Into the Void Science - Issue 6 - October 2018

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Eavesdropping Helps Birds Learn?

New Battery Eats CO2!

Social Media Is it Killing our Social Lives?

Cover Image

Lunar Eclispe Image Credit: Karen Kayser

Into the void


October 2018 / Issue #6


Founder / Editor Cameron Costigan Editorial Contributors Dr Geetanjali Rangnekar Elizabeth Suk-Hang Lam Jesse Crowe James Kolacz Professional Proofreader Susan Dunn

About Us Science is all around us in the modern world but too many of us take it for granted. Our mission is to ‘Inspire the World with Science’ and to help people think of science as more than just another subject at school. Foreword - Cameron Costigan We run Into the Void Science from a deep desire to share science with the greater community, but we need your help. Running a magazine cost some real dollars and without your help, I am not sure how long we can continue. If you can, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even a $1 a month commitment goes a long way to helping us.

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This striking Jovian vista was created by citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran using data from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

Image credit: NASA


Eavesdropping Birds Learn By Dr. Geetanjali Rangnekar

The superb fairy-wren is a pint-sized bird endemic to south-eastern Australia. The male of his species boasts an iridescent blue plumage, while the female is a less impressive — but still adorable — dusty greybrown. These creatures are impressive for many reasons; once such reason is that they are social learners, just like humans. A study published earlier this year found that superb fairy-wrens listen in on the conversations of other bird species and can learn to react to their alarm calls warning them of predators. This ‘eavesdropping’ method of social learning has been demonstrated for the first time in fairy-wrens by a group of biologists from the Australian National University (ANU). The team was led by Professor Robert Magrath from the ANU Research School of Biology who has been studying the behaviour for this commonly found avian species for several years. The experiments were conducted in the National Botanical Gardens of Canberra, home to a vast variety of wild birds, including hawks which are natural predators of the fairy-wren. Listen and learn The researchers simulated a cacophony of sounds made by birds in the wren’s natural habitat. The wrens heard alarms calls of birds belonging to the same species (conspecific alarm calls) and alarms calls of animals belonging to other species (heterospecific alarm calls). Within these various alarm calls drawn from sounds of local species was buried a sound new and unfamiliar to the wrens. The team used stereo speakers placed at a distance of 3-6 m apart to deliver this mix of calls which differed during each playback. The amalgamation of sounds did not confuse the fairy-wrens who were able to make the distinction between the calls of their friends and potential foes. This acoustic ‘plucking out’ of unfamiliar sounds embedded within the chorus of familiar sounds occurred rapidly, after just two days of training and even though there was no predator in sight, the birds learned to flee to safety. Moreover, the effects of this learning persisted over the entirety of the period that

the birds were observed for which was one week. Not just being cagy To ensure that the wrens were not just being overly cautious, the researchers used a synthesised ‘control sound’ produced using a computer program. The wrens did not respond to this in the same manner as they responded to the test sounds showing that they did indeed learn to respond to the unfamiliar sound as if it were a real alarm call prompted by the presence of a predator. Learning through exposure Previous studies have shown that animals can learn to flee from unfamiliar sounds if they can associate those with life-like models of predators. This is a form of asocial learning. In fact, previous experiments conducted by Professor Magrath’s team showed that after just two days of training, fairy-wrens learned to flee from unfamiliar sounds when these were coupled with life-size model gliders of known predators flying overhead (sparrowhawks or currawongs). They did not flee when they heard the unfamiliar sounds in insolation without the visual cues of the model gliders. However, according to the researchers, learning about predators by being directly exposed to them could be fatal. Also, learning to react to hunters through visual cues is not always possible as predators are often hard to spot in the natural habitat. Fairy-wrens may find them hard to spot from high up in trees, predators tend to move fast through thick foliage, or they may even be unfamiliar to the wrens. On the other hand, learning to associate novel sounds with those of known alarm calls, through what the authors of the current study dub acoustic-acoustic association, is a form of social learning. This can provide animals with vital information necessary for survival. Social learning helps animals survive and thrive This form of cooperative communication and learning strategy can be ecologically important. The authors postulate that social learning is important because it

can lead to rapid spread of behaviour through a population. The fairy-wrens can learn that a new sound means ‘predator’ without having to see a predator or even see callers fleeing for cover. In fact, the results of this study help explain why eavesdropping is so common across other species too. Listening in and learning could also help teach the young among the species to learn to stay away from harm. Importantly, this research has implications for teaching animals that have been raised in captivity as part of breeding programs to help them recognise the alarm calls of predatory species and flee to safety. Teaching them these important skills at the release site could help them survive once they have been returned to the wild. Given how expensive captive breeding programs can be, research like this could be applied to help bolster the chances of survival of some of our most endangered species.


