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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Venus is probably the most peculiar planet that we have in our solar system. If you were observing it from far away you’d probably think that it was a twin of Earth, and for the most part you’d be right, but we know that it’s nothing like the place we call home. It’s atmosphere is a testament to the devastation that can be wrought by global warming with the surface temperature exceeding 400 degrees. Venus is also the only planet that spins in the opposite (retrograde) direction to every other planet, a mystery that still remains unsolved. Still for all we know about our celestial sister there’s always more to be learned and that’s where the Venus Express comes in.
Launched back in 2005 the Venus Express mission took the platform developed for the Mars Express mission and tweaked it for observational use around Venus. The Venus Express’ primary mission was the long term observation of Venus’ atmosphere as well as some limited study of its surface (a rather difficult task considering Venu’s dense atmosphere). It arrived at Venus back in early 2006 and has been sending data back ever since with its primary mission being extended several times since then. However the on board fuel resources are beginning to run low so the scientists controlling the craft proposed a daring idea: do a controlled deep dive into the atmosphere to gather even more detailed information about Venus’ atmosphere.
Typically the Venus Express orbits around 250KM above Venus’ surface, a pretty typical height for observational activities. The proposed dive however had the craft diving down to below 150KM, an incredibly low altitude for any craft to attempt. To put it in perspective the “boundary of space” (referred to as the Karman line) is about 100KM above Earth’s surface, putting this craft not too far off that boundary. Considering that Venus’ atmosphere is far more dense than Earth’s the risks you run by diving down that low are increased dramatically as the drag you’ll experience at that height will be far greater. Still, even with all those risks, the proposed dive went ahead last week.
The amazing thing about it? The craft survived.
The dive brought the craft down to a staggering 130KM above Venus’ surface during which it saw some drastic changes in its operating environment. The atmospheric density increased a thousandfold between the 160KM and 130KM, significantly increasing the drag on the spacecraft. This in turn led to the solar panels experiencing heating over 100 degrees, enough to boil water on them. It’s spent about a month at various low altitudes before the mission team brought it back up out of the cloudy depths, where its orbit will now slowly degrade over time before it re-enters the atmosphere one last time.
It’s stuff like this that gets me excited about space and the science we can do in it. I mean we’ve got an almost decade old craft orbiting another planet and we purposefully plunged it down, just in the hopes that we’d get some better data. Not only did it manage to do that but it came back out the other side, still ready and raring to go. If that isn’t a testament to our talents in engineering and orbital mechanics prowess then I don’t know what is.
Ever since I can remember my joints have always been prone to popping and cracking. It was the worst when I was a child as I couldn’t really sneak around anywhere without my ankles loudly announcing my presence, thwarting my attempt at whatever shenanigans I was up to. Soon after I discovered the joy of cracking my knuckles and most other joints in my body, much to the chagrin of those around me. However even though I was warned of health effects (which I’m pretty sure is bunk) I never looked up the actual mechanism behind the signature sound and honestly it’s actually quite interesting:
Interestingly though whilst cavitation in the synovial fluid is one of the better explanations for where the sound originates there’s still some other mechanisms which can cause similar audible effects. Rapid stretching of ligaments can also result in similar noises, usually due to tendons snapping from one position to another. Some sounds are also the result of less benign activities like tearing of intra-articular adhesions tearing, although that usually goes hand in hand with a not-so-minor injury to the joint.
There’s also been a little more investigation into the health effects of cracking your knuckles than what the video alludes to. A recent study of 215 patients in the age range of 50 to 89 showed that, regardless of how long a person had been cracking their knuckles, there was no relationship between cracking and osteoarthritis in those joints. Now this was a retrospective study (in terms of people telling the researchers of how much they cracked their knuckles) so there’s potential for biases to slip in there but they did use radiographs to determine if they had arthritis or not. There’s no studies around other joints however, although I’d wager that the mechanisms, and thus their effects, are very similar throughout the body.
And now if you’ll excuse me I’ll be off to disgust my wife by cracking every joint in my body
It’s been almost 6 years since I first began writing this blog. If you dare to troll through the early archives there’s no doubt that the writing in there is of lower quality, much of it to do with me still trying to find my voice in this medium. Now, some 1300+ posts later, the hours I’ve invested in developing this blog my writing has improved dramatically and every day I feel far more confident in my abilities to churn out a blog post that meets a certain quality threshold. I attribute much of that to my dedication to writing at least once a day, an activity which has seen me invest thousands of hours into improving my craft. Indeed I felt that this was something of an embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule at work, something that newly released research says isn’t the main factor at play.
