Bang! SCIENCE MAGAZINE
THE WOMEN IN SCIENCE ISSUE
News in Focus
News in Brief
Mind Over Matter
Introducing the iKnife/Homo ex Machina
How to Make a Supernova/The Purple Revolution
Playing the Asteroid Lottery
Women in Science
Bird flocking formations 5 seXY Genes 12
Feminist Perspectives on Science 13
Women in Science Through the Ages 14
Bang! Talks to Nessa Carey 16
STEM: Mind the Gender Gap 18
Emilie du Chatelet 20
The Heart of the Matter 21
Feminist perspectives on science 13
Our Telepathic Future
Bang! Reports on Oxford Climate Forum
Riding a Plasma Wave
Bang! Talks to Sunetra Gupta 22
28 Bang! Recommends
Energy barriers 24
Bang! Staff Business Director Ross Hendron Business Team James Davies, Poppy Mills, Guowei Tao Publicity Kathryn Boast
Editors-in-Chief Alex Hooker & Sophie Perry Deputy Editors Amy Lineham, Gil Reich, Jacob Verter, Jennie Han & James Lau Sub Editors Antonio Ji Xu, Charles Coughlan, Jennie Han, Max Bodmer, Sana Suri Art Director Leoma Williams Colour Manager Marco Narajos Artists Ben Turner, Ellie Hammond-Hunt , Becca Carr, Christina Rhode, Rachel Humphrey, Leah Taylor Kearney, Miriam Chapman , Sharon Yip, Luke Bevan & Paavan Buddhev
Published by Oxford Student Publications Limited Chairman Mackenzie Grenfell Managing Director Emma Lipczynski Finance Director Harriet Bull Company Secretary April Peake Directors Jonny Adams, Kalila Bolton, Matt Broomfield, Rory Cox, Ella Richards, Minyoung Seo Cover art by Leoma Williams
Copyright Bang! 2015
Science has been pushing the boundaries of our culture and knowledge for hundreds of years, revolutionising our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This success and the alluring idea of objectivity makes it all too easy to overlook scienceâ€™s social role and foundations. The uncomfortable truth is that there remain significant gender and racial inequalities in the scientific world: from TV presenters, professors and Nobel laureates to A-level physics students, lab technicians and engineers. Science has been, and still is to some extent, a subject for the privileged. Though many victories have been won in terms of basic equality between the sexes, things cannot stop here. The ethos of the scientific community must alter in order to live in a world where itâ€™s the ideas that matter, not who they come from. Recent advances such as Athena SWAN and improving child care in the workplace are helping to push society towards an equal balance. Our Women in Science issue aims to explore the past, present and future of equality in the scientific community. We look at gender bias within scientific research, a problem which is all too obvious in the study of heart disease (page 21); possible explanations for the continuing gender imbalance in science; and the attempts being made to improve the situation (page 18). The centrefold highlights the historical contributions made by a multitude of women, from Agnodike, who disguised herself as a man and trained as a doctor (only to be found out and inspire many others) to Jane Goodall, who transformed our understanding of chimps and humans. Regardless of whether they were credited at the time, these women have hugely influenced the way we live today. We also had the chance to interview two scientists - Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetics Revolution, and Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, an epidemiologist and novelist, who is currently working on a website for children designed to raise awareness of prominent female scientists. Alongside all of this is the general section, exploring topics from the frontiers of science such as the recent breakthroughs that have made telepathy a reality (page 23) and the future of particle accelerators (page 26). The amount of interest in contributing to this issue has been overwhelming, and weâ€™d like to thank everyone involved.
To get involved, visit:
www.bangscience.org/get-involved or email firstname.lastname@example.org and apply by Friday of 6th week.
Sophie Perry & Alex Hooker Editors-in-Chief
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In Focus: three parent embryos
News in Brief
MPs have voted in favour of the UK becoming the first country to legalise the creation of embryos from three parents. The ruling was proposed in order to reduce the number of children who inherit mitochondrial disease. Mitochondria are small organelles which generate ATP, providing energy for the body. These miniature ‘powerhouses’ contain their own DNA, all of which is passed down from mother to child, since sperm do not contribute to the offspring’s mitochondrial genome. Mitochondrial genomes mutate at a high rate because the mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species as byproducts of cell respiration. These destructive molecules can then collide with and damage the unprotected mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This tendency to mutate, combined with the fact that the entire mitochondrial genome is passed down from a single parent, means that mtDNA can be a real risk to those inheriting a faulty form. Although having just a few of these mutated mitochondria is generally safe, the number of mutations multiplies when passed down to offspring, and a critical number of them can result in mitochondrial disease. Symptoms of the condition are diverse, ranging from respiratory disorders to lack of
neurological function. The diverse nature and rarity of the conditions makes it hard to pursue comprehensive treatments. The proposed law will allow the use of an in vitro fertilisation technique called cytoplasmic transfer, to replace the mutated mtDNA of the mother (which makes up a small fraction of the overall genome) with that of a healthy third party. This will eliminate the risk of contracting mitochondrial DNA for 150 babies a year in the UK, while leaving the rest of their DNA unaffected. The regulations must now be approved by the House of Lords, which is likely to pass them through.
Art by Ellie Hammond-Hunt and Leoma Williams
Better late than never The first stars lit up the universe millions of years later than was previously thought, according to new data from Europe’s Planck satellite. Previous assessments of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation suggested that stars appeared 420 million years after the Big Bang, but a recent report indicates that they were actually born 560 million years after. The new value is more consistent with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope.
That gut feeling
Researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have identified a connection between changes in gut microbiota and the onset of type 1 diabetes. The microbiome consists of trillions of bacteria and viruses that live in each of our bodies. Most are harmless – even helpful – but if “bad” bacteria take hold, it can lead to situations like inflammatory bowel disease. Previous studies have shown that transferring microbiota from diabetic mice to healthy ones increased the prevalence of diabetes in the second group. In the largest longitudinal study of the microbiome, researchers tracked the gut health of infants genetically predisposed to diabetes, analysing their stool samples from birth to age three. They found that babies who developed diabetes experienced a 25 per cent drop in microbial diversity one year prior to the onset of disease.
A recent study by Oregon State University found that drinking grape juice or wine (in moderation) could battle obesity. In a study on mice, the chemical ellagic acid, naturally found in grapes, was found to slow the growth of fat cells dramatically, and promote fat loss in the liver. The researchers hope that future therapies for obesity could include such dietary strategies.
Migrating birds fly in a V formation to take advantage of the aerodynamic benefits of flying behind another bird, but what’s in it for the bird at the front? Oxford University’s Bernhard Voelkl tagged and tracked an ibis flock to answer this question. When observing pairs of birds, he found that each indivual took it in turns to lead. Using game theory, Voelkl and his collaborators reasoned that this altruistic behaviour allows birds to maximise their coasting time when flying in large flocks. “By reducing the amount of energy they use, they can really increase their chance of survival,” said Voelkl.
... and the bees
Dr. Who attributed massive disappearances of bees to alien intervention, but scientists from Exeter University have provided a more terrestrial explanation. They reported that there is evidence that many wild pollinators are exposed to viruses that thrive among commercial species, resulting in multiple cross-infections. The main culprit of these infections is the varroa mite, an infamous carrier of the lethal disease Deformed Wing Virus. The social behaviour of bees provides the perfect environment for infection to spread between different colonies and species. Researchers are calling for new measures to be introduced to prevent the spread of disease.
News by Jennie Han, James Lau, Mery Shahin and Sophie Perry
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Mind Over Matter
How mindfulness can improve your mental health Mindfulness has experienced a renaissance in recent years, having successfully shed its association with pseudoscience and mysticism. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the first mindfulness therapy, describes the technique as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. Since the first positive clinical studies over three decades ago, a wealth of literature has grown in support of mindfulness and its ability to combat anything from work stress to recurrent depression.
The Varieties of Mindfulness Mindfulness techniques can be divided into two main styles: Focused Attention (Samatha) and Open Monitoring (Vipassna). Although Buddhist tradition dictates that the student begin with Samatha meditation and can only progress to Vipassna once this skill is sufficiently developed, the Mindfulnessbased Cognitive Therapy course that is widely used today incorporates elements of both styles. Focused Attention (FA) meditation entails voluntary and sustained attention on a chosen object – often the sensations arising from the breath. When attention inevitably drifts, the practitioner is taught to accept this as a part of training, to note the impermanent nature of the distracting event and then disengage with it to return to the object of meditation. FA primarily trains attention and concentration.
