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TB or not TB? Groundbreaking vaccine announced One of the most feared diseases in the world is making an alarming comeback in the UK. Cases of tuberculosis increased by 10% in 2005, to 8,494 cases, and are set to continue rising. The bug is becoming increasingly more resistant to drugs, as it preys on the weak and immunosuppressed. TB kills about 1.6 million people a year, largely in developing countries, and experts believe that its global resurgence goes hand in hand with the Aids pandemic. However, Oxford University’s Helen McShane, a British scientist, announced recently that a groundbreaking new vaccine - the first in 80 years, which has taken ten years to develop - is being tested in human clinical trials for the first time. Dr McShane, the scientist behind this latest booster vaccine, is a 40-year-old medical doctor-turnedvaccinologist. She described her excitement on the morning of the breakthrough: “It was a little tense. I went into the lab to check blood tests taken the day before, looked at the plates and couldn’t believe my eyes. The results were excellent. We knew the vaccine would stimulate the production of some antibodies but there were ten times the number we had predicted. I ran down the corridor to show my professor immediately.”
Elephants buzz off
A growing problem?
Cartoons and comic books have long enforced the idea that all it takes to scare off an elephant is a mouse. However researchers from Oxford have discovered that in actual fact the sound of angry bees is more likely to panic a pachyderm. Lucy King, the researcher at Oxford University who carried out the experiment, found that by strategically placing loudspeakers around farms and villages the elephant population could be prevented from wandering into human settlements.
The problem of obesity will take at least 30 years to reverse, according to a visiting professor to Oxford University. Klim McPherson, Visiting Professor of Public Health Epidemiology and co-author of a new government report into obesity, has said that drastic action must be taken now to tackle what is becoming a problem of epidemic proportions. The report found obesity is a much more passive phenomenon than is often assumed, as our bodies and biological make-up become increasingly out of step with our surroundings. The Department of Health has warned that people need to use active coping strategies, day-in dayout, to prevent weight gain, and that most do not succeed. The majority of UK adults today are overweight, and as a result obesity is becoming normalised.
King said, “Almost half of the groups we studied moved away within seconds of the bee buzz being turned on. This suggests that they already knew the sound and really did not like it.” Earlier studies at Oxford had suggested elephants dislike beehives and will walk around any areas where bees live. Sixteen of the seventeen family groups tested during their midday nap left their resting places under trees within 80 seconds of hearing the sound of bees coming from a speaker 30ft away. Miss King believes beehives – or even loudspeakers playing the sound of bees – could help farmers keep elephants at bay. She added that she had found no evidence that the noise of rodents caused a similar response.
Henry Mosely honoured Henry Moseley, a Chemist and Physicist killed in the First World War at the age of 27, has been honoured with the placement of a commemorative plaque on Oxford University’s Department of Physics building. Henry Moseley made several important discoveries before he was killed in a British-led attack on the strait of Dardanelles in Turkey. The most notable became known as Moseley’s Law and allowed the successful prediction of then unknown elements, as well as the correct sorting of the periodic table.
Her Majesty opens Diamond Light Source After officially opening of the Diamond Light Source on 19th October, Queen Elizabeth toured the new synchotron facility, which spans an area over three times the size of Buckingham Palace. Diamond is the largest science facility built in the UK for 40 years, and is funded primarily by the British government. Located just 16 miles from Oxford City centre, Diamond is the brightest light source in the universe, accelerating electrons to near light speed to produce x-rays. Scientists and engineers use these x-rays to probe deep into the basic structure and properties of matter, answering essential questions about everything from the building blocks of life to the origin of our planet.
Balliol graduate picks up Nobel Prize in medicine
Viagra helps hamsters recover from jetlag
Oliver Smithies, 82, has co-won the Nobel Prize in medicine with two of his associates for discovering the principles of inducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells. Smithies graduated in 1946 from Balliol with an MA in physiology, and went on to earn a doctorate in 1951. He has also been attributed with inventing gel electrophoresis, an essential analytical technique used in biology labs worldwide. He currently resides in North Carolina, where he can still be found working in his lab.
In stark contrast to the Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobels have recently been announced. The tongue-in-cheek awards are organised by the humorous scientific journal the Annals of Improbable Research for achievements “that make people laugh – then think”. Ten prizes are awarded in Harvard’s main lecture hall each year, usually under a hail of paper airplanes.
Other Nobel Prizes this year include the discovery of giant magnetoresistance, which effectively reduces electric resistance in a magnetic field. The effect has revolutionised computer hard-drives in recent years. The chemistry prize goes to Gerhard Ertl, for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces, and was announced on his 71st birthday. Finally, Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received this year’s Peace Prize for their efforts to improve public awareness of climate change. The prize committee defended the somewhat controversial decision, saying that they were “seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate.” The award ceremony will be held in Stockholm Concert Hall on the 10th December - the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.
This year’s winners include a study of how Viagra helps hamsters get over jetlag, development of a method of extracting vanilla flavour from cow dung, and an in-depth study of the word ‘the’. The Peace Prize goes to the US Air Force Wright laboratory for the continued development of a “gay bomb”, which would cause enemy troops to become uncontrollably sexually attracted to each other. Each year the ceremony ends with the catchphrase, “If you didn’t win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year!”
Left-handed gene discovered Researchers at Oxford University have located a gene that increases the chances of being born left-handed. Although little is known about the gene, LRRTM1, it is expected to affect asymmetry in the brain. Left-handedness can result in higher creativity but there is also a greater possibility of schizophrenia. Study leader, Dr Francks, said: “We hope this study’s findings will help us to understand the development of asymmetry in the brain. Asymmetry is a fundamental feature of the human brain that is disrupted in many psychiatric conditions.”
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THE PRODUCT OF YEARS OF RESEARCH, CERN’S LARGE HADRON COLLIDER WILL BE COMPLETE EARLY NEXT YEAR. THIS PINNACLE OF PARTICLE PHYSICS COULD ANSWER SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AND FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS IN SCIENCE. 6
THE ULTIMATE DOUGHNUT? ERN is already world famous for breakC through research. CERN scientist Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, for example, was the creator
of the World Wide Web, while experiments in CERN’s Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP) were responsible for creating the first antimatter atoms. When the LHC goes online, it will be able to accelerate particles up to 99.999999% of the speed of light, as well as simulate conditions up to a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. Such a massive project demands massive investment – the total construction costs are over £3.5 billion. Almost £90m of that money has gone on the superconducting magnets alone. The international community believes the expenditure is justified by the hugely fundamental scientific advances that can be made, and their practical applications.
Set in a doughnut shaped tunnel - measuring 27km in circumference, the LHC covers about the same distance as the Circle Line in London. The accelerator works by speeding up two beams of protons to near light speed, and then smashing them together in a head-on collision. From the huge energy involved in this impact new particles are formed and sprayed out into the surrounding space. It is the analysis of these particles that will form the majority of the work at the LHC.
responsible for the mechanism by which a particle gains its mass, one of the most basic qualities of the entire observable universe. Both ATLAS and CMS detectors will be searching for evidence of the Higgs boson. If it is not found, it will force a profound rethink of particle physics.
In each collision, two bunches of 100 billion particles will meet, but only about 20 proton-proton collisions will occur. The tiny odds of a direct collision occurring were summed up 2. DARK MATTER by one leading physicist at CERN as “like trying H C L EA to throw two oranges so that the pips hit each Another key aim of the LHC is to find evidence of the WIL HE N T O T other.” To gain a reasonable number of colliD hypothetical ‘missing’ matter known amongst the sciO S N E PR AROU TIM O- ence community as ‘Dark Matter’. sions, the particle beams will have to cross 5 L 4 2 R VE roughly 40 million times per second. TRA RING 11 . A P ILL D W 7 KM SECON E LHC IVA- Astronomical studies of galaxies have suggested 2 H Particles will be brought into collision at that an astonishing 90% of the matter in these T QU RY EVE EAM IN ERGY E RAFT systems must be unobservable, and hence ‘dark’. four different points around the LHC tunB C N nel. For this reason four massive detectors TON AN E N AIR LING There are a number of candidates for types of parA E V EL - ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE - have been ticles that might be dark matter, but none have yet HA T TO RAV 11 been detected in sufficient numbers to account for all T constructed at these points to examine N R LE D N RIE and interpret different features of the proton the missing material. ROU S . CAR A collisions. What follows is a short insight into AT K N O T several of the main areas scientists will be investiOne potential dark matter particle is the Weakly Interactgating at the LHC, and some of the answers they hope ing Massive Particle (WIMP), a particle which interacts with the these detectors will help them find. observable universe through gravity and the weak nuclear force. Several theories in particle physics, including supersymmetry, suggest that different types of WIMPs could be made in the LHC. Although these particles will not be directly observable, they will have an observable effect on other particles produced, allowing scientists to deduce their presence. 1. THE HIGGS MECHANISM
Whilst mass may be an every day concept to most of us, physicists still do not know with any certainty why some particles such as protons, neutrons and electrons - have mass, whereas others - such as photons - do not. One of the most anticipated aims of the LHC is the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Depending on the exact nature and mass of the WIMPs, the LHC could produce up to 10,000 WIMP particles a year. This would allow scientists to garner much more information about the extremely elusive matter which has such a vast effect on our universe.
This is now the only unidentified particle in the ‘Standard Model’ – the currently accepted theory of how the elementary particles that make up matter interact. It is believed to be
3. SUPERSYMMETRY Supersymmetry is a model of the universe which proposes that
every type of particle has an associated supers y m metric particle, known as a sup e r p a r tner. The particle and its superpartner are irrevocably connected, but the two possess notably different qualities. Unfortunately, only one partner from each pair is visible using current technology. Some scientists have mooted that the unseen particles might be the source of alleged ‘dark matter’ in galaxies, and it is hoped that scientists will be able to use the LHC to find evidence for such theories.
4. A THEORY OF EVERYTHING Another challenge facing scientists is being able to unify all of the observable forces in the universe. The main problem is that gravity is described on the large scale by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whereas particles on the atomic and subatomic level are described by quantum mechanics. Unifying these two very different pictures has proved incredibly difficult.
