University's 'Superhuman vision' steals the show at Royal Society Exhibition

The University of Glasgow will be showcasing three of its most exciting and cutting-edge research projects at this year's Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition - which runs from the 3-6 July 2006. Only 24 exhibits are accepted each year from hundreds of applicants and it is a major coup for Glasgow University to have gained three places at the Exhibition.

The 'Superhuman vision - seeing with terahertz' exhibit has possible practical applications in security and counter terrorism as well as the pharmaceutical industry. "With terahertz imaging it is possible to see the body beneath the clothes not just the bones that you see with x-rays," explains Tim Drysdale, Electronics and Electrical Engineering, University of Glasgow. Terahertz waves lie between the highest radio frequencies and the far infrared representing the last unexplored frontier of the radio and light wave spectrum. The breakthrough came when it was discovered that sending ultra-fast pulses of visible light through specially engineered crystals could generate terahertz waves. The terahertz waves then generate 3D images of objects. "It is the pattern of reflection and absorption of terahertz waves that build the image," says Tim. "The depth of structures can be calculated by the tiny time delay between the wave being emitted and reflected back." The technique could potentially be applied to counter terrorism and airport security to screen people for weapons.

Apart from providing structural information, terahertz waves can identify materials and the technique could be particularly useful for pharmaceutical applications where rapidly and precisely identifying the makeup of drugs is essential.

The Glasgow group develop devices that allow the terahertz waves to be deftly manipulated, often in collaboration with developers of terahertz imaging and spectroscopy systems. "New developments, such as continuous wave imaging, are expected to lead to significant cost reductions," says David. "So we are continuing to develop components that improve the performance of terahertz systems or add new functionality."

The second Glasgow University exhibit, 'Seeing through touch', offers the two million visually impaired people in the UK an innovative way of accessing graphical data on computer that was previously barred to them.

Existing technologies can read text from a computer screen or convert it into Braille but these systems are of little use in reading graphical information. "The whole basis of graphs and charts is visual," David McGookin, of the Computing Science department of Glasgow University explains. "They are extremely useful for the sighted as they provide a visual overview of large amounts of data but are of little use to visually impaired people." David and colleagues are developing new ways to negotiate information displayed on computer screens using touch and sound.

A third University exhibit - in collaboration with the Cavendish Laboratory and Universities of Liverpool and Leeds - called "Seeing is believing", will allow the public rare access to a world leading electron microscope used to study the structure and bonding between atoms in solids. The exhibit will demonstrate how a range of information on the structure and bonding of materials can be obtained with true atomic resolution. There will be a live interactive remote microscopy demonstration from the SuperSTEM Laboratory in Daresbury and a range of hands-on exhibits showing common systems in which lens defects limit performance. There will also be displays to illustrate important problems in fields ranging from electronics to medicine that can now be solved with this powerful microscope. Professor Alan Craven, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow says: "We seek to determine the positions and properties of all the atoms in a solid using a world leading electron microscope. This information is crucial to areas ranging from liver disease to the latest computers."

The Summer Science Exhibition is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science. The event is free and open to the public. This year, 24 interactive exhibits will be on show presenting the best of UK science, engineering and technology. During the four days of the event, more than 4,000 people are expected to take up the opportunity to explore the exhibition.

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, said: "The Summer Science Exhibition is a celebration of the first-class research undertaken in the UK. The exhibition is a fascinating opportunity to experience first-hand the latest developments in science, engineering and technology and talk to scientists working at the forefront of scientific research. I hope the exhibition will enthuse the public as well as scientists and provide inspiration for the next generation considering a career in science."

The Summer Science Exhibition takes place at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG.

Martin Shannon (

First published: 4 July 2006

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