Meeting Pluto (The Planet)

NASA made history this week, once again, when the project New Horizons, launched 9 years ago, reached the ‘ex-planet’ Pluto and its surrounding moons. Ever since it has arrived, it’s been sending us information from there, and putting it lightly, it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Scientists previously believed Pluto to be a calm, inactive dwarf planet; just a mass of ice and frozen gases floating around the Solar System. But defying all these expectations, Pluto seems to be very geologically active, actually similar to Earth, (or rather, one of Neptune’s moons, since it has a large ice mantle).

The clues that point to this surprising conclusion are many. For one, there are areas with no signs of craters caused by asteroid collisions, which would be impossible unless these sections are relatively new, as they would be if they had been formed recently by geological activity. There are also fault lines and rift valleys, both characteristic features of tectonic movement.

However, scientists are still puzzled as to how these movements are brought about. In Earth, tectonic movements happen because of the melted rock in the core of the planet, but this is not possible in Pluto, so a popular theory suggests that since it is filled with radioactive material (like most astronomical bodies), this somehow produces enough energy to heat up the surface of Pluto and causes the movement of large amounts of ice that act as tectonic plates.

But don’t think this trend of unexpectedness stops at Pluto. Its largest moon, Charon, is not far behind. It also displays signs of being geologically active, as it has deep canyons and very smooth expanses.


Pluto sure is a sweetheart

Since many new areas in Pluto and Charon have been true wonders, scientists have decided to give them appropriate names. The most famous one, unofficially nicknamed ‘The Heart’ because it is heart-shaped, is now probably going to be known as Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto in 1930. Another feature is a plane made of ice, which shows troughs at regular intervals, and has been dubbed the Sputnik Planum, in honour of the first spaceship. The Norgay Mountains are named after the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest, and are a range of 3300 meter-high mountains made entirely of frozen ice which behaves like rocks. Astronomers also seem to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as they have named a feature in Pluto ‘Balrog’, a monster from this series, and a dark region in the pole of Charon is being called Mordor.

The mission also offered an opportunity to accurately measure Pluto’s diameter for the first time. The results show that it is 2.370 km large, possibly the largest of the five recognized dwarf planets in the Solar System.

Although the official flyby has ended, New Horizons’ adventures are not over. All this baffling information it has sent us only represents about 2% of all the data it has collected, so we can still expect many surprises from this mission for about 16 months as the rest comes in. And after the visit to Pluto, it is going to fly to the Kuiper Belt, a zone beyond the planets full of small icy bodies that may contain some interesting information as to how the Solar System was formed.

Puppy Dog Eyes

Dogs are the most popular pet in the world. They’re loyal, loving and most importantly, cute. But the reason we actually have them as our pets and may feel a connection to them lies beyond the heart, and in the realm of brain chemistry.

Humans release a hormone called oxytocin, the so called love-hormone, which creates feelings of affection and caring. It is produced by a mother gets when she stares into her child’s eyes, or by a spouse looking at their partner. And now, scientists have discovered, it is also liberated when a person makes eye contact or pets their dog, causing a bond to be formed. But, it’s not a one-side bargain: dogs also get a rush of oxytocin in their body, which makes them feel an emotional connection with their owners.

The experiment that discovered this looked into a group of people and their dogs, from breeds like Miniature Schnauzer or golden retrievers, and had them play in a room for half an hour, during which time they obviously touched and looked at each other. Before the test, the animals gave a urine sample, and after playtime was over, they gave another one. Oxytocin levels for all dogs were significantly higher after having spent time with their owners.

puppy dog

Can you feel the oxytocin flowing?

To investigate this further, they administered two solutions onto the dogs’ noses: on some, they sprayed an oxytocin solution; on others, they sprayed a salt solution to act as a placebo. The results supported the previous theory: those being sprayed with oxytocin spent more time looking into their owner’s eyes, and these corresponded by releasing more oxytocin into their system. But there was more to it. This effect only happened in female dogs. Male dogs did not provoke any change in behaviour or oxytocin levels. Although the reason is still not fully understood, and will be researched in future experiments, a possible theory is that in males, oxytocin can also cause animosity towards other people.

