F is for Faraday

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharoah

The year is 1791. ¬†On a crisp autumn morning in South London, Margaret Hastwell, a blackmith’s apprentice, gives birth to her third son. ¬†With her husband, son, and daughter crowded around, she decides to name the newborn¬†Michael. ¬†Michael Faraday.

Margaret had a lot on her plate, what with two young children, a husband who was often sick, and quite a few bills to pay. ¬†She probably didn’t have much time or energy for idle thought or daydreaming. ¬†I doubt if she much considered what Michael might do with his life other than get by. ¬†There is no way it occurred to her that Michael would grow up to revolutionize the world of physics, make electricity a viable source of mechanical energy, and inspire countless scientists, engineers, and young people (including but not limited to Einstein, Rutherford, and this young science communicator, 223 years later). But that is exactly what he would do.

Faraday went to elementary school and learned to read and write, but by the time he turned 13, he had to start work in order to help his parents make ends meet. ¬†He was apprenticed to a local bookbinder and spent the next 7 years diligently mending books. ¬†But that wasn’t all he was doing. ¬†He was also reading. ¬†Over those 7 years, Faraday read voraciously and became interested in science, particularly the topics of Chemistry and Electricity. Luckily for him, George Riebau, the bookbinder to whom he was apprenticed, took an interest in young Faraday’s education and bought him tickets to lectures by¬†Humphry Davy¬†at the Royal Institution in 1812. ¬†This was only¬†shortly after Davy had¬†discovered calcium and chlorine through electrolysis. ¬†Davy was a big name in science¬†at the time, comparable to today’s Stephen Hawking, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, or Jane Gooddall, so it was with wide eyes that young Faraday attended. ¬†He was so blown away by what he saw and heard that he faithfully wrote notes and drew diagrams. ¬†These meticulous notes would prove to be his ticket into Davy’s lab.

Davy Notes
“I got a golden ticket!” Image from the Royal Society of Chemistry

Later that year, Faraday sent a letter to¬†Davy asking for a job¬†and attached a few of his notes. ¬†Davy was impressed and so interviewed young Faraday, but ultimately rejected the eager young fellow, saying “Science [is] a harsh mistress, and in a pecuniary point of view but poorly rewarding those who devote themselves to her service.” ¬†Translation: ¬†“Sorry, I don’t have space for you in my lab, but just to let you know… Science really isn’t very profitable.” ¬†A few months later, one of Davy’s assistants got in a fight and was fired, so guess who got a call? ¬†That’s right, Mikey F.

Not only did Faraday get a spot in Davy’s lab, but he also got to go on a European¬†tour with Mr. and Mrs. Davy. ¬†Pretty sweet deal, right? ¬†On the eighteen month journey, Faraday got to meet the likes of Amp√®re and Volta. ¬†If those names are ringing distant bells, it should be no surprise. ¬†Those eminent continental scientists give their names to standard units of electrical current¬†(Ampere)¬†and potential difference¬†(Volt). ¬†Re-invigorated, 22-year-old Faraday returned to London and took up a¬†post at the Royal Institution as Davy’s assistant.

The next two decades saw Faraday make great advances in chemistry, including discovering benzene, liquefying gases, and exploring the properties of chlorine. ¬†He didn’t get much chance to focus on electricity, however, until 1821. ¬†In that year, Faraday started experimenting with chemical batteries, copper wire, and magnets. ¬†Building on the work of¬†Hans Christian √ėrsted, Faraday’s¬†work was some of the first to show that light, electricity, and magnetism are all inextricably linked (we now know that they are all manifestations of the electromagnetic force). He was a dedicated experimentalist and between 1821 and 1831, he effectively invented the first electric motor and, later, the first electric generator. ¬†These two inventions form the basis for much of today’s modern power system. ¬†The electric motor that opens your garage door as well as wind and hydro-electric generators work on the exact same principle that was discovered by Faraday back in 1831: electromagnetic induction.

Faraday’s insight was that when connected¬†by conductive material, an electric¬†current could make¬†a magnet move. ¬†He also found that the reverse was true: a moving magnet can¬†create a flow of electrons: an electric current.¬†The experiment is actually quite simple and you can even¬†try it at home. Induction enables the transformation of energy between¬†mechanical, electrical, and magnetic states. ¬†Before Faraday, electricity was seen simply as a novelty. ¬†Since Faraday, we’ve been able to use it for all sorts of things. ¬†Like writing science blogs!

The famous iron ring experiment.  Two insulated coils of wire are wrapped around an iron ring but kept separate.  Attaching one to a battery will create a momentary current in the other.  Induction!
The famous iron ring experiment. Two insulated coils of wire are wrapped around an iron ring but kept separate. Attaching one to a battery will create a momentary current in the other. Induction!   Image by Eviatar Bach

[While he was definitely a gifted scientist, Faraday knew next to nothing about mathematics. ¬†He observed, took careful notes, and had an intuition for how to design experiments, but could not formalize his theories in mathematical language. ¬†He would have to wait for James Clerk Maxwell, a young Scottish¬†prodigy, to do the math and formalize¬†Faraday’s Law¬†in the 1860s.]

