Comments Off on Science Needs a Language Revolution
Throughout history, revolutions in science and technology have changed the way we look at the world and the way we live. Though initially drastic or controversial, many changes become commonplace in time. The language used in STEM is no exception.
Changes in scientific language are often motivated by political reasons. The metric system, now standard in the sciences, was introduced after the French Revolution as part of reforms to clear away the remnants of the monarchical ancien régime. A change that didn’t catch on was the French Republican calendar, stripped of religious and royalist references and including months like Pluviôse (parts of January and February) and Thermidor (parts of July and August).
In more recent years, there has been a drive to replace the scientific and technical terminology with lingering racist connotations. In quantum computing, some scientists have urged the replacement of ‘quantum supremacy’ – meaning a future stage where quantum computers outperform conventional computers – with ‘quantum advantage’. In computer science, ‘master’ and ‘slave’, referring to an original database and a copy, have been replaced in many places by ‘primary’ and ‘replica’.
The past few months have also seen name changes to institutions named after racists. The Watson School of Biological Sciences was renamed in early July , removing the name of James Watson, the Nobel laureate known for a 1953 paper that posited DNA’s double helix structure. The School’s parent institution, where Watson had once served as director, had previously cut ties with him due to comments about race, genetics, and intelligence in a 2019 documentary, American Masters: Decoding Watson. Meanwhile, University College London is considering renaming buildings named after statisticians Francis Galton and Karl Pearson[AY5] , both well-known proponents of eugenics.
A scroll through the huge Wikipedia article, List of name changes due to the George Floyd protests is enough to see how many institutions are making changes. While some may be driven by the Black Lives Matter movement to make a lasting difference, many will satisfy their consciences by only repainting a sign or using ‘find and replace’ on a website.
For example, GitHub, the largest code hosting platform in the world, announced this June that it would discontinue the user of ‘master’[AY8] , less than a year after it renewed a $200,000 software contract with ICE, the US agency responsible for inhumane mass detentions of migrants. The contract led to protests and numerous resignations by GitHub staff. While the removal of a single offensive term is arguably a step towards justice, GitHub’s attempted activism is almost imperceptible in light of these wrongdoings.
Yet even the smallest note of anti-racist action faces vehement resistance from a significant number. A Change.org petition (whose creator did not make their name public) against GitHub retiring the phrase ‘master’ has gained over 3000 signatures. The time spent on making this petition and arguing against such a minor change overweighs by far the small amount of time GitHub spent on making it. Reactions like this are a disheartening sign to marginalised groups in STEM that more important, systematic changes will only face fiercer resistance.
Nevertheless, there is cause for hope – this year’s surge of anti-racist action has not ignored STEM. A week after an incident in Central Park on May 25, where a dog owner called the police on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper for asking her to leash her dog, a group of scientists organised an online event called Black Birders Week. It celebrated Black naturalists and challenged the discrimination and even danger faced by Black people who explore the outdoors. On June 10, the ShutDownSTEM initiative called for STEM professionals to stop work for a day and spend time planning to combat racism in their institutions.
These initiatives are riding a wave of heightened support for anti-racist activism in STEM, but it’s not clear how long this wave will last. It’s also not clear how many institutions will settle for changing racist language or how many will push for structural change. Although it’s not a revolution of new technology or scientific methods, we are living through a revolution in STEM, and it will take a concerted effort to ensure that the changes are in more than name.
Think your name would look good in print? Woroni is always open for submissions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a pitch or draft. You can find more info on submitting here.
CONTENT WARNING: Brief Mentions of Drugs and Depression
Be it familial or romantic, requited or unrequited, infatuated or platonic, divine or self-directed, our culture is obsessed with it. It furnishes our songs, scripture and screenplays. And just like sex, it sells. It’s a panacea.
The idea of love lingers in our hopeful minds. We feel it in the empty moments spent between bed sheets or at society meet and greets.
But despite all the airtime it gets on our screens and in our mind, we rarely think critically about love.
Sure, some of us might watch The Bachelor or MAFS from time to time and say, ‘no way does she love him: look at her body language’. Love is used casually, as if we all know what it means. Problem is, we don’t.
It’s time to do as Haddaway did in 1992 and ask, What is Love?.
Biologically, we think we know a lot about love. It’s a drive, just like hunger or thirst. It’s classed into three overlapping stages, each an evolutionary purpose. The first of these is lust. In lust, testosterone and estrogen flood the brain, amping up libido. One must pass on our genetic material, evolution tells us. Lust lasts for a month or so.
Simultaneously or independently, attraction occurs. Attraction is dopamine and norepinephrine stimulating our pleasure centre, turning someone into that special someone. We get hooked on their vibes and can’t stand time apart from them.
Their presence is so euphoric it boosts our heart rate, lowers our appetite and our ability to sleep. These symptoms are remarkably similar to those produced by amphetamines: love really is a drug. For up to three years, anyway. Eventually, affection fades away.
