As we start to crawl out from under a rock in the second half of 2021, we want this issue of EUSci magazine to encourage our re ders to a reciate tRings closer to 'home' - wherever, whoever or wnate; er 'home' mignt be. It coula be anything from a literal house to Mother Earth, or even mostalgia. Home is a subjective word and our authors have done a brilliant job of sprinkling their creativity on their ar ticles. In addition, to improve the accessibility of our magazine and for those who want to listen on the go, we have audio readouts of all our articles for you to enjoy! Big thanks to Helena Cornu for sin gle-handedly editing all 29 audio pieces in this issue!
Our articles are arranged along a scale, from the nanoscopic to astro nomical! We have a wide variety of articles exploring and discussing the tangible and intangible, with a mix of engineering, technology, psychology, and biology topics. Join us to learn about the engineer ing and design aspects of physical human homes (p.18-19, p.35-36) and animals (p.22-23), how eyes in the skies keep watch of our planet Earth (p.42-43), the neuroscience behind nostalgia and sensory rec ollections of home (p.20-21, p.24-25), as well as all humans' very first home - your mother's womb and why it's dubbed as a 'walking hotel' (p.12-13). We also explore how the act of true selflessness has saved � and can save our planet Earth from an ecological catastrophe (p.4041) and how the exact opposite - selfishness - has caused our homes � te clash with those of wild animal (p.38-89). In the middle of the magazine lies a map of Edinburgh with a mi ni-podcast series of science stories around the city (p.28-29). We would like to inspire our readers to rediscover the beautiful city we live in, and look at it in a new light. Find out about the research go ing on behind the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, the engineer ing of the Forth Bridges, the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in Roslin Institute and many more. At the end of the issue, we included a fun mini-series of 'Science from my Home' articles from our international authors (p.46). You'll find a selection of science stories that are unique to the author's country Slovakia, China, Malaysia, Finland and Australia. As we slowly head back to our 'normal' lives with the ease of lockdown restrictions, why not head to page 52 to look at top 10 things you can do today to take a few steps towards a zero waste lifestyle. We hoRe you enjoy this issue! hank you to all the authors and volunteer eoitors who made this production possible during these tough times, and 0 you, the reader, for your continued support.
Best wishes, Yen Peng (Apple) Chew Editor-in-Chief 2020/ 2021 Illustration by Christian Donohoe
The Covid-19 pandemic, a one-ofa-kind phenomenon, has been the cause of multiple lockdowns which have led to people spending much more time at home. Many jobs, as well as learning, have transferred from in-person to online. The internet has made it possible for people to organise meetings, communicate, work, learn, and socialise using various online platforms. However, this extensive use of ‘the online' is not as harmless as one would assume. Studies show that frequent use of the internet and its incorporation into our daily lives can have significant effects on the human brain. These include changes in attention and memory but also negative effects on mental health. Even before the pandemic, multiple studies highlighted the effects of internet and smartphone use on cognition. One of the effects that was extensively researched is the attention deficit resulting from long-term use of the internet. Media multitasking is a term used for the interaction of internet users with multiple sources of information, coming from (not exclusively) applications, hyperlinks, or emails. Although it enables the users to receive a lot of information in a short amount of time, this interaction is superficial. Behavioural studies show
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that people who engage in media multitasking for long periods of time have a harder time maintaining attention and concentration on a single piece of information, being more easily distracted. A 2014 study showed that there is an association between frequent use of media multitasking and decreased grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain region known to be associated with attention, emotional control, and decision-making. However, researchers are still unsure whether media multitasking causes decreased grey matter or people with decreased grey matter multitask more often. An outline of many such studies is that there exists a positive correlation between media multitasking and attention deficits not only while using the internet but also when performing other, unrelated tasks. This can be explained by some people’s urge to constantly check their phone for new notifications or messages instead of concentrating on a particular activity, such as reading, working, or studying. Another aspect of using the internet excessively is the formation of habits based on ‘informational rewards’ – the pleasure-inducing signal we receive when opening another tab in a browser. In
the example mentioned above, when a user receives a notification, they have the impulse to immediately check this information and are thus distracted from their ongoing activity. Depending on the nature of the notification, the brain has developed the habit to instantly open the notification with the hope of receiving good news or finding out about an interesting fact. Such habits are likely formed because of reward pathways in the brain, associating the receipt of new information with a tempting reward, which potentially activates the dopaminergic neurons. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved with motivation and rewards, and its activity is also known to be associated with addiction. As the internet is a source of frequent informational rewards and can even induce addictive behaviour, it is very likely that dopamine could play an important role in the anticipation of these rewards and the resulting behaviour of pursuing them, leading to increased time spent on the internet. These phenomena are relatively new because of the increased use of smartphones during the recent decades. Therefore, there has not yet been enough time to assess the longterm effects of this type of behaviour on cognitive abilities and whether the effects are reversible. A 2019 study, in which people with various degrees of internet addiction participated, showed that over half of the participants with considerable internet addiction experienced sleep disturbances and negative effects on sleep quality, as well as increased tendency to require sleep medication. Although long-term effects have not yet been assessed, there exists a clear link to immediate behavioural effects, such as decreased motivation when spending time with activities unrelated to the internet, and impaired sleeping habits. The internet is often referred to
as an unlimited source of information. The availability of search engines and thousands of websites covering knowledge in many subjects has led to people relying on the internet instead of memorising facts. A study involving young adults showed that participants who did not use a search engine to find out information had a better ability to memorise it compared to those who used the internet, enhancing their skills in searching for this information instead. Functional magnetic resonance imaging showed that in those using the internet to search for information, there was a decreased activity in the middle temporal gyrus, a brain region associated with object recognition and long-term memory, as well as in the parahippocampal cortex, associated with memory retrieval. Another interesting effect is the tendency of internet users to overestimate the extent of their own knowledge. Information being always readily available, and even superficially accessed, creates the false belief in acquired knowledge. A 2020 study by Microsoft, conducted both before and during lockdown, addressed the effects of remote working via online meetings on several volunteers. The study used electroencephalograms (EEG) to assess brain activity during a work meeting. EEGs can offer an insight into neural oscillations, commonly known as brain waves, which are associated with different types of brain activity, such as learning, concentration, anxiety, relaxation, and combinations of multiple brain functions. Findings showed that gamma and beta brain waves are more prevalent in the participants of an online work meeting when compared to in-person meetings. These waves are associated with intense concentration and information processing, as well as stress and anxiety. Online meetings led to increased fatigue compared to in-person meetings, where participants generated alpha and theta brain waves instead, which are associated with calm, relaxed states. These observations could be explained by the necessity to be constantly alert, and the extra mental efforts required to compensate for the lack of social cues in an online meeting. Being in
an online meeting with no breaks and with constant worries about being misunderstood, the internet connection, or someone interfering, can heighten stress levels. Studies show that seeing one’s own facial expression during a meeting can lead to more intense emotions than when viewing someone else’s expressions. These emotions can be both happiness and anger, and the latter can affect one’s emotional state. On a long-term basis, chronic stress can lead to adverse outcomes on both physical and mental health. There have also been extensive studies on effects of wireless devices on human health in the past, including those that investigate potential harmful health effects of Wi-Fi. Although the World Health Organisation states that there is no proven harm of radio waves emissions in the form of wireless connection, multiple reports suggest otherwise. These reports show associations between Wi-Fi exposure and adverse effects such as DNA damage, changes in cell division cycles, altered hormone production, neuropsychiatric disorders, lower melatonin levels leading to sleeping disorders, and abnormal postnatal development. However, research focusing on proving and disproving these effects is still ongoing, with
many studies contradicting one another. There are many views regarding the effects of the internet on the brain. On one hand, the skills formed after extensive use of the internet are useful for finding information more accurately and quickly, and with the constant advances in technology, these skills might become even more valuable. On the other hand, evidence suggests that actively and constantly depending on the internet, for both information and communication, leads to decreased attention and memory, and may even lead to longterm cognitive deficits. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdown measures, more and more people of all ages are required to use the internet for almost every activity that would otherwise happen in person. These potentially harmful neurological and psychological effects of excessive internet use are yet another indirect consequence of the pandemic. Maria Avram is a fourth-year Bachelors of Neuroscience student at the University of Edinburgh, and her main interests are the neuropsychological aspects of behaviour
