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ATOM blog

When Roald Dahl's beloved children's book character Charlie Bucket buys a Wonka bar and finds the final golden ticket, he starts his now famous journey of discovery at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Charlie, like most children, loves chocolate and his visit to the factory not only indulges his passion but also inspires deep scientific curiosity. In the end, the boy's humility and desire for discovery convinces Wonka to name Charlie as his successor.

Although we didn't go so far as to name successors to positions at the Department of Oncology, our science communicator Martin Christlieb took a page out of Dahl's book and harnessed the power of chocolate to inspire the next generation of scientists. A selection of globally popular chocolate bars (Kit Kat, Snickers, Crunchy, crowd favorite Double Decker and curveball Kinder Surprise – among others) were analyzed using our CT scanner to generate a series of black and white X-ray images of the secrets that lie inside the wrapper. We asked our participants to match the chocolate bar (wrapped) to the corresponding image. This required a visual understanding of how CT-machines generate contrast and a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of the chocolate bar itself – shape, size, nougat content, caramel consistency, chocolate density, presence of nuts, etc. Engaged with the concept of CT-imaging and "tissue" contrast, children and adults alike became keen to learn how this type of imaging is vital in informing external beam radiotherapy for cancer patients and how improved imaging accuracy can lead to radiation treatment with higher efficacy and reduced side-effects to increase treatment success and patient comfort. Some of our keenest and most able students even engaged with the intricacy and potential of proton beam therapy (PBT), from the scientific basis of PBT, to Bragg peaks, to the role of imaging in PBT and the economic feasibility of PBT.

Martin as well as apprentice chocolatiers myself, Jane Johnson and Jackie Parker performed our craft at the ATOM Festival of Science & Technology in Abingdon on a sunny Saturday in late March. The festival is a long-running, 10-day event that attracts scientist from the surrounding science campuses at Culham, Harwell and Oxford. Our stand was part of the "science market" were a large number of public and private science organizations engaged with the public for the afternoon. We were intimidated on arrival by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, who brought a miniature remote controlled robot arm and giant plasma ball for their display. It soon turned out, however, that we need not have worried – a table full of chocolate reliably matches an array of tech toys in engaging and inspiring children, adults and families.

Roald Dahl famously chronicled the history of chocolate and is said to have concluded speeches on the subject by suggesting that school children need not bother with the Kings and Queens of England and memorize the important dates in chocolate history instead. Chocolate science – medical images of the insides of his favorite chocolate bars – helping children to engage with science and inspiring them to pursue scientific careers would have delighted him without a doubt.