Science

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Forgetting Might be an Adaptive Advantage.

Nearly all of us are born with what we’d consider less than ideal memories. We’ll struggle to remember where our keys our, draw a blank on that new coworker’s name and sometimes pause much longer than we’d like to remember a detail that should be front of mind. The idealised pinnacle, the photographic (or more accurately the eidetic) memory, always seems like an elusive goal, something you have to be born with rather than achieve. However it seems that our ability to forget might actually come from an evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to remember the pertinent details that helped us survive whilst suppressing those that might otherwise hinder us.

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The idea isn’t a new one, having existed in some form since at least 1997, but it’s only recently that researchers have had the tools to study the mechanism in action. You see it’s rather difficult to figure out which memories are being forgotten for adaptive reasons, I.E. to improve the survival of the organism, and which ones are simply forgotten due to other factors. The advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to get a better idea of what the brain is doing at any one point, allowing them to set up situations to see what the brain is doing when it’s forgetting something. The results are quite intriguing, demonstrating that at some level forgetting might be an adaptive mechanism.

Back in 2007 researchers at Stanford University investigated the prospect that adaptive forgetting was potentially a mechanism for reducing the amount of brain power required to select the right memories for a particular situation. The hypothesis goes that remembering is an act of selecting a specific memory for a goal related activity. Forgetting then functions as an optimization mechanism, allowing the brain to more easily select the right memories by suppressing competing memories that might not be optimal. The research supported this notion, showing decreased activity in anterior cingulated cortex which is activated when people are weighing choices (like figuring out which memory is relevant).

More recent research into this phenomena, conducted by researchers at various institutes at the University of Birmingham and various institutes in Cambridge, focused on finding out if the active recollection of a specific memory hindered the remembering of others. Essentially this means that the act of remembering a specific memory would come at the cost of other, competing memories which in turn would lead to them being forgotten. They did this by getting subjects to view 144 picture and word associations and were then trained to remember 72 of them (whilst they were inside a fMRI machine). They were then given another set of associations for each word which would serve as the “competitive” memory for the first.

The results showed some interesting findings, some which may sound obvious on first glance. Attempting to recall the second word association led to a detriment in the subject’s ability to recall the first. That might not sound groundbreaking to start off with but subsequent testing showed a progressive detriment to the recollection of competing memories, demonstrating they were being actively repressed. Further to this the researchers found that their subject’s brain activity was lower for trained images than ones that weren’t part of the initial training set, an indication that these memories were being actively suppressed. There was also evidence to suggest that the trained memories showed the most average forgetting as well as increased activity in a region of the brain known to be associated with adaptive forgetting.

Whilst this research might not give you any insight into how to improve your memory it does give us a rare look into how our brain functions and why certain it behaves in ways we believe to be sub-optimal. Potentially in the future there could be treatments available to suppress that mechanism however what ramifications that might have on actual cognition is anyone’s guess. Needless to say though it’s incredibly interesting to find out why our brains do the things we do, even if we wished they did the exact opposite most of the time.

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New Alzheimer’s Treatments Showing Incredible Promise.

Medicine has long known about the potential causes of Alzheimer’s however finding a safe and reliable treatment has proven to be far more elusive. Current treatments centre on alleviating the symptoms of the disease, combating things like memory loss and cognitive function. However whilst these may provide some relief and quality of life improvement they do nothing to treat the underlying cause which is a combination of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Current research has heavily focused on the former which blocks communications between neurons in the brain and, so the theory goes, removing them will restore cognitive function. Recently two treatments have shown some incredibly positive results with one of them not too far off seeing widespread trials.

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A drug company called Biogen has developed a drug called Aducanumab which has shown a significant effect in reducing the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s an antibody that helps trigger an immune system response and was created by investigating the antibodies present in healthy aged donors, with the reasoning going that they had successfully resisted Alzheimer’s related symptoms. The recent large clinical study showed an effect far beyond what the researchers were expecting, including a dose dependent effect. The drug is not yet available for widespread distribution, there’s still one more late stage trial to go, however it could see a wide market release as soon as 2018. It’s still far from a cure but the drug is capable of significantly slowing the progress of the disease, opening up the opportunity for other treatments to be far more effective.

