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Friday 5 December 2014

Collapsing Ice Shelves

In 2002 the Larsen B Ice Shelf on Antarctica collapsed spectacularly. An area of ice twice the size of Greater London was lost in less than a month. This occurred in the northernmost region of Antarctica - the Peninsula - which has warmed-up by more than five times the global average over the last century[1]. A result of this is that, in certain parts of the Peninsula, the surface of the ice is starting to melt. The water from this melting can accumulate to form lakes up to 4km long. Larsen B was covered in these lakes, but just before the ice shelf collapsed these lakes started to drain. First one drained, then those around it, then those around them in a chain reaction that is suggested to have been key to the sudden collapse of the ice shelf[2].

Photograph of Larsen B ice shelf collapse in February 2002 by NASA MODIS
In February 2002, satellite images of the area stunned scientists as they watched 3,250 square kilometers of ice sheet disintegrate within the space of a month. By the end of 2006 the Larsen A and B glaciers were losing 22-40 billion tonnes of ice per year. Image credit: MODIS, NASA's Earth Observatory (CC-BY 2.0)

We don’t know what caused the lakes to drain so suddenly, or exactly how this links to the ice shelf’s collapse. Various hypotheses have been suggested as triggering the collapse; including the forces that the weight of the lakes exert on the ice shelf[2], and the melting of the ice shelf from below by heating from the ocean[3]. However, it is clear from the sudden drainage of the lakes that their role needs investigation, especially as they are beginning to appear further south on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Thursday 20 November 2014

A Swift glance at red dwarfs

November 20, 2014 is a huge day for NASA’s Swift spacecraft, as it marks the tenth anniversary of its launch. Currently orbiting our planet, Swift is scanning the skies for potential sources of events known as Gamma-ray bursts (GRB’s). Each burst is a huge, but relatively brief, flash of very high energy radiation coming from interstellar space. Astronomers believe they happen fairly frequently (we detect around one per day according to NASA), and last from a few milliseconds up to a few minutes. Swift’s role is to detect these events using the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT), in order to find out what exactly is causing them. This telescope has a very wide angle lens, which can see about a sixth of the sky at any one time – about the same as one of our eyes can see - and scans around 88% of the entire sky each day[1].

Gamma-ray bursts can happen at any moment, so Dr Kim Page and her team at the UK Swift Science data centre (UKSSDC) based in the University of Leicester take turns to be ‘on-call’ for when BAT is triggered. There are two ways BAT can be provoked into action; by a quick rapid spike in high-energy waves or by a cumulative increase in a particular part of the sky over a longer period of time. These two mechanisms are known as the “rate trigger” and “image trigger” respectively, named for the specific way in which they pick up radiation. If the telescope is triggered it sends a message to the various cameras onboard Swift to “switch on”, which then turn and face the area of sky from where the original signal was first detected. At the same time, it sends an automated SMS to the on-call team members at the UKSSDC, whilst also writing each team member an email containing the relevant data about the location, time and intensity of the trigger source. The X-ray, UV and optical cameras on Swift can then investigate the radiation burst further. The Swift team have found this to be extremely effective and usually the phenomenal increase in energy has a Gamma-ray burst at the centre. But, as we will see, this is not always the case.

Artist's impression of the NASA Swift spacecraft
The Swift spacecraft has been orbiting the Earth since 2004, collecting data about the locations of over 800 gamma-ray bursts; extremely high energy events which occur deep in space. From understanding more about the causes and nature of GRB’s, astronomers hope to understand the early universe better. Image credit: NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

Occasionally, an event which isn’t a GRB will cause the detectors to swing round and peer into the depths of space. On April 23, 2014, BAT picked up a huge influx of energy coming from a small constellation known as Canes Venatici (part of the Ursa Major group). The image trigger alerted Dr Page with a text message at around 10pm, telling her and her team that there was a potential GRB in this constellation. Within two minutes the Swift cameras had collected as much data about the position of the source as they could. This data was then cross-referenced with catalogues of stars and galaxies, to see if this patch of sky had produced GRB candidates on previous occasions - making it more likely to be a “false positive”. As a matter of fact it had – and the team found that the patch of sky they were looking at contained a binary red dwarf system, about 60 light years away. So, by then we knew what was setting BAT off, says Dr Page, Red dwarf stars are well known for their highly energetic flares. But the fact that this system could be expected to produce powerful flares didn’t prepare Dr Page and her team for the sheer enormity of the flares they were seeing this time.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Comet Chemistry

Dirty snowballs, snowy dirtballs and the leftovers of solar system formation. These names are commonly used to describe the often visually stunning ice extravaganzas that streak across our skies from time to time - comets. These somewhat simplistic names mask the importance of comets as repositories for material from which the planets formed. Comets contain volatile chemicals - materials that vapourize at relatively low temperatures, such as water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane. This means comets have very limited lifetimes - they get vapourized and lose a lot of their mass each time they pass close to the Sun - so we know that each one we see is relatively new to the inner solar system, giving astronomers a window through which to observe the elemental and isotopic evolution of the early solar system.

