Category Archives: Science

Message From Your Retiring Science Group Management Team

We wrote to all Science Group members towards the end of March 2021 to advise that the existing Science Group leaders would be retiring and the group would need new leaders to continue. Thank you to all who replied, many with very complimentary messages, for which we are truly grateful. We ourselves have greatly enjoyed our 12-year tenure in charge and hope we have brought both pleasure and mental stimulation to all who attended the talks, visits, short courses, quizzes, competitions and experiments.

We also thank everyone for their attendance over the years – that is the reason we kept going for so long, and it was always rewarding to see so many turn up.  Attendance averaged 60 for the last 20 meetings prior to Covid-19, showing remarkable determination to keep up an interest in science whatever the weather, and whatever the topic. Members’ questions helped enliven the sessions and kept the speakers on their toes; indeed, the speakers always left with a very positive impression of our u3a.

Special thanks are due to all those who have played an active part in the monthly meetings, whether in organising and serving refreshments, putting chairs and tables out and tidying them away again, making sure everyone signed the register, or made sense of the microphone system!  And we can never forget the many members who planned, researched, rehearsed and delivered such a wide spectrum of talks, whether full length single topic ones, or sharing a platform on “my favourite element” sessions. Without all these contributions, we couldn’t have done it, and our members wouldn’t have enjoyed it!  So thanks to all once again.

A new team, comprising Bill Hale, Bill Soens, Peter Gateley and Colin Redwood, has volunteered to lead the group, on an interim basis, from September until Christmas 2021. We wish them every success, and hope that Science Group members will give them their full support.  Indeed, they will no doubt appreciate any offers of help which can be given in this venture.

With very best wishes to you all – stay safe, get your vaccinations and believe in science!

From Jack Brettle, Patsy Colvin, Marguerita McBride, Alan Nolan

Planet Earth: A User’s Guide

The 2020 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures featured three eminent scientists from different fields presenting a unique ‘user’s guide’ to Planet Earth. Their programmes unravelled astonishing global systems and remarkable natural wonders that combine to keep life on Earth alive.

And they explored how human activity has become an overwhelming geological force – disrupting the finely tuned systems that have kept our planet running smoothly for billions of years. We learnt how we can each help repair the damage we’re doing and live more sustainably, as Earth’s population increases.

All three episodes are available on the BBC iPlayer until December 2021!

Each of these world-famous Lectures from the Royal Institution bring to life one aspect of Earth’s inner workings:

Episode 1 – Professor Chris Jackson travels back into deep geological time, charting the Earth’s climate as it swings from hothouse to ice house and back again. With the help of spectacular volcanic eruptions and giant snowballs, he shows us how our planet’s oldest rocks and fossils provide evidence of radical climate changes throughout its history.

Chris reveals that what drives these changes is the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. For billions of years, volcanic activity increased CO2 levels, and mountain building reduced them. But in the last 100 years, a new kind of geological force is tipping the balance – human activity. For the first time, it is we who are changing the planet Earth’s climate, and at a rapid rate, with dangerous consequences unless we act quickly.

Episode 2 – Dr Helen Czerski unpicks the ocean’s heating and plumbing systems, showing how whale poo, waterfalls beneath the sea and zooplankton are all vital parts of an engine that distributes heat and nutrients around our planet.

Helen voyages from the cities of the ocean to its deserts, from its deepest depths to its surface, via an alien inner structure that is home to so much of the Earth’s life. This planetary life support system plays a critical role in generating weather, providing food and connecting trade routes. The ocean is an underappreciated resource. Helen tells us what we need to know to be good citizens of an ocean planet.

Episode 3 – Dr Tara Shine takes a deep breath and marvels at something we all take for granted: oxygen. She demonstrates how Earth produces a never-ending supply of this gas – the raw material for all complex life – and investigates what else is in the air that we breathe. One critical component is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that’s causing a dangerous rise in atmospheric warming.

Tara looks at the carbon footprint of a loaf of bread and how hydrogen might be the answer for heating and transport. From developing exciting new technologies to protecting wetlands and forests, the solutions are everywhere. Our ideas and ingenuity can create a better, cleaner and more sustainable future.

Dyes and Pigments

Wednesday 4th March 2020

Ever wondered how clothes, furnishings, home decorations, cars etc. get their colour?  Our own Marguerita McBride gave us a wide ranging talk, with illustrations from history about dyes and pigments, and more recent details of their chemistry, how they are used and how they get their colour.

Gems in the Dunes

Wednesday 5th February 2020

Thomas Brown [CC BY 2.0 (]

Fiona Sunners is the project manager of “Gems in the Dunes“,  a Heritage Lottery funded project focused on protecting the plants and animals of the Sefton Sand  Dunes, an important habitat for rare amphibians and reptile species.

Fiona talked about the efforts to preserve the natural habitats of this local environment for the rare species of the Sefton coast such as the Natterjack Toad and Northern Dune Tiger Beetle.


Attrial Fibrillation

 Wednesday 6th November 2019

The full title of the talk was “The global stroke tsunami related to an irregular heart rhythm: A focus on atrial fibrillation” – which really says it all.  Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition which affects 7 in 100 of over 65s and we were lucky to hear all about it from two experts Dr. Deidre Lane and Professor Gregory Lip from the Liverpool University Centre for Cardiovascular Science.  Not only did we have a fascinating presentation but Dr. Lane and Professor Lip then tested those interested with a Kardia electronic device to determine if they had atrial fibrillation and give them advice on what they should do next.

Age Related Macular Degeneration

We were due to have a talk on “Age Related Macular Degeneration: Causes and Future Treatments” in September but this had to be cancelled because the speaker, Dr.  Simon Clark, had to go to Germany at short notice but hoped to give us his talk a few weeks later.  However the visit to Germany was very productive in that Simon has been appointed an endowed professor at the renown Tubingen University to lead the macular degeneration work there.  Sadly he has left the UK and will not be able to give us a talk but Ormskirk’s loss is Tubingen’s gain: we wish him well in his exciting new post.

