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FameLab win with quantum carrots

Science

Pete Wilton | 22 Mar 12

FameLab UK 2012 winner Andrew Steele

An Oxford University researcher has won FameLab UK, a competition that aims to spot the best new science communicators by getting them to deliver a nugget of science wisdom in a talk lasting just three minutes.

In the final, which took place last night at the Royal Institution, Andrew Steele of Oxford University’s Department of Physics secured the prize ahead of nine other finalists with a talk about why carrots are a delicious testing ground for quantum mechanics.

‘Why is this carrot orange? It turns out that carrots are quantum vegetables, and their delightful colour can be understood with one of the simplest ideas in quantum mechanics: the so-called particle in a box,’ Andrew told the judges and assembled audience.

He went on to describe how the beta-carotene in carrots is a ‘molecule in a box’:

‘Think of it like an angry cat. <miaow> In fact, to squeeze an electron, or a cat, into a box so small that we knew exactly where it was would take an infinite amount of energy. And kicking a cat in an infinitely small box would just be mean…’

Andrew concluded by exploring how light interacts with carrots and tearing a spectrum printed on a card in half:

‘If you shine white light on a carrot, everything that’s green or more energetic gets absorbed by the electrons, and you’re only left with red, orange and yellow being reflected back into your eyes. And that’s why carrots are orange.’

His talk won over the judging panel of Andrew Cohen, head of BBC’s science unit, anatomist, science writer and broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts, and Oxford neuroscientist Professor Russell Foster, as well as winning the audience award.

Andrew tells me: ‘The final was pretty nerve-wracking! There was strong competition and a real diversity of styles so it must've been as hard for the judges as it was for us finalists. It was amazing to have the chance to speak in such an illustrious venue as the Royal Institution, and obviously I'm thrilled with the outcome!’

The prize includes £1000 in cash and £750 to spend on a science communication activity and Andrew will go on to compete for the title of International FameLab Champion at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival in June.

Photo: Andrew Steele (centre) with judges Russell Foster and Alice Roberts.