Myth Debunked: Does the earth’s distance from the sun cause seasons?


I was recently offered the chance to write for the Times of Malta again, and of course I jumped at the opportunity.

I wrote another Myth Debunked piece, as well as some Fun Facts and Soundbites (short pieces on interesting science news; a couple of sentences each)

This article was edited by Edward Duca and was first published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 23rd April 2017.


Myth Debunked: Does the earth’s distance from the sun cause seasons?

Our lives revolve around the seasons. They change the weather, amount of sunlight, rainfall and how plants and animals behave: in short our daily habits are defined by it. These all important seasons all depend on how far the earth is from the sun – wrong.

The distance between the earth and sun does not vary much. The myth originates from a misunderstanding about the shape of the earth’s orbit. A lot of diagrams show the solar system from the side. This can give the impression that the orbits are highly elongated ellipses (squashed circles). However, if viewed from the top, we can see that the orbits, while indeed only slightly elliptical, are in face close to circular. If 0 is a circular orbit and 1 is an elliptical orbit, the earth has a value of 0.017. Not a big deal, apart from Johannes Kepler.

So why do we have the seasons? It’s thanks to axial tilt, or that the earth rotates around the sun at a lopsided angle. The tilt is 23.5o – pretty extreme. This means that from May to June, the northern hemisphere (America-Europe-Russia) is tilted towards the sun, which appears higher in the sky leading to more sunlight. During November through January, it is tilted away and the opposite happens – less sunlight strikes the earth leading to plummeting temperatures depending how far you are from the equator. The further away the greater the angle from the sun and the less sunlight hits the earth. Because it takes time for the ground and water to heat up, there is a lag in temperatures, which is why in the northern hemisphere, June, July and August are the hottest months, and December, January and February are the coldest – myth debunked!


Learning Adobe Photoshop – cartoon portrait attempt

For years I have marveled at what graphic designers and photographers are able to do with image manipulation software such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator. They have a truly astonishing ability to not only enhance and perfect real photos, but create whole new worlds and imaginative visuals.

Now as I try and broaden my science communications skills whilst on this internship, I thought I would try and learn a few basic  image manipulation skills.

After some initial research into Adobe Photoshop, I thought that it would be most useful for a beginner to learn to use layers and masks, as well as the pen tool. The latter being particularly useful for me, as although my Mum is a lifelong artist, I have never developed the same proficiency at drawing lines.

I found a tutorial video on YouTube that makes use of both these skills, so thought I’d try and create a cartoon image of myself.

Thanks go to Photoshop Picture Editor (check out their channel for bountiful tutorial videos). The particular tutorial I followed was Photoshop: How to create ART with the pen tool

Cartoon face tutorial screencaps - combined.png

The steps involved creating new layers and then using the pen tool to outline certain features per layer (hair, eyes, shadow, basically anything that was going to be a specific colour). Then that selected outline would be removed to provide the shape in that colour. The final image was built up layer by later in this way.

It took a while for me to learn the new commands for manipulating the layers (selecting, deleting etc) and how to use the pen tool properly, particularly how to curve the lines to match the features on the face. Now I’ve got a better understanding I realize how these functions can make digital art a lot easier to produce for amateurs such as myself, and provide professionals with incredibly powerful tools.

Here is my attempt…

Cartoon face my attempt screencaps - combined.png

As far as my image goes, I definitely bit off more than I could chew. The tutorial kept it simple in terms of colours; they only used five. I started with a colour image and once I understood the drawing, selecting and layering techniques I thought I could go ahead and make mine more colourful. This ultimately clashed with the perfectionist in me and at this current point I have decided to stop or else risk eternally fiddling with the colours. I also noticed that the lighting and facial features in the tutorial photograph made theirs easier to work with than mine. My hair and face had less obvious highlights and shadowing, and my imaginative/creative/artistic talents aren’t yet developed enough to be able to figure out what to do about that.


While I’ve left the image uncompleted I am still quite happy with how it turned out, considering before this attempt I had never even opened Adobe Photoshop.

