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The University of York Student Science Magazine

January 2013


Reasons to love bacteria They’re not so bad after all

Genetically Marvellous Is GM the way to go?

Cancer complexity There’s a bit more to it

Nuclear option Learning to love nuclear

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Also... Interview

We pin down Mark Henderson to discuss the role of science in society


A step-by-step look at the brand new York Plasma Institute


Editorial Editors-in-Chief Matt Ravenhall Will Ingram Editors Claire Fretwell James Cameron Jessica Wynn Photography Team Ellen Rawlins Sam Fisk Rachel Holden Web Team Tree Jervis Chris Armstrong Cover Images Credits: Ellen Rawlins

Spark is the University of York’s resident student science magazine, bringing themed issues to campus on a wide range of topics. Our aim is to make people realise that science is more than just a body of knowledge, it is also a powerful way of thinking which we can all benefit from.


ulls are not actually enraged by the colour red. Shaving does not cause hair to grow back quicker and thicker. Alcohol does not make you warmer, we’re sorry to say, despite what your post-Willow stumble through our recent snows made you think. Our society’s psyche is riddled with misconceptions. Too often clarification is just the scoff of a pedant, and nothing more. However, throughout this second edition of Spark we’ll be highlighting the misconceptions that go beyond nerdy arrogance, and actually have resoundingly detrimental effects on us, society, and the planet. Nuclear power’s dangerous, right? So are chemicals in our food? Have a look inside,

and hopefully you’ll come away with an understanding of pressing topics that go beyond headlines from the Daily Mail, and overly publicised views from outspoken pressure groups. We need to be able to think for ourselves. Ex-Science Editor of The Times, Mark Henderson, who we were lucky enough to talk to (p18), is an example of someone who is waving the flag for reason. He also has some interesting things to say about science’s role in society, the humanities-science divide, and why History students should read this magazine. In this issue we also wanted to learn more about the research going on in York. This city is one of six science cities in the UK designed to spearhead economic growth and yet

most students know very little about the ground-breaking research going on outside of our adumbral lecture theatres. We have top-of-the-game science departments, a thriving science park, and enough genius academics to put Tweed and Leather-Patch Limited out of business. We also found loads of cool looking apparatus in the York Plasma Institute (p14) that we wanted to show you all. Lastly, this term we have taken our aim to give science more of a voice on campus quite literally by starting a series of fortnightly podcasts in collaboration with URY. They don’t like us calling them podcasts, but check them out on their website. Enjoy edition 2.

Nouse & Cocaine

Scientific rigour would have given drug investigation headline legitimacy

Email: Website: Facebook: Twitter: @YorkSpark Printed by: FulPrint Heslington Road York

In December Nouse published the results of their ‘drug investigation’ carried out over the two campuses, and splashed it underneath the front page headline ‘University in cocaine denial’. The testing was conducted on the back of a previous Nouse study in 2008, and found similar results. The University however urged that conclusions shouldn’t be drawn due to the unreliability of the testing used; this ‘denial’ was Nouse’s story. While this is kind of investigative initiative is important in whistle-blowing potential welfare issues, care might have been taken in ensuring that the study was conducted in a scientific method. Perhaps the University would have listened more closely to a more serious test. Doing this would have meant a few things. Making use of all analytical techniques available to give as much of an evidence base as possible is important. While the Crackdown Drugs Testing swabs that the team used do show trace amounts of cocaine, such preliminary findings should not have been portrayed as conclusive. Such swabs are simply an indicator, and can give false positive results – when used by law enforcement agencies positive swabs would usually be send back to the lab for further verification, and would be unlikely to stand up in court on their own. Tsumura et al. suggests conducting further field tests, such as the Marquis or Ehrlich indole test, and when suspected should be laboratory tested as soon as possible. A common laboratory technique known as HPLC-MS is normally enough to prove

beyond reasonable doubt the presence of cocaine. For this to become a valid story, and for Nouse to be able to publish “sites...have tested positive for cocaine”, the possibility of false negatives needs to be disproved by rigorous testing. Science does not work by hunting for evidence to uphold predefined conclusions; cooking up a story on the back of previous ones (in this case the 2008 cocaine story) may not have been the best way to start off this investigation. Subconscious (or conscious) biases skew findings. Science is conducted by disproving ideas, not by searching out evidence to support a foregone one. The paper was totally correct to conduct and publish this work, and praise should be given for raising awareness for what is a potential welfare issue. Indicators are still important, and we mustn’t stultify the teams work by yet another campus whinge. What can now be done by the University is conduct a better designed and quantifiable study of cocaine use on campus. Such a scientific study could be properly replicated over time, leading to statistical trends showing changes in cocaine use. What’s more, this is a good opportunity for a cross departmental study that engages YUSU and us students. Why not get students to make this their third or fourth year projects? It was wrong of Nouse to wrap what might be deemed a prearranged conclusion in questionable evidence as part of a front page splash. However, let’s hope it’s used to our advantage, and work is done to create a real headline.



Around York 3: News The latest and greatest research 3: Upcoming Events What’s going on around York? 4: LabTour We take a trip into the York Plasma Institute

Features 5-6: Playing God Is GM really something to be scared of? 7-8: What did bacteria ever do for us? Tackling what the little guys do for you


Online How much is a human body worth? Taking selling yourself to the extreme Endangered pregnancy tests No morning after pills in the Serengeti Are we alone, or even real? Is there anybody out there? Does humanity need eugenics? Could human-directed evolution be our future? Biofuels in brief A look at the potential fuels of tomorrow All this and more at Sophie Quick

9-10: This is where stars are born There is a lot of awesome stuff up there

Articles 11: Much ado about mutations Not quite superpowers and abominations 12: It’s not easy being green... Is recycling really helping the environment? 13: Nothing natural about it Don’t get fooled by ‘chemical-free’ 14: The complexity of cancer Cancer isn’t quite what you think it is

Comment 15: It’s time to talk about Fracking Is shale gas worth pursuing? 16: Considering the Nuclear option What’s so wrong with nuclear anyway?

MindGames 17: Crossword Train your brain with our crossword 17: In Series Our new regular cartoon has arrived

Interview 18: Mark Henderson On the key role of science in society

Preserving the floating city. Find out more on our website.

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

Supported by:

-Carl Sagan



The Latest in Science at York Blind aided by software

Sam Twidale, an undergraduate from the Department of Computer Science, has developed a computer program that allows blind people to do crosswords. Users select crossword clues, and a Speech Application Programming Interface reads them out, spelling out if needed. Sam was helped by feedback from blind friends during development.

Neon uncovers novae

An international team co-led by the University of York has published findings on the explosions of white dwarf stars, or novae. The scientists measured the nuclear structure of radioactive neon created in such explosions in great detail, and their findings will be invaluable with the interpretation of upcoming experimentation.