APPLICATIONS These advances are undoubtedly exciting for the scientific community. However, for a tax-paying public who have played no small part in funding this £3.5bn project, it is expected that scientifically advanced and readily applicable technologies will also be developed. CERN has acknowledged that science on this scale cannot exist purely as philosophical endeavour, and that it must demonstrate profit-making qualities to receive such massive funding. Julia Maddock, spokesperson for CERN and the LHC project, told Bang! that: “Apart from fulfilling a quest for knowledge, studying particle physics provides wider benefits to society. Cancer therapy, medical and industrial imaging, radiation processing, electronics, measuring instruments, new manufacturing processes and materials, Information Technology, the WWW; these are just some of the many technologies developed at CERN during research into particle physics.” Maddock added: “Computing is also being pushed forwards. To manage the petabytes of data that will be generated by the LHC, we are developing Grid computing. There is international effort in this new field, but by far the greatest effort is being made by the physics community preparing for LHC.” Grid computing is a technique by which many disparate computers and networks are linked up to share the burden of computing processes and data analysis. Researchers at CERN hope that such a system could one day be employed on the same scale as the World Wide Web is today. In this way, literally millions of laptops and personal computers across the world could play their tiny part in the massive computing processes required at projects like the LHC.
Attempts to include gravity into a ‘Theory of Everything’ tend to rely on describing the universe in a more dimensions than we are familiar with in everyday life. A particle known as the graviton has been suggested as the force carrier of gravity, in theories of quantum gravity. These say that gravity is the only force penetrating into dimensions other than the four observable ones.
Practical applications for the advances made at CERN spread far wider than the physics and computing worlds. Former Head of CERN Carlo Rubbia, for example, recently devised a method for transmuting nuclear waste into isotopes needed for medical work that is now being tested in Japan. Likewise, physicists working on the ATLAS project at the LHC have adapted the silicon microstrip detectors used in their experiments to crack the sophisticated code of the electric signals sent between The LHC will provide the highest energy particle collisions ever eye and brain. Such experiments help THE seen in a laboratory, and it is possible that pairs of particles will be B neurobiologists to understand how E A M PIP seen in the LHC with energies characteristic of the graviton resoES IN living neural systems process and T H E LHC A nances that create them. This would provide the first glimpse RE UNDER A encode information and could into the fifth dimension and will go a long way to validating VACUUM one day provide artificial R ABLE T such scientific models. O THAT COMPAsight for the blind. SPA OF
Furthermore, if scientists can isolate examples of energy being ‘lost’, or disappearing from the observable universe, the evidence will suggest that energy can move along different, unobserved dimensions.
5. MICRO BLACK HOLES
CE. ENG INEERS OUTER LEAKS LOOK F SO SM On a more day-toALL TH OR day level, an infrared A CAR A T TYR IF WOULD E HAD ONE, system for finding IT TA and rescuing emYEARS F KE 10,000 OR THE ployees has been TYRE TO GO implemented in the FLAT. ATLAS cavern, one which
Exciting things happen if extra dimensions exist. One of these is the creation of miniature black holes within the LHC. If they come into existence, such objects should quickly evaporate, spraying out particles as they do. These particles will take the form of Hawking radiation, the existence of which is still controversial. Whilst large black holes absorb more material than they emit, small black holes radiate more and so quickly vaporise.
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CERN claims “can be installed at very low costs in virtually all types of environments and is suitable in large areas such as mines where people are often difficult to find.” The system works through a series of infrared sensors installed at strategic positions throughout the cavern. By relaying information back to a control room an operator can accurately identify the position of all employees within the work environment.
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DANGERS Despite the opportunities offered E by the LHC, concerns over several T H I N E D ’S C H B potential environmental L E M LE C O S OF TH G CAB R catastrophes have recently O CTIN been raised. Earlier this UAT AND STR CONDU HE EQ THEIR year Horizon broadcast a , ER NG T -END ETCH program sensationalising SUP O R RI LD . END-T LD ST CK 5 several of these ‘Doomsday U O C U A ES TIM TS CO AND B LEFT scenarios’. Dan Brown’s 6.8 N H ME UG IPS book, Angels and Demons, UN R FILA THE S H ENO focused on the destruction WT TO ES WIT R A FE ON. of the Vatican using a quantity TIM ER FO E MO of antimatter from the LHC. TH OV TO Potential catastrophes range from the localised fallout suggested in Angels and Demons, through to the destruction of earth due to the creation of a black hole, and even to the end of the universe itself via a ‘false vacuum metastability catastrophe’. Many of these scenarios are easily debunked by the fact that cosmic rays hitting the earth’s atmosphere on a daily basis achieve energy levels a billion times larger than those at the LHC, and have thus far produced no adverse effects.
The major concern though is that the LHC could produce a black hole capable of gaining mass and hence consuming the earth with its massive gravitational forces. In the Horizon special on the LHC earlier this year the odds were put at 1 in 50,000,000 that such an event could occur, however researchers at the LHC are even more dismissive. One report given by a scientist at the LHC concluded, “Any supposition of a risk is a fallacy. Black holes are dangerous if heavy enough to suck other matter into them. CERN just doesn’t have anywhere near enough energy to produce them. The energy is too small by some huge factor.” The report did concede that the creation of miniature black holes was likely, but stipulated that these were of no threat, and would in fact represent a breakthrough in scientific research. Black holes and strange matter paranoia aside, there seems to be no doubt that the next few years will see the world of particle physics advancing in leaps and bounds.
From discovering the so-called ‘God Particle’ in the Higgs Boson, to unlocking the mysteries of the Big Bang, the LHC demonstrates man’s unlimited ambition and desire to expose In Dan Brown’s novel, anti-matter is stolen from CERN and the secrets of our world. Yet the LHC, impresWH placed under the Vatican in a plot to destroy the Catholic Church. sive though it may be, is only one more EN TH The author describes the antimatter both as a potential bomb step along the road to a clearer underLONG E 27KM and also a clean source of energy. However, neither of these standing of an increasingly complex TUNN EL AT CIRCUL is realistically feasible. universe. CA A
CER VAT R GENE ED, BET N WAS E XW V True, when antimatter comes into contact with ordinary MOU A AND EEN LA matter, a massive charge of high-energy light is produced. K NTAI N R THE JU E However, in CERN’s own words: “If we could assemble all T WO A R N A E N G the antimatter we’ve ever made and annihilate it with matJUST DS MET E, THE UP ter, we would have enough energy to light a single elecONE CENT WITH TRE tric light bulb for a few minutes.” Add to that the fact that IM OF E RROR Eit would take approximately 25 million billion years to create . enough antimatter to fill a child’s toy balloon, and Dan Brown’s antimatter bomb hardly seems to represent a threat to mankind.
THE OXFORD CONNECTION
At the heart of ATLAS, the largest of the LHC detectors, lies the Semiconductor Tracker (SCT). Constructed in Oxford, the SCT measures the movements of the charged particles produced in the high-energy collision. The SCT detector consists of a central region and two end caps. The central region is formed of four concentric barrels, covered with 2112 silicon modules. The modules were produced by collaborators in different countries and sent to the University of Oxford for precision assembly. To be assembled, each of the fragile silicon modules had to be mounted on an ultralightweight carbon fibre cylinder using a specialised robot. Each silicon module has 1536 channels, where each channel is a separate detector element. Each of these is connected by a wire bound to an individual channel of an ASIC (application specific integrated circuit), which contains all the read out electronics. Dr Tony Weidberg, also of Oxford University, said, “It has been both a privilege and a challenge to play our part in the world’s largest physics collaboration. We now eagerly await the full assembly of the Atlas detector and the start of the LHC, which will allow us to better study the nature of the universe.”
IT’S EASY TO BLAME THE FIFTH-WEEK BLUES, BUT IT’ - SCIENTISTS MAY JUST HAVE F t has been known for many years that happiness is hereditary. I More specifically, the risk of suffering from clinical depression is strongly influenced by genetic factors and personality traits. For
instance, neuroticism - the tendency towards negative emotional responses, worries and anxieties - is also significantly heritable. This does not mean that we are wrong in our common-sense belief that events in our lives and social environment are what determine our emotional state. Except in extreme cases, our moods and emotions are indeed responsive to our life situation - but the degree and exact manner with which we respond is largely a matter of our biology, and hence of our genetics. Until very recently, the specific genes which influence our emotions remained a mystery. That such genes even existed was inferred from studies of identical twins, adopted children, and other large-scale methods used by geneticists to estimate the importance of genetic influence in the determination of complex traits. The resulting confusion, however, was largely due to the difficulty in identifying single genes where there are likely hundreds which all interact to influence our emotions. Despite this, research conducted over the past five years has identified a promising target - the best candidate yet for the role of the “happiness gene”. This is the SLC6A4 gene, better known as the serotonin transporter promoter gene. The molecular sequence of this gene comes in two main forms, short (s) and long (l), the long form being more effective at inducing the serotonin transporter in nerve cells. The serotonin transporter acts like a kind of molecular pump in the brain, causing serotonin - a chemical released by many nerve cells - to be pumped back into the cells which release it. This indirectly reduces the effects of serotonin on the brain by making less of it available at any given time. Although serotonin serves many different functions in different parts of the brain, it is known to be closely associated with positive and happy emotions. Since people with the short form of the SLC6A4 promoter gene would produce less of the serotonin transporter protein, it would therefore be reasonable to predict that they would be less prone to unhappiness. However, the exact opposite appears to be the case - people with the long form are less susceptible to stress, depression and anxiety. In fact, since everyone has two copies of each gene, it’s people with two copies of the long form - ll who are best off. The evidence that the short form of the SLC6A4 gene is associated with negative emotionality and depression is strong, and has been seen in animals as well as people. In rhesus
monkeys, who have the same gene, those carrying the short form are more vulnerable to stress , while mice genetically engineered to have no serotonin transporter (which is like having the short form of the gene, but exaggerated further) show high levels of anxiety and other negative emotional traits. In humans, those who carry one or two copies of the s variant of the gene are more likely to suffer from clinical depression - but only when exposed to unpleasant or unhappy events in their lives. The variant of the gene carried does not directly determine emotional state, but it does determine a person’s vulnerability to being made unhappy by life’s blows. Those with the long form of the gene seem to have “thicker skins” and the ability to remain happy despite adversity. The paradox remains, however: why does the short form of the gene seem to cause
more negative emotional responsiveness, when this is one which leads to less of the transporter which gets rid of serotonin? A clue is provided by an experiment in which newborn mice were given Prozac for several days. When given to adult mice or to humans, Prozac acts as an anti-depressant. In mice an anti-depressant effect is defined as making them less likely to “despair” following painful experiences such as electric shocks or being forced to swim in cold water. Normal animals rapidly give up and remain motionless; those given Prozac continue to try to escape, struggling for much longer periods. But the experiment discovered that when Prozac was given very early in life, it caused depression-like effects; effects which persisted into adulthood. Ironically, giving animals an anti-depressant during their development made them more depressed when they were mature.
