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Monday March 14 2012 | | No 70572

Early life:


ROyal Society:

bacteria, genetics and you

Making waves since 1660

Science needs a bigger voice in today’s society In this month’s issue of Eureka!

The importance of keeping science alive

Ian Sample London

the march of science from the earliest blood transfusions, and attempts to capture lightning, to the confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the discovery of DNA and Stephen Hawking’s first musings on black holes. The letters reveal a history of failure eclipsed by success, and the maturation of science from a haphazard amateur pursuit to the systematised professionalism of today.


saac Newton held a clear glass prism to the sunbeam that penetrated the shutters of his darkened room and watched in awe as the wall of his office danced with all the colours of the rainbow. The 28-year-old physicist at Trinity College, Cambridge, was the first to show that white light is a blend of primary colours, a discovery that explains why grass is green and the sky is blue. His written account of the experiment in 1671 is among the oldest in a collection of scientific milestones described in Letters to the Royal Society, which are made public today to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Britain’s academy of science. The documents are released through an online library project called Trailblazing, a name inspired by Newton’s famous nod to the work of his predecessors in a note to his rival Robert Hooke: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The letters to the society record

“At that time the only scientists who were in any sense professionals were astronomers and maybe medical doctors, and of the two, the astronomers were the only ones who probably did more good than harm,” said Professor Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and president of the society. “If you look at these records, you can’t help but notice the immense range of interests they had. They were motivated by curiosity.”

If researchers don’t break free from the current system, the already fragile relationship between science and society may disintegrate. Ananyo Bhattacharya

The Guardian’s recent articles about the absurdities of the academic journal racket have brought out into the open some very important arguments that many academics, including myself, have been making for many years with little apparent effect. Now this issue is receiving wider attention, I hope sufficient pressure

PEOPLE OF INTEREST The Royal Society have provided us with invaluable information and individuals that have had a huge effect on our lives, society and knowledge.

will develop to force radical changes to the way research is communicated, not only between scientists but also between scientists and the public, because this is not just about the exorbitant cost of academic journals and the behaviour of the industry that publishes them. It’s about the much wider issue of how science should operate in a democratic society. Research, especially scientific

Sir Isaac Newton

Responsible for establishing the 3 laws of motion and discovering that white light is composed of other colours.

research, thrives in an atmosphere that allows the free exchange of ideas and information: open discussion and debate are essential if the scientific method is to operate properly. Before the arrival of the internet, academic publishers provided a valuable service that was a real benefit to the scientific community. Not any more. Recent advances in digital technology should have made the publication

Charles Babbage

Invented a working computer that was 8ft tall, had three seperate components powered by steam in the early 1820’s.

and dissemination of research much cheaper. Instead of falling, however, journal subscription fees have rocketed, even for online-only editions. This has had the effect of locking out those researchers whose institutions can’t afford to pay the extortionate access charges. The cost of supporting this parasitic industry is stifling science. Enough is enough.

Francis Bacon

Founder of Society, who’s philosophy on science was to alleviate mankind’s misery and to aid others in endeavours.

There is the letter from the chemist Robert Boyle, asking the physician Richard Lower about the consequences of transfusing blood from one animal into another. Does a dog lose its quirks after transfusion and gain those of the donor? Does blood from a big dog make a small dog grow? Can you safely replace a

The publishing giant Elsevier (currently the subject of an academic boycott) is one of the worst offenders when it comes to hindering the progress of science. How times have changed. When Galileo, having been forced to recant by the Inquisition, wrote the Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, he got the work published in non-Catholic Leiden, by a company called Elsevier …

Benjamin Franklin A polymath who invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, the Franklin stove as well as discovering the Gulf stream.

Benjamin Franklin A polymath who invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, the Franklin stove as well as discovering the Gulf stream.


Monday April 14 2012 | | No 70572

Animal magic:


new species discovered:

New studies of cognitive functioning

flora & fauna of 2012

In this month’s issue of Eureka!

