Paralysis Cured By A Nose


Paralysis is a terrible condition suffered by over 3 million people, but can actually affect anyone and has very few solutions. In an almost miraculous turn of events, this has now changed thanks to scientists, doctors, and curiously enough, a chef.

David Nicholls is a world-known, Michelin Starred-chef whose son Daniel became paralysed in an accident in 2003. Since then, he has tried everything possible to help his son, including creating the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) which aims to raise awareness of paralysis and fund any promising cure projects.

Spinal surgery breakthrough

Darek Fidyka, showing the extent of his recovery

One of these donations was used by a team of researchers at UCL to pioneer a mechanism for nerve regeneration in spines. They were lead by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, a scientist with a long history in nerve cell innovations. He was the discoverer of ‘plasticity’, a quality our bodies possess by which damaged nerve cells can regenerate. Although this idea was controversial at first, it eventually opened the door for possible repair treatments.

His newest brilliance involves implanting cells from the nose to the damaged area in the spinal cord. But this doesn’t work with any nose cells. It specifically requires OECs, which stands for olfactory ensheathing cells, and their role is to repair broken nerve cells in the nose so that communication between these and the brain is restored, and our sense of smell works correctly.

This idea was applied by a group of doctors in Poland, lead by spinal repair expert Dr Pawel Tobakow, with surprising results. The patient they treated was Darek Fidyka, a man who was stabbed in the back so his spinal cord was cut in two, leaving a gap with severed nerve cells. The operation consisted of implanting Fidyka’s OECs into the gap where these, instead of healing nose nerve cells, would bridge the separated spinal nerve cells so given time and the appropriate rehabilitation, the spine would no longer be divided into two.

And so it happened. Two years later, the nerve cells on either side of the cut have regenerated and the connection between these has been re-established, effectively ‘curing’ the paralysis. The changes to Fidyka’s life have been enormous. Weeks ago, he wasn’t even able to feel his legs. Now, not only is he regaining some feeling, but can also walk and is even capable of driving a car! More patients are waiting to be treated with this method in hopes of recovering from this horrendous condition and to prove this treatment effective enough so even more injured people can be cured and the fullness of their lives restored.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 2


Today, with Jean Tirole being awarded the Economics Nobel Prize, was the last day of the Nobel Prize award season. Last week, we looked into the winners for physiology and physics, so we still have one scientific award to investigate: chemistry.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to… Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”.

Microscopes are a valuable tool for all scientists, from physicists examining subatomic particles to biologists investigating cells. But for many years, it was believed that microscopes were limited in how much magnification they could provide. The smallest they could go was 200 nanometres, or at least that was what they though until these laureates came along. The key to their innovation was brought by the use of fluorescence to increase resolution.

Hell created a mechanism called STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion) to take higher resolution pictures which involved laser lights. As an example, he used an E. coli bacterium coated with fluorescent molecules and a special microscope which emitted two tiny rays of light. One of these excited some molecules so certain parts of the bacterium glowed, whilst the other did the opposite, and made the sample duller. This might seem contradictive, except the centre of the convergence was left to shine, so only a small area was illuminated. A picture was then taken of the glowing part, and the procedure repeated at many angles. Combining the pictures taken, he was able to form an image of an unprecedented resolution.

microscope

Imagine being able to look deeper into cells – it’s possible now thanks to this year’s Chemistry winners

This is close to what Moerner and Betzig did. They used fluorescent proteins, which could be activated by short pulses of lights. They shone these onto a different part of the sample every few milliseconds, so they only glowed for a short period of time. By superimposing the images of the lighted parts, they were able to capture individual molecules in images! This amazing method is now called single-molecule microscopy and has been used in a wide variety of studies, from HIV research to gene modification.

Thanks to these men’s work and dedication towards science, we can now see deeper into our world than we have ever done before. A few years ago, we could only look at individual cells, never inside of them. But now, we can actually see what they contain, into their small organelles like mitochondria and the Golgi body that allow cells to do all the complex processes that keep us alive. Not only this, we can actually investigate individual molecules from chemicals, advancing the field of chemistry. Their contribution to our knowledge pool is immeasurable, both directly and indirectly, and for this, they are well-deserving of the Chemistry Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 1


Probably the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize is, for many, the intellectual event of the year, where the world’s greatest scientists are rewarded for their hard work and brilliance. As of yet, only two results have been announced, those for physics and physiology, and the rest will be unveiled as the week progresses.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to… John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the ‘GPS’ system in brains.  

human gps

Not a literal GPS in our head, but a group of cells that enable us to travel

It all started 40 years ago, when O’Keefe was investigating rats’ brains and their response to certain stimuli to understand their behaviour. In one experiment, he found that in a group of nerve cells in the brain, some became active when the rat physically moved to one area of the room, whilst other cells became active in other areas of the room. The conclusion he reached was that this group of cells was making a mental map of the rat’s environment to help it locate itself and move around. The ‘place cells’, as he called them, were a revolution in the field, but it took O’Keene 40 years and two collaborators to win the famous Prize.

