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Thursday 31 March 2022

The plant-eating shark

Sharks are normally carnivorous, but there appears to be one that bucks the trend. The bonnethead.

The bonnethead shark eats seagrass, and scientists think it may be omnivorous.

But not everyone agrees: dissenters say the shark is eating the seagrass by accident, and that's why baby bonnetheads (which are immature hunters) eat more than grown-ups. In fact, in babies, 50-60% of their stomach contents is plant! They also argue that the seagrass can't replace hunting; i.e. the protein level is too low by percentage.

So those scientists invested in the omnivorous shark theory designed a few tests.

Seagrass. Sofia Sadogurska via Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday 17 March 2022

Co-sleeping: time to talk

Monkey baby-carrying. User 825545 via Pixabay.
Co-sleeping has been demonised by SIDS networks because evidence suggests that it correlates with higher levels of unexplained infant deaths. However, in western societies, approximately 50% of babies and parents co-sleep (i.e. sleep on the same surface) at least some of the time, with combination bedsharing (where a baby starts the night in one sleep location and ends the night in bed, usually with mum) the most common type. In other places around the world, 100% of parents co-sleep with babies: this is just the cultural norm. It's also what anthropologists think is the most natural way to sleep based on other precocial mammal babies, especially primates.

Wednesday 2 March 2022

Déjà vu

I’m thinking of anaglyphs: those blue-green offset images: you put the glasses on, your brain brings the colours together, and suddenly you see a crisp, 3D image.
Anaglyph: planet and moon. Reimund Bertrams via Pixabay.
Scientists think the brain works in a similar way – several components do their jobs and the synergy of their union gives us those sharp, clear pictures of the past that we treasure so dearly. But what happens when it doesn’t do its job properly, when the components are, as it were, out of synch?

Many magic tricks use delays to manipulate us: hold one card just a fraction longer than the others as you flick a deck, and you’ve got around half a chance your player will pick that card “at random”. The brain is too lazy to do anything else. Choose a picture card in hearts to hesitate on, and your odds are even better. Is it magic – or just impatience?
I previously wrote about l’appel du vide – the call of the void. That urge you have to jump from a high place, touch a sharp knife edge, or otherwise dice with danger: a momentary, physical impulse. But there doesn’t appear to be any link between depression or suicidal ideation and the phenomenon: in fact, it’s impulsive people and those with anxiety who tend to get it most.

Researchers have theorised that “an urge to jump affirms the urge to live”[1], and suggested that there’s a mental delay between the fast survival signal that tells you to get back from the edge and the logical deduction that tells you the edge is strong and you have a good grip on the hand rail. This signalling delay means you still get that physical impulse to get back from the edge, even when you know it’s safe.

Déjà vu might be something similar – only this one is working with our memories rather than our physical impulses.

Déjà vu means already seen and it’s that feeling that an experience you’ve just had already happened in the past (when it hasn't).

Some think the phenomenon happens because of the way we store memories: sometimes as pictures, as motion, as touch… Storing memories in varied ways allows us to pack more information in, but sometimes that means a memory can get lost, or take a while to surface. It’s also been suggested that there’s a delay between two parts of the brain. When these parts synch back up, we get the feeling of déjà vu, like this already happened before; and for good reason: it did, just in a different part of the brain! But there are lots of theories out there. Others believe déjà vu is a momentary dysfunction of the nervous system, something closer to the sensory magic of l’appel du vide.

Will we ever know?

Of course, déjà vu is incredibly hard to study: there’s just no way of predicting when it’s going to happen. But if we could learn it like a magic trick, flick a deck of cards or set up an optical illusion – well, I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.

why don't all references have links?

[1] Hames, Jennifer L., et al. "An urge to jump affirms the urge to live: An empirical examination of the high place phenomenon." Journal of affective disorders 136.3 (2012): 1114-1120.

Friday 18 February 2022

Why do Narwhals have tusks?

Narwhals, the unicorns of the sea, have large tusks (which are actually large canine teeth) protruding from their foreheads. Each tusk holds 10 million nerve endings. But what do they do? Narwhals have not been observed fencing with them for territory, food or mates, or using them to cut things or defend against enemies. Scientists think they may be sensors, sensing changes in pressure, salinity and water chemistry.
Narwhal illustration. Strangely, there are few good pictures of these animals as they spend most of their time partially submerged.

Friday 4 February 2022

Green ammonia

Ammonia may be a chemical you don't think about very much but, perhaps, you should...

75-90% of all the ammonia made is used to make fertiliser, which is used to grow 50% of global food. Other industries that use it include pharmaceuticals, plastics, textiles, and explosives. We call it a “nexus molecule”.

But it's more than just that. Ammonia might be used in the future as a chemical energy store, costing energy to make and releasing it when its burnt. Better than other materials such as hydrogen, it's nowhere near as flammable nor as expensive to keep liquid, requiring achievable pressures of 10-15 bar or -33°C.

Can we decarbonise industry? Image credit: Richard Hurd

It also has the potential to put a massive dent in our greenhouse gas emissions and could be critical to achieving net zero carbon by 2050 – the current global target. This is because of one of its main ingredients, hydrogen: made by steam reforming the fossil fuel methane, it contributes ~1.8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. We could replace this with blue hydrogen, using carbon capture and storage of all CO2 emissions to achieve net zero carbon, or better – green hydrogen, generated from water via electrolysis and 100% renewable energy resources.

We can also massively improve the synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen, using lower pressures and temperatures, or exploring fascinating biochemical or electrochemical methods, where scientists employ bacterial enzymes or metal catalysts (perhaps nanocatalysts) to make it from nitrogen. These processes are still in the works, but have the potential to entirely reform the way we see green chemistry.

Bring on the ammonia revolution!

To find out more about green ammonia, check out our new article on the topic.


Thursday 13 January 2022

The cannibal in the ocean

I’ve just learnt about a new shark – Orthacanthus – and maybe it’s Latin name will give you a clue as to why I hadn’t heard of it before: it’s extinct. But even when animals are long gone, the mysteries they leave in the ripples behind them continue to fascinate scientists. And all of us.
Orthacanthus. SaberrexStrongheart via