Insulin secrets revealed

Research at the York Structural Biology Laboratory has shed light on how insulin binds to its receptor. The team, in co-ordination with researchers from the United States, Australia and the Czech Republic propose that a change occurs in the 3D shape of both the receptor and the binding insulin.

Ocean iodine feedback

The impact of rare plants

Health links formed

Resistant rice research

As iodine reacts with ozone, further ozone-depleting species are created which enhance the degradative effect. This unexpected negative feedback event has been discovered by scientists in the Department of Chemistry. It is thought that this feedback is responsible for a significant proportion of the degradation of ozone above warm sea waters.

An ecological study on how rare plants are impacted by climate change had been conducted by York scientists. Certain plants surveyed in the Eastern Arc Mountains in Kenya and Tanzania, which house some of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth, were shown to grow at different elevations depending on climactic variation.

A team of scientists from the UK, India and the USA, led by the University of York, has begun a four-year project on developing new genetic varieties of rice that will be more resistant to climate extremes. Two billion people eat rice as their staple food, and more stable yields are needed.

A delegation of eight academics from York, led by the Vice-Chancellor Brian Cantor, is visiting Sri Lanka and India to promote new international links in the health sciences. Representatives from different departments from the University aim to build formal links with medical and nursing schools, and with diabetes nursing care.

Upcoming Events Of Fossils & Fracking

Juggling - Theory and Practice

From Meerkats to antimicrobials

Geologist Liam Herringshaw takes a look at shale gas and its prospects in the United Kingdom. During this talk he will examine the science behind some recent sensationalist news stories and argue that an understanding of geology is vital for the future of energy. More info at

Colin Wright, mathematician and juggler combines the two in this eye-opening talk suitable for most ages. Mathematically knowledged or not, everyone will find something to interest them here. NB: The Phoenix doesn’t accept credit cards, so bring cash if you want to buy a drink!

Fifteen years ago Dr Ashleigh Griffin, of Oxford University, was studying meerkats in the Kalahari desert for her PhD. Today that work has led to novel strategies for combating antibiotic resistance. This is one example of how pure research can lead to real world applications. A point which Dr Griffen stresses is more vital to remember in the current economic climate. More info at

Seebohm Rowntree-February 7 - 7:00pm

The Phoenix Inn - February 25 - 7:30PM

More info at

P/X001 - March 5 - 6:30pm



Inside the York Plasma Institute The York Plasma Institute is the newest addition to the campus (Spark, October 2012). We were given a tour of the new, shiny laboratories, and shown all the new, shiny kit that they play with. Firstly, what is a plasma? A plasma is a fluid of charged particles such as positive ions, negative ions or electrons and is one of the fundamental states of matter. Plasmas are created by gases being treated with heat, or by other means, such as a strong electromagnetic field applied with a lasers or microwaves. Like this apparatus does. This apparatus fires a very high powered laser (one that can “punch holes in aluminium”) through lots of impressive-looking optics into a chamber, and directs it onto a tiny pellet of fuel made from isotopes of Hydrogen (Deuterium and Tritium). This is heated and compressed with lasers, and the two react to form Helium and - more importantly - energy. This is a form of nuclear fusion.

When the laboratories were being built, the doors to the room that houses this monstrous machine had to be made almost double height to allow them to get it in. The owners of this van-sized bundle of wires, microchips, and tubing – Intel – don’t quite know how it works, so they gave it to York to tinker with.

Here we can see a thin line of plasma begin contained between two quartz sheets. It’s adjusted with radio wave frequencies – science research is only allowed to use certain noncivilian radio wavelengths – and our affable guide Andy spends his time measuring different distances along the beam using a technique known as optical emission spectroscopy.

While it is perhaps the least impressive piece of kit in the building, this atmospheric pressure plasma jet has amazing potential application in the real world. Biomedical tests are being done with this by firing a stream of plasma onto bacterial cultures, and seeing how it kills bugs that are harmful to humans. It is the chemical species that are created in the plasma that do the work on bacteria. In future it could be used to sterilise surgical apparatus that are now only one-use, along with plastic bottles and foods like peanuts. It’s dry, room temperature, and much cooler that just washing up.

Our personal favourite, this Bond-villainesque contraption creates plasma inside the viewing chamber of the GEC cell. Huge measures of accuracies are needed when it comes to gas and energy inputs, and lots of computing is needed to fine tune them.



Playing God “

Is GM something to be feared?

It’s often presented as a choice between organic and GM but it’s not - GM isn’t replacing organic. It’s a choice between using GM and using more fertilisers on crops - Professor Giles Oldroyd


t is a simple fact that humans need to eat, and with an exploding population of more than seven billion, feeding everyone is only going to get harder. Couple this with an increasingly uncooperative global environment, thanks to a changing climate, and it becomes very clear that something brilliant is needed. Enter the direct genetic modification of crops, a beauty of modern biotechnology. Except it’s not that modern. In fact, it’s been happening successfully since 1983, when a gene for antibiotic resistance was introduced to a tobacco plant. Just over a decade later, in 1994, the first commercially available GM food burst onto the shelves in US. Flavr Savr, as it was known, was a tomato which was more resistance to rotting and fungal infection than the inferior ‘natural’ tomato. Since then the genetic modification of crops has increased in prevalence, so that today it is estimated that 80% of food in the US contains at least one GM ingredient. Furthermore, in 2011 160 million hectares of GM crops were planted by 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries. 19 of those were developing countries. So why, considering that hundreds of millions of people (at least) have consumed genetically modified foods, is there so much opposition to the technology? The arguments against the use of genetic modification tend to revolve around two misconceptions: that eating GM foods is a health risk and that the technology only benefits multinationals such as Monsanto. So let’s discuss each of these.

Matt Ravenhall clears up some of the misconceptions surrounding GM crops

Is GM a health risk?

Arguably the most important question to ask about any type of food is whether or not eating the stuff will give you horrid cancerous tumours or generally ruin your day. After all, the main purpose of food is in ensuring the continuation of your life – the opposite would not be ideal. Fears about safety are also behind desires for GM containing foods to be specially labelled. But are such fears justified? Let’s take a look at the evidence. When considering the conclusions of all the major scientific organisations, a broad scientific consensus emerges that GM crops pose no greater risk than non-GM crops. Among those organisations are The World Health Organisation, American Association for the Advancement of Science, The Royal Society, The American Medical Association and The US National Academy of Science. Simply put, all respected scientific associations agree that genetically modified foods are safe to eat. This is supported by the fact that there have been no reports of GMcaused adverse effects upon the health of the human population reported, ever. Even though, as previously stated, hundreds of millions of people have consumed GM products for decades. This is not to say that genetically modified crops should not be tested, or testing be improved. In fact there is a large amount of support for this, just as there is for foodstuff in general. However, it is certainly clear that the scientific community believes that GM as a technology poses no significant health risk. Indeed many associations such as the AAAS also oppose the labelling of GM-containing foods as it would suggest that a health risk exists when it does not.

