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Month: July 2018
On This Week's Show
- Conversation with Michael MacFerrin, Research Glaciologist
- Science News
- The Climate Lounge
- Pub Quiz
Science News with Nevena Hristozova and Chris MacAlister
An Origin of Cosmic Rays Discovered
In a galaxy far far away…
For real though – it’s really far – 4 billion light-years away. My calculations show that with the current tech for space flight we have, we could get there in 76.32 trillion years so it is freaking far!
But anyway, the point is that this galaxy is a blazar – a type of an active galactic nucleus with a relativistic jet directed very nearly or directly towards Earth. These jets are essentially ionized matter traveling at nearly the speed of light. Relativistic beaming of electromagnetic radiation from the jet makes blazars appear much brighter than they would be if the jet were pointed in a direction away from the Earth. So far we knew that blazars are powerful sources of emission across the electromagnetic spectrum and are sources of high-energy gamma ray photons.
Now though we know something new – because that’s the whole point of science! It appears, according to the latest data coming from the so called The IceCube Collaboration, that this blazar galaxy is a source of high-energy neutrinos – one of the most elusive particles in the universe! Their article was published in Science under the title Multimessenger observations of a flaring blazar coincident with high-energy neutrino IceCube-170922A.
The astrophysicist Francis Halzen of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a leader of IceCube, himself said that so far no one was able to pinpoint the source of this type of neutrinos.
By basically tracing the trajectory of the heavy neutrinos detected in the IceCube, the scientists could determine its place of origin somewhere close-by Orion. In intergalactic distances, this is probably like searching for a sand grain in all the oceans on our planet. But employing a bunch a telescopes including the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, they’ve found the blazar TXS 0506+056 (I’m so naming my firstborn like this!). And the best part is that we were able to trace this neutrino back to home because it is essentially so elusive! Neutrinos (as their name shows) have no charge so they travel through the universe without much effect from other matter in it. Exactly this reluctance to interact with other matter is the reason why generally neutrinos are so hard to detect and study… It’s a beautiful catch 22 in this case!
Cancer Fighting Cancer Cells
They say that you can’t fight fire with fire, but this isn’t true if you’re smart about how you use your fire. Controlled burning is best measure available for controlling wildfires. So could the same be said for cancer? Can you have a little bit of controlled cancer to protect you from the main article? Maybe so, if you’re clever enough. It appears that Clemens Reinshagen and a team at Harvard are clever enough as they appear to have pulled this off, in mice.
They have done this by turning cancer cells into double agents. Cancer cells loose in the bloodstream can detect and home in on other tumours and this is the key skill that the team use.
Once our double agent cancer cells have infiltrated the tumour, they commence the next stage of their operation. They release a protein that triggers cell death in the cancer cells; that is, all the cells except our double agents. CRISPR based technology has been used to alter these cancer cells to provide them with protection, so that they can continue their job.
But even once the job is done, you’re still left with a patient full of cancer cells, which is clearly less than ideal. So for the final part of the process, a drug is used to prompt the altered cancer cells to do the honourable thing and kill themselves off.
So there we have it; double-agent, assassin, samurai cancer cells. You heard it here first people!]
Earliest Evidence of Humans Outside of Africa
2 million years ago! This is a long time ago! Much longer than we thought the early hominids have ventured out of Africa. 2.12mln to be precise – precision is important!
At the same time, a giant rodent weighing nearly 700 kg used to live in South America, just to give you a perspective how different the world was back then.
Nonetheless, there were already established members of the genus Homo who decided that Africa is old news and they went travelling, reaching as far as China.
This is known now thanks to some stone tools unearthed at China’s Shangchen site. They were dated to roughly quarter million years before what was previously thought to be the oldest evidence of Homo genus on the Eurasian continent. Unfortunately, no hominid fossils have ever been discovered from this period in the site. Until they do find similarly dated hominid fossils in the area, we’ll not know for sure if the representative was a Homo erectus or an earlier hominid.]