This provides a possible solution to the mystery. Perhaps people carrying the short form of the serotonin transporter have too much serotonin in their brains while they are still developing (in the womb or during childhood), which causes them to have less serotonin once they reach adulthood, or leads to other effects on their brain which cause increased negative emotionality. Consistent with this is the fact
words: Jamie Horder
IT’S NOT JUST LIFE EVENTS THAT CAN GET YOU DOWN E FOUND THE ‘HAPPINESS GENE’
Have people with the “ short variant gene literally
‘drawn the short straw’ in life?
that mice with no serotonin transporter protein show about half of the usual number of serotonin-releasing cells in certain regions of the brain. Humans carrying the short form of the gene show distinct neurological patterns as well. They suffer from an enlarged pulvinar nucleus, a part of the brain involved in the flow of emotionally-relevant visual information to the amygdala (the region of the brain most important in experiencing fear and anxiety). Brain-scanning studies have shown that the amygdala of s-carriers is also hyper-reactive, becoming unusually strongly activated by the sight of frightening or unpleasant pictures. Finally, there is evidence that those with the s form of the gene have fewer cells in a part of the brain called the pACC, which is believed to act like a kind of “off-switch” for the amygdala. So, what does all this mean? Have people with a short variant of the serotonin transporter promoter gene literally “drawn the short straw” in life? Hardly. For the majority of us, the only difference between short and long carriers will be slight differences in temperament and personality, and even these are only measurable statistically. Someone with two short copies is likely to be more anxious than someone with two long copies, but there are plenty of people who show the opposite pattern. Faced with any individual person, knowing which variants of SLC6A4 they carry tells you little about them. Despite this, research on the serotonin transporter gene continues at a rapid pace. SLC6A4 may be the first tangible example of the molecular structures beneath our mental and emotional lives, but it is unlikely to be the last.
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Yscreaming in horror. Thank f*** it’s only a dream.
our blood runs cold. You’re drenched in sweat. You’re
Yet at the same time, you’re desperate to get back into that sauna, sandwiched between Scarlet Johansson and Lindsay Lohan, aren’t you? If only the bloody alarm clock didn’t go off just as things got even steamier. But do these dreams really give us an insight into the corners of our mind?
The average person dreams about five times a night, although the majority of these are instantly forgotten. All the same, the practice of recalling and interpreting dreams is as old as civilization itself. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is one of the most influential and famous names in psychology. His theory of psychoanalysis is now the subject of much criticism, with accusations that his ideas had about as much scientific rigour as a blind weevil performing open-heart surgery. Nevertheless, many of the original concepts of psychoanalysis have now entered popular culture, and chances are that you will have at one time or another heard of the Oedipus Complex or described someone as ‘anal’. Freud’s theory provides the basis for psychology’s most notorious explanation of dreaming. In a nutshell, he saw humans as being motivated by two ‘drives’: a life drive and an aggression drive. These lead to impulses and desires that are not socially acceptable, which the individual then represses. However, said Freud, these desires must find some gratification to avoid becoming psychologically harmful, and this is where dreams come in. So, for Freud, dreaming provides us with wish fulfillment. But as these desires come from the deepest, darkest parts of our subconscious (and let’s face it, when was the last time you looked in there?) they are disguised by mysterious symbolism.
This protects us from experiencing the true horror of what lies beneath. The actual meaning of the dream – the latent content – is carefully kept concealed to avoid several weeks of intensive therapy and the development of a rather annoying nervous twitch. At the same time, psychoanalysis argues that much can be learnt from understanding these hidden desires. This can be achieved by decoding the symbolism – or manifest content – that appears in our dreams. So if you think you can handle the guilt, anguish and trauma that may result from exposing your saucy subconscious secrets, then it is simply a question of remembering your dreams and interpreting them. For example, it is said that dreams about machines are really dreams about social conventions. If you are dreaming about being unable to control malfunctioning machinery – such as that rogue sandwich toaster – then this might represent your fear of society’s institutions crumbling around you. Similarly, the appearance of a car is actually indicative of the body, in which case dreaming of a crash should indicate the need for an urgent bit of detoxing. Unsurprisingly, given Freud’s interest with all things erotic, there are a number of sex-related symbols to look out for. Climbing stairs is said to represent sexual intercourse, while a snake is the symbol for a penis. Tell that to the stars of Snakes On A Plane. Oh, and if you do start sleeping with someone, it shows that you want to strengthen friendship bonds with that person. Which may put your mind at rest if family members have started cropping up occasionally. Since Freud’s work, many new theories of dreaming have been proposed, often based more soundly on biology and neurology. Still, there remains something rather satisfying about seeing symbolism in dreams. After all, who doesn’t enjoy climbing stairs into a nicely furnished Swedish hot-tub?
c i t s e Dom 1 0 . 1 e c n e i c S
“God’s Number” has been beaten. Any 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube can be unscrambled in 26 moves or less, breaking the previous record of 27, according to a Boston computer scientist. Bang! smashes open the World’s Best Selling Toy.
Opossible ways of arranging each of the 54 coloured faces.
K. A 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000
only coming to life when perfectly aligned.
In addition to being the best-selling toy in the known universe, Everybody’s tried twisting, turning and shouting at their cube, but fascinating parallels to some fundamental concepts in particle no students reading this will have completed the puzzle without physics exist. Each of the 26 visible mini-cubes a technique, without some kind of method in within the main cube are called ‘cubies’. The their madness. Clearly. If the Shakespeare-typ“Gundar no longer mathematician Solomon W. Golomb discovered ing monkey were to turn his hand to the Ruspeaks to me, and that it is impossible to find a sequence of moves bik’s Cube phenomenon, turning the blocks at when he comes to that will rotate one of the eight corner cubies by the rate of one new combination each second, bed he is too exone third of a revolution (about an axis heading he would take (on average) 50,000 times the hausted from playthrough the cube diagonally), leaving the rest age of the universe to return the puzzle to its ing with his cube of the cube unchanged. However, it is possible so-called ‘perfect’ state. If all the world’s monto even give me a to rotate one corner clockwise by a third of a full keys were to have a go on their own individual cuddle.” revolution, and another corner anticlockwise by cubes, it would still take hundreds of thou- an exasperated Frau Schmidt, as the cube becomes the focus of a a third. It is also possible to rotate three cubies sands of generations of monkeys for them to divorce case in Germany. clockwise, all by one third of a turn. If we call a complete one cube between them. One cube! 1/3 clockwise twist of a corner cubie a quark, a fundamental particle with charge +1/3, and if we call an anticlockwise It may come as a surprise to learn then, that the world record for twist an antiquark (which in particle physics has charge -1/3), we solving the original Rubik’s cube stands at an astonishingly unasfind an intriguing relationship between the corner cubie rotations tronomical 9.86 seconds. The record is held by Thibaut Jacquinot and quarks. Quarks and antiquarks are never found individually of France, set at the Spanish Open on 5th May 2007. Presumably in nature, just as a single clockwise or single anticlockwise twist Thibaut originally needed something to pass the time, but clearly can’t be performed on a cube. However, quarks and antiquarks do a mere 3x3x3 cube just don’t do the job no more. Recently howexist in pairs: the combination is called a meson - and it is possible ever, Greek inventor Panagiotis Verdes has patented a method of to twist one corner cubie clockwise and another anticlockwise. creating cube sizes of up to 11x11x11, which could do the trick. Finally, triplets of three quarks or three antiquarks (which will For the higher dimensional monkeys of this universe, 4D and 5D therefore have integer charge) exist as baryons - correspondingly, analogues of the original puzzle exist online. Unsurprisingly, very it is possible to carry out three clockwise or three anticlockwise few people in the world have solved the five-dimensional cube twists without altering the rest of the cube. to date. Invented in 1974 by the Hungarian sculptor and architecture professor, Erno Rubik, the original 3x3x3 cube’s purpose was to improve his students’ ability to visualise three-dimensional objects. Initially called a ‘Magic Cube’, a deal with Ideal Toys was signed, who renamed the puzzle as the ‘Rubik’s Cube’, claiming “over three billion combinations” were possible - a slight understatement! As its popularity grew in the early ‘80s, a person’s value in life began to depend solely on their cube-solving abilities. Over one hundred million cubes were sold from 1980 to 1982, and a cartoon, ‘Rubik, The Amazing Cube’, premiered in 1983, the bald, alienheaded, armless hero
words: David Abelman
World Re cords: One han d 15.81 seco only nds Feet only 51.13 seconds
Knowing this probably won’t help you solve the darned thing, but with some serious study on the internet - or a careful read of 12year-old Patrick Bossert’s bestseller, You Can Do The Cube - you’ll be up and running. But you go to Oxford! You’re probably finding this all a bit easy. Luckily, a few common variations on the theme exist. These include the use of feet, blindfolds, chopsticks, solving cubes underwater, solving a cube in freefall before opening your parachute, and, more down-toearth yet just as challenging, solving the cube while drunk. Happy twisting! 7c ub in on es solve fold e blind- d e 21 m d sessio n seco inutes 5 : 9 nds
Perhaps you’ve already decided what to do with your life. Maybe you’re devoted to a career in academia or planning to make a break for the City. Or maybe, like most of us, you’re simply baffled and your only ‘plans’ are to worry about it AFTER you’ve finished Finals. But fear not! Like any responsible Careers Advisor, Bang! wants you to make an informed choice, and this means proper consideration of all the available options. This term we’re looking to Oxford’s finest alumni for guidance. We’ve gathered a range of examples, both inspirational and instructive: scientists who failed, scientists who excelled but then changed their minds, and those who finished their science degree in an aimless sort of way and then got on with finding fulfilment elsewhere in their lives…
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ns nal his passio internatio s followed n lead to a rk c a s M c si rd y a h p How ience and mentors, from his natural sc ll the best a riginating abis o y b n d la e p d n ss e e n nn m si a m c u o b g c re . T he gglin pire, smu le venture rations a profitab stablish a drugs em torious 1980s ope o e n mto is o s c H a e s. w v days group enty-fi uring rock hone lines, and tw inds to m f re o t ly n d e m -nine p site prou ty b h ly e ig w e l s a s, a n p h w on perso ee aliase onal trium , rld”, as his rs k o e c w p lu e s’ y th n rk a t a u gh o u gh with ccess, M u su o h le T g . b e in ta c p fu k drop senten de an irre ear US jail e to rethin ith a y im e T v . -fi n e ty v w y a twen ing only se for shared house with serv king o lo rt get away a st odule and ciences m . n e ng gard
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Pills, Profits and the Public:
Drugs to die for.
looks at the chequered history of
or the past fifty years, the pharmaceutical industry has been the F subject of a highly-polarised debate surrounding the pills it makes and the profits made from them. The story of this industry is one of
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The history of the pharmaceutical industry is an interesting one, plotting a course away from chemical manufacturing and into the uncharted territory of pharmacology, a transition which led existing legislation to frequently be found redundant or inadequate. This factor applied particularly in America, where market-led self-regulation was considered the best solution. Although a laissez-faire attitude had proven effective in many other industries, one might expect the authorities to take an alternative approach when dealing with products dispensed to the sick and weak.
