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Messing with your brain

By Louise Mayor

Last night I attended an event at the Royal Society in London celebrating 100 years of superconductivity. Hosted by Oxford Instruments and the Institute of Physics, the evening’s entertainment included talks by top scientists Stephen Blundell, Mark Lythgoe, Steven Cowley and Jonathan Flint.

A take-home message from Blundell was that it took 50 years from the discovery of superconductivity until we got to the point of commercializing the science – something that funding bodies and policy-makers should keep in mind. But as well as such sensible opinions, there were some unusual goings-on that I won’t forget in a hurry.

One such highlight was the video below. Lythgoe showcased what we’ve learned about the human brain through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which only has such high resolution due to superconducting magnets. Lythgoe challenged the audience to watch the following video and count how many times the people in white T-shirts pass the ball between each other. Have a go yourself, but try not to be distracted by the people in black T-shirts, who will try to confuse you by running around and throwing a second ball.

So, how many times did the white ball get passed? The answer is 15. Well done if you got that right – it shows you have good attention. However, this was an example of a selective attention test. Did you see the gorilla?

In a particularly curious moment, a group of people stood up and made their way to the front of the room; in hindsight they were conspicuously young and gender-balanced compared with the rest of the crowd. It was explained that we were in for a musical treat – a music/art performance called Brainwaves, one of the composers having been inspired by an MRI scan. The experience was immersive, with visual effects from design studio loop.Ph, and Mira Calix and Anna Meredith’s electronic music sounding menacing and grating next to the more soothing tones of the Aurora string quartet. I’ve never been in an MRI scanner, but watch for yourself and see what you think.

None of the evening’s events would have taken place were it not for that serendipitous discovery of superconductivity 100 years ago. This April, Physics World produced a special issue to celebrate the centenary, a free PDF of which can be downloaded by following this link.

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