Nuclear Weapons

Wednesday 2nd Oct 2019

Nuclear war is perhaps something not thought about as much as it should be nowadays but was an important topic when we were younger.  Edmund Moynihan gave us a sobering account of the early development of these weapons, the science and technology behind them and the possible results of their use.  A talk which was not only about science  but also politics and ethics.  The talk generated much discussion as one might expect, which was followed by a 10 minute clip of a film for US schools from 1952 on the theme of “protect and survive”.  Takes you back!


Energy: the science behind achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050

Wednesday 4th Sept 2019

Achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is perhaps one of the greatest challenges now facing us.  The talk by Jack Brettle covered the basic science behind energy generation and use (we even had some thermodynamics!), comparison of the sources of energy, what we use it for and what actions we might take to achieve the 2050 target.  As might have been expected the talk generated a lot of audience questions: we can’t say we know how to solve the problems but at least we now have a better background to critically appraise all that we see and hear in the media on the topic.

Are Digital Games All Bad?

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

Older people (us?) often have strong views on digital games, social media, emojis, mobile phones etc. particularly their use by younger people (grandchildren?).  Are these views well founded?   Dr. Linda Kaye, a Edge Hill University psychologist, specialising in understanding the social effects of digital media (a cyberpsychologist no less), came to give us some background to the topic including her own research work in the area.  It became clear that much of the negative views on digital games etc. were based on media reporting of particularly aggressive games, often played by aggressive people and that most of digital gaming was fairly benign.  Linda had many questions put to her both during and after her talk which was a measure of how interesting our audience found it.

Novel Digital Healthcare

Wednesday 5th June 2019

We had a return visit by the NHS North West Innovation Agency with presentations and demonstrations of novel healthcare products. organised by the NHS North West Innovation Agency who are tasked with making the NHS better, safer, faster and more cost effective by introducing new healthcare devices, often for personal use.  We had demonstrations by Alertacall, with an improved personal alarm system; Fastroi, a care management software system; and Hospify, a healthcare communication system similar to WhatsApp but which is compliant with the new GDPR regulations.  The cream teas provided by the Innovation Agency were also gratefully received!

Visit to Heysham Nuclear Power Station

Wednesday 15th May 2019

On the 15th May 37 of us set off to Heysham to visit the nuclear power station.  After a tour of the displays at the visitor centre, a talk on nuclear power generation and a safety and security briefing we were kitted out with our high vis jackets, safety spectacles, hard hats, ear defenders and electronic security passes.  We were then split into groups and shepherded  through the security systems by our 8 guides (no opportunities for wondering off or dallying) and finally were were in Heysham 2, which housed one of two nuclear reactors on site.  We were not disappointed – a visit to the reactor top to see the refuelling system was followed by a visit to the control room and the turbine hall with our expert guides fielding all the many questions fired at them.  After shedding all our gear 37 rather tired U3A members happily snoozed their way home on the coach.

If you want a fascinating trip run by highly competent staff who are dedicated to their jobs – visit Heysham Power Station!

Solar Energy: Its Journey from the Sun to Your Kettle.

Wednesday 1st May 2019

Professor George King, Manchester University physics department,  explained how solar energy from its birth in the sun through its journey to earth can be harnessed and how we can store this solar energy when the sun isn’t shining.  We had everything from atomic physics to the economics of different forms of renewable energy generation.  A very topical talk considering the current concerns over global warming.  Since the meeting, one of our members, Brian Bennett, has reminded me that a book George King referred to “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” is available to download from , alternatively Brian, , will lend you his copy of the book!

What is Science and How do we Use it?

Wednesday 3rd April 2019 – What is Science and How do we Use it?

In April our own Professor Bill Hale discussed the topic of “what is science” based on his work with government and academic research councils and involvement with many research laboratories.  With a wide range of examples, and a number of the more amusing aspects of his global scientific wanderings, Bill entertained and engaged the audience for a full two hours.

The Mechanics of Walking

Wednesday 6th February 2019

Our speaker on 6th February was Dr. Kris D’Aout, a lecturer in musculo-skeletal biology at the Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease, Liverpool University.  He studies the mechanics of walking on complex surfaces, the effect of footwear and how gait is affected during healthy ageing as well as in disease.  His talk proved very popular and provided us with a record turn out which meant that unfortunately we ran out of chairs!  Many questions followed the talk and many high heels and sport shoes will be thrown out as a result.  We have spoken to Kris since regarding his need for older but healthy people to take part in his research trials and we might expect an invitation for volunteers to go to his laboratory to take part in these: watch this space.

Christmas Cheer with the Science Group

Wednesday 5th December 2018

We had our traditional Science Group Christmas Cheer event with quizzes and refreshments of Christmas cake, mince pies and a variety of nibbles, biscuits and chocolates.  Proceedings got off to a great start with Patsy’s famous mulled wine which helped everyone’s confidence in doing the quizzes if not their success!  We started with a World Knowledge Quiz which helped everyone decide that they did not know as much about the state of the world as they thought and followed this with a quiz based on the BBC TV show “Impossible” but with science orientated questions.

If you want to try Jack’s World Knowledge Quiz, you can download the Questions, Choices and Answers below:

Some members were interested in more background information on the World Knowledge Quiz and this is given below:

If you would like to have a go at doing Alan’s “Impossible” Quiz, you can download the Questions and Answers below.

The quiz is [very] loosely based on the TV quiz show, “Impossible”, where you have to identify both the ‘correct’ answer (for 3 points) and the ‘impossible’ answer (1 point).

