Cambridge’s Science Magazine produced in association with
Issue 12 Easter 2008
Hydrogen Economy The Future of Fuel
No Peppered Myth
Darwinian Evolution in Action
Science Meets Art A Conceptual Rethink
Saliva’s Secrets . Aubrey de Grey Appetite Control . Biofuels . Science and the Web
Science with a Spittle of Saliva
Your Hungry DNA
No Peppered Myth
Adding Fuel to the Fire
Djuke Veldhuis describes a needle-free method of biological sample collection
Gareth Blades reports on graphene, siliconâ€™s new rival, as it takes centre stage Nature or nurture? Marianne Neary takes a behind-the-scenes look at our waist lines Stephen Montgomery gives us the final word on evolution Bryony Parrish quenches your burning desire to know more about biofuels
Editorial 02 Welcome to Issue 12! News 03 Scientific Soundbites Undergraduate 04 Your Research Projects Away from the Bench 10 Sun, Sea and Science in Saudi Arabia Focus 12 Insight into Hydrogen Power Initiatives 20 Sense about Science Arts and Reviews 22 When Art Meets Science History 24 As I Live and Breathe... Technology 28 Collaboration with Web 2.0 The Pavilion 29 Scientific Art Exhibited A Day in the Life of... 30 Aubrey de Grey Book Reviews 31 Steven Austad and BjĂ¸rn Lomborg Dr Hypothesis 32 Answers to Your Scientific Stumpers
2 | Editorial Issue 12: Easter 2008 Editor: Kat Austen Managing Editor: Nora Schultz Business Manager: Michael Derringer Production & Publicity: Terry John Evans Pictures Editor: Adam Moughton Submissions Co-ordinator: Maya Tzur In Brief Team: Beth Ashbridge, James Kelly, Katherine Thomas Predoc Projects Editor: Nora Schultz Book Review Editors: Beth Ashbridge, Peter Basile Focus Editor: Ashley Winslow Focus Team: Chris Adriaanse, Tristan Farrow, Gareth Haslam, Alexandra Lopes, Chloe Stockford Features Editors: Tamara Evans Braun, Nikiforos Karamanis, Juliette Redhouse, Nora Schultz, Natalie Vokes A Day in the Life of... Editor: Amy Chesterton Away from the Bench Editor: Matthew Yip The Pavilion Editor: Tristan Farrow Initiatives Editor: Nikiforos Karamanis History Editor: Kat Austen Arts and Reviews Editor: Natalie Vokes Dr Hypothesis: Mike Kenning Second Editors: Sophie Bennett, Marlis Herberth, Rose Spear Pictures Team: Sonia Aguera, Agnes Becker, Jon Heras, Jamie Marland, Ben Mills, Kelly Neaves, Bryony Parrish, Tom Wilks, Sanne de Wit Production Team: Nora Schultz, Mico Tatalovic, Djuke Veldhuis, Ashley Winslow President: Jon Heras
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There are a few new things about this issue of BlueSci. There’s an entirely new design and layout, and in addition we have added some exciting new Regulars. I’m very happy to introduce The Pavilion, our new, visually biased ‘arts and science’ page. This page complements our Arts and Reviews section, which also deals with the blurring of the boundaries between art and science. This issue’s Focus gives an excellent overview of hydrogen as a source of energy, not only in the many ways of exploiting it, but also in the environmental and social consequences of doing so. Alternative energies
and environmental concerns are also picked up on in our feature on biofuels and the History section. It’s also a great pleasure for me to include a new Technology Regular, which addresses the use of Web 2.0 in research, and in keeping with this computational theme we have a discourse on graphene as one of our features. The editorial aim of this issue has been to cover a broad range of interesting topics both within mainstream science and on its peripheries. I hope you find our new design pleasing to your eyes, and our content and new layout both accessible and enjoyable.
Nora Schultz Managing Editor
This issue of BlueSci completes the fourth successful year of Cambridge’s very own popular science magazine. The editorial team at BlueSci were spoilt for choice this term. We had more submissions than we could fit into the magazine, including for our new Regular Predoc Projects, which features undergraduate research. You will find some of them published online at www.bluesci.org – please do have a click and read. Our website also brings you weekly science news, written by our dedicated news team, as well as full access to all past BlueSci content.
I hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we did putting it together. And if we manage to pique your own interest in science communication, even better: there are fantastic opportunities to get involved with BlueSci. Work on Issue 13 begins now and will continue over the summer. We will be looking for writers, editors, illustrators and producers. The BlueSci film and audio teams also have a few exciting projects planned over the coming months, including a collaboration with Nature and a new podcast following last year’s hugely successful film about the Large Hadron Collider. Either way, we’d love to hear from you.
news | 3
Mars A TEAM of Dutch geoscientists have established the timescale of the formation of Martian stepped-deltas. These geological features are found on the surface of the planet and provide a record of previous surface water flow. In the past, morphological studies based solely on the data collected by space probes offered only
Professor Susan Evans, responsible for the discovery at UCL, suggests Beelzebufo had a much more diverse palate than its present day relative: “Its diet would most likely have consisted of insects and small vertebrates like lizards, but it’s not impossible that Beelzebufo might even have munched on hatchling or juvenile dinosaurs.” Evans adds, “Our discovery of a frog strikingly different from today’s Madagascan frogs, lends weight to the controversial paleobiogeographical model, suggesting that Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent and South America were linked well into the Late Cretaceous.” The finding is not only an important one for the field of paleontological biology, it also fuels the debate about how
an estimate of the duration of ancient hydrological events on the planet’s surface. The new modelling approach aims to provide a more precise understanding of water flow on Mars by calculating the timescales of the formation of various Martian landscapes. The data suggest that stepped-delta formation was driven by a single hydrologic event and was not characterised by long-term silt deposition, as was previ-
Research carried out at the University of Granada has found a natural compound in olives that is seen to prevent and inhibit the growth of cancerous cells. The study, carried out by Drs Fernando Reyes and Jose Lupianez, looked at the response of both colon cancer cells and normal intestine cells to treatment with maslinic acid, a waxy compound extracted from the leaves and skins of olives. Maslinic acid has been found to be selective, acting only on the carcinogenic cells that have a lower, more
the Earth’s land masses were arranged millions of years ago and may be a piece of the jigsaw that could settle the argument, for now. BA
ously believed. The water volume required to produce the observed landscapes is significant, comparable to that discharged by rivers like the Mississippi. Because soil permeability on Mars is unknown, calculations suggest that the basin in the Martian canyon quickly filled with water, as opposed to undergoing a slow process of sediment deposition. The timescale for the generation of these morphologies, including fan
acidic pH. The compound stops the proliferation of the cancerous cells by inducing cell cycle arrest, cell shrinking and ultimately cell death. It has also been shown to inhibit the development of cancer in cells that have a higher predisposition to develop it. While the study focused on the treatment of colon cancer cells, the researchers say that it could also be used in the treatment of other types of tumour. Clinical trials will be required to see if maslinic acid can be used effectively as a therapeutic treatment for cancer. KT
creation, canyon erosion and basin filling, was a minimum of 15 days to a maximum of 130 years, while past data suggested a timescale ranging from decades to millions of years. These results are consistent with a topography sculpted by the fast release of a significant amount of water, rather than the surface accumulation of sediment, and serve to clarify the origins of water flow on the surface of Mars. JK
The FOSSIL of a giant dinosaur-eating frog was recently discovered in Madagascar. This finding suggests that the island, just off the southeastern coast of Africa, was linked to the Indian and South American land masses at around the time of the dinosaurs. A collaboration between UCL and Stony Brook University, New York, unearthed this 70 million-year-old species, which resembles today’s horned toad, a species previously thought to only have lived in South America. Weighing around four kg, Beelzebufo (‘the frog from hell’) expands on the already diverse history of species that have been discovered in Madagascar – a land famous for its meat-eating dinosaurs, plant-eating crocodiles and giant snakes.
4 | Predoc Projects
WHEN I tell people that I study van der Waals forces, I have come to expect them to roll their eyes and think back to A-level Chemistry. But there is quite a bit more to these forces than the pair-wise attraction between atoms. Current theory suggests that van der Waals forces attract two plates to each other because only certain
wavelengths of light can fit between them. In contrast, all wavelengths can exist outside them, and this exerts a net inward pressure on the plates. I calculate the van der Waals forces between two plates of material separated by a very small gap (typically tens of nanometres). The materials have different refractive indices in differ-
A Glimpse into Earth MANTLE xenoliths are rocks that have been brought up from the interior of the Earth by volcanoes. Their chemistry reveals much about the past events that have shaped our planet’s surface. During a geology project, I examined sixteen of these rocks from three different locations in the Antarctic: the Jones Mountains, Alexander Island and Adelaide Island. The Antarctic Peninsula formed when an oceanic plate and a continental plate met, and the oceanic plate was forced down underneath, called a subduction zone. Dehydration of the oceanic plate can cause melting of the mantle wedge between the two plates, which in turn causes volcanic activity at the surface. The xenoliths that I studied came from the lithosphere, which includes the crust and the uppermost mantle. Their chemistry and mineralogy reflect their evolution including melting events and enrichment in certain chemical elements. They were erupted by volcanoes at subduction zones, but at different times at the three locations – some 50 million years ago and others 5–10 million years ago.
ent directions. Graphite has a different refractive index parallel and perpendicular to its hexagonal sheets. The equations are harder to solve, but give results for more materials. Some of them, like graphite or titanium dioxide, are important in paint or paper production, so understanding them better is clearly desirable. The theory is astoundingly accurate at predicting the van der Waals forces between materials. It can
even be used to calculate the energy required to melt van der Waals bonded solids, such as argon, which is an inert gas at room temperature that becomes solid at a chilly -190°C. Van der Waals forces also explain how geckos can climb sheer surfaces, like glass. All in all, a little more interesting than A-level Chemistry. James Dimmock calculates van der Waals forces in the Department of Physics for his Part III project
Rules of Attraction
I investigated the texture of the rocks and mineral content and compared the results with existing geophysical and tectonic models of the Antarctic Peninsula. The xenoliths provide new information on the evolution of the lithosphere’s composition at a subduction zone in response to melting of the mantle, and the enrichment that is associated with a subducting oceanic plate.
Aidan Ross studied xenoliths for her Part III project in the Department of Earth Sciences
A colourful xenolith
Tracking TOX3 Mutations in Tumours CATCHING breast cancer early is essential for effective treatment. It is hoped that research into the genetics of the disease will allow us to identify women at risk, and help to develop new drugs to treat advanced cancers. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that a variant of a transcription factor, TOX3, is associated with the risk of developing breast cancer. In patients with this variant the disease is also more likely to invade other tissues. In tumours that spread to the bone there is an increased level of TOX3, but in some other breast cancers, the gene is deleted. As such, TOX3 might function as a ‘tumour suppressor’, a gene that prevents cells from becoming cancerous.