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As Scotland’s national drink, Scotch whisky has become a vital product for the Scottish and UK economy. Each year, the product adds £5.5 billion in gross value to the UK economy and draws in 2.2 million sightseers to distilleries. Furthermore, the industry directly employs more than 10,000 people in Scotland. 7000 of which are in rural parts, offering essential employment and financing to areas across the Highlands and Islands. The native Gaelic term “uisge beatha” originates from the Latin “aqua vitae” which directly translates to “water of life”. Over time, the words “uisge beatha” were abbreviated to “uisge”, and through the evolution of language, that word transformed into the spirit nowadays called whisky. The earliest official documentation of whisky was in the 1494 Exchequer Rolls of Scotland when Friar John Cor was permitted “eight bolls of malt…to make aqua vitae”. This was sufficient malted barley to make nearly 1500 bottles of a strong spirit that would be perfected in the years ahead. Throughout the 20th and 21st century, the industry survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and various economic recessions. Despite these troubling times, whisky production in Scotland thrived as Scotch became a popular drink worldwide. Overall, there are three different types of Scotch whisky, each differing in their composition and method of production. The whisky-making process begins with soaking the barley in water and then leaving it out in a thin layer on a solid floor. This enables germination of the barley grain to occur which produces malted barley, commonly referred to as malt. This step is important as it produces amylase enzymes that prepare the starch to be broken down into 32 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
fermentable sugars. The germination process is completed by drying the grain in a kiln; drying at high temperatures ensures any moisture is taken away from the malt so that the final product can be kept without risk of spoilage. Furthermore, the high temperatures cause the malt to become caramelised. The flavour profiles can be manipulated by kilning in different ways, eventually producing uniquely flavoured specialty malts. Many distilleries burn peat to dry the grain and it is from this peat combustion that phenols (responsible for the smoky flavour of peat-whiskies) enter the whisky-making process. Next, the malt grains are milled and ground up to form a powder called grist which is mixed with hot water in a large vessel called a mash tun. Once all the starch in this porridge-like mixture has been broken down into fermentable simple sugars, the sugary fermentable liquid called wort is drained off in large vessels called washback. The fermentation begins when yeast is added and converts the simple sugars present in the wort into alcohol. After approximately 48 hours, the liquid has an alcohol strength similar to that of a beer or ale. To be converted into a spirit with greater alcohol content, distillation is required. In Scotland, the alcohol is traditionally distilled twice in a large copper pot still; a second distillation step is required as the liquid produced still contains many undesirable compounds. Alcohols produced at the very beginning of the distillation are very potent and high in spirit content, whilst alcohols towards the end are relatively weak, yet still potent. The job of the distiller is to separate the desired alcohol from the middle or ‘heart’ of the distillation. The heart is poured into oak barrels whilst the rest is tapped off and re-distilled. The whisky must be left to mature for a minimum of three years before it is legally allowed to be called Scotch whisky. The choice of barrels used in maturation is important as each cask will impart a unique colour, flavour, and aroma on the final whisky product. The rising demand for rare bottles of premium whiskies is attracting illegal activities to the industry. In 2018, the BBC reported that more than a third of Scotch whiskies tested were fake. Bottles
being sold as ‘rare single malt Scotch whisky’ are often blended with ethanol sourced from cheap raw materials such as sugar cane or maize. Sales of adulterated whisky greatly impact the economic profits of the industry and threaten the integrity and reputation of distillers. Of great concern is the potential danger posed to public health. In March 2020, the Iranian media reported that 300 people died and at least 1000 became ill from drinking methanol-spiked spirits after a fake rumour on social media claimed that alcohol was effective against Covid19. To combat the rise in fraudulent bottles, various methods have been developed to aid in product authentication and brand protection. Stable isotope analysis techniques such as site-specific natural isotope fractionation-nuclear magnetic resonance (SNIF-NMR) and isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) have shown significant potential. These techniques utilise the varied and unique distribution of naturally occurring isotopes present in the plant. The variation in distribution of natural isotopes depends on which photosynthetic pathway the plant species employs to fix atmospheric carbon dioxide. The majority of plants, such as barley, grapes, and wheat, employ the C3 photosynthetic pathway, more commonly known as the Calvin Benson cycle. A minority of plants such as maize and sugarcane, have developed adaptations that improve their rate of photosynthesis using a C4 photosynthetic pathway. Stable isotope analysis techniques can measure the ratio of the heavier carbon-13 (13C) isotope against the lighter carbon-12 (12C) isotope. With the C3 pathway, fractionation of the heavier 13C isotope results in the plant matter having a relatively
decreased 13C content. On the contrary, less fractionation of the 13C isotope occurs with the C4 pathway, and as a result, C4 plants contain heavier 13C isotopes. Therefore, adulteration of a single malt Scotch whisky that was claimed to have been made from barley (a fermentable C3 substrate) but contains alcohol derived from maize (C4), can be easily detected by stable isotope analysis techniques. In the past, due to fear of damaging the reputation of their brands, alcohol manufacturers attempted to keep the problem of counterfeit bottles out of the public eye, especially if the counterfeits were of risk to consumer health. But as the illicit business expanded, whisky manufacturers are now fighting back with novel technologies. One such scientific advancement was made in 2020 by researchers at the University of St Andrews with Raman spectroscopy, a technique that uses laser lights to produce unique chemical fingerprints of materials. For Scotch analysis, this technique initially required the liquid to be removed, however these researchers developed a cone-shaped lens that could focus the laser lights directly into the bottle to analyse the whisky inside. This was groundbreaking as it enabled the authenticity of Scotch to be tested without even a drop of alcohol being wasted. Centuries of hard work and dedication have been put into earning the worldwide reputation of Scotland’s national drink. Therefore, further development of rapid, lowcost techniques is vital to ensure that Scotch whisky remains a highquality product. Giulia Roselli is final-year biochemistry student interested in the alcohol industry with a particular focus on oenology and the study of sustainable viticulture practices Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk 33
In the last few decades, we have witnessed a steady increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity, contributing to global warming and human-induced climate change. A part of these emissions is linked to daily household energy consumption, such as the use of gas and electricity: in the UK, households directly account for 32% of energy consumption. Hence, households have become an important target in energy conservation efforts. We can look at such efforts from two perspectives: strategies that are aimed at newbuilds versus those that focus on existing dwellings. The latter is an important consideration as the UK has pledged to reach net zero carbon by 2050, and 80% of UK dwellings that will exist 2050 have already been built. While increases in energy efficiency can be achieved through material and infrastructural improvements, there are also substantial opportunities to target energy reduction through behavioural change. Behavioural differences are estimated by DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) to account for 60% of the variance in demand. So far, studies in this domain have brought together computer scientists, building engineers and sociologists to understand the interaction of energy technologies, associated feedback, and household energy behaviours. An investigation happening close to home is the Intelligent Domestic Energy Advice Loop (IDEAL) project, led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh. IDEAL works under the hypothesis that “a personalised behavioural feedback loop is more effective in inducing demandreducing behaviour change rather than a consumption feedback loop”. This means that they aim to tailor the feedback to each household’s energy use practices, rather than feedback based purely on energy use patterns and the financial and carbon 34 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
costs associated with it. Think of an enhanced feedback loop which provides information to households based on which activities consume energy, how much for each activity, and suggestions for what they might do to reduce their energy expenditure and use. They hope to be able to tell the householder things like: "Last week you spent £10 on hot water for showers", or "Yesterday you spent £4 on heating your flat. If you turned off the heating at night you would probably have only spent £3 - you could save around £250 a year by doing this". Achieving this requires a multistage experimental research design, where a machine learning module develops and tests the methods required to draw on the data collected through a network of sensors. Homes that participate in the IDEAL study are fitted with gas, electricity and boiler monitors along with air temperature and humidity sensors in each room. The machine learning conclusions drawn from the sensor data help to tailor the feedback to each household in a rulebased manner. Hundreds of homes have already participated in the project. A large sample size is important for machine learning, to provide enough data to train machine learning models to make accurate predictions. In
IDEAL, a small portion of homes are installed with a higher number of sensors to gather large amounts of data for the training dataset. This study group was also used to help evaluate the comprehensibility, usability, and usefulness of the feedback features which were initially developed. The other portion of homes was classified as an ‘experimental study group’, which functioned as a validation dataset. A validation dataset is the sample of data that is used for evaluation of a given machine learning model, helping to avoid ‘overfitting’, where the model works well on the training data but performs poorly when given new data. Over the course of the study, the control group kept the same feedback features whilst the treatment group received a range of additional new features. Participants were notified of changes via email and the app. Initial results indicated that the treatment group had maintained a substantially higher and longer-lasting level of engagement with the feedback system compared to the control group, in terms of frequency and cumulative duration of logins. Let us also take a look at the second challenge in domestic energy use, which looks at efforts to improve energy efficiency in the building
sector. Considering design efficiency at the earliest design stages is one of the most efficient approaches to reducing energy consumption in new buildings. Taking steps towards efficient energy management and smart refurbishments can enhance energy performance of existing buildings. All these solutions require accurate energy predictions for optimal decision making. This is where machine learning can again come in useful.
