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AI, Caterpillars, and New Planets – The Top Science News of 2017

Dec 28, 2017 in news

by Sam Young, Head of Content & Media

From devastating caterpillars to the rise of AI, 2017 has been an interesting year for science. Here’s our round up of the top science news stories of the past year.


Google’s Deep Mind is an artificial intelligence company developing programs that can learn to solve any complex problem without ever having to be taught how. This year, their ‘AlphaGo’ program passed a historic milestone for AI, defeating Lee Sedol, one of the world’s best ‘Gomoku’ players.


Science fiction has often raised questions like ‘will a computer take our jobs?’, ‘can a machine think?’ or, as in the very first Blade Runner, ‘what is it to be human?’ However, there has always been safety in the knowledge that these ideas were a long way off being realised, sitting somewhere in the distant future, or simple fantasy. 2017 was the year of big AI developments, making us sit up and think about what the future will really look like.

Fall Armyworm

Originally from the Americas, the Fall Armyworm is the caterpillar of Spodoptera frugiperda, or the Fall armyworm moth.

Armyworm Corn

The Fall Armyworm crisis in Africa came to the public’s attention after CABI (the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International) revealed that the pest was ‘spreading rapidly’ across the African continent. The staple crops that 200 million Africans rely on have been under threat from a caterpillar that is still spreading throughout the continent, potentially causing widespread hunger.

The fall armyworm is native to North and South America and can devastate production of maize, the staple food crop that is essential for food security in large areas of Africa. So far, they have been found in 28 African nations.

Heavy Metal

Earlier in the year, Harvard scientists beat a number of researchers in squeezing hydrogen with such force that it turned into a metal, creating a brand new material – ‘metallic hydrogen’, that could one day be used as a superconductor.

Metallic Hydrogen

The discovery of this ‘holy grail’ confirmed a theory proposed in 1935 by physicists Hillard Bell Huntington and Eugene Wigner that hydrogen gas could occur in a metallic state if exposed to extreme pressure.

With access to this hitherto non-existent material, metallic hydrogen looked set to usher in a new era of superconductive materials, making MRI scanners work at room temperature without the need for cooling, and improving the efficiency of our smartphones and computers.

However, as quick as it came, it disappeared, with the only sample in existence vanishing into thin air a few weeks after it was created.

That’s some heavy metal.

Earth’s 7 Sisters

Scientists discovered seven planets, all the size of our own Earth, a mere 39 light years away surrounding the star Trappist-1 in the constellation of Aquarius. Because of their size and proximity to the star, scientists believe these planets could harbour some form of life.

Earth's 7 Sisters Trappist 1

“I think we’ve made a crucial step in finding out if there’s life out there,” said Amaury Triaud, a researcher at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. “If life managed to thrive and release gases in a similar way as Earth, we will know.”

This has given new hope to scientists who believe that we will soon be able to say for sure that we are not alone.

Totally far out.

Pig Organ Transplants 


Churchill famously said “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” In 2017 we had another reason to celebrate our farmyard friends. In August, American scientists from Salk Institute for Biological Studies managed to create the first human-pig hybrid organs.

Previous attempts to use pig organs in transplants failed because scientists could not prevent the human immune system rejecting the animal tissue. Creating new organs in a lab with stem cells was unsuccessful too, with scientists struggling to get the cells to grow into complex 3D structures.

However, combining both concepts the researchers demonstrated that it is possible to grow human tissue within a pig.

British Bird Beaks

In October we learned that British birds may have evolved longer beaks than their European counterparts due to the national fondness for bird feeders. A study, published in the journal Science comparing the DNA of more than 3,000 birds in the UK and the Netherlands, established “genetic differences” in terms of beak lengths.

British Bird Beaks - Great Tit

Comparing the beak length of tits in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, with those in Wageningen, in the Netherlands and monitoring the length of time they spent at automated bird feeders, the study confirmed average UK great tits have a 0.3mm longer beak than the tits in mainland European.

The study revealed that Britons spend twice as much as their European counterparts, with £334m a year spent on “supplementary feed” for UK birds, whereas those in mainland Europe spent £167m. Researchers at Oxford University have recorded the beak sizes of great tits in Wytham Woods for 70 years – and say they have seen a significant beak growth spurt since the 1970s.

Photonics reduces waiting time for breast-cancer diagnosis

Nov 1, 2017 in news

Matter PR recently ran a media campaign to promote the work of a new device that aims to reduce the uncertainty and discomfort in breast cancer diagnosis, turning it into a ‘while you wait’ appointment.