Otzi’s Last Meal
I reckon that you guys should all come over to mine for a big Blue Streak Science get together sometime. I’m already having some ideas for what I’m going to cook you. We could start off with some cereal, followed by a nice piece of venison, and I’ll serve that with some poisonous fern. How does that sound?
You know what? I’m thinking that maybe cuisine has come along a bit in the last 5,300 years. This is the story that the stomach contents have been analysed of a man who was naturally mummified in about 3,100 BCE, a man known as Otzi the Iceman,.
His diet of cereal, Ibex and deer was probably pretty standard for him. It’s unlikely that treated himself to a lavish last supper as it looks like he was killed in a surprise attack.
With that in mind, the really confusing part of these findings is the poisonous ferns. Why would he be eating poisonous plants? The leading theories that the team have is that it may have been medicinal, to help combat internal parasites, or that he may have wrapped his other food in it leaving some toxic spores behind to be consumed. The team don’t know if the food that Otzi ate was fresh or not, so maybe wrapping it in something toxic could help prevent spoilage, or to ward off scavengers.
Although, considering the amount of smoking and recreational substance abuse that still goes on today, maybe it was just what all the cool kids did back then. He may not even have known that it was toxic.
Either way, the amount of detail we are getting about Otzi, over 5000 years after he died, is incredible. And as if this isn’t amazing enough, the next objective is to use this information to try and recreate what Otzi’s gut microbiome may have looked like, providing another way to peer back in time and see what his life have been like.]
The Climate Lounge
We’re not getting any Younger (Dryas) over here!
Sometimes the news just makes me want to go back to a simpler time. A time without the internet, meddling and farcical meetings. I’m not talking the 20th century either. I’m thinking even farther back. About 13,000 years back when the human population was less than 1 million, and boy did the environment think that was swell, and things were a bit chillier. The planet was just coming out of an ice age. And that meant temperatures were on the upswing along with oceans. It was a wonderful active time…. Geologically. Painfully slow changes humanely.
Then…. All of a sudden (and I don’t mean SUDDEN geologically, I mean human sudden like several decades suddenly), the northern hemisphere was plunged back into a colder climate that lasted for a thousand years. A well known abrupt climate change whose cause has been studied and questioned and fought over (scientifically so it’s friendly) for years. It’s what is known as the Younger Dryas, named for a flower whose official name is latin mc-latinface… or dryas octopetaia. Either one.
Anyways, recent research led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute or WHOI has a new claim as to what happened. They took sediment cores in the eastern Beaufort sea near where the Mackenzie river empties into the ARctic Ocean which also happens to be near the border of the Yukon and Yellowknife territories. By looking at oxygen isotopes in the shells found in the cores, they determined that a massive glacial flood occurred there near the time of the abrupt Younger Dryas. This truly humongous flood would have dumped tons of fresh water into the Arctic that the researchers say would have made its way into the Atlantic Ocean.
Where did the water come from? Melting glaciers. Specifically the Laurentide Ice sheet. As it melted it formed massive lakes including Lake Agassiz, a ginormous lake in the middle of modern day canada.. But as the ice sheet melted, what kept those lakes in place suddenly disappeared, allowing them to empty. Now for awhile, the water flowed south through the Mississippi. But eventually, it shifted to flow north. Some researchers have thought it emptied through the St Lawrence seaway into the Atlantic. What makes this research novel is that the meltwater instead flowed north into the Arctic. Now, not all scientists agree…they never do… but regardless of where the meltwater entered the Northern atlantic/Arctic, it’s what it does afterwards that’s interesting.
Why does that matter? Well it makes more sense as to the mechanism that actually caused the cold change. All of that freshwater slowed or stopped the giant Atlantic ocean conveyor belt known as the “Atlantic meridional overturning circulation” (or AMOC) which brings warm water to Europe. Normally, that conveyor belt of water becomes saltier as it moves north, becoming denser and sinking. The injection of freshwater in the Arctic/North Atlantic disrupts this by freshening the water and not letting it sink. This slows down the conveyor belt which means less warm water to Europe and a plunge into coldness.