What Are The Benefits? Studies of mindfulness have shown that regular meditation produces changes in areas of the brain associated with decision making, attention and empathy. The technique also markedly increases the volume of brain regions linked to emotional regulation, increasing attention and productivity. Comparisons of regular mindfulness practice with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy found that mindfulness was equally effective but had a lower dropout rate. The systemic effects of mindfulness are similarly impressive: meditation reduces blood pressure, protects people from cardiovascular diseases and strengthens the immune system. Practitioners report experiencing long-lasting physical and psychological stress reduction and positive changes in wellbeing, while several objective studies have shown that members of this group are less likely to become depressed or exhibit addictive
Open Monitoring (OM) meditation involves non-reactive monitoring of the momentto-moment content of our experiences, be they sensory, emotional or cognitive. Zen is considered to be one form of OM. The practitioner is trained to experience current events without evaluation, interpretation or preference. In this way, OM differs from FA in that no emphasis is placed on training attention and, instead, complete acceptance is requested of the practitioner.
How to Incorporate Mindfulness into Daily Life There are many ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine through formal or informal practice. Formal practice involves purposefully taking time out of your day to meditate for a specified amount of time. This is highly recommended for those serious about benefiting from the effects of mindfulness. For the beginner, the focus of these sessions is to stay with the breath for the entire pre-determined time e.g. 10
minutes, and to gently guide your attention back whenever it strays. Informal meditation involves completing your day-to-day activities in a mindful way, focusing solely on the activity at hand and guiding your attention back to the activity whenever it wanders. The above advice deals with the Focused Attention form of meditation. More advanced or adventurous practitioners may wish to experiment with the Open Monitoring form which is much more flexible, with students getting little instruction beyond posture.
How to Meditate Mindfully Focused Attention – Find a comfortable position, sitting, lying down or walking, with your back straight but not rigid. Set yourself a time goal, e.g. 10 minutes. Attempt to pay attention to nothing but your breath for the entire time. Should your attention wander, accept this as part of learning and return to the breath without criticising the wandering. Open Monitoring – Find a comfortable position, set yourself a time goal, and practise accepting all experience that occurs within that time. Mindfulness’ newfound popularity may be in part due to its ability to meet some of the challenges found in an increasingly pressured and performance driven society. Mindfulness can be used at any “dose” the practitioner desires, from 5 minutes after breakfast to meditation retreats. If reducing stress and anxiety while boosting your ability to selfregulate and pay attention sounds good to you, then you may find yourself adding mindfulness meditation into your daily routine.
Michael Tai is a Medicine student at St. Catherine’s College Art by Sophie Malandraki-Miller
Introducing the iKnife
How to Make a Supernova
The cutting edge of cancer therapy When we think about advances in cancer treatment, sparkling new drugs, antibodies and personalised therapies come to mind; yet for localised tumours, surgery remains by far the most effective option. This presents problems of its own: many tumours do not form distinct boundaries, leaving the surgeon
blind. Cutting too close to a cancer runs the risk of missing the edges, or worse, releasing metastatic cells into the bloodstream.
Pocket-sized supernovas are helping us to understand the origin of magnetic fields in the early universe
Mass spectrometry has already led the way in eliminating this uncertainty in the lab. Although the technique allows scientists to identify and compare biological molecules present in cancerous and healthy tissues, it doesn’t help the surgeons at the operating table. How then, can the ions required for mass spectrometry be obtained? The problem is conveniently resolved by another: the plume of poisonous yet ionrich smoke released in electrosurgery. This smoke is harnessed by the iKnife, a recent innovation of Imperial College London which connects an electrosurgical knife and mass spectrometer. Created in 2013 by Dr Zoltan Takats, the iKnife analyses the ratio of different lipids in a tissue, a parameter
altered by disease but unaffected by age or nutrition. By using an algorithm to match the lipid profile to either healthy tissue, primary or metastatic tumours, the iKnife can identify cancers with over 97% accuracy in seconds. Furthermore, as the data collected from tumour tissue suggests a gradual transition in lipid distribution, the iKnife can alert the surgeon to cut further from the tumour when cancerous tissue is approached. Although it has made no mistakes in the real time identification of cancers in 91 patients, only time and further clinical trials will tell whether patient outcomes are improved by this innovation. Amber Barton Art by Sharon Yip
Homo ex Machina The cybermen are coming
In her 1983 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway asserts, “By the late twentieth century...we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” Though she wrote this in an effort to undo what she saw as regressive feminism at the time, her message still holds: the dualisms that have defined our culture (Male-Female, Black-White, MachineHuman) are losing meaning, and will soon be disintegrated. Neil Harbisson would agree. A British-Catalan artist, born with achromatopsia, a rare condition which prevents colour vision. After collaborating with a handful of scientists from around the world, Harbisson now has an “electronic eye” implanted directly into his skull. A forward-facing camera transmits the colours that Harbisson looks at to a microchip, which converts the light into a frequency that only Neil is able to hear. His ears hear as normal and he
can easily differentiate between these auditory inputs; in fact, he claims to be able to hear over 360 different colours - as many as the human eye can see. Harbisson has become an eager advocate for cyborg technologies; his own enables him to hear infrared
and ultraviolet light, and he has created a foundation devoted to extending people’s senses through technology. His story is far from isolated: in the last year, advances in cyberware have allowed a paralyzed man to finally move his hands and empowered seven-yearold Louis Cheftel to hear with both ears for the first time. Louis, who is the younger brother of Exeter College undergraduate Laura Cheftel, was given unilateral cochlear implants that were not effective prior to this
operation. A video documenting Louis’ story circulated earlier this year, and the smile that breaks across his face when he realizes the implant works should be enough to prove the power of this burgeoning field. With the explosive expansion of cybernetics in the recent past, it’s exciting to think what the future might hold. Evolving prosthetics can now be controlled by the mind, and brain implants have been shown to help people with Parkinson’s Disease. Despite such promise, the transhumanism trend has raised concerns about providing “superhuman” capabilities, such as for Oscar Pistorius, who was the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympic Games, in 2012.
Jake Verter Art by Leoma Williams
Supernova explosions are one of the most powerful events in the known universe. The violent death of a star radiates immense energy and outshines entire galaxies. Supernovas are also an important birthplace of the primordial magnetic fields that played a crucial role in the formation of galaxies. The precise origin of these fields is one of the greatest mysteries facing contemporary astronomers. Scientists believe that magnetic fields did not exist immediately after the Big Bang, but rather were born years later. Cosmic observations have indicated that all matter in the universe is magnetised from clusters. The prevailing theory is that tiny primordial fields were first generated from asymmetrical shockwaves due to misaligned density and temperature gradients, and then amplified by chaotic, turbulent motions. To test this theory, a team at the University of Oxford, led by Gianluca Gregori and Jena Meinecke, is using one of the most powerful
lasers in the world to recreate tiny supernovas that could fit in the palm of your hand. A carbon rod as thin as a strand of hair is ablated by lasers inside an ambient gas-filled chamber at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, reaching millions of degrees Celsius in a billionth of a second. This exploding material expands ballistically outwards, generating a shockwave that has been observed to create its own primordial magnetic fields.To amplify these tiny fields, a plastic grid is placed in the path of the laser-induced shockwave to create a turbulent environment. A similar event occurs in the universe as an expanding supernova encounters dense patches of gas and dust. The team’s experiments show that induced turbulence can stretch, twist, and fold magnetic fields like a rubber band, resulting in an overall gain in magnetic field strength. This observation is an immediate precursor
to turbulent dynamo— a phenomenon that constitutes an upper limit for magnetic field gain. Preparations are now underway at the National Ignition Facility to measure turbulent dynamo directly. Due to the high impact of these results, the team’s work has been named one of the Top Ten Breakthroughs of 2014 by Physics World. Jena Meinecke Art by Ben Turner
The Purple Revolution Could purple tomatoes help us fall in love with GM foods? Achieving food security - defined as access to sufficient, safe and healthy food - is one of the greatest challenges to modern society. The technology considered by many as necessary to reach this goal is that of genetically modified (GM) organisms. However, the use of such technology remains controversial in Europe. Professor Cathie Martin, a prominent plant scientist, cofounder of the UK’s first GM company and one of only three female scientists to win ‘Most Promising Innovator’ from the British Research Council, is leading research into engineering healthier food for the future. Her most famous venture is that of the purple tomato. These tomatoes have
been engineered to produce high levels of anthocyanin, an antioxidant responsible for purple colouring, through the addition of a gene from a snapdragon plant.