The Sun emits light across much of the spectrum, from the blues, greens and reds we can see down into the infrared and up into the ultraviolet. When that light reaches an object, like a comet, some wavelengths of light get absorbed while others are reflected, depending on which materials are present. Similarly, certain molecular interactions also emit light but only at certain wavelengths. This leads to the creation of “spectral lines”. However, even the Sun’s spectrum contains thousands of absorption lines, known as the Frauenhofer lines.

Comparison of images for the continuous electromagnetic spectrum, emission and absorption spectral lines, and the solar spectrum.
Different elements and chemicals absorb and emit light at different wavelengths, so by analysing these spectral lines we can determine which materials are present. (Public domain image)

Current methods for determining the composition of a comet from the relative comfort of the Earth rely on the analysis of these spectral lines, but this approach is hampered in a number of ways. Firstly, there is the problem of the sheer number of spectral lines detected, and the superposition of these lines in relation to one another. Identifying the distribution of one molecule amongst the thousands of lines that can be detected in one observation is a complex and difficult process. This can also limit the detection of rarer chemicals as they can be masked by more prevalent compounds. Interference from the Earth's atmosphere is also an issue when ground based telescopes are used. The atmosphere can absorb photons at a number of different wavelengths, so some lines of certain species (molecular oxygen and water for example) are not detected at all.

On top of all this, as a fast moving object hurtling towards the Sun, the only volatiles available to study are those located in the comet's coma - the cloud of gas surrounding the solid ‘nucleus’ of a comet. The composition of the coma is assumed to be different from that of the nucleus because the volatile elements vapourize more quickly, so the coma is expected to have more of them and may not reveal some non-volatile elements present in the nucleus. As the relationship between the chemicals observed in the coma and those contained in the nucleus is unknown, abundances in the protoplanetary disk that seeded our solar system cannot be accurately inferred either.

Annotated photograph of comet 103P Hartley 2. Copyright Nick Howes.
Annotated photograph of Comet Hartley 2, showing the solid nucleus in the centre, the gaseous coma surrounding it, and a faint tail. Comet 103P Hartley was once described as a weird little comet by NASA, due to its high levels of activity.
Photograph ©Nick Howes, used with permission. All rights reserved.

At present, knowledge of a comet's interior is limited mostly to theoretical models. Models suggest that comets are composed of a non-volatile component, usually referred to as dust, and a volatile one consisting of ice[1]. To date, only two comets have been comparatively well studied; Halley's comet from its 1986 sojourn around the solar system and comet Tempel 1. Comet Tempel-1 was the main focus of the successful NASA Deep Impact mission which provided the first opportunity to look inside a comet.

Friday 24 October 2014

Can we make room temperature superconductors?

What do high speed levitating trains, MRI machines and particle accelerators have in common? They all use superconductors. Superconductors are materials that can carry electrical current for long distances without losing energy, and can even produce their own magnetic fields.

Why are superconductors important?

These materials have a vast and diverse range of uses, mainly because they allow for the production of extremely efficient wires. The relationship between electric current in wires and magnetic fields is an intimate one - a magnetic field is created every time an electric charge moves, and every time a magnetic field is changed an electric field is created. This means superconducting materials play an important role in creating efficient and powerful electromagnets. These can be used to construct MagLev trains that float above the tracks, eliminating friction and allowing them to travel at incredibly high speeds, in MRI scanners, and even in particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs Boson was discovered! This is an incredibly exciting prospect - not losing power to electrical resistance could have a profound effect on saving energy resources.

The Shanghai Transrapid maglev train has a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph), racing the 30km from Pudong International Airport to downtown Shanghai in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Image credit: Lars Plougmann

Monday 13 October 2014

India's MOM seeks answers

In 2010 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began a mission to send a spacecraft to orbit Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Three years later they launched the craft and finally, on 24th September 2014 it reached its destination. The spacecraft’s primary objective is to test and develop the necessary technologies needed for interplanetary space travel - a technology which will allow India to plan future missions through the solar system and beyond. Its secondary objective, though, is scientific research. As the craft orbits the planet it will be collecting data about the planet’s atmosphere and surface.