To find out more about the role of TOX3 in breast cancer, I screened 40 tumours for mutations in the TOX3 gene and found two mutations that alter the amino acids of the TOX3 protein. These mutations may, however, be normal variants, or changes with no effect on the disease. To investigate this I am screening more samples, to see if these mutations also occur in other breast tumours. Further work is needed to discover the normal function of TOX3, and whether the mutations we have found compromise this function, contributing to the development of breast cancer. James Jones screens breast tumours for his Part II Pathology project
More undergraduate reports at www.bluesci.org/undergrad
FEAtures | 5 Tom Wilks
choice to dribble some saliva (yes that’s right, plain old spit) into a pot? Saliva collection is safe, easy, non-invasive and accurate; good correlations between saliva and the
completely injudicious. Although few people are aware of it, over the last decade saliva diagnostics has really come of age. Headlines such as “Fast saliva test for HIV
Urine collection...wouldn’t you rather SPIT into a pot? majority of plasma components exist, it is ideal to use in remote locations and is particularly suited to young and elderly subjects. Not only is it psychologically less threatening, which means lower attrition rates in research settings, but it also circumnavigates cultural taboos. Saliva as a diagnostic tool was perhaps first employed in ancient times when a guilty or not guilty verdict would be passed on the basis of whether a person could swallow a mouthful of dry rice. When we are anxious, our body’s stress reaction reduces the flow of saliva, thus making swallowing difficult. Therefore the logic that a guilty (nervous) victim would fail at this task was not
gains federal approval” and “Saliva test to detect breast cancer could be done by dentist” spark hope for safer, faster and less invasive testing for major diseases. Even though it has taken a while to
change the ambivalence that has until recently characterised professional opinion, the sensitivity and specificity of salivary tests (99% for HIV) are such that it is no longer a second-class diagnostic tool. Screening that could previously only be carried out with serum can now be assessed using saliva. This includes (viral) antibody levels, growth factors, drug traces, hormone levels, DNA and RNA. In clinical settings, saliva can be used to assess risk behaviours such as alcohol and tobacco use, to diagnose hepatitis and Julian Todd
re you one of the honourable 3 million who give blood in the UK? If so, you will be familiar with the alcoholic odour of the antiseptic, the feel of the cold needle on your skin and the slight crater-like depression that forms just before the needle pierces it. Those of you with ‘deep’ or ‘rolling’ veins will probably find this experience all the more abhorrent, as repeated stabbing may be necessary. Some of you might be lying in a state of peaceful bliss, but more likely you will be somewhere between nervous and petrified. As far as giving blood is concerned, I doubt it will get any less painful anytime soon, but what about those times when you give blood for analysis of hormones or antibody levels? If you had the choice and it made no difference to test results, would you prefer to have someone stick a needle into you to take blood or perhaps attempt the difficult task of aiming into one of those urine collection pots? What if you also had the
Saliva samples can be obtained from inhospitable locations, such as caves
6 | FEAtures Saliva Diagnostics The actual salivary analysis is via the ‘Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay’ (ELISA), which has a high level of sensitivity and robustness as well as being highly cost-effective. The ELISA works by “competitive binding”, where the amount of a molecule of interest in the saliva is calculated by measuring the amount of ‘free’ antibody (not bound to the molecule) after it has been incubated with the saliva. This is done by adding a ‘secondary antibody’ to the solution, which changes colour when it reacts with the rest of the free antibody. The higher the concentration of the molecule in the saliva, the lower the eventual signal, as there is less free antibody available for the reaction. to detect measles, mumps and tuberculosis, to name but a few. The ability to track notorious diseases, such as cancer and HIV, in a non-invasive manner and on a large scale presents unprecedented opportunities. What is more, the number of commercially available kits, including ‘at home’ kits, has sky rocketed. They are popular for many reasons. From women tracking their ovulation cycle to promote
their chances of conception to people wishing to check their vitamin and mineral levels, they all share the preference for a stress-free method that can be carried out in the privacy of their own home. Saliva is one hundred times less infectious than blood since the concentrations of antigens are much lower. As such, it is also a much safer diagnostic tool. This is especially true in third world countries, where there are shortcomings in sterile medical equipment and properly trained individuals. Saliva collection requires only a moderate training effort and skilled individuals can collect repeated samples without supervision. For my thesis, which examines human behavioural and endocrinological adaptation to stress, I travelled to a remote island, part of Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean. Think of a society that only emerged from the Stone Age in the last century: no running water, no electricity, no sanitation and people still
primarily living off subsistence agriculture in houses made from bush materials. Serum samples typically need to be frozen to -20˚C. The best I could get was a generator powered ‘fridge’ at a first aid outpost. Such limitations explain why many medical studies limit themselves to urban centres, which, although unrepresentative of the population as a whole, sometimes provide the only means for any research to be carried out. The obstacles to someone trying to take blood samples don’t stop there: the phenomenon of sorcery is still widely prevalent in this Melanesian society and presents further complications. A particular worry surrounds the belief that a practitioner will cast a spell on some part of the victim’s body, be it hair, a fingernail or excrement, and explains opposition to certain ‘western’ practices such as the use of pit latrines. Fortunately for me, in the last few decades widespread health program screening for tuberculosis, which is also
done by means of a salivary sample, had let people grow accustomed to this western ‘ritual’. Thus, despite being in a third world country, the fact that components in saliva are stable in ambient temperatures for at least seven days meant that this research was viable in the chosen location. I was able to collect over 750 saliva samples from 66 individuals from tribes that had never been sampled previously. With an ability to provide us with so much information about the body, salivary analysis has a bright future. Undoubtedly the resolution offered by salivary assays will increase as the sensitivity of assays increases, so next time someone wants to stick a needle in you, perhaps you can ask them whether there is a less painful way – a dribble of spittle might well suffice.
Djuke Veldhuis is a PhD student in the Department of Biological Anthropology
Gareth Blades watches graphene, silicon’s new rival, take centre stage The silicon chip industry strives with religious zeal to fulfil Moore’s law: every 18 months, available computing power should double. Failure to meet this demand seems like failure of the greatest magnitude. Unsurprisingly, then, this industry is a forward-looking one, constantly seeking new methods and new materials for innovations to shrink transistor size. Such efforts have
typically focused on silicon, but as the limit at which silicon can consistently conduct a charge is reached, new materials are being sought out that can conduct at smaller length scales. One such candidate
Graphene outperforms the speed of silicon technology
is graphene, the single-layer variant of the more familiar bulk material graphite, found in the very mundane ‘lead’ in your pencil. To be a true contender for silicon’s crown, a new material must fit certain criteria: it must outperform existing technology, require minimal investment, be available at a low price and production must be scalable. Does graphene fulfil all of these requirements?
Two parameters affect a transistor’s processing power: the speed at which it can conduct charge and the length over which this charge is conducted. Consequently, a rival to silicon must favourably change one of these two parameters. Graphene, due to its exotic conductivity characteristics, out-performs the speed of conventional silicon technologies by an order of magnitude. Moreover, it is twice as fast as its closest rival, gallium arsenide. Amazingly, these conduction speeds are coherent at room temperature; such blistering speeds are usually only achieved near absolute zero in other semi-conductors. For a material that is only a single layer of atoms thick, graphene’s conduction properties are not perturbed by increased temperature. This may seem insignificant, but the world of the transistor is a hot one, and consequently a material with inconsistent properties as temperature rises is not useful. More importantly for the demand for shrinking transistors, graphene’s characteristics remain consistent at sub-10 nanometre length scales. Even more tantalising is that these tiny dimensions are already regularly
achieved by proof-of-concept devices. When this is coupled with the current semi-conductor industry roadmap prediction of silicon transistors only reaching the 22 nanometre domain by 2016, graphene becomes a very interesting material indeed. If graphene can manage to improve on both transistor parameters, a
lines and personal computer architecture. This transferability means it could be easily incorporated into current modes of production. Another stumbling block when switching from silicon is that any successor’s production must be scaled to an industrial size. The current method for isolating graphene from bulk graphite is by using Sellotape to peal off individual layers. This may seem like a crude technique to isolate a single layer of atoms, but it is astonishingly reliable and reproducible. However, scaling this up into an industrial process is hard to imagine. This is in stark contrast to silicon production, which involves growing very large single crystals and slicing them up into wafers
The world of the transistor is a hot one truly phenomenal device can be made converting a material of scientific interest to a disruptive technology. Naturally, switching to graphene would not be easy. The integration of any new technology into an existing framework will be expensive. However, having invested billions, if not trillions, in lithographic process development and assembly line automation, the transistor chip industry requires minimal disruption from an innovation. Fortunately, graphene, though a single layer of atoms, can withstand the high temperatures and corrosive etchants used in silicon lithography. Graphene can be fashioned into conventional transistor designs so there is little disruption to current assembly
of a desired size. As a result, although graphite ore is relatively abundant, a major stumbling block to realising industrial scale production of a graphene transistor is isolating the material itself; this is no small requirement. Nonetheless, as a silicon replacement graphene has huge potential, and its one shortcoming can be overcome with some expense and hard work. The silicon chip industry is desperately competitive, and a breakthrough could result in huge profits. It is likely they will be keen to invest in the astounding material that is graphene. The day may not be far off when computers have ‘graphenium inside’. Gareth Blades is an MPhil student in Micro and Nanotechnology Enterprise
Jamie Marland & Ben Mills
FEAtures | 7
8 | FEATURES
Michael Derringer & jon heras
Your Hungry DNA Marianne Neary finds out why we just cannot seem to control our appetite YES, we have all been there. We all steal the surreptitious glance in the shop window. We have all dunked a biscuit in our tea, cradled warm chips at the Van of Life, nicked the last cherry bun from the bread bin. Most of us dream of the day when we waltz past that shop window, flick our hair and see our new, skinny self gliding past. We try. We mostly fail. So what’s the problem? The bottom line is: our national bum-print is big. Though in reality, our derrières are the least of our worries, with obesity being one of the biggest factors contributing to the
Obesity Stats • Britain is one of the fattest European countries: 22% of adults are obese while over 75% are overweight, almost quadrupling the figures from 25 years ago • 10% of British six year olds and 17% of 15 year olds are obese, tripling figures from 20 years ago • Obesity shortens life expectancy by nine years on average • Obesity costs the NHS £1 billion every year. Further losses to the whole economy through lower productivity and lost output, could exceed £7 billion
big killers: heart disease, stroke and cancer. The thing is, no one really knows what controls our appetite, why some people are obese and why it is so hard to lose weight. If we did, well, we wouldn’t see magazine racks stacked with a dozen different new diets. So, is it our genes? Yes, actually it is. Well partly anyway. We see obesity running in families and we all have the annoying friend who complains they cannot put on weight. However, our search for ‘obesity genes’ is confounded by the fact that families share much of their environment, making genetic and environmental causality hard to distinguish. Twin studies have been key here: twins are born at the same time and can be assumed to be brought up similarly, in terms of food and physical activity, so effects of differential environment can be ruled out. We can compare rates of obesity in identical and nonidentical twins who share all or half their genes, respectively. Researchers at University College London, lead by Jane Wardle, examined over 5,500 twin pairs. They found that you are much more likely to become
Does Nature Crave Nurture? obese the more similar your genes are to an obese family member. Indeed, they attributed a whopping 77% of body mass index and waistline difference to our genes. A small handful of genes have been identified, for example the FTO gene, a
therapy enthusiasts can save their pennies for a good while yet. And it is not just the DNA sequence of our genes that is currently under scrutiny, but their expression too. Chemical modifications such as methylation affect the
The bottom line is: our national bum-print is big variant of which predisposes its carriers – nearly half the European population – to an extra 1.2 kg of blubber per copy. But we are still far from pin-pointing most genes, and we likely won’t be able to count them on our fingers either. Gene
3D structure and packaging of our DNA, essentially altering access of the transcriptional machinery to particular genes. Before we are even born, our genes are being finely tuned for our future environment. ‘Epigenetics’ is the new buzz word.
