NPG Goes Neuro! #NPGsfn11

Neuroscience 2011 is this year’s major event for neuroscientists from around the world. Organised by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), the event took place from November 12th – 16th, in Washington, DC. To tie in with this, some of the attendees have been sharing their observations from the event in an exclusive series of guest posts on NPG’s Neuroscience blog, Action Potential. Here we share a round-up of some of the #NPGsfn11 guest posts.

Action Potential’s editor, Noah Gray, has also created a Google + circle listing the guest bloggers, so do check it out and join in the discussion.

Electric Brain fail?

Find out why the SfN conference is the nerd Disneyland of Bradley Voytek, a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Neurology at the University of California.

In his guest post, he takes us on a journey, looking back at how much knowledge we have gained in the past 50 years and considers how much further we have to go.


He introduces us to the Electric Brain, a giant electrified model of the human brain’s control designed in 1961. He juxtaposes simplified models from the past of entire brain regions, with modern attempts to model whole neurons, made possible by advancements in computational power:

How do the latest and greatest theories and findings on display at SfN compare to the Electric Brain? One would like to think that, with this much brain power (har, har), surely we must be close to “understanding the brain” (whatever that might mean.) Although any model of the human brain feels like an act of hubris, what good are countless scientific facts without an integrated model or framework in which to test them?

Be afraid!

Tara LeGates, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular, Molecular, Developmental Biology, and Biophysics Program at Johns Hopkins University, discusses Andreas Lüthi’s lecture, by Andreas Lüthi Defining the Neuronal Circuitry of Fear. One of the ways Lüthi’s group study fear is by auditory fear conditioning in mice:

This is a form of classical conditioning where an auditory stimulus (tone) is paired with footshock, which will elicit fear behavior (freezing). Eventually, providing the tone alone will elicit this fear response. If the tone is continuously presenting with no shock, the fear behavior can be extinguished, considered a separate learning experience. Think about it this way: Let’s say your boss jingles his or her keys. Normally, that’s not very threatening right? Well, now s/he comes into the lab, jingling those keys and yelling indiscriminately. Perhaps this becomes a regular occurrence. Eventually, just the sound of those keys, as s/he approaches the lab, will have you running for the cold room for cover. Classical conditioning.

Using a variety of genetic and electrophysiological techniques, Lüthi’s group is able to examine the role of the amygdala circuitry (the almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain) in fear conditioning.


A section through the central nucleus of the amygdala, stained with antibodies against three markers that distinguish largely non-overlapping populations of neurons.

Continuing reading her post for more details on fear conditioning.

Bad habits

Neurobiologist Björn Brembs details in his guest post what he learnt from a series of poster presentations at the SfN conference on habit forming. One of the models used in neuroscience research to mimic the process of skill learning, is habit formation. Animals such as rats or mice are trained in a specific task until it becomes so automated that their behaviour becomes difficult to change. The inability to change behaviour which is associated with habit formation is also an important paradigm when modelling drug addiction. Björn elaborates:

Habit formation in animal models is usually induced by over-training them. For instance, in one poster from the first session of this year’s Society for Neuroscience conference, Smith and Graybiel trained rats in a T-Maze: following a given auditory cue, the animals had to go either left or right for a reward. Before a habit is formed, i.e., in the early phase of the experiment, the behavior is still flexible (termed ‘goal-directed.’) This is tested by devaluing the reward the animals receive for choosing the correct arm of the T-maze. For instance, if turning right after tone A is rewarded with water and turning left after tone B is rewarded with food, animals are more likely to make more mistakes when the ‘water cue’ is given, if they were sated with water immediately before testing in the maze.

The Super Agers

After being inspired by a poster session at the SfN conference, Sandra Upson, the managing Editor at Scientific American Mind, considers in her guest "post ": how the bodies of “Super Agers,” or “octogenarians,” may be aging and their hair may be thinning, but their brains stay young:


The 48 octogenarians in the Northwestern University Super Aging Project were selected for having met or bested the average performance of a 50- or 60-year old on standard tests of recall. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of their brains corroborate their superior abilities: not only do super agers act the same as their younger counterparts, their brains look the same. “To see no change whatsoever was really surprising,” says Theresa Harrison, one of the researchers who presented preliminary findings from the project at a poster session at the 2011 Society for Neuroscience conference.


