Science

Death Valley’s Sailing Stones Mystery Revealed.

The Sailing Stones of Death Valley have been a scientific curiosity for numerous decades. These rocks seemingly spring to life at various times throughout the year, blazing long trials across the desert’s floor before coming back down to rest. Whilst there have been numerous theories as to what causes this movement, ranging from the plausible to the downright insane, no one had managed to verify just what exactly was going on with these strange rocks. Well now thanks to researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography we now have evidence of just what’s causing this to happen and it’s pretty fascinating.

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The video largely supports the theory put forth by Ralph Lorenz some years ago whereby the the rocks are trapped within ice sheets which are then moved by the prevailing winds. What’s interesting about this video is that it shows why the previous experiments, which were largely inconclusive as to ice sheets being responsible, produced the data that they did. It also shows why there seems to be similarities between some movements whilst others seem to be completely random. Pretty much all of these can now be explained by the ice sheets breaking up and bumping off each other, leading to the wide variety of patterns and behaviours.

Like the video says this might not be the most exciting experiment to conduct however it’s always interesting when a long standing phenomena like this finally gets explained. We might not be able to use this knowledge to further other research or develop some novel product, however as we begin to explore further out into our universe knowledge of strange things like this becomes incredibly valuable. When we see phenomena like this elsewhere we’ll be able to deduce that similar processes are in action over there and thus further our understanding of the places we explore.

SCIENCE MOUSE

First Whole Organ Grown Inside Mice.

The need for organs for transplants has always outstripped demand and this has pushed the science in some pretty amazing directions. Indeed one of the most incredible advances is the ability to strip away host tissue from organs, leaving behind an organ scaffold, that we can then regrow with the recipient’s own cells. This drastically reduces the chance of rejection and hopefully avoids the patient having to take the harsh anti-rejection drugs. However such a process still relies on a donor organ which still leaves us with the supply problem to deal with. Whilst we’ve made some advances in creating parts of organs (some even done with biomedical 3D printers) growing a full organ has still proven elusive.

That is until recently.

SCIENCE MOUSEResearchers at the University of Edinburgh have, for the first time, managed to grow a full functioning organ within a mouse using only a single injection. The organ that they created was the thymus, an organ that plays a critical role in the production of T-cells. These cells are the ones that are responsible for hunting down cells in your body that are either showing abnormalities or signs of infection and then eradicating them. What’s so incredible about this recent achievement is that the functional thymus developed after the injection of modified cells, requiring none of the additional work that’s previously been associated with creating functional organs.

The process starts off with cells from a mouse embryo, which from what I can gather were likely to be embryonic stem cells, which were then genetically programmed to form into a type of cell that’s found in the thymus. These, along with supporting cells, were then injected into the mice and the resultant cells developed into a fully functioning thymus. Interestingly though this didn’t seem to be the outright goal of the program as the researchers themselves stated that the result was surprising. Indeed whilst it’s been theorized that stem cells could be used in this manner it was never thought to be as straight forward as this and with these results further research is definitely on the table.

Whilst this research is still many years away from being useful in human models it does pave the way for research into how far this typical method can be applied. The thymus is a relatively simple organ when compared to others in the body so the next steps will be to see if this same process can be used to replicate them. If say a liver or heart can be reproduced in this manner then this has the potential to completely solve the transplant organ supply issue, allowing patients (or a surrogate) to grow their own organs for transplants. There’s a lot of research to be done before that happens however but this latest advance is incredibly promising.

 

Family_Portrait_

Your Children’s Well Being Begins Before Conception.

I was never a particularly fit or active child. It wasn’t for lack of encouragement from my parents, they had me try all sorts of different activities in the hopes I’d find something that I enjoyed, more it was that I just never felt as capable as other kids when it came to physical endeavours. This, of course, fed into my love of all things gaming and other sedentary activities. It wasn’t until over a decade ago that I started to take my health seriously, transforming myself from a chronically underweight individual (BMI 17) to the more athletic person that I am today. Mostly I did this for myself however I always had a view that I needed to do this for my future children and today brings word of new research that shows I was on the right track.

Family_Portrait_It’s common knowledge that your parent’s genetics play a major role in your development and health throughout your life. Indeed it’s to the point now where we can identify many genes that are precursors for many conditions and diseases, allowing us to engage in preventative treatment long before the condition manifests itself. It’s also well known that the mother’s health, as well as the conditions she exposes herself to during pregnancy, have long lasting effects on the child after birth. However many believe that beyond those two factors the health of the parents doesn’t really factor into the child’s long term health, I.E. that your health prior to conceiving doesn’t have much influence over the child’s long term wellbeing. The latest research out of our own University of Adelaide turns that assumption on its head showing that the parents’ health before conception plays a significant role in the child’s well being throughout their life.