Faraday continued his work on electricity and gained all sorts of recognition, including medals, honorary degrees, and prestigious positions.  This increased pressure may have been to blame for a nervous breakdown in 1839.  He took a few years off, but by 1845 he was back at it, trying to bend light with strong magnets.  He discovered little else after the 1850s, but continued to lecture and participate in the scientific community.

Older Faraday with glass bar
While that does look remarkably like a cigar, Faraday is actually holding a glass tube in his hand. A glass tube… of Science! ¬† ¬†Public Domain image from Wikimedia

So not only can Faraday be considered to be one of the fathers of the modern world because of his breakthroughs in electricity, but he can¬†also be considered to be one of the fathers of modern popular science communication. ¬†In 1825, he decided to give a series of Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution, specifically aimed at children and non-specialists. ¬†He gave these lectures every year until his death in 1867 and was renowned as a charismatic, engaging speaker. ¬†He tried to explain the science behind everyday phenomena and in 1860 gave a famous lecture on the candle, something which everyone had used but which few actually understood. ¬†The¬†Christmas lectures continue to this day and, continuing with Faraday’s legacy, the Royal Institution is one of the UK’s leading science communication organizations.

Doesn't that look fun!?
Doesn’t that look fun!? ¬† ¬†Public Domain image from Wikimedia

It is not simply that Faraday was a great scientist and lecturer, nor that he managed to escape poverty in 19th century England to become world-renowned. ¬†Michael Faraday’s story is so¬†great¬†because by all accounts, he deserved every bit of success he gained. ¬†One biographer, Thomas Martin, wrote in 1934:

He was by any sense and by any standard a good man; and yet his goodness was not of the kind that make others uncomfortable in his presence. His strong personal sense of duty did not take the gaiety out of his life. … his virtues were those of action, not of mere abstention

It’s no wonder that Einstein had a picture of him up in his office. ¬†I think I might just print one off myself.

Faraday painting 1842
Still pretty handsome considering this painting is from 1842, making Faraday 51 years old.   Public Domain image from Wikimedia

E is for Europa

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

Galileo Galilei is quite a famous astronomer but many of the discoveries¬†he’s known for are just extensions of the work of others. ¬†For instance, he didn’t come up with the idea that the Sun is the centre of the Solar System, he just got in big trouble for it. ¬†He also didn’t invent the telescope (even though he¬†is often credited). ¬†He was just one of the first people to point it up at night to look at stars instead of over the sea at enemy ships. ¬†One thing he did do, all by himself, was observe that Jupiter had some friends that followed it around the sky.

If you're interested in the story of Galileo Galilei, I'd recommend checking out a Bertolt Brecht play called A Life of Galileo.
Definitely a direct quote from his notes: “Hey, Jupiter! Jupiter! ¬†Don’t turn around…. but I think those moons are following you…” ¬† ¬†[If you’re interested in the story of Galileo Galilei, I’d recommend checking out a Bertolt Brecht play called A Life of Galileo. ¬†If you’re not interested, I’d recommend reading this book instead.] ¬† ¬† ¬†Image is a 16th century painting by Justus Sustermans
In about 1610, Galileo¬†discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede. ¬†While these celestial objects are all¬†interesting in their own right, today I’m going to focus on Europa because it is one of the most credible¬†candidates for extraterrestrial life.

Why might this be, and where the heck is Europa anyways? ¬†I’ll let my friends (I use the term loosely) at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory explain:

Europa FINAL_9_30_br
Thanks, NASA!

While the logic there might be a bit suspect (Earth and Europa are very different systems and the rules for one don’t necessarily apply for the other), I think the infographic gives a pretty nice introduction to Europa and helps to underline that for¬†astrobiologists, the search for life in the Universe is almost synonymous with the search for water.

And Europa certainly has a lot of water. ¬†Unfortunately, the H2O is mostly trapped under kilometres-thick sheets of ice. ¬†This has posed a serious problem for scientists because in order to sample to subsurface ocean and find out if there is indeed life on that cold, watery world, a mission would need to drill through an unknown distance¬†of ice (but certainly on the order of kilometres) and maintain contact with Earth. ¬†Even with all of the resources available to us here on Earth, the deepest we’ve been able to go is about 12km. ¬†The technical challenges of remotely drilling through such a thick ice sheet have kept many Europa mission concepts off the table.

A recent discovery, however, has made a productive mission to Europa much more feasible. ¬†It turns out that Europa sporadically ejects plumes of water vapour. ¬†Unlike its cousins Io (another moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn), Europa’s plumes are much less frequent, smaller, and harder to predict. ¬†We know that the polar regions have the weakest ice but for some reason plumes just don’t occur very often. ¬†They are also hard to catch on film¬†because Europa’s relatively strong gravity means the water can’t go very high and it comes back down pretty quickly. ¬†It took the Hubble Space telescope a few tries before it finally caught the sneaky tooter in action in 2013. It’s kind of like¬†Old Faithful, but much older and less faithful. ¬†So more like Ancient Temperamental.

What one of these Ancient Temperamental's might look like.  An artist's conception  NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI
What one of these Ancient Temperamental’s might look like. An artist’s conception NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

While nowhere near the scale of the plumes of Enceladus, Europa’s plumes are still upwards of 200 km high. ¬†This means that in order to sample its water, all we need to do is fly through and sniff. ¬†That’s what Europa Clipper, a current mission concept, aims to do. ¬†For anybody wondering, there are also plenty of people who want to fly through the plumes of Enceladus as well.