Why do we care now? Well there is a HUGE amount of freshwater locked into Greenland. As it melts, it is also depositing fresh water into the North Atlantic, albeit much slower than the sudden Younger Dryas event. However, there is research that says the AMOC is slower than it used to be. While scientists don’t think a shutdown is imminent, past events like the Younger Dryas abrupt cooling can give interesting insight into just how our climate system works, especially if we stress it in certain ways. The climate is super duper complex and what may seem like a small regional climate change somewhere can easily snowball (pun intended for this story) into something much bigger, like hemispherically bigger. Let’s also keep that thought in mind whenever we talk about geoengineering.
Interview with Michael MacFerrin, Glaciologist
This past winter I had the privilege to chat with Michael MacFerrin, glaciologist, and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. We talked about his work and discoveries on the Greenland's immense ice sheet. Science is hard work, folks! But the rewards and experiences last a lifetime and beyond. Join us as Mike shares his incredible experiences from this frozen wilderness.
Check out Michael's blog “Under The Surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet” as he and the rest of the international FirnCover team embark on a five-week snowmobile and airplane traverse across the Greenland ice sheet. Follow the FirnCover team as they camp in subzero temperatures and hurricane force winds in order to measure changes in Greenland's high-elevation snow and firn, while crossing one of the most beautiful, remote and unforgiving landscapes on Earth.
All in favor of doing the Pub Quiz say “aye”! The ayes have it!
Joining us today are the incredibly intelligent Nevena Hristozova, the immensely imaginative Chris MacAlister, and the intermittently inclement Tom Di Liberto.
Here’s how it works. I ask a science question and our team of incomprehensible intellectuals initiate their ingenious answers.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
- What animal possesses the most massive eyes?
- Swiss physician Adolf Fick is credited with fitting the first what in 1888?
- What is the world’s most common eye color?
- This eye color is in what part of the eye?
- When you go to an ophthalmologist for an eye exam, you are often asked to look at a chart that has rows of letters in decreasing sizes, with a very large “E” at the top, followed by other letters. What is the name of this chart?
- Which eye disorder causes an opacity, or clouding in the lens?
- Your doctor says you have an orbital ecchymosis. What would just about everyone else call it?
- What would a pirate wear to improve his/her eyesight?
- Our eyes can detect about 500 shades of what?
- People of this eye color have a common ancestor who lived about 10,000 years ago. No, what color eyes?
How did YOU do?
Where Have We Been?
Nevena: A bit of shameless self-promotion – I was invited on the 3rd of July to a panel discussion as part of the plenary session of the summer school Let's talk science. It's a collaboration between the Flemish universities and includes half day plenary talks on scicomm topics and 2 or 3 days of workshops on various scicomm skills. I was one of the six reps of universities representing my university as sort of a scicomm role model (yeah baby). So we had a discussion on what's scicomm for us all, what it gives us and why we do it, what's our fav media for scicomm and apparently I stirred the audience by saying that I myself am my fav media because I just love the most to sit and talk with people about science. It was extremely cool and it felt a great honor to have been part of this.
Chris: I’ve been to family wedding in Cornwall, which is limited in its level of scientific interest if I’m completely honest. But whilst I was there I was talking to by wife’s cousin who is a tattoo artist. This conversation included tattoos, how training tattoo artists need to practice on themselves and the inevitable spectre of unwanted or regretted tattoos. This compelled me to go into science communication mode and share the findings of a surprisingly recent study on why tattoos last for as long as they do, considering how quickly our skin gets replaced. The key is our immune system. The tattoo ink gets locked inside white blood cells that try, in vain, to destroy the ink. This actually ends up preserving them inside and as each immune cell dies, a new one takes its place to continue the preservation. The useful thing about knowing this is that immunosuppression can be used to aid the tattoo removal process.
Tom: I’ve been taking a 2.5 year old to gymnastics classes where they attempt to get a bunch of toddlers to play group games together. My toddler disagrees and immediately makes a run for the balance beam. In good news, he has great balance and is seemingly indestructable. In bad news, for the other kids, he tends to bounce off everything even other children. Those kids arent so lucky.