Essentially it boils down to the accumulation of environmental factors in the egg and sperm of the parents which are then passed on to any progeny. The good news is for parents that are looking to conceive is that this mechanism works both ways and that improvements in your health before conception will then also lead to better outcomes for your child. Whilst the study says that the impacts can be seen even months before conception effecting real change in such a short time frame is highly unlikely and such changes should be undertaken much earlier. Unfortunately since I don’t have journal access anymore I can’t comment on just how effective such intervention is but the researchers comments don’t seem to indicate that it’s small.

For me this just reinforces the view that your health is far more important than a lot of people give it credit for. Whilst I always lament when people derive motivation from a wake up call like this I can’t deny that it’s an effective mechanism for most. Indeed it seems for many that their child’s health is a primary motivator for a lot of decisions, even if some of them are rather ill-informed. So if improving your own health could vastly improve your childs then I’m sure many parents would take the initiative and live better lives as a result. Hopefully that would then lead onto keeping those improved habits long after the children were born as whilst your genetic influence may have ceased you will still have huge impact on their habits, many of which they will carry with them for life.

 

On The Importance of Sunscreen (Or What You Look Like in UV).

We Australians are leaders in many things we shouldn’t be, like our climbing obesity rates or per-capita carbon emissions. As it is with a lot of things like this the causes are readily preventable and it is up to us to take action in order to ensure that we lose our world leader status in these less-than-desirable categories. However there is one issue that, even despite years of campaigning and education programs, we Australians just never seem to get: we are the most likely people in the world to get skin cancer. This is an almost entirely preventable condition, one that requires almost no effort to ensure that you’re highly unlikely to suffer from it.

The video below shows just how effective sunscreen is at doing it’s cancer preventing job, blocking harmful UV rays:

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Now the shocking discovery of UV freckles that many of the people in this video saw isn’t necessarily a bad thing (those are simply concentrated spots of melanin, your skin’s natural defence mechanism) however the application of sunscreen, as well as the glasses appearing to be opaque, should drive home the message that sunscreen does indeed work as advertised. UVA and UVB are both completely blocked by your regular over the counter sunscreens, providing full protection against the damaging rays of the sun. Sunglasses are also a vital if you’re spending a lot of time outdoors as continued exposure can lead to things like cataracts.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here but honestly when our incident rate of melanoma and other skin cancers is this high I feel it bears repeating. We’re a nation of people who love our beaches, sports and the outdoors and there’s really no reason that we should subject ourselves to unnecessary risks like this. Really taking 5 minutes to lather yourself up before hitting the beach isn’t a big ask and it could save you years of pain down the line.

You don’t have to end up as a statistic.

Photic Sneezing, It’s a Thing!

Many moons ago, when I was still a poor uni student working multiple jobs to make ends meet, I remember one of my fellow childcare workers would rarely be seen outside without his sunglasses. It became something of a recurring joke as, even when it wasn’t particularly bright outside, he’d be sporting them. He later explained that he kept them on constantly because sunlight would make him sneeze and indeed upon taking them off he proceeded to prove his point. I had always thought that explanation was a most likely bunk however a couple years later I started to develop similar symptoms. Whilst the coincidence felt undeniable to me I had never really looked into it, until I saw this video:

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Unfortunately whilst it’s a well established phenomena the lack of known cause is a little bit disappointing. I mean it’s not exactly a debilitating condition, all it takes is a half decent pair of sunglasses to negate any effect the sun might have in this regard, but still it seems like something that should have a simple explanation. Alas investigating why sunlight makes people sneeze probably isn’t the most sexy of research topics so I’m not holding my breath for any scientific breakthroughs.

All this talk of sneezing has made my nose itch, maybe I should pop outside to clear it out ;)

Quantum Entanglement

Quantum Entanglement Just Became a Whole Bunch Weirder.

Quantum Mechanics is…weird. Anyone who’s had a passing education in the world of physics will know of certain principles that hold true for pretty much everything but the second you dive into the quantum world all that knowledge and understanding won’t help you one bit. Even simple things like “2 objects can’t exist in the same place at the same time” aren’t true when you’re down at that level, destroying any sense of logicality you might have had when approaching the subject. Indeed there’s a quote famously attributed to Richard Feynman that “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”, although I’ve yet to find anyone say that they do understand it (I sure as heck don’t). Worse still even when you think you’ve got one principle figured out an experiment will come around and turn it on its head, like quantum entanglement recently was.