Attachment, however, can last a lifetime. During this stage, oxytocin and vasopressin promote emotional intimacy. Unlike with lust and attraction, attachment is not limited to romantic partners; it moderates the bond of parents and children, close friends and social cordiality in general.
But love, like any drug, has a dark side. Heartbreak hurts. Literally – it’s processed as genuine physical pain. The dysregulation of chemicals at any of these stages has its consequences. Too much dopamine during attraction can cause physiological addiction. This extends into psychological addiction, with obsessive behaviour, jealousy and withdrawal symptoms when one’s cravings are not met.
But too little dopamine and one will lack commitment and motivation and might fall into depression.
Oxytocin, ‘the love chemical’, is likewise a double-edged dagger. Oxytocin amplifies feelings. In both directions. So just as it increases warmth and empathy for a friend or lover, the love chemical simultaneously lowers your empathy for those outside your social, political and ethnic tribes, increasing prejudice and discrimination. An excess of oxytocin generally is linked to dissociation and wild, reckless behaviour.
This triarchic model of lust-attraction-attachment shows us there are different ways in which we can love. People vary in their preferences and capacity for each of the three, so it also teaches us empathy for those who struggle with love as their difficulties are often not their fault.
At the same time, accepting a purely biological explanation of love feels uncomfortable. Dissecting love like this feels sterile and disenchanting, so removed from the sublime personal experience of love that it verges on cruel.
And then there’s the danger that explaining the darker side of love justifies it. It’s the naturalistic fallacy that because something is instinctive, it is defendable to do. Nonetheless, people reason that way. To justify xenophobia through the effects of oxytocin or claim that cheating is a result of testosterone, is making excuses, not science.
It’s a basic fact of psychology that how we think influence immutable. Science gives us only the mechanisms, it is normatively silent on what and who we should love. We, by and large, get to decide that for ourselves.
Looking around, it’s clear humans love many things. It extends not just to not friends and family but to food and fauna, fictions and facts, fraternity and freedom. It’s striking to think people willingly sacrifice their lives, literally and metaphorically, out of love for many of these ideas and ideals.
Perhaps it’s regrettable that English uses one lumpy word for all these things. After all, the Ancient Greeks famously used six. But in a way, I think it’s beneficial. The word is so ambiguous that we can’t adequately answer the question ‘what is love?’. This forces us to ask a much more meaningful question, that is: ‘what is love, for me?’.
Comments Off on The Spread of Medical Misinformation
CONTENT WARNING: Brief Mention of Climate Change
Coming from a chemistry and biology background, I frequently question medical advice that is emotionally appealing but not backed by rigorous scientific research. Alternative medicine, for example, takes advantage of public fear to promote their arguably bogus treatments. The recent coronavirus outbreak is just one scenario exploited by the industry among many others, such as cancer and neurological disorders. Like with climate change denial and anti-vaccination movements, the rejection of evidence-based approaches in favour of ideology and profit repeatedly overpowers science.
Acupuncture is one type of alternative medicine that is part of traditional Chinese medicine and unbound by the constraints of the scientific method. Based on a mythical, ancient philosophy of invisible meridians controlling energy (or Qi) flow through the body, acupuncture has successfully invaded the health care system. The state of New Mexico defines acupuncture as:
“the surgical use of needles inserted into and removed from the body and the use of other devices, modalities and procedures at specific locations on the body for the prevention, cure or correction of any disease, illness, injury, pain or other condition by controlling and regulating the flow and balance of energy and function to restore and maintain health.”
According to acupuncture practitioners, they can treat pretty much anything. Their latest pursuit is, of course, the novel coronavirus. The Acupuncture Healing Centre, located in Chicago’s Chinatown, released an article in late January on how acupuncture can be used to prevent coronavirus. This is supposedly done by facilitating the body’s immune response to expel the pathogen through points that supposedly strengthen digestion, breathing and the mind.
However, I argue the practice is a form of psychological manipulation and theatrical placebo – the more you expect it to work, the more likely you are to exhibit symptom relief. It may seem like a ‘real’ medical treatment, but it lacks scientific evidence to support its bold claims and does not truly cure or prevent conditions. Short-term treatment with acupuncture does not produce long-term benefits, and its apparent effects are not caused by the treatment itself. Decades of research and over 3000 trials show that any possible specific effect from acupuncture is clinically insignificant.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are unaware of acupuncture’s ineffectiveness and quackery, so the practice continues to grow. This is largely because of poor communication, misleading information published online and increasing government approval. This makes it far more difficult than necessary to obtain correct information on acupuncture. We can’t blame people for not knowing, however, given that we often have to dig deep and critically analyse to find the facts. Yet there are a few examples across the globe contributing to the spread of misinformation and the acupuncture industry.