Where Are We Going?
Nevena: On the 19th of July, Thursday I'll be attending an online seminar by SGS. It's a Food safety webinar entitled ‘How to Improve Food Authenticity, Traceability and Safety using Next Generation Sequencing'. If it's not too late for our listeners with interest in knowing how can authorities can use latest technologies to ensure that what we eat is what the label says. It's at 10am Central European time @sgseventsenter webpage.
In the Blogosphere
Nevena: If I may – an episode of my other podcast, the one I actually produce is just out – it's only our 4th and it's with guests from an account on Twitter called Latino labs promoting diversity in academia. You can listen to it on my blog incubatorium.eu of the right hand side directly or anywhere you catch your podcasts if you search for the Scicomm JC podcast.
Chris: In addition to recent posts about whether dogs can smell fear and how to recreate radiation using a skipping rope. This week, on Matilda’s Lab I’ve finally dealt with a subject that I’ve been meaning to for a long time: Uncertainty. One of the big misunderstandings of people who question modern science is that we don’t prove things; only Mathematicians can do this, instead; all we can do is to minimise our uncertainty about things and accept that what we know can change depending on where the evidence takes us. Ultimately, we are in a non-ending war against ignorance. Ignorance is our default state, so if you (like so many people) are fearful or ashamed about your ignorance, don’t be, we all have it. Instead, get out there and do something about it!.
Thanks to Michael MacFerrin for sharing his amazing work in the frozen (but thawing) north.
And that concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
If you have any suggestions or comments email us at email@example.com
You can subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and any of the usual podcast directories such as Overcast. And if you have an iOS device like an iPhone or an iPad you can get the new Blue Streak Science app from the App Store.
And please check out our website is at bluestreakscience.com
This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.
And our hosts today were Nevena Hristozova, Chris MacAlister, Tom Di Liberto, and JD Goodwin.
Thank you for joining us. And remember…follow the science!
A very full episode today. We started off talking about the latest science news with items such as the possibility of a new microbiome found in artificial implants, the Trump Administration complaining about too much science in the science, and Kepler coming to the end of the road. Tom turned up the heat in the Climate Lounge today, and it was a hella-good time at the Pub Quiz, too! Our featured guest is Mariana Di Giacomo, paleontologist and fossil preserver extraordinaire! Get on board!
On This Week’s Show
- Interview with Chris Ryu of the Dorset Science and Technology Centre
- Science News with Sophie McManus and JD Goodwin
- The Climate Lounge
- Pub Quiz
Science News with Sophie McManus and JD Goodwin
Crow vending machine skills ‘redefine intelligence’
Last week a new study published in Nature Scientific Reports revealed further evidence for their cognitive abilities, and shows that these so-called “bird brains” can memorize tool shapes and even recreate them from memory. The subject of the research is the New Caledonian crow. They’ve been studied for quite some time now. In their native habitat they’ll fashion hooks to very precisely snag grubs and other tasty treats from holes and crevices.
Where does this behavior come from? Are they just copying other crows without thinking about it? Is this a hard-wired behavior that all of these crows possess as instincts? It also could be possible that these crows are memorizing tool designs, and recreating them.
This research was led by Dr. Sarah Jelbert, a post-doctoral research associate in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Jelbert and her team designed this experiment to see if this behavior, this cumulative cultural evolution, is happening with these crows. They had 8 subjects, and the first order was the train them to recognize what a proper tool looks like. The one that’ll “do the trick”. In this case the right tool for the job was a correctly sized piece of paper. The experimenters offered the crows differently sized pieces of paper that they could use on a specially made vending machine…one that dispensed meat.
The crows had to figure out if the larger pieces of paper would release the delicious treat, or a smaller piece of paper. When the correctly sized paper was put into the slot a hidden experimenter opened the hatch and a tasty treat would come rolling out. So the birds were conditioned to understand which size of paper would do the trick.
Here’s the best part.
