I,SCIENCE THE SCIENCE MAGAZINE OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE
nce ie c s f o d e is m o d pr The promise an IscienceSummer2011.indd 1
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I,SCIENCE Editors-in-chief Andrew Purcell Dan Wan
THE SCIENCE MAGAZINE OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE
Sub-Editors Charlie harvey JAN PIOTROWSKI Anna Perman Camila Ruz
Features Polly benneTt lizzie crouch Thea Cuningham Ben Good Pippa Goldenberg Charlie harvey Kate Hazlehurst Anna Perman Jan Piotrowski andrew purcell James Pope Rebecca Pullen Camila ruz Katie Tomlinson Rosie Waldron George Wigmore
Production Veronika McQuade Design Dan Wan News Team Alexandra Jenkin Andrew Purcell Reviews Ben Good Anna Perman David Robertson Camila Ruz Rosie Waldron Photography Andrew Purcell David Robertson
Web Editors Charles Harvey Pippa Goldenberg Online Media Content Andrew Bailey TheA CunningHAM andrew purcell Camila ruz tom welch
Issue 16 - “5 ways the woRld could end” (Winter 2010) Issue 17 - “Unseen science” (Spring 2011) Issue 18 - “great expectations” (Summer 2011)
front page image by jan piotrowski I Science, Felix Office, Beit Quadrangle, PrinCe Consort Road, London, SW7 2BB Tel: 020 7594 8072 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Printed by: Bishops Printers, Walton Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO6 1TR
he image on the front of this magazine may just look like a desk with a few wheels and cogs inside, but it’s much more than that. It’s ‘the memex’. US technocrat, Vannevar Bush, envisioned this machine way back in 1945 and it is largely credited with inspiring the internet as we know it today. Bush was concerned by the ever-increasing specialisation of science. He worried that the sum of humankind’s knowledge was rapidly exceeding the ability of any one individual to keep up. Bush felt that this inability to keep abreast of the latest scientific developments across a range of fields was sorely limiting the rate of our society’s progress. The solution to this problem: microfilm. Bush believed that by scanning large volumes, or even entire libraries, onto microfilm, one could make vast amounts of information much more easily accessible. Also, in the memex, one can add more information by simply placing open books face down on a special panel provided. A lever is pulled and a photo is taken, thus adding this new information to the system. One can even add notes and links — a clear forerunner to today’s hypertext. One can link chains of information from one subject to another. And the resulting ‘trails’ can be saved using a coding system provided by the unit. According to Bush: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified...The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.” The tale of the memex is just one instance of the science of one generation fulfilling the dreams of those generations which preceded it. Yet, for every
story like this, there are seemingly hundreds of stories where science has not lived up to its promise. Prediction is a notoriously tricky business and that which we are capable of achieving seems to fall almost invariably short of that which we can dream of. However, this is not to say that such dreams or aspirations should be discouraged. Such activity is a fundamental part of the scientific process and is a major driver of our society’s progress. In many ways, the novel, from which this issue borrows its title, can be viewed as a cautionary tale against such dreaming as this. Through the journey of Pip, the novel’s central protagonist, Great Expectations explores ideas of ambition and self-improvement. At heart, Pip is an idealist; whenever he can conceive of something that is better than that which he already has, he immediately desires to obtain the improvement. When he sees Satis House, he longs to be a wealthy gentleman; when he thinks of his moral shortcomings, he longs to be good; when he realises that he cannot read, he longs to learn how. Essentially, Pip is like our idealised view of the scientist, dreaming of a better future and working tirelessly to make this future a reality. Like Pip, scientists are inherently optimistic at heart, they must be. So, whilst in this issue we may poke fun at some of the wackier ideas scientists have dreamt of in the past, let us make it clear now that we in no way seek to discourage such dreams. And, given that we have ‘borrowed’ the title for this issue from one of his novels, it is, perhaps, only fair that we give Dickens the last word on this matter. He once sagely claimed: “An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”
andrew & dan
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The Promise and promised of science PAGE 7
IMPERIAL NEWS Highlights from the College
Behind the photo The Great Crested Grebe
sciencE friction Does dark matter really exist?
student science The science of an â€˜all-nighterâ€™
36 _ +=
20 aids: A Historical perspective
reviews Science board games
Looking back at 30 years since the discovery of AIDS
22 flying cows, raining milk
The next generation of scientists imagine our future world
33 vaccination communication Examining the issues surrounding vaccine uptake rates
34 playing with the problems Exploring the use of video games to solve real-world problems
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Round, round, get around, I get around
lectrons are really, really, really building blocks of matter. It’s been a very diffiround, according to research con- cult measurement to make, but this knowledge ducted by Imperial College sci- will let us improve our theories of fundamental entists. The research, which was physics. People are often surprised to hear that published in the journal Nature our theories of physics aren’t ‘finished’, but in and took over ten years to complete, found that truth they get constantly refined and improved the electron differs from being perfectly round by making ever more accurate measurements by less than 0.000000000000000000000000001 like this one.” cm. This means that if the electron was magniThe researchers are now planning to measfied to the size of the solar system, it would still ure the electron’s shape even more closely. appear spherical to within the width of a human The results of this work could have major hair. Using a very precise laser, the researchers implications for the study of antimatter, an made careful measurements of the motion of elusive substance that behaves in the same electrons. If the electrons were not perfectly way as ordinary matter, except that it has an round then, like an unbalanced spinning-top, opposite electrical charge. For example, the their motion would exhibit a distinctive wob- antimatter version of the negatively charged ble, distorting the overall shape of the molecule. electron is the positively charged anti-electron The researchers saw no sign of such a wobble. (also known as a positron). Understanding the Research co-author, Dr Jony Hudson, from shape of the electron could help researchers the Imperial College Physics Department, understand how positrons behave and how said: “We’re really pleased that we’ve been able antimatter and matter might differ from one to improve our knowledge of one of the basic another. Jony Hudson
PARAKEET PEST Research by Imperial College PhD student, Hannah Peck, hit the headlines recently, suggesting that parakeets intimidate other birds and deter songbirds from using garden feeders. There are currently thought to be around 40,000 parakeets in London and this figure is growing at a rate of almost 25% each year. Originally from the Himalayas, these birds are seen as an increasingly significant pest. According to Ms Peck, “the results have shown that they [blue tits and great tits] are more reluctant to feed when a parakeet is present.
Mind-shrinking drugs A team led by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College’s neuropsychopharmacology unit has found that psychedelic drugs can reduce blood flow to certain areas of the brain. The team injected thirty volunteers with psilocybin and carried out brain scans using two types of fMRI. “Seeing a decrease was surprising. We thought profound experience equalled more activity, but this formula is clearly too simplistic,” says Dr Carhart-Harris.
GM mosquitoEs fight malaria In collaboration with scientists at the University of Washington, researchers at Imperial have demonstrated that a gene introduced into mosquitoes can be made to spread through a population in just a few generations. The research, published in the journal Nature, is thought to signal a promising new approach in the fight against malaria. If these results can be repeated on a larger scale, then genes could be introduced into populations of mosquito, which would cause the mosquitoes to target animals rather than humans. Student Joe Smallman adjusts the laser that helped elucidate the roundness of electrons
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TB or not TB
Research led by Professor Ajit Lalvani, Director of Imperial College’s Tuberculosis (TB) Research Unit, has shown that current UK procedures to screen new immigrants for TB fail to detect more than 70 per cent of cases of latent infection. Professor Lalvani argues that better selection of which immigrants to screen with new blood tests could lead to over 90% of cases of latent TB successfully being identified. These people could then be given a course of antibiotic treatment to prevent them from developing the active form of the disease, thus reducing both the spread of the disease and the health costs of treating people with active TB. In a separate study, researchers from Imperial College were able to identify a key enzyme responsible for destroying lung tissue in TB sufferers. Drugs that inhibit this enzyme are already available, meaning that the findings could lead to the development of new treatments.
In a bizarre move, Imperial College London has announced it is cutting ties with influential lobby group CaSE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK. The College’s annual subscription to the lobby group is thought to cost less than £5,000 a year and CaSE is widely credited with having played a major role in helping save UK science funding from the cuts made in last October’s Comprehensive Spending Review. CaSE was also influential in winning concessions for researchers as part of the Government’s new immigration strategy. Felix editor, Kadhim Shubber branded the decision “an embarrassment”, while Union president, Alex Kendall, called it “a very cynical move”, arguing that it has the potential to “damage the unity needed to present a single voice on science and engineering funding.”
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The city cathedral next to the illuminated Leaning Tower of PIsa.
meritus Professor, John Burland has travelled to Italy to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a project that prevented the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapsing. Professor Burland worked as part of a 14 member committee charged with stabilising the tower, which began to develop its characteristic lean after construction progressed to the second floor in 1178. The professor of soil mechanics worked for 11 years on the project to save the tower, which saw 38 cubic metres of soil removed from underneath the raised end of the tower, thus returning it to a position previously seen in 1838. Professor Burland and his colleagues subsequently discovered that extracting the soil in this way corrected some of the tilt, but it did not stop the tower from leaning more each year. After years of further research, they discovered that the south side of the water table was higher than on the north side. Consequently, in winter, when it rained heavily, the water table rose, lifting the tower each year in increments. The team rectified this problem by installing drains to control the water table beneath the north side. In May 2008, the engineers finally announced that that tower had been stabilised and that they had stopped the building from moving for the first time in its history. Professor Burland spoke of his work to save the iconic tower in a special documentary for the BBC’s The One Show, saying “it is amazing to see the tower restored to its former glory...[it] is one of the proudest achievements in my career.” Professor Burland has also worked to ensure the stability of the Big Ben Clock Tower and was London Underground’s expert witness for the Parliamentary Select Committees on the Jubilee Line Extension.
for more news, visit iscienceonline.co.uk • • • •
Daily blogs Original video content Podcasts Science behind the photo
Also, look out for Andrew Purcell’s exclusive interview with CaSE director, Imran Khan.
