EUSci #8

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Legends of the Void Aristotle, telescopes, space elevators and Q&A with a man who’s been there

Issue 8 - Jan 2011

Edible Experiments Altitude Research Cattle in Kenya Dance Psychology Science is Vital? Public Engagement OFC_EUSciJan11_cover.indd 1

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Issue 8: Contents 8 Focus: Space Science A look at the past, present and future of space research

27-34 Regulars A closer look at recent happenings along our regular themes: Arts, Innovation, Sci-tech, Sciatribe, Politics, Day in the Life, Reviews and Dr Hypothesis


16-26 Features 16 Worlds Apart 17 Kitchen Science 19 Altitude Research 20 What Makes a Good Cow in Africa? 21 The Species Concept 23 Opportunities for Public Engagement 25 New Lab Book Technology 26 Gene Therapy

Piers Sellers in space. Photo courtesy of NASA | Jan 2011 | p01-02_EuSciJan11_contents.indd 2


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EUSci Science Fiction Short Story Competition 2011 SCOPE What will the world be like in 2082 (500 years on from the founding of the University of Edinburgh)? LENGTH 1300−1500 words DEADLINE 5pm, 31 Jan 2011 JUDGING Entries will be judged by EUSci members on originality, writing quality, scientific plausibility and 2082 relatedness ELIGIBILITY Entrants can be from anywhere in the world and do not need a personal Edinburgh connection. Pieces written for another purpose or competition will be considered. However, please do not submit a story already published elsewhere (print or online) PRIZES The winning entry will be published in Issue 9 of EUSci. Runners up will be published online at FORMAT Please submit Word or pdf files and tell us your name and postal address by email but do not include them in the submission (if you wish to be judged anonymously) CONTACT Submit entries or queries to

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Editors-in-Chief Catie Lichten, Lynne Harris Graphics Editor Lasani Wijetunge

News Editor Katherine Staines

Focus Editor Stelios Serghiou

Publicity Officer Hayden Selvadurai

News Team Issy Anderson, Kieran Campbell, Aldona Kutkowska, Thilo Reich, Katherine Staines Focus Team Yassen Abbas, Hannah Blacknell, Kieran Campbell, Frank Dondelinger, Matthew Hartfield, Jessica Harvey, Lauren McKee, Stelios Serghiou Feature Authors Arvid Ågren, James Barclay, Luke Cripps, Edward Duca, Amy Jennings, Rory Macneil, Katherine Staines, Declan Valters, Chris White Regular Authors Edward Duca, Bethan Lowder, Jon Manning, Akshat Rathi, Eimear O’Carroll, Helen Ramsden, Hayden Selvadurai, Flavia Stefani, Lasani Wijetunge Page Editors Alan Boyd, Ruth Buttigieg, Emilie Castonguay, Luke Cripps, Rachel Dakin, Frank Dondelinger, Edward Duca, Bethan Lowder, Helen Ramsden, Robert Smith, Hayden Selvadurai, Kirsten Shuler, Flavia Stefani, Andrea Weisse, Lasani Wijetunge

Editorial Thanks for picking up issue 8! The EUSci team has been working hard and there is plenty in store for you here. To start, we have sent our focus team into space and snagged an interview with Edinburgh’s favourite astronaut, Piers Sellers. In addition to coverage of the nowinfamous government budget cuts and a sampling of ways to get involved in public engagement, we regale you with tales of field work in Africa, Bolivia, and even the kitchen of an unsuspecting EUSci mother. One change this issue: EUSci has gone green. We feel scientists should set a good example and so in an effort to keep our science a step ahead of our carbon footprint, we have switched to more sustainable printing. The inner pages are now 100% recycled paper, while the cover comes from a certified sustainable source. This fall, we were happy to see many fresh faces joining EUSci. Along with our usual writing and editing, a highlight of this term was an evening discussing science and media with local science writer Colin Macilwain. Beyond Edinburgh, we have been

Copy Editors Laura Appleby, Hannah Blacknell, Emilie Castonguay, Frank Dondelinger, Matthew Hartfield, Rishikesan Ramaesh, Helen Ramsden, Alex Sinclair, Kirsten Shuler, Robert Smith, Graham Thomas Graphics Team Veronica Alva Flores, Amir Kirolos, Aimee Lockwood, Aoife McMahon, Joanne Norris, Christopher Stevenson, Lasani Wijetunge, Liza Wolfson Layout Team Edward Duca, Jessica Harvey, Jon Manning, Lorna Russell, Hayden Selvadurai Distribution Manager Tobias Hogbin


President Alex Sinclair

Welcome to issue 8 of EUSci Magazine! You may have noticed that we are looking a little different as the magazine is now printed on 100% recycled paper. However, our commitment to provide you with the highest level of science content has remained unchanged. Huge thanks to the talented writers, editors, illustrators and

Want to be part of the EUSci team? Email

With generous support from the Edinburgh BHF CoRE

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pleased to hear rumours that the science media bug has been spreading across Scotland. A couple of new university science magazines and podcasts may appear in the coming months. We wish them the best of luck and can’t wait to read and listen to what they create. As the spring term gets underway, we hope more budding writers, editors, layout designers and artists will join us. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to help or even just send comments. We’re looking for feature submissions as always, with our next deadline January 24 and our annual Sci-Fi contest coming up (more information on the facing page). Remember to find us online at www., where we will soon be launching our redesigned website (created by our resident production whiz, Jon Manning). Lynne Harris and Catie Lichten others who have created this issue. Particular thanks to Catie and Lynne for masterfully overseeing the whole process. Beyond the magazine, the increasingly popular seminar series has out grown its original pub location and has been successfully relocated to Inspace; over the airwaves (and iTunes), new voices have can be heard on the podcast which continues to provide a fortnightly dose of all things current in science and, in conjunction with the Edinburgh Beltane, we are expanding our hands-on science communication training opportunities. Dates and information on how to get involved with any of our activities can be found at our website (www.eusci. org), alternatively email the magazine ( to get added to the mailing list. Which only leaves me to wish you all a happy international year of chemistry. Alex Sinclair

Correction: On p. 9 of issue 7, we incorrectly stated that the book Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour was published in 1994. The book was actually published in1944. | Jan 2011 |


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News Forecasting damage caused by water and climate change on historic buildings Maintenance of historic buildings can now become easier as a result of work by engineers at the University of Edinburgh. They have developed a method to forecast damage caused to stone and brick monuments by the weather. The study, the first of its kind, created computer models of water movement in stone based on data from previous studies. The collaborative project, led by the University of Oxford, was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Professor Chris Hall at the University of Edinburgh commented, “The work shows for the first time the critical importance of evaporation in driving the flow of water through masonry structures.” The deterioration of buildings is often caused by ground water rising through the stones. The evaporating water leaves salts on the stones that later crystallizes. Further physical damage is caused by the formation and melting of ice. Climate change will accelerate damage that would otherwise take hundreds of years, due to increased evaporation resulting from higher temperatures and lower humidity. The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A. Aldona Kutkowska

Amateur mountaineers take unnecessary risks



Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, is becoming more and more popular amongst amateur climbers. Of those 25,000 climbers who crest the summit each year, the majority do not know enough about the risks of altitude sickness, which is potentially lethal in some cases. A University of Edinburgh study, published in High Altitude Medicine and Biology, saw researchers camp at 4,730 meters for 3 weeks. During this period, they screened more than 200 mountaineers, and nearly half of these climbers suffered symptoms of altitude sickness. Most of the people had not experienced these symptoms before. They also did not know enough about the possible outcome or how to prevent it. The team also found that on this steep trek, neither rest nor drugs could prevent the effects of altitude sickness. Due to the increasing number of climbers, scientists saw there is an urgent need to educate the mountaineers about the dangers. Therefore, researchers published an online guide about altitude sickness, which can be accessed at The symptoms of a mild altitude sickness are similar to a very bad hangover and can cause highaltitude oedema, an accumulation of fluid in the lung caused by the lack of oxygen, or high-altitude cerebral oedema, a fluid accumulation in the brain. For more information on altitude sickness, see the feature on p. 19. Thilo Reich

Prof. Earnshaw

Study unravels DNA packaging to provide insights into cell renewal

eusci: The seventies produced a lot of strange things, but protein synthesis interpreted through dance must be the strangest: http://

eusci: What about Mars? RT @ BadAstronomer: No, you can’t own the Sun and Moon. Not yours. No.

eusci: EUSci podcast #39 is out! Learn about ants, proteins, urine electricity and the Ig Nobel prizes! http://

Follow: @eusci Tweet: #eusci

University scientists have shed light on how DNA is compacted in dividing cells, a discovery which will help understand how cell renewal can fail. When a cell is dividing, its DNA is compacted down to 10,000 times smaller than its usual size for ease of division. Thousands of proteins vital for the occurrence of this compaction have been discovered. These proteins help to protect and fold genetic material before division takes place. This research may help us understand what happens when the packaging process fails and cells divide abnormally – which can cause cancer and miscarriage. Numerous existing scientific techniques were combined for this large scale study, allowing the definition of some 4,000 proteins involved in cell renewal. Researchers hope that through the identification of essential proteins, a better understanding of the influence they have on cell division may be acquired. The research was carried out in collaboration with University of Oxford and the Japanese National Institute of Genetics, Mishima, Japan. Professor William Earnshaw, from the School of Biological Sciences, who directed the study with Professor Juri Rappsilber, said, “Until now, our understanding of the very complex way in which DNA moves during cell division was patchy - this latest development allows us, for the first time, to fully identify all the proteins that take part in the process, and how they interact with one another. Future work is needed to reveal more of the intricacies of this process and how to prevent it from going wrong.” The original publication appeared in Cell.

The genome is packagesd into chromosomes that contains some 40000 protiens of different functions this sutdy reveals.

Issy Anderson

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Every year around 250 million people are infected by malaria. Of those, 863,000 people die because the parasite has become resistant to most of the available drugs. In many parts of the world, the only drug that is still effective is artemisinin, a plantbased remedy. However, there are signs that resistance against artemisinin is increasing. This could have a severe impact on the efforts to control malaria. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the New University of Lisbon have identified a gene that makes the parasite resistant to artemisinin. The team used

a new technology that allows for very fast identification of genes. They scanned the genetic fingerprint of resistant parasites, infected rodents and linked the gene to the drug-resistance. This discovery could be a step forward in the control of human malaria and might lead to the development of more effective drugs, saving many lives. Dr Paul Hunt, from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, said, “This knowledge from rodent malaria parasites opens up new directions that will allow this gene to be investigated in human malaria. This may help track the evolution of drug resistance and may eventually enable the design of alternative, effective drugs.”

Sinclair Stammers, Sarah Reece

Scientists get insight into malaria resistances

Female Anopheles stephensi

The scientists were funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and published their work in the BMC Genomics. Thilo Reich

Wikimedia commons

DNA from wild evergreen rhododendrons from the Himalayas were analysed in the study. The results suggested that hundreds of species could be made by cross-breeding different species. The rich biodiversity seen in the natural world may be explained by this research, as it shows how random plant pairings millions of years ago have led to the development of the interesting species of today. Scientists have known for a long time that single species may derive from hybrid roots, but this latest finding offers evidence to suggest that whole groups can be developed from a hybrid ancestor. The DNA of 70 species of rhododendron were sampled and analysed to understand how each species were related. Most of the rhododendrons looked at were descended from the same ancestral line. However, three rogue species showed the traces of a second, distantly related ancestor. Although this species is now extinct, this evidence suggests it arrived in the Himalayas within the last 10 million years and interbred with the native species. Results from this DNA analysis suggests that the diversity of rhododendrons, and possibly other species, is all the result of ancient natural cross-breeding, which all led to the diverse offspring we see in today’s landscape. Dr Richard Milne, from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the research, said, “Nature seems to be more creative than the most gifted of gardeners. Cross-breeding in the wild may have played a significant part in contributing to the wealth of species on Earth today – but more work is needed to investigate the significance of this.” This was a joint study with Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council. Rhododendron adenogynum

Issy Anderson

United Nations Development Programme

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have highlighted nature’s flair for producing new types of flowers

Computing team create earthquake analyser A group of computer scientists from the University of Edinburgh have recently unveiled a new system for analysing seismic data. The system collates and processes the masses of data captured due to everyday vibrations, the analysis of which could lead to a better understanding of the Earth’s structure. These vibrations, dubbed ‘noise’, can be caused by anything from traffic to waves on a shore, and whilst individually they are weak, their vast number and regular nature compensate to provide useful information. However, the huge quantity of data collected makes analysis less than straightforward. “You can use noise to analyse the Earth’s structure, but you need to analyse huge amounts of data and that’s nearly impossible on standard [computers]”, explains Andreas Rietbrock, Professor of Seismology at the University of Liverpool. This is where the computer system, the Rapid Web Portal, is so uniquely innovative. It hides all heavy data processing behind a web browser interface, leaving scientists more time to concentrate on research while allowing small teams access to results previously seen only by those with supercomputers. Rapid is funded by the EPSRC, BBSRC, the Joint Infrastructure Council and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, which hopes to explore whether it will be possible to predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. For further information about Rapid, please visit www.research. Kieran Campbell | Jan 2011 | p.5-6_News Layout_Final.indd 2


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Non-Bio Boom

Inspace is a laboratory that explores the cultural significance of informatics and new media practice.

With each passing quarter, different programme catalysts are released enabling research, production, education and outreach activity.

Inspace is home to a joint research partnership between the School of Informatics and New Media Scotland.

Hands on dialogue and exchange unfolds through experiments, talks and performances before we deploy the findings of our work.

For more information visit

Inspace, 1 Crichton Street, Edinburgh EH8 9AB


What do physicist Brian Cox, comic artist Jorge Cham and Bad Science blogger Ben Goldacre have in common? That’s right, they’ve all been interviewed on the EUSci podcast.


or those not In its short but illustrious history, the podcast has: in the know, twice reported live from the Edinburgh Science festhe podcast is tival and the Fringe festival; talked to scientists, enour foray into the tertainers and journalists; covered stem cell revolurealm of audio tions, artificial life and the LHC; provided election science content, advice; and featured many examples of ridiculous where we cover the latest science news, feature interviews science in our popular EU-What!? segment. and on-site reports, and generally have a lot of fun. Nowadays, we record in a secret high-tech stuThe podcast did not just spring fully-formed from dio underneath the Informatics Forum on George Square, which has done the minds of our producers (though they’d like to have you believe that!). wonders for our sound qualPodcasting by the Numbers: From its humble beginnings in the ity and our sanity. Number of Episodes: 43 A new podcast comes out dark basement of the Music departAverage Podcast Duration: 25 min every second week at www. ment, the show has evolved through People Involved: 11 multiple formats to become the refined Alternatively, you Microphones: 2 source of science and entertainment can simply search for EUSci Producer Mental Break-Downs: ? on iTunes! that you can listen to today.