Take desert locusts, for example. Their wing and metabolic phenotype is determined during the larval stage by pheromones emitted by the mother according to population density. Evidently, wing shape does not confer any immediate advantage to the larvae, but a wing geared to migration would enable the locust to escape overcrowding more easily, should that situation persist in the future. Such ‘predictive adaptive responses’ are clever tools enabling us to overcome temporary environmental blips, like overcrowding, without permanently altering the heritable gene sequence itself. Now, apply this to the context of food availability. It comes as no surprise that women who were pregnant
during the Dutch famine produced offspring that now display high rates of obesity. The intrauterine environment predicted scarcity of food, but the actual future environment of these children was one of plenty. So why doesn’t a maternal environment of plenty tweak a child’s genes to reduce over-eating ? Well, it seems that we just don’t have the signals to convey this message. Indeed, large babies tend to become large adults, too. Only in the last 50 years or so, in developed societies, has food become plentiful for the masses. Humans have been on an evolutionary treadmill of survival, programming us to eat as much food as we can, when we can. We cannot reverse millions of years in a few short decades.
FEAtures | 9
So in fact, we may all be predisposed to becoming over-weight. But just because some of us have genes that increase our chances to gain weight, does not make it inevitable. We may all have to make a positive effort to opt out of obesity. This has proved, and is going to be, difficult – for some more than for others. We have Darwin to thank for that. Looks like we’re back to square one. And back on that treadmill. Now, where did I put my copy of Woman’s Weekly...?
Marianne Neary is a third year medical student. Read more about the genetics of obesity in our special report at www.bluesci.org/obesity
Steatopygia (protruding buttocks). This distribution of weight is common in some peoples inhabiting hot climate, where it helps to maintain heat loss. A clear display of genes controlling adiposity.
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10 | away from the bench
Sun, Sea and Science in Saudi Arabia The Arabian explorer Freya Madeline-Stark once remarked that academic life had given her “some of the necessary ingredients for travel; I learnt to rely on myself...perhaps the most important of all assets a
operation, recompression chamber, and 32 staff, to carry out fieldwork at Ras Qisbah, an inlet to the southeast of the Gulf of Aqaba. This was an exceptional opportunity, as Saudi Arabian waters are
Saudi Arabian waters are off-limits to the many scuba divers flocking to Egypt off-limits to the many scuba divers who flock to Egypt to explore the Red Sea each year. My team’s task was to ‘ground reference’ a satellite image of the area as the basis of a habitat map. Four of us – two PhD stu-
trical fieldwork equipment, and because of this we had tarpaulin wrapped tightly around this plastic box containing a hub of technical instruments. Whoever was in charge tracked the progress of our tender by sticking their head right into the box as we moved across the satellite image. They would shout out bearings and distances that would take us to areas of interest, while keeping a close eye on the water depth readings and guiding the underwater camera through the on-screen viewer. In the heat of the day and among some considerable swell, it was not an appealing task David Obura
traveller can possess, for it minimises barriers and enhances endurance.” Doing a PhD gives rise to a certain amount of self-reliance, and I recently had the opportunity to employ mine for an endurance-testing couple of weeks doing fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. The expedition arose from a collaboration between the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit and the Living Oceans Foundation, established in 2000 by Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia to support ‘science without borders’ for the conservation of oceanic life all over the world. Next in line to the throne and a keen diver himself, the Prince allocates use of his ‘Golden fleet’ to researchers for a month each year, comprising various boats, yachts and seaplanes. We joined an international team of 14 scientists on the Golden Shadow, a 67-metre ship complete with a dive
dents, a supervisor and boat skipper – worked from a 25-foot tender, collecting underwater video footage and information on key environmental parameters such as depth, salinity and water temperature. Surveying involved one of us standing on the bow, intermittently lowering the underwater camera on a cable to a depth that was shouted across from the person in the stern with the technical instruments. Equipment was stored inside what became affectionately known as the ‘hot box’. Any marine scientist worth their salt knows not to mix seawater with elec-
Sarah Hamylton standing on the bow of Small Cat lowering the underwater camera to the sea bottom
away from the bench | 11 Gwilym Rowlands
Sarah Hamylton and Sam Purkis measuring the reflectance of sand 20 m below the water surface overwhelmed crept upon me. to stick your head into a This was not exactly the boiling hot plastic box while serene experience that most fixing an eye on the underpeople would associate with water camera viewer, spindiving in coral reefs. Upon ning around as it descended the water column. Naturally, reaching the bottom, everyone became absorbed in this job fell to one of us PhD students. Each afternoon we would dive to investigate interesting areas in more detail. Armed with underrecording our surroundings water cameras, writing slates, measuring tapes and – scribbling down the species of coral present, describing various bits and bobs, we the topography and photowould descend to intriguing graphing the underwater features selected from the communities. We collected satellite image. reflectance measurements On one such dive, we from the seafloor to model were exploring three large, the absorption and scathoneycombed holes. As I tering of light through the swam down against a conwater column. Back on the siderable current, trying boat, dives were followed to keep sight of my teamby animated discussions on mates’ fins as they charged the processes underlying full steam ahead, struggling the formation of these reef to adjust the settings on structures. Theories tended my dive computer with the to be varied, with an ecolooverbalancing weight of an gist, a geologist, a geomorunderwater video camera phologist and an inquisitive in one hand, that familiar boat driver on board. feeling of being slightly
While it all sounds very exotic, the image of our research team lying on a beach sucking from a straw in a coconut shell is far from the truth. Fieldwork is inevitably accompanied by
easy it is to forget, in the everyday rush to meet deadlines, about those special experiences that arise through research. These days spent out in the field were comprised of a really
Images of our research team lying on a beach sucking from a straw in a coconut shell are far from the truth the pressure to get everything done in a short timeframe, and can sometimes be monotonous. Rather than floating happily among bright shoals of fish, our dives were spent scribbling on underwater slates and taking pictures of dead reef. Late nights and early mornings were the status quo, and endless preparatory tasks and planning extinguished hopes of a muchneeded power nap. That said, I remember watching our ship captain take down the courtesy flag upon leaving Saudi waters and being reminded of how
enjoyable mix: the proximity of the underwater world with a dash of adventure, the comfort of the Golden Shadow and its pleasant company, physical exertion, intellectual stimulation, progression up a steep learning curve and the satisfaction of achievement all combined to make the experience both rewarding and unforgettable.
Sarah Hamylton is a PhD student at the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit
12 | focus
The Promise of Hydrogen The Montreal Protocol, the Kyoto Protocol, the Keeling Curve: popularised by the public concern with global warming, these words have become commonplace in everyday vernacular yet
globalisation, sustainability and dominance of a minority. Notwithstanding the disputes of scientifically based environmental concerns, a progression with the current dependence on oil will only
this issue’s Focus, we take a closer look at hydrogen as an alternative to our fossil fuel economy. Can we find the answer to our own sustainability in a reality that lies somewhere
How realistic is the dream of global sustainability? they originate from policy and science. Despite the controversy associated with the term ‘global warming’, there exists a nervous fervor, a need to reverse the problems caused by global population booms and greenhouse gas emissions. A global economy dependent on fossil fuels has brought not only environmental concerns but questions of national security,
limit the rapid evolution of a globalised world. Hydrogen has been heralded as the answer to both pollution and renewable energy. But with every revolution comes the concern of opening Pandora’s Box, in much the same way that the discovery of oil in Spindletop, Texas, gave birth to our current petroleum-based economy. In
between media, politics and scientific promise? How realistic is the dream of global sustainability? Could the evolution of a new era in energy foretell the redistri-
bution of the world’s wealth and power? These questions are central to the possibility of a hydrogen-based economy. As science expands, the boundaries of current hydrogen technology and governmental policy shapes future infrastructure, it will be public questioning that challenges both our current dependence on oil, and its replacement. Ashley Winslow is a PhD student in the Department of Medical Genetics
How Does it Work? The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Burning hydrogen in conventional internal combustion engines (ICE) may be the fastest way to make the transition from fossil fuels, but at present it still produces greenhouse gases as byproducts. To make a hydrogen economy sustainable we need a fuel cell, an electrochemical engine, that emits only water vapour. The description of the fuel cell is simple and was first published in 1839 by the Welsh scientist and judge, William Grove. Hydrogen gas is fed to the anode of the cell where it is oxidised to form free electrons and hydrogen ions. The electrons then pass through an external circuit, which can be connected to an electric motor in order to do work, whilst the ions pass through the acidic electrolyte and combine with oxygen to form water. Taking advantage of the electrochemical reaction of
hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity directly avoids both the unwanted emissions and the limitations of the carnot heat cycle, (the carnot cycle describes the theoretical maximum efficiency of any heat engine – a typical car engine is only 25% efficient). There is a range of fuel cells available, which differ according to the electrolyte used. The most promising design is based on a thin proton exchange membrane (PEM). PEM fuel cells are suited for powering mobile devices such as vehicles or laptops. However, mass commercialisation of these devices is prohibited by their reliance on platinum to catalyse the electrode reactions. Besides its expense, there are not sufficient amounts of platinum in the Earth’s crust to produce enough fuel cells. A team of modern-day alchemists from the
University of Cambridge aim to develop base metal substitutes that would dramatically lower the cost of production. Professor Tim Burstein’s group in the Department of Material Science and Metallurgy has been working on improving the catalytic activity of tungsten carbide, a compound that is resistant to corrosion in the acidic electrolyte but is also able to oxidise hydrogen. While the activity of the compounds they are producing needs to improve by a factor of 10 to be viable, it is hoped that improved synthesis methods can make tungsten carbide a realistic alternative to platinum.