Buzz about Europa has definitely grown a lot since it was just a dot in the telescope that Galileo pointed up (but didn’t invent). ¬†Actually, last week the White House announced $30 million in funding for developing a mission to Europa and next week NASA is hosting a¬†workshop¬†about Europa’s plumes.

D is for Dinosaur Evolution

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

When was the last time you ate dinosaur?  I had some just the other day, next to my peas and carrots.

File:Washing peas and carrots.jpg

Shocking as it may seem, dinosaurs are all around us and we interact with them on a fairly regular basis. ¬†If you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “No, dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago!”, let me remind you of one critical and oft-forgotten fact: all modern birds (including chickens, turkeys, toucans, and cuckoos) are dinosaurs. ¬†That’s right, the mascot for Froot Loops is a dinosaur. ¬†KFC can change it’s name to Kentucky Fried Dinosaur and still be scientifically accurate.

How can this be? ¬†¬†It all has to do with how biologists name and classify organisms (the technical term for this is taxonomy). ¬†Scientists, being very much into order and rationality, made up a few¬†systems for naming organisms and describing¬†their evolutionary relationships. ¬†The system I’m going to focus on today, cladistics, has only a few basic rules and is incredibly helpful for understanding the history of life on our planet. ¬†Unfortunately it can be a bit daunting because there is some pretty scary-looking jargon. ¬†Let’s unpack some of that jargon and apply it to dinosaurs in order to find out how the heck the same word can be used to (correctly) describe animals as different as stegosauruses and canaries.

File:Stegosaurus Struct.jpg
Dinosaur, Photo by Yosemite
File:Serinus canaria -Parque Rural del Nublo, Gran Canaria, Spain -male-8a.jpg
Also a dinosaur, Photo by Juan Emilio

Two of the most important concepts for cladistics are that:

  1. All life on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor.
  2. Organisms should be classified based on last common ancestors, with organisms that share recent common ancestors being interpreted to be more closely related than organisms with more distant common ancestors.

Think of your family.  Everyone is descended from your grandparents (premise #1 above) and you are more closely related to your siblings (last common ancestor is your parents) than your cousins (last common ancestor is your grandparents; premise #2 above).

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.12.48 PM

Those are the basic rules of cladistics.  Pretty simple in theory, right?  The problem is that with organisms that have been dead for millions of years and only leave behind fragments of bone, deciding where they fit in to the family tree gets difficult.

File:House of ROMANOV-tree-fr.png
Like fitting Rasputin into this Romanov family tree.

Now let’s look at some of¬†that jargon I promised.

The first word¬†we need to understand is monophyletic. ¬†A¬†monophyletic group is a set of organisms that all share a common ancestor. ¬†You, your siblings, and your mum make a monophyletic group. ¬†You, your siblings, your mum, and your dad are not monophyletic because (hopefully) your mom and dad are not related. ¬†Some scientists¬†call¬†monophyletic¬†groups clades¬†and they are the bedrock of cladistics. ¬†A “proper” group must be monophyletic.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.15.04 PM
A nice pink monophyletic group with you right in the middle.  Examples from nature include birds and primates.

If the group you’re looking at isn’t monophyletic, it might be¬†paraphyletic¬†or¬†polyphyletic. ¬†These are two types of almost-groups that can¬†confuse a lot of people. ¬†Paraphyletic groups choose¬†a section of the family tree, ignoring a large chunk. ¬†Polyphyletic groups choose a few individuals throughout the tree without regard for common ancestors. ¬†In the family analogy, a paraphyletic group could¬†include your mom and two of your siblings but not you. ¬†A polyphyletic group might include you and your cousin.

A nice purple monophyletic group.  Some examples from nature: bacteria and birds.
A less-nice purple paraphyletic group. Some examples from nature: Reptiles, Fish
Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.18.34 PM
A rather arbitrary blue polyphyletic group.  Examples from nature: flightless birds, warm-blooded animals.

Phylogenetic trees are the most common tool used by biologists to depict evolutionary relationships.  Generally the root of the tree is interpreted to be the oldest and the branches are the newest.  Every branching point is called a node.

So far we’ve been looking at phylogenetic trees of your hypothetical family, but now that we have a primer in cladistics under our belts, we can start to look at a dinosaur phylogenetic tree.

Image from an article by Matt Wendel at UC Berkeley

The way to interpret this diagram is to think of time increasing as you read up. At the bottom there are the most recent common ancestor of all crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs: Archosaurs.  Just as with all of the other terms on this diagram, everything up from any given node belongs to the group labelled at the node.  This means that all dinosaurs are archosaurs (but not all archosaurs are dinosaurs).

Archosaurs evolved in the late Permian or early Triassic period, about 250 million years ago.  The most familiar archosaurs from that time are probably sail-backed beasts like Ctenosauriscus koeneni.

File:Ctenosauriscus BW.jpg
Image by Nobu Tamara

At the next node, you see ornithodirans, a word which refers to dinosaurs and pterosaurs. The interesting part to note here is that pterosaurs (like pterodactyls and Quetzalcoatlus) aren’t dinosaurs. ¬†They are the closest relatives to dinosaurs without actually being dinosaurs.