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Life, Lifts and Legends Where we’ve been and where we’re going in space science

How many times have you tried to count the stars? How many times have you wondered what’s out there? Did you ever wish you could see the Earth from far above? Did you ever wish you were an astronaut? Space, far from being a mere object of our imagination and dreams, is now more than ever under rigorous exploration and scientific analysis. Satellites have already flown beyond the boundaries of our own solar system, powerful telescopes are uncovering Earth-like planets millions of light years away and radio receivers are probing the most intricate details about the origins of our universe. On board this Focus, you will fly through the beginnings of space, meet the pioneers of astronomy, and discover the tools used to explore its final frontiers. During your inter-galactic trip you will encounter current theories about the existence of aliens and the prospects of space tourism. As a final treat, Piers Sellers shares his own path from childhood to the University of Edinburgh, NASA and eventually the stars. Stelios Serghiou is an undergraduate student in medicine

Title font: Typodermic Art: Joanne Norris

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The life of our universe Hannah Blacknell ponders the nature of the universe


Did you know?

Gari Baldi and Lasani Wijetunge

e’ve all heard about the big bang, the stuff of first year science lessons. It was a lesson where we sat on uncomfortable stools, with the teacher spewing facts like there was no tomorrow. But what actually happened in the story of the cosmos? Well, the big bang, which happened 13.7 billion years ago, is considered the birth of our universe. It all started with a singularity, an unbelievably small point where density, gravity and the spacetime continuum were infinite. Take everything in the universe and cram it into a point so small that it has no dimensions at all, and you get a singularity. This is time zero. The singularity is infinitely hot and infinitely small and it is unknown for how long it existed in this state. What we know is that it suddenly underwent rapid expansion and cooling. Within the very

come from a single point. Hubble’s graph contains a huge problem, though; it suggests that everything we see in the Universe today emerged in an instant from nothing. There are currently two theories to resolve this: the first proposes that the big bang was the first of its kind and that it created everything (before that there was nothing at all, not even space). The second says that the Universe is an inflationary system, but did not come from nothing. Cosmologists at the Perimeter Institute in Canada are formulating an explanation for what might have happened before the big bang, to settle the issue once and for all. According to Dr Param Singh, there was not a big bang but more of a ‘big bounce’, at which point the universe contracted into a singularity. Then our big bang created the current universe. Other physicists at the Perimeter Institute believe in the The Shape of Space existence of multiple universes; that we live in a ‘multiverse’. Hence, there What’s the shape of space? Scientists currently believe that space could be either closed, open or flat. In the closed system, the universe has no edge due to its positive curvature, and therefore has no centre. If you kept going in a straight line, you would merely end up at your starting point, by which time one would hope you’d give up We know what happened this futile quest and drag your aged carcass home. Contrary to the closed system, only from 10-34 seconds the open and flat systems propose that the universe is infinite. The open system envisions a universe that is saddle shaped, and grows exponentially through an open after the big bang side. The flat system proposes that the universe is flat and expanding in all directions. This is considered the most likely scenario, which is highly unfortunate since a closed system would be much more interesting to learn about and far more entertaining when playing an intergalactic game of volleyball. are big bangs going on all the time, and the number of possible universes is 1010^10^7, a quantity so enormous it is incomprehensible. These are universes first second, gravity and the rest of the forces which we may never see or detect but could in that form the foundations of physics were theory be conducive to life. Alternative theories generated. Before the universe was a minute old, state that we are part of a larger universe with it was billions of miles across and still growing multiple dimensions, or that the big bang was rapidly in all directions. The heat at this point merely a transition phase from an existence that was around 10 billion degrees Celsius, which is now totally alien to us. All of these ideas are was hot enough to spark the nuclear reactions based on the belief that there was something that gave rise to the lightest elements: hydrogen, before the big bang, but what exactly that was is helium and a small amount of lithium. 98% of the question baffling cosmologists. So in conclusion, we know what happened 10-34 all matter was produced before our universe was seconds after the big bang, we just don’t know what three minutes old. The theory of the big bang stemmed from the happened before it, or indeed whether there was a work of Edwin Hubble. Hubble plotted distance before, and exactly what part the big bang played against velocity, and showed that objects in the birth of our universe. further away were moving faster away from us Hannah Blacknell is an than proximal objects. Therefore the universe undergraduate student in chemistry is expanding, suggesting that it could all have

Once considered omens of impending catastrophe, comets are in fact collections of cosmic dust and ice. The mesmerising tail of a comet is vapour owing to heat from the sun. King Harold is said to have seen a comet before his eventual death at the Battle of Hastings.

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Unfathomable space Kieran Campbell takes us on a journey from the ancient Greeks to Einstein


he sun is the flaming crown of Helios as he orbits are ellipses rather than circles and that planets rides across the sky from east to west on his sweep out equal areas in their orbits in equal times. flying chariot, or so the ancient Greeks thought. For the first time, Kepler offered a way to explain Our understanding of the sun, moon and stars has astronomy as the result of physical laws. advanced dramatically since then, but not without Following work by Galileo, it took the consistency centuries of conflict and dispute. of Newton’s laws of motion and theory of gravitation Ancient civilisations believed the stars and planets for both Earth-based and celestial objects to prove to be the work of gods, giving birth to numerous Copernicus and Kepler right, and thus a new era belief systems based around celestial formations for heliocentrism was born. Newton’s laws relating and movement. Astrology as we know it today has a planet’s mass to the gravitational force it exerts persisted in some form or another since the earliest were to remain unchallenged for a further 200 years Babylonian societies first documented it some five until another figure would add the final twist in our thousand years ago. understanding of space: Einstein. The Greek civilisation was the first to truly advance Einstein, building on the newly discovered our understanding of the cosmos. By observing ships idea that the speed of light is constant, was able to disappearing over horizons they reasoned that the infer several surprising truths about our universe. Earth must be spherical and placed it at the centre He declared that time doesn’t run at a steady rate of the universe, founding the geocentric model. and in fact slows down with increasing velocity. Aristotle developed the theory of celestial orbs, Astoundingly, he found that gravity actually in which the Earth lies at the centre of a series of concentric spheres, upon which Three Centuries of Space Science in Edinburgh all stars and planets are luminous spots.

Did you know?

The astronomer Ptolemy then created a complex mathematical model to iron out its inconsistencies. Although Aristarchus of Samos and Heraclides Ponticus realised that the sun was the centre around which Earth orbited as early as 300 BC, their theories were disregarded in favour of Aristotle’s until the 15th century AD. In the late 15th century, Polish polymath Copernicus returned to Ptolemy’s model in an attempt to solve its various inaccuracies. After studying masses of astronomical data he concluded that the Earth and all other planets orbited the sun, a view that matched perfectly with observation. However, this new ‘heliocentric’ theory was deplored by the church and with some believers of heliocentrism being executed, Copernicus kept his work secret, publishing it only on his deathbed. A whole century after Copernicus, the German astronomer Kepler published his now famous three laws of planetary motion, showing that planetary

warps space itself, changing the ancient intuitive assumption that travelling in a straight line will lead you so. Understanding of the cosmos has snowballed since the turn of the 20th century. The big bang is already a cornerstone of most schoolbooks despite being less than a century old. With space exploration thriving, we stand today knowing more about our galactic surroundings than at any time in the past. Yet with so much remaining unknown, we can gaze up at the night sky with as much mystery as ever before.

Aimee Lockwood

With some believers of heliocentrism being executed, Copernicus kept his work secret

Edinburgh has scrutinised space since 1786, when the first chair of astronomy was appointed at the University of Edinburgh. It was the work of Professor Thomas James Henderson, in conjunction with the establishment of the Royal Observatory in 1896, that first brought us significantly ‘closer to the stars’. He was the first to calculate the distance to Alpha Centauri, the major component of the nearest stellar system to Earth. Meanwhile, in 1864, the famous Edinburgh-born physicist James Clerk Maxwell showed that electricity and magnetism were part of the same force: electromagnetism. This discovery laid the foundation for Einstein’s theory of relativity, used to calculate the orbit of celestial objects and the behaviour of particles. Edinburgh’s accomplishments in astronomy did not stop there. In 1964, Peter Higgs, a professor at the University since 1980 and current professor Emeritus, proposed the existence of a theoretical particle known as the Higgs boson. The properties ascribed to this particle could resolve the physical inconsistencies in the big bang theory and explain why objects have mass. In fact, one of the major tasks of CERN is to prove whether this particle indeed exists or not.

Kieran Campbell is an undergraduate student in mathematical physics

Once considered a physical impossibility, black holes are now known to occupy the centre of every galaxy. An object becomes a black hole when its mass is compressed to almost zero volume, which occurs after a supernova. No object can escape its gravitational pull once it crosses the so called ‘event horizon’, not even light. | Jan 2011 | p08-16_EuSciJan11_focusCLcorrected.indd 4


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To Be or Not to Be…Alien? Jessica Harvey takes an objective look at the search for extraterrestrial life


Did you know?

ou’ve seen all the movies, read all the Basic elements required for life such as books, heard all the horror stories – carbon and nitrogen have been found in but the question still remains, “Do aliens comets and meteorites that have landed really exist?” on Earth. These elements are extremely Though there hasn’t been a definite important to the maintenance of life. If “Yes!”, scientists and civilians alike have it’s possible for comets to land on Earth, always leant towards the possibility. Given why couldn’t there be an equal possibility the millions of stars and galaxies hovering in our universe, there are millions of chances for other forms of life. However, Should we risk learning it wasn’t until very recently that scientists had any proof of the existence of other more about space than planets. In April 2006, NASA announced we know now? their discovery of over 150 planets outside our known eight. On his television program broadcast in May, Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous theoretical physicists and cosmologists of our time, revealed the discovery of in excess of 450 new planets. The following question would be, “What physical form would extra terrestrial life take?” Illustrators around the world have created a thick portfolio of images depicting what they think an alien would look like. If we look back to the life that lived on Earth over 4 billion years ago, organisms were merely microbes living under harsh conditions in every niche the Earth provided. If microbes and bacteria could survive under extreme temperatures, pressure, light concentrations and malnutrition, surely similar life forms would do the same on another planet? Here, the definition of ‘life’ needs to be clarified. Scientists Lasani Wijetunge have come up with their own definitions, “Life is something that creates its own destiny” or “Life is the product of promiscuous chemicals”, but the general criteria for on other planets? Chief Scientist at NASA, life include the ability to: James Gavin, states, “We have to be careful not to let our own arrogance of experit Replicate/reproduce. ence drive how we look for things othert Inherit characteristics from the pa- wise we’ll miss the forest for the trees”. This rental generation. means that we need to prevent narrowing t Maintain homeostasis, keeping bod- our minds to the idea that life will always ily functions in equilibrium. follow the strict proposed definitions and t Metabolise, utilising energy from a criteria mentioned above. primary source. What’s interesting to consider is, to what

degree would extra-terrestrial life influence ‘Earthlings’? How would we respond to it and would their presence have a positive, mutual or negative impact? Hawking regards extra terrestrial life in a negative light, imagining they would, “travel in spaceships, having used up all resources from their home planets and become nomads… with the power of taking energy from an entire star” – images often depicted in movies, comic books and TV shows. Meeting a higher consumer of planetary assets than humans could lead to a disastrous battle for resources and (worst case scenario) lead to the Earth’s extinction. We are already destroying the Earth by using resources more rapidly than the Earth can produce them; added competition could quicken our expected doom. Should we risk learning more about space than we know now? Is it worth continuing our explorations for something that may not even exist? Should we not pour the money spend on the search for life into underwater exploration instead? Or into developing country sustainability projects? These questions are a sample from the ongoing debate about government expenditure on space explorations. There is no denying that space explorations have indirectly improved our quality of life, providing us with improved computer systems and weather forecasting capabilities and the ability to use solar energy, but is the information we learn enough to cover the cost of retrieving it? So far, extraterrestrial life has not been proven to exist. However, scientists have been collecting more and more evidence to suggest that it does. Discovering new life could add pieces to the historical puzzle of the universe. Alternatively, it can negatively impact us if the costs for retrieving this knowledge (financially, physically and physiologically) outweighs the benefits of it. Jessica Harvey is an undergraduate student in zoology

Aliens wanted! The SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence), scans the sky for electromagnetic waves hoping to detect evidence of distant civilisations. Volunteers can assist by committing their computers to processing raw data sent by SETI. This means that your computer could be the first to discover extra-terrestrial intelligent life.

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1/5/11 7:50:15 PM

Extending the Final Frontier Frank Dondelinger tells us how astronomy is redefining our view of the universe


Did you know?

