From 3D body scanners to the first weighing scales
“These eggs were only fertilized at 3 p.m. today,” says Alexander Meyer, pointing to the small plastic bowl sat under the stereo microscope. A visitor peers through the eyepiece at the zebrafish eggs, where vague forms are already starting to take shape – currently just a half moon in a circle. The young woman then places the next bowl under the microscope, which contains eggs that are a few hours older, and lets out a “Wow!” upon seeing the tiny embryos that have already developed – with a beating heart and individual blood cells clearly visible inside each transparent larva.
Science at your fingertips
Meyer and his colleagues in Dr. Daniela Panáková’s research group are particularly interested in fish hearts, as they have the ability to heal themselves very quickly after a heart attack. “We can learn a lot from this – including about hereditary heart disease where defects emerge during development,” explains the group leader.
The MDC laboratories opened their doors once again in 2018 for another Long Night of the Sciences. This year’s event gave members of the public the chance to examine mini-organs in Petri dishes and get an up-close experience of electron microscopes, giant magnets, and other research equipment. At the epidemiology lab, for example, they could marvel at the state-of-the-art 3D body scanner that has already measured the fat content and metabolic status of thousands of people as part of the German National Cohort health study.
Science through the ages
This sort of technology may not have existed in the Renaissance era, but the 17th century Italian physician Sanctorius Sanctorius had his own method for systematically measuring metabolic parameters. “Sanctorius wanted to know how much weight the body loses imperceptibly through exhalation and sweating,” explains Teresa Hollerbach, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. To measure this, Sanctorius designed a suspended wooden chair, which is now regarded as the world’s first weighing scale. Hollerbach built a replica of this historical measuring device, which she brought along to the MDC for the Long Night of the Sciences.
Visitors climbed into the wooden construction and sat suspended a few centimeters above the ground thanks to a counterweight attached to a long lever. If anyone were then to eat a snack or sweat profusely enough, a very slight change in body weight could be measured by the scale on one of the chair legs.
True or false: #EchtOderFake?
Measurements and analyses have always been integral to science. Through attentive observation, researchers create new knowledge and new theories – in short, they create facts.
But it is often difficult to distinguish facts from credibly presented lies, as was demonstrated by the Long Night of the Sciences quiz “Echt oder Fake?” (Real or Fake?). MDC scientists presented the audience with something that sounded like nonsense, and they would then have to decide if it was a plausible lie, or a bizarre yet genuine fact. How much truth, for example, was there in Teresa Hollerbach’s claim that a sort of Weight Watchers society already existed in Sanctorius’s time?
With all the truths and lies finally revealed, the long summer science night came to a close. Employees took down the posters, dismantled experimental stations and microscopes, and locked up the cycle rickshaws. These will all remain safely stowed away until next year, when more than a hundred different after-hours offers will bring thousands of visitors to the Berlin-Buch campus once again.