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endeavour goes, CUCUMBER WOES, volcano blows and periodic table grows (Also, Melon EXPLODES)
s we began to tuck into our summer salads this May, we enjoyed the cool, crisp, crunch of cucumber. In central Europe however, the vegetable was accused of being the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak. The E. coli strain is not actually a new variety, but may have been circulating in the population for years, carried by individuals, without producing any symptoms. This strain was notable for its danger to healthy young adults, as well as the usually-vulnerable children and the elderly. The cucumber scare and the subsequent ban on international trade lost producers a large proportion of their profits for the year. Even UK cucumber farmers may have lost as much as £15,000 per hectare. However, it seems cucumbers were not to blame. The source of the outbreak is now officially stated to be bean sprouts, traced back to a single German farm. If you’re going to be in Germany, bean sprouts are still to be avoided, but the rest of those salad ingredients, including cucumbers, have all been declared safe. Also getting approval this month are elements number 114 and 116. After a three-year review by international physics and chemistry boards, the two man-made elements have been accepted as official elements of the periodic table. Now the researchers that discovered them are free to give them more inspiring names than the strange ones you spent your A-level chemistry lessons wondering how to pronounce. Speaking of pronunciation, Iceland’s volcanoes have been at it again. This time the culprit is Grimsvotn, the country’s most active volcano and the eruption is bigger and more intense than that of Eyjafjallajokul last year. However, the winds are not as strong this time, so the ash plume is unlikely to affect travel. The chain of volcanoes erupting in Chile is likely to cause more trouble, with a change in wind direction redirecting the rain of ash back over Chile. Winds originally blew the ash over the Andes, towards Argentina. Flying above the ash clouds, the last mission of space shuttle Endeavour has now been completed, leaving just one more shuttle mission this summer before NASA retires its ageing shuttle fleet. The progress the world has seen in the 30 years of the space shuttle programme was highlighted by the many people who watched the launch live and viewed pictures of the shuttle docking with the International Space Station on their smartphones. Finally, another excellent recent headline, rivalled only by references to ‘deadly cucumbers’, told of a series of “exploding watermelons”, which had unfortunately been dosed with a little too much plant growth accelerator. It seems getting your five-a-day has become considerably more dangerous than it once was!
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ed, n notic ced it, e e b s e noti d. It ha notice use they hav the year n e e b or has ives to st beca rld and po the poor. Ju e know surv w is, the wo h c i r n y o e w b n e , t ld i w y r t ll s n, a y be e wo tura isparit t unna er else in th rich is know v “The d tely and no g e t n i n.” cu . Wha f gett most a last for long e the trick o It’s just not o . c r ’t n o it won at won’t. O half po th h and , c i 0 r 0 lf 0 a 2 h urvive can’t s
the promise and promised of science
he above prediction was made by C.P. Snow in his infamous 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures. The “trick” Snow is referring to here is science. Snow saw the developments science brought as a way to improve quality of life and free humankind from the bondage of poverty, hunger and disease. Snow was an outspoken critic of literary intellectuals, whom he termed “natural Luddites”. By contrast, Snow described scientists as having “the future in their bones” and ardently believed that scientifically-driven industrialisation was the best way to improve our society: “It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialisation — do a modern Walden if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.” Yet, Snow’s confident prediction, that through science all poverty would be eradicated by the turn of the millennium, has not been fulfilled — not by a long shot. Today, a quarter of the world’s population lives in a state of ‘absolute poverty’ and 6 million children die of hunger each year. Also, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater, with the poorest 10% of the global population accounting for just 0.5% of global consumption. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10% of the population accounts for over half of all consumption.
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So, has science fallen short? Has the reality of science failed to live up to its promise? Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, science was widely viewed in terms similar to those of Snow: saviour, liberator, humankind’s great hope for the future. But today we see a very different picture. Gone is the popular image of the heroic scientist, toiling endlessly for the betterment of humanity. And, tempered by the lessons of Chernobyl, BSE, MRSA, the bomb, a far sinister, darker image has taken its place. Yet, is this really fair? Science may have promised humankind a great deal, but is it really science’s fault that it has failed to deliver on much of this promise? Perhaps, science actually isn’t as great as it was once held to be. Perhaps it is right that we, as a society, have grown more sceptical of science. But perhaps it isn’t science’s fault at all. Maybe it’s Snow’s “natural Luddites”, who still today dominate the corridors of power, holding science back (in the last UK parliament, 90% of MPs described themselves as having “no political interest in science and technology”). Maybe the science has been there all along and it’s just the political will and the economics which are holding back progress. Certainly, this seems to be the case on issues like climate change. We know what needs to be done, we’re just not doing it. So, perhaps the world really would be a better place if it were run by scientists. To examine this, we have taken a look at some of science’s major promises of the past century, dreams which as little as fifty years ago seemed almost certain to come to fruition. From the sublime to the ridiculous — eradicating disease to personal jet packs — we have taken a look at these great predictions for the future of scientific development and tried to find out just what went wrong...
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“It is time to close t he book o fectious d n iniseases... t he war ag infectious ainst diseases h as been w William H. St on.” ew
art, US Surg
Immortal coils Polly Bennett on why we don’t yet live forever
erodotus, the ancient Greek historian, wrote of the fabled longevity of an ancient Ethiopian people. When asked how they reached their 120 years, the Ethiopians revealed a fountain where they washed. The violet scented water was said to be like oil, making skin glossy and sleek, and after years of use one was granted long life. This is one of the earliest accounts of the fountain of youth, but the associated quest for physical immortality is peppered throughout many mythologies and religions. It still reverberates today in the fight for survival against age-related diseases. The secret of everlasting life,
however, is unlikely to be derived from the fountain of youth but instead, from the humble nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Most cells can only divide a finite number of times, and as they age their DNA deteriorates. The ageing process is not haphazard, but is instead highly regulated by fundamental cell processes, such as signalling pathways. If the specific genes involved can be identified then there is the possibility of eventually altering them. Professor David Harrison of The Jackson Laboratory explains that “although ageing is not a disease, it is the clock that times most diseases and disabilities. Retarding ageing is a most effective preventative
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C. elegans worms complete their life span in about
two weeks. But, through selective breeding and genetic testing, researchers have identified gene mutations that alter the ageing process. One such gene is daf-2, which produces a hormone receptor. These are proteins which bind to hormones in response to external signals. In the case of the daf-2 protein, this sig-
“ageing is not a disease, it is the clock that times most diseases and disabilities. Retarding ageing is a most effective preventative medicine” nal is cellular nutrients. C. elegans mutants with reduced daf-2 activity often live twice as long as normal worms. This is because there is a cascade of signals, which causes other proteins and cell products to be produced. Some are involved in disease resistance or cell maintenance, but the cumulative effect of them all together makes the cell live longer. While worms with an eliminated daf-2 gene are forced to enter a lengthy but sexually immature larval stage, worms with reduced daf-2 activity become normal adults with extended life spans. There are groups of people who do have longer life spans than the average human, such as the Ashkenazi Jewish and a cohort of Japanese people. Based on C. elegans studies, the gene mutations responsible for cohorts of these populations were found to be relatives of daf-2, which, in humans, is another nutrient receptor, this time insulin. And so, from C. elegans began studies on mammals aiming to get closer to human immortality. Once genes have been identified it is theoretically possible to alter their function. In 2009, a paper published in Nature reported that the drug rapamycin extended the life span of mice when administered in food. Rapamycin inhibits the rapamycin protein ki-
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nase (mTOR) pathway, which ordinarily stimulates growth and prevents recycling of old cell products. Rapamycin shifts protein function towards the maintenance of tissues and cells instead. Lead author Professor Miller explains that this paper was exciting because “it was the first to show convincing evidence, in multiple labs, that a drug could extend maximum lifespan in mice.” It also showed that rapamycin administered late in life, 20 months, could still lead to longevity. However, in follow up research some mice experienced weight loss from the treatment. When asked about the dangers this could pose in human treatment, Professor Strong of the research team explained “the reduction in weight was very small. The effect in males was less than 10% of the control weight at all ages, and less than 6% in females and only at one time point.” He went on to point out that “in the first paper we published in Nature, there was no weight loss
“The ageing process is not haphazard, but is instead highly regulated by fundamental cell processes” detected when rapamycin treatment was started at 20 months of age, the equivalent of 60 years in humans with regard to the amount of lifespan remaining.” But Professor Miller still sounds a word of warning “We are very far from having enough information to say that rapamycin could, or should, be used to treat or prevent human diseases. Rapamycin is given to some patients to prevent rejection of kidney grafts, and relatives of it are given to some patients to treat cancer. Strong drugs like these often cause a wide range of side effects, and in particular, rapamycin may block some sorts of protective immunity.”
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r-than-air flying machines are impo ssible” Lord Kelvi
n, British m athematicia President of n and phys the British icist, Royal Soci ety, 1895.
I believe I should fly Alex Jenkin asks why her car can’t fly yet
ver since the Wright brothers achieved the first manned powered flight in 1903, we have been dreaming of our own personal flight machine. Before that it was gliders and before that, our own set of flapping wings. Over a third of people dream of flying but how close are we to living that dream? Where is my jetpack? And my futuristic supercar for that matter?
RocketmAn Though the German army experimented with jump belts during WWII, achieving a jump distance of about 60m, the Bell Rocketpack of the 1960s would seem to be the first glimpse of a jetpack future. Powered by hydrogen peroxide, it avoided the high temperatures of conventionally fuelled pulse jet engines such as those used on the German jump belt. When the hydrogen peroxide comes into contact with a catalyst inside the Rocketpack, it rapidly decomposes into superheated steam and oxygen, which is directed out of the rocket nozzles to lift the wearer off the ground. However, hydrogen peroxide powered jetpacks have a low specific impulse (low fuel efficiency) and even today’s hydrogen peroxide jetpacks can only carry enough fuel for about 30 seconds of flight. The problem of carrying more fuel is that it makes the total load to be lifted heavier and the pack subsequently uses the fuel up even more quickly. Jetpacks powered by kerosene fuelled turbojet engines can provide much longer flight times but are highly complex and somewhat expensive. The only successful one currently resides in a museum, unused since 1960. Kerosene is also an example of a jetpack fuel that can severely burn the user’s legs in flight. This May, Yves “Jetman” Rossy, was reported to have jetpacked over the Grand Canyon. He is also credited with crossing areas of ocean by jetpack. However, the Swiss daredevil didn’t start from ground. Not in the jetpack anyway. For each flight he dons his rocket powered wings and jumps from a helicopter or plane. What follows is some impressive gliding, but jumping from a plane and landing with a
parachute doesn’t seem to fulfil the jetpack concept. Florida company Jetlev Technologies have come up with an interesting alternative to jets of air as propulsion for a jetpack. The Jetlev uses jets of water to raise the user into the air. To improve the thrust to weight ratio, they have left the propulsion engine and fuel on the “ground” – on a floating raft attached to the pack itself. Water is supplied to the Jetlev by a long flexible tube which doubles as a tether, keeping the propulsion unit nearby and stopping the pilot from flying above 30m, the maximum flight height of the Jetlev. The company claim that the jets of water mean that the Jetlev is easier to manage than an air propulsion jetpack and that with their training programme, anyone can master it.
“We would need new rules about where you can use your jetpack, as well as when, and how fast, you can go. ” Jetpacks using air propulsion are notoriously difficult to control, bringing in safety issues surrounding their commercial use. The upright position of the person using a jetpack is not very stable. We would need new rules about where you can use your jetpack, as well as when, and how fast, you can go. I suspect that Jetlev Technologies have got it right for the time being, con-
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cluding on their website that “jetpacks are not practical for commuting and should primarily be designed for recreation”. Online gadget store Firebox is selling the Jetlev Flyer for only £115,000. Hurry, you don’t want to miss out on free delivery!