“Considering design efficiency at the earliest design stages is one of the most efficient approaches to reducing energy consumption in new buildings” Numerous machine learning algorithms have been suggested and employed for estimating heating, cooling, and energy consumption in buildings. The resultant machine learning models do not require any information on building systems themselves. They are supervised learning models that discover the relationships between input features and output targets, such as energy performance, using training data. These models can predict targets for unseen samples when trained with enough input data, although the relationship between the features and the targets will not necessarily have a physical meaning. Unsupervised machine learning methods have also gained considerable attention in building energy analysis. In unsupervised learning, a model is built that can detect the underlying patterns in data, without giving it any training dataset. This method is found to be beneficial in energy benchmarking, where a determination of baseline buildings is crucial for calculating the energy performance of similar cases. However, it is not possible to find the patterns in the data for new buildings using this type of algorithm. Hence, when trying to find the reference building for such new inputs, another supervised machine learning technique needs to be used (in such a case, all buildings employed for clustering are used as training samples for classification, where the generated labels from
clustering are considered as learning targets). Some examples of the application of these machine learning tools include the use of artificial neural networks (ANNs, a type of supervised machine learning technique). ANNs were used for the estimation of the daily heat loads of model house buildings with single and double walls, and roof types with different insulations. They can also help with hourly predictions of energy loads in residential buildings. There are other supervised models that have been applied in estimating electricity consumption of buildings, or in determining the uncertainty of predictions. The choice of model, the nature of available or collectable data, and the application are all crucial considerations. For example, ANNs provide a fast and precise short-term load forecasting for energy management systems where temperature and humidity data is collected using sensors, while the
Gaussian process regression algorithm is more beneficial for long-term energy estimation when there is uncertainty in input variables. Be it targeting behavioural changes in terms of energy use habits maintained by households or construction of more energy efficient buildings, it is evident that machine learning is aiding the efforts on both fronts. While further investigation in their respective areas is required to better understand the impact of such undertakings, an interdisciplinary effort amongst different sectors is necessary not just to model predictions, but to understand the implications of such predictions as well as implement the required steps to move forward towards the goal of increasing domestic energy efficiency. Hrichika Nag is third-year computer science student
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If you look for the word ‘home’ in the dictionary, you will find it is a noun, meaning “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” Our homes are where we spend most of our time, where we feel comfortable and safe, where we sleep and live day to day. But what does a home look like? When I think of home, I think of a building made from bricks stacked on top of one another. However, homes differ across history and across the globe, with factors such as climate, resources, and culture influencing their physical structures. Far away from the place I know to be home, winter temperatures in the Arctic average at around -35℃. This means that Indigenous peoples have had to adapt to these extreme conditions. Used for shelter by Inuits, a general term for a group of culturally similar Indigenous peoples inhabiting Arctic regions, the term iglu traditionally means a house. Outside of Inuit culture, the derived word igloo (English spelling) is known as a self-supporting, dome-like structure made entirely of snow. This form of the igloo is also referred to as a snow house and was often used as a temporary home for hunting trips. Utilising snow which has been compressed, an igloo retains heat, with the snow acting as an insulation barrier against the weather. The lowdensity compressed snow is composed of flakes of ice with pockets of air in between. Air particles are highly dispersed and so are not in continuous contact with each other, making air a 36 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
poor conductor. Therefore, the warmth generated within the igloo by body heat or oil lamps can increase the air temperature inside up to as much as 16℃ and protect the inhabitants from the outside elements. A tunnelled entrance forms a cold trap. Denser cold air falling to the ground and warmer air rising keeps the occupants warm in a raised sleeping area. This heating and cooling can lead to a layer of ice forming within the dome, contributing to the strength of the igloo. In a climate opposite to that of the Arctic, with summertime temperatures often exceeding 40℃, ancient Egyptians are famous for the pyramids they built. Although they were not used as homes for the living, the pyramids were viewed as homes for the afterlife and were used as burial chambers for the pharaohs. The first documented pyramid (built 2630–2610 BCE) was created under Pharoah Djoser's rule during the 3rd dynasty. Its structure resembled a stairway to heaven, where the deceased pharaoh’s soul could ascend. The structure is predicted to have begun as a mastaba (an ancient Egyptian flat-roofed rectangular tomb) and was then expanded upon with a total of six mastabas stacked on top of one another. Just over a century later, during the 4th Dynasty, the straight sided pyramids, such as the great pyramids of Giza in the Sahara Desert, were crafted to resemble rays of sunlight. It was believed the soul would ride the
beams of sunlight that hit the tip of the pyramid, uniting with the Sun God, Ra. Each of these magnificent structures were influenced by religion and the belief in the afterlife, with their intentional architecture easing the transition of the soul. Both abundant and easily accessible, pyramids are composed mainly of limestone. This gives the structure a highly reflective surface which enables them to be seen easily from a distance. In a different part of the world again, the yurt has been used as a home since before records began. It is a circular, tent-like structure composed of a lattice of poles covered by a sheet of fabric, and is an important part of central Asian history, particularly Mongolia. The poles can be used to divide the yurt into sections, called khana. A yurt can be assembled in as little as 30 minutes and its light materials are easily transportable, making it optimal for nomadic groups as they move several times a year. The circular shape of yurts makes them stable against winds, while also allowing them to be easily heated and cooled. This makes them perfect for the dry, flat grassland they are so often built on. Temperatures in the Mongolian steppe can range from -40℃ in winter to 38℃ in summer. Therefore, the yurt must be adaptable, with extra layers being added or removed to accommodate the changing climate. Climate, culture, and the materials at hand all strongly influence the construction of homes across the world. This has been illustrated above with examples of homes spanning from Arctic igloos to Egyptian pyramids, showing what homes in different countries and across history look like. Although dissimilar in look and build, with some offering temporary shelter while others more permanent housing, the home in itself is the same: a safe space to protect the inhabitants from the outside world. Shona Richardson is a third-year PhD student studying chemistry
The Earth’s magnetic field may not seem like the realm of a biologist, but it actually plays a huge role in the behaviours of a variety of organisms. All across the tree of life, from bacteria to vertebrates, species are able to perceive and use our planet’s geomagnetic field – but how? To begin, we need a basic understanding of the Earth in its role as, essentially, a giant magnet. The magnetic field is generated by convection currents deep within the Earth’s molten core. The magnetosphere then extends thousands of kilometres into space, protecting the Earth from solar winds and cosmic rays. The magnetic poles – the locations at which the Earth’s magnetic field lines are vertical – are approximately aligned to our geographic poles (which is not the case on every planet). It is towards these poles (or rather to the magnetic north) to which a traditional, magnetic compass points – that is, towards which its small, magnetised needle is attracted. It will (hopefully) not surprise you to learn that organisms are not, in fact, magnets. However, animals able to perceive magnetic fields have evolved their own sort of magnetic compass which can be used not just to ‘point north’ but to create a magnetic map. This incredible adaptation allows migratory birds to regularly fly halfway around the world and, more incredibly, back again; salmon to return to their spawning grounds from hundreds of miles away; and magnetotactic bacteria to find the optimum nutrient levels in multiple layers of sediment. So, how does it work? Going back to our model of the Earth as a giant magnet: magnetic field lines leave the surface at the southern magnetic pole, travel around the globe, and reenter at the north. At each pole, the magnetic field lines are vertical (pointing upwards in the southern hemisphere and down in the northern). At the equator, they run parallel to the Earth’s surface. The magnetic inclination – the angle between the magnetic field line and the horizontal ground – changes
fairly consistently and continuously around the Earth. This, along with magnetic intensity (which displays a clear north-south gradient), forms a regular field that can be used as a constant, ingrained global positioning system. The mechanisms behind magnetoreception are a little murkier and not yet fully understood. There are three main theories on how various groups detect magnetic fields. The first uses a magnetic mineral called magnetite, which retains a permanent magnetic field that aligns with the Earth’s, so magnetotactic bacteria rotate like living compass needles. The second theory uses electromagnetic induction: animals sensitive to electric charges have a cellular or neural mechanism converting this electrical receptivity to magnetic sensitivity. The third theory is biochemical and involves cryptochrome proteins generating radical pairs (unpaired electrons) which are then influenced by magnetic fields. The information that these mechanisms generate can be used in two main ways. A magnetic vector, like a little arrow at a point on a field line, provides animals with an internal compass, while information on the intensity and inclination of magnetic field lines can be used to create an ingrained map of global position (though this is observed far less in nature). The use of such systems has evolved several times,
with various groups utilising this information for different purposes to meet different selection pressures. In birds, mass annual migrations see flocks escape the seasonally tough conditions of life on one side of the planet for comfier ones on the other, whereas in foraging species, such as honeybees, knowing exactly where you are in relation to food sources and your hive gives a huge advantage over competitors. In aqueous environments, magnetosomes – organelles containing magnetic particles – have evolved in magnetotactic bacteria. As the earth's magnetic slants 'downwards', the bacteria use this field as a guide to explore optimal oxygen conditions along a vertical axis (i.e., swimming up and down instead of left to right). Closer to the surface, mole rats are able to navigate their twisting underground burrows, independent from light and safe from predators, using magnetoreception. These innovations are found in a huge variety of organisms. Although we still have much to learn about this phenomenon, our understanding has grown immensely over the last few decades, shedding more and more light on what were once some of the great mysteries of the natural world. We need to ask ourselves: what’s next? Heather Jones is a third-year biotechnology student at the University of Edinburgh, and the head of the EUSci marketing and social media team
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The number of infectious diseases is on the increase. Over the last 30 years, more than 12,000 outbreaks were recorded, among them infamous names such as HIV, SARS, swine flu, Ebola, MERS, Zika virus, and – of course – Covid-19. Tracing the origins of this lethal list takes us to a disturbing conclusion: the human hunger for land on our overcrowded planet is making us sick. Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, cross over to humans from other animals and make up most of the emerging infectious diseases affecting humans. For example, HIV crossed over from chimpanzees to humans, and the Ebola virus crossed over from bats and non-human primates. Of these emerging zoonoses, at least 70% have a wildlife origin. Infectious disease ecologists are sounding the alarm, with many suggesting that a wide range of undiscovered zoonoses persist in the wild that have the potential to cause future pandemics. They estimate that there are approximately 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses with mammalian and avian hosts, of which around 700,000 could infect humans.
