Trinity Term 2020
Oxford Scientist Oxford Universityâ€™s independent, student-produced science magazine.
HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT...
A CAREER AS A PATENT ATTORNEY?
An intellectually challenging and rewarding career option
What Does It Involve? Training as a Patent Attorney is a career path that will enable you to combine your understanding of science with legal expertise. You will leave the lab environment yet remain at the cutting edge of science and technology, applying your knowledge and skill in a commercial context. You will help to protect intellectual property assets and grow businesses.
Jenny Soderman MChem in Chemistry University of Oxford (2018)
Sound Interesting? J A Kemp is a leading firm of UK and European Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys with offices in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and Munich.
www.jakemp.com/careers Hiro Shimazaki MBiochem in Biochemistry University of Oxford (2018)
Salty Water and Sinking Islands Taras Bains
Breaking Through the Seafloor Matthew Sutton
Darkness Brought to Light Nicole Hasler
Fight or Flight? The Climate Change Dilemma Louis Rush
Out of This World in 40 Winks Sian Wilcox
A History of Breakthroughs in Chemistry Penny Streatfeild
Interstellar Architecture James Rainey
The Nature of Scientific Breakthroughs Alicia Fallows
Space Tourism and Beyond Atreyi Chakrabarty
A Glitch in the Admissions Process Maria Violaris
“Alexa, why are we so obsessed with AI?” Shakira Mahadeva
The Research Reproducibility Crisis Conan O’Brien
Artificial Intelligence: Expanding Musical Dimensions Isra Hasnain
Breaking Through to the Sceptics Victoria Atkinson
Wires and Nerves Maya Misra
In Search of Sleep Laura Steel
Autism and Ancient Oceans Brooke Johnson
Above Dominika Syska
Below Ishbel Jamieson
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From the Editor
reakthroughs have a remarkable power to capture the imagination. In an era of change and uncertainty, humanity is reckoning with the greatest challenges it has ever faced. To save our home, we need to muster a belief in science even amongst the fiercest of sceptics. But there are certainly plenty more questions unanswered than answered. What defines a breakthrough? Are ‘breakthroughs’ in themselves are a fallacy, covering the tracks of long months and years of research? When you hear the word ‘breakthrough’, what do you think of?
you to visit our website, oxsci.org, for more ingenuity and creativity. But this outpouring of scientific writing was not a surprise. After all, this is the city where scientists and changemakers gather, where difficult questions are posed and answered, and where Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai met just a few weeks ago. There are few places more apt to consider breakthroughs of the past, present and future. However, the world has changed quite considerably since we first started creating this publication – and universities have since shut their doors to students for the foreseeable future. This issue comes to you from the bedrooms and dining tables of the Oxford Scientist team, who have worked tirelessly to bring you the very best of science writing and illustration from Oxford University. It has been an utter joy to work with them on our Breakthrough issue, even in these difficult times, and I am deeply thankful to everyone who has contributed to the magazine.
With these prompts, students shared their favourite and most important research, from artificial intelligence to climate change to neuroscience. Some took the idea more literally, exploring the science of breaking through the Earth’s crust or through the atmosphere into outer space. Others shared tales of challenging assumptions and breaking through stereotypes, because as far as we have come, there are still glass ceilings and barriers I hope that you too will take comfort in the to break down across gender, race, disability inspirational imagination and talent within and neurodiversity. these pages, and know that there are many more breakthroughs to come. Please enjoy, There were far too many articles to fit in a and stay safe. single magazine, and as such, I’d encourage Sophie Littlewood, Editor-in-Chief
Editor-in-Chief Sophie Littlewood
Creative Director Alice Bradbury
Print Editor Gloria Gao
Creative Team Penny Streatfeild Alicia Hayden
Web Editor Phoebe Ashley-Norman News Editor Linus Milinski Sub-Editors Angus Barrett Bianca Pasca Bryan Cheng Lonie Sebagh Ma. Francesca Santiago Seren Ford Suat Baris Tuncay
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Marketing Team Nia Evans Effie Webb Hannah Crofts
Business Team Betty Lung Celinie Nguyen
Managing Director Hung-Jen Wu
Schools Coordinator Phoebe Ashley-Norman Cover Joy Wang
Chairperson Christopher Sinnott
Company Secretary Annabel Bainbridge Finance Director Maggie Wang
Non-Executive Director Angus Brown Directors Daanial Chaudhry Serena Parekh Marina Smith Oscar Baker India Barrett Katie Birnie
Legal Director Annie Fan Technical Director Antonia Siu Copyright © The Oxford Scientist 2020 5
Darkness brought to light 6
ho would have thought a dark, blurry image could hold so much significance? Rarely does a picture give rise to as much excitement as the one of a glowing orange ring surrounding a dark centre released early last year. The centre of the ring of light contains an object nobody had ever laid eyes on before: a black hole. Black holes are massive, dense regions of space that form when a star more than thirty times the mass of the sun collapses. When these stars collapse, they have such high gravity that their cores are compressed into a single point called a singularity. The gravity of singularities is so strong that black holes pull all light and matter towards them, enshrouding themselves in clouds of dust and gas and making them so far invisible. Many astronomers believed imaging black holes to be impossible, relying on the gravitational waves emitted by two black holes colliding to reveal them instead. Last year, however, work from the past 12 years finally bore fruit when scientists from around the world announced they had produced the first-ever image of a black hole, called M87*. M87* is located in the Messier 87 galaxy, which (despite being over 50 million light years away) is considered relatively close to Earth. More importantly, it is around 6.5 billion times larger than the Sun, making it what is known as a supermassive black hole. When early attempts to image a nearby black hole stumbled upon M87*, its size made it an attractive candidate for imaging, and the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) consortium was born. The consortium consists of around 200 scientists around the world who used eight telescopes located from Arizona to the Antarctic to collect data. Technological developments of the last decades were key to the imaging of M87*. A technique called verylong-baseline interferometry (VLBI) allowed data from widely spaced telescopes to be combined to simulate one single large telescope. This enables faraway objects to be imaged in much finer detail. Additionally, developments in antennas and oth-
er telescope components allowed scientists to capture the radiation released by the swirling clouds of gas surrounding the black hole. In April 2017, the eight observatories involved collected readings over the course of a week, with exceptionally good weather contributing to the quality of the data. The EHT scientists then spent the next two years evaluating and analysing, with four teams working independently of each other and with separate methods to avoid influencing each other’s results. When the teams came together to compare, they had generated four similar images, which were then collated into one. At this point, technological advances failed them—the data, which was stored on almost half a ton of hard disks, was too much for any web information system to handle. It had to be physically flown to a lab at Harvard for the final evaluation to take place. The image revealed may look unspectacular to some. For astrophysicists, however, it represents not only visual evidence for the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, but also an affirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. According to general relativity, the shadow of a black hole should be perfectly round. The image of M87* hits relatively close to the mark, being just 10% off a perfectly round shadow. The EHT consortium plans to reduce that margin by sharpening the images collected in their next round of observations, set to begin in 2020. Ultimately, they dream of collecting data from space which would bring more black holes into range and enable them to generate moving images of black holes sucking in the matter around them. Rather than being the culmination of the project, this is just the beginning of a quest to bring more of our Universe’s darkness into the light.
Above Dominika Syska
“Many astronomers believed imaging black holes to be impossible”
Nicole Hasler is a Medicine undergraduate at Lincoln College.