Gary Stix," writer and senior editor at Scientific American, discusses in Big ‘O’ Studies, indications that more activity exists in the brains of women during “self-stimulation” to orgasm, than anything short of an epileptic seizure. Gary explains that Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers University psychology professor, and his team have spliced together a series of fMRI images to make a movie known as a “brain symphony” and this video proved popular at one of the poster sessions at SfN 2011:

orgasm image.jpg

A still from the “Brain Symphony” movie, courtesy of Dr.Barry Komisaruk.

The post explains in more detail Komisaruk’s research and how understanding the normal physiology of orgasm might help address the problem of anorgasmia, the inability to achieve climax.


On Saturday night, one of the many SfN satellite events taking place was, Career Development Topics: A Mentoring and Networking Event. Held at the Washington Convention Center, the event was organized by the Society’s Professional Development Committee to provide mentoring opportunities and professional guidance to neuroscientists across all educational levels. Paola Giusti Rodriguez, who completed her PhD at Harvard University in the Spring of 2011, attended the event:

The mentoring event was well attended (not an easy task considering that it took place on a Saturday night) and interest seemed to be wide-ranging, as revealed by the mostly full tables. At table #19, where I sat as one of two mentors on the “Science Policy: Fellowships, Careers and Advocacy” sub-topic, we had a good showing. It was evident there was a great deal of interest in science policy among our table hoppers, and that many had already heard about some of the most well-known science policy fellowship programs, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowships and the National Academies’ Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship.

Find out more about Paola’s experience at this mentoring event, in her post.

Finally, be warned, conference attendees, Dr Becca WAS judging you……..!


For more coverage on the SfN conference, do check out Scientific American’s The Scicurious Brain

Below, you can also find other Neuroblogs which have been covering the conference:

Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 5 – 11 November

This is the weekly round-up of the best content on the Nature Network, Scitable and NPG staff blogs. We now also create a weekly Communities Happenings post where you can read more about events such as Science Online NYC, tweetups, and which conferences NPG staff are attending. We also include social media news and occasional science writing-related job opportunities at NPG.


GrrlScientist asks in her latest post, what particle physics, statistics and poetry have in common. The answer is…. a flock of Eurasian starlings, Sturnus vulgaris. Find out why in her post, which includes a video capturing many thousands of European starlings as they settle in to their evening roost:


Onto flocking of another kind, with Graham Morehead who this week has been discussing Flocking of the Mind, comparing it to the beauty seen in a flock of starlings. He suggests in his latest offering (without mathematical support) that consciousness is a flocking of the mind:

The flock itself seems to have life. The flock dances, soars, and undulates. No bird is in charge of a flock. It is neither chaotic nor static. Flocking behavior emerges as a natural consequence of the bird-to-bird interaction. Computer models exhibit flocking behavior using only three parameters. Nature might be just as simple.

Do you agree with Graham’s ideas? Find out more and join in the online discussion.

Medical technology

The Spoonful of Medicine blog has discusses how a new probe which can image both the structural anatomy of artery walls, as well as the biological activities within them, could one day help detect blood clots before they cause problems. Farouc Jaffer, director of the Cardiovascular Molecular Imaging Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Molecular Imaging Research in Boston, together with Guillermo Tearney and Hongki Yoo from Mass General’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine, created their new catheter-based device by combining two microimaging techniques which doctors have traditionally performed separately. Watch this video below where Tearney explains the kinds of images and animations that the device produces:

Find out more in their post.

