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Quantum Fruit – Behind the Scenes at Cheltenham – Day 2/6

By Nicholas Powell, on 14 June 2012

MRI Fruit and Veg

Children guess the MRI-scanned fruit and veg

Behind the Scences at Cheltenham is a daily blog from the UCL CABI team at Cheltenham Science Festival. Every day a member of the team will be talking about their experiences of running a stand.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

Mark Lythgoe, festival and much-loved CABI director, has been on the hunt for pig testicles all day.

For scanning, you understand.

As briefly mentioned in yesterday’s post, the centre of our stand here in the colourful heart of Cheltenham’s Town Hall is occupied by a tabletop 1 Tesla, 1.5 tonne MRI scanner, prevented from falling through the floor and sinking towards Earth’s core by a strong scaffolding platform.

This is the first time an MRI scanner has been brought to a science festival. It has been flown here by its engineers, Bruker, from Germany just for the show. Thanks to some ingenious magnetic shielding – unlike a hospital MRI scanner – it doesn’t require housing in its own room and it won’t wipe everyone’s credit cards when they walk too close to it!

The bore of this scanner is about 6cm in diameter, so although some adults have approached us with various wounds for investigation, we aren’t able to scan people. Instead the team from Bruker is scanning fruit and veg, and we have already had an enthusiastic festivalgoer who responded to our brochure ad with a bag full of curiosities to scan, including live beetles.

One scan of a compliant satsuma takes around 5 minutes – very useful for quick diagnosis when lower resolutions are sufficient – and so far we have produced some beautiful images. We run a daily competition for the most interesting scan from a member of the public, and the winners are displayed on the CABI website, and here too. Here we have a cross-sectional colourised image of a vegetable – can you guess what it is?

MRI Mushroom

Today’s winning image, however, is shown below: an enterprising visitor from Oxford’s “Quantum of Spin” engraved these words into a strip of linoleum and filled them with water-based glue. This hadn’t been tested before using this scanner, but as you can see they are clearly legible, using the quantum properties of water molecules to build up the image.

MRI image of the words, "Quantum of Spin" engraved into a strip of linoleum.

A favourite feature of the stand (and one less likely to bring tears than our attacking anaconda) is the ‘Guess the Fruit/Vegetable’ game, where children and adults alike do just that, based on black and white cross-sectional MRI images.

Some of them are pretty obscure, but despite this we were all particularly impressed by one school girl who recognised a physalis from its MRI scan alone. Most of us hadn’t even heard of the fruit. Fewer still knew what one looked like in real life, let alone imaged with an MRI scanner!

Mark is still searching… Tomorrow we will scour Cheltenham’s supermarkets and butchers for exciting pig anatomy to scan; check back soon to see what we found!

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