You don’t need a PhD in horology to know that there are piles of great popular science books out there and not enough time to read them all. So I’ve collected a bunch of the best established and emerging science writers — people working at the cutting edge of their own particular disciplines — and asked them to distil their passions into just one chapter each.

The result is Great Explanations, an anthology of the most pressing, fascinating and sometimes just plain overlooked topics from the far reaches of science, engineering and maths topped with a smattering of the philosophy…


Children are always going to find cunning ways to bunk off school, and the latest trick is to fake a positive COVID-19 lateral flow test (LFT) using soft drinks. So how are fruit juices, cola and devious kids fooling the tests and is there a way to tell a fake positive result from a real one? I’ve tried to find out.

First, I thought it best to check the claims, so I cracked open bottles of cola and orange juice, then deposited a few drops directly onto LFTs. Sure enough, a few minutes later, two lines appeared on each test, supposedly indicating the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19.

It’s worth understanding how the tests work. If you open up an LFT device, you’ll find a strip of paper-like material, called nitrocellulose, and a small red pad, hidden under the plastic casing below the T-line. Absorbed to the red pad are antibodies that bind to the COVID-19 virus. They are…


Transitioning to home working had its challenges for us all, but when your job involves researching biological applications for nanotechnology, those trials are a little more complicated than juggling the household’s broadband usage. So barred from his lab, you might reasonably expect the research by organic chemist Vittorio Saggiomo, from the Bionanotechnology group at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, to have come to a grinding halt.

But Saggiomo is a creative, imaginative type, and so he began to wonder if he could turn common household appliances to good use in the fight against COVID-19. More specifically, could he…


For most of the 20th century, more than 60,000 people died in the US from polio, diphtheria and small pox each year. In 2016, the American death toll from these diseases was zero. Around the globe, two to three million deaths from these diseases and others, including measles, rubella and tetanus, are prevented each year.These remarkable statistics are a triumph of medicine and the single most effective public health measure in history: global vaccination programmes.

COVID-19, after the most rapid and sustained vaccine development programme in history, now looks set to be joining this list of fatal diseases that can…


‘Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind’

I came across that quote (from the zoologist Marston Bates) during a particularly low period in my research career, nothing seemed to be working. The days of failed experiments stretched into weeks and then months, with no end is site. The quote mirrored my mode.

At first Bate’s words seemed like a dark description of the scientific method that chimed with the distress I felt after yet another fruitless week in the lab. It conjured up an image of me, a lost scientist wondering down one…


Just how long is all of your DNA?

Let’s start with a quick recap. The sequence of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), is famously spelt out in just 4 letters — A T G and C. Each letter represent the repeating ‘bases’; adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. And the famous DNA double helix is a twisted ladder, each rung made from a pair of bases. Adenine always pairs with thymine whilst cytosine pairs with guanine.

So the first thing we need to know is the distance between each rung on that DNA helical ladder. And that’s easy. Watson, Crick, Franklin and Gosling


Curious Kids is a series by The Conversation, which gives children of all ages the chance to have their questions about the world answered by experts. All questions are welcome: you or an adult can send them — along with your name, age and town or city where you live — to curiouskids@theconversation.com. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we’ll do our best. How is spider silk so easy to break when it’s stronger than steel? — George, aged ten, Hethersett, UK.

Thanks for the question, George — the simple answer is that spider silk breaks easily…


Did you know that the discovery of a way to make ammonia was the single most important reason for the world’s population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today? Or that polythene, the world’s most common plastic, was accidentally invented twice? Nope? Well here’s their stories plus 3 other chemistry inventions that make the world we live in.

Chemistry hall of fame. Andy Brunning/[Compound Interest],

1. Penicillin

Mark Lorch

Prof of Science Communication and chemistry & dyslexic writer e.g. http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/ebook/978-1-78262-487-5, https://theconversation.com/

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