all think I’m crazy. Surely I can’t be the only one with involuntary ear innervations?

    I have a theory that this is related to ear wiggling. My Grandpa wiggles his ears as a party trick and my mum can be persuaded to as well. Apparerently 15% of the population has the genes necessary for the little ear twitching muscles and these can be inherited.

    The auriculares muscles are leftover from a time when we needed to move our ears to hone in on particular sounds. When alarmed, it makes sense that your ears should prick up to hear better in the same way that your eyes widen so you can see better.

    My only problem is I can’t twitch my ears on demand. What’s the point of useless evolutionary throwbacks if you can’t use them to entertain yourself? I’m going to practice with the ears, and if that doesn’t work then I’m going to eat some grass and train my appendix.

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  • scissors
    November 5th, 2013ImogenUncategorized

    Can you imagine what we would do without proprioception? We would have to carry mirrors everywhere we went so we could eat without sticking food up our noses. I was thinking about this as I was riding the other day and the horse was happily picking her way down a track much narrower than her body. This steed is no sylph and although horses have a much wider field of vision than us she still can’t see all her feet at once. How does she stick to the path?
    Look at this great slow-motion footage captured by Centaur Biomechanics of showjumping horses at last year’s Olympics. The first horse lifts his back feet at the last second to clear the pole. This isn’t a fluke- it’s a well-practiced manoeuvre, but clearing the jump requires them to have a clear perception of how far their feet are from the pole that’s now out of their field of view. This is proprioception. Here are some fun facts on proprioception!

    • The word propriception comes from the Latin word “proprius”, which means “one’s own”

      Liffey on the common

      The best view in the world, brought to you by proprioception!

    • Proprioceptive information is gathered from stretch receptors in the muscles and the joint-supporting ligaments, and also the balance and motion receptors in the inner ear.
    • This sense can be impaired by alcohol, which is why touching your fingertips to your nose is a sobriety test. An error of more than 20mm leads to a failure.
    • You can actually develop better proprioception from things like doing exercises on a wobble board, or juggling, or sport in general. Proprioception pros can do a squat standing on a gym ball (check out a proprioception-honing workout here). A common suggested exercise for teaching young horses better proprioception is to walk or trot them over poles which are raised at one end. Horses don’t like knocking their hooves on the poles so they’ll learn to pick their feet up at the right time.
    • There’s an interesting case where a man forgot how to propriocept (is that a word?) because of a viral infection and he replaced proprioceptive with visual feedback. That means he had to walk around looking at his feet all the time. Very inconvenient!
  • scissors
    May 14th, 2013ImogenUncategorized

    Wonderful Water Thing #1

    From my previous post, you may have realised that my house isn’t that warm. The place I’m living in was built in the 18th Century and isn’t exactly airtight, but water vapour from cooking and breathing still builds up inside the house. The thing is, cooler air holds less water, so when the air reaches a cooler surface, water falls out of the air and sticks to the cold surface. This appears as condensation on windows.

    This is how clouds are made too. Air gets cooler as you get further away from ground level, so at a certain distance from the ground the air will reach a temperature where it can no longer hold the water vapour dissolved in the air, and the bits of water that had been dispersed in the air start to stick together and reflect light. This makes them appear white. The height at which this happens is known as the cloud base. Window condensation is basically a cloud stuck to your window, so that’s actually pretty exciting.

    Watery Wonderful Thing #2

    I was driving home from work today and there was a humungous rainstorm. I was seriously glad I was not on my bicycle, or I think I would have dissolved in it. The sunshine with the rain made a rainbow pop up but it was so low in the sky I could see both ends through my windscreen. This realisation did nothing for my concentration. The thought of pots of gold hiding on the golf course is enough to make a girl lose her hubcap.
    It turns out that the height a rainbow will occur at is linked to the time of day. A rainbow is essentially a circle, and the circle’s centre is at the opposite point in the sky from the sun. At sunrise or sunset, this point will be on the horizon, so the rainbow will be at its highest. As the sun rises, the bow’s centre gets lower so that its centre is below the horizon and to us it looks smaller. The rainbow always appears to have the same radius of 42˚, so when the sun is 42˚ high only the top of the rainbow is visible over the horizon.