NASAGoddard, dogscompany, flyingsinger and Lasani Wijetunge

ot too long ago, Gliese 581g was the name on the universe is accelerating, and that black holes everybody’s lips (and appears on p. 16) - an form the centre of most galaxies. extrasolar rocky planet that could have the potential While Hubble is certainly the most well-known to support life. The discovery, if it is confirmed, space telescope, other, more specialised space profoundly changes our view on the probability of telescopes have been producing equally important finding life outside our own solar system. Yet this scientific data. For example, the Chandra X-ray is by no means the first time that astronomy has Observatory has allowed us to learn about the X-ray transformed our understanding of the universe. emissions of stars. This would have been impossible The main instrument in this endeavour has always for a ground-based telescope, as the Earth’s been the humble telescope. atmosphere absorbs most of the incoming X-rays. Gliese 581g was discovered with the help of WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the Keck I optical telescope in Hawaii. The Keck was another important mission that managed to telescopes are the result of an inspired feat of survey the entire sky one and a half times, as well as engineering. Like most optical telescopes, they use discovering more than 150,000 objects in our solar a concave mirror to focus light onto a focal plane, system before running out of its on-board supply of where the image is recorded. However, the primary frozen coolant. mirrors on the Keck telescopes are as much as Hubble has recently had its last servicing mission, 10 metres in diameter. Building a single mirror but replacements are already being built. The of this size would have been most promising next-generation ruinously expensive. Luckily, telescopes are the James Webb astrophysicist Jerry Nelson Space Telescope and the Advanced came up with a brilliant idea: The primary mirrors on Technology Large-Aperture Space build a bowl-shaped reflective the Keck telescopes are Telescope (ATLAST). Both will surface out of many thin mirror orbit the sun at a distance of 1.5 as much as 10 metres million kilometres hidden in the segments. Thus, each of the Keck mirrors consists of 36 hexagonal Earth’s partial shadow, at the soin diameter segments that can be operated called L2 Lagrange point. This is together. The Keck telescopes an advantageous location because remained the largest optical telescopes from their the pull from the Earth’s gravity ensures that the construction in 1995 until 2009, when the Gran telescope orbits the sun along with the Earth, Telescopio Canarias, with a diameter of 10.4 metres keeping the same position relative to both. The Earth and a cost of around £112 million, edged in front. provides a partial shielding from the sun’s radiation, Observatories like Keck and Grand Telescopio but in addition, the James Webb comes with a fanCanarias have allowed astronomers to learn a like sunshield that unfurls to protect the 6.5 metre lot more about the universe, ranging from the wide mirror from interference by radiation from the ‘neighbouring’ asteroids in Jupiter’s belt to detecting sun, Earth and moon. the most distant supernovae. However, groundThe James Webb’s deployment is planned for 2014 based telescopes are always limited by the distortions and, unlike Hubble, it will only look at the infrared caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and weather. spectrum. This will permit it to see through gas Space-based telescopes were the obvious solution, clouds and observe more and older stars. ATLAST and one cannot talk about space telescopes without has great potential as well, although it will not be mentioning the most famous example. deployed until sometime between 2025 and 2035. The Hubble Space Telescope was named after Its mirror could be up to 16 metres wide, making astronomer Edwin Hubble, who first discovered it the largest telescope anywhere in the solar the existence of other galaxies besides our own system. The main task of ATLAST will be to look Milky Way. His namesake telescope has been no for habitable worlds like Gliese 581g, and to help less influential in astronomy. Since its launch in settle the question of whether there is life in the 1990, it has not only been producing spectacular universe. It seems that telescopes are destined to pictures of distant stars and galaxies, such as the be the instruments that will help us advance our famous image of stars being born within the Eagle knowledge of the universe. Nebula, but also enabled astrophysicists to make numerous discoveries. Among other things, data Frank Dondelinger is a PhD student at from the Hubble confirmed that the expansion of Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland

Bored? Why not try counting the stars in the sky? You’ll be there for a while. Scientists estimate that our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains around 1012 stars. Coupled to an estimated 1011 galaxies, this yields at least 1024 stars in the entire universe – that’s a million, billion, billion stars! The first ever liquid-fuelled rocket was created by Robert Goddard. Flown in 1926, it produced 20 pounds of thrust and reached a maximum height of 40 feet. A mere 40 years later, the 110 metre-long Saturn V rocket produced over 7,500,000 pounds of thrust and reached an orbital height of 120 miles! This remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. | Jan 2011 | p08-16_EuSciJan11_focusCLcorrected.indd 6


1/5/11 7:50:16 PM

‘Stairway to Heaven, Bridge to the Stars’ Yassen Abbas asks: does the discovery of carbon nanotechnology give life to a sci-fi dream?

Did you know?

Eliza Wolfson


rthur C. Clarke’s 1980’s classic novel, ‘The Fountains of Paradise’, envisages a The elevator could be powered via world where conventional fuel-powered rockets are replaced by an ‘orbital electron laser beams on the ground firing tower’. At a fraction of the cost of a rocket, a space elevator consists of a 22,000 at photovoltaic cells on the vehicle, in a mile-long ribbon attaching a satellite in geosynchronous orbit to a platform process called ‘power beaming’. This is on Earth. This idea has been treated as science fiction by many physicists, but a form of wireless power transmission EUSci talked to a NASA researcher, and ’driving force’ behind space elevators, and could mean the end of expensive, Dr Bradley C. Edwards, who believes that carbon nanotubes offer sufficient environmentally unfriendly rocket strength to make this dream feasible. fuel. It has also been proposed that the To understand the concept of space elevators, elevator could be powered imagine swinging a weight at the end of a string through the ribbon itself. around your head. Centrifugal force would keep the The elevator is the only However, though some types string rigid. The technical challenge is designing a of carbon nanotubes have means to move into string rigid enough to allow an elevator to travel up high conductivity, sceptics and down. Carbon nanotubes may be the answer. argue that the distances space in a real way They are a recently discovered formation of carbon involved make electrical molecule, which could give the 22,000 miletransmission impractical. long ribbon enough strength to withstand Many sci-fi enthusiasts have up to a 13 ton payload. This makes carbon nanotubes 100 times placed their hopes in the space elevator stronger than steel. as the only realistic way to transport the Carbon nanotubes were discovered in 1991 by Professor general population to space – whether it’s Sumio Iijima. He found that common hydrocarbon for a holiday on the moon, or the creation molecules could be transformed into tubular of franchise cities in space. The space molecules by passing a current of 50A between elevator could also solve one of humanity’s two graphite electrodes in an atmosphere of biggest challenges; what to do when Earth helium. The original molecules would vaporise is no longer inhabitable. This is a pressing and condensation on the walls of the reaction question; the likes of Professor Stephen vessels would produce the nanotube. At a few Hawking are warning that the human nanometres in diameter, it is approximately race needs to expand into space due to the 51,000 times smaller than the width impending effects of global warming. of a human hair and its properties are Dr Edwards told EUSci that, “The elevator unparalleled in material science. is the only means for man to move into space However, the sheer complexity of in a real way”. With each rocket launch costing engineering the space elevator leads many NASA half a billion dollars Dr Edwards sceptics to believe that the idea is no more argues, “Rockets are too expensive and than a dream for sci-fi romantics. The idea limited in their capabilities for colonization or is to launch a spacecraft into low Earth large-scale utilization of space”. orbit and then use a propulsion system to Scientific consensus is that humanity raise it above geosynchronous orbit. From should prepare for the consequences of global there, a three foot wide, and thinner than warming and perhaps look for a new home. a paper ribbon, carbon nanotube would be Dr Edwards warns that, “Depending on what deployed back down to Earth. The anchor happens in the next decades, getting into platform could be somewhere in the eastern space may be critical.” equatorial Pacific. It is humankind’s willingness to explore Sceptics also argue that the risk of and define the impossible that will be the unpredictable Pacific weather means that the real catalyst for reaching the stars. Carbon elevator is too dependent on seasonal climate nanotubes provide the strength to make this trends, far more than a rocket. NASA would dream possible, but further research into also need to clear the Earth’s orbit of debris to untested technology and scientific will are ensure the ribbon could not be damaged. One desperately needed to convert possibility idea would be to create NASA’s very own ‘space into reality. garbage trucks’, which would need to clear the 3,000 identified objects over 2 kilograms floating Yassen Abbas is an undergradate student in chemical engineering in orbit to allow the space elevator to operate.

The gravitational pull of the Earth is so strong that any spacecraft must reach a speed of at least 7 miles per second – 25,000 miles per hour (mph)– to escape into orbit. To put things in perspective, Donald Campbell’s Bluebird reached 400 mph, and Concorde had a top speed of just 1,200 mph!

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1/5/11 7:50:34 PM

Paving the way for interstellar holidays Lauren McKee and Matthew Hartfield are Sirius about space tourism


he distinguished author and noted futurist, Arthur C. Clarke, said that, “One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind.” As admirers of science fiction, we can testify that our visions of the future are coloured by those played out in the books to which we have given countless hours. Today, humans are still pretty far from the predictions of Clarke and others, who foresaw a constant rate of progress leading to a future that, for us, is still in the realm of fiction. For example, this piece has not been written from a biodome on the moon. Space exploration, despite great leaps over the past 50 years, has been hit by setbacks that have slowed our progress toward the stars. A new approach to funding may finally bring these stories to life. President John F. Kennedy was the first world leader to hold a strong, passionate belief in space exploration. In 1961, President Kennedy noted that, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.” President Kennedy also made some pragmatic remarks regarding the eventual future of space exploration, predicting that such ventures would create new business opportunities to revitalise the American economy. In the light of recent events, these remarks take on a prescient nature. The shuttle programme was always expensive; under President Kennedy it is estimated to have run 55% over budget. Nonetheless, big achievements like the moon landings captured the global imagination. Eventually, NASA initiated ‘civilian in space’ programmes, which further engaged the public and seeded the idea of space tourism. Christa McAuliffe would have been the first teacher in space had she not been killed in the 1986 Challenger disaster, after which shuttle flights were suspended for three years. Then, in 2003, the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all on board. The shuttle programme was again put on hold, delaying construction on the International Space Station. These accidents had a lasting impact on the perception of space travel and contributed to a slowdown in overall progress. Such setbacks would have certainly killed any other venture, but the allure of space exploration proved too strong. In 2004, President George W. Bush launched NASA’s Constellation programme, with the eventual aim of establishing an extended

human presence on the moon. The surprisingly sensible objectives of this grand scheme included the creation of a launch pad for further missions and a centre for investigating extreme environments. President Bush asked Congress to increase NASA funding for this project by $1 billion over five years as well as diverting other funds, but also introduced the idea of private investment into NASA’s activities. In the long term, resources would be freed for even more ambitious missions as commercial enterprises would take over operations pertaining to low-Earth orbit. In light of this, several companies started to develop touristic opportunities, buoyed by a 1998 report finding that up to a 1,000 people a year would be willing to spend $500,000 on tickets. Despite this promising development, a NASA report released last year decided that the ambitious Constellation scheme could not be funded with the money available. President Barack Obama decried the programme as, “over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation”, and essentially cancelled it, leaving the entire US shuttle fleet grounded, with new ships expected in 2015. Until then, US astronauts are hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russian shuttles. President Obama aims to shift the building of space rockets to commercial companies, which has already brought forth the involvement of Boeing and others, with Boeing’s ships aiming to have extra seats free for tourists to travel with astronauts. Competition comes from Virgin Galactic, who claim that 80,000 customers have already made down payments. This is the strongest signal yet that space travel is coming of age and will not be restricted to millionaires. Although industry will buy most commercial spots, Carissa Bryce Christensen of The Tauri Group, a securitythemed consultancy, believes that investment in space travel can only be maintained, “if there are going to be routine tourism flights.” Space lies 100 kilometres above us, yet is the last true foreign land. Regular space flight has historically been a distant dream, but the new wave of commercial enterprises gives hope that within our lifetimes, humankind will be able to swim not only in the seas, but also amongst the stars. Lauren McKee is a PhD student in Athens, Georgia, and at Newcastle University. Matthew Hartfield is a PhD student in the Institute of Evolutionary Biology

Did you know?

Art: Lasani Wijetunge, sarahlucas7, NASA and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre

The first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin, spent a bit less than 2 hours in space – a trifle compared to his compatriot Valeri Polyakov, who spent a marathon 437 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes on the Russian space station Mir, the longest ever uninterrupted stay in space! | Jan 2011 | p08-16_EuSciJan11_focusCLcorrected.indd 8


1/5/11 7:50:44 PM

I Want to be an Astronaut Stelios Serghiou interviews NASA astronaut Piers Sellers Dr Piers Sellers is one of just four Britons who have been to space. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh, and recently shared with us his own perspective of space.

Q. A.

What is your relationship with Edinburgh? I did my first degree in Edinburgh; studied ecology down at King’s Buildings. I went there because the course was really interesting and I thought that Edinburgh looked like a really good place to be a student and I was right on both accounts.

some people, including me, is a problem. But most of the time you feel really good.

Q. A.

When did you do your first space walk and how was it? First time was, let’s see, October of 2002. A tremendous experience! The space station is a huge structure that’s just flying around the world not held up by anything, and you are climbing on the outside of it like a little crab. You can go under it, you can go over it. You look down and there’s the whole planet between your feet.


Oh, always the same things; I try and see if I recognise things up there, sometimes you see the space station fly over and it’s fun to think of it. You’ve been there. There’s someone sitting in there looking down at you. I often wonder where this business is going to be in a hundred years’ time. I really think people will be visiting all the planets and the moons of the other planets in the solar system. I have no idea what it’ll take to get to another star system, but sometime I guess people will get to other star systems and then the fun will begin!


You have taken the flag of the University to space and then donated it to the University. What keeps you so attached to the University? Well I had a great time there and I’m always grateful for getting the education I got. I think the University is a terrific institution. I like the high standards they’ve set and I like the fact that it was very international. It was a very interesting place and I hope it keeps that flavour, I really do.


Q. A.


Were you ever an ‘I want to be an astronaut’ kid? Yes, absolutely, since I was seven. But you know, didn’t think I would get the chance, but I lucked out!

Q. A.

How did you try to become an astronaut? Well, I didn’t really prepare myself. I was a scientist and I was a very happy one. I kept applying to the astronaut office, and as luck would have it, they needed astronauts in a hurry, so there I was! At 41. Those are the main things. It’s hard work, but you know, it’s been a dream. For most people who are here, it took all of their lives to get here.

Q. A.

What is it like to be in space? It must be a unique experience. It’s great, the view is unbelievable. You fly over the United Kingdom and Lord, it’s really shaped like the map; it really is! And floating; to be able to swim through [space] like a fish is one of the most remarkable things, it’s completely unreal. The first time you go to space you feel a little queasy, some people throw up, and your back stretches out and hurts. But those effects only last a day or two. Sleeping, for

You fly over the UK and Lord, it really is shaped like the map!

Q. A.

What is the daily life of an astronaut? There’s generally plenty of work, believe me! In space, it depends really on the job. For shuttle crews you have things to do almost every hour. In the station crews, they have more control over their time and they get one day a week off, but of course they are there for six months.


What do you think when looking at the night sky?

Q. A.

What are your personal aspirations for the future of yourself and space? Well, all of us here in the office would like to see somebody get onto Mars before we die. More than two billion years ago Mars had an ocean and a very thick atmosphere so there might have been early life. There isn’t any more, I’m pretty sure of that. So I’m looking forward to an exploration of Mars within my lifetime, I really am.