Throughout this process there are no records to show anyone within the company attempted, or even suggested, testing the new product on humans or animals. On an even more elementary level, no evidence exists that any background research was carried out on the toxicity of diethylene glycol at all.
paradox and politics, neither of which lend themselves to a good public image. Champions of industry and ever-reliable wealth generators, these companies hold the rare position of producing products that make the difference between life and death for their customers. Despite the industry’s consistently bad reputation, the complex circumstances mean that these companies are neither the heroes nor the villains that the media often portrays them to be.
Yet it is largely forgotten that up until 70 years ago, no legislation existed in the US to govern the safety of drugs for human consumption. What’s more, it is only in the past 45 years that drug companies have been required by law to produce drugs that were even effective in the manner they were advertised to be. It was only two notably horrendous medical disasters that resulted in the forcing through of these laws, marking the start of a rapid change in the public perception of the industry from one of trust to a climate of suspicion that still lingers today.
The first incident began in 1937, when the drug Prontosil was rapidly gaining fame as an excellent treatment for streptococcal throat infections. There was one problem: children were often reluctant to swallow the bitter tablets. One firm, Massengill & Co., decided to try an alternative delivery method for the drug. Prontosil, a sulphanilamide, did not dissolve in either water or alcohol, but experiments with other solvents discovered that it readily dissolved in an odourless sweet liquid called diethylene glycol. Once a small amount of colouring and a raspberry flavour had been added, the product was put on the market as Elixir Sulphanilamide, perfect for children.
It was well known in the chemical industry at that time that the solvent is highly toxic, ingestion leading to irreparable kidney damage and a slow, excruciatingly painful death. By the time the mistake was realised, 107 people, many of them children, had died from the effects of the drug. Yet under the laws at the time the only action that could be taken against the company was one of “mislabelling”, and in a statement the company offered condolences but denied any responsibility for the fatalities caused by their product. Massengill’s chief chemist committed suicide while awaiting trial. It took an incident of this severity to alarm the public to the lack of responsibility taken by the drug industry. Regulatory bodies suddenly
realised that action was required to protect the health – and the lives -of the public. Yet despite the tragedy and loss of life involved, constant threats by the industry to curtail research spending in the face of increased bureaucratic monitoring meant that the heavily watered-down bill that passed in 1938 required only the production of “safe” drugs, regardless of their efficacy on the ailment they were prescribed for. It took another thirty years and another medical tragedy to force further progress in drug regulation.
A second wake-up call Developed in Germany in 1958, Thalidomide was heralded as the safest sedative ever discovered. It promised refreshing sleep, free of the morning nausea and over-dose risks associated with existing drugs, and was also found to ease morning sickness in pregnant women. Prescribed widely across Europe and only held back in the US by “unease” on the part of the officer processing the drug’s application, Thalidomide was seen as the first in a new generation of safe, effective drugs. Clouds began to gather the following year when twelve babies in Germany were born with phocomelia, an extremely rare condition causing severe deformation of limbs. When the number of cases grew to 83 and then 302 in the following years, accompanied by similar occurrences across the world, it became apparent that the Thalidomide prescribed to pregnant women was having terrible consequences for their growing foetuses. The end result was estimated to have affected some ten thousand babies in twenty countries. This landmark event, the effects of which can still be seen today, resulted in a huge shift in opinion across the world. The Kefauver-Harris Amendment was passed in the US, requiring by law for the first time that the drugs made by the industry must be exhaustively tested and labelled in great detail as to their uses as well as possible side effects. These changes have drastically shaped the industry that we see today, matching the regulations more closely with the responsibilities it must undertake.
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Is the situation the result of an industry taking advantage of the public, or a public searching for the next quick fix, and willing to badger their doctor to get it? Here in the UK, is it ethical for drug companies to charge prices so high that the NHS cannot afford them? Should taxpayers contribute more to help support drug development, or should we continue to rely on profit-driven companies to assess and meet our medical requirements?
The road ahead? The truth is, the position of the drug industry today has been reached along a rocky road, with doubtless many more potholes to come. Hard lessons have been learnt, ones which the public find hard to forget; yet much of the current mistrust is the result of misunderstanding and misjudgement on both sides.
Pharmaceutical companies are in a position where they are expected to perform like any other company: making a tidy profit for their shareholders and insuring themselves against difficult times. Meanwhile they are faced with the view of many that they hold the keys to good health and should not simply sell this off to the highest bidder.
company attempted, or even suggested, testing the new product on humans or animals
Drug development operates on a similar high-risk model, yet opinions towards pricing differ hugely. Only about 1 in 25 drugs that enter development ever reach the market, yet millions of pounds are invested in each one during their prematurely aborted lifespans. It is a fact of the society we choose to live in that large amounts of money are not risked on developing products for the “greater good” rather than commercial gain. The losses incurred on the failures must be recouped on the few successes by pricing accordingly; if the balance sheet didn’t add up, investors would go elsewhere.
Ultimately, it is the doctor that prescribes a medicine, and if we bemoan the selling of “hypochondriac” pills then our issue would seem not to be with pharmaceutical companies, but rather with the triggerhappy GPs using them as an easy way to shift patients. The buck needs to stop somewhere in the chain – with the companies making the drugs, the doctors prescribing them, or us, the patients creating demand for them.
There are no records to “show anyone within the
Another common criticism centres on the large profits made on drugs sold to the NHS. Although these profit margins do exist, they must be considered in the context of a high-risk business sector. For example, when the electronics company Apple first launched the iPod, the price tag was a hefty $400, of which approximately $200 was profit. This price was accepted by the consumer market as the product was innovative and new, whilst it also allowed Apple to recover the money that had been risked on the venture.
the target of spoof adverts and even entirely fictional campaigns such as that created by Australian artist Justine Cooper. She caused a media sensation around her novel drug creation “Havidol” (Have-It-All), through internet and TV advertising. It enthusiastically promised to relieve sufferers from their symptoms of “unfulfilling social lives” and “disappointing levels of achievement”, although the host of disturbing side effects included the horrors of a “terminal smile” and “co-dependence on inanimate objects”. Yet the most disheartening aspect is that, despite the audacity of Justine’s campaign, she still received large amounts of interest from newly enlightened sufferers of her fantasy syndrome, a sign that drug companies are dealing with a public baying for the next miracle drug to fix their problems.
A more recent concern is “disease-mongering”. This is particularly prevalent in the US, where direct-to-consumer advertising is allowed. The idea of creating meaningless syndromes to be treated has been
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Medical research for the “common good” is a utopian ideal, unattainable if we are all reluctant to invest our taxes or personal money into ventures that are so high risk. Ultimately, cash counts. Operating in a turbulent arena is never easy, yet these companies have delivered medical advances that have revolutionised standards of living. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable sectors of the economy and we all benefit from the jobs created and the money earned for the national coffers. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry proudly proclaim that the NHS is provided with life-saving drugs at a cost of the equivalent of 56p a day for each UK citizen, yet only back in July this year the consumer group Which? complained that GPs were being “bombarded” with promotional materials by drug companies. “Big Pharma” encourages innovation whilst maintaining integrity, a balance that is easily disturbed. History has recorded the consequences of this disequilibrium at its worst. Neither Heroes nor Villains, the pharmaceutical industry is merely the result of the economic demands that society places on modern science. Perhaps it is time to give a rapidly evolving industry, barely a century old, a fresh chance to prove itself. To achieve this there will have to be some forgiveness, not an easy task when the past mistakes of a few cost the innocent lives of many.
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ing ler first created aerogel follow American chemist Steven Kist lace rep ld cou y the if see l was “to a bet with a colleague. The goa .” age ink shr any sing cau t hou wit the liquid inside of a jelly jar as they wanted to replace the ed, coin was l oge aer e nam The ed. Incredible insula that they used was silica bas tor liquid in a gel by air. The gel Aerogel is the best insulator in the wo rld. It has a typical conductivity less than half that of air, because its structure preven ts convection – de spite it being m os tly air by vo lume – and silica is Collecting stardust a poor conductor of heat. NASA has used it for insulatio Capturing interstellar dust from a comet with n in the Mars Rover and in spac e suits, and recent a space probe can tell scientists a lot about the ‘blankets’ have be ly aerogel en manufactured makeup of a comet. This was the mission of NASA’s which incorporate fibrous material to overcome aeroge Stardust project. The problem faced was in slowing l’s brittle nature. Aerogel is also usefu l for window insula down particles of dust with impact velocities of up tion. Such windows already exist but, cost asid to six times the speed of a bullet, without damaging e, they are not currently commer cially viable becaus them. Aerogel proved to be the perfect material. e they are not completely transpa rent. The bluish ha It is light, almost transparent, and slows down a zy appearance of the material co uld be eliminated particle gently enough to avoid heat damage. by producing the material in a ze ro gravity environ ment, such as in a NASA Vomit Com et (a plane provid ing temporary weightlessness by flying a parabolic Future developments pa th), although scientists are curre wonderful materials that, having been ntly investigating Aerogel is by no means one of those weird and more cost for ed little over time. This year effective methods invented, found only a few applications and chang giving el, aerog . with carbon nanotubes instance, Indian scientists managed to combine t doub no ’s There el. aerog based y silica a composite more than twice as strong as a purel become more widespread, from space will el aerog of use the ues contin rch resea as that missions to home furnishings.
KPMG - Science into Business Great support, excellent training, early responsibility, and fascinating clients; these are just some of the many factors that help to make KPMG in the UK one of the leading graduate employers. We provide a range of challenging and high-quality career opportunities to ambitious people from a wide range of academic disciplines. As well as openings in our three service areas: Audit, Tax and Advisory, we also have a number of opportunities across internal Business Services such as Information Technology, Human Resources, Finance and Marketing. Read on to hear from two Oxford alumni how their science degrees provided them with a great grounding for a career in business.
