Lecture Reports

Below you will find reports from our lectures.  Either click the title to view the report online or download a copy by clicking on the file name next to 'Download report'. Use the search box on this page to find a particular report.

Who would have thought that silk made good armour! The Mongul horsemen, however, had discovered
that wearing a tight silk vest meant that the barbed and faeces-smeared arrow heads of their opponents never
had a chance to lodge in and infect their flesh. Modern bomb disposal operatives wear silk pants for
similar reasons: if they are unfortunately caught in an explosion the silk prevents dust and dirt from
penetrating through their skin. Silk is both exceptionally tough and strong, beating every other polymer
(natural and artificial) about which we know.

It has, at times, also been exceptionally valuable, particularly in countries at the far end of the “silk
road”: literally worth its weight in gold, and a full silk costume might have cost the price of the palace. For
a period of 200 years, 50% of Venetian tax revenues came from silk production and skilled silk weavers
were forbidden to leave the city on pain of death. Even today, cultivating silk worms produces
exceptionally high returns per unit area of land, and requires only modest capital investment.
Furthermore, produce is not confined to China and can be found today in Rumania and Bulgaria. (Our
own Queen had a dress made entirely from UK produced silk.)

Spider silk is even more remarkable than the product of the mulberry silk worm: it comes in seven
different varieties - each used for different purposes such as structural parts of a web (strong and flexible)
for catching flies (sticky and extensible) or making egg cases (soft and protective). Unlike mulberry worm
silk it is exceptionally difficult to produce in commercial quantities (you need to a tethered live spider from
which to draw the silk) and would be currently valued at millions of dollars per kilogram.
Bioengineering start-ups are, of course, trying to reproduce the complex polymer structure of spider silk
using, for example, genetically engineered micro-organisms, which, however, as yet only produce short
strands of rather simpler amino acid combinations - and having not at all the same properties as the real
thing. Great commercial prizes await those who succeed because there are many valuable uses for such
a unique material.

Prof Volrath completed his exceptionally interesting talk by discussing recent work on regeneration of
nerves using silk frameworks. Nerves do like to regrow when damaged, but may not know in which
direction they should be moving. It has been shown, however, in a number of cases that packing an
excised vein with spider silk and then laying it along a damaged nerve track does encourage growth
along the silk fibres, and in a few cases has been demonstrated to lead to recovery of muscle control
after exceptional injuries to arms and legs.

Date: Wednesday, 14 Nov 2018
Prof. Fritz Volrath
Professor of Zoology, Oxford University
Download Report: Silk_lecture_.pdf

The idea to electrify the Great Western Railway was a political gesture. The Department for Transport was given
the task of funding it and seeing it completed. The execution of the task was asigned to Network Rail, working
through contractors.

The Objective was to shorten the journey time from Bristol to Paddington by 18 minutes, additionally by having
faster trains, greater line capacity could be achieved and by lengthening the trains and making them run by
electricity rather than diesel, greater seating capacity could be achieved as well as less pollution and less C02
emissions were realised.   
The plan was to extend the trains to Cardiff (end of 2019), Oxford and Newbury.

On completion, three Asset Heads would "own" the railway. One for signalling, one for track and one for the
electrical infrastructure. The speaker's role was as a sponsor for Department for Transport to the 3 asset heads,
while being employed by Network Rail.

On embarking on the project, mammoth problems were soon discovered. Bristol acted as a nidus for many of
these. The track and signalling in East Bristol were antiquated. Extinct freight marshalling yards still fed onto the
mainline through points resulting in speed restrictions. The signalling was of a similar age and was in need of
replacing. There was a need to quadruple the tracks from Bristol Temple Meads up Filton Bank towards Parkway to
cope with the increased traffic demand and a new platform needed to be constructed at Parkway. In addition to
this, the line needed to be electrified.