Let’s start with Australia. The Better Health Channel, funded by the Victorian Government, has an information page on acupuncture procedures and its effectiveness. The page has a summary box at the top with what the authors consider the main points to take away. But the summary ignores the most important piece of information: that there is no systematically reviewed scientific evidence to prove acupuncture’s effectiveness. This point is also glossed over in the body. Most people will not read the whole page and even if they do, they will easily miss this key point. Additionally, there is a statement at the very bottom of the page which asserts that “content on this website … does not in any way endorse or support such therapy, service, product or treatment and is not in- tended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional” [emphasis added]. Considering how few people read the fine print, I question why this statement was not placed at the beginning of the page.
Now on to America and China. As of this year, acupuncture is covered by Medicare in the United States. In China, acupuncture is pretty much recommended by the National Health Commission. Not only will this result in conditions not being properly treated, but also lead people to believe that acupuncture is an official and effective practice approved by medicine.
Finally, the Vickers meta-analysis. This analysis from 2012 is one of the most cited studies used to argue that acupuncture works (much like the infamous Wakefield paper that linked the MMR vaccine with autism). However, the study shows nothing of the sort and has several issues in its methods. For starters, the authors had an enormous pro-acupuncture bias, which caused them to overcall the results. Secondly, the controls used were entirely problematic because the participants knew they were receiving no treatment. Even the authors acknowledge that “because the comparison between acupuncture and no-acupuncture cannot be blinded, both performance and response bias are possible.” Basically, the meta-analysis is completely useless, despite what acupuncture advocates would have you believe.
Medical misinformation can spread like wildfire on social media and through word of mouth. Evaluating information is particularly important during this time of international health emergency. But people forget to critically assess sources before arriving at a conclusion, leading to a growing acceptance of deceptive alternative practices like acupuncture.
Each year in October, students, researchers and STEM professionals tune in for the awarding of one of the highest honours in the science community: the Nobel Prize. In the categories of physiology or medicine, chemistry and physics, scientists are presented with these awards in recognition for their exemplary contributions to their respective fields of science. This year, nine accomplished scientists were awarded Nobel Prizes and joined the ranks of extraordinary past Nobel Laureates such as Marie Curie, Alexander Fleming and Albert Einstein. So, who were these scientists and what did they discover? Find out below from ANU’s own next generation of scientists and engineers!
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Many organisms require oxygen to create energy in a process called aerobic respiration. Although we have been familiar with the importance of oxygen for a long time, our understanding of how individual cells adapt to changes in the availability of oxygen has been limited.
In 2019, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their ground-breaking discovery on ‘how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability’. The result of their research has opened new doors on promising and exciting new ways to treat a variety of diseases, such as anaemia and cancer.
Kaelin, Ratcliffe and Semenza’s combined work led to the identification of key regulatory protein structures and genes, which demonstrate an oxygen sensing mechanism on a molecular basis. Semenza examined the gene responsible for the production of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which mediates the production of red blood cells. He discovered that vicinal segments of DNA were involved in regulating the response to changes in oxygen levels. Ratcliffe’s group also studied this gene and both teams found this mechanism to be present in essentially all tissues, such as muscle and fat. Semenza discovered a key oxygen-dependant protein called the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) that controlled this response.
Kaelin, a cancer researcher studying von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL) which involves a dramatic increase in the risk of cancer, discovered that the VHL gene was linked to an overproduction of oxygen-regulated proteins. This gene was then found to physically interact with HIF in a process that regulates our oxygen-sensing mechanism.
As a consequence of their research, our understanding of how oxygen levels influence integral physiological processes has greatly expanded. Oxygen-sensing is fundamental to the finetuning of metabolism in muscles, the immune system, foetal growth and the development of new blood cells. More importantly, a failure to detect levels of oxygen is related to a number of diseases, such as cancer. Cancerous cells can take advantage of the systems that are controlled by oxygen to trick the body into growing blood vessels to supply a growing tumour. Because of Kaelin, Ratcliffe and Semenza’s research, intense effort is directed towards the development of drugs that will interfere with oxygen-sensing mechanisms to treat these diseases.
Sai Campbell, Bachelor of Philosophy (Biochemistry)
Nobel Prize in Physics
The Nobel Prize in Physics this year is dedicated to astrophysics: a very interesting field that is perhaps almost as overused in science fiction as quantum mechanics is! The 2019 prize was recently announced on October 8 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with the winners being James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. James Peebles was awarded half of the price for ‘theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology’, with Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz each sharing a quarter for ‘the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar type star’.
In the 1960s, physical cosmology was considered a ‘dead end’ and had very little interest from the community, but Peebles remained committed. His dedication did not fail him: he made significant contributions to the Big Bang Theory, most notably the prediction of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). When looking at the sky with a radio telescope, a white noise at around a 15 megahertz frequency can be constantly heard. Interestingly enough, this frequency does not change at all no matter the direction you point your telescope, as it is homogeneous and isotropic. This is because of CMBR: the weak but engulfing energy that fills our universe. This radiation is thought to be the relic of the Big Bang, and an attribute to the expanding universe.