Keeping track of the diversity of life

Earth has up to 8.7 million different species, say scientists Suzanne Goldberg London


umans share the planet with as many as 8.7 million different forms of life, according to what is being billed as the most accurate estimate yet of life on Earth. Researchers who have analysed the hierarchical categorisation of life on Earth to estimate how many undiscovered species exist say the diversity of life is not equally divided between land and ocean. Threequarters of the 8.7m species – the majority of which are insects – are on land; only one-quarter, 2.2m, are in the deep, even though 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. The study, which is published in the journal PLoS Biology, underlines just how little humans know about what is out there – and which plants and animals will become extinct before scientists can even record their existence. “Scientists have been working on this question of how many species for so many years,” said Dr Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The quest was growing increasingly urgent. “We know we are losing species because of human activity, but we can’t really appreciate the magnitude of species lost until we know what species are there,” he said. An astonishing 86% of all plants and animals on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be named and catalogued, the study said. The authors drew on the taxonomy, or categorisation system, devised by Carl Linnaeus about 250 years ago to arrive at their estimate of 8.7m – give or take 1.3m.

The Swedish biologist devised a hierarchical, tree-like structure where each individual species was classed in a series of progressively larger groups, culminating at the kingdom level. Thus a single species of hermit crab is classified in the decapod order, which belongs to the sub-phylum of crustaceans, the phylum of arthropods, and finally the animal kingdom. The authors, in their analysis of existing data on 1.2m species, detected patterns between those hierarchical groupings which they could use to infer the existence of missing species that scientists have not yet described. That allowed them to use data from higher orders – such as anthropods, where there is a lot of data – to predict the number of creatures at the species level. Their estimate that the various forms of life on the planet included 7.8m species of animal, 298,000 species of plant and 611,000 species of mushrooms, mould and other fungi along with 36,400 species of protozoa, singlecelled organisms, and 27,500 species of algae or chromists. The researchers did not venture to put an estimate on the number of bacteria. Scientists have been trying to count and catalogue the living world for 250 years, since around the time when the Linnaeus devised his method of cataloging and naming living things. Current estimates range from 3m to 100m. “It’s not that we just don’t know the names in the phone book. We don’t know how big the phone book is,” said Derek Tittensor, a co-author who works for the UN Environment Programme. Robert May, a former UK government science adviser, acknowledged that this effort, like all those of its predecessors, was based on imperfect knowledge. But he said the study’s conclusions were reasonable.

PEOPLE OF INTEREST Some more fantastic individuals related to this month’s issue of Eureka, you can find out more about them on the Times website.

Charles Darwin One of the most profound and famous naturalists to date, he was the first to chronicle and propose a theory for evoultion and the vast diversity of life on the planet.

John Burroughs He did a great deal for the state of nature journalism and denouncing what was referred to as “fantastical observations” on the subject, as most exaggerated claims in print.

Rachel Carson Her legacy spans many subjects, but in particular, she chronicled the Atlantic seaboards complex ecosystems, which were the foundations for marine biology.

Karl Popper Proposed that science should adopt a methodology based on falsifiability for demarcation, because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can.

Georges Cuvier Cuvier was a major figure in natural sciences research in the early 19th century, and was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology through his work in comparing living animals with fossils.

Aldo Leopold

Latest bid to count and catalogue the living world is billed as the most accurate yet, but only a tiny proportion is known to science “Glam Rock” Chameleon Furcifer timoni Speckled with what looks like glam rock makeup, the chameleon Furcifer timoni was recently discovered on the species-rich African island nation of Madagascar, according to a WWF report released in June.

Finding the colorful new chameleon was “very surprising,” since the northern rain forests where it was discovered have been repeatedly and intensively surveyed for reptiles, according to the conservation group. This sort of research needs to continue if we are to conserve and keep the variety of life we have on the planet.

He was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation.

Sylvia Earle She is an oceanographer, explorer, author, lecturer, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, council chair for the Harte Research Institute for the Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&-Corpus Christi, founder and chairman of the Deep Search Foundation, and finally the chair of the Advisory Council for the Ocean in Google Earth.


Monday May 14 2012 | | No 70572

military cyborgs?: neuroscience & war

Synchronized brain: strong emotions make brains ‘tick together”

Neuroscience: Bipedalism, Birth and Brain growth In this month’s issue of Eureka!


