Category Archives: Science

And We’re Here Again…

I’ve written before about the inherent risks involved in leaving the production and control of a widespread product in the hands of relatively un-regulated criminal networks. Tragically, another stark warning of these dangers has come to light recently, with the deaths of, amongst others, at least 7 young Scottish people being linked to a tablet sold to them as ecstasy. It later transpired that the Green Rolexpills contained high levels of PMA – a compound that gives a similar euphoric effect at low doses, but at even slightly too high a dose, can cause severe hyperthermia, dehydration and death. Even worse, the definition of “too high a dose” varies wildly from one individual to the next.

The widespread distribution of these fake ecstasy tablets led authorities at the T in the Park festival to officially display warnings referring to the “Green Rolex” pills – a tacit acceptance that in the end, health is more important than law. Other countries have previously made this leap – the Netherlands is the most famous example, but officially sanctioned checking services are appearing in Belgium, Spain, Colombia and more. These services allow consumers to submit samples of a substance (which importantly, would usually be considered illegal) to a certified testing lab. Within two weeks, information is returned that states purity & dose, known (potentially dangerous) adulterants and the presence of any unknown compounds.NMR Machine

Unsurprisingly, statistics collected from these labs show an extremely low level of purity, with a huge variety of other substances used to cut the advertised product – some of which are actively dangerous to consume. I’m not going to go back over (or even as far as) the case for regulated legalisation of the softer end of illegal drugs again. Suffice to say that if even one more person’s life is saved as a direct result of introducing this tolerant form of testing, it would seem worthwhile to me.

However, the inflexible response to any structured argument for legalisation in this country makes me think that even this small step may be too much to stomach. Recent events prove that problems like this exist, and the reality that many young people will experiment is at least being grudgingly accepted by some in power. Clinical research into the physiological effects of widely available substance can only improve our understanding and examples set by some forward thinking countries can at least be objectively analysed as the real life experiment they are.

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The Krypton Factor: Nobel Prizes

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The Nobel Prizes are a highly respected institution, started over 100 years ago to reward work carried out in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace. Along with the later added Economics prize, these awards represent the very pinnacle of these fields, coming with an 8million Kroner prize and lifelong status in the small group of Nobel Laureates.

This year’s Nobel Prizes have been announced this week, with a number of surprise inclusions. The Peace Prize was given, unusually, to an organisation, with the committee praising the EU:

“for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.

Somewhat oddly, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been given to a piece of work that in my opinion, fits far more neatly in the Medicine category: awarded jointly to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors”. This work has vital implications when attempting to understand the mechanism of drugs-cell interactions, specifically how a drug or hormone contacting the outside of a cell can influence the biochemical processes within the cell. Technically Biochemistry maybe, but the progress made by this discovery has had a far greater impact in the medical world.

Nobel Prizes are awarded annually, usually to recognise a significant individual piece of work. Credit can be shared by up to 3 people, but the rules prohibit prizes being awarded posthumously. Since a few early awards were given for science that was later proven incorrect, the Nobel prize committees are now traditionally extremely cautious when considering new research, preferring to wait significant lengths of time until the research has become accepted by the majority of scientists carrying out similar work.

This combination of caution and dogmatic insistence on having a live recipient to give a speech has led to a few historic embarrassments. Most significantly, Ghandi, one of the names most synonymous with peace was never given the Nobel Peace Prize as result of his assassination taking place weeks before winners could be announced.

Rosalind Franklin is another name who has been missed by the committee – In this case, her work provided the base for the discovery and understanding of the structure of DNA.  Her key lecture took place in 1951, the publication of the Crick-Watson model of DNA was in 1953, but due to the Nobel’s policy of ensuring work has become accepted, the Nobel Prize was not awarded until 1962. Her death in 1958 led to her being excluded from the Nobel Prize, despite it being widely accepted that her work and the data she produced was key to this discovery.

Particularly within the scientific awards, this seems a very strange approach to me. Nobel Prizes have always emphasised discoveries over inventions – and a key part of the scientific method is the encouragement of new hypotheses. While rewarding work that is later shown to be incorrect may be somewhat embarrassing, surely missing out on the opportunity to reward truly great achievements is worse?

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

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3D printer technology is the stuff of Sci-Fi, allowing complicated products to be built up layer-by-layer. While research is still underway both to improve practical problems and increase the range of materials that can be printed with, the technology is already out there and being used on a daily basis.

At the very top end, machines exist and work in a way very similar to a standard 2D laserjet printer, adding very small quantities of powder to an area and fusing them in place with a laser. This version of the technology allows for metals and very strong plastic structures to be created, although currently at very limited sizes and over a number of hours or even days. At the other end of the scale, weaker plastics and plasters can be placed down in a liquid “blob” form and allowed to set. While these machines are considerably cheaper (often under £1000), the final products are often not as intricate and definitely not as strong.