The study conducted by researchers at Princeton University (full text available here) attempted to discern just how much of an impact deliberate practice had on performance. They conducted a meta analysis of 150 studies that investigated the relationship between these two variables and classified them along major domains as well as the methodology used to gather performance data. The results show that whilst deliberate practice can improve your performance within a certain domain (and which domain its in has a huge effect on how great the improvement is) it’s not the major contributor in any case. Indeed the vast majority of improvements are due to factors that reside outside of deliberate practice which seemingly throws the idea of 10,000 hours worth of practice being the key component to mastering something.
To be clear though the research doesn’t mean that practice is worthless, indeed in pretty much every study conducted there’s a strong correlation between increased performance and deliberate practice. What this study does show though is that there are factors outside of deliberate practice which have a greater influence on whether or not your performance improves. Unfortunately determining what those factors are was out of the scope of the study (it’s only addressed in passing in the final closing statements of the report) but there are still some interesting conclusions to be made about how one can go about improving themselves.
Where deliberate practice does seem to help with performance is with activities that have a predictable outcome. Indeed performances for routine activities show a drastic improvement when deliberate practice is undertaken whilst unpredictable things, like aviation emergencies, show less improvement. We also seem to overestimate our own improvement due to practice alone as studies that relied on people remembering past performances showed a much larger improvement than studies that logged performances over time. Additionally for the areas which showed the least amount of improvement due to deliberate practice it’s likely that there’s no good definition for “practice” within these domains, meaning it’s much harder to quantify what needs to be practiced.
So where does this leave us? Are we all doomed to be good at only the things which our nature defines for us, never to be able to improve on anything? As far as the research shows no, deliberate practice might not be the magic cure all for improving but it is a great place to start. What we need to know now is what other factors play into improving performances within their specific domains. For some areas this is already well defined (I can think of many examples in games) but for other domains that are slightly more nebulous in nature it’s entirely possible that we’ll never figure out the magic formula. Still at least now you don’t worry so much about the hours you put in, as long as you still, in fact, put them in.
Liquid nitrogen is a scientific staple that I’m sure we’re pretty much all familiar with. It’s a great demonstration of how the melting and boiling points can vary wildly and, of course, everyone loves shattering a frozen banana or two. However seeing the other stages of elemental gases is typically impossible as getting the required temperature is beyond the reach of most high school science labs. However there is a trick that we can use to, in essence, trick nitrogen into forming a solid: reducing the pressure to a near vacuum. The results of doing so are just incredible with the nitrogen behaving in some really peculiar ways:
The initial stages of the nitrogen transitioning into a solid is pretty standard with the reduced pressure resulting in the superheated boiling, plunging the temperature of the remaining liquid. The initial freezing is also something many will be familiar with as it closely mimics what happens when water freezes (although lacking water’s peculiar property of expanding when freezing). The sudden, and rather explosive, crystalline formation after that however took me by surprise as I’ve never really seen anything of that nature before. The closest thing I could think of was the fracturing of a Prince Rupert’s Drop although the propagation of the nitrogen crystalline structure seems to be an order of magnitude or two slower than that.
What really got me about this video is that it wasn’t done by a science channel or vlogger, it’s done by a bunch of chefs. Liquid nitrogen has been used in various culinary activities for over a century, mostly due to its extreme low temperatures which form much smaller ice crystals in the food that it chills. It should come as no surprise really as there’s been a huge surge in the science behind cooking with the field of molecular gastronomy taking off in recent decades. It just goes to show that interesting science can be done almost anywhere you care to look and its applications are likely far more wide reaching than you’d first think.
In the beginning, the one where time itself began, the theory goes that matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts. When matter and antimatter meet they annihilate each other in a perfect transformation of matter into energy which should have meant that our universe consisted of nothing else. However, for some strange reason, the universe has a small preference for matter over antimatter, to the tune of 1 parts in 10 billion. This is why our universe is the way it is, filled with billions of galaxies and planets, with the only remnant of the cataclysmic creation being the cosmic microwave background that permeates our universe with bizarre consistency. The question of why our universe has a slight preference for matter has puzzled scientists for the better part of a century although we’re honing in on an answer.