    I say appears, because the rainbow is not fixed in space, as you will know if you’ve ever tried to reach the end of one. It really is just a mirage, you can never get any closer to it because it’s not really there.

    Wonderful Watery Whatsit #3

    The third amazing thing is very simple and I noticed it when I was soaking my rice this evening in a few centimetres of water (this is pretty low tech). I was moving the saucepan back and forth waiting for the kettle to boil and I realised that as the water moved, the base of the saucepan appeared to be rocking up and down.

    Rainbow over the park

    Today's rainbow from the same window

    As the bigger mass of water came over a spot, the water refracted the light more. The effect of this is make the distance between us and the object appear smaller, so the base of the saucepan appears closer the more water is over it. As the water rocks away the light is refracted less and the base appears further away again. Wibbly wobbly saucepan! It’s like magic. I recommend a big saucepan for the best effect.

    There are like a zillion more amazing things that water does. This is just the tip of the iceberg (ahahaha).

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  • scissors
    January 9th, 2013ImogenUncategorized

    Hello science fans. Now that I have graduated University and become a Real Person With a Job and Everything, I have become best friends with my hot water bottle. To the extent I mention it so often in texts that it has become abbreviated to HWB. There is, I am discovering, an art to filling a hot water bottle so that it provides enough heat for enough time without being too unbearably hot.

    The problem is, I always get distracted and don’t stop the kettle before it boils. Boiling water makes for an HWB that’s too hot under the duvet. But when I add cold water to the near-boiling water, this just feels a bit wrong. Basically, I lied when I said this is an art. It’s not, it’s a science, and here’s why.

    Let’s say that instead of water in my container, I have identical rocks. Each rock has a hotness score or 0-10 where 0 is room temperature (the temperature all rocks are going to cool to eventually) and 10 is super duper hot. A group of rocks collectively loses one hotness point per minute as it cools. Par example…

    Scenario 1: I use 10 rocks each of hotness 1 so my container is at temperature 1. I have 10 hotness points and this keeps me warm for 10 minutes. Hmm not good enough.

    Scenario 2: I use 5 rocks each of hotness 10.. This gives me a total of 5×10=50 hotness points so my container keeps me hot for 50 minutes. A container which starts at hotness 10 is too warm though

    Scenario 3: As a compromise, I use 10 rocks of hotness 5. This equals the same amount of hotness points as before, so keeps me warm for the same amount of time as Scenario 2 but the starting average temperature of 5 is perfect!

    Scenario 4: I’m so pleased with my success from Scenario 3 that I forget the rest of my rocks are on the fire and I come back to find they are now all 10 hotness points. Oh no! Too hot! What to do? I need 50 hotness points and a starting temperature of 5 for optimum bed cosiness. If I take 5 rocks of hotness 10 from the fire and add 5 rocks of 0 hotness (room temperature) then the average (overall) temperature is now (10+10+0+0)/4=5 hotness, and I have 50

    hotness points to keep me warm for ages! Hooray!

    This means that if I use near-boiling water and then add cold, it will give me a hot water bottle which is not too hot, which will last for longer!

    You are welcome.


    Not 42, just HWB
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  • scissors
    March 1st, 2012ImogenUncategorized

    Noble, gaseous air. Can’t live without it, can’t walk over it. If you’re not an Olympic swimmer then you probably spend most of your waking hours moving through air. Therefore, as well as serving a perfunctory functional purpose, a bath can be a bit of respite. A change of scene- or state, if you will. However, next time you have a bath, there’s no need to just sit there! Did you know that there is a whole host of micro-experiments you can try out, all from the comfort of your lavender scented water? Here are my top 3 favourites.