Naturally, each new variation of a crop produced via genetic modification will need to be proven to be safe before it can be sold commercially. After all, the effects of the process depend heavily on what genes are being inserted. It is for this reason that government bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority and Food & Drug Administration exist. GM foods will have to be at the same standard as every other food on the self. So in terms of health risks, GM is no different from non-GM. In fact, some GM crops may hold significant health benefits. One such example is Golden Rice, a variant of Oryza sativa rice enhanced to contain a vitamin A precursor. It is hoped that the use of this rice will combat vitamin A deficiency, which currently accounts for the death of over 670,000 children under the age of 5 each year.

Who actually benefits?

One common claim about GM is that it functions to allow large multinationals to gain a monopoly over the food supplies. This is defended, it is claimed, by patents and law suits. The end result of this, it is argued, is that farmers especially in developing countries are worse off. This conclusion is in stark contrast to a 2012 study by PG Economics which concluded that “GM crops increased farm incomes worldwide by $14 billion in 2010, with over half this total going to farmers in developing countries”. Overall, however, it seems that the economic aspects of GM are ‘mixed’ with variability depending on the specific crop. It is also worth considering that, in the words of Mark Lynas, the rejection of the technology would be “illogical and potentially harmful to the interests of poor peoples and the environment”.



There is, however, a risk of monopolies forming as unnecessary over-regulation (particularly in the European Union) of GM crops forces smaller companies and charities out of the field. Only big corporations can afford to fully operate within these regulations. Furthermore, the destructive actions of groups such as Greenpeace and more recently Take the Flour Back tend to target publicly-funded research intended for public information. One such example is the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which recently received major funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This funding was based on the agreement that all available information from the research would be made available to developing governments for use by smallholders. The work being undertaken aims to produce and test crops which require little or no fertiliser; an aim which, if successful, will have a significant impact on reducing farming-related environmental damage.

Around 550 Amish farmers use GM crops

A second example is the Rothamsted Wheat Trial, another publicly funded trial conducting research for public information. This trial attracted attention from ‘Take the Flour Back’ who had notable support from both the Green Party leader and its candidate for London Major. Fortunately, there was an over-whelming counter-protest by scientific interest groups such as Sense About Science and members of the public. These two examples clearly show a public interest in research and clear benefits for farmers, especially in developing countries. It also demonstrates the dangerous opposition of so-called ‘green’ organisations.

A diverse approach

GM is a neutral technology; it is neither inherently good or bad. The full outcome of a genetically modified organism relies upon the genes being introduced, the methods being utilised and the environment that organism finds itself in. Determining whether a particular crop is good or bad requires

carefully controlled trials. If those trials are constantly destroyed, the good applications of genetic modification cannot and will not be separated from the bad. The worst part is that those who are most enthusiastic about destroying GM trials, such as the Greenpeace, are the groups who should be most in support of the technology. Why? Because GM had the potential to make farming even more efficient that it currently is. This will inevitably lead to potential solutions in solving world hunger and adapting to climate change. Yet an ideology-based argument, rather than an evidence-based based one, is preventing the benefits of GM being realised. Too often evidence is cherry-picked rather than being viewed as a whole and correctly evaluated. If we are to face up to this generation’s challenges of feeding a growing population in a world with a changing climate, GM is one of the tools that must be utilised.



What did bacteria ever do for us?

Becky Johnson explains why bacteria should get the love that they deserve


1-3% of your body mass is bacteria. Therefore if you weigh 65kg, around 2kg of that is microbes

acteria often get a bad press. They make you sick after you eat a suspect kebab, they ruin your milk so that you have to trek outside to go buy more, they help lend the University lake its charming odour and they cause a whole raft of unpleasant and life-threatening diseases that you’d rather do without. What’s more, bacteria are everywhere; on our toilet seats, our bin lids, our phones, doorknobs, on our hands, our food, in the air, the water, the soil…. In fact, it is estimated that, in total, there are around 5 million trillion trillion of the little guys on Earth, with these microscopic organisms able to thrive in some of the most inhospitable environments going. To be fair to bacteria, most of them are completely harmless – only a very small fraction cause harm to humans – and several bacterial processes are absolutely critical for supporting life on Earth. To subscribe to the idea that all bacteria are evil is to write off 400,000 million tonnes of the Earth’s dry biomass; for comparison, humans only account for 100 million tonnes. So put down that Dettol and keep reading for the top five reasons why you should see bacteria as friends not foes.


Rachel Holden

Only a very small fraction of bacteria cause harm to humans - and several bacterial processes are absolutely critical for supporting life on Earth

Despite the irony, the majority of substances that are capable of killing bacteria are in fact made by bacteria, with two-thirds of all clinically useful antibiotics being produced by just one genus, the Streptomyces. Streptomyces are soil-dwelling bacteria which use antibiotics as a way of killing their rivals in the fiercely competitive and harsh environment that they live in. Cleverly, the Streptomyces will also have the relevant antibiotic resistance so that they themselves are unaffected. This is close to the bacterial equivalent of releasing a weaponised form of smallpox but ensuring that ‘your’ people (or at the very least yourself) have been immunised against it, therefore efficiently wiping out only your enemies. Researchers exploit such antibiotic-producing bacteria to find and develop compounds which can then be used in healthcare; such finds include streptomycin and tetracycline. Tetracycline is an especially successful find; effective against a wide range of bacteria, it is used to treat a huge variety of human inflictions ranging from plague to cholera, through to acne and chlamydia.

the atmosphere Back when the Earth was young, approximately 3.5 billion years ago, the world was a very different place indeed. Microbial life had appeared approximately 500 million years before, but this primitive life on ancient Earth had only just learnt to photosynthesise. Photosynthesis is a process you may recognise from plants, where energy from the Sun is captured in the form of chemical energy by a series of chemical reactions, using carbon dioxide and water, releasing oxygen as a waste product. At this time, oxygen levels were insignificant, estimated at being less than 10ppm (that’s less than 0.001 per cent of the at-

mosphere) and remained insignificant until around 2.3 billion years ago when the vividly named Great Oxygenation Event/Catastrophe/Crisis occurred. This event was a major environmental change, marked by the appearance of far greater concentrations of oxygen (O2) in the atmosphere. The culprit O2 was being produced by cyanobacteria – a phylum of bacteria which have the ability to photosynthesise. This ancient group had been producing oxygen for the 1 billion years or so before the Great Oxygenation Event, however the only difference was that the earlier made O2 had been captured by organic

matter and iron. The Oxygenation Event was simply the point when these O2 ‘sinks’ had had their fill, allowing the later O2 to begin accumulating in the atmosphere as ‘free oxygen’. From this point on, O2 levels continued to rise until reaching present day levels where oxygen accounts for around 20% of the atmosphere. In short, bacteria (with special credit to the cyanobacteria) gave us the gift of oxygen, shaping the composition of the atmosphere as it exists today. As such, this allowed the first oxygen-respiring humans to blossom into existence approximately 2 billion years later. monkeyatlarge



