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Halloween special

Historical artefacts like cannons can be tested by ISIS without damaging them.

We’re serious scientists here at STFC - we believe in facts, not magic. But since it’s Halloween, we’ve handed over to a team of un-dead editors with a vested interest in the seriously spooky. You might want to make sure the lights are on before you start reading….

If you’re a lonely spirit in search of ghostly company, then Britain’s bloodiest battlefield would be a good place to start looking. In 1461, during the War of the Roses, around 28,000 soldiers were killed during a single day.

They fought in the Battle of Towton, Tadcaster in Yorkshire. This was the first time that guns were fired on a British battlefield, and a metal detector enthusiast found both lead shot and fragments of the bronze cannons – the only bronze cannons found in Britain from this date, and therefore historical artefacts of great importance.

Those fragments were brought to ISIS for non-destructive testing on the neutron beamline. The results will help us find out where, and how, the guns were made. In the 15th century, gun manufacture was very unreliable, and firing them was a risky business; the fragments found may well have come from the guns exploding when they were used. [Being shot with your own gun would make any spirit angry, I would think –Ed.]

A 3-D rendering of the skull of Australopithecus sediba
(Credit: ESRF/P.Tafforeau)

Meanwhile, any scientifically-literate zombies will be interested in research that was carried out at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France. Researchers there used X-ray microtomography to reveal the shape of the brain of one of our human ancestors. [Hmmm…tasty, tasty brains –Ed.] A very well-preserved cranium of Australopithecus sediba was used for the experiment. [Before you go booking a flight, though, I can tell you that the experiment determined the shape of the brain from the shape of the cranium; there’s no tasty brain meat left in the skull -Ed.]

The research shed light on the evolution of the human brain, which has seen a radical size increase compared to that of the chimpanzee, with whom we share a common ancestor.

Halloween must be a tricky time for arachnophobics. But if you’ve been decorating your house with fake spiders or webs then you may be brave enough to read about research carried out at ISIS, where a team of scientists investigated how spider silk is spun. They used the neutron beam to examine the process of spider silk turning from a liquid (called ‘dope’, a mixture of water and proteins) into the solid we know, and hate walking into. We’d love to be able to replicate the spider’s trick, as spider silk is five times stronger than steel, and absorbs three times as much energy as the materials currently used in bullet-proof vests. If we could produce it artificially, it could also be used for new plastics and biomedical implants. [Spiders are lovely. There’s nothing at all creepy about having a biomedical implant made from spider silk. You don’t worry about wearing silk shirts, do you?  –Ed.]

Spiders may be scary, but their silk is incredibly strong.

Research undertaken using a Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) instrument was aimed at helping the early diagnosis of conditions such as Osteogenesis Imperfecta – a painful brittle bone disease. The technology uses a novel technique devised at the Central Laser Facility, and can also be used to detect the early stages of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Early detection can allow preventative measures, and also means that the effect of any medication can be properly monitored.

Spin out company Cobalt Light Systems are developing the technology [although this comes far too late for those of us who are already skeletons, it could help plenty of humans who are still alive –Ed.]

And mummies from the British Museum were among the ancient artefacts brought to the Diamond Light Source facility, to be examined with high-energy X-rays. [I hope it wasn’t one of my relatives –Ed.] The JEEP beamline was used to examine them non-invasively, revealing their secrets without damage [Phew! –Ed.] The ancient Egyptians liked to hide things away inside their mummies, so this technique can show us those, and is also a good way to look at mummy wrappings (or the inside of sarcophagi), which are very fragile.

Not hiding behind the sofa yet? Our undead editorial team have also been let loose with our social media channels this week, so keep an eye on our Facebook page, and on Twitter, for more #monsterscience.

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