Those are some big flying non-dinosaurs!
Those are some big flying non-dinosaurs!

The next node on that diagram is the one we’ve been waiting for: Dinosaurs! As you can see, dinosaurs are a monophyletic group. ¬†If you want to refer to the dinosaurs that were wiped out by an asteroid 65 million years ago, you have to make a paraphyletic group and exclude birds. ¬†You can do this by saying “non-avian dinosaurs”. ¬†Let the pedantry begin!

A picture I took at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.  Can you spot what's wrong with this panel?  High horses feel nice, don't they?
A picture I took at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Can you spot what’s wrong with this panel? High horses feel nice, don’t they?

As the diagram shows, the dinosaur lineage splits at this point and we find one of the most important features that helps scientists classify dinosaurs.  It all comes down to the hip.  One group, the ornithischians, have backwards-facing pubises in line with their ischia, while saurischians have down-and-forwards facing pubises at an angle to their ischia.  This will become much clearer with some labelled images:

ornithischpelvis saurpelvis

Once you know to look for it, this difference becomes glaringly obvious whenever you look at a dinosaur skeleton.  Here, have a look at a few different images of dinosaurs and see if you can tell if its ornithischian or saurischian (I often just think of these as OРand SРbecause even when I say them in my head I trip over the -ischi-).

Tyrannosaurus_skeletonStego-marsh-1896-US_geological_surveyBrontosaurus_skeleton_1880s

You are well on your way to being a dinosaur expert!

The last node we are going to discuss in the evolution of dinosaurs is the theropods.  The word itself means beast feet and it is the last taxonomic word you can use to accurately describe both T-Rex and turkey.  Theropods are a terrifying group of creatures, laying claim to speedy velociraptors, vicious ceratosaurs, and of course, the King, Tyrannosaurus Rex.  They evolved fairly early on (~230 million years ago) and include most carnivorous dinosaurs and their descendants.

My favourite extinct dinosaur is Ankylosaurus magniventris, an armoured tank of a creature with a club-tail that definitely meant business.  On the other hand, my favourite non-extinct dinosaur is probably Meleagris gallopavo, a colourful but mean-looking dino best served with potatoes and cranberry sauce.

C is for Cat Feces

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

I’ve never been a cat person, myself. ¬†They just seem a bit too contemptuous as a species.

Cats, aside from being aloof, clawed, and kind of mean, also form a necessary part in the life cycle of a single-celled protozoan called¬†Toxoplasma gondii. ¬†This sneaky parasite can only reproduce in¬†feline intestines¬†but also finds its way into the tissues of pretty much all warm-blooded mammals. ¬†Its reach seems almost limitless and extends to more than half of the world’s bears, birds, cattle, cats, domestic chickens, deer, dogs, domestic geese, goats, mice, pigs, rabbits, rats, sea otters, sheep, and humans. ¬†And those are only the populations that were studied. ¬†Ever heard the expression that glitter is the herpes of the craft world because it gets everywhere? ¬†More accurately, glitter is the T. gondii of the craft world.

The life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii.  Humans are on the left side of this diagram along with the rodents and small birds.  Image from
The life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii. Humans, along with the rest of Noah’s menagerie,¬†would be on the left side of this diagram. Felines, aka devilspawn, are on the right. ¬†Image from Wikipedia

I call it sneaky because T. gondii¬†has been shown to alter the behaviour of its rodent¬†hosts in order to make it more likely to be ingested. ¬†The physical mechanism for this is still under investigation and largely unknown but¬†there are¬†two interesting experiments¬†worth noting. ¬†The first found that¬†rodents infected with T. gondii are more active and more excited about new places, making them¬†more likely to be noticed¬†(and eaten) by cats. ¬†The second purports that rodent brain chemistry is altered so that the unfortunate rats¬†finds the scent of cat pee sexually attractive. ¬†The scientific paper which explains this second theory is even titled “Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii”.

A lesson for rodents:  don't listen to the parasite in your brain.  Cat pee IS NOT ATTRACTIVE! Image from Wikimedia
A lesson for rodents: don’t listen to the parasite in your brain. Cat pee IS NOT ATTRACTIVE!
Image from Wikimedia user Lxowle

So we’re pretty confident that T. gondii can alter the behaviour of rodents, but what does it do to¬†humans?

We’re not sure…

For those with weak immune systems or for the pregnant, a T. gondii infection can cause acute toxoplasmosis, a potentially fatal disease characterised by swelling lymph nodes, sore muscles, and flu-like symptoms. ¬†I wouldn’t worry about that too much because it’s about as lethal as the flu for those with regular immune systems.

For the rest of us, infection with this parasite is largely¬†asymptomatic. ¬†There’s no way to tell whether you’re infected or not without a blood test. ¬†Unless you ask Czech researcher Jaroslav Flegr. ¬†He, along with a growing number of scientists, believes there is enough evidence to show that latent toxoplasmosis makes humans more thrill-seeking. ¬†According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, infected individuals are more likely to get into traffic¬†accidents, score differently on personality tests than un-infected individuals, and infected men are taller on average with more masculine facial features.

Rodent and human brains are not so different, it turns out.