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The finger is being pointed at human behaviour. As our species continues to invade the habitats of others, the buffer between wildlife and humans erodes, resulting in increased contact between the two and the emergence of new zoonoses. Increased deforestation, urbanisation, and environmental fragmentation are just some of the ways in which humans are erasing the human/wildlife buffer, thereby providing the perfect conditions for a pandemic. Over 31% of zoonoses outbreaks are linked to deforestation, like in the case of fruit bats and the Nipah virus. In 1997, extensive deforestation and slash-and-burn agricultural practices in Indonesian rainforests destroyed so many fruit trees that it resulted in a mass migration of fruit bats. The bats settled in Malaysian orchards, and shortly after, pigs and pig farmers in the area became sick. Two years later, 105 people had died and 265 people had developed severe brain inflammation, constituting the first known emergence of Nipah virus in humans. Nipah virus has a 40-75% mortality rate and has since continued to cause disease outbreaks in South and Southeast Asia.
Deforestation has also been linked to malaria. Malaria, responsible for over a million annual deaths around the globe, is caused by infection with Plasmodium parasites, transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes. Epidemiologists suggest that deforestation of the Amazon rainforest creates an ideal habitat for mosquitoes along the forest edges of cleared rainforest patches, allowing Anopheles mosquitoes to breed. Surveys in the Peruvian Amazon showed a higher frequency of mosquito larvae in warm pools with partial shade, typically found at the edge of cleared roads along the rainforest and in areas where trees can no longer uptake water. Research from Stanford University shows that between 2003 and 2015, a 10% annual increase in rainforest loss correlated with a 3% increase in malaria cases.
“Over 31% of zoonoses outbreaks are linked to deforestation” Ebola, too, finds its origins in the destruction of rainforest. One of the first cases described in the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a young boy who became infected after playing near a tree infested with bats. The boy lived in a village where foreign mining and timber operations had destroyed much of the surrounding forest. Evidence suggests that this deforestation caused the migration of bats into his village. The growth of urban settlements, ranging from informal settlements to city suburbs, has also erased the human/wildlife buffer. Urbanisation promotes the survival of urban wildlife such as rodents, birds, and bats, which are known to harbour major zoonoses. Rodents, for example, can carry the plague, leptospirosis, and hantavirus: all pathogens that have high mortality rates when infecting humans.
Additionally, urbanisation can promote the migration of bats closer to humans, resulting in a reduced bat-human buffer, and the emergence of diseases such as Ebola, Nipah virus, and coronavirus. In the US, the emergence of Lyme disease can be attributed to the suburbanisation of Connecticut in the 1980s. Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia bacteria, transmitted to humans via bites from infected ticks. Ticks have a 90% probability of acquiring a Borrelia infection when feeding on white-footed mice. Suburbanisation drove the fragmentation of the environment, resulting in the loss of wildlife species. As a result, it promoted the survival of urban wildlife, specifically the white-footed mice, the main culprits in Lyme disease transmission. As urbanisation continued, the species that preyed on the white-footed mouse were lost, causing their numbers to increase, and, consequently, the number of Lyme disease cases skyrocketed. The breaking up of natural habitats into small dispersed ‘islands’ is known as environmental fragmentation, which leads to increased contact between wildlife and humans. For example, in Eastern Australia, natural food resources for large Pteropus fruit bats (also known as flying foxes) are becoming scarce, prompting their migration to human
settlements where fruit is available in gardens. The result is increased emergence of Hendra virus, a highly fatal disease in humans and horses. Indeed, livestock often have a role to play in the emergence of diseases. In the cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses, Nipah virus, and bovine tuberculosis, livestock acted as a bridge for transmission between wildlife and humans. Additionally, factory farming is a significant danger in terms of disease transmission. Animals with a high degree of genetic similarity are packed into crowded and stressful conditions, which provides the perfect environment for highly virulent diseases, such as influenza and bovine tuberculosis, to evolve. Opportunities for zoonoses can even arise from human pastimes. Tourism to wild areas reduces the human/wildlife barrier, as seen with the increased popularity of tourist attractions, such as visiting bat caves or hiking through the Amazon. Additionally, wild animals are increasingly being acquired as pets, placing them in close contact with humans. In 2003, 47 people across the US contracted monkeypox following the purchase of prairie dogs to keep as pets. Finally, exotic ‘wet’ meat markets, where wildlife such as snakes and bats are sold, are
becoming a cause for concern. The cramped and stressful conditions, coupled with the close contact of species that would never normally encounter each other in the wild, promote the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. These animals are then bought and taken home by people, facilitating disease transmission between wild animals and humans, and completely erasing the human/wildlife barrier. It is crucial to understand the detrimental effects human land use can have on our environment because it is clearly linked to our own health. This is why some scientists are calling for a “One Health” approach, where the interconnectivity of the health of humans, animals, and the environment is considered when making decisions on land use, such as urbanisation and agriculture. Our homes as humans and the practices that we have developed to supply our lifestyles have a direct impact on the homes of other species. If we continue to invade the remaining areas of wilderness on our planet, the next pandemic could be just around the corner, with potentially devastating consequences. Cristina is a recent immunology graduate from the University of Edinburgh, and her main interests are infectious diseases
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When was the last time you did something for someone without expecting anything in return? Was this person a relative or a stranger? If the answer is a stranger, think about why you did that. Did it make you feel or look good in front of others? Or was it simply out of kindness? Answering these questions may be simple, but the reason why we do this is not as intuitive. While many different forms of altruism are seen in the animal kingdom, there is a unique form of altruism found in humans true altruism – where we show altruistic behaviour towards nonrelated individuals with no expectation of reciprocation. From an evolutionary perspective, this appears bizarre: why would you help a stranger and expect nothing in return? This evolutionary paradox could be the saviour of our home, planet Earth. Biological altruism has two types. Kin altruism is where the costly behaviour benefits someone who shares your genes. The genetic ties explain this selfless behaviour as it enhances the chance of survival and reproduction of your own genes. An
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example of this is parental care. In comparison, reciprocal altruism involves cooperation between nonkin individuals. These behaviours initially cost one individual by temporarily reducing their fitness – their ability to survive and reproduce – while benefiting an unrelated individual. In this case, the donor behaves in a certain way and expects the recipient to act in a similar manner that benefits them at a later time. We can see this in meerkat social groups. At any given time, meerkats have a lookout, an individual that doesn't feed in this period and can lose a substantial amount of weight. By performing this behaviour now, the meerkat expects that in time another meerkat will act as a lookout and suffer a similar cost. This reciprocal aspect resolves the evolutionary paradox associated with non-kin altruism. Although rarer than kin altruism, reciprocal altruism drives the evolution of cooperation, so developing these reciprocal altruistic relationships is beneficial to humans in the long term. In our ancestral lifestyles, cooperative individuals (e.g., those exchanging goods/food)
were more likely to receive reciprocal benefits down the line. Humans help strangers with no expectation of being rewarded in the future. This type of behaviour does not strictly fit the description of either of the two forms of biological altruism. But there is another form of altruism which does explain this desire to help others at a cost to oneself. This is called true altruism.
“Chimps have been seen to patrol dangerous grounds in order to protect non-related individuals” Some argue the desire to help others without expecting anything in return is unique to humans. Behavioural studies show altruistic behaviour in other species is nearly always either kin or reciprocal altruism. However, true altruism may have been observed in chimpanzees, although not to the same extent as in humans. Chimps have been seen to patrol dangerous grounds in order to protect nonrelated individuals. It can be argued that this is reciprocal in the sense that the current patrolling chimp will expect others to patrol next time. Reasons like this make it unclear whether chimps do in fact show true altruism. These potentially truly altruistic behaviours are comparable to human behaviours, indicating our shared advanced brain functions may be what allows altruism in cooperative species to evolve. Further evolution of the human brain and our enhanced cognition allows us to possess heightened emotions and thus an obligation to act fairly. The fear of acquiring a bad reputation from society means individuals are more likely to stick to norms and behave altruistically. For example, if an older person needs a seat on public transport, some will give up their seat, and while others may be reluctant to do so, they are forced into doing so due to a fear of disapproval from onlookers.
