Volume 1—Issue 1 thecurrent.uwoscience.ca September 2010 Welcome back to school! A message from your Science Students’ Council president
Alcohol, magnified See what your drink looks like under the microscope
Calculus used in real life it’s possible, we swear!
Science comics Featuring humour only a true nerd can appreciate
The chemistry behind your caffeine addiction Kevin Chen Current Editor
Something as simple as a cup of coffee is often the only thing that keeps the many students at Western awake and strong. Whether it is the crunch of last minute assignments or the pressure of cramming for final exams, coffee is by far the world’s most popular stimulant. As one of the most consumed beverages in the world, coffee has had an impressive impact on everything from the culture to the environment of each nation. However, as interesting as that may be, what kind of science students would we be if we didn’t ever
wonder about the scientific facets of coffee? Coffee is produced from the seeds of trees and shrubs of the genus Coffea. Since these seeds bear a striking resemblance to beans, they are known as “coffee beans.” These beans easily make up one of the most valuable commodity crops in the world. Originating in tropical Africa and Southern Asia, coffee plants of various species are now found growing around the world, the majority of which is produced in South American countries like Brazil and Columbia. Facing relatively few regulations and laws—and often grown with other crops that Contiued on page 4
A pharmaceutical researcher’s historic bicycle trip Zahra Sakkejha Current Editor “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” – the words of Dr. Timothy Leary, LSD’s most prominent enthusiast. A Harvard professor of psychology in the 1970s, he believed that LSD could have profound benefits for many— everyone from criminal offenders to mental patients to regular citizens. But Leary wasn’t the first to advocate a recreational and medicinal use of the drug. Its original popularity came from Switzerland at the Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis) in 1943. Albert Hoffman, an employee of the Laboratories, was the first to synthesize lyser-
gic acid diethylamide-25—what is genic bicycle ride home from the now commonly known as LSD. Hoflab. He later wrote in his journal mann discovered its effects in an that he felt completely stationunusual way. When he accidentally ary while riding his bike, and that absorbed some of the compound the images of the world around through the tips of his fingers, he him were curved, as if seen in a began seeing a funhouse mirkaleidoscope of “[he] woke up feeling ror. Once he arcolours in his healthier, even noting that rived home, he mind. Confused began accusing his breakfast tasted ‘unusuand curious, he his neighbour ally delicious’.” decided to give of being a witch, it another go. but eventually —describing Albert Hoffman, Hoffman took a started enjoying creator of LSD, after his first dose of 250 mithe experience experience with the drug crograms, which and woke up we now know is more than ten times the lowest active dose. The result of this pioneer acid trip is now known as “Bicycle Day” because of Hoffman’s hallucino-
feeling healthier, even noting that his breakfast tasted “unusually delicious”. For some reason that may have to be experienced to be understood,
Hoffman took his day-long acid trip as an indicator of the drug’s potential clinical effectiveness. He was convinced that nobody would want to use it for recreational purposes, but that psychologists would be very interested to use it as a treatment. As you might have guessed, these predictions have yet to be realized and mainstream psychological treatment using LSD is still non-existent. Although Albert Hoffman might have missed the mark with his prediction, he did teach us one very important thing—scientists do wonderful things for the world of illegal drugs.
The sole responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the authors. Its contents do not reflect the opinion of the University Students’ Council of the University of Western Ontario (“USC”). The USC assumes no responsibility or liability for any error, inaccuracy, omission or comment contained in this publication or for any use that may be made of such information by the reader.
The Current—September 2010
What is The Current?
Want to get involved?
We are the official newspaper of the Faculty of Science. Last year, we were known as “Absolute Zero”, but after a little remodeling we are now printing under a new name. A name with several different scientific meanings. It could mean the movement of electric charge. It could mean the flow of water or air. It also sounds like those little black raisin fruit things, which—depending on how you use them—could also be pretty scientific. We’re devoted to delivering you as much science-related stuff as you can handle, and delivering it in the most interesting way possible.
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Welcome to Western Science! On behalf of the entire Science Students’ Council, I’d like to extend a welcome to those both new and old into one of Canada’s most renowned institutions and Western’s best faculty. With its abundance of research opportunities, distinguished faculty members and diverse student body, there really is no better place to be than here, at Western Science. Our goal as a council is to ensure that Western lives up to its reputation as Canada’s best student experience. We are committed to continuing the traditions and principles of Western Science and at the same time evolving to meet the demands of our changing student body. In working collaboratively with our administrators and faculty members in addition to other student councils, we want to ensure that your time here is full of memories and positive experiences. Extensive classroom representation and regular council hours ensure that your voice is heard during your time here, while regular access to counselors and academic planning sessions will help you plan your future beyond these walls. To those just joining us, you can only imagine the scale of things we have planned for OWeek in September. Look forward to tons of events and activities designed to help acquaint you with both the academic and social aspects of life here at Western. Throughout the school year, you can visit www.uwoscience.com for updates and more information or visit us during office hours in Nat Sci 108. Get ready for another exciting year!
