How to do amazing science on the cheap



In some cases, problems can be solved with creativity rather than money.

History tells us several stories of scientific discoveries chanced upon. Most famously, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic, might not have come before World War II had he cleaned his lab and closed the windows before going on vacation.

In a world where scientists righteously complain about adequate funding, and some members of the public believe they know best where research dollars should be spent, let’s take a short break to recall great moments in history - when simple and relatively cheap experiments have delivered modern scientific discoveries as well.

Flying clocks

At the turn of the 20th century, Einstein’s theories of relativity were a mind-bending leap forward in physics. Einstein proposed that the concepts of mass, energy, space and time were not fixed or constant, as we thought, but part of a much more complex system. Einstein predicted that time is linked to space, thus depending on your position or movement, relative to another, the flow of time can appear different.

Scientists were desperately trying to confirm – or reject – Einstein’s musings. Rockets were launched and spacecraft sent beyond the sun. But in 1971 two American physicists, Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating, instead took to a regular passenger jet. Alongside Hafele and Keating sat four atomic clocks, the most accurate time-keeping device available, and together they flew round-the-world, once eastward and once westward. The pair successfully detected the time dilation effect predicted by Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The cost of the plane tickets was $7600.

The Scotch tape technique

Humanity’s first two-dimensional material came about thanks to simple sticky tape. Starting with graphite, a natural form of pure carbon (used in lead pencils), Andre Geim stuck a piece of tape to the solid and peeled off the top layer. The Russian scientist folded the tape in half, sticking it to itself, and split the flakes again and again until he had a sheet of carbon atoms thinner than ever before. This proof of concept led to the production of the marvelous new material, graphene.

A one-atom-thick sheet of carbon, graphene is like no other material we know. It is flexible and transparent, yet stronger than steel. A sheet of graphene can create a gas-tight seal, but it allows water vapour to pass through. Since it is so thin, there is little resistance to the flow of electricity.

In 2010, Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for producing and characterising graphene. In 2012, Geim and colleagues used a graphene derivative to distil vodka. This same technique has also been used to purify salt water to give fresh drinking water. 

Unearthing a 1000-year-old Viking remedy

Concocting a mixture of garlic, onion, wine, bovine bile and copper might sound like witchcraft, but this recipe is actually a 10th century Viking remedy for bacterial infections. Last year researchers from the University of Nottingham dusted off an Old English text housed in the British Library and reproduced an “ancient-biotic” that has proven potent against today’s troublesome multi-drug resistant bacteria.

Bacteria have been developing resistance to our best antibiotics faster than we can identify, test and approve new compounds, which means people are running out of treatment options. Freya Harrison, a microbiologist, and Christina Lee, a historian, translated the dormant recipe as an amusing side project to their day jobs, but this promising home brew appears to be remarkably effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a common hospital superbug. Their research was supported by a crowd-funding campaign

The daily grind

Natural environments, both terrestrial and marine, are a rich source of unique chemical compounds which may have medicinal properties. Here in Australia scientists are tapping into our biodiversity, extracting anti-cancer compounds from sea sponges and sea snails.

But isolating particular chemicals from naturally found substances is slow and, as you would expect, requires specialised equipment. That is, however, until last year Jason Smith brought a coffee machine into his lab at the University of Tasmania. Compared to traditional methods that take days to do, Smith’s team can purify compounds from plant materials in a matter of hours. They have already extracted shikimic acid, a precursor to the antiviral drug Tamiflu, from star anise. 

The longest running laboratory experiment of all time

Then for education’s sake, there is the University of Queensland’s pitch drop experiment. Professor Thomas Parnell set up the experiment in 1927 to demonstrate to his students the surprising properties of tar pitch: at room temperature the material feels solid and can be shattered by a hammer, but it’s actually a liquid – it just flows really, really, really slowly. Tar pitch, heated and poured into a funnel, forms droplets by the decade (only nine have fallen in the experiment’s 89 years). The experiment has legions of fans and its own website, where you can watch the action.

Of course, there’s more to these nifty stories: decades of hard work precede scientific breakthroughs; high-tech devices are absolutely necessary for production of materials; sometimes major achievements can only be accomplished with the help of insanely expensive and brilliant tools (think LIGO and LHC); and to confirm discoveries like these subsequent research is certainly required, such as clinical trials to test newfound drugs.

But whenever someone says that science and creativity are polar opposites, you can tell them one of these ingenious stories - they're much more than just 'cheap science'.