The importance of keeping science alive neural activity are needed to keep us aware of the world. Probably, like an orchestra, not every component can be individually picked out, but almost all are needed to produce the final experience. We see a lot stories illustrated with fMRI brain scans. What does this measure? fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging and, to cut a long story short, measures where oxygen-rich blood accumulates in the brain, while the subsequent statistical analysis attempts to say how reliably these changes in blood flow are associated with the specific mental task being tested. As the more active areas need more oxygen, measuring oxygenated blood is a way of inferring where more “work” is being done. What are the limitations of fMRI scans? Firstly, blood flow isn’t a brilliant guide to brain activity – it tends to unevenly lag behind neural activity. Secondly, fMRI doesn’t have the same sensitivity across the whole

What is it? Vaughan Bell London

Neuroscience is actually a subject that has always been part of human development and intrinsic to burial rituals and early understanding of biology

Edgar Adrian British electrophysiologist who won a nobel prize for his groundbreaking work on the functions of neurons, as well as the impact they have on motorary functions.

Carlos Filho He was internationally renowned for his investigations on the neural mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of electrogenesis by the electroplaques of electric fishes.

Francis Crick English molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist, and most noted for being a co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 together with James Watson.

James Fallon Fallon has made significant scientific contributions in several neuroscientific subjects, including discoveries of TGF alpha, epidermal growth factor, and the first to show large-scale stimulation adult stem cells in the injured brain using growth factors.

What is neuroscience? It is the study of the nervous system and, most notably, the brain. There are several areas of interest: neurobiology looks at the chemistry of cells and their interactions; cognitive neuroscience looks at how the brain supports psychological processes; and computational neuroscience aims to create computer models of the brain to test theories. Questions could include anything from why certain proteins appear in neurons to how the brain supports consciousness. It seems to be a boom area in science at the moment, why? The discovery of the first effective psychiatric drugs in the 1950s and 60s made neuroscience both useful and profitable and drug companies have poured billions into the area ever since. In the 70s, neuropsychologists studying brain-injured patients discovered that the mind seemed to be divided unevenly across the brain, suggesting the exciting possibility of an innate structure to the self. The birth of functional brain imaging in the 90s allowed us to see, at least vaguely, the brain in action and the images fuelled a massive popular interest. A lot of neuroscience appears focused on brain processes we


Jean Decety His research focuses on the neurobiological mechanisms underpinning social cognition, particularly empathy, sympathy, prosocial behavior and more generally interpersonal processes.

Sylvia Earle

would never notice. How much brain activity is involved in powering the unconscious? Probably a great deal, although the concept of the unconscious is a slippery one. What we experience consciously depends both on the context and what else the brain

is doing. A brain function may go completely unnoticed in one situation but will lead to a distinct and noticeable experience in another. Recent studies on people waking from anaesthesia have put paid to the idea that “almost all” brain activity is unconscious. Massive amounts of

brain, meaning some areas may seem less active when they’re not. But the most important limitation comes from difficulties with using statistics to analyse the massive amount of data the technique produces. Different statistical techniques can produce different results. All brain scan images

She is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of the cognitive functions (called “executive functions,” “self-regulation,” or “cognitive control”) that depend on prefrontal cortex. Since 1980, she has studied these functions from their earliest beginnings in infancy, throughout the lifespan in clinical and “normal” populations. These abilities include inhibition (effortful or self-control), cognitive flexibility, working memory, directed attention, and reasoning. Her lab examines fundamental questions about the development, neuroanatomical and neurochemical bases of the field.


Monday June 14 2012 | | No 70572

Goldilock’s planet:


Patrick moore:

exoplanets & E.t.’s

Sky at night’s 700th broadcast

Astronomy is a science for everyone, just look up In this month’s issue of Eureka!