Current Editors Jaclyn Haggarty — Co-Editor-in-Chief Jesse Tahirali — Co-Editor-in-Chief Kevin Chen — Editor Zahra Sakkejha — Editor Cecilia Kwok — Editor
A Brief Guide to the Science Buildings Name: North Campus Building
Name: Material Science Addition
Short Form: NS, NatSci
Name: Physics and Astronomy Building Short Form: PAB
Short Form: NCB
Short Form: MSA
Class you might have: Chemistry + tutorials
Class you might have: Physics
Class you might have: Biology + labs
Class you might have: Chemistry labs, Physics Labs
Food: Nucleus (Pizza Pizza, Teriyaki experience, Mucho Burrito) Tim Hortons, Einstein’s (Starbucks)
Food: Tim Hortons, Extreme Pita
Tunnels: NatSci, Kresge, BioGeo
Tunnels: Physics & Astronomy, Kresge Building, Biological & Geological Sciences
Food: None, but you’re in close proximity to NatSci Tunnels: The building is connected to the Biological and Geological Sciences Building
Note: This building will be under construction, beginning this year, ending probably after you graduate.
The things you should be doing, and the things you should be avoiding
Making friends with all of your floormates
Making love with all of your floormates
Sincerely, Sabrina Nurmohamed, President Science Students’ Council
A new school year is upon us, and you might be feeling pretty overwhelmed. If you’re in first year, you get to experience the wonders of O-Week. If you’re past being a frosh, then all you get to experience is your stress levels approach infinity as we quickly approach midterm season. Here’s some information that should help you get through the year no matter what year you find yourself in.
Name: Natural Sciences Building
A message from your SSC President:
The Current—September 2010
Going to a party with a toga theme, wearing a toga
Going to a party with no theme, wearing nothing
Going out every night and celebrating O-Week
Going out every night and celebrating midterms
Calling your mom the first Calling your mom the first week, telling her you’re out week, telling her you miss of money, asking her for her, asking how she’s doing more
Offering your roommates brownies, getting to become friends with them
Offering the geese brownies, getting pecked in the shins by them
Learning about your exam material a week before you write it
Learning that you have an exam a week after it was written
Learning how to use antiderivatives for your full-year calc class
Learning how to use antibiotics for your fullbody rash
Nivin Nabeel, Amani Elrofaie, Keerat Kaur, Shawn Wheatley
Get your name in this box and show it off to your friends. TheCurrent.SSC@gmail.com
Taking a deep breath, look- Taking a deep breath looking away from your texting for your textbook in book, and calming down the Thames, and drowning
Coffee & science Continued from page 1
produce recreational drugs— these beans form the foundation on which companies such as Starbucks and Tim Hortons build their empire. The main component of coffee is caffeine, a bitter psychoactive stimulant that acts naturally in plants as a pesticide. Caffeine allows the user to experience clarity of thought and increased alertness primarily through stimulation of the central nervous system. Usually features such as the blood-brain barrier protect us from foreign chemicals, but caffeine is able to pierce through readily. Normally the many adenosine receptors on the brain bind with only adenosine which suppresses existing neural activity. Caffeine, which is structurally similar to adenosine, allows for competitive inhibition to occur. Caffeine binding with the adenosine receptors results in the familiar prevention of drowsiness. Due to the popularity of coffee it is not surprising that it is the subject of many rigorous health studies. Like most things in life, coffee provides both beneficial and detrimental influences on our short term and long term health. Beyond the obvious benefits, coffee reduces the risk of incurring many mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, while also improving short term cognitive performance. However, coffee has also been found to damage the gastrointestinal lining and cause various anxiety disorders. Although the risks are not to be taken lightly, the fact remains that the cumulative amount of extra productivity coffee results in convinces the world to look the other way. No doubt some of you right now are nursing a cup to help keep up with the bustle of your first exciting week here. Whether you choose to enhance your day with coffee or other liquids remember that however you choose to spend your O-Week, it is just a taste of an exciting four years, so try to survive long enough for the real experience to begin. Now get back to studying for that first Biology midterm, or you won’t get into med school.