ASTON HOUSE MARTIN Maybe a flying car is more to your taste. Moller claim that the Skycar, which has a public test flight scheduled for October this year, is an important step on our route towards independence from gravity. Designed to carry four passengers, Moller’s creation is powered by eight rotary combustion engines. A rotary combustion engine does not use pistons, as in traditional combustion engines, but creates the compressed compartments of fuel-air mixture to be ignited using a three-apexed rotor. This avoids the agitation and wear of a traditional piston engine, making it a smoother ride. The Skycar directs thrust from its four ducted fans to enable it to take off and land vertically and to move horizontally. It’s not been seen in flight since 2003 but Moller seem confident that it will be able to perform at its test flight and aim to have the prototype available in 2012.
ROBO-DODGEMS Whilst flying around might seem very exciting and glamorous, actually creating an air highway would be a logistical nightmare. One
or two personal flying devices with good control can easily avoid each other but imagine the aerial-M25 on a Monday morning! The solution might lie in the development of Earth bound vehicles that are able to avoid crashes by themselves. V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communication has allowed a fleet of robotic cars to drive autonomously through the streets of
“Creating an air highway would be a logistical nightmare. imagine the aerial- M25 on a Monday morning! ” San Francisco and come out unscathed. To work for everyone however, it would need to be fitted in every vehicle on the road and will require a way of communicating with the driver rather than simply being a robot. Cars developed by Volvo, Mercedes and Honda can stop a car from crashing into another using laser and radar systems without communicating with the other vehicles involved. These systems take over control from the driver when it is needed but aren’t perfect and only work to avoid collisions in which the car runs into something else. A system that avoided crashes completely would need to be much more comprehensive.
flights of fancy Whilst the quest for a personal flying machine will surely continue for many years to come, it doesn’t look like jetpacks are just around the corner yet. The power needed to get a human off the ground vertically and the control required to fly them around safely is more complex than one might first think. Getting a flying car working may well soon be a reality come the Skycar’s October test flight, but the daily commute is probably going to remain on the ground for a while.
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not the s
dication t hat nucle obtainable ar the atom . It would would h m e a n t h at ave to be Albert Ein shattere stein, 1932 d at will. ” ill ever be
Elusive energy Pippa Goldenberg illuminates the dark history of promised energy sources
y 2025, the UK Government has promised to halve carbon emissions. Clean energy looms large on the political agenda, granting science a lot of room to influence the direction of current and future energy policy. But how much does science really have to say about clean energy? Time and again, we’ve heard the promises of wind and solar power fall flat as high costs and protesters get in the way; we’ve heard how hydrogen-powered cars will revolutionise the way we move; and we’ve heard about miracle energy cures like cold fusion, only to find out later that the results were unreliable and our trust in science was misplaced. So, what happened to our clean energy?
Fusion In nuclear reactors today, uranium fission (splitting into smaller parts) is used to produce energy. The total mass of the two nuclei formed in the decay is less than that of the original uranium, so there is extra energy left over that can be converted into electricity. However, when compared with nuclear fusion – the process that keeps our Sun going – the energy yield from fission is tiny. One of the biggest challenges facing nuclear physicists is to find a nuclear fusion process that can be used and harnessed efficiently. In nuclear fusion, two light nuclei are forced together at high enough energies to overcome the repulsion between them. The resulting nucleus has a smaller mass than the combined mass of the original nuclei; so again, energy is released – this time on a much bigger scale than the energy released in fission. The most promising fusion reaction at the moment is that of deuterium (hydrogen with an extra neutron) and tritium (hydrogen with two extra neutrons). The deuterium-tritium reaction can produce enough energy to supply 676 U.S. citizens for a year – and that’s just using one molecule of each. The problem is that the fusion requires conditions of around 40 million Kelvin – a temperature that scientists are only just becoming able to reach.
Cold Fusion In March 1989 two electrochemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, reported ‘cold fusion’ in an electrolysis experiment. They claimed that their experiment – where they’d used a palladium electrode submerged in heavy water to create electrolysis – produced excess heat and by-products typically found in nuclear reactions, such as neutrons and tritium. Since the experiment involved little input energy, the results were termed ‘cold fusion’ – a process in which nuclear fusion could be produced using very small amounts of energy. It was a massive breakthrough in nuclear physics and in energy creation, suggesting that nuclear energy could be harvested at little expense and with abundant materials. The media quickly snapped up the story and subsequently other scientists attempted to replicate the results. However, it soon became clear that the experiment could not be repeated, and the majority of the scientific community declared the results invalid, with only a few determined followers continuing to research the process. C o nv i n cing evidence of cold fusion has yet to be found. Until then, we’re stuck
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with the more expensive and controversial nuclear fission processes found in reactors.
wind and solar power Unlike fusion, wind and solar power are actually commercially available: there’s the occasional massive wind turbine at the side of the motorway, or the occasional house with solar panels on top. The key word here is ‘occasional’. Solar and wind power still have efficiency problems, particularly when the investment and land area needed are considered. The best places for wind farms, for example, need strong and reliable winds at an average of 25 km/h, found mainly in coastal areas (which are generally very expensive to build on) and flat, open plains. Not surprisingly, this rules out some pretty large areas of the UK – and even in some of the places that could hold wind farms, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) protests from those who consider wind turbines an eyesore or too noisy have made it difficult for builds to go ahead. Solar cell technology, too, is still in its infant stages. Solar power can be use d as a supplement to some systems – for example, solar panels can heat water for household boiler systems – but the downside is that in winter, when you need heat and light the most, the solar panels are producing the least energy. So while wind power might be useful for individuals who can put up with the noise, and solar power might be useful when the weather’s good, neither can really supply a consistent and
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unobtrusive energy supply as of yet. We’ve still got to wait a while before they can really provide competition to fossil fuel and nuclear power’s grip on the energy industry.
hydrogen-powered cars A few years ago, hydrogen-powered cars were deemed to be the next big thing in the transport industry: reliable and totally clean to run. All the big car manufacturers were making prototypes. Pop down to the science museum, and you can see one such example, the Riversimple Urban car, in the Atmosphere gallery. But we have yet to see these promised prototypes become commercially available. There are a few hydrogen cars on lease in Los Angeles, but only because there are also hydrogen refilling stations over there. And that’s the clincher, the reason that electric cars are winning out: hydrogen cars require billions of pounds worth of investment in new filling stations, while electric cars can simply be plugged into the grid. Hydrogen and electric fuel cost about the same in terms of energy, too. Both rely on electricity: the electric car straight from the grid, while hydrogen is generally created from refining natural gas. So hydrogen cars’ claim to ‘clean’ fuel actually amounts to a reduction of 55% in greenhouse gas emissions, depending on where the electricity comes from: not much different to that of an electric car. Critics of hydrogen-powered cars have argued that it’s simpler to just put the energy directly into the car, rather than going through manufacturing and processing for hydrogen fuel. Comparing the infrastructure costs, it’s then not really surprising that electric cars are winning the battle – looks like we’ll be seeing G-wiz cars around for a while before hydrogen gets a foot in the door. So, maybe a few more years down the line, we’ll get the clean energy that we keep being promised: but for now, it’s still unreliable and noisy wind farms, inefficient solar power, radioactive nuclear power and carbon-intensive fossil fuels – what a choice!
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“Space t ravel is bunk.” Sir Harold Spencer Jo
nes, Astron omer Royal later Sputn of the UK, ik orbited 1957 the Earth).
Martian musings Kate Hazelhurstwants to know why we don’t live on Mars yet
t’s getting a bit hot down here; climate change, political conflict and whatnot. Fancy relocating to Mars? It’s only 36 million miles away, about a nine month journey using a minimum energy trajectory. No problem, surely? Of course, nine months is a long time to be exposed to solar radiation, which can cause damage to the eyes, gastrointestinal system and central nervous system, as well as vastly increasing the risk of cancer. If you survive the trip, atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface is so low that fresh water begins to boil at 10°C. Add to that even more harmful cosmic radiation, strong winds due to the absence of a magnetosphere, and the lack of accessible water, and it’s easy to understand why our dreams of a Martian home are not yet a reality. Space agencies across the globe are working on these problems, and there are many projects under way which aim to bring us closer to Mars. Physical shields can combat the radiation problem, but this can make crafts so heavy that huge volumes of fuel are required, rendering it even heavier and in need of even more fuel, which makes it even heavier…and so on. This year, NASA’s space shuttle will complete its final journey after almost 20 years of service, and there is currently no replacement. Instead, the manufacture of American crafts capable of reaching the moon and beyond will fall to commercial contractors. Other Marsbased projects include the European Space Agency’s Eurobot, a rover capable of carrying out complex tasks
on Mars. Eurobot and machines like it will take care of tasks astronauts cannot or would rather not do, such as transporting heavy tools and equipment. In the Mars 500 experiment in Moscow, five people are spending 520 days inside a flight simulator in order to investigate the psychological and technical challenges of long-term space travel. The participants are currently ‘on their way home’ and scheduled to ‘land’ in November 2011. One day, we will set foot on Mars, even if it takes a little longer than expected. But Martian colonisation is not the only major milestone in space exploration that we have not yet realised.
“one day, we will set foot on mars” Many people believe that the existence of extraterrestrial life is a certainty. Estimates of the number of advanced civilisations in our galaxy range from one to over a million, based on a mathematical formula called the Drake Equation. There is an apparent contradiction between optimistic estimates of the equation and the lack of evidence or contact with such civilisations. This is known as the Fermi Paradox; if there are a million alien civilisations out there, where is everybody? Frank Drake is the mathematician behind the Drake Equation and founder of the SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). SETI searches for signals from advanced technological civilisations within our galaxy, looks for earth-like planets outside our solar system, and assesses what it calls the ‘habitability’ of the galaxy for organisms ranging from bacteria to complex life forms. How many advanced technological civilisations has SETI listened in on since it began operations in 1985? Zero. One day, SETI might hear something other than a dial tone from space, and perhaps future generations will have the chance to build their lives on the surface of Mars. But in the meantime we just have to carry on working hard, stay patient and above all, keep looking up.
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energy m ight be a s good a explosive s our pr s e, b u t it is u duce an nlikely to ything v p ery muc roh more Winston C hurchill, B dangerou ritish P s.” sent-day
Robo-revolution Ben Good examines the likelihood of a techno apocalypse
s computers have become more developed and intricate they have been given responsibility for many tasks that people used to carry out. However, how close are we to them taking over everything we do, resulting in a Hollywood-esque robotic revolution?
