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Advancing science

Week 27

18 March 2024

It's British Science Week this week, so we're celebrating how universities have contributed to the advancement of science and technology, and continue to help shape the world as we know it today. You might also discover something interesting about your chosen uni!

From little acorns grow mighty oaks

Everything has to start somewhere, right?

All the technology and even the seemingly mundane things we use on a daily basis began with an idea or a discovery. Maybe even a Eureka! moment. It’s these ideas that get developed further through research, often at universities, into many of things we use regularly and often take for granted.

Quick quiz

What do these things have in common?

  • Google
  • Facebook
  • GPS
  • Touch screens
  • Solar power
  • Lie detectors
  • The internet

Yep, you've guessed it, all of these were either conceived at and/or developed by scientists and researchers at universities. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Universities play a leading role in developing inventions and innovation through research. In fact, a recent study has shown that research teams at universities have contributed to almost three-quarters of the world’s most ground breaking inventions.

So, how have UK universities contributed?

Scientists and researchers at UK universities have worked on some pretty cool and life-changing stuff over the years.

We've picked out just a few key areas of discovery that showcase the brilliance of UK universities:

Safe and speedy sailing

If you're a fan of sailing and love yourself a bit of engineering, you should watch the video below from Solent's senior lecturer Jean-Baptiste Souppez! He explains what makes a yacht capsize and how engineers can help to combat this, making yachting safer and faster. It's actually a pretty cool video and Jean-Baptiste makes it easy to understand!

Eye, eye!

If you’ve got one of the latest Samsung phones, maybe you use the iris scanning function. If not, you’ll most definitely have seen iris recognition used in films – usually to gain access to a top secret lab where a team of top secret scientists are frantically working on some kind of top secret program that will save the world from the perils of evil (usually).

What you might not know (until now!) is that the algorithm for iris recognition was patented by John Daugman in 1991 when he was working at the University of Cambridge. While the technology has been further developed over the years, this original algorithm forms the basis of all iris recognition systems in use today.

The beginning of gaming

PS4 or XBOX, consoles or PCs, FIFA or Call of Duty – however you like to do it, there’s no denying that gaming is MASSIVE. But, did you know that the first computer games originated here in the UK?

The first graphical computer game (called OXO) was developed by AS Douglas at Cambridge University. And the first computer game using 3D graphics (called Elite), was developed by David Braben and Ian Bell when they were undergraduates at Cambridge University.

It’s fair to say that computer games have come a looooong way since then.

Getting to grips with Graphene

Q: What’s 200 times stronger than steel and one million times thinner than a human hair; the world’s most conductive material that’s totally transparent?

A: Graphene.

Despite being the thinnest material possible, Graphene is the strongest material ever tested and the potential for its use is almost endless. And, you’ve guessed it, it was developed in the UK. At the University of Manchester, to be exact, by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosolev in 2004.

And how did they discover it? With a lump of graphite and some sticky tape. 

Their ground-breaking discovery and their subsequent work on developing Graphene led to them both receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010 and being knighted in 2012.

Listen to this rather excitable presenter explain what Graphene is and its potential to revolutionise everything from science and engineering to everyday objects.

Find out more about Graphene

What's your make-up?

Lovers of TV programmes like Silent Witness or CSI will be familiar with blood or hair samples being run through DNA databases in the race to find out who the killer is before they strike again.

However, forensic pathologists wouldn’t be able to do any kind of DNA profiling if it wasn’t for Sir Alec Jeffrey. He developed DNA profiling in 1984 while he was Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester. 

Not only is DNA profiling used for forensic science, it’s also used in paternity testing, genealogy, and medical research, as well as in the study of animals and plants.

Here's the science bit:

Interesting side note: the UK was also the first country in the world to introduce a national DNA database – an early version of which was developed by Kevin WP Miller and John L Dawson at the University of Cambridge.

Oh yes, and the internet

And let’s not forget Sir Tim Berners-Lee, without whom you would not be reading this week’s 52 Things instalment. Ok, so he wasn't working at a university when he came up with the World Wide Web. But he's British, and the internet has been one of the greatest inventions in modern times, so he really deserves a mention!  

So, you see, universities are instrumental in shaping our world, whether it be in technology, medicine, engineering, or science.

We’ll leave this week’s instalment with what is quite possibly the best opening of a new university research building. Ever. Who needs scissors to cut the ribbon when you’ve got a tortoise?

Tasks for this week