Science IS cool enough for school

This week’s guest blogger is Shreena Patel, Scientific Projects Manager for Exscitec. In partnership with Imperial College Outreach, they provide hands-on practical activities for students to raise aspirations in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

As outreach providers for Imperial College, over the past 12 years, Exscitec has provided bespoke courses for school students of all ages and abilities. Whether it’s building robots, synthesizing compounds or discovering who committed murder most foul through forensic testing, we try to take STEM off the textbook page and into the real world. In a nutshell, we try give students that ‘wow’ factor that will change the way they look at STEM.


Find out the other ways they make science “cool” for school children in the post.

Science to business

James Taylor, CEO and Co-Founder of Precision NanoSystems, an innovative startup at the convergence of nano-, micro-, and bio-technology, has been contributing to the Trade Secrets blog this week, revealing how he was able to navigate his career from bench to business:

Graduate or postgraduate studies are designed as a scientific training ground for a career as a scientist or professor. The knowledge gained is narrow and the skills learned are specific. For anyone serious about transitioning off the bench, you will need to actively pursue additional experiences and skills outside of your research work. There are many ways to do this during your degree, and I found that volunteering at an organization in an area of interest is one of the best ways to get your feet wet.

You can find more useful tips in his post.

Nature podcast

Each week, Nature publishes a free audio show hosted by Kerri Smith, Geoff Brumfiel and Geoff Marsh, highlighting content from the week’s edition of Nature. This week’s Nature Podcast includes: an expanding universe mystery; how primates became sociable; a test-drive in a nanomobile; the real risk of earthquakes in the middle of the United States. Make sure you subscribe for free to the Nature Podcast by copying and pasting this URL into iTunes or your preferred media player: Nature Podcast rss feed.

Science blogging

One post which seemed to be particularly widespread across the blogosphere this week was written by a Scitable blogger, Khalil A. Cassimally. In his post he asks, What Is The Place Of New Science Bloggers In Today’s Science Blogosphere? He raises some controversial points:

There are a number of reasons why science blogging networks cannot keep increasing in size. The important thing to grasp is that a blogging network is not meant to be as dynamic as the web. A reputable network presents readers with a set of respected bloggers which readers either trust or grow to trust. Readers need not like all the bloggers in a network but the successful networks are those who host bloggers with whom different sets of readers have become familiar with. This is actually a major selling-point for any network: familiarity or a feeling of community.

Discussion on this post certainly picked up and you can read Ed Yong’s response over on Google +. Feel free to join in the ongoing discussion.

Conference notes

Finally, how do you take notes at conferences? Take a look at what Raf Aerts’s notes look like when he forgets his black Moleskin notebook:


Science Online NYC (SoNYC) 6 – In the news, but not reviewed

On Thursday evening, we hosted the sixth installment of the monthly Science Online NYC (SoNYC) discussion series. The topic for debate this month was, “In the news, but not reviewed” and the panel featured:

  • John Matson covers astronomy for Scientific American.
  • Maia Szalavitz is a journalist who focuses on neuroscience. Her current focus is on’s Healthland.
  • John Timmer is the science editor for Ars Technica, and has trained his managing editor to recognize when a news story contains the word “arXiv”.

As is our usual format, following short introductory talks from the panelists, we invited attendees present in person at Rockefeller University or watching online to take part in a wider discussion.

To read what people on Twitter were saying about the event, check out our Storify of tweets at the bottom of this post.

Blog posts about the 6th #sonyc

Do let us know if you blog about the event and we’ll include a round-up of links here.


Have been added to our Facebook page. Do let us know if you’d like us to link to any of yours.

Live-streaming and video archiving

We do also live-stream each SoNYC event to give as many people as possible the chance to take part in the debate. Check out our livestream channel where the archives of the first five meetings are currently hosted.

Finding out more

The next SoNYC will be held in December and will be on Citizen Science. The details of December’s event will be announced soon – keep an eye on the SoNYC twitter account for more details and/or watch the #sonyc hashtag.

If you have a suggestion for a future panel or would be interested in sponsoring one of the events, please get in touch.

This month’s Storify

NPG at the SfN conference

Neuroscience 2011 is almost here!