Humans and our evolved brains allow morals, empathy, and emotional reward to play a role in why we act altruistically with no expectation for future rewards. Humans have the ability to remember previous interactions with other individuals. Recalling previous behaviours means we can remember who we have helped and the debts we are owed, allowing cooperation in the human race to advance. This selfless action could be explained by neurological studies, showing that taking part in altruistic behaviours stimulates the human brain to release feel-good hormones such as serotonin as an emotional reward (although some argue that because we get an emotional reward from this behaviour it may not be truly altruistic). To better understand the development of true altruism in humans, we need to look at the evolution of societies. There are many explanations as to why humans have evolved true altruism. Group selection theory suggests that evolution favours groups of altruists as they have a higher fitness than groups with non-altruists. The more successful, altruistic groups, such as our ancestors who engaged in cooperative hunting and food sharing within groups, survived, reproduced, and passed on their genes. The non-altruistic groups who were reluctant to contribute and share were outcompeted and left no descendants. However, group selection theory remains highly debated in the scientific literature. A theory that is universally accepted is cultural group selection. As well as shaping the human
genome, natural selection also shapes our culture, social norms, and beliefs. The cooperative interactions between and within ancestral human groups allowed cultural selection to drive the evolution of societies and altruism. The cultural selection theory also points to the idea that avoiding the moral norm – our ancestors not sharing food after a hunt, for example – is frowned upon and even punished. This system ensures non-altruistic cheaters are punished, preventing cheating in the future. The evolution of culture and societies selects for altruistic humans. So, the complex cultural society and cooperative lifestyle that humans possess is what drives the evolution of altruism in human populations. Despite the evolution of true altruism in humans, it is evident that we, as a species, have severely disrupted and damaged our home, planet Earth, leading to the loss of other species through deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution of the oceans, for example. Could our altruistic abilities help to turn this destructive behaviour around? Volunteering is a prime example of altruistic behaviour. There are truly altruistic humans who donate time and money to make large-scale conservation possible, protecting the Earth and restoring the natural balance of biological diversity. Organisations such as Community Conservation are involved in protecting habitats and species worldwide. On a smaller scale, but no less important, are organisations such as The Conservation Volunteers. These
individuals protect and create green areas, including gardens and nature reserves, for communities in the UK. Sir David Attenborough, the vice president of the organisation, describes the volunteers as "unsung heroes of the environment". Community science is another manifestation of altruistic behaviour. This mass voluntary data collection by non-professionals enhances scientific projects to protect species from extinction and habitats from disappearing. In addition to protecting our beautiful planet and the species that live alongside us, many non-profit charities and volunteers build and repair homes for the less fortunate. Haiti Help is a small charity based in Scotland that does just that; they ensure every penny donated is put into providing for families and children in Haiti by building homes and funding medical care. The evolution of true altruism in humans allows us to cooperate and maintain a functioning society. But it also means we can protect our beautiful home; these selfless behaviours, when extended to other species, allow nature and habitats to flourish. Planet Earth is our home, and this unique form of altruism is what makes us capable of reversing the damage we have caused to it. Samantha Dougary is a fourth-year zoology student at the University of Edinburgh. She is particularly interested in the behavioural aspect of the subject. Samantha is also a content creator for EUSci
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Early on an April morning in 1960, at the dawn of the space age, a pioneering satellite named Television Infrared Observation Satellite 1 (TIROS-1) was launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Equipped with a pair of TV cameras, the goal of the TIROS programme was to assess whether the field of satellite observations launched by Sputnik three years prior could contribute to the study of our home planet. During its two and a half months of operational lifetime, TIROS-1 captured more than 19,000 usable photographs of the Earth’s surface, providing unprecedented imagery of large-scale cloud systems, revolutionising weather forecasting forever. The age of Earth observation had begun. In the sixty years following TIROS-1, the Earth has been swarmed with satellites, spurred on by the Cold War and the ongoing arms race in big data. While increasingly advanced weather satellites continue to supply meteorologists with atmospheric data, the prospect of round-the-clock surveillance has spawned a host of other applications from military intelligence to environmental monitoring. Nowadays, more than 400 Earth observation satellites survey the planet from pole to pole, relaying hundreds of terabytes of data each day. Meanwhile, decades’ worth of satellite imagery has data centres around the world bursting at their seams. One of the main contributors to this wealth of data has been the godfather of all Earth observation missions: Landsat. A joint operation between NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the first Landsat satellite was launched into orbit in 1972. Currently in its eighth generation and with Landsat-9 set for launch this September, each generation of the programme has made its share of historic observations from the dramatic depletion of the Aral Sea for irrigation projects to the wildfires which destroyed much of the Yellowstone National Park in 1988. More recently, 42 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
More recently, imagery from Landsat-8 has revealed the indirect environmental impact of the Covid19 pandemic, including significantly reduced air pollution levels in India and improved water quality in New York. Working in unison, the two currently operational Landsat satellites scan the entire globe every eight days, providing imagery of areas beyond the reach of traditional surveys and field-monitoring stations. Thanks to the longevity and wide coverage of the programme, the Landsat archives present a unique source of data for tracking long-term environmental changes, like the effects of anthropogenic climate change over the past half-century.
“Nowadays, more than 400 Earth observation satellites survey the planet from pole to pole, relaying down hundreds of terabytes of data each day” But while the vast archives have been built up over decades, only in recent years have advances in computing power made processing massive quantities of geospatial data possible. Google Earth Engine, an online platform providing researchers not just decades’ worth of data but also the processing power to analyse it, has proven to be a game-changer. Debuted by the tech giant at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the cloud computing platform contains the entire Landsat data archive alongside imagery from the European Space Agency’s growing family of Sentinel missions focused on environmental monitoring. In a study published last year, a group of researchers led by Dan Shugar of the University of Calgary used Google Earth Engine to analyse more than 250,000 images of glacial lakes from the Landsat programme, reporting rapid growth in both their number and size between 1990 and
2018. Forming as glaciers melt, glacial lakes act as temporary reservoirs of meltwater and are known to further accelerate glacier retreat through calving. The meltwater eventually makes its way to the oceans but the lakes’ effect on modulating long-term sea level rise remains unknown. The first global assessment of its kind, the analysis by Shugar’s team is but one example of a breed of dataintensive research that would have been impossible just ten years ago. Besides helping scientists track down glacial lakes, the power of the Earth Engine has been harnessed in the past for a variety of applications from monitoring tiger habitat loss across Asia to measuring levels of deforestation on a global scale, an effort available for anyone to explore on the Global Forest Watch website. In another 2020 study, Sentinel Playground, a satellite data platform developed by the Slovenian company Sinergise, was used by Peter Fretwell and Philip Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey to count emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. By identifying penguins from guano stains showing up reddish-brown against the Antarctic snow, the duo has been mapping the colonies since 2009. Previous estimates based on Landsat data put the number of colonies at 50, but the new analysis, utilising the higher resolution of the Sentinel-2 mission, discovered eight new colonies alongside three previously unconfirmed breeding sites, bringing the total to 61. While good news at face value, current modelling suggests all the newfound colonies are in areas particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, posing a serious threat to emperor penguin populations in the future. Fretwell and Trathan performed their search manually, scanning thousands of images for patches of brown pixels. Thanks to the advent of advanced machine learning algorithms, however, such labourintensive research may soon be unnecessary. Both Google Earth Engine and Sentinel Playground
allow scientists to run their own scripts on the platform. Convolutional neural networks (CNN), a type of deep learning technology typically used in facial recognition, have made their way into satellite data analysis. A group of researchers at Stanford University, as detailed in their Nature Communications article, trained a CNN to predict economic well-being in 20,000 African villages from nine years’ worth of Landsat imagery. Although a critical source for international poverty measurement, household wealth surveys are only conducted once every four years in most African countries while fresh satellite data become available on a nearly daily basis. By learning to recognise surface features and treating nighttime light intensity as a proxy for wealth, the neural network could predict economic well-being in areas where it wasn’t trained with an average accuracy of 70%, comparable to errors in existing survey data. Such predictive capacity may help steer policy and target critical social programmes more effectively in the future. Another team, led by Isla Duporge of the University of Oxford, trained a CNN to count elephants roaming the African savannah, demonstrating the viability of using satellite imagery to aid wildlife conservation efforts (see Sophie Teall’s article on the EUSci website). Instead of the publicly available Landsat and Sentinel data, Duporge’s team used high-resolution imagery captured by the commercial WorldView-3 and -4 satellites operated by Maxar Technologies, an American company specialising in geospatial data. Capable of distinguishing surface features less
than a metre in diameter and visiting a given target location more than once per day, Maxar’s satellites have long offered the highest resolution imagery on the market. However, following the recent surge in demand for so-called big data, a host of competitors have begun to crop up. Upending a field once only within reach of state-backed space agencies, private companies have flocked to the skies in a bid to collect data for various commercial applications. In contrast to the car-sized Landsat and Sentinel spacecraft, the private sector has mostly focused on building large constellations of so-called microsatellites. ICEYE, a Finnish start-up and the current market leader in Europe, operates ten satellites all under 100 kilograms, while Planet Labs, its American counterpart, has amassed a constellation of over 200 satellites no larger than a shoebox. Specialising in synthetic aperture radar (SAR), a radar technique utilising the motion of the spacecraft to produce sharper imagery, ICEYE can provide high-resolution surface data around the clock and in all weather conditions. With applications varying from monitoring crop health to detecting oil spills and exposing illegal fishing, the near-real time data are available to anyone willing to pay the price. Among those benefiting most from the arrangement is the insurance industry, which uses satellite imagery to predict the claims likely to follow natural disasters. In January, as Storm Christoph engulfed much of the United Kingdom, ICEYE deployed its SAR satellite network to produce flood analyses of the affected areas every