Japanese_litter_box_in_use
Patient Zero. From Wikimedia user Ocdp

If your cat got infected and you happened to get exposed while cleaning out its litter box, chances are that you are infected. ¬†Your cat’s poo is likely changing your personality. ¬†If, like me, you don’t and have never owned a cat, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from infection. ¬†T. gondii is really good at getting into your body and making its way to the central nervous system, where it acts the puppetmaster and, expecting you to be a rodent, makes¬†you excited about¬†new environments. ¬†All this¬†so that you can be eaten and it can reproduce.

Pretty interesting, eh?

B is for Bat Echolocation

Microbat Photo by Neal Foster

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

Ever wish you could see in the dark?  It would make life a bit easier.  No more tripping over clutter on the ground or feeling walls for a switch.  Humans rely quite heavily on their sight, but some animals can make do by illuminating their surroundings with sound.

Bats are just such an animal. ¬†They belong to a privileged group of organisms including toothed whales (like sperm whales, dolphins, and killer whales) and shrews that use sound to see the world. ¬†By listening for the reflections of their¬†high-frequency clicks, bats¬†are able to build up an accurate picture of the world around them. ¬†The clicks are often too high for humans to hear, sometimes reaching as high as 110 kHz (human hearing generally goes¬†from 20Hz-20kHz). ¬†This amazing superpower is called echolocation but not all bats have it. ¬†Most microbats (usually small, insect-eating, with proportionally large ears) can echolocate using their throat to produce clicks, while megabats (larger, fruit-eating, with large eyes) usually can’t. ¬†Like most rules in biology, though, these distinctions aren’t¬†universal. ¬†Some megabats have evolved¬†echolocation by way of specialized nose structures and others are smaller than big microbats.

An example of a Megabat, waiting for Comissioner Gordon to turn on the signal. Photo by Gerwin Sturm
An example of a megabat, waiting for Comissioner Gordon to turn on the signal.
Photo by Gerwin Sturm
This little microbat can't wait to be free! Photo by Neal Foster
This little microbat can’t wait to be free!
Photo by Neal Foster

So now that you’ve been acquainted with the notion of echolocation and the bat family tree, let’s start talking about some neat things that bats can do with their special ability.

Jamming

Since echolocation is dependent on a bat receiving and interpreting the reflections of sound, it is particularly¬†susceptible to interference. ¬†The biggest source of interference is the bat itself. ¬†Bats produce some of the loudest sounds in nature and have some of the most sensitive ears to register the reflections that come back hundreds of times quieter. ¬†Imagine revving up¬†a Harley Davidson and putting a traffic cone on your ear to hear someone whispering across the room. ¬†It would probably hurt if you did those things at the same time. ¬†You’d be too rattled by the revving to be able to listen to the whisper. ¬†Bats avoid this by temporarily disconnecting their ears as they shriek, then quickly reconnecting them in time to hear the echo.

One particular species of bat, the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), has been recently observed messing with its competitors’ signals. ¬†By emitting a special signal right when another bat is about to catch an insect, the bats make each other miss. ¬†It’s the bat equivalent of yelling “PSYCH!” when someone is about to shoot a free-throw. ¬†Unlike the obnoxious friend though, the bat version¬†actually works. ¬†The bats’ success rate drops by about 80%. ¬†It’s such an effective strategy that two bats will even hang out near each other, jamming each others’ signals every time one swoops in for a bug, until someone gives up.

Adapting

The same species of bat that jams also lives in close proximity to natural gas fields in New Mexico.  Some of the rigs have compressors that emit a constant, loud noise that can interfere with echolocation calls.  For the Mexican free-tailed bats, whose normal calls fall within the same frequency range as the compressors, the loud wells are avoided when possible.  The bats have also begun to change their calls, making them longer and in a more restricted range of frequencies.  This strategy would make the calls more easily distinguishable from the background din and marks the first time human-made noise has been shown to interfere with bat life.

Sneaking

We know that humans can’t hear a lot of what the bats are “saying” when they are building up a sonar picture because our ears aren’t sensitive to the right frequencies. ¬†This makes sense because, for the vast majority of humans, it really doesn’t matter what the bats are saying. ¬†It’s a whole¬†other issue if you’re a moth about to be eaten. ¬†There’s a lot of (evolutionary) pressure to hear the bats coming in order to avoid getting eaten. ¬†Some noctuids, a rather large family of moths, have evolved bat-sensing ears that warn the insect of impending disaster. ¬†If the bat is far enough away, the moth will make a break for it, otherwise it will just start flying erratically in random directions to try and make the bat miss. ¬†The Pallas long-tongue bat (Glossophaga soricina) still manages to get a meal by using only ultra-high-frequency, low intensity calls to find moths and by going silent on approach. ¬†This stealth mode doesn’t trip the moth’s defences.

Stealth bats.  Also happen to have the fastest metabolism of any known mammal. Photo by Ryan Somma
Stealth bats. Also happen to have the fastest metabolism of any known mammal.
Photo by Ryan Somma

For more information on echolocation and bats, check out:

The Bat Conservation Trust, a UK charity devoted to all things bat

This Scientific American article about how echolocation works

This study about Mexican free-tailed bat jamming

This study about Mexican free-tailed bat adapting

This study about Pallas long-tongue bat sneaking

A is for Axolotl

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharaoh

Imagine a creature that never grows up, can regenerate limbs without scars, and has a sort of slimy, alien-like cuteness. ¬†Sounds like a critter you’d like to meet, right? ¬†Ambystoma mexicanum, the axolotl, lives all over the world in aquaria but their only wild habitat is under severe threat. ¬†Chances are that neither of us will ever meet a wild one and that is a shame.

