Archive for September 2009

3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 30 September 2009 at 7:28 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

Turning our waste paper in to biofuel could replace over 5% of global petrol consumption, say scientists from Singapore and Switzerland. It would also reduce the burden on our rapidly filling landfills.

So-called “first generation” biofuels made from food crops such as corn or soy have been widely criticised as an unworkable solution to the energy crisis. Growing crops for fuel takes up valuable agriculture land and leads to higher food prices. Now, a new wave of biofuel producers are looking to alternative sources.

A study published in the journal GCB Bioenergy details the possibility of producing a fuel called cellulosic ethanol from waste paper and cardboard. The researchers created a model to estimate the amount of this waste in each country, and found that the potential for waste-based biofuel amounts to over 80 billion litres globally.

Clearly, the quantity of fuel that can be produced depends on the level of waste in each country. Nations like Sierra Leone could only manage to produce around a third of a litre of fuel per person each year, while Norway could potentially turn out nearly 50 litres.

Fuel demands also vary by country of course. By modelling this demand and comparing it with the potential for generating fuel from waste, the researchers found cellulosic ethanol could replace 5.36% of global petrol demand.

Cutting down on petrol also means reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The data on emissions from cellulosic ethanol is varied, but the researchers estimate that a switch to biofuel would save between 29.2% and 86.1% of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our results suggest that fuel from processed waste biomass, such as paper and cardboard, is a promising clean energy solution,” said study author Associate Professor Hugh Tan of the National University of Singapore.

“If developed fully this biofuel could simultaneously meet part of the world’s energy needs, while also combating carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependency.”

SHI, A., KOH, L., & TAN, H. (2009). The biofuel potential of municipal solid waste GCB Bioenergy DOI: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2009.01024.x

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 28 September 2009 at 6:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

I’ve recently been watching illusionist Derren Brown’s latest TV series, in which he uses subliminal messaging and suggestion to influence people’s actions. He’ll probably be interested to read about some recent research showing that subliminal images are most effective if they carry a negative message.

Subliminal messaging involves showing someone an image for a very short amount of time – so short that they don’t even realised they’ve seen it. Until it the practice was banned advertisers used subliminal messaging to sell their products, but it seems that positive subliminal promotion isn’t the most effective technique.

The work was carried out by Nilli Lavie and her team at UCL, and show that negative information is easier to detect subliminally than a positive message. They showed 50 participants a series of words on a computer screen in rapid succession, sometimes as quickly as a 50th of a second. Each word was either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle).

Participants were asked to identify whether the word was “emotional” (positive or negative) or neutral, and how confident they were of their choice. They found the participants were most accurate when given a negative word, even if they had no confidence in their answer.

“We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words,” said Lavie.

“Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information. We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning ‘danger’.”

Whilst the use of subliminal messaging in advertising is strictly limited, the research could have implications for safety warnings. Drivers who are going too fast and can only see a warning sign for a fraction of a second are more likely to register “Kill your speed” than “Slow down”, suggests Lavie.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 27 September 2009 at 4:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists find water EVERYWHERE

Well, not quite, but close. In a strange coincidence, the discovery of water on the surface of both the Moon and Mars was announced this week. Future astronauts could use the water to establish a lunar or Martian bases.

The findings were made by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe, a fantastic result for the nation’s first lunar mission. The probe detected that light reflected from the Moon’s surface was missing wavelengths known to be absorbed by water. This was later backed up by the NASA Deep Impact and Cassini probes.

NASA also made the discovery on Mars, where the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped pictures of melting water-ice that had been thrown up from under the surface by a recent meteorite impact.

Science rap returns

It’s nearly exactly a year since rapper Jonathan Chasa entertained us with his astrobiology rap, but now he’s back again as
Oort Kuiper to tell us about genes:

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 25 September 2009 at 12:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

I’ve got a couple of articles going up at New Scientist. Here is the first:

Carbon dioxide may be the lead cause of global warming, but other gases are more potent greenhouse agents. So what is it about these molecules that makes them such effective heat trappers?

A team at NASA think they know, and the work could be used to create more environmentally friendly materials.