Antioxidants are known to have wide ranging health benefits such as preventing cancer. It has been shown that a diet high in anthocyanins can extend the lifespan of cancer prone
mice by 30%. Many fruits, including blackberries, contain high levels of anthocyanins, but are expensive. Instead the tomato represents an inexpensive fruit which is ubiquitous in many diets. Purple tomato juice will likely be in North American shops in less than two years. However, the future of purple tomatoes in Europe is less clear. It is hoped the large health benefits of this GM fruit, coupled with its successful and safe management will increase the popularity of GM, sparking a change in the way Europe views its food. Emily Morris Art by Miriam Chapman
Playing the Asteroid Lottery
The Women in Science Section
The Earth’s atmosphere protects us on a daily basis from small NearEarth Objects (NEOs), causing them to burn up before they reach us. But every so often, one is bound to be large enough to make it to the surface intact and unleash otherwordly damage.Seismic shaking and tsunamis are only the start. Delayed effects, including dramatic climate change,
“There is little doubt that one day an NEO will pose such a significant danger to the Earth that all human life will be threatened.” could well prove the most dangerous consequences of such an impact. After all, it’s widely accepted that just such an asteroid-induced environmental catastrophe led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. There is little doubt that one day an NEO will pose such a signification danger to the Earth that all human life will be threatened. However, owing to recent technological advances, we probably won’t suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs. The first stage of removing the threat of an NEO is simply to find it. Modern techniques for finding and tracking asteroids use devices to take images of a fixed area of the night sky with delays of several minutes. This data allows for the prediction of the asteroids’ paths as well as calculation of their size and mass. As a result of this kind of research, NASA believes that almost all NEOs capable of
causing mass extinction have already been found, with none posing an immediate threat. Even if any of these large NEOs were found to be on a collision course with Earth we would be likely to know about it long enough in advance to execute a suitable plan to prevent the collision. A number of methods of mitigating the danger posed by NEOs have been suggested, from ‘gravity tractors’ which would subtly alter the path of an NEO, to nuclear explosions, although such methods are as yet largely untested.
decades as literal stepping-stones in human space exploration by providing the building materials and fuel required. Asteroid research could also help us better understand our own past. With past studies suggesting that comets contain complex organic molecules, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Probe is currently investigating the exciting possibility that life on Earth could have originated with a comet.
Women make up 13% of STEM professionals in the UK
- A Near Earth Object (NEO) is an asteroid or comet which comes closer to the sun than 1.3 AU (the AU, or astronomical unit, is defined as the Earth-Sun distance)
5.5% of engineers are women
But NEO research is not just about avoiding the fate of the dinosaurs. Many Near Earth Asteroids are rich in valuable materials like plutonium, although the exorbitant costs that would be involved in returning the materials to earth rule out asteroidmining at present. Asteroids could more feasibly be used in the coming
- NEOs much smaller than this are still capable of causing significant damage, as shown by the Chelyabinsk explosion
- 99% of the threat comes from asteroids
In 2011, men were awarded 82% of computer science degrees
- An NEO of diameter greater than 1km could cause a global catastrophe, these are predicted to collide with Earth every 700,000 years
- Only 25% of these have been found
Rebecca Vaughan is a Physics student at Lincoln College Art by Ellie Hammond-Hunt
70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0
19% of STEM companies in the FTSE 100 have no women on their Board
- NASA estimates that 95% of these have been found - An NEO of diameter greater than 140m is capable of destroying a large city, these are predicted to collide with Earth every 30,000 years
1 out of every 5 A Level Physics students is female
In any case, the proportion of observed NEOs that would be capable of devastation on an apocalyptic scale is so small that it is rather the smaller, more frequent, and mostly undiscovered NEOs which pose a more realistic threat. On the 15th February 2013, with no advance warning, a meteor of just 17m in diameter exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia, creating a shockwave which injured over 1500 people. Although this kind of incident is rare, it ought to serve as a stark reminder that, despite recent technological advances, there is still plenty to fear from NEOs.
This section is devoted to the subject of gender inequality in science. The articles come at the topic from a range of angles: the centerspread contains mini bios of prominent women from the history of science, while elsewhere we consider current obstacles to gender equality in STEM, the relationship between feminism and science, and the dangerous consequences of medicine’s failure to recognise the differences between the sexes. The section also features interviews with Professor Sunetra Gupta, a virologist and novelist, and Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetics Revolution.
% of female scientific researchers
Being killed by a Near-Earth Object is 30 times more likely than winning the lottery. Should we be afraid?
What determines our biological sex? The evolutionary history of X and Y chromosomes Exploring the relationship between science and feminism
12 seXY Genes 13 Feminist Perspectives on Science
Look to our timeline to find out more about women who have contributed to science through the ages
14 Women in Science Through the Ages
Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetics Revolution, gives us her opinions on science communication and equality
16 Bang! Talks to...Nessa Carey
Read about the research that begins to explain the gender bias as well as what is being done to change it Learn about the 18th century marquise, translator of Newton and enlightenment philosophe Why do women have less chance of surviving a heart attack than men? Professor Sunetra Gupta tells us about her women in science website for
18 Mind the Gender Gap 20 Emilie du Châtelet 21 The Heart of the Matter 22 Bang! Talks to...Sunetra Gupta
Feminist Perspectives on Science
Despite progress, equality is still a way to go
The evolutionary history of sex determination Most people know that X and Y chromosomes are the root of sexdetermination in mammals but what many perhaps miss is that while the X chromosome has several thousand genes, none actually influence sex. In fact, just a single gene on the much smaller Y chromosome accounts for almost all observed physical differences. This region, known as the sexdetermining region (SRY) gene, codes for a protein called TDF. TDF is responsible for the development of testes and the production of testosterone, which leads to a cascade of sex-related changes in the body. It’s important to note that sex is different to gender – chromosomes, hormone levels or secondary sex characteristics do not determine a person’s identity. The massive impact of the SRY gene on sex means that any mutations can result in huge errors. For instance, people with de la Chapelle syndrome have a mutation that places the SRY gene in an X chromosome. People with this mutation develop testes and produce testosterone even if they don’t have a Y chromosome. Our current understanding of the development of this gene suggests that it originated around 180 million years ago. Most organisms at this time used temperature to determine sex, different
temperatures causing the production of different sex hormones. However, a mutation could have created a gene that made an organism male regardless of temperature. Over time, the chromosome that held this mutation would have accumulated more mutations that were favourable to males.
“Most organisms 180 million years ago used temperature to determine sex.” Normally, non-sex chromosomes within an egg and sperm recombine genetic information. However, some genes are only beneficial to one sex: for example, stags express a gene for the use of calcium to make antlers which is useless in does. As a result, recombination doesn’t occur between the X and Y chromosomes, making it possible for them to become vastly different via the accumulation of mutations. This process has allowed the Y chromosome to lose many of its genes, which explains the current discrepancy in size between X and Y. The ability of the X and Y chromosomes to evolve independently can lead to very unusual adaptations. For example, the butterfly Acraea encedon has developed a gene on its X chromosome which creates a poison lethal only to sperm containing a Y chromosome. The effect of this has been to vastly reduce the number of offspring born with Y chromosomes, to the extent that some populations are only 3% male. Given their potential for such strange outcomes, what lies behind the endurance and success of
XY chromosomes? The sex system means that chromosomes can contain variants which are beneficial to one sex without being detrimental to the other. Nature has found many ways of allowing this, as shown by the number and variey of different sex determination systems.
The XY system isn’t the only sex determination system. Birds evolved a similar ZW system around 140 million years ago in which ZZ is male and ZW female. Monotremes, a group of egg-laying mammals such as the platypus, have five chromosome pairs, parts of which are analogous to both the XY and ZW system. In some reptiles, temperature determines sex. The exact mechanism is unclear but it’s thought to involve the enzyme aromatase, which at a particular temperature converts the male hormone testosterone into a female hormone called estradiol. Perhaps the strangest system is found in Hymenoptera, an order including wasps, bees and ants. Fertilised eggs develop into females, while unfertilised eggs develop into males whose only genetic information comes from the mother.