ALICE Seeing Cancer Before it is Cancer

Wednesday 7th Nov 2018

Dr. Michele Siggel-King, a research associate from the Physics Department of Liverpool University explained to us how ALICE, a unique and extremely powerful infrared light source based on a free electron laser facility at the Daresbury Laboratories is being used  in to identify changes within and surrounding cells which indicate  the beginnings of a tumour.  The University of Liverpool has been awarded £3.2 million to develop new diagnostic tests for cervical, oesophageal and prostate cancers which are difficult to detect at an early stage as symptoms only become apparent when the tumours become large.  The talk was a fascinating mixture of high energy physics and biology which emphasised the collaboration between physicists, engineer, analysts and clinicians in government laboratories, universities and hospitals in the North West.

Innovation Agency Meeting on Digital Healthcare

Wednesday 3rd Oct 2018

Digital Healthcare is being introduced into the National Health Service to make it safer, faster and more cost effective.  This  Science Group meeting was hosted by the NHS Innovation Agency, whose job it is to promote innovation and so improve health care in the region.  After some presentation by agency staff explaining their work, five small companies developing these innovative devices explained and demonstrated them and members had the chance to try them out and give  feedback; this is important to the companies involved to ensure that their products meet our needs.   The companies involved were: Continue reading

Reasoning Machines: Could a Machine Think?

Wednesday 5th Sept 2018

We hear a lot about artificial intelligence in the media but with Dr. Louise Dennis’s talk we had the opportunity to listen to, and question someone who really knows; Louise is a researcher in the School of Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Computer Science at Liverpool University who has a background in artificial intelligence, robotics and automated reasoning.  We started from scratch, with a teach-in on Turing’s Universal Machine, followed by machine learning and neural networks to finish with the ethics of artificial intelligence; all deep concepts very well explained by Louise – not surprisingly there were many questions at the end of this fascinating talk.

Science on the 4th July

Wednesday 4th July 2018

What else did we have on the 4th July, but an Independence Day quiz and a series of 10 minute snippets by some of our members on science related events which happened on that date throughout history: american astronomy, Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, Giovanni Schiaparelli, Madame Curie and the beginnings of modern geology.  A mixture of puzzlement, science and history to entertain and amuse us all.

A Vision of the Future

Wednesday 6th June 2018

A Vision of the Future was the title of the talk given Neil Heyes, a well known local ophthalmic optician.  He told us about the latest developments in ophthalmology and optometry equipment such as Optical Coherence Tomography used to examine our eyes to detect and monitor any problems which may be developing.  Things have moved on apace from basic eye testing and prescription of glasses; the modern ophthalmologist is becoming the first line provider of general eye care and diagnosis.

Climate Records from Small Lakes

Wednesday 2nd May 2018

How has the UK climate changed in the last 15,000 years?  Professor Jim Marshall from Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences Department at Liverpool University explained how lake sediments preserve chemical and biological records of environmental change and help us identify abrupt changes in the UK climate since the last ice age which mirror similar events in Greenland and North America.  We had the results of over 30 years of his research work delivered in 60 minutes with a fascinating insight into how research work is actually done.

Martin Mere – Its Origins and Demise

Wednesday 4th April 2018

On the 4th April one of our own members, Professor Bill Hale, told us all about Martin Mere (the lake not the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust  Centre).  The talk covered the science and engineering, over nearly 15,000 years, of how the lake was created in the first place and why it is trying very hard, with a little help, to come back.  The talk was peppered with references to local landmarks and events so the audience could feel that they were really a part of the history of Martin Mere.

The Role of a Pharmacist in a GP’s Practice

Wednesday 7th March 2018

The speaker for our March meeting was Julia Bate who has worked as a hospital and local pharmacist, in pharmaceutical primary care giving prescribing advice to GPs, and has run clinics for chronic disease management and medication reviews.  Her talk covered how a pharmacist can influence prescribing in relation to safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness.  The audience were kept on their toes as Julia asked questions of them in her “interactive” presentation.  Pharmaceutical science is something which impinges on anyone who has prescriptions from their GP and so, not unexpectedly, we had a busy question session after the talk.

Graphene – Unexpected Science in a Pencil Line

Wednesday 7th February 2018

On the 7th February we had an audience of over 100 (a record for a science group meeting) for a lecture by Rory Phillips from the Graphene Institute, University of Manchester, entitled “Graphene – Unexpected Science in a Pencil Line”.  Rory was a last minute stand in for his colleague, Aravind  Vijayaraghavan, who was due to give the talk but was called away at short notice.  Graphene is a new form of carbon discovered in Manchester by two Nobel Prize winners and is generating enormous interest for applications in microelectronics, life sciences and engineering.  Rory gave a fascinating presentation which generated plenty of questions from the audience – particularly on the potential applications of this exciting new material …….. and if you want to know what it has to do with a pencil line you will just have to come to science group meetings!

Christmas Cheer Event

Wednesday 6th December 2017 – Christmas Cheer Event

Puzzles, odd one out quiz, who am I and what am I games, a table full of strange objects to identify – all part of the Christmas Cheer entertainment event, helped along of course by mulled wine, Christmas cake, stollen, mince pies. Lots of fun was had by all.  No wonder we had a record turn out for a December meeting!

The Cleaning up of the Mersey Basin

Wednesday 1st November – The Cleaning up of the Mersey Basin, 1980 – 2005 – David Moore

This span of time covers the period from when the Mersey was regarded as one of the most polluted rivers in Europe with virtually no aquatic life to when there are now over 40 different species of breeding fish resident in the river.

Having worked for North West Water/United Utilities from 1975 to 2010 in the Wastewater Management Section, David had first hand experience and knowledge of the issues involved in this major environmental improvement project and was able to give a very interesting account of the transformation after years of neglect.

The Moore Bridge, crossing the Bridgewater Canal

“Special Earth” – the Scientific case

Wednesday 4th October – “Special Earth” – the Scientific case – Edmund Moynihan

Edmund prepared a version of this talk for Southport Astronomical Society, so we were delighted to receive a preview.

