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Wednesday 9 December 2020

One Nobel Prize Later...

The Nobel-prize winning buckminsterfullerene, C60, discovery took place in September 1985. Its discoverers were Professor Harry Kroto, along with Richard Smalley and Robert Curl – but this wasn’t what they were looking for.
NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Kroto was interested in space. He was working on carbon-based molecules that could be detected in interstellar space using radio telescopes... and he thought he’d found good evidence for cyanopolyynes, molecules based on a chain of carbon and nitrogen atoms, but he still didn’t know how they were made. Kroto had had a good think about it, though, and one idea he had was that they were made by red giants, or near them. He’d have to test his theory, but how?

Smalley and Curl had a laser-generated supersonic cluster beam for their research on semiconductors; this had the potential to heat something up hotter than the surface of most stars. Kroto thought doing this to a bit of carbon would be a fantastic idea, and would potentially make a whole bunch of new stuff, including the mysterious cyanopolyynes. He persuaded them to let him have a go.

Saturday 28 November 2020

Cop That!

Copper. Slang for a police officer. A coin. That metal pans and wires are made of.

What’s so mysterious? A lot.

Copper is a catalyst. It’s variable oxidation states and low coordination numbers allow it to do funky things, bonding and unbonding with whatever floats its way.
Copper coins via Pikrepo.

Whisky still IProspectIE via wikimedia commons.
Copper is used in whisky stills, partly because it’s malleable and conducts the heat through the whisky really well, and partly because it seems to affect the flavour. One story, related to me by Ben from The Whisky Shop, was the story of Old Pulteney whisky, back in the days when the distillery was first setting up, the days when they decided to make the most important feature of the distillery – the still. It was made offsite and transported carefully to the distillery in the Highlands of Scotland, where they tried to take it into the building – but couldn’t. The manufacturers, so the story tells, had made a mistake and ordered a still too tall for the distillery. Still, never mind, they said, and they lopped off the top, making a low, squat-looking still pot that led to shorter refluxes, forever after blamed for the “dirty” flavour of the Old Pulteney spirit.

Saturday 14 November 2020

Wonderful wetlands

Oxford is built on a swamp.

The home insurers won’t let you forget that most of the houses are delicately balanced on a tiny strip of land just above the water level, like Noah on a beached ark.

When it rains heavily, the soils saturate and run onto the tarmac, creating rivers occupied by confused looking geese that stream down the streets. Adjacent fields take on the appearance of flooded paddy fields.

But believe it or not, these indomitable wetlands are crucial to the local environment, its habitats, ecosystems, and even the shape of the land. This is because of something called phytoremediation.
Swampland in Oxford. By Jpbowen via Wikipedia Commons.

Saturday 31 October 2020

Make me a monster

Is science on the verge of building a real Frankenstein’s monster?
Frankenstein made his monster in his laboratory through techniques he never revealed. Christian Michaud (Victor Frankenstein) et Étienne Pilon (La Créature) via Wikipedia Commons.

Well, with recent advances in protein design[1], the possibility of growing new organs and limbs in labs may not be as far away as we imagined.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Out-of-body experiences

Statistics suggest ~10% of us have out-of-body experiences (OBEs) – but this number could rise now scientists know how to artificially induce them! There are three main ways they can do this: by supplying hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or ketamine; by applying strong G-forces (we realised this when pilots and astronauts reported high incidences of OBEs; the cause is attributed to blood draining out of one side of the brain: yikes!); or by extreme sensory loading: either overloading or depriving the senses (extreme sensory overload is a form of torture). In a 2002 study, a patient even experienced an OBE whilst conscious when researchers put a weak current through part of their brain (the temporoparietal junction) and was able to describe their sensations of falling and rising up to the ceiling!
Sometimes we sense things that aren't there. Via Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Is phosphine a biomarker for life on Venus?

50 km up in the atmosphere of planet Venus, scientists found phosphine[1].

Cloud structure in the Venusian atmosphere by ISAS/JAXA, via Wikipedia Commons.
Sorry, what?