Out of this world in 40 winks Could human hibernation be the answer to longdistance space travel?
umans travelling to distant planets in a hibernation-like state may sound like a Sci-Fi movie trope, but recent breakthroughs suggest that human hibernation may be more science than fiction. Experts from around the world have discovered that torpor, a state of suppressed metabolism that occurs during hibernation, can be synthetically induced in humans through the use of certain drugs. This state of induced torpor already has biomedical applications as explained by Oxford University’s Prof. Vlad Vyazovskiy, ‘controlled hypothermia and metabolism are already widely used in clinical practice, such as during cardiac surgery and to protect tissues from damage when blood flow is reduced, such as after a stroke.’ Prof. Vyazovskiy is one of a number of scientists enlisted by the European Space Agency to take part in an international collaborative project, investigating the protective
effects of torpor and whether torpor can be used to facilitate long-distance space travel. Until now, spaceflight has been limited by the serious health effects associated with long-term exposure to the hostile environment of space. For example, prolonged weightlessness due to anti-gravity may sound like fun but it also leads to muscle wasting and bone deterioration. In addition, the amount of ionising radiation in space is ten times of that on Earth; consequently, exposure for long periods would result in tissue damage and increased risk of cancer. Moreover, space travel increases the risk of blood clots and subsequent cell death due to lack of oxygen. It is not surprising, therefore, that humans have not managed to venture further than the Moon.
sue damage, and bone deterioration. Furthermore, the cell cycle, the process by which a cell duplicates its DNA and divides in two, is inhibited, which has been shown to limit the damaging effects of radiation. Heart rate and oxygen consumption are also reduced, decreasing the likelihood of blood clots and increasing the body’s ability to withstand low oxygen levels. It is hoped that ‘synthetic torpor could protect astronauts from space-related health hazards’ explained Dr. Matthew Regan, a hibernation researcher from the University of Wisconsin. Further research is being conducted to determine the long-term health effects of torpor and whether this state can be maintained for the long periods of time required for space travel. For example, recent studies have reported that torpor can be induced in humans for up to 14 days without complications. Although this is a step in the right direction, humans would need to hibernate for up to 140 days just to travel to Mars, demonstrating that more research is required before torpor becomes a feasible solution to long-distance space travel. Despite this work being in its early stages, researchers are optimistic about the utility of torpor, ‘it’s a great research area, and we think this technology will really be enabling for finally getting us out of low earth orbit’ said Dr. John Bradford, an aerospace engineer and the President of SpaceWorks. Long-distance space travel becoming a reality is essential for future scientific breakthroughs. It will allow us to explore further than ever before, therefore developing our understanding of the universe and allowing for human civilisations beyond Earth. This may become crucial for the continued survival of our species as summarised by Sci-Fi author Larry Niven ‘The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program’.
ortunately, hibernating species are protected from these adverse Sian Wilcox is studying for a PhD in effects. During torpor, suppressed Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Balliol College. metabolism prevents cell death, tis7
Interstellar Architecture W
ho hasn’t dreamt of go- the major challenges for astronauts ing materials. As living things, funing to space, at least and engineers to overcome. As one gi are naturally self-expanding and once? The idea of ven- of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, self-repairing. A small starter sample turing to distant planets,construct- over two million dollars has been could be stored and transported to ing new habitats, and going where awarded in prizes for innovations Mars, and then activated by astrono man has gone before appeals in the field. This is not an easy task; nauts with provided nutrients, and deeply to the human spirit that has these bases must fulfil a variety of allowed to grow. With the provision sent us to every corner of the earth. very specific design criteria, as out- of a lightweight plastic framework, a Since the fervour of the space race lined under NASA’s various DRA thick layer of mycelium would grow in the late 1960s, science-fiction has (Design Reference Architecture) and shape to form a liveable habibeen omnipresent in entertainment, scenarios. They must be lightweight tat. However, the greatest strength every year seeing more fantastic al- and greatly expandable to save cru- of myco-architecture comes from ien planets and imaginative new cial space on the shuttle, and able the versatility of living organisms. technologies take to withstand the Using extensive genetic engineer“Fungi can do far over our screens. harsh Martian ing, the fungi can also be radically The way these more than just match e n v i r o n m e n t altered to allow them to support the shows imagine conventional building once deployed; structure and its occupants. Back the human habian incredibly thin on Earth, fungi feed by excreting materials” tats of the future, atmosphere with enzymes from the threads in their however, seems to vary little. It’s no ozone layer means the surface mycelium, individually called hynormally an environment dominat- is constantly bombarded with ra- phae, into the environment. A field ed by cold steel and thick glass; an diation, and temperatures can fluc- of biology known as “synthetic biutterly artificial space punctuated by tuate by close to a hundred degrees ology” looks to instead change the flashing lights and lens flares, with – these conditions cause most of our fungi to secrete products useful for the only life on-screen being our plastics and metals to degrade, and Mars exploration. This could include agglutinatheroes and whichever alien is eating even begin to produce toxic gases. ing agents to better seal the mycelithe maintenance crew that week. So, it may come as some surprise iven the apparent horror of the um against the elements or melanin that for NASA, the building material Martian surface, where even for soaking damaging radiation (the to create their lunar and Mars bases is some of the toughest materials we same compound that protects huentirely organic, and yet, appropri- have today fail, it is hard to imagine man skin from UV rays). Rothschild ately, like nothing we use on Earth: how something as insignificant as envisions the complete biologifungi; specifically, the mat of long, a fungus could be much help. Yet cal Martian habitats taking on a fibrous threads that fungi produce researchers at the Ames Research three-layered structure. The first, to feed, known together as the my- Centre, led by astrobiologist Lynn outermost layer would be frozen celium. The use of fungi to create Rothschild, believe that biologi- water, which we now know is plenhabitats has been dubbed “myco-ar- cal building materials offer a solu- tiful at the Martian poles, and which chitecture”, and on Mars, bioma- tion to every one of the red planet’s already has significant radiation-abterials could be used to their fullest many challenges. For to conquer the hostile final frontier. a start, years of testing “The only limits with mycoThrough clever genetic engineer- have shown that, used architecture are the gaps in our ing and careful use of Mars’ few re- correctly, mycelium is knowledge and imaginations” sources, the first men and women comparable to wood on Mars may end up being sheltered or concrete in resisting deformation sorbing properties. Some of this and provided for by a habitat built, under pressure, and matches both in water would be allowed to trickle into the second layer, built of bacin part, from this unlikely material. insulating properties. Designing a habitat suitable for a However, fungi can do far more terial cultures. Some bacteria, called permanent base on Mars is one of than just match conventional build- cyanobacteria, are capable of using
water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen by a process analogous to plant photosynthesis, which is essential to sustain both the humans and the third, most substantial layer, where the fungi act to seal the habitat; water accumulating there, reinforced with regolith (the geological term for the â€œdustâ€? found on the surface of Mars and the Moon) and high levels of lead particles thought to be present on Mars, will create a radiation-proof, airtight shield to shelter astronauts from the Martian climate. Finally, once the already long-lived fungi have broken down,
the remains can be readily used as compost to support extraterrestrial farming - myco-architecture represents the ultimate goal in sustainability, where every part can be used, and then broken down and recycled.
minate Mars bases and, perhaps one day, our homes. While for now this research is focused on taming Mars, and still in its very early stages, the knowledge gained from these missions could allow myco-architecture to see widespread use on Earth too. Though the future is always uncertain, it appears that the wonderful versatility of nature may dominate the course of human spaceflight, and in time, a greener life on Earth too.
ltimately, it seems the only limits with myco-architecture are the gaps in our knowledge, and our imaginations. Beyond just providing a lightweight, low-cost building material (already a pretty good feature!), fungi could be en- James Rainey is a Biological Sciences gineered to grow into furniture, to undergraduate at Magdalen College. filter waste, even to glow and illu-
Space Tourism and Beyond
lmost two decades ago the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid an alleged $20 million for the breath-taking view of Earth from outer space. The Russian Soyuz aircraft flew him to the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth at 408km above sea level. Recently, Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, announced plans for their first passenger, a billionaire Japanese fashion mogul, to be launched on a journey around the Moon in 2023. The once mysterious realms of the sky are now becoming a recreational playground. But is this technology only a plaything for super-rich adrenaline junkies, or will the rocket science open more doors? Elon Musk’s SpaceX claims that its ultimate mission is to provide access for mankind to other planets. With a soaring human population, rapid consumption of Earth’s resources, and a climate crisis, this idea may seem sensible. However, there is a long road ahead of us before we can dream of public space transportation. Building orbital spaceflight technology, such as that of SpaceX’s lunar orbit project, is immensely challenging and, therefore, exorbitantly expensive. But the frontrunners in space tourism, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are also ramping up to something sub-orbital. Sub-orbital technology could be the next big advancement in air transport, whilst being more practical and economical than orbital space flights. flights they can turn sci-fi into reality by making intercontinental travel shorter than your Marvel movie. Imagine flying from London to Sydney with barely a chance to dig into your bland airline breakfast. Sub-orbital flights require a lower velocity than orbital flights and undergo a parabolic trajectory, which means that they land back on the surface of the Earth without completing an orbit. Though it sounds good on paper, some reviewers believe that sub-orbital point-to-point transportation may be only marginally cheaper than orbital flights. According to Phillip Atcliffe, senior lecturer in aeronau-
tical engineering at University of Salford, Manchester, ‘In terms of manned flight, as opposed to military missiles, we’re right at the start. Crawling rather than walking, and don’t even think about running for a while’. Nonetheless, the race is on for commercial, recreational space trips. Sub-orbital and vertical trajectory flights can cross the Kármán line, which marks the start of space 100km above sea level and provide tourists with the thrill of experiencing weightlessness and viewing the Earth’s form as Tito did. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic was the first to sell tickets for its commercial spaceflights ready to commence in 2015, but the mission remained unaccomplished following a test flight accident. This highlights the infancy of commercial space travel and the need for rigorous research and development. Oxford’s Hypersonics group at the Thermofluids Institute is at the forefront of experimental research on high-speed flights relevant for access to space. Of course, commercial spaceflight comes with a barrage of unknowns. It is unclear how such new technologies might impact the environment compared to current commercial flights. Its long-term effects on human physiology are currently impossible to determine. With space tourism currently inaccessible to you and me, can we get on board with the idea of pouring billions into an industry built for the future, when there may be more pressing issues to solve on Earth in the present? The comfortable continuation of mankind is something we all wish upon our future generations. So perhaps short space-hops for the rich and super-fast intercontinental flights are the necessary bridge to developing building the gateway technology for a future getaway to our new homes. Atreyi Chakrabarty is studying for a PhD in Neuroscience at St Cross College.