TURING INTELLIGENCE Scientists have been asking this question for a very long time. The famous mathematician Alan Turing said in the 1950’s that “at some stage ... we should have to expect the machines to take control”. He also devised the Turing test for robotic intelligence. In this he proposed that true robotic intelligence would only occur when a human, having a conversation with another human and a computer (both of whom are trying to pretend to be human), is unable to correctly judge which is a computer. In the 1960s, Turing’s ideas were expanded upon by Professor IJ Good, who theorised that if computers were to ever, even slightly, become more advanced than humans. They would then be able to continually redesign and improve themselves resulting in an “intelligence explosion”. He gave this
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the term “technological singularity”. Back when these theories were being established, the world of robotics and computing was just beginning, with the supercomputer of the time (IBMs Naval Ordnance Research Calculator) running at a speed of 15,000 operations per second. Fast-forward to today and our fastest computer, Tianhe-1A, can operate at 2507 trillion calculations per second. And the rate at which computers work is set to increase even further.
MOORE’S LAW The current trend in computing advancement follows Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors which can fit in a given area on a chip doubles every two years. It has been accurate since its inception in the 1960s and is believed will still apply up until at least 2020. The combination of Moore’s law and technological singularity theory gives humanity a potential problem. Could computer development (following Moore’s law) reach a point of singularity and will it result in a technological apocalypse? Some people think so. The author and futurist Raymond Kurzweil outlined this in his book The Singularity is Near, (2005). He predicted that by 2029 the computers will be able to beat the Turing test and by 2045 we will have reached the nightmare situation Professor Good envisaged. His forecasts for post-2045 are rather ominous. He states that Moore’s law will no longer apply as we will reach the limit of how small transistors can become. As this point he theorises that as a result of this, computers will increase in power by expanding in size until the Earth becomes a ‘Hitch Hikean’ planetary computer. These predictions have been criticised by many, who cite the previous failures of similarly outrageous predictions. It seems highly unlikely that we will end up living in the world Kurzweil predicted. But, it seems prudent that we should consider where the continued rapid advancement in computing might lead us.
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“Food in t he year 2 000 will reduced t be o chemica ll y p r oduced flavour a nd nutritio n a l p ills” Mar celin Berthe lot,
French Chem is
A world of pills Anna Perman on over-thecounter emotions
cience fiction is full of pills with weird and wonderful effects. In the Matrix, Neo decides what memories to keep or delete by choosing between red and blue ones. In the Jetsons, a pill is an entire meal. But because every memory or feeling we have is fundamentally just a bunch of chemical reactions, recreating them in the lab might just be closer to reality than you think.
mmmmmmmmmm, love That weakness at the knees you feel for someone you really fancy is a hard feeling to shake off. And you always feel it most strongly for completely innaproppriate people, right? Well it is caused by your brain producing a heady cocktail of hormones, including dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin. This begs the question: what if we could find a cocktail of these that could act like cupid’s arrow, so we could get that rush of passion only for the right person? Getting a mix of these in the right quantities to simulate that lovin’ feeling would require us to piece together exactly what each hormonal ingredient does. Professor Anne Campbell at Durham University has studied the effects of oxytocin in particular. This hormone is produced by females during birth, copulation and physical contact. ‘In humans, we know that oxytocin seems to increase trust by reducing apprehension when we are faced with a stranger. But that is a far cry from ‘love’.’ So, like cupid’s arrow, oxytocin’s effects are short lived. While it is associated with forming an attachment, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on maintaining it. In fact, in monogomous species, it is just one part of the puzzle. Professor Campbell says that ‘partner preference in monogamous species)
depends on the simultaneous action of oxytocin and a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is associated with the motivation of wanting and the experience of liking. This double activation seems to happen spontaneously during mating with a particular partner.’
jagged little pill Meanwhile, Stephanie Ortigue at the University of Syracuse recently declared that ‘love has a scientific basis’, after gathering together data on all the different hormones involved in love. In addition to chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine, she found that ‘love at first sight’ seems to be mediated by nerve growth factor, as couples deeply in love had more of this chemical flowing around their bodies. Love comes in many different forms though, and while similar chemicals seem to be involved, they are mixed together in a slightly different way, for instance in parental love. A study led by Dr Carmine Pariante from Kings College London recently found that “levels of oxytocin – the ‘bonding’ hormone – are reduced in pregnancy in women who will later develop [post-natal] depression.” This suggests that the rush of oxytocin women’s bodies produce to facilitate labour is also pretty important in making them bond with their child. It must be pretty effective to make women think that all the pain was worth it! But the implications of being able to map such chemical processes are huge. While recreating love from scratch might be a tall order, we can do a little bit more when the systems go wrong. Ortigue, for instance, has suggested that once doctors understand why people fall in love, they can go about treating people with heartbreak in a much more effective way. If our feelings and emotions are all down to chemicals flowing round our bodies, then we can easily modify them. But some scientists are taking this
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even further, and looking at the memories which give rise to those feelings in the first place. Our memories are created when two brain cells form a connection. It’s happening to us all the time. It’s also happening to the rats which scientists in America are using to investigate how memories are formed. These rats are exposed to a sound, and then given an electric shock - not enough to harm them, but enough to cause a little bit of pain. They then learn to associate that pain with the sound, so that as soon as they hear the noise, they tense in expectation of the shock. This is memory - it is a simplified version of what is going on in your head when you remember what you had for breakfast this morning or what year the battle of Hastings was in. This forming of connections between, in this case, a ‘sound’ brain cell and a ‘pain’ brain cell, is a chemical process. Whenever you remember a memory, that pathway is strengthened, so that the more often you remember something, the longer that memory will persist. So, if you can inhibit the protein building process which form these connections, you inhibit the memory too. In 2000, Karim Nader did exactly that. He took a rat which had formed a memory connecting the sound and pain, and injected a protein synthesis inhibitor into it’s amygdala while it was remembering it. The next time it heard that tone, it didn’t tense in expectation of pain - it had lost that memory. This year, Nader’s lab joined with the University of Montreal to apply this to humans, using metyrapone, which reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Administering this when a patient recalls a traumatic memory lessens the amount of distress they feel whenever they think about that event. It’s all very Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! There is also a lot of research into drugs which might do the opposite, nootropics, which
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enhance our ability to form memories. While stimulants like caffeine help us to get more knowledge in, nootropics actually promote the factors which contribute to memory formation, so that we form stronger neural connections, and remember things better. Many of these were originally developed to treat other disorders. Modafinil, for instance, was originally a treatment for narcolepsy, while methylphenidate, or methylin was developed for patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These increase the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, aiding memory formation. But some scientists have hypothesised that we could go even further. If every memory a person has is a unique neurochemical interaction, in theory you could replicate the effects of those chemicals on another person’s brain, and put that memory into their head. The name of this kind of hypothetical process? A Marylin Monroe experiment. Because when scientists started dreaming up the possibility, that would be the memory they would have implanted! Such an idea is still completely theoretical, but the memory attenuation and deletion experiments of LeDoux and Nader’s labs are one step towards that kind of technology.
hard to swallow While it is exciting to be able to map our psychological experiences so that we can adjust them to suit us, we have to wonder: would a love or a memory created by a pill be anywhere near as good as the real thing? Just like a nutritional pill would be nowhere near as good as a decent meal, we can never replace our emotions. But, if this science can take the edge off our heartache, and relieve traumatic memories, then it is well worth pursuing.
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SCIENCE BEHIND THE PHOTO Species: Podiceps cristatus Common Name: Great Crested Grebe The photograph is an example of a 4 stroke
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here can be few species with as colourful a history as the great crested grebe. Once abundant in the UK, these birds were hunted almost to extinction in the nineteenth century. The great crested grebe’s elaborate head plumage was much sought after as an accessory to adorn both ladies hats and undergarments. By 1860, intensive hunting had reduced their numbers in the UK to just 100 individuals. It was specifically because of the plight of this species — along with that of the black-legged kittiwake — that Emily Williamson decided to set up the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889. At the time, the organisation was known simply as ‘The Plumage League’ and had just two rules: 1. Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection. 2. Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted. Measures taken to protect great crested grebes in the UK, have now helped restore their numbers to around 8,000 breeding pairs. Today, the species is ranked under the category ‘least concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). As well as inspiring the creation of a new conservation charity, the great crested grebe has the distinctive accolade of having inspired a whole new branch of science: ethology. Fascinated by these birds’ elaborate courtship displays, Sir Julian Huxley became the first biologist to apply an evolutionary perspective to their behaviour. Great crested grebes are renowned for displays in which the male offers gifts, usually nesting material, to the female. If the gift is accepted, the two birds rise high out of the water and engage in an intimate, circling dance. This involves a lot of beak-to-beak head shaking to fluff out and enhance the birds’ beautiful crest feathers, which grow only in springtime. As the dance continues, both the male and the female dive under the surface to fill their beaks with pondweed, then raise themselves out of the water, breast-to-breast, paddling franticly. With the water frothing at their feet, their bodies raised up, the birds’ heads swing seductively from side to side. This dance is undoubtedly one of the most complex mating rituals of any bird found in Europe. If the courtship is a success, the pair will build a nest in shallow water to rear their young. Like other grebes, the great crested grebe spends all of its life on the water. The young are born with black and white stripes all over their bodies, similar to those of zebra. Once hatched, the young will be carried on the adults’ backs to keep them safe from predators. Unusually, young grebes are capable of swimming and diving almost at hatching. The adults teach these skills to their young by allowing the chicks onto their backs, before quickly diving under water, thus leaving them to float on the surface. The adult then re-emerges just a few feet away, so that the chicks may swim back to them. Great crested grebes usually only produce two offspring. In clutches of two or more hatchlings, the parents will each identify their ‘favourites’, which they alone will care for and teach.
Under the bonnet
Words and photographyphoto by Andrew Purcellby jan piotrowski and words
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AIDS anniversary Thea Cunningham looks back at thirty years of AIDS
n June 5th, 1981, the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published the first report of AIDS. Entitled ‘5 cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP)’, it included case studies of five previously healthy young men, all homosexuals, who had been treated for PCP, a lung condition normally seen only in severely immunosuppressed patients. Since the five young men had no clinically apparent underlying immunodeficiency, their sexuality led clinicians to speculate an association between their homosexual lifestyle and the occurrence of PCP among their population. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the report. In the days after its release, additional case reports emerged from other cities across the United States, including New York City and San Francisco. The following month, an investigative team was set up by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to try and identify risk factors for the condition. Within two years, epidemiologists had conducted studies and prepared MMWR reports that identified all of the major risks factors for AIDS. The term AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and is used to describe the late stage of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. HIV is spread through the exchange of bodily fluids and attacks the body’s immune system by destroying the cells in our blood that are responsible for fighting infection. As a result, the immune system stops work-
ing, predisposing the individual to infection. AIDS occurs when the individual develops a life-threatening condition such as PCP, which proved fatal for two of the five men in the first report. Though AIDS only surfaced in 1981, the disease probably existed unrecognized for many years prior, having transferred to humans in Africa at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century. In the thirty years since, what started as five unusual cases has grown into an epidemic with devastating effects. Although much has been done to communicate the risks of HIV transmission, according to the latest figures from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), almost 60 million people have been infected with HIV and 25 million people have died of HIV-related causes. Sub-Saharan Africa is worst affected; the continent is home to 67% of all people living with HIV worldwide and 91% of all new infections among children. More than 14 million children have been orphaned as a result of the epidemic. There is currently no cure for HIV, and no vaccine to prevent infection. Last month, the International AIDS Society (IAS) called for greater investment of time and money into HIV research, in the hope of developing a cure. The society has put together a panel of international experts, co-chaired by French virologist Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who co-discovered HIV in 1983. The panel is expected to produce a draft report by the end of the year. With infection rates rising, let’s hope AIDS research receives the funding it needs.