Pesticide Prudence

What does a chemist do to ensure your food is safe from pesticides? By Elizabeth Suk-Hang Lam

Pesticides kill pests. Pesticides are poison. So, pesticides are bad, aren’t they? It turns out that pesticides do play an important role in food production. They are the guards of our crops and are particularly important in countries that face food shortages. According to the World Health Organization, pesticides only bring harm to people when they are above a certain safe level of exposure. If people were in contact with large quantities of pesticide, they may have acute poisoning or long-term health effects, such as cancer. Therefore, food safety is directly linked to the dosage of pesticides exposed. So, all we need is to find ways to quantify the amount of pesticides in food. Sounds simple? Nah. There are indeed more than 1000 pesticides used around the world. In fact, pesticides are not one pure substance. Pesticides are all chemicals that kill or harm pests. Pesticides can be classified into six groups according to the types of pests which they kill. Insecticides kill insects by poisoning them. Herbicides kill plants that compete with nutrients or pose harm to crops. Rodenticides are used to kill rodents such as rats and mice. Bactericides kill bacteria that harm crops. Fungicides kill fungi that parasites to crops. Larvicides kill larvae such as mosquitoes. With such a diversity in the pesticides’ world, it is a complex issue to detect each and every one of them - each pesticide has different properties and toxicological effects. Imagine one needs to perform 1000 experiments to detect each pesticide in an apple. It is simply not practical in reality! Therefore, testing laboratories usually analyse pesticides in a bunch. Chemists name the process of detecting several pesticides in one experiment as multi-residues analysis. One of the common ways to perform the analysis is combing a sample preparation procedure called QuEChERS and mass spectrometry.

sample, we need to make an apple puree. This is called homogenization of sample, which can maximize the surface area for efficient extraction of any containing pesticides in the sample. After weighing a known amount of the apple sample into a test tube, we add an organic solvent. It is nothing magical but is carefully selected to ensure it can extract most of the pesticides from the sample. Then just like cooking, we add a certain amount of salt to the sample. It is not for enhancing flavour, however, it is for the absorption of water in the sample. This forces the pesticides in the sample to enter the organic solvent phase. This whole process is called the extraction. Now, pesticides in the sample should already be present in the organic solvent. But this extract does not just contain pesticides, it also contains other compounds from the food sample such as fat and wax. These co-extracted substances cause interference to instrumental analysis and therefore, we need a sorbent to remove them. The sorbent is another combination of salts which could remove fats, colourings and acids that could interfere with instrumental analysis. After this clean-up procedure, the extract is finally ready for spectrometry analysis. Just like we call people by names, we identify pesticides by their masses (or weights). The instruments used are often liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Chromatography provides a running track for pesticides in liquid for LC-MS or in gas for GC-MS. Each pesticide completes its race at different times due to their different properties. Mass spectrometry then breaks down the pesticide into fragments. By identifying the fragments at different times and quantifying their intensities, we can calculate the level of each pesticide in the apple sample.

QuEChERS is the acronym for Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged, and Safe method. In practice, a testing laboratory needs to be able to test tens or hundreds of food samples quickly, easily, economically, effectively while ensuring the method is rugged and safe to use.

This analysis method is powerful as it can detect multiple pesticides in a single run or experiment. However, due to the existence of a large variety of pesticides in the world, there are still many challenges to pesticides detection. For example, pesticides that are highly soluble and those that are completely insoluble in water requires different extraction and instrumental methods. There is still extensive research work required for chemists to understand and unveil the different levels of pesticides in our daily food and drinks.

Imagine we are going to test the pesticide level in an apple. To ensure we have a representative portion of the

So every time you enjoy a delicious meal, say thanks to chemists for ensuring our food safety!

