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Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)


The Twelve Days of Christmas are a bridge between the twelve months of the preceding and of the following years. The count of twelve is widespread in our lives: twice twelve hours in day, twelve spans of five minutes in an hour, twelve inches in a foot. More of this counting later, but my own ‘count of twelve’ for the Christmas season is twelve science-related highlights from Cambridge University’s Research News feed, one from each month passed in 2013. This is an entirely personal selection, so do not be surprised if you detect a bias towards the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics (I am myself a materials scientist). New materials, new applications and fresh insights into how the physical world works sit quite comfortably alongside a seasonal sense of excitement!

In January, we learnt how synchrotron radiation has been used to image the backbone structure of the earliest four-legged animals.

February brought the news that a team at the University of Surrey, in collaboration with astronomers in Cambridge, have been able to use the behaviour of phosphorus atoms in silicon to model the extreme chemistry on the surface of a white dwarf star.

Back on earth, March brought the opening of a state-of-the-art gallium nitride growth facility, which will allow researchers to improve the techniques for growing high efficiency LEDs on cheap silicon substrates. Experiments planned for the new reactor have the potential to save the UK £1 billion per year in electricity usage.

At the beginning of the financial year, April saw the roll-out across Europe by Cronto, a Cambridge University spin-out company, of a security product designed to protect us from online malware by using visual symbols and dots to verify the authenticity of customer transactions.

May saw another materials development, of a flexible, stretchable sheet material with colours as vibrant and shimmering as an opal, but without the use of potentially toxic dyes or metals. The material has potential applications for security, textiles and sensing.

Early summer is evidently the season for new materials: ‘carbon nanotube candyfloss’ was reported in June, not for consumption by visitors to the Strawberry and Midsummer Fairs, but as a potential route to super-strong electrical wires.

If June is the time for fairs, July is the time to travel, and was also the month in which Cambridge University Library made the archive papers of the 18th and early 19th-century Board of Longitude available to the public via the Cambridge Digital Library project.

August saw a metaphorical journey into outer space, with observations of the Sagittarius A* black hole at the centre of our own galaxy’s Milky Way rejecting gas clouds when these are too hot to be sucked in and devoured.

Much closer to home, spectacular images were published in September of the first known example of functioning natural mechanical gears, in a plant-hopper insect.

With October and the onset of chillier weather, two Cambridge engineers published their analysis of the whistling sound generated by a traditional kettle. Although the underlying reason for the noise is a straightforward piece of physics, the details of when and how the sound is produced are much more complex.

The nature of policy-making is such that those taking and presenting decisions often require scientific input, and need to apply this information without necessarily sharing the same depth of technical knowledge. November saw the publication of a timely list of ‘twenty top tips’ to help non-scientists appreciate the limitations of scientific enquiry.

My twelve months’ selection ends in December with a biological materials development: the announcement that certain retinal cells could be printed into patterns using piezoelectric inkjet technology, with the potential for retinal repair procedures.

And what of the significance of the count of twelve itself? Is this just a pre-decimal, cultural relic? Not at all – 10 is a useful base for arithmetic calculation, but 12 is exceptionally useful for division into equal parts. Twelve is the smallest positive whole number divisible into two, three, four or six parts which are also whole numbers; 60 is the smallest which is similarly divisible into two, three, four, five or six parts. No surprise then that our measures of time and space put 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 360 degrees (6 x 60) into a circle. The Babylonians based their counting system upon multiples of 60, which you can learn more about at any time of year from the NRICH Mathematics resources (search for ‘Babylon’).

Our courses at ICE aim to bring the excitement of being part of Cambridge learning and research to as wide a range of students as possible. We have a number of fascinating Physical science courses coming up and we'd love you to join us.

Dr Erica Bithell, former ICE Academic Director in Physical Science

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