Imagine this: in the beginning, a small, primal universe would have been filled with hot, intense opaque energy ‘soup’. As it expanded, this soup would cool down as it was spread over more space. At some point, it would cool down enough so that atoms, the building blocks of the universe, could form. As these atoms were formed, they would leave space for light particles to travel freely instead of bouncing off smaller particles, like protons and electrons, as they did previously. As the universe kept expanding and cooling down, wavelength of these light particles, known as photons, would get longer as they lose energy until they would get to microwave wavelengths. The existence of this visible radiation that fills the universe massively supports the Big Bang model, helping to detail the origin of our universe. Peebles was a part of the team led by Robert Dicke, who predicted that since the early universe was filled with energy, there should be some residue of this energy that still exists today. Following this prediction and then subsequent discovery, Peebles went on to focus on understanding the structure and the growth of an early universe that can be extracted from CMBR. His research played a large role in shaping physical cosmology as the field we know it today.
Mayor & Queloz
The second half of the Nobel Prize focused on exoplanets. A binary system, where two large masses spin around each other, can be discovered through the analysis of radial velocity, which is the rate of change of distance between an object and an observing point. In Mayor and Queloz’s research, the observing point was our dear planet Earth and the objects were stars. When viewing different stars, they noticed that some were wobbling towards, and then away from, Earth in a periodic pattern. This indicated that there must have been a body of mass near these stars, and that these two objects were spinning around each other to create a wobbling effect. Through refining the measuring equipment, they could measure smaller radial velocity which allowed them to observe smaller wobbles and, consequently, smaller masses around these stars. In 1995, the pair noticed a mass wobbling around the star 51 Pegasi. After analysing the tiny radial velocity, they could conclude that this was a planet roughly the same size as Jupiter, orbiting 51 Pegasi . This was the second time a planet was found to be orbiting a main sequence star, the most common type of star, with the first being our own sun. This discovery pushed an intensive search for more exoplanets research, and awarded them half of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Especially following these Nobel Prize recognitions, no one can deny that astrophysics is pretty cool!
Lam Tran, Bachelor of Advanced Science (Physics)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
It is rare that a Nobel Prize is awarded for something that almost everyone has touched or held in their own hands! This Nobel Prize discovery underpins the world’s digital devices, electric cars and provides energy storage for renewable power… The 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to the scientists who developed the lithium ion cell battery. Three researchers, material and mechanical engineering professor John Bannister Goodenough, and chemists Michael Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, collaborated on the chemistry and design of the battery to bring it to Nobel Prize glory. They were driven by the 1970s oil crisis and the need to store renewable energy.
Modern lithium batteries are scalable: small for phones and big for electric cars. They work by allowing charged lithium atoms, known as lithium ions, to naturally flow from one battery material to the other, which creates an electric current used by a device. There is a finite number of these atoms in the battery and when they have all flown out of the old material the battery needs recharging. When charged, the lithium ions are forced flow back to the original material, ready to flow down when unplugged and make more electricity. That’s what happens every time you charge and un-charge your phone battery. It’s like rolling a ball up a hill (charging), and then letting it roll back down again (discharging).
In the development of lithium batteries, Whittingham discovered the energy-rich material called titanium disulphide, which had the ability to store lithium at the atomic level. This battery was effective and could store ten times the energy as lead acid, which was a common battery composition. Unfortunately, this design would explode after extended use.
In 1980, Goodenough swapped titanium disulphide for another material: cobalt oxide. With this change, batteries were now creating a battery voltage of up to four volts – roughly the voltage of a modern AA battery.
Finally, Yoshino’s contribution was replacing the metallic lithium in the battery with the material petroleum coke layered with lithium ions. This development was the one which made the battery much safer. This form was commercialised and first sold as a rechargeable battery by Sony in 1991.
We now see these batteries everywhere, and in the present world we would struggle without them. The development of lithium ion batteries is certainly a deserving and practical Nobel Prize.
Harry Carr, Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical and Material Systems, Biomedical Systems)
Comments Off on Want To Write For Edition 2? Check Out These Prompts!
Woroni is looking for YOU to write for our second edition of the magazine! You can write about pretty much anything, but here are some prompts to get your creative juices flowing (hint: the theme of this edition will be SEX!). First drafts are now due next Tuesday (25/2).
What is considered ‘appropriate’ when it comes to sex? How does it differ between cultures?
Are standards of sexual attractiveness different in different cultures? Do you think we can all be sexy?
Talk about STIs – why is there a stigma surrounding it when it happens to so many people?
Tame Impala’s new album
Literally anything else!
How can sex and bodies be used as protest? Think the #freethenipple, sex strikes etc. Do they work?
How do you feel when you see your body naked? Are you liberated, or embarrassed, and why is this?
How has the tv show Sex Education brought sexual wisdom to a mainstream audience?
Talk about a sexual experience that has had a lasting impact on you, positive or negative. What was it about this experience that made it so memorable?
Multilingual (for foreign language speakers):
Talk about sex and social media! Think about sexting, online dating etc. and the impacts they’ve had on you.