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a history of aids
You Mars be joking
Jan Piotrowski on Martian canalisation
1981 First cases of AIDS detected among gay men in the United States.
1982 AIDS is reported in several European countries. The name “AIDS” (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is coined.
1984 HIV is identified as the cause of AIDS.
1985 AIDS is detected in China, making it seen in all regions of the world.
1987 The first drug for treating AIDS, azidothymidine, is approved.
1995 UNAIDS is established.
1996 Combination antiretroviral treatment is proven effective against HIV.
2003 Trials find first HIV vaccine candidate ineffective.
2004 South Africa begins providing free antiretroviral treatment.
2009 President Barack Obama removes the travel ban preventing HIV+ people from entering USA.
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hen Giovanni Schiaparelli tilted his telescope towards Mars in 1877, he was hardly expecting to answer one of humanity’s enduring questions: are we alone in the Universe? Yet, what he found sparked almost a century of heated debate about whether he had done just that. The Italian observed a series of long, straight lines, or ‘canalis’, carved into the rocky surface of our celestial neighbour. Astronomers, most notably Percival Lowell, cited these as direct proof of an advanced civilization — canals that carried water from the planet’s icy poles to the arid equatorial regions. It didn’t seem to matter that Schiaparelli never made any mention of aliens (canalis actually means channels — a subtle but important mistranslation); the idea of life in our cosmic back garden was too appealing to ignore, and the Martian myth was born. Despite being embraced by popular culture, scientists greeted the findings with scepticism. Some astronomers accepted that ‘canals’ existed, but preferred geological explanations over the presence of little green men. Others dismissed them as illusions, caused by the inadequacies of their equipment. Viewing Mars pushed telescopes to their resolution limits, meaning that separate points, such as craters, could easily be confused as one. Enough of these points along a straight path might suggest one solid line. It was not until NASA sent a series of probes to the red planet in the 1960s and 70s, which failed to find any evidence of canals or channels, that the issue was finally put to rest. Despite its absurdity, the whole saga gives an insight into the power of belief in shaping observation. The 19th century was a time of frantic industrialisation, supported in part by the construction of a network of canals. It is no coincidence that astronomers searching for the signs of intelligent life saw products of their own civilization though their lenses. They wanted to believe so badly that they saw exactly that which would support their views. Whilst many people were disappointed by the lack of life on Mars, it might turn out to be a blessing. After all, as Stephen Hawking remarks, if intelligent life is anything like us, do we really want to meet them?
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T h E F u TU R e
* S! T o b as bots as clever rO ight make ro ience m “Someday sc issa, 6). people.” (Mar
robotic are going to be so reliant on According to the kids, humans self-fixing to d use so be ll we’ n, dow ak technology that if things bre (age 11) put know what to do. As Amelia machines that that we won’t .” nce nde epe ind less re mo e much it, “humans are going to hav
doctors! Doctors are going to hav e it easy in the future: “Sc ientists will have invented a potio n that you inject and kill s all illnesses. It will take a ver y long time, but I’m sur e eventually it will happen, although they might find new ger ms too, red ones that are really poiso nous.” (Marissa, age 6).
“What I really th ink scie more exciting pe ts. Wha make the most is a really little animal in th e shape noises and wants to play. (Marissa, 6)
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oF s c I E n C e
By Camila Ruz
At first, a sk kids to pr ing a roomful of ed science se ict the future of e have been med like it could s tious. But omewhat overam b none of t hem even iso much a s answers. hesitated with the If the futu ir re of science is an yt have pred hing like what the y icted, the n for some exciting t we’re in imes...
! l E v a R t
times... ack to Roman b o g to e k li (Victoria, “I would e mythology.” th e k li ly al re because I age 8)
ts will have invented a Along with flying cars, scientis a teleport machine: and d cross between a skateboar on this big circle and tell “All you’d have to do is jump you’d be there in a blink.” it where you want to go and (James, 7)
eally think scient ists will make is ting pets. What I want scientists to most is a really, really, really, flu ff y al in the shape of a ball that makes wants to play. I want a lilac one. ” )
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“Science will make people’s
lives better.” (Aiden 8).
sure it’ll happen someday “I think we’ll go extinct. I’m Marissa was less optimistic. osaurs.” and somehow, just like the din
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academic amongst us
tempest van Schaik bioengineer by day, artist by night INTERVIEWED BY DAN WAN
Who is Tempest van Schaik? I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. At Wits University I studied Biomedical Engineering, and then Electrical Engineering, so I know how to build a robot and remove a human heart. I came to London to do my PhD in Bioengineering, where I’m working on electrochemical biosensors to study angiogenesis. I also have a substantial creative side: my artwork belongs to a public collection and I have lectured graphic design students.
In a world where careers don’t exist and you could do whatever brings you joy all day everyday, would you still be a scientist? My first year mechanics lecturer once told us that our useless brains would become powerful thinking machines by the end of his course. Seven years of studying engineering have continued to shape me into a problem solver and that’s exactly why I enjoy scientific research. I like to solve aesthetic problems too which is why I’m involved in art and design, but I wouldn’t give up science.
A little bird tells us you’ve been travelling in the name of science. Tell us more. My trip to South Korea seemed like an experiment on human chilli consumption, but I was actually there to work with collaborators at Chungbuk National University. Also, I was selected for a summer school at MIT, and a lab placement with MIT’s head of Biological Engineering. The experience gave me confidence in myself as a researcher. I learnt that there is a culture of nurturing and mentoring in academia, and that young researchers shouldn’t be too intimidated to get involved.
You want to switch off from science. What do you do other than your artwork? I love exploring London on my bicycle, and firmly believe it’s possible to cycle in stylish clothes without any Lycra in sight. I also enjoy DIY projects and I’m shocked by how much goes to waste in London, so I like to salvage and “upcycle” things I find.
Fantasy dinner party, you can invite any two scientists, dead or alive. Who and why? I’d like to meet the women who made great contributions to science in Victorian times, when society believed the female brain was incapable of abstract thoughts. Mary Somerville was the first woman allowed to join the Royal Astronomical Society. She tutored and encouraged Ada Lovelace who in 1843 wrote the first computer algorithm, for Babbage’s analytical engine, which is particularly close to my heart.
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Science friction Science Friction
Dark Matters Does dark matter exist, or have we got gravity all wrong?
his month saw the end of the £12 million UK Dark Matter Experiment. It didn’t find dark matter. I, SCIENCE met two researchers with two different takes on this problem. Imperial College’s Dr Roberto Trotta analyses data from dark matter experiments, while Oxford University’s Professor Pedro Ferreira considers gravity itself.
Dr Roberto Trotta
What was the aim of the UK Dark Matter Experiment? RT – When we look at the sky, we see galaxies and clusters moving in certain ways, being attracted by the gravitational pull of objects that we cannot see. Dark matter is a convenient umbrella name that explains this gravitational attraction and there are several possibilities of what dark matter is. A leading candidate is a theoretical particle called the neutralino, which is a leftover from the big bang and we’re looking for this particle using direct detection. But no neutralinos were found, could there be another explanation? PF – There’s the idea that some of Newton’s laws may be different in regions of low gravity. But this only applies on certain scales – you can’t say anything about how light is affected in the way you can using Einstein’s relativity. People have constructed theories that also incorporate relativity and these have yet to be completely tested or ruled out. If directly detecting dark matter hasn’t worked yet, what are the alternatives? PF - You can test the modifications to gravity by looking at large scale structures and measuring systems, or you can send satellites to quiet spots in the solar system where gravity is weak. If you do experiments there, you could see how gravity is different .
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RT - Another way is to produce dark matter in the lab. This approach is being taken in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Beams of particles are smashed together in an effort to produce the conditions just after the Big Bang and it’s hoped the collisions will produce dark matter. Another theory is that if dark matter exists, every now and then it will bump into another dark matter particle and give off a burst of gamma rays that we can pick up with telescopes. Why do people prefer the dark matter theory?
Prof. Pedro Ferreira
PF - Einstein’s theory of gravity is so beautiful and so elegant that people would rather not tamper with it. Theories of modified gravity explain the same things that dark matter explains, but they’re not as simple as the theories of dark matter. Whenever you modify gravity, you always have to introduce something that looks like dark matter. You never get a pure modified theory of gravity. More direct detection experiments are now underway, why should taxpayers bankroll science that might not find anything? PF - When you answer big questions, great things follow. In trying to understand the microscopic structure of nature like quantum mechanics we’ve understood stars, nuclear energy, nuclear bombs, semiconductors. The foundation of our technological society comes from trying to answer big questions. If you try to answer big questions, you end up doing things which have huge societal impact. RT - Direct evidence suggests that there is five times as much dark matter as visible matter. To know for sure that we are made of matter that is only 5% of the content of the universe would make our position in the universe even more special.
BYJames pope I, Science
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Burn the midnight oil Feeling overwhelmed by the lack of sunshine, sleep and happiness? Then find your perfect procrastination material here, as we look closer into how pulling an all-nighter affects our bodies
First things first...A nice cup of tea
Don’t try this one at home Randy Gardner holds the official record for sleep deprivation, lasting an incredible 11 days without sleep. Gardner, a regular university student from California, pulled the stunt as part of a research project in 1964. While he suffered no long term effects, his cognitive functioning was far from normal during the ordeal. He reportedly believed he was a College football star winning the national championship, and even mistook a street sign for a person. Some claim Gardner was beaten 2 weeks later by a fellow student who spent 18 days awake, although this was never verified.
As yor eyes begin to sag and your resolve to stay awake crumbles, a nice cup of tea or coffee is usually the first thing people turn to keep them going. This, of course, is due to the caffeine, which acts as a natural pesticide in plants to ward off feeding insects. Caffeine works by blocking the effects of adenosine, a nucleoside that usually brings about feelings of drowsiness by slowing down nerve cell activity. Caffeine has a similar shape to adenosine which allows it to block the adenosine receptor and prevents adenosine from binding, thereby speeding up neural activity. This increase is interpreted by your pituitary gland as an emergency and that releases adrenal hormones responsible for the well know effects of caffeine; increased heart rate, blood pressure and sweating. Caffeine is effective at improving alertness; when consumed by shift workers they are shown to make fewer mistakes. The irony of coffee-fuelled revision is that studies have actually shown caffeine to inhibit short term memory. So drinking that espresso to stay awake may be doing you more harm than good. It is also quite easy to develop a tolerance to caffeine, so that each day more and more must be consumed to give that same well-needed boost. In fact, it takes around eight cups of coffee spread through the day, for seven days, to develop a tolerance to the effects of caffeine.