The PAMMOTH (or, photoacoustic ultrasound mammoscopy for evaluating screening-detected abnormalities in the breast) combines both light and sound sensors to build up a 3D image of the suspected tumor.


A patient simply places their breast in a smooth hemispherical bowl lined with dozens of lasers and is scanned using ‘photoacoustics’, a combination of both photonics and ultrasound.

Reported by over 30 different media, our story reached over 2 million individuals worldwide. Coverage included key campaign targets such as The Engineer, Digital TrendsYahoo News, Medical Device Technology and even Fox News.

Current breast cancer diagnosis can be distressing and painful over a number of weeks.

Multiple stages can involve visiting a GP, being sent to a specialist for an x-ray mammogram, having an ultrasound, before undergoing a needle, a punch or a vacuum assisted biopsy, as well as placing one breast at a time between two metal plates in a painful clamp.

Current techniques to diagnose breast cancer such as x-ray mammography, ultrasound or MRI scans can sometimes fail to spot a tumor from healthy tissue or a benign abnormality, resulting in unnecessary biopsies being carried out.

‘False positives’, a result incorrectly indicating the presence of a disease, and unnecessary biopsies in breast cancer diagnosis are hotly contested topics among medical experts today. As well as the untold stress and discomfort experienced by women all over the world by unnecessary treatments, inefficient diagnoses have an extremely worrying cost implication.

Every year in the US alone, $4 billion is spent on false-positive mammograms and breast cancer over diagnosis among women ages 40-59, according to research published in Health Affairs. A similar picture is played out across Europe with millions of Euros being spent on unnecessary mammograms. Project coordinator Dr Srirang Manohar explains:

“A prime focus of the PAMMOTH project is to develop an imager and data analysis to be able to intervene at a very early stage. We need to be able to say whether a suspect lesion is good or bad. This technique would have a substantial impact upon the money spent on unnecessary biopsies, as well as to remove the trauma involved in a diagnosis for women around the world,” said Manohar.

The PAMMOTH team hopes to have a prototype ready for 2020 ready for completion in 2021.

This story was part of an ongoing Matter PR campaign on behalf of Photonics21 – the European Technology Platform (ETP) for photonics, a technology encompassing all of the products and processes around the emission, manipulation and detection of light. Photonics is integral to a wide range of industries that include the medical, healthcare, transport, manufacturing, and telecommunications sectors.

Thought Leadership for a Low-Carbon Economy

Nov 1, 2017 in news

Last month, Matter PR helped organise a thought leadership event at The Royal Society on Britain’s role in the global transition to a zero-carbon economy. We were working on behalf of EIT Climate-KIC UK & Ireland and in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG).


Over 100 guests attended the event, which was designed to support Climate-KIC’s positioning with UK Government and other stakeholders as a vehicle for supporting the delivery of the UK’s climate policy ambitions and to facilitate collaboration with European and international partners on major climate initiatives.

The keynote speaker, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, highlighted the links between climate change and economic growth. She began by looking at the good news: Greenhouse gas emissions down, UK GDP rising. She emphasised that power is a “low hanging fruit” in making further transformative change, closely followed by infrastructure and transport.


The discussion panel was chaired by Lord Hunt of Chesterton, and included representatives from the UK Committee on Climate ChangeInnovate UK, Siemens, the ETI, and Germany.

During the discussion, panellist Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said that rich and innovative countries must fully decarbonise by 2050, taking on their fair share of innovation. He also spoke on how post-Brexit, we will need new ways of collaborating with the rest of the EU and cited the EIT Climate-KIC as the perfect facilitator for this.

Jo Coleman, Strategy Director at the Energy Technologies Institute, called on the UK to fund scale-up solutions to international challenges such as decarbonising heat.

How to Create the Perfect PR Film

Nov 1, 2017 in news

Film-maker and editor James Harrison’s top 5 tips for making a truly effective promotional film.

In this age of moving image overload, using video effectively to tell your story is essential, especially if your film is to have impact. Many of today’s corporate videos comprise not much more than a bunch of loosely edited sequences with no sense of logic; add to that poor quality sound, misjudged music, and an anodyne voice over, these badly executed videos lack any real sense of purpose.


There are some very good reasons why engaging a professional filmmaker is preferable to doing it yourself or hiring someone with all the gear and none of the know-how.

Just with builders, chefs and solicitors, vets, farriers and brain surgeons, the true professions are framed around an honest mix of talent, ability, and experience. Just as few of us can be expected to understand the complexities of the law or how to fix brains, the same is true of filmmaking. Genuine experts have their place and we would be foolish to ignore them, even if it’s tempting to cut costs and do it ourselves.