Breakthrough Previous page Aleisha Durmaz Left Cass Baumberg Below Ishbel Jamieson
“Alexa, why are we so obsessed with AI?”
rtificial intelligence (AI) seems to have impacted all aspects of our lives, from diagnosing our diseases to giving us Spotify song suggestions. And with the boom in the capabilities of AI has come a boom in our discussion of it. A better phrase to use, though, is machine learning: feeding a machine data and getting it to learn from this information in order to make future decisions. For example, you can train AI to diagnose brain tumours by feeding it lots of patient brain scan images, and it can then use this information to spot early signs of tumours in future scans. It’s incredibly powerful stuff. However, AI has some big problems. For one, it is only as good as the information it is fed. And as this information is coming from an imperfect world with many social biases, the outputs from machine learning algorithms are prone to bias too. For example, facial recognition algorithms fed images of white males will be very good at recognising the faces of white males but won’t be much good for anyone else. This is, in theory, relatively easily addressed though, by ensuring the use of large and diverse data sets. But the issue goes much deeper. Any information that we take from society is going to be biased to some degree. A notorious example of this was the ‘Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions’ (COMPAS) algorithm used to increase the efficiency of sentencing criminals in the US by predicting how likely they were to reoffend. The algorithm was racist. It predicted that black people were more likely to reoffend than white people because it was fed data from a racist criminal justice system. This is a much tougher problem to address, but COMPAS did serve as an important wake-up call in the field. It demonstrated how vital it is that algorithms undergo rigorous checks before they are released for use in the world. A whole other issue with AI is the question of how we programme it to make moral decisions. The most widely discussed exam-
ple of this is driverless cars. Imagine a trolley problem scenario where the car is going to hit either a grandma or a baby and has to decide which. Who should the car should save? What about if there was an added option of destroying the vehicle and killing the passe gers inside instead? In order to programme the cars to make these decisions, we need to come up with a moral code to programme them with. The best way to do this would seem to be to gather as many peoples’ opinions on dilemmas such as these and generate a consensus view. A survey called the ‘Moral Machine’, designed by researchers at MIT in 2014, asked millions of people across the world what they would do in various trolley problem-like scenarios in an attempt to do exactly this. Unhelpfully, but predictably, people’s opinions varied across different countries. For example, participants from China and Japan were more likely to save the grandma, whereas in France and the UK people tended to save the baby. This only creates more questions – should the moral code for driverless cars therefore vary from country to country? And what about if someone was visiting the UK from Japan? Do they then have to adhere to the so called ‘UK moral code’? The Moral Machine was only the start of this discussion. There are many ethical questions surrounding AI, and it seems as though as soon as you answer one, another arises. But we are working towards finding answers. Plans are in place to open a new institute for ethics in AI here at Oxford University to promote ongoing debate of AI ethics and to work towards developing an ethical framework in which the technology could work. A key priority for the institute is to involve people from a wide range of disciplines in the conversation. The future of AI is about so much more than the algorithms and the computer science. We need to talk about the ethics and the policy, and how AI reflects and affects society. We definitely can’t just leave it to scientists. Shakira Mahadeva is a Biochemistry undergraduate at The Queen’s College.
Expanding Musical Dimensions Below Alicia Hayden
o some, the Symphonie Fantastique is a masterpiece composed by French musician Hector Berlioz in the 1800s. To others, such as those in the Sofia Symphonic Orchestra, the piece presents an opportunity to merge the classical with the modern and create a hybrid composition known as ‘Symphonic Fantasy in A Minor, Op. 24: I Am AI.’ This transformation was accomplished by merely one addition to the orchestral and production team - AIVA, a learning technology designed to assist with composing original and personalized music soundtracks. Remixing established musical pieces is one of the latest feats of artificial intelligence, which is gradually assuming the role of both partner and mentor to the human artist. Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly becoming a critical charac-
ter in many disciplines. From contemplating the ethical boundaries of machine learning to implementing robotic surgery in medicine, the applications and implications of AI continue to proliferate. Most recently, much attention has been given to the role of AI in creative endeavours and specifically, its breakthroughs within the music industry.
ast November, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities) hosted a panel discussion on the revolutionising role of artificial intelligence in creative pursuits. This event explored the interweaving, perhaps symbiotic, relationship between technology and art. Panellist Emily Howard, Professor of Composition at the Royal Northern “Automated options have been College of Music, disdeveloped to offer professional cussed how her PRiSM team (Practice and mastering without the costs Research in Science and work of human engineers.” and Music) explored the ways AI can learn To obtain a deeper glimpse into text as part of a melody. They had technology’s transfiguring influence trained an AI with 19th-century on music, we should examine how English in particular. ‘We interactAI is affecting three critical areas of ed with this AI by prompting it so musicmaking: audio mastering, in- that it would generate further text, teractive composition technology, growing in sophistication over a peand music synthesis. riod of weeks,’ Howard described.
Breakthrough In a video clip, Howard demonstrat- a way that the AI is able to guide the which have long relied on dexterity ed the AI’s nearly flawless continu- performer towards the intentions of and skill, such as agriculture. Some ation of an operatic piece after the the original composer. Computer may view creations like ‘Symphonic vocalist had stopped singing. Fantasy’ as an affront to belovMastering is a step with- “Some may view ‘Symphonic ed classical works. With each in the audio post-production new AI instrument, questions Fantasy’ as an affront to process that involves preparrise: Who is creating the dataing and transferring audio to base? Whose intellectual propbeloved classical works.” a data storage device, known erty is the music, the code, the as the master. The goal of master- and artist continuously present and machine? There may be issues of ing is to help the listening experi- interpret, blending into one per- cultural bias if machines are trained ence sound cohesive and balanced formative entity. PRiSM’s operatic only in popular Western music; by skilfully adjusting a song’s sonic project and the AIVA technology there could be liability dilemmas in elements such as frequency ranges, are applications of this concept. the cases where the AI fails to recloudness, and spacing between each ognize a copyright and mistakenly track. This process requires acute usic synthesis is another crit- mixes part of an existing song. listening and a specialised mastering ical technique which refers From a broader standpoint, conexpert. Nevertheless, automated op- to the generation of sound from sumers may also struggle to consider tions have been developed over re- scratch. AI’s profound impact on the more sinister implications of AI cent years to offer professional mas- music synthesis is notably illustrated in weaponry and visual recognition tering without the costs and work of by a recent research project devel- software. It can be common to ashuman engineers. oped by Google. sume that an AI’s effects mimic the In 2016, the company launched machine itself; inanimate, neutral, New Realms of Music Mastering ‘Magenta,’ an endeavour that aims and objective. Unfortunately, ethiand Synthesis to expand the abilities of AI in cre- cal boundaries begin to blur when ne example is LANDR, a web ating songs, images, drawings, and AI is constructed with a political or service algorithm that analyses other forms of art. Programmers social motive. The musical world is a song uploaded by the user, uses a trained the NSynth (neural synthe- not immune to these possibilities. set of post-production tools such as sizer) algorithm, which uses neural compressors to enhance the dynam- networks to create sounds at the espite its controversies and ic range of the song, and exports the base level of individual samples. moral dilemmas, artificial intelresult. The Magenta team constructed the ligence continues to alter societal diOne drawback of the system is NSynth dataset by collecting a large mensions while inspiring construcits rigidity – if the user is unsatisfied assortment of musical notes sam- tive discussion on what the future with the end mix, the AI cannot pled from single instruments across of science will entail. In the realm make corrections in a timely man- a range of pitches. The learned in- of music, new techniques incorponer. Despite these shortcomings, strument also relies on WaveNet, a rate the precision and rhythmicity digital mastering systems remain model that learns codes representing of machine learning with the emothe more affordable option for users the space of instrument and human tion and dynamism of live performwho are unable to call upon a tradi- sounds and uses them to generate ers. Technologies such as LANDR, tional mastering engineer. speech mimicking the range, tim- Google Magenta, and WaveNet are Another novel approach is in- bre, and fluidity of human voices. gradually bridging the divide beteractive composition technology tween human- and machine-gener(ICT), a fluid concept that relies on Dilemmas in the Age of AI ated sound. an improvisational ‘conversation’ he impact of artificial intelliStill, public unease threatens the between computer and performer. gence has spurred the formation technology’s permanence in music. ICT begins by allowing the com- of an entire industry dedicated to its Perhaps AI will be another adapputer program to listen to the per- services towards music, including tation in our macro-evolutionary former, capturing abstract details software such as IBM Watson Beat, timescale, or perhaps history will resuch as scales, rhythms, harmonies, Melodrive, and Amper Music. In cord it as a moral failing of humanand general structure. The machine applications such as LANDR how- istic values. In the current moment, classifies this data from the per- ever, we see that these technologies however, AI is revolutionizing sciformer to learn what the perform- are often a trade-off between time ence and society in ways we have er means by terms like ‘frantic’ or and quality, method and constraint. only just begun to explore. ‘sombre.’ This communication is a Many controversies surround form of nuanced musical notation the increasing use of AI, which is Isra Hanain is studying for an MSc - not in the conventional sense of often regarded as an unwelcome, in Medical Anthropology at Green visual notes on a sheet, but rather in manufactured intrusion into areas Templeton.