Gareth Haslam is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry
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Is hydrogen the latest fashion accessory? BlueSci asks if a hydrogen economy is a real possibility or just a passing fad and back again is simple. In principle you get the same energy out as you put in, but the poor efficiency of the cycle makes it an energy sink. This energy needs to come from somewhere. Many have sold hydrogen as a green solution. But most of the hydrogen we use today comes from natural gas, a source that is neither green nor sustainable, a fact at odds with its environmentally friendly image. A controlled reaction of methane with steam produces hydrogen to power fuels, and also as much carbon dioxide as conventional combustion. Although hydrogen cars have green emissions the hydrogen source still relies on fossil fuels. The variety of ways that hydrogen can be produced means there are options available to improve its green
the answer? societal applications. The price and technology of hydrogen compared to fossil fuel-based alternatives means that most applications seem to be doomed to commercial failure. Industry needs early adopters paying premiums to develop the technology to bring down prices. However, for most people the ‘green’ option is not viable while fossil fuels remain considerably cheaper. Hydrogen is not a fuel in the traditional sense. Though abundant, hydrogen is not in a readily attainable form. Coal, oil and gas are classed as fuels because they can be mined or extracted with minimal energy and are ready to use. Energy in the form of heat, electricity or light is needed to generate hydrogen from water, making hydrogen an ‘energy carrier’. The chemical reaction behind the production of hydrogen from water
credentials. Using carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems which prevent the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would make the production from methane greener. Less conventional methods using micro-organisms or photocatalysts are available, but not
yet on a competitive, commercial scale. Conversion from methane remains the cheapest method by far. Renewables offer the hydrogen economy a sustainable future without fossil fuels. Harnessing the energy from solar, wind, hydroelectricity and other sources could provide a supply of hydrogen. A benefit of hydrogen rather than electricity production is that hydrogen offers a means of storing and releas-
Where are we going wrong? ing the energy. Producing electricity directly has a greater efficiency but batteries, which offer a similar mobile storage solution, are expensive, heavy and lose their charge over time. It may be that nuclear energy is the key to a hydrogen future. Fusion, like the energy from the sun, is a safe and controllable potential source for electricity or hydrogen. But will it work? And, more importantly, will it work in time? A hydrogen economy faces numerous challenges. Government reports on both sides of the Atlantic have acknowledged the difficulties in switching to hydrogen. With any developing technology, there is a lack of clear direction. Hydrogen storage is challenging, particularly for the transport industry. Current compressed gas cylinders or cryogenic tanks used in cars cannot compete with the standards set by petrol. Maximising the hydrogen content within containers is critical to achieve this standard. Chemical
A hydrogen economy could be a wonderful thing. Energy from water available to all, green emissions and pollution free cities, a limit to climate change. These are just a few of the possibilities that have the potential to revolutionise our environmental, economical and political landscape. However, global consumption of fossil fuels is still increasing and we seem to be far from a carbon free world. Where are we going wrong? Today, hydrogen is arguably a luxury item. Cars fuelled with hydrogen are expensive and little more than concept cars. NASA originally developed hydrogen technology to provide electricity and drinking water in space, not as an energy solution. Cost was not an issue for NASA, but it is for everyday
Fuel cell design
14 | focus ceres power
Welding tip on a hydrogen fuel cell
Is hydrogen environmentally friendly? Moving to a hydrogen economy could be one way to avoid global climate catastrophe. But is this just a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul? Could a hydrogen economy be just as bad as, or even worse than, our fossil fuel economy? Hydrogen oxidises to form water. It is possible that the cooling effect of an increase in water in the upper atmosphere will upset the balance necessary to maintain the protective ozone layer, which absorbs harmful ultraviolet light. Normally, hydrogen levels are stabilised by natural cycles in the atmosphere and soil, with anthropogenic sources, such as car exhausts, having only a small impact. In 2003, researchers from the California Institute of Technology presented a model that predicted the effect of doubling the hydrogen concentration in the upper atmosphere. This model, based on estimated leakage rates of 10% resulting from transport and storage, revealed that anthropogenic emissions of hydrogen would quickly dominate the hydrogen cycle. Although their results suggest that increased atmospheric hydrogen would not directly result in ozone loss it would lower the temperature in the atmosphere, possibly destroying the highly unstable ozone molecules, and leaving the
Earth exposed to the sun’s harmful radiation. Using a more complex model, Dr Nicola Warwick from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, came to different conclusions. Her research took into account reductions in carbon monoxide, methane, and nitric oxide emissions that would result from a hydrogen economy. The model predicted only a 20% rise in stratospheric water compared with 35% by the previous model. Overall, the cooling effect was estimated to be small. Dr Bartek Glowacki, reader in applied superconductivity at the University of Cambridge, questions the significance of hydrogen emissions. Glowacki believes that hydrogen will be stored and transported as a cooled liquid due to its common use as a coolant for superconductors and a general energy vector, therefore limiting its potential to escape into the atmosphere. However, Warwick believes that it is hydrogen’s ability to reduce hydroxide, and thus increase the abundance of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which would be a more important concern. Gareth Haslam is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry
storage in halides or within carbon nanotubes may offer a solution. Safety is another concern: hydrogen is highly flammable and weakens metals, hindering distribution and storage. Hydrogen could potentially be generated by the end user or natural gas pipelines converted to carry hydrogen. Both will need considerable investment; a switch to hydrogen will not be simple. We are not going to run out of fossil fuels tomorrow, nor convert to a hydrogen economy. We must decide what we want to achieve. Are we looking for a green alternative to carbon? A way of reducing our dependence on foreign oil? Or a way of reducing our current carbon emissions? How the political and economic landscapes will shift in the years to come may be the deciding factor. Priorities change. “The hydrogen economy faces competition in a market from electricity and also residual fossil fuels. I’m not convinced hydrogen will definitely emerge as the fuel of the future, but I think it’s one potential candidate,” says Dr Bill Nuttall, lecturer in technology policy at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and architect of Fusion Island. Change is upon us but the future for hydrogen is unclear. Hydrogen does not offer a simple solution. The reality of the hydrogen economy today is far from the green, ‘available-to-all’ dream that has been promised. Hydrogen lacks a single vision of the future, an inevitable fact considering the numerous possibilities and how fundamental fossil fuels are to our current way of life. We are not without hope for a hydrogen-fuelled future. Science can develop solutions to the most challenging problems. We need to develop technologies that will reduce our dependence on carbon while providing sustainable energy. An energy revolution is going to happen. The next 100 years will see a huge amount of change. Will hydrogen be part of it?
Chris Adriaanse is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry
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Toyota and Daimler Chrysler all agree that Iceland will shape the first fully hydrogen economy. They are using the country, which has one of the highest ownership of cars per capita in the world, to promote protoype cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells. Reykjavik boasts the world’s first hydrogen bus fuelling station, built in 2003 into the site of a regular refuelling garage to test three hydrogen fuel cell buses. Overall the project lasted three years and made such an impact that many nations have implemented similar bus systems. In Europe, nine cities have employed such buses in a trial program, CUTE (Clean Urban Transport for Europe). London was involved in the trial, which ended in 2005. The buses for the trial ran between Convent Garden and Tower Gateway. The project was deemed a success and Transport for London wants to see 10 of the buses in place by 2010. Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells are expected
Iceland could be a hydrogen society by the 2030s that Iceland could be a “Hydrogen Society” by the 2030s. Arnason, along with the Icelandic government, hopes to replace fossil fuel usage with hydrogen throughout the transportation system. Although this seems optimistic, Iceland is already one of the world leaders in hydrogen technology. With such potential, how much progress has Iceland made? General Motors,
to appear on the market in Iceland in 2010. Carmakers promise low costs on these new models which, combined with the government’s promised tax breaks, adds an economic incentive to the environmentally friendly enterprise. Could these hydrogen cars be produced on a larger scale? William Clay Ford Jr., great grandson of Henry Ford and executive Chairman of the Board of Directors
of Ford Motor Company, stresses three factors that are critical to the mass commercialization of fuel cell cars: cost, high volume production and accessible infrastructure. To address this last issue is the concept of the ‘hydrogen highway.’ This would involve a sequence of filling stations that allow hydrogen cars to refuel along pre-existing roads and highways, easing the transition to hydrogen on a larger scale. Many hydrogen highways have been planned globally. The British Columbia Hydrogen Highway will link Whistler, the host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics, to Vancouver in time for the winter games. There is also an ‘Interprovincial Hydrogen Corridor’ planned, which would connect the US and Canada through Detroit, Toronto and Montreal. Twelve hydrogen fuelling stations have been built in 11 cities in Japan and in Europe, and a 15-station Nordic Transportation Network is planned. The US, infamous for its consumption of fossil fuels, has one of the most developed schemes yet envisioned. The Californian Fuel Cell partnership, established in
Using hydrogen fuel cell technology for practical purposes is still in developmental stages, but which nations are doing what, and how far away are we from the transition of ‘rehearsal to commercial’? A hydrogen-powered world may soon become a reality through the global implementation of hydrogen economies. Professor Bragi Arnason, of the University of Iceland, thinks Iceland is the ideal country to create the first hydrogen economy. “We are a very small country but we have all the same infrastructure of a big nation. We will be the prototype for the rest of the world,” he recently told CNN. Iceland is no stranger to exploiting its abundant sources of renewable energy. Spurred on by its isolation in the North Atlantic and its dwindling sources of fossil fuels, Iceland uses geothermal sources to generate all its energy for domestic electricity and heating. In 1978, Arnason, also known as the ‘Hydrogen Professor’ by his peers, proposed
transport for london
Global Perspectives on Hydrogen Power
Fuel cell-driven vehicles 1999, has built 24 operational hydrogen stations, with an additional 14 in the planning stages. These stations are located in the most populated regions of California, the San Francisco–Sacramento corridor, Los Angeles and San Diego. By April 2007 over 175 fuel cell passenger vehicles and buses were operational on Californian roads. Many nations are exploring the possibilities of using hydrogen fuel cells, but there is still a long way to go. Perhaps Arnason is a little ambitious, but there is a clear indication that what seemed the crazy idea of one Icelandic professor in the 1970s may not be so eccentric after all…
Chloe Stockford is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry
16 | focus
Greener Hydrogen Production Under certain natural conditions, a few species of bacteria are capable of producing hydrogen. Through fermentation – a series of chemical reactions that occur in the absence of oxygen – bacteria are able to transform carbohydrates like cellulose and glucose into organic acids and hydrogen gas. However, the process stops at this point trapping the vast majority of hydrogen in the organic molecules formed. Turning waste degrading bacteria into a cheap energy source is an appealing idea but its potential applications have been undermined by the low efficiency of the natural process. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University, Bruce Logan and Sahoan Cheng, recently developed a microbial electrolytic cell that allows scientists to harness microbial production of hydrogen in a significantly more efficient way. Within the cell a small electric charge is pumped into a reactor, prompting the bacteria to break down carbohydrates,
producing water, carbon dioxide and hydrogen as byproducts. If the resulting hydrogen is then fed into a fuel cell, three times as much energy is produced as was used in the initial electrical charge. This is a much higher yield than that obtained by extracting hydrogen from water. Scientists are attempting to speed up the reactions occurring inside these microbial electrolysis cells in the hope of making them a practical source of hydrogen production. The advent of synthetic biology (see BlueSci Issue 11) and its promise of genometailored bacteria may lead to the creation of efficient microorganisms for biohydrogen production. The foundations for such an enterprise have been laid and a complete artificial genome created, but much work is still needed to assemble the genetic parts necessary for an optimised organism. Alexandra Lopes is a Postdoc in the Department of Pathology
Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC
Playing Leapfrog with Fuel Cells Look at a satellite picture of the Earth taken at night and you are instantly struck by the pattern that emerges. There are a few bright clusters around London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, and a general glow surrounding continental coastlines. Once you move inland from places like Buenos Aires or Lagos, the picture quickly goes dark. This is a vivid example of just how many people lack access to electricity. But a new dawn could be on the horizon. In the developing world, renewable energy sources, coupled with hydrogen fuel cells, offer the promise of sustainable, clean energy supplies for some of the most vulnerable and impoverished communities. Currently, rural communities rely on solar power from photovoltaic (PV) cells and batteries to produce and store electricity. The major drawbacks are that batteries tend to lose one to five percent of their energy content per hour and pose a significant disposal hazard. This problem could be avoided
