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Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Food for Thought; the Future of Global Food?

A global food shortage may not appear to be a threat or worry for a lot of people; around half a billion have been diagnosed as obese, that’s 1 in 14 people worldwide[1]. However, with an estimated 1 in 9 people being malnourished, in many countries the threat is already a reality. Though numbers predicted vary, the global population was agreed to have breached 7 billion people by 2012[2]. Most estimates point to another 2 billion people on the planet by the middle of the century. To put that increase into perspective, when we reached the first billion by 1804 it took around 156 years to add 2 billion. At our current rate of growth, an addition of the same number again will happen more than five times faster.

Worldwide malnourishment data from United Nations World Food Programme 2012, and the global prevalence of obesity.
The prevalence of malnourishment and obesity across the globe, and the disparity between the two. South-east African countries appear most malnourished, whilst levels of obesity rose in almost every country last year. Image credits: Undernourishment by country (top) via wikimedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], obesity by country (bottom) from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

Monday, 10 August 2015

New Horizons - The Mysteries of Pluto Unveiled

At 9pm on July 14th 2015, the NASA New Horizons mission team received a very important phone call..

New Horizons had completed the first ever flyby of Pluto. It took over nine years and three-billion miles to complete, but has finally given us our first detailed glimpse of the ex-planet at the end of the solar system. It looks like Pluto was definitely worth investigating.

Artist’s concept of New Horizons Approach to Pluto.
The New Horizons space probe has been designed to function with a minimal power input. It required less than 200 Watts of Power to reach Pluto - that’s less than a pair of light bulbs. Compared to a grand piano in size, New Horizons weighs just 478 kilograms[1]. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Impossible Quasar at the Dawn of the Universe

The recent extraordinary discovery of the biggest and brightest quasar of the early universe has intrigued astronomers worldwide. The reason behind this? The quasar - SDSS J010013.02+280225.8 (affectionately nick-named J0100+2802), is far larger than current black hole theories predict it should be[1].

Artist’s impression of quasar J0100+2802.
Among the oldest and brightest entities in the universe, quasars eject jets of very bright light that can be seen from lightyears away. It was initially believed that different events were being seen when quasars were observed, but it was later established that our line of sight affected the appearance of the quasar, for example a blazar is a quasar with jets that are pointing towards Earth. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Monday, 27 July 2015

Can we regenerate our hearts?

In ancient Egypt the heart was a revered organ; it was believed to be the source of the soul. According to the Egyptians, all of our emotions, wisdom and even personality traits were thought to originate in the heart. It was one of the few things left inside a body for mummification, whilst the brain - whose only purpose was thought to be the provider of nasal mucus, or a ‘runny nose’ - was simply thrown away. Though we still agree with the vital role the heart plays in life, after more than 5,000 years of study the organ is now generally considered to be well understood. That being said, some scientists believe that the full potential of our heart has not yet been reached. This article aims to explore one of the questions currently being posed by researchers: could our heart regenerate itself?

Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)
Currently, a failing heart requires surgical assistance, such as the installation of a Ventricular Assist Device. Cardioregeneration could make such devices unnecessary. Image by Blausen Medical Communications, Inc. [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Midlife Matters

The really exciting thing about psychology is there are a huge number of unknowns... but for me a really important part is understanding how high level cognition and decision making change in adulthood. - says Lily Fitzgibbon, a researcher in psychology at the University of Birmingham, who is exploring unknown pastures in psychological science.

Middle adulthood, commonly defined as your 30s, 40s and 50s, is a key time for making significant life changing decisions. It is also precisely what the Online Wisdom Lab (OWL) team at Birmingham University want to explore, and they are already underway preparing a suite of apps for members of the public to download and contribute through.

The majority of research into adult psychology is done at universities on the most readily available source of adult volunteers - university students. But perhaps this has led us astray a little, because this means that our current understanding of adult psychology is based almost entirely on the psychology of 18-21 year olds - at least until later adulthood, where some researchers have explored decline in cognitive abilities and its connections to illnesses such as Alzheimer's. Even though I like to think I was a pretty together undergraduate student, I'm not sure I'd feel represented now by the psychology of 18-21 year olds. When I was 21 I tried to take a piano hill walking. I broke into my friends' houses and left them hidden chocolate muffins. I survived for days at a time on free crisps and biscuits alone. I’m no longer the same person I was, just a few years later.

Not only this, but at 21 the human brain hasn't finished growing yet - especially the prefrontal cortex, where higher level thinking and decision-making take place. This region of the brain carries on developing into your mid-late twenties at the very least[1,2,3].

Lateral view of the brain, with the different lobes labelled
On average, brain maturity is reached at around 22, synaptic "pruning" in the prefrontal cortex continues into the twenties and white matter volumes peak in the late thirties. Image credit: BruceBlaus [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If 18-21 year olds are not fully developed, then might we be underestimating the decline of cognitive abilities in old age?

Friday, 10 July 2015

How do we fall asleep?

If there’s one thing everyone has in common, it’s sleep. Regardless of age, gender, race or religion, without enough sleep we fail to function normally. As you’ve probably experienced, a lack of sleep can be detrimental for mood and focus. Lose enough of it and you are more prone to serious health issues like heart disease, diabetes and even death. The amount of sleep we’ve had seems to be one of the things we think about (read: regret) daily, but what about how it happens? This article aims to introduce sleep as a fascinatingly interwoven structure of processes, not just a simple currency of life, exploring the inner workings of the brain that might be responsible for how it happens. The reasons behind how we sleep are distinct from the potential reasons behind why we sleep, which we covered in a previous article (and video).

So, what is sleep? The definition of most verbs (for example, running[1]) describes how it happens. However anywhere you look, sleep is not currently defined in this way. Instead, its physiological effects are outlined. Breathing slows, most muscles are relaxed and the eyes go through varying periods of rapid movement, called REM. Sleep is defined in this way because we don’t know how it happens.

Photograph 'Sleep Like A Baby' ©peasap (CC BY)
We can fall asleep before we've even been born, but how do we do it? Photograph ©peasap via Flickr (CC-BY)

Friday, 19 June 2015

Holly Godwin

Hi, I’m Holly, and I’m working as part of a SEPnet placement at Things We Don’t Know this summer. Firstly I would like to introduce myself and give you a bit of an overview to explain how I got into physics and why this website is different to any other.

Photograph of Holly Godwin at Things We Don't Know
Holly at work in the TWDK offices. Photograph ©TWDK

Monday, 15 June 2015

Joshua Fleming

First of all hi, my name is Josh and I’m the new summer intern at Things We Don’t Know (TWDK). I’m studying Biology, Biochemistry specifically, at Leicester University and have just completed my first year. To give you a better idea of who I am, I thought I’d give you a bit of background information about how and why I started studying Biology, and what I hope to achieve this summer.
Photograph of Joshua Fleming, copyright TWDK
Josh hard at work in the TWDK offices in London. Photo ©TWDK