His Special Earth presentation covered:

  • The Solar System
  • Recent discoveries about exo-planets, etc
  • The history of astro-biology
  • Mars as a case study
  • The special characteristics of Earth e.g. plate tectonics
  • A quick survey of Earth’s geological history
  • Earth’s biology e.g. the origin of life
  • The scientific and philosophical conclusions of Earth’s special status e.g. the principle of plenitude is wrong!

As always, Edmund presented his talk with some superb slides and elaborated his points with a wide-ranging and well researched brief. We certainly enjoyed an interesting, informative, and thought-provoking afternoon.

The Digital Revolution – Southport 2030 and Industry 4

Wednesday 6th September – “The Digital Revolution” – Dave Sutton

Dave Sutton is a major contributor to an initiative called “Southport 2030” aimed at helping Southport and Sefton prepare for the future as it is likely to be in 2030. This is the date when the “4th Industrial Revolution” is likely to be widely acknowledged by its effects on society: work, health, education and leisure. The drivers for this will include Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and automation, Big Data Analytics, and the Internet of Things.


Martin Mere Wetlands Centre

Wednesday 7th June 2017 – Martin Mere Wetlands Centre – Eileen Seabright

We were privileged to have one of our members, Eileen Seabright, a volunteer educational adviser at Martin Mere, come along to tell us about some of the history of the Mere, and the work of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust that goes on there. The wetlands are home to many species of ducks, geese, cranes, flamingos and swans from around the world, and provide a stopover for thousands of migrating birds – the arrival of the Icelandic Whooper swans in the autumn is a spectacle not to be missed!

Connected Health Cities

Wednesday 3rd May 2017 – Connected Health Cities – Debbie Parkinson

(Debbie Parkinson is the Patient and Public Involvement Lead for the Innovation Agency North West Coast)

The Connected Health Cities pilot project in this area is being delivered by the Innovation Agency North West Coast, which is the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) for the area.
It is one of 15 AHSNs set up by NHS England to act as catalysts for the spread of innovation; connecting businesses, NHS, academia, local authorities, third sector and other organisations to improve health and generate economic growth.

Debbie gave an interesting account of some of the work going on to bring novel health-related technology to help improve health outcomes. With examples including a very portable atrial fibrillation detector, and a fitness tracker app for smartphones, Debbie demonstrated the benefits of these developments especially within an ageing population.

The Genetics of Cancer

Wednesday 5th April 2017 – The Genetics of Cancer – Ann Parker

Ann was a leading contributor to the “Understanding Tomorrow’s World” discussion group led by Jack Brettle last year, and particularly the Genome topic and the genetic mechanisms involved in the development of cancer.

Ann’s talk highlighted some of the research and developments in cancer therapies arising from the knowledge gained and improved techniques developed as a result of The Human Genome Project. Ann has provided some useful links that you may wish to explore:

50 Shades of Grey

Wednesday 1st March 2017 – 50 Shades of Grey: The Fascinating World of Radiology – Professor Gill Baynes

Gill Baynes of Lancaster U3A gave a fascinating talk about the difficulties of interpreting medical x-rays and problems in deciding treatments based on medical scans and diagnostics. Interspersed with scans of all types, this was a humorous overview of the various techniques used in Radiology e.g. CT, MRI and Ultrasound and their uses in Medical Screening, Veterinary Radiology, Forensic Radiology and detecting Foreign Bodies.

Britain’s Industrial Decline

Wednesday 1st February 2017 – Britain’s Industrial Decline – Edmund Moynihan

Edmund, like many U3A members, had worked for some failed major British companies e.g. in textiles and polymers. Drawing on his experience with these companies, and his interest in historical developments in science and engineering, Edmund espoused his view of what actually happened and why. His talk was as entertaining as usual, though his views did provoke some lively debate afterwards.

Christmas Cheer

Wednesday, 7th December 2016 – Christmas Cheer 2016

The Science Group finished off a very successful and enjoyable year with mulled wine, mince pies, Christmas cake and stollen, and some lighthearted Science thrown in for good luck!

After a warming glass of Patsy’s extra special mulled wine, Marguerita got the afternoon off to a convivial start with a “Piecing the Puzzle” game in which teams had to match up large jigsaw pieces to complete some chemical formulae. Alan followed that with a couple of simple science quizzes – simple if you know the answers, of course.

Edmund talked about GoldFollowing the festive treats, we met the “Three Kings”. To the theme from “Goldfinger“, up strode Edmund Moynihan to give a short, but fascinating talk on Gold, laced with cultural, historical, industrial and scientific references. Bill Hale followed with an amusingly embroidered talk on Frankincense and Myrrh.

Finally, Marguerita introduced a quick “Make an Origami Christmas Tree” game with the resulting decorative trees being raffled.

Many thanks to Christine for organising the refreshments and to everyone who has helped her during the year.

The Physics behind Global Warming

Wednesday, 2nd November 2016 – The Physics behind Global Warming – John Bradshaw

Dr. John Bradshaw is a Chartered Physicist, a Member of the Institute of Physics and a Member of Mawdesley U3A.  His talk concentrated on the Physics behind Global Warming, rather than the social and political implications.  Using his background as a physicist at Pilkington’s, he explained some of the simple physical ideas of thermal radiation, heat flows and atmospheric absorption which underlie our understanding of the “greenhouse effect”.

The Greening of Birkdale Beach

Wednesday, 5th October 2016 – The Greening of Birkdale Beach – Phil Smith

Phil is an expert on the ecology of the Sefton Coast, and has previously given us a beautifully illustrated talk about dragonflies.

He was due to give a talk about the protected Natterjack Toad, until his computer “had a meltdown” as he put it.

Instead, Phil gave us a wonderful talk about the way the beach at Birkdale has been changing in recent times. It began in 1986 as scattered patches of Common Saltmarsh-grass Puccinellia maritima. These accumulated blown sand forming low hummocks, which grew forming embryo dunes which were then colonised by Sand Couch and later Marram Grass. Behind this dune ridge was initially saltmarsh but the ridge impeded drainage both from the original dune edge and the land drains taking surface water onto the shore from the coastal road and the golf course. This resulted in seasonally flooded lagoons which eventually developed into dune-slack, saltmarsh and swamp.