October 2018

Is Social Media Killing Our Social Lives? By Jesse Crowe ‘The Travelling Scientist’ Social media plays a huge role in our everyday lives. It has become so easy to connect with people around the globe, sharing thoughts, conversations, photos and even live video streams. It feels weird to think how we used to survive without it. In 2018, over 2.5 billion people around the globe are connected to social media. This has doubled from 1.2 billion people just 7 years ago, and the number is rising daily, but is social media good for us, or could it be doing more damage than we realise? It seems counterintuitive, but excessive use of social media can negatively impact our social lives. As we spend more time interacting online, we miss out on regular social practices. Simple things like meeting new people, holding a conversation and telling stories, these can be truly challenging to people that do not practice them on a regular basis. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed that people who spend the most time on social media are twice as likely to experience social isolation, being less able to engage with others and share fulfilling relationships. As well as impacting our social lives, social media also has a variety of effects on our mental health. A 2014 study in Austria found that people who used Facebook for 20 minutes were often in a bad mood afterwards. People feel like they are being ignored, or they can suffer from a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out), but most people recognise that time spent on social media is largely unproductive, leaving them feeling dissatisfied. A more recent study in 2016 found that people who use more social media platforms are likely to be more depressed and anxious. It is possible that constantly switching between several social media platforms could be emotionally draining, or perhaps that people with a higher propensity for depression and anxiety are more inclined to use several social media platforms.

Social media isn’t all bad though. It is a way of communicating instantaneously with friends and family around the world, making plans, connecting and keeping in touch with people wherever they may be. It also gives us access to the latest current affairs, news reports, discoveries or even the latest ridiculous tweets from Donald Trump. A 2015 study in Washington found that social media usage was linked with reduced levels of stress, and it has been shown that certain aspects of social media can induce dopamine and oxytocin release, effectively making us feel happier (at least temporarily). So there are several problems with social media, but there are also many benefits. With all this contradictory information, what are we to do? Humans need social interaction, we crave it, and we can’t achieve it solely through social media. Talking to someone online isn’t the same as talking to someone in person, and you can’t exactly simulate the physical touch of a hug through Facebook. As social media develops rapidly within modern society, more and more research will be required to determine its effects on us, comparing the benefits of social media with the problems that it may cause. Ultimately, social media offers a beautified view of people lives…but it isn’t real. It can make us feel happy… but it is only temporary. Sure, social media has revolutionised communication around the world, and it allows it you to do so many amazing things… but it should be used sparingly. Don’t rely on social media to improve your social life. It is a virtual world to be explored, but don’t get lost in that screen. Look up from your device and recognise that the real world is in front of you. It’s your job waiting to be done. It’s your dog waiting to be walked. It’s your friend waiting to meet you for a coffee. They won’t wait forever, so give social media a rest, get out there and live your life!

Check out Jesse’s latest science


3×10 Femtoseconds of Fame Real Scientists Explain Their Work

Have you ever experienced a bump to the head - so severe that you have ended up in hospital? Rosie Dutt BSc, MSc, MRes, DIC - Internationally, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is the leading cause of disease, death and disability for individuals below the age of 45. In England and Wales alone, 50% of all patients who present at accident and emergency departments following a TBI, are under the age of 15. Despite this, only a handful of studies have been conducted globally, investigating brain changes in children and adolescences post-TBI. Following recovery, outcome is difficult to predict, with reports of long term cognitive, psychiatric and behavioural problems in these children. However, this usually goes unnoticed as these problems can be masked by good physical recovery. This impacts academic performance and quality of life, as well as limiting access to appropriate healthcare provisions. Consequently, I am conducting the first study in the UK to use a combination of imaging techniques and neuropsychological measures to investigate structural, functional and cognitive brain changes which occur following a TBI. The project aims to recruit 15 individuals aged between 10-16, who have experienced a moderate-severe TBI, as well as a group of healthy age and gender-matched controls. Participants will undergo a range of neuropsychological assessments at Great Ormond Street Hospital to assess the cognitive problems they are currently experiencing. Thereafter, they will complete attention and response inhibition tasks whilst undergoing structural and functional scans at the Hammersmith Clinical Imaging Facility – as these tasks have successfully highlighted brain regions and networks effected following a TBI in adults. Subsequently, imaging and statistical analysis packages will be used to compare the information acquired by the scans between the groups, and to see how this correlate to cognitive problems reported following the TBI. This research not only impacts academia, but also society and the economy. As there are sparse amounts of research into peadetric TBI, the findings from this project will advance our understanding of the condition, and guide methods which can be used in

