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The Warsaw Voice » The Polish Science Voice » September 30, 2013
Popular science
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Pole on British Talent Show for Scientists
September 30, 2013   
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Marcin Stolarski, a Polish scientist from the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy
of Sciences in Warsaw, appeared in the world finals of this year’s FameLab international contest for young scientists in Cheltenham, Britain, in June. He did not win the competition, but impressed the judges with his three-minute presentation in which he set out to explain why static from people’s clothes poses a risk to transistors in computers and mobile phones.

“Our clothes tend to pick up a lot of static, and sometimes it’s like a small lightning strike. For a transistor, this is like a bolt from the blue, and a deadly one at that. A dead transistor in a computer can render the computer useless,” says Stolarski.

Stolarski has a Ph.D. degree and works at the Laboratory for Satellite Application of Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) Technology at the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. He is responsible for building communication systems for Poland’s first research satellites. He is also busy building electronics for the Solar Orbiter, a planned Sun-observing satellite being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The satellite is intended to perform detailed measurements of the inner heliosphere and nascent solar wind, and perform close observations of the polar regions of the Sun.

Stolarski heads a group of researchers dealing with the design of a new type of satellite communications system using so-called Software Defined Radio technology.

Building a satellite is not an easy job, Stolarski says. Even the slightest mistake can cause irreparable damage. Satellites are capable of flying at speeds of 30,000 kph and every piece of equipment needs to be carefully tested out to make sure that it is not harmed by G-force, strong shocks and extreme temperatures (from minus 200 to plus 200 degrees Celsius) as well as cosmic rays, which can ruin the computer in a split second by piercing right through it, according to Stolarski.

When the Warsaw Space Research Center embarked on the satellite construction project, Stolarski decided to document it. He recorded each stage of work and posted the material on YouTube. When his colleagues saw the videos, they decided these were ideal for the FameLab competition, in which a contestant needs to talk about science in an understandable way in front of an audience of non-experts.

The FameLab competition resembles a television talent show. The only difference is that, instead of singers, dancers and other performers, it attracts physicists, engineers, biotechnologists and other scientists. Those taking part in the competition have three minutes to deliver an easy-to-understand presentation about an important research topic. Consequently, the competition requires not only a solid academic background but also presentational skills and a considerable stage presence.

In his speech in the Polish semifinal in February, Stolarski talked about the dangers that lurk ahead of computers working in outer space, including those placed on satellites and space probes. During the Polish finals, at the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw May 11, he talked about protecting transistors against static from clothes.

“Modern civilization has given us synthetic clothes, as a result of which our bodies are almost constantly electrically charged,” says Stolarski. “We can feel this sometimes, for example, when touching a door handle. And although these small discharges may be uncomfortable, they are not dangerous to us. Meanwhile, for small transistors, they pose a huge risk comparable to that of a lightning bolt, which can destroy the system in a split second. That’s why researchers in laboratories wear special clothing to protect valuable electronics.”

During the June world finals in Cheltenham, using a modest range of props, Stolarski presented the problem as an issue that concerns not only researchers working in their labs, but also the general public in their day-to-day lives. He wrapped up his speech with an amusing ending suggesting where scientists will need to carry out further research. He received a cash prize that he plans to spend on an internship abroad and on buying video equipment to make more popular science videos to be posted on YouTube.

Other contestants in the June world finals in Cheltenham, apart from Stolarski, included young scientists from Croatia, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, South Africa, Spain, and Britain.

The winner of the competition, Fergus McAuliffe from University College Cork in Ireland, talked about differences between human and frog cells, using the example of the wood frog from Canada that has the ability to freeze itself solid in winter. Its heart stops beating for weeks, and then in spring, the frog comes back to life as it thaws out.

The runner-up was Andrea Gelemanovic from Croatia, who mesmerized the audience with a speech on why the human body contains more bacteria and microbial cells than the person’s own cells.

Since its launch during the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2004, the FameLab competition has become one of the world’s most popular science competitions. A partnership with the British Council established in 2007 made the competition go global. It is now held in more than 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The Polish leg of the competition is jointly organized by the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw. Contestants are expected to discuss a scientific issue in front of a lay audience in just three minutes in an easy-to-understand and attractive way, with the use of a limited number of props. The prize is zl.30,000 for research work and zl.5,000 for other expenses.

The winner of the first Polish edition last year, Monika Koperska, came in second in the world finals in Britain and won a people’s choice award.

The Laboratory for Satellite Application of Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) Technology at the Warsaw Space Research Center was founded in 2008 under the Foundation for Polish Science’s Focus program. About 150 square meters in size, the lab is lavishly equipped with electronic equipment meeting the requirements of the European Space Agency for the construction of satellite electronic systems. The laboratory designs, builds, launches and tests advanced digital systems based on FPGA technology—including onboard computers and control systems, systems for charge-coupled devices (CCD) and complementary metal-oxide-semiconductors (CMOS) as well as image processing systems. The lab also builds digital signal processing (DSP) systems that allow for the processing of signals with frequencies above 1 GHz and complex satellite power systems using FPGA technology.
Agnieszka Dokowicz
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