Name: Jonathan Peall
Name: John Coles
Oxford college you went to: St Hughs
Oxford college you went to: St Johns
Subject studied: Biochemistry Year of graduation: 2004 Position at KPMG: Tax Assistant Description of role/team: Private Client Advisory Your job, and the skills it involves: In the Private Client team we work with high net worth individuals ranging from sport stars to entrepreneurs. Primarily we act in an advisory role providing advice and planning on personal tax issues in a wide range or areas including; Inheritance tax planning, employee share schemes, Private Equity acquisitions, personal pension contributions, to name just a few. We also provide compliance services which involves the preparation and submission of personal tax returns on behalf of our clients. We ensure that submission deadlines are met and often liaise with HMRC in order to resolve any outstanding issues on our client’s behalf. A lot of our work involves in-depth research, logically thinking through problems and presenting solutions to clients in a manner that is easy to understand. A background in science, although quite removed from the world of tax, does develop these fundamental skills we use on a day-to-day basis. What you enjoy about your area of work: The opportunity to meet with high net worth individuals who have set up successful businesses or reached the top of their chosen field is always fascinating. Also, due to the nature of our tax advisory service, the range of projects being undertaken within the team is constantly expanding and therefore provides a refreshing diversity of tasks to be involved in. One minute you may be involved in a report to the board members in a multimillion pound management buyout transaction and the next you may be advising a wealthy landowner on the tax implications of their grouse shoot - never a dull moment. What you enjoy about working for KPMG: KPMG is a very enjoyable and sociable place to work. Our department has department drinks (which are free) every month and also regularly organises meals, sports events and away days, and this is the same across most KPMG departments. Starting on the graduate scheme also gives you the chance to meet people working in many different departments, so there is always the opportunity to get involved in social events across the firm. Where do you see yourself in a few years time? The early part of your career is, unfortunately, based around passing your exams. However, KPMG has its very own Tax Business School, which makes studying for professional exams far less stressful than going to evening classes after work. Hopefully, I will have passed all my necessary exams in a little under two years after starting on the graduate scheme and will then be looking towards promotion to Consultant within the following year or so. This will give me the chance to take on more responsibility for my clients, as well as get quite a nice pay rise. I would recommend anyone considering a career at KPMG to definitely give it a go and not to be put off by coming from a non-tax or law based background. The analytical and presentation skills you will have developed as a scientist really are invaluable.
Subject studied: Biological Sciences Year of graduation: 2001 Position at KPMG: Audit Assistant (E1 turning E2 September) Description of role/team: Audit Assistant Your job, and the skills it involves: My job involves auditing financial information produced by clients. I have taken part in statutory audits, pension audit, grant audit and interim reviews since starting work with KPMG. I believe I have been able to utilise the analytical skills I gained during my science degree on an almost daily basis. Attention to detail and problem solving are some generic qualities which I find are invaluable within my job. I have always had an interest in statistics and find myself using statistical analysis daily. With regards training for the ACA Chartered Accountant qualification, the exam techniques I developed during university have aided me greatly. Learning to balance exam work with client work, whilst still maintaining a good work-life balance is something I feel I have been able to achieve as a result of my University experience. What you enjoy about your are of work: Working within audit teams with interesting people is a definite highlight. In my experience KPMG employ ambitious, friendly people. This makes work not only enjoyable but it ensures that the learning and development environment KPMG employees work within is excellent. The work is thorough and at times requires a large amount of effort to complete, in particular exam/college work. However, I feel the opportunity to study whilst gaining invaluable work experience offers a challenge which I feel tests my academic ability.
The skills you will have “developed as a scientist really are invaluable. ” What you enjoy about working for KPMG: KPMG put great emphasis on creating a good social environment in which to work. Within my office I play football for the office team and attend many of the social events organised throughout the year. We have office quizzes, Christmas and spring balls and a summer BBQ. This is aside from the many other exam results/birthday socials we have throughout the year. The many social events help audit team members to get to know each other outside work, which I feel builds for a fun and friendly working environment. Another benefit of working for KPMG is that a number of graduates, with the same level of experience, are employed at the same time. I have had the opportunity to meet many people from very different backgrounds. Where do you see yourself in a few years time? Having enjoyed my first year working for KPMG immensely, I definitely see myself working for the company in the future. I still have 2 years left on my training contract and will spend the next 2 years studying for the end of my professional stage and advanced stage exams, whilst gaining a lot of valuable work experience. On completion of my training contract I would like to take a secondment to another department within KPMG. At present I have an interest in possibly working abroad in one of the many KPMG offices worldwide.
fMRI is a form of neural imaging. Brain cells use oxygen when activated, causing local increased blood flow. The changing concentration ratios in the blood are measured due to the differing magnetic resonance signals of oxygenated and deoxygenated haemoglobin. So when test subjects are told to think certain things, scientists can build a map of the individual’s brain patterns and work out which sections of the brain code for which types of thoughts.
fMRI is either a revolution in neuroscience or an Orwellian nightmare.
Professor Dick Passingham talks to Bang! about robotic limbs, thought-crime, and how fMRI isn’t as scary as it seems.
rofessor Dick Passingham is a busy man; and justifiably so. His experiments, most P notably his 2-year experiment with Professor John Dylan-Haynes into multivariate fMRI, have brought about some of the most exciting and controversial advances in neuroscience. Using their fMRI scans, they were able to tell with a high degree of accuracy whether subjects were lying, and could say with 70% certainty what decision a subject would make when given a binary choice such as whether to add or subtract two numbers from each other.
“fMRI, and PET scans have been a reality for scientists since 1995, but I always assumed there would be a limit to the technology,” Passingham said. (PET examines metabolic processes, and is sometimes used with fMRI). I asked him what he meant. “The Blood-Oxygen Level Dependent contrast (BOLD) that the scanner uses creates a map of the brain, a rough picture of thought patterns that a scientist uses to distinguish different types of thought from one another. However, the tests we were originally using could only differentiate between thoughts relating to motor skills and spatial awareness. We had no way of getting the accuracy to differentiate between thoughts within these categories. So I could tell whether you wanted to play sports or look at a painting, but I couldn’t tell whether you wanted to play tennis or rugby. “After a while scientists found that there were occasions where specific detail could be highlighted, because different cells in the brain code for different types of action or thought. The multivariate fMRI technique gives the scans a much higher resolution and far more detail with regard to the actions. For example, if we tested an individual enough we would be able to tell whether they were thinking of a pair of scissors or a brick.” One discovery arising from the development of fMRI was its use on patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. It was found that they possessed mental faculties just as acute and active as a normal person. Passingham also talked about Professor Haynes’ plans to use fMRI with artificial limbs. “John believes that the multivariate tests we did could be used to control a robot arm,” he explained. “The fMRI scanner would take brain signals, interpret them and apply them to the necessary function.” He was, however, sceptical as to the practicalities of such an invention. “At the moment, anyone using such a device would have to be inside the scanner itself, and concepts for permanent fMRI-type implants in the motor cortex are utterly impossible at present.”
There are more connections in
your brain than there are stars
in the known universe.
A whip ‘cracks’ because as it recoils, the tip moves faster than
Passingham acknowledged too that fMRI is now receiving interest as a form of lie detection. This has sparked controversy within both public and scientific spheres. Earlier this year Professor Barbara Sahakian at Cambridge University suggested that such technologies were leading society into a “Minority Report” state. She claimed that advanced multi-variate fMRI could be used to probe someone’s thoughts against their will and punish them for ‘thought-crimes’. When questioned about this, Professor Passingham was open: “When talking about the abuses of our work, I only have two fears. The first is if people do not realise that they are being scanned; when they are unwittingly giving away information, and the second is if people are forced into the scanner against their will.” “If we showed a subject black and white faces, or male and female nudes, it is true that fMRI could be used to discover personal secrets such as whether sexual orientation or predilection to racism, but for me such information should have no bearing on how someone is treated. If we had a convicted paedophile seeking parole, for example, an fMRI scan may be able to tell the board whether he still harbours sexual feelings for children, but it definitely will not be able to say how he will behave in society. A person could harbour unwholesome thoughts but still be fit to act as a good member of society because the thoughts are not an adequate signifier of behaviour.” Despite the radical possibilities offered by fMRI, Passingham did attempt to show the technical limits to the experiments. He noted that brain patterns are unique to every individual, and that a generalised ‘map’ for thought processes was simply not a practical idea.
When talking about the “ abuses of our work, I only have
two fears . The first is if people do not realise that they are being scanned... and the second is if people are forced into the scanner against their will
the speed of sound, causing a mini sonic boom
Overall, Professor Passingham was surprisingly cynical about the future of fMRI. We spoke about techniques such as advanced magnetoencephalography (MEG), which have far higher temporal resolution – the speed at which the neural image refreshes. fMRI is also limited by being an indirect method for analysing neural activity, as it is a measure of the brain’s blood flow rather than the electrical impulses. He claimed that although technical demonstrations would become ever more complex and impressive, the fundamental science could not evolve past a certain point. “At the moment, fMRI can be used to accurately predict what object you are thinking of; whether it be a pair of scissors or a car, but this is only possible provided the experiment has been performed and recorded once before; provided we know what to look for. The real challenge is to find something that you didn’t know before rather than garnering information through technical demonstrations.” Though I felt that Passingham was trying to define the horizons of his work and assuage fears of Orwellian mind-interrogation, I felt that he could neither deny the exciting prospects on offer, nor resist the urge to acknowledge them. Passingham pointed to the work of Eleanor Maguire, a scientist testing the neural responses of London cabbies to a simulated drive through London. Using the data from this she has built up maps of brain areas associated with different thought processes, such as spontaneous decision making and obeying orders. “Eleanor’s work is a heroic endeavour,” he said, “and the results are just beautiful.” As we were finishing the interview he told me, “I can’t see any way to take this research further, but maybe someone smarter than I will find a way. Science is very unpredictable.” So instead of being racked with a fear of the impending age of mindreading computers, or dejected that modern sciences such as fMRI have reached their peak, I managed to find a mindset somewhere between the two. Neuroscience certainly has the possibility to amaze us by probing ever deeper into the human psyche, but the unique nature of every brain and the complexity therein assures us that no scientist will ever create a catch-all method of reading minds. Interview by Ben Wallace
Furthermore, he debunked current claims that fMRI could be a useful lie detector technology when used on suspected criminals: “To train the pattern classifier to recognise whether someone is telling the truth or lying you need a template. I would need to have recorded patterns of this person lying or telling the truth so that I knew what to look for. Put simply, if I ask someone whether they have committed a crime then I need to know whether they were telling the truth or not before I can see whether my guess was right.” Passingham also expressed worries that test subjects would be able to ‘fake-out’ the scanner just like trained spies can beat a polygraph test. “If I chose to vividly picture something like a beach whilst you were asking me questions about my house, then it is quite possible that the results would be completely inaccurate,” he noted.