Neuroscience 2011 is this year’s main event for neuroscientists from around the world who will be presenting and discussing the most up-to-date, groundbreaking research on the brain and nervous system. This year’s conference, from November 12th – 16th, is the 41st annual meeting, and is taking place in Washington, DC at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Organised by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), it’s an opportunity for like-minded professionals to network through lectures, symposia, workshops and events. You can check out the SfN website for regular updates, or use their official conference hashtag #sfn11 on Twitter to follow the online conversations.

It’s NeuroBlogging time

To complement the conference, from November 12th-16th, editors, research scientists and bloggers will be sharing their insights on varied topics and sessions from the event through a special series of guest posts on the Nature Neuroscience blog, Action Potential. In order to keep fully updated, there is also a Google + circle listing the blog’s contributors. We encourage you to take a look and join in the discussion.

Do let us know if you would like to contribute to the blog coverage, or if you would like us to link out to any relevant content that you create.

Booth #205 is where it’s at!

A team from Nature Publishing Group will be attending Neuroscience 2011 and if you’re attending too, we invite you to stop by booth #205 at the conference to receive complimentary copies of your favourite Nature journals, giveaways and discounts. If this isn’t tempting enough, there will also be an opportunity to meet our editors from Nature Medicine, Nature Methods, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Nature Communications and Scientific Reports. You can download an up-to-date list of schedules here.

In addition to this, (we really are spoiling you!) there is another deal available if you come and join us at booth #205…..

Subscribe to Nature or any of the Nature research journals at booth #205 for the price equivalent to their Impact Factor*. (Yes, that means Nature is just $/€/£ 36**, Nature Neuroscience just $/€/£ 14**!) But you must act quickly. This limited time offer is only available from booth #205 and ENDS NOVEMBER 16, 2011

What do we think

There will also be an opportunity to join us and hear Editors of Nature and the Nature family of journals give their views on current issues in scientific publishing. So if you’re in DC next Tuesday, make sure you sign up for our satellite evening event, perspectives on scientific publishing from editors of Nature journals. More information detailed below:

When: Tuesday, November 15, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Where: Renaissance Washington, DC, Downtown Hotel, 999 9TH ST, NW, Washington, DC 20001

Room: Mount Vernon A & B

Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 29 – 4 November

Open Science

David Basanta is discussing open science in his latest post after being inspired by a TED talk given by Professor Jay Bradner at Harvard Medical. Bradner, who is working on molecules which can target cancer cells, first published a paper with the results and a candidate molecule, making it clear that he would share this molecule with any lab in the world. David elaborates:

He calls this open source science. I call it science.


You can hear more of David’s thoughts in his post.

“Following the sunstone”

Barbara Ferreira has been discussing a new study published in Proceeding of Royal Society which reveals how Vikings were able to successfully navigate and sail from Scandinavia to America in near-polar regions, using “sunstones”.

Centuries-old Viking legends tell of glowing sunstones that navigators used to find the position of the Sun and set the ship’s course even on cloudy days. In 1967, a Danish archaeologist named Thorkild Ramskou speculated that the Viking sunstone could have been Iceland spar, a clear variety of calcite common in Iceland and parts of Scandinavia.

iceland spar.jpg

Picture: Birefringence of Iceland Spar seen by placing it upon a paper with written text. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Find our more about these “glowing sunstones” in her post.

Bird evolution

GrrlScientist is divulging details on the evolution of Hawaiian honeycreepers; she explains:

Using a large DNA data set, researchers have identified the progenitor of Hawaiian honeycreepers and have linked their rapid evolution to the geological formation of the four main Hawaiian Islands.


Picture: ʻAkiapōlāʻau, Hemignathus munroi, is a passerine version of the woodpecker, feeding on insects hiding within the branches of trees.

You can find our more about these honeycreepers in her summary.

A snaky solution?