New research from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland investigated using focused ultrasound to help break up amyloid plaques. Essentially this treatment disrupts the blood-brain barrier temporarily, allowing microglial cells (which are essentially clean up cells) to enter the particular region of the brain and remove the plaques. After a short period of time, the research shows a couple hours or so, the blood-brain barrier is fully restored ensuring that there are no on-going complications. This allows the body to remove the plaques naturally, hopefully facilitating the restoration of cognitive function.

In the mouse model used the researchers found that they could fully restore the memories of 75% of the subjects affected, an incredibly promising result. Of course the limitations of a mouse model mean that further research is required to find out if it would work as well in humans but there’s already precedent for using this kind of technology for treatment of other brain related conditions. Considering that the mechanism of action is similar to that of Aducanumab (removal of amyloid plaques) the side effects and limitations are likely to be similar, so it will be interesting to see how this develops.

It’s great to see conditions and diseases like this, ones that used to be a long and undignified death sentence, slowly meeting their end at the hands of science. Treatments like this have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of our later years, meaning we can still be active members of society for much longer. I’m confident that one day we’ll have these conditions pinned down to the point where they’re no more of a worry than any other chronic, but controlled condition.

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Early Exposure Key to Reducing Allergy Development.

Much to the surprise of many I used to be a childcare worker back in the day. It was a pretty cruisy job for a uni student like myself, being able to show up after classes, take care of kids for a few hours and then head off home to finish off my studies (or World of Warcraft, as it mostly was). I consider it a valuable experience for numerous reasons not least of which is an insight into some of the public health issues that arise from having a bunch of children all packed into tight spaces. The school which I worked at had its very first peanut allergy ever when I was first there and I watched as the number of children who suffered from it increased rapidly.

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Whilst the cause of this increase in allergic reactions is still somewhat unclear it’s well understood that the incident rate of food allergies has dramatically increased in developed countries in the last 20 years or so. There are quite a few theories swirling around as to what the cause will be but suffice to say that hard evidence to support any of them hasn’t been readily forthcoming. The problem for this is the nature of the beast as studies to investigate one cause or the other are plagued with variables that researchers are simply unable to control. However for researchers at the King’s College in London they’ve been able to conduct a controlled study with children who were at-risk of developing peanut allergies and have found some really surprising results.

The study involved 640 children who were all considered to be at a high risk of developing a peanut allergy due to other conditions they currently suffered from (eczema and egg allergies) aged between 4 and 11 months. They were then randomly split into 2 groups, one whose parents were advised to feed them peanut products at least 3 times per week and the other told to avoid. The results are quite staggering showing that when compared to the control group the children who were exposed to peanut products at an early age had an 80% reduced risk in developing the condition. This almost completely rules out early exposure as a risk factor for developing a peanut allergy, a notion that seems to be prevalent among many modern parents.

Indeed this gives credence to the Hygiene Hypothesis which theorizes that the lack of early exposure to pathogens and infections is a likely cause for the increase in allergic responses that children develop. Whilst this doesn’t mean you should let your kids frolic in the sewers it does indicate that keeping them in a bubble likely isn’t protecting them as much as you might think. Indeed the old adage of letting kids be kids in this regard rings true as early exposure to these kinds of things will likely help more than harm. Of course the best course of action is to consult with your doctor and devise a good plan that mitigates overall risk, something which budding parents should be doing anyway.

It’s interesting to see how many of the conditions that plague us today are the results of our affluent status. The trade offs we’ve made have obviously been for the better overall, as our increased lifespans can attest to, however there seems to be aspects of it we need to temper if we want to overcome these once rare conditions. It’s great to see this kind of research bearing fruit as it means that further study into this area will likely become more focused and, hopefully, just as valuable as this study has proven to be.

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Spinning Close to a Star.