    1. Wave Interference

    Unless you are some sort of bath-drawing pro, there’s always some essential water mixing to be performed. This is a perfect opportunity to make something constructive. Or destructive, if you so wish. Make some waves travel down the bath then watch as they are reflected by the end of the bath and travel back on themselves. Where two peaks intersect you will get constructive interference and the wave will be bigger and splashier. If a peak and a trough meet then they will cancel each other out and you’ll get a ‘node’, or flatness.

    This is exactly how noise cancelling headphones work: the headphones listen to the ambient noise around you and play you a sound wave that is the exact opposite to the noise. The ambient sounds are cancelled out by the new wave and so you don’t hear it. This is why these devices work better for environments with constant noise levels- when you are on an aeroplane, for instance.

    2. Manual Airfoil

    Technically a waterfoil, but that sounds like a duck or something. If you make a cupped shape with your hand under the water and sweep it along your leg, you will feel a suction pulling your palm towards your lallies. This works best if you hold your hand as close as possible to your leg without actually touching it.

    Your hand is moving through the water like the wing of an aeroplane moves through the air. As the water moves over the curved back of your hand it has to travel faster than it does under your flat palm. The slow moving water under your hand creates a region of lower pressure, effectively sucking your hand in that direction. So really, planes don’t fly, they’re just suckers.

     self portrait

    3. Living on Jupiter

    Ok so you’ve made waves, swooshed your hands around, splashed lots of water on the floor, and maybe got a bit cleaner too. Before you turn into a complete prune it’s time to get out, but you’re just so relaxed and comfy. Instead of arising abruptly and possible getting a head rush and falling and hitting your head on the sink and having a brain haemorrhage (don’t say I didn’t warn you), try number 3 instead. Lie in your bath and take the plug out. As the water line drops further, you will start to feel strangely heavy. Your muscles have had a bit of a holiday, aided by the buoyancy of the water. Now the water’s gone there is no upthrust, only a force of approximately 1 Newton per Kilo pulling you towards the centre of the Earth. Now, don’t you feel like you’ve just come back from the moon?


    If you like to take some refreshment at bathtime then be sure to check out my other blog post Slurpy Bath Tea, it’s essential reading on the topic.

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  • scissors
    January 15th, 2012ImogenUncategorized

    This term I have been enjoying the work for the module “Communication of Scientific Ideas”. One of the pieces of coursework calls for a scientific radio show. I had the pleasure of working with Jennifer Mahoney, Tessa Jones and Amy Yau and we had a great time making it. I think you will agree that Jen has a beautiful radio voice and made an excellent host.

    If you attend carefully you may hear me referred to as ‘Dr’ Imogen House. Alas I have not completed a PhD, I was merely masquerading as a researcher, borrowing the story of Clare Elwell. Clare is a Professor in my home department and I have done another couple of pieces of work based on the interview she gave me a couple of months ago about her fascinating work. Stay tuned for further updates.
    Our show- “The Pink Room” has two fascinating interviews with two up-and-coming lady scientists, and an update on all the latest (a couple of months ago) science news. We hope you enjoy it!

    The Pink Room – episode 1

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  • scissors
    November 29th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    After 3 and three quarter hours, it emerged from the oven to the exultant tones of Handel.

    There it sat in its double lined saucepan, a giant nugget of cakey, fruity, boozy goodness. Behold! I cried, brandishing the improvised tin at my dozing mother: a cake is born!

    The Reactants

    This weekend saw the first Stir-Up Sunday in a generation of Houses. At the grand age of 21 I decided that I wanted to have a go at making a Christmas cake, since I love Christmas and I love cake, so why not? When I declared this to my parents they were somewhat bemused since Houses don’t really “do” Christmas cake, nor pudding. Aware of the gaping abyss of mixed peel, brandy and baking times opening up before me I consulted Grandma House on the matter, hoping to receive some treasured handed-down recipe. Alas, none such was to be found. I heard from my Grandma that once she made Christmas puddings every year, a whole year in advance. She told me, without nostalgia, that a time came when you could buy puddings “that were just as good” from shops and so she hung up her pudding basin.

