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‘Good Vibrations’ project uses soap bubbles to reveal the wonders of neurons

The engineer Nikola Tesla famously said, “If you want to understand the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration”.

Lots of soap bubbles, and the ground is covered in autumn leaves

The secrets of neuron vibrations are now set to be revealed to the public, as the Good Vibrations project receives a University of Oxford Public Engagement grant of £13,000 to promote the public understanding of science. The project team will be inviting members of the public to take part in fun scientific experiments around the science of soap bubbles – a simple model for understanding the vibrations which take place at the surface of biological cells. The interplay between the chemical, mechanical and optical properties of the thin film forming the bubble is also observed during the vibration of the surface of a neuron.

Dr Shamit Shrivastava is a post-doctoral researcher based in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, and one of the leaders of the project. He explains: “We use vibrations of all kinds for communication with each other - for example, when we talk, we create vibrations in the air around us that are picked up by the ears of the listener, conveying information between us.

“However, the crucial role that vibrations play in the physics of living systems remains largely unknown to us.”

For example, our neurons vibrate when they communicate signals from one end to the other. Those signals travel along the surface of the neuron, which vibrates almost like a drum. Understanding this process could be key to innovations ranging from non-invasive treatment of neurological disorders using clinical ultrasound devices, to the development of more energy-efficient computers. 

Good Vibrations brings together researchers from the Department of Engineering Science and experienced public outreach staff from Oxford Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM). Shamit explains: “The cutting-edge research into the physics of cell vibrations requires trans-disciplinary thinking which takes in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology, and that’s something that needs to be cultivated early on”.

“We believe that seeing the interdependence of these subjects and knowing that textbooks don’t have all the answers could be incredibly inspiring to young minds. Along with my colleagues Kelly Richards and Carly Smith-Huggins from GLAM, I’m thrilled to share the fascinating research taking place in this field.”

Let’s hope the general public, just like the Beach Boys, will soon be picking up good vibrations.