I’m really looking forward to having the time to try and dig deeper into what this amazing program is capable of.


(If you have any advice, constructive criticism, or suggestions of what else to try then I’d love to hear from you!)

THINK placement – ‘Fortnightly’ report #2

I realize this report is coming in a little later than I had planned. Twenty-one days rather than two weeks. However, my excuse it that I have been incredibly busy, as I hope the following will adequately justify!


Allow me to take you through my last three weeks.


I managed to acquire Adobe Photoshop and ran through a few basic tutorials thanks to few YouTube videos and blogs. I’m in the progress of creating a few avatars for my blog/brand, such as a cartoon headshot of myself, but having zero previous experience and a lot else on my plate it’s going fairly slowly. I have almost finished the headshot I described and will be posting it here soon. I now appreciate how tricky graphic design is! Especially if you’re a perfectionist.


After Issue #19 was finished and printed, I was involved in magazine distribution around the university. I made sure stands, shelves, and tables are stocked in the popular areas of the university. During that process I also handed out issues to interested students and spoke with them about the magazine, including offering them the chance to write for the student section.


It has been interesting to learn about aspects of a university based magazine such as how the employees and the publication itself are funded. I also learnt about how to determine format/layout of an issue of THINK, according to it’s own style, including how many pages to give to each article, whether they would include two page spreads, and what order they should appear in the magazine.


I was lucky enough to be interviewed for Radio 2 Malta. My friend Dan Far (who I also met at the STEAM summer school last year) hosts a science show broadcast on Monday afternoons, so she had me on and asked about my research back in Edinburgh. It was fascinating to see the inside of a radio studio and find out what goes on behind the scenes. Upon listening to my interview, I was reminded that I need to work on eliminating ‘ums’ and ‘erms’ from my speaking.


For the first time when launching a new issue of THINK, there was to be a corresponding event where authors of three of the most interesting articles would give a short talk before engaging in dialogue with a public audience, as well as providing demonstrations related to their work. The articles featured this time were on neutron stars for probing extreme gravity, miniaturizing satellites to reduce the cost of launching them, and the potential for medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. In preparation for this I created a plan and schedule of promotional content for Facebook event page, including researcher bios and photographs, related articles, news stories and videos. I wrote copy for each of these posts and edited and proofread the event description and press release. On the day I collected and set up the low smoke machine, as well as manning the door to take register, sign people up for the mailing list, and invite more people inside.


Another very project I was involved in was the application for EU funding for a project called VentureFest Med. VentureFest is a series of events that connects innovators and entrepreneurs to capitalists and those who can provide funding. The events also facilitate the creation of a network to achieve the same goals. Given what we are learning in OPTIMA, it was made all the more interesting for me to learn about. Already successful in the UK, the aim was to bring it to five Mediterranean countries initially, before expanding to more. I was tasked with making sure the different work packages of the document were coherent, by proofreading, editing, and trimming them down before and during their input into the submission system. It opened my eyes to the complexity and numerous steps involved in applying for funding on such a large scale.


After Issue #19 had been released it was time to shift focus to Issue #20, which was already under way. Being a new issue there were no completed articles yet, which meant I got to assess the narrative and structure of several longer articles, including one about smart electric grids, as well as edit five student articles and two shorter ones. I’m beginning to understand the feel and tone of the articles required for THINK, as well as the language and scientific detail used. This will all be very useful as I have been given the opportunity to write a 1500 word article for Startup section. The company I’m writing about are called Thought 3D. They’ve had a number of projects but their biggest success so far has been Magigoo; an adhesive to stabilize the printed object throughout the printing process, and then release it easily after completion. This topic is doubly fascinating for me, as a) in the OPTIMA program we are learning about innovation and entrepreneurship, and Thought 3D are a successful example of technology startup, and b) in my own research I have used 3D printing to create part of my experimental setup, so it was already an industry I had some knowledge of and a lot of interest in. Initially I researched the company and the 3D printing industry, including the history of both. Then, with Cassi (THINK assistant editor) I discussed good interviewing techniques and etiquette. After that I prepared the questions to ask, focusing on their journey from concept to company. Along with Cassi and the photography/design team, I travelled to the startup / business incubation centre where Thought 3D were based. We were shown around their  lab and office, before I interviewed two of the team for 50 minutes whilst recording. The interview process was very enlightening, and made easy by the fact that the guys were friendly and relaxed. Over the following days I listened to recording and wrote up the information contained within. With Edward (THINK editor) I discussed how to plan, outline and write articles, particularly how to foster the type of narrative found in THINK. Then I planned, outlined and wrote the article. As I wrote I found it hard to not edit the fresh chunks of text. This plus the fact I was probably being too perfectionist during the first draft (rather than getting the raw information and structure down) meant it all took quite a while. I also found that being engrossed in writing for long periods of time over several days made me feel overwhelmed and the necessary words seemed to surface in my mind less often. Once I finished the first draft I felt relieved; I look forward to returning and editing the text after some time spent away from it.