The Current—September 2010
The Current—September 2010
In your face, Western medicine
Exploring the validity of ancient Chinese treatments Amani Elrofaie
The oil-soaked ocean and our energy future
Current Contributor In a new study, British researchers have utilized principles from the 2 500 year old art of Chinese face reading to accurately diagnose and predict the onset of diseases. This face reading technique, known as Physiognomy, has served two functions for oriental practitioners. Not only does it use the face as a window to interpret human character, it can also use the face to interpret the wellness of the body’s organs. It divides the face into several regions, or zones, each one representing a different organ or system, and takes any imbalances or abnormalities as indicators of overall health. According to this principle, acne in the forehead area, for instance, indicates a problem in the digestive system, perhaps resulting from toxin buildup. Similarly, acne or blemishes on the nostrils or lower cheeks may indicate a lung problem, related to capillary damage. Researchers have taken these concepts into account to test their accuracy and make early diagnoses of many disorders, including acromegaly and Parkinson’s disease. Acromegaly is a rare disorder caused by an excess of growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland. In this case, researches found that early signs for diagnosis were rapid or subtle facial changes. Widening of the frontal skull and mandibular bone overgrowth was observed in test patients. The study also observed im-
Cecilia Kwok Current Editor
Different regions of the face might be indicators of healthiness for different organs. paired facial communication signs in those with early onset signs or those at risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The signs included loss of left-sided facial animation and lines beside the eyes, resulting from drooping eyelids. At this point, no other scientifically-controlled studies have been conducted to support the claims of Chinese face reading. Because of this distinct lack of accredited studies, researchers specializing in
facial expression are still skeptical of this ancient method. Although the field may be in its early stages, further developments of this approach may in the future be used to better the accuracy of clinical diagnosis in medicine. With a tool like this under their belts, doctors would certainly become more efficient and accurate, which would ultimately improve the care for their patients.
Vodka never looked so good: An evaporated droplet of vodka photographed at 1000x under the microscope. The sugars in the drink reflect and diffract light to reveal gorgeous patterns and colours. Images are produced by Bevshots and are available for purchase. www.bevshots.com
Ever since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon on April 20th of this year, the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico has constantly been trying to wade through thick oil. The low end estimate of the spill to date is more than 180 million gallons, which is more than five times the size of the next biggest oil spill in United States history, the Exxon Valdez. The problem is that the oil is deep underwater and in the water column so it disperses further and contaminates more than just a surface spill. For one, researchers recently detected huge areas of dispersed oil that is hundreds of feet thick and up to 30 miles long. This only increases the “dead zone” that is already a problem in the Gulf of Mexico due to prominent industrial pollutants and agricultural run-off. The algae there helps to naturally clean up the wa-
ters, but it consumes so much oxygen that it leaves other wildlife an insufficient amount for survival—a condition known as hypoxia. The oil spill will only worsen the problem, as natural oil-eating microbes would only add to the hypoxic conditions. Hence, the threat of the oil spill is not just to large marine life such as fish, birds, and cetaceans, but also to zooplankton, corals, crabs, worms and shrimp. Even though the latter group of creatures may seem insignificant, a serious drop in their populations will eventually disrupts the entire food chain due to biomagnification. And there’s more good news— in haste to clean up the spill, the chemical dispersant being used on the oil is untested. This means that their safety for use in such a large situation is uncertain, and could have dangerous effects on the water and wildlife. Plus, despite these measures, the oil is already starting to wash up into coastal wetlands which were previously damaged by Hurricane Katrina, industrial pol-
lution and urbanization. Much of the oil spill will never reach the surface, leading to the inaccurate initial estimate was that 1000 barrels a day were leaking from the oil well at the explosion site. The next estimation was up to 5000 barrels a day, but soon experts discovered that the actual rate was nearly 10 times the amount estimated, and the initial estimate was 60 times shy of the actual rate. Really, there’s as much as 1.5-2.5 million gallons leaking
everyday—enough to fill more than 3 Olympic-sized pools. The consequences this manmade disaster will have on nature is obvious. If there is an upside to this debacle, it’s that the hazards of using oil as an energy source has become painfully apparent. The prominence of oil use will hopefully begin to fade, and research into alternative energy sources will hopefully soon have its day in the sun—or maybe its day in the wind or geothermal well.
The Current—September 2010
The Current—September 2010
Is that genetic variability I smell on you?