Illustrated by diagrams and photographs (before and after), Phil showed us what a diverse habitat has now developed and become home to many species of plant and animal life. An excellent substitute for the Natterjack talk! Thanks Phil.

Chemistry, Colour, Paper and Cloth

Wednesday, 7th September 2016 – Chemistry, Colour, Paper and Cloth – Marguerita McBride

It's a colourful world

It’s a colourful world

Our colourful world is amazing and yet it took lots of experimentation through hundreds of years to develop techniques for colouring paper, cloth and, more recently, to have coloured plastics, even coloured bubbles.  Modern techniques and materials have allowed for an explosion of colour. Dyes, pigments, heat transfer processes, clever use of Chemistry and of course, the development of modern synthetic fibres. We have come a long way since mauveine and Queen Victoria.

As you might imagine, Marguerita’s talk was both colourful and fascinating.

Road Racing Bikes

Wednesday, 6th July 2016 – The Development of the Road Racing Bike since 1945 – Bill Soens

Eddie Soens Memorial Road Race, 12th March 2016

Eddie Soens Memorial Road Race, 12th March 2016

Bill really does know a lot about how bikes have changed over the years, being not only a keen rider but having run his own bike shop called Eddie Soens, of Boaler St, Liverpool, where he hand built over 800 bikes over many years.

Bill gave us all a brilliant talk with lots of anecdotes and personal touches that brought to life a subject that could so easily have been rather dry.

He brought along a modern racing bike, some old racing shoes and an ancient rubberised fabric tyre to demonstrate the technical advances in racing bikes and equipment since 1945.

Chemistry is Magic – a 6-week course for beginners

chemistryismagic heading

This is a repeat of the very successful course run in autumn 2012.

Chemistry is Magic is from 09:45 to 11:45am at the Scout & Guide HQ on Wednesdays as follows: April 13th/20th/ 27th / May 4th/ 11th/18th 2016.

If you missed out on Chemistry at school, but would like to know more, this course is for you.  The course is designed for those with no, or very limited, knowledge of chemistry perhaps from school days and those for whom Chemistry is ‘rusty’ and would like to update. Continue reading

Defying Dementia

Wednesday, 1st June 2016 – Defying Dementia: from Compound to Clinic – Dr Penny Foulds

Dr Foulds, an Honorary Researcher at Lancaster University, gave a most interesting and useful talk about their efforts to develop a new treatment for dementia. Continue reading

Lunacy about the Moon

Wednesday, 4th May 2016 – Lunacy about the Moon – Edmund Moynihan

“Ex Luna Scientia” (“Knowledge from the Moon”): this motto from Apollo 13 summarises Edmund’s presentation, in which he examined what we know scientifically about the Moon, and some of the crazy ideas about our only natural satellite.
Besides the basic science of the Moon, Edmund talked about

  • The work of centuries of “lunatic” mathematicians
  • Lunar geology and possible life there!
  • Lunar exploration
  • Crazy projects and weird ideas about the Moon
  • Comparing our Moon with other fascinating moons
  • DIY astronomy

With his usual aplomb and wide-ranging knowledge of his subject matter, Edmund once again captivated the audience.

Internet of Things

Wednesday, 6th April 2016 – the Internet of Things (IoT) – by Alan Nolanscience-20160207-internetofthings

We had hoped to have a speaker from another local U3A to talk about the “Internet of Things” but he had to withdraw. We then hoped to have someone involved in the burgeoning IoT movement in Liverpool to come and speak but didn’t manage to get him either. In the end, Alan gave a presentation, outlining what this new-fangled thing is all about.

In fact, the notion of the Internet of Things is about how everyday objects can communicate with one another (and with us) via the internet to enhance their usefulness. Alan explained this with a range of examples showing the current and potential scope of the IoT, and touched on some of the underlying technology.

Finally, Alan drew attention to some of the major challenges, including privacy concerns, security weaknesses, technology limitations and environmental worries that still need to be addressed.


Wednesday, 2 March 2016 – Radioactivity (or how to love the atom) – by Jack Brettle

radioactivity-20160207Jack gave a highly informative and entertaining talk about Radioactivity. He explained just what radiation is, the different types of radiation, and where it comes from.  We encounter it in many forms not only in reactors and bombs, but also in medical instruments such as x-ray machines and MRI and PET scanners. We are constantly bombarded with radiation from the sun and outer space, and from radioactive radon gas released by uranium-bearing rocks and soil as the uranium undergoes natural radioactive decay.

Addressing such questions as How dangerous is it? Can you avoid it? and Should I worry about it? Jack put the relative risks associated with different types and sources of radiation into perspective, finally dispelling the myth that eating too many bananas is a radiation health hazard.

The Mersey Chemical Industry

Wednesday, 3 February 2016 – The Development of the Mersey Chemical Industry – Paul Davies

One of our own members, Paul was a senior manager in the Health and Safety Executive. Since retiring he has taken a great interest in the Chemical Industry on Merseyside. He illustrated his talk with nuggets of information that only a keen researcher would have known. Superb!

Paul has a ‘soft-spot’ for the Merseyside Chemical Industry. science-20160124-mersey-chemicalsIt was where he got his first proper job and where he met his wife, Sheila, when they both worked for Unilever at Port Sunlight. In the 1980s whilst working for the HSE, he visited some of the largest chemical works on Merseyside as part of his work to model the effects on the public of large accidental releases of toxic gases like Chlorine. It was then he realised how little he knew of why and how such a large industry came to be on Merseyside.

Science in Art

Wednesday, 6 January 2016 – Science in Art – Patsy Colvin

Although Science and Art seem to be diametrically opposed, with the advent of new techniques science can be used to study paintings and gain insight into the methods used in the past by artists. These techniques can also be used to detect forgeries or show that suspect paintings are genuine.

