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Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Social Enterprise and Science

Things We Don't Know is now an official member of Social Enterprise UK. So I'd like to take a moment to explain what this means, and why I feel this is important for TWDK as a company.

TWDK is a social enterprise

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Secrets of Ageing

Ageing by r000pert (Creative Commons)
Stormy weather ahead? Image credit: r000pert
At the moment at least, ageing is an inevitable part of life. And yet scientists don’t really understand how, or why, we age. It is thought that a combination of pre-programmed bodily changes and environmental issues are responsible[1], but how these interact isn’t clear. Some researchers in this area aim to help us make better lifestyle choices[2], such as eating more healthily or exercising more, in order to live a long and healthy life. Others meanwhile are looking for a way to stop the ageing process in its tracks[3].

Perhaps the first question that needs answering before we can fully understand the ageing process is whether it’s something coded into our genes, or simply a case of our bodies ‘wearing out’. From an evolutionary point of view, once an animal has passed reproductive age it’s of little use, and may not be worth the food needed to keep it alive. This means it makes sense for animals to die as soon as they are no longer fertile. There have been some suggestions that human women live so long post-menopause because they were useful in helping to look after their grandchildren[4], so their offspring were more successful. However it isn’t clear that this benefit would run to humans living as long as we do now. Another possibility is that rather than being an evolutionary advantage, ageing is purely a result of damage accumulating in our bodies - meaning that if we could prevent that damage, we may be able to extend our lifespans indefinitely.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Nociception: Things We Don't Know about Pain

Photograph of German museum with signs related to descriptions of pain
People with congenital insensitivity to pain can feel temperature, but not when it's bad. But those with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis can't feel temperature at all, and so are at risk of overheating as well as getting cuts, bruises, burns etc. Image credit: Hobbes vs Boyle

Pain evolved as a necessary evil. It tells us when we've done something damaging, or are on the brink of causing more serious harm. It's tempting to wish away pain after stubbing your toe or burning your hand, but life without pain is far from pleasant. People born with very rare genetic conditions giving complete insensitivity to pain end up spending most of their lives in hospital for injuries they simply didn't know they were getting. They must actively learn and constantly be thinking about what things are "bad" to touch, such as knives or boiling water, because they will never feel the warning signs of a light prick or rising warmth.

These people have no trouble experiencing the touch and feel of their surroundings, showing that pain isn't just an excess of touch. Instead, there are nerves which specialise only in detecting and transmitting harmful stimuli. These nerves are called nociceptors.

Photograph of man holding a sign reading "No Pain"
After the first stage of the transmission of pain signals, our knowledge comes to an end. Image credit: Carlos Martinez
The first step of nociception, how receptors in our skin respond to painful stimuli, is probably the best understood aspect of pain - both mechanical and temperature-based. We know which of the heat-detecting nociceptors[1] can also be activated by capsaicin, the painful component of chillies that makes us feel like our mouth is on fire despite all evidence to the contrary. We also know which gene is mutated in many people who cannot feel pain.

Yet after the first stage, our understanding wanes considerably.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Report on UK Donations to Science Research

Things We Don't Know Report on UK Donations to Science ResearchWe hear a lot about the amount of funding the government puts into science research, and we sometimes hear about investments into R&D activities by major corporations. We rarely hear about private donations to science research, and yet it's actually very common. In fact, it makes up almost 5% of all science funding in the UK.

TWDK have commissioned an independent report into UK Donations to Science Research, and we're happy to present the result here. It's only a few pages, but it's packed with some surprising numbers and facts. There's even a section about crowdfunding, although that's not unique to the UK.

You can download the report for free, we hope you find it interesting. Report on UK Donations to Science Research

The report was compiled by Debra Carter, who provides very useful facilitation services to charities and social enterprises like us.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

TWDK past, present and future

At this time of year, it's customary for a company to reflect on what it has (or hasn't) achieved over the past year, and to plan out how it wants to move forward for the next twelve months. 2013 was indeed a special year for Things We Don't Know, as it was the first full year in which we existed! We're certainly very proud of everything we've achieved so far.

In 2012, our highest monthly visitor count to our articles was just under 2,500 (November). In October 2013, saw more than three times as many visitors. That's still a low number compared to what we want to achieve, but for a website that doesn't advertise anywhere (yet) we're rather happy with that.

Of course, our published articles are just the tip of the iceberg - we've been busy doing a lot more behind the scenes.
TWDK founder Ed Trollope on stage in Berlin
TWDK founder Ed Trollope, presenting his vision on stage in Berlin. Photograph by Gerhard F. Ludwig

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The six-tailed comet, and other mysteries

Comets are one of the spectacles of the solar system and some only pass by in view of the Earth every few thousand years (Comet Hale-Bopp is only in view of Earth every 2,500 years). At the end of 2013, astronomers observed the marvels of both Comet ISON and a “pseudo” comet with six tails! On Monday, ESA's Rosetta mission will wake from hibernation to continue its mission to orbit and land on a comet. This week, TWDK's physics editor Cait has interviewed Nick Howes, the Pro-Am Programme Manager for the Faulkes Telescopes in Hawaii and Australia. Nick is also an active amateur astronomer, with a particular focus on comets and other solar system bodies.

The main tail of a comet that you see in the sky is caused by the ice of the comet subliming (turning straight from solid to gas) as the comet approaches the Sun. This sublimation of ice also lifts dust of the surface of the comet (this nucleus is generally only a few kilometres in size) which then streams away to form a dust tail that is millions to hundreds of millions of kilometres in length. Looking closer, astronomers also observe another ‘ion’ tail - a tail of ionised gas. It is thinner and has a slightly different colour. The dust tail often appears curved as it is a trail of dust left behind in the comet’s path whereas the ion tail is straight as the charged ions are pushed outwards in the solar wind. Both tails always face away from the Sun, so the tails can appear to proceed the comet when it is travelling out of the solar system.

C/2007 N3 (Lulin) imaged on January 31st (top) and February 4th of 2009.
With Comet Lulin here in 2009, we sometimes also see an “Anti-tail” which looks like it's facing towards the Sun, but this is an optical illusion caused by line-of-sight effects with the comet.  Then in some rare comets, we may also "see" a third main tail, which is a sodium tail. "See" being specialist filters on large telescopes. This was notable in Comet Hale-Bopp in the late 1990s. Image credit: Wikimedia commons
The majority of asteroids in our solar system orbit the Sun in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter known as the “main belt” and were once thought to be the leftover ingredients for a planet that failed to form, but have a combined mass much smaller than would be necessary for this to be the case. Exactly what asteroids are made of and how many are out there, are questions that scientists are still working on - but they’re mainly rocky or metallic bodies or piles of rubble, sometimes with an icy coating. Comets, on the other hand, are generally thought of as ‘dirty snowballs’, and are more ice than rock. Regular comets come from the outer solar system, in the Kuiper Belt/Trans Neptunian zone or from the Oort cloud, and in the latter case in long, looping orbits that take extremely long periods of time - hundreds or thousands of years, or even longer.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

As 2013 draws to a close, it's been a wonderful year for us and we wanted to say a big thank-you to everybody that's been working with us, writing for us, and just reading our site! We've achieved so much this year, and we're confident 2014 will be even better.
So from all of us at TWDK,


Here's a little something we put together just for you, with more than a little help from Es Einsteinium:

See you in the new year!