The other recipients of the award are the Mosers, a married couple who, working in O’Keene’s lab, examined in more depth the mechanism and using modern technology, discovered that a close group of cells in the entorhinal cortex also helped in movement. What they found was that these new cells could be active in many positions of the room, not just one specific location. ‘Grid cells’ is their name and they do exactly what their name would suggest: they create a grid of their surroundings.

Both the place cells and the grid cells are used in human brains too, and their work is essential for us to be able to travel, even from one room to another, without getting lost.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to… Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for the invention of blue LEDs.

At first sight, it looks like they gave these men a Nobel Prize for inventing a bulb, but it is much more complex than that. First of all, let’s explain what an LED is and how it works. An LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode and it is used to produce light. It works by having thin sheets of material over each other, some of which contain a lot of electrons whereas other don’t and so have positive ‘holes’. When an electron collides with this hole, it emits a photon; a particle of light.

blue led

Making blue light is much harder than it may seem!

Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but only blue light could be transform into white light. The problem is that blue light has a higher energy and therefore very few materials can emit this wavelength. So when Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura discovered gallium nitride, it was a real miracle. This material is special because apart from having electron-rich areas, it can also produce a layer of itself which lacks electrons, so that together, they can react and produce blue light.

This apparently simple mechanism has had unimaginable consequences, which is the main reason why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award them the prize. Blue LEDs gave us the opportunity to make white light by coating the bulb with a substance called phosphor. Thanks to this combination, we now use blue LEDs everywhere, from our TV screens to the lightning in the streets. The advantage it has over the normal, incandescent bulbs is that it can last 100 times longer, and is extremely more efficient. In fact, it is said that if all light bulbs were switched to these energy saving ones we could half the electricity usage by lightning in the whole world.

Happy Selfie, Curiosity!


The iconic robot has joined the trend and taking this peculiar image of itself to celebrate his first Martian year in the red planet. He arrived there the 5th of August of 2012, but since a year in Mars takes longer to happen than in Earth, only now has Curiosity reached this milestone. It has been plenty of time for the machine to surprise scientists everywhere with its discoveries, which we will recount in its honour.

Curiosity Selfie

The acclaimed robot takes the first selfie on Mars

On the 27th of September, it was announced the Rover had discovered an ancient riverbed. Of course, there was no water in it, so how did they know it was a river bed? This conclusion was reached because the robot found small, rounded boulders, instead of the sharp ones with jagged edges that usually occur, and the most common explanation for rocks being smooth and curved is due to flowing water transporting them for long distances and eroding them. However, doubt lies as to whether it was actually water flowing, and not some other liquid or maybe even a gas like CO2, but since there are hydrated minerals in Mars, it is most likely water was the liquid. But even if it was an actual river, it doesn’t immediately mean life on Mars exited, because there were no traces of carbon in the area so it is impossible to say if there had actually been living organisms in the area.

September was a busy month, since at that time Curiosity also shone more light into the methane mystery in Mars. In past studies, some scientists had concluded there was a high abundance of methane in Mars, and since methane is mostly produced by living beings, such as cows and rice, some though this was proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. But after 8 months of analysing the atmosphere, the rover concluded there was little to none methane there. In fact, it estimated there was only 1 part per billion of methane in Mars. However, it is arguable that some methane is trapped in the planet, so Curiosity will be doing more detailed investigations in the future.

Those are the main ventures pursued by Curiosity, and it has plenty of time to investigate further, since the original 2-year-mission was prolonged indefinitely. For now, please join me on wishing the rover a late Happy Birthday!

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(By the way, this is my 50th post in Science for Scientists after 2 and a half years of blogging. It was about time, right?)

Blender Potion for Graphene


Graphene is quickly rising to become one of the most useful substances on Earth. It is an extremely hard substance, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and only 1 atom layer thick. Even better, it is as abundant as graphite, the black substance found in pencil leads, as graphene stuck together in many layers is in fact graphite.