Thats not doing the trick. Now for something stronger For those in need of a stronger study aid, increasing numbers of students are turning to a group of concentration boosting “smart drugs”, which provide a new, academic type of high. Smart drugs include Ritalin or “vitamin R”, usually used to treat sufferers of ADHD. Ritalin greatly increases ability to focus and improves spatial memory, making it perfect for long study sessions memorising graphs and diagrams. Similar in structure to cocaine, Ritalin blocks the re-absorption of the neurostransmitter dopamine. Increased levels of dopamine creates a sense of reward and drives motivation, making revision an all together happier experience. Modafinil is another smart drug, used to treat narcolepsy, as it improves alertness. So powerful are Modafinil’s benefits that it has been distributed to US soldiers and was stock-piled in the UK before the Iraq war. Currently, smart drugs are consumed more at US Universities, one study indicating that 7% of students have used them in the past year. However, smart drugs are also becoming more prevalent in the UK. Despite their allure, you might want to spare a second thought before popping one of these brain boosting pills, as the long term side effects of taking them without a prescription are totally unknown. Scientists are particularly concerned about the effect of smart drugs on young brains and many suspect a link with premature decline in cognitive ability.
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I just want to tear my hair out! Everyone gets stressed during revision – it helps drive us during those early morning hours of cramming. But what are the effects on our brains? Stress activates the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland to trigger the release of glucocorticoid stress hormones. Receptors for these glucocorticoid hormones are distributed through the brain. Human studies have shown that small elevations of glucocorticoid levels can actually increase learning and memory. However when we are highly stressed for prolonged periods of time, the high exposure to glucocorticoids impairs brain function and ability to retrieve information. So if you can cope with the guilt, the occasional chill-out session may really help improve your brain’s capabilities.
My bed is looking really appealing right now Although pulling an all-nighter is the last-minute option for many, it may not be advisable. After powering through the many long hours of caffeine-fuelled revision, the nagging need to sleep is inevitable. While our consciousness may be nodding off there are, in fact, some very critical functions going on when we sleep. Not only are glycogen levels in our brains replenished, but our memories are cemented by strengthening the synaptic connections created by the experiences we have while we’re awake. This includes the experiences of cramming, making sleep vital to remembering all the facts our brains have been bombarded with. Although sleep may seem like a luxury when a deadline is looming, losing out on too much creates a “sleep debt” which takes many days to recover. During this time, judgement, reaction time, memory and cognitive abilities are all impaired, making learning especially difficult. Familiar symptoms of sleep deprivation include mood swings and even hallucinations, which certainly helps explains some of the crazy behaviour in the library. Many students suffer from sleep disorders such as short-term insomnia, largely due to high stress and caffeine levels combined with disturbances in the natural day/night sleep cycle. One way to help guarantee a good night’s kip is to improve your ‘sleep hygiene’. This involves only using the bed for sleeping, waking up at the same time every morning and avoiding exposure to bright light before bed.
Is that really the time? Burning the midnight oil also affects the body’s saccadic rhythm, disrupting the regular timing of essential functions, such as cell division and DNA synthesis. The key to this disruption is the hormone melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is essential for regulating other hormones and keeping your body clock in sync. Melatonin levels drop at night, leading experts to believe that light inhibits its synthesis. Staying up all night under artificial lights prevents your body from making enough melatonin. Melatonin also boosts the immune system and has even been linked to cancer. However, to avoid Daily Mail hysteria, it must be said that the evidence is only circumstantial and no definite causal link has ever been found.
One for the future... It may sound like some wacky idea straight out off a sci-fi film, but brain chips are becoming a very real possibility. Remarkably, very basic brain chips have been around since the 1960s and have now been implanted in over 2003 people. They are primarily used to improve communication between brain activity and muscle control. Intelligence is the next target. Tests include wiring brains up to computers and allowing brain cells to grow onto a computer chip. This might seem a rather extreme revision tactic, but who knows where the future will take us..
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5 p o T
SCIENCE FICTION UNSEEN PREDICTIONS SCIENCE
the Atomic Bomb The World Set Free (1915)
mperial alumnus, H.G. Wells is considered by many to be one of the “fathers of Science Fiction” and he wrote some of the classics that defined the genre. He also had a moment of prophetic vision whilst writing The World Set Free, describing a weapon he called an “atomic bomb”, that once “induced, continued a furious radiation of energy and nothing could arrest it”. It’s the sort of theoretical vision any scientist would be proud of, in fact Leo Szilard, the scientist who first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction (the basis of nuclear fission) in 1934 later credited Wells for inspiring the idea.
by andy bailey
Manned moon mission From Earth to the Moon (1865)
ules Verne’s frighteningly accurate description of a manned moon mission was written 100 years before Apollo 11 took off. His novel is an (almost) accurate historical narrative of the 1969 event. In it, Clomubiad is launched from a base in Florida. Its astronauts complete a moonwalk and splash down to earth in the Pacific Ocean. He even calculated the cost- the grand sum of $12 billion, the actual cost of the mission was $14 billion. Though he did also predict that the capsule would be launched from a massive cannon, which just sounds like science fiction. Oh wait, it is…
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Mobile Flip-phone Star Trek (1960S)
tablet computers 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
bet you thought Apple were the true purveyors of innovative new ideas? Well you’d be wrong. They’re just very well read in science fiction. The iPad, the current must-have gadget, remarkably resembles Arthur C. Clarke’s Newspad from the literary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A device extremely similar in design and use to Apple’s iPad, it even had automatic resizing of the latest news stories so they filled the screen for easy reading.
ave you ever wondered how the original series of Star Trek has manged to stay looking so up-to-date? You probably didn’t realise, but it’s because Captain Kirk and crew are wandering around with flip-phones complaining of bad reception. It’s the sort of cultural reference you’d find in Skins, except Captain Kirk wasn’t at a drug-fuelled rave, and flip-phones wouldn’t be invented for thirty years. The bad intergalactic signal of the Star Trek communicators was key to sustaining the series. If they had been reliable, every episode would have been wrapped up within 5 minutes, with Captain Kirk calling in the Enterprise to rescue him from every tribe of Amazonian Spacewomen.
THE RADAR Ralph 124C 41+ (1911)
ugo Gernsback could be considered the epitome of science fiction writers. He even has the science fiction equivalent of the Oscars named after him, the Hugo’s. His series of short stories, Ralph 124C 41+, read as “one to foresee for one other” (don’t judge!), also stick to that science fiction tradition of accurately describing future technologies. He described a “pulsating polarized ether wave” that could be reflected off objects like light, and even provided diagrams. All a good 6 years before Nikola Tesla described the concept and a full 28 years before Sir Robert A Watson-Watt built his chain of radar stations on the English south coast.
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Preparing for pleasure Rosie Waldron finds out how our anticipation of pain and pleasure really works
xpectation of reward and pleasure plays an important role in motivating behaviour. Many of the decisions we make every day depend on our prediction of positive outcomes. The neurological basis of expectation and reward is complex and elusive but research in subjects ranging from bees to humans indicates that the neurotransmitter dopamine has a critical role. Dopamine has numerous functions in the brain, including important roles in cognition, addiction, reward, motivation, attention, memory and modulation of movement. It is the degeneration of neurons which use dopamine as their main signalling molecule that leads to Pakinson’s Disease. Professor Wolfram Schultz of Cambridge University found that dopamine activity is increased in anticipation of reward. When a cue from the environment indicates that a reward is on its way, dopamine is released in response. This also happens when you receive an unexpected reward. If the reward does not meet with expectations, dopamine activity is downregulated. It is tempting to relate this pattern of activity to our emotional responses. High levels of dopamine may be associated with the feelings of anticipation we would experience when a reward is imminent. The drop in dopamine levels could also go some way to explain the feelings of frustration and disappointment we experience when a reward is not delivered. However, as Professor Schultz points out, “It is unclear whether dopamine activity is involved in pleasure at all, and [it is] a very contentious issue”. Reward is often used to facilitate learning. From Pavlov’s dogs to the excitement of chatting someone up, actions which lead to positive outcomes are reinforced. Reward-based learning requires a means of coding for deviation from the predicted reward. The
dopamine response pattern to stimuli, unexpected rewards and unfulfilled predictions, has emerged as a likely candidate. Activity in dopaminergic neurons is believed to signal that a subject’s estimate of the value of a reward is in error and also the magnitude of this error. Dopamine is released when an unpredicted reward is received. If the event that triggers a reward happens often enough, dopamine activity in your brain will be triggered, strengthening the association so that eventually you receive a buzz, not just when the event happens, but when it is predicted. It is thought that this adjusts the strength of connections in the brain until the estimate is accurate. Dopamine cells connect to many parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where having the correct levels of dopamine is critical for focusing. Positive expectations increase the level of dopamine in the brain, which improves your ability to focus. This makes evolutionary sense – the greater the resulting reward, the more attention you want to give to the task. Expectation can also affect our physiological responses. Expectation of pain can lead to benign stimuli being perceived as painful and the mysterious benefits of placebo drugs can, in part, be attributed to the effects of positive expectations. In 2002 researchers from the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre proposed the placebo-reward hypothesis after noting substantial release of dopamine in the brains of Parkinson’s Disease patients in response to placebo. High placebo responses are associated with greater dopamine activity, and imaging has shown placebo-induced activation of the reward circuitry in Parkinson’s Disease, depression and pain. Our behaviour is often governed by our estimates of reward and pain so understanding how expectations are formed may bring us closer to understanding human action.