Wires and Nerves
How Technology Can Treat Brain Conditions
ur central nervous system (CNS), made of our brain and spinal cord, exists in an environment essentially separated from the rest of our bodies, and for good reason. The CNS coordinates the disparate organs in our bodies and is responsible for our thoughts and decision-making. As such, it is vital to protect it from pathogens, harmful molecules, and other damage. Our natural defenses include physical barriers like the skull as well as the tissues comprising the endothelial blood-brain barrier (BBB) and epithelial blood-cerebrospinal fluid barrier (BCSFB). While usually helpful, these barriers can hinder medical treatment. Whether for stroke recovery, preventing neurodegenerative disease, or treating mental illness, medical intervention can be more effective than any natural healing process. However, it has historically been difficult to affect the brain in the same way we do other parts of the body. Surgery and Drug Treatment ne issue lies in the risks associated with brain surgery. Unlike with other organs, where scarring and lesions can heal, any accidental damage to our neurons can result in loss of function. For example, while electrode implants for epilepsy can prevent seizures, the surgery is risky and seen as a last resort rather than standard treatment. Another major problem has been targeting drugs for delivery to the brain. Drugs circulate through the blood until they reach their intended organs. Not so for the brain: the blood-brain barrier commonly blocks out necessary treatments. Current drug development must overcome this, as illustrated by the treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease where the motor system fails, resulting in tremors and rigidity. For unknown reasons, cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine die, and the lack of dopamine causes the motor failure. In theory, administering dopamine as a drug could alleviate many of the Parkinson’s symptoms. However, dopamine cannot cross the BBB Luckily, L-DOPA, a precursor to dopamine can, and thus it became a fixture in Parkinson’s treatments. Although L-DOPA was a success, drug targeting to cross the BBB remains a problem
that requires time and money to circumvent. In light of this, non-invasive methods for altering brain activity are rapidly developing. Non-Invasive Methods ll the methods described below are non-invasive, requiring only that a device be placed on top of the head for roughly hour-long sessions (depending on the treatment type). Targeting specific brain regions is as simple as changing the placement of the devices on the head. Additionally, they have few serious side effects, the most common being nausea, headaches, and tingling. While they have not been found an effective treatment in isolation, the ease of use, low cost, and promising results means that non-invasive treatments will likely become increasingly present in clinical practice.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) he first treatment option is repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). A device generates a magnetic field which interacts with the electrical current of neurons and increases brain activity. So far, rTMS has been approved to treat depression in patients where traditional drug treatments and therapy have proved ineffective. By sending pulses into the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a site implicated in depression, it has been found to have a meaningful effect on 50-60% of patients. The effects last for a few months, and 30% of patients are full remission, with no trace of depression. There are also promising results in regards to stroke recovery, in which the motor cortex is stimulated. Trials are ongoing for bipolar disorder and OCD, though they are currently “off-label”. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) nother option is tDCS. Here, a cathode and anode are placed on the skull and a weak current (1-2 mA) is sent through the brain. There is flexibility with this method: anodal stimulation excites neurons, and cathodal stimulation inhibits them. The machinery is cheap and portable, making it a treatment option that could be easily distributed. It has been found to alleviate symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s.
Right Zubida Mukhtar
Breakthrough However, tDCS studies suffer from low sample numbers and high variability in trials. More work must be undertaken to determine its efficacy. Focused Ultrasound (FUS) inally, FUS uses ultrasonic waves to activate brain regions. Unlike tDCS and TMS, the region it affects can be much more targeted. For example, in Parkinson’s treatment it can treat tremor by targeting the thalamus, or akinesia (lack of movement) by targeting the pallidothalamic tract. It has also been approved to treat depression, neuropathic pain, and OCD, and trials are ongoing for addiction, ALS, dementia, and other conditions.
The Future of Brain Treatment n the future, researchers will likely focus on improving targeting and fine-tuning clinical protocols. There is also the possibility of using these methods to improve everyday cognitive function. tDCS has already gained popularity as a commercial ‘brain booster’, although experts advise against tampering with your own brain function. Non-invasive brain stimulation has had a promising start. It is hard to compare their early stages to the sheer bulk of drug- and surgery-based treatments, but the number of positive results from clinical trials and ongoing research suggest that brain stimulation can become a regular part of disease treatment.
Maya Misra is a Biochemistry undergraduate at Brasenose College.
In Search of Sleep An exploration of methods used to study the nature and function of sleep
he average person will spend 36% of their life asleep, meaning that if you live until 90 you will have been asleep for the equivalent of 32.5 years. Despite this, the scientific community knows very little about what sleep actually is, and even less about why it occurs. There are two main schools of thought regarding the function of sleep: the universal function theory and the adaptive inactivity hypothesis. Some argue that sleep is a maladaptive state since it makes animals vulnerable to predation and is incompatible with feeding and mating. Yet sleep is ubiquitous across animals, so they argue that there must be a universal function that is so important to an animal’s survival that it outweighs the costs of sleeping. However, this fundamental function remains elusive - perhaps memory consolidation? Or regeneration of neurons? Others hypothesise that sleep itself can be seen as an adaptive state since it benefits animals by supressing activity at times of maximal predation risk and minimal opportunity for feeding, and permitting it during times of plenty. However, these theories don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Many tasks are likely to be carried out during sleep, but this doesn’t mean sleep evolved specifically for them to occur. Instead, sleep as a period of adaptive inactivity may have been co-opted by functions such as memory consolidation. There are several approaches one could take to unravel this quandary. These include focusing on the neuroscience of sleep, or comparative ecological studies. Past studies on the function of sleep have arguably produced more controversy than conclusions. However, current technological developments are now generating breakthroughs in knowledge. What is Sleep? irst, let us consider what we do know about sleep. Sleep is regulated by circadian rhythms and a homeostatic mechanism known as sleep pressure. It can be behaviourally defined as a rapidly reversible period of immobility, characterised by an increased arousal threshold and a period of compensato-
Above and right Zubida Mukhtar
“Why do big brown bats sleep for 19 hours per day, whilst elephants sleep for just 2 hours?” ry sleep following sleep deprivation. By using probes to measure the electrical activity across the brain during wake and sleep one can see that there are several different types of sleep, known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM). REM is difficult to distinguish from wake, debunking the common misconception that our brains rest during sleep. NREM, on the other hand, is associated with high-amplitude, low-frequency waves of brain activity. Neuroscience Approach euroscience is the study of the nervous system and brain. Several recent breakthroughs in the neurobiology of sleep and circadian rhythms have stemmed from remarkable technological developments which have allowed for beautiful manipulations of neurons in animal brains. Optogenetics, which originated in Oxford in the humble fruit fly, and chemogenetics are two such tech-
Breakthrough niques which enable the remote controlling of neurons using light and specific chemicals, respectively. Nerve cells are activated by the movement of charged particles called ions. If enough ions of the appropriate charge move in and out of the cell, they trigger an electrical signal (an action potential). Optogenetics and chemogenetics exploit this mechanism. Specific neurons of interest are genetically altered so that they express ion channels in their membranes that can be controlled remotely using light or specific chemicals. Thus, neurons which researchers think may be involved in regulating sleep can be activated and silenced remotely so that one can witness the direct behavioural effects of these nerve circuits. This technique, although requiring refinement, is generating exciting research right here at Oxford University: in the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, sleep neurons have been identified in Drosophila that result in sleep when activated.