But up until now, there had been a problem with this amazing material: its production. Obtaining some graphene is relatively easy: you get a piece a graphite from any pencil, and using some tape, stick and unstick it to the surface of the graphite continuously. This way, you will end up with a very small of graphene. This surprising method was discovered by two students at the University of Manchester: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry precisely for this technique.

graphene

This is graphene, a layer of atoms made of hexagonal carbon rings

The problem is that although this tape method works perfectly fine to produce some graphene, it’s not an efficient way to manufacture amounts large enough to meet the demand for this product. So scientists have been working non-stop to find a solution to their problem, and indeed they have found a very curious one.

Just as the original technique, its fairly straightforward. You just need some graphite, some water, soap and a blender. Now just add it all into the blender and turn it on. After a few seconds of work, you have produced a decent amount of graphene. The blades manage to cut between the layers of graphene in graphite and produce individual graphene.
The bright side of this process is that it produces 5 grams of graphene an hour, whilst previous methods produced only half a gram an hour. On the downside, however, is the fact that its not really as easy as this, and to get the best results you need to use more sophisticated substances and to get a decent amount the experiment would have to be scaled up.

It is still an enormous improvement compared to the previous methods that will for sure make this outstanding material more approachable, and all the technological revolutions it will bring closer to our reach.

The Hawking Horizon


Black holes are a phenomenon that the greatest scientists of our time have tried to understand, but is proving to be quite the challenge.

However, after many years of thought put into it, there were some theories that were thought to be true. But then came none other than Stephen Hawking, and turned the world upside down.

Up until now, it was believed by most that black holes have something called the event horizon, an imaginary line where nothing that crosses it can go back, even light. Hawking, in his most recent paper “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes”, says that there is no such thing as an event horizon, but rather an apparent horizon. Basically, it’s the same thing, but less strict in shape (due to continuous quantum fluctuations) and which can occasionally let matter and energy out but changing them enough so they can’t be recognized.

hawking

Stephen Hawking, has a new theory which doesn’t disappoint

The black hole puzzle has been treated using our two basic physical theories: quantum mechanics and general relativity. However, these two laws don’t get along that well, so when you mix them, anything can happen.

In this case, the weird happened when a black hole evaporates. Quantum mechanics says that matter (or information) cannot be lost, so it would leave the black hole through radiation. But in doing so, it would release outstandingly high amounts of energy, creating, literally, a firewall. But general relativity says that you can’t cross an event horizon, and this disagreement between the theories creates a paradox. Or as it is commonly known, the firewall paradox.

Let’s put it this way. If an astronaut was falling down into a black hole, quantum mechanics says that it would die of radiation and burning thanks to the firewall. General relativity says that it will be trapped in the black hole, since it can cross back the event horizon, and will die of the extreme gravitational conditions inside this phenomenon. In either case, our space explorer doesn’t survive, but in different ways.

The famous scientist has proposed the existence of this apparent horizon to solve this problem. If it was true, it would cancel the paradox, but it would create something else.

black hole

A Balck Hole, one of the biggest enigmas for scientists, even the greatest.

With this new horizon, matter or energy could escape, but it would also scramble them up, because of a black hole’s gravity, so even though they could potentially get out, they will have been so messed up that they could not be reconstructed. It would not be destroyed, so it agrees with quantum mechanics, but it’s original structure will be lost.

This polemic statement has already provoked a response from many scientists, since it would completely change our current definition of a black hole, a region in space from which nothing can escape; or so it was thought.

 

Edge.org


edge org

Logo from Edge.org

Edge.org is a website founded with the sole purpose of joining the greatest minds of this world together to make the extraordinary happen. To do this, a question is asked every year, about the world as we know it and how it can change, and everyone is free to answer it. Over 15 years of opinions, thoughts and ideas are stored in this site, the online version of the ‘Reality Club’, the famous group of intellectuals that came together to discuss the questions they couldn’t answer. Currently, and due to its popularity, many well-known scientists answer it every year to motivate everyone to think about the world around them.

This year’s question is:

 What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

 Many famous scientists have contributed to this project with their ideas, some examples being:

Richard Dawkins, biologist, professor at Oxford and author; who believes that essentialism is obsolete. This is a term used to describe the way humans think of everything belonging to a separate fraction, with nothing being able to exist in between. Like what happens when people argue about abortions, saying that at one point it isn’t human yet, but at another it is. It is supposed to be gradual, where it is a quarter human, then 3 quarters… where the distinguishable point in which an embryo becomes human can’t be discerned completely

Irene Pepperberg, author, researcher and lecturer at Harvard University; believes human superiority is not true. Although it is true that humans are special, other animals are too. Humans can’t detect very slight changes of temperature like some snakes, we can’t see ultraviolet light like bees, and we can’t migrate for hundreds of kilometers by using an ‘internal GPS’.