healthy gut, healthy you

Approximately 100 trillion bacteria call your gut home. Indeed there are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells, with the bacteria outnumbering your own cells 10 to one. Fortunately, this is no cause for alarm. These ‘friendly’ bacteria were traditionally thought to be ‘commensal’ organisms, in that the relationship between them and us was a benign coexistence. Nowadays scientists view the human-gut bacteria relationship as a mutualistic one, in that both parties benefit. The bacteria get a balmy 37°C, stable environment with plentiful resources (just think of all the food we eat) and in return we get help breaking down all those tricky carbohydrates as well as having several vitamins, such as biotin and vitamin K, made for us. It is important to note that these are both processes which human cells are unable to carry out. But that’s not all; our gut bacteria also help keep our immune system on its toes, after all the huge bacterial population residing there mean plenty of foreign cells for it to pick a fight with. This is thought to act as a ‘training system’ which could help to prevent immune disorders like allergies and inflammatory bowel disease by ensuring that an immune response only occurs when a pathogen is encountered.


Don’t look now but your skin is lined with bacteria. As is your genitourinary and gastrointestinal tracts – in layman’s terms, that is your gut, genital and urinary tubes. The good news is that a large number of these bacteria are not harmful to you, and instead act as a biological barrier to invading pathogenic bacteria – those which make you sick. This ‘barrier’ effect is a result of the nonharmful bacteria competing with the harmful pathogens for food, space and other resources, and in some cases even changing the acidity of the environment (the pH). The knock-on effect is a restriction on both the entry and growth of pathogens, preventing them from reaching a number which could cause you harm. This is the concept behind probiotic yogurts. These have the aim of increasing or maintaining your levels of ‘good bacteria’, in this case in your gut, and so limiting the expansion of the baddies.

Bacteria and other microbes have been exploited to make our foodstuffs for centuries

cheese and wine

Bacteria and other microbes have been exploited to make our foodstuffs for centuries. One notable example of this is cheese, which is essentially what happens when bacteria meet milk. Typically the bacteria used in cheese production are from the aptly named Lactobacilli and Lactococci families, with the specific choice of bacteria being dependent on the cheese which you are after. For example, Lactobacillus delbrueckii is added if you want the soft cheese mozzarella, but if you’d rather a nice holey Swiss hard cheese, opt for Streptococcus thermophilus and then throw in a dash of Propionibacterium freudenreichii.


Bacteria play two key roles in the cheesemaking process: firstly they help separate the curds and whey by acidifying the mixture – this is achieved by converting the sugars found in milk into lactic acid, the same process by which your milk goes off. Secondly, they break down additional sugars by fermentation, helping to solidify the cheese and contribute to the flavour. The Lactobacilli find themselves similarly exploited in wine production where they instead convert malic acid into their favourite kind, lactic acid. This alters the acidity of the wine, helping to mellow its flavour.

Meet a few of the bacteria which call you home Helicobacter pylori Habitat: Stomach Likes: Regulating

Despite the bad reputation gained from its involvement in causing stomach ulcers, H. pylori actually has several good guy roles. For one, H. pylori helps you regulate your stomach acid – quite simply, when your stomach produces too much acid H. pylori releases a protein which tells it to stop. Unfortunately for certain individuals, it is this protein which causes ulcers.

Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron Habitat: Intestines Likes: Digesting

Ludicrous name aside, B. thetaiotaomicron and the other Bacteroides dominate your gut. With their far superior arsenal of digestive enzymes these bacteria can break down difficult plant matter such as potatoes and cereals. They can even chow down on ‘indigestible’ carbohydrates, like the fibre found in oats. The net result: the carbs you eat are transformed into easily digestible sugars.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa Habitat: Skin Likes: Defending

Like many inhabitants of your body, this one can be considered both friend and foe. However as long as it stays out of your lungs, eyes and burns this bacterium is on your side. P. aeruginosa can produce numerous anti-fungal agents which act to protect you from yeast infections. For example, P. aeruginosa can suppress the growth of Candida albicans – the fungi responsible for thrush.

Of course, these reasons are only a small selection of all the good which bacteria do. So if once again the media is off ranting about the latest superbug outbreak or rousing a witch-hunt against the next E. coli contaminated vegetable, remember that this is not the entire story. All over this planet, and even within you, bacteria are playing a beneficial role in life as we know it and in some instances these bacterial roles are essential.


This is where stars are born... Dominic Markham get his spacesuit on and explores the place where stars come from This term’s centrefold image is of a starforming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The blue regions on the photo are predominantly giant gassy areas of hydrogen, with a bit of helium and trace amounts of various metals thrown in. The density of these areas is such that there are approximately one million particles per cubic centimetre. The material in these areas has been gradually accumulating over a period of tens of millions of years, causing their masses to warm up as the pressure increases. If the mass of one of these objects reaches about 0.4 times the mass of the sun, the total pressure is not enough to withstand the gravitational forces being produced and it collapses. With the atoms being squeezed even tighter together, they overcome the electrostatic forces between them and initiate fusion. A star is born.

Red Giants are stars who have run out of hydrogen to fuse, and hence use the helium produced from the previous reactions as fuel. As there are fewer molecules in the star than in the previous stage, the pressure decreases and causes the outer layers of the star to expand; the diameter of a red giant can easily increase by a factor of several hundred, depending on the initial size of the star. The increase in size causes the surface temperature to decrease, often to around 5000K, giving it a red-orange hue.


When stars run out of an element for fusion, they move on to the reaction products to provide energy. So when hydrogen runs out, helium is used, then lithium etc. This leads to an onion layering effect where the heavier elements sink to the centre of the star. Each successive stage lasts less time, so that a star may have burned hydrogen for billions of years, but may only burn silicon for a few days. Many stars do not have the mass required to fuse past carbon/oxygen, and no star can fuse past iron, as this would require more energy to be put into the reaction than would be given out after it.


Surface Temperature (K)

Mass (Solar Masses)





























Red Dwarfs are the most common type of star in the universe. Although they are abundant in the cosmos, they are extremely dim as they give off little light relative to other types of star due to their low temperature. Fusion reactions occur slower in Red Dwarfs, meaning they have the longest life-span of all stars.