The journey to Mars, though relatively short compared to a journey to other planets, is a complicated one; out of the 23 missions which have been launched to orbit Mars, only 10 have been fully successful. For India, this maiden voyage means the chance to explore the red planet whilst also developing their technological know-how. The whole mission has cost ISRO about $70 million - making it the cheapest vessel to enter Mars’ orbit since exploration of the planet began! For comparison, NASA had to pay a similar amount per seat to fly their own astronauts to the International Space Station in a Russian spacecraft. This is an incredible feat for technology and may lead to reduced costs for future missions to Mars.

Mars Orbiter Mission - India - ArtistsConcept
An artist's impression of the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft orbiting Mars. The basic structure was based closely on ISRO’s first mission - Chandrayaan-1. Image credit: Nesnad, via Wikimedia Commons. (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Mars is the outermost of the four rocky planets in our Solar System, and is also Earth’s neighbour. Despite having similar rocky compositions these two planets couldn’t be more different. The oceans, flora and fauna which are so prevalent on Earth are completely absent on Mars, and yet the two planets’ orbits are separated by a mere 54.6 million kilometres – a galactic stone’s throw away. Astronomers and planetary scientists have been studying the planet for a while now, and yet there is still so much we cannot decipher about the planet and its history.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Cosmic Inflation, BICEP2 and Planck

Cosmic inflation is the exponential expansion of space in the early universe. In other words, how did the universe go from being so small at the time of the big bang to the size it is today?

But why do we even think this occurred? In the 1920's, astronomer Edwin Hubble noticed when looking at galaxies through a telescope, that the galaxies were actually moving away from one another. The further apart they were, the faster they moved.

The only logical explanation for this was that the universe was in fact expanding. If everything seemed to be moving away from each other in all sorts of directions, then surely at some point in the past, it must have been very small, hot and dense. This led to what we now know as the Big Bang Theory, so called because of the implication that the universe began a single point and exploded outwards.

time line of the universe, from big bang to today. Public domain image courtesy NASA.
The Big Bang is believed to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago, after which the universe rapidly expanded in a period of time we call Inflation. Scientists are still searching for conclusive evidence of this, and seek to test the two fundamental assumptions upon which it is based; that the same physical laws apply everywhere in the universe, and that on large scales on large scales the universe is homogeneous and isotropicImage credit: NASA (public domain)

Everywhere we look in the universe, we see billions of galaxies evenly spread. Up until 1979, nobody could explain why this was. That was until a young cosmologist by the name of Alan Guth put forward a possible solution to the problem; he called it inflation.

Monday 6 October 2014

Science Writing Workshop

One of our recent pledges was to run a series of "how to write about science" workshops, designed to help kick-start careers in science journalism; and we're already working on our first such workshop.

UKSEDS TWDK science communication workshop banner

TWDK have teamed up with the UK's largest student space society, UKSEDS, to offer a science writing workshop aimed at university students. In a hands-on session lasting from 10am til 4pm, we will cover all the basics you need to get you started in science journalism including:

  • Language use – technical science writing is very different from popular science writing. This activity covers how to get your tone right, tailor your writing style to different audiences and age groups.
  • Picking a story – regular writing needs inspiration, but how do you find suitable topics? This activity covers how to find and read press releases, and practice choosing which ones are suitable for you to build upon.
  • “Good” vs “bad” science writing – what makes a piece of science writing good, or bad? We look at some common mistakes and pitfalls, and discuss how to identify and avoid them.
  • Writing from a science paper – published science papers are a common starting point for science journalists, but understanding them can be tricky if you’re not a specialist in that area. Learn some tips on how to read papers to extract the key points you need, and practice writing summaries of a number of real papers in a variety of topics.
  • Editing articles – no first draft will be perfect, and articles always need to be edited. Often this will be done by somebody else, and editing other people’s work can help you understand both the process and alternative styles that may strengthen your own writing.
  • Starting a blog - how to get started in the world of science blogging; setting up your own blog or joining a network both have their own advantages. We look at guest blogging, common sites, what you need to set up your own blog and some useful tools.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

TWDK makes two "Your Life" pledges

Your life STEM campaign logo
Helping young people to discover a passion for science that takes them to university and beyond is an important part of our mission here at TWDK.