Q. A.

Is there anything you would like to say to the students? Yeah, Edinburgh is a wonderful place. Enjoy it as much as you can and learn as much as you can. There are not many places in the world as good as Edinburgh University. Stelios Serghiou is an undergraduate student in medicine

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1/5/11 7:50:46 PM

Declan Valters tells us how we may soon get a response when we ask, “Is there anybody out there?” he chances of planets with similar conditions as our lower the mass of a planet, the more likely it will be rocky Earth existing were thought to be slim at best. However, in composition. The similarities, although important, apin recent years the number of Earth-like planets discovered pear to end here. Gliese 581 g does not undergo a day or has steadily increased. The most recent, Gliese 581 g, is night cycle as one side of the planet continuously faces its particularly exciting as it is the nearest Earth-like planet sun. This, you might imagine, will create a planet with exfound to date, lying a mere 20.5 light years away from our tremes of temperature on the dark and sunny sides, sepaown solar system. To put this into perspective, the nearest rated by a narrow ‘twilight zone’ where conditions may be star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away. more favourable; stand here and you will be seeing an eterOur own planet, Earth, sits comfortably about 93 million nal sunset. Owing to the slightly stronger gravity on Gliese miles from the sun. There’s plenty of water and an atmosphere of nitrogen, oxygen and a little bit of carbon dioxide. Conveniently for us, the Earth spins on an axis, which prevents one side of our rocky blue planet developing extremes of temperature. Earth, like the newly found Gliese 581 g, lies in a narrow band known as the ‘habitable zone’ of a solar system, a place neither too far nor too close to its star, where temperatures and other conditions are best for sustaining life. This fact is often referred to as the ‘Goldilocks effect’–not too hot, not too cold, but just right. The discovery of Gliese 581 g was made in September 2010 by teams led by Stephen Vogt from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Paul Butler from the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC. They made their observations at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Whilst anyone can go out on a Observations made with the Keck telescope in Hawaii helped astronomers clear night and observe stars light years discover Gliese 581 g. away, observing the planets that orbit these stars is a tricky business; they are far too small to be seen by any telescope we have today. The planet 581 g than Earth, the atmosphere is thought to be suffiGliese 581 g was detected using a technique known as Dop- ciently dense to maintain enough air circulation to create a pler spectroscopy. The method works on the principle that habitable area on the surface. At this point little is known the gravity of planets within a solar system exerts small about the actual atmospheric and solid composition of the amounts of attraction on the parent star, causing it to ‘wob- planet as no methods exist that allow us to see past the ble’ slightly about a central point. These ‘wobbles’ or small intense glare emitted from the Gliese 581 star. Any predicmovements of the parent star, are detected using telescopes tions on whether there will be water, a key substance for the and interpreted by astronomers to predict the existence of life to arise and answer the question, “Is there anybody out planets. Previously studied wobbles of the Gliese 581 star there?” are not yet possible. revealed four other planets in the system. Astronomers reThe discovery of Gliese 581 g, quite early on in the search cently found two new signals, representing Gliese 581 f, a for extrasolar planets, suggests that habitable planets are planet on the edge of this system, and Gliese 581 g, the much more common than previously thought. “If you take newly discovered Earth-like planet. the number of stars in our galaxy – a few hundred billion Gliese 581 g, like our own Earth, lies in the middle of the – and multiply them by 10 or 20 per cent, you end up with habitable zone of its own star, which is a small red dwarf 20 or 40 billion potentially habitable planets out there,” says that emits infra-red light. Remarkably, many of its physical Stephen Vogt, “It’s a very large number.” Whether humans characteristics are not too dissimilar to our own planet: its will ever be able to visit these far away worlds, is, however, mass is estimated to be 3.1 to 4.3 times that of Earth’s, its another story altogether. radius 1.3 to 1.5 times wider and gravity about 1.6 times as strong. Gliese 581 g is thought to be a rocky planet, based Declan Valters is an undergraduate on the estimations of its mass. Simulations suggest that the student in geosciences

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1/5/11 7:50:47 PM

Edward Duca attempts sous vide on some prime beef steak To make the perfect steak: tender, juicy and packed with flavour using sous vide, and compare this to traditional cooking methods. Sous vide maintains a constant low temperature for a set duration allowing degradation of proteins (i.e. tenderness) whilst retaining water (i.e. flavour).

food’s integrity. Fish, eggs, chicken, duck, foie gras, beef and more have been vacuum packed and cooked at set temperatures for up to 72 hours. In previous experiments beef has been cooked at 55oC for 2 to 48 hours, as a good compromise between being hailed by The Daily Mail as a food poisoning mass murderer, and getting the best steak you might eat in your life.

Prime sirloin steaks (fillet is better); herbs, fresh of course; a pot; string; a vacuum cleaner; zip-and-seal food safe plastic bags; a surgeon who ties the best knots in town; a thermal imaging camera (point its laser at anything to produce lovely thermal images and temperature readings accurate to around 0.1oC); a photographer (insurance policy: can make a failure look like a success); mum’s kitchen (writing a PhD can leave you with very little money of your own).

Since the 1970s, science has been encroaching on the culinary world. Molecular gastronomists and culinary geniuses have been using water baths, rotary evaporators, CO2 dispensers (they froth anything), and the so-called anti-griddle, a very cold, instead of very warm, grill, to continue inventing edible novelties. These include brittle sour cream, Michelin starred food on passenger airlines (Ryanair take note), crisp melon and fried mayonnaise. Today I will be using sous vide to create the perfect steak. Sous vide is French for under vacuum, meaning that food is hermetically sealed in plastic and cooked at a set temperature. This temperature is much lower than for conventional cooking, maintaining the

How do you vacuum pack sirloin steak, set a water bath at 55oC and maintain the temperature for at least 2 hours without access to an industrial kitchen? Even more importantly, is sous vide worth it? I needed an experimental control, so I bought some extra steak and decided to perform a culinary crime, in the name of science: grilled well-done steak. First the easy part, seasoning: I rubbed freshly ground black pepper and fresh thyme into a steak destined for sous vide and another destined for grilling. Sous vide intensifies flavours due to the vacuum packing, so I used a lot less seasoning. I also wanted to see how sous vide worked with a simple marinade. So I mixed equal parts of light soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and sweet chilli sauce, rubbing some of the mixture into another couple of steaks. I set the steaks destined for grilling aside to marinate for a few hours before cooking them. Next, vacuum packing. I suggest you tempt some friends over

Top: Vacuum Packing, Bottom: Vacuum Packed beef steak prior to Sous Vide. Photography by Christopher Stevenson.

with the prospect of mythical perfect steak, as I did. This is where things got creative (see Materials), as I didn’t have a vacuum pack sealer. However, I did have a vacuum cleaner, some zip-and-seal freezer bags and string. I carefully placed a lightly seasoned steak in the freezer bag, pushed as much air out as I could and stuffed the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner into the bag. I then got the help of a local surgeon to pull the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner whilst I simultaneously sealed the bag. We twisted the neck of the plastic bag and tied it shut with some string using surgical knots. This is just as tricky as it sounds. Vacuum packing can have very interesting and strange effects on food. For example, melon, once sealed in a plastic bag with the

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05/01/2011 19:47

Sous Vide beef steak: not perfect

pascals amped up, turns into something that’s around the texture and consistency of a crisp pink lady apple. Revolutionary. For my beef, I couldn’t increase the pressure to turn its texture into that of crisp cucumber, yet there were still plenty of advantages. Vacuum packing seals in the flavours and prevents the meat juices from being lost to the water; we don’t want to make an Irish stew. It also makes it easier to control how evenly heat seeps into the meat, which is vital in controlling the chemical processes that occur when you heat beef. Heat gets passed from hot molecules that have a lot of heat energy to cooler ones that have less. Since air is made up of fewer molecules than water, heat passes through water much quicker than through air. This means that any air bubbles would make the meat cook unevenly; if meat is cooked at below 55oC it increases your chances of making the news. Cooking in water makes sous vide more efficient than, let’s say, baking. An oven is one of the most inefficient ways of cooking, as you’re practically cooking the meat by the heat transferred when air cools on your chicken. That’s why your chicken gets

coated in moisture, which then evaporates later in baking, making the chicken crispy. Back to the experiment, the next step meant I needed to set a pot of water to 55oC and maintain that temperature for two hours. I heated a large thick-bottomed pot of water slowly; cooling is trickier than heating. I also wasn’t in the mood to stick thermometers that had been placed in dubious places in my food. Luckily another friend, the photographer, had a thermal imaging camera – handy. When the pot rose to 55oC, I placed the vacuum packed food in the water and crossed my fingers. Now this is where the chemistry gets interesting. Around half of the proteins in beef belong to a group called myofibrillar proteins, which hold around 80% of the water in beef. When beef is heated between 40oC to 80oC, these proteins break down, which turns them into a lovely gel that tastes a lot better than raw beef. However it also causes them to clump together and shrink, which leads to water loss. A lot of flavour and juiciness piggybacks with this lost water. Thus water loss is bad, very bad. 55oC is a compromise between a tender steak, and a huge loss of water, juiciness and flavour. Collagen is the protein that keeps beef together, forming 95% of connective tissue, which gives beef its toughness. Breaking down collagen with the naturally found enzyme collagenase creates a nice soluble gelatin that will give us the perfect tender steak. At temperatures exceeding 60oC, collagen shrinks, squeezing out a lot of water held by the myofibrillar proteins, turning the perfect steak into a well-done brick. Maintaining the water bath at 55oC was critical, above 60oC would be a disaster.

Half an hour before the meat was ready, disaster struck. The water bath reached 64oC: I screamed, lifted the beef out of the water and poured cold water into the pot. The thermal imaging camera read 55oC and I placed the beef back in. Keeping a pot of water at a certain temperature for so

Art: Amir Kirolos

long is nearly impossible. A rice cooker attached to a digital thermometer is a better solution. There are also water baths on the market, but these cost a few hundred quid. After two hours, I cut the meat out of the bag, which didn’t look very appetising, so I heated up the grill and seared the meat on both sides. Searing the meat sets off the Maillard reaction between the meat’s reducing sugars and amino acids (broken down proteins). This reaction gives meat that gorgeous brown colour, and makes it taste so nice. My tasters were split between which seasoning they preferred. The soy sauce based seasoning was sweet and spicy, whilst the thyme and pepper seasoning both intensified the natural flavour of the meat and added the delicate aroma of thyme. I didn’t manage to achieve that mythical perfect steak. The meat was tender, the seasoning had infused nicely, but it wasn’t perfect. The meat was just pink in the middle, which meant the temperature had risen too high. Also, two hours is too short a time to extract the most out of sous vide, six hours would have been better. Six hours gives the proteins more time to separate and the enzymes get a chance to break down other proteins, tenderising the meat. Even though the sous vide steak wasn’t perfect, it was still tender, juicy and tasty, whereas the control steak mimicked the soles of shoes. I think my brother said it best when commenting on the control steak: “Thank you, but it wasn’t moist�. So invite a few friends over, open a bottle of wine, and have a lazy Sunday afternoon trying this out. Sous vide tastes great and you might have a great laugh trying to make it work. I certainly did. Edward Duca is a freelance science writer and communicator particularly interested in molecular gastronomy. | Jan 2011 |


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05/01/2011 19:47

James Barclay discusses altitude illness and an Edinburgh student-led research expedition

ritish mountaineer George Mallory was once asked, “Why do you want to climb Everest?�, to which he gave the immortal retort, “Because it’s there.� Since then, countless enthusiasts have followed in that same spirit of adventure by climbing to the world’s loftiest points for the challenge and exhilaration. While the equipment that climbers sport these days may make the ascent safer, the body still suffers from the same treacherous low-oxygen conditions that would have blighted Mallory. Next summer, a group of Edinburgh students will be leading an expedition to a high-altitude laboratory to study this. Altitude illness is common in travellers who venture above 2,500 metres without allowing time to acclimatise. For most this means a mild but varied cocktail of potential symptoms, such as headache, nausea, tiredness and dizziness, known as acute mountain sickness or altitude illness. As nasty as this sounds, the dangers become more critical for those who climb higher and do so more rapidly. Two of the worst outcomes are high altitude cerebral oedema, a potentially fatal swelling of the brain, and high altitude pulmonary oedema, where the lungs accumulate fluid, making breathing increasingly difficult. The example of Peter Kinloch, the British mountaineer who died last summer after going blind on the descent from Everest, tragically illustrates the effects of cerebral oedema. The reality is that altitude research is a poorly understood field. Low oxygen levels stimulate blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow, which is thought to contribute to cerebral swelling, though the mechanism is unclear. The bloodbrain barrier normally tightly regulates what may enter the brain, but it can undergo alterations that lead to fluid leakage into the brain. This results in symptoms such as nausea and headaches due to increased pressure on the brain. Mediators in the bloodstream such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) may also play a role, namely in controlling the permeability or ‘leakiness’ of blood vessel walls. Excessive permeability means fluid leaks into surrounding organs, which is particularly critical in the lungs. Another question is why some, even the most

physically fit, are more sensitive than others. One recent discovery suggests that in the 2,750 years that Tibetans have inhabited the 4,000 metre Tibetan plateau, a genetic mutation that allows for greater adaptation to altitude evolved in 87% of the population. The affected gene, named Epas1, codes for a protein involved in responding to low oxygen levels, regulating the balance between aerobic and anaerobic respiration. The mutation subtly changes the protein’s function through a mechanism yet to be uncovered. This offers an explanation as to how Tibetans function efficiently without having to acclimatise through the normal mechanism of producing more haemoglobin, a protein which transports oxygen in the blood. According to Professor Nielson, who took part in the study, “It is the fastest change in the frequency of a mutation described in humans.�

ext June, an eight-strong team of University of Edinburgh medical students is undertaking an expedition to investigate the effects of altitude for themselves. This will mean organising the recruitment of 40 lowland volunteers from the local Edinburgh student population and their safe passage to a Bolivian laboratory perched at 5,000 metres, followed by two weeks of amassing data on the participants’ reactions to altitude. The study will build on existing research into changes in blood vessel walls, but whereas there is already extensive study of the lungs, experiments will delve into more widespread changes in the permeability of blood vessels. This will require blood samples to test for mediators such as VEGF, a forearm cuff to investigate changes in blood pressure and heart rate, and urine samples to examine a protein called albumin that may indicate an increase in blood vessel permeability. Alongside the challenge of collecting reliable data in the unreliable conditions of high altitude, there are the logistical feats of transporting personnel overseas and, more dramatically, local jeep hire to a laboratory that is by necessity off the beaten track. To make ends meet, expedition members will need to fundraise in advance as a team, but they are also hoping to apply for the small number of grants available for such research. As long as mountaineering continues to grow as a desirable leisure pursuit, there will be a need for greater insight into what drives altitude illness. It is a welcome bonus for potential student researchers that study of such a poorly understood field requires travel to the Earth’s more colourful locations.