This fascinating amphibian, through a quirk of evolution, is neotenous.  This means that it never really leaves the tadpole stage.  Where most salamanders and frogs will leave behind external gills and develop lungs to breathe on land, the axolotl decides it is perfectly happy and stays put underwater with beautiful gill fans collecting the oxygen it needs.

Image by Faldrian
This axolotl is a strong, independent amphibian that don’t need no lungs or terrestrial environment. ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† Image Creddit:¬†Faldrian

Not only does this incredible creature never grow up, but it can also totally regenerate lost limbs.  This makes it a valuable model organism for scientists to study in the lab.  The exact mechanism behind this regeneration is still being investigated, in hopes that one day a technique for human regeneration will be discovered, but there are some interesting findings that have already come out.

The generally accepted theory was that when a limb was cut off, the axolotl would send a signal to the stump that would turn the cells at the end to pluripotent stem cells. ¬†These cells would be able to duplicate and grow into any tissue and are similar to the cells found in embryos. ¬†Recent research out of Germany, however, showed that¬†the cells at the end of the stump don’t revert to a totally embryonic state. ¬†They are still able to grow into tissues, but only certain kinds of tissue. ¬†The part of the stump that was muscle¬†remembers that it needs to grow muscle, whereas the part that was nerve remembers that it needs to grow nerve.

Step-by-step limb regeneration.  From the lab of James Monaghan
Step-by-step limb axolotl limb regeneration.      From the lab of James Monaghan

Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City is the only place in the world the axolotl can be found in the wild, making them critically endangered according to the IUCN.  They used to live in another nearby lake named Chalco, until that was drained for fear of flooding.  For hundreds of years the axolotl was abundant enough to be a staple in the diet of locals, but now they are nearly impossible to find.  In a 2002-2003 survey where over 1800 nets were cast over the entirety of Lake Xochimilco, scientists could only find 42 of the little amphibians.  The first thing to understand about axolotl decline is that calling Xochimilco a lake is kind of a stretch.

"Lake" Xochimilco.  Basically a network of canals surrounded by farms.
“Lake” Xochimilco. Basically a network of canals surrounded by farms.

This small, restricted environment is a closed system, meaning it does not drain anywhere.  It is also surrounded by farms which provide much of the food needed to feed Mexico City.  Agricultural runoff from the farms and pollution from the nearby megacity accumulate, causing severe damage to the ecosystem and endangering the few axolotls that remain.

The axolotl is an incredible animal at severe risk of extinction in the wild. ¬†It is the Peter Pan of the animal kingdom, refusing to¬†grow up and hiding from hooks. ¬†It’s most amazing power, regeneration, is still being studied and one day may prove the key to human limb regrowth. ¬†For all this and more, the¬†axolotl is most definitely an interesting thing.

Some captive axolotls, like this one, are leucistic (a condition similar to albinism that causes animals to become white).  Aren't they cute? Image by Henry M√ľhlpfordt
Some captive axolotls, like this one, are leucistic (a condition similar to albinism that causes animals to become white). Aren’t they cute?
Image by Henry M√ľhlpfordt

For more information on this beautiful creature, follow the links below

Weird Creatures with Nick Baker did a great documentary on axolotls which is available on Youtube.

The IUCN has put the axolotl on its red list of endangered animals

The German team who study axolotl limb regeneration

Zombies: The Theoretical Pathogenesis

zombies are real

by James Riley

“When hell is full, the dead shall walk the Earth.”

(Feature Image, Original Credit: Gianluca Ramalho Misiti)

Are zombies real? To many people, the idea of a horde of ravenous zombies tearing through the nation is a grotesque and distant fiction; something reserved for the big screen or the comic strip. Scenes of overrun cities and desolated countryside communities don’t worry these people. But worry they should.

What is a zombie? Haitian Voodoo folklore dictates they are cursed souls, raised from the dead by witchcraft. But this explanation holds no blood. A zombie is a creature which can be explained, at least theoretically, by science. A zombie is a sick person, infected with a horrible pathogen. Lots of real parasites make nasty changes in the behaviour of their hosts, making them act in weird and wounding ways, to increase the chances of the parasite spreading. This could be a virus, as is seen in many movies, it could even be a bacterial or fungal agent.

zombie walk
(Image Credit: Gianluca Ramalho Misiti)

Could these pathologies infect and change a human into a recognisable yet horribly distinct creature? A change which would dull the brain and leave the host unable to resist the visceral urges plaguing them: the urge to kill – the urge to eat. As we project our darkest fears, we may, in cynical conclusion, bestow the label of zombie on these transmogrified souls. For if something looks, acts and bites like a zombie, then what matters the name? Known as the infected, the walking dead, carriers, biters, abominations or masticating madams; the name will matter very little when you are barricading your doors, praying the torrential horde passes through your streets without tasting the terror which oozes from your trembling skin.