Whenever I think of a tidally locked planet, like say Mercury, the only image that comes to mind is one that is barren of all life. You see for tidally locked systems the face of the smaller body is always pointing towards the larger one, like our Moon is towards Earth. For planets and suns this means that the surface of the tidally locked planet would typically turn into an inferno with the other side becoming a frigid wasteland, both devoid of any kind of life. However new research shows that these planets might not be the lifeless rocks we once thought them to be and, in fact, they could be far more Earthlike than we previously thought.

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Scientists have long theorized that planets of this nature could potentially harbour a habitable band around their terminator, a tenuous strip that exists between the freezing depths of the cold side and the furnace of the hot side. Such a planet wouldn’t have the day/night cycles that we’re accustomed to however and it would be likely that any life that evolved there would have adapted to the permanent daylight. There’d also be some pretty extreme winds to contend with as well due to the massive differences in temperature although how severe they were would be heavily dependent on the thickness of the atmosphere. Still it’s possible that that little band could harbor all sorts of life, despite the conditions that bookended its environment.

However there’s another theory that states that these kinds of planets might not be the one sided hotbeds that we initially thought them to be. Instead of being fully tidally locked with their parent star planets like this might actually still rotate thanks to the heavy winds that would whip across their surface. These winds would push against the planets surface, giving it enough rotation to overcome the tidal locking caused by the parent star’s gravity. There’s actually an example of this within our own solar system: Venus which by all rights should be tidally locked to our Sun. However it’s not although it’s extremely long days and retrograde rotation (it spins the opposite way to every other planet) hints at the fact that its rotation is caused by forces that a different to that from every other planet.

Counterintuitively it seems that Venus’ extremely thick atmosphere might be working against it in this regard as the modelling done shows that planets with thinner atmospheres would actually experience a higher rotational rate. This means that an Earthlike planet that should be tidally locked would likely not be and the resulting motion would be enough to make the majority of the planet habitable. In turn this would mean that many of the supposedly tidally locked planets we’ve discovered could actually turn out to be habitable candidates.

Whilst these are just beautiful models for now they can hopefully drive the requirements for future craft and observatories here on Earth that will be able to look for the signatures of these kinds of planets. Considering that our detection methods are currently skewed towards detecting planets that are close to their parent stars this will mean a much greater hit rate for habitable candidates, providing a wealth of data to validate against. Whether we’ll be able to get some direct observations of such planets within the next century or more is a question we won’t likely have an answer to soon, but hopefully one day we will.

3D Vaccine Structure

3D Vaccines Pave the Way for Supercharged Immune Systems.

Vaccines are responsible for preventing millions upon millions of deaths each year through the immunity they grant us to otherwise life threatening diseases. Their efficacy and safety is undisputed (at least from a scientific perspective anyway, which is the only way that matters honestly) and this mostly comes from the fact that they use our own immune system as the mechanism of action. A typical vaccine uses part of the virus to trigger the immune system to produce the right antibodies without having to endure the potentially deadly symptoms that the virus can cause. This response is powerful enough to provide immunity from those diseases and so researchers have long looked for ways of harnessing the body’s natural defenses against other, more troubling conditions and a recent development could see vaccines used to treat a whole host of things that you wouldn’t think would be possible.

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Conditions that are currently considered terminal, like cancer, often stem from the body lacking the ability to mount a defensive response. For cancer this is because the cells themselves look the same as normal healthy cells, despite their nature to reproduce in an uncontrolled fashion, which means that the immune system ignores them. These cells do have signatures that we can detect however and we can actually program people’s immune systems to register those cells as foreign, triggering an immune response. However this treatment (which relies on extracting the patient’s white blood cells,  turning them into dendritic cells and programming them with the tumour’s antigens) is expensive and of limited on-going effectiveness. However the new treatment devised by researchers at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering uses a novel method which drastically increases this treatment’s effectiveness and duration.

