Bristol March for Science

On the 22nd April (Earth Day) thousands of Bristol supporters of science – from students, to famous names from science and television – will take to the streets to add their voices to a worldwide movement of marches in celebration of the vital role scientific evidence plays in our everyday lives.

Scientific study underpins the foundations of the world, yet, it is under attack across the globe, especially by those who have the power to change its influence. In a time when experts and evidence are being pushed aside, we must stand in solidarity to protect the use of scientific evidence in areas such as climate change and medical and environmental policy, and defend those working or studying in scientific fields such as research, medicine, engineering or technology. Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate and jobs at risk. It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted.

Bristol is a long-established centre of scientific excellence, home to major universities, industry and the biggest hub for wildlife filmmaking in the world. On the 22nd April, Bristolians will march in recognition of both the community’s commitment to protecting these credentials and the important role the city has carved in the scientific arena. Renowned for its creativity, Bristol is a truly special place where the arts and sciences meet and the rare joining of scientific and artistic minds seems to be more commonplace in our city that most. However, it is this synergy of disciplines that has real potential to impact UK science. Speaking of this, Anna Starkey, Creative Director of At-Bristol, says “Good science needs what Bristol offers as a city – connected people asking questions, sharing ideas, who are not afraid to be playful and experiment in the unknown.”

All students should have the opportunity for a quality science education and the march is a great opportunity to communicate a positive message to the public and public officials about the value and power of science, engineering and technology. The March for Science gives students the opportunity to step outside our universities and help inform all citizens about the value and importance of science and science education. The event has been designed to bring people of all ages in Bristol together to stand up for science. There will be stands and activities for children and adults alike in the Millennium Square, alongside prizes for the best banners – making it a fun but impactful day for families and for the future of their children.

We ask you to join us – it is time to stand up for and support the proper funding of scientific research, and demand the use of evidence to make informed decisions and policies. Prizes for best banners – science puns encouraged!

For more information, visit the Facebook event: http://bit.ly/ScienceMarchBRS
Twitter: @ScienceMarchBRS

NASA’s ‘Holy-grail’: Solar system with seven Earth-like planets found

There have been many discoveries of potentially habitable planets orbiting stars other than our own over the last few years. Now things are getting even more exciting. Scientists have documented a star surrounded by seven Earth-like planets – several of which would be at the right temperature for liquid water, and potentially life, to exist.

But is it possible to know anything about what these planets are like beyond simple measures such as temperature and mass? There may indeed be several factors that can give us a clue – let’s take a look at what planetary processes we might expect to find there.

The seven planets orbit an ‘ultracool dwarf‘ a mere 39 light years away. However, with a mass of only 8% of our sun’s and shining less than 0.1% as brightly, it is at the small, faint end of the ‘red dwarf‘ star type, barely able to power itself by nuclear fusion.

Telling transits

In 2010, a group of scientists began monitoring the closest dwarf stars using a robotic telescope in Chile called TRAPPIST (the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). They were hoping to find periodic dips in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of the star, cutting out part of its light (a transit). In 2016, they found their first candidate: an ultracool dwarf.

They named this star TRAPPIST-1 and began to study it with more powerful telescopes, including NASA’s Spitzer space telescope. This revealed a total of seven transiting exoplanets there.

  • The amount of light blocked out by each exoplanet during a transit reveals its size
  • The repeat frequency reveals each exoplanet’s orbit time
  • From this, the laws of gravity allow us to work out its distance from the star.

Amazingly, the planets of TRAPPIST-1 span only a narrow range of sizes, not much different to Earth, and are all much closer to their star than Earth is to the sun. However, TRAPPIST-1 is so faint that even its innermost planet may be just cool enough for liquid water to exist on its surface, while its outermost planet may be just warm enough to avoid global freezing.

This artist’s conception shows what the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and distances from the star. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The slight irregularities in transit times can be attributed to neighbouring exoplanets influencing each others’ orbits. This suggest that most of the family are Earth-like in their density and not just their size. There is no way to be sure yet how much water most of them have, if any. Similarly, it’s hard to know whether any resemblance to Earth extends as far as having plate tectonics and a distinction between oceanic and continental crust like Earth.

Seeds of life?

With most or maybe all of its seven known planets in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold ‘Goldilocks zone‘ around the star, TRAPPIST-1 offers the intriguing prospect of several Earth-like planets capable of hosting Earth-like life around the same star.