Anna Lewis studies Biochemistry at St Catherine’s College. Art by Ellie Hammond-Hunt
As a scientist and feminist I am highly invested in building a healthy relationship between the two, from which both will benefit. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are there yet: women remain marginalized in a vast number of scientific disciplines and for as long as this remains the case, research itself cannot hope to be fully representative. The most dispiriting theory as to why inequality continues is that the scientific framework upon which all past and present research is built is inherently sexist. As a subject that progressively builds upon theories steeped in history, how is any future progress supposed to be gender inclusive, if its foundation is so exclusive? For example, in reproductive physiology, stereotypically masculine traits are attributed to sperm (the ‘active’ agents) whilst the egg is cast in a passive role. Conclusions drawn in this mindset underpin work we do today; a concept exhausting to those invested in the future equality of science. A second, perhaps more rectifiable, idea is that the nature of the questions, and imbalance in the recruitment of both participants and researchers are the historical source of gender inequality. This leaves open the possibility of redressing the balance by deliberately addressing previously neglected questions and groups. Recent brain imaging research has highlighted how female underperformance in certain tasks is related to stereotyped social expectations, an environmental cause with neurophysiological consequences. It is research such as this which could advance the quest for equality, a product of effective cooperation between science and feminism.
The ‘science wars’ of the 1990s saw arguments against feminist reformation of scientific disciplines, claiming that feminism, as a political movement, would threaten the objective sanctity of research. However, in so far as science constantly seeks to eliminate bias, any work with arbitrary underrepresentation of particular groups is simply bad science. Neuroscience shows us that male and female brains operate differently, coming to similar conclusions via different routes. It is important to acknowledge these differences, noting that different does not imply inferior. Male and female perspectives are equally required to arrive at the most well-rounded conclusion. Another element to consider is the use of science in the reinforcement of female oppression. The pseudoscience so often employed by cosmetics
companies, diet programs and even clothing brands attempts to convince those targeted, (primarily, though not exclusively, women) that they are inadequate. These advertising campaigns play on pre-existing insecurities, often stemming from unrealistic depictions of women in the media, to exploit such concerns to the point of purchase. In the context of wider alienation of women from science, such pseudoscience could be said to particularly target women
precisely because of their routine exclusion – if women are underinformed about science, how are they supposed to critically appraise what they are being told? Promoting equal
“Any work with arbitrary under-representation of particular groups is simply bad science.” engagement in science from school is key to improving this situation, an influx of women into positions of responsibility within the scientific community being sorely needed to produce any of the improvements suggested above. The challenge will be striking the balance between what is possible and what can actually be achieved. A total overhaul of research methodology and past enquiries seems implausible, however this should not be used as an argument to sit idly by allowing the current situation to continue. Any progress is valuable, be it ensuring equal recruitment into studies, addressing a greater breadth of research questions or promoting engagement in scientific careers. Redevelopment is needed to include not just women, but any individuals disadvantaged by traditional gender roles and social interactions based on heterosexual conventions – the imbalance in science extends far beyond mere female marginalization, exclusion of any individual on the basis of outdated societal constructs simply devalues the quality of the subject.
Amy Lineham studies Medicine at Oriel College Art by Luke Bevan
Women in Science: from 2700 BC In Ancient Babylon, High Priestess En’Hedu’anna managed the temple complex in the city-state of Ur. Also a prolific poet, her verses elaborate upon her astronomical duties, like tracking the position and phases of the moon, from which the modern liturgical calendars were eventually developed.
Merit-Ptah, was “the Chief Physician” in Ancient Egypt, and is generally acknowledged as the first recorded woman in science. Little is known about her, though she was sufficiently highly regarded to be buried in an elaborate tomb near Saqqara.
In Ancient Greece, women were forbidden on pain of death from becoming doctors. The noblewoman Agnodike disguised herself as a man so that she could study medicine, but was discovered once she began practising. Support from Agnodike’s patients prompted a change in Athenian law to allow women to train as physicians.
Caroline Herschel was the first woman to discover a comet (she found eight). Later, working alongside her brother, she increased the number of known nebulae – gaseous celestial clouds - from 100 to 2,500.
to the present day Wang Zhenyi was a renowned astronomer in the Chinese Qing dynasty. In her short life (she died at just 29), she calculated and explained the movement of solar and lunar eclipses, studied the number of stars in the sky, and simplified complex mathematical books to help teach beginners.
In 1973, Patricia Bath was the first African American to complete training in ophthalmology. She co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, where she invented the Laserphaco Probe. Routinely used in cataract operations, the probe has restored the sight of millions of people.
The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person to win two in different fields, Marie Curie discovered the elements polonium and radium, introduced X-rays into medical practice, and tested the use of radioactive isotopes in cancer treatment.
Although Chien-Shiung Wu helped develop the atomic bomb, her major contribution to science was her role in overturning the Principle of Conservation of Parity. Wu disproved this idea, though her colleagues neglected to credit her, and she was left out of their 1957 Nobel Prize.
Rita Levi-Montalcini’s career was cut short because of Mussolini’s barring of Jews from their positions. Unfazed, Rita continued to study the development of nerve fibres in chicken embryos from her backyard shed, leading to the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor, for which she won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Rosalind Franklin was an X-ray crystallographer whose diffraction pictures of DNA provided crucial inspiration for Watson and Crick’s double helix model. Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel prize for the discovery.
Despite her lack of formal education or training, in her early twenties Jane Goodall travelled to Africa and began a 38-year-long study that transformed our understanding of chimps and humans. Today she is the UN Messenger of Peace and continues to support chimpanzee studies and conservation.
Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, grew up with her mother learning just science and mathematics. Ada helped Charles Babbage to develop and expand upon his Analytical Engine. Her work included writing the first computer programs, and was cited by Alan Turing as inspiration for his work on modern computers a century later.
Researching retroviruses at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in the 1980s, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi was part of a team of scientists trying to identify a rare, deadly and enigmatic disease that had first been characterized in 1981. Two years later, Barre-Sinoussi discovered HIV, for which she won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Art by Christina Rode Words by Jacob Verter
Bang! Talks to... Nessa Carey
Nessa Carey is the author of The Epigenetics Revolution and a former Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Imperial College who also worked for many years in the pharmaceutical industry. Her next book, Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome comes out on March 5th.
One of the things that strikes me about The Epigenetics Revolution is that it really succeeds in making a tricky subject engaging and appealing to non-scientists and scientists alike. Is that something you set out to do and do you think science communication has a responsibility to be more open to everyone? I’m really glad you said that because that’s exactly what I was aiming for! I think it’s an exciting field and while it’s very revolutionary, it’s underpinned by concepts that are easy to grasp if explained correctly. I
really wanted to make it as accessible as possible because while it’s easy to write for specialists, it’s much more satisfying to write for people who don’t necessarily know the topic. Science communication and public engagement are massively important because what scientists do has such an impact on people’s lives. We need a population that are as well informed as possible, since all of us are paying for what scientists do, whether it be via taxes or fundraising. Scientists are realising this importance now and it’s great to see so many people in science communication. What made you want to write the book?
I was very lucky to get into epigenetics at a time when it was still quite a small field. My job was to build links with lots of really great academics working in the field, and so, because I got to know them very well, I would find out
about amazing work a year before it would come out in Nature. So I was being exposed to all this fantastic science and I was thinking “this is amazing, someone should write a book about this.” After thinking that for about six months, I finally thought “why not me?”, so I wrote the book, and I loved doing it. Were you particularly drawn to the revolutionary aspect of epigenetics? What I like about it is that it’s a field where there’s still lots that we don’t understand and it still causes fights. I’m definitely drawn to that combative aspect of it, which is why my next book is on junk DNA: it’s a very fast moving field, and there’s lots of controversy. The only problem with writing about fields like that is that you get overtaken by events really quickly – so bits of the book will end up out of date, but that’s inevitable with any science book. Do you think that science and scientists deal with these controversial issues well? No, not at all. Science has a rigorous method with very high burdens of proof, which is great, but what we’re very bad at as a community is recognising that we are also emotionally invested in things. I think that comes from our training, we’re trained in very linear and compartmentalised ways, and we forget that cells and organisms and biological systems don’t necessarily fit into our nice tidy categories, so we make various logical errors. I think this reflects that a lot of us scientists are not well enough trained in the rationale of science and the philosophy of science.