The vaccine they’ve created uses 3D nano structures which, when injected into a patient, form a sort of microscopic haystack (pictured above). These structures can be loaded with all sorts of compounds however in this particular experiment they loaded them with the antigens found on a specific type of cancer cells. Once these rods have been injected they then capture within them the dendritic cells that are responsible for triggering an immune response. The dendritic cells are then programmed with the cancer antigens and, when released, trigger a body wide immune response. The treatment was highly effective in a mouse model with a 90% survival rate for animals who would have otherwise died at 25 days.

The potential for this is quite staggering as it provides us another avenue to elicit an immune response, one that appears to be far less invasive and more effective than current alternatives provide. Of course such treatments are still like years away from seeing clinical trials but with such promising results in the mouse model I’m sure it will happen eventually. What will be interesting to see is if this method of delivery can be used to deliver traditional vaccines as well, potentially paving the way for more vaccines to be administered in a single dose. I know that it seems like every other week we come up with another cure for cancer but this one seems to have some real promise behind it and I can’t wait to see how it performs in us humans.

Mitochondria Repair Process

Britain Approves 3 Parent Babies.

Modern in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments are a boon to couples who might otherwise not be able to conceive naturally. They’re also the only guaranteed method by which couples who have inherited conditions or diseases can avoid passing them on to their offspring through a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. However current methods are limited to selection only, being able to differentiate between a set of potential embryos and selecting the most viable ones. New techniques have been developed that can go further than this, replacing damaged genetic material from one parent with that of another individual, creating a child that essentially has three parents but none of the genetic defects. Up until today such a process wasn’t strictly legal however the UK has now approved this method, opening the treatment up to all those affected.

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The process is relatively straightforward involving the standard IVF procedure initially with the more radical steps following later. For this particular condition, where the mitochondria (which are essentially the engines of our cells) are damaged, the nucleus of a fertilized (but non-viable) embryo can be transplanted into a healthy donor egg which can then be implanted. Alternatively the egg itself can be repaired in much the same fashion before fertilization occurs. The resulting embryo then doesn’t suffer from the mitochondrial defect and will be far more likely to result in a successful pregnancy, much to the joy of numerous people seeking such treatment.

Of course when things like this come up inevitably the conversation tends towards designer babies, genetic modifications and all the other “playing god” malarkey that seems to plague embryo related treatments. For starters this treatment, whilst it does give the child three parents doesn’t fool around with the embryo’s core genetic material. Instead it’s simply replacing the damaged/non-functional mitochondria from one person with that of another individual. This will have no more influence on any of their characteristics than the environment they grew up in. Although, to perfectly honest, I wouldn’t see any issue with people going down to a deeper level anyway, for multiple reasons.

We’re already playing fast and loose with the natural way of doing things with the numerous treatments we have at our disposal that have rapidly increased life expectancy across the globe. If you indulge in such treatments then you’re already playing god as you’re interfering with the world’s natural way things get killed off. Extending such treatments to our ability to procreate isn’t much of a stretch honestly and should we be able to create the genetic best of ourselves through science then I really can’t see a problem with it. Sure there needs to be some ethical bounds put on it, just like there are for any kind of medical treatment, but I don’t see being able to choose your baby’s hair or eye colour being that far removed from the treatments we currently use to select the best embryos for IVF.

That’s the transhumanist in me talking however and I know not everyone shares my rather liberal views of the subject. Regardless this treatment is no where near that and simply provides an opportunity to those who didn’t have it before. Hopefully the approval of this method will extend to other treatments as well, ensuring that the the option to procreate is available to everyone, not just those of us who were born with genetic capability to.

Fibonacci Zoetrope (Try Saying That 10 Times Fast).

Abstract mathematical principles are often obtuse ideas that don’t have any direct correlation to the real world. Indeed for the majority of the time I spent in university I had no idea how the concepts I was being taught could be applied in the real world, that was until the final unit where they showed us just how all these esoteric formulas and algorithms could be applied. However there are times when the real world and the land of pure mathematics cross paths and when they do the results can be quite amazing. Thus I present to you the Fibonacci Zoetrope:

The Fibonacci Sequence is one of the more commonly known mathematical concepts, one that can be seen often in nature. It can be used to approximate the Golden Spiral which everyone will readily recognise as the shape of a common sea shell. It also appears in sunflowers arising out of the fact that the interior of the flower is most efficiently filled in a Fibonacci like sequence, giving it an evolutionary advantage. The sculptures you see in the video above uses these same sequences to produce some rather interesting patterns which, when combined with a video camera, produce the illusion of motion that isn’t there.