The crows were then given larger sheets of paper. Instead of giving up they used their gray matter to figure it out. The crows began to use their bills and talons to tear and shape the paper into the properly sized tools. They were trained to know what sized tool was needed. This information had to be stored as memory. Then they had the ingenuity to take that information and create the right tool for the job.
This is just one experiment. But it has given researchers a lot to go on for further testing and also observation of crows in the wild. For instance, how long does this memory last? Can a completely different reward experiment be done, and would the crows remember how this one worked when presented with it later? But right now, it looks like one more unique human trait is falling by the wayside.
Scientists are counting seal pups in the Thames Estuary
Maybe a glimmer of good environmental news, for a change!
First we go back in time 60 years, when London’s Thames estuary was declared ‘biologically dead’. The river was dirty and almost devoid of wildlife. Since then, things have turned around to some extent – and today we have 3500 seals in the Thames. There are two species, harbour and grey seals. Some of them are about to give birth, so scientists are doing a count to work out how they’re doing.
Thea Cox, conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London, says that “Knowing how many there are is a really good indicator of the health of the estuary, what habitat is available to them, what food source is available to them.”
This good news story has a sting in the tail – although the river is generally less polluted, we naturally do have to worry about plastic pollution, in particular microplastics, both for our own health as well as that of the seals.
Marshmallow test re-visited
Do you know what the marshmallow test is? It’s a test that was first conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel to see if there is any correlation between early childhood self-control and later childhood success.
Here’s how it worked. The experimenter placed a marshmallow on a table in front of a preschool aged kid. Then the grownup promised to give the kid two marshmallows if they could resist stuffing the first one in their cute little face for 15 minutes.
They did these tests in the 1960’s on 90 children in a local Stanford preschool. Decades later they came back to their test subjects to measure their success over the years. And yes, there seemed to be a greater degree of success in kids who resisted marshmallow temptation, including higher test scores and a lower body mass index.
The results of this research were published in 1990 and has been a measure of children’s willpower since that time.
But a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that this test, the marshmallow test, may just be a lot of fluff.
The new study was led by Dr. Tyler Watts of New York University, and Dr. Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan, both of the University of California-Irvine. And these researchers made a few changes to the test. They increased the sample size from 90 to 900, and they also included a much greater diversity of kids. And these background factors were given consideration when they analyzed the results.
And according to Dr. Watts the results showed that once the kid’s backgrounds were factored in, any differences in delaying gratification didn’t result in any statistically meaningful increases in success at a later age.
The results suggest that a child’s ability to resist a marshmallow is more influenced by their socio-economic backgrounds. Think about it. If you’re growing up not sure about anything in your life, including when your next meal is happening…then you better grab any food while you can. Also, such a background is more likely to sow distrust in adults promising to give them something…like that second marshmallow. And their future success in school and in life is probably far more influenced by the economic disadvantages of their childhood than by any ability to resist a marshmallow, or other food reward.
Poliovirus could treat brain cancer
Glioblastoma is a devastating form of brain cancer – it’s the most common type of malignant brain tumour and patients typically do not live for long after diagnosis – best-case scenario is around 20 months. A study published last month by a team at Duke University indicated that a modified form of poliovirus may have some benefits in prolonging life expectancy.
But how would POLIO help with brain cancer? The polio treatment is one of several “oncolytic viruses” being investigated as anti-cancer agents. So researchers have long viewed such viruses as potential tools for directly killing cancer – and the virus kills tumour cells and they now suspect that the viruses might be more effective at marshaling the body's immune system against malignancies, according to the National Cancer Institute. As I said, the virus has been modified, so it will not cause polio (this being a horrible disease, causing paralysis and possibly death). It’s modified as follows – the part of the virus that targets and kills nerve cells during a polio infection was swapped with a piece of the common cold virus.
Of 61 people with recurring glioblastoma who were treated with the modified virus, 21 percent were alive after three years. In a “historical” comparison group of 104 patients, who would have been eligible for the treatment but died before it was available, 4 percent lived as long.