by combining PV cells, or even a wind turbine, with an electrolyser so that hydrogen can be produced during periods of excess electrical energy. This hydrogen could be stored and fed into a fuel cell in order to provide power instead of using a battery. Using PV cells to produce hydrogen avoids the problems of discharge and disposal that face batteries. Efficient and clean hydrogen fuel cells could then be used to power electric motors for machinery and producing light. On a national level, solar-hydrogen ‘farms’, large areas of land covered in PV panels and electrolysers to produce hydrogen, could be combined with large-scale fuel cells to produce clean electricity for existing urban areas. This mechanism also has an economic advantage in that the country can generate income through international energy trade. The installation of individual renewable energy systems and fuel cells would allow developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ the traditional development path seen
in Europe and America, which relied on large central power stations and a vast, complicated, and costly grid infrastructure. Communities would have access to markets and services that otherwise would have been impossible to reach. However, it is financial and organisational innovation rather than technological development that will be crucial if we are to shine a light on the darkness of poverty. The correlation between electrification and economic development is reasonably clear, bringing as it does the possibilities of extended working hours, increased automation, and improved healthcare. Rural electrification programmes, particularly those incorporating solar energy, are a central focus of both non-governmental organisations and major institutions such as the World Bank. They will change the face of the Earth, especially as viewed from the sky at night. Gareth Haslam is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry
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Nuclear Power: but not as we know it When the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter), the world’s largest fusion reactor, is switched on in 2016, scientists intend to ignite an artificial sun here on Earth. Construction on the £3 billion reactor starts this year in the Cadarache International Nuclear Physics Centre in Provence, southern France, after more than 20 years of political and technical wrangling. If you read the headline, “Scientists put metal jacket around sun to boil water off it!” you probably wouldn’t believe it. It isn’t the headline or the idea that is absurd, but rather the fact that scientists have been trying to do just that ever since the end of the Second World War. In the 1950s, the Soviets invented the Tokamak, a Russian acronym for a toroidal chamber with magnetic coils, to recreate the same thermonuclear reaction that drives our sun, nuclear fusion. A Tokamak reactor is a doughnut-shaped metallic chamber that uses powerful magnets to squash together hydrogen isotopes at temperatures over 100 million°C. This reaction fuses two particles of the lightest element in the universe into one particle of helium. The process gives off huge amounts
of energy but its byproducts are no more dangerous than hospital waste. There is also no risk of reactor meltdowns like in Chernobyl. Once fusion is underway, the reaction can only be sustained if enough heat is confined within the reaction area. One of the hardest challenges has been maintaining the hot hydrogen gas, or plasma, confined within the magnetic field. Turbulence and eddies cause heat leaks which tend to shut down the reaction. In a commercial reactor, the hot outer skin of the reactor would be used to heat a coolant which would in turn boil water to power electricityproducing turbines. In the sun, gravity compresses hydrogen to such an extent that it triggers fusion. On Earth, self-sustaining fusion has only ever been achieved by hydrogen bombs, triggered by smaller fission bombs. We stand today on the brink of realising the dream of controlling fusion after 60 years of dogged trial and error. If successfully harnessed, nuclear fusion will provide cheap energy for billions of people, ending our reliance on fossil and fission fuels. “In the early 1950s, people knew the basic physics of fusion but didn't know about
the basic physics of plasmas [superhot gases], and they grossly underestimated the difficulties”, says Chris Llewellyn-Smith, Director of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Culham, a major fusion research centre in Oxfordshire. “The first step in making fusion work was to find the best configuration of magnets to hold several thousand cubic metres of gas that is 10 times hotter than the centre of the Sun. It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that the basic configuration you need to do this was worked out, and from then it’s been a systematic process of scaling up in size.” With an overall diameter of 12.4 m and room for 840 m3 of hydrogen plasma, Iter stands a good chance of confining the hot gases long enough to set off a self-sustaining fusion
reaction. It is expected to produce an impressive 500 megawatts of energy over 7 to 15 minute runs. The Japanese reactor JT-60 presently holds the record of 24 seconds. Iter is only an experimental reactor, however, built to test the viability of fusion power stations. The realisation of a fusion future is still some way off. “With a blank cheque we could go out and build a fusion power station and it might produce a few kilowatts, but it would be very unreliable,” warns Llewellyn-Smith. At the present rate of development, he estimates it will be another 40 years before we see commercially viable fusion reactors routinely powering our cities.
Tristan Farrow is a PhD student in the Department of Physics
FUSION ISLAND Forty years is too long to wait for fusion-generated electricity, given the urgent need for clean energy. In 2006, two Cambridge academics, Bartek Glowacki and Bill Nuttall, received an award for proposing to use the energy released by fusion to extract hydrogen from seawater instead of powering directly the electricity grid. The more realistic objective would allow more modest fusion reactors to be built to substitute fossil fuels used in the process of extracting hydrogen. “For hydrogen to be a truly environmentally benign energy carrier, it will be important to produce it efficiently and without the combustion of fossil fuels,” says Nuttall. The scientists foresee putting fusion reactors on small islands dotted throughout the sea, nicknamed “Fusion islands.”
18 | FEATURES
No Peppered Myth Stephen Montgomery gives us the final word on evolution The peppered moth is a classic example of evolution but for the last decade it has been a hotbed of controversy. After conducting a seven-year research programme, Professor Mike Majerus has now presented evidence to reinstate the peppered moth as a textbook case of evolution in action. The story of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, has long been a staple of school biology lessons, used to teach the principle ideas of natural selection. The changing fates of different forms of the moth demonstrate the key points of natural selection in a way that is easily imagined and easily understood by young biologists. It even takes place over a time frame familiar to kids, the changes the moth experienced are observable in real time, it is an example where we can see evolution act in real time. The story goes something like this: There are two main forms of the moth: flammula typica, with whitish mottled wings and f. carbonaria, which is black because of an increase in black pigment in the skin (termed melanism). As the names suggest,
in the 19th century typica was the common form of the moth and when the black carbonaria was first caught in Manchester in 1848, it was very rare. However, less than 50 years later 98% of Mancunian B. betularia
not destroyed the lichen and no soot covered the trees, the light moths had excellent camouflage and still flourished. This prediction was left untested until the 1950s, when Bernard Kettlewell,
The peppered moth has long been a staple of school biology lessons, teaching the principles of natural selection were black. This dramatic change intrigued biologists and in 1896, armed with Darwin’s new theory of natural selection, J.W. Tutt, an English entomologist, hypothesised that the change in colour was due to selection pressure based on how often birds were able to spot the moths. The thinking behind Tutt’s theory was that the likelihood of being eaten by birds depended on how well the moths are camouflaged when they rest during the day. In the late 19th century the industrial revolution was in full swing and pollution in cities like Manchester was so bad that soot had turned tree trunks and branches black. Tutt hypothesised that this provided better camouflage for the black form of the peppered moth. In non-polluted areas, where acid rain had
an Oxford biologist, and E.B. Ford, the famous ecological geneticist, began testing this idea using direct observation of predation of moths from tree trunks. Using mark-release-recapture techniques, Kettlewell carried out experiments in a polluted oak wood in Birmingham and a nonpolluted one in Dorset. The work provided strong evidence to support Tutt’s differential predation hypothesis, showing a good correlation between the frequency of black moths and pollution. After the Clean Air Act was introduced in the 1950s,
trees regained their former appearance, reversing the selection pressure and, with the mottled typica form now falling victim to birds less often their numbers began to increase. Sure enough, between 1959 and 1984 the population of the typica form rose from 6% to 30% and is continuing to increase in number, with the forecast that the carbonaria form will be pushed to extinction by 2020. The peppered moth story is a perfect example of Darwinian evolution and, although alternative explanations have always existed, Kettlewell’s work was until recently widely accepted. The criticism began in 1998, when Professor Majerus, at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics published Melanism: Evolution in Action, to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of Kettlewell’s book on melanism. A quarter of the book deals with the peppered moth and brings the story up to date as well as discussing problems in Kettlewell’s original experiments. Majerus notes that these include ‘Bird table effects’: the release of moths in unnatural sites at unnatural frequencies at unnatural times of the day, and the use of lab reared and wild caught specimens. He also points out that subsequent studies avoid one or more
FEATURES | 19
these articles went down a storm with the anti-evolution lobby, who saw the peppered moth controversy as key to their efforts to tarnish the reputation of evolutionary biology. During the period that the peppered moth case was under attack, Majerus devised a series of experiments to verify Kettlewell’s original findings and address the criticisms made against the case. His methods allowed experimentation in the wild using natural densities of Biston released in their natural resting position at dusk and at the time of year that they are active. He compared
His words were twisted and lead to a media frenzy journalist, wrote Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth, a story about “fraud, deceit and self-driven ambition”. This tale promotes the notion that the peppered moth story was based on “data fudging” and suggests a serious flaw in the study by neglecting predation by bats. However, her ideas lack any scientific evidence to support her accusations and were widely criticised by the scientific community. Of course all of
results obtained using lab reared and caught moths. He addressed all the major criticisms made and even carried out an experiment comparing rates of bat predation on the different forms (bats hunt at night using sound, not vision, so colour differences are unimportant).
Majerus’ results, presented at the European Society for Evolutionary
Biology conference in 2007, showed that, unsurprisingly, bats do not show differential selection of either form. He identified the natural resting site of the moths and definitively showed that, in his unpolluted test site, a significantly greater proportion of carbonaria
and involves elements school children can relate to, which makes it a brilliant example to teach them. In Majerus’ words, “That is why the anti-evolution lobby attacks the peppered moth story. They are frightened that too many people will be able to understand.”
The story is a perfect example of Darwinian evolution were eaten by birds, and that typica is increasing in numbers. Majerus’ data therefore confirms both Tutt’s hypothesis and the results of Kettlewell’s original experiments. His results quashed media criticism and re-affirm the peppered moth as a textbook case of evolution in action. But why should we be interested in the peppered moth story? Majerus’ work is important for a number of reasons. As a very widely known example of evolution, it is an obvious choice for the anti-evolution lobby to attack. As Jerry Coyne put it in his review of Of Mice and Moths, “creationists have promoted the problems with Biston as a refutation of evolution itself.” Majerus’ motivation for undertaking such a mammoth project was to be able to say with authority whether the peppered moth should be taught in schools as an example of Darwinian evolution in action. In his conference speech he said that the problem with trying to persuade people who don’t believe in evolution is finding examples in terms of everyday observations. The peppered moth story is easy to understand
Majerus’ work is also an excellent example of how to approach scientific debate and in particular debate involving non-scientists such as creationists. By going out and testing the significance of criticisms made against the case, including those that have little scientific grounding, we can now firmly refute their arguments on the basis of well established facts. After a period of expulsion, Majerus’ work strongly suggests it should be given back its place in school.
illustrations: sonia aguera
of these sources of artificiality but draw the same conclusions. The media picked up on these flaws in Kettlewell’s experiments and in his review entitled Not Black and White, American geneticist Jerry Coyne wrote, “For the time being we must discard Biston as a well understood example of natural selection in action, although it is clearly a case of evolution.” His words were twisted and lead to a media frenzy. Headlines that followed included “Scientists pick holes in Darwin moth theory”, “Darwinism in a flutter”, “The moth that failed” and “Moth-eaten statistics”. Adding fuel to the fire, Judith Hooper, a science
Stephen Montgomery is a PhD student in the Department of Zoology
20 | Initiatives
Sense about Science
Ensuring an accurate representation of scientific research in the public domain Headlines are often dominated by scares about mobile phones, GM foods and the MMR vaccine, or controversies about stem cell research and nuclear
proactively for a wider understanding of the nature of evidence and the recognition of scientific enquiry by urging scientists to engage in public debates, par-
be central to public debates about science, medicine and technology. You can also get involved in SaS activities by joining the Voice of Young Science programme (VoYS).