You know, PH3. That commonly known… no?

It might not sound like much, but this innocuous molecule defies explanation.

Why should it?

It may not be well known, but this is not the first time we’ve heard of phosphine. The molecule itself is not mysterious. A simple combination of hydrogen and phosphorus, it’s a pungent, colourless gas, that’s both toxic and flammable. It’s highly reactive (that’ll be important later on) and belongs to the same family as ammonia. We can make it in lots of different ways – by exposing white phosphorus or calcium phosphide to water, by the disproportionation of phosphorous acid, or by reacting phosphonium iodide with bases. But it also occurs naturally on Earth.

Monday 28 September 2020

Walking with wolves

If I go back through my photographs to spring 2017, I suddenly come across a lot that look like this

© Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Or this

© Rowena Fletcher-Wood

What are those strange objects?
The answer is poo. Wolf, hedgehog, boar and deer scat… amongst others. So what was I doing photographing animal scat?
The answer is, tracking.
Believe it or not, wolf poo contains a lot of fur, so what they leave behind tends to look wiry as it decomposes, as if it were made of steel wool. Eventually, all that’s left is fluff.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Prescribed hallucinations

My doctor gave me a medicine that made me hallucinate.

“They’re antacids. They can’t do that,” they said.
via Wikipedia Commons

By this time, being gaslighted by doctors was so habitual I was numb to it.

They’d told me I had acid reflux. The endoscopy, the barium meal, and the pH test all proved that I did not have acid reflux. But apparently they’d put me on medication for it anyway – and not, until now, told me as much.

I’d taken the troublesome things four times a day every day for months, which meant rearranging my meal times and interfering with school (I was sixteen). When I finally decided they weren’t helping me with pain and stopped, for the next twenty-four hours, I saw disembodied hands.

Monday 7 September 2020

Zombies in nature

Haitian folklore tells of the zombie: a reanimated corpse. In modern day, the zombie is portrayed as parasitic, feeding on the brains of others and so infecting them
Zombie via Wikipedia Commons.
to become zombies too.

There are various parallels in nature: fungi that infect the brains of ants, the Euhaplorchis californiensis worm that infects fish, or the toxoplasma gondii parasite that infects rats (there’s more about toxoplasmosis here) – all these force their hosts to change their behaviour to help spread the fungal spores, or get themselves eaten by a bird or cat, where they can reproduce.

We don’t know how this happens, but researchers looking at some of these parasites found they excrete chemicals that alter brain chemistry. In their target host, the cocktail has a profound affect on behaviour, but doesn’t work so well in other species.

Thursday 27 August 2020

Starting Again

The sleeping baby strapped to my chest suddenly spasms and clasps me in a gesture I call “crabbing”. I stop to exclaim.

“Did you fall off your branch?” I ask my daughter.

The baby sleeps on.

But I know she will wake soon: sleep starts (or hypnic jerks) like this tend to happen when someone is falling to sleep or waking up, as their mind wrestles between consciousness and unconsciousness – like so many other sleep phenomena (e.g. sleep paralysis). And so far, experience has agreed with the science.

But what are these “sleep starts”?

Thursday 13 August 2020

The speed of time

This time will pass. Or so they say. We believe we’re travelling forward, how do we really know? If time changed direction, could we even tell? In days, and weeks, and months like these, time seems to stand still.

...Why is that?

Sometimes, time seems to stand still. Unsplash (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

There are lots of theories for why time seems to move at different speeds. Some of them are related to age. Afterall, didn’t time always move much, much more slowly when you were a child? The proportional theory suggests that our perception of time is linked to the constant that is our time alive: “the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man's life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life — a man of 50 as 1/50”, whilst the biological theory proposes that time is linked to our metabolism, which gradually slows down as we age. Or perhaps our heartbeat. Or breathing. Or body temperature. Experiments (some of which are ethically dubious!) seem to back it up; for example, a fever can make you experience time as longer... or is that just because being ill sucks?