Interestingly enough, when the process was repeated with wolves and their owners it didn’t produce the same results, despite dogs and wolves being closely related. This may suggest that this mechanism was developed at a time when wolves and dogs were apart, such as when humans had already domesticating them.

However, don’t use this method to try and bond with any other wild animals. This could only work with dogs, as they are the only species other than humans that are known to release oxytocin because of eye contact. Usually, in the animal kingdom, eye contact actually means defiance, so it could get you in a lot of trouble…

Fossils on the Moon

the moon

The answer to the origin of life on Earth may actually not be on Earth

Although the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, life took a lot longer to develop. Estimates say that life ‘happened’ up to 17 million years ago somewhere in the Universe, but only spread through the Earth 3 million years ago. There are various theories as to how life developed on Earth specifically. Some think that the random collisions of molecules that give rise to life happened independently on Earth, since it had favourable conditions. Others think that this may have occurred someplace else, deep in the vastness of space, and that those small living creatures were transported to Earth via a meteorite.

At the moment, there is no way to confirm which of these theories is correct. It was thought that analysing fossil records could show whether any meteorite that arrived at the time life started actually contained living organisms. But Earth is an active planet, and its continuous geological activity has pretty much erased all evidence of it. But scientists have thought of an alternative.

If 17 million years ago there were meteorites containing life roaming around the universe colliding with planets like the Earth, they could have hit the Moon, since they are so close together. And the great thing about this possibility is that it is actually verifiable. The Moon has a much calmer tectonic history, since it currently does not contain any lava in its center to wreck fossil records. But at the time life is thought to have spread on Earth, the Moon was covered in lava, which is more helpful than you imagine. Several experiments in the past have shown that complex organic molecules that made up early life are able to withstand the high temperatures in the lava, and may have actually been protected from radiation by being buried deep inside the hot liquid.

So now we only need to go on a mining expedition to the Moon to find any fossils that may give us the next clue as to when and how life started in this wonderful Solar System of ours.

2014 Science Highlights: Part 1

Another year passes, so it’s time for another round up of the most interesting scientific events that have happened in the last 12 months. 2014 has been a year full of fascinating discoveries, both in this planet and outside of it, but with some disappointing realisations too.

 1. The Ebola Crisis Continues


The Ebola virus keeps taking lives and will continue to do so until we find a treatment

The Ebola virus gained a lot of attention this autumn when it grew to an unprecedented size: it became the larges Ebola outbreak in history. In fact, the WHO declared it a global public health emergency and many countries and organisations rushed to contribute some help. At first contained in West Africa, there were a couple of isolated cases in Europe and the USA which caused even more panic, but it has died down. As with many catastrophes, after the initial spotlight, the Ebola pandemic has lost a lot of attention from the public, even though it has not stopped growing. However, it is slightly more controlled, and due to all the press it received, plenty of research is going into treating it, which should hopefully yield some treatments or a vaccine.

2. Stem Cells Stump

Mouse embryo with beating heart

The original STAP cells, which held so much potential, but turned out to be too good to be true

There was a great flurry of excitement at the beginning of this year when researchers in Japan claimed to have created stem cells by simply dipping blood cells into acid. The STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells were great for medical research since they got rid of the ethical issues of using embryonic stem cells. The potential of this easy and cheap method were immense, so as soon as the results were published, many scientists from around the world tried to carry out the experiment themselves. But they couldn’t. The results couldn’t be replicated. A more in depth investigation showed that the results of the original experiment were not accurate, and now the theory has, unfortunately, been disproved.

