Monthly Archives: November 2014

Playing With Science

When people think of cutting edge science and technology, they are most likely thinking of things like the most expensive experiment ever – the Large Hadron Collider. They may think of the rockets that take us into space or for those a little more into their science – perhaps even the square kilometre array – the largest radio telescope ever built which will enable us to see further into space and the past than ever before.

But ironically in looking at the very large – we are missing something very big and that is the science of the small.

When I talk about small science, I don’t mean it literally. I am not talking about investigations of atoms or molecules, what I mean is human sized science. The sort of technology built from the kinds of things we can see around us. It’s the sort of technology that is designed to help with human sized problems that traditional approaches sometimes ignores or is so costly as to be beyond the reach of many people who need its help.

That search for a different kind of approach to science has taken me to the Small Devices Laboratory at one of the world’s leading science universities – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA.

At the Small Devices Lab at MIT they believe that you don’t have to spend a fortune to come up with innovative solutions to your problems. I fact restricting your budget can often make you approach the subject in a completely novel way.

And that frugal approach to science and technology is creating real dividends, not just in the cash strapped developing world, but right around the globe. Cutting costs doesn’t mean you have to stop being cutting edge.

Jose Gomez-Marquez and his team at MIT, aim to make medical science cheaper and therefore much more widely available but they believe they can reduce cost, increase access without reducing any of the quality of the products they are producing.

Jose says he is trying to democratise medical developments, giving access to the many. Part of the problem, he claims, is that over the years we lets scientists assume an almost priestly roles. Assuming no one else can translate the science of the laboratories into the tools we use every day. He believes that non-experts can also have a useful say in how medical devices should be created.

That’s why his lab is filled with children’s’ toys. You might not be able to buy high specification tools in small rural villages in the developing world, but you are likely to pick up discarded children’s toys. The scientists here are hijacking the technology of the playground and using it to build devices which help local medical research and save lives.

One project which caught my eye in the back of the lab was a multi-coloured tower built of children’s Lego bricks. Sitting next to it was a small white machine that does the same job but costs $6,000. Both the expensive and the cheap machines are built to do a simple but vital task. They both push a syringe with the aim of depositing multiple samples of liquid in very precise amounts in exact places.

Cost Conscious Science PictureThe machine is used in labs around the world to test samples. But the scientists believe this Lego machine does the job just as well, costs a fraction of the professionally produced machine but because it is cheaper, the Lego tester could give millions more people access to the medical testing facility.

Jose’s colleague Anna Young took this approach and applied it to life saving nebulizers which can provide drugs straight to the lungs. Instead of using traditional expensive medical equipment, she looked around at the sort of technology you can find in villages round the world and built the nebulizer from a bicycle pump.

Jose believes he and his team are helping to unlock the secrets of medical devices with the toys that surround us all – so that they can help develop a world in which he says “everyone can play and everyone can heal.”

Our programme on Cost Conscious Science is broadcast on BBC World News on the 15 and 16th 2015


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What Came First: The Chicken or The Egg? (Answer at End of Blog)

It’s an odd phase, food technology. It seems to be self-contradictory. Food is fresh, colourful and made on farms and prepared in kitchens. Technology is the colour of steel. It is made by anonymous scientists in distant laboratories – and while its benefits are clear and relevant, it feels distant and unknown. So these seem opposite worlds that sit strangely together.

But whilst that might be the impression we have of this science of the edible, there is no denying that it has been with us for centuries.

Farming technology started with the first cultivation of crops  at least nine and half thousand years before Christ and perhaps even a lot sooner than that. Food technology is a lot more recent. It is the study of how to preserve, modify, improve the taste, increase the health properties and increase the lonegvity of the food we produce. This science is not new.

Salting meat to make it last longer was common in the 1800s. Preserving food by canning, was invented in 1810 after the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. Nicolas Appert submitted his invention and won the prize, although it wasn’t called canning then because he placed the food in glass jars, sealed them with cork and sealing wax and placed them in boiling water.

Marco Polo wrote of Mongolian Tatar troops in the time of Kublai Khanin the 13th Century, who carried sun-dried skimmed milk. However the first modern production process for dried milk was invented by the Russian physician Osip Krichevsky in 1802.