The Spoonful of Medicine blog have revealed in a paper published this week in Science, that cardiologist Leslie Leinwand of the University of Colorado, and her colleagues identified a mixture of three fatty acids in pythons’ blood that were activated during cardiac growth: myristic, palmitic, and palmitoleic acids. When she injected them into mice, their hearts exhibited healthy growth:

The next step is to study whether this fatty acid mixture can heal or treat diseased mouse hearts and then, eventually, human. “The question is whether this growth is truly physiological and is it going to help the heart function better,” says Rong Tian, who studies cardiovascular metabolism at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Continue reading the post for more information.

Job tips and podcast

During the recent Career Expo in London hosted by NatureJobs, interviews with the two key speakers were recorded. Listen to the two podcasts for tips including what to expect from the working culture, how to adapt to the social culture, pointers on funding, visas and online networking:

Podcast1: Lisa Kozlowski from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia speaks about moving to the United States.

Podcast 2: Madeline Paterson from Symmetry Coaching talks about networking

Their interviews are also available as podcasts on

Who were Europe’s first humans?

Nature News blog have made known that several sets of teeth found in the UK suggest that ancient humans roamed Europe thousands of years earlier than previously thought.


Continuing the theme of evolution is this week’s guest blog post by historian Jill Jones. In her piece, The Living Dinosaur, she talks about the ginkgos, a dominant forest tree species:

The Ginkgo biloba is one of the wonders of the natural world, a “living fossil” whose arboreal ancestors date back to the Jurassic period. “How or why the ginkgo managed to survive when all of its relatives went extinct is an unsolved botanical mystery,” wrote Del Tredici in Horticulture back in 1983—a mystery he would spend two decades helping to partially unravel.

Learn more about the ginkgo tree in Jill’s post.

Mind over Matter

Scitable’s blogger Dave Deriso continues his discussion on the interesting clinical condition of craniopagus, explaining that it affords a thought-provoking debate over medical ethics. In his post he takes a step back and considers whether it is ethical for physicians to decide if the birth of such debilitated individuals should be allowed:


Ken Walker is a Canadian physician who claims that most doctors lack the “intestinal fortitude” to say that the birth of craniphagus twins “should never have happened.” He goes on to say that that allowing such a birth is a “cruel experiment and will cost taxpayers millions of dollars in medical and social costs.” He attempts to substantiate his utilitarian arguments by asserting that the Canadian “health care system cannot afford reckless expenditures of this kind.” Finally, he claims that “Like it or not, we have reached a point where some medical decisions have to be based on financial realities” (Walker, 2007).

Find out what contradictory opinions are considered in the debate in Dave’s post. What do you think? Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comment thread.


Finally, Viktor Poor explains in his latest cartoon, that Medical imaging uses many techniques and one of them is the positron emission tomography:

pet scan.PNG

Best of Nature Network, NPG staff blogs and Scitable: 22 – 28 October

The very first London Science Festival took place from last week and we attended several of the events. On Friday night we went to the Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum, Kings College London, for an exhibition on the mechanisms of evolution. Check our coverage to see some of the weird specimens on display:

three eye-thumb-450x191-3855.bmp

Tuesday night brought us the Science Question Time event at King’s College London, where discussion was focused on the future of drugs. Amongst the topics discussed were the role of open innovation in new drug discovery, the economics of drug development and usage, personalised medicine and cognitive enhancing drugs. In our post we have collated a Storify of tweets and other content from the event.

The London Science Festival finished on Wednesday, but do keep an eye on the London Science Events calendar which is regularly updated. We also have events calendars for hubs around the world, and, as our Boston Blogger continues to keep those in the area in the loop, you can read a summary of events in her latest post, food, fights bats and biotechs.

Careers Advice

This week Eva Amsen has been moving house and in the process has been receiving some impromptu career advice from her plumber:

“At the end of every week, stop and ask yourself: ‘Have I learned something this week? Have I made a difference? Have I enjoyed myself?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, you’re doing all right. When you’re in a new job, you’ll still be learning new things all the time. But when that stops, when at the end of the week you can’t answer ‘yes’ to all these questions, you’re in trouble.”

We agree with Eva (and the plumber) that this is, “Sound advice for all careers…” including those in science!