Azra Raza, professor in Medicine in Columbia University, New York; says that cancer research in mice is not useful. Cancer develops differently in mice than in humans, and adding human cancer cells to rats would involve injecting drugs to suppress an immunological response, which would affect the results. Altogether, results from such experiments don’t provide an accurate depiction of a drug’s usefulness.

To answer the question, in my opinion, the term reality is no longer practical. The definition of reality is “the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”.

However, nowadays, with all these theories about alternate universes, or quantum physics, I feel like we no longer know what is real, what really happens, but rather what we think happens or what data use for our calculations.

The theory of multiverses and infinity, where every possible outcome to a situation happens but in another universe, is mindboggling, because even though to us there is only one reality, if this theory is correct, there is another one of us whose reality is different. So who is right? Are we both right? But how do we know the answer?

Another example of this situation is virtual reality, having a world online. You can play a game on the internet, build a house in it, etc. but once you go offline, is that house really there? It’s not physical, at least in the traditional way, but more like an idea stored in chips and computers.

And every time a new theory is thought of, when calculations go wrong or results given don’t agree with predictions, theoretical values can used, so we are not actually describing reality, but our reality where we idealize every quantity to get an understandable result.

With these manipulations of reality, we can’t really know what actually happens and what we hope/believe happens, so reality is no longer real.

If you want to share your opinion, go to www.edge.org and answer it yourself!

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.

Noble Prize in Fun


The Ig Nobel Prizes (an American parody to the Nobel Prizes) are given every year to the most curious, different and even crazy scientific discoveries.

Awarded in Harvard, they were made to show the funny side of science, and to get more people interested in technology, mathematics, and science in general.

This year, the prizes were granted to:

  • Physics: To the creators of ‘The Ponytail Shape Equation’ for calculating the forces that make the ponytail’s shape.
  • Medicine: To the French scientists who advised doctors how to perform a colonoscopy minimizing the chances the patient will explode.
  • Literature: To the US Government General Accountability Office for giving out a report about a report that explains the preparation of a report about the report of a report about reports.
  • Neuroscience: To the brain researchers who detected brain activity in a dead salmon; but ended up being a technical error.
  • Acoustics: To the creators of the SpeechJammer, a machine that repeats the words you say only slightly delayed to confuse the speaker.
  • Chemistry: To the scientists who figured out why people’s hair in a certain Swedish town had turned green.
  • Fluid Dynamic: The researchers that studied how coffee spills when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.
  • Anatomy: The scientists who discovered chimpanzee can recognise each other by a photograph of their backside.

Last of all, my sincere congratulations to the winners, and the committee, for making these hilarious prizes take place, and helping society take interest in science.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19667664

http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2011/09/30/ciencia/1317375656.html

God Damn It! We Found The Goddamn Particle: Part 2


Last 4thof July 2012 the final piece of the puzzle was discovered. The Higgs Boson was seen at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN,

completing all the elementary particles in the Standard Model of particle physics.

Higgs Boson experiment in the LHC

The announcement was made at CERN’s auditorium in Switzerland. The conference was

held the same day the Conference on High Energy Physics in Australia, were physicists from all around the world listened attentively as director general of CERN Rolf Heuer announced the discovery of the most wanted particle in the world.

After almost 50 years since its prediction, the Higgs boson’s existence was confirmed by two separate experiments: the CMS and the ATLAS. They were both able to see the Higgs, with a mass of 125 to 126 GeV (gigaelectronvolts), the mass predicted by Peter Higgs. The finding was not announced until it had a confidence level of 5 sigma (or 4.9, to be exact) which means there is less than 1 in a million chance the Higgs boson was not really the Higgs boson. With these statistics, scientists felt confident to proclaim they had discovered a new particle.

Though this particle completes the Standard Model, physicists still have lots of work to do. First, they need to analyse the Higgs boson and study its properties, which may not be as predicted and give a few surprises to scientists all around the world.

If the Standard Model is complete and its predictions are all correct, there is still some investigation needed. The model, although it covers most forces in the Universe, it can’t explain gravity, or even dark matter (which makes up to 85% of the universe) or dark energy (responsible fort the accelerating expansion of the universe).

However, we still have to give our most sincere congratulations to the teams at CERN for being able to discover the Higgs boson, the God particle or whatever you want to call it.

Sources:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22014-celebrations-as-higgs-boson-is-finally-discovered.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-18702455