Patsy Colvin talked about how the use of pigments had changed over the years, and how spectroscopic techniques are now used in the National Gallery to verify a work’s authenticity.

Christmas Cheer

We had our annual Christmas Cheer event on Wednesday, 2 December 2015, and it was a real feast.

The Menu:

The Periodic Table treasure hunt needed quick thinking

  • mulled wine reception
  • a 15 minute talk by Chris Procter on mistletoe
  • a 5-minute quiz by Jack Brettle
  • a Periodic Table Treasure Hunt – with prizes
  • mince pies and cake, stollen, tea and coffee
  • Edmund Moynihan (about the Star of Bethlehem)
  • a “build a marshmallow catapult” game – with even more prizes!

Getting into the Christmas spirit

Our reputation for lively and entertaining events seems to be growing, as sixty people attended – a record for any December Science Group meeting.

Mobile phones and sunbeds


Wednesday, 4 November 2015Mobile Phones and Sunbeds
Are you worried by what you see written in the press about the danger of radiation from mobile phones, or mobile phone masts?

Are you less worried about the possible dangers from sunbeds?

Those who attended the talk by Professor Peter Cole will have been reassured about one of these, and even more concerned about the other.

Peter Cole is a Professor in the Department of Physics at Liverpool University and current President of the Society for Radiological Protection. Peter gave a stimulating and informative talk, laying to rest many myths about the dangers of radiation. It seems that radiological dangers relating to mobile phones have been vastly exaggerated in the popular press, while the much greater danger from unsupervised or incorrect use of sunbeds has been largely ignored.

Space Weather and the Earth’s Magnetic Shield

Wednesday, 7th October 2015 – Space Weather and the Earth’s Magnetic Shield – Prof. John Shaw

The Earth’s magnetic field shields the Earth from the solar wind and high energy particles that are released from the sun during solar storms. science-magnetosphere-20151122-internetIs the magnetic shield constant or does it change, can it collapse completely? What do we know about the behaviour of the magnetic field in the past? What could happen to civilisation if the field decreases? The answers to these and many other questions can be found in the ancient recordings stored in ceramics and rocks. John Shaw gave us a fascinating account of how the earth’s magnetic field protects us from harmful rays and particles ejected from the surface of the sun, and went on to explain what might happen if the magnetic field disappeared. He rounded off the talk by showing us how to make a DIY megnetometer, mainly using a handful of household objects.

Himalayan Medicine

Wednesday, 2nd September 2015 – Himalayan Medicine – Dr John Winter

Book title: Aiming High - Overland to the Himalayas

Aiming High – Overland to the Himalayas

John Winter is the author of “Aiming High, Overland to the Himalayas” Aiming High – Overland to the Himalayasand a local member.

He travelled to Everest, Annapurna and Indrasan in the nineteen seventies as a newly qualified medic to help with the treatment of climbers suffering from altitude sickness.

With some stunning photographs, and sketch maps of the region, he gave an overview of the risks and medical problems associated with high altitude mountain climbing and trekking in the Himalayas.

Predators in Liverpool Bay

Wednesday, 1st July 2015 – Predators in Liverpool Bay – Mathew Clough

Mathew Clough is Director of the Liverpool Bay Marine Life Trust, and came along to tell us about the seals, cetaceans and sharks on our own doorstep.

Liverpool Bay is often forgotten in regard to its marine life and there is an image of it being polluted. Hard work and a lot of clean up programmes have bought life back to the bay though and Mathew described just how many of the large predators are now found within Liverpool Bay and where we see them.

Solar Eclipses

Wednesday, 3rd June 2015 – Solar Eclipses – Phillip Pendred

Last year Phillip talked to us about ‘Time’, or the measurement of time to be precise, illustrating his talk with some wonderful slides. This year he gave us a very instructive talk about Solar Eclipses – how they come about, why they last for varying lengths of time, why they don’t occur more frequently at any one place on earth and more.

Illustrated with computer simulations of the movement of the moon and earth in relation to the sun, he explained the various astronomical cycles that ancient observers used to predict eclipses, even without our modern understanding of the solar system.

How do we know where we are?

Wednesday, 6th May 2015 – “How do we know where we are?” Prof Matthew Nolan

Matthew (Alan’s nephew) is Chair of Neural Circuits and Computation, University of Edinburgh Centre for Integrative Physiology, whose research is interested in the mechanisms used within the brain to mediate cognitive processes and guide learned behaviours!

Matthew gave an extremely interesting talk about how neurons interconnect and the mechanisms involved. He described some of the research methods his team uses to identify exactly which neurons are involved in the brain’s ability to keep track of location. Unusually, the talk was right at the cutting edge of scientific research yet it was delivered at a level that we could easily follow and enjoy.

Forensic Geology

Wednesday, 1st April 2015 – Forensic Geology – Dr Maggie Williams

Dr Williams, from the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Liverpool, gave us an insight into the science of Forensic Geology and how it is applied in the investigation of crime scenes.

Lovey Dovey

Wednesday, 4th March 2015 – Lovey Dovey – Graham Cawdell, seagullConsultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Whiston Hospital. Graham came along to tell us about breeding, egg laying, incubation, feeding, nurturing and fledging in birds. Many of these things vary greatly from one species to another, and there seems to be an almost limitless number of combinations, each designed to ensure the continuity of that species in its niche environment.

Graham’s talk was both entertaining and informative – and obviously delivered by someone whose interest in birds was kindled at a very early age. A thoroughly enjoyable session.


Chemical elements part 2

Wednesday, 4th February 2015 – Chemical Elements part 2 – this was a joint effort by 6 of our members, each talking for 10 minutes on their chosen element. It was the second session on chemical elements, the first one being last June. February’s line-up was:

Frank Wood – Silicon
John Appleton – Lead
Ann Parker – Hydrogen
Allan Yates – Polonium
Bill Hale – Iridium
Sue Watkinson – Gold

Each of the presenters took a different approach, which provided great variety.