Open Access

journal free.bmp

The Royal Society is making their historical journal archives open access, GrrlScientist reveals in her latest post. So if you love reading about the history of science first-hand, then you’ll love having free access to the archives of the world’s oldest continuously published scientific journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - this access may prove particularly useful in the lead up to Halloween:

They are permanently free to online access from anywhere in the world, according to an announcement by The Royal Society.

On the other hand, if you enjoy reading about strange and wondrous scientific phenomena that rarely see light in the modern day, you may wish to search out gems such as monstrous calves — or monstrous humans? Since Hallowe’en rapidly approaches, maybe you prefer to read about mummies?

You can find out some history of the journal in her post or check out the News Blogs latest coverage.


This week’s guest post is on bioinformatics, explaining what is it and how it can bring prehistory to life? Blogger Ivan Karabaliev from Eagle Genomics clarifies:

Explained in just one sentence, bioinformatics is the science of managing, analysing, storing and merging biological data (DNA sequences, proteins, etc.) using advanced computing techniques. Put another way, it is the application of computer science and information technologies to solve biological questions. Simple questions include asking what a specific region of given DNA is responsible for, or how closely related one organism is to another by comparing their genomes.

Continuing the bioinformatics theme, the Spoonful of medicine blog has reported that a sequencing project may bring age-old wisdom to genomics:

Helen ‘Happy’ Reichert died in September. She was a lifelong New Yorker, a former television talk show host and Cornell University’s oldest alumna. She was 109. Despite her death, however, Reichert’s memory may live on through her genome sequence. Today, the nonprofit X-Prize Foundation — best known for its attempt to spur the development of private spaceships — launched a $10 million competition to accurately sequence 100 genomes from 100 centenarians over the course of one month, starting 3 January 2013.

Find out more about this project and the future of genomics in the post, including what Craig Venter, who sits on the X-Prize advisory board, has to say.

It’s podcast time

Check out this week’s Nature Podcast, which includes reports on how brains change across the lifespan, the biggest threat from climate change and Pluto’s new best friend. Plus, the best of the rest from Nature.

Media misinterprets

This week, scitable blogger, Taylor Burns, is discussing how science stories can sometimes be misinterpreted by the media. This is in response to the UCL study linking IQ swings in adolescence to specific structural changes in the brain which went viral this week:

Whenever a science story goes viral, there is always either a miscommunication, misunderstanding or misplaced emphasis. For this one, it’s misplaced emphasis. Take, for example, the BBC piece, which suggests the most significant aspect of the study to be the fact that it demonstrated IQ fluctuation. Any psychologist who studies intelligence will tell you that we’ve known about this for years. Rather, what’s exciting about the UCL study is its neuroscientific (rather than psychological) finding: namely, that there is a significant correlation with particular structural changes in the brain – which they were able to isolate and observe – and verbal and non-verbal IQ.

Taylor talked with Prof Stephen Ceci, an influential developmental psychologist at Cornell, about the results and you can read two of his longer comments in his post.

Sleepy Bears…

Following on from last week’s post on bears, the Frontier Scientists are explaining all about bear hibernation:

beat at rest.bmp

This isn’t ‘true’ hibernation; the bear’s temperature drops to only about 88 °Fahrenheit from a standard 99 °F maintained during waking months. Some call it ‘denning’. In contrast, most small mammals which hibernate can reach a core body temperature of below 40°F, with a few species even dropping their temperature to below freezing. Still, bears exhibit a slowed metabolic rate (torpor), sparse oxygen consumption and low core body temperatures, just like other hibernators.

The post asks if modern day science can help to harness the power of hibernation. You can find out more here.

What’s the diagnosis?

The favourite diagnosis of hit US TV character Dr House is Viktor Poor’s inspiration for his latest comic strip:


London Science Festival: Science Question Time – the future of drugs

The very first London Science Festival has been taking place since last week and on Tuesday night we attended the Science Question Time event at King’s College London where discussion was focused on the future of drugs.