There’s more to smelling good than just swan dives and diamonds Zahra Sakkejha Current Editor You’re only as sexy as your body odor. According to a study done by Claus Wedekind of Bern University in Switzerland, your natural body odor can do wonders for your sex life. The researcher began by conducting studies on mice. In the study, female mice were given a choice of males to mate with. The catch was that she was only allowed to pick her man based on the smell of his urine. You wouldn’t think this would be the biggest in-
dicator of sexiness—but you’d be wrong. Interestingly enough, Wedekind found that the females almost always picked the male who had greater genetic variability from her. More specifically, she picked the male with a less similar MHC complex—the grouping of genes that control our response to foreign invaders. The relevance of this is that the specimens tended to be more attracted to those with a larger difference in genes, possibly because this mechanism protects them from genetic injury and defective genes. This is interesting, but if you’ve
ever taken a biology course, you may have noticed that we’re not mice. This is why Wedekind moved on to study the most sexuallyprimed humans—university students. He gave a clean cotton tshirt to each of 50 male students and told them to wear it to sleep for a weekend. They were told not to drink, smoke, have sex, or use cologne for the entire weekend. Unfathomable, perhaps, but sacrifices must be made for science. He then sat down 50 female students and told them to rate each shirt for potency of smell and sexiness. Well, the best laid scents of mice and men prove to be the ones with the most genetic vari-
ability. The sexier the women rated the man’s shirt, the more different his MHC complex was from her own. This is scientific evidence for you that opposites attract, if for some reason you have rejected the evidence given to us by things like magnets. By no means is going au naturel recommended to attract your soulmate. Please shower regularly—she’ll be able to smell your manly musk emanating from a clean body. And with a clean body, chances are she’ll be able to breathe comfortably, too. Just know that you’ve got more going for you than your Organic Chemistry mark and your parents’ minivan.
The sea salamander that remains forever young
And what we can learn about the future of aging from these ageless animals Cecilia Kwok Current Editor
© National Geographic
[Your advertisement here] Do you want to reach an audience of some of the youngest, brightest and fiscally irresponsible people in Canada? Do you want to put your ad in a newspaper for what will probably end up being one of the cheapest prices you’ll ever encounter? Look no further, and advertise with The Current! We’re not joking about the cheap prices, either. We’re simple science students, not fancy economics majors. I mean, scarcity? How many valence electrons does that have? Send us an email to TheCurrent.SSC@gmail.com with the word Advertising in the subject. We can even design and create your advertisement for you.
Everyone has dreamed of retaining their boyish good looks late into their lives, never having to fret about wrinkles, or those hairs that are somehow managing to grow directly out of their ears. Until now, eternal youth was just a fantasy—but prepare to have your daydreams realized. Actually, unless you are a Mexican sea salamander, and look like a fish with limbs, we might not be able to help you at all. This particular salamander forever looks like a teenager, as it fails to undergo metamorphosis after its birth. This means that it maintains its childish features well into adulthood. Not only does it maintain its youth as it ages, but it also has the incredible ability to regenerate entire body parts or brain cells. The axolotl, a rare species of salamanders only found in a lake underneath Mexico City, is actually that amazing. Due to its comical nature and looks, it is a popular choice of pet in Japan, United States, and Great Britain. Its unique biological nature— which includes large embryo sizes, easy breeding and regeneration of body parts—makes it a hot choice for research all over the world. This has increased the universal demand for these funny looking “wooper roopers”, which has unfortunately
led to a decline in their population. Neoteny, the retention of certain traits only present in the juvenile form, is a special trait of the axolotl due to its lack of thyroid stimulating hormone. Humans may not have the abilities that this salamander does, but with technological advances and research going strong, perhaps we will come up with an age-defying elixir at some point during our reign on Earth. Or perhaps that won’t even be necessary. Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey predicts that the first person to survive to be 1000 years of age is already alive today. If this is true, our social lives as we know them today could be in for a dramatic overhaul. Does this mean better identification methods might soon need to be developed? The idea of the possibility of looking exactly like your parents at one point in time brings a few problems, the least of which would be dying from embarrassment. Speculations aside, it is apparent that the simple and observed concept of being born, aging fairly linearly and then dying might not be the entire picture. If anything can be learned from the axolotl it’s that evolution can yield some bizarre results. And the human race, being subject to the morphing force of evolution, might be in for some surprises.