The trick works due to the way modern cameras work, capturing individual frames at precise intervals. If you were looking at this in real life it would look like a blur of motion instead of the strange movement that you see in this video. However you would be able to see this with your own eyes if you used a strobe that pulsed at regular intervals, much like the modern Zoetropes do. Depending on the speed of the rotation and the image capture interval you’ll see very different kinds of motion and, if you time it precisely, it could appear to not move at all.

I really love these crossovers between art and science as they demonstrate some incredibly complicated ideas without having to dive into reams of proofs and scientific papers. The creation of the sculptures themselves is also a feat of modern engineering as some of those structures are simply not possible to create without 3D printing. I might lament not being as talented as the people who created this video but I think it’s for the best as otherwise my hose would be covered in all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures inspired by random mathematical principles.

Seeing the Invisible, Radiation Peppered World We Live in.

There’s a lot more to the world we live in that what we can see with our eyes. The colours of the world that we see are merely a subset of the wide spectrum of available light, one that extends out in both directions in an infinite expanse of wavelengths. Beyond that there are countless other things happening around us which eyes simply can’t perceive, that is until we construct something that allows us to see the world that’s invisible to us. One such device is called a Cloud Chamber which allows us to see the streams of ionizing radiation that permeate throughout our world. The video below is probably the best example I’ve seen of one and it makes for some extremely soothing viewing:

It’s striking to see the chamber light up constantly with just the background radiation that’s ever present here on earth. Even if you’re familiar with the idea of the  world having a constant source of radioactivity it’s still another thing to see it in action, the ionizing particles whizzing through the space at an incredibly rapid pace. Adding in a radioactive source is a great way to visualize what radioactive decay is and how various materials decay at different rates and in different ways.

Cloud Chambers played an important role in the early days of particle physics with the discovery of the positron (the anti-electron) and the muon. There have been numerous improvements to the devices in the time since they were first used with the modern day equivalents being solid state devices, typically cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Unfortunately the modern versions don’t provide as good of a show as their historic counterparts did but we’re able to do much better science with them than we ever were with a cloud chamber.

Vaccination

Herd Immunity Broken in Parts of Northern California.

Vaccines are incredibly beneficial for two reasons. The first is the obvious one; for the individual receiving them they provide near-immunity to a whole range of horrendous diseases, many of which can prove fatal or have lifelong consequences for those who become infected. The risks associated with them are so small it’s hard to even connect them with the vaccines themselves and are far more likely to simply be the background noise than anything else. Secondly, when a majority of the population is vaccinated individuals who can’t be vaccinated (such as newborns) or those idiots who simply choose not to gain the benefit of herd immunity. This prevents most diseases from spreading within a community, providing the benefits of vaccinations to those who don’t have them. However there’s a critical point where herd immunity stops working and that’s exactly what’s starting to happen in northern California.

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A recent study conducted by researchers working for Kaiser Permanente analysed the vaccination records for some 154,000 individuals in the Northern California region. The records cover approximately 40% of the total insured individuals in the area so the sample size is large enough for it to be representative of the larger whole. The findings are honestly quite shocking showing that there were multiple pockets of under-immunization (children not recieving the required number of vaccinations) which were signficantly above the regional mean, on the order of 18~23% within a cluster. Worst still the rate of vaccination refusal, where people declined any vaccinations at all, was up to 13.5%. It’s a minority of people but it’s enough to completely eradicate herd immunity for several horrible diseases.

For diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) and measles the herd immunity rate may only start kicking in at the 95% vaccination rate, mostly due to how readily they can spread from person to person. That means that only 5% of the population has to forego these vaccinations before herd immunity fails, putting at risk individuals directly in harms way. Other diseases still maintain herd immunity status down to 85% vaccination rates which some of the clusters were getting dangerously close to breaking. It’s clusters like this that are behind the resurgence of diseases which were effectively eradicated decades ago, something which is doing far more harm than any vaccine ever has.

It all comes down to the misinformation spread by several notable public figures that vaccinations are somehow linked to other conditions. It’s been conclusively proven again and again that vaccines have no link to any of these conditions and the side effects from a vaccination rarely amount to more than a sore arm or a fever. It’s one thing to make a decision that only affects yourself but the choice not to vaccinate doesn’t, it puts many other individuals at risk, most of whom cannot do anything to change their situation. You can however and the choice not to is so incredibly selfish I can’t begin to explain my frustration with it.

Hopefully one day reason will prevail over popularity when it comes to things like this. It’s infuriating to think that people are putting both themselves and others at risk just because some celebrity told them that vaccines were doing them more harm than good when the reality is nothing like that. I know I’ve beaten this horse several times since it died but it seems the bounds of human stupidity is indeed limitless and if I can make even just a small difference in those figures than I feel compelled to do so. You should to as the anti-vaxxers need a good and thorough flogging with the facts, one that shouldn’t stop until they realise the error of their ways.

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Creating Dark Matter in the Large Hadron Collider.

It’s hard to understate the significance of the science that has been done because of the Large Hadron Collider. Whilst it’s famously known for discovering the Higgs-Boson, the particle which gives all other particles mass, it has a long list of achievements outside of that singular event. What makes these discoveries even more interesting is that the LHC has been operating at something of a disadvantage since it was first turned on over 6 years ago, operating at around half the potential energy it was capable of. Shortly after the discovery of the Higgs Boson the scientists and engineers at CERN have been working to bring it up to full capacity and with it the potential for some even more radical discoveries.

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The doubling of the collision energy increases the potential for the LHC to generate even more exotic particles than it has previously, ones which can give us insights into some of the most perplexing mysteries in particle physics to date. One such source of intrigue is how our universe, which is composed of nearly entirely matter, came to be that way. Another seeks to explain why the universe seems to be riddled with matter that’s not directly observable but is seen through its gravitational effects throughout the universe. These, and many other questions, have potential to find answers in the newly upgraded LHC which is slated to come online this year.

In the beginning, the beginning of everything according to scientific theory, there existed both equal quantities of matter and antimatter. Upon annihilation these two entities should have completely destroyed each other, leaving behind a wake of energy with no matter to speak of. However casual observation will show that our world, and the rest of the universe, is dominated by matter. This strange preference for matter (dubbed the CP Violation) has perplexed scientists for decades however the newly upgraded LHC has the potential to shed some light on where the Universe’s strange preference comes from. The LHCb detector focuses on the decay of the Beauty Quark, a fundamental particle that decays in all manner of strange ways when created in a collider. Studying these decays could grant us insight into where the CP violation comes from and why we live in a matter dominated universe.

However what’s far more interesting (for me at least) is that the LHC could have the potential to generate dark matter, the highly pervasive as-of-yet unobserved substance that binds galaxies together via its gravitational influence. There’s numerous theories that posit dark matter being made up of WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) which could potentially be generated in the LHC. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to detect them directly, their very nature means that they’re far more likely to simply pass through the detectors, however should we generate them their signature will be left on the reactions. Essentially we’ll be looking for a reaction that’s missing energy and then seeing if that can be explained by a WIMP being generated. Should we find that we’ll have a solid basis to further investigate this elusive form of matter, furthering our understanding of just what makes up our universe.

It’ll likely be another few years before we hear any further news from the LHC as it’s going to take time to generate the data and even longer to sift through it to find the reactions we’re looking for. However I’m very confident that the results will forever change the scientific landscape as either confirmation of current theories or evidence against them will provide dozens of more avenues for further research. That, to me, is the beauty of science, the never ending search for answers that inevitably lead to more questions, starting the process of discovery all over again.