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Festive science for local schools at Christmas Lectures 2017

Posted on 06/12/2017

On Tuesday 5 December, the Faculty of Natural & Mathematical Sciences’ Christmas Lectures 2017 brought a festive flavour to the research being undertaken across the Departments of Chemistry, Informatics, Mathematics, Physics and Biomedical Engineering, with a morning of Christmas-themed talks for local schools.

Introduced by Professor Luca Viganò, Vice-Dean (External Relations), the event began with Dr Martin Bishop, who revealed how Biomedical Engineering researchers at King’s are ‘Using Mathematics to Help Mend a Broken Heart’. What does the heart do? Why and how do we model it? And what do we do with the completed model? All these questions were addressed by Dr Bishop, who explained how models can be used to diagnose potentially lethal cardiac arrhythmia, test drugs, find out where to implant a pacemaker, understand defibrillation and much more. Plus, thoughts on what it might feel like to be kicked in the chest by a reindeer!

Martin Bishop

Dr Dan Cornwell from the Department of Chemistry dressed the part to dive into some strange and spooky stories of chemistry’s Victorian past in ‘A Chemistry Christmas Carol’, based on elements of the Dickens classic. From “Bah, humbug”, involving a devastating and influential case of arsenic poisoning, to ghosts, gasworks and fly agaric fungi, Dr Cornwell’s talk brought out the dark side of Christmas to dramatic effect.

Dan Cornwell

After the break, the Department of Informatics’ Dr Matthew Howard took a look at the future of Christmas cooking in ‘Who (or what) will be making your next Christmas dinner?’ A mince pie-based live demo revealed the problems with traditional robot programming, before a look at how programming by demonstration – moving a robot in the way you want, then asking it to reproduce the sequence – creates a much smoother, more natural movement. How long will it be before we can put our feet up on Christmas morning and wait for lunch to come to us?

Robot with Mince Pie

From the Department of Mathematics, Dr Nazar Miheisi chose Christmas music as his inspiration for ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas and Related Puzzles’, taking the well-known song as a starting point for a look at triangular, square and, more broadly, polygonal numbers. How many presents would you receive on any given day, and how many in total after 12 days? And what if your “true love” gave only odd numbers of gifts? All of these questions were explored via some tricky on-the-spot maths puzzles that kept the audience on their toes.

Nazar Miheisi

Finally, the Department of Physics’ Dr Francisco Rodríguez-Fortuño presented ‘Invisible Santa’, asking whether the magical idea of the invisibility cloak does in fact go against the laws of physics after all. What has to happen to make something invisible? A demo using a beaker of vegetable oil produced some intriguing results, and a lot of very speedy maths indicated what the possibilities for invisibility may be, given the right materials.

Francisco Rodriguez-Fortuno

The schools then got to see where some of this exciting work takes place at King’s, with a tour of two key NMS sites: the Strand Building and Bush House. We’re now already getting ideas for next year’s lectures – until then, Merry Christmas from NMS!

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