The importance of keeping science alive

Prof. Brian Cox Oldham

Just glance up at the sky on one of those cloudless, frosty evenings and you will see with your own eyes a realm of vast galaxies, colourful stars, vibrant interstellar gas clouds, planets of ice and moons of fire. The universe is a place to let your imagination wander, just for a moment, on winter nights, with ideas such as: Is there alien life among those shimmering points of light? What would it be like to fly through Saturn’s rings or witness the death of a star 1,000 times the size of our sun? How did our universe begin and will it ever end? Astronomy asks the biggest possible questions. Perhaps this is why Britain is a nation fascinated by astronomy — Sir Patrick Moore’s TV programme The Sky At Night, first shown in 1957, is soon to celebrate its 700th broadcast and my own show, Wonders Of The Solar System, apparently caused telescope sales to jump by 50 per cent at John Lewis last year. What this says to me is that astronomy is unique among the sciences because it doesn’t take much to get interested in it. You just need to be curious about the universe... and look up. So what wonders of the universe can you see on your next winter’s evening walk back from the pub? If you’re out of a city it helps a lot — the glow from street lights obscures all but the brightest of the

sky’s treasures. But even so, some are so spectacular that you will see them from anywhere. Ever since I was young I associated the period around Christmas with the appearance in the night sky of the constellation of Orion. It is the easiest of the star patterns to spot and is filled with fascinating objects. The bright star at the top left is called Betelgeuse, often pronounced “beetle juice”. If you look carefully, you will see that it’s a red star. This is because Betelgeuse is a “red giant” — a star at the end of its life, rapidly running out

of nuclear fuel. Betelgeuse is so enormous that if you placed it in our solar system where the sun sits, every planet out to the orbit of Jupiter would be inside it! It is also likely to explode very soon — by which I mean in a few thousand years, although it could be tomorrow — and when this happens it will shine so brightly that for a few spectacular weeks we will have a second sun in our sky. If you’re away from the city or have a pair of binoculars handy, then Orion has something else to offer.

Look at the stars hanging below his belt — these are known as Orion’s Sword. If you look carefully you will see that the middle of the sword looks like a faint misty patch rather than a star. This is the Orion Nebula, a vast cloud of interstellar gas and dust. You are looking at a stellar nursery — a place where new stars are being born before your eyes. Five billion years ago, our sun and Earth would have begun deep within a colourful nebula like this. My favourite of all the wonders of the

winter sky is the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s quite faint but easily visible with binoculars or the naked eye on a dark night. If you want to fire your imagination with the romance of astronomy, have a go at finding it. It appears as a misty cloud between the constellations of Cassiopeia and Pegasus, yet it is far more distant than all the stars you can see in the sky. Andromeda is an entire galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars, 2.5million light years from Earth. That means that if you were to travel at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it would take 2.5million YEARS to reach it. Imagine how many stars and planets there are in that misty patch of light. There must surely be life in that stellar island, even space-faring civilizations far more advanced than our own. Yet because of the vast distances that separate us, we will never meet anyone from Andromeda. We can only gaze up at its light and dream. Another great favourite of mine in the winter sky is the Pleides star cluster in the constellation of Taurus The Bull, often called the Seven Sisters. There are hundreds of stars in this cluster and the brightest ten or so are easily visible to the naked eye. They are bright, young, blue stars, all less than 100million years old. The brightest you can see is called Alcyone A, a vast star ten times the radius of our sun and more than 2,000 times as bright. Alcyone A has three other stars orbiting around it but they are tiny in comparison and can’t be seen with the naked eye. Along with Orion, the easiest constellation to see is the Plough. The brightest star at the top right is a red giant star called Dubhe. But perhaps the most interesting star

PEOPLE OF INTEREST We hope to inspire and intrique your appetite for everything to do with the regions of space, astrophysics, galaxies and the questions of our existence.

Sir Isaac Newton

Responsible for establishing the 3 laws of motion and discovering that white light is composed of other colours.


Developed a simple heliocentric model of the solar system that explained planetary retrograde motion and disproved the Greeks

Henry Draper

First photographed a stellar spectrum (Vega); later photographed spectra of over a hundred stars.

William Fowler

Developed, with others, a complete theory of the formation of chemical elements in the universe.

Karl Schwarzchild Gave exact solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, also made the first study of black holes.


Monday July 14 2012 | | No 70572

Nikola tesla and you:

theory of plasma proven In this Month’s issue of Eureka!