A Bolivian laboratory perched at 5,000 metres

James Barclay is a medical student intercalating in physiology. For more information on the Bolivian expedition, please visit

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What Makes a Good Cow in East Africa? Amy Jennings describes her time working on the IDEAL project in Kenya


fficient livestock farming, sensitive to cultural expectations, can offer those living in areas of many developing countries a way to climb from poverty. Cattle are considered to be the most valuable livestock, however they are a high-risk investment strategy as cattle face numerous threats such as infectious disease and malnutrition. These are often coupled with limited access to veterinary care. Although the native breed of cattle kept by farmers in East Africa, the short horn zebu, is well adapted to the diseases present in its environment, they still experience high levels of morbidity and poor growth, and high levels of mortality in young stock. Cows are afflicted with a variety of diseases from the moment they are born – intestinal parasites quickly accumulate in the gut and ticks soon begin to use the calf as a host, bringing with them another set of harmful bloodborne parasites. Cattle are also plagued by biting flies which transmit more harmful infectious agents. With all these assaults on an animal’s health, it is a wonder that any survive to become profitable for their owners. The infectious disease dynamics that affect the ability of a cow to survive to maturity is the basis for a collaborative project, Infectious Diseases of East African Livestock (IDEAL). The project is based in Busia, a dusty town in western Kenya that borders with Uganda. The aim of the project is to determine if there are calves that thrive in this very hostile environment. If there are, how are they different from those that don’t survive? Is there a genetic basis to survival and, if so, how might the breed be improved? IDEAL brings together veterinarians, geneticists, epidemiologists, statisticians, and animal scientists from the University of Edinburgh, the International Livestock Research Institute, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Nottingham. The project collects baseline data on the infectious agents to which the cattle are exposed. It also provides an opportunity to investigate the clinical and pathological changes occurring in calves, with real-time knowledge of the infectious diseases they are exposed to, and suffer from. This offers a chance to understand how different diseases impact on survival and production. The hope is that this information will then used to guide policy on where the limited resources to improve cattle rearing should be concentrated. September 2010 saw the end of three years of fieldwork that brought a number of challenges, logistical, managerial, and political, with the fieldwork having to be postponed due to the post-election violence that hit Kenya in 2007–2008. All of us were warmly welcomed by the farmers with whom we worked. The field team and I often sat and shared tea or some lunch with the families, with me, the ‘mzungu’ (white man) being mocked kindheartedly as I stumbled to eat with my hands. One

Cattle are a highrisk investment

farmer particularly stays in my memory. On Labour Day he had his cow and calf seized by a debt collection company. He came straight to our office and, following hours of negotiation (once we finally found the auctioneers enjoying their public holiday day off), the cattle were released and loaded into the back of our Land Cruiser. The cow and calf were safely returned to the farmer’s homestead. I was very pleased to be at that calf ’s visit as it reached its first birthday, but I have to say, I am not sure the truck ever smelt fresh again! This intensive field project was dependant on palm-held computers, which provided a time-efficient way to capture data, and on mobile phones. These allowed a web of communication to be established in the study region between the IDEAL field staff, district veterinary offices and animal health assistants, area chiefs and village elders, and farmers. This network allowed calf births and any episodes of clinical disease to be reported on and responded to in real-time. The quick response was particularly important when calves died, as it was essential to conduct the post-mortem examination before the tropical heat took its toll on the carcass. We got very used to examining internal organs by the light of headlamps and car headlights. The IDEAL team now look forward to working with the vast number of samples and data generated in this project through a combination of clinical, laboratory, and statistical analysis. The aim is that this analysis will provide new information on the dynamics of disease in this cattle population and provide decision-makers in the governmental veterinary services and nongovernmental organisations working in this region with an evidence base for policy on infectious disease prevention. Amy Jennings is a PhD student at the Roslin Institute. Further information available at Amir Kirolos | Jan 2011 | p19-20_EUSci_Jan11.indd 4


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What's in a Name? Searching for a Species Concept Arvid Ågren and Chris White explore why a precise definition for species remains elusive


ny child can tell you that a human is different to a chimpanzee or a buttercup is different to a dandelion. Humans, chimpanzees, buttercups and dandelions are all groups of individuals with certain characters in common, not shared by the other groups. Furthermore, there are no ‘butterlions’ or ‘dandecups’ in existence, not to mention half-human, half-apes, despite the claims of a well-known science fiction film. Therefore, it seems simple to define what a species is: just look for groups of similar individuals with no intermediates. However, looking more closely at nature reveals that matters are not always that straightforward. Consider, for example, the Larus gulls. There are seven gull populations, which form a ring around the North Pole; each can interbreed with neighbouring populations but not with populations further away. For example, the British herring gull can mate with the American herring gull, which in turn can mate with the lesser black-backed gull of Eastern Siberia. The British and the Siberian gulls, on the other hand, are too different to be able to breed. This raises a confusing conundrum: do you define the whole ring of populations as a single species, or do you consider each population of gulls to be a different species? The former means that you end up with a species where not all individuals can interbreed and the latter with different species that can. Similar arguments on how to define a species have been debated for years, and searching for a concept of what defines a species that satisfies everyone has so far proven difficult.

A Historical Sketch The quest to accurately describe the living world has occupied naturalists and philosophers alike for quite some time. Aristotle, for example, did not believe in the uniqueness of species, but thought that seeds from one plant could germinate into another species. Subsequently, with the spread of monotheistic religions, the idea that species were fixed and constant gained popularity. Each species was considered the product of a single creation event and any variation was the imperfect expression of an underlying ‘essence’. The Swedish naturalist Carl

Linnaeus used this idea in his creation of the binomial nomenclature system that we now use to name all things living. However, like all essentialists, he struggled in finding traits that occurred in all individuals of a species. The reason for this is evolution. Charles Darwin turned biology and world upside down by publishing The Origin of Species. Although not the first to put forward the idea of evolution, natural selec-

There are over 20 suggested species concepts tion was the first satisfactory mechanism to explain the diversity of life. To Darwin, species were groups of individuals that share physical characters not shared by any other group. In this view, species have no intermediates, as they had been lost throughout evolutionary time, although even Darwin admitted to ‘problem cases’, like the Larus gulls above, where biologists had to decide whether the differences between groups were great enough to merit the title of species, or whether they were just different varieties on a single species.

The Biological Species Concept The species debate, however, did not end with Darwin. The Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr developed the Biological Species Concept (BSC). The BSC states that a species is a group of organisms that can breed with each other to produce fertile offspring, and are reproductively isolated from other such groups. The feasibility of using such a concept in defining a species has dominated the species debate for the last 70 years. The BSC is an easily testable concept. By its definition, if two organisms make fertile offspring they are the same species, otherwise they are not. This cleared up any perceived subjectivity of Darwin’s definition. Species were now defined by reproductive isolation from other organisms, regardless

of physical resemblance. However, the BSC is not without its problems. Perhaps most importantly, reproductive isolation is not simply all or nothing. Many species show partial fertility with each other. For example, many plants show total reproductive isolation in the wild because of their different pollinators, but can freely interbreed if artificially crossed. Asexual organisms pose another problem for the BSC. Here, each individual is reproductively isolated and by the BSC they should be considered separate species. This is obviously not practical, nor does it reflect biological reality. Despite the dominance of the BSC, there are still over 20 suggested species concepts thrown about. Are they all necessary? To some extent they serve their purpose in different fields of biology, but many biologists and philosophers are attracted by the idea that there is an underlying ‘essence’ of what a species is. Is it possible to define this elusive ‘essence’ without confusing the matter by falsely merging multiple views to create a single view that no one is happy with?

Moving Towards a Single Definition? Using DNA techniques, hybrids in the wild are now more easily detectable and recent estimations are that 6% of mammal, 16% of butterfly and 25% of plant species form fertile hybrids. This frequency of interbreeding is much higher than what was originally thought and is directly contrary to what the BSC says about species. Even blue whales, the largest animal ever to live, have recently been shown to interbreed with their closest relative the fin whale! However, the species are nevertheless considered to be distinct because the intermediates are few and the species are readily distinguishable, regardless of the fact that individuals may sometimes interbreed. These advances in molecular biology have led some biologists to suggest that species are simply part of a continuum ranging from ecotypes via varieties to species. London-based geneticist James Mallet champions this argument. His views are built upon the observation that physical differences can remain between groups of organisms,

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in spite of a lack of reproductive isolation. The argument is therefore that species are simply distinguishable clusters of organisms with similar appearances (phenotypes) and gene combinations (genotypes) with few or no intermediates in nature. Thus, when we distinguish buttercups from dandelions, we do so by recognizing that they cluster according to their phenotype and that the independent characteristics that create these clusters are correlated. Adding genetics to these clusters means that we observe two species rather than one if there are two distinct genetic clusters without any intermediates. Reproductive isolation will play a part in this, but will not be the only determining factor.

What’s in a Name? Not all biologists are convinced that Mallet and his colleagues are correct, or indeed that a single definition can be found at all. Perhaps calling a rose by any other name that would still encapsulate its sweet smell may not create havoc, but as seen here, a seemingly minor issue, like whether to name something a species or not, can actually impact important issues. Aside from purely theoretical matters, there are great implications to where we draw the line between two potential species. To start, a key problem in evolutionary biology is understanding how one species is transformed into another, a process known as speciation. If we do not know how to formally distinguish one species from another, this task becomes practically impossible.

An accurate definition of species is also vital in the conservation of endangered organisms. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, do not offer protection to hybrids (the offspring of the mating of in-

Hybrids between polar and grizzly bears have been reported dividuals of two different species). The red wolf is an endangered top predator in the southeastern US, but its status is threatened since recent molecular analysis showed it originated as a hybrid between the coyote and the grey wolf. Deciding whether it is a species or not, therefore, drastically affects the red wolf ’s hopes of survival. Recently,

hybrids between polar and grizzly bears (so-called ‘pizzly bears’) have also been reported. Mating between these two previously geographically isolated species is due to changes in their patterns of movement as a consequence of global warming. It is still early days for hybrids such as the pizzly bears and it is yet unclear whether they will develop into a new species or if mating will remain an occasional occurrence. What is clear, though, is that current conservation regulations are not up to date with biology. The prospect of one single universal definition of species is exciting. Moving beyond the alluring simplicity of the BSC will be difficult, but the living world seems to be more complex than the dichotomy it offers. Although the human brain likes to frame concepts in black and white, we all know that while white and black are truly different, the gap can be bridged by a continuous gradient of grey in between. Species are like this; the clusters of phenotypes and genotypes that comprise them may not be totally distinct. However, this fuzziness around the edges does not prevent their existence. A species concept truer to this reality is surely a step in the right direction. Arvid Ă…gren and Chris White both graduated from the School of Biological Sciences in 2010 and are now pursuing graduate studies at the Universities of Toronto and Cambridge respectively | Jan 2011 | p21-22_species_EUSci_Jan11_CL.indd 4


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Engaging the Public with Science: Opportunities in Edinburgh Public opinion of science is changing. No longer can we hide ourselves in the lab, away from the public who funds our work. The outcry over last year’s leaked emails between scientists investigating climate change highlighted the importance of keeping the public reliably informed.

SCI-FUN is the only travelling science road show in Europe. It tours secondary schools around Scotland and comprises of both talks and hands-on activities. Topics include subjects such as the senses, current research at the University of Edinburgh including stem cells and carbon capture and storage and a talk encouraging pupils to take science subjects at Standard Grade. SCI-FUN is also present at Discover Science at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Emily Pritchard, a member of EUSci, talks about her job as a SCI-FUN presenter. Q. What does your job entail? A. My job is to present at the road show and to supervise the hands-on exhibition. I also contribute to the preparation or editing of shows and exhibits. Other than this, the other presenter and I are responsible for administrative jobs such as booking accommodation, sending thank-you letters and notifying the local press. Q. What do you enjoy most? A. I am most excited about the pupils’ response to the shows. Seeing kids respond positively to something you’re trying to do for them is really rewarding. I’m also interested in their ideas about science; sometimes kids can surprise you and come up with something that you’d never considered before. Researchers in Residence is an opportunity to work in secondary schools with young people and teachers to stimulate their interest in current research in all sciences. It is open to all PhD students and staff researchers. Activities range from assisting with practical lessons or leading demonstrations to mentoring a small group working on a particular project. More information

Katherine Staines explores the options and chats with the people involved

With our magazine, podcast and seminar series, EUSci offers a variety of ways to share your science with the general public and hone your communication skills. Here, we take you beyond EUSci to discover the many opportunities available in Edinburgh.

available at STEM ambassadors inspire school students in science through a variety of activities such as clubs, careers talks, lessons and much more. More information at uk. I’m a scientist, get me out of here has been described as “school lessons meet the X-Factor�. University researchers (PhD students and staff) can volunteer to answer questions. Secondary students get the chance to ask them, via online chat, about any aspect of science they want. They also get to vote on which scientist they think deserves the winning prize. See Issue 7 to read the about experiences of three contestants.