twelve hours. The treasure trove of data produced by satellites has revolutionised how we see our home planet, but with every corner of the Earth now under constant surveillance, fears over its malicious use have begun to mount. Although unable to identify individual people, satellite constellations can already track larger movements from space, as demonstrated by imagery of the Black Lives Matter protests captured by Planet Labs last summer. Meanwhile, with increasing recognition of the societal benefits of satellite data, the industry has come under criticism from open-access activists. Invaluable climate data from more than half the satellites in orbit continue to be restricted by their operators, either by charging extortionate fees or preventing access altogether. The field of Earth observation has come a long way since the days of the first weather satellites: an estimated 990 new satellites will be launched into orbit each year over the current decade and machine learning algorithms for analysing vast quantities of data are being developed at a rapid pace. While challenges regarding data availability and privacy remain, the age of satellite observations is only beginning. More than sixty years on from its launch, TIROS-1 still trudges along on its orbit, having passed the baton to new generations of satellites keeping a watchful eye on our home. Mika is a third-year astrophysics student and the incoming head copy editor of EUSci
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In recent years, Scotland has been the up-and-coming centre for satellite manufacture and launching. By 2030, the industry aims to be worth £4 billion: a realistic goal given that it already consists of 130 companies employing 7500 people. But what does the industry involve, and why is Scotland suitable for satellite launches? Manufacturing is one sector of the satellite industry that is completely done in Scotland. Currently, Glasgow is manufacturing more small satellites than any other city in Europe, and Scottish manufacturers, such as AAC Clyde Space, are helping to make Scotland a specialist in satellite manufacture. International companies, including US Spire, are already moving their manufacturing and testing sites to Scotland. Furthermore, innovation centres around Scotland are working to make manufacturing satellites cheaper and quicker. Whilst Scotland has firmly set itself up to be a leading manufacturer of small satellites (mostly used in low-Earth orbits, weighing around 500kg), there has yet to be a satellite launch from the UK itself. This could change soon, with Scotland set to have a launch site running by 2022. The greatest advantage for launching in Scotland over other areas is its geography. It is best suited to reaching low-Earth orbits
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(less than 1000 km altitude) and can reach them quicker than from other locations due to its northerly location on the globe. Scotland also has a lot of open water surrounding it, so in an emergency a satellite rocket can crash into the ocean instead of the land. Furthermore, northern Scotland is sparsely populated and has few commercial flight paths over it, making it less intrusive and safer from the risks of falling debris. Plans are in place for vertical launch sites (whereby satellites are propelled straight up, avoiding populated areas completely) to put satellites into polar orbits and sun synchronous orbits. Polar orbits are those which the satellite passes over the north and south poles. Sun synchronous orbits are almost polar orbits, but the satellite passes over points on the Earth at the same local solar time (the time at which the sun is at a specific position according to a relative point on the ground). A vertical launch site has been proposed in Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland. This site will be a spaceport with £30 million of funding to support its construction and will hopefully have around 12 satellite launches per year. Although the spaceport would boost the economy of the area, there have been ethical objections to this proposal; the main concern being the ecological impact on areas surrounding the
spaceport construction site. Two Scottish companies, Orbex and Lockheed Martin, have started to build satellites destined for the new spaceport in Sutherland. In particular, Orbex is designing and building a micro-launcher rocket, 17 metres tall, 1.3 metres in diameter, and weighing 1.5 tonnes (50 times lighter than the Space Shuttle) when empty of payload or fuel. It will reach orbits of between 220 kilometres to 1250 kilometres (around 140 times the height of Mount Everest) and burn up in the atmosphere within 57 years. This type of rocket is useful for telecommunications and collecting data on the environment. Another Scottish company at the forefront of testing launching capabilities is Skyrora, based in Edinburgh. Skyrora are testing launch sites in both Inverness and Sutherland. With continual commitment to see a satellite launched from Scottish soil (including from Prime Minister Boris Johnson); Scotland is fast becoming home to a growing and thriving satellite and space industry. Jessie Hammond is a fifth-year physics student at the University of Edinburgh and is most interested in cosmology and gravity, but pretty much loves physics all round!
Dear reader, As this issue has shown, home can mean many different things. To me, it includes all the things like family, important stories, culture, comfort, and music; it is in essence our beginning, where our journey starts every day. And it is home that shapes how we see the world, how we interact with it. It gives each of us unique knowledge and distinct perspectives. This miniseries before you showcases the diversity of home between our writers and the different thoughts and inspiration that go with it. For example, have you ever thought about how a sauna could help prevent diseases? Or how a didgeridoo produces sound? The following articles explore various topics from the homes of our writers – China, Finland, Malaysia, Australia, and Slovakia. Diversity brings forward new questions we never thought of asking, with surprising solutions to provide answers. It pushes forward our understanding of science as a whole, and for that, home and diversity must be celebrated! Isha Prabhu (Layout Editor)
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Global heating has accelerated significantly due to human caused emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Global CO2 emissions rose 62% between 1990 and 2019, and there is still no sign of us reaching a peak. At present, China emits over a quarter of global carbon emissions, due to its large population and its status as ‘the world’s factory’. In 2018, China produced 28% of global manufacturing output, making it the world’s largest manufacturer. Due to the growing threat of climate change, China aims to reach peak CO2 emission before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. It is unrealistic for most developing countries to start reducing CO2 emissions immediately. Instead, a greenhouse gas concentration trajectory is adopted, such as RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) 1.9, the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement on limiting global warming to 1.5°C. According to this pathway, China will increase CO2 emissions before they reach a maximum and then steadily decrease. Part of China’s plan involves afforestation (the creation of new forests). For the past few decades, China has dedicated itself to planting billions of trees to overcome desertification and soil loss. As early as the 1950s, China started planting trees in the Mu Us Desert, near Inner Mongolia, and extensively expanded the programme in the 21st century. According to satellite observations, the project has drastically increased the vegetation cover since the 1980s. Today, much of the desert is covered by trees. A recent study in Nature by an international team revealed that China’s tree-planting policy is likely to be playing a significant role in curtailing its climate impacts. They found that the amount of CO2 absorbed by the trees had been previously underestimated. In this way, trees can act as a carbon sink – a 46 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
reservoir that absorbs more carbon than it releases, thereby lowering the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Peatlands and forests generally absorb more carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis than they release through respiration or decomposition. However, carbon can also be released when trees burn or decay, meaning that they are not always carbon sinks. The study presented data on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere measured at six sites across China from 2009 to 2016. The data, collected using air sampling observations from stationary platforms, estimated that the newly forested areas absorbed an annual average of approximately 1.1 trillion kilograms of carbon. This is a highly efficient carbon sink system when compared to the 2.5 trillion kilograms that China emits over the same period. Over the past 10-15 years, forest areas in six provinces in southwest and northeast China each increased by between 0.04 and 0.44 million hectares per year. Satellite measurements were also performed to monitor the fluctuation in vegetation. This involved taking a satellite image of different wavelengths (that is, different colours) of light reflected by an area of land. Since living plants absorb red light in the process of photosynthesis and reflect infrared light, the ratio of these two wavelengths can tell us
how dense the vegetation is in an area – known as the vegetation index. If the difference is high, the vegetation is considered to be dense, such as in a forest; conversely if there is little difference, the land may be desert (see image below). These observations were used to calculate the timing and size of the land carbon sink from China’s new trees. China’s afforestation practices also have flaws. For example, the use of tree species that require deep soil water to survive under low precipitation has made it harder for shallow-rooted vegetation to grow, thereby compromising other environmental goals. Additionally, factors such as water availability, biodiversity and the suitability for the local environment must be considered to ensure trees survive and have a positive impact. It has become apparent that large-scale afforestation requires good scientific knowledge of whole ecosystems if they are to be successful. For the rest of the world, particularly countries in drier regions, China’s lessons in ecological restoration and in environmental policies will be relevant. Although there is a long way to go when it comes to slowing global heating, trees will undoubtedly play their part. Ian Yang is a third-year chemistry student, interested in environmental science
Sauna is a traditional Finnish relaxation activity which can be traced back for thousands of years. In Finland, saunas can be found in almost every home. There are around two million saunas while the population of Finland is 5.5 million – that means there is a sauna for every two to three people. Sauna bathing is not only an essential part of festivals like Midsummer or Christmas but an important part of everyday life: an average Finn uses the sauna twice per week. The sauna is a small room with wooden benches and a stove (which could be powered by coal, gas, or electricity) filled with rocks. The stove is preheated before use and there is no need to wear any clothes (even in public saunas), though it is good hygiene practice to use a disposable seating pad. A typical sauna is heated to between 80°C and 100°C. Although this sounds like a recipe for cooking yourself, your core temperature increases by just a degree or so thanks to sweating. During a sauna, water is thrown onto the heated rocks to increase humidity and make the room feel hotter. Sauna sessions usually consist of a few minutes of sauna interspersed with cooling periods, such as a cool shower or a swim in a lake. That’s right, a few minutes of hot sauna is the secret behind the Finnish superpower to jump into an icy lake in winter!