So I'm very happy to announce that Things We Don't Know is one of 200 British businesses that are pledging their support for the Your Life campaign, with the purpose of inspiring young people to study maths and physics as a gateway to exciting and wide-ranging careers.

Specifically, TWDK is making the following two pledges:

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Ten Things We Don’t Know about Tyrannosaurs

Tyrannosaurus rex and its closest relatives, the tyrannosaurs, are among the best known and most popular dinosaurs - and yet there is still plenty we don’t know about these fascinating creatures...

Photograph of "Sue", a Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL.
Despite its name, we don't know if the T-rex we know as "Sue" was male or female. Dinosaurs aren’t sexually dimorphic, including T. rex; their skeletons provide no clue as to their gender. The only evidence we have of a particular specimen's sex comes from either finding eggs inside of a skeleton, or finding medullary bone in long bones. Medullary bone has been found in only one T. rex so far. Image credit: Heather Paul (CC-BY-ND)

1. What age could T. rex live to?

It's possible to work out how old a tyrannosaur was when it died, by looking at growth rings inside its bones - just like counting the rings of a tree. The oldest T. rex yet examined in this way has been nicknamed Sue, and is on display at the Field Museum. It’s thought that Sue was 28 years old[1] when it died. Only about a dozen skeletons have been cut up to determine their age, and there are other T. rex’s that look like they might be older than Sue, but haven't had their growth rings counted. This means that we really don’t exactly know the maximum age of T. rex; it's possible that it will turn out to be much more than 28 years once the sample of adults has increased.

2. How were tyrannosaurs related?

Evolutionary trees are diagrams that can be drawn to show how animals are related to each other. Researchers gather data and use this to try to reconstruct the evolutionary history of a group of species - but it isn’t always simple. At the moment there are two versions of the evolutionary tree of tyrannosaurs[2][3] which differ in which species they include, and where they appear on the tree. As more data is collected, trees produced by different groups of researchers usually become more similar. It is likely that with more time and research we will, eventually, find a history that all of the available data supports. Until then though, how tyrannosaurs evolved remains something we don’t know.

3. What did their eggs, embryos, & hatchlings look like?

Despite the popularity of tyrannosaurs, we don’t know anything about the earliest growth stages of any tyrannosaur species. Currently, there are no skulls or skeletons of embryos or juveniles up to a year old. We don’t even know what a tyrannosaur eggshell looks like - very few embryos have been discovered inside fossilised eggs, which is the only way we could be certain of the species the egg belonged to, so the number of dinosaur species identified in this way is very low. It could be that tyrannosaur eggs have already been collected (among those that currently lack embryonic bones) but we just haven’t realised it yet! Hopefully this situation, at least for eggs and embryos, will change very soon as dinosaur eggs are being discovered all the time in places such as China.

Monday 15 September 2014

Wondering about water

One day back in the last century (literally) while I was working on my PhD, I went on an expedition into the University’s library archive. I remember it as a dusty cavern with rows of metal shelves creaking under the weight of volumes that smelled of old paper. You had to get a special key to get in, and I remember nervously looking over my shoulder just in case the lights flickered out and my life turned into a cheesy horror movie. I can’t remember what I was actually looking for now, but what I do remember is that I got diverted. In an ancient, dusty volume I found a paper which had been written about a hundred years ago, at the start of the 20th century.

It concerned the structure of water, its bonding and the shape of the molecules. It was a bit of a revelation at the time. I had been drawing the classic ‘Mickey Mouse’ water molecule diagram for years and I’d just never thought about the fact that there was a time when the structure of water was an unknown. Something that people argued over and, indeed, published papers about.

Now, fast forward a few years, and Things We Don’t Know have asked me to write about water clusters, something which is currently at the edges of chemistry. It almost seems meant to be.

Diagram of water molecule H20 showing pairing of electrons, electron sharing between atoms or covalent bonding, and the effective dipole moment of the molecule. Image copyright Things We Don't Know (CC BY 3.0).
Scientists use the "delta" symbol δ to mean “a little bit”. Oxygen is very electronegative, which means it draws the electrons it's sharing with hydrogen (in a covalent bond) towards itself. This leaves the hydrogens slightly positive and the oxygen slightly negative. You might also think it resembles a famous cartoon character, but we couldn't possibly comment. Image ©Things We Don't Know (CC BY 3.0)

Water is important stuff. Without it, life wouldn’t have evolved on this planet. It’s made up of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen, joined together with the oxygen in the middle as H-O-H. One of these elements, oxygen, is the second most electronegative element (topped only by its periodic table neighbour fluorine). Electronegativity is a much-abused term in the world of pseudoscience; all it actually means is the ability of an atom to attract electrons in a covalent bond. Hydrogen is far from the least electronegative, but it’s pretty wimpy by comparison. So basically, examine a water molecule and you find that oxygen has greedily dragged the bonding electrons around itself, like a child refusing to share her sweets with the poor, deprived hydrogen atoms.