Talk about the presence of sex in the films you’ve watched and the music you’ve listened to! Who are the people who engage in this, and does it matter?
How has your mental health affected your sex life? (can be anonymous)
Painting and drawing
Talk about fat-shaming! How can we have productive discussions about health without implying blame?
Apparently, giraffes express sexual attraction through drinking each other’s pee! What are some examples of animal sexual practices that put humans to shame?
Are ageing and death as inevitable as we thought? Are they even preventable?
Turns out, some people don’t have an inner monologue! Do you have one? How does having a rich inner life or the lack thereof impact on your life?
Have you ever had imposter syndrome in a sexual relationship? Why was this?
According to several studies, our generation is having a lot less sex than previous generations. Why do you think this is? Why are these studies so important?
How do you really feel about your body? Tell us openly and honestly (and anonymously, if you like).
Business and Economics
Porn is a multimillion dollar industry! Why is porn so popular, and why, despite its popularity, is it still stigmatised?
Talk about sex work! Is sex work inherently oppressive? Should we legalise it?
Do you own any sex toys? Talk about them! Why are they important to you, and why don’t people really talk about them?
Give an overview of online dating. Talk about some of the various websites, how popular they are and what purposes they serve.
Comments Off on Chernobyl: Putting a Figure on the Fallout
33 years ago, reactor four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, showering northern Ukraine and the world with radioactive debris. Four months ago, HBO released a six-part miniseries retelling the immediate response to the incident, and it was quickly showered with praise. With the miniseries, the world’s greatest nuclear accident was once again brought under the scrutiny of the general population. One voice of scrutiny was from the conservative columnist and commentator Andrew Bolt. Bolt stirred up much interest and controversy with his comments regarding the death toll of 4000 to 96,000, which was included in the series’ final episode. He argued that the show was “eco-porn” designed to tap into anti-nuclear hysterics peddled by activists and journalists, going on to claim that “fewer than 100” died due to the accident. Many were quick to dispute Bolt’s claim, and it soon became clear that the commentator had stumbled unwittingly into a topic of depth and repercussion: how do we calculate the death toll from the Chernobyl accident?
If you were following the discussion sprouted by Bolt’s column, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that the science of the matter was settled: the nuclear accident caused thousands of deaths and Bolt was categorically wrong. The actual value of the death toll depends on whom you ask: the United Nations says 4000 whilst Greenpeace claims 96,000. Bolt is far from the first to put forward such a comparatively low number, and the reason for this is that technically, Bolt is right. Outside of two workers exposed to the core explosion and 29 firefighters who developed fatal acute radiation sickness, every other death we chalk up to the accident has an uncertainty. Some, such as the deaths of 15 children in relative proximity to the power plant, have a very low uncertainty, meaning that we can be largely confident that exposure to radiation caused the fatalities. The vast majority, however, of the deaths attributed to Chernobyl have far larger uncertainties attached.
There are two main reasons for this large uncertainty. Firstly, if you aren’t exposed to enough radiation to experience radiation sickness, the only way it can kill you is by doing enough damage to your DNA to cause a deadly cancer down the line. Excluding the initial 31 deaths, this is the process by which the fallout of Chernobyl claimed lives. To complicate matters, it’s impossible to determine if a cancer was caused by radiation from the disaster, some other radiation or random biological processes.
Secondly, The finer details of the relationship between radiation exposure, risk of cancer and death are largely unknown. This is unsurprising given the generally low likelihood of a population to experience an event in which they are exposed to levels of radiation far higher than background levels, such as from Chernobyl. The rarity of these large-scale nuclear events prevents scientists from developing datasets from which conclusions can be drawn. Additionally, we are unable to scientifically study an exposed population without a ‘control’ population that experience the exact same living and genetic conditions.
This second cause is the primary reason for the large variation in estimates, as ultimately any potential peak in cancer rates and fatalities where we would expect to see them are small enough to be obscured in the overall data. This is due to the statistical noise caused by yearly variation due to unknown or uncontrollable factors, such as diet, pesticides and living conditions. This leaves the actual calculation of the number of deaths to scientific guesswork.
There are some areas in the science, however, where we can find some certainty. In epidemiological studies comparing populations living in areas of higher and lower natural background radiation, rates of cancer do not differ enough to be statistically significant. Inhabitants of Denver are no more likely to develop cancer than those of Canberra, despite proximity to naturally occurring uranium deposits which cause background radiation levels to be seven times higher. From this we can conclude that there must be some limit of exposure, above which humans are more likely to develop potentially fatal cancer. This can also be extended to nuclear accidents, such as studies investigating the long-term effects of a partial nuclear meltdown at the Three-Mile Island Plant in Pennsylvania. The findings showed that despite exposure to a slight but statistically significant increase in radiation compared to background levels, nearby populations showed no increase in rates of cancer or deaths.
