Science & Environment

Search on for amateur science ideas

Snail
Image caption Last year's award was won by an experiment to test the homing instinct of snails

Snail "GPS", Facebook psychology and crowd dynamics at music gigs: these were just some of the ideas submitted during last year's search for "citizen science" projects.

Now, Radio 4 is launching its search for the next BBC Amateur Scientist of the year.

A panel of judges, chaired by Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, will select four finalists. The shortlisted entrants will then have their ideas turned into real experiments, with the help of a professional scientist.

Last year, 70-year-old gardener Ruth Brooks won the award for her research into the homing distance of garden snails.

She found that Helix aspersa, the common garden snail, can find its way home from up to 30m away. But for gardeners to be sure that their snails will not come back, they should be moved over 100m.

"If anyone is thinking of entering this time I would just say go for it, I have had such an amazing year," said Ruth Brooks.

"What has been the greatest pleasure has been seeing people take it seriously enough to carry on with the research."

Image caption Ruth Brooks says she is pleased the research has been taken on by others

The snail investigations are being overseen by Dr Dave Hodgson, an ecologist at the University of Exeter. Initially sceptical that gastropods could "home", he is now convinced that the little creatures could be more intelligent than previously thought.

"Many people are comfortable with the idea that organisms like homing pigeons and even lobsters and marine mammals use cues like polarised light or landmarks or scent to home over long distances," he explained.

"This is a surprise that such a simple thing, which is so small compared to the environment, can do it."

The university is now taking the research further. Biosciences student Claire Young is using metal detectors and copper tags in a new experiment to try and discover how snails complete this feat of navigation.

She attaches the metal tags, each labelled with a unique identifying code, to the snails' shells. Then, over the next few days, she tracks their movement using a metal detector.

The team hope that by mapping their movements over the coming months they will be able to discover whether snails head straight home, or wander about randomly before stopping when they reach the right spot.

The finalists will have until June to complete their experiments, appearing on Material World, Radio 4's weekly science show, to report on their progress. The judges will choose a winner during a live event at the 2012 Cheltenham Science Festival.

The judges for So You Want to Be a Scientist? will be talking about what they'll be looking for in this year experiments on Material World, Thursday 29th September at 4.30pm, Radio 4. Entry is open to anyone over 16, who is a resident in the UK and applications can be submitted online until 31 October.

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