Another opportunity I had thanks to the upcoming issue was accompanying the photography/design team on a photoshoot. This was for the Toolkit section of THINK, which describes a piece of research equipment being used at the university. I got lucky again because we visited an anechoic chamber (a room built to minimise sound within it), the inside of which I had only previously seen in pictures. That morning I learnt about lighting, lenses, angles, colours and camera settings etc, with particular focus on achieving THINK’s sci-fi like feel.


Regarding STEAM, these last few weeks I have put together social media content and a schedule for the Facebook page. I was also involved in the STEAM Malta workshops. This involved going to high schools and doing scientific/mathematic interactive demonstrations. I helped prepare a chemistry demonstration that explained chemical reactions and how to test for potentially invisible products, in this case carbon dioxide. On the day of the first demonstration, several of the volunteers were sick, so I ended up performing the “Pythagoras Mountain” demo with no training, only an explanation on the day. This demo involved using lego squares to prove Pythagoras theorem and using it to determine the height of a paper-mache mountain. Having no previous practice made it a very useful learning experience. I kept an eye on the time during the demo (20 mins in total), and throughout the different groups of pupils I adjusted the demo accordingly, depending on how long they took to complete the interactive parts, answer questions etc. I was also able to take mental notes of which parts of what I was saying they found interesting or entertaining, and again adjust accordingly to help them get the most of out the demo. Another factor I had to take into consideration was how I spoke. We were outside, which meant I had the wind and other distractions to contend with, and English was a secondary language for most students, which meant I had to speak more slowly, enunciate more clearly and avoid using words that foreign high school students would be unaware of at their age and level of education. Afterwards quite a number of them said thanks and that they enjoyed it. I look forward to the next event!


I also attended the next Cinexjenza event, although this time not in a PowerPoint presenting capacity. The film being shown was Prometheus (for it’s entire duration) and the topics to be discussed were human origins and related philosophy. In the discussion afterwards I was tasked with being the ‘expert’ on the film (Edward took genetics and human history; Jessica took philosophy). The audience was smaller than the last event, but they had a lot of questions. The discussion flow of the conversation was more meandering than before, and we ended up talking about human origins, philosophy, religion, science, sci-fi, aliens, nature of consciousness, the existence (or not) of free will, ethics and morality, AI, and pretty much anything else related. I really enjoy these rather more informal type of group chats, as I think it makes those involved feel more comfortable, willing to speak their minds and ask questions which they might otherwise dare not. I think this type of event could work well in Edinburgh. There may already be something like it, I shall find out!


Hot hob demonstrates phase physics

My cooking utensils are stuck in a perpetual cycle between the table and the drying rack. Due to my solitary abode they never make it back to the cupboards before being used again.

On an unremarkable Wednesday night as I lifted a pan from the rack, a remainder of water fell onto the preheated hob. It hit the glowing surface and the droplet shattered. Multiple silvery spheres hissed and scattered their way to the edge. The usual reaction might be to curse one’s clumsiness and reach for a damp cloth. Mine was different. The motion of the water across the heat was so enthralling that I purposefully dropped on more. I was enjoying the Leidenfrost effect.