Beltane officer Sarah West-Alin introduces inspiring bursaries The Edinburgh Beltane is one of six UK ‘Beacons for Public Engagement’, which are partnerships of universities and other public-facing organisations committed to communicating research directly to local communities. One way of supporting this goal is by offering Public Engagement Challenges, designed to fund innovative ideas and untested ways of engaging non-specialist audiences. Two University of Edinburgh PhD students received bursaries (up to ÂŁ1,500) as part of last year’s Challenge. They found that stepping out of the University and connecting with the wider world can be rewarding, sometimes challenging, and a lot of fun. Margarita Kimonou took her PhD research on ethical consumption to Glasgow’s West End Festival 2010. Her event focussed on creating two-way dialogue with local groups and communities and encouraged people to think beyond organic vegetables and fair trade coffee to the wide range of issues surrounding

consumerism. Margarita found it was encouraging to hear positive feedback, and have members of the public confirm that her research is well-timed and relevant to their lives. Jim Hammond led a geosciences team who developed a free drop-in activity at top Edinburgh attraction Our Dynamic Earth. The activity featured the science behind Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and also highlighted plans to make Scotland a world-leader in CCS. Although it was primarily an exhibit to inform the public about a clean energy source, which a lot of people are unfamiliar with, Jim and the other organisers also made sure it was fun, making it a way to get involved with ‘green issues’ and science that families could enjoy. Margarita and Jim will also find their experience useful when it comes to applying for jobs. Many employers are looking for skills that aren’t a major part of a traditional university education. Lots of job descriptions include requirements like the ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms, working with different types of people and organising events. Look out for the next application call for Edinburgh Beltane challenges at

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Postgraduate Science Communication Team Catie Lichten, a member of EUSci and the PGSCT, describes the team’s activities Q. What is the PGSCT? a. We’re a group of eight science PhD students who commit to spending the year being actively involved in science communication. We are guided by two coordinators who have public engagement roles in the university. A perk is that we receive a small stipend for what we do. Q. What is the most exciting thing you have done? A. It would definitely be designing hands-on activities for kids based on my research and presenting them at the National Museum of Scotland. One of the goals was to describe science as an ongoing investigation, not a collection of certainties. Taking this and turning my PhD research into activities and a five-minute presentation that kids could understand and learn from was even harder than I expected. But once it all came together, seeing children not wanting to leave my activities was really satisfying. I was also glad that it gave me the chance to get a few lab mates and friends away from their work for a day and involved as assistants at the museum Q. What else has the team done? A. Most of us got involved with local science festivals, a few of us spent a week each interning in the University’s press office finding out how research travels from labs to newspapers. One student competed in “I’m a scientist, get me out of here�, one has travelled

CafÉ Scientifique

Laura Pollitt discusses the popular monthly event she organises. The session begins with a guest speaker giving a 30-45 minute talk about the subject. The key here is that it is informal. That means no need for PowerPoint or any visual aides, just the speaker addressing the issue. There is then a short break to allow glasses to be refilled, followed by discussion about the topic, initially taking form of a Q&A session directed at the speaker, an expert in the field. Meetings have taken place in cafĂŠs, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context. The first cafĂŠs scientifiques in the UK were held in Leeds in 1998. From there, cafĂŠs gradually spread across the country. Currently, some 50 or so cafĂŠs meet regularly to hear scientists or writers on science talk about their work and discuss it with diverse audiences. Our attendees come from all walks of life, all sharing a common interest in science. Recent events with the Edinburgh branch

to schools around Scotland to present Gene Jury bioethics workshops, and another obtained a grant to develop and present DNA practicals for S1-S6 pupils at a school on Skye. You can find out more on our wiki, Q. How can students get involved? A. Recruitment happens in December and it helps to have some prior experience, be enthusiastic, and the most difficult thing–be willing to commit to some time away from research. For us, a prerequisite was completing the Transkills course, “Research Communication in Action�.

Other Opportunities and Training An easy way to engage with members of the local community is volunteering. Helpers are sought for Edinburgh’s annual International Science Festival in April and there are many options available at Edinburgh’s volunteer centre, Scientists are notoriously shy, but talking to the media and participating in public debates are the best ways to get reliable information heard by the public. Two organizations that can help are Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre. TeachFirst offers opportunities for teaching all subjects, including science, in disadvantaged schools (see more information on the back cover). Transkills is an integral part of The University of Edinburgh and provides courses (open to postgraduate students and staff) on science communication. One example is “Research Communication in Action�, a course that allows students gain practical experience in the public engagement of science. In “Research, Researchers, and the Media�, students produce their own science programmes for radio and television. Both come recommended by EUSci members. See www.

include a talk by Dr Philip Welsby of the University of Edinburgh on HIV and Edinburgh and a cultural history of the magic mushroom by Andy Letcher, a writer, musician and scholar. Regular cafĂŠs usually run on the second Monday of the month at the Filmhouse bar, starting at 8.30pm. Entry is free, but donations are welcome. Check the website ( or Facebook group for details, or contact Laura Pollitt and Laura Dixon (University of Edinburgh PhD students) at cafe.sci. The British Science Association is a well-established charity that exists to advance the public understanding of science. The Edinburgh branch was set up in 2003 and is very active, coordinating numerous events. These include SciScreen, a series of events held at the Filmhouse Cinema comprising of

a film with an underlying science theme and a talk led by an expert in the field. Refer to www.britishscienceassociation. org for future events. Skeptics in the Pub is an opportunity for rational thinkers to meet and discuss all things skeptical. Taking place in Edinburgh at the Bongo Club, visit the website to find out when the next event is http://edinburgh. The Royal Observatory of Edinburgh runs many programmes for young people and adults alike on astronomy and space, including weekly winter talks running Monday evenings through March. See for more information. Katherine Staines is a PhD student at the Roslin Institue | Jan 2011 | p23-24_PubEngSci.indd 2


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the eCAT electronic lab notebook

The problem: too much diverse generated by too many people


Scientists in disciplines like biology, chemistry, medicine and materials have a problem: they generate lots of data, in varying formats, but lack simple, affordable tools to manage it. Professor Mike Shipston, head of the Centre for Integrative Physiology at the University of Edinburgh, describes the problem, “We generate a wide variety of types of data sets that include 3D images, behavioural assays in animals, gene cloning through to electrophysiological analysis…We have a large number of people coming in and out of the lab; the challenge is keeping track of that data and integrating it with data from existing projects.” This problem is particularly acute in disciplines that generate lots of different data, but all research groups face it in one form or another. Advances in collaboration and communication made possible by the Internet are intensifying the problem. New collaborative tools like wikis and Google Docs allow multiple users to enter and share data in the same environment. They can see each other’s work and comment on it, anytime, from any computer with Internet access. In biomedical fields, tools like these are becoming popular for sharing general information such as meeting notes and protocols. The opportunities for better collaboration and communication in research, however, have yet to be fully exploited. Because collaborative tools like Google Docs and wikis don’t enable you to add structure to data, biomedical labs still use paper lab books for recording, analysing and presenting experimental data. These lab books can only be shared with others in person, which seems very limiting in the age of Facebook. A solution created and used at Edinburgh: the eCAT electronic lab notebook eCAT is a flexible electronic lab notebook that lets groups of researchers structure and share information, including experimental data, online. It allows research groups to exploit the collaboration and communication potential of the Internet. eCAT is provided by Axiope, a spinout from the School of Informatics, and has been adopted by groups in the US, Australia, England and Germany in addition to Scotland. Electronic lab notebooks have been around for 20 years; companies A ChIP antibody record in eCAT like Rescentris and IDBS provide heavily engineered electronic lab notebooks for the pharmaceutical industry. What distinguishes eCAT is that it is webbased, highly flexible, and available at a fraction of the cost of its industry counterparts. This makes eCAT suitable for academic research groups. In late 2009, Mike Shipston and Professor Peter Ghazal, head of the Division of Pathway Medicine at Edinburgh, decided to adopt eCAT. Shipston describes how his group now uses eCAT to solve data management issues, “We use eCAT as a cataloguing and information retrieval system. We can keep catalogues of resources and protocols up to date and exchange that effectively between lab members. We also use eCAT as an electronic lab notebook. Each lab member has their own folders and puts their own experiments within that, but it’s easy to put that information together.” eCAT is proving popular with students as well as PIs. Andreas Johansson, a graduate student at Lund University in Sweden who uses the free personal version of eCAT, points to a key reason, “eCAT is really easy to get started with and use. If something is hard to get started with a lot of people will just have a look at it and never get around to starting the first experiment.” Axiope

Developed, Refined, and Used at the University of Edinburgh:

Rory Macneil tells us how Axiope is solving the information challenge

Working together to make eCAT even more useful for research groups

Users at Edinburgh have provided invaluable feedback on how to improve eCAT. For example, Kim Martin, research technician at the Division of Pathway Medicine, suggested eCAT’s new notifications system. Now users can send messages inside eCAT and make links in the messages to eCAT records. So a postdoc can send a message to their PI saying that an experiment is ready for review and comment, and make a link in the message to that experiment. All the PI needs to do to access the experiment is click on the link. Other suggestions constituted major new capabilities. Mike Shipston and several people at the Division of Pathway Medicine suggested that adding the ability to manage samples and specimens to eCAT would make it a killer app. That’s what Axiope is working on now. If you’re interested in trying eCAT or getting involved with its ongoing development, please email or visit the Axiope website at Rory Macneil is CEO of Axiope, a spinout from the School of Informatics

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Title font: Samuel Reynolds

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Gene Therapy:

A Viable Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease?

ack in the early utilise this process with seventies, the idea of varying success. They ‘gene surgery’ emerged use an adeno-associated for the first time. The viral (AAV) vector, which scientific community has a single strand of soon latched onto this Luke Cripps investigates one of gene therapy’s DNA instead of the usual idea and it morphed double strand. AAVs are into ‘gene therapy’. In potential success stories useful because they are the 40 years that have non-pathogenic, so they passed since, gene therapy has been proposed as a viable do not provoke an immune response and, importantly for treatment for diseases ranging from cystic fibrosis to HIV. Parkinson’s, they reliably invade non-replicating cells, such Unfortunately, therapeutic results haven’t lived up to the as the dopamine-producing cells. hype surrounding the technology. However, therapies that AAV vectors containing between one and three genes have target specific diseases are slowly being been shown to improve the control of movement in both developed in labs around the world monkeys and humans. However, there are drawbacks to this with greater success. One of these approach. When using three genes, it is no longer necessary diseases is Parkinson’s disease. to administer L-DOPA, which results in loss of fine control Parkinson’s disease is caused over the amount of dopamine produced. Doctors cannot by the loss of dopaminecontrol this as each patient produces differing amounts. This producing cells in the can lead to over-production of dopamine, which can substantia nigra region of the brain. cause psychosis. Some reliance on L-DOPA remains Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, when just one gene is used, but there is much finer a chemical that transmits control over the amount of dopamine produced. signals between brain cells. One of the newest and most exciting gene therapy drugs The substantia nigra is a key in the pipeline is ProSavin, which uses the 3-gene method. component of a brain circuit Oxford BioMedica released results last June based on their that controls types of movement. Phase I and Phase II clinical trials that showed a continued Cell death caused by Parkinson’s benefit of up to two years after the drug was initially given. disease leads to a characteristic They also observed no major side effects so the next steps will uncontrolled tremor, as well as be to increase the dosage and improve the administration rigidity and the slowing of method. This drug remains a long way from being movements. There is no effective prescribed to all sufferers, but initial hopes are high. treatment for this disease, but the Recent studies have also investigated providing drug L-DOPA is often prescribed growth factors within vectors rather than as it can be converted to targeting specific genes, since dopamine in the brain to replace this could inhibit the the lost neurotransmitter. This death of the dopaminereplacement method only works producing cells. in a subset of patients and proves However, this is only less and less effective and more likely to be effective likely to cause psychological side for patients with effects over time. early-phase Parkinson’s Parkinson’s disease is a target for gene therapy because it rather than those with has been associated with at least eleven genetic mutations. late-phase Parkinson’s, e g The treatment has great potential because the disease where considerable cell death and un ijet W stems from a small subset of accessible neurons that can degeneration has already occurred. i an Las be specifically targeted, rather than from cells spread Gene therapy has certainly shown throughout the body. This is the case in cystic fibrosis, promise for treating Parkinson’s disease, but it where the abnormal protein is located throughout the will be many years before the treatment is approved for lungs, pancreas and sweat glands and where gene therapy has medical use. Researchers remain hopeful that gene therapy had limited success. Unlike many cells in the body, substantia could treat other diseases, but this could be decades away. nigra neurons do not replicate and so the correct gene, once Improving vectors and finding better ways of administering replaced, will not be lost during cell division. Gene therapy them effectively will be critical to their success. Nevertheless, enables these cells to start producing dopamine again. The looking back, gene therapy has progressed considerably from process works by locating the malfunctioning gene and being almost science fiction to being a treatment which can replacing it with a working copy that is delivered by a carrier provide hope to people afflicted by many genetic diseases. known as a vector, such as a virus. Upon injection into the We can safely say that for the first time in 40 years, the end substantia nigra, the virus invades the dopamine-producing is in sight. cells and, in theory, inserts its DNA into the cell’s genome, thereby enabling it to produce dopamine. Luke Cripps is an undergraduate student There are a number of drugs currently being trialled that in medical sciences

Gene therapy enables cells to produce dopamine again

Title font: Brian Zick

p25-26_EuSciJan11_gene_therapy.inx 2 | Jan 2011 |


1/5/11 7:44:41 PM

A Day in The Life

Bridging Disciplines Thinking about doing a PhD, but want to switch disciplines? Jon Manning finds out how The British Heart Foundation (BHF) Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE) were established in 2008 in four UK locations, one of which is the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Medical Research Institute. Part of the initiative is a PhD programme designed to attract students from the physical sciences. EUSci spoke to Kirsten Rose and Rachel Verdon, who entered the programme in 2009, about their experience.

to her and listening to her experiences that sparked my interest in applying. An email actually. I did have some cross-over with biology, which were the parts I found most interesting. I thought I was stuck going down the chemical engineering path, so when I heard about a course that would take students from different backgrounds, I thought this was a great opportunity.


J. K.

What have you found most difficult? What is the BHF CoRE PhD It has been quite challenging programme? knowing where to start and what The programme tries to bring to learn. It’s not so much the science in people from different backgrounds the lab that’s difficult, because you always to study biology. I did a chemistry degree have to be shown how to do new things, (RV: and I did a chemical engineering and once you’ve been shown it’s just a degree). It’s a ‘one plus three’ year course, case of practising. It’s the background meaning that initially we did a Masters behind why you’re doing the science that’s sometimes a bit more difficult to get your head around. I agree. I found at the start that I struggled with a lot of the tutorials, just because we were going straight into these papers in really specific areas. But the first project I did was a bioinformatics one with Donald Jon Manning Dunbar, which PhD students Kirsten Rose and Rachel Verdon was really perfect course which allowed us to do three for me, because I feel more at home with different projects across different sectors. computer programs, and which has been a I did a project that spanned biology and part of the other projects I’ve done since. So, challenging at first, but it seems to chemistry. That led us on to doing PhDs. have worked out quite well. What made you apply? What’s been your favourite aspect I studied at Imperial College, one of the experience? of the other BHF CoREs. I had a The project I just did, I really friend a couple of years above me who loved. This used zebrafish, and initially studied chemistry and went onto finding out how much you could learn the CoRE programme, and it was talking just from one organism was something I just couldn’t appreciate before–so much You can listen to this interview in episode 39 information from something so different of the EUSci podcast, available via iTunes or at from humans.

