Tag Archives: Science

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?

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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.

“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!

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?

Touchdown Confirmed

Mars. Mars! I mean, seriously – Mars!!!

Essentially, the above is why I haven’t written anything about the landing of the Curiosity Rover so far – every time I start to do some research for it, I see a new video of how the amazing landing was carried out. And now, they’ve started releasing actual pictures of actual Mars!

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Personally, when I look at that photo, I am absolutely mind blown. To think, this is a picture of a place where I expect no human will tread in my lifetime. An absolutely, totally unobtainable goal, but one that could have all sorts of ramifications in everyday life. Sometimes, you don’t need a reason to perform experiments, they can just feel right – and this mission to Mars feels so right!

People are always sceptical when it comes to spending big money on abstract science – the LHC is a prime example on this. I did a project on this at university and the question I was constantly asked (by scientists as well!) is “What’s the point of all this?” To which I could only answer “No idea!” The fact is, so many things we take for granted nowadays come through investigating the theory first and discovering the practical applications later. Edison was once asked what the point was in all the time he spent investigating the harnessing of electricity. His response? “I know not what use it may be, but I do know that one day it may be taxable”

While the focus on the commercial aspects do not paint him in a good light, Edison was correct here in saying that there is simply nothing wrong with understanding nature better – and sometimes, what to do with that knowledge is only self-evident once you’ve committed to gaining it. Funding to NASA has been slashed, with the high cost-per-launch rates often cited. Commercial rivals are already claiming that they can improve on the costs of recent NASA launches.

I have to wonder, with commercial research being carried out, is there room for knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Obviously there is a time and a place for product-orientated investigations, but when it comes to the BIG projects, I don’t believe we can afford to ignore the need for the really base understanding that the “abstract” science focuses on. Government funding, both here, in the USA and elsewhere is essential and these images of Mars – and the dream of one day reaching that surface – is to my mind, all the inspiration any country will ever need.

#ForScience!

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The first images of full, laser-based chemical analysis or Martian rocks. Again, MARS!!!!

So Hang On….

I subscribe to a number of blogs and occasionally actually catch up with reading them. This one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18889594 by Jonathon Amos on the BBC shocked me – quite simply, how come no one has ever done this before?

If you can’t click that link, it’s a discussion on how transponders currently installed on most commercial ships are being linked up with newly-launched satellites, enabling them to be tracked once line-of-sight contact is lost over the horizon. Implying that until this service was launched, any ship more than 5km outside of port, could literally be anywhere in a given ocean. For sake of comparison, the English channel is never narrower than about 35km – so for any Dover-Calais crossing, ports are reliant on radio for 5/7ths of your journey!

I suppose that nowadays we are so used to having up to date information on our lives being constantly and easily broadcast. GPS is the most obvious connection to the above story, but social media via smartphones can let anyone know where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling… Combine the $9 trillion worth of goods being shipped by sea every year, with the growingly public issue of modern-day piracy and I genuinely can’t believe that more time and money hasn’t been put in to connecting the existing AIS system with the massive number of satellites currently orbiting earth.

Obviously this isn’t something I’ve put a lot of thought into before, but I think it just highlights how some things can really slip through cracks. Such a large portion of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the electronic equipment we use is shipped by sea – and for the majority of its journey, no one outside the crew of the container ship has any idea if it’s still on course.

Extend this metaphor to everyday life and things start to get scary. Just how confident are you that your car is really working perfectly? Are you actually monitoring all the inner workings – and how able would you be to diagnose a fault if one came up? Essentially, when applied to ships, knowing how well everything’s going at the start and finish is considered shockingly inferior. Is checking your car for an MOT once a year enough without the same level of monitoring that is now being brought into shipping?

To my mind, this is where sport comes in. At any point in a Formula 1 race, engineers sitting in the garage can monitor almost anything you care to know about the car out on track – engine temperatures, tyre pressures and temperatures and how heavily the driver is using his brakes. Should the car break down, engineers often know where to look for the issue before the car has even been brought back to the garage.

F1 has been a constant source of innovations that move to road cars. Previously, systems such as semi-automatic gearboxes and power steering were developed to give competitive drivers every possible advantage – now they are extremely common. Everyone is looking at the regenerative braking KERS system, but I suspect that improvements in self-diagnosing cars might be something else that gradually becomes more and more commonplace in the near future. Whether that affects the price of fixing such problems is a different matter!