Quantum Entanglement

Quantum entanglement, in its simplest form (at least in my understanding) is the phenomena whereby two particles are linked together at the quantum level. Should you attempt to measure some attributes of one of the particles, say an electron’s spin, the other particle will instantaneously assume the same observed state regardless of the distance separating them. Whilst we don’t know the exact speed at which that state travels we do know it’s at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light, something which would appear to violate the cosmic speed limit. However no information is actually transferred between the two particles, they simply assume the same state at the exact same time, and indeed any applications you might think of to use it to transfer information will, unfortunately, fail. Up until recently it was thought that such entangled particles needed to be close to, or create with, each other in order for entanglement to happen. However that’s not the case anymore as particles can be entangled even without knowing each other.

I think I actually ended up understanding less about quantum mechanics after finding this out.

The research, done at Chapman University, attempted to explore what’s called the Pigeonhole Principle in the realm of quantum mechanics. It’s a relatively simple mathematical concept to explain: say you have 3 pigeons and 2 pigeonholes, if you were to put all the pigeons into those holes at least one of them would contain 2 pigeons. Simple right? Well it is and simple proofs like this have a multitude of uses in mathematics, however when it’s applied to quantum mechanics some…strange things happen. Essentially the research team found out that you could put infinite pigeons into only 2 different holes and none of them would end up in the same hole. If that sounds confusing that’s because it is, but this has what lead the research team to demonstrate that particles, even those which had no idea their entangled partner existed, could in fact be entangled.

Like most discoveries in the area of quantum mechanics the potential practical applications of this discovery aren’t readily apparent. The big issue we have with using quantum entanglement for anything currently is that making entangled particles is ridiculously hard. However if there’s potential for particles to be entangled without them needing to be near each other, or having even known each other at all, there’s potential to do away with the expense of creating them ourselves. Just how we go about harnessing these naturally entangled particles, and whether or not they have any practical uses, is something that will have to be worked on.

I have no doubt that quantum mechanics is a fertile ground for research to be conducted however I sometimes wish it wasn’t so weird. It took me the better part of 2 hours just to make sure I was understanding what the hell was actually going on and to verify that what the various reports were saying lined up with the actual research. Don’t get me wrong though, this kind of stuff is incredibly exciting, but it feels like you have to be wired in a slightly weird fashion for any of it to make sense to you the first time around. I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m thoroughly confused again, especially if anyone out there points out some factual inaccuracies in this post.

I think I need to lie down…

Have Some Vitamin K You Little Bastard

Vitamin Injections the Next Target for the Anti-Vax Crowd.

I really don’t understand the mistrust a lot of people have for the medical profession. Whilst I try my darndest to be informed in all matters that concern me I know when I’ve reached the limits of my understanding and that’s when I reach out to experts. In terms of my health there really isn’t anyone better qualified than a medical professional to give me advice on that subject and there are numerous specialists available to give me the information I require. Yet everywhere I go I meet people who believe that modern medicine has it all wrong and we should trust some whacko who’s being kept down by Big Pharma. The latest incarnation of this mistrust has come down to the vitamin K shot that’s routinely given to infants which apparently has all sorts of bad consequences for your child.

Have Some Vitamin K You Little Bastard

A standard treatment for newborns is an injection, or sometimes orally administered drops, of a high dose of vitamin K shortly after birth. The reason behind this is pretty simple, newborns have a severe lack of blood clotting factors being on the order of 30% to 60% lower than what they’ll have in adulthood. What this means is when a newborn starts bleeding, for whatever reason, it will continue to do so for a much longer time which poses significant risks to the child. Breast milk is unfortunately quite deficient in the amount of vitamin K provided with formulas having about 100 times more for this exact reason. The incident rate of bleeding resulting from deficiency of this nature isn’t high, about 1.7% or so, but it’s entirely preventable which is why the shot, or drops, are used. However because of reasons I’ll never understand some of the anti-vax crowd has started rallying against it, which has led to an increased prevalence of this entirely preventable condition.

Digging into the “controversy” around the shots shows that the roots of this new dissent with a long practiced and safe procedure stems from a (shockingly) discredited study that linked the shots to an increased rate of childhood cancer. A review of that study done in 2000 revealed that there was no link between the two and the results were born out of poor testing methods and small sample sizes. Other sites seem to rely on other, less scientific things like the injection causes pain, the amount of vitamin K is too high and that an injection is apparently an opportune time for an infection to get in.