The idea that the complexity of the cell, or of the human brain, can be fully understood is a very seductive one, but do you think it’s realistic? I don’t think we’ll ever really get all of it. Even in a simple example, like epigenetics, there are two hundred different proteins, hundreds of different modifications and vast numbers of combinations. I have a suspicion that it’s mathematically impossible to fully understand it; once there are too many variables there is chaos built into a system which makes the results very hard to predict. In the same way that we’re better at predicting the weather but not perfect, I don’t think we’ll ever get to a stage where we can say with certainty how epigenetics works. You’ve had such an interesting and varied career. What interested you in science originally? I’ve always been interested in science and I’ve no idea why, there were no other scientists in my family. I was the kind of kid that was always off getting stuff out of ponds and taking things apart.
thought was most interesting at the time. Since you’ve worked in both academia and industry, what do you think of the relationship between them in driving innovation and bringing to market important drugs?
“I studied vetinary science but I hated it so I dropped out and became a forensic scientist“ It’s absolutely critical that the two work together in the field of drug discovery. Academia does certain things magnificently well; it takes a biological system and really gets to grips with how it works. In academia it’s possible to build up a depth of expertise that just isn’t possible in industry, because by the time industry realises something is important it’s too late to start the research! In the academic world, however, someone could be working on a specific thing for 10 years, but they won’t know how to take this knowledge and create new therapies and that’s what industry does very well. But industry will always need the innovative thinkers in the academic community - they are where the next big steps come from.
“We still have this huge problem where there just aren’t enough visible women at higher positions ” It’s very kind of you to describe mine as an interesting career but it’s actually just ridiculous! I studied veterinary medicine, but I hated it and was rubbish at it so I dropped out. I became a forensic scientist and did a degree part time, which I think was critical point when I realised I loved science and decided to do a PhD, and I’ve been working in science ever since, up until about 6 months ago. But pretty much throughout what I would laughably call my career, it’s always been a case of doing what I
Do you see yourself as a role model? I think everyone of my age has to accept that they’re a role model in some sense, whether like it or not. Because of the jobs I’ve done and now the book, I tend to be quite visible and that’s important because we still have this huge problem where there just aren’t enough visible women at higher positions in so many organisations. Even when you watch the telly, most science presenters are still male. This
isn’t being addressed quickly enough. In Biology and Psychology especially, there is a high number of women in the field as students, but further up the ladder of academia there are fewer and fewer women. Why do you think this is? This is definitely something that you see in every discipline. I can’t believe for a second that this is because women aren’t as good as men, these are just career structure issues and they reflect problems like a lack of family friendly policy. It’s important to create flexible career structures that will benefit both men and women. My experience is that industry is better for women than academia, because companies have HR departments with genuine power that get annoyed if they get sued, so they tend to be much better at creating policy and implementing it. Do you think that science can be an area that excludes minorities or less privileged people? Is access important in science? In some ways science departments are relatively diverse. The UK in particular has been good at attracting overseas students. What is an issue is ethnic minority groups or low income communities within the UK, it’s a homegrown issue. I think it’s a problem which stems from educational access and aspirations - and by that I don’t at all mean that people from these communities aren’t aspirational - I was one of them! What I mean is that kids in those communities might not even know that a career in science is a possibility, because of the lack of facilities in some state schools. We need to enthuse kids when they’re young and keep them enthused especially when, like in my case, they come from backgrounds with no history of science whatsoever. Interview by Sophie Perry and Alex Hooker
Mind The Gender Gap Since 2002, around 58% of the Bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US have been received by women. Despite this, women remain significantly under-represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, especially physics. Bang! looks to a number of authors to explain why women are the minority in science and what’s being done to improve the situation.
What about women who choose to leave science? I designed an online questionnaire calling for women in Oxford whose academic interests fall into humanities and social sciences. Given the limited sample size of 23 participants, I would like readers to view this piece as a collection of qualitative observations. 15 participants dropped scientific subjects during or after high school. When asked about their current attitude towards science, a distinct majority express interest and fascination: they read news on scientific advances and enjoy conversations with friends who have a science background. However, this curiosity comes with the impression of “being lost” and the challenge of grasping technical details with a limited scientific knowledge. Words such as “frustration” and “regret” particularly caught my attention – has sufficient progress been made on scientific literacy for the general public? Other answers highlight the delicate role of primary and secondary education. About half mention uninspiring teachers, bad grades and poor aptitude (attested or perceived) as reasons for walking away from science. A few respondents describe scientific subjects as dry, cold, abstract, leaving no space for creativity and critical thinking – an alarm bell for educators and science communicators? Maybe rather a confirmation that the image of any research area depends also on personal inclination. The views on female role models in science are mixed: while 7 participants advocate their importance, some note that such models can be distant and detached from day-to-day environments.The good news is that most of them are satisfied with their current path, only 5 would reconsider their options. The answers I collected form a picture that is in no way exhaustive, but suggests that it is meaningful to include more voices in the debate on women in science. I now wonder – what would men answer if asked the same questions? Is the gender gap part of a wider cultural phenomenon?
As soon as a child is born they are exposed to the idea of gender-specific colours, images and toys, something which should be minimised in order for everyone to get the same opportunities growing up. A recent advance has been provided by LEGO, who released a range of female scientist toys, a move welcomed by many. There’s a long way to go yet but perhaps soon we’ll see Barbie in a lab coat.
What is causing the gender bias? From a general feeling that sciences are ‘masculine subjects’, to active discouragement of women entering into a STEM career, there are a range of factors which are believed to play an important role in the number of women in science, but there has so far been little empirical evidence to back this up. Recent research from Montana State University appears to show that the images to which female undergraduates are exposed can affect the career choices they make. Volunteers enrolled in chemistry and physics classes were split into two groups placed in two separate rooms and given a survey on career choices. While one room was decorated with stereotypical images of male scientists, the other was gender neutral. The results showed that the women surveyed in the gender neutral environment were more likely to express openness to careers in science and technology, suggesting that very subtle influences can be of profound consequence for career choices. The effects are most pronounced in physics, where they were twice as strong as those observed in volunteers from the chemistry class. Smith proposed a mechanism by which this can occur. Initially, women develop an unfavourable impression of science due to ‘stereotype threats’ such as bombardment of male dominated images. These women are consequently less likely to participate in undergraduate research, and this lack of experience makes women less likely to consider a STEM career. Smith believes that introducing gender neutral language and images into the classroom may reduce the effect but is simply not enough.
What is being done about it? Oxford University currently has a 5 year strategic plan, spanning 2013-2018, for maintaining its position as one of the best educational and research institutions in the world. One aim of this plan is for everyone associated with the university to have equal opportunities in both education and employment based solely on merit. The main two ways in which it intends to meet this goal are by funding relevant projects through the Oxford’s Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Fund and adhering to the principles of the Athena SWAN charter. The Diversity Fund, established in 2013, pledged £1 million to fund projects aimed at eradicating inequality in parts of the university where certain gender or ethnicities are inadequately represented. It has funded twelve projects to date which range from creating posts and fellowships to slightly more obscure ventures such as the diversification of the portraiture in the Exam Schools. Around half of the money assigned so far has involved STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). One of the greatest successes of the fund has been enabling projects with long lasting effects, such as the creation of an online repository documenting the experiences of women in science at Oxford. However, given that no girls progress to A level Physics in 49% of maintained co-ed schools, perhaps it would be more effective for the fund to act at an earlier stage and consider a more access-based approach. The Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter is an alternative strategy in dealing with gender equality in STEM, tackling – amongst other issues - the unequal representation of the sexes in science. Oxford University has achieved and upheld a Bronze award since 2006. To move to a Silver award, the university will have to show a significant level of activity and achievement towards embedding Athena SWAN principles into their everyday operation, and can only achieve Gold on becoming a model member which promotes gender equality to the wider community as well as on campus. Two years ago the ECU commissioned a research team from Loughborough University to examine the impact of the Athena SWAN Charter in higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK. It found that although members had experienced good progress in career advancement, minimal impact had been made on inequality at undergraduate level. Words by Gaia Donati, Natasha Gillies and Robyn Phillips Art by Rachael Humphrey and Leoma Williams
Emilie du Châtelet
The Heart of the Matter
Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil was born in 1706 to a distinguished family close to the monarchy. As a child she studied Latin and Euclid’s Elements, but being female she could not attend a collège – a prestigious secondary school giving access to university. As the wife of the Marquis du Châtelet, she fulfilled her family duties: she bore him two children and worked assiduously to cultivate social connections that would favour her husband and offspring.
extensively, from Latin authors to the seminal works of Descartes and Leibniz. She soon developed her own ideas, taking “nobody on his word alone” in her studies. When she helped Voltaire with his experiments on fire, the two disagreed on the interpretation of the results and, as a natural solution to their diverging views, published individual commentaries on their conclusions.