Thursday 28 August 2014

The 3QD Science Prize 2014

We're very happy to report that one of our articles - Squid Lady Parts - is one of 85 articles nominated for this year's 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize.

The first round is open to public vote, so please go there and show your support for us! The other 84 articles are really good too, so we heartily recommend reading them all.

For those of our readers who aren't familiar with 3 Quarks Daily it's a selective aggregation service, or in their words a filter blog. In other words, they share content they like from other sites. Six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday) their editors share items from other websites in the areas of science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and anything else they consider to be inherently fascinating. On Mondays, they publish original material written by themselves.

The 20 most popular articles will then go through to the next round, with the winners being determined by Frans B. M. de Waal - a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behaviour and social intelligence of primates.

Voting is open until 11:59pm on September 1st, NYC time - which is 5am on September 2nd for the UK.

Edit 04 Sep 2014:
We made it through to the semi-finals!

Our article was the 6th most-voted-for entry of the competition! The editors of 3QD will now make a selection of 6 to 9 articles, which will be passed to Dr. de Waal for the final decision.

A big thank you from all of us to everybody that voted for Squid Lady Parts!

Monday 18 August 2014

Thinking about Things We Don't Know

Things We Don't Know Venn diagram

Since starting in June, I’ve had a lot of fun with Ed and the team here at Things We Don’t Know. I’ve learnt a lot about where research is headed in several different fields, and I’ve spoken to some pretty cool people about what they do in research. I’ve learnt many things from this internship, here are a few of the less science-y (kind of) things:
  1. There are so many things we don’t know!
  2. Seems kind of obvious, what with common sayings such as, “We know more about space than our oceans”. However, I didn’t realise there are things we don’t about almost everything. Birds, ocean currents, the inner workings of our own minds – we are constantly learning more and more about our own surroundings despite them being the most familiar things to us, and working here has made me so much more aware of that fact.

  3. Priority is key
  4. I used to think time-management was a fairly good skill of mine, until I realised I was keeping up with the small things but not necessarily being on top of everything. Sometimes you have to sacrifice smaller jobs for later, to be able to get a big task done on time. Recognising the importance of each task is a little more difficult – sometimes it relies purely on the deadline. Once you’ve nailed that side of things managing your time effectively becomes much more of a doddle.

  5. Be a zombie
  6. I don’t mean walk around slowly dribbling a bit, I’m talking about eating brains! I’ve been working with people who are experts in many different fields. Picking these big brains has been a huge perk of this job, I’ve learnt many useful tips and tricks which I can now take and use in whichever job I end up doing. People don’t generally mind having their brains picked either, everyone here has been more than happy to teach me.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Autoimmune diseases - the friendly fire of our immune system

Autoimmune diseases affect millions of people, and have become an important focus of scientific research in the past decade due to their apparent increase in prevalence worldwide[1][2] - and yet little is known about their cause. Our body’s immune system is a pathogen-fighting machine, finely adapted to seek and destroy any foreign invaders which might cause damage within our bodies. To do this, it needs to be able to work out what is dangerous foreign material and what isn't, and sometimes it can get confused. Common allergies like hay fever occur when the body treats harmless pollen like a dangerous pathogen, and mounts an immune response. This can be irritating, but the real problem comes when your immune system becomes convinced your own body is a danger, and begins attacking itself. This is what happens in autoimmune diseases

The precise cause of these diseases is unknown but is thought to be a combination of both genetic and environmental factors[3]. It is known that relatives of people with autoimmune diseases are more likely to develop them, yet multiple studies have shown that in a pair of identical twins, with identical sets of genes[4], sometimes only one twin will develop an autoimmune disease.

This suggests that while genetic factors can predispose you to an illness, an environmental factor may be involved in triggering the development of the disease. One type of environmental factor associated with autoimmunity is infection. Exposure to numerous common viruses has been described as a risk factor for developing autoimmunity. A well-known example is the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) which is the cause of glandular fever (also known as the ‘kissing disease’ or Infectious Mononucleosis). Over 90% of the adult population are latently infected with EBV, meaning the virus is present in their system but does not cause any symptoms.

