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Monday, 21 September 2015

Location, Location, Location

Nuclear power and nuclear waste are sensitive public issues. Whilst the Finns are already building a geological disposal facility in Onkalo, in the UK we still haven’t decided what to do with our waste. Before the site can be chosen and built, a formal, scientific safety case must be completed, evidencing the likelihood that the containment facility will remain intact on a timescale of at least thousands of years. Learning from the “Yucca Mountain controversy”, where the state of Nevada legally opposed the construction of an American disposal facility on the grounds that they didn’t want to be lumbered with the country’s nuclear waste without consent, the UK government are waiting for volunteer communities to emerge before they can even start studying local geology in detail. Huge climate and geological changes, including at least one ice age, are predicted, which would totally change the landscape, the exact impacts of which could vary widely depending on where nuclear waste goes.

Low-level waste storage pit at the Nevada National Security Site
Nuclear waste is divided into three categories: High, Intermediate and Low Level Waste. High Level Waste is what's left after spent fuel is recycled to extract as many reusable uranium and plutonium fuel isotopes as possible. This waste is usually vitrified: transformed into a glass by fusing with borosilicates at high temperature. Intermediate and Low Level Wastes are non-fuel items (such as containers) that have been or may be been contaminated during normal operation of the nuclear power plant, and comprise the bulk of the waste. Image credit: Nevada Test Site Guide (public domain)

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Do cheaters prosper?

Attempting to selfishly gain an immediate advantage in a situation where others are co-operating is called social cheating. Many people are likely to bitterly recall an experience of this, queue jumping is a classic example, and a wide variety of other organisms undergo the same injustices. Cheaters in theory should have an evolutionary edge, but social co-operation remains at the base of almost all populations. This is a mystery that scientists have been intrigued by for years, as there is very little we really understand about these behaviours and how they co-exist.

Social systems can be ‘modelled’ in much simpler organisms than us; the social amoeba for example. Dictyostelium discoideum (Dicty), are generally alone throughout their lives, but for one 10 hour period. This time is where they become social in order to release spores that will grow into new amoebae. To do this they form ‘fruiting bodies’, where some Dicty give up their lives and harshly but more importantly; their bodies. These form a stalk, the top of which the spores can be released from. However some Dicty cheat - there are amoebae that climb straight to the top to release their spores and contribute less to the stalk. By doing this they release more spores than other, co-operating amoebae and so gain an evolutionary edge, passing on more of their genes. But this advantage cannot be significant, as otherwise they would overrun the co-operators and drive them to extinction.

Photograph of stalked slime mould fruiting bodies, by Lairich Rig (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Dicty amoebae begin as single celled organisms, before congregating as a multicellular ‘slug’, which then gives rise to fruiting bodies with spores atop long stalks. In the species shown here, each of the sporangia was 2-3mm tall. Image credit: © Lairich Rig, via geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Inspirational Butterfly

An Insight into Developments in Solar Power

The UN is calling for drastic action to be taken to stop climate change in its tracks. With any luck an agreement will be reached this year on the actions that will need to be enforced by 2020 to tackle this worldwide issue[1]. As a result, countries are desperately attempting to reduce their carbon emissions, and focus on renewable energy sources is increasing. If the right developments are made to improve efficiency and distribution of renewable sources, we could be one step closer to establishing a sustainable worldwide energy supply and battling the ongoing threat of climate change.

The prospect of being able to harness energy from the Sun is one that has captured our interest given its relative reliability, and solar power is already a widespread phenomenon. However it does not yet compare to the cost of generating power from fossil fuels, and a result is often considered to be less economically viable.

Electrical apprentice Eric Penel works on the solar reference array, which has been installed on the roof of the Shaw Theatre at NAIT's Main Campus in Edmonton.
The UN conceded in the Kyoto Protocol that limiting global warming to just 2 degrees, relative to the pre-industrial temperature level, would be necessary to reduce harmful climate impacts. For this to be achievable a 75% decline in carbon emissions by 2050 would be necessary[2]. If innovations in solar power continue to progress at the current rate, it could become the world's largest energy source by 2050. Today, solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar power contribute 16% and 11% to global overall consumption, respectively[3]. Image credit: Northern Alberta Institute of Technology via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Given the positive effect a switch to solar power could have on the climate, there is much ongoing research into whether the efficiency of solar power can be improved. Inspiration for this goal can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places..

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?