Coffee was Decaffeinated in 1903 by a German scientist and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began her career as a food scientist working on the quality of cake and pie fillings as well as ice-cream, and saponification (soap-making). It is often said she helped make soft pipped ice cream, although like much of Thatcher’s achievements even this is now seen as a controversial claim as some commentators say the honour of this particularly creamy achievement deserves to be awarded elsewhere.

Even though we may not give it much thought, it is true that for most people food technology plays a very important part of their daily lives.

As the population of the world increases and as more people demand more food of an increasingly high quality, our reliance on food technology is likely to increase.

With more of us on the planet we need healthier, smarter and more economically produced sustainable food supplies.

In the latest episode of Horizons for BBC World News, the programme visited a Dr. Richard Horton in the UK, Dr Rajan Sankar in India and Dr. Donald Cooper in the Rocky Mountains.

At a food testing laboratory in Leatherhead in the UK I donned a hair net and baked some puff balls that I was told might hold an important part of the key to future child nutrition. I don’t think the product, still in its laboratory stage, quite lives up to its billing but it does provide an interesting pointer to where some efforts are being made and some interesting ways of tackling food issues.

Dr Richard Horton has developed a honeycomb puff – that is cooked at very low temperatures that can be fortified with vitamins and minerals that can pass on elements of a balanced diet in the form of a sweet treat.

It’s a neat idea – making crisp-like snacks that might actually be good for you. I can’t see children queuing up for the model I tasted but then they are still being tested and developed and it’s probably too early to pass any kind of judgement on a products which is might be nudging the food industry in an interesting direction.

Food enhancements are not new but they are increasingly important in parts of the developing world where lack of vitamins and minerals in food is a big issue. My colleague on Horizons, Shaili Chopra, went to visit Dr Rajan Sankar in India to see how they are developing curry flavoured biscuits that are fortified with vitamins to help boost nutrition. It is an adjunct to a trend which has already seen Indian companies fortifying some staples such as rice and chapattis — so people get the right nutrition.

The growing trend for food fortification raises some interesting questions. There is clearly a need amongst millions of under nourished people to help provide easy access to better nutrition. But there are also questions to be asked about whether a rise in food fortification pushes these additives onto people who neither want them or need them, but rather like the food or snacks they are hidden within. Indeed in Denmark, one of the richer nations on earth, there was even legislation restricting foods fortified with extra vitamins or minerals. Concerns about too much additives may well be a concern of the rich and one which some might feel should not hamper the development of the technique to help those in need.

In the Rocky Mountains, Dr. Donald Cooper and his team are working on a way not of fortifing food but checking whether it is safe. They have developed an application that can run on any smart phone or tablet, which rapidly tests toxic mould in seeds and grains.

Cooper claims that In Kenya, 38% of grain stores are above the safe limits for the presence of Aflatoxin. Farmers don’t want to find out if their grain is contaminated because at the moment there is no secondary market for contaminated grain. So the diagnosis is only a first step. However, he says they are working on a way of decontaminating the grain.

The solution may lie in a Corona Discharge Box. It’s small, mobile, low powered. It uses Ozone to decontaminate, which may provide a genuine solution and therefore an incentive to farmers to test. Before this, farmers would just grind up their grain into flour and sell contaminated flour. Now there might be a genuine alternative.

And as with all good tales let’s end with a joke – sort of.

What came first – the chicken – or the egg? It’s an age old dilemma and one that San Francisco based social entrepreneur Josh Tetrick is hoping to add a new twist on – by creating an egg alternative that doesn’t even require the chicken to be in the mix.

Josh Tetrick spent 7 years living in sub-saharan Africa and after seeing at first hand the problems of food scarcity he came to a very radical conclusion – and one that could turn conventional food sourcing on its head. Tetrick says: “The food system is inherently flawed – it’s crazy that we do it the way we do – if we were to start over right now then we would approach it in a wholly different way”

Upon returning to America Josh felt impassioned enough about this idea to form his tech / food company Hampton Creek Foods in order to explore how he might turn such a huge statement into reality.

Tetrick began sourcing plants from across the globe, teaming with chefs, biochemists and food scientists on a series of kitchen tests. They screened through hundreds of varieties of yellow pea and used rapid prototyping, ultimately discovering that the properties of the pea effectively mimicked egg emulsion.

Hampton Creek’s first consumer product, an egg-free mayonnaise substitute dubbed Just Mayo, is now on the market.

So we now know the answer to what came first – The Chicken or the Egg. The answer is mayonnaise.

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