However, whether you chose to produce your own video or engage a professional videographer, here are some basic tips to consider when setting out on making a film:

  • Start with the audience: it’s tempting to come up with a great idea, turn it into a film, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your layouts… and then wonder why your YouTube audience isn’t really getting past the first thirty seconds.  It’s crucial you know just who exactly the audience is for your film. A class of 14 year-olds is a very different audience to a specialist group of research scientists.
  • Keep it simple: work out the story you want to tell, and crucially, what it is you want to leave your audience with. Working backwards is no bad idea. Decide your message and then assess how best to convey it.
  • Give yourself time: it’s vital you build in a realistic delivery and sign off period, allowing for revisions; give yourself a sensible period for planning, production and post-production/editing.  Sometimes creating a short film can be time consuming. Even 30 second TV commercials can take months to plan, film and edit. Professionals can work smart; if you’re going it alone, you may find the process takes longer than you think.
  • The right tool for the job: while for the basic talking head stuff, a smartphone just might do the job (but please get the sound right!), anything more really needs the touch of a professional videographer, someone who has the right equipment and knows how to use it. The same goes for editing software. Windows Movie Maker has its place, but not if you’re looking for a professionally finished production.
  • Communication: remember that your videographer (even if it’s you!) should understand how the finished film fits in with the overall comms or marketing strategy; the professional videographer will create something that builds on your brand and image, endorsing the product and enhancing how your customers engage in what you do. Above all they (or you) shouldn’t be churning out useless window dressing — it ought to be a well-thought out piece of work that creates impact for both you and your target audience.

I understand all too well that maximising profits and keeping down costs is an important focus for businesses, but as we’re seeing with so much online video nowadays, in the long term less doesn’t always result in more. We all instinctively know that cheap marketing, when badly designed and poorly executed can be more damaging than something carefully considered and thought out, and while the “stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” mentality might work for the discount supermarket, most stores would think twice about spending only a few quid on advertising and promotion.

In essence: you get what you pay for, and just with other forms of digital communication, online video production is no exception.

James Harrison


Matter PR work in partnership with James Harrison Productions to offer a range of film and video services – creating campaigns that help you deliver real impact with your target audiences. If you’re interested in using film in a communications campaign get in touch.

James Harrison is a Wiltshire-based independent film-maker, director and editor with over 35 years of experience – much of it spent working for the BBC, across radio, TV news and online. His passion for filmmaking is built around the essence of fireside story telling, putting people centre-stage, and allowing their personal narrative to determine the shape and feel of the films he makes.

Filming Innovation

Sep 12, 2017 in news

This month, our MD David Reid is working with filmmaker James Harrison to create a promotional film on some of the UK and Ireland’s most innovative low-carbon start-ups.


The start-ups are part of the EIT Climate-KIC Start-up Accelerator which helps turn great ideas into great businesses in the low-carbon cleantech sector.

Filming began last week at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) where start-ups were being interviewed after the completion of Phase One of the accelerator programme.

Innovations included a solar-powered lantern which can also charge up to four mobile phones, a unique new way of growing microalgae for use as a vital food supplement in commercial fish farms, and a social enterprise that helps get clean, safe, drinking water to the people who need it most.

This project will film start-ups at different stages of development throughout September and be used to promote the EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator to new audiences. The Climate-KIC is Europe’s largest public-private innovation partnership focused on climate change, consisting of dynamic companies, the best academic institutions and the public sector.

“It was great to be behind the camera again, producing and interviewing a range of inspiring entrepreneurs. Interviewing is a tricky skill, but if you can get the subject to relax a little and speak from the heart, that’s when their enthusiasm really shines through and you start to get a personal story full of passion and excitement for what they’re working on.” – David Reid, Managing Director, Matter PR.

Matter PR provides a range of PR services including filming, video production, and video news releases. Get in touch to find out more.

Briefing Global Media on African Armyworm

Sep 12, 2017 in news

This month, Matter PR has been helping to raise awareness of the spread of Fall Armyworm in Africa and promote a better understanding of the latest scientific research on this devastating infestation.

On behalf of our client CABI, we worked in partnership with agencies Grayling and African Laughter, to create a stakeholder and media briefing at one of Africa’s largest and most important agriculture and development conferences, AGRF 2017. 


There has been widespread and sometimes highly emotive media coverage on Armyworm in Africa over the past year but much speculation and misunderstanding about the exact nature of the infestation and what is known about how to control or prevent it. The AGRF 2017 platform enabled CABI, and key partners such as AGRA, to improve the media’s understanding about our current level of knowledge on Fall Armyworm and potential ways to combat it.

