£50m for atomic-scale chicken wire

One welcome piece of news from George Osborne's speech.

Do not adjust your Newstatesman.com but there's one bit of George Osborne's speech to the Conservative party conference that's worth praising: his commitment of £50m to research into the "wonder material" graphene. It was part of his package of science-funding announcements, including £145m for supercomputer research and £150m on extra mobile phone masts.

Graphene is a form of carbon in sheets one atom thick, described handily by Wikipedia as "an atomic-scale chicken wire". It won Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who are both Russian-born but based in Britain, the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics.

This amazing substance -- transparent, an electrical conductor, stiff but stretchy and completely impermeable -- could have a huge range of practical applications, for example in solar panels or touchscreens. Some 200 patents associated with it have already been filed.

Since Geim and Novoselov's groundbreaking research in 2004, the UK has fallen behind in the worldwide race to develop graphene technology (South Korea's Samsung is particularly keen). But with the research cash, it is hoped that a "hub", producing large quantities of the stuff, can be set up and staffed with some of the best researchers working today. The location will be Manchester, where Geim and Novoselov both hold posts at the university (and where the Tory party conference is being held). Or, as Osborne called it: "Manchester: where Rutherford split the atom and the Miliband brothers split the Labour Party".

Perhaps the new cash will change Geim's opinion about the coalition's commitment to science funding. He told the Independent in 2010: "I have no plans to move, but if George Osborne's axe is as sharp as the rumours tell, we will all be considering moving to places like Singapore, where they spend 3 per cent of their GDP on research -- not a paltry 1.5 per cent, which is going to be cut."

PS. For more on graphene, including the story of how sticky tape was vital to its discovery, there's a fascinating article by Geim here and a Q&A on the substance here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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How the Night Tube could give London’s mice that Friday feeling

London Underground’s smaller inhabitants might be affected by the off-squeak service – and learn when the weekend’s coming up.

What will the mice who live in the Tube network make of the new all-night service? Half a million of them are thought to have made the London Underground their home – and will be in for a surprise when the Victoria and Central lines keep running this weekend.

The Londonist is concerned the mice “are unlikely to get any sleep” with the new Night Tube, and may move to the District line instead. Yet a number of scientists point out to the New Statesman that mice are nocturnal creatures, most likely to sleep while the lights are on and the trains are running.

So will they get on board with the change – or make a run for different platforms on other lines?

The bad news:

“When the Tube’s away, the mice will play,” is how the rhyme (almost) goes. 

Many have come to know  and even love  the mischiefs of the mice who stream off the tracks and out of the tunnels as the stations close at night, in search of discarded morsels of Maccy D. And until now, they’ve had a good few hours to conduct such galavanting in peace. But the new system means they will have to re-structure their sleep and foraging cycles, or “circadian rhythms”. 

“The presence of night trains should upset several of these entrainment factors (or zeitgebers = time givers) leading to disturbances in their behaviours,” explains Professor Patrick Nolan, from MRC Harwell, an international centre for mouse genetics. 

“When you fly across the Atlantic, for example, it takes a few days to adapt, you feel a bit groggy, don't perform as well as you usually do, don't eat well, etc. You soon adapt to the change. But if there are constant disruptions like this, the effect may be more severe and long-lasting. And this is how the schedule changes in the Underground might affect the resident mice.” 

So it's the constant switching between the week and weekend schedules that could leave the mice  and Tube drivers  most cheesed off. Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and photophobia (sensitivity to light) are two possible effects of the resulting anxiety, and their mating patterns and liver functions are also likely to be disturbed.

The good news:

Yet it is unlikely mice will be leaving the Night Tubes for good. 

The more time we humans have to drop our dinners, the larger the menu becomes for the mice (researchers tell me that strawberry milk and Wheetos are particularly favoured fare).

“Mice are active most of the time – so more trains at night hours will not make such a difference to them,” say the RSPCA’s wildlife officers. “In fact, it may help as it may provide more foraging opportunities.”

They’ve also faced worse before. The London Transport Museum reminds us that, during the Second World War, cats were employed to counter vermin on the network (spot the cat in the 1940s TfL workers' canteen below).


Credit: London Transport Museum

For Dr Samuel Solomon at UCL, there is plenty to suggest the mice will successfully adapt. His study of mouse reflexes shows how they respond to various visual stimuli – and can start running within one-tenth of a second. “There might be cues they pick up – if people clean the station differently on Fridays, for instance.”

The tracks’ electric current may no longer be entirely switched off (if it ever was), but their whiskers’ sensitivity to vibrations could help them juggle their escapades to fit around the Night Tube’s less frequent service.

What Dr Soloman can’t yet predict is whether the mice will start to anticipate that Friday feeling: “It will be interesting to see whether they can learn that Friday is Friday”.

All in all, the Tube mice seem well set for the Night Tube’s new challenge. Who knows, they may soon gain the confidence of their 24/7 brothers in New York – and start ordering take-out...

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.