The Leidenfrost effect begins with a liquid almost touching something much hotter than its boiling point. Before it comes in to contact, it begins to evaporate. A layer of gas is then formed between the liquid and the surface. It is this barrier that allows the Leidenfrost effect to be used in interesting ways.

During the case in my kitchen, the temperature of the cold tap water is 7oC, it’s boiling point 100oC, and the hob surface between 150-190oC. As the water landed on the hob, a layer of vapour was created beneath the liquid, prevent it from boiling rapidly and causing it to “hover” above the surface. Hence the dancing droplets.


This effect can also be demonstrated much more dangerously. For example, a particularly risk-seeking science communicator may be able to dip a bodily appendage into different dangerous substances.

Liquid nitrogen has a boiling point 195.8oC. If you submerge a human hand in it, the 37oC body temperature causes the nitrogen evaporates. A protective layer of gas is formed around the hand and this is what prevents the skin from freezing.

At the other end of the temperature scale, the effect can be demonstrated with the metal lead, which is liquid above 327.5oC. This time the hand must be wet before being dipped. The water surrounding the hand evaporates due to the head of the molten lead, and the skin is once again protected (this time from burning).

It is at this point I should advise, even if you are lucky enough to have source of liquid nitrogen or molten metal where you live, please don’t try this at home.

Go for the clumsy cooking instead.

Leveraging light to look into lungs…


More writing news!

This time I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been published in the University of Edinburgh’s science magazine, EU:sci.

My PhD lab work involves testing Surface-Enhanced Raman nanosensors for the Proteus group and I wrote about their incredible interdisciplinary project for the “Research in Edinburgh” section.

I’ll spare you anymore words here as there are many more on page seven of the Issuu link below…

THINK placement – Fortnightly report #1

Unfortunately, on the day I landed in Malta I fell acutely ill with viral gastritis and therefore had to start the placement a couple of days late.

However, once I was well I got the chance to hit the ground running as there was plenty to do in preparation for the release of Issue 19 of THINK magazine.

I would sit down in the mornings with editor Edward Duca and assistant-editor Cassi Camilleri to discuss the tasks ahead that day/week, and to learn about the steps involved in running a science research magazine. We covered the general structure of THINK, as well as how features have evolved over time, as well as how to plan and organise the tasks that would be required to produce the next issue.

I got the chance to write a couple of different types of articles in the first two weeks alone.

I wrote blurbs to be sent to Newspoint, the University of Malta’s media portal, as press releases promoting the upcoming issue. During the process of writing, being edited and then revising, I learnt that I was accomplished at choosing the necessary information to include, but needed to work on varying sentence and paragraph length, and using punchier introductions. After taking these criticisms into account I rewrote the blurbs to with better quality.

I was also granted the opportunity to write an article for the Sounds of Science section of the Times of Malta newspaper (where Edward is a contributor). I got to debunk the myth that cracking your knuckles increases the likelihood you’ll develop arthritis. During this I improved at writing for an older lay audience and making the text more entertaining, compared with the articles relaying news. On top of this I also contributed several short news stories to accompany links, and a list of fun facts.

Working with Cassi I got to experience revising and improving a script for a video to go out accompanying an article on neutron stars and gravity in the next issue. I then got the chance to be involved in the location scouting and recording of the video. As well as creating some props and operating the boom mic I learnt about camera positioning, angles, movement, lighting, audio and what can be achieved in editing.

Although I did much more than detailed for the sake of brevity, I will talk about this next time. above (for example I also presented at Brain Awareness Week; planned, created and scheduled social media content; and learnt about the graphic design and layout processes involved in THINK)

The fact it has proved impossible to even incompletely summarise my first two weeks at THINK in 250 words (required by my PhD course) conveys how many opportunities I’ve had and how much I’ve already learnt. Bring on the remaining 2.5 months!

Word count: 469

The Brain and the Big Screen…

CineXjenza talk

Working here at the University of Malta with Dr. Edward Duca means that I am fortunate enough to be given many science communication opportunities.

