Page last updated at 18:19 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 19:19 UK

Science enthusiasts chase dream in BBC talent search

By Michelle Martin
BBC Radio Science Unit

Noctilucent clouds
The occurrence of noctilucent clouds will be studied during the project

From clouds to crowds - four amateur scientists have been chosen by BBC Radio 4 to turn their ideas into real-life experiments.

The finalists were revealed this week on Material World, the station's weekly science programme.

The ideas include testing whether there is more room at the front of music gigs than further back and looking at how people present themselves on Facebook.

The amateurs will be mentored by leading scientists in their fields.

The four finalists are:

  • Ruth Brooks, 59, a retired home tutor from Devon, who wants to discover the homing distance of the garden snail so she can stop them from eating her petunias
  • Sam O'kell, 35, a croupier from Cheshire; he will test his theory that there is more room at the front of music gigs than further back
  • Nina Jones, 17, a student from Buckinghamshire, who will look at how people of different ages present themselves online through their Facebook photos
  • John Rowlands, 41, an amateur astronomer from North Wales; he wants to research the frequency of noctilucent clouds, luminous layers of ice crystals that form high in the atmosphere.

The talent search So You Want to Be a Scientist? was launched in January, and more than 1,300 ideas were sent in.

It's really tough getting the methodology right so you can get to an answer that's reliable
Trevor Cox

The four finalists were chosen by a panel of judges chaired by Professor Lord Robert May, former chief science advisor to the government.

He was joined by clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, acoustics engineer Professor Trevor Cox, and Mark Henderson, science editor of the London Times newspaper.

"The shortlist was amazing, I was overwhelmed," said Professor Byron.

"They were so creative and diverse, so it was really hard to make a decision."

Scientific statement

After agreeing on the first three finalists, the judges almost reached a stalemate on the final place.

It was a close call between John Rowlands' study of noctilucent clouds, and an entry by art gallery owner Shane Record from Kent.

Mark Henderson, Lord May and Tanya Byron
The final selection proved tough work for the judges

Shane wanted to test his observation that more people come into his gallery when he puts a mannequin by the artwork.

Giving the illusion that they will not be alone in the gallery, says Shane, makes visitors far more likely to enter.

In the end, they chose John Rowlands' amateur astronomy experiment, which had wider implications for research fields such as climate change.

It is thought that the increase in brightness and frequency of noctilucent clouds over past decades may be linked to global warming.

The amateurs will be mentored by leading scientists in their chosen field, who will advise them on how to turn their ideas into rigorous experiments.

From anecdote to experiment

Professor Cox said the finalists had a difficult task ahead of them.

"I think the devil is in the detail with science, it's really tough getting the methodology right so you can get to an answer that's reliable."

The four finalists will present their results at the British Science Festival in Birmingham in September, where the judges will pick a winner.

They will then write their results into a research paper and submit it to an academic journal.

Mark Henderson said that watching the finalists' progress would give people a new insight into the world of science.

"Science is about having ideas, then gathering the evidence to support your hypothesis.

"I really hope that by following these experiments people will be able to see how science is really done."

To hear more about the finalists and the judges' meeting, readers in the UK can listen again to Material World on the iPlayer.

You can also follow the progress of the four finalists on the Radio 4 Facebook page.



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