“A few minutes of hot sauna is in fact the secret behind the Finnish superpower to jump into an icy lake in winter!” However, sauna is more than just a leisure activity; the hot environment of the sauna can lower your blood pressure. Research shows that after one sauna session, your blood pressure is decreased, and it
remains lower even after cooling off, which demonstrates the lasting benefit of sauna bathing. This occurs because the high temperature temporarily causes your blood vessels to widen, to bring blood to the surface of your body to cool it. Like adding extra lanes to a motorway, having wider vessels lowers the pressure inside. There is a second way in which saunas can lower your blood pressure – through a change in blood cholesterol composition. After repeated sauna baths, there is an increase in ‘good’ cholesterol (highdensity lipoprotein cholesterol), which helps with removing ‘bad’ cholesterol (low density lipoprotein cholesterol) from blood circulation. The removal of ‘bad’ cholesterol increases blood flow and, in this way, reduces blood pressure. Sauna may also prevent the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s. In these diseases, there is often a build-up of damaged proteins in the brain, which eventually results in malfunction. A group of proteins called heat shock proteins (HSPs) are thought to prevent this protein build up. Regular sauna baths increase the level of HSP, thus preventing
neurodegenerative diseases. In one study, men who sauna bathed more frequently were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and dementia. Will the 100℃ heat kill sperm cells or reduce sperm quality? That is a concern that many men will have. In humans (and other mammals), it is essential for the testes to be kept 28°C below normal body temperature. For this reason, testes reside outside the body. A recent study shows that in the sauna, the temperature of the testes increases by 3°C. Following one sauna session, sperm count and sperm motility decreased in the participants. However, their sperm health returned to normal after avoiding saunas for a few months, suggesting that sauna has no longterm effect on male fertility. Besides the physiological effects, sauna can also improve interpersonal relationships. The small room provides a warm and intimate environment which is ideal for spending quality time with friends and loved ones. Next time, why not invite your friends to a sauna session? Julia Li is a student studying reproductive biology, fertility and reproduction
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“Turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”, is how Jon Winokur describes the smell of a durian, also known as the “king of fruits”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, durians are legally banned from public transport and hotels in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan to protect citizens from the stench. The name of the fruit comes from the Malaysian word duri, meaning “sharp spike”. The greenish-brown Southeast Asian tropical fruit can weigh between two and seven pounds (one to three kilograms) and is known for its hard spiky husk and pungent stench. As a child, I was told that some durian farmers in Malaysia wear helmets in their orchard to protect themselves from raining spike-bombs during durian season. Though unquestionably interesting, death by spiky and pungent fruit is not the most enticing way to go. A pair of researchers from Malaysia identified 63 volatile compounds responsible for the unique durian smell, including volatile sulphur-containing compounds (VSCs), alcohols, and esters. VSCs are also found in other stinky odours found in, for example, rotten eggs, farts, and onions. Subjectivity comes into play here, as what is stinky to humans may not be to other animals. The pungent smell attracts animals to disperse its seeds; it definitely worked on humans, as we have been cultivating it since the late 18 th century. So, what lures durian lovers to roadside durian stalls? The odour is obviously overpowering, but they love the taste of the yellowish edible pulp that is mildly sweet, nutty, and creamy with a subtle hint of fruity fragrance. No experiments have been done yet to understand whether there is a psychological or biological (olfactory) barrier that separates durian lovers and haters. The pulp also has an aroma of alcohol, which explains why one will feel hot after 48 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
eating it – like you’ve downed a shot vodka. Born with a low alcohol tolerance, * can only eat a maximum of three fruits without feeling dizzy. Experts have advised against eating durian with alcohol for good reasons; this combination has caused bad hangovers that last for days. The sulphur-containing compounds in durian stop an important protein in your liver, aldehyde dehydrogenase, from breaking down alcohol into harmless fatty acids and carbon dioxide. To understand the evolution of stinky compounds, we have to look at the evolution of the durian. In 2017, the first ever durian genome (a Malaysian variety called Musang King) was assembled by a group of durian-loving cancer research scientists, and the sequencing project was – of course – funded by a group of anonymous durian lovers. Analysis showed that durians have four copies of a class of genes called methionine gamma lyases (MGL), while most plants usually only have one or two copies. MGL genes are known to be responsible for regulating VSCs by degrading sulphur-containing amino acids to ammonia and thiols (compounds with odorous principles found in the scent of urine and skunks, respectively).
Gene duplication and wholegenome duplication (WGD) events are not uncommon throughout plant evolution and generally occur in high frequency in flowering plants, such as the durian. WGD represents a powerful evolutionary force for the development of new genes and the emergence of new species (and smells in this case). Interestingly, the durian is related to cacao beans (used to make chocolate); these plants are estimated to have diverged ~75 million years ago from a common ancestor. Hence, durians essentially have the same genes as cacao but contain duplicates and triplicates of around 70% of cacao genes. This led to a hypothesis that a WGD event must have happened in the durian lineage at some point throughout evolution. Next time you bite into a piece of chocolate, take a moment to appreciate this wonder of natural selection. That addictive bitter flavour is a distant cousin to the most pungent fruit in the world! You might need to try it to be convinced of the durian’s deliciousness, but * can assure you there is always beauty in the ugly (and smelly). Yen Peng (Apple) Chew is a PhD student researching on gene editing tools for green microalgae
The didgeridoo is a wooden, trumpet-like instrument first developed by Australian Aboriginals in Northern Australia. Potentially the oldest instrument in the world, cave art has depicted it being played as far back as 40,000 years ago. Yet the name, didgeridoo, has only been in use for around 100 years, with varied spellings. A northern Aboriginal group, the Yolngu Matha-speaking people, call the instrument yidaki or yirdaki. The didgeridoo was primarily used as an instrument to be played during ceremonial dances, accompanied by chants and bilma (or tapping sticks). They were traditionally made from either eucalyptus or bamboo branches hollowed out naturally by termites, but are now made from a variety of materials, such as glass and machine hollowed-out wood. In the instrument's natural form, made from branches, there are a lot of variations in its size and shape, which slightly affects the way it sounds. The didgeridoo has also been used for all types of music, from jazz to classical, as it has become adopted world-wide, and its uses have grown. The actual instrument itself can only play a single note! However, the player can control how the sound
fluctuates, so various timbres and tunes can be produced. Perhaps it is this perfect melding of human and instrument that has made the didgeridoo so mysterious in the way it produces such unique sounds. Interest in the didgeridoo has only started recently and research into how the didgeridoo is played is still in its infancy, yet it is perhaps the most complicated to model and work out what really goes on inside to produce the tunes it does. The didgeridoo works mainly through use of the voice box of the player, involving movement of the glottis (the part of the windpipe containing the vocal cords), which can enhance and inhibit certain sound frequencies. These frequencies create frequency bands, called formants, which overlay over the fundamental note of the didgeridoo. The fundamental note is the natural single note which the didgeridoo can play without any help from moving the vocal cords. The different frequencies come from different formations of the mouth and positioning of the player’s tongue, similar to how we produce different vowel sounds by using different positions of the tongue and vocal cords. Much like how we aren’t aware of these differences when we
sound out different vowel sounds, a skilled didgeridoo player may not be aware of the different positions needed to play various sounds. The sound produced from the didgeridoo is directly influenced by what the vocal cords are made to do; for example, stronger resonances (where the sound waves produced by the didgeridoo and vocal cords match to create a louder sound) can only be made when the gap between the vocal cords (or glottis) is narrower. Furthermore, the cross section of the pipe is usually of a similar size to a person’s voice box, cementing this strong relationship between instrument and player. Another key component of didgeridoo playing is circular breathing. This is a form of breathing where air is taken in through the nose and blown out through the cheeks from the nose. While quite hard to perfect, it allows the player to sustain a continuous air flow. Bagpipers also use circular breathing in a similar but slightly different way. Additionally, the wave flow created from this breathing technique to play the didgeridoo is very complicated, more so than in the case of most other well-known wind instruments, such as the trumpet or trombone. Computer models have been made in order to recreate the effects and see how this helps to produce the unique sound of the didgeridoo. Research into didgeridoos has only been ongoing since the 1980s, and there is still a lot to discover about the science behind this seemingly simple, yet complex, instrument. Jessie Hammond is a fifth-year physics student at the University of Edinburgh and is most interested in cosmology and gravity, but pretty much loves physics all round!