Even with this evidence of a threshold, our estimates on the Chernobyl death-toll are based off the linear-no-threshold (LNT) model. This model assumes that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation and that the amount of exposure is linearly related to the likelihood of developing cancer. This model is employed by governments and regulatory bodies in setting radiation limits precisely because of this inaccuracy: as there is no lower threshold, the model is widely considered to provide an overestimation of the danger of exposure. Over time, the LNT model has been increasingly considered outdated and inaccurate by nuclear scientists and public health specialists for examining long term effects of radiation.
It’s due to this uncertainty that a difficult and unpopular conclusion must be drawn: we will likely never be able to accurately determine how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident. Between insufficient and inaccurate modelling, incomplete data and a lack of scientific knowledge on the effects of large-scale exposure to radiation, the estimates of the death toll will likely remain varied and open to over or under-exaggeration. This means that when it comes to the debate on whether nuclear power belongs in our society, misguided proponents on either side of the debate will be able to reach for whichever number supports their conclusions for many years to come. Ultimately, we should hope this remains the case, as the only way this accuracy will improve is if another massive nuclear incident unleashes potentially dangerous amounts of radiation into the environment.
As frustrating as it may be, these limitations in our knowledge may well be a good thing…
Comments Off on Can a Nuclear Bomb Stop a Hurricane?
“Why don’t we nuke them?” – Donald J. Trump, in reference to hurricanes [allegedly].
It was this moment, when this [alleged] suggestion from the President of the United States of America began circulating the internet, and an unprecedented wave of elation struck the science precinct. It was here: the moment of reckoning for each and every graduate of Paul Francis’ PHYS1101 course. All of these years of training, of hard work, of approximating pi = 1 had prepared us for this exact situation. So, can a nuclear bomb stop a hurricane and how is it that all of your first-year friends, who have never even completed a tax return, can tell you with such confidence?
The answer is ninja physics.
Ninja physics is the practice of simplifying complicated situations to achieve a quick and approximate solution. The purpose of this technique is to arrive at a ballpark answer to get a rough idea of what the result will be and thus, if more accurate calculations are even needed. Firstly, the key facts of the problem are gathered and any irrelevant information is discarded. Then, complicated numbers are approximated to the nearest integer (whole number) or nearest order of magnitude (1, 10, 100 or 100, 000). For example, depending on how rough we want our approximation to be, we can have π = 3.14159 ≈ 3 or π = 3.14159 ≈ 1. From then, simple formulas – which you would probably recognise from Year 10 – 12 Science – are used to come to an approximate result. While it is unlikely that this is the type of physics that won Brian Schmidt his Nobel Prize, it is incredibly useful for fact-checking scientific claims in media, determining a starting point for measurements and plenty of other daily uses.
So, how would we use ninja physics to determine if a nuclear bomb can halt a cyclone?
Step 1: Gather our facts and discard irrelevant information
Firstly, we would need to find any relevant information and facts about the hurricane as well as a nuclear bomb. We know that hurricanes are fuelled by energy released when water vapour condenses into liquid water, with the energy produced termed the latent heat of condensation. This energy released causes huge amounts of air to heat and rise higher into the atmosphere, where it cools and promptly descends again. In the same way that water circles a sink drain, the rotation of the Earth causes the air currents to twist in a phenomenon known as the Coriolis effect. This leads to incredibly fast circular winds that reach speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour – several times faster than cars on a highway! Data we might try to gather would include the size of the storm system, wind speeds, density of air and water within the hurricane, as well as energy produced by water condensing. For the nuclear bomb, we need to find the energy released upon explosion so that we can compare the energies and predict the effect.
Step 2: Approximate and calculate
The next step is to determine how to make this information at all useful for us through simple calculations and approximations. At the end, we need to be able to compare the nuclear explosion to the hurricane in some terms, so calculating the energy within each system would be useful. For the hurricane, this can be done in many different ways – here are two of the main methods:
Option 1: Calculating the kinetic energy (EK) of the air caused by the wind movements
Knowing data on the wind speeds and the size of the hurricane, we could approximate the average velocity of air (v) and the total mass of air (m) within the system. We could then use EK = 12mv2 to approximate the total energy of the hurricane!
Option 2: Find the total energy produced by the latent heat of condensation in the storm
Knowing the energy produced when one kilogram of water vapour condenses and the density of water within the hurricane, we can approximate the total energy.
Once we use either of these methods, we’ll end up with a quantity in joules, which is the main unit of energy. We can then compare this to the energy released in a nuclear explosion, which can be found online!
Step 3: Compare your numbers
Using hurricane data provided in PHYS1101, the above techniques gave me approximate results ranging from 10-100 exajoules, with one exajoule being equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules! The explosion of a nuclear bomb releases around one petajoule, which is equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000,000 joules. What we can conclude from these numbers is that one hurricane is 100 to 1000 times more powerful than a nuclear bomb. So, trying to stop a hurricane with a nuclear bomb? You’d probably have better luck trying to fight a lion with a parakeet!