possibility that variables such as diet, habitat and social structure have a greater influence on sleep duration than genetics. Brown bats eat mosquitoes and moths which are only active from dusk until early evening, and the 4 to 5 hours that the bat is active is synchronised perfectly to the active period of their prey. Meanwhile, elephants occupy a low trophic position, consuming low-calorie vegetation, and therefore must devote many hours to eating, which may explain their short sleep duration. This demonstrates that ecological variables may underpin the patterns in sleep, although statistical techniques are needed to test for the significance of these relationships. Recording brain activity of wild organisms in their natural habitat would provide extraordinary insights into the adaptive function of sleep, suggesting that looking forward, the gold standard for Comparative Approaches studying sleep lies at the n alternative approach to studying sleep intersection of these two is from an ecological and evolutionary approaches. perspective. All animals studied to date exhibit some form of sleep behaviour. However, this Laura Steel is studying for sleep comes in all shapes and sizes with no ob- a PhD in Interdisciplinary Biosciences (Neuroscience vious pattern. Why do big brown bats sleep & Animal Behaviour) at for 19 hours per day, whilst elephants sleep Magdalen College. for just 2 hours? Why does sleep occur across both hemispheres of our brain simultaneously whilst in dolphins sleep occurs in only one at a time? These more unusual sleepers were often left out of traditional studies, as â€œanomaliesâ€?, but by studying them we gain an understanding of the selection pressures present and hopefully clues to the adaptive function of sleep. Body mass has long been considered to have the strongest correlation with sleep duration, however, this is only significant in herbivorous terrestrial mammals. Despite similar genetics and cognitive abilities, closely related mammal species often have very different sleep durations. Researchers are now exploring the
Autism and Ancient Oceans
part from the arts, I doubt there is any profession that has as many ways to describe the colour grey as geology. For this science, grey is a universe of subtle colour- it shines and sings, eager to spill the secrets of the Earth. For me, though, grey rocks go even beyond that, shaped by my autistic and synesthetic experience, the latter enabling me to literally hear colours. While an undergraduate student, I visited the Scottish island of Skye, a beautiful wee island built from over three billion years of Earth history. One chilly April morning, our class was trying to decipher the secrets of the Jurassic rocks in front of us. To everyone else the rocks looked grey, their details hidden from rookie students. But I could see a pattern of subtle changes in colour and texture and I could hear the sounds that those colours and textures made. In one layer, the rocks appeared in deep dark greens, blues, and purples. I had an image in my mind as of flat stacked shapes, like plates or dominos. I could hear the abstract sensation of sounds: low and droning, coming and going in slow lazy cycles that moved back and forth with a pressure that was both gentle and crushing. In another layer, I heard a sound like static mixed with the roar of a distant crowd and a rapid rolling clacking. I could see spark-
ing white and silver glints shooting through a shifting mass of warm yellows and curving pale blue shapes. All this was wrapped up in a feeling of energy and tumbling over and over. One of our instructors came over to check on our progress. I gave her my interpretation of the rock examination: there was a change in the ancient sea level. The lower layer, the one with the dark colours, was deep water, out at sea. The upper band, with the sensation of tumbling, was shallow water closer to the shore, maybe even a beach. She told me I was pretty much correct and asked how I could know. I tried to explain but, in the end, I simply told her, “it’s just what the rocks are saying”. My friends thought it was a pretty neat trick, and our instructor shrugged and said, “some people are like that”. Over time, my instructors noticed more interesting traits about me and eventually, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and sensory sensitivity. I had always struggled with various tasks - my perception of time is fluid at best, and I am unable to perform Maths at a level much above primary school, as the numbers just won’t stay still. It’s one of the reasons why I had to postpone my degree until my late twenties. I still struggle with things like telling the time and often forget how to tie my own shoelaces. But this might just prove to be an asset for my scientific experience. I started my PhD at Oxford looking at 1300-million-year old piles of mud that cover most of Northern Australia. The project was meant to be a warm-up, as these rocks had already been studied before, so they should have had nothing
new to tell us. I was given a box of black and grey chunks of rock. To me they were a dark rainbow of textures, colours, sounds and sensations that was telling a different story to the one in the books. We sliced the rocks so thin we could push light through them, and we blasted them with X-rays and electrons. They were then digested in acid and evaporated in flames as hot as the sun. Soon we had collected our own pile of chemical evidence that supported the story that my mixture of senses was telling me. These rocks record the first appearance and spread of organisms with complex cells like our own. They tell the story of tiny, single-celled creatures called acritarchs, much more complex than bacteria, but not yet at the level of animals and plants. A lack of oxygen and an ocean saturated with toxic sulphur had held them in evolutionary stasis for over a billion years. But our new data showed an ocean with little sulphur, with low but persistent amounts of oxygen and plenty of the nutrients that these organisms needed. The reason the previous studies had not picked up on this was simple - they didn’t listen to the rocks. The ancient Australian mud had been singing its song of early life and no one had picked up on it, because they could not hear the patterns, the clues. I don’t want to make it sound like a cliché maverick story - my advisors, particularly Dr Rosalie Tostevin and our collaborators were at least equal parts of the project’s success - but I believe my experience really helped to uncover something that could have remained hidden, because it needed a different perspective. At this time, I had been getting treatment for severe depression,
common among neurodiverse people. My psychiatrist suggested that a lot of my traits sounded like autism, so we looked into it. I eventually got the diagnosis and was told I was autistic. At first, I was upset- I didn’t want to be like this. It felt like a crushing setback, as I was getting my life into shape at last. I thought it meant I would be forever emotionally separated from neurotypical people. But ever since the diagnosis, I’ve learned a great deal about autism and about myself. I’ve been constantly surprised by the traits I thought of as normal, which only people like me can experience, such as hearing colours. The unusual mix-up of senses is known as synaesthesia and there are many types, which are not only restricted to autistic people, but are certainly common among us. Now that I know, I feel quite lucky to be able to simultaneously see, hear and feel not just the world as it is now, but also the world as it was millions, or billions of years ago, all of these Earths superimposed upon each other in a beautiful, flowing, shifting dance, momentarily frozen in the form of the landscape around us and the rocks beneath us. I have always felt more at home in the comforting weight of deep time and now that I finally understand why, I can work on bridging the gap between those ancient oceans and the noisy world of modern humans. The rocks have a story to tell. You just have to listen. Brooke Johnson is studying for a PhD in Earth Sciences at St Edmund Hall.
