Page last updated at 22:30 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

So you want to be a scientist?

By Michelle Martin, Producer
BBC Science Radio Unit

Toast and cat (BBC)

Do bald people's shiny heads contribute to global warming?

Can I disrupt the internal sat-nav of snails eating my petunias?

Will a slinky going downwards on an upwards moving escalator ever reach the bottom?

From curious to genius, these are just some of the ideas we've received for So You Want to Be a Scientist? - BBC Radio 4's search for amateur experimenters.

Since we launched the project in our weekly science show Material World in January, over 900 people have sent us their brainwaves.

If they're selected then we'll help them turn their suggestions into experiments to carry out themselves - from their kitchen, shed or local park.

They'll also be helped by a professional scientist, to advise on everything from experimental design to statistical analysis.

Entries close this Sunday - 28 February. So if you have an idea and you haven't submitted it, you've still got time.

A panel of judges chaired by Lord May, ex-UK government science adviser and current president of the British Science Association, will whittle the entries down to just four finalists.

They'll have until September to complete their research and present their findings at the British Science Association festival in Birmingham.

Holes and hurricanes

Like the three bears, some ideas we've had so far are too small, and others too big.

Many people, for some reason, want to drill a hole through the centre of the Earth. Others would like to explode a bomb in the eye of a hurricane.

But a reassuringly healthy number are on the right lines.

Perhaps inspired by recent research into cows, music and milk production, one beekeeper wants local choirs to sing to her bees to see if they make more honey.

Another entrant would like to investigate the best place to stand at music gigs. No matter how many people are in the audience, he hypothesises, there is always more room at the front than a few rows back where the density builds up.

Do compost heaps evolve? One applicant suggests sampling bacteria from local compost heaps to see how fast the species adapt to different food wastes.

"Evolution can seem very remote and desperately slow," writes the entrant. "Just imagine if there were examples of it going on right under our noses."

Happy traffic

We've been impressed by not only the originality of the experiments, but also their methodology.

For example, one person would like to find out whether people are happier driving north or south on the M1 motorway.

Their proposed method? Standing on bridges from Leeds to London, waving at passing vehicles.

Happy people, they suggest, are more likely to wave back.

"We have met several couples that also wave at cars," adds the applicant, "and see the smiles on the faces of those that acknowledge you.

"When we have counted, the people travelling south wave more often."

Enter your idea

So You Want to Be a Scientist? is part of a range of BBC projects celebrating science in 2010, as the Royal Society marks its 350th anniversary.

"It's important people get an idea of how science works," John Pethica, Vice-President of the Royal Society, told Material World.

"This idea that all scientists have to be working in professional institutions isn't really true. If you look back in the long term, there were 'gentlemen scientists' conducting their own research."

If you have any brainwaves waiting to be tested, you can apply online here before midnight on Sunday 28 February.

Good luck!



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