Some of the topics discussed were the role of open innovation in new drug discovery, the economics of drug development and usage, personalised medicine and cognitive enhancing drugs.

Below is a Storify collating the tweets from the event:

Do let us know if there is anything missing as we will be continuing to update the storyboard as and when more coverage appears.

In the meantime, make sure you check out our other reports from the London Science Festival including David Willetts’ "lecture ": on science in the UK, a unique tour of the Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College and a special viewing of the film Inception.

London Science Festival: SCISCREEN: INCEPTION

The inaugural London Science Festival taking place this week and next, has compiled a diverse program of sciencey entertainment that makes the most of different communication formats. Reminiscent of the World Science festival that we attended earlier this year, there are lectures and museum-based events but also creative use of theatre and film.

On Thursday night we attended the science film night in Notting Hill, organised by Science London, the London Branch of the British Science Association. The Coronet Cinema was the venue for a sell-out showing of the movie, Inception, including an exciting opportunity for a Q&A with the Oscar-winning VFX company, Double Negative, the visual effects house responsible for the CGI special effects in the movie.

For those of you who haven’t seen the multi award-winning film (where have you been?) Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, is a modern sci-fi thriller, located within the architecture of the mind. With an all star cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page, this film stuns the viewer with a strange alternate reality presented at its best through superbly creative visual imagery.

The plot is complicated and demanding, involving the unravelling of dreams within dreams. Viewing the film becomes a surreal experience, as the boundaries of fantasy and reality become steadily more blurred. Cutting-edge special effects are used to delve into the levels of psychology within dreams, leading the viewer deeper and deeper into this strange world of Morpheus, mutated by technology.

The movie puts a new spin (no pun intended, for those who’ve already seen it!) on the sci-fi tradition of alternate realities and drug-induced mind control – ideas which have opened opportunities for the imagination since Alice stepped through the looking glass and have formed the basis of films such as the cult favourite, The Matrix, or the less serious Total Recall. The imaginative dream-like quality of the story is taken to a new level by the ground breaking CGI.

Why not have a sneak peak at the film’s trailer to get a quick taster of the visual effects…

After the viewing (still in a semi-dream state!) we were lucky enough to gain a close insight into the making of the film by talking to Dr Nicola Hoyle from Double Negative, who played a leading role in developing the CGI. She talked us through the creation of these effects from the secrecy of her introduction to the concept (stuck in isolation in a small room for two hours with no phone and a script on coloured paper to prevent photocopying) to the actual techniques used to create many of the effects. With a masters degree in Maths and a PhD in Computational Engineering, Dr Hoyle was very aware of the difference between her science job and working on the film. As she pointed out; in science you can’t lie, whereas with visual effects you can cheat and nothing is impossible. Or does the film itself suggest that this premise is wrong and science can be used to create lies?

Dr Hoyle’s team was made up of people from a wide background of expertise, including scientists specialising in all aspects of the discipline. With an enormous financial budget – over $30,000,000 was spent on CGI – and a crew of 200 working 50+ hour weeks for four and a half months, superb, unrivalled lavishness of effects became possible. However, Dr Hoyle stressed that the film set was not glamorous, just sheer hard work with high level ingenuity pushed to the limits with challenging concepts.

Many of the team’s tricks of the trade were revealed, from the use of green screens and digital simulation to build artificial sets and scenes, to the painting out of harnesses, ramps and mirror reflections of cameramen. Fascinating details of the images were discussed, such as the creation of the slow-motion rain, the road damage and the addition of buildings. A thorough understanding of three-dimensional geometry was needed in order to create the limbo wall scenes with crumbling buildings and the Paris folding street scene.

With such an expert scientific input, it is hardly surprising that Inception is the type of action packed, fast-paced motion picture that is both thought-provoking and challenging, requiring the full attention of the viewer. Avoid nipping out for some extra popcorn if you want to keep up with the plot!

So, after an evening of surreal entertainment, Inception left us with a sense of deception and, as we began to wend our weary way home, I suspect a few of us were surreptitiously looking around in anticipation (or fear) of seeing a spinning top….