Using the wonderful technique of ninja physics, any student of PHYS1101 can safely inform The White House that no, you can definitely not stop a hurricane with an atomic bomb. At best, the explosion would minorly disrupt the cyclone. At worst, the additional energy introduced would worsen the storm and introduce huge amounts of highly radioactive material to the area. In conclusion: President Trump, please don’t try to nuke a storm anytime soon.
As it turns out, you can solve an entire suite of wacky questions with the employ of ninja physics by using this exact same technique! For example, how many times would a dragon have to flap its wings to stay in the air for two minutes? How high can you safely drop an elephant? Can you make a car fly? If you ever find yourself needing answers to these mysteries of life, ask your friendly neighbourhood physics major!
“If the human brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.”
– Emerson M. Pugh
Overthinking – it’s a blessing and a curse. It allows you to jump steps ahead in an exam problem to save time, but it also causes you to stay up late wondering if what she said was because of what he said, or did she just say it as a joke?
We know the definition of overthinking and the emotions that come with it, but what’s happening chemically as these thoughts race through our brains?
To start off the game that is overthinking, we have a few key players: dopamine – our own personal coach who motivates us and produces feelings of risk and reward, and adrenaline – the noisy child who, once let loose, increases your heart rate and blood pressure. From here on, we have two players who are barely ever in the same room together: serotonin, who brings nothing but happiness, and cortisol, who modulates stress levels.
Cortisol is the type that you’re happy to have small how’s-the-weather type conversations with. If you’re placed right next to them at a dinner party, however, then your mood will take a turn for the worse and your stress levels will rise higher and higher. Cortisol is the main villain who creates unhealthy overthinking and is released in the hypothalamus – a region very near to the centre of your brain.
So, how do we stop this villain if we aren’t in the mood for overthinking?
Change the chemical structure of your brain.
After cortisol is released it must be captured by cortisol receptors to have an impact. Therefore, if you block the path to these receptors then cortisol cannot cause you any stress.
Change the physical structure of your brain.
Research has found that an area of your brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, located just behind your eyes and in front of the hypothalamus, is associated with stress levels. Those with a thicker orbitofrontal cortex on the left side have higher levels of optimism and less anxiety. So, instead of having to directly face the cortisol villain yourself, you can combat its negative effects by modifying another structure in your brain.
Sleep, exercise and recognise that the cortisol villain is annoying you before it progresses to engage you in a very long and unenjoyable dinner conversation.
Okay, I’ll admit that the first two suggestions were a bit far-fetched. Still, the first suggestion underlies the workings of mood control drugs and the second suggestion serves as important information for neural projects that look to create a human brain from scratch. But this last suggestion does work – and lots of research has been done to prove it.
So, what’s the difference between your relaxed, easy-going self and the one with a million thoughts racing through? A few milligrams of cortisol, so science tells us. But, of course, the story goes on… we all know that the human brain just isn’t that simple!
Comments Off on Instagram and the Rise of Environmental Activism
I first heard about plastic-free July last year on Instagram. Being a science student with a marine science major, I’d been continuously exposed to the threat that plastic has on our marine ecosystem, in particular, the wildlife. Like many others, I didn’t realise how much we rely on plastic in our current society until I tried to remove it. Everything from hygiene and beauty products, to both fresh and pre-packaged foods, to clothes, is packaged in plastic. It seems almost impossible to remove plastic from our lives.
This is why I think social-media-based movements like Plastic Free July are so effective. Not only do they create a community online where information and tips can be shared, but it also makes it very clear how to get involved. I’ve found the @plasticfreejuly community to be very inclusive, as it encourages people to reduce their plastic consumption, without the pressure of entirely eliminating plastic. Their goal is for everyone to reduce their plastic use as much as is feasible for each individual. This contrasts to many other movements that advocate an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach that ultimately pushes people away. On the Plastic Free July website there are options to pledge a variety of goals for the month, including trying to remove only coffee cups and plastic bags, becoming plastic-free for just one week or going cold turkey for the whole month. Having inclusive options like this means that more people feel like they can get involved without having to completely change their lifestyle. In environmental activism,this is extremely important. A million people trying to remove some plastic from their lives, even if the amount is small, is exponentially more effective than a handful of people being completely plastic-free, which is often what happens when people are shamed for not entirely removing plastic from their lives. Small steps across a whole community make enormous impacts.
I’ve seen a few things on social media lately laughing at those who use keep cups and think they are ‘eco-friendly.’ While using a keep cup is a first step to reducing plastic waste and your environmental footprint, so many more steps can be taken. In my opinion, making fun of those who only use keep cups is so stupid. Yes, the keep cup has become ‘trendy,’ but isn’t this something we should be celebrating? It shouldn’t matter if some people only use a keep cup to be fashionable and not for environmental reasons. I mean, it would be great if they could do it for the environment and consider their footprint in other aspects of their lives, but they’re still using a keep cup. It’s ultimately a win for the planet, so who cares? Personally, I’m stoked to see anyone using a keep cup regardless of their motivations. The reality is that becoming more environmentally conscious is becoming more and more mainstream. High profile public figures and influencers are talking about it more than ever, and the market for environmentally friendly food, clothing and retail is bigger than ever before. Back to Instagram, people with huge followings are spreading their message of sustainability such as Grace Beverly (1 million followers), DJ Tigerlily (604k followers), Zanna van Dijk (280k followers) and David Pocock (202K followers). With such a wide reach, public figures have an enormous influence on encouraging sustainability to their followers.