Have no fear, calculus is here! Only math will let you run past that tortoise Jesse Tahirali Current Editor It’s a regular, sunny Tuesday, and yet again you find yourself about to race a tortoise for your honour. Now, you’ve found yourself victorious on every Turtle Race Tuesday for as long as you can remember, and you’re feeling particularly confident today. You know you can run at 10 times the speed of this shelled sloth, and you’re willing to grant him a lead of 100 metres. As he slowly takes his lead, the tortoise turns his head back toward you. “Not only can I speak, but I am a master of logic!” he announces, startling everyone. “And I have deduced that it is impossible for you to overtake me in this race.” Before you can retort by talking smack about his little green mother, the tortoise launches into an explanation. “I will admit that you can cover 10 times the distance that I can travel in an equal time. However, as you run forth and reach the 100-metre mark where I originally began, I will have managed to travel 10 metres. At this point we will find ourselves in a similar situation as we began: I will have a head start, albeit a smaller one. But this the size of my lead is meaningless! Once you cover the remaining 10 metres that I managed to cover, I will have covered another metre. If you travel that metre, I will have traveled 10 centimetres more. Although my lead will constantly diminish, each time you catch up to my head start, I will be ahead of you. You cannot win!” Unable to find an inconsistency in the beast’s logic, and horrified at the idea of having lost a contest of
Image from Wikipedia
Even traveling at thrice the pace of the tortoise, on this fractal path the girl will seemingly never catch up to occupy the same straightaway as the tortoise speed to a talking turtle, you collapse in a screaming fit, ending Turtle Race Tuesday in a particularly unappealing fashion. The essence of this problem was created by Zeno of Elea in the 5th century BCE. He used this and other similar arguments—known as Zeno’s paradoxes—to “prove” the nonexistence of motion. What makes this line of thought interesting is the sharp contrast between the conclusions in the tortoise’s logic, and observable reality. It’s obvious that any person capable of movement could beat a tortoise in a sprint, yet there doesn’t seem to be a flaw in his presented logic. Luckily, you have the infinitely useful power of calculus on your side. And for once, you get to use this power in the real world. The idea boils down to the assumption that, since the runner must cover an infinite amount of finite lengths, it will take him an infinite amount of time. This proves to be untrue, however. You might remember from that course you were forced to endure in first year that an infinite series can converge—that is, adding numbers that are constantly decreasing in value forever can result in a finite
number. The series 1 + ½ + ¼ + … is a famous example of this, and sums to exactly 2. The real-world consequence of this mathematical jargon is that although you’ll be running an infinite amount of distances, the time it will take to traverse those distances will constantly decrease, and there will be a limit to the time it takes to travel them. In turtle race terms, this means that there is only a limited amount of time that your celadon-skinned opponent can maintain his lead. Armed with this new-found knowledge, you storm back to the race grounds. You push through the crowd to challenge your nemesis, on your way stepping on more turtles than Mario on a steroid-riddled rampage. You begin the rematch, and you surpass the tortoise at the exact time you calculate. As you run by, you flip him onto his back and slide him into the forest leaving him lost, scared and unable to get himself upright. As you run past the finish line, you know that with the help of modern mathematics, you were able to keep your honour, and quite possibly murder the world’s only talking turtle.
Remember how Harry Potter gets to the train station for the first time? He ran right into that magical wall and ended up on the other side. Did you ever find yourself wondering “what are the chances of me running through my wall and ending up safely on the other side?” Of course you did! Due to the “magic” of quantum mechanics, there exists a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling which allows things—usually particles—to sometimes pass through a usually impassable barrier. We’ll say you weigh 60kg because you’re scrawny, and you run at 3.0m/s because you’re out of shape. With a wall about 30cm wide, you have what you need to begin your calculation, using the formula
Plugging in your numbers, you arrive with a tunneling probability of about
This is an exceptionally small chance. There is such a small probability of you being successful using this method, that if everyone who ever lives on Earth tries to do this for their entire lives, there is practically a zero chance that anyone would ever be successful. That being said, it’s not impossible, champ. Maybe if you put your mind to it, you’ll eventually hurt your head so badly that you’ll think you’ve made it to Hogwarts. Good luck!
Do you have any questions? Maybe a complaint? Need some scientific advice? Want to send us some love letters? Or hate mail? Corrections? Or maybe you’d just like someone to talk to. Well, we’d love to hear from you no matter how insane your reasons for contacting us might be.
Email us! TheCurrent.SSC@gmail.com
The Current—September 2010
Congratulations, you read right to the end of the paper! That is, unless you just started off by reading the comics. If that’s the case, don’t feel so great about yourself—pictures are easy. If you are done with the newspaper though, you should find yourself a recycling bin and do the environmentally friendly thing. Or maybe you’re one of our advanced readers who managed to read through without spilling food or puking on the pages. Then you could even fold this thing up and place it back on a stand somewhere. That would be recycling in its purest form. Regardless, we’d like to thank you for picking this paper up—you can look for our second issue on Monday, October the 18th. See you then!
This issue contains information from everything from your caffeine addiction to sea salamanders.