J. K.


J. K.

J. R.


For me, my favourite bit is feeling like I now have a PhD tailored exactly to me, and to what I want to do. I really did want to do something that spanned chemistry and biology, so they got me in touch with one of the professors over in the chemistry building, Professor Mark Bradley. For a lot of PhDs you apply for a supervisor, at a university, for a title [of the PhD]. I feel I’ve had the opportunity to come up with a title for myself, and that’s the best thing.

J. K.

Do you feel that your previous experience has transferred well? Definitely for me because I’m working in a chemistry lab and putting all the things I learned in my chemistry degree into play. But I also have a [supervising] professor from biology, so it’s not just a chemistry project. At first I couldn’t tell, and it felt like I was learning everything from scratch, but in the most recent project I did, some of the imaging stuff felt quite familiar to me. The PhD I’m going to be doing with Dr Sari Pennings is actually designed by us both, combining her background in epigenetics, but making use of my background in engineering, which is a lot to do with fluid flow, which I studied for close to four years.


J. R.

Would you recommend this to other students thinking about entering the programme? It’s a unique opportunity. I managed to do this in a year, and start a PhD in something that I had almost no knowledge of before. I’ve really enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone who’s interested, even if they think they wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew nothing about biology at all before I started at the centre, so they’ve literally taken me from scratch, and designed a programme around my needs, so I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into physical science, and wants to take a look at what’s out there.


Jon Manning is a postdoc in the Centre for Cardiovascular Science Font: Steeve Gruson

27 | Jan 2011 | issue8_ditl.indd 1

1/5/11 7:43:01 PM


Lasani Wijetunge explores the interactions between the ‘newbies’ and the ‘old-timers’

and nerve-wracking enough, you seem to unintentionally provide entertainment for the ‘old-timers’. They always seem to be rushing around with a purposeful stride, appearing stressed-out or seeming to know it all. You just want to give a good first impression, and will count yourself lucky if

Aoife McMahon and Lasani Wijetunge

he end of summer and start of the new year in Edinburgh always mark a somewhat odd period. Both these times signify transitional stages as the crowds, whether drawn by the festival or Hogmanay, exit the city en masse, leaving the regular dwellers to breathe a sigh of relief when entering their favourite cafĂŠ or local supermarket. The quietness of it all can be eerie, but you know that soon the ‘newbies’ will arrive and the usual chaos will resume. Mid-September brings the first wave of newbies, while January brings those who did not make it for an Edinburgh autumn. The sight of Freshers’ week banners and posters confirms their arrival. Soon you will start stumbling across a whole pack of them with maps in hand, or catch sight of one looking slightly lost and bewildered. In some ways, it is easiest to spot them at night. They may be in some form of fancy dress and are often the loudest and the merriest of pedestrians. True to form, they are always an eclectic bunch, all very fresh-faced, eager and excitable. The old cynic in you rears its head to mutter, “It is only a matter of time before it all wears off‌â€?, but then you realise that if you were to pause a moment and rewind back some years, a hazy recollection of you as the newbie might emerge. It makes you wonder, what is it like being a newbie? You might be trying to come to grips with the way around a new city or even a new country. You might just about manage to count the familiar things on the fingers of one hand. There are new things to learn, whilst learning that old things learnt at school like the gospel truth are not entirely true. More so, how worried should you be about making it to the 8am physics lecture, when everyone knows that the first year of university is all about which parties you made it to or who you hung out with. As if your fresher’s life is not complicated

someone takes the time to guide you around. Taking the giant step into the university environment, be it as an undergraduate (for

the first time) or a postgraduate (coming back for more), defines a rite of passage. Suddenly, you are more in control of what you do, where you go and when you go; yet you cannot help but feel that there should be some disciplinary figurehead telling you how it is and giving you the lowdown on the repercussions if you fail to complete

‘task A to Z’. Can the enthusiastic newbie teach a seasoned old-timer a lesson or two? Maybe whilst worrying about the details, the bureaucracy, and trying to make it to the finish line, the old-timer has actually lost the sense of enjoying the moment or some of the joie de vivre of academia. Think back on your most recent encounter with a newbie. Did the newbie ask a fundamental question about your research or about science in general that made you realise that maybe you had lost sight of the big picture whilst worrying about small details? They may have even become fascinated by an old piece of laboratory equipment, say for example a good old magnetic stirrer, when you were showing them around the lab or teaching them a lab technique. This is likely to exasperate an old-timer like you, who may take such things for granted. However, you can appreciate the newbie’s interest; a magnetic stirrer is a pretty nifty invention. Perhaps, the newbie can teach us old-timers a few things. An oldtimer might have forgotten how exciting it is to be at university, in a transient environment where we meet people with varied interests from all walks of life. These meetings may only last a short time and involve heated discussions about science, music, religion, politics, the latest gaming gadgets and more over a cheap drink. However, these encounters can signify the birth of great collaborations in science and in life. For a newbie, the age you enter university is when you start to formulate your own ideas and start questioning everything you have learnt thus far. So university life and who you meet there will inevitably have a profound influence on who you become. Maybe it is fair to say that while an old-timer can share their expertise with a newbie, the newbie can add fresh perspective and perhaps even jolt the old-timer out from their jaded outlook.

Lasani Wijetunge is a postdoc at the Centre for Integrative Physiology | Jan 2011 | p.28_final_sciatribe.indd 2


05/01/2011 19:54


Leaders acknowledge that science is vital for the economy, but is that enough? Akshat Rathi weighs the consequences for scientific research after the budget cuts


n the last issue Jess Smith explored what the coalition government may have in store for the future of science, engineering and technology in the UK. Over the summer, the UK has seen some sensational events in the politics of science. Announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), many departments have suffered nearly 25% cuts in their budget but for science the result has been comparatively positive−a freeze on science funding. In real terms, taking inflation into account, it means a cut of only 10% over four years. But is that too large a cut? Early in September, Business Secretary Vince Cable announced that universities should find ways of earning money from their research in order to make up for limits on public spending. All government departments had been warned to prepare for cuts of 25%, for scientific research it would have meant cuts up to £1 billion. Researchers were quick to realize the damage such a cut could make to UK science, so they took to the streets like never before with the Science is Vital campaign. The campaign aimed to stop the government from announcing any cuts to science funding ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review. It used advertisements on social media like Facebook and Twitter, defying Malcolm Gladwell’s remark that ‘revolutions cannot happen on social media’. Over 35,000 people signed the petition, which argued that reducing science funding would only further hamper the economy of the country. The campaigners had a point: the UK produces as much as 10% of global scientific output with only 1% of the global population. “We will increasingly have to rely on our intellectual capital to be competitive in the 21st century”, said the petition. Just over a week before the CSR, which was slated to announce the biggest cuts since World War II, as many as two thousand researchers took to the streets in a rally organised by the campaign. “No more Dr. Nice Guy”, said their posters, as they

29 | Jan 2011 | p29-30_EuSciJan11_politics_innovationCL.indd 1

stood outside the UK treasury and opposed the cuts. The campaigners also lobbied the members of parliament to sign an early day motion (EDM) and met up with the science minister David Willets. The campaign found support from not only the 129 members of parliament who signed the EDM but also from charities such as Wellcome Trust, the British Science Association, Cancer Research UK and British Heart Foundation. Promoters of science such as the Royal Astronomical Society also signed up. All this campaigning happened in a whirlwind of 30 odd days and the result has been phenomenal. George Osborne has protected the science budget at £4.6 billion per year agreeing with the campaign that “scientific research is vital to the future economic success” of the country. Before the CSR was announced, the Royal Society warned the government that a 10% cut to UK science could prove disastrous. Inflation-adjusted terms suggest that just protecting science funding still results in 10% cuts in real terms. After the announcement, Lord Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society said, “A 10% cut is a significant realterms cut for UK science when nations like the US and Germany are having real-terms increases.” And it’s not just those countries, but France, Spain, China and India are also increasing their science funding. That raises the question, even though our leaders have agreed that science is vital and frozen the funding, is that going to be enough? The higher education budget has been slashed by 40%. In line with the Browne review, the government is prepared to allow universities to increase tuition fees, without a

cap, to recover these costs. Also, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is responsible for support to CERN, Diamond Light Source and ISIS neutron source, has been warned of severe cuts. This could mean that there will be fewer students graduating from universities and less infrastructure for researchers. The government has also applied an annual cap on the immigration of non-EU skilled workers which has affected researchers badly. This segment of the population is also, arguably, the biggest contributor to the economy of the total immigrant population in the UK. As the manufacturing setups move to cheaper places like China, India and Brazil, the developed nations should continue prioritising the knowledge-driven economy. This means not only increasing support to research and higher education but also improving infrastructure to retain talent in the UK and initiatives (not disincentives) to attract such talent from all over the world. Decisions have been made and plans will soon be implemented, what remains for us is to wait and see how George Osborne’s gamble with the UK economy and UK science plays out as we see lowered science funding, increased tuition fees and tighter immigration policies. Akshat Rathi is a graduate student at the University of Oxford

Amir Kirolos

1/5/11 7:39:55 PM


The Business of Science From school science project to successful business? Eimear O’ Carroll tells us how she’s made it happen

cientific innovations and their resulting commercial applications provide one of the most exciting opportunities for students in the sciences. Restored Hearing is an example of business arising from such innovation. As part of a secondary school project, Rhona Togher, Anthony Carolan and I began to look at ways of using sound waves to tackle auditory problems. We examined tinnitus, ringing in the ears, and were shocked to discover that 92% of 12 - 40 year olds experience temporary tinnitus at some point in their lives. Tinnitus usually occurs after exposure to loud music or noise. However, many people are unaware this is a sign that serious damage has been done to their ears. As tinnitus after concerts, discos or prolonged use of MP3 players is most common in our peers, this became the focus of our research. Tinnitus is caused by loud sounds bending or even breaking the cochlear hairs (sound receptor cells) in the inner ear. Our project developed a therapy that stimulates the inner ear by using sound to vibrate it in a specific manner; this moves the bent cochlear hairs back to their original position, eliminating the irritating ringing and restoring hearing sensitivity. We put our therapy to the test and found a 99% success rate amongst temporary tinnitus sufferers after just one minute of treatment. Surprised and encouraged by our success, we discussed what to do with our innovative therapy. We decided to create a company and incorporated as directors and co-owners of Restored Hearing in May 2009. Setting up a company was daunting to say the least, as we had no business experience. We were very fortunate, however, to have business mentors and advisors on hand to guide us. Having a business mentor from an early stage was one of the best things we did, as it provided an objective outsider’s viewpoint. The summer of 2009 was spent securing funding, designing the website (www., publicising the company and raising awareness of tinnitus and hearing damage. Securing funding and insurance proved difficult as the recession started to take effect, sometimes it was difficult to imagine ever launching the Title font: Larabie Fonts

p29-30_EuSciJan11_politics_innovationCL.indd 2

business. Perseverance and networking were very important at this stage. Countless emails, phone calls and meetings later, we

Eliza Wolfson


had both insurance and funding and our e-commerce website was ready to launch in August 2009. As the launch date approached, things became very hectic with intense media coverage due to the unusual origins of our

It’s not often that a secondary school project leads to a business opportunity project; it’s not often that a secondary school project leads to a business opportunity. However, the nerves didn’t last long when we made that first, and unforgettable, sale. It felt so rewarding to have years of hard work validated on both a scientific and commercial basis. Our official launch took place at the end

of August 2009, where we got to say a well deserved “thank you” to all those who had supported us along the way. A business launch is also an excellent opportunity to get publicity for the company, and we were thrilled to get local and national coverage in newspapers and on TV and radio. As September 2009 arrived, Rhona and I went to study physics in University College Dublin and the University of Edinburgh, respectively, and Anthony returned to teaching physics. Although we are much farther apart, the work hasn’t ceased. We were approached by the Institute of Physics, who wanted to promote us, resulting in coverage in Scientific American and BBC News Online. Having used Scientific American during our research, this was an immense honour. As word spread, a Dutch consumer programme invited us to perform a live test on their TV show. We jumped at the opportunity and the test was a wonderful success as well as good exposure in a new market. We also won the regional Ulster Bank Business Achiever Award for Emerging Technology in 2009, of which we are very proud. Restored Hearing is now a Launch.edsupported company. We are also members of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. We are campaigning to “Stop the Deaf Generation” by increasing public awareness of the damage listening to loud music can cause to one’s hearing and promoting ‘healthy hearing’. There are lots of resources in the University of Edinburgh, especially Launch.ed, and beyond to help anyone who has a business idea. My advice would be to research your idea as thoroughly as possible and get as much support, including mentoring, as you can from an early stage. Restored Hearing has taught me that scientific discoveries can be turned into promising business ventures with a good support network and a lot of hard work. It has certainly been, and continues to be, an exciting journey. Eimear O’Carroll is an undergraduate student in physics and is a director of Restored Hearing Ltd | Jan 2011 |