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Welcome to Slovakia! Come sit at our Christmas dinner table. You can probably smell the freshly baked medovníky (pronounced meh-dovneek-ee, honey cookies). For the appetizer, cover your paper-thin wafer with the garlic-honey mixture. Then, dip your finger into it and draw a cross on everyone’s head as a wish for good health. If you get the December sore throat, do not worry; you will be fit in no time with the honey-onion syrup, a traditional folk remedy also known as the sick child’s nightmare. This sweet, healthful, gooey bee product is at the heart of our traditions, and few nations still
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treasure honey as much as Slovaks to this day, although it has been used all over the world for millennia. It is a complex weapon which can combat many, sometimes surprising illnesses. Its anti-oxidant properties decrease the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. It has been successfully used in relieving diarrhoea in children and shows potential to have positive neurological effects. Moreover, few of us are aware of the dermal applications of honey to treat and even stimulate tissue regeneration of surgical and chronic wounds. It is also as effective against the oral herpes virus as pharmacy-based
treatments. That is thanks to its Most celebrated property – antibacterial activity. The famous manuka honey stands tall in this regard, but it is certainly not the only option. Solely the physicochemical properties of any honey, such as low pH, low water potential and low water activity, do a good deal to inhibit bacterial growth. Over the past few decades, additional research into honey’s biochemistry led to the belief that antibacterial activity arises from different molecular mechanisms depending on the source of plant species and plant product. In European blossom honeys, an effective bacterial growth inhibitor produced during honey ripening called hydrogen peroxide was thought to be produced by enzymatic reactions involving the glucose oxidase enzyme. The bee-derived protein defensin-1 was also believed to play a major role. However, over the past years, Dr Juraj Majtán, the head of the Laboratory of Apidology and Apitherapy at the Institute of Molecular Biology in the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and his lab have produced results which contradict previous findings regarding European blossom honeys. Hydrogen peroxide was still highly correlated with anti-bacterial activity, but not to glucose oxidase, suggesting an alternative route for its production. Additionally, some of the most potent honeys contained only small concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, suggesting an entirely different anti-bacterial agent at play, which remains yet to be added to the list of other known agents. For example, in the case of honeydew honey which is made from the excretions of plant-sucking insects, antibacterial activity was correlated with polyphenols (plant secondary metabolites involved in various defense mechanisms) instead of hydrogen peroxide. Another exception is manuka honey which relies on the organic compound
methylglyoxal. It seems that we know less about the machinery of honey than before, but that does not stop consumers demanding high quality. All countries have their own standards for commercially sold honey, including the EU. Samples are assessed by their levels of sugar, moisture, water-insoluble particles, free acid, electrical conductivity, and hydroxymethylfurfural, a typical honey-quality identifier produced by liquefaction and heating. However, these limits are not stringent enough and do not even include the minimum anti-bacterial activity. As a result, honey that is overheated, damaged by unsuitable storage conditions, or faked can still pass the test. Indeed, almost 50% of honey sold commercially in Slovakia has the same anti-bacterial effects as a sugar solution. The UK market is no exception with last year’s honey adulteration concerns which led to Tesco withdrawing its own honey products Majtán’s lab is fighting this worldwide issue with pipettes and scientific expertise, from their newly established Honey Laboratory. They have revolutionized the methods for quantifying anti-bacterial activity by switching from the agar well diffusion technique to a more accurate quantitative method called microdilution. What makes the lab unique is that they offer this analysis as a service which individual beekeepers can purchase to certify their honeys and boost the profile and price of their product on the market. Science is still far from revealing the precise molecular mechanisms lying behind the anti-bacterial activity of honey, but that does not mean we should forget its value. The work of Majtán’s lab combines research with public service. If adopted globally, their approach could be the first step for making honey production more sustainable, by encouraging people to choose local, high-quality honey made by cautious and honest beekeepers. Ultimately, it could improve the health of both our bodies and the planet’s most important pollinators. Anna Motýľová, going into year two of BSc Biological Sciences, is interested in ecology and policy-making
China New forests capture carbon emissions
Finland The physiological effects of Finnish sauna Malaysia Why does the “king of fruits” smell so bad good?
Australia The didgeridoo: the world’s oldest and most mysterious musical
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This is not new information at all: arm yourself with a reusable stainless steel water bottle, a couple of grocery totes, jars, and bottles. These common tips are the essential core of starting a zero-waste lifestyle. The list of tips below is optional but highly recommended. 1 – Easy peasy lemon squeezy Order or buy multiple good quality soap bars and label your plastic liquid soap bottle ‘Recycle immediately when finished. Adiós amigo!’.
2 – Closet clean-out Find unwanted clothes (or even bedsheets) and cut it up into squares for dishwashing, wiping surfaces, or to be used as a handkerchief or napkin. This will help phase out the use of plastic sponges and single-use paper towels. If you want to ditch your old sponge right now for rags, don’t throw them in the bin! You can recycle them by putting them at the bottom of plant pots to help your houseplants retain moisture and to avoid water evaporating too quickly.
3 – Collect water waste to save water bills An average flush uses 6-12 litres of water! Imagine keeping six 1-litre water bottles in your toilet for a single flush. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? So get a bucket that will live permanently in the toilet for wastewater collection for flushing. You can put the bucket next to you when you shower to collect water run-off. Also, start washing your dishes in a dish washing bucket on your kitchen sink if you haven’t picked up this habit. The wastewater can be poured into the toilet bucket for flushing too. 52 Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk
4 – Let your refrigerator nag you. Get some write-on fridge magnets, some marker pens, and create a list of ‘Must Eat Now’ or an inventory to make sure you eat or cook your food that is expiring on the day. Alternatively, you can create a list of food that you have in the fridge to keep an eye on the perishable items (such as meats, fish and salads). Auditing your food is a great habit that can be included in your weekly chores.
5 – Zip up and lock out all Ziplock from your life. Replace plastic Ziplocks with cotton bags or silicone that can easily be washed. Cotton bags can be used for a wide range of purposes such as freezing bread loafs or slices, freezing fruits and veg (#5) and organizing dry goods. Silicone bags are very useful for storing liquid like leftover tomato soup or the best once-in-a-lifetime gravy sauce that you’ve ever made.
6 – Freeze, freeze, freeze Cotton cloth bags, silicone bags, and ice cube trays are your best tools for reducing food waste. Most fruits, vegetables, and meat that are about to go off can be frozen and your wrinkly lemons can be juiced and stored in ice cube trays. Instead of asking yourself “Should I throw this away?”, try to change the question to “Can I freeze this?”. (I think I might actually start selling freezer magnets to remind people to ask this question).
7 – Become a chemist by making your own cleaning products. Ditch big brand cleaners and make your own! Vinegar and baking soda will clean almost anything from your greasy oven to your clogged drain. Vinegar kills mould, while baking soda acts as an abrasive scrubber. Vinegarwater mixtures are also useful for cleaning surfaces and deodorizing your fridge. If you hate the smell of vinegar, add a few drops of your favourite essential oil and some lemon juice to jazz it up. Some essential oils such as tea tree oil and cinnamon oil are natural anti-bacterials.
9 – Spork your life up. Keep a spork in your everyday bag alongside #10. A spork is a hybrid between a spoon and fork and is extremely useful – you can use it to stir your coffee, drink soup and pick up mango slices. There will never be the need to ask for plastic or wooden cutlery anymore as you’ll be a strong independent individual.
10 – Cups that save space Foldable coffee cups are the new black. There’s a good chance there’s a travel coffee cup or two in your kitchen cabinet. And while those fit fine on a shelf or in a vehicle cup holder, it’s very likely that you would forget to put them in your backpack after washing and bring them with you. Foldable coffee cups will help reduce the number of regrets you have at the takeaway counter for being forgetful – simply put them in your pocket!
As you may have noticed, half of those zero waste lifestyle tips involved buying something. Always remember that these items are reusable and have no need to be thrown away or replaced (unless they break). They’ll be with you for life! 8 – We like free stuff so use it as a motivator! Leave a box under or on your desk and label it ‘Free Paper’. Instead of chucking all wastepaper into the recycling bin, filter out those that have an unused side of the page and make a charitable donation to yourself for your notes and doodles. Also, if you need to bind your notes together, use paper clips instead of staples. Once the documents are deemed unworthy or useless, the clips can be reused, and you can pat yourself on the back for reducing metal waste.
Written and illustrated by Yen Peng (Apple) Chew, a PhD student researching on gene editing tools for green microalgae Autumn 2021 | eusci.org.uk 53
Crossword set by Yen Peng (Apple) Chew
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