Photo Credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

Main Sequence Stars Class



Much ado about mutations Lewi Jinks confronts mutations, evolution and potential superpowers


hat do you think of when you see or hear the word ‘mutation’? The X-men, with mutations which give them super powers? Or the random alterations of the DNA sequence which are more often than not harmless; but which also have the potential to cause disease or deformation. Whilst we haven’t yet any X-men, mutations do have a very important role in all of our lives. As of yet there are around 1500 recognised genetic disorders found in humans. There is massive variety in the symptoms of these diseases and their presentation and effects. For example albinism which results in the lack of pigment in the skin, hair and pupils is because of a mutation in the tyrosinase gene. This will usually code for enzyme which is involved in melanin production (a protein which makes skin dark). Fortunately albinism is not a fatal disease and most albinos live without any major disruption to their lives. Another disease caused by a mutation is Alexander disease, which is always fatal and currently has no cure or effective treatment. This is a very rare type of leukodystrophy, an illness that affect the nerves in the brain, caused by mutations in the GFAP gene which affects the production of a lipid (fat) layer around Schwann cells which surround neurons. These cells help in making the transmission of nerve signals more efficient. The result is the formation of structures known as Rosenthal fibres which cause a slow reduction in function, leading eventually to the loss of speech and death. However, I don’t want to convey the idea that mutations of DNA do nothing but cause relatively rare disorders. There are also implications on genetic inheritance and the movement of alleles (variants of a gene) through family trees. If a mutation alters a gene that codes for a specific characteristic of an individual, it is potentially disrupted. Interestingly, this change may then be passed onto that individual’s offspring with the original gene potentially being lost over generations. This will reduce the gene pool (the amount of alleles available in a population) leading to decreased diversity, which can be disastrous. So far there have been reasons to show that genetic mutations are only the bringers of bad news, but this is not always the case. Most mutations in our DNA go unnoticed as

they don’t affect the organism, and some mutations in our DNA can actually have very important, positive impacts. This is where the process of mutation can be seen as a driver of the evolution of organisms. The Darwinian theory of evolution states that those individuals which are more suited to their environment are more likely to survive and breed; passing on their characteristics in their offspring. Therefore organisms which can out-compete and/or outrun predators whilst gaining the most mates will obviously be “top dog”. It should be kept in mind, however, that a change in the environment may cause new characteristics to become favourable and their corresponding allele frequencies to increase. Additionally, another mutation may randomly occur which creates a new characteristic in an individual of a species. This lucky individual will therefore become more successful and breed the allele into a greater frequency. Because this all continues over long periods of time, it can completely change the gene pools of species and thus their genotypes (genes) and phenotypes (physical forms). This may result in new subspecies or even completely new species all together.

Clearly there are some rather serious effects resulting from mutations; but most mutations don’t appear to do anything, they are silent. That said, mutations are vital for changing characteristics and helping to carve the evolutionary past and future of every organism. This is clearly a positive impact of mutations that natural history cannot exist without. Photo Unfortunately we might have to wait a while until we can shoot lasers from our eyes or control the weather, but who is to say it will never happen? Just don’t go bathing yourselves in radiation just yet…

Photo Credits: Ellen Rawlins



Heather Powell considers whether green efforts are really helping the planet

It’s not easy being green


ecycling is good. Bio-products are clean and natural. If the word ‘green’ is mentioned, the environment is happy. Right? Wrong. ‘Green’ seems to be the buzzword of the decade; with companies proudly declaring their commitment to the environment, hundreds of new schemes designed to combat waste and so-called greener alternatives around every corner. Obviously we are all aware of the environmental issues facing us now and in the future, and by no means am I saying that we should ignore them. But before we throw ourselves into lavish large scale action, we really should check that these ‘solutions’ aren’t simply making the whole thing worse. Let’s start with the big one: recycling. As we diligently separate our card from our plastics into little boxes each week, we get that warm feeling inside from the knowledge that we are doing something good. But have you ever really thought about where it all goes – and equally importantly – how it actually gets there? A massive truck trundles down every little side street, pausing at every house, spewing carbon dioxide out into the atmosphere as it goes. Then it will be taken elsewhere to be separated properly, which will inevitably involve some energy, even if sorted by hand. Already the argument begins to crumble. Now if we focus on plastics, 67 per cent gets sent abroad to places like China. Granted, some of the container ships deliver products to the UK on their way, but carting so much plastic half way round the world is clearly neither cheap nor green. And what happens to it there? Some gets processed into new products such as clothing and bottles, saving valuable resources that would otherwise be needed for manufacture. However, most of these products will themselves not be recyclable, so this is only a marginal offset to the resources used in processing and distributing the recycled products back round the world. It merely delays their inevitable landfill fate. And what about plastics that can’t be recycled? These are simply burned; toxic fumes are released which further pollute the planet. Doesn’t sound quite so green anymore, does it? Paper and cans fare slightly better than plastics, but recycling them is by no means an ideal solution. The energy needed to recycle an aluminium can is indeed less than

Are so-called ‘green’ efforts putting rainforests at risk?

that needed to produce a brand new one, but again issues of transportation have to be considered too. As for paper, a mix of recycled and original sources has to be used in order to produce quality recycled products, so a reliable source of wood still needs

to be available. Young trees also take up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than older trees, and so although cutting down forests removes carbon dioxide sinks from the planet, this debt can fairly easily be offset, provided new trees are planted in their place. Another important green misconception comes in the form of biofuels. In principle, biofuels are a renewable, carbon-neutral, environmentally-friendly alternative to fuels derived from crude oil, such as petrol and diesel. The idea is that the carbon dioxide released on burning the fuel is taken up by the feedstock crops as they grow. Sounds great! Unfortunately, growing these crops raises several other issues, the main one concerning the land required for plantation. The worst case scenario involves destroying a forested area to plant energy crops. Yes, these crops will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere too, but it just seems counterproductive to use land in this way. For example, the carbon debt incurred from converting an area of tropical rainforest into soy fields takes hundreds of years to repay; net greenhouse gas emissions are actually increased until this point. No problem – use non-forest land. But you still have to be careful. If you start up a plantation in a lovely big field to supply your bioethanol plant, you are potentially displacing cattle farmers, who in turn may have to destroy forest to create more available land. This is known as an indirect land use change: ultimately, carbon capturing areas are being destroyed as a result of growing energy crops. Ideally, waste land unsuitable for other uses would be harnessed, although only crops such as switchgrass could grow here. Suddenly biofuels aren’t sounding quite so much like the neat little solution they’re made out to be. You can’t deny that we mean well. And the potential is certainly there. But when our planet is being crippled by our wasteful, energy-guzzling existence, we really should be encouraging green and clean initiatives that will have a positive effect on the environment. Our remaining resources should be devoted to researching genuinely green alternatives capable of sustaining us now and into the future. Is something really better for the environment, just because it is made from recycled materials? You need to consider the whole process, cradle to grave. I told you: it’s not easy being green.