From cosmetics to cars, many products we use on a daily basis already utilise nanotechnology – but are you aware of the implications? Penny Sarchet London

Nanotechnology is technology that operates on the nanoscale, about one billionth of a metre. If a living cell were a large city, then a nanometre would be about the size of a car. Nanotechnology is the art of engineering down at this hard-tofathom scale. The idea started in 1959 when famous physicist Richard Feynman suggested we could manipulate individual atoms and use them to build tiny machines. However, the term “nanotechnology” was not coined until the 1980s and lumps together different and varied ideas. All that unites these different technologies is that they use nano-sized building blocks. While other technologies make machines out of bulk materials – microchips out of silicon, wires out of copper, cars out of steel – nanotechnology makes machines out of large, complex molecules. Because nanotechnology works at such an extreme and unexplored scale, it opens up a world of new possibilities. Many nanomaterials possess special properties, such as great strength or high ability to conduct electricity. Scientists working in the field of nanotechnology often look to nature

Nanotech in ancient history:

from the damascans to the romans

Nanotechnology: reality vs fantasy The importance of keeping science alive

to provide ideas for “smart” ways to solve complex problems. For example, spider silk and lotus leaves have both been studied in order to replicate their special properties, ie their tensile strength or ability to repel water, in engineered materials. the discovery of DNA and Stephen Hawking’s first musings on black holes. The letters reveal a history of failure eclipsed by success, and the maturation of science from a haphazard amateur pursuit to the systematised professionalism of today. “At that time the only scientists who were in any sense professionals were astronomers and maybe medical doctors, and of the two, the astronomers were the only ones who probably did more good than harm,” said Professor Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and president of the society. “If you look at these records, you can’t help but notice the immense range of interests they had. They were motivated by curiosity.” There is the letter from the chemist Robert Boyle, asking the physician Richard Lower about the consequences of transfusing blood from one animal into another. Does a dog lose its quirks after transfusion

Nanotechnology is often confined to niche products, but quantum dots are so versatile they could be used in everything from light bulbs to laptops. Duncan Graham-Rowe

The properties of a material were once thought to be defined only by its chemical composition. But size matters too, especially for semiconductors. Make crystals of silicon small enough – less than 10 nanometres – and their tiny dimensions can start to dictate


how the atoms behave and react in the presence of other things. These tiny bits of semiconductor crystals – so-called quantum dots – have such remarkable, novel properties that scientists think they will soon be used in everything from light bulbs to imaging of cancer cells or in the design of ultra-efficient solar cells.

Semiconductors such as silicon or indium arsenide are chosen to build electronic circuits because of the discrete energy levels at which they can give off electrons or photons. This makes them useful in building switches, transistors and other devices. It was once thought these energy levels – known as band gaps – were fixed. But shrinking the physical size of the semiconductor material to quantum-dot level seems able to change the band gaps, altering the wavelengths of light the material can emit or changing the energy it takes to change a material

from an insulator to a conductor. Instead of looking for brand new materials to build different devices, then, quantum dots make it possible to use a single type of semiconductor to produce a range of different characteristics. Researchers could tune dots made from silicon to emit a range of different colours in different situations, for example, instead of having to use a range of materials with different chemical compositions. “The main application for quantum dots at the moment is biological tagging of cells,” says Paul O’Brien,

a professor of inorganic materials at the University of Manchester and co-founder of Nanoco Technologies a quantum dot manufacturer also based in Manchester. They are used in the same way as fluorescent dyes, to label agents, he says, but with the advantage that a single laser source can be used to illuminate many different tags each with a specific wavelength. By attaching different types of quantum dots to proteins that target and attach to specific cell types in the body, these bits of semiconductor

PEOPLE OF INTEREST Nanotechnologists are a recent breed of scientists whose exploits range from a huge range of applications, both past and present.

Paul Alivistatos

A world leader in the synthesis of artificial nanostructures and quantum dot technology, a founder of the practice.

Cees Dekker

At the end of the 90s Dekker discovered the properties of carbon nanotubes, which turned into applied nanoscience.

Don Eigler

Famous for spelling IBM out of 35 individual Xenon atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope in 1989.

Robert Freitas

Created Sentience Quotient (SQ) as a way to describe the information processing rate in living organisms or computers.

Charles Lieber

known for his contributions to the synthesis, fundamental understanding, and assembly of nanoscale materials.