Let’s explore some of the more plausible pathologies which could, under the right (or, more accurately, wrong) circumstances, confer the characteristics of the zombie on an unwitting victim; turning them into Patient Zero, the genesis of the pandemic. What follows is science, it is real, and it is scary – scarier than anything you could find dwelling in the recesses of Stephen King’s macabre mind. This is zombie science: check your pulse and delve in.

An example of a modifying microbe is the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma is a strange creature with a strange lifecycle. Although it can infect, live and asexually reproduce in almost all warm-blooded animals, it can only sexually reproduce inside the intestines of cats. (Talk about being picky. As far as sexual fetishes go this one is pretty out-there, or, maybe, in-there is more apt?) The life of Toxoplasma has one central theme: get into a cat’s guts and reproduce. Through the wonders of adaptive evolution, it has developed a subtle and sinister way of getting inside the intestines of cats: by altering the behaviour of infected rodents. Following infection, via contact with infected cat feces or meat, the rodent who is normally very scared of cats and repelled by cat pheromones becomes incredibly brave, daring and actually attracted to the smell of cats. This change in behaviour leads to an increased likelihood of the rodent being eaten by its natural predator; and if an infected rodent gets eaten by a cat then Toxoplasma also gets eaten, meaning it can finally make the parents proud by carrying out its life’s ambition of romping in Mr Whiskerson’s intestines.

One of the postulated ways in which Toxoplasma is thought to bring about this change in behaviour is through the development of parasitic cysts in the brains of rodents. One paper found almost double the number of cysts in the amygdala, a centre of the brain involved in mediating fear of predators, compared to other brain regions.

toxoplasmosis cycle
Toxoplasma life cycle (Image Credit: Ladyofhats)

I know what you are thinking: this little anecdote about Toxoplasma isn’t connected with zombies at all; it’s just cat eat rat. But it is connected. It’s a parasitic organism causing a behavioural change in a host in order to maximise the survival of the parasite. And Toxoplasma doesn’t just infect rodents, it infects us too. In fact, according to research by staff at Stanford University, up to a third of the world’s population is infected with Toxoplasma. Although this is mostly not a serious problem, recent research has shown a possible causal link between Toxoplasma infection and a range of mental health problems such schizophrenia and ADHD.

We can see from the tale of Toxoplasma that parasites can alter the behaviour of their hosts in order to benefit themselves. However, to make a zombie requires some specific alterations. The movie Quarantine – the American version of the Spanish horror REC – makes use of the rabies virus as the zombie pathogen. A rabies virus which has been genetically engineered to be extremely fast acting. The wild-type rabies virus itself has some seriously scary symptoms which are designed, through evolution, to facilitate the virus’ transmission. Infected animals start out with a fever and end with cerebral and cranial nerve dysfunction, incoordination, weakness, seizures, difficulty breathing and swallowing, excessive salivation, abnormal behaviour and aggression. These symptoms are tailored to make the host transmit the virus. As the virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected individual, excessive saliva production and in increase in aggression leads to more bites – more bites means more infections. When the virus is passed onto a new host it works its way from the site of the bite, along the nerves, to the hosts brain, where it goes about creating the zombie-like state in the new victim.

It should be mentioned, however, that the incubation period (the time it takes for rabies’ symptoms to manifest in the host) is relatively long – between 2 and 12 weeks. Furthermore, in humans, rabies tends not to cause the hyper-aggressive behaviour seen in animals, with almost all human-human infections due to organ transplants, and not bites. Therefore, in the movies, generally the virus must be mutated in some way to produce a zombie, becoming super-fast acting or making the host hyper-aggressive such as in 28 Days Later. (Incidentally, the virus in 28 Days Later, called ‘Rage’, was a mutated version of Ebola virus, created by scientists trying to discover the cause of aggression in the brain.) This doesn’t mean that rabies isn’t a potential pathogen which could cause a zombie-like human, it just means that the wild-type rabies virus does not make us into frothing madmen (yet).

We’ve seen how mighty mice and demonic dogs have their pathogenic routes in science, but what about the zombie cow? A few years back the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis gripped the nation, leading to parents not knowing whether steaks were safe, and politicians carelessly stuffing burgers into their offspring’s mouths. BSE is caused by prions, misfolded disease-causing proteins. These prions slowly damage the brain, giving it a sponge-like appearance under the microscope. This degeneration causes stumbling, aggressive cows which are affectionately labelled ‘mad’. Although transmission of BSE is normally through the ingestion of infected meat, pathogens are found in all tissues and fluids of the body. So it is theoretically possible to transmit BSE through a cow’s bite. The human form of BSE is known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). vCJD symptoms include dementia, memory loss, hallucination, paranoia, psychosis, disorientated walking and slurred speech – a mumbling, fumbling, stumbling ‘zombie’.

I think we can all agree that the above diseases are somewhat zombie-like and that that pathogens can cause a change in the behaviour of the host they infect. These changes in behaviour are often caused by the alterations in the structure of the brain; whether this is by neural degeneration, the formation of parasitic cysts or other stranger methods. In order to create a zombie, specific structures of the brain must be altered by ‘zombie pathogen’, to disrupt their functions, including: the cerebellum, balance and coordination; the hypothalamus, appetite control; the frontal lobe, intelligence and problem solving; and the amygdala, anger and rage. By affecting the normal functioning of these brain areas, our theoretical pathogen would create a stumbling, shuffling, insatiably hungry, intensely dumb and fiercely angry individual which wants to eat you – a zombie!