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Limits of Science
Science sans frontières Lizzie Crouch asks some of today’s greatest minds whether science can answer all of our questions
o, what is the demarcation between concepts that seem crazy now but might be realised eventually, and things that are forever impossible? Are there limits to how much we can ever predict? Are there scientific problems that will forever baffle us - phenomena that simply transcend human understanding? – Lord Martin Rees, From Here to Infinity, 2011 Is there a limit to what science can achieve? Will we reach a moment in time when the scientific process will simply ground to a halt? “It would take a courageous person to say no. The history of the last few millennia shows us how easy it is to underestimate the reach of scientific investigation,” explains Professor Stephen Curry, Imperial physicist. Scientists all over the world dream of discovering so much. Some things, such as the Higgs boson, seem tantalisingly within reach. However, there are still many questions leave even the brightest among us scratching their heads. For example, what is ‘reality’? Science increasingly relies heavily on technology, demonstrating how limited we already are by our physiology. Could, in the words of Lord Rees, “some branches of science come to a halt because we bump up against limits to what our brains can understand, rather than because the subject is exhausted?” Many think that this won’t be a problem. They believe the scientific method, where theories are tested experimentally and reviewed by peers, will eventually explain everything. Although we may not be able to
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explain a phenomena or a result in the present day, it does not mean that, in time, an explanation is not within our grasp. But UCL neuroscientist, Professor Sophie Scott, suggests that it is a case of waiting until conditions are just right for the discovery to be made. “Scientists need to be at the right time, and place in history, to have the techniques/tools to get the science done. However, even if the scientific method is infallible, will our culture hold us back from pushing the boundaries of our knowledge further? We live by a moral code that prevents us from harming others, and lays out ethical guidelines for research. Although this is positive, could more be understood about the world if, for example, more experiments were done on people with illnesses, or more animals tested on? This is an extremely shocking thought, but the society we currently live in will hopefully prevent the instances from the past of this occurring from being repeated. We think only of science in terms of who we are as humans now, and in terms of what we already know. Science may indeed have limits, but at the moment we may not be capable of appreciating or understanding what those might be. Professor Nick Franks, Head of Cell and Molecular Biology at Imperial and Fellow of the Royal Society, is still hopeful though: “Science is the knowledge gained by systematically investigating the world around us, so I cannot see how there could be a limit to this. There may be things we will never know but science will not stop trying to figure them out.”
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From foe to friend Charlie Harvey investigates the cancer treatments that are going viral...
ome cancers are helpful enough to give off obvious clues to their existence. Prostate cancer, for example, can be detected, as it raises the levels of a protein called PSA in the blood. Many, however, leave no such trace. Sufferers of these diseases can, therefore, remain in the dark about their condition, delaying treatment and lowering their chances of survival. What if there were a way to artificially force these normally hidden cancerous growths into the light? It turns out that this is entirely possible, although one must join forces with a most improbable ally: the herpes virus. Viruses are biological machines with a singular purpose: to create more of themselves. The simplest organisms on the planet, they consist of only a protein coat surrounding a tiny scrap of DNA. This is all they need, as the virusâ€™ success comes from its ability to force another cell to do its dirty work. When a virus invades a host cell, its DNA becomes indistinguishable from that of its host. The unwitting host has no choice but to use the viral DNA to create new viruses who are then free to escape and infect new cells. Many of the symptoms we associate with viral disease come about, not because they help fight the invaders, but because they help spread the virus. The foaming at the mouth we associate with rabiesinfected animals occurs because the disease is trans-
mitted via saliva. This shadowy way of life has led to viruses becoming the commonest type of organism on the planet. By some estimates there could be up to ten thousand billion, billion, billion of them, each manipulating their environment for their own ends. Scientists are using this viral lifestyle to their advantage, by designing a virus that can invade cancerous cells and force them to reveal themselves. One group of researchers genetically modified herpes to include a copy of a GLuc gene, which contains the instructions needed to build a fluorescent protein. The virus was also designed to infect only cancerous cells. When injected with the virus, the cancerous tumours, quite literally, glow in the dark. Using simple laboratory tests tumours as small as 1mm thick could be found. The new virus works on a variety of cancer types, including skin and bone cancers. The herpes virus has proven itself useful, not just in the detection of cancer, but also in the fight against it. Scientists have also created another genetically modified version of the herpes virus, known as OncoVEX, which is currently in clinical trials. This virus only reproduces inside tumour cells, thus causing the cancers to become so full of replicating viruses that they burst open, while healthy cells remain intact. Viruses, once seen as an enemy of human health, may soon become a helpful ally in the ongoing battle against cancer.
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vaccination communication On Thursday 9th June, The Lancet held a press conference at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to launch a special issue of the journal, entitled ‘A New Decade of Vaccines’. Editor-in-Chief, Richard Horton describes the issue as a “call to action” and highlights four “key elements” he believes are necesary for future successful vaccination programmes. Andrew Purcell examines the importance of Horton’s 4th key element: communication.
n Monday 13th June, politicians from around the world met in London to discuss a new deal on global vaccination funding. The outcome of this meeting was an unprecedented combined pledge of £2.6bn to help vaccinate children in developing countries against preventable diseases. Yet, while this pledge is certainly laudable, perhaps investment alone is no longer enough. In recent years, growing fears regarding the safety of vaccinations have led to significant falls in vaccine uptake rates in some areas. In Nigeria in 2003, Muslim clerics and disgruntled northern politicians banned polio vaccinations in the region, claiming that the drugs were a Western ploy to spread HIV and sterilise Muslim girls. The year-long mass boycott of the vaccine sparked a rash of new infections, and the virus jumped to about a dozen other countries. According to Dr Heidi Larson, former principal research fellow of Imperial College’s Institute for Global Health: “Many Nigerians were suspiscious that they were constantly being offered this vaccine when they did not have access to other, more basic needs.” Also, health workers in Afganistan and
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northern Pakistan have been kidnapped and beaten due to religious opposition to vaccination programmes. However, such opposition isn’t just an issue in the developing world. France currently has one of Europe’s lowest uptake rates for the hepatitis B vaccine. This is due to erroneous claims made back in 1998, linking the vaccine to the onset of multiple sclerosis. In the same year, here in the UK, the infamous MMR scandal led to massive drops in the uptake of this vaccine. Andrew Wakefield, the man behind this episode, has since been found guilty of acting “dishonestly and irresponsibly” by the General Medical Council and was struck off the the medical register last year. Dr Larson, whose research features in this special issue of The Lancet, remarks: “It’s interesting that just across the Channel in France there’s no concern about MMR whatsoever and here in the UK, you don’t here much patter about the hepatitis B vaccine. This demonstrates the locality and diversity of vaccine concerns, and shows just how much politics and local concerns have an effect.” Dr Larson says: “The vaccine community demands rigorous evidence on vaccine efficacy and safety and technical and operational feasability when introducing a new vaccine, but has been negligent in demanding equally rigorous research to understand the psychological, social and political factors that affect public trust in vaccines.” Oxford University’s Richard Moxon highlights the importance of “effective communication to the public, governments, policy makers and professionals”. He says that, over the last dacade, “there have
been huge increases in the safety of vaccines”. Dr Larson also claims that “information alone will not stop public distrust and dissent against vaccines”. Instead, she argues for an approach based on trust, saying “trust is built through dialogue and exchange of information and opinion.” Dr Larson makes the following reccomendations for policy makers and health workers: (i) engaging with and listenning to stakeholders, (ii) transparent decision making and (iii) an honest approach to areas of uncertainty and risk. Dr Orin Levine, of John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, believes that by following Dr Larson’s recomendations “we can significantly accelerate global vaccine uptake”. Dr Levine also described himself as feeling “really encouraged” by GlaxoSmithKline’s announcement earlier this month that it would start selling some vaccines at cost price in developing countries. This move has since been emulated by a number of other large pharmaceutical companies. Speaking a few days after these announcements were made, Dr Levine commented: “I think it’s fair to say that we’ve made more progress on vaccine financing in the last week than we did in the decade preceeding it!” Perhaps then it is time for healthworkers across the globe to ensure they are able to fully capitalise on all of this recent good news by finally embracing a more nuanced and open approach to vaccination communication. Maybe this will enable them to successfuly address people’s fears about vaccination and will lead to an increase in vaccine uptake rates worldwide. With all of the money that has recently been pledged to this cause, now is surely the time to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
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Gameification George Wigmore delves into the world of scientific games
y the time they are 21, the average young person today in the US will have played over 10,000 hours of computer games. Put in context, this is the equivalent of the time that they will spend at school over seven years, provided they have perfect attendance. This suggests that games could provide a parallel track of education which, so far, has been seldom been put to good use. We’re increasingly incorporating real world problems into computer games, from those of a purely scientific nature, to even social and environmental problems. Through these games, according to Jane McGonigal, games designer and author of Reality is Broken, “we are making world-changing games, in order to solve real problems and drive real collective action.” One of the most interesting of these games is Fate of the World (FOTW). Produced by a small independent company based in Oxford, Red Redemption has produced a revolutionary game which uses realworld climate data to explore the social and environmental impact of global climate change over the next 200 years. The real challenge, in the words of Red
Redemption themselves, is to “manage a balancing act of protecting the Earth’s resources and climate against the needs of an ever-growing world population, who are demanding ever more food, power, and living space.” While the use of accurate real-world data is far from novel, with everything from driving games to others such as Half-Life using complicated physics engines to add realism, the use of real climate data is interesting. To add to the authenticity of the game, Red Redemption employed the expertise of Dr Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, using Dr Allen’s research data to provide accurate scientific climate change models. As according to Ian Roberts, one of the designers of Fate of the World, “we needed the expertise of a real scientist. That’s why Dr Allen’s input is so important.” These realistic predictions from climate models have been incorporated into the game, combined with advice from other experts such as Mark Fulton, Deutsche Bank Climate Strategist, and Professor Diana Liverman, co-director of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. Such experts have ensured that playing FOTW does more than
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historybook Dmitri Mendeleev InformaRon
just highlight the difficulty of the task ahead. Hopefully, it will help players engage with not only the virtual problems present in the game, but also their real life counterparts. According to McGonigal, “games are a powerful platform for change”. This is something Aleks Krotoski, technology journalist from The Guardian, touched on in a Nature article in 2010, saying “games provide an alternative platform for communicating science. If their mechanics are well designed, game play could help us to make better decisions about our future.” So perhaps this game could live up to its title, and change the fate of the world, helping players make the behaviour change necessary to help mitigate climate change.
Five other ‘Serious Games’ titles 1. Foldit Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins. The idea is that the results contribute to scientific research directly, helping to scientists to learn more about how proteins fold, eventually enabling more efficient drugs to be designed. 2. World Without Oil In 2007, World Without Oil simulated the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. The game not only raised awareness about oil dependence, but also fostered deep engagement and changed people’s behaviour. 3. Climate Challenge The precursor to Fate of the World, Climate challenge was produced by the BBC and Red Redemption, and showed that environmental serious games could be popular. Played by over 1 million people to date, players have to manage the economy and resources of the EU all while reducing CO2 emissions and combating climate change. 4. Immune Attack Created by the Federation of American Scientists, the idea behind Immune Attack is to teach immunology to high school students in a way that is fun and engaging. 5. EVOKE Developed by the World Bank Institute and Jane McGonigal, EVOKE is described as a “ten-week crash course in changing the world”. The idea behind the game is to help empower people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.
