2013 Review Part 1

It’s the end of the year, a time to look back at the past 365 days and think of what we’ve done that’s worth remembering. But don’t worry; you don’t have to do any work: I’ve already done it for you!

Here’s a list of what are, in my opinion, the most important events this 2013, in no particular order:

1. A Massive Nobel Prize

higgs and englert

Peter Higgs and François Englert

The most important scientific breakthrough last year was undoubtedly the discovery of a Higgs-like particle at CERN. But this year, a definite Higgs Boson was found, therefore confirming Peter Higgs and his colleagues François Englert and Robert Brout’s prediction. Two latter scientists managed to describe how the Higgs field would work, but the namesake of the particle was the one that actually predicted it’s existence.

Due to their success, the Nobel committee decided to award them the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physics, almost 50 years after their theory was created.

The CERN was also mentioned, since its hard work was essential for the theory to be proven right, and more specifically the ATLAS and CMS experiments which carried out all the necessary work.

Unfortunately, Robert Brout was not awarded the Nobel Prize, since it cannot be given posthumously.

2. The Chelyabinsk Meteor

Chelyabinsk Meteor

Trace left behind by the Chelyabinsk meteor

The year started with the collision of this meteor with our planet, on a Russian city. The incident was recorded by many, and was instantly everywhere in the news, causing a frenzy of curiosity and fear. It caused damage to hundreds of buildings, but human lives were spared. But a question remained: Whether more meteors will follow, and if so, what could be don to protect ourselves. Fortunately, it stopped there, and although this was a very interesting year in terms of astronomy, this was the closest it got to us.

3. The Most Expensive Burger Is Fake

fake meat

Meat made in the lab

Sponsored by Google co-founder, a group of scientists extracted stem cells from some cows and after growing them in a medium, processed them so they became biologically identical to a normal burger. Then, in a crowded event in London, a chef cooked the burger and served it, and was tasted by several people. Many said it tasted just like a real burger, though a bit stringy.

This method could be very useful for several reasons. Apart from being more ethical, it could reduce the cost of providing meat to an ever-growing society, with an insatiable appetite for this product. At the current rate, it would become very hard to feed all humanity, and would produce a lot of greenhouse gases. With this method, meat producing would be much more eco-friendlier and even healthier.

4. How To Talk With Rats

human rat telepathy

Humans can communicate with rats

Everyone has seen a science fiction movie where someone is able to communicate with someone else only using their minds, and although the concept was brilliant, dismissed it, thinking it was impossible. Well, no offense, but you are wrong. This April, scientists in Harvard Medical School were able to make a human move a rat’s tail with their brains.

The way it works is a human and a rat are connected together through a computer. The human is made to wear an electrode cap, which measures their brain activity, whilst the rat was connected to a device that made the neurons transmit a signal through the motor’s cortex when another signal, coming from the computer, was detected. When all of this was ready, the rat was anaesthetized (to reduce interfering), and the human was told to look at a strobe light that blinked periodically, so the scientists could look for a pattern in their brain waves. But when the test subject was asked to look at the rat, the disruption in the brain waves caused an electric signal that travelled all the way through the computer, to the rat, where it reached the motor cortex and made it’s tail move. Although there are a few limitations to the way in which it could apply to the common telepathy, it’s a great way to start!

5. Print a Gun

This year has seen a lot of improvements in the 3D printing industry, one of them being the printing of a gun that could fire up to 50 shots without breaking. This achievement was accomplished by the company Solid Concepts in USA, whose gun is also capable of being very precise at long distances.

print gun

This is not really how you print a gun

There has been a debate over the last few months in this country on the availability of gun blueprints on the Internet, where everyone could access them and therefore be able to print a gun using only their desktop printers. But this model can only be printed on a specialised, industrial printer, and has a very high cost, so not many people will be able to make themselves this weapon.

Stay tuned for next week’s second part of this recap for the year’s most interesting scientific discoveries.

Diamonds in Antarctica

Antarctica is known for its hostile but beautiful conditions, where cold and isolation coexist with the beauty of snow, ice and silence. It has been like this for many years, and most people want it to stay like this. But new discoveries seem to threaten this peace.

Scientists studying the composition of Antarctica have found traces of kimberlite, a rock that usually contains diamonds, in the depths of the Antarctic land. This mineral is produced by the high temperatures and pressure in the Earth’s crust, and is pushed up into shallower areas where they are found and mined thanks to volcanic activities.