From food that doesn’t contain chemicals to sprays that protect against electromagnetic radiation, the list of miracle-making products is long
Bryony Parrish and jon heras
power. Yet many of these debates lack evidence since scientists tend to remain at the fringes of the discussion. Sense about Science (SaS) was founded in 2002 to respond to the misrepresentation of science in the public domain. An independent charitable trust, SaS promotes an evidence-based approach to issues that matter to society. SaS works
ticularly on topics which are controversial or difficult. SaS is supported by over 3,000 scientists, ranging from Nobel Laureates to postdoctoral fellows who have registered with its database of specialists, ‘Evidence Base’. The charity offers internships for early-career researchers who are passionate about science communication and think that evidence should
VoYS members have the opportunity to attend media workshops, participate in projects that respond to misleading claims, contribute to related publications, and become involved in the running of SaS events such as its annual lecture. VoYS media workshops combine discussion about science-related controversies in the news with practical guidance to help younger scientists make a greater contribution to public debates. Journalists explain how they approach stories and balance the need for news and entertainment with reporting science. Scientists experienced in public communication discuss their interactions with the media, explain what has gone wrong and share the lessons they have learned. The workshops have been immensely popular and have been attended by several students and postdocs from the University of Cambridge. Standing up for Science is a guide to interacting
with the media for young researchers, released in September 2006 by SaS. The guide has been developed by attendees of VoYS workshops who wanted to share insights into how to talk about their research and improve the representation of science in the public domain. The result is a lively booklet which contains interviews with scientists, science journalists and press officers sharing their views on how the media reports science, and offering practical tips on how young scientists can get involved in public debates. Standing up for Science has been praised by Nature (5 October 2006, volume 443: 602), and demand has exceeded the initial print run of 10,000 leaflets, with another 7,000 copies downloaded from the web. In October 2007, VoYS launched another publication called There goes the science bit… This leaflet was also developed by VoYS members who got together to investigate misleading pseudoscientific claims that they kept coming across: from food that doesn’t contain chemicals to sprays that protect against electromagnetic radiation, the list of miracle-making products is long. The scientists telephoned companies to hunt for evidence behind these claims and published
Initiatives | 21
their experiences. Some of their conversations are very amusing since no-one was prepared to answer their questions nor were they able to provide solid evidence. SaS hopes that this initiative will encourage people to question
Such proclamations include Madonna’s suggestion to neutralise radiation with a magic fluid, Heather Mills’ warning that kids who drink milk become obese and Chris de Burgh’s alleged ability to relieve people’s pain by touching them. In
Informing the public so they can sort out scientific discoveries similar claims in the future. Reports about There goes the science bit… appeared in New Scientist, The Guardian and The Daily Mail, and over 20,000 copies of the pamphlet have been downloaded already. Another project that received even more extensive press coverage worldwide is the response of SaS to statements made by celebrities.
January 2007, in a leaflet called Science for Celebrities such claims were corrected by scientists. At the end of 2007, SaS looked at celebrities’ performance again and published a review which notes several cases in which Science for Celebrities appears to have raised awareness. Fresh mistakes are also spotted and corrected (most notably, Gwynneth
Paltrow’s conviction that she can avoid cancer by eating ‘biological foods’). The review reiterates the message to celebrities that they can contact SaS to check their facts and avoid making misleading claims. SaS puts a lot of work into informing the public about the peer-review process in order for news-readers to be able to sort scientific discoveries from scare stories. I don’t know what to believe is their short guide to peer-review, which aims to encourage people to inquire whether research outcomes reported in the news have passed the scrutiny of other scientists and are considered valid and significant. A repository of information about peer-review is currently being compiled by SaS to be used at schools.
VoYS members have also been involved in several other projects including clarifications about detox and bird ’flu as well as expert opinions on climate change and nuclear power. They exchange ideas on these issues via their online forum, the Reading Room, which is another way to contribute to VoYS by reviewing publications, radio, film and TV programmes which promote scientific evidence or correct common misconceptions. By combining humour with an inquisitive mind, SaS is an initiative that makes a real difference to how science is portrayed in the public domain. Nikiforos Karamanis is a postdoc in the Department of Genetics For more info about SaS visit: www.senseaboutscience.org.uk
22 | ARTS AND reviews
The Beauty of Science, The Method of Art Natalie Vokes explores the complex and fraught relationship between science and art philosophy that placed a premium on reason and order, epitomized in Newton’s monumentally successful physics. At the turn of the 19th century however, Romantic thinkers rejected the mechanistic world-view embedded in such rational science. Instead, they valued emotion, the irrational, expression, and nature in its unconstrained exuberance. Romantic criticism of the Enlightenment had an impact on science as well as art and philosophy. For a brief period, scientists also rejected the Enlightenment’s methods and sought theories of nature that appreciated its organic unity. Art retains some Romantic ideas despite various new
It seems easy to tell the difference between art and science. Scientists work in labs, artists in studios; science is characterized by its method and rigour, art by its creativity and expression; scientists wear khaki trousers and glasses, artists wear paint-splattered jeans and have long hair (ok, the last one may be more of a stereotype than a real distinction). Yet, if we press the issue a little more closely, we realize that these distinctions are less obvious than they seem. The distinction between ‘rational’ science and ‘creative’ art is, in historical terms, relatively new. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, a movement in Western
A fly embryo stained with a variety of fluorescent dyes
movements, but Romantic science did not last long. Scientists very soon returned to the principles of logic and rational empirical investigation, for they recognized the utility of these principles. These principles remain today, in the methods and aims of science.
same goal: a broader and deeper appreciation of the world around us. Indeed, science itself is beautiful. Einstein might have stated it most simply when he declared that, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” The search for truth has
Science and art, rather than acting in opposition, are directed toward the same goal We inherited the two seemingly opposed fields of science and art. Yet we can still find a fundamental connection between them despite their differences. Physicist Richard Feynman, in response to Whitman’s poem Stars at Tallapoosa, said that he too felt wonder gazing at the stars, but that his awe was augmented by his knowledge of the millions of years it took for the light to reach his eyes. For Feynman, science does not occlude nature’s mystery – it enhances our wonder. Isaac Asimov expressed the same sentiment when he asked, “Of course the night sky is beautiful, but is there not a deeper, added beauty provided by astronomer [sic]?” Science and art, rather than acting in opposition, are directed toward the
often been equated with the search for beauty. We see truth as beautiful, and science as a tool for reaching it. Perhaps it is for this reason that we admire such characteristics as ‘simplicity’ and ‘elegance’ in scientific explanations. Even differences in the methods and media used by the two disciplines are no longer as clear as they once were. Initiatives that turn scientific images into artwork have become familiar to us. What makes such images so intriguing is that their beauty is often not an addition to, but rather is part of, what makes them useful. When we admire the beauty of microscopic organisms or structures enhanced by dyes and magnified thousand-fold to aid analysis, we see that the products and tools of
science themselves, while being functional, can also be art. From the other side of the divide, artists have
ARTS AND reviews | 23
inherent to the art; the aesthetic appeal of the images is enhanced and deepened by the knowledge that it represents your DNA.
We see that the products and tools of science themselves can be art
started to use science in their work. An interesting example is the customizable DNA portraits that are now available from the Canadian company DNA11. Such portraits are made from coloured and magnified DNA profiles. In contrast to the art produced by scientists, here the technology is an artistic tool; the art is not a by-product of science. Here, the scientific content is
Artwork from DNA11
Tania Vu’s 2006 exhibition, “Experiment” was an extreme attempt to blur the boundaries between the methods of science and those of art. In her installation, Vu, who is both a scientist and an artist, conducted scientific research in the middle of a San Francisco art gallery. Surrounded by the accoutrements of a lab – voltmeters, flasks, buffers
Fermi surfaces by Dr Christoph Bergemann, Quantum Physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge. This piece will be part of the new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Beyond Measure. The collection features works from both artists and scientists and explores how geometry is used to interpret the world around us. The exhibition runs between 5 April and 1 June 2008. – she publicly performed research that she claims is publishable. Her work explores the commonalities and contradictions between making valid art and valid science, and challenges the traditional art–science dichotomy. Our society focuses on the differences between science and art, and in so doing obscures the overlap between them. Instead, consider the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger’s ideas on art: “[Artworks] cannot exist without matter, and they always have physical properties – music is formed sound, painting is formed colour. But they also do not exist simply in matter, the way utilitarian objects do. Rather, they simultaneously transcend their material and allow their material to be itself for the first time.” Art is both physical and transcendent; it exists in a physical form and yet tran-
scends this form to suggest something greater. Can we think of science similarly? Science describes the material world, and it does so using material objects; yet science transcends these objects as well, for it finds meaning and understanding within and beyond them. It is in this transcendent meaning that Feynman finds beauty, and it is because of this added philosophical layer that DNA gels can be made into art. Understanding the similarities between artistic and scientific thought and methods allows us to recognise art and science as related. Most importantly, it shows us how each can influence the other, to the benefit of both.