future studies. Additionally, with no gold standard for the diagnosis of a TBI in children, this research can help locate brain areas which are structurally or functionally effected, aiding in the development of diagnostic tools and treatment. Moreover, a head injury increases the chances of offending by 50%, as the brain changes make it difficult to control behaviour. With 60% of adult prisoners, and 30% of young offenders having a history of head injury, this research may identify explicit brain changes, resulting in the implementation of appropriate provisions required to reduce this risk; as the cost per prisoner is around £70,000 per year! Furthermore, head injuries double the risk of developing a mental health condition, which are the leading financial strain on the NHS, costing £40 billion a year. Therefore, this research could help influence the development of policy, practice or service provisions, to make society a more supportive environment for the children who experience a TBI, as well as reducing subsequent costs on the economy.

Want to feature your work? Contact us! “It’s like having millions of kids” A film explores what scientist really think about working with stem cells. Dr. Loriana Vitillo, Research Associate at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London. Dr Karen Jent, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Reproductive Sociology Research Group (ReproSoc), University of Cambridge. Chloë Thomas, Director, Victoria 3, ITV Stem cells are fascinating. But what it is really like to be a stem cell scientist? How is the life in the lab? Do researchers have feelings for cells? Can cells be happy or sad? Dish Life is an award-winning short film that explores the relationship of the scientists with their stem cells. The film is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration born at Cambridge University between stem cell scientist Dr. Loriana Vitillo, sociologist Dr. Karen Jent and TV director Chloe Thomas. Dish Life has travelled the world from Melbourne to Moscow at film festivals and also featured in the New York Times. We presented it to kids and teenagers, to anthropologists, scientists and the general public both at film and science festivals. “I found the film to be a truly refreshing glimpse into the often hidden daily lives of scientists. Unfortunately, it is common in our society to present science as an esoteric endeavour reserved only for an outstanding few. Through Dish Life, the audience becomes acquainted with the real struggles of researchers, which reveals their true humanity. Dish Life democratizes the practice of science in a way that other science films do not.” [Anonymous audience] People want and deserve to know more about the real life of scientist and the emotional component involved in this work. For this reason, we are now working on turning Dish Life into a mobile game together with a team of game developers. Follow Dish Life projects at @dishlifefilm on twitter and facebook

Watch the Video here

Loriana Vitillo

Karen Jent

Chloe Thomas

Possible Amygdala Bipolar Link By James Kolacz

If we are worried we’ve broken an arm, usually, a doctor will send us off for an x-ray in order to view physical evidence. Even as patients, often we are able to see the distinct fracture in a radius or ulna and know that this is the cause of our pain. Mental health, on the other hand, has long been viewed in an almost esoteric sense –a diagnosis made after a series of checkboxes have been ticked, perhaps a blood test to check for hormonal imbalances. Distinguishing between unipolar depression (commonly referred to simply as depression) and bipolar has long been a source of difficulty for mental health professionals, leading to many cases of misdiagnosis. Indeed, one study found that nearly 40% of patients diagnosed with bipolar were initially diagnosed with depression. This is likely because, if a bipolar patient presents in a non-manic state, their symptoms can appear quite similar to that of a depressed patient. In addition, patients rarely complain to a clinician of feeling ‘too happy’, thus adding to the misdiagnosis rate. Given the respective treatments for these two disorders are so different, it should come as little surprise that clinicians and patients alike have been eager for a method to determine whether or not an individual is presenting with bipolar or depression. Indeed, the medication used to treat depression often can elicit a manic response in bipolar individuals who previously may not have experienced one.

Thankfully then, researchers from Sydney appear to have made somewhat of a breakthrough. Using fMRI on 73 participants diagnosed with bipolar, depression, or considered ‘healthy’ they found that the amygdala of participants with bipolar reacted differently to negative stimuli than that of depressed participants in 80% of cases, even though all participants were considered in remission. Not only does this hint at physiological issues within the brain that might underlie these diseases, but it also lends clinicians a powerful new possibility for diagnosis. Before this could be implemented though, it is important to discover the source and nature of the 20% fail rate. Is it a false-negative? A false-positive? Until these questions can be answered and, ideally, the fail rate reduced, it is unlikely we will see this method used clinically.