change in Salty Water and Climate the south Pacific Sinking Islands Islands
rom the ongoing wildfires in Australia to the recent storm Ciara, a climate change-related story hits the news almost every week. Still, there is a distance between those of us in more developed, urban environments and the real effects of the environmental crisis. For the people of the South Pacific Islands (PICs), however, it’s a completely different story. These people are already feeling the overwhelming effects of manmade climate change and for many they have to look no further than their back gardens to see the frontline of this crisis. These islands may be completely lost within the century and uninhabitable by as early as 2050 and while the changing climate is a real threat to their homes and livelihoods, it also greatly affects their culture, traditions and identity. In some places, sea levels are rising by over 1cm a year (4 times faster than the global mean) and these trends will continue. Alarmingly, several islands have already disappeared into the sea: 5 uninhabited islands, part of the Solomon Archipelago, along with 3 in the Federate States of Micronesia have been lost in the last decade alone. These unprecedented rises have led to some PICs already starting the process of emigration, an almost certain outcome for their population in the future. Kiribati has recently bought a 20km2 piece of land on Fiji in which to relocate its people when conditions become uninhabitable. But the South Pacific is currently facing an even bigger threat- water insecurity and rapidly diminishing fresh water supplies. These challenges have already been exacerbated by population rises on the main islands but are also at a further threat from changing precipitation patterns. Tuvalu is a small Polynesian island made up of 9 low-lying reef and coral atolls (ring-shaped coral-reef structures encircling a lagoon) with an average height of around 1m above sea level. Along the rims of these atolls are islands composed mainly of coral detritus. They are created as the ring of coral surrounds an underwater volcano that has receded into the ocean leaving the ring of islands behind. This low elevation means Tuvalu is one of the most at-risk countries from anthropogenic climate change. This also means that the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events has a real impact on both the island in general and on water security. Rising sea levels have led to a huge increase in urbanisation on the main island as many have been
forced to leave their homes on other islands, creating an even greater pressure on already scarce freshwater resources. Tuvaluans previously relied upon groundwater reserves in aquifer systems (their only natural freshwater source) and the collection of regular rainfall. Aquifers are underground bodies of rock, with varying degrees of permeability and porosity, that are saturated with, and act as underground reservoirs for, groundwater. However, climate change is threatening these systems. Groundwater reserves constitute a significant proportion of freshwater in the PICs and even though these are generally recharged by rain, changing weather patterns may lead to a reduced recharge rate, further diminishing water resources on the islands. In the future, climate projections show that there will be much greater variation in rainfall from year to year, creating more insecurity in terms of water resources. Although mean rainfall may increase slightly in some areas of the Pacific islands, including Tuvalu, so will the instances of drought and extreme drought. Rising sea levels have led to salt-water intrusion and contamination of these groundwater systems, meaning they are no longer suitable for either drinking or agriculture. Water tanks are a common site in Tuvalu, meant to meet the water needs of large households, especially on Funafuti- now home to almost half of the nation’s population. The Pacific Islands are also particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, mostly tropical cyclones and storms. In the last 30 years, Vanuatu (a mountainous archipelago in the Melanesia region) has experienced a total of 72 tropical cyclones (the most out of all the PICs), the biggest of which was cyclone Pam in 2015, which caused huge devastation to the islands and amounted to a loss of around 65% of their GDP. Research has shown that, although the number of these tropical cyclones will not go up, the proportion of more intense storms will, with wind speeds increasing by up to 10%. The conclusion for the future of these islands and ultimately of our planet can be summed up in the words of the current Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres: “Urgent climate action is a choice we canand must-make. As the people of Tuvalu know all too well: Saving them will save us all”. Taras Bains is a Biological Sciences undergraduate at Wadham College.
Breaking Through the Seafloor I n March 1968, the Glomar Challenger set sail from the dockyards of the Texan town of Orange. Thus began a journey that would fundamentally challenge our understanding of the history of the Earth. Glomar was the primary research vessel of the Deep Sea Discovery Project (DSDP), an international mission created to investigate the history of the Earth’s oceans. Almost everything about Glomar was unprecedented: its drilling rig could probe water depths of more than 7km; it could recover continuous cores of rock over 1700m long; and it was a place for East-West collaboration at the height of the Cold War. Geologists are historians of deep time, but piecing together the history of the Earth before the DSDP was like trying to understand Tudor England without Henry VIII. The 1870s Challenger Expedition of made great advancements in the science of oceanography,
“Scientists can even estimate the total volume of the polar ice caps at any point in geological time” but it took nearly a century for any further developments. For most of the 21st Century, the deep ocean would remain ‘here be dragons’ territory. One of the earliest DSDP expeditions tested Alfred Wegener’s 1912 theory of continental drift. Wegener had observed that the landmasses either side of the Atlantic matched up neatly, and hypothesised that they were once connected. If Wegener’s theory was correct, then new oceanic crust should be created in the centre of the ocean and the oldest crust should be found at the margins. In 1970, Glomar drilled a series of holes across the full width of the Atlantic Ocean, from South America to Africa. Glomar’s findings exactly matched the predictions of the theory, and one of the most revolutionary ideas in the Earth Sciences was finally validated. The DSDP created the science of palaeoceanography – the study of the ancient ocean. One of the key ways of doing this is
by recovering the microscopic remains of phytoplankton, the plants of the sea. These organisms live in the shallow ocean and gain their energy from photosynthesis – laying down the entire basis of marine food webs. When these creatures die, their bodies can settle through the depths of the ocean, forming a constant rain to the seafloor known as marine snow. Each organism alone is thinner than a human hair, but on geological timescales they fall in their trillions, coating the entire ocean in layers of sediment up to several kilometres thick. This debris provides a continuous record of the ocean over the last 200 million years. By investigating the chemical composition of these organisms, scientists can elucidate information about ancient ocean temperature, elemental makeup, salinity, and a vast array of other details. Scientists can even estimate the total volume of the polar ice caps at any point in geological time by analysing only a handful of these skeletons. Whether establishing the pacing of Ice Ages or examining the crater that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, deep sea drilling is a tool that allows us to shine a light into the darkness of the Earth’s past. Perhaps most poignantly for our modern times, discoveries about past episodes of environmental change allow researchers to contextualise the human-induced changes we are living through today. 17 years after launching, having covered almost 700,000km, Glomar returned to port for the final time in 1983. Glomar’s retirement in 1983 also signalled the end of the DSDP. The spirit of Glomar lives on today through the Integrated Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), a collaboration between 24 nations with guaranteed funding through to 2023. IODP’s slogan is ‘Illuminating Earth’s Past, Present, and Future’, and no doubt it will continue to live up to the legacy of discovery laid down over five decades ago. Matt Sutton is studying for a DPhil in Paleontology at St Anne’s College. Previous page Alicia Hayden Left Dominika Syska Right Ishbel Jamieson 21
Schools Competition We are pleased to announce the results of our Hilary Term 2020 Schools’ Science Writing Competition. We received 182 entries from school students across the UK in years 10-13, written to an incredibly high standard. The topic of the competition was ‘Should we focus on fixing our planet or move to a new one?’ The winning article, selected by our panel of judges, is Fight or Flight – the Climate Change Dilemma, by Louis Rush, Year 12, Tapton School, Yorkshire. Louis will receive a £50 Amazon voucher. Six runner-up articles were also selected by our judges, and will be published alongside the winning article on our website www. oxsci.org
Judges Dr Alison Woollard is a Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford University. Her laboratory looks at molecular mechanisms controlling cell fate determination and cell proliferation in development. She lectures both students and members of the public, most notably for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Dr Joanna Bagniewska leads a double life of a zoologist and a science communicator. Joanna splits her time between her roles as a Teaching Fellow in Zoology and Ecology at the University of Reading, and the Communications and Public Engagement Officer at the University of Oxford. In her spare time, she is a freelance popular science writer, presenter and communications coach.
Winner Fight or Flight – the Climate Change Dilemma Louis Rush, Year 12, Tapton School, Yorkshire
Runners-Up Staying on Earth or Moving to Mars: The Cosmic Debate Elizabeth Dewes, Year 11, Kings Norton Girls’ School, West Midlands Reaching for the Stars Rulan Zhang, Year 12, Wellington College, Berkshire Planet Earth: Old home or only home? Sri Kousthubha Allampalli, Year 13, The Tiffin Girls’ School, Surrey Cyanobacteria: help us or harm us? Emily Allen, Year 12, The Cooper School, Oxfordshire
Abigail Lister is a DPhil student in the Materials Science department at Oxford University. Her research focuses on using conductive porous materials to fabricate sensors for harmful gases present at low concentrations in the air.
Moving to Mars: Sci-fi or Reality? Ayeza Akhtar, Year 12, Oldham Sixth Form College, Greater Manchester
Andrew Bunting is an astrophysics DPhil student at Oxford University, studying the interaction between exoplanets and their host stars, to learn more about massive, close-orbiting planets. He tutors undergraduate physics, and plays ultimate frisbee, so is concerned with plastic discs as well as protoplanetary ones.
Life on Mars: 140 million miles away, or closer than expected? Lucy Fan, Year 10, Guildford High School, Surrey
Phoebe Ashley-Norman is a Masters student of Biochemistry at Oxford University. She is currently undertaking research into mammalian cell division but is passionate about science communication. She writes about science and the cross-curricular presentation of science for OxSci and beyond.
Developing a new terraforming solution? We are only speeding up extinction… Rosalie Ko, Year 11, Wycombe Abbey, Buckinghamshire
A scientific discovery, invention or advance that still affects the world today.