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Birthday: 8th February, 1834 From: The Russian Empire Studied at: The Main Pedagogical InsRtute, St Petersburg
Dmitri likes chemistry, geology, beards Dmitri has joined St Petersburg Technological InsRtute 1863
Dmitri Mendeleev has spoYed some interesRng paYerns in the properRes of the chemical elements 1868
Dmitri checked in at The Russian Chemical Society Dmitri Mendeleev has come up with a table of elements, ordered by atomic weight, and grouped by similar properRes. Get me. 1869 Lothar Meyer your periodic table looks rather like the work I published – we should chat See 2 more posts like this Dmitri Mendeleev is chuﬀed that elements he predicted to exist keep being found 1875 Dmitri Mendeleev has been busy lately working in the Russian oil industry 1876 Mendeleev is now married to Anna Ivanova Dmitri Popova 1882 Czar Alexander III-‐ perhaps if you had divorced your other wife ﬁrst I wouldn’t have had to pardon your bigamy
Dmitri has joined Russian Bureau of Weights
and Measures 1893 Dmitri Mendeleev has enforced the standardisaRon of Russian vodka to 40% abv 1894 Dmitri Mendeleev has had his nominaRon for the Nobel prize for chemistry rejected. I give up. 1907
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RADIO & PODCASTS
EXHIBITIONS & EVENTS
Not a nerd, just sci-fi curious OUT OF THIS WORLD, BRITISH LIBRARY until 25th september
I am not a science fiction nerd, but I had high expectations of the new exhibition at the British Library Out of this world: science fiction, but not as you know it. I may not be a sci-fi fanatic, but I am a British Library groupie. Its calm reading rooms filled with the smell of old books and pencil sharpening are my favourite places to study – and people watch. Previous exhibitions on Maps and Language have left me with new perspectives on what might be considered dry, niche topics. So I didn’t mind spending my Saturday afternoon exploring a subject usually associated with nerdy white males with unfortunate physical appearances. Once inside I was confronted with a human form hanging beneath a glowing inverted funnel and the question: what is science fiction? The exhibition suggests a broad definition, including works by The Brontë sisters, Lewis Carroll and Kazuo Ishiguro, alongside H.G. Wells and George Orwell. One of the most remarkable works is Lucian of Samosata ‘s ‘A True Story’ which incorporates seemingly modern ideas such as space voyage despite being written in the second century. Out of this world constantly challenges the preconception that science fiction is a niche genre and asserts its relevance and importance not only in literature history but also to our own lives. The themes explored in the im-
ATTENDED by rosie waldron
aginary worlds of science fiction can inspire us to re-examine our own world. Unsurprisingly the bulk of the exhibition showcases the British Library’s extensive catalogue interspersed with familiar models such as tripodal aliens and illogically expansive phone boxes set in a backdrop of futuristic soundscapes. Display cases house books open at pages with grotesquely beautiful illustrations of worlds and creatures beyond our own imagination. To a science fiction fanatic, these original manuscripts are likely to represent something sacred. As a sci-fi novice I was fascinated by the way that the authors use the depths of their imagination to explore themes and ideas very much embedded in reality. The displays suggest that ideas from science fiction reach beyond futuristic books and films into our everyday lives. I was more than a little surprised to learn that the meaty drink Bovril has sci-fi origins, being named after wonder fluid Vril, from E.B. Lytton’s The Coming Race. The exhibition takes the visitor on a journey through the history of science fiction, opening up this inaccessible genre beyond its stereotype. I left with a revised view of the sci-fi; the imagination of the authors is remarkable and its cultural influences are undeniable. I would recommend Out of this world to anyone out there who might consider themselves sci-fi curious.
by anna perman
Fighting the Power of Pink Monday May 9th, Radio 4
Might girls inherently prefer certain toys and redder hues than boys? Is this the reason that they are drawn to ‘girls’ toys like dolls of princesses and fairies? Or is it all just down to societal influences? Kat Arney (above) investigates in this fantastic documentary, exploring the points of view of the parents, the kids, the scientists and the toy industry.
Scientists Go to Hollywood Monday 23rd May Radio 4 This documentary from August last year recently was repeated on Radio 4, and it was a great reminder of just how good it was. Adam Rutherford, editor of Nature, visits the set of CSI and talks to Brian Cox about his stint as a science advisor to director Danny Boyle. Why? To explore how scientists have been portrayed in the movies, but also how scientific advice has influenced the creative process.
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World Wide Mind: The coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet by Michael Chorost, out now
by ben good
orld Wide Mind is a book out to convince us that the next step for humanity is a collective mind. Michael Chorost has a theory that the Internet will one day be part of our brains. Through it the minds of all humans will be physically connected and we will be able to feel each other’s experiences and emotions as if they were our own. Chorost painstakingly pieces together examples of current brain research to show us that his theory could become reality. It is a book with a clear purpose and it is much nearer to being an argument than a story. At the heart of this book is the science that could make his theory possible and as a consequence it becomes heavily technical in places. Light relief is provided by anecdotes of Chorost’s own experiences of human relationships, but their tone contrasts markedly to the rest of the book and, as a result, they sometimes break the flow of the argument. By the end you do have a renewed respect for the complexities of our brains, but his book is really only half the story. Chorost sees humans joined by the mind as obviously desirable, but he misses out a fundamental question: would we really want our intimate thoughts and feelings to be experienced by other people? Chorost may have succeeded in making the idea of a collective mind seem feasible but he hadn’t answered the most important question, why would we want this in the first place? By Camila Ruz
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he last couple of months may not have seen any of the science documentary ‘big guns’ putting out anything new, but there have been a number of smaller series and one-off programmes that were well worth watching. The series Inside the Human Body featured Michael Mosley (pictured above) guiding the audience through a journey exploring the human body and latest research. The series features quite a lot of CGI, but strikes a good balance between real footage and computer graphics. All Watched Over by Machine of Loving Grace is another recent BBC series; this looked
at our reliance on machines and computers and had some very interesting things to say about the technological process of man. There seems to have been quite a biomedical slant on the programmes screened by Channel 4. There was the very moving Dolphin Boy, which told the story of Morad, a young man, who at the age of 17 had been viciously assaulted, and now takes part in ‘dolphin-assisted therapy’ to try and recover from the deep psychological damage the attack left him with. They also showed Google Baby, an observational documentary looking at wealthy families outsourcing surrogacy to India. It told a shocking story, in an affecting way, without feeling sensationalised.
Also out now & coming soon The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson RRP: £8.49 (Hardback) Along the way Jon Ronson learns how to spot a psychopath, as he tests his new found powers serious questions are raised about how we go about defining normality. 50 Ways the World is Going to End: The Biggest Threats to The Planet by Alok Jha (Out October 2011) Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha explores all the ways in which the world could end. Alok investigates the new threats to the planet. medicine and the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry.
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events & exhibitions
Science Museum Lates Science Museum – Free Wednesday 29th June The theme has yet to be announced, but there’s a bar, free access to the Museum and the Punk Science show is always a cracker. Habitats for Bees Super/Collider at The Queen of Hoxton - £5 Monday 18th July A honey-tasting session and a rooftop talk about the life and homes of bees in the UK.
Little Atoms Available on iTunes The podcast that is all about science and scepticism. Sometimes controversial, sometimes hilarious, always fascinating. The presenters get in fantastic guests from Brian Cox to Dara O’Briain (pictured above) to share their ideas.
Big Picture Science Available on iTunes Formerly Are We Alone?, this weekly US radio show-cum-podcast is hosted by the affable pairing of Seth Shostak and Molly Bentley; they are the science teachers you wished you had in school.
What’s Next 7.30pm every Thursday on Radio Ulster A show from Ulster previewed in a London science magazine? Pretty random, but well worth a listen on iPlayer. This is a weekly show exploring the many faces of science in our rapidly changing world.
Saving Species 11 am every Tuesday on BBC Radio 4, also available on iPlayer Now in its second series, Saving Species, presented by Brett Westwood, looks at the world of nature and examines the challenges faced by conservationists.
Ri Urban Sputnik Time and Space Bar – Free Thursday 28th July A talk with the designers of Urban Sputnik, an exhibition about cosmology and astronomy with an art and design focus. Dirt: the Wellcome Debate Wellcome Collection – Free Thursday 30th June Does a little bit of dirt go a long way? Are we too clean to be healthy? Join a panel of experts for a debate at the Wellcome Collection. Exchanges at the Frontier Wellcome Collection - Free Thursday 7th July Join philosopher A.C. Grayling and neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran as they explore the limits of what we know about human consciousness.
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The Art Of Science, Acabo Games £39.90, academicboardgames.co.uk
Bright Club To Be Announced! July 2011 Like science? Like comedy? Bright Club has scientists doing standup! Well worth a look, check their website for the July event date. After Hours for Adults Natural History Museum – Free Friday 24th June & 29th July Explore the Natural History Museum, with a bar available, after the kids have left. Should we limit family size? Dana Centre – Free Thursday 14th July Population growth is a big challenge in the modern age. How should science and society deal with it? Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It British Library – Free Until Sunday 25th September Explore how science fiction has imagined future, parallel and alien worlds, then see how it has influenced real scientific discovery. Science Question Time - Impact Imperial College London – Free (book online) Tuesday 5th July CaSE presents a discussion on the impact of science on our world; politically, academically, and socially.
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science-themed Trivial Pursuit style game. It sounds like a scientist’s paradise: categories for biology or technology, and none of those pesky art and literature squares. The nerdy excitement just about spilled over in the I, Science office when the game arrived, and we couldn’t wait to playtest it. The Art of Science functions in a similar way to Trivial Pursuit, but with several important differences. The first is scoring. Rather than collecting wedges, each team ranks the categories according to where their strengths lie. For example, a biologist could rank biology at the highest level and physics low. They then need to answer lots of questions in their ‘strong’ categories, but less in their ‘weak’ ones. That proved to be one of the best elements of the game. It’s also lovely to look at, and the board has an interesting two-circle track with a few novelty squares. Players can gamble points on some squares or duel other players. These extra elements were the highlights for most of the crack playtest team. Unfortunately, there’s a few flaws which can turn the game from fun to frustrating. Some of the questions are in dubious categories; for example, maths and physics, and chemistry and biology, have considerable overlap. More importantly, the questions differ phenomenally in terms of difficulty. They range from, for example, “What is the name of the dimension of topological space that measures the least upper bound of the number of strict inclusions in a chain of irreducible closed subsets?” to “What is 1/3 + 1/4?” Because the questions give players, randomly, anywhere between 1-5 points, some players can race into the lead with a series of easy questions while others are left lagging behind. The difficulty also drags out the answers to some questions. A timer is needed! The general consensus was that the game has taken on a dangerous audience for trivia. As playtester Ben put it, “The trouble with making a board game with such scientific detail is that you have to have excellent science knowledge to play it, so you’ll inevitably be picking flaws in the answers!” In summary, the game is worth a look, but it would best be played with a small number of teams and could be vastly improved by the addition of some house rules to make the game run a bit faster. If you’re willing to tweak it a bit – and want to test your friends against some seriously tricky science knowledge – go ahead! Words and photography by David Robertson
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next issue out winter 2011. Thank you for reading i, science this year, from the i, science team 2010/2011
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