New Battery Eats Carbon Dioxide

Researchers from MIT have developed a new type of battery that could be made from captured carbon dioxide. Currently converting carbon dioxide into specialized chemicals using metallic catalysts is very difficult but this new technology can continuously convert CO2 into solid mineral carbonate as it discharges.

While still based on early-stage research and far from commercial deployment, the new battery formulation could open up new avenues for tailoring electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion reactions, which may ultimately help reduce the emission of the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. The battery is made from lithium metal, carbon, and an electrolyte that the researchers designed. The findings are described today in the journal Joule, in a paper by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Betar Gallant; Doctoral Student Aliza Khurram; and Postdoc Mingfu He. Currently, power plants equipped with carbon capture systems generally use up to 30% of the electricity they generate just to power the capture, release, and storage of carbon dioxide. Anything that can reduce the cost of that capture process, or that can result in an end product that has value, could significantly change the economics of such systems, the researchers say. However, “carbon dioxide is not very reactive,” Gallant explains, so “trying to find new reaction pathways is important.” Generally, the only way to get carbon dioxide to exhibit significant activity under electrochemical conditions is with large energy inputs in the form of high voltages, which can be an expensive and inefficient process. Ideally, the gas would undergo reactions that produce something worthwhile, such as a useful chemical or a fuel. However, efforts at electrochemical conversion, usually conducted in water, remain hindered by high energy inputs and poor selectivity of the chemicals produced. This approach is different from releasing the carbon dioxide back to the gas phase for long-term storage, as is now used in carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. That field generally looks at ways of capturing carbon dioxide from a power plant through a chemical absorption process and then either storing it in underground formations or chemically altering it into a fuel or a chemical feedstock.

Instead, this team developed a new approach that could potentially be used right in the power plant waste stream to make material for one of the main components of a battery. While interest has grown recently in the development of lithium-carbon-dioxide batteries, which use the gas as a reactant during discharge, the low reactivity of carbon dioxide has typically required the use of metal catalysts. Not only are these expensive, but their function remains poorly understood, and reactions are difficult to control. By incorporating the gas in a liquid state, however, Gallant and her co-workers found a way to achieve electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion using only a carbon electrode. The key is to pre-activate the carbon dioxide by incorporating it into an amine solution. “What we’ve shown for the first time is that this technique activates the carbon dioxide for more facile electrochemistry,” Gallant says. “These two chemistries are not normally used together, but we found that their combination imparts new and interesting behaviours that can increase the discharge voltage and allow for the sustained conversion of carbon dioxide.” They showed through a series of experiments that this approach does work, and can produce a lithium-carbon dioxide battery with voltage and capacity that is competitive with that of state-of-the-art lithium-gas batteries. Moreover, the amine acts as a molecular promoter that is not consumed in the reaction. The key was developing the right electrolyte system, Khurram explains. In this initial proof-of-concept study, they decided to use a nonaqueous electrolyte because it would limit the available reaction pathways and therefore make it easier to characterize the reaction and determine its viability. The amine material they chose is currently used for CCS applications but had not previously been applied to batteries. This early system has not yet been optimized and will require further development, the researchers say. For one thing, the cycle life of the battery is limited to 10 charge-discharge cycles, so more research is needed to improve rechargeability and prevent degradation of the cell components. “Lithium-carbon dioxide batteries are years away” as a viable product, Gallant says, as this research covers just one of several needed advances to

But the concept offers great potential, according to Gallant. Carbon capture is widely considered essential to meeting worldwide goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but there are not yet proven, long-term ways of disposing of or using all the resulting carbon dioxide. Underground geological disposal is still the leading contender, but this approach remains somewhat unproven and may be limited in how much it can accommodate. It also requires extra energy for drilling and pumping. The researchers are also investigating the possibility of developing a continuous-operation version of the process, which would use a steady stream of carbon dioxide under pressure with the amine material, rather than a preloaded supply the material, thus allowing it to deliver a steady power output as long as the battery is supplied with carbon dioxide. Ultimately, they hope to make this into an integrated system that will carry out both the capture of carbon dioxide from a power plant’s emissions stream and its conversion into an electrochemical material that could then be used in batteries. “It’s one way to sequester it as a useful product,” Gallant says.

UP CLOSE Wildflower stamens at 40x magnification

Image Credit: Samuel Silberman, Nikkon Small World Runner up 2016

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