If you had the ability to see microwaves then the night sky would have a faint glow about it, one that was the same no matter which direction you looked in. This uniform background radiation is a relic of the early universe where matter and antimatter were continuously annihilating each other, leaving behind innumerable photons that now permeate every corner of the known universe. What’s rather perplexing is that we haven’t observed any primordial antimatter left over from the big bang, only the matter that makes up the observable universe. This lack of antimatter means that, for some reason or another, our universe has an asymmetry in it that has a preference for matter. Where this asymmetry lies though is still unknown but we’re slowly eliminating its hiding spots.
The Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) team at CERN has been conducting experiments with antimatter for some time now. They have been successfully capturing antiprotons for several years and have recently moved up to capturing antihydrogen atoms. Their approach to doing this is quite novel as traditional means of capturing antimatter usually revolve around strong magnetic fields which limit what kinds of analysis you can do on them. ALPHA’s detector can transfer the antihydrogen away from their initial capture region to another one which has a uniform electric field, allowing them to perform measurements on them. Antihydrogen is electrically neutral, much like its twin hydrogen, so the field shouldn’t deflect them. The results have shown that antihydrogen particles have a charge that’s equivalent to 0, showing that it shares the same properties as its regular matter brethren.
This might not sound like a much of a revelation however it was a potential spot for the universe’s asymmetry to pop up in. Had the charge of the antihydrogen atom been significantly different from that of hydrogen it would’ve been a clue as to the source of the universe’s preference for matter. We’ve found that not to be the case so it means that the asymmetry exists somewhere else. While this doesn’t exactly tell us where it might be it does rule out one possibility which is about as good as it gets in modern science. There’s still many more experiments to be done by the ALPHA team and I have no doubt they’ll be significant contributors to modelling just similar matter and antimatter are.
Whilst I might tend towards nuclear being the best option to satisfy our power needs (fission for now, fusion for the future) I see little reason for us to not pursue renewable technologies. Solar and wind have both proven to be great sources of energy that, even at the micro scale, have proven to be great sources of energy that have great returns on investment. Even the more exotic forms of renewable energy, like wave power and biomass, have proven that they’re more than just another green dream. However the renewable energy which I believe has the most potential is concentrated solar thermal which, if engineered right, can produce power consistently over long periods of time.
Solar thermal isn’t a recent technology with functioning plants operating in Spain since 2007. However compared to most other forms of power generation it’s still in its nascent stages with the numerous different approaches being trialled to figure out how to best set up and maintain a plant of this nature. This hasn’t stopped the plants from generating substantial amounts of power in the interim however with the largest capable of generating 392MW which might not sound like a lot when you compare it to some coal fueled giants but they do it without consuming any non-renewable fuel. What’s particularly exciting for me is that our own CSIRO is working on developing this technology and just passed a historic milestone.
The CSIRO maintains an Energy Center up in Newcastle where they develop both energy efficient building designs as well as renewable energy systems. Of the numerous systems they have there (including a traditional photovoltaic system, wind turbine and gas fired microturbine) are two concentrating solar thermal towers capable of generating 500KW and 1MW respectively. Their larger array recently generated supercritical steam at temperatures that could melt aluminium, an astonishing achievement. This means that their generating turbines can operate far more efficiently than traditional subcritical designs can, allowing them to generate more power. Whilst they admit they’re still a ways off a commercial level implementation the fact they were able to do it with a small array is newsworthy in itself as even the larger plants overseas haven’t achieved such a goal yet.
Looking at the designs they have on their website it seems their design is along the traditional lines of solar thermal, using the steam created to directly feed into the turbine to generate electricity. This, of course, suffers from the age old problem that you only generate power when the sun is shining, limiting its effectiveness to certain parts of the day. The current solution to this is to use a heat storage medium, molten salts being the currently preferred option, to capture heat for later use. Thankfully it seems the CSIRO is investigating different heat storage mediums, including molten salts, to augment their solar thermal plant with. I’m not sure if it would be directly compatible with their current set up (you usually heat the molten salts directly and then use them to generate steam down the line) but it’s good to see that they’re considering all aspects of solar thermal power generation.
Considering just how much of Australia is barren desert that’s bathed in the suns radiation solar thermal seems like the smart choice for generating large amounts of power without the carbon footprint that typically comes along with it. The research work that is being done at the CSIRO and abroad means that this technology is not just an environmentalist’s dream, it’s a tangible product that is already proving to have solid returns on investment. If all goes well we might be seeing our first solar thermal plant sooner than you’d think, something I think all of us can get excited about.