Dick Passingham is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. He is a fellow and tutor of Psychology at Wadham College and has been working with Oxford University since 1970.
cience fiction has always been fond of monsters. Particularly the big, bad, scary ones with long teeth and sharp claws; the ones S that creep up on their unsuspecting victims to the sound of discordant strings, until, with a frenzy of gore and a few helpless screams, the unlucky individual is no more. Hardly the most obvious entertainment, yet there’s something about grotesque creatures from the great beyond that gets our hearts racing, leaving us willing to part with another £5.50 when the sequel comes out. It’s hard to imagine exactly why, though. Their appeal, if it is right to use such a word, seems to emanate from a fascination with beasts of a strange and unworldly nature. It’s precisely in their grotesque and glorious qualities that our fixation lies. Well, that and the fact that they have an appetite for the annoying characters that seem so ignorantly determined to confront them. However, there’s no need to look to the outer reaches of the universe to find creatures that are this weird and wonderful; they exist right on our doorstep if you know where to look. In fact, a biology textbook has moments that read like a science fiction novel, with tales of the peculiar creatures that reside right here on Earth with us. Take corals, for example - certainly not something you think you should be afraid to encounter on a dark and stormy night. Yet underneath their seemingly harmless exterior lies an unexpected monster. Being members of the animal lineage Cnidaria, corals possess special cells armed with capsule-like structures called cnidae. Each of these capsules is loaded with a coiled spiny thread that can be violently fired out at passing prey. As if being skewered by the extended thread wasn’t enough of an inconvenience, the prey is then promptly poisoned by the toxic secretions covering the spines. Paralysis, pain and a fair amount of bleeding (due to enzymatically inhibited blood
clotting) round off a true horror movie scene. So much for being harmless. So within its opening chapters the biology textbook has already made you think twice about swimming near a coral reef. A few chapters on and you’ll become acquainted with the worms. And when it comes to the worms, there is no shortage of gruesome candidates to capture the imagination. Blood flukes are among the more unpleasant culprits, capable of burrowing through your skin and entering the blood stream. Here, they can digest 400,000 red blood cells per hour - quite an appetite for a microscopic being. Of all the worms though, it is the annelids who take the gold medal when it comes to the realm of the sinister. Friendly neighbourhood earthworms are nothing to worry about, but the same cannot be said of their close relatives the leeches - possibly the most repulsive creatures in existence. Plentiful in aquatic habitats around the world, leeches are notorious for their appetite for human blood. Using their three jaws, each containing as many as 120 teeth, they are able to consume five times their own weight in blood. Once dinner’s over, the resulting triangular bite marks can bleed for up to ten hours due to the presence of natural anticoagulants. Something to ponder next time you go for a walk down by the local river. There is one group of creatures however, whose reputation exceeds all others in terms of spine chilling terror: the arachnids. With spiders, scorpions, and mites amongst their numbers, the arachnids are the horror movie heavyweights, and are never far from the thoughts of screenplay writers.
Using their three jaws, each “ containing as many as 120 teeth,
leeches are able to consume five times their own weight in blood” Despite their array of menacing features, from the poisonous telsonic sting of scorpions to the paralysis-inducing fangs of spiders, it’s the more subtle feeding habits of the arachnids that are the most blood curdling. Although almost all of the group are carnivores, not a single one is capable of taking in solid food. Instead, digestive enzymes are excreted from the mouth and food is chewed by external jaws until the liquid product can be sucked back in again. Mites and
Ban g! sn
sn ea k s
words: Edward Parker
ticks meanwhile, solve this problem by biting through the skin of a host and inserting their entire head, or hypostome, into the wound. By opening their barbed jaws, the head is anchored firmly into the skin so securely that any attempt to remove the embedded parasite will result in the head being torn off and left in place.
By opening their barbed jaws, “the mite’s head is anchored
into the skin so securely that any attempt to remove the embedded parasite will result in the head being torn off ”
So in the realm of wining and dining, the world has a plentiful array of gruesome creatures that would provide enough material for hours of sci-fi entertainment (although somehow, I can’t imagine ‘Lord of the Endoparasitic Worms’ being much of a hit). Meanwhile, in the romance department, the quirkier creatures of our planet are equally lacking in grace and manners. In fact, you have to feel pretty sorry for the little blighters - to say that creepy-crawlies don’t exactly go in for the Hugh Grant-style, charming affair with a big kiss finale would be something of an understatement. Take spiders, for instance. When these budding Romeos aren’t caught up with their busy schedule of paralysing and liquefying food, they are not exactly ones for a candlelit courtship, with romance more closely resembling a nightmarish ordeal. To start with, the exuberant young males are about a tenth of the size of their prospective mates - making reproduction not so much a tale of love but of survival, as the male sets about trying to convince the female not to eat it. Courtship often involves an odd ritual of dances and displays
a pe ek a t the freakier
of e d si
re u t na
before the male leaves his sperm deposit in a bag and makes a run for it, more often than not failing to escape an unpleasant demise at the hands of his hungry lover. I can’t imagine scenes like this having people flocking to the cinemas - although having said that, I might well consider paying to see Hugh Grant dancing in an attempt to woo a love interest the size of an elephant, before promptly being eaten by her. Admittedly, not all creatures go in for such a risky reproductive strategy, but the spiders aren’t alone when it comes to hazardous romance. A group of worms belonging to the phylum Acanthocephala
employ a strategy in which the male “cements shut” the female reproductive system once he has completed his duty, while the act of “penis fencing” in flatworms leaves little to the imagination. You also have to feel sorry for the worm specie that opts for the equally distasteful skewering of the body wall during “hypodermic impregnation”. Yet, after all of these monsters, we have only scratched the surface. Those without a mention include the starfish that extrude their entire stomach through their mouths in order to digest prey that are too large to swallow; the parasitic wasp larvae that eat their live hosts from the inside out or the hookworms that burrow in through our toes and work their way up to settle in our digestive tract. The truth is, it’s a weird and wonderful world. It may be unflattering at times, and frightful at others, but it can never fail to excite the imagination. This is a world to be explored, to be appreciated, and to be inspired by.
The best excuse for doing Ecology
by Lucy Goodman
hile university is all well and good, it can sometimes feel a bit too much like hard work. So in my second year W I decided to join a tree climbing expedition to Trinidad. As a biologist specialising in Zoology and Ecology at Oxford, I was keen to take my studies out of the lecture theatre - fieldwork being an essential component of both disciplines.
Trinidad is an island with a circumference just larger than that of the M25, better known in concordance with its sister island Tobago. T&T are perched on the southern end of the Caribbean, although Trinidad is geologically part of South America. As a result Trinidad has huge natural resources and is also one of the few places in the world to have more biodiversity than expected. It also has another sort of wealth - namely oil, sharing Venezuela’s rich reserves in the Gulf of Paria. This has caused rapid economic growth, bringing with it the destruction of Trinidad’s primary rainforest at a rate faster than any other in the world. For this reason, Trinidad, in conjunction with the University of Oxford, has been awarded a ‘UK Darwin Initiative grant’ to catalogue and conserve Trinidad’s flora before it is destroyed. The Darwin Initiative face a real challenge in how to collect canopy epiphytes (plants that grow in trees, such as orchids), and while they have come up with some innovative ideas, a scientific method has yet to be developed. This is why we, a group of five students, volunteered to climb into the canopy to collect them. Our first problem as a group was that we needed to learn a safe technique for tree climbing with which the University, and our mothers, would be satisfied. As a result we teamed up with the Basic Canopy Access group, who regularly teach biologists and BBC wildlife cameramen to climb safely into the canopy. Their technique involves moving along a vertical axis up and down the main stem of the tree. However, we had slightly different needs, as we wanted to collect epiphytes that often grow on the edge of the canopy. In order to access them we had to invalidate the safety of the technique, swinging out and gripping branches between our legs, before using a pole with a gardening saw strapped to the end to cut down the orchid or bromeliad that we were after. Precariousness aside, this turned out to be highly successful, and also rather fun, allowing one member of the expedition - Theresa Meacham - to retrieve the most epiphytes ever collected from one tree. There was the odd perilous moment (sawing open a killer wasp nest for one), but any danger could usually be avoided by a very rapid descent. The exercise was not without its problems, not least having to use a car with a regularly exploding radiator. We were prohibited from climbing in the rain - pretty tough in a rainforest during the wet season. This restriction came about following an accident amongst a Glaswegian group of climbers, whose top anchor failed in rainfall due to the weight of water in the branch. One of the climbers fell 85 feet, amazingly only scratching his finger. Less fortunate was the leader of the expedition who broke his fall and ended up with a broken leg. However, the danger and the frustration of fieldwork was more than compensated by the unique experience of being suspended alone in the canopy with a mind-blowing view over the rainforest. Immensely rewarding too was returning home in the knowledge that all the work we had put in, and the data we collected, will genuinely contribute to the development and conservation of Trinidad and its truly exceptional wildlife.
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Plikely than not to intermingle with caffeine on a daily basis. The
robability tells us that your blood, or anyone else’s, is more
prevalence of the substance could class its consumption as a global pandemic. Apart from those that our bodies produce naturally, no other mind-altering chemical finds itself inside a human brain as much as caffeine does. At as little as 2 grams caffeine can hospitalize
of the role of cigarettes. Few people who shy away from caffeine warm to cigarettes, and the statistical correlation was much better explained by smoking than caffeine. Nevertheless, journals continue to publish papers exposing caffeine’s toxicity, urging the public to see that caffeine belongs in beakers in laboratories rather than cafetières in coffee shops.