Monday 3 August 2020

Isolation and the Brain

As babies, we are all born with vastly more neural connections than we need[1], and these connections get 'pruned' as we go through life, cutting out the unused ones, strengthening most the ones we use daily[2].

As social animals, we learn best and develop neural connections by interacting with others. So what happens when our brains are isolated – when we don't see or interact with other people for... months?


One BBC Horizon experiment subjected volunteers to 48 hours isolation in complete darkness: devoid of external sensory stimulti, they started to hallucinate. In the equivalent on Channel 5 (In Solitary: The Anti-Social Experiment), participants took in three items to distract themselves and fuel their resolve. Some people took in personal items that carried meaning – but quickly found these intensified feelings of desperation and homesickness; others took in activities to keep them physically or mentally stimulated, and it was these that were found to be most effective. Scientists think this is an essential coping mechanism for staying mentally healthy in isolation. In the longest isolation experiment, undertaken by Stefania Follini, who spent 130 days underground, the interior designer occupied herself with martial arts and decorating her cave.

Friday 26 June 2020

Baby Tastes (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #22)

Do your baby’s tastes depend on what you ate when they were in the womb?

Apparently, you can taste foods in amniotic fluid and breast milk – certain distinct flavours such as carrot, vanilla, mint and garlic, anyway. These flavours can be detected in breastmilk as little as half an hour after eating, and adults can even smell and identify them.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Coronavirus 101

It’s devastating us now. But where did it come from, where is is going, and what is it anyway?

The disease COVID-19, caused by the virus commonly known as coronavirus, was thought to originate from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, are traded illegally. However, recent work has demonstrated that the market is only one possible origin of the disease. Potential patient zeroes – the first human to contract coronavirus – have found to have no link to the market.

Sunday 14 June 2020

Superfetation (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #21)

As one literature report begins,
“Here we review the scant and at times ancient literature on this poorly understood topic.”[1]

European hare. By Jean-Jacques Boujot via Wikipedia Commons.
The topic is superfetation – the phenomenon of becoming pregnant whilst already pregnant. It happens in humans (we think). And hares[2]. It’s been documented in badgers, mink, panthers, buffalo, wallaby, rats, mice, rabbits, horses, sheep, kangaroos, sugar gliders and cats. But much of the evidence is dubious, and remains controversial. The only agreed incidents seem to be documented in fish that carry their young – the poecilid and zenarchopterid.

Superfetation shouldn’t happen. Once conception has occurred, hormones are released that prevent further ovulation, and a mucus plug blocks up the womb.

But does it happen from time to time anyway?

Friday 5 June 2020

Gender and Pain

Have you ever considered how your identity could influence how you feel pain? How your pain is perceived by others? Or how much of your pain experience is understood by the scientific and clinical communities?

Is it safe to assume that most of you haven’t?

Amongst many other contributing factors, our sex and gender may have a profound impact on pain and our pain experience. While we may have a better understanding of sex differences in pain perception, how gender ties into this is not fully understood. However, researchers are now beginning to understand that gender does impact our pain experience, and may play a significant role in how pain is differentially assessed and treated between men and women. This phenomenon has been deemed the ‘gender pain gap’: a gap in our understanding of women’s health issues which has lead to the inappropriate pharmaceutical treatment of men and women, and not taking women's health seriously.

The Gender Unicorn by TSER.

Saturday 30 May 2020

Cryptic Pregnancies (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #20)

Some pregnancies are planned, and some pregnancies are unplanned, but few pregnancies go unnoticed. Not so cryptic (or “stealth”) pregnancies, which describe what happens when a woman goes through the bulk (or even all!) of a pregnancy without suspecting.

How does that even happen?

Pregnant woman via Pixabay.
Psychological factors
Cryptic pregnancies have been linked to psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, depression or personality disorder, but only in a small number of cases, and the evidence isn’t strong enough to prove these have anything to do with it. They have been more strongly linked with past traumas, especially child sexual abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, and with fear of pregnancy, which appears in the majority of reported cases.