Timothy Lee and his colleagues at the Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California, analysed the physical and chemical properties of powerful greenhouse gases called fluorocarbons. They discovered that molecules containing fluorine atoms are particularly effective at trapping heat, especially when many fluorine atoms are bonded to a single carbon atom, which is the case with fluorocarbons.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 23 September 2009 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

Recently I’ve been getting quite excited about the prospect of augmented reality. If you’ve not heard the buzzword, its about about overlaying digital information on to the real world. With the rise of powerful handheld devices like the iPhone, augmented reality is becoming more common – check out this Tube-location app that helps you navigate around London.

Mobile phones are a start, but what I’m really interested in is a wearable computer. Rather than living in your pocket, such a device would be built in to a pair of glasses or even contact lenses. Its not a new idea – people like Steve Mann have been using wearable computers for decades – but now there seems to be a greater appetite for a proper commercial product.

The WEAR in action
The WEAR in action

That goal could be getting closer, thanks to some experimental kit being used on the International Space Station. Astronauts are trialling the Wearable Augmented Reality (WEAR), developed by Belgium-based Space Applications as a replacement for their current system – pen and paper. This surprisingly low-tech solution allows the ISS crew to consult operational manuals with ease, but requires them to physically hold on to their instructions. WEAR offers voice-activated hands-free controls, highlighting important objects in the real world and displaying information directly in the user’s field-of-vision.

The WEAR is built from off-the-shelf components, but is currently limited by scheduling and budget constraints, rather than technology. All equipment used on-board the ISS is subject to strict checks, and the team behind the WEAR found it easier to use what was already up there. Rather than using an ultra-modern PC, the WEAR interfaces with tried-and-tested laptops that are over five-years-old. As a result, the WEAR can only operate for an hour at a time before the batteries need recharging.

While the hardware up in space may be limited, there are no such restrictions here on Earth. Space Applications is considering applying the technology to fire-fighting, presumably as a way of navigating smoke-filled buildings. I’m excited to see new uses of augmented reality coming up, and I’m looking forward to eventually trying it myself!

7 Comments » Posted on Monday 21 September 2009 at 8:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Can this man cure cancer with his bare hands?” ask the Daily Mail. Well, no. But you probably guessed that already.

The man in question is Adrian Pengelly, a self-styled healer, energy worker, teacher, and psychic. Apparently he’s recently had a bit of bother from the BBC consumer programme Watchdog – presumably because people think he is lying to them and stealing their money.

Pengelly claims to have “magic hands” that can cure cancer. The lack of an apparent mechanism proof for his restorative powers doesn’t bother Pengelly; his power is in the “thousands of people saying they were healed” after his “treatment”. “I don’t care about scientific evidence,” he says. Until later in the article, that is:

“Some said I had a gift from God. But I just wanted to understand the science.

“I thought: “What is there? There’s only energy – electricity in different forms – and it floats.” I can feel energy come with one hand and draw it with another.

“Somehow the energy I was generating was stimulating the body’s immune system.”

That’s funny. Isn’t floaty electricity what “causes” the health problems of those poor electro-hypersensitive people? If only there was some way for us to tell what effect electricity has on the human body, some sort of method that could be applied scientifically. Nah, it’ll never work.

You can tell I’m in a pretty snarky mood this evening. But what else can you say about a man who claims to be able to heal from a distance, without knowing who he is healing?

“It may seem hard to believe that a healer can effect an improvement when he is hundreds or thousands of miles away from a patient, but time and time again the results have been seen to work…

“Adrian does not need to know the name, address, or any details of the person who needs healing. It seems to work regardless of this information.”

Wow, so something that has absolutely no effect can still have no effect at a distance! What a marvellous age we live in.

I probably don’t need even need to say it, but it’s clear that Pengelly offers nothing more than a placebo effect for those he treats – and he’s not even very good at it. In the Mail article, he claims to be able to cure 65% of cancer sufferers. I’d expect a little better from magic, especially at £30 a session!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 September 2009 at 11:21 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Amazing astronomy

Check out this set of astronomy images from flickr user victorvonsalza. This one below is my favourite – be sure to click through for the larger version!

The images were taken in Portland, Oregon, and show a variety of dramatic starscapes.

See-through frog

This little guy comes from an amphibian family known as glass frogs, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. It’s both fascinating and slightly horrifying that you can see their innards from the outside…

Wet Mars, Dry Mars

Giant cracks across the surface of Mars hint that the dusty planet had a much wetter past. Although the cracks have been observed before, it’s only now that their true origin has been revealed.