Frank outlined the zone refining of silicon, its crystal structure, and its major uses. He then went on to explain how silicon acts as a semi-conductor when doped with either nitrogen or phosphorus atoms and is the basis of the transistor.

John described the harmful effects of environmental lead in the development of children’s teeth, with particular reference to a project he has worked on in Poland monitoring the levels of lead over time.

On a lighter note (you can’t get much lighter than hydrogen!), Ann explained the critical importance of hydrogen bonds in biology and how they enable life as we know it.

Allan talked about the discovery and properties of polonium, one of the most radioactive and toxic substances around, and its role in the killing of the former soviet secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Bill’s interest in birds and geology suggested iridium, which is found in meteorites with an abundance much higher than its average abundance in Earth’s crust. For this reason the unusually high abundance of iridium in the clay layer at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary gave rise to the Alvarez hypothesis that the impact of a massive extraterrestrial object caused the extinction of dinosaurs and many other species 66 million years ago.

Sue rounded off the mini-talks with an interesting account of the early history of gold and its uses through the centuries right up to the present day use in electronics , medicine and space exploration.

I venture to suggest that the seventy-eight people who came along not only enjoyed the talks, but also went away knowing something extra about six more of our chemical elements.

It’s a Materials World

Wednesday, 7th January 2015 – It’s a Materials World! by Jack Brettle
What is your view of history? What do historians think drives the development of human society? Is it economic, political, religious or sociological forces?

Jack Brettle posed these questions, but suggested that historians have got it all wrong and that human development is down to new materials technologies!

The talk walked us through four “ages of development”: the stone age, the agricultural age, the industrial age and finally the information age. Within each age, Jack outlined the basic types of materials available at the time, and posited that it was the discovery or development of significantly novel materials that led to the transition to the next age.

He finished with some thoughts on the future; as we move towards a “molecular age” will we be able to design functional molecules for almost any purpose?

An excellent talk, which sparked lots of questions and contributions from the assembled gathering.

Christmas Cheer

Wednesday, 3rd December 2014 – “Christmas Cheer”:

Christmas Menu

Mulled wine
Reindeer – by Chris Procter. How do reindeer survive and thrive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, and why do their antlers grow so fast? Chris will have all the answers.

Christmas Baking and Christmas Drinks – what is the common denominator? Yeast!
Jack claims to know something about the action of yeast in baking a panettone, and Patsy has done a fair bit of fermentation – she was a chemistry teacher, after all! But what’s going on inside, and why is yeast so important?
Refreshments, including panettone, cake, biscuits, tea and coffee
Crackers and Snowflakes – Patsy will explain how crackers crack, and Marguerita will address the question, “are all snowflakes the same?”

We will be serving up a variety of science morsels: physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and domestic! Come along and sample them all.

The Science of Cleaning

Wednesday, 5th November 2014 – “It’s a dirty old world we live in” – the Science of Cleaning, by Patsy Colvin. As an ex Head of Chemistry at a local school, Patsy brought her vast experience of chemistry to bear on the problem of cleaning. Why are some stains harder to remove than others? Why do we need so many different types of cleaning solution? Why can’t there be a universal cleaner?

Well, Patsy did a very good job of enlightening us: we heard about surfactants, solvents, chelators, saponifiers and builders and how these various components of the cleaning process work on different types of stain. We learnt about soils and stains, anions and cations, hydrophilic and hydrophobic solvents, and hopefully we left with a better understanding of how to read the labels on cleaning products!

Questioning Style and Memory

Wednesday, 1st October 2014 – “Questioning Style and Memory”. Dr Joyce Humphries, from Edge Hill University Psychology Department, returned to talk about the findings from the study earlier this year in which quite a number of our members participated.

It was fascinating to hear the background to the study, and Joyce took us through a potted history of academic studies done to investigate the effect of cross-examination styles on whether witnesses changed their testimony between their first account and their performance in court. Most such studies had focused on the reliability of young people’s testimony, and the project at Edge Hill was to see if there was any difference between younger and older people in their propensity to change their statements under cross-examination.

Readers may be relieved to know that the results suggested there was no significant difference in this respect; younger witnesses were just as likely to change their minds as older people under cross-examination (irrespective of whether their first statements were accurate or inaccurate).

Visit to Springfields Nuclear Fuels

Thursday, 11th September 2014 – visit to Springfields Nuclear Fuel Manufacturing site, organised by Jack Brettle. A fascinating tour of the nuclear fuel plant near Preston, the visit gave us an insight into the complex and highly technical aspects of manufacturing fuel rods for various British nuclear power stations. Precision is important, as you might imagine, but the process still relies on people to correct any bends in the rods and make sure they are actually straight!

The visit was also notable for the extent of the security checks made by the operators of the site – we had to register with our passports or photo driving licences, and while we were having our bags searched, a security team was sweeping the coach to check for bad things – concealed weapons, I guess!


Wednesday 3rd September 2014 – “Perception” by Sylvia Dillon: Making sense of what we see – an introduction to Visual Perception and the neuro-physiological processes whereby a person becomes aware and interprets external stimuli.

Sylvia talked about how photons of light are processed – at first by the eye, then the brain, then how the individual perceives the world they live in. Covering physics, biology and psychology, she gave examples showing how perception is an active process and how early life experience, especially as a toddler influences the development of perception.

Hack Green Secret Bunker

Wednesday June 25th2014. The Science Group visited the Hack Green Secret Nuclear bunker followed by lunch at Bridgemere Garden Centre and some time to have a wander

around there.

The general opinion was that the visit was very successful, with many people being quite surprised, and even a little shocked, by the degree of preparedness (or lack of) in the event of a “four-minute warning” being given.

Many thanks to Barry Carr for organising the visit and ensuring a smooth trip.