Sociological factors
In many examples of cryptic pregnancy, the women involved did at some point think they might be pregnant, but their circumstances were so unsuitable that they denied the possibility. Correspondingly, cryptic pregnancies often happen to soldiers or women with perilous home lives. This is known as somatic denial.

Biological factors
However, many scientists think that cryptic pregnancy is biological rather than psychological or sociological.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Categorising Things is “Evil”

We label things every day: that man is tall, this book a thriller, leaves are green. How tall? How thrilling? What shade of green? We take the relative and make it absolute, categorising the life out of it to streamline communication. Labels are the oil on a squeaky gate, and most people never question them.

When I was a child, I hated labels: they didn't make sense to me. Was a tall child tall, or short because they were a child? What if my eye colour wasn't an option on the list? Why did we need to classify books anyway, and where did one genre end and another begin? Wasn't it easier to just describe them? ...Surely that's what blurbs were for.

Categories lead to bad writing. If you learn that everybody can be described as a tall, frizzy-haired bossy woman, you always tell – and never show. Telling is boring. It loses the magic and the mystery of the woman who peers down between dark, raggedy fronds with a floating look and says tartly, "I told you to put the other end on first!"

I resisted for a long time. Declined to answer; drew an extra box on the multiple choice question. But eventually I was indoctrinated. How? Why?

...If you get told something often enough, again and again and again, it starts to sink in. Perhaps you don't understand the categories, but you can pick from them (even if you pick wrong). My teachers needed me to say that my character was bossy so they could prove I understood what adjectives were. Friends had to like the same genre of music. The NHS wanted to classify my growth rate. So I shut up and categorised for an easy life.

Science uses categories all the time. Species separate from species (did you know the only taxonomic difference between moths and butterflies is that butterflies are prettier?). This is incredibly useful for explaining the patterns and rules in science, but it's also limiting. As we discover more science, we have to revise our categories as they no longer make sense: such as the advent of DNA, which gives us new insights into how animals are related, or the discovery that electricity was the flow of negatively charged electrons, which revealed that our "conventional current" arrow went in the wrong direction!

In learning institutions, even the science subjects are carved up and divided: physics, chemistry, biology, maths… Perhaps, then, it should come as little surprise that so many of the unanswered questions in science take place at the intersection of these fields. To answer them, we need people who are experts in different fields talking and working together, but we actually need more than that: we need polymaths, people who are computational biologists, physical chemists, scientific philosophers, and so on…

I had a quick look at the Things We Don’t Know database, and picked out just a few very fascinating things that cross over scientific fields, from biology to physics to chemistry to computer science to geology to engineering to psychology… and so on ad infinitum. These are they:

Could robots soon have 'human-like' vision? 
Research has been carried out into replicating the muscle motion of the human eye using soft materials and pressure-sensitive piezoelectrics. This could allow robots to "perceive" the world in a way we find more intuitive, and may even help us learn about human visual processing.

Could we capture and store our waste carbon dioxide? 
Scientists think that up to 90% of carbon dioxide emissions could, instead of being released, be captured and stored underground or underwater, where, at great depths, high pressure cause it to liquefy. In the ocean, it shows “negative buoyancy”, sinking to the sea floor, whilst in rocks it can be drained into tiny natural pores in rocks: this is called geological sequestration. Scientists are still exploring where this could take place and how long the carbon dioxide could be stored.

Could we treat mental health problems with birdsong? 
Humans may get psychological benefits from listening to bird calls, including boosts to mood, attention and creativity. This “biophilia” – the idea that being amongst nature makes you happier and healthier – is sufficiently established that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool play birdsong in their corridors, as does an airport lounge in Amsterdam! It’s even been applied as a form of dementia treatment. New work led by the National Trust aims to explore how human brains are affected by birdsong.