For a chance to win a prize and have your piece published in the Oxford Scientist, send us your thoughts as a 700word essay by Friday 1st May. Open to all UK school students in Years 11 to 13. Submissions to be made via a Google document at oxsci.org/schools. For further information, see our website or email email@example.com. If your school, sixth form or college would like to subscribe to the Oxford Scientist, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org 22
Breakthrough Left Sophie Littlewood
Fight or Flight? The Climate Change Dilemma
o remain or to migrate is just another iteration of the fight or flight dilemma. Society is under stress, but we have protesters in our streets instead of adrenaline in our veins. By the next decade we will certainly have to negotiate as a species, do we repair our evolutionary cradle or is it time to dispose of it? Ultimately, to abandon our planet would just be another example of the disposable and ignorant mentality which has covered our eyes thus far, while we have continued to flail and destroy our environment. It would be painfully typical of us to evade our due reparations to the ecosystems we have destroyed, fauna we have decimated, and the atmosphere we have stagnated. There are ways we can nurse the earth back to stability, but only if we recognise that we need to take an active approach to do so. The problem is, we are electing politicians who cannot take the necessary blame. Many governments and companies would rather ridicule the figureheads of climate protests, ignore the severity of their involvement in CO2 emissions and the oil industry, and deflect the blame onto the public than admit that the air they are breathing or the ground they are standing on is slowly and softly rotting. Additionally, in terms of logistics, not all will migrate. Not only the inevitable loss of people will occur, but libraries, gardens, museums and sacred places, monuments and cemeteries will be lost too. When we reach a new planet - linguistically, culturally, and ethnically - we will have become
homogenate of a society, we will have lost the diverse connections we have with the soils, sands and seas of the original earth and fundamentally, we will lose part of our identity as a species Foremost, acknowledging the involvement of humanity should be the primary response to tackling climate change and for this, although often it is criticised for not being a practical approach, is climate change activism. We need Greta Thunburg, we need Greenpeace, and we need Al gore. Awareness is equally as imperative as action, we need to be showing politicians and organisations that we have the passion and desire to make a difference. Secondarily, as individuals we need to be simultaneously making personal life improvements, such as becoming vegetarian and recycling, reducing and reusing, as well as demanding large companies take responsibility and alter their protocols, such as refusing to ship to regions which would increase carbon emissions. And finally, we need to start introducing more scientists and activists into governments Only when passionate and educated people become part of the official government can constructive changes start to be implemented.
ontrastingly, it is important to acknowledge the potential benefits of moving to a new planet. Currently, a major aspect of the problems faced by people trying to make a difference is the presence of engrained systems that prevent the necessary rapid change required in this situation, such as the parliamentary process or lack of stable communication between all the countries of the planet. Migration would provide an opportunity to change these systems for the better, to change for the improvement of the speciesâ€™ wellbeing, and to change to produce a more sustainable future. Fundamentally, the migration operation will be expensive and resource hungry and it would have to be decided if the right to migrate would be universal or whether it would have to be purchased or earned which is, of course, a moral quandary in itself. The crucial space travel technology would need to be advanced enough to transport people, equipment and housing to a suitable and accommodating planet, and potentially advanced enough terraforming technology to reproduce a hospitable planet. In conclusion, I would say that it is integral that we maintain our humanity, our empathy and sensibility. Although an exodus to another plant can quickly be romanticised as a solution to the plethora of environmental issues, it would be a final betrayal of the planet we had bombarded with pollutants for centuries. These are the challenges we must consider before the end of the next decade. Louis Rush is in Year 12 at Tapton School, Yorkshire. 23
The Nature of
e have probably all come across a moment in the history of science that is called a scientific breakthrough. General relativity transformed our understanding of gravity and spacetime. In 1928, the Scottish physician Alexander Fleming famously concentrated the antibiotic known as Penicillin. Dolly the sheep was introduced to the world in 1996, the first mammal to be cloned from adult somatic cells. There are plenty of instances in 20th century scientific history referred to as breakthroughs, but what exactly is meant by this phrase? It is difficult to pinpoint the specific features required to deserve the term. Penicillin was only put into mass production from the 1940’s onwards by groups in Oxford and the USA. Before Dolly, animals such as tadpoles, mice and even sheep had been cloned, but using embryonic cells, not adult ones. Nevertheless, Dolly is certainly the most wellknown case of animal cloning. Einstein single-handedly developed the theory of general relativity over a period of 10 years and there have been many other scientists who have contributed since, who are not as well known. It is not clear how and when a scientific breakthrough is defined, but the term is often used. Recent ‘breakthroughs’ are said to include the detection of gravitational waves, developments in robotics and the production of human organs from stem cells. The majority of these discoveries don’t seem to have the same stature as the aforementioned examples and is difficult to say “It is not clear how itwhether this recogniand when a scientific tion is yet to come or breakthrough is defined” some, despite having made valuable contributions to science, will never be as wellknown as others. If we consider controlled nuclear fusion and quantum computers, we might think of the ideas as breakthroughs, but they have not yet come to full materialisation. Whilst basic quantum computers have been created, they are not as far advanced as the theory behind them, which brings into question the time at which such a breakthrough 26
might be declared. Much older developments, such as the invention of the wheel and food preservation, now seem to be taken for granted, the importance of them often unacknowledged. This may suggest that the term wasn’t within scientific description at the time, or perhaps that after a long period of time what is deemed as a breakthrough is overlooked.
onsidering how subjective the term is, it is usual for people to have different opinions: a breakthrough might be “a theory that alters our perception of the world”, or “a development that radically changes our lives”, like the lightbulb, the mobile phone or the refrigerator. Perhaps it is something that media outlets think will excite the general public, therefore they choose to popularise it. Alternatively, one might even conclude that the concept doesn’t truly exist. Fortunately, philosophers of science
“The novelty of discovery comes unanticipated” throughout history have endeavoured to understand scientific method. Hence, their ideas may suggest how consensus within the scientific community affects areas of research and when breakthroughs occur. One of the most influential writings on the topic is Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. His idea is that scientists spend the majority of their time working within a certain paradigm - a framework of knowledge and accepted theories amongst the academic world. Normal science involves solving puzzles in this current framework. It builds on other contributors’ work and experiments are performed with an expectation in mind- a clear hypothesis. The novelty of discovery comes unanticipated- when expectations about nature or experiments are not met. This might fit with the idea that scientists
often ‘stumble upon discoveries’ as opposed to intentionally finding them. An anomaly like this may bring the current paradigm into question and create a phase of “extraordinary science”, as Kuhn calls it. If this revolution seems correct upon further investigation, then a paradigm shift occurs, and normal science continues to solve puzzles in this new realm. Perhaps it is this ‘outside-thebox’ moment where scientific breakthroughs occur. Karl Popper had quite different views, his proposed criterion being that of falsifiability. According to Popper, scientists should create testable hypotheses to explain data and then test them to see if there is any data that the theory cannot explain. If some evidence does come up that the hypothesis cannot justify, then it is incorrect. Instead of trying to support hypotheses, the idea is to see if there is any occurrence that can prove them wrong; if there is, a new hypothesis is required, which could conceivably be considered a scientific breakthrough in this framework.
nother common philosophy of scientific practice is inductive reasoning. The idea is that whether premises turn out to be true or false, they collectively add to that area of research, providing some evidence towards the final conclusion. It could be that the culmination of this knowledge is what creates a breakthrough. These philosophical ideas cover vast ideas around scientific practice, but each does have a suggestion that resembles the notion of a scientific breakthrough. The diversity across the interpretations of when ground-breaking science happens implies that the lines are always a bit blurred when it comes to what we consider a breakthrough and who is responsible for it. Despite the subjective nature of the phrase, its use indicates there has certainly been an exciting advance within science and the idea is likely to capture the imagination of many.
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Alicia Fallows is studying for a MSt in Philosphy of Physics at St Edmund Hall.