    It seemed odd to me that someone of my Grandma’s generation would value commercial produce over homemade, but then, when my Grandma was 17, WWII broke out. After rationing I’m sure the idea of buying your Christmas pudding was a huge step up from powdered eggs and hoarding butter rations. Now, in my generation, making things is back in vogue. Anyone can buy a chunky cable knit snood from Topshop, but who can make their own? (I couldn’t, but my sister did). Sure, you could just pop down to Tescos and purchase your Finest Christmas Pudding with caramelised holly leaves and a miniature of brandy for singeing your eyebrows with. However, who has the time to stir 2lbs of dried fruit into a gloopy mix and then bake it upon a sheet of newspaper for almost four hours? The excessive labour is part of the love that goes into it. Only once a year can such extravagance for one single baked good be justified.

    Only a mother could love it

    If no one else likes the luscious/delicious/blasted cake and it takes me until Easter to finish eating the concoction then so be it! If anyone would like to give me a hand, please send stamped addressed cake boxes from Boxing Day onwards. Only put quite a lot of stamps on because it’s pretty dense.

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  • scissors
    August 4th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    This week’s science question comes from my dear mama. She asks “Why do I dribble when I sip my champagne in the bath?”.

    Just for clarification, the champagne is wishful thinking and my mum is much more likely to be drinking tea. Either way, why is it that one who knows much better can’t help getting tannins in her bathwater?

    The answer is surface tension. Alike molecules­­ attract and hold on to each other via cohesion. H20 is a polar molecule, so it has both a positive and negative end which means that one H20 can turn around and attract another. Water molecules form a linked surface layer which tries to resist attempts at breaking it. You can see this in drops of water clinging together on a hard surface, or that well known systematic error-source, the meniscus (for future reference, one must always measure from the bottom of the meniscus). Rivulets of water running down your window follow the path of least resistance, and this means the path that is already wet. Drinking when your face is wet elicits the same effect: water does not retain its surface tension and flow exactly where it is directed, but follows the path which has already been laid by your bubbly beard experiments.Minimise those errors!

    The solution I would suggest to my mum as she gets tipsy on her PG is either 1) dry thine face or 2) use a straw. Anything else is likely to result in a tragic loss of beverage.


    Is there a scientific issue you’re curious about? Is there something you wish you could hear explained simply? If so, drop me a line at [email protected], on twitter via @imogenhouse or using the contact form, and I’ll break it down for you so you need never lack the answer again.

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  • scissors
    July 2nd, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    Do you have a place you walk past every day, always wondering what’s inside? For me, that place is the Wellcome Trust. As a student at UCL I often cut through Gower Place and I always peer in the windows to get a glimpse of the beautiful trees and cool professional-looking people chilling in the Wellcome Trust’s atrium. I always think how great it would be to work there. That would be my cafe! Those would be my colleagues! Also, they have revolving doors. How cool is that?! However the other day, by the grace of a very generous friend, I was lucky enough to have to chance to explore its hallowed halls.

    The Wellcome Trust held a competition the select the lucky participants of their “Tweet-Up Tour” and my friend Ant Newman was witty enough to win a place. However, when he found he couldn’t go he managed to wangle me on in his place. So it was that I rocked up to 215 Euston Road at five to 6 last Tuesday feeling rather jammy.

    The tour started off with short talks about the massive paintings in the two seating areas off the reception. The one on the left shows 16th Century scholar Dr John Dee demonstrating a scientific experiment. In the audience in his home in Mortlake are Queen Elizabeth I and assorted courtiers. The second is of participants of one of the first International Medical Congresses at a garden party held by Angela, Baroness Burdett-Courts in 1881. Both are stunning, and free for the public to admire (as is the rest of the Wellcome Library). So next time you’re passing I would thoroughly recommend popping in for a look. As an added bonus, you get to go through the revolving doors when you go in (always fun).