How can we measure uncertainty? 
Entropy is a measure commonly used thermodynamics to assess the disorder of a system. However, computer scientists and cryptographers now talk about information entropy. The greater the uncertainty about something, the more information is needed to describe it – so the more entropy or disorder. How did photochirogenesis evolve? Photochirogenesis – the development of handedness in biological molecules (where all natural molecules are either left or right hand mirror images of asymmetric molecules), may have developed because of polarised light in meteorites. If this is true, the origin of life could be in stars.

Is time in our minds? 
Is time an illusion? How can we tell? And, if it’s just in our minds, why is it used in classical mechanics equations? Does time really only go in one direction, or is this an illusion of human perspective? Our current direction through time is always forwards by definition, but on what grounds do we define it like this? Underpinning this could help us understand the concept of time travel and the science behind what we really mean by it.

And on that philosophical note… If you or someone you know is working on one of these topics, we’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you can tell us more about how your research is going, or some of the challenges in the field!

I was inspired to write this post after hearing a talk by Dr Julia Shaw on the label “evil”. 'Evil' throws up all kinds of problems not only because it's a highly subjective category (like most), but also because it sticks. Once labelled evil, you are evil forever. You can live a good life, behave well, be compassionate, but screw up once and you are evil. Your misdeed will be carried with you forever and you can never shake off its label. Evil is immortal.

Monday 11 May 2020

The Causes of SIDS (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #19)

What causes SIDS, and why mention it with pregnancy?

Sudden Unexplained Infant Deaths (SUIDs) of infants under a year old occur unpredictably and don’t have an obvious cause. Of around 200 such deaths in the UK every year, around 80% are classified as SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (also know as cot death). These are the deaths that can’t later be explained by suffocation, infections, or genetic disorders, even after autopsy.

Baby by Beth [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

But what does this have to do with pregnancy?

Because SIDS happens to very little babies, many of the risk factors are linked to their mother’s health and what happens before and when they’re born.

Not all of them, of course.

The most commonly cited risk is sleeping position: babies on their backs are less likely to suffer stress complications, like restricted breathing or bedding entanglement, than babies placed on their fronts, sides, or co-sleeping.

There could also be a seasonal component, since more SIDS deaths occur in winter. However, this could instead be because parents use more bedding or babies are more likely to get sick.

And there are genetic factors. For example, boys are more likely to suffer from SIDS; one study cited a 50% male excess in SIDS per 1000 live births of each sex[1]. There may be a racial component too (although it’s not clear from the literature whether this has been disentangled from socioeconomic components). Or inherited defects could play a part, such as in channelopathies, ion channels related to the contraction of the heart, which may explain 10-20% of SIDS[2].

During pregnancy, maternal health is a key indicator for SIDS risk. Mums younger than 20, who smoke or take drugs, or get poor prenatal care are more likely to have babies that suffer from SIDS[3]. They’re also more likely to have babies born prematurely (increasing their risk x 4) or underweight (increasing their risk by x 5.7 for 1000–1499 g babies versus 3500–3999 g babies)[4]. An elevated risk is even seen in full term babies born before 39 weeks.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Depression During and After Pregnancy (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #18)

Postnatal depression is thought to occur in ~1 in 10 mothers, making it a common form of mental illness. The onset and peak of the illness may be weeks or even months after the birth of a baby, and the condition lasts for weeks, months, or longer.


The condition is characterised by persistent negative feelings – towards yourself, your baby, and things you previously had an interest in. Most parents find their inability to bond to their baby most upsetting, and many feel guilty, hopeless, and even suicidal. Physical symptoms include disturbed sleep, tiredness, increased or decreased appetite, and difficulty decision-making.

We don’t know what causes postnatal depression

We don’t know what causes postnatal depression, although it’s associated with hormonal changes, such as a drop in one hormone called allopregnanolone. But these alone can’t explain everything. Women go through huge and varied hormonal changes during pregnancy and early motherhood, and postnatal depression doesn’t effect everyone. In fact, for a long time, people believed that pregnancy hormones were protective against depression, and it was simply something new mothers couldn’t get – leading to many undiagnosed sufferers[1].