During the briefing, CABI released new research which shows that 28 African countries are now confirmed to have FAW, compared with 17 in April 2017. Following the pest’s arrival in Africa in 2016, it presents a permanent agricultural challenge for the continent. FAW feeds on more than 80 crops, but prefers maize and can cut yields by up to 60 per cent.

In research funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), CABI now estimates the pest will cost just ten of the continent’s major maize producing economies in Africa a total of $2.2bn to $5.5bn a year in lost maize harvests – if the pest is not properly managed.

“Enabling our agricultural communities with quick and coordinated responses is now essential, to ensure the continent stays ahead of the plague,” said Dr Joseph DeVries, Vice President – Program Development and Innovation at AGRA.

As countries turn to pesticides to reduce the damage, farmers face the risk of the pest developing resistance to treatment, which has become a widespread problem in the Americas.

Biopesticides are a lower risk control option, but few of the biopesticides used in the Americas are yet approved for use in Africa, raising the need for urgent local trials, registration and the development of local production.

“Maize can recover from some damage to the leaves. So when farmers see damaged leaves, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to control. Research is urgently needed, and a huge awareness and education effort is required so that farmers monitor their fields, and can make decisions on whether and how to control,” said Dr Roger Day, CABI’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Coordinator.

“There are natural ways farmers can reduce impact, including squashing the eggs or caterpillars when they see them, and maintaining crop diversity in the farm, which encourages natural predators.”

CABI has also warned of the need to address the human health issues raised by any far more extensive use of chemical pesticides.

“Resource poor farmers are often unwilling or unable to buy the appropriate safety equipment and in some cases they use pesticides without appropriate application equipment. Farmers may also be disinclined to use safety equipment when hot weather makes it extremely uncomfortable. Recognizing that farmers will still want to use pesticides, specific measures are needed to make lower risk biopesticides more accessible,” said Dr Day.

You can see all the latest information and status reports about Fall Armyworm on the CABI website.


CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) is an international not-for-profit organization that improves people’s lives by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment.


New Laser Zaps Toxic French Fries

Sep 12, 2017 in news

Earlier this year, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued warnings about eating over-fried potatoes, burnt toast and crisps that can contain cancer-causing chemicals such as acrylamide, deeming them a serious health threat to billions of consumers.

During the Summer, Matter PR helped promote the work of an award-winning young scientist who has developed a new laser system that scans peeled potatoes in the factory to detect toxic compounds and prevent them from reaching the consumer.

This new technique has been developed by Lien Smeesters, 28, at the B-PHOT Brussels Photonics Team at the University of Brussels, in collaboration with Tomra Sorting Solutions. It employs a new sensor that scans peeled potatoes, weeding out food that may cause high levels of the toxic chemical.

Reported by 35 different media, our story reached over 7 million individuals worldwide. Coverage included key campaign targets such as Digital Trends, Yahoo News, De Morgen, Fresh Plaza, Bakery and Snacks, Quality Assurance & Food Safety, The Engineer, and Laser Focus World.

Given how important frites are in Belgium, it also made it on to prime-time Belgian TV News. Following the campaign, Dr. Semesters said: “I never thought that the topic would ever reach such media attention – I’m now getting lots of email enquiries about my work. Thank you for writing the article about our research – without it, all these articles would never have been published. Thanks for everything, Matter PR really did a great job!”

At present, raw potatoes that produce an excess of the carcinogenic chemical acrylamide cannot be detected in a fast, sensitive, and non-destructive way.

Smeesters solution works by scanning the ‘free falling’ food items, such as potatoes, from both the front and back with a laser that employs ‘spatially resolved spectroscopy’, a non-invasive imaging technique using infrared light.

When the laser beam hits a potato, part of the light will be internally scattered during interaction with the tissue. A bad potato produces a deviating internal scattering signal, owing to the high acrylamide precursors, and therefore the system can recognize a ‘fingerprint’ of the undesirable food’.

This unwanted food item is spotted in mid-air as it begins to fall. Selected by the internal processor, the potato is then ‘knocked out’ of the batch by being blasted with a stream of air and into a reject bin before it hits the conveyor belt below.

The sensor is able to do this with each and every individual potato scanning and rejecting in tiny fractions of a second.

Dr Smeesters explains, “Not all potatoes result in excessive acrylamide formation during frying. We have sought to spot the undesirable potatoes when they are in their raw, peeled stage. After scanning with laser beams, the good potatoes will emit a different light signal than the unsuited ones leading to an unambiguous detection.”