Simply electrifying the line carried its own problems. The work had to be done while trains were running, which
was unacceptable on safety grounds, so work had to be done at night, giving only 5 hours actual work, or
possession had to be taken of a length of line for a period of time. This caused great inconvenience to passengers,
freight operators, people using bridges, people who lived near the line and anyone who passed cables, crossings or
water or services passing below the railway. Placing the gantries could prove difficult if the ground into which they
were inserted differed. There was a mixture of clay, grouted embankments and bedrock to contend with.
Bridges posed problems with English Heritage demanding certain bridges be untouched. this necessitated lowering
the track, which caused its own problems with profiling the track if near a station or junction. Similarly raised
bridges had to be profiled which could lead to the road coming half way up someone's front door. Tunnels posed
another problem. Box tunnel has 8 different species of bat living in its roof, all of which had to be considered when
working in the tunnel. In addition to this a river was discovered one metre below the eatern portal, which required
divers to survey.

Many lowered tracks fell below the drainage levels for the overall permanent way and this had to be dealt with.
The moving parts of the system were also found to be problematical. A pantograph with carbon pick ups, contacts
the round copper wire about 5 mm in diameter to transfer the current. The pressure of the wire on the
pantograph was crucial and this was achieved by downdrop wires between the catenary and the pick up wire
about evey metre. The length of these downdrop wires was different and crucial for the tension and pressure of
the system. Despite this, the circular nature of the wire meant a pressure point on the pantograph until the wire
developed "a flat". This shotened the life of the pantograph from its 8 week spec.

A decision was made that there was no immediate advantage to electrifying the line from Swindon to Bristol
through Bath. This then necessitated the production of dual-traction (electro-diesel) five coach units. This then in
turn put extra pressure on the maintenance depots to maintain a fleet of electro disel units and meant that there
was extra energy expended in carrying diesel electric motors and the fuel to run them.
The final stage of the process is to commission the track and hand it over to the Asset Heads. This sounds a lot
easier than it is in practice. So far, the railway is on schedule, Currently the line is electrified form Paddington to
Didcot. This will be extended to just short of Swindon on October 21st this year and to Bristol by April 2019 and
Cardiff by the end of 2019.

Many questions were asked throughout the presentation which was greatly enjoyed by those present.

Date: Wednesday, 10 Oct 2018
Jill Poyton B.Eng PgD
Network Rail
Download Report: GWR_Electrification_Talk.pdf

Physicians have always relied upon using their eyes as a principle tool of diagnosis (along with all their
other senses of course). We do, however, often forget just how limited are our visual capabilities: we are
sensitive to a narrow range of light frequencies, and our colour discrimination is relatively poor compared
to some other animals. We cannot see into the infra-red, nor the ultra-violet and even in our visual range,
we are, for example, unable to distinguish the stimulation produced by one narrow range of colour
(perhaps a single spectral line) stimulating, say, red and green cones equally, as against a rather broader
range of light frequencies that again just happens to produce an equal amount of stimulation.

Many organic materials are rather more picky: they can respond very differently to different types of light
stimulation, and can also emit light from the infra-red spectrum right through to the ultra-violet. Hence,
modern methods of medical diagnosis are able to extend the range of the physician’s senses using more
accurate instrumentation that, for example, may be able to distinguish pre-cancerous tissue from that
which is merely inflamed. Even better, we can sometimes persuade hungry cancerous tissue to
preferentially absorb drugs that respond to stimulation by very specific light colours, causing it to release
cancer-killing chemicals just exactly where they are needed.

The new methods are complex and sometimes produce an embarrassment of riches. There is often far
too much information for humans to handle, and much of it needs to be sorted and filtered using large
amounts of computing power before we can distinguish “the wheat from the chaff”. As in so many areas,
artificial intelligence techniques (such as neural networks) are being exploited to “learn” the characteristic
“look” of diseased tissues. None of these methods are infallible, of course, so the physician or surgeon
still needs to exercise his judgement - but now with access to a wider range of reliable data.

This well illustrated talk threw an interesting light on modern advances in medical diagnosis and
treatments that are being applied to an ever wider range of sophisticated techniques in the continuous
search for better and faster methods of disease diagnosis and treatment.

Date: Wednesday, 5 Sep 2018
Professor Hugh Barr
Gloucester Royal Hospital & Cranfield University
Download Report: CSTS_Fiat_Lux_lecture.pdf
Date: Wednesday, 13 Jun 2018
Professor Hazel Rymer
Download Report: volcanoes__citizen_science.pdf
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