Worried Woman Image credit: RyanMcGuire (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

Monday 20 April 2020

New site feature - follow the story

We are very happy to announce a new feature that has been rolled out across the Things We Don't Know website - automated links to other science websites to help you follow the story behind the research that interests you most.

Our objective here at TWDK is to help people follow the story behind ongoing research into specific scientific topics. We describe the background, and then help you to find news and updates about that research from other sources. Until now, these updates have relied on scientists using our site posting an update manually, or our staff doing so. But now we have started to automatically check a number of sites to see if they've posted anything that is related to our articles. For example, you will now find at the bottom of our article about unanswered questions in artificial intelligence something like this:

Snapshot of "recent science news" related to artificial intelligence from the TWDK website
Snapshot of "recent news" items at the bottom of our article on unanswered questions in artificial intelligence

If you happen to have subscribed to the article, then these links will also appear in your customised feed on the TWDK homepage.

We will gradually increase the number of sites we check for science news that matches our articles, but to begin with we're automatically creating links to articles from the following sites:

We don't import or copy any material from any of these sites - we just add a link from our article to theirs.

These seventeen sites were selected to present a broad range of scientific updates from reputable sources. If you've got a site and you'd like us to add it to our list, just let us know in a comment below.


This guest article was written by Maxwell Holle from the University of Illinois.

A simple glass of milk holds the potential to become hundreds of different types of cheeses with a variety of different flavours. But with so many diverse flavours and styles, how can we identify an off-flavour?

Image by corinnabarbara from Pixabay.


What is cheese?

Cheese is milk that we force into a gel by either acid, heat, or enzymes. While making cheese, we try to remove as much water as possible, which also means losing some milk proteins. The simplest cheeses stop here and are known as fresh cheeses; they have a relatively salty and neutral taste. However, most cheeses take on their characteristic flavours and smells during the ageing and ripening stage, where diverse groups of microorganisms get involved. These microorganisms generate the characteristic flavours of some of our favourite cheeses.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Birth trauma (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #17)

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is still a condition associated with soldiers. Men. But every year, estimates suggest 4% of births cause maternal PTSD [1]. We call this birth trauma.

Birth trauma was first recognised in the 1990s, when the American Psychiatry Association modified its definition of a traumatic event. It’s now thought that it may affect fathers who were present at the birth as well as mothers.

I recently visited the Oxford Spires – a midwife-led unit where mothers with no complications can give birth in a relaxed environment. It sits conveniently a few floors above the main hospital, so emergency treatment is only a lift journey away. But amongst the pools and mood lighting, the giant squashy birth aid balls and the ergonomic beds, I was struck by how much could go wrong during birth.

And I don’t just mean physically.

Obstetric forceps. Killian 1842 via Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday 2 April 2020

How much do unborn babies sleep? (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #16)

We can’t measure the brain activity of a human foetus – not whilst they’re inside their mother. But we’re really interested. What happens to a baby’s brain as it’s developing, and what does this tell us about our own and the developing process of sleep?

EEG (electroencephalogram) reading via Wikipedia Commons.
Researchers into brain activity have performed EEG (electroencephogram) exams on premature babies, and monitored eye movement in the womb to learn about sleep cycles, although big errors with these kinds of measurements are common. They have, however, detected REM (rapid eye movement) sleep from around 7 months, when the brain cycles in and out of restful and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep every 20 to 40 minutes. From 7 months onwards, foetuses mostly sleep (90-95% of the time at 32 weeks, 85-90% by 37 weeks). After it develops, REM sleep increases and increases, reaching a lifetime high of 12 hours a day just before the baby is born.

Very little is known about foetus sleep before this. For example, we don’t know if sleep and sleep cycles suddenly or more gradually develop with the foetal brain. New research into lambs has shown that foetuses enter a dreaming-like brain state weeks before REM sleep starts[1]. As well as learning more about sleep, this study could help us figure out how the brain develops and when it is most at risk.