Coffee houses arrived in Britain in 1650, and were nicknamed “Penny Universities” – due both to the high prices paid for coffee, as well as the high social standing of their customers. However, the Government began to see coffee houses as a threat, due to the amount of political conversation taking place inside. In 1675 the Government announced that all coffee houses were to be closed for good. This was greeted with such public outcry that the ban was lifted after just eleven days. Elsewhere in the world, the threat of political uprising was also a concern. Ottoman coffee house proprietors found themselves subject to harsh punishments, which included being sewn in a leather bag and thrown in the Istanbul Strait.
you, yet 90% of Americans consume over a quarter of this dose every day. Europeans expose themselves even more. The Spanish and the French even consider the American intake weak, as testified by their respective use of the terms ‘Café Americano’ and ‘Café Americain’ to mean ‘diluted coffee’. This must be a new phenomenon brought about by the decadent fashion of the modern world, right? Eight millennia of consumption prove this wrong. In 1911 the US government took Coca-Cola to court with the accusation of its drink being ‘injurious to health’. Criticism of the drug has cropped up regularly ever since, with exponential rise in the midseventies when proven links with heart disease and bladder cancer were published in a number of papers. Coca-cola won its case, and the seventies’ cynical spurt was quashed by the scientists’ ignorance
Spider webs spun under the influence. A 2004 literature review of caffeine withdrawal in the US scrutinised 57 experimental and 9 survey studies. It not only confirmed addictive qualities but outlined its range of withdrawal symptoms: “headache, fatigue, decreased energy, decreased alertness/attentiveness, drowsiness, decreased well-being, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability and muzzy/
If you yelled for 8 years, 7 months and 6 days, you would
have produced just enough sound energy to heat up one
cup of coffee
fogginess”. Impressive? A cup each day is enough to cause dependency and upping the dose can invoke dependence after only a week of exposure. The symptoms surface as early as 12 hours after abstinence, peaking at 20 to 51 hours. The chemical strength of the withdrawal in the brain is so strong that the review singles it out as the main player of habitual use. The potency of its influence even goes as far as affecting taste preference of flavours paired with caffeine, alluding to its role in consumer choice. Does this mean that most of us are drug addicts? Perhaps this is so, but how destructive is the caffeine dependency? After all, caffeine has been viewed as a panacea, not just a poison, from the beginning of its existence. New research leads us to believe that it may not be unfounded to hold onto this positive view of caffeine. Through measuring brain activity with modern techniques such as quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the nature and localisation of brain activity under the influence of caffeine can be discerned. By comparison to normal activity, a study in Brazil using qEEG showed that brain dynamics are altered by caffeine in ways that seem to increase information-processing speed. Furthermore, research in Austria using fMRI showed that levels of activation with caffeine were greatest in parts of the prefrontal lobe, at the front of the brain where “executive memory, attention, concentration, planning and
William “ James postulated we could be
missing important insights
discovery could be better
under the influence
words: Lobar Ostrich
monitoring” reside. The drug, no doubt, is mind-altering, but it would seem positively so. These observations are however purely observational— inferences of brain function from its activity, without behavioural proof. To use the analogy of motoring, we have seen what the novel petrol does to the engine, but not how the treated engine affects the performance of the car. If indeed caffeine has properties comparable to a mythical elixir of life — or more accurately, wisdom — our understanding of drugs will morph into something very curious. The psychologist William James, who
experimented with nitrous oxide over a century ago, posed the query of whether our normal state of consciousness is best suited to our understanding of the world. He deemed that it was possible that the evolutionary route that our brains undertook built a consciousness most adapted to survival and reproduction, but not necessarily for analytical thinking. He reached this conclusion through his discovery of the simple mechanism necessary for changing our consciousness: natural biochemistry. In effect, he postulated that we could be missing important insights because of sobriety, and that scientific discovery could be better served by practicing it under the influence. The notion is ‘far-out’ and maddeningly naughty, but if it were proven that the EEG and fMRI observations have actual perceptual and behavioural influence, then we would have to admit that already we have been intoxicated throughout all of scientific discovery. After all, most of us have our hearts busily pumping caffeine to our heads right now. What insights are we missing by keeping free of stronger drugs? We are all too familiar with the wisdom that narcotic-users advocate themselves to posses whilst ‘high’. However, the perils are much beyond the reach of caffeine to warrant a true parallel. Indeed much of the dangers of caffeine could be owed to its combination with stronger drugs. A US study on the consequences of combining cocaine with caffeine, using dogs as a model, shed light on some striking synergistic effects. When administering caffeine, followed by cocaine, the
concentration of cocaine in the blood lasted longer, its effect on increasing resistance in blood vessels was significantly heightened, and its effect of diminishing maximal blood flow was made more potent. The deadly cocktail could lead to angina, heart attacks and sudden death, especially in a person with coronary heart disease. We are left with little wonder why Coca-Cola, which used to list cocaine as an ingredient and has always contained caffeine, was sued by the US government. The effects of caffeine when combined with other drugs may be unnerving, but its prevalence from ancient times until today is a testimony to its moderate nature. As an addiction there is little threat when compared to the withdrawal experienced by opiate addicts. One only has to read a diary of a Victorian recovering from opium, or enter a rehabilitation centre to discover the torture of heroin recovery. Perhaps William James has gone too far in suggesting drugging up our scientists, but it’s certainly untrue to say that scientists do not use caffeine as an aid to endure the long lab hours. Caffeine is neither poison nor panacea, rather it is a moderate in-between that is useful as a drug template for addiction study, having arguably the most rigorously and fully characterised withdrawal effects of any other drug. In this light, it is a hero to save us from much greater harm.
Tsuch thing as absolute truth — un-
he truth of the matter is, there’s no
less you subscribe to spiritual ideology, that is, but that’s a whole new boiling vessel of aquatic vertebrates.
As scientists, we have developed a notion of truth based on the reasoning that we can rely on our previous experience to back up what we believe to be true. Following this reasoning, things can be true to a greater or lesser extent, which we describe numerically using confidence intervals. These are the backbone of the scientific method, the rock on which every piece of science must stand to be respected. It is why we can state with certainty many of the laws that govern our surroundings. When the torch of enquiry shines their way, they hold true. In physics, it is the glamorous theories that grab all the attention: Gravity, Relativity, Quantum Theory and so on. And no wonder; Theorising is the work of genius, the creative art that changes the world with nothing more than human grey matter. Mere experiment, by comparison, presents a much less appetising picture. The formation of novel concepts, on the other hand, is exciting and grips inquisitive human minds. In a discipline which has been complex and intangible since its birth, the theorists are the superstars. This is not so in science as a whole. Sequencing genomes and synthesizing complex molecules are both experimental pursuits at the leading edge of the public
face of their respective disciplines. This is, then, a phenomenon unique to physics. In some senses, this is a great strength. What other field can boast the most iconic genius of modern times?
Theorising is “ the work of genius,
the creative art that changes the world with nothing more than
human grey matter
On the other hand, it may also be a barrier to progress. In recent years, an unaccountably large number of physicists have been working on string theory, which although apparently beautiful (and I happily admit I have no understanding of the details), has not yet stood up to empirical testing. So what value does it have? It is certainly not yielding any tangible benefits to mankind at the moment, though this is true of vast swathes of scientific research. We surely cannot claim it furthers our understanding of the universe, as no group has yet proposed a viable test of its legitimacy. Scientists are human beings. They are a prone to excitement and imagination; many a young physicist dreams of Swedish award ceremonies. When presented with a new concept, the inquisitive mind that any talented scientist possesses naturally
uses it as a basis for novel creation and interpretation. In this way, we are dreaming up theoretical possibilities or experiments long before they become practical. The pace of technology is just too slow for us: we want that breakthrough tomorrow! Because of our inherent optimism, scientists will always be promising fusion power plants and quantum computers despite the unpredictable nature of technological progress. Whilst we can recognise what a theory might allow for, we are still far from being able to predict what may be invented in the future ahead of time (until somebody gets that time machine sorted, of course.) For as long as this remains true, anybody serious about scientific ideology should have their feet firmly on the ground and their minds wide open. It might sound cynical, but we are first and foremost empiricists, and shouldn’t trust those blue-sky predictions.
Graduate Careers in Accounts Actuarial Information Systems
www.standardlife.com On-line applications now being accepted.
The key to successâ€Ś
words: Mike Strahlman
Is it a bird?! Is it a plane?! It’s…you?! Bang! tackles the science of Superman.
Perhaps we’re missing the point. In the 1960s, Superman’s powers were re-attributed to not only the gravity variation, but also growing up under our yellow sun – as opposed to the red sun of his home planet. This, obviously, is his source of power. How so? Light is the source of all life, including super-human. It can provide plants with energy, supplying the natural food chain, and give Superman the natural ability to propel himself through the air with no apparent energy source – a man-sized, uber-efficient solar cell.
ver wondered about flying like Superman? I will be the first to admit I’ve often fantasized about soaring through the E atmosphere. And I will hopefully not be the first to tell you that you just simply can’t. FACT.
Back up. Superman, first appearing in Comics circa 1938, hasn’t always been able to fly. In fact, this is the real reason for the debate around producing a scientific explanation of his tremendous feats. In 1939 the creators, Siegal and Shuster, explained Superman’s powers as, “[He] came to Earth from the planet Krypton, whose inhabitants had evolved after millions of years, to physical perfection. The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performances of miraculous feats of strength.” Essentially, Siegel and Shuster pin his abilities down to two factors – he is an alien, and his home planet has a much greater gravitational pull than ours. Working from this, let us begin to rationalize. The alien idea, I cannot comment on - who am I to quell your dreams on E.T. existence? Gravity, however, is a different story.
Of course, personally, I’m not too discouraged. Despite my flattened romantic idea of super-human strength indigenous to earthlings, there is an alternative. Zero-G, based in Las Vegas (of course), is the first and only FAA-approved provider of commercial weightless flights. The famous Professor Stephen Hawking flew weightless on 26th April 2007. The experience, aboard a modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft, consists of a 90-minute flight, during which parabolic manoeuves are performed, taking the jet on a flight path allowing passengers to experience Martian, Lunar and zero gravity. The cost to be Superman? A mere $3375. Check it out at www.GoZeroG.com.
James Kakalios of the University of Minnesota uses Superman as a teaching tool to illustrate the effects of planetary size and gravitational pull – his students calculate that Krypton would be six times the size of Earth. The catch is it must be made of the unstable, superdense core of neutron stars! Although highly unlikely, it would have contributed to Krypton’s untimely demise and so is consistent with the story.
words: Mike Strahlman
Then again, if you do assume that his home exists, and that he made it across the galaxy (escaping a gravitational pull of roughly 1000 times that of Earth, requiring an escape velocity of over twenty million miles per hour!), then it would be entirely reasonable to assume he would be super strong and fast – “unburdened by the vastly weaker gravity of Earth” say Siegel and Shuster (Superman #58)… Then again, his bones and muscles would have to be 1000 times stronger and be able to suffer the jointwear induce by super-speeds. Paradoxical. Let’s think about the other traits – super hearing? Sure, if he had many more receptor cells in his ears, and could purposely filter out any superfluous noise – again, unlikely, but possible. Vision – x-ray and thermal? Well, some animals and insects on Earth can see wavelengths we can’t – but x-ray? Once again, unlikely but possible.