This article suggests one of the most exciting possible applications for this technology, providing one more step along the road towards Mars (or even revisiting the Moon). Closer to home, 3D printers provide a much greater degree of flexibility to industrial production of a wide range of materials – while today it would take a significant amount of time to alter a production process from one component to another, with a suite of 3D printers installed, it is simply a case of loading up a different, pre-installed program and pressing “Go”.

Unfortunately, as with most things, there is a down side to this technology as well. A Texan student has recently been arrested as a result of his attempts to design and distribute via the internet a handgun that can be printed. While there are significant flaws in his stated aims – he claims people will be able to print the gun on entry-level machines, which, given the materials these printers use, would probably cause more harm to the people firing the guns than the intended victims – the possibility of doing exactly this on a small scale cannot be far away.

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Even in the USA where gun ownership is considered a fundamental right by many, restrictions and limits have long been enforced and any attempts to get around these regulations are going to be stamped down on. The limited number of 3D printers capable of producing a working pistol (let alone anything worse) makes this relatively enforceable at the moment, but if the technology takes off, this could become a more common story. Police so far have stated they will attempt to have any schematics instantly removed from the internet, but recent battles over music, video and software downloading websites have demonstrated that this simply doesn’t work in real life.

There is not necessarily an easy solution to this problem, but the benefits of 3D printer technology can’t be ignored either. It must be tempting to instantly attempt to restrict sales and monitor use of these machines, but the scope of that project would be incredibly wasteful. Anyone attempting to purchase and stockpile weapons should be found and prosecuted, regardless of where the illegal items came from or what technology produced them.

“And I know I’ll see your face again”

ImageHere in the UK, one of very few scientific studies into the effects of MDMA (the active component in Ecstasy) has been carried out – and televised – this week. The fact this experiment has found its way to TV is a result of funding being supplied by Channel 4, which adds an odd extra layer to proceedings. Once the pill was taken (each volunteer was tested twice to allow for a placebo control), the participants were first loaded into an fMRI scanner for two hours and then interviewed and asked to take personality and trust tests – all while still high.

The show was mostly filled up with clips of interviews with participants while high, framed with live studio discussions. Small segments of the program were given to displaying the impurities mixed in with the ecstasy that is sold illegally via an interesting analysis of drugs seized at Glastonbury, but for such a high-profile show with such a wide audience, this potential source of danger was not extrapolated anywhere near enough for me. There were also a few debates between the two scientists running the experiment, who were very prepared to argue for certain uses and a few other scientists with opposing views. These got extremely lively and confused, perhaps reducing the impact of these sections – personally, I mentally tuned out at times.

The whole show took place in a very strange atmosphere, with a room full of users and ex-users being constantly asked for their opinion. This added a certain air of legitimacy to the whole idea of taking MDMA, which perhaps went too far and portrayed it as too OK on occasion. And while the possible long-term negative effects are another aspect that is almost unexplored by science, the emphasis to proceed with caution that should have been there was definitely absent.

It is undeniable that, with the exception of the ex-soldier, all the participants reported overall positive experiences. Recollections of positive memories in the fMRI scanner are enhanced, while the experiment appeared to suggest that negative memories are easier to handle, with a reduced emotional impact. The scientists running the experiment professed a belief that these conclusions provided an argument for use of MDMA to unlock traumatic memories while blocking the emotions that had previously hindered recall.

Personally speaking, I have become very open to the possible benefits of legalisation of some “drugs” over the last few years. I do believe there are significant flaws in the current approach, including the fact it encourages the addition of unknown and potentially dangerous components to the inevitably available pills. However, this show seemed to be deliberately taking as much context as possible out of the debate. While perhaps attempting to mimic the isolated scientific approach that the core experiment correctly took, I don’t think that is the correct approach for a show that has been so widely trailed and will have been very well watched.

More important than this TV show are the results of the published research – which has obviously not been released yet. While the fact that the experiment has gone ahead is a good thing, the TV show focusing on 6 of the 25 subjects is an example of the anecdote-based response that far too much of modern politics and legal policy is based on. A scientific method must be applied where possible and should be encouraged to leak into politics – sensationalist shows like this are not the way to go about promoting that approach.

Experiments like this are essential, and should be encouraged, with the results used to inform and educate at the highest level. This experiment could be the one that sparks more and it is important that they are funded to be carried out in a understated and effective way, without the attention that TV piles on.