The paper is in New England Journal of Medicine. It is an early phase trial and will naturally face much scrutiny in months and years to come.
The Climate Lounge
Today in the Lounge, I wanted to step back from climate change per-se and talk about an interesting climate feature. DUST! Specifically, Saharan dust that gets transported thousands and thousands of miles across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, causing all sorts of issues.
Every year hundreds of millions of tons of dust gets picked over West Africa and blow west by the trade winds over the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the dust is born at the Bodele depression in north central Chad at the southern end of the Saharan desert. It is actually a dry lake bed that is the lowest point in chad. Winds get funneled through nearby mountains, accelerate through and pick up dry diatoms (microorganisms) left over from a time when the lake was an actual lake and transport them west with the prevailing winds.
Now this dust causes some unbelievable sunsets across the Caribbean but provides a gross hazy view during the day. The view is like when you mistakenly touch the lenses part of your glasses and then put the glasses back on. The dust is your wayward fingers.
But you might be thinking, I’ll deal with a hazy day for a good sunset. Well, the dust can also combine with the normal every day human-caused pollution emitted near cities to create extremely hazardous air quality days. In Dallas Texas, 7000 miles away from Africa, the dust combined with human pollution to cause levels of pm2.5 (particles that smaller than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches) which were highly elevated.
Why care? Outdoor air pollution, dominated by PM2.5, is responsible for around 4.5 million deaths a year (Landrigan et al. 2017), half of which are in China and India. These particles are such a danger because of just how small they are. At less than 2.5 micrometers, the particles are able to penetrate deep into lungs and even your bloodstream. Extreme exposure to a large amount of PM2.5 can lead to nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, and increased respiratory symptoms. In the most vulnerable—those with pre-existing heart or lung disease—exposure to PM2.5 can even lead to death.
But there are some positives, Saharan dust, specifically those diatoms, helps to fertilize the Amazon rainforest with nutrients and helps build beaches across the Caribbean. This dust also lives in what is known as the Saharan Air Layer as it moves across the Atlantic, a layer of air that is hot and dry. This hot and dry air mass also helps to kill off any potential tropical cyclone from developing usually leading to a reduced number of storms. Which is good!. And It’s part of the natural climate ecosystem with dust storms happening at the bodele depression about 100 days a year. But it still can cause issues, especially when combined with those non-natural parts of the climate ecosystem.
So the next time you watch a video that brings a tear to your eye and you want an excuse, don’t just say you have dust in your eyes, say you have diatoms from the bodele depression in your eyes. You’ll be super cool I promise.
Interview with Chris Ryu
Check out the podcast for this awesome interview!
Golly-gee! This is gonna be great! Joining us for this grand gala are the gratuitously gleeful Sophie McManus and the gloriously groovy Tom Di Liberto!
Here’s how it works. I ask a science question and our group of gifted geniuses give their answers with a grin or a grimace.
- In 1926 Edwin Hubble discovered that the one we’re living in is not the only one. What am I talking about?
- According to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, these are emitted when extremely massive objects experience sudden accelerations or changes of shape. They travel through space at the speed of light.
- What is a gravity wave?
- Born on 1st of April in 1776 this mathematician, physicist, and philosopher won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for an essay on elasticity theory.
- On 14 July in 1960 this primatologist visited Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania for the first time. Who is it?
- Who formulated the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium?
- I’m looking for an oceanography term that describes any large system of circulating ocean currents caused by the Coriolis Effect, especially those influenced by large wind movements.
- How many major gyres are there in the world’s oceans?
- What mineral is the natural mineral form of lead sulfide?
- What’s another name for a wildebeest?
Thank you Chris Ryu for sharing with our audience all the great things you’re doing at the Dorset Science and Technology Centre, and the Atom Club. This is true grassroots science outreach, and they deserve your support. So please check them out at Atom.club.
That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
If you have any suggestions or comments email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.
Our hosts today were Sophie McManus, Tom Di Liberto, and JD Goodwin.
Thank you for joining us
Follow the science!