Nothing natural about it Jessica Wynn explains why ‘chemical-free’ isn’t quite what advertisers claim it to be


verything on this planet is made of chemicals. No matter how big or how small, whether it is safe to eat or will poison you, it is all chemicals. So why is it so ingrained in society that we should be distrustful and even fearful of “chemicals” making it into various products? This irrational fear is called ’chemophobia’, and it stems mainly from misunderstandings. The root of the problem is the widely held assumption that any man-made substance is a ’chemical’ and is therefore harmful whereas anything ‘natural’ must be healthy. All this has given rise to quite possibly the most misguided (and intensely irritating) marketing tool of all time: ’chemical free’. Products that are sold to us with this claim are becoming more and more common and unless the product is a vacuum (as in deep space, not a hoover) it simply isn’t true. In fact, it is just perpetuating the notion that chemicals are bad news. A great example of exploiting chemophobia for use as a marketing tool is a recent advertisement from Sainsbury’s for a vanilla flavoured chocolate bar:

One of the major contributing factors to chemophobia is a lack of scientific literacy and therefore a fear of substances with unfamiliar nomenclature. Picture a chemical that is poisonous if inhaled and causes tissue damage through prolonged exposure in the solid form. It is also a major component of acid rain and causes soil erosion. The gaseous form can cause severe burns, it was found in biopsies of precancerous tumours and it even leads to corrosion and oxidation of metals. Surely this chemical should be banned! It is called dihydrogen monoxide (sounds scary). It is more commonly known as water. As you can see, this over-exaggerated analysis and unfamiliar name makes the chemical essential for life sound like a dangerous substance and yet members of the public and governments still fell for it. Aliso Viego in California almost banned the use of foam containers at city-sponsored events in 2004 because DHMO is used in their production. The proposed law made it to the city council agenda but was pulled before voting due to poor research. Also, in New Zealand, Sue Kedgley MP (Green Party) was stated to be “absolutely supportive of the campaign to ban this toxic substance”.

One product has taken the idea of manipulating people’s inherent fear of chemicals and parents’ desires to protect their children to the extreme. It comes in the form of the truly ridiculous “chemical free chemistry set”. It claims to have “60 fun activities with no chemicals”. However, even making harmless bubbles involves chemicals: water and a surfactant. Also, growing crystals surely needs some form of matter? If not, we really are creating some potential child Nobel laureates. Joking aside, this is also creating part of the problem because we are teaching children from an early age that we should be scared of chemicals. We need children (and many adults) to realise that not all chemicals will kill us and that actually many are very beneficial to society. Life-saving medicines? Chemicals. Fuels that allow us to have transport and electricity? Chemicals. Even the atmosphere that is essential for life, and the very Earth which we stand on are mixtures of chemicals. It makes no sense to fear them.

Heaps of cocoa. A touch of vanilla. And not the slightest whiff of 4-hydroxy3-methoxybenzaldehyde. For anyone out there who doesn’t have a PhD in chemistry, that is the proper name for vanillin, artificial vanilla flavouring. For our Taste the Difference chocolate range, Sainsbury’s insist on real vanilla from real vanilla pods

Photo credits: freakgirl

The use of an IUPAC standard chemical name implies that this is a dangerous man made chemical. Vanillin can be synthesised in the lab and is used as an artificial flavouring agent. However, it is also the primary ingredient in natural vanilla where, chemically, and is therefore no different from the synthetic vanillin. So this advert is completely false. The product will contain 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde but from real vanilla pods, although it would have made no difference to your health if it was actually man made.

Check out these delicious, delicious chemicals.



Elliot Jokl reveals the hidden, and surprising, complexity of cancers


ost people are familiar with the idea that there is no such thing as the “one cure for all cancers”. This reflects the fact that cancer is actually an incredibly diverse family, with each member having different causes and mechanisms underlying its development. Thus a treatment that attempts to target one specific cause of tumour growth will not have much, if any, effect on a cancer that has arisen by other means. Traditional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can broadly target tumour cells, but have wide ranging side effects. In addition, if the cancer isn’t entirely eliminated this allows resistant elements of that cancer to return in relapse. The research into a myriad of specific treatments tailored to each cancer type remains the best front for the war on cancer. There is reason to be optimistic that this approach will eventually be successful in treating a range of cancers, but the progress will come one cancer at a time.

Despite increasing awareness of the different types of cancer, there still seems to be a lack of public understanding about the biology of cancer itself

Despite this increasing awareness of the different types of cancer, there still seems to be a lack of public understanding about the biology of cancer itself. If I were to ask you to picture cancer in your mind you might be inclined to visualise a homogenous army of mutant cells dividing and spreading through the body’s tissues like the pincers of the crab that inspired its name. Though this used to be what we believed about cancer, we are increasingly beginning to understand that tumours are composed of, and supported by, a wide variety of cells. These different cell types allow tumours to manipulate their environment to aid proliferation and survival. By researching the complex network of interactions between these cells, we can elucidate new potential targets for treatment and take measures to make existing treatments even more successful. One of the most important things a tumour needs to establish is a reliable blood supply. The oxygen and nutrients required for growth do not diffuse further than about 100 micrometers away from the blood vessels. To grow to a substantial size, a tumour

The complexity of cancer

needs to get blood vessels to grow within it. This being a process called angiogenesis. Once the tumour reaches its critical size, it will experience oxygen deficient conditions. This will promote the expression and release of signalling molecules, for example VEGF, which attract endothelial cells from capillaries. Cells from the capillaries then grow into the tumour, delivering the oxygen and nutrients required for further growth. Immune cells can also be incorporated into tumours, and manipulated to aid tumour growth. Ideally, immune cells recruited to cancer cells would recognise that the cells were abnormal, and eliminate them by inducing apoptosis (cell death). This mechanism will successfully kill off at least some of the tumour. However, cancer cells that have adapted mechanisms to evade immune recognition or prevent apoptosis will survive and proliferate to generate a tumour which is immune to the efforts of the immune system. In the meantime, the immune cells treat the tumour like a wound, and attempt to promote healing by increasing blood flow to the area and releasing growth factors. This only serves to promote the survival and growth of the tumour. The existence of cancer stem cells also complicates tumour biology. Stem cells exist in most tissues and function to generate proliferative cells to replace the ones that die off. They are typically located deep within the tissue to protect them from damage. Historically, it was believed that cancers were mainly derived from epithelial cells which, being at the surface of tissues, were most likely to be exposed to damaging carcinogens. Though this is true of some cancers, it emerges that stem cells are also a likely source. Cells need to accumulate a number of mutations before they become malignant, and epithelial cells are generally too short lived to pull that off. In contrast, stem cells are immortal (to a degree) and are thus more readily capable of gaining the necessary mutations and passing these on to the cells they produce. It is these stem cells in particular that have unwelcome implications for our traditional treatments. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are effective at killing off highly proliferative cells. Though the bulk of the tumour may consist of such cells, the cancer stem cells are not themselves highly proliferative. This means that these therapies have limited potential for killing off the cells that may be the root cause of the tumour, leaving the door open for relapse. Thus there is a need to develop treatments

which specifically target cancer stem cells in order to ensure that the tumour is eliminated in its entirety. It would seem that just as there is no “one cure for all cancers”, the complex biology of tumours may mean each case will call for more than one line of attack for effective cancer treatment.