Natalie Vokes is a MPhil student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science
24 | history
As I live and breathe… How a paradigm shift affected the history of photosynthesis Our carbon footprints are leaving vast dents in the health of our planet. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon into the atmosphere from time-accrued stores. Deforestation exacerbates the problem and now contributes to 30% of greenhouse gases
capture carbon dioxide, so how did our understanding of it come about? The discovery of photosynthesis was gradual. Over time, scientists developed the following ideas: carbon dioxide must be present, oxygen is given off, chlorophyll should be present and
“I don’t even know how to make oxygen. All I know is that it’s got something to do with plants and it ends in -osis…or is it -esis?” Lister, Red Dwarf, Series IV episode 4. the gasses pass through the pores in the leaves. More importantly the necessity of light, and the provision of a plant’s nutrition, was established as essential for photosynthesis. Our story starts in the late 1700s when a plant
concept is difficult to grasp, as it has no modern-day analogy. Essentially, it was believed to be the combustible fifth element; perhaps it is easiest to conceptualise it as ‘anti-oxygen’. When something burned, the phlogiston was liberated and added to the atmosphere. Dephlogisticated air helped substances burn by drawing the phlogiston out to combine with itself. Priestley noticed that green plants in the sunlight exhaled dephlogisticated air – air containing no phlogiston. In the early 1770s, he started to investigate the effect of plants in enclosed environments. Knowing that a candle will use up all the dephlogisticated air in a sealed chamber, he placed a candle and plant within a transparent chamber and burned the candle until it
released into the atmosphere. With over one-fifth of the Amazon rainforest chopped down, deforestation is also depleting our resources for natural carbon capture. We know that photosynthesis is the mechanism by which trees
physiologist and anatomist, called Nehemiah Grew, noticed pores in the leaf structure. His contemporary, Marcello Malpighi, made the first, groping attempt to link plant nutrition and the atmosphere. However, instead of ‘synthesising’ with the use of light, he mistakenly thought that the leaves digested with the help of heat. It wasn’t until Stephen Hales turned his mind to plants in the 1730s that it was first conceived that leaves might behave like lungs instead of stomachs. Hales first noticed the evolution of air from pores, a discovery popularised by Charles Bonnet in 1754. It was Joseph Priestley who first ran explicit experiments on the gaseous exchange in plants. Priestley worked with phlogiston theory. Phlogiston as a
An artistic representation of the electron transport chain - the process by which photosynthesis produces energy
History | 25
died out. On relighting after a week had passed, the candle burned once more, showing that the plant evolved dephlogisticated air. A crueller experiment was based on Priestley’s knowledge that over time an animal will turn air foul within a sealed chamber. He placed two mice in separate chambers, only one of which contained a plant. As the mouse breathed, it used up the oxygen in the chamber, replacing it with carbon dioxide. Naturally, the mouse in the chamber without the plant suffocated to death, but Priestley discovered that the mouse housed with the plant survived. In his words, the plants corrected the “bad air”, so that it could once again sustain respiration. He then showed that plants flourished more in this bad air than in common or dephlogisticated air. Priestley showed that plants generated dephlogisticated air, and used up and were benefited by bad air. Priestley’s work set the stage for our next two heroes: Jan Ingenhousz, the physician of mad King George III, and Jean Senebier, a French pastor. These two worked independently but almost concurrently on the same question: what happened to the bad air? Who first discovered the answer is a contentious issue, but both Ingenhousz and Senebier published the idea that plants gain nourishment from the atmosphere. Ingenhousz had a distinct advantage in this battle, as he was armed with Lavoisier’s new chemistry. Anton Lavoisier, the ‘father of modern chem-
istry’, disproved phlogiston theory and brought about a complete change in chemical paradigm, the ‘new chemistry’. Lavoisier created a new chemical nomenclature, including naming oxygen and identifying its role in combustion. While Senebier was trying to unravel the mysteries of how plants used ‘fixed air’, Ingenhousz was talking in terms of carbon dioxide. Working within the paradigm of phlogiston theory, it was extremely difficult for any of the protagonists in our story to conceive of a coherent mechanism for photosynthesis. Senebier had the right idea but was held back by his choice of paradigm. He believed that fixed air was a combination of ‘phlogistic matter’ (bear with him in this vagueness) and dephlogisticated air. The plant, in the presence of water and light, would
then split fixed air into its component parts and the phlogistic matter went into the ‘lime’ in the leaf. Ingenhousz took his time coming to the conclusion that plants derived nutrition from the air, and that they decomposed carbon dioxide. Both men, despite their different chemical standpoints,
synthesis to be laid down indisputably in the foundations of science. Amazingly, all the work on photosynthesis was done before atomic theory became part of mainstream science. We now take our knowledge of photosynthesis for granted, unaware of the work that went into
Naturally, the mouse in the chamber without the plant suffocated to death made great advances in the quantification of the process of photosynthesis. By the turn of the 19th century, the fundamentals of photosynthesis had nearly been solved. It only remained for Ferdinand de Saussure of Switzerland to tidy up these various threads from the past and to apply Lavoisier’s rigorous empirical methods for the fundamentals of photo-
its discovery. The massive paradigm shift that was required for its revelation is akin to the conceptual and sociological shift we now require to change the way we treat our planet. Photosynthesis is so fundamental to life that it is vital that we don’t take the process for granted as well. Kat Austen is a postdoc in the Department of Earth Sciences
26 | Features
Adding Fuel to the Fire Bryony Parrish quenches your burning desire to know more about biofuels spheric carbon, there should be no perturbation to our climate – so far, so good. However, the truth is that most biofuels currently in use are not carbon neutral at all. The problem is that cultivating the plants, harvesting, transport and processing all use energy. Many liquid biofuels are based on non-structural oils and
production and food prices in the developed world may rise. Some proponents of biofuels claim that enough energy could be produced using present technology without compromising food security. With projected world energy requirements in 2052 likely to require 80% of the world’s surface to be planted, and food demands
The first car engines were actually designed to run on peanut oil sugars, which are present in relatively low concentrations in plants, and require considerable processing. Estimates of efficiency vary widely, and are different for different types of fuel. A recent report by the UK government estimated that a 50-60% net reduction in emissions is achieved using biofuels compared with fossil fuels, but critics have claimed that some types of biofuel may even take more energy to produce than they supply. This is far from being the only problem. Turning food crops into fuel creates financial competition between rich consumers wanting fuel and poor consumers wanting food, for both the crops themselves and the land used to grow them. This could contribute to famine in the developing world, upon whom we would be heavily dependent for biofuel
set to double over the same period, this confidence seems utterly unfounded. Increased crop production for biofuels will also lead to wide-scale habitat loss. This decreases biodiversity and increases emissions directly from the clearance of the natural vegetation and disruption to the soils, generating a ‘carbon debt’ – the number of years the fuel must be produced to ‘pay back’ the initial emissions from land clearance, determined by a combina-
tion of the type of fuel produced and the type of land cleared. In terms of habitat loss and carbon debt, one of the worst offending biofuels is palm oil. Biodiesel from palm oil is cheaper than from any other crop, and palm oil export from Indonesia is set to be a major contributor to EU targets. But the expansion of oil palm plantations, replacing mature rainforest, has been an ecological disaster. Clearance often involves burning vegetation or draining peatlands, increasing Indonesia’s CO2 emissions such that it is now the third highest globally. Creating palm oil plantations destroys land with some of the highest biodiversity in the world, and contributes to the loss of habitat of many animals including the orangutan, which is threatened with extinction, as it loses habitat and is also killed as a pest of the young oil palms. Like all monoculture, the plantations are vulnerable to disease which can spread easily from plant to plant across the adam moughton
hen the concept of biofuels first emerged, it sparked huge optimism as a source of renewable energy. This dream is far from being realized, as questions have arisen about the viability of biofuels both ethically and energetically. Despite this, the desire to overcome rising fuel costs, global warming, and dependence on politically unstable oil exporting regions has prompted ambitious moves towards increasing biofuel consumption – the EU aims to increase biofuel use in road traffic by over 1000% by 2020. Research into biofuels is ongoing, and looks set to yield positive, usable technologies, but will our premature enthusiasm for using biofuels actually do more harm than good? At present the term ‘biofuels’ is usually applied to liquid transport fuels: biodiesel from vegetable oils or bioethanol fermented from sugar, starch or biomass. Most car engines can take a 15% cut in standard diesel or petrol with no modification and could be modified to run entirely on biofuel. The idea behind biofuels is simple: any carbon released when they burn should be balanced by the carbon absorbed during the growth of the plants that are their raw material, making them carbon neutral. Since there is no net change in atmo-
Features | 27
produced from waste material, or crops like Miscanthus that can be grown on marginal land, so they are likely to have a much lower impact on food security and habitat loss. To generate liquid fuels, the long-chain carbohydrates in the biomass must be made available for fermentation. This is technically difficult and requires considerable energy inputs in itself, but research is ongoing to make the process more efficient, such as investigating the processes which allow termites to digest wood. Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in liquid biofuels has been the use of algae. The attractive thing about algae is that they are not food crops and they do not have to grow on land that could be used for food crops. Algal culture in custom-built open ponds or closed bioreactors could be sited on any land, including waste or industrial sites, marginal land or desert. Another benefit is that algae have a much higher growth rate than multi-cellular plants, making them “the most
prolific energy conversion systems on the planet”, and many species are able to produce long-chain hydrocarbons which need minimal process-
with food security and habitat loss already caused by global warming – the very things that biofuels are trying to address. Both
ing to be used as fuel; they produce and excrete diesel. Certain varieties are also capable of producing hydrogen, which could be used as a fuel. So, while ongoing research could uncover important players in the future energy mix, many of the currently available sources of biofuels do little to reduce emissions and could actually exacerbate problems
governments and consumers need to become aware of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ biofuels, rather than just equating ‘biofuels’ with ‘green’. There is little point in meeting targets when in reality they have few benefits for the environment or for people.
whole area. Palm oil is not even particularly efficient to produce and use – grown on regular rainforest it has a carbon debt of 86 years, and on peat forest this rises to a massive 423 years. By increasing the market for biodiesel from palm oil, we are promoting all this destruction just to fool ourselves that we’re making a difference to emissions. Much research has been done and is ongoing to overcome these problems: avoiding dependency on food crops, and increasing the efficiency of fuel production to reduce the amount of land required. Second generation biofuels use biomass like straw, grass, and woodchips and are based on the structural compounds cellulose and lignin which are present in large amounts in plants compared with sugars and oils. This contributes to their improved efficiency – for example, a 50% reduction in emissions is achieved using ethanol produced from grasses grown on the American prairies compared to 20% from corn. They can be
Bryony Parrish is a Natural Sciences undergraduate student specialising in Pathology
beyond measure CONVERSATIONS ACROSS ART AND SCIENCE
• until 1 June 2008
talks • family events • studios onsite • workshops
www.kettlesyard.co.uk for full details sign up to our email newsletter • www.kettlesyard.co.uk/beinformed Kettle’s Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ • tel 01223 352124 Gallery open: Tuesday-Sunday 11.30am-5pm • admission free
28 | technology
Science & Web 2.0 The death of the newspaper has been greatly exaggerated. But, although print journalism rolls out more paper miles than ever, there is no denying that journalistic culture has been profoundly affected by the brave new world of the internet. In this world, media savvy readers hop from
Player. BlueSci Film has its own channel on YouTube, where their recent blockbuster “The World’s Biggest Experiment” was watched more than 1000 times in the first month alone. For University of Cambridge scientists, online reporting and podcasting at bluesci.org has been a
Blogging: more public understanding and discussion of science
website to website at the click of a button, behaviour that forces journalists to make full use of technological possibilities to keep the senses tuned into their webpages. All of this means that nowadays most news providers not only offer online reporting, but also audio and video podcasting, blogging and interactive comments pages. The catchphrase is ‘full spectrum integration’. As well as drawing from a large written archive of pieces, BlueSci integrates audio and video content at bluesci.org, with assistance from ScienceLive.org and the Cambridge University Media
focus for almost as long as the BlueSci magazine has been around. Now the idea is to stretch it into web 2.0. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term, you soon will be. According to Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform.” Put simply, web 2.0 means that the online material is provided by the user rather than the site provider. Think Facebook. The journal Nature has gone further by investing heavily in a website, Nature Network, designed to put
scientists in the driving seat. Here, scientists are free to generate their own content, and discuss research with other specialists in dedicated forums. Short of exchanging scientific data hot from the lab, it’s the most stimulating e-environment you can get. Essentially, Nature aims to captivate scientists with a cyber conference centre. Of course, if exchanging scientific data is what you are after, then check out SciSpace (www.scispace.net). This website, tagged ‘The social networking site for scientists’, was launched by Cambridge scientists and allows scientists from around the world to work with other groups in a secure environment. The site, built and maintained by Cambridge-based National Institute for Environmental eScience (NIEeS), allows scientists to meet each other and then collaborate, exchanging not only ideas but also raw data, and supports them throughout the process of publication preparation. SciSpace is now used all over the UK and for international collaborations, supporting the US-based Collaborative Re-
search in Chemistry initiative, across four universities over three states. Another common example of web 2.0 is blogging. In the last issue of BlueSci, we featured one of the pioneers of science blogging, Bora Zivkovic. He organised the first ever science blog conference and edited the first ever science blog anthology in 2006. Science blogging has become increasingly popular as a means of networking and socialising with scientists from around the world. It has also vastly improved science communication and enabled more public understanding and discussion of science. One of the new sites on which to blog about sciissues is the Nature Network website, which is where Mico Tatalovic, a former BlueSci Editor, blogged last term. Having piqued your interest with a few articles, videos and podcasts, at BlueSci we also give you the chance to leave feedback and discuss topics of your choice at our forum on Nature Network. And you can keep track of the latest discussion topics just by checking the front page of our own website. So, for your enjoyment and information, we hope to bring together the many ingredients of BlueSci’s activities in one tasty package: www.bluesci.org
Tristan Farrow, Adam Moughton & Mico Tatalovic
the pavilion | 29
The American artist Jackson Pollock said in 1950: “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture...the energy, the motion, and other inner forces. The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”
I...asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics... I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? C. P. Snow, 1959
The C the A entre for and Hrts, SocialResearch i series umanities Sciences, n “Cult of works is running specifiures of Clihops called a way i cally lookmate Cha n n whi i ch ar ng at the ge”, t can or ev educa the pen influencte climaublic abou e They te change.t repre study the climasentation o and r te change f such aelated issu of cli refug s climate es, m a cultur te chanees, the ef internes, in art ge on loca fects l and o et... n the
Text: tristan farrow; photographs: jamie marland; pavilion background: agnes becker; Artwork: kat austen; composition: jon heras
30 | a day in the life of...
Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist, the Chairman and Chief Science Officer of The Methuselah Foundation, a charity that funds research into the prevention of ageing.
involves being a good scientist and having a very deep understanding of what the problems are that we are trying to solve. I [also] have to understand what the priorities of non-scientists are, who are interested in my work, so as to give it a higher profile and generally get more funding from other sources. What was your study before getting into this area?
It’s all over, but most is in America. We are funding four different laboratories in America at the moment, and one in France.
When I was [at Cambridge] as an undergraduate, I was actually a computer scientist, and I worked in artificial intelligence research for six or seven years. During that period, I met my wife who is a professor from the USA, and as a result of spending time with her I learnt a lot of biology, just informally over the dinner table. Gradually, I began to realise that there wasn’t really very much discussion of ageing. I felt that by going in as a theoretician I would actually be able to make more of a contribution than I could if I got trained to do experiments, and that seems to be how it’s turned out.
What do you think are the essential skills for your job?
How would you describe a normal day?
For my job? A thick skin. I do a lot of media as well as doing a lot of work around the Foundation. What I do
It’s very variable because I travel a lot. I give probably 30 invited talks a year and so that means I am all
How many people are involved with The Methuselah Foundation?
The Foundation itself has about half a dozen permanent staff. But in addition to that, because we are effectively a funding body, we bring money in and we give it out to professors in universities around the world. At the moment, [there are] probably another half a dozen researchers that we are funding. Whereabouts is the research on ageing focused?
over the place all the time. When I’m at home I sit at a desk at a computer. I am the editor of a journal called Rejuvenation Research, which is currently the highest impact journal in the field of gerontology, and that takes up a bit of my time. Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I’m hoping that in 10 years we will have reached the point of having helped to generate results in the lab that will convince people that ageing, even for humans, is something we can, in principle, defeat. And once that’s happened, with any luck there will be plenty of people who are smarter than me, and more energetic than me, and less jaded than me, who will be able to pick up the torch, so to speak. What is involved in the study of ageing?
There are pathways that repair damage at the molecular and cellular levels. But those pathways are not comprehensive, so what I’ve focussed on is identifying and investigating the things that accumulate despite these pathways; the things that change gradually throughout life, in particular the ones we have some reason to believe contribute to the eventual emergence of pathologies
that are age-related diseases, frailties and death. So, theoretically, ageing can be prevented?
That’s right, yes. The analogy that I most often use is that of a car. We know we can keep cars going for as long as we like; we have vintage cars that are over 100 years old. That’s going to be the same one day for the human body. Will treatment be like the servicing of a car?
Absolutely. There is no way in the world that we are going to be able to turn the body into a non-ageing body, in which these molecular and cellular side effects of metabolism don’t happen. Damage will always accumulate; to keep it down to a low enough level that it doesn’t turn into disease, we’ll need to go in periodically and fix it up. Do you think indefinite life is a good thing?
I think that indefinite avoidance of frailty is a good thing, and really that is what it is about. The business of not dying is a side effect of staying youthful, and staying youthful is a good thing. Yes, frailty is miserable. Amy Chesterton is a PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering
Book Reviews | 31
Easter 2008 Steven N. Austad is a biologist and professor of cellular and structural biology at the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. For the past 20 years he has been researching the fundamentals of ageing and believes someone alive today could still be alive in 2150. In his book “Why We Age” Professor Austad investigates
the history of ageing and our quest to understand it. He not only entertains us with a plethora of anecdotes that read like detective stories, but he also illuminates the state of the art in the field of genetics and gerontology (the scientific study of old age) where long term exposure to certain hormones, like oestrogen and testosterone, can affect longevity and underlines the most recent treatments and therapies available that can slow or even halt the effects of growing old. Thomas Parr, a farmer’s servant of the 17th century, is the only ordinary man to be buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside England’s greatest poets, scientists and painters. He falsely claimed, and convinced a naïve public, that he was 152 years old. Incidently, it was the University of Cambridge scientist,
Did you know that global GDP in 2002 would have been $3.6 trillion higher if it hadn’t been for international terrorism? Or that legalizing illicit drugs would result in a net saving of $130 billion annually? In Solutions for the World’s Biggest Problems, Bjørn Lomborg has gathered together contributions by twentyeight extremely well-qualified individuals who outline important facts about global poverty, disease, armed conflict and environmental degradation. They offer a variety of policy solutions and invite readers to compare each of these according to their relative cost-benefit ratios. The underlying assumption is that resources are limited and therefore only a rational process of prioritization is sensible and fair. Lomborg argues that it is wrong to attempt to tackle problems just because they are serious or solvable. In his view, such a policy invariably leads to inadequate funding for too
William Harvey of Gonville and Caius, who carried out the autopsy and discredited the man. The legend of “Old Parr” highlights the human obsession with ageing. Take,
certificate, signed in 1910, documenting his age at 35 years old. Thanks to our ability to grow life from a wide range of animals in Petri dishes, and
A plethora of anecdotes that read like detective stories... for example, the global passion for juvenescence reflected in the fast-growing cosmetic surgery industry. This is not a contemporary phenomenon; history is littered with tales of true and false claims of remarkable old age. In 1979, a man named Charlie Smith was published in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-lived human in recorded history at an astounding 137 years. But his run was short lived after the claim was disproved with the discovery of his marriage
many problems. Instead, he advocates focussing on the most efficacious solutions and using them to make the biggest improvements. Lomborg is best known as the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book often referred to by those unconvinced by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. His most recent editorial effort, Solutions for the World’s Biggest Problems provides yet another impressive overview and definitely deserves serious attention. However, its vaulting ambition leaves it vulnerable to three main criticisms. Firstly, there is the difficulty of trying to attach a monetary value to complex concepts such as biodiversity, personal liberty and political probity. How can a scientist balance our needs against those of future generations? Secondly, this book’s division into chapters dealing with individual problems means that the interrelatedness of many of them is ignored. Finally, little mention
our ability to isolate genes associated with specific phenomena, we are progressing ever closer to answering the questions posed by this book. Here in Cambridge, several academics, like Professor Balasubramanian of Chemical Biology and Dr Jackson of Cell Biology, are involved in the age-old questions that Austad discusses. So maybe these answers are closer than we think. Beth Ashbridge is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry
is made of the fact that many major problems could be solved inexpensively by drastically reducing the number of people on the planet. Lomborg concludes this book with an invitation to readers to log on to the Copenhagen Consensus Center website to register opinions about which problems should receive most attention. These opinions and the views of a panel of 10 experts will form the basis of a meeting to be held in Copenhagen in May 2008 at which decisions will be reached about how to address the world’s biggest problems. Peter Basile is a graduate student in the Faculty of English
32 | and finally...
Dear Dr Hypothesis, As a radiologist I spend my time looking at ghostly images of bones. But sometimes it would be nice if I could make out a bit more of the soft tissue surrounding the skeleton. Do you know of anything that might help? Radio Rex
Dear Rex, I may just have the ticket for you. You’ll be aware, of course, of the use of iodine as an X-ray scattering contrast agent, which highlights areas of strong blood flow. The problem is that iodine is quickly removed from the body, giving little time to get readings. So, some bright spark has thought of using carbon nanotubes, which can easily be targeted to specific cell types via protein tags and which can also carry iodine in the centre of the hollow tube. This is just a patent thus far, so don’t expect to find it in your clinic tomorrow! Dear Dr Hypothesis, I’m a fond architect of sand castles, and I’m always on the lookout for the perfect sand castle – can the world of science help? Beach Betty
Dear Betty, Indeed it can. Two recent pieces of research may help you. The first deals with sand on a granular level. In a castle, the grains are held together by bridges of water, using surface tension over a cylindrical concave surface. Mario Scheel’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization have discovered that there is very little difference between the force when the bridge is first made and the point when the sand becomes saturated with water, when the bridges are lost. However, if you want the perfect mix, maybe you should look to Nowak and Kudrolli’s research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where
using a much larger scale system, they determined the ‘stickiness’ is best at 8 parts sand to 1 part water. Other than that, I’d suggest those little flags on sticks! Dear Dr Hypothesis, What are the long-term impacts and repercussions of the storms in China this winter? Climate Clive
Dear Clive, There is no doubt that the storms in China have been exceptional – the worst in 50 years. However, that does mean that 50 years ago, there were worse storms. So that provides some initial perspective. The cause has largely been attributed to La Niña, the Pacific phenomenon related
Dear Dr Hypothesis, I’m a model plane enthusiast, but sometimes when I’m flying them, particularly smaller crafts, I get bombarded by the wind and find it difficult to keep a straight line. Can you suggest an alteration? Lofty Luke
Dear Luke, You want to get on to a chap called Peter Ifju at the University of Florida. He and his colleagues have developed an aerofoil that flexes against crosswinds, pulling the plane back on course. You can view the patent here http://www.wipo.int/ filing number WO/2007/126405. Email me, Dr H, at firstname.lastname@example.org with all your scientific conundrums tom wilks
to El Niño. In the case of La Niña, prevailing winds brought warm, moist air up from the southern hemisphere where it met cold winds from the north, causing massive precipitation in the form of snow. El Niño and La Niña are recurring phenomena with cycles of intensity. You may remember particularly bad weather about 10 years ago in South America as the result of El Niño. Meanwhile, back in China, the snowfall itself has caused significant damage to forests, making way for new growth and biodiversity, but also leaving a great deal of dead material on the ground, which come summer could make excellent fuel for massive wildfires.
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