Equally, neurons in the brain develop much earlier, with those responsible for sleep present long before REM sleep is seen.

Friday 20 March 2020

Caesareans (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #15)

Historically, a caesarean section was a life or death operation. When a birth started to go wrong, the question was who to save – the mother, or the baby? Luckily, the maternal mortality rate for pregnancy has dropped to around 0.007% in the UK in 2017 (down from 0.09% in just 1952[1]), and caesarean sections are now considered only slightly more risky than vaginal births (death risk is 3 times higher[2], but this may be because a number of caesareans are only carried out in emergencies). Caesareans may also reduce the risk of complications in some cases. It used to be that having a caesarean once meant further babies always had to be delivered this way – but that’s no longer true: for women who have previously had a caesarean section, choosing an elective one for a subsequent baby over a vaginal birth reduces the risk of complications or consequential health problems (such as womb damage) from 1.8% to 0.8%[3]. However, risk overall is small.

Caesareans now account for 26.2% of births in the UK[4], but there is still a lot we don’t know about them, especially how they might affect babies later in life.

Caesarean by Salim Fadhley via Wikipedia Commons.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Climate change, glacial recession and mammal communities

By now, we are probably all familiar with the alarming fact that the polar ice caps are melting, and we’ve probably all seen the pictures of starving, stranded polar bears on thin pieces of sea ice. Scientists often look to the cryosphere – or the frozen water part of the Earth, such as ice caps, glaciers, areas of snow, and ice shelves – to understand the progression of climate change and predict how things may change in the future.

Changing climates have impacted the cryosphere for millions of years, and massive ice sheets have repeatedly advanced and retreated throughout history. The recession and advancement of these walls of ice has had an enormous impact on landscapes and the distribution of species, and while there have been many studies investigating how historical glacial recession has impacted current species distribution, little is known about how current species distribution is impacted by present day glacial recession.

Example of a tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. Johns Hopkins Glacier. ©

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Baby Brain (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #14)

Around eight weeks of pregnancy, I started forgetting the names of things.

Some know it as tip-of-tongue syndrome, and it’s definitely not new to pregnancy for me – it’s just worse.

Scissors via Wikipedia Commons.
No wonder I struggled with vocabulary in languages: looking for a pair of scissors, I will do the “scissor gesture” with my fingers and ask “Where are the …?” … “You know, the …?” It sounds odd coming from a writer, but it’s honestly true. I forget words easily. Nouns. These are obviously the least well-coded information at my disposal: after all, I can gesture or describe what I mean – even draw, if I need to, so this was the most easily lost content. Or that’s what I think was happening.

Other women have reported losing track of conversations, being absent-minded, and struggling with tasks such as reading comprehension.

The literature disagrees when it comes to the phenomenon known as “baby brain”. Is it real, or just a figment of women’s imaginations?

Wednesday 12 February 2020


What are POPs?

There’s increasing concern about the growing mass of our discarded plastics – yet not because of their direct effects on wildlife (e.g. entanglement), but because plastics could be a crucial vector for the transport of key environmental contaminants: persistent organic pollutants, or POPs.

There are many thousands of POP chemicals, originating from agriculture, combustion processes, industrial syntheses, and products such as flame retardants, plasticisers and antimicrobials. In fact, our understanding and classification of them is ever evolving. They’re named not because of their chemical groups, but because of their behaviour. As the name “persistent organic pollutants” suggests, they’re long-lived and harmful.

Plastic debris on a beach. By (Flickr).

What chemicals are we talking about?

Mosquito – By Alvesgaspar via Wikipedia Commons.
Typical culprits include DDT, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), halogenated flame retardants, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Although DDT is now banned in most countries, it’s still permitted in some places with a high incidence of malaria to fight off mosquitoes[1].

POPs are polluting and persistent because of certain properties, such as their solubility, reactivity and volatility.

Thursday 6 February 2020

Vitamins and Supplements (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #13)

Is it a safe and good idea to take vitamins whilst pregnant? One thing’s for certain – it’s the norm.