Having filed a patent describing the use of this detection method, the laser scanner will be integrated into one of Tomra’s industrial in-line sorting machines, detecting and discarding food items that may contain excessive acrylamide precursors.

Several tons of products could be examined per hour to look for these carcinogenic compounds without using dyes or chemical additives, and without damaging or even touching the food.

1 B-PHOT_Lien_Smeesters

The driving force behind the detection method, Dr Lien Smeesters, 28, post-doctoral researcher at the University in Brussels in the B-PHOT Brussels Photonics Team and recent winner of the Student Innovation Award at the Photonics Public Private Partnership Annual Meeting, describes the motivation for the project:

“When frying potatoes, acrylamide formation is one of the biggest concerns of the potato-processing agriculture industry. At present raw potatoes that produce an excess of acrylamide cannot be detected in a fast, sensitive and non-destructive way.”

“Therefore, we have worked with Tomra Sorting Solutions to develop a spatially-resolved spectroscopic sensor that identifies raw potatoes with high acrylamide precursor concentrations, on basis of their internal scattering properties, in miliseconds.”


This story was part of an ongoing Matter PR campaign on behalf of Photonics21 – the European Technology Platform (ETP) for photonics, a technology encompassing all of the products and processes around the emission, manipulation and detection of light. Photonics is integral to a wide range of industries that include the medical, healthcare, transport, manufacturing, and telecommunications sectors.


Finalist for Volvo PR

Jun 8, 2017 in news

Finalist for Volvo PR


Matter PR came 3rd out of over 125 agencies in a recent international procurement process to find a retained PR agency for Volvo Trucks, an unusual achievement for a small, specialist company up against larger, more established brands. The pitch team was commended for its creativity as well as its extensive knowledge of science, engineering, and technology PR.


“This is a fantastic achievement for a small agency like Matter PR and the team did an incredible job to get so far. Volvo were really impressed with the depth of knowledge we have of the science and technology sector, as well as our ability to create impactful storytelling campaigns.”
David Reid, Managing Director.

Matter PR’s pitch centred on innovative storytelling. One campaign idea highlighted the people behind the trucks, rather than the technology itself — the engineers, scientists, designers, test drivers, and others. To make the stories about them: their passions, hopes, fears, motivations, families.

Volvo Trucks have developed a reputation for incredible PR stunts and powerful video stories in recent years. Their CEO recently stood in front of a driverless truck in a pitch-black mine while it came to a stop just inches from him. And their Epic Split feat featured Jean Claude Van Damme.



Find out more about Volvo Trucks news stories here.


Alien plants win Gold at Chelsea

Jun 8, 2017 in news

Alien plants win Gold at Chelsea

Congratulations to our client CABI (the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) who won a gold medal at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show for their first-ever solo exhibit – an educational display that showed some of the UK’s most invasive alien weeds including Japanese knotweed.

Matter PR worked closely with the CABI PR team to promote the garden to the media and coverage included the Daily Mail, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC TV News South East Today, i-news, The Telegraph, and the Oxford Mail.

The story was reported by 14 individual websites, with a reach (based on IP addresses) of over 1 billion unique visitors per month, and it is estimated to have reached over 639,000 individuals worldwide.

The exhibit was the vision of young CABI scientist, Suzy Wood, currently reading for a PhD in ecology sponsored by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). She wanted to show the impact of invasive alien weeds on the UK’s environment and infrastructure, including Japanese knotweed on property prices, buddleia on the railway and Himalayan balsam on riversides.

“I liked the idea of communicating CABI’s work on invasive species to a wider audience, helping people learn more about the option of natural control of invasive weeds. We applied last year to exhibit, and it’s been the perfect opportunity to showcase the science of biocontrol and connect with people who are already passionate about plants and the environment.”

Suzy Wood, Research Scientist, CABI

Created for the educational ‘Discovery Zone’, the exhibit showed how plants can spread and cause problems when moved from their native habitat to a new one, with no natural enemies like diseases and insects to keep them in check.

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Say Hi in Munich!

Jun 8, 2017 in news

Say Hi in Munich!

The Matter PR team will be in Munich later this month at Laser World of Photonics (26 – 29th June) – if you are attending and would like to discuss our photonics campaign or communications opportunities in general please drop us a line.

LWoP is the international trade fair for Photonics Components, Systems and Applications. Together with the World of Photonics Congress, the fair unites research and industry and promotes the use and ongoing development in the Photonics industry.


We’ll be based in the press centre all week – if you’d like to arrange to have coffee or a chat here are our details:


David Reid

Managing Director

0044 (0)7818 518736Laser_world_of_photonics



Sam Young

Head of Content & Media

0044 (0)7944 965493




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