3. Rosetta and Philae

rosetta philae

A representation showing Rosetta (left) and Philae (right) on the surface of 67P

You can’t summarise 2014 without mentioning either the Rosetta spacecraft or the Philae lander. They have both accomplished feats in science which could have only been dreamed of. Rosetta has been in space for 10 years in pursuit of the 67PN comet which is travelling through our Solar System. This year it finally reached it and is now moving relative to it, becoming the first object to rendezvous with a comet. But Rosetta is not the only one who’s kept busy. After rendezvousing with the comet, Rosetta released Philae, a small robot whose objective was to land on 67P. And so it did, although it was a bumpy ride. Unfortunately, it ran out of battery soon after the landing, making it impossible for it to analyse the comet and take samples; its original purpose. But 67P is supposed to pass close to the Sun at some point, which might reactivate Philae and help it complete its mission

4. Dusty Waves

primordial waves

The graph showing what scientists thought were primordial waves, the proof of inflation theory, but is actualy dust

There was another fascinating discovery this year, in which a special type of wave was detected coming from space, with massive implications. Called primordial waves, they are theorised to have been produced during the Big Bang, and if their existence was confirmed, the theory of inflation, which states that the universes started expanding just after it was created would be proved. What were supposed to be these waves were then detected, and scientists were ecstatic. The Big Bang is one of the most confusing aspects of science, and this discovery could help clarify it greatly. But again, after further investigation, the results did not look too good. The alleged ‘primordial waves’ were most likely just dust in the Universe, interfering with the results and creating false hopes.

5. Young Calls Young


Blood could hold secrets for eternal youth

In a truly zombie-like procedure, scientists sewed young and old rats together so they created blood vessels between each other and shared blood. After some time, they investigated how tissues had grown and developed in the two rats and the results were utterly fascinating. The old rats had created more neural connections in their brains, their muscles had healed faster, and their heart muscles had been rejuvenated. However, the young mice suffered the opposite effects.

But scientists concentrated on the positive side, on what chemicals in the young rats caused these changes in the old ones and detected a specific protein, GDF11, which seemed to activate stem cells and cause all these beneficial effects. They also discovered chemicals in older mice which did the opposite: they made stem cells react slower, which in turn deteriorated the health of the younger rats. The next step is finding the equivalent proteins in humans, so that older people can be healed from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or arthritis.


Stay tuned for the more of the most interesting scientific events of 2014 in the epic conclusion: 2014 Science Highlights: Part 2.

Philae Fall

The misadventures of the famous Philae lander have been the hot scientific topic of the week. 10 years of preparation, hard work and effort finally came to fruition when the robot detached itself from the Rosetta Spacecraft after being together for a decade and set off on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.


How Philae was supposed to look on the surface of 67P

A couple days before the actual separation, ESA, the European Space Agency, which has been supervising the mission all these years; carried out a series of tests to make sure all the machinery in the lander worked perfectly. There was a minor problem with the thrusters, but since there was nothing scientists at Earth could do to fix it, they decided to keep the mission going anyway.

On the 12th of November of 2014, Philae made history when it became the first object to ever land in a controlled manner on a comet. And although this feat is outstanding and impressive by itself, there were some technical difficulties. The idea was that the lander would fire some harpoons to adhere to the comet and use thrusters so that together, they would push the robot towards the comet. But neither of these devices worked as planned, so when Philae did ‘land’, it bounced back. Twice. The first bounce made Philae jump almost 1km high into space (another record), and took the incredible amount of 2 hours for it to fall back. The second leap was much smaller, and only took a couple of minutes for it to settle down. But this was not the last obstacle in Philae’s way. Due to all the bouncing around, the machine ended up about 1 km away from the original landing site, and on top of that, it has stopped in a rather unusual posture. Instead of having its three legs on the pressed on the ground, one of them is dangling midair.

Facing these problems head-on, scientists still tried to carry out some of the proposed experiments. For example, they wanted Philae to take a sample of the comet dust using a drill incorporated into it. This apparatus comes out of the bottom part of the robot, but since Philae is sloping, the drill couldn’t actually reach the ground.

