Fish & Chips

There are only three things I can tell you about the great British institution that is Fish & Chips. This is what I learnt when I attended the Kings College London inaugural Impact Reception earlier this week. It was a unique evening highlighting six specialisations, and featured three presentations by leading academics. The focus was on “doing some good in the world” and we explored:

Global Affairs
Education for Displaced Persons
Women’s Leadership

And three niche areas of medicine where KCL excels:

Simulation and Interactive Learning
Virtual Reality Research Lab
Surgical & Interventional Engineering Lab

I have never been in a room so full of intelligent people doing good! Later in the evening, when I was chatting with Professor Richard Trembath (Health & Life Sciences) the discussion naturally turned to Fish & Chips.

traditional fish and chips in a takeaway container

Fact One

Until the advent of the Chinese Takeaway (at some point in the 1970s) the only enduring fast food outlet was the local Fish & Chip Shop. McDonalds did not arrive in my corner of the UK until 1980, and I do not recall ever having a pizza until one day in London in 1982 when I discovered that there are Pizza Restaurants in London. The same thing goes for kebabs. In London, in 1982, I found a kebab shop (a kebab van to be more accurate). I had never seen one before! Hence the humble Fish & Chip Shop was the standard which all UK kids encountered if they grew up before 1980.

Fact Two

Fish & chips are generally doused in vinegar and smothered in salt. That was standard practice in the 1970s before the government was pressured to legislate about salt and sugar intake. I spent most of my childhood in the Sixties and Seventies eating anything I felt like, regardless of the salt and the sugar content. And I was slim! We were all slim (except for, roughly speaking, one kid in every class). So what happened? Why is the population now so overweight and why is Type 2 Diabetes so prevalent?

Fact Three

In 1970 the overweight/obese proportion of the UK population was about 15%. It is now 64%. Type 2 diabetes more than doubled in British men between the 1970s and the 1990s and it continues to increase. There is a reason for this and it’s not caused by fish & chips. Fish is a natural food, it turns up in your traditional Fish & Chip Shop in its natural, raw state. So do the potatoes. With a focus on “being a miser with time, and being a miser with money” your local chippie will do the minimum preparation necessary to make some batter, slice some chips, fry it all and quickly get it into your hands in exchange for payment. A minimum of fuss and processing. That’s not the case with modern fast food.

Consider . . .

How many calories and additives are there in your traditional fish & chips? And in your Big Mac and large fries?

Moreover, having a take away meal was a rare treat in the 1970s, and the choice was simply between fish & chips and Chinese. Nowadays, vast swathes of the population will gorge processed food as often as they like . . . several times per week! Processed food is the culprit, that’s why the nation is so overweight. Legislation on sugar and salt content does not address the root cause of the problem . . .  it’s processed food! And Giles Yeo will tell you more if you care to read his book Why Calories don’t Count.

Nowadays fast food outlets are everywhere, and cycle couriers will do the leg work for you so that you can just sit there and sloth. Poorer people tend to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on cheap fast food. According to Tedstone one third of the country’s fast food outlets are in the most deprived areas of our towns and cities. If you’re in London go and walk around Chelsea, and then walk around Lewisham. Try it in your own home town, walk around the upmarket neighbourhood, and the downmarket one. How common are the cheap fast food places?

What are you doing to ensure that you get some authentic real food on a daily basis, and avoid the gloop?

Soft Robotics at Pint of Science

Pint of Science is an informal way to find out more about an array of weird and fascinating facts. Spanning 37 UK locations, and a handful of international ones, it runs for a few days in May every year. On Wednesday 24 May 2023 I went to the gathering (in the Student Union bar) at Queen Mary University London to learn more about robots!

Apparently “soft robotics” has been around since about 2018 although this was the first time I had heard of it. I had a fascination with robots when I was much younger, bought an original Aibo mark 1 in 2006, but have never been any good at making my own robots.

Today, the big question is “how do robot hands know how much grip to apply when picking up hard or soft objects”? And because they lack eyes, experience and human sentience, how do they carry out delicate and proportionate touch? The answer is cilia, lots of cleverly constructed cilia containing micro magnets.

Cilia are the fine hairs on the outside of microscopic organisms.

simple diagram of a microbe with about 80 cilia, and a picture of pine needles, about 200 of them in 3 prongs at the end of a pine tree branch

Scale them up a bit and they look like the gentlest, softest pine needles at the extremities of your Christmas tree.

Make some miniature ones out of silicone, embed some magnets inside them, and in effect you have what looks like a row of railway carriage windows in a soft bendy tube.

simple black and white illustration of a row of railway carriage windows, first straight and then slightly bent into an S curve

Why magnets? Magnets have magnetic fields, and when magnets move they create electrical impulses. That’s how dynamos work, and if you reverse the system that’s how electric motors work.

photos of a lecturer beside a table with robot devices, a close of of a two finger robot gripper, and a diagram showing that the cilia are fitted to the tip of one finger of the robot

Tiny magnets in soft bendy silicone tubes create tiny magnetic fields which can move about and create variations in their tiny electrical impulses. Now, all you need to do is to place an electrical impulse sensor near the soft bendy silicone tubes. Not inside them! That’s the crucial bit, these artificial cilia are independent of the electrical bits around them, they can operate freely, and they “sense” in a similar way to the tips of your fingers.

daigram of robotic cilia with magnetic fields, and size comparison of cilia pad about the size of a finger nail

The slightest touch of the cilia creates a magnetic distortion, and the level and speed of the distortion tells the robot gripper how hard or soft the object is. That in turn allows the software to calculate how much grip is to be applied, and that message is passed back to the motors which control the movement of the robot gripper.

Fascinating! How did I not know this sooner?

Maybe Pint of Science has rekindled my interest in robotics!