TRAPPIST-1 is as young as ultracool dwarfs go, maybe only half a billion years old. Thanks to the frugal rate at which it uses its nuclear fuel it has a further 10 trillion years left to run (a thousand times longer than the sun). On Earth, it took two billion years to go from microbes to multi-cellular organisms and another billion years for intelligence to emerge. So while we may not expect advanced civilisations to exist on the TRAPPIST-1 planets, some simple lifeforms may be in the works or already exist.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets are sure to be among the prime targets for the James Webb Space Telescope, likely to begin operations in 2019. This should be able to detect the presence of any atmosphere about a planet whilst it is in transit across the star and maybe even reveal whether atmospheric composition seems to have been modified by living processes. Until then however, all we can do is wait…

Fishy on a plastic dishy

Do you love your seafood? Along with your favourite portion of fish, you might also be eating up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year, with dozens of those becoming embedded in your tissues.

Microplastics are extremely tiny pieces of plastic debris that end up in our oceans from the disposal of consumer products and industrial waste. We dump huge amounts of plastic waste into the ocean every year, much of it ending up as microplastic.

There are more than five trillion pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans and the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic waste gets added to the sea every minute.

Worringly, studies have found that high concentrations of these plastics stunts the growth of marine life and alters their feeding habits, leading them to prefer eating the plastic over their natural food.

Researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium believe that microplastics accumulate in the body over time and could be a long term health risk. The amount of plastic absorbed will only get worse as pollution in the oceans increases.

Dr Colin Janssen, who led the research, said the presence of plastic particles in the body was ‘a concern’.

Research has established that they do enter our bodies and can stay there for a while, but where do they go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body or are they causing inflammation? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and causing toxicity? We simply do not know the answers yet, which is why current research into their properties is so important.

What will Trump mean for science?

In a shocking twist of events, Donald J. Trump has been elected as the next president of the United States after a long and divisive campaign in which science was rarely mentioned. Many scientists now have to consider what a Trump administration will mean for their work and are understandably worried at the outlook.

Trump will be the first- anti-science president we have ever had. As a young graduate pursuing a career in science communication, the possibly severe consequences are extremely worrying. With an already crumbling scientific infrastructure in the US, funding for science will only take a massive hit, with the US being less equipped to recruit the world leaders on scientific issues to progress their fields of study.

Trumping on the planet

Chief among many concerns in the scientific community are Trump’s views on climate change. There’s no way around it. Donald Trump is going to be a disaster for the planet. As a candidate, Trump vowed to ‘cancel’ the Paris climate agreement that was signed earlier this year and pledged to eliminate environmental regulations. He called global warming a Chinese hoax. He wants to scrap all major regulations put in place by President Obama to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, including the Clean Power Plan. He  wants to repeal all federal spending on clean, sustainable energy sources. He wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal altogether and has also hinted at wanting to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency altogether.

 

So what happens if Trump gets his way? It’s unlikely he’ll stop the progression of renewable energy whatsoever, but his proposals are likely to increase CO2 emisions: Lux Research estimated Trump’s policies would lead to an extra 3.4 billion tons of CO2 emitted:

There is now real concern in the scientific community what it might mean that the public scientific method isn’t embraced by Trump and how he may view other science in other fields.

Funding scientific research

Although Trump has pledged to cut federal spending, he hasn’t explained how this will affect funding for scientific research. The majority of academic researchers rely on grants from government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It means for a lot of early research scientists, there is a lot of uncertainty facing their careers and what a reduction in funding would mean for their ability to have a career as a scientist.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the country’s largest society of scientific researchers and have been urging Trump to appoint a respected scientist as his next science adviser. This would allow them to make major scientific issues, such as climate change and research investment a central part of Trump’s agenda.

However, one thing to consider is how research will be affected in terms of skilled scientists immigrating to the US for work or education. They would still be welcome, but would they want to go?

Coulrophobia: the scary clown craze

With an already eventful year full of horrifying events, the “scary clown” craze may be the most haunting yet in the run up to Halloween. As the creepy craze spreads across the UK, clown-related phone calls to police forces are happening more than ever. We’ve already accepted clowns are scary  – but why?

In theory, clowns are supposed to be figures of fun and amusement, using slapstick humour to provoke laughter, not screams and cold sweats. Big smiley faces, party tricks and colourful face paint are not typically associated with intense fears. However, when combined in the form of a clown, they regularly cause the exact opposite reaction to the intended – coulrophobia – an intense fear of clowns.