But Philae actually has more pressing problems at the moment. After bouncing all around 67P, it stopped in an area of the comet where the sun rays can’t reach; a fatal location for a solar powered machine like Philae. This soon alerted scientists regarding the duration of the battery, which would quickly run out. The solution was to turn on a ‘power-saving’ mode, but right in the middle of this process they lost contact with the robot. As of the 15th, Philae has used up all its stored energy and has basically shut down. There is still hope that when 67P reaches areas closer to the Sun, the lander will become powered again, but chances are slim.

Regardless of the many problems with the landing and its consequences, Philae did end up on a moving comet, and that’s reason enough to congratulate scientists at ESA for so many years of dedication and a successful mission.

2013 Review Part 2

In the previous article we saw how scientists from all around the world had managed to print a gun, create a fake burger and allow a human and a rat to communicate only using their minds! We also saw how two excelling scientists were honoured with the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize, for their theory of how particles gain their mass. Last but not least, we reviewed the meteor that hit Russia and fascinated observers and astronomers alike.

But 2013 was a very busy year, and there are still things that have to be remembered. For example:

6. Life Can Be So Hard


Lake Vostok in Antarctica

Humanity has not yet found a planet with living organisms in it, because conditions can be very harsh and inhospitable, unlike in our planet. Or maybe not.  I’m talking about Lake Vostok, in Antartica, where this body of water rests under 500 metres of ice, under extreme temperatures and pressure, and where no sunlight can reach. Immediately, you’d think there can be no life here, but a team of Russian scientists proved last year that there may be, when they drilled through all the ice and extracted a sample of water that contained pieces of DNA.

If life is definitely found, it will most probably be single-celled organisms, not macro-organisms such as fish or sharks, although if there’s anything we’ve learned from this adventure is that life can be found in the most unprecedented places, not matter what form it takes.

7. The Memory of the Smell of Fear


Memories travel generations in rats

A study carried out last year showed that memories can be transmitted from one generation to the next, and not by talking about it. The case was that a group of rats were subjected to the smell of cherry blossom, and after this, gave them an electric shock, so every time they smelled this, they would become wary and tense. Then, these rats were reproduced, and, surprisingly, the children also became alert when detecting the smell.

Although the mechanism is not yet understood, it may have something to do with changes in the DNA (like switching on and off certain genes) due to chemicals being released in your body.

This phenomenon can happen with other events, not just smell, but others are more difficult to track, since there are a lot of genes involved. Smell, specifically cherry blossom, is easier because there are specific receptors that react to this smell, which scientists already know about, so changes in these can be seen easily enough. Also, its not only the fact that the offspring must remember the smell, but also the feeling that comes with it, fear.

8. The Oldest DNA

In a cave 30 metres below ground, a paradise for archaeologists lies. There, the oldest genome ever discovered has been processed, yielding incredible results.


Denisovian Hominid

This fantastic place is the Atapuerca cave, found in Spain (my home country), and has always been considered a gold mine for anthropologists. It continues to meet its expectatives, as in a shaft, they found the remains of 28 hominids, of which a thigh bone was extracted. Although extracting a good sample of DNA from such an old sample, especially in a warm climate, is very improbable, scientists tried anyway, and thank God they did. The genome found is 400,000 years old, twice the age of our current species. The surprising thing about his genome is not only its antiquity, but also that it shows the bones found in the shaft known as ‘the pit of bones’ is not Neanderthal, but of a different species of humans called Denisovan, of which very little is known. But with this discovery, maybe we will find out all we need to know about them, and complete the puzzle of our many ancestors.

9. The Most Crowded Trench 


Mariana’s Trench, the deepest point on Earth

Director James Cameron, known for movies such as Titanic, Avatar or The Terminator, will be remembered by the scientific community for more than his movies.

Last March, he organised the Challenger Deep expedition, which travelled 11000 metres underwater to the lowest point of Earth, the Mariana’s Trench. He stayed there for about an hour, collecting samples and recording everything he saw.

Although the area was not teeming with macro-organisms, unfortunately for Cameron, samples from the submarine show there were unusually high levels of bacteria in the water. For every cubic centimetre, there were 10 million bacteria, a surprise for scientists because the amount of organisms down there was higher than in shallower areas, where conditions are less hostile. A possible explanation is that trenches are extremely good at collecting ‘food’ (organic matter from creatures above), so bacteria would have enough material to survive, even though the pressure and temperatures are not too comfortable.