Picture a heart attack. No doubt many of us will visualise a man clutching at his chest, struggling to catch his breath, his lips turning blue. However, often this image of the socalled “Hollywood heart attack” could not be further from the truth. 32,000 women die of heart attacks each year in the UK, and many experience none of these symptoms at all.
“I am persuaded that many women either ignore their talents because of poor education, or bury them because of prejudice and lack of a brave spirit. Chance made me encounter men of letters who befriended me, and I noticed with great surprise that they showed some consideration. It was then that I started to believe that I was a thinking creature.” - Emilie du Châtelet
Emilie had her own voice: she expressed herself as an Enlightenment philosophe. Her contribution to the scientific debate of the early 18th century became all the more evident in her most challenging achievement – translating Newton’s Principia from Latin into French. Divided in two tomes, her work started with a straightforward translation of the original text, followed by an additional explanation and a commentary both mathematical and textual. While she was as faithful a translator as she could be, in the latter sections she
The 18th century marquise who translated Newton into French and philosophised with Voltaire
Emilie du Châtelet did not openly oppose the conventions of the highly structured French society of the early 18th century. When, at the age of twenty eight, she embarked on an exceptional project of self-education and authorship, she did not do so as a revolutionary, forgetful of her rank. She wished to participate actively in “the search for truth” about the human nature and our universe – and the time had come to do justice to the “thinking creature” she had recognised herself to be. In 1735 she moved to the château of Cirey together with an illustrious companion – Voltaire, who needed protection from the royal censors and was fascinated by Emilie’s intelligence and wit. She read
gradually changed tone, pointing out dubious statements made by the English scientist. To support her commentary, she included references to later works that in some cases confirmed Newton’s predictions, and in others justified her criticisms. She broke with a long-standing, scholarly habit of omitting literary sources so as not to offend the reader – once more, she was
unorthodox in the name of truth, clarity and nothing else. Emilie du Châtelet participated actively in the quest for “the essence of nature” that animated the Republic of Letters in the first half of the 18th century. While she seemed to accept the limitations that the society imposed on her sex, this did not – could not, in her view – prevent a woman from nurturing her intellect through education and knowledge. Her talents and literary production were acknowledged across Europe at the time, so why was Emilie’s name neglected in later centuries? Conceptually, her writings make an atypical study subject because they are, as we would say today, interdisciplinary. Furthermore, early scholars attributed her translation and commentary of Newton’s Principia to one of her mentors; other manuscripts were forgotten. Since 1970 there has been renewed interest in her life and works. With more original documents to be found, the marquise who preferred science and knowledge to life at the court may surprise us once again.
Gaia Donati is a DPhil student in Atomic Physics at Linacre College Art by Leoma Williams
Differences between male and female heart attack symptoms have long been overlooked, preventing women from receiving effective diagnosis and treatment that higher levels of oestrogen may change the behaviour of blood vessels in women. The current misconceptions surrounding heart attack symptoms are arguably fuelled by public health campaigns, which have historically failed to publicise these differences.
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when the arteries supplying the heart muscle become blocked, depriving the muscles of blood so that they eventually die. In most cases this blockage is due to atherosclerosis, the process by which cholesterol and white blood cells accumulate in the artery wall. Although the dramatic “Hollywood heart attack” does occur, it is much more common in men than in women, who tend to experience more generalised symptoms, such as fatigue, vomiting and shortness of breath. These differences between the sexes in heart attack symptoms have long been noted but only recently has this area been explored empirically.
42% of women who have heart attacks die within a year, compared to 24% of men
Heart disease continues to be seen as a ‘male’ problem, with campaigns commonly using images of men and their symptoms. However, heart disease is actually the second biggest killer of women in the UK after dementia, and evidence suggests that women are less willing to get checked out when experiencing a suspected heart attack than men. Clearly, the bias in these campaigns needs to change if we are to encourage women to seek medical help for their symptoms.
occur in younger women. Why such variation exists between the sexes is not known. One prominent theory is
Sadly, the prognosis for women who do seek help is still worse than for their male counterparts. One study,
One study from 2012 looked at the over one million American men and women who had suffered from heart attacks within a twelve year period. The authors found that 42% of men presented with chest pain compared to just 30.7% of women, and that this symptom was even less likely to
32,000 women die of heart attack each year in the UK, 3.5 times the number that die from breast cancer which looked at 10,000 patients with heart attack symptoms at emergency departments in the US found that women aged below 55 were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home than their male counterparts. This troubling pattern of misdiagnosis of women has disastrous consequences: women sent home during a cardiac event have double the chance of dying than those that remain in hospital. Even the treatment of heart attack patients appears to be subject to biases between sexes. Why do these major discrepancies in the diagnosis, treatment and outcomes of men and women with heart attacks continue to exist? One major reason is that up until this millennium almost all studies on heart disease focused on male participants. As a result, the medical community failed to realise that women experience distinct symptoms. Even now, women make up just 24% of participants in heart-related studies. Nonetheless, change is on the horizon. In the US, the National Institutes of Health is investing 10 million dollars to include more women in clinical trials. In the UK, a recent study published in the BMJ found a new, more sensitive blood test could double the number of women diagnosed with heart attacks. Perhaps we are finally realising that heart attacks don’t discriminate – despite what Hollywood might have us believe.
Natalia Cotton is studying Medicine at Hertford College Art by Christina Rode
Bang! Talks to... Sunetra Gupta is both a novelist and Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford. Her scientific work uses mathematical models to understand the evolution of infectious diseases. In collaboration with the illustrator Ted Dewan, she is currently developing Shooting Stars, a website which will promote the importance of women in science to children. You’re both a scientist and a novelist. Do you see those as two separate careers or are they connected? Yes I see them as very connected. For one thing I was always doing both so it’s not as if I made a conscious decision to be a writer or to be a scientist. For me, I feel like both of them come from the same sort of impulse within me, so I don’t feel divided in myself. The media like to play up fears of a devastating global pandemic. Is that something we should actually be worried about? Personally I think that kind of thing is very unlikely. The main reason is that global travel actually exposes us to a range of pathogens, which gives us some degree of immunity against death, if not infection. If you look at the history, big pandemics have occurred in populations which are typically isolated and have very little exposure to any kind of related pathogen. For example, the 1918 flu pandemic was as serious as it was partly because in the previous 30 years there’d hardly been any flu around in Europe. Of course something like Ebola, to which there’s very little immunity in human populations, could
Professor Sunetra Gupta cause problems, but we also have very good containment facilities and management of disease has come along so well. It wouldn’t be high up on my list of things that I’m worried about and there’s a lot to worry about right now! You’re working with the illustrator Ted Dewan on creating a website about prominent women from the history of science. Could you tell us more about that? It’s taken a long time, because I received funding for this from The Royal Society five years ago. Initially the plan was to write a children’s book about prominent women in science, but that was taking too long and so we decided to create a website instead. The website is going to start with some of the more well known women, like Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace, and then we can keep expanding and add other women that people don’t know so much about. You must have found some very interesting stories that haven’t made it into the public consciousness? Well, interestingly in the last five years there’s been a lot more awareness, so stories like that of Ada Lovelace have become better known. Ada Lovelace was Lord Byron’s daughter and her parents were separated very early on. Her mother was very prosaic and anti-poetry, so she brought Ada up to do mathematics and philosophy and not look at poetry at all. But then eventually Ada realised that she was Byron’s daughter, and decided to explore poetry. When she started working on computer programming,
Our Telepathic Future
Recent developments have made direct brain to brain communication a reality. Are we ready for the consequences? Sharing thoughts across the globe, moving objects with your mind, controlling bodily functions in the blink of an eye — these may sound like supernatural abilities, but are in fact things that you could do right now, given the right gadgets.