Not-so-quite human

creepy-dolls-9
It’s the dead look in their eyes…

The reasons for this fear of gaudy, painted clowns is typically attributed to their tendency to set off negative reactions that occur in our brains, namely the ‘uncanny valley’ effect. Remember that clowns are still people – under all that paint and ruffle, they have human bodies and faces – but this is exactly why they freak us out. The ‘uncanny valley’ effect is a phenomenon where things that look human but aren’t quite there look incredibly unsettling to us. This is why those Victorian dolls with the glazed porcelain eyes and Ventriloquist dummies share the same ‘scary’ reputation as clowns do. A pair of googly eyes on a postbox makes for some rather humorous shenanigans but a highly realistic android with an almost-but-not-quite-identical face to that of a real human is super creepy.

One theory is that they make us think of corpses and death (a dead face almost looks like a normal face but ‘behaves’ differently) which should be avoided due to the risk of illness and danger. Whatever the underlying cause, human faces that deviate from normal looks upset us, and clown faces differ in very elaborate ways – the painted on smiles which never match their actual expression, exaggerated eyes and gaudy colours combine to create an unsettling human-like face.

Body shape is also another thing that we, as humans, pay a lot of attention and glean an incredible amount of information from. We are sensitive to things such as posture, stance and gait, with clowns throwing all sense out of the window again with their oversized gestures and excessive tumbling.

Unpredictability of clowns

The whole point of clowns is that they do things which argue with normal behaviour – but unlucky for us, unpredictability is something that causes distrust, apprehension and anxiety in humans. Think about the drunk in the middle of the street at night, yelling and randomly approaching you – these figures in society are ignored and snubbed by those around them because they clearly aren’t conforming to societal norms and are perceived as a possible threat.

This reaction can be even worse if we’re in a social context, as clowns usually are. Humans genuinely fear  being judged and mocked by others, which is why many people actively avoid sitting in the front row at comedy gigs – they don’t want to be spoken to, addressed or possibly ridiculed. This can be scary enough in it’s own right, but add all the upsetting qualities of a clown and you have a potent ingredient for a fear response.

Cultural clowns are scary

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Why so scary?

Even without all this, the scary-clown stereotype is so entrenched in our society that it’s basically the norm, so clowns begin with a disadvantage anyway. The most famous cultural examples of clowns, such as The Joker, are scary and villainous, more likely to become known for murder than slapstick comedy. Much of modern media arguably feeds into our unwarranted fear of clowns and our idiot brains aren’t equipped to deal rationally with these characters.

If you’ve had first-hand experience of the craze and want to share your survival story, or just want to share your opinions, please leave a comment below!

No, intelligence isn’t inherited from your mother

A post from the site Second Nexus has recently gone viral in mine (and I assume other people’s) Facebook feeds, shouting a interesting claim that ‘New Research Has Established That Intelligence Is Inherited By The Mother’. The piece is bylined ‘Editorial Staff’ and gives no mention of a name, which is also true for a considerable number of other articles on the site, presumably because one person was too embarrassed to claim it as their own. Let me just start off by saying there is so much wrong with this article – hopefully I can explain some of that here.

The premise of the article seems to be that children inherit intelligence from their mothers as the genes linked to intelligence are ‘located on the X chromosome and mothers have two’. Well this is true, as most women have two X chromosomes – but these aren’t carbon copies of each other and every woman will inherit one of those X chromosomes from her father.

A mother’s two X chromosomes will undergo some swapping of genetic material as one is passed on to the child, before those children receive their second chromosome (whether that’s another X for a female or Y for a male) from their fathers. This way, female children receive genetic material in the form of their X chromosomes from both parents, but the two X chromosomes her mother has aren’t the same and doesn’t double the chances of inheriting a certain gene or gene variant (a slightly different type of the same gene).

To make things even more complex, some individuals walk around functioning just fine with just one X chromosome whereas some have two. However, for people who have two (or even more) X chromosomes, our cells can ‘switch off’ genes from the other chromosomes to control their expression – so even having these genes doesn’t guarantee they will be used. Everyone has at least one X chromosome – yes, even males.