This finding would mean many companies would now want to travel there and start mining it, since diamonds can be very expensive and could bring great fortunes to them. However, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, set up in 1991, is prohibiting this. Now signed by many countries, it prevents any mining for any resource for any economical purpose. The only way someone can mine in Antarctica is if they have a scientific purpose to the action. Unfortunately, this treaty is only enforced until 2041, when a decision will have to be taken: whether or not to extend this treaty or not.


Kimberlite, the rock from which diamonds are usually extracted

At the moment, it seems highly probable that it will be extended. Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth that has remained mostly untouched by human activity. It is of great importance to the Earth’s atmosphere and climate and by extension to human lives. It contains enormous quantities of ice, which if they were to melt (either by climate change or by industry or population settling there), its effects would be disastrous, increasing sea levels and global temperature. Therefore, it seems logical sane people will want to keep the treaty going and therefore preventing a catastrophe.

Although the treaty is the main reasons no company is going to mine these diamonds, there are other factors that would prevent this, and may still do after 2041, where the future of the southern-most continent is unclear. As said before, the conditions there are very harsh and cold, and darkness can last very long there. So miners would have to be very equipped and could only work for a few hours a day. Also, this continent is very far away, so transport costs could get very high. Overall, and despite the value of diamonds, companies may not get enough money to make this venture profitable.

Scientists, exempt of the Treaty, may mine in the following months for kimberlite, to back up the discovery, and increase our knowledge of this faraway island.

Why Eating Sugar Will Give You Dementia

A not-so-recent discovery could relate two of the most known diseases, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, to make their cure a much more reachable goal.

Diabetes, especially Type 2, which is the one we’re going to talk about today, is a disease caused mostly by lifestyle, like eating high-energy foods, lots of sugar, fat, or little exercising. Normally, when there are high sugar levels in blood, the pancreas releases insulin to make the liver process all this glucose to turn it into glycogen, which the body can then store. But when the levels are repeatedly high, and therefore the pancreas releases a lot of insulin, cells start to resist to its effects, so they no longer convert glucose. This causes a lot of metabolic problems and memory loss issues.

Alzheimer’s a completely different story. It is a form of dementia normally caused by age, and its effects range from memory loss to irritability and in the last and worse stages can lead to loss of bodily functions and ultimately, death.

diabetes and alzheimer'sA few years ago, these diseases were observed apart, seemingly different from each other in most   ways. But through the years, more and more proofs have been found that support this very interesting theory that states that Alzheimer’s is actually late stage diabetes. This could mean that the memory loss caused by diabetes is actually an early-stage symptom of Alzheimer’s.

One of these proofs is epidemiological. It has been found that people with Type 2 diabetes have a bigger chance of having Alzheimer’s than those who don’t suffer it. This lead scientists to search for a common trait in the diseases and it was found by researcher in Brown University, who discovered that for those with Alzheimer, the part of the brain that manages memories (the hippocampus), was resistant to insulin, in a similar way in which the liver is resistant to insulin in people with diabetes.

But a question remained: how does being insensitive to insulin cause dementia? The answer is quite complicated. Supposedly, people with diabetes have their brains full of an insoluble protein called beta-amyloid, which is produced by smaller, soluble versions of the protein called oligomers. This substance is very abundant in the brain, and causes receptors to bind with it instead of with insulin.

Scientists did an experiment with rats to back up this theory, and here’s how it went:

There were 2 groups of rats, a healthy group, and a diabetes group. The test was to see how much time the rats froze by seeing a chamber that gave shocks. The healthy rats froze for more time than the diabetic ones. But when a sample of antibodies, engineered to cancel the actions of the oligomers was injected into the unhealthy rats, they froze the same amount of time than the other group.

So ultimately, the cure would be to inject people with high levels of oligomers in the brain with these amino acids, so the brain would continue reacting to insulin. However, these substances and their effects on the brain have been studied for years now, and there hasn’t been any real change. Also, for these amino acids to work, they have to be injected directly into the hippocampus, which can be a bit complicated in humans. And although a good percentage of people suffering from Alzheimer’s have diabetes, not all of them have, so there is still some work to do in the other branches of this disease.

However, if this theory was proven to be completely true, it could have major implications. Both diabetes and Alzheimer’s are very common diseases, and the number of affected people is predicted to increase very rapidly in the next few years.

Right now, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are many treatments for Type 2 diabetes, and our society is becoming more health conscious by the minute, so if the former disease could be stopped, Alzheimer’s could be potentially beaten too, given enough time.