The bunker was built to be the administrative H.Q. for the North West, in case of a nuclear attack in the cold war era. All the facilities to govern this area were based there. They remain as they were, ready for use.

This chilling reminder of that time now looks somewhat dated yet is a fascinating piece of history.

You can see what might have happened if the bomb had been dropped.

There are many public information films that were never released, explaining what we should do – rather reminds me of that cartoon ‘When the wind blows’.

The History of Communications

Wednesday, 2nd July 2014 – The History of Communications over the past 100 years, with particular reference to the changes made during the lifetimes of our members, by Mike Briggs. Mike started out as a ship’s Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy, before moving into the world of Microwave Transmissions systems for both TV and data.

The talk covered

  • evolution of human verbal communications
  • early methods of how information and messages transmitted beyond the location of the originator
  • visual methods used for signalling through the centuries
  • the importance of communication and its development of our world
  • examples of how significantly, even disastrously, communications has impacted upon on our lives
  • essential components required for long and short range communications systems
  • examination of the amazing developments which have been made during the past 100 years

There was also a selection of equipment available for people to examine, from the simple but amazing telegraphic Morse key through to point to point microwave systems, walkie talkies and a few museum pieces.

All in all, Mike gave us a great insight into the developments that have changed the way we communicate with each other.

Chemical elements part 1

Wednesday, 4th June 2014 – “Chemical Elements – Part 1″ – a joint effort by 6 of our members, each talking for 10 to 15 minutes about their chosen element. The line-up was:

Patsy Colvin setting the scene with a brief definition of an element, a bit of atomic theory and a tour around the periodic table, then on with the show, starring your very own…

Edmund Moynihan talking about Iron.  A whizz through the history of iron taking in Soviet Art, the Romans, the industrial revolution, geology with a bit of biology to finish with.
Beryl Yates talking about Copper.  Its history, its geology complete with samples to show: what more could you ask for!
Chris Procter talking about Phosphorus.  From its discovery to its critical importance in biology and agriculture, everything you wanted to know.
Peter Croughan talking about Noble Gases  Six elements at once, not so unreactive as you might think with much curious chemistry and many important technological applications
John Parsons talking about Chlorine  A much maligned element, critical to modern hygiene.  The world of Domestos revealed
Tony Edwards talking about Platinum  Not just for jewelry, important in many areas of technology especially the glass industry.  We learned some metallurgy from an expert.

Each of these has a story, and each of the presenters took a different tack. We heared some fascinating things about the discovery, chemistry, physical properties, uses and economic importance of each of these elements; and with seven of our own presenters, no one fell asleep!

Time – a brief history?

Wednesday, 7th May 2014 – “Time” – by Philip Pendred, who talked to us last year about Comets. This time, his talk concerned the way time was measured with particular regard to Astronomy (Solar time etc.); sundials; the equation of time and its derivation; the importance of timekeeping with reference to finding longitude; precession of the Equinoxes and the calendar and its adjustments.

I can give no better summary of the talk than to print this poem by Judy Ingman:

Measuring Time

Philip Pendred’s lecture was enthralling, as we were all to find
As we learned from the early Ancients the ways to measure TIME
And all about the water buckets, a device that’s called Clepsydra
Where servants counted buckets filled, a job of much fastidiar!

Time measurement throughout the ages, relied on the movements of the Sun
Candle clocks, sundials, and hourglasses, before the pendulum
Then we proceed through huge machines, until we come eventually
To atomic clocks measuring increments in our last twentieth century.

The question, what’s a  SECOND?  is answered, equal to tick, tocks
And thereby do we come to our watches and all our many clocks!
For accuracy we must measure the elliptical orbit of Earths’ way
With equinoxes and solstices, to determine a Solar day.

Well, the maths and its minutiae leave one gobsmacked to the core
And I don’t know if I can honestly claim to understand much more!
Except to say, to traverse the Sun, days number, three six five and a quarter
So that’s where Leap Year comes on in and rounds off the maths like it oughta!

But thank you Mr. Pendred for talking of Time and how it’s been measured
For it was an afternoon that informed us all, and one that will be treasured.

Thank you Judy.

Spectroscopy, gemstones and minerals

Wednesday, 2nd April 2014 – “Spectroscopy, gemstones and minerals”. Keith Snell, leader of the U3A Geology group, gave a very interesting talk about the use of Spectroscopy in the analysis of minerals and in the gems trade. Illustrated with some very colourful slides, and pieces of his own home-made equipment, Keith’s talk was laced with personal anecdotes of his interest in gems and minerals throughout his life.

Chemical Analysis

Wednesday, 5th March 2014 – Following on from our highly successful talk about Forensics in February, our own Marguerita McBride will talk about Chemical Analysis.

It’s a complex world we live in – physically (as well as politically, socially, financially, culturally, and so on!) – and there are many processes used in analysis of the chemical, physical and biological properties of materials. 

This presentation is about some of the types of analysis linked to Chemistry and the impact of those on many aspects of everyday life. Some reference will be made to the Electromagnetic Spectrum we looked at in November, eg Infra Red, Ultra Violet, but other methods may perhaps be less well known and yet every bit as important and interesting. How do we know the formulae of so many complex chemicals, for instance, or that we are ‘over the limit’ or that an athlete has taken a banned substance?

It’s all down to Chemical Analysis, and the modern tools and techniques used. Come along and find out more about it.

Forensics in Criminal Investigations

Wednesday 5th February 2014 – The Use of Forensics in Criminal Investigations. Stuart Kirby, who retired from the police service with the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent, and who now lectures in Criminology at Lancaster University, came along to tell us about the use of Forensics in criminal investigations. Popular television programmes such as CSI and Silent Witness have stirred interest in this area, and Stuart enlightened us as to the lack of real science in many of the stories.

He was entertaining yet informative, and had a very easy style of delivery, so the 96 people who attended were rewarded with a great afternoon.