Let’s get this out of the way: intelligence is super complicated; about half of the factors that influence our intelligence can be linked to our genome (and therefore inherited), but they are spread across a vast plethora of genes, further scattered into many gene variants. These variants interact with each other and different, completely unrelated genes to influence intelligence as we measure it. To throw another spanner into the works, the inheritance of those genes is influenced by many different environmental factors that influence how they will work both in the cell and the whole organism. This environmental influence interplays until our deaths, creating lots of interacting pieces in the way our genes are expressed. So no. Intelligence isn’t just from your mother. It isn’t just from your X chromosome. It isn’t even just your genes.

The article then quotes research from 1994 – correct me if I’m wrong, but unless I’ve been living in a time-warped alternate reality, I’m not really 22 years old and research from 1994 is totally ‘new’. In fact, none of the references sources are ‘new’ – there’s no research from after 2012, let alone anything published this year. After discussing maternal and child interactions post-birth for a distracting while, it wheels back to say:

‘Researchers discovered that there are conditioned genes which only activate when inherited from the mother and that are crucial to the proper development of the embryo.’

I don’t know if these genes have been using Head & Shoulders, but I’m not sure what they mean by ‘conditioned’ gene – perhaps that they can be traced back to being of maternal origin. The thing is though, we need copies of those genes from our fathers for this whole make-a-baby thing to work out as well. They then continue by stating:

‘Scientists hypothesised that genes essential to the development of the embryo would also have a significant impact brain function in the lives of animals and people.’

You don’t even have to have a biology degree to realise any gene important for embryonic development would clearly affect brain development. What it says on the tin, people.

It only gets worse, I’m afraid:

‘Researchers have not found paternal genes in the cerebral cortex, where humans develop advanced cognitive functions such as intelligence, thought, language, and painting.’

This is actually in reference to an unrelated paper published in 1996 where researchers used a mix of cells and monitored the development of mouse embryos, some carrying double paternal genomes and some carrying double maternal genomes. Some parts of the mouse brain that developed carried far more of one than the other whereas other parts of the brain showed a reverse pattern – but the researcher said himself that these findings could be because cells just couldn’t survive or develop correctly when they didn’t have both maternal and paternal genes. So what they’re referring to is that double-paternal cells from the study tended to not appear in the cerebral cortex, but it also gives the false impression that this area of our brains somehow surgically removes parts of the genome that are inherited from our fathers. And then there’s the ‘advanced cognitive functions’ such as painting…? What?

The article itself seems to have stemmed from a blog at a site called Psychology Spot, which itself is full of incorrect information about genetics and embryonic development, with 14 out-of-date references with most not even referring to intelligence. They mostly refer to the discovery that an embryo needs both paternal and maternal genes for proper development.

The second source for the claim is from… Cosmopolitan magazine. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.

So despite the bad science, why did this post get so viral? Perhaps it’s the humblebragging of mothers who want to feel like they and their children are geniuses or you’re a feminist and want to claim the female race are bringing the brains to the world. Pretty sold audience to share your material. Despite the claims and the articles that follow being full of rubbish, confirmation bias is a powerful thing – enough to make us click and share, without considering the information presented to us.

 

 

 

 

The Forgotten Children

(This article has been adapted from the New Scientist interview by Jessica Hamzelou, issue 3093.)

What does abject poverty and extreme deprivation do to the human brain? Charles Nelson has spent his career studying and helping children in Romanian orphanages to find the answer, using scientific research to improve political will and the lives of children.

Romania once had a long history of institutionalising children, with around 170,000 children in institutions when communism was overthrown in 1989. In the late 1990’s, Charles and his team began research on children who had been abandoned, which proved to be an emotionally harrowing experience. There were high levels of domestic violence, with staff proving extremely callous and the children’s suffering sometimes being too overwhelming to bear.

“We had a rule – no crying in front of the kids. But I can’t tell you how tough it was”

Many children were suffering from significant development delays and extreme growth stunting, as they were deprived of key experiences during critical periods of development. Ceilings were all painted white, so the infants’ visual experience was limited. Care-giving is stretched thin between many children and there is nobody to talk to them, so they were heavily deprived of psycho-social stimulation.

Charles and his team investigated how growing up in institutions like these affected the children’s development and if high-quality foster care could remedy the developmental issues they had. The group also studied whether recovery would be influenced by the age at which they were placed into foster care. Foster care parents were recruited via a rigorous screening process from Bucharest and were paid a wage. Support such as nappies and toys were also provided and the families were closely monitored by visits by a social carer.