Ada Lovelace as drawn by Ted Dewan for the website Shooting Stars
she actually felt that she was performing a sort of poetical science. Do you think that role models are important to aspiring scientists? Yes but I do worry that they are also sometimes slightly forbidding. I was certainly inspired reading about Marie Curie who was probably the only female scientist I knew about for a long time. I think that is important for very young women. But when you get to the point where you’re thinking “Can I do this for a living?” you want to see the full range of what’s possible and what life is really like being a scientist. I think we need to be very careful about just erecting these people who’ve been impossibly lucky or happen to be great geniuses. We need to make sure science is kept normal and attainable, and it’s important to emphasise how much fun it is. I think the emphasis needs to shift in every arena towards how much fun it is to do something rather than to be someone. Interview by Alex Hooker and Sophie Perry. Shooting Stars will launch in spring
It had previously been shown that our brain could manipulate computers directly through electroencephalography (EEG), the recording of the electrical activity of the brain with multiple electrodes placed along the scalp. But it wasn’t until last year that a second brain was added to the equation, demonstrating that direct brain-to-brain communication can be achieved between subjects located as far as 4600 miles away.
guage barriers have stood in the way of mutual understanding since ancient times, in the future we could use this technology to share concepts that are hard to convey with words or gestures,
“Who is accountable when your mind controlled device fails and commits a crime?” from emotions like love or pain to the fine motor skills needed to play a violin concerto, or to operate on a failing heart. A similar study showed that subjects thinking about moving their hand to fire a cannon in a computer game were capable of controlling the hand motion of another subject sitting in a different building.
In France, Dr Michel Berg had his brain activity picked up with an EEG and sent via the internet to India, where Dr Alejandro Riera received his thoughts in the form of light flashes that stimulated his brain via an electromagnetic coil in the forehead, a technology known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Direct brain-to-brain communication could also be of great use to patients who suffer from locked-in syndrome, in which they are aware and conscious but unable to move or speak due to muscle paralysis. Based on a similar principle, brain-machine interfaces, which translate the user’s brain activity into a command, have already improved the quality of life of paralysed patients by enabling them to answer “yes” or “no” questions, control the lights and temperature of their room, and switch the TV on and off. As the field advances and the risks of more invasive interfaces are reduced, amputees could be equipped with robotic limbs, allowing them to grasp objects or walk again.
The users were able to exchange greetings like ‘ciao’ and ‘hola’ with 90% accuracy. Yet the apparent simplicity of these messages should not obscure the potential applications of what the authors called ‘conscious brain-tobrain communication’, more commonly known as telepathy. Although lan-
But why should brain-machine interfaces be limited to restoring loss of function rather than turned to enhancing it? This seems to be the line of reasoning of researchers working on devices that monitor our mental state, which could enhance attention while driving or in a military mission, and ob-
jects that can be controlled with just the power of our mind. A team at the University of Minnesota has recently developed a thought-guided helicopter. The potential of this technology has not escaped big companies like Samsung, who is experimenting with a ‘mind-control’ tablet. However, such revolutionary technologies must be subject to ethical and legal scrutiny. How do we obtain informed consent from people who are unable to communicate in the first place? Who is accountable when your mind-controlled device fails and commits a crime? Or when a hacker takes over your cyborg arm? In the wake of the NSA’s surveillance programme, it is not hard to envision a dystopian future where mind reading is used
illegitimately to invade the privacy of the average person. Before synthetic telepathy reaches the high street, it is clear that issues with the reliability and consistency of devices must be resolved, and a firmly grounded ethico-legal framework laid down.
Antonio Ji Xu is a 2nd year Medicine student at Wadham College Art by Ben Turner
Bang! Reports on...
Oxford Climate Forum
Oxford’s Climate Forum brings together great speakers to disucss some of today’s most pressing issues. This year, speakers included Lord Anthony Giddens, Melissa Sterry and Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith FRS. Bang! sent Nathan Eizenberg along to keep us up to date. The atmosphere at the third Oxford Climate Forum was often heated and sometimes turbulent as leaders of the climate science world came together to discuss the weight on everyone’s shoulders – our changing climate. What precipitated was a clear message for young scientists: Speak up! The words echoed from every speaker – the issue is not the science, it’s the translation of the science. Opinion is no longer divided by inconclusive climate studies. Human-caused climate change is considered fact by 97% of climate scientists. We also know that it is the cumulative amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere that causes dangerous climate change, not the rate of emissions over any given period. Despite the overwhelming body of evidence that has been built up over many years, the key facts are still not widely accepted or understood. Climate change is still approached in the media as some sort of belief system and most policy targets still fail to address our planet’s diminishing carbon budget. Our major problem now is that the information is not being communicated conclusively to policy makers and to the public. This failure to translate is exemplified in politics by the Giddens Paradox: the idea that climate change science is too abstract and not dramatic enough for politicians to grasp until it is too late. Lord Antony Giddens said that the powerful inertia in politics and industry can only be stirred by public engagement of scientists.
Energy Barriers The current Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith boiled down the outlook for the planet’s future energy consumption. As developing countries close industrial gaps and demand more energy the global average consumption is predicted to increase by up to 75% by 2035. The supply of this energy is expected to come increasingly from fossil fuels while renewable energy contributions are set to stay relatively small. The infrastructure is already in place to keep burning coal, oil and gas. While technology for renewable energy is already sufficient and improving, the main hurdle is implementation and development of a large-scale green grid. Future energy needs can be met by fossil fuels reserves for at least the next 50 years at an even cheaper cost than current renewables. So at the moment there is no economic incentive to go green. But with every single “Global average consumption extra tonne of CO2 emitted our climate is expected to increase becomes more cha- by 75% by 2035” otic and increasingly dangerous. Sir Llewellyn Smith concluded with the warning “large scale changes in energy infrastructure takes decades – so action is needed now.” What action? Well there were some inspiring ideas shared at the forum by people aiming to create new paradigms, humanise climate change and propose tangible practical solutions.
Climate Solutions Successful climate compatible development needs collaboration between scientists, politicians and economists. The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) is an organisation that provides scientific advice to communities and governments in developing countries to help them build sustainable infrastructure and harness low carbon energy resources. The CDKN has an initiative that provides access to seasonal weather forecasts for small-scale farmers in Kenya at risk of extreme weather events. The forecasts helped farmers make informed cropping decisions by enabling them to plant seeds sooner before rainy periods or to choose the best variety of crop depending on the seasonal weather outlooks. Most farmers reported increased agricultural yield and felt confident that the forecasts would help them make effective, adaptive decisions in the future. When more than half of the world’s food produce is from small-scale farming, projects like this are helping us secure against world hunger in the face of changing climate. This is a perfect example of the empowering good that can come from the sharing and communication of scientific understanding. Panel after panel, inspiring speaker after the next, all problems could be reduced to a lack of communication. Young people feel disengaged from climate issues, blaming experts for being hollow and vague with their “carbon jargon”. Policy makers, on the other hand, feel unsupported by scientists and demand reciprocal engagement with researchers from start to finish. All of these issues were summed up perfectly by Kumi Naidoo, who stated that “nature does not negotiate, we cannot change the science, we must change the politics.” Above all, the Oxford “Human-caused climate Climate Forum is an important change is considered fact by event that exemplifies the power of 97% of climate scientists” having an interconnected academic community. Students, experts, activists, entrepreneurs and people otherwise in exclusive subsections of society are able to come together and collaborate. At the Oxford Climate Forum, people gathered for the modest discussion of the fate of our planet. To any who feel they share an interest in that fate, this writer recommends they come along to the next Climate Forum. And as for scientists, the plea is simple: engage, communicate and innovate. The future is in our latex-gloved hands.
Reporting by Nathan Eizenberg Art by Ben Turner
Creating a Climate for Change The Oxford Martin School is hosting a series of seminars delivered by leading academics on the subject ofclimate change. The series, called ‘Creating a climate for change: what’s at stake in global climate negotiations’, will run throughout Hilary Term. Further information can be found on the Oxford Martin School website.
19/02/15 5pm “Climate change and our oceans” 26/02/15 5pm “The perfect storm revisited: food energy and food security“ 05/03/15 5pm “Global water risks and the climate adaptation challenge” 12/03/15 5pm “Biodiversity and climate change: what happens when we turn up the heat on nature?” 30/04/15 5pm “Realising human rights in a warming world” 07/05/15 5pm “Top-down or bottom up: getting traction on climate change”
Riding a Plasma Wave
The next generation of particle accelerators could see electrons surfing on laser-induced plasma waves Particle accelerators have been around for over 100 years, moving from the humble beginnings of a simple cathode ray tube to the colossal 27km long, state of the art Large Hadron Collider, 100m under the Swiss Alps. But did you know that of the 30,000 in operation worldwide, less than 1% of accelerators are used for high energy particle physics research? Almost 90% are used for medical and industrial applications and are worth more than 500 billion dollars to the US economy alone, meaning that even small technological improvements have a large impact.
already electrically broken down, say a plasma (an energetic gas in which the electrons have been ripped off the atoms), then we can’t break it down any further by accelerating particles from it. Enter Laser Wakefield Acceleration.