Photo Credits: Libertas Academica



It’s time to talk about fracking

vestment cash and are vulnerable to loss of investor confidence. At this early stage an environment of pressure can be easily created. However, the politicians and moneymakers are looking for jobs and cash, and will forcefully argue the other side. Which side are you on?

the process, along with disposal of used fracking fluids into old wells, appears to trigger earthquakes

So why is the UK government getting involved in this risky business? Simple: our fossil fuel addiction. Decades ago, noone considered fracking as a viable form of energy. Now, as we’re growing more and more desperate to feed our habit in the absence of more conventional oil, we’re turning to ‘extreme energy’ such as tar sands, arctic drilling and shale gas. But isn’t fracking cleaner than using coal and oil? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Fracking, like other forms of extreme energy, is very carbon intensive and significant amounts of fugitive methane leak directly into the atmosphere, where it acts as a more effective greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide we are producing by burning it. To use money on another short-lived fossil fuel energy scheme that could be spent on developing a long-term renewable energy plan is short-sighted, mimicking the thinking of how our energy sources became the problem it is today. George Osborne recently revealed that a ban on fracking had been lifted. “Pursuing this new source of energy will eventually lead to lower energy bills for consumers”. A tax break for this unconventional fuel is to be announced in March 2013’s budget. The reason there was a ban in the first place was due to drilling in Lancashire causing tremors. As well as Lancashire, planning permission has been obtained for drilling in South Wales and Kent. But there are many lesser known sites which are on the map for future drilling. Closer to home, in York there are approved coal bed methane sites at Wigginton Cottage Farm. The number of proposed fracking sites is extensive and if it gets the go ahead in the United Kingdom, it could be coming to our back doors pretty soon, meaning we’ll all have to form our opinions on fracking. The UK fracking industry is in its infancy and the companies involved are typically start-ups that are presently just burning in-

Daniel Foster


he process of ‘fracking’ refers to the extraction of shale gas that is trapped in impermeable shale rock in the ground. Fracking can be used for coal bed methane and shale oil extraction, but its use in shale gas extraction is what brought it to the USA a few years ago, and most recently to Blackpool in the UK. The natural gas is embedded inside the rock, not sitting below it, meaning that just drilling down isn’t enough to extract the gas; the rock must be fractured to allow the shale gas to escape. Pressurised fracking fluid - which consists of water, sand, and fracking chemicals - is therefore injected down to crack the rock. So who wants this to happen, and why? It’s mainly the energy industry and politicians. They tout that it’s a source of domestic fuel that would give the UK energy independence, with hopefully cheaper energy costs and potentially cleaner fuel than oil and coal. Along with money made from the natural gas extraction, the generation of jobs is often mentioned in the bid to sway fracking-on-the-fencers. And all that would be fabulous, if that was all there was to it. The unfortunate reality is that there have been a large number of side effects that have been linked to fracking; the amount of shale gas economically available in the UK has been questioned, and the fracking jobs market it creates is a short-lived one, leaving areas suddenly jobless as fracking operations are completed. Under the Bush administration fracking was exempted from the USA’s Clean Air and Water Act, and was unregulated until recently. This has led to “no conclusive research” in health as a reason to go-ahead with fracking in the UK. However, the research into the health effects has not yet been completed and if the results reveal detrimental health effects after the UK are already underway with fracking, well, we’re going to be in a pickle. So let’s talk about these side-effects. The most well-known is methane contamination of nearby water (see the burning tap-water in the film Gasland). Certain radioactive isotopes leach out of the rocks that the fracking fluid passes through. If animals and crops are living off contaminated water, this means contamination of our food supply. Fracking also leaks ozone and a variety of volatile chemicals during the process, and around the first fracking site in the UK

there was a significant increase in reported respiratory disease in the community. Somewhat alarmingly, the process itself, along with disposal of used fracking fluids into old wells, appears to trigger earthquakes. A recent increase of earthquakes in Arkansas declined abruptly after water injection was suspended. The first test well in the UK appeared to have caused two earthquakes too, despite media contention.

Isobel Edwards considers whether fracking is a source of energy worth pursuing



Considering the nuclear option

David Newstead explains why Nuclear is the only way to go


Sam Fisk

he splitting of atoms by bombarding them with neutrons has been used as a source of energy worldwide since 1951, and in Britain, where there are currently sixteen operating reactors, since 1956. Despite this long history of nuclear power, a huge debate still rages concerning its efficacy, and more commonly, its safety. Certainly a large factor in the opposition to nuclear power comes from misconceptions about the science behind the fission process, and the way in which the media unhelpfully exaggerates incidents such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima. Nuclear Power is however trusted by many governments (130 to be precise), and currently generates around 13% of the World’s electricity, putting it in fourth place behind coal, oil and hydro power. So why does nuclear power have such a bad reputation? Ignoring such events as Chernobyl and Fukushima, which don’t exactly help matters, the science and technology behind nuclear fission is incredibly complicated. Symptomatic of many things, including science education, the average member of the public with no background

in Physics or Chemistry would struggle to understand what happens in a reactor. Trying to explain just how safe the procedures are to someone with little knowledge of the subject, who might already hold prejudices, is incredibly difficult. And the word “nuclear” itself often has negative connotations for most people – thanks in no small part to nuclear weaponry. It is somewhat ironic that the process within nuclear weapons, nuclear fusion, is completely different to that in reactors, which is nuclear fission. But awkward terminology is not the only reason for negativity. History has a hand too. Despite the general reliability of nuclear power, there exists the threat of nuclear meltdown; though this is far smaller than the media suggest. In the 60 plus years that nuclear reactors have been in operation, there have only been three serious incidents: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. And the number of confirmed deaths directly attributable to these events? 65 – though some estimates for deaths over longer periods of time, due to radioactive fallout, put the number at a few thousand. These estimates are not overly reliable though, and despite this fossil fuels are still more deadly: the deaths arising from fossil fuel power, most often from coal mining, reached over 15,000 over the past 5 years in China alone. Such failures are incredibly rare – Three Mile Island occurred because the workers on shift hadn’t been properly trained to recognise the signs of hydraulic machinery malfunctioning, which could have been quickly rectified to prevent the incident. Chernobyl was the result of the workers ignoring the safety systems in place, and the Fukushima disaster was a consequence of the fifth strongest earthquake in recorded history. Nuclear sites, especially in Britain and France, are incredibly safe, and there are many systems in place to prevent harmful situations. More recent reactors are designed so that if there was a break in the equipment, the fission process would be unable to continue, removing any danger. It is also worth noting that workers in British nuclear power stations are exposed to less radiation annually than people living in Cornwall (due to the Radon-rich rock formations in the region). Given the increasing problem with climate change and reduction in fossil fuels, the world is in desperate need of long-term, low-carbon energy sources. With our current technological advancement, we have a choice between nuclear power and renew-

Sam Fisk

ables such as wind and wave power. Many people who argue against nuclear power are staunch supporters of the renewables cause, but they simply aren’t advanced enough yet to meet the world’s energy demands. Yes they work, and yes they should play a part in the future of energy production, but we shouldn’t be throwing all our eggs in one basket. It should be noted that despite the lowcarbon and ultimately very safe option that nuclear power provides, there is one major sticking point; radioactive waste, and what to do with it. This waste can remain radioactive for up to tens of thousands of years. Currently, waste is stored in thick concrete bunkers in isolated areas, and whilst this seems adequate for today’s needs, it may not be sufficient to contain the radiation in a few thousand years’ time. This remains the last main issue regarding fission power, and if it can be solved then the future of the industry will be very bright indeed. So we really have only one choice – invest in nuclear power, and convince the world that this is the right thing to do. Some countries such as Germany and Japan are scaling back their nuclear sectors, but others, including Britain, are investing heavily in a nuclear future. It is the responsibility of nuclear scientists, as well as economists and politicians, to champion the cause, and convince people that nuclear power isn’t that bad after all.