Ramy El Maarry, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, created a computer model of the cracking process, which forms irregular shapes in the ground up to 250 metres in diameter. The marks have previously been attributed to the heating and cooling of the planet’s surface, but El Maarry’s model showed that this would only produces shapes as large as 65 metres.

He realised that the shapes resembled the “desiccation cracks” found on Earth when water evaporates to leave dry and dusty mud. Comparing the two side by side makes it a pretty convincing hypothesis:

Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 18 September 2009 at 10:59 am by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Yes folks, it’s that time of week again….here’s the latest from Understanding Animal Research:

How Broccoli protects arteries

C2AFE2FF-BE37-14AC-DF9E04E0F65B3A95Researchers have discovered one reason why broccoli and other green leafy vegetables are definitely good for you. Using mice, they discovered that a chemical found in these green vegetables – sulforaphane – could protect arteries from clogging, so reducing the chance of heart attacks.

Previous research has shown that certain areas of the arteries are more prone to the build up of fatty plaques. The mouse study showed that, in these areas, a protein called Nrf2 is inactive.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

Stem cell link to prostate cancer

A new study identifies a stem cell that may cause some types of prostate cancer, at least in mice. Called CARNs (castrion-resistant Nkx2.1-expressing cells), they are responsible for creating luminal cells, which secrete chemicals into the prostate.

When they inactivated certain tumour suppressor genes in the CARN cells of mice, the team saw out-of-control growth of the luminal cells, which can lead to the formation of a tumour. The study also found that, surprisingly, the cells did not rely on male sex hormones such as androgens to thrive.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 17 September 2009 at 12:17 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Creation is a fantastic film about a man coming to terms with the untimely death of his young daughter. It’s also a rather unfortunate account of the life and work of Charles Darwin. I was invited to see the film before its UK release next week at a special screening in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre. Going in to the cinema, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Coming out again, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d seen.

Paul Bettany and Martha West as Darwin and his daughter Annie are superb, and I was genuinely moved by their on-screen relationship. But, for every touching father-daughter moment there came scene after scene of Darwin manically running after the ghost of his dead child.

The real Darwin struggled to live with Annie’s death, and suffered throughout his life from a mysterious illness that likely caused him great mental trauma. He was not however stark-raving mad, as the film portrays him, and after the first few interactions with the ghost of Annie, my sense of immersion was shattered.

The film is a dramatisation though, and not a documentary, so some bending of the truth is allowed. I imagine what more people will take issues with is the portrayal of religion. Darwin’s wife Emma, played here by Bettany’s actual wife Jennifer Connelly, was deeply religious, and Darwin delayed publication of his theory for many years because he feared her (and the world’s) response.

This is played out in the film, but perhaps in the most ham-fisted way possible. “Science is at war with religion,” declares Thomas Huxley near the start, and Darwin must win the fight for science.

Why must the theory of evolution always be set against religion in this way? It is perfectly possible to both accept the truth of evolution and believe in God – not a philosophy I ascribe to personally, but nor one I feel the need to constantly assault.

If Creation is meant to convince people of the truth of evolution over God, then it will fail. As the lack of a US distribution deal indicates, those who do not wish to have their minds changed will simply refuse to see it. But if the film is meant to appeal to Darwin’s loyal supporters, then the sight of him raving at the ghost of his daughter is unlikely to please.

Who then is Creation intended for? I don’t know. It’s certainly a film worth seeing; I enjoyed it as a well constructed piece of cinema. I’m just not sure that I liked it.

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 14 September 2009 at 8:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

In a world where anyone can edit a movie and stick it up on YouTube, can we still trust video evidence of a crime? Research from the University of Warwick suggests maybe not. By altering video footage, Kimberley Wade and colleagues were able to convince people they witnessed an event that never actually occurred.

In a study published today in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Wade’s team asked sixty university students to play a computerised gambling game. Each participant thought they were playing with another student, but they were actually paired with a member of the research team. Betting on the answers to multiple choice questions, they either took money from a shared pool for a correct answer, or returned it following a wrong answer. These were clearly marked with a green tick and a red cross.

After the game, the footage was doctored to turn a correct answers in to an incorrect one, making the research team member appear to be cheating. The participants were split in to three groups; one group were shown this doctored footage, another were told that their partner had been caught cheating on camera, and the third were simply informed about the cheater. All groups were then asked to sign a statement affirming that they had seen cheating take place.