This time I got to work the a neuroscientist to embellish his presentation on the human brain, with some film footage relating to the topics he was covering.

CineXjenza organiser Jessica Edwards best summarised the event.

“As part of Brain Awareness Week, CineXjenza will be presenting examples from cinema to spark scientific discussion related to such questions.

During this thought-provoking session, neuroscientist Dr Christian Zammit, together with geneticist Dr Edward Duca and PhD student Samuel Jeremy Stanfield, will be using filmic examples to introduce you to the different areas of the brain, and how they work. This presentation will be followed by a discussion with Professor Ian Thornton from the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of Malta, who will also be using film clips to illustrate the beauty of the human brain, with a focus on how it processes perception, attention, language and memory.”

Below is some footage saved from a Facebook Live-stream of the event. You’ll see and hear me give my part of the presentation. You’ll also notice that we were slightly hampered by technical difficulties.

I only had a short amount of time to prepare for this (on top of doing other work), which meant I took several lessons away from this experience, all stemming from one thing:

Practicing your speech and memorizing the points you wish to get across is vital!

Watching the footage back, I became very aware of myself “umming”, “ermming” and “ahhing” quite often. This was obviously down to a lack of preparation and hence difficulty recalling my next point. It is something I’ll have to work on.

Another lesson is that I now know that I can manage without taking notes up with me. I have done this in the past as I have been worried about losing my place and getting stuck. However I learnt that it looks much better if the presenter does not have to keep glancing down at a page every few sentences, and besides, your audience isn’t likely to know if you’ve missed out anything you had written down.

This was my first presentation on such a topic, and my first using video footage. Apart from the technical problems with the projector, it was very fun to include this type of media as a way of getting points across.

After seeing a similar presentation by Edward on “The Science of Superheroes”, I would love to do something like “The Science of Horror Movies” or some of the tropes they contain.

Watch this space…

Taking a crack at a common misconception…

Dr. Edward Duca, my internship host and editor of THINK magazine is a contributor to the Times of Malta. He writes for a section called Sounds of Science, where myths are debunked, fun facts are provided and short news stories are shared.

When offered the opportunity to write several of these pieces, I jumped at the chance.

I found it very useful to write the short news stories and facts, as this helped me improve my conciseness and word choice.

Writing the Myth Debunked section was also very informative. Since the readership of the ToM (and most physical newspapers nowadays I would imagine) is on average slightly older, it gave me the opportunity to practice being more entertaining and to pick carefully or explain any scientific notation used.

An enjoyable process and I hope I get the chance to do it again!

See these pieces below…

Did you know! and Sound Bites - March 12th 2017


Fake snow, real science

Last winter as my girlfriend and I wandered around the Edinburgh Christmas market, surrounded by tradition and lore, we came across a particularly well attended stall that appeared to be experiencing some very localized and fluffy precipitation. On closer inspection, the stall was selling fake snow.

[My hand full of fake snow. Warning to headphone users, there is an abundance of understandably gleeful shrieking children]

This fun and festive product uses what are called polymers – larger molecules made up of many repeating smaller units. The polymer in this case is called sodium polyacrylate. It’s super absorbent.

As it’s poured on to the ‘snow’, the molecules of water swap places with the sodium (Na+) ions in the sodium polyacrylate. The polymer expands to keep its Na+ concentration equal to the Na+ concentration in the water. You can see this effect in the video above.

These types of polymers are also used in nappies for both babies and NASA astronauts. The main (and fortunate) difference here is that when the fake snow polymers absorb water, their long chains swell to an enormous size. This is because the chains have more connections (cross-linking) between them. When the water is added, these connections are broken and the whole system quickly unfolds.

This unfolding releases energy in the form of heat (it’s exothermic). Although this effect isn’t visible in the video, the fake snow began to feel warm in my hand, slightly to the detriment of the illusion.

If you want to mess around with this demo, you can try adding salt to see what that has on the absorbency, or you can add food colouring if for example you’d like to create some fake yellow snow. Just remember, it’s still not a good idea to eat it!

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