1 2 3 4 5 7 10 11 13 15 17

Pertaining to sound (5) Cross-section of wing, blade or sail (8) To give out, esp. light or sound (4) By which a material is ground away (7) Potassium-rich fruit (7) The act of curing 12 Across (9) To alter the state of, esp. by acid or heat (8) To manipulate (7) Hub or central point (7) Common or garden gastropod mollusc (5) They rank 7-10 on the Beaufort scale (4) Last Issueâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Solution


The solution for this crossword will be found in the next issue. For details about when that issue will be on campus, keep an eye on our website, Facebook and Twitter feeds. Details for finding these are within the inside cover. Any comments, requests or criticisms on the crossword are happily received; you are encouraged to email the creator at


In Series

by Jamie Birch

Crossword by Arthur Coulson


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Organic solvent commonly used to remove nail varnish (7) Potentially false baked dessert (4) _____ belt, constellation containing Betelgeuse (6) Food which is partially decomposed can be described as this (6) Something which has ceased to be (4) State of mind necessary for misconceptions to form (9) Terrestrial detritus layer (4) To nullify, cancel out (6) Alloy used to build The Colossus of Rhodes (6) Liquid hydrogen monoxide from above (4) An irregular triangle is described as this (7)



Mark Henderson, author of ‘The Geek Manifesto’, is a prime example of a non-scientist who discovered how a scientific approach to problems can be endlessly beneficial. His book tackles the areas, such as politics and the media, in which a scientific way of thinking would be beneficial.

Spark: You studied History at university. What brought you over to science? Henderson: It was actually a silly serendipitous kind of thing in a lot of ways. I had joined The Times as a graduate trainee straight from university and spent about four years there working on a variety of things. That included being a general reporter, a leader writer and so on. Then I was essentially asked/told by the editor at the time to cover the science beat. It was something I imagined I would do for a couple of years before moving onto something else. But it didn’t quite happen that way. I stayed there for eleven years and it was one of those things where until I got into it I hadn’t realised quite how interesting it was. By that I mean the incredible rigour of science as an approach to problem solving and acquiring reliable knowledge, as well as the range of incredibly exciting research which is going on. I had the ability to cover things from the Human Genome Project and everything that came from that to the search for the Higgs Boson in CERN. Really, if you’re bored covering science, there’s something wrong with you. I don’t think I had really appreciated that fully until I got dropped into it. I think that approach to thinking is important, and I try to address that in my book. Science doesn’t have a role in national conversation and public life in a way that history, economics, the law or humanities in general does. It is one of those things where it is possible to go through life and university without having a proper appreciation for. I’m not talking so much about details of scientific knowledge, but rather about how science works as a process. About how it is a generator of reliable knowledge and I think that’s important. I suppose I’m an example of someone who certainly early on didn’t appreciate and understand that sort of thing.

Margaret Thatcher, probably the most famous scientist who went into politics, was the first significant world leader to take climate change seriously

Spark: Was it difficult covering science without a scientific background? Henderson: No actually, I don’t think it is. In fact I think the basic principles of science are really quite simple. The idea that you test things, that knowledge is provisional and can always be overturned in light of better evidence, the idea that one doesn’t appeal to authority but observations. These I think are quite simple and rather important that could be more profitably applied across the board. Really, as long as you understand that aspect of things then you’re really quite well placed to cover science whether you have worked as a scientist or not. The other thing I always used to say when I was a science journalist is that if you have a PhD in particle physics and you’re covering the human genome then you’re really no better off than the layperson anyway. Spark: So why does science matter to Humanities students studying at York? Henderson: First of all, I think to have an appreciation and an understanding of science is an important part of your cultural education. You should be familiar with science in the same way that you should be familiar with great art or literature.


There are also approaches from science which can be valuable in all sorts of walks of life. For example, the principle of acknowledging that human deduction is extremely fallible and that we’re all prey to psychological biases. What science does is acknowledge those biases and puts up structures, such as peer review and having control groups, in order to try to avoid them as best we can. It’s not perfect but it works extremely well. People with all sorts of backgrounds could obtain useful insights from that into whatever they do. More specifically, if you look at politics, there is a lot of room there for scientific approaches such as randomised, controlled trials to be employed. But that’s true in other walks of life as well. In business, there is a lot you can do by testing things out, by taking a more evidence-based approach, and not being afraid to overturn an approach in light of that evaluation. Sometimes you have to accept that something was wrong. Spark: Do you find that other non-scientists who have engaged with science have had the same response as you? Henderson: For the most part, yes, not universally but it’s certainly there. I think it goes back to the central point which is that people who are ‘anti-science’ are quite rare, but there are a lot of people who are indifferent. Often bad decisions about science or a lack of willingness to use science come about because people never think to. Therefore, introducing people to science can be valuable and can very often change how people behave. One good example is Nicola Blackwood, a Tory MP and not a scientist at all, who took part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme a couple of years back. During which she spent time with a scientist and they spent time with her in the Commons. She learnt an awful lot from that and at the launch of this year’s Scheme was saying that her experience of engaging with science like that had really changed her approach to her political career. Spark: What changes could be made to the education system to encourage more people to utilise scientific thinking? Henderson: I think it’s very important that science as an approach to thinking is taught at an early stage and certainly should be part of secondary education. Broadening the way that the education works so that it is easier to study a mix of humanities and science subjects is important. I think that cuts both ways because you also want scientists who are able to communicate better. Science is getting better at recognising the importance placed on communication. It’s not all there yet, you still get scientists sneering at Brian Cox for not being a real scientist because he’s on the telly, but it is certainly less than it was ten or fifteen years ago.

Skeletons in the (Biology) Closet by Ellen Rawlins

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Spark [2] - Misconceptions  

This time we're focusing on the 'Misconceptions'. Is GM safe, are bacteria really all bad for you and is Nuclear worth pursuing? All this an...

Spark [2] - Misconceptions  

This time we're focusing on the 'Misconceptions'. Is GM safe, are bacteria really all bad for you and is Nuclear worth pursuing? All this an...

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