    We then continued into the 7-storey high atrium that rises between the open-sided floors of offices. At the Gower Street end of this space is the Bleigiessen sculpture. This was definitely my favourite part of the tour, just because of its sheer awesome glittering-ness. The sculpture is formed from 142,000 glass beads about an inch across strung on 840 kilometres of wire. At first I thought the twisting shape was suspended from above but we were informed that each vertical wire holds about 3 beads, suspended in just the right place to form the three dimensional shape. This makes it look a bit like the sparkling cloud is hanging in a steely haze. To see a video about its genesis click here.

    My phone's camera was blinded by the awesomeness of Bleigiessen, but I think you can see how excited I was.

    The sculpture is visually stunning, but a huge amount of planning went into its formation. The original lead shape (about the size of my hand) was scanned at a London hospital to create a 3D plan for the assembly. I would have loved to have known more about this bit but I think my fellow tourers were not quite as nerdy about medical imaging methods… The Thomas Heatherwick Studios also did more than 400 tests to form the perfect poured shape to be scaled up. A lot of science went into forming this piece and in my opinion the end result is truly worth it.

    After zooming up in the glass lift to see the sculpture from the top, we went back down and crossed from the Gibbs building to the Wellcome Library next door. In the Rare Materials Reading Room were exciting treasures to behold such as an original manuscript of John Dee’s (that guy in the painting in the foyer) and a sketch of the DNA double helix by Francis Crick. The latter drawn before the paper which was to win him and his partner James Watson a share of the Nobel Prize was published. See a picture of this taken by my fellow tourer Deborah Granger (@DebGrainger) here. The blunt-pencilled sketch is beautiful in its imperfection. You can still see where he rubbed out the guidelines and the bases look slightly blobby and misaligned.  I found it incredibly heartening to know that even the “discoverer” of the double-helix structure met slight problems when trying to draw it by hand, as do students up and down the country. Just because you know what something should look like doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to realise it on paper, however much or a molecular biology genius you are.

    In the semifreddo climate-controlled store room we were shown a couple of paintings stored on very nifty sliding racks (kind of like vertical drawers). One was actually a poster promoting the mineral water Agua de Vilajuiga. Our guide (the Curator of the Wellcome Collection, I believe) told us that this was the favourite water of Salvador Dali, and ruminated that perhaps the high lithium content (as promoted in the last line of the poster) was a contributing factor to Dali’s eccentricity.

    Being foolish and too in-the-moment I did not take note of any of the names of the wonderful members of staff who showed us round. However they were all very friendly and generously shared a huge amount of knowledge with us. I’d like to say a massive thank you to the Wellcome Trust for letting us in and to the staff for giving us their time.


    If you want to see the Bliegiessen for yourself (I think you do) then the video link above gives details of the tours that run on Friday afternoons. Also you should check out my good chum Ant at @ant_newman because he was the one he made this possible.


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  • scissors
    June 24th, 2011ImogenUncategorized

    There are those among us who, I know, feel less than fond towards cats (cough, my boyfriend, cough). I am on the opposite camp and am probably in the at-risk group to become a “crazy cat lady” later in life. In evidence of this, last night my cat was sleeping in my bed with me, under the duvet. If this sounds weird to you then all I can say is that you have obviously never been loved by a cat. Anyway, my cat was curled up under the duvet and as I fell asleep I was thinking, how does she not get super hot? Cats do not appear to sweat or pant, so how do they keep cool?

    Marble keepin it real

    As it turns out I am wrong on both counts. Cats do sweat, but only from their paw-pads (not a very large surface area), and they do pant, but only when very very hot. To cope with mild heat they use heat-prevention strategies such as avoiding activity and stretching themselves out on cool surfaces. Even cats know that prevention is more efficient than a cure. That’s because cats are clever. They also wash themselves more. And how does washing cool them down? By evaporation.  And we know how that works.

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