A Glitch in the Admissions Process University of Oxford Physics Interview, 13th December 2050
Ok Alice, here are two opaque boxes. The blue one definitely has a thousand pounds in. We put either a million pounds in the red one, or nothing. You can choose to open either or both boxes and keep the money you find inside. We accurately predicted your decision earlier using our latest technology, integrating artificial intelligence with machine learning and quantum consciousness. If we predicted you would open both boxes, we left the red box empty. If we predicted you would only open the red one, we put a million pounds in it. So which box or boxes would you like to open?” Alice is faced with Newcomb’s paradox. Devised by theoretical physicist William Newcomb in 1960, the problem was first analysed in Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick’s 1969 philosophy paper. “I should only open the red one. If I trust your predictor is completely accurate, then I will certainly have a million pounds. Whereas if I open both, the red will be empty, and I will certainly have only a thousand pounds.” Alice reaches for the red box, then pauses. “But you cannot change whether the red box has a million pounds or nothing inside, whatever I choose now. I must get the most money by opening both. Leaving behind a definite thousand pounds in the blue box is nonsensical.” As Nozick commented in his paper, ‘To almost everyone, it is perfectly clear and obvious what should be done. The difficulty is that these people seem to divide almost evenly on the problem, with large numbers thinking that the opposing half is just being silly’. Alice reaches for the blue box, then pauses. “The only way your predictor could be completely accurate, and know which boxes I would decide to open, is by simulating my exact decision-making process. So, my experience in this real interview is just as likely to be the simulation of the interview you say you ran earlier. Now, just in case I really am your simulated version, I should make the decision that will benefit my real self. To ensure the predictor put (or will put) a million pounds in the red box, I must only open the red box.” “Yet do you still have free will, if we managed to predict your decision with certainty?” “Yes, because my free will was exercised the first time you ran the simulation. That is when the decision was made, when the information describing my decision was created in the universe.” Satisfied with her logic, Alice draws the red box towards her, then pauses. ***
Breakthrough Alice sits, paused, on the screen as the interviewers discuss her performance. “She’s done well, I think she deserves an offer,” asserts Bob, beginning to fill his holographic spreadsheet. “Ah, simulated interviews are so much more convenient than real ones!” “Not so fast,” Charlie interjects. “Ok, she concluded she has to make the decision as though she is a simulation. But a really bright candidate would go one step further: realise she is a simulation. After all, if the simulation already tells us what decision she will make in this situation, why would we go to the trouble of the interview question in real life?” Bob chuckles. “So, you expect her simulation to predict how we would use a simulation of her to predict what she would do in the interview to conclude she is a simulation. Sounds suspiciously recursive to me!” He presses play. *** Alice ponders the red box suspiciously. “This seems like a very, very expensive admissions process. In fact, the only logical conclusion of you setting me this interview question can only be- be- be- be- be…” *** Alice is paused, glitching, on screen. “What’s happened?” asks Charlie, pressing the simulator controls in frustration. “We haven’t pressed anything, why has she frozen?” Bob clicks open the source code to see what the problem is and receives an error message, stating the simulator is stuck in a recursive loop. “Oh Charlie,” grins Bob, “I think Alice concluded she is a simulation.”
The Story Behind the Glitch
he blue box definitely has a thousand pounds inside it. The red box either has a million pounds, or none. Surely, you must have more money if you take both? Newcomb’s Paradox adds an unsettling twist – if the predictor predicted you would take both boxes, the red box has no money. If the predictor predicted you would take only the red box, the red box has a million pounds. Then, surely you should only open the red box and get the million pounds inside. A paradox! To know your decision, the predictor must have run a very precise simulation of you, indistinguishable from your real self. When deciding, you cannot know whether you are the simulated or real version. If you are simulated, of course you should only open the red box, so that the predictor puts a million in the
red box for your real self to find later. Since you cannot know whether you are the simulation or not, you should always only open the red box. This framing of Newcomb’s Paradox was inspired by Professor David Deutsch, Visiting Professor at Oxford’s Centre for Quantum Computation. Deutsch’s version is available on the “Constructor Theory” website – a theory that reframes physical laws. Newcomb’s Paradox is a controversial component of a branch of mathematics called Decision Theory. Recent extensions of the paradox have encompassed quantum physics and machine consciousness. Maria Violaris is a Physics undergraduate at Magdalen College.
Reproducibility Crisis The wheels of change are in motion, but are they going fast enough?
Left and right Alexandrina Von Mann
et me ask you a question. What percentage of scientists know: that researchers themselves can’t even published research do you think is reproducible? reproduce their own work. Would people listen when Eighty per cent? Ninety per cent? What if I asked scientists speak the truth if scientists can’t agree on what you how much of published, peer-reviewed research is “true”? Or be OK with governmental or charitable you think should be reproducible? Nearly everyone funding of research? Trust in scientists and scientific inwould say one hundred per cent. stitutions would surely go down. If we can’t effectively Well, I’ve got some bad news: you’re not even manage this crisis the consequences for public trust in close. One prominent report (Begley & Ellis, 2012, science could be dire. Nature) found that, of fifty-three landmark cancer-reSo, what are the underlying causes? “Publish or search studies, just six findings (11%) were reproduc- perish” is a pervading mantra in the common rooms ible. Some weren’t even reproducible in the original of universities and research institutes worldwide. This investigator’s laboratory. These kinds of studies can and idiom illustrates the belief held by researchers young have spawned further research and clinical trials, lead- and old that as academics we must publish often, and ing researchers, and indeed patients, down paths with in high-impact journals, to survive and thrive in our dead ends. Early-stage career research“Researchers themselves fields. This lack of reproducibility in ers, in particular, can attest to that. can’t even reproduce research is known as the Research It’s easy to see how this pressure Reproducibility Crisis. The crisis could lead to conscious and subtheir own work” spans the biological sciences, ecoconscious failures to adhere to nomics, psychology, and chemistry, among others. It good, rigorous, scientific practice. Given the volume of exists, yet most people aren’t aware that it does. As a research published annually, and the incentives for genbiology PhD student, I wasn’t even fully aware of the erating high-impact research (money, publicity, career depth of the issue until I attended the Reproducible progression, even career survival), the crisis we now Research Oxford launch event in January. face is hardly surprising. The unenviable task now before us is that of changWellcome-funded survey of more than 140,000 ing the culture of research and shifting the incentive people in 140 countries found that 74% of peo- from getting research published to getting it right. ple trusted scientists. Imagine if they all knew what
hankfully, there are some good, robust, ongoing initiatives getting us started. Signatories of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) pledge to eliminate journal-based metrics (e.g. impact factors) from funding, appointment and promotion considerations, and to assess research on its own merits rather than the publishing journal’s prestige. Among these signatories are the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and nearly 2,000 more globally. If research becomes more accessible and open to criticism and scrutiny, standards will rise. Plan S is another initiative launched by a group of national research funding organisations to combat the increasing monetisation of science. It requires that, from 2021, scientific publications funded by public grants must be published in open-access journals or platforms. In this way, by eliminating publication paywalls we can return to the principles of modern science; namely universalism, collectivism, impartiality, and organised scepticism (Merton, 1942). Participating funders include the European Research Council and Wellcome, with more on the horizon. As with many revolutions, change is unlikely to be harmless. Early-stage career researchers producing the most impressive, high-quality, research, may be restricted in publishing in their “dream” high-impact journal if their funding body signs Plan S. They may miss out on promotion if their colleague, unhindered by Plan S, dazzles the hiring committee, all the more so if their institution hasn’t yet implemented DORA. These are my–admittedly–rather selfish (and optimistic) concerns, and I know they are shared by many others. Yet for the good of science, we must embrace the change that is coming; the quicker, the better. Conan O’Brien is studying for a PhD in Cardiovascular Science at Balliol College.
Breaking Through to the Sceptics
n science, a discovery is seen as a breakthrough if it brings about an important, dramatic, or sudden development. As such, it is usually accompanied by a great deal of hype, as journalists scurry to be the first to cover the facts. However, this perspective overlooks a much subtler and arguably more important type of breakthrough: how are these discoveries communicated to the wider public? Historically, ignoring this important obligation has resulted in a discord between researchers and the general population, creating a number of problems for both parties. A poor or elitist perception
of science reduces the diversity of people entering the field, whilst the lack of public support limits the funding available for research. But the most socially significant consequences arise when the public lose their trust in scientists: in 1998, a paper was published linking the MMR vaccine with the development of autism in children. The paper was universally discredited by the scientific community and subsequently retracted, but the the damage to public opinion had been done. UK Vaccination rates plummeted from more than 95%, “The ‘us and them’ which is the minimum coverage illusion must be required to maintain herd immushattered.” nity within a country, to less than 80%, which introduces a high risk of outbreaks in densely populated areas. The rates have never recovered and this unfortunate legacy persists, with both measles cases and anti-vaxxer sentiments on the rise in the UK. With so much of public well-being at stake, an urgent strategy to effectively break through to these resistant members of the public is clearly required. The ‘us and them’ illusion must be shattered. But this is a shared responsibility: the media should report amenably on sensitive issues; government should support school outreach and public engagement to inspire young people to take an active part in scientific discovery; and researchers should try to involve the public in their research. This combined approach has already proven successful with examples such as the 100 000 genomes project garnering significant public support. In 2012, the UK government supported the sequencing of 100 000 genomes from NHS patients with cancer or rare diseases. Almost 10 years on, thousands of patients have benefitted from the advances in medicine owing to this project, really demonstrating the importance of effective communication in science. Victoria Atkinson is studying for a DPhil in Organic Chemistry at Brasenose College.
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