“Pure Morning/Nancy Boy”

ImageThe placebo effect is one of the strangest and least well understood aspects of human and animal biology. What’s undeniable is that it does exist – a person given a sugar pill will recover from mild colds and injuries up to twice as quickly, as well as some startling effects on more severe problems. It’s also true that the placebo effect can have some very bizarre effects that aren’t as well known:

  • Even if told that the pill they are taking is a placebo, it can still have a measurable effect compared to taking no “medication”
  • Placebos can inspire negative effects as well as positive effects – the “nocebo” effect
  • Placebos can be targeted to certain symptoms – if told that the placebo will help with your toothache but not a bad knee, that’s likely what you will feel happen
  • They will be more effective if presented as expensive and well-branded
  • The placebo effect is significantly diminished or even completely lost if the subject is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease

And yet despite all of the above, the mechanism that causes the effect is still unknown. It’s true that the effect can cause measurable release of dopamine and other self-produced pain-relieving hormones. However it has been less well understood why the source of the pain itself doesn’t trigger the release of these chemicals, instead being reliant on the consumption of some kind of physical process

New research however may shed light on this bizarre aspect of an already strange phenomenon. Subliminally, the fact that an immune response requires energy means that in a difficult, winter environment, it is overall more beneficial to simply endure a minor infection. Or in human terms: “You’ve got a cold? It’s cold, get over yourself!” Get ill in the summer though and people are rushing for the medicine drawer: “Don’t waste the sunshine!”

So the link here is that the placebo effect needs a trigger. In Siberian hamsters, that trigger is sunlight, while in humans, it’s being told that you’re going to get better! Is this a consequence of greater communication in people, or some other reason – obviously this will inspire further research. It also seems that this validates to an extent the benefits of the traditional “couch-based” psychology.

ImagePlacebo pills have been shown to have measurable effects on ailments that are usually considered at least partly psychological – ranging from the extent of physical pain, to conditions including ADHA, some depression and neurological addictions (ie. gambling) and autism. Is it true that often, the act of prescribing, collecting and taking a pill is perhaps more significant to any healing process than the content of said pill?

Perhaps the placebo effect affecting physical conditions is more surprising – but then, the mechanism of physical conditions is often better understood as well. Some people might say that knowingly prescribing a “useless” pill for some very serious psychological ailments is immoral, but given the complexities of the human brain, we’re often not doing much more than taking an educated guess anyway. And I know about educated guesses – I play LOTS of poker!

Smartphone Dispute: Expect an Apple-eal

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Last week, Apple managed to win a patent claim against Samsung, for the infringement of “design concepts”, first seen in their 2007 iPhone and allegedly copied in subsequently released touch-screen Samsung smartphones.

Firstly, what were the claims? Well (from http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/aug/22/apple-samsung):

Apple says Samsung infringed the following “design” patents
• covering the front of the iPhone, with its system for displaying text and icons
• back of the iPhone
• design of iPad
• iPhone graphical user interface
• “bounce-back” or “rubber band” functionality when the user tries to scroll past the end of a page or list
• ‘tap-to-zoom’ feature on photos, articles, etc.
• detecting whether the user is scrolling or making the “pinch to expand” and other gesture motions

All of the above were ruled in favour of Apple. However it raises an interesting point – just how much of the above is intrinsic or near-intrinsic in the design of a touchscreen phone? In order for a patent to be granted, an design must be new, have a practical use and have an inventive step that is not obvious to someone with knowledge and experience in the subject (http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/patent/p-about/p-whatis.htm).

It surprises me that Apple have managed to win on all of these claims. The reason the iPhone did so well in 2007 was due to the incredibly intuitive nature of the interface – most of the features of which still exist in the most recent iterations. To avoid infringing patents, Samsung would have had to make their interface difficult to use and less commercially viable.

I’m not entirely sure how a grid of app icons is a clever design feature worth protecting, but outside of the interface issues though, the “design of the back” is also under debate. It’s a flat shiny surface with an Apple logo on! Unless Samsung are selling tablets with Apple logos all over it, where’s the conflict?

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Most ridiculous of all, Apple has managed to successfully sue Samsung both for “double tap to zoom” and “pinch to zoom”. You could argue all day regarding which of these is the more obvious one to include, but if Samsung isn’t allowed to use either of these alternatives, I’d be extremely interested to hear what the more intuitive and streamlined design is that they should have used?

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Samsung are expected to appeal and of course, HTC and other manufacturers are locked in similar legal disputes. But take a modern iPhone back to 2006 and give it to a random and see how difficult they find it. I am firmly of the belief that the biggest compliment to Apple avaliable is the fact that it’s almost impossible to make an intuitively useable touchscreen phone without copying the iPhone to some extent.

One Last Step for a Man

Today, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon has died at the age of 82. One of only 12 men to make that incredible walk, his name is known around the world and has inspired generations of scientists, engineers and others, with myself counted among them.

ImageWhen the initial launch site proved unsuitable, Armstrong as commander was responsible for finding an alternative. By the time an alternate site was found and arrived at, the landing module had only 20 seconds of fuel remaining, with Armstrong’s skill as a pilot essential in completing the legacy set out by John F. Kennedy at the start of the decade. 2 1/2 hours were spent on the surface of the moon, with valuable insight gained to help future missions.

He spent the rest of his life uncomfortable with the fame he earnt, preferring to live in privacy, occasionally honouring students by emerging and teaching engineering. As his family have said in the press release announcing his death:

Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.

As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.

No one has set foot on the moon since 1972, 40 years ago. Are the group of 12 that started with Armstrong destined to be the only 12 who will ever see the lunar surface with their own eyes?