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Whilst the City is still reeling from the US sub-prime mortgages ‘dodgy debt’ debacle and investment bankers everywhere are fearing their next phone call may be their last, Robert Jones took a trip to see investment firm Winton Capital Management, who seem to be strangely at ease. e’ve done very well actually, we’re up 11% this year.” smiles Matthew, a principal scientist at Winton. You may ask what “W science has to do with investment, but sitting here in Winton’s offices
at the Oxford Science Park I get the feeling I’m not in a typical investment firm. For starters, the guy sitting on the other side of the desk from me is wearing a pair of blue jeans; “There are lots of people even scruffier than me!” he smiles, glancing up to his whiteboard filled with mathematical equations. What’s more, we’re sitting in an office with curvy glass walls sixty miles from London, surrounded by companies working in science-based fields ranging from drug discovery to ultrasonic process chemistry. This all sounds very intriguing but how can an office full of jean wearing scientists make money for their investors? Well, for these guys it’s all about the stats. “Simply put, we use advanced statistical techniques to gamble on the world’s financial markets…which is great fun,” Matthew says enthusiastically. “We don’t make money by coming in, reading the Financial Times in the morning and deciding that we think the price of gold is going up! We do it by using detailed statistical analysis to identify relationships in the markets that we then use as a basis for investment.”
Winton Capital Management is the second biggest ‘CTA’* hedge fund in Europe.
Matthew explains, “We hire researchers who pretty much get shut in a room for two years with a couple of computers and a whole load of data. So, for example, it might be some weather data and we could say that we’ve got a hypothesis that the air temperature in London affects the stock market. If by looking at the data they can test and prove our hypothesis we can then go on to trade that idea.” Matthew uses the analogy of a casino owner, “We know it is nearly impossible to predict what will happen on any one day, so we don’t try to. Instead we take thousands of small bets in markets all over the world and provided we are right 52% of the time, we can make lots of money for our clients. If we were right only 50% of the time then the people who say that the markets are completely random would be correct and we wouldn’t be able to make any money at all!”
Winton manages US$10bn
So why the Oxford Science Park? “Several reasons: Number one, our researchers hold postgraduate degrees in physics, maths, statistics, computer science, economics, operational research… the list goes on. I’m sure we’ve even got a chemist somewhere around here! With the kind of people we employ we feel that the OSP is the right environment for them to produce high-quality work. The thing that makes us money is our employees having deep thoughts, and they can do that here. Second, our managing director was born in Oxford and many of our employees live in the local area.
Third, we really believe in the proper use of statistics not just in the investment world but in all areas of life. That’s why we enjoy being at the park, surrounded as we are, by other companies employing scientists and using quantitative, science-based skills.” It doesn’t take a PhD to work out Oxford is a good location for any company that wants to attract brains. It’s often said that there are twenty thousand PhDs within twenty miles of the city. Whilst that figure may be an exaggeration, there is definitely something in the concept. It’s no wonder the area is attractive for companies looking to employ highly skilled workers.
Winton’s research data teams store 2 billion options price statistics on 3,000 single stock options.
So far it all sounds very academic to me. I ask if working for Winton is like doing a PhD. Matthew replies, “We function to manage money and make a profit for our clients; we don’t function to write papers. So in that sense we are actually quite different, but in the day to day environment it is very similar to a university department.” Hence the blue jeans!
Winton has calculated 125 million calculations on options on futures so far.
I decide it’s time to meet one of these researchers who work their magic to produce money from weather data and I’m taken upstairs to Winton’s second floor in the Magdalen Centre to meet Dan. Dan has been a researcher at Winton for two years and has a DPhil from Oxford. I ask him how working at Winton compares to the academic world. “Doing this kind of work allows you to see the impact and value of your work much quicker.” he says. “You can be trading a system you have created in three to six months, whereas, you could argue that for most people doing PhD research; they never see the fruits of their labour.”
* A Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) is a particular type of hedge fund which specialises in trading futures contracts.
Dan’s background is typical of a number of researchers at Winton. He studied Mathematical Statistics and Operational Research at Exeter University before doing an MSc in Applied Statistics at Lincoln College. He then spent a year working as an actuary before returning to Oxford to do a DPhil in the same subject looking at pattern recognition in large data sets. “You work in small teams, typically just you and a supervisor, so you’re pretty much left to get on with it.” he says, describing Winton’s research structure. “You’re not monitored hour by hour, day by day; it’s more kind of quarter to quarter. When I joined I was pretty much told to investigate US equities and that was it!”
Using proprietary technology and specialised data modelling principles Winton’s researchers can reduce the running time for database queries from 24 hours to just a few minutes.
The relaxed, collegiate atmosphere that Dan describes belies Winton’s track record; returning an average of over 20% a year for their investors over the last five years. With these returns, Winton has quickly grown into one of the most successful investment managers in their industry since their inception ten years ago.
Winton have collected price data from over 160 markets going back to 1949.
where Winton will be in the next ten. “Not so long ago fund management was run by fat old men in red braces.” Matthew says smiling ruefully. “They made their decisions over long lunches and glasses of red wine. And I should know because I worked for a company like that before Winton! We want to revolutionise the investment world and wake up the pensions industry who, in our opinion, don’t look too clever. ‘Where will we be in 10 years time?’ My hope would be that we’ll have a sizable office in Oxford with hundreds of research employees diligently working to improve our forecasting techniques.” Judging by their success so far, it’s clear that the combination of blue jeans, curvy walls, top brains, PhD style research and some clever maths is working - and they’ve certainly got ambition to go with it. Just before I leave, I ask Matthew why no one in the office seems agitated or even interested in the crisis going on in the financial markets at the moment. “Our investment decisions are taken by our mathematical algorithms which are totally rational.” he replies. “We tend to do quite well when we’re going in every day being really, really rational and everyone else is running around like headless chickens!” … so forget your red braces – it’s jeans all the way. Winton is seeking exceptional graduate and postgraduate candidates with a scientific or technical background to join their research teams in west London and at the Oxford Science Park. If you are interested in finding out more about Winton Capital please contact Christopher Read at firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew has been at Winton longer than most, starting back in 2000. “When I joined there were about twelve people working at the company, we now have about one hundred and fifty. More than half of those are researchers, and over forty of them are in Oxford, the other researchers being based in Hammersmith, West London.” With such quick growth over the past ten years I want to know
Ask a Lecturer ! We quizzed Oxford’s top lecturers on some of the most pressing issues in science today. If you’ve got a question that you’re not yet smart enough to work out the answer for, email it to email@example.com.
What would fire look like in space? Things burn because they react with oxygen, and therefore fire is common on Earth where the atmosphere contains loads of the stuff. This is actually a rather recent effect, and were you to travel back in time over two or three billion years, you wouldn’t find any oxygen at all. Only once ocean bacteria started producing oxygen did the gas begin to bubble up out of the sea, start rusting the iron deposits on the surface of the planet and kick-start the development of oxygen breathing animals like us. It also made fire possible. Once you go to space, it’s a different story. No oxygen, so no fire. However, spacecraft often contain oxygen supplies and this led, ten years ago, to a potentially dangerous fire on the Mir space station. Forty years ago it was the oxygen-rich atmosphere in Apollo 1 that fuelled the inferno which killed the entire crew, though the accident occurred at Cape Canaveral, not in space.
However, there’s another way to get things to burn, and that’s by nuclear fusion. A hydrogen bomb needs no oxygen at all, and the Sun works by the same principle. Due to the immense pressures of gravity, the Sun is a giant nuclear fireball, producing simply stunning quantities of energy, at a rate about thirty million million times what we produce on Earth, even though we’re burning fossil fuels as fast as we can. Even though it doesn’t feel like it in October Oxford, the Sun’s warming rays are all that are keeping us from a freezing destruction in the icy wastes of deep space. Life on Earth is basically sustained by fire in space. - Prof Stephen Blundell, Department of Physics
Does power-napping work? It’s official: power napping does work! Harvard Psychologist Robert Stickgold has published several studies on that subject in reputable, peer reviewed journals, so it must be true (well, as close to true as anything gets in psychology). In an experiment published in 2002, Stickgold tired his experimental subjects out in a tedious task that required them to stare at horizontal and vertical bars for hours on end. Unsurprisingly they got tired, and after a while struggled when asked to tell vertical bars from not quite so vertical ones. Equally unsurprisingly, if the subjects were allowed to close their eyes for a while and take a catnap, they coped better. So far, so unsurprising. There are, however, potentially important lessons for the Oxford student and professor in Stickgold’s research. For example, Stickgold found that the subjects allowed to nap for a full hour benefited much more than those who were allowed only 20 minutes. Is it a coincidence
that a typical lecture or tutorial is exactly one hour long? The lesson is clear: if you are tired out by the tedium of your studies, make sure you benefit maximally from the next lecture or tutorial by falling asleep right at the start of it, and hope that the lecturer will appreciate the scientifically proven benefit of letting you sleep through to the end. Another study by Stickgold and colleagues looked at whether sleep could improve motor skills, and found that, if you want to improve your co-ordination, then sadly a little cat-nap is of little use. It’s during the last two hours of a proper night’s sleep that most of the motor skills learned during the previous day are consolidated. So if you are trying for Blues, the catnap during the lecture won’t cut it, there is no substitute for an early night. - Dr Jan Schnupp, Department of Neuroscience
Do daily vitamin supplements actually make any difference to a student’s health?
The old adage of more is better is NOT the case for vitamins when taken as a supplement. Popping a vitamin pill each day will not dramatically improve your health (unless you have been living on a diet of only bread (or beer) and water for weeks on end!). There is a common belief that some vitamins can prevent illness, for example taking Vitamin C will stop you getting a cold. Unfortunately the evidence for this is largely unsubstantiated, what may happen is that the severity and duration of the cold is reduced, but it won’t be prevented. Vitamin deficiency in healthy adults eating a variety of foods occurs very rarely and all the vitamins (in amounts needed to maintain good health) can be obtained from foods. Remember when your mother
told you to eat your fruit and vegetables? Well, she knew best. A lot of the vitamins required for good health are found in fruit and vegetables. So what will a daily vitamin supplement do for your health if you currently eat a variety of foods? Not a lot! If anything, the colour of your urine will change, as you will be excreting the vitamins that your body cannot store. Essentially you will make some very expensive urine and this may result in stress on your bank account as you essentially pee your money down the drain. So like many things in life, moderation is the key, a daily vitamin supplement is not! - Dr Leanne Hodson, Oxford Centre for Diabetes
Bang! Science Magazine is Oxford's graphically-gorgeous science magazine. Produced by members of the University of Oxford, Bang! aims to mak...
Published on Nov 9, 2007
Bang! Science Magazine is Oxford's graphically-gorgeous science magazine. Produced by members of the University of Oxford, Bang! aims to mak...