After two years, the team reported significant differences between the foster care children and those left in institutions, with these children having much lower IQs, delayed language development, smaller brains and multitudes of mental health problems. Improvements in language and IQ were only seen in children placed into foster care younger than two, but the prevalence of mental health issues dropped no matter how old the children were when placed.

The children remaining in the institutions are now around the age of 16 and are experiencing significant mental health issues, such as psychosis and paranoia. Since the study proved that the intervention of foster care was so effective, Charles’ team called a national press conference for members of the government in Romania. A year later, legislation was passed forbidding the institutionalisation of any child under the age of two, unless severely disabled. The country has now also introduced government foster care, and the political will to improve the lives of children is finally improving.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

(Featured image from newscientist.com)

Scientists are increasingly answering the questions normally left to philosophers: How do I know I exist? What is reality made of?

The short answer is, you don’t know you exist. Consider the fact that with every passing moment, we get closer to creating intelligent machines, maybe even ones with a consciousness. If we could create something like this, could someone – or something else – do it too?

If humans were one day able to create simulations populated with conscious beings, it’s also then possible that we too are living inside such a simulation. There have been projects seeking to build entire animal brains from scratch, modelled on existing ones down to details such as the connections between myriads of individual neurons. When very simple versions were given robotic bodies, they behaved like the creatures they were modelled on. It’s only a matter of time before we create virtual beings inside computers.

We will never find out whether or not we are simulations ourselves, but we clearly have a very robust sense that ‘I exist’. Where does this sense come from?
Psychological conditions like Cotard’s syndrome can give us clues – sufferers are convinced they do not exist, with their brains showing important anomalies in regions associated with rational thought and internal awareness. Activity in this region was as low as someone minimally conscious, creating a perception of non-existence. These studies have shown our brains generate the feeling of existence by creating a vivid perception of our bodies and its various states; any malfunctions in these regions cause us to question our existence.

Our brains are being constantly bombarded by countless signals from the body and our external environment and must predict what’s causing them. It does this by creating internal models of the body and the environment, maintaining prior knowledge and testing its own models. In this way, the brain is like a prediction machine that is continuously trying to prove its own existence.

The Science of the Aurora

The British Science Festival 2016 in Swansea has just come to a close, with one talk at the Festival proving particularly captivating; Dr Melanie Windridge delivered a passionate and mesmerising talk regarding the science of the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora. This ethereal display of colour and light is often seen by those living at Northern latitudes and has been a dazzling source of wonder for centuries of humans. The aurora over time and different civilisations has created stories of spirits and been an omen of death and war – but what is the aurora actually, and how is it created?

The aurora originates from the sun, and the charged particles (plasma) that it throws out in all directions; this moving plasma is called the solar wind.

NorthernLights journey_short.020

On top of this, the sun sometimes releases more matter into the solar system in solar eruptions or giant Coronal Mass Ejections.

The sun throws out billions of tonnes of matter into the solar system which would be dangerous to our planet and all life on it – but the Earth’s magnetic field forms a protective bubble called the magnetosphere. Without this, the onslaught of the solar wind and coronal ejections from the sun would be like a plasma rifle shooting millions of highly charged particles at our planet.

Magnetosphere_whitebkgd

 

Most of the plasma is pushed away from our planet along the magnetosphere when it hits Earth, but the magnetosphere also gains energy from the solar wind. This causes the magnetic field pattern of the Earth to change – the ‘tail’ of the magnetophere is pushed closer and closer together until the fields break explosively, catapulting electrons to Earth. This process is called a substorm and is highlighted in the NASA video below:

When the charged particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they interact with the gases oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen to create the spectacular light show we see – the Northern and Southern Lights.

When the electrons in the plasma collide with the gas in our atmosphere, they are ‘excited’ to higher energy states. They then lose this energy by emitting different wavelengths of light, which we perceive as the colours of the aurora. Oxygen usually emits a green or yellow light, whereas nitrogen usually gives off a blue light.

 

Dr Windridge is a plasma physicist at Imperial College London and has expedited to many northern countries in search of this beautiful phenomenon to study and learn about its causes. As a writer and storyteller, she has cultivated a collection of the stories that the aurora has created across different people in different stretches of time, each group viewing the aurora as something different, with varying meanings. You can find out more about her book, ‘Aurora: In search of the Northern Lights’, here.