 10. Blob of Pitch Falls

Pitch, a substance that makes up petroleum, is also one of the most viscous substance known to man, and its qualities can be quite interesting.

Decades back, someone in Trinity College Dublin set up an experiment that consisted in adding a measure of heated pitch to a glass funnel, and then let gravity do its job. The original version of this experiment, however, was done in University of Queensland, Australia, by Thomas Parnell, whose objective was to show and measure how viscous this liquid really was, though he died before it could actually happen.


The Pitch Experiment

But it was in Dublin where the magic really happened. After years of the pitch standing abandoned in an old shelf, scientist Shane Bergin found it, and after figuring out what it was, set up a web cam and connected it to the Internet so everyone was able to observe the liquid, in case a drop fell. And that is precisely what happened, the 11th of July, after years and years of patience. Although the real purpose has been completed, the web cam is still connected, and it is expected that in the next decade, another drop falls, so be attentive.

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.

India’s Space Adventure

Throughout history, human beings have been investing their time and effort in satisfying on of the India Launchmost basic instincts: curiosity. It started by investigating unknown lands, sailing through the sea to sea what they could find, and eventually, the ultimate barrier, space.

Now, India launched its first mission to Mars last Tuesday 5th of November, with the objective of studying its landscape, the atmosphere and search for methane. It was a relatively cheap mission, only 75 million dollars, compared to other adventures organised by the USA, It was carried out thanks to the efforts of 1000 scientists, who worked for this project for more than 15 months.

Right now, the rocket is orbiting the Earth, were it will stay until the 1st of December. Then, its journey of 300 days to our neighbouring planet will begin. On the 24th of September of next year, we will find out whether it will fail or it will accomplish the mission. Hopefully it’s the former.

The Mangalyaan rocket is the first aircraft sent by the Asian country to the red planet. It has very high stakes on it, as if it were to be successful, it would make India the 4th country to reach the surface of this nearby planet. The other countries were USA, Russia and the EU.

It would also position India as the lead country in Asia to achieve this, because although both China and Japan have previously tried the same mission, they both ultimately failed.

India has a very modest past in its spatial history. It has sent a few satellites designed by other countries up to our atmosphere and a lunar probe in 2008, but other than that it has been fairly quiet.

Future plans from this country include a very ambitious manned flight to outer space in 2016. These are probably the first steps of a growing giant, and for sure they will launch many more rockets and aircrafts to discover what space has to offer.

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.


God Damn It! We Found The Goddamn Particle: Part 1

As you probably already know, these last few weeks have been shaken by the discovery of the Higgs Boson. But, you may ask, what is the Higgs Boson?

The Higgs Boson is the quantum of the Higgs Field, which means it’s the smallest amount of the field you can get. It’s like saying an electron is the quantum of an electric field.  It was the last elementary particle of the Standard Model to be discovered, and it gives the key to complete such Model.

Although its not been identified since the late 20thCentury, it plays a major role in the process of giving mass to particles. Without this boson, particles would all behave mass less, and would wonder around at the speed of light, like photons.

To keep it simple, the Higgs Boson and Field make particles interact with them and give ‘heavy’ particles mass. If, however, the particle hasn’t got mass, like photons, this particle will flow right through the Higgs Field, remaining unchanged.

The Higgs Boson was named after Peter Higgs, as his theories of the Higgs Mechanism predicted the existence of this boson and some of its characteristics.

There’s been lots of discussions about who predicted its existence as 3 groups of people published very similar ideas at the same time. However, Higgs was the only one to predict some of its theoretical properties.

In the media, this particle has also been called The Goddamn Particle, Lederman’s first option for the book: The God particle: If the Universe is the Answer, what is the question? as the Higgs Boson was so damn hard to find. In the end the boson was called The God Particle, as the publisher thought it was more commercial.

The Standard Model with the Higgs Boson in it