Electron microscopic image of two Epstein Barr Virus virions
All viruses have the ability to evade the host’s immune system in some way - this ability to hide from the immune system enables viruses to survive. Immune suppressive responses have evolved in viruses over time, and they have even stolen bits of our immune system that are beneficial to them. Image credit: By Liza Gross[8] ©2005 Public Library of Science (CC-BY).

Just like any other virus, the EBV virus is able to evade its host’s immune system. One way it does this is to produce proteins which modulate the host’s immune system. In the majority of people this has no detrimental effect; however in people with genetic susceptibility to autoimmunity an immune response to the body's own tissues is initiated. We have not yet been able to explain why it affects this small proportion of people, but not the many others also infected.

Friday 1 August 2014

Four Space Science Videos

A few weeks ago we announced that, through our partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, four teams of media and games design students had worked with us to adapt some of our previously published space science articles into animated videos. Since then, we've been releasing the videos through our YouTube channel. All four videos have now been released, so here's a quick round-up of the four.

The first of these was about the NASA space mission "New Horizons" which is currently en route to Pluto, based on Pluto's New Horizons by Peter Ray Allison. The video was created by a team of four students (Ryan Stewart, Jake Samson-Roberts, John Teo and Jason Vickers), who decided to use a similar "live animation" style as our previous video Why do we sleep?

The second group chose to animate Why are the planets so different?, by Adam Stevens. This group consisted of five students (Renny Nascimento, Will Pritchard, Clark O'Connell, Rachel ? and Romy Nelson). Their chosen style was to use stock motion with a 3D overlay which they produced using 3DS Max and Adobe After Effects, producing an 8-minute video with 5 sections.

Thursday 31 July 2014

Squid Lady Parts

NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program , 2013 Northeast U. S. Canyons Expedition
This bobtail squid is very surprised at the absence of squid gynaecologists! Image credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program

I first saw squid pimples in 2006, on a research cruise in the Sea of Cortez. The little bumps around the female’s mouth looked exactly like whiteheads, as if squid could get clogged pores. They even oozed white stuff when you squeezed, but it wasn’t pus.

It was sperm.

I was just beginning as a graduate student, learning to extract eggs and sperm from Humboldt squid in order to study fertilization and development—or, as I glibly described my thesis, “squid sex and babies.” Though technically I wasn’t studying sex, since in squid copulation is separate from fertilization. Females mate and store sperm for weeks or even months before laying eggs.

Picture of a clutch of squid egg (species type unfortunately not specified) cases on display at the Monterery Aquarium. Photographed on April 2, 2007.
We don't know how the female market squid who laid these egg cases selected which sperm was used to fertilize them. Image credit: "SquidEggCases-MontereryAquarium-April2-07" by User:Captmondo. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Males help out by pre-packaging their sperm into complex needle-like structures called spermatophores. Each spermatophore can ejaculate (yes, independently!) to become a spermatangium, a sticky sperm mass that attaches to the female’s skin. Then sperm from this mass moves into the little pimples I saw, which are called spermathecae. Confused yet? I sure was!

In the ship’s laboratory, we were able to fertilize eggs with sperm from spermatophores, spermatangia, and spermathecae[1]. But I’m pretty sure squid don’t lay their eggs in Petri dishes, so this doesn’t tell us a whole lot about natural reproduction. Which of the three sperm sources do females use to fertilize their eggs? Why bother with all the processing steps? Does it have to do with female selection or sperm competition?

No one knows, which is a bit surprising because spermatophores themselves have been studied quite intensively. Videos of spermatophore ejaculation and attachment can be found online, and I’ve written about more than one exciting new study. But this is the first time I’m writing about spermathecae, and it’s not because of recent research—it’s to popularize the lack of it.

Friday 25 July 2014

The Quest for Invisibility

Since long before Harry Potter, scientists have been searching for a way which can allow things to pass us by unnoticed. The invisibility cloak which features in J.K. Rowling’s books may seem magical and otherworldly, but in fact devices which have the effect of making objects completely disappear are much more tangible than you’d think. While they may not look like a silky blanket, cloaking devices are very effective at manipulating signals and jamming detectors so as to obscure the truth about their location.

So there it is, we’ve done it. We have successfully created magic and are able to hide enormous ships or helicopters from being spotted by the enemy – haven’t we?

