• Question: what is your most exciting experiment

    Asked by jejones to Meeks, Pete, Stephen, Steve, Tom on 16 Jun 2010 in Categories: .
    • Photo: Stephen Curry

      Stephen Curry answered on 13 Jun 2010:

      One of my most exciting experiments was done about 15 years ago when I was working in a lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston in the USA. I was working on poliovirus* and trying to understand how the virus particle gets into the cell. The virus is basically a 3D jigsaw of protein molecules that make a shell surrounding an RNA molecule (that carries the virus genes). It is the job of the virus to deliver the genes to the inside of the cell.

      First the virus sticks to a molecule on the outside of the cell. After that, my work showed that the jigsaw of proteins changes shape. It becomes a bit looser. This allows it to stick to the cell membrane and punch a hole in it that lets the RNA molecule to leak into the cell. Once that happens, the cell is infected.

      Until my work nobody really believe that the change in shape of the protein shell of the virus was important. But now it is in all the textbook on virology, so I am quite proud!

      *Poliovirus is a germ that usually causes ‘flu like symptoms but in some people can result in paralysis. Fortunately it has almost disappeared from the world now because there is a very effective vaccine – usually given to children on a sugar cube. You will almost certainly have been given it as a small child.

    • Photo: Tom Hartley

      Tom Hartley answered on 13 Jun 2010:

      Hi Jejones,

      The true answer is that the most exciting experiment is always the next one, as you don’t yet know what the results will show, and finding new things out is the most exciting thing about science.

      Probably the most exciting experiment I’ve done in the past is one I’ve mentioned in other questions and on my blog. I’ll tell you about it in more detail here, but it’s a long answer – so you could just read the shorter, simpler version on the blog if you prefer.

      I spent months making a modified version of a videogame, so that I could take out all the monsters, guns etc. and let people run around in two virtual towns (which I built myself). We then taught people how to find their way around the towns. They learned about one town by following the same route over and over again, and the other by freely exploring for the same length of time. Then we put the same people into the brain scanner, and got them to do the task again (we also got them to follow trails of dots, like a 3D version of pacman). We used a method called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which captures a fresh image of the entire brain every three seconds. Small fluctuations in the brightness of the images show how blood flow is changing in different parts of the brain. If a part of the brain is active (nerve cells are receiving messages from other parts of the brain) then blood flow increases to supply more oxygen. We look to see where in the brain fresh oxygenated blood is being supplied as people do different tasks (in this case running around between locations in the virtual towns).

      We found that there was a different pattern of activity when people were finding new direct routes around the town they had previously explored, than when they followed the familiar route around the other town, and we found that levels of activity in different parts of the brain were correlated with their accuracy in finding their way around. Better navigators activated the hippocampus when finding their way, but the caudate nucleus when following familiar routes.

      This was exciting because of the way we used the videogame, and the way we analyzed the data to find out how accurate people were, and to relate this to brain activity. And fMRI is always exciting because we get a glimpse of what goes on in someone’s head when they are thinking, and to me it is still like something out of science fiction.

    • Photo: Steve Roser

      Steve Roser answered on 14 Jun 2010:

      I did an experiment years ago with a friend of mine who now edits New Scientist where we bounced a beam of neutrons off an invisible soap bubble. That was really good fun.

    • Photo: Marieke Navin

      Marieke Navin answered on 14 Jun 2010:

      My most exciting experiment was when I built a cosmic ray detector in the lab! This is why i want to build the cosmic ray jacket, because it really is awesome. I had to find all the equipment to make it and work out how to do it. Then i tested scintillators that I made in the telescope. A scintillator is a material that emits light when a charge particle passes through it. I used cosmic rays to tell me which of my scintillators were the best – I love this!

    • Photo: Pete Edwards

      Pete Edwards answered on 16 Jun 2010:

      The most exciting experiment I’ve ever been around is the LHC at CERN which was switched on again earlier this year ( http://www.lhc.ac.uk/ ).
      This project is the largest experiment in the history of humans and aims to reveal answers to questions like: where we get our mass from, what’s producing most of the gravity in the universe and what happened in the first few billionths of a second after the Big Bang.
      There’s never been a better time to be a particle physicist – the LHC is a discovery machine that, in the next few years, will change our view of the universe for good!