Those reasons don’t really stand up to casual scrutiny however. Sure there’s studies that say sustained neonatal pain causes problems down the line but drawing conclusions that any kind of pain, even if only temporary, leads to the exact same effects. Dosages of vitamin K have shown to be safe and effective to orders of magnitude higher than the ones given to infants, even over sustained durations. The jab at the injection site being an opportune time for infection to get in is the last grab at straws as this is most likely going to happen in a hospital where the sterile conditions are likely to be much more guaranteed than a doctor’s office. If the argument was purely for drops over injections then I’d have little issue with it but that doesn’t seem to be the case with this latest bout of crazy.

Honestly we’ve got decades of research behind many of the things we’re giving to our children and the proof is in the results we’ve got. Infant mortality has been reduced to it’s lowest levels in all of human history thanks to modern medicine and to simply throw that away on the back of emotional arguments is, at best, foolish. If you really think that these things that modern medicine recommends are as bad as they sound I’d encourage you to get educated and ask the experts in the field about it. Present them the evidence you have and see how they react. More often than not you’ll find good answers to your questions and your children’s health will be all the better for it.

Military_laser_experiment

Lasers Increase the Efficacy of Vaccines.

A common misconception that many people have around vaccines is that they’re a one shot deal that provides you with complete immunity from the disease in question. The efficacy of a vaccine is judged by how much it lowers the incident rate of a particular disease given ideal conditions and typically that number is high enough that herd immunity takes care of the rest. The flu vaccine is a great example of a vaccine that doesn’t provide full immunity to the disease in question (due to its highly mutable nature) but it does however give your immune system some tools with which to fight off variants of the disease should you get infected. Thus anything we can do to improve the efficacy of vaccines is important and it just so happens that lasers might be the next big thing.

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Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in conjunction with the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology investigated the application of a cosmetic laser to an injection site prior to administering a vaccine. The research was primarily focused on improving the efficacy and duration of the protection offered by the influenza vaccine as its current levels could do with some improvement. The results they found were quite interesting, showing a 4 to 7 fold increase in immune response to the vaccine. Interestingly the results could not be replicated by simply increasing the dose of the vaccine, signalling that there was another mechanism in effect. The results also lend credence to one line of thinking of how adjuvants work, opening up new avenues for research.

Cosmetic lasers work by stimulating the body’s in built healing processes. Essentially they damage your dermis (without damaging the outer layer of skin) which causes an inflammation response at the site. For cosmetic purposes this is desirable as it promotes the renewal of skin cells at that site, making the skin look more youthful. For vaccines however this inflammatory response brings antigen-presenting cells to the site, the cells which are responsible for binding to pathogens or other harmful cells, which when faced with the vaccine rapidly bind to it. Interestingly enough the effect is most pronounced when used in conjunction with a typical adjuvant (Imiquimod, a topical cream) which also promotes an immune response at the site.

Interestingly this isn’t the first time that trauma at the injection site was used to promote the immune response. The smallpox vaccine used a bifurcated (split in two) needle which caused a rather unnerving wound at the injection site. This reduced the amount of vaccine required by about 4 times and resulted in the same effect, drastically reducing the cost required to vaccinate large populations. The cosmetic laser is a better approach due to the way it’s administered, reducing the chance for opportunistic infections and nocebo effects that might arise from the treatment.

Best of all whilst the research focused primarily on the influenza vaccine the same method appears to work for some of the other common vaccines. It’s still early days though as there’s a wide range of vaccines out there that will need to be tested with this method before it becomes standard procedure. Still anything that increases the effectiveness of an already high effective tool is great news as it means that these diseases will become less prevalent and, hopefully, we can reduce our mortality rates from them as well.

But also it’s just so freaking cool that lasers (LASERS!) are the things making vaccines better. It makes me unreasonably happy, for some reason… :)

General Fusion Magnetized Target Reactor

There’s More to the World of Fusion Than Just Tokamaks.

The world of fusion is currently dominated by a single project: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. It is by far the biggest project ever undertaken in the field of fusion, aiming to create a plant capable of producing sustained bursts of 500MW. Unfortunately due to the nature of fusion and the numerous nations involved in the project it’s already a decade behind where it was supposed to be with conservative estimates having it come online sometime in 2027. Now this isn’t an area I’d usually considered ripe for private industry investment (it’s extremely risky and capital intensive) but it appears that a few start-ups are actually working in this area and the designs they’re coming up with are quite incredible.