Nearly 40% of those that watched the video agreed to sign, despite the fact they were confirming an incident that had not taken place. Another 10% signed after being asked a second time. This compares to 10% of those who were told about the film, but not shown it, and 5% who were just informed about the cheating.

The researchers conclude their paper with a warning against the potential for edited footage to result in miscarriages of justice, even outside the courtroom. Their research shows that witnesses shown fabricated evidence before a hearing could end up changing their story, and testifying about events that never happened.

Wade, K., Green, S., & Nash, R. (2009). Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1607

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 September 2009 at 6:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Human nails are growing faster

Your finger and toenails are growing faster than they would have 70 years ago, according to the Daily Mail. It sounds like nonsense, but it’s apparantly true.

Research published in in the Journal Of The European Academy Of Dermatology And Venereology last week found that the average thumbnail grows at 3.55mm a month, compared to the 3mm a month reported by a study in 1938.

Our modern-day diet could be the cause, say researchers from the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to access the paper to read their full results, but another explanation does occur to me: perhaps the 1938 study was simply inaccurate, and nails continue to grow at the same rate they always have.

Green energy

Trees contain enough power to run a small electric circuit, scientists at the University of Washington have found. Although the energy output is very small, it could be put to use powering sensors to monitor environmental conditions or forest fires.

Using nanotechnology components which do not require much power, the team created a circuit that uses an average of 10 nanowatts. By comparison, a 100W lightbulb uses 10 billion times as much power. The results will soon be published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Transactions on Nanotechnology.

Despite their success, the researchers don’t yet understand where the tree power comes from, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Babak Parviz:

“It’s not exactly established where these voltages come from. But there seems to be some signaling in trees, similar to what happens in the human body but with slower speed,

“I’m interested in applying our results as a way of investigating what the tree is doing. When you go to the doctor, the first thing that they measure is your pulse. We don’t really have something similar for trees.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 11 September 2009 at 5:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right

Since the deadline for handing in our dissertations has just passed, I guess today marks the end of the Science Communication MSc at Imperial. I’ll probably write up some thoughts about the course in the next week, but it seems only fitting to talk about some recent research in to the relationship between science and the media.

A study published in the summer 2009 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly has found that not only do scientists realise the importance of speaking to journalists, they’re actually happy to do it more than once. While scientists have been known to trade horror stories of interaction with the media, it seems not all of them have been scared away.

The researchers interviewed 1,200 epidemiology and stem cell scientists, whose work often sparks media interest. They found that about one-third of respondents had had up to five contacts with journalists during a three-year period, while another third experience more than six contacts in the same time frame. The remaining third had no contact at all.

Interestingly, these results are similar to previous studies in the 1980s and 1990s, suggesting that the level of contact scientists have with the media has remained consistent. In other words, they aren’t being put off by bad experiences.

One surprise is that while scientists might view the general coverage of science as poor or inaccurate, this perception does not include coverage of their own field. I would have expected it to be the other way around – a scientist is always going to be able to spot a journalists mistakes when writing about their own research!

I have to say, my experience in this past year is that once scientists are more than willing to talk about their work – and why shouldn’t they be? They obviously think that it’s important, else they wouldn’t be doing it! And if you want to spread information and let other people know why your work is important, engaging with the media is the best way to do it.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 9 September 2009 at 3:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

What happens to fat left over from a liposuction procedure? Brad Pitt might choose to turn it in to soap, but scientists at Stanford University have figured out a surprising alternative: stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are highly sought after because of their ability to transform in to many other types of cells within the human body. Finding a reliable source for these stem cells has provided difficult but Michael Longaker, one of the paper’s authors, believes fat could be the perfect solution.

Longaker calls liposuction leftovers “liquid gold“, because certain cells within the fat can be readily converted to usable stem cells. What’s more, it can be done much quicker and easier than current methods. Most stem cells are derived from skin tissue, but this can take at least 4 weeks until the stem cells are ready for use. There is also a risk of cross-species contamination, because “feeder cells” taken from mice must often be used to help the human cells grow.

The new method, detailed online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, can start producing stem cells on the same day as the fat is extraced. What’s more, it doesn’t require the use of feeder cells to get going.