Well, not exactly. The perfect cloaking device is still just a theoretical concept. Camouflage paint is often applied to try and confuse the eye, “stealth” coatings are used to hide from radar, while cooling techniques are employed to reduce the amount of infrared emission coming from the object trying to stay hidden. However, while these techniques are effective at helping to disguise ships and aeroplanes, we can hardly call them invisible. It is hoped the answer lies in the development of metamaterials – materials which possess properties not found in nature.

Image demonstrating variety of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum covers all wavelengths of radiation, from radar to visible light to x-rays and gamma-rays. Until last year we could only hide things from very specific parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, in some cases by making the object more visible in other parts of the spectrum. Image credit: NASA (public domain)
The development of such materials has huge implications for lens and invisibility devices. The idea of cloaking devices is to create a material which can take an incoming signal, say visible light, and then send it on its way without any interruption from the cloaked object. If you could create a material which can do this effectively enough, it will trick any detectors into thinking there is no object to be seen, since there is no radiation signal to be detected. In theory it’s possible, but there are many obstacles blocking the way.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

How reliable is psychological science?

Things We Don't Know Anymore

TWDK Psychology doodle copyright Giles Meakin / Things We Don't Know CIC
Our psychology editor Malte Elson explores the “replication crisis”, and questions our level of confidence in established psychology. Image credit: Things We Don't Know / Giles Meakin (CC-BY)

The last few years haven’t been easy on psychological science. Don’t get me wrong – the field in itself is flourishing, boasting an ever-increasing number of publications, journals, conferences, faculty positions, and university graduates all over the world. It has gained more and more respect and acceptance, both in academia and society. The case of Harvard evolutionary biologist and primate researcher Marc Hauser’s fraudulent publications was already fading from our minds when in September 2011, the discovery of the scientific misconduct by the Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel shattered the grounds of psychological science. In at least 50 cases of scientific fraud that have been discovered by the Levelt Committee, Stapel had doctored, mangled, and completely fabricated datasets to successfully publish in the field’s top-ranked outlets - up to the most prestigious journals like Science. Among Stapel’s highly regarded publications were findings on how untidy environments encourage racist discrimination[1], or how to reduce racist biases in judges' legal decisions on minority defendants[2]. Nullifying the content of these publications constitutes a setback for social psychology, and - to a somewhat lesser extent – society overall.

Although they work in a highly competitive environment, we trust scientists to be committed to finding the truth. And when playing it smart, like Stapel, it is quite easy to abuse this trust for personal gain in the form of a prestigious academic career. Instead of looking for the truth, Stapel was on a quest for aesthetics, for beauty, as he was quoted saying by the New York Times. One might think that it’s not that much of an issue - Stapel got caught after all! Reaching for the stars he committed fraud, but got brought back down to reality when his deeds were unveiled, so the system works. But does it really?

Monday 7 July 2014

Sheffield students make TWDK science videos

We issued our challenge through the university's Venture Matrix™ scheme.
Earlier this year, we set students from Sheffield Hallam University a challenge - to take one of our published science articles, and turn it into a video. Four groups of media students took up the gauntlet, and over the next few months the students created four very different videos.

The students had a total freedom of choice regarding which of our articles they chose, and the style they would use to make the video. Our only condition was that each group choose a different article.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Mapping spacetime around supermassive black holes

Black holes come in many sizes ranging from tens to millions, or even billions, of solar masses. Their incredible size means they exert immense gravitational power over other objects, and can even warp space-time to such a degree that they behave like lenses and actually bend light around them – a process known as gravitational lensing. In many cases a large black hole will acquire another incredibly dense friend, for example a small black hole or a neutron star, which will orbit the central black hole whilst slowly spiraling into it. These physical systems are known as Extreme Mass Ratio Inspirals (EMRI's), called as such because of the vast mass difference between the two objects.

distorted grid with Earth at the centre demonstrating deformation of spacetime.
Physicists often consider space and time as a single continuum, called spacetime, which consists of the 'usual' three dimensions (up/down, left/right and forwards/backwards) plus time as a 'fourth' dimension. Spacetime is bent by anything with mass - an effect we see as gravity. Image credit: Wikimedia commons
Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity states that any mass will bend spacetime. Black holes, because they are so incredibly dense, will stretch and curve space-time to a much greater degree than our planet ever could. However something relatively tiny, like the Earth, still has an effect. For EMRI's, you can think of this as being like a bowling ball placed on to a taut sheet - the bowling ball will sink causing the sheet to stretch. If you place a marble onto the same sheet, it will also sink a little bit into the sheet because it has its own weight, but the bowling ball makes a much larger dip than the marble.