General Fusion Magnetized Target Reactor

There’s 2 main schools of thinking in the world of fusion today: inertial confinement and magnetic confinement. The former attempts to achieve fusion by using incredible amounts of pressure, enough so that the resulting reaction plasma is 100 times more dense than lead. It was this type of fusion that reached a criticla milestone late last year with the NIF producing more energy in the reaction than they put into it. The latter is what will eventually power ITER which, whilst it has yet to provide a real (non-extrapolated) Q value of greater than 1 it still has had much of the basic science validated on it, thus providing the best basis from which to proceed with. What these startups are working on though is something in between these two schools of thinking which, potentially, could see fusion become commercially viable sooner rather than later.

The picture above is General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion reactor a new prototype that combines magnetic confinement with aspects of its inertial brethren. In the middle is a giant core of molten lead that’s spinning fast enough to produce a hollowed out center (imagine it like an apple with the core removed). The initial plasma is generated outside this sphere and contained using a magnetic field after which it’s injected into the core of the molten lead sphere. Then pistons on the outside of the molten sphere compress it down rapidly, within a few millionths of a second, causing the internal plasma to rapidly undergo fusion reactions. The resulting heat from the reaction can then be used in traditional power generators, much like it would in other nuclear reactors.

The design has a lot of benefits like the fact that the molten lead ball that’s being used for containment doesn’t suffer from the same neutron degradation that other designs typically suffer from. From what I can tell though the design does have some rather hefty requirements when it comes to precision as the compression of the molten lead sphere needs to happen fast and symmetrically. The previous prototypes I read about used explosives to do this, something which isn’t exactly sustainable (well, at least from my point of view anyway). Still the experiments thus far haven’t disproved the theory so it’s definitely a good area for research to continue in.

Whether these plucky upstarts in fusion will be able to deliver the dream faster than ITER though is something I’m not entirely sure about. Fusion has been just decades away for the better part of a century now and whilst there’s always the possibility these designs solve all the issues that the other’s have it could just as easily go the other way. Still it’s really exciting to see innovation in this space as I honestly thought the 2 leading schools of thought were basically it. So this is one of those occasions when I’m extraordinarily happy to be proven wrong and I hope they can dash my current skepticism again in the not too distant future.

Global Warming Risk

So Educating People on Climate Change Science Isn’t the Answer? Bugger…

The representation of climate change science in the media has, up until recently, been rather poor. Far too many engaged in debates and articles that gave the impression there was still 2 sides to the argument when in fact the overwhelming majority of evidence only favours one side. The last few years have seen numerous campaigns to rectify this situation and whilst we still haven’t convinced everyone of the real facts it’s been great to see a reduction in the number of supposed “fair” debates on the topic. However if a recent study around the general population’s knowledge on this topic is anything to go by lack of knowledge might not be the problem at all, it might just be the culture surrounding it.

Global Warming Risk

A recent study done by Professor Dan Kahan of Yale university was done in order to understand just how literate people were on the issues of general science as well as climate change science. The results are rather surprising (and ultimately disturbing) as whilst you’d tend to think that a better general understanding of science would lead to a better understanding of the risks associated with climate change the study actually shows that isn’t a predictor at all. Indeed the strongest predictor of was actually their left-right political affiliation with the amount of scientific knowledge actually increasing the divide between them. This leads us to a rather ugly conclusion that educating people about the facts behind climate change is most likely not going to change their opinion of it.

Well fuck.

Whilst the divide along party lines isn’t going to shock anyone the fact that both sides of the political landscape are about as educated as each other on the topic was a big surprise to me. I had always thought that it was more ignorance than anything else as a lot of arguments I had had around climate change usually centered on the lack of scientific consensus. Had I dug further into their actual knowledge though it seems that they may have been more knowledgeable on it than I would first think, even if the conclusions they drew from the evidence were out of touch with reality. This signals that we, as those interested in spreading the facts and evidence as accepted by the wider scientific community, need to rephrase the debate from one of education to something else that transcends party lines.

What that solution would be though is something I just don’t have a good answer to. At an individual level I know I can usually convince most people of the facts if I’m given enough time with someone (heck up until 5  years ago I was on the other side of the debate myself) but the strategies I use there simply don’t scale to the broader population. Taking the politics out of an issue is no simple task, and one I’d wager has never been done successfully before, but until we find a way to break down the party lines on the issue of climate change I feel that meaningful progress will always be a goal that’s never met.