Liposuction is most often used as a form of cosmetic surgery, but this development could see us all undergoing a minor form of the treatment. Removing small amounts of fat from a patient’s own body would allow for the creation of stem cells used in their treatment. For example, a person with heart disease could have fat extracted and turned into heart cells, allowing doctors to test out drugs without putting the patient at risk.

Sun, N., Panetta, N., Gupta, D., Wilson, K., Lee, A., Jia, F., Hu, S., Cherry, A., Robbins, R., Longaker, M., & Wu, J. (2009). Feeder-free derivation of induced pluripotent stem cells from adult human adipose stem cells Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908450106

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 8 September 2009 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

The dissertation is nearly done, and normal service will be resuming very soon. I may even do a proper blog post tomorrow – fancy that!

If you just can’t wait until then, why not head over to the Science Online London 2009 website? We enjoyed they day’s sessions, and now you can too, as some have been put up in video form. Here is the session with Dave Munger beaming in from Second Life:

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 7 September 2009 at 5:33 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

The dissertation-ing indeed continues, bring on Friday is all I can say… but in the meantime i’m still writing for UAR. Highlights this week:

Leishmania parasites feed immune cells

W0041701 Phlebotomine sand flyResearchers using mice have shown how the leishmaniasis parasite, transmitted by sand flies, establishes infection. Leishmaniasis is a disfiguring and potentially fatal parasitic infection that affect some 350 million people worldwide.

Contrary to previous research, they found that it is not the sand flies’ saliva that helps the parasite establish an infection, but a secreted gel called PSG. It is produced by the Leishmania parasite, and forms a plug which blocks the gut. This forces the sand fly to regurgitate to dislodge the plug and feed properly, which simultaneously deposits the parasite and some of the gel into the human body.

To read further, please click here.

Diesel fumes grow new blood vessels?

New findings indicate that the link between diesel exhaust fumes and cancer lies in the ability of particles within the exhaust fumes to cause the growth of new blood vessels, which can aid tumour development.

The team reported a six-fold increase in the formation of new blood vessels in the implanted tissues and aortas of mice exposed to the diesel fumes. In the mice with reduced blood supply, they saw a four-fold increase in new vessels to the hind limbs. The formation of new blood vessels is strongly associated with tumor growth; tumours grow rapidly, consuming large quantities of oxygen and nutrients.

To read further, please click here.

Key protein in obesity related diseases

It is well known that obesity can lead to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and it is thought that this is due to low-grade inflammation.

Scientists believe they may have found the protein which causes this inflammation using mice. The protein, called angiopoietin-like protein 2 (Angptl2), is a fat-derived protein. The team showed that the levels of Angptl2 are raised in the fatty tissue of GM mice, especially in tissue with a low oxygen supply.

To read further, please click here.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 1 September 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

You’ve probably noticed that things have slowed down a little bit here on Just A Theory. We’re all hard at work pumping out 10,000 words of juicy dissertation goodness, and unfortunately that doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Science doesn’t stop though, and I’ve still been collecting interesting science news and links from all over the web. Enjoy:

Weird NASA mission badges

NASA create patches for each of their missions, and sometimes they like to get a little wacky. Wired Science has a rundown of some the weirdest, including this little gem:

Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space
Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space

The “ideal” David Bowie song

Health psychologist Nick Troop has created what he calls the “ideal” David Bowie song by performing a lingustic analysis. Bowie’s back catalogue was scanned to calculate the use of positive and negative words, as well as references to different categories such as sex, religion and food. Troop then used the data to write “Team, Meet Girls; Girls, Meet Team”, which he performs here:

I admit it sounds a bit like Bowie, but I when I read the headline I was hoping for some sort of average of all of his songs – “The Man Who Sold Changes to Rebel Rebel Heroes Ziggy Stardust in Suffragette City on Mars”, perhaps. Anyway, everyone knows that this is the ideal Bowie song.

Molecular paparazzi

Researchers at IBM have created this amazing image of pentacene, a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen:

The structure is clearly visible
The structure is clearly visible

Using an atomic force microscope, they mapped the chemical bonds between the molecules atoms. The instrument works by detecting changes in vibrations as a scanning tip passes close to the molecule. This previous attempts to image molecules found that the tip was just too blunt to get a decent picture, but they realised that a single carbon monoxide atom, which doesn’t interact with the pentacene, made the perfect tip.

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