Why are particle accelerators so big? Linear accelerators are big due to constraints on the accelerating cavities. The material used has a damage threshold; it can only support electric fields up to a critical value. Go beyond it and your cavity starts sparking worse than an arc welder – a problem known as electrical breakdown. This can be avoided by making an accelerator which passes the particles through the accelerating cavities multiple times – a circular accelerator. But these too are large, mainly because turning a particle moving at 99.999996% the speed of light is difficult at best, and using a bigger turning radius makes this practical.
“Think of the laser like a speedboat and the plasma like a lake. As the speedboat powers its way through the water it creates a large wake behind it upon which the electrons can surf ”
Sticking with linear accelerators, the current state-of-the-art liquid helium cooled superconducting accelerating cavities can add energy to a particle at a whopping 100MeV/m. To put that into perspective, that’s zero to one billion kilometres per hour in a metre (suck it Ferrari). But even with these state of the art machines it would take a linear accelerator approximately 50km to have enough energy to create a Higgs Boson! We are fast approaching a size which is simply unfeasible economically. So it looks like we need a new way of doing things. If the main problem facing linear accelerators is the sparking of the metal cavities, why not remove the cavities all together? Bear with me here. If we take a material which is
Laser Wakefield Acceleration, a concept first proposed in the 1970s, works by firing an intense laser pulse into a plasma. The laser pulse essentially snow-ploughs the electrons out of its way, leaving the ions behind. This separation of positive and negative charges creates a huge electric
field which can be used to accelerate particles. Think of the laser like a speedboat and the plasma like a lake. As the speedboat powers its way through the lake it creates a large wake behind it upon which people (or electrons in our case) can surf upon. Accelerators of this type can add energy to particles at an impressive 100,000 MeV/m (1000 times greater than in conventional particle accelerators). This means reducing your 1km long linear accelerator into something which could comfortably fit onto a lab bench. Manufacturing a more compact, less expensive particle accelerator would benefit industry, medicine and research alike. In particular, being less expensive to build, an accelerator like this could be placed in more hospitals and treatment centres around the world to perform medical imaging and radiation based therapies. Well then, all that’s left now is for
me to say “Give me my Laser Wakefield Accelerator!” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple (pro tip: it is never that simple). There are several big challenges ahead before these new devices could become a viable alternative. First and foremost, these systems require a large laser, with power on the scale of terawatts, to run correctly. Again perspective is helpful; this is comparable to the entire worldwide power consumption. Luckily they run for less than a trillionth of a second. Secondly the repetition rate (number of particle bunches you could accelerate per second) is about one to a tenth – compare this to the thousands of bunches per second achieved by conventional accelerators. Lastly there are problems associated with the beam quality and stability. It is nowhere near the level needed for precision particle physics experiments, though for many medical and industrial applications it isn’t far off. It is clear that there are challenges ahead, but incredible advances have been made in the research and development of these accelerators since they were first proposed in the 1970s. Recent experiments have shown acceleration of the order of 4GeV in a few centimetres. A conventional accelerator would require a tunnel several hundred meters long to achieve the same effect! While they cannot currently replace conventional accelerators, this is an extremely promising lead in the pursuit of the next generation of particle accelerators.
Robert Shalloo is a DPhil student in Particle Physics at Lincoln College.
The Male Contraception Revolution
This post from Biodetectives examines the alternative to female contraceptives. the Parsemus Foundation, which aims to find low-cost solutions to problems which have been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry.The Indian version of this treatment called RISUG (Reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance), which uses the same technique but a different polymer, is already in phase 3 clinical trials in India and has been patented in Bangledesh, the US and China. The Parsemus Foundation acquired the intellectual property rights for RISUG in the US: Vasalgel is their version of the product, which they are now testing in order to meet FDA regulations. So far Vasalgel has been tested in rabbits, where it was shown to effectively prevent the release of sperm. It was also fully reversible and is currently being tested in baboons - so far it The sperm duct is the same tube that has been shown to be effective in is cut in a vasectomy and it is hoped preventing pregnancy. This means it that Vasalgel will be equally effective is already well on the way to human in preventing unwanted pregnancy. trials and, if all goes well, will enter However, unlike vasectomy, Vaselgel should be easily reversible: the polymer mainstream use. Some estimates predict that Vasalgel could be on the will remain in place for a limited time market as early as 2016 in the US. after which it can be removed. This Also in development is the so-called technique has been developed by a ‘clean sheets pill’ which would be taken not-for-profit organisation called From the pill to the coil, women have a lot of choices when it comes to contraception. Men, however, have essentially only three: condom use (unreliable when used incorrectly), withdrawal method (borderline terrible failure rate) or a vasectomy. But not for much longer! We could now be on the verge of a world where, for the first time, men have equal opportunity to control their fertility. Vasalgel is a method of long-term male contraception currently in development. A minor procedure is carried out under local anaesthetic: a polymer hydrogel is injected into the sperm duct. This gel blocks the passage of sperm, preventing it from leaving the body during ejaculation.
before sexual intercourse in order to prevent ejaculation during orgasm, whilst not affecting the experience of orgasm. One exciting advantage to this method is that it may also be effective in reducing HIV transmission from the male to his sexual partners. However this is still in an early research phase.These exciting new methods will not only allow women to share the heavy burden of responsibility for contraception with their male partners, but will allow men to have greater control over when and if they have children. Some women suffer from side effects of hormonal contraception, so improved male contraceptive options would enable them to take a break from the pill or implant. In couples using both male and female contraception this would be a true ‘belt-and-braces’ approach. Also in the case of the ‘clean sheets pill’ there is the added possibility of reducing HIV transmission. This research is therefore an exciting prospect - watch this space! Sophie McManus is a former editor of Bang! and current Biodetective
Junk: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot
When Henrietta Lacks, a tobacco farmer from Virginia, died in 1951, she never knew the cervical cancer cells that killed her would one day would help eradicate polio and even reach space. Rebecca Skloot looks past the famous cells and sets out to reconstruct Henrietta Lacks’ much overlooked life with the aid of Lacks’ only living daughter. The subsequent 10 year journey produces a stirring and thought provokingbook. Skloot’s vivid story-telling paints a vibrant portrait of Lacks’ life and 1950s medical practices, in a book that ends up being about much more than Henrietta’s life.
Nessa Carey’s most recent book will be on shelves in March. This book will answer the question of what the majority of our genome, the ‘junk’, really does. The Perfect Thoery Crown Publising
This biopic draws you into what is ultimately both a tale of a fierce romance and the tragedy of Hawking’s suffering with motor neurone disease. The great discoveries Hawking was making at the time are made evident and accessible to any viewer, while Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the pioneering cosmologist certainly lived up to the hype surrounding the actor. An inspiring and heart warming must-see.
The Drugs Don’t Work: A Global Threat Dame Sally Davies This short guide to the challenges facing the pharmaceutical world against ever evolving bacterial infections is a fantastically accessible way for anyone to engage with the issue. Its innovative introduction and conclusion passages, imagining a future world in which antibiotics are no longer effective, with protagonist ‘Mr Zu’ fighting a previously inconsequential infection are especially compelling. Though it could be criticized as an overly brief review of a very important topic the book cleverly side steps this issue by recommending a wide range of further reading resources. Authored by the Chief Medical Officer, this quick reminder that antibiotics may not always be the wonder cure we thought is well worth a read.
Written by Professor Pedro Ferreira, this will come out in paperback in March. Professor at Oxford University and a regular on Horizon, Farreira will tell you everything you need to know about Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
The Theory of Everything James Marsh
Working Title Films
Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind Yuval Noah Harari’s explanation of mankind will be available in April. Pretty much any question you’ve ever had about yourself and how you came to be will be answered in this book. Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime Available now on Kindle. Val McDermid explains the science behind her hugely popular mystery novels. Oppenheimer Just out at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Get inside the mind of the man who built the atomic bomb at the RSC in Stratford-upon -Avon.
Bang! Science Magazine - The Women in Science Issue