As we have seen, some diseases closely resemble (at least in method, if not symptoms) a potential zombie infection. The idea of a shuffling, biting menace following you around deserted streets which was once a distant fiction, is now it is a distinct plausibility.

Asimov’s Amazing Assertions

by James Riley

“What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like? I don’t know, but I can guess.”

Could you predict the future? In the wake of the 1964 World’s Fair, Isaac Asimov, prolific sci-fi writer, made some startling predictions about life in 2014. Published in The New York Times on August 16, 1964, Asimov’s article “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014” gives us real pause for thought about our life in the Information Age. Let’s explore some of his scarily accurate speculations about the future, and today’s technologies which helped realise these prescient predictions.

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence [ . . . ] In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid.”

Robotics has snowballed in the last decade, but the discipline is still in its infancy. What is really interesting here is the housemaid that Asimov speaks of. One such example would be the Roomba autonomous robot vacuum cleaner, sold by iRobotics, which detects dirty spots of floor, avoids falling down the stairs by detecting steep drops and actively avoids obstacles. However there are more novel robots, like TOPIO, made by TOSY, which (/who?) played ping pong at the Tokyo International Robot Exhibition in 2009.

Isaac Asimov predicts future 2014 1964

(Isaac Asimov. Image Credit:¬†“New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection”/Taken by Phillip Leonian)

“General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” [ . . . ] (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)”

This one is scary. Not only did Asimov predict 3D cinema becoming commonplace (the original 3D film technology being patented in the 1890s), but by a strange act of fate it happens that General Electric bought the controlling stake of Universal Studios in 2004. Universal being the company responsible for the last film in The Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, depicting ‘robots’ taking over the world, available in 3D. Of course, the film came out last year, and the invaders weren’t really robots (according to themselves), but it’s still a remarkable prediction.

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible.”

This two-fold prediction is an extension on the last. The wall screens Asimov speaks of have become common place across developed nations with newer variants of screen, such as LCD, taking over the clumpy cathode ray tube displays of the past. Many of these new variants are available with 3D technology.

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”

The emergence of Skype and FaceTime have revolutionised the way in which we communicate, but the end of this statement is really quite startling. I’m sat in a coffee shop, using a tablet computer screen to read Asimov’s 50-year-old passages of predictions about me sitting here in 2014 using a screen to read passages; and simultaneously writing a document about the predictions, on the same screen which I am studying the documents containing the predictions which Asimov made. The very act of writing this article is one of validating Asimov’s claim. Baffling.

“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains”*vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

The Google driverless car project is doing just that. Using sophisticated laser radar technology, the car’s software creates a detailed 3D map of its environment. Many other companies have created road-worthy driverless cars. In 2010, a European Union backed initiative took four prototype electronic autonomous vans 8000 Miles, from Italy to China, proving that this technology is close to commercialisation.

image

(Google Driverless Car. Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

“Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare automeals, [ . . . ] Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.”

Microwave ready meals and frozen pizza: who’d have thought the future would taste so bland? Although, he didn’t predict the obesity epidemics that this would contribute to.

“In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000.”

Asimov underestimated the size of the population (only(?) by around 600 million), but he did foresee the potentially disastrous effects of this exponential rise.

“There are only two general ways of preventing [civilisation’s collapse due to overpopulation]: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A>D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.”

The end of last year brought about an easing of China’s one-child policy. A policy originally implemented to curb a population explosion. Asimov does correctly predict the great leaps forward that medicine has taken, furthering life expectancy in some places, such as Monaco, to almost 90 years old.

image

(Photobioreactor producing microalgae, can be used for food or biofuel production. Image Credit: IGV Biotech)

“Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be “farms” turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak” will be served. It won’t be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.”

A trip to any high street health store will confirm the use of algae as a food product, though it is not yet an international dietary staple. As for the “pseudosteak”, products such as fungi based Quorn and other meat replacements have been around for years. Last year, however, brought us the World’s first lab-grown burger; and Asimov was right about the price, with the patty coming in at ¬£215,000. Would you like supersize?

“The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. [ . . . ] Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.”

Asimov foreshadows our seemingly inevitable path towards unskilled labour here, and also to mentally unstimulating work. He would probably be right about the psychiatry part as well, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming abundance of cat videos on the internet (which was one thing he did fail to predict). But on a more serious note, the field of psychiatry is en route for greater leaps forward, and larger public dependence, with more and more people being diagnosed with mental health issues each year.

Asimov leaves us with a salient warning about nuclear warfare, a warning that still applies today. Let’s hope that today’s predictions of the next 50 years are allowed to be realised just as Asimov’s were, without the threat of total annihilation.

“The New York World’s Fair of 1964 is dedicated to “Peace Through Understanding.” Its glimpses of the world of tomorrow rule out thermonuclear warfare. And why not? If a thermonuclear war takes place, the future will not be worth discussing. So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads and let us observe what may come in the nonatomized world of the future.”

Fracking: The Collision of Science and Politics

by James Riley

Policy decisions are rarely made on scientific evidence alone. In fact, science has only a small part to play in the convoluted world of policy. In this light, perhaps it is unsurprising that even though we have seen