Social media has been crucial to Greta Thunberg’s school strike activism for climate change, which has now spread across the world. The attention garnered by her large following has pushed her into the spotlight as the face of environmental activism for our generation. And while Greta’s feed, on first glance, has very little in common with Grace Beverley’s, the message is the same. Encourage, not discourage, bring people in and don’t leave people out. Keep your keep cup, encourage discussion, but most importantly, accept everyone into the environmental activism movement. Like plastic-free July, encourage people to take any step, no matter how big or small. And be stoked that environmentalism is finally becoming fashionable.
The powers that be love blaming millennials for just about anything and everything. Unsurprisingly, next up on the list of millennial faults is reduced organ donation from motorcycle accidents. Millennials aren’t riding motorcycles to quite the extent that Baby Boomers did. As such, motorcycle deaths are decreasing, dragging down organ donation rates from ill-fated bikers (heaven forbid a statistic relating to millennials should be positive).
Organ transplantation has a colourful and convoluted history. The first autograft-transplantation (movement of tissue from one part of the patient’s body to another) took place in the late 1800s. This was a skin graft from the inner thigh used to repair the patient’s nose, which had been destroyed by syphilis. By the early 1900s, effective skin and cornea allograft-transplantations (movement of tissue from a human donor to human recipient) had been performed. However, it was not until the 1950s that successful transplantation of larger, more complex organs began. The first of these was a kidney transplant. The first heart transplant was performed by South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard in 1967, and transplant technology has followed an exciting trajectory ever since. Doctors can now transplant a huge variety of tissues and organs including intestines, pancreases, hands, testes, penises, bones, heart valves, and, recently, faces.
The heart is one of the most in-demand organs for transplantation. Unlike liver and kidney donors who can share their organs and then live to fight another day, heart donors must, of course, be deceased to give their recipient a new lease on life.
Thankfully, medical researchers have been working to ensure that the lack of millennials involved in fatal motorcycle accidents doesn’t severely impact the number of patients getting the new hearts they need. In an attempt to make organ donors obsolete, scientists are seeing to it that the wild notion of hearts being grown in labs is becoming increasingly more realistic. As a side benefit, synthetic hearts mitigate an enormous risk that comes with transplantation: the patient’s body rejecting the new organ and mounting a massive immune response against the foreign cells. Scientists have been seeing to this in a number of ways:
Regenerating old hearts in the lab: Using a detergent, cells from human hearts unfit for transplantation can be striped away, leaving behind only the extracellular scaffold of the heart. This matrix can then be repopulated with the patient’s own skin cells that have been reverse engineered into stem cells. These are then induced to become the cardiac cells that are required to build a beating human heart. In 2016, it took just two weeks for scientists to grow such hearts, but the researchers are clear that although well structured, the hearts resembled immature organs. Consequently, much work remains to be done before we are able to create individualised hearts for patients to order for transplantation.
Growing hearts patches: A heart attack can result in up to a billion cardiac cells that can never regrow after being destroyed, but this doesn’t mean the whole heart subsequently becomes completely dysfunctional. Nevertheless, heart attack patients frequently receive heart transplants because a partial transplant (excluding heart valve transplants) isn’t a procedure that can be performed. However, early 2019 saw the announcement of successfully grown swatches of cardiac muscle that are capable of conducting the electrical signals required to make a heart beat. These can literally be used to patch up a broken heart. This has been a work in progress for the past 20 years, and the patches will imminently be tested in clinical trials. Once widely available, these heart patches will reduce the need for entire heart transplants and improve survival outcomes for heart attack patients.
3D printing hearts: The technology is still in its infancy but, earlier this year, researchers at Tel Aviv University 3D printed a tiny vascularised heart using the patient’s own cells. This made the miniature organ an immunological and biochemical match. The heart was printed in the same manner in which all other inanimate objects are 3D printed: layer by layer, additively growing the heart from the bottom up. It will be many years before a 3D printed, human-sized heart is stitched into Ruth Purcell, a patient. However, when this does happen, two huge barriers in organ donation will be overcome: lack of supply from donors, and organ rejection.
Although you may not yet be able to hit ‘print’ and receive your new heart ready for transplantation tomorrow, synthetic hearts are well on the way to saving lives. Of the thousands of people currently in need of a heart transplant, many of them won’t survive the waitlist. This tragic lack of supply is an issue I have every hope we will not face for many decades more.