1/5/11 7:39:56 PM


Edward Ducca examines the health and environmental issues behind GM salmon


f I have to read another article about ‘Frankenfish’ or this is a very sustainable technology.â€? These are claims that ‘Frankensalmon’, I might require psychiatric treatment. These Aquabounty does not back up with easily available information (no articles evoke images of double-headed salmon and seven-finned third-party research on these GM salmon is available). abominations. Why all the fuss? In the US, the Food and Drug The greatest fear is that these salmon could escape and cause the Administration (FDA) will soon allow genetically modified (GM) collapse of wild Atlantic salmon. This fear is based on the ‘Trojan salmon made by AquaBounty to be sold–unlabelled–on the US gene’ hypothesis initially coined by Howard and Muir in their market. There are no plans yet to sell them in the UK, but the story seminal study in 1999. They inserted a salmon growth hormone was still covered extensively by the British media. gene into the Japanese medaka, which made these fish grow The villain is a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon that bigger and stronger. Predictably, this resulted in the GM males has a single copy of a growth hormone gene from the chinook becoming dominant over normal males and producing more, but salmon. This growth hormone is under the control less fit, young. The data was plugged into a computer of an antifreeze gene promoter that the model and extrapolated over multiple generations. scientists at AquaBounty have taken The result, assuming that GM males have a from the eel-like ocean pout. 4-fold mating advantage over wild The promoter keeps growth fish, was extinction of the hormone production switched entire population in less on all year round instead of than 50 generations. only in the warmer months. Applying this hypothesis Thus, the salmon progresses to AquaBounty’s GM from an egg to your plate in salmon, an escape could just 18 months instead of the lead to quick extinction of normal 3 years. wild type Atlantic salmon. The consumer should get AquaBounty have already more fish at a lower cost, predicted this scenario and accordingly, and economically everyone their facility is land-based to prevent benefits. However, consumer escapes. AquaBounty also subject their eggs groups are in uproar. “[They] to high pressures that results in eggs with 3 Eliza Wolfson jammed up the White House sets of chromosomes, which causes 98% of adult telephone lines last week salmon to be rendered sterile. Contamination seems protesting any approvalâ€?, said very unlikely. Eve Mitchell, European food The problem for AquaBounty is that it needs to sell its GM policy adviser at Food and Water eggs worldwide to become profitable. The UK has already Watch Europe. The two main concerns about GM fish banned GM fish from being grown in sea- or river-based pens, but are its effects on human health and on the environment will other countries have the appropriate legislation? Escapes from I’ve read over 20 articles about GM fish and most journalists non land-based facilities are not uncommon. seem to assume that GM fish are bad for you. They imply AquaBounty says that even if they manage to escape, their that these fish could cause allergic reactions, since the human GM salmon are more susceptible to the environment and body has never been exposed to this salmon and seafood in would be easily outcompeted by wild salmon. They also say general is highly likely to cause allergic their male salmon would not gain reactions. In my opinion this is a load mating advantages due to size. A 1997 of wishy-washy argumentation and study by Thomas et al. proves them The greatest fear is that scaremongering. No data backs these wrong. Such dubious claims, coupled claims. The only decent article I came with the company’s decision not to these salmon could escape across that discussed health was Henry allow third party research or release and cause the collapse of Miller’s “Turning gene science into a all of its data, simply breeds mistrust. fishy businessâ€?. His conclusion? GM Greater openness and collaboration Wild Atlantic salmon food has not resulted in huge health with academics is sorely needed for epidemics so far, although traditional environmental and perhaps even health crossbreeding has resulted in new issues to be addressed. Otherwise vegetable varieties with elevated levels of toxins and weakness the deluge of Frankenfood stories will never end and the PR to diseases. catastrophe that was GM crops will be repeated. Unless we have The FDA has given this GM salmon a clean bill of health and has more information and good scientific research performed on GM made the data publicly available to appease critics. Health concerns, food, no one is going to want roasted AquAdvantage salmon with though widely touted, don’t seem like the greatest problem. a maple nut crust any time soon. On the other hand, the environmental consequences are worrying. Ron Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty, says, Edward Duca is a freelance “This is perhaps the most studied fish in history‌Environmentally science writer and communicator

31 | Jan 2011 | p.31_final.indd 1

Title font by Sinister Visions

05/01/2011 19:56


The Dance Doctor Hayden Selvadurai chats with Dr Peter Lovatt about the science of dance

You’ve been featured in the media for your work before, but is this the first time you’ve presented the science from your lab to a non-specialist audience? I do lots of talking to scientists, but this is the first time we’ve presented our work to an arts based audience, so it’s a real project for us and we’ve taken out all the graphs, all the equations and are just presenting it as public engagement for science.

Q. A.

You used to be a professional dancer. How did you wind up with a career in academia? I was a professional dancer till I was in my mid twenties and all I’d done in my teenage years was dance. Then I kind of got the bug for learning. I went back to college and did some evening classes, got an A level in psychology and then I got a place at a college in London to do a degree in psychology. After that, I got offered a PhD scholarship to do computational modelling of brain function. I then wanted to think about how I could incorporate dance back into my academic work again, which took me a couple of years. I went to the University of Hertfordshire and the Head of the Psychology Department said, “If you want to change your research area and do the psychology of dance that’s fine, we’ll support you in that.” So, for a couple of years I researched the psychology of dance and it just became fascinating and all the different areas that we’re now researching have all grown up over the last four or five years.

Q. A.

Do people place a mental projection on these dots? Yes. What we found was that when you have a random array of dots on the screen and they’re all stationary, the minute they start to move people can recognise a human or animal form immediately, within a matter of milliseconds.

Q. A.

You’ve also looked at the health benefits of dancing? We’ve investigated what sort of dancing is good for people’s health and in what ways. Recreational dance can be good for people so we do a lot of work with people who don’t traditionally dance, seeing what impact dance has on them from a psychological and physical health perspective.

Q. A.

Dr Peter Lovatt

ore at home on the dance floor than at the lab bench, Dr Peter Lovatt is surely an academic with a difference. A one time dyslexic professional dancer, Dr Lovatt now heads up the Dance Lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. Last year, for the first time, he brought his work out of the lab and onto the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a show called Dance Doctor, Dance. EUSci went along for a boogie, and caught up with him after the show.


What have you found from that?

Q. A.

Firstly, the dancing needs to be of a certain type. We need to have dance forms that are gender or culturally neutral and they need to have three elements: they need to raise the heart rate, be repetitive and non-competitive, and if we get those forms of dance involved then we do see changes and enhancement. Their mood goes up, the amount of vigour goes up and their self-esteem levels go up for a certain period of time too.

Can you tell us about some of your work on the relationship between dance and thought? Coreen Lewis, who is one of my PhD students, is looking How good is the British public at at not just dance but how improvisation dancing? impacts our thinking processes. We get people What we’ve seen in our lab is that people improvising - either verbally, with music or with to come in and say, “I’m a rubbish Recreational dance can dancer”,tend dance—and we give them a whole battery of but they’ve got all these psychological be good for people cognitive tests before and after. We’ve seen that blocks. We ask, “Why don’t you dance?” And it has quite interesting effects on the way people they say, “I feel self conscious, I feel nervous, think. It makes them faster at solving puzzles and I don’t quite know what to do”, and there’s all they become more efficient, divergent thinkers. this stuff in their head that prevents them from dancing in a very natural way. So what we do in the lab is we get people, What about your work on visual perception and dance? typically men, and we get rid of some of those blocks, we get rid of some of their anxiety about dancing, we get rid of their feeling of selfWe’re interested in, from a perception perspective, exactly consciousness and then when you see those people dancing after that how much information we need from a visual scene to be they become beautiful. Everyone can dance, even people who say they able to recognise an emotion. We use the Johansson point lights have two left feet. set up, where we just show different types of lights and vary the number of lights and the degree of their movement and see what Hayden Selvadurai is a PhD student in the people can recognise. Centre for Integrative Physiology

Q. A.

Q. A.

Q. A.

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32 05/01/2011 20:03


Searching for the Truth Behind Gender Inequality As a female scientist I have rarely considered myself one of ‘the weaker sex’, or imagined that the life ahead of me would be a battle against discrimination and oppression. Until now, that is. In Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine sets out to discover the truth about differences between men and women, at times painting a bleak picture of society’s attitude towards gender equality. Descriptions of carefully constructed 21st century studies are interspersed with amusing quotes from Victorian gentleman scholars, who were concerned about the fate of women’s ovaries should they be allowed the vote. We may have gone through the suffragette movement, and a wave of liberation and bra burning in the 1970s, but how much has society really moved on? The book opens with an impressively in-depth summary of the psychology behind the struggle for equality. It turns out that we don’t truly know our own minds. Despite great leaps forward in conscious attitudes, it is our subconscious that devours the messages jumping out from magazines and billboards. An advert featuring a caring mother baking brownies with her daughter or an article in the Sunday paper about the male brain being hardwired for problem solving can have a surprising effect. Our aptitude in maths exams, or in tests of empathising ability, can change in an instant. With this concept firmly embedded, the author launches into an equally exhaustive critique of the neuroscience studies behind

What if evolution had gone differently? What if a series of events had allowed species now extinct to survive? The world could be completely different and maybe humans would not exist. In this classic of the popular science literature, Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of a great scientific event, the discovery of Precambrian fossils in the Burgess Shale, British Columbia, and its impact on our understanding of evolution. The book starts with a funny and interesting observation about the common understanding of evolution, reporting amusing examples of animal evolution illustrated in books and journals. Most of the time, evolution is considered as progress, like Gould’s Guinness beer analogy where the highest evolutionary point of human beings is represented by a massive pint of Guinness. This idea of evolution and progress causes, for Gould, the misconception where people consider species that share a common ancestor to be comparable, even if they evolved independently; it would be like considering frogs ‘less evolved’ than dogs. The duality of evolution and progress takes the reader to the second part of the book, dedicated to the actual story of the Burgess fauna discovery. It’s the common meaning of evolution that seems to explain why the discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils classified them within known taxonomic groups. 60 years later, those fossils were analyzed again by a group of British scientists and the reader can follow their story, understanding their initial doubts and their experiments. these hidden (or sometimes right-therein-your-face) messages. Coloured blobs on brain scans may look convincingly ‘sciencey’, but have researchers really come close to finding the elusive ‘pink princess girl’ or ‘rough-and-tumble boy’ sections of the brain? Fine painstakingly picks apart studies of brains and hormones in mice and men (or women), highlighting their many shortcomings. Finally, we are taken on an amusing journey through the eyes of a child, learning about the world from gender-stereotyped books, TV programmes, teachers and parents. From Dora the Explorer to the exuberant Sally Slapcabbage, if nothing


Icon Books Ltd.

Wonderful Life: the Cosmic Lottery of Evolution

One by one, Gould describes all the amazing creatures of the Burgess fauna and this feeling of discovery is what keeps the reader hooked. A new idea of evolution then takes place: those who survive do so accidentally, not because they are better than the others. In this scheme, evolution is a lottery where humans could be just a cosmic accident. This volume is with no doubt a worthwhile read, where it’s possible to understand the human side of science and all the psychological implications of a scientific discovery. Even though Gould’s theories have been and are still debated by scientists, this book gives all science lovers a fascinating idea of evolution. Although it’s a science book, sometimes necessarily technical, Wonderful Life begins with science and finishes with philosophy. After all, life is wonderful. Flavia Stefani is a PhD student at the University of Manchester else I have been introduced to an exciting new world of children’s characters. When she began writing, Fine was unsettled by the wealth of books and articles suggesting that we are powerless against falling into biologically pre-determined gender stereotypes, and the increasingly popular idea that this should affect the way we educate our children. Questioning this view has resulted in a well-informed account of how much or, as it turns out, how little, we really know. Fine provides an excellent antidote to the pseudoscience. Bethan Lowder is a PhD student in the Centre for Infectious Diseases

33 | Jan 2011 | p33-34_DrHRev.indd 1

1/5/11 7:35:07 PM

Dr Hypothesis

Eliza Wolfson

Dr. Hypothesis Whether witty or wacky, Dr Hypothesis will answer your query. Email with your questions for next issue. Dear Dr Hypothesis,

Dear Dr Hypothesis,

When my sister was young she was often hyperactive. According to the adults, sweets were to blame. As my own sugar allowance was rationed, I wish to know if there is any evidence for this belief? Feeling Sugar-High

My eyesight is really important to me so throughout my life I’ve stuck with the somewhat arbitrary advice to eat carrots and avoid reading books in low light. Is this just a way for parents to make their children eat vegetables and go to sleep? Not Seeing Clearly

Dear Feeling Sugar-High, Dear Not Seeing Clearly, You’re right that parents are often adamant that sugar causes children to be unruly. However, in 2008 the British Medical Journal highlighted that at least twelve double-blind, randomised, controlled trials refute a causal link. To test this effectively, researchers manipulated children’s diets to contain either sugar or an artificial sweetener such that neither child nor experimenter knew which was being consumed. Not only did they find no difference in the activity levels of ‘normal’ children, but there were also no consistent effects on those with attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Rather, different studies showed conflicting effects on cognition and aggressive behaviour. So how did this ‘myth’ arise? Its origins are unclear but scientists have demonstrated how it may have survived. In their study, mothers who were told that their children had consumed sugar were more likely to consider their behaviour to be hyperactive than those who thought their children had received aspartame, when all had received the latter. So although your sister may have been better off without all those adult expectations, reducing sugar in your diet was probably beneficial for your weight and your teeth.

I can’t say much for parental intentions but you’ve certainly hit upon two common myths. The best (or worst) aspect of the carrot myth is that it seems intuitive from a biological viewpoint; carrots provide a source of beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A, and a deficiency in vitamin A can cause eyesight problems. There is, however, very little evidence to suggest that increasing vitamin A improves eyesight. In fact, the myth was perpetuated during the Second World War to deceive our enemies into thinking that our improbably high aircraft interception rate was due to exceptional night vision, instead of the newly invented radar. Fortunately for all those children reading Harry Potter under the duvet, the link between poor eyesight and dim light is one of the top seven medical myths, according to an article published in the British Medical Journal in 2007. So where did it come from? When we read in dim light focusing feels difficult and our blinking rate is reduced, thereby causing some dryness in the eyes. It does cause temporary discomfort, but this should not be mistaken for permanent changes to the function or structure of the eye. However, this issue remains

contentious and some researchers of myopia, a refractive defect of the eye, point to increased prevalence in academics who are said to read in low light, with the book too close to their eyes. Dear Dr Hypothesis, I’ve been to the seaside many times around the world and noticed a common theme that there are always two tides in a day, despite other differences. Why is this? Just Curious Dear Just Curious, You are almost correct in that in most places there are indeed two tides a day; these are semidiurnal tides. The presence of tides is a direct result of the gravitational force of the Moon, which effectively acts to pull the sea away from the Earth. There are two daily because the Earth rotates on its axis. It may not be immediately obvious but the force exerted by the Moon has an equivalent effect whether it is above you in the sky or underfoot on the other side of the Earth. High tide therefore occurs on opposite sides of the Earth at the same time. On the near side, the water is pulled away from the Earth, and on the far side the pull on the water is weakest so it bulges away from the Earth. Areas at 90° have low tide due to the Earth’s pull on the water. Although the moon orbits the Earth and so changes its position in the sky from day to day, it orbits in the same direction as the Earth’s rotation. Thus, after every 24 hours and 50 minutes, the Moon finds itself in the same position in the sky having been overhead and underfoot once each; hence, two high tides a day. This isn’t always true because in places such as the Gulf of Mexico there is only one tide a day (diurnal) due to its angle relative to the sun and moon. The Caribbean has a third type of tide, the mixed tide, where the pattern of high and low is highly varied. Helen Ramsden is filling in for Dr Hypothesis

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