But getting out sheets, marbles and bowling balls isn’t a very accurate way of modelling these systems – so how is it done? I spoke to Dr Sarp Akcay, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southampton and an expert at creating models simulating the orbits of EMRI's.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Chariklo, the Celestial midget

In March, the European Southern Observatory in Chile made an astonishing discovery that has surprised astronomers. It’s no secret that the great gas giant, Saturn, has an impressive set of rings surrounding it - and while less widely known, in fact all Jovian planets (Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter and Saturn) have ring systems around them. These planets are the largest in our solar system, and have a tremendous gravitational pull on rocks, dust and gas due to their great size which keeps their ring structures in place. However, nestled between Saturn and Uranus, they’ve discovered a comparatively minuscule object with a fraction of the gravitational strength which has its very own rings - something many astronomers believed to be impossible.

Artist’s impression close-up of the rings around Chariklo
Artist’s impression of the asteroid Chariklo, and its newly discovered rings.
Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (

Chariklo 10199 is what’s known as a Centaur, an object which originates at the very limits of our Solar System (a region called the Kuiper Belt) and carries characteristics of both asteroids and comets. This particular Centaur is merely 250km wide, that’s roughly the same width as Lake Victoria in Africa and barely 0.0004% of Saturn’s volume, making it a celestial midget. It’s this midget which has been discovered to carry its own ring system made up of space dust and particles – just like the Jovian planets.

Why is it that this space boulder has rings too? How did they get there? What can they tell us about our Solar System?

Thursday 12 June 2014

Summer Physics Internship 2014

Hi, my name’s Grace and I’m joining the crew here at TWDK as this year’s SEPnet summer intern. I’m currently a Physics student at the University of Southampton. Physics has always been my favourite subject, with English coming a close second. I love to get into the nitty gritty of how things work, and I love the feeling of being completely blown away by the complexity of the universe. For me, it’s not enough to know that things work - I want to know how and why. When I’m not trying to bend my mind around Quantum interference equations I like to read, write, climb and watch mindless TV.

TWDK Physics intern Grace Mason-Jarrett
Our latest summer intern, Grace, in our London office.
Photo: TWDK

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Introducing Fiona

As the new communications manager here at Things We Don’t Know, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Fiona Hutchings and I am also a mother, a geek, someone who binges on Netflix, a music writer (and obsessive music fan) and a book worm. The one thing I'm not, is a scientist.

Portrait photograph of TWDK communications manager Fiona Hutchings
Fiona Hutchings is our new communications manager
At TWDK our mission statement is pretty clear; 'explaining the mysteries of science, in simple language'. As communications manager part of my job is to share our work and make it as accessible as possible to everyone from a rocket scientist to the casual reader. I am an avid science fiction fan, from Firefly to Star Trek and of course Doctor Who, but I have always found science fact more than a little intimidating. It wasn't a case of not being interested - I am - but as fluent as I may be in the basic functions of a TARDIS, I found attempts to try and understand the factual grounding behind these shows really difficult. I want to understand more about the body, planet and universe I live in. Trying to investigate and find the answers to my questions was frustrating - there seemed to be so many words I could hardly pronounce, never mind understand, and I don't consider myself stupid (karaoke choices aside). Like many, I suspect, I gave up trying to understand, figured science didn't need me and was discovering stuff all the time just fine on it's own.

When TWDK was born, it reignited my enthusiasm to find out more about the world (and galaxy) I live in. Scientific news so often concentrates on what we do know but now I could find out about the hundreds of questions we still haven't answered. Better still, I could find out about them in a language I understood. Questions so often lead to yet more questions but asking why, how, what and when has being driving discoveries for hundreds of years. Luckily, the rest of the team here and our many excellent guest writers are incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the many different fields of science, finding answers and sharing them with the world. I am thrilled to be a part of that.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, firstly because my mother always told me it is polite to introduce yourself. But also because I wanted the chance to tell you a little bit about my background and my way of working. If you pop by and talk to us on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ there is a good chance it is me you will be talking to. Complex science queries are referred to our editorial team, all of whom have a science background. Sharing articles we and others have written is part of my job and I want to do that in a friendly and accessible way. I want you to feel comfortable asking questions because questions are what TWDK is all about. And if you want to write for us or have a topic you'd like us to cover, then I want to hear from you too.

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.