Bacteria. Public Domain.
Whilst scientists have shown that taking certain specific vitamin supplements can protect you against diseases to which you are at risk, taking high, regular doses of multivitamins is actually proven to increase your risk of heart disease or cancer[1]. We don’t know why – it could be because of the fibre, or the various digestive pathways food goes through in your body – but swallowing a broccoli vitamins tablet just doesn’t do the same as eating a broccoli. It may also mean you are missing out on foods rich in other stuff your body needs, perhaps things we haven’t even discovered yet. Then there’s your microbiome: we still understand relatively little about this, but we know you can alter the microbial constitution of your gut through diet and use of supplements.

Overall, a varied diet is recommended as the most healthy one – supplementing where necessary.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Determining the Sex of a Baby (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #12)

“And do you know… what it is?” they ask.

They mean the sex of our unborn baby, of course.

There isn’t much you can find out about who your unborn baby is, but you can know their sex. Or can you?

Often misnamed as “gender”, sex primarily relates to the organs a person presents with, but we already know that it’s more complex than that.

Chromosomes via Wikipedia Commons.
For a long time, we believed that sex was determined by a single chromosomal pair: XX or XY, but recent research has shown that the expressions of a bunch load of other genes is important too. For example, genes known as “enhancers” regulate the expression of genes that drive the development of physical sex characteristics. This means you can develop testes if you have an extra copy of the enhancers, even if you have two X chromosomes, or develop ovaries if you’re missing them, even if you are XY. The enhancers were found amongst the set of DNA formally known as “junk DNA”. These findings imply that observed biological sex and genetic sex may actually be different in some cases.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Adipogenesis – the making of fat

How Are Fat Cells Formed?

Our entire bodies originate from a single cell. Once it starts dividing, it kick-starts a multiplication process that lasts our whole lives. This ‘starter’ cell is a stem cell; a biologically programmable template for any other cell. They are responsible for everything, including our hearts, minds and waistlines.

Wait, waistlines?

Yes, this is determined by adipocytes, or white fat cells, in a process known as adipogenesis. There are six roughly defined phases of adipogenesis, but within them are a multitude of molecular processes, and explaining how they work poses a considerable challenge to scientists.

Fat, by Bigplankton via Wikipedia Commons.

Sunday 12 January 2020

Silent Miscarriage (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #11)

Miscarriage is a common medical complication that leads to the loss of a pregnancy before 23 weeks, and affects one in four women during their reproductive lifetime. Depending on how early or late it happens, it can have bigger or smaller impacts on a woman’s physical and mental health.

But why does it happen? Is it mostly to do with lifestyle, or genetics? Is there something you can do to prevent it? And how can we get early warnings of silent miscarriages – the ones you never even knew had happened?

If you’ve ever been pregnant – miscarriage or not – you’ll probably have wondered about these things, and worried about them, as I have. Whilst the chance of miscarriage drops off rapidly with time, stillbirth and postnatal foetal death are still classed as late pregnancy losses, and do happen from time to time, meaning there is no good time to truly forget about it.

Chances of miscarriage drop as pregnancy progresses. © TWDK. Data from:

Saturday 4 January 2020

The Thalidomide Scandal (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #10)

In 1953, a new drug was made, and by 1957 it was on the market. In the six years that followed, over 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with congenital deformities[1]. The disaster was known as the thalidomide scandal, and led to serious reforms in drug regulation and monitoring worldwide.

What happened?

Thalidomide was prescribed for insomnia, anxiety, asthma, hypertension, migraine, and morning sickness. Doctors thought that it was very safe because taking an overdose simply cast the drinker into a prolonged sleep – and did not cause death. It was also non-addictive. Nobody tested it in pregnant women or animals.

Then, in 1961, two doctors independently called out statistically high numbers of congenital abnormalities in “thalidomide babies” – 20% where the normal rate is 1.5% (or a bit higher, depending on your source)[2].

Thalidomide babies. Image via Wikipedia Commons.