Life is all about Change

In an experiment in Michigan State University, scientist Richard Lenski started growing a group of E. coli bacteria in 1988. The bacteria have kept reproducing since then, making the incredible amount of more than 50,000 generations. But there is a purpose to this experiment: study evolution and answer a very simple question: Is there an end to evolution?

Lenski grew about 12 different groups of E.coli bacteria in a simple, constant medium. He used bacteria because this type of organism grows and reproduces very quickly and they are fairly easy to manipulate and study. It was important that the environment was kept constant, because any little change could affect the evolutionary process.

After every 500 generations, a sample was taken and frozen, so at some point, a group of bacteria from different generations was put together and their aptitude at surviving compared to each other is be measured.

The results are very surprising and revealing. Every generation, Lenski found, had a minor improvement over the former one. The grandson was always fitter than the grandfather; no matter how many times the experiment was repeated. But this was expected. The news is that, at some point, the improvements were less and less obvious, so even though there were still changes, they weren’t so useful or noticeable with each generation.

E. Coli bacteria

E. Coli bacteria

This is an example of power law, a mathematical term used to describe a sequence that is ever increasing, but the amount by which it grows, decreases.

This information is interesting because, up until now, it was thought that organisms had a limit as to how adapted they could be. This applies only to constant mediums. In the real world, there is always going to be changes, because the environment or the habitat changes all the time, however small the changes are. So the answer to our first question was no. There are always changes around us, so we are always going to be changing. Even if the world stopped changing in every minute detail, we would still be developing new ways in which to be fitter for survival.

Some people say that this could not be applied to humans or other species, but the idea is the same. Just like your parents said, there is always something you can do to be better.

Is Animal Testing Justifiable?

Animal testing (or vivisection) has the whole scientific community divided in two. Some people argue it’s necessary, others say it’s cruel. If you are undecided or just like arguing and need some arguments, here are some pros and cons on animal testing.

In favour:

  • Testing different substances on animals may help find one that can be used as a treatment for diseases. Antibiotics, vaccines, cancer drugs…. were all found thanks to this type of experimentation
  • It improves human health. Therefore, animal experimentation for medical uses should be acceptable. However, cosmetic testing shouldn’t since it doesn’t help anyone in such an important and essential way
  • Since experiments are on animals and not on humans, human harm is reduced, and thanks to the treatments discovered lives are saved
  • Animals are the best method since they can simulate humans. We are both organisms with an identical genetic code

Against it:

  • Animals used are killed or have their lives ruined. This can happen if they spend their lives in cages or with mutations/disabilities that make there lives miserable
  • Animals can be injected or applied substances that produce: irritation, cancer, crippling, burning, poisoning and ultimately, death
  • 90% of drugs used on animals never succeed. So only 1 in 10 experiments has some use. The rest cause animals to die in vain because their death has had no direct benefit to humans. And sometimes, this ‘use’ is a new laundry detergent or a new eye shadow.
  • The price of buying the animal, feeding it…. can get very costly, even worse if you think that its probably going to be useless
  • Animals and humans are never exactly the same. When you see a dog down the street you would never think he’s like you at all!
  • Drugs may react differently on different organisms because there may be some unknown factor that is forgotten and its effects not taken into account. So its results may not be applicable to humans
  • Also, if animals are under stress (like when they are trapped in a laboratory cage, being injected with dangerous chemicals…) the drug might react differently
  • How about instead of creating drugs to cure obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases, people start eating healthier and doing more exercise, and stop using drugs like alcohol and tobacco, or even having a cleaner environment?
  • Some people say there are laws that protect animals from being too damaged. But the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) doesn’t cover all animals. Mice, rats, birds, reptiles and amphibians are not covered
  • There are many alternative methods that combined can bring similar or maybe even better results than animal testing. Examples are:
    • Organs-on-a-chip – Cells from different organs, such as the lungs, are inserted in a structure that mimics the organ, so its effect on it can be studied.
    • In vitro testing – Humans can donate cells that are added to a test tube which is screened for toxicity or another factor
    • Skin or Liver Substitute – These are complex systems that are created to be almost identical to the human skin (to test for cosmetics or skin treatments) or the liver (to see how the body breaks down substances)
    • MRI and other – To see how different chemicals react on the brain, advanced brain scanning in real time can be used

However, although this previous information is crucial to make a decision, the ultimate factor is emotion. How do you feel about a child dying because scientists were too concerned of the ethical problems to use animals to find a cure for his disease? Or about a poor, innocent animal being tortured during his whole live for an experiment that may be completely useless?

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