Higgs’ Roar

Celebrating the Big Bang Theory’s 50th birthday, scientists in Finland have run the first 3-dimensional simulation of the first seconds of the famous explosion, to investigate the effect the newly born Higgs field would have had, and have discovered it has loud repercussions.

The Higgs field is what gives most particles their mass, and is generated by the Higgs Boson, the last particle to be discovered in our current physics model which we use to explain the universe.

However, when the universe had just appeared, and new particles were being created with it, they didn’t have mass at first. It was only 100 picoseconds later that the Higgs field was turned on and mass appeared.

Of course, this sudden change in the composition of the universe (from having no mass at all to being filled with it), would have had a noticeable effect. It could be thought that the field started acting evenly around the universe, but a theory suggests that Higgs fields were generated in bubbles that started spreading in random areas (like bubbles in boiling water), growing and giving mass to any particles they happened to engulf.

But what happened when two bubbles collided? This is question (and the consequent answer) that has real implications.

When interacting with each other, the bubbles would have caused a disturbance in the space-time


Higgs Fields could’ve spread around the space time tissue like bubbles

fabric, causing a series of ripples of gravitational waves, which are unfortunately too weak for us to detect. But they would’ve also released large amounts of energy to the particles, therefore creating shock waves or sonic booms. These would then be translated into low rumbles that would have subsequentially caused more gravitational waves. These two sets of waves, when joined together, could gain enough force for us to eventually detect them, although not with our current technology. We will have to wait until we develop more sensitive detectors that are capable of detecting these waves until we can finally approve this theory.

Wingardium Leviosa

Levitation has always seemed like an idea from science fiction or sorcery; never something that could be achieved otherwise. Scientists at the University of Tokyo obviously disagreed, since they have created a technology that is able to make small objects float around, using the power of sound waves.

The way they accomplished this feat was by setting up a group of four speakers, which were then set to fire sound, much like a normal speaker. The twist is that the waves were actually ultrasound, those sound frequencies that are above human hearing, and they were standing waves, which bounce back from a surface and return to their source, therefore not transferring energy.

When these waves interfered with each other, two phenomenon’s occur: the waves ‘join together’ to make an extra strong wave, or they cancel each other out. In this last case is where the interesting thing happens.

By cancelling each other, they create a tiny void (known as a node), where there is virtually no wave. So if you insert an object in this air pocket, it can be maintained there by the pressure of the waves outside it pushing it inside. What’s more; if you have 4 speakers, you can change their frequency and this will move the object in three dimensions.

However, this technology won’t be able to levitate a human being anytime soon. At the most, it can sustain an object of 4 centimetres of size. For example, in this experiment, they first used alcohol droplets, feathers and small beads.

This limitation doesn’t mean it’s a useless invention. On the contrary, with further developing, it could be used to manipulate objects in microgravity, or even making purer and more efficient drugs (by mixing them differently).


A video explaining how this works and some examples of its effect on different objects:

Human Cells’ Time Travel

Last week, I wrote about cells in mice turning pluripotent, meaning having the ability to turn into any cell from our body, by just dipping them in an acidic solution. The conclusion was that if converting normal, specialised cells and converting them into pluripotent cells was possible in humans, it would mean hope for studies in regenerative science and cancer research.

Well, scientists at Harvard Medical School did not waste their time and have already accomplished this feat. Using human cells this time, instead of mice cells, the team applied different environments to the cells, until they finally managed to make them behave like the mice STAP cells (Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) they had previously created.

embryo 8

Embryo cell, with 8 totipotent cells

However, these new cells did show some differences to the original, and it’s because different solutions were used, since mice and human cells are not identical and the same solutions wouldn’t have worked. Which solutions were used still remains a secret, and it could be for the best, to prevent uncontrolled use of human pluripotent cells is not advisable.

Another drawback is the fact that these human STAP cells have not shown totipotency (the ability to form a placenta and therefore create an organism). But this could not be as bad as it looks at first sight. The use of totipotent cells at the moment is very strict and regulated, but the study of pluripotent cells not as much. So although work with human totipotent cells couldn’t be done, pluripotent cells are still very useful and worth having a look at.

Of course work still needs to be done, but we are one step closer to being able to study stem cells and the opportunities they provide. It is still a very admirable achievement from scientists at Harvard to have found this only a week after the results with mice were published.

The Miracle of Life

Cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and dementia are examples of illnesses that plague our society, and that have not yet been beaten. However, new incredible results may be bringing us a step closer to make those diseases history. And the only requirements are a normal cell and an acid bath.

This sounds strange, but scientists at Harvard Medical School have managed to convert a normal cell, a white blood cell, for example, into a pluripotent cell. That is, a cell that has the ability to form any type of cell. You can imagine what the consequences of such type of cell are: you can make any type of tissue out of these, so basically heal or reconstruct any part of your body. So if you have a cancer, you can just add these cells and they will grow into healthy ones.

Previously, this type of cells was only available through two ways: by extracting them from an embryo, which meant killing it (called Embryonic Stem Cells), or by changing the genes in a normal cell (called Induced Pluripotent Cells). But both have strong disadvantages. Killing a possible human being is not ethical, and Induced cells have a higher chance of causing cancer, since manipulating DNA is not safe and can be unpredictable.

These problems have caused many scientists to look for alternatives, and they may have found it. Charles Vacanti and his team at Harvard reproduced a group of mice, and extracted a white blood cell from them (although it works with any type of cell). It was modified so they reacted by fluorescence to the presence of Oct-4, a protein only found in pluripotent cells. Then, they were dipped in differ

ent solutions, and its effects were investigated. At first, the usual: some cells died, others remained unchanged. But in the second day, some cells that were introduced in an acidic solution of pH 5.7 for 30 minutes started glowing. After a few more days, more of them were glowing. Therefore, they had become pluripotent.


The mouse carrying the pluripotent cells

The intriguing cells were thereby named “Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency” or STAP for short.

To test them even more, they were injected into a blastocyst (a group of cells formed by a fertilized egg cell reproducing, that contains pluripotent cells and that if left to grow and implanted onto a uterus can form a living being). The STAP cells integrated themselves perfectly, and ended up forming a new mice individual. This mouse also had children, who still had the STAP marked cells in them.

For further testing, specialized cells from an adult mouse were extracted, and incredibly, they behaved just like the younger ones did.

This method has called a lot of attention from the scientific community, since it’s the safest and fastest way to produce stem cells. It doesn’t murder any human being, only takes a few days (Induced Pluripotent cells take weeks) and chances of cancer are the same as a normal cell. Their most surprising feature, however, is the method of production. You only need to add any normal cell, no matter its age, to a slightly acidic solution, and you can reverse it into its primary state. The simplicity is outstanding, and is very cost-effective.

At the moment, its use in humans is being studied, so it will still be a few years until it can be used properly on the mainstream population. But hope remains that one day it will be able to solve the worst diseases we battle.

A Small Ethical Side Note

After the cells have been made pluripotent, they are manipulated, by adding them to a medium, so they specialize into any cell. But in some mediums, these STAP cells were also able to act as totipotent cells; cells that have the ability to become any cell and also divide into a human being. Of course, this is were science gets very ethical, because this potency gives them the ability to form perfect clones, something never seen before, since experiments such as Dolly the Sheep used other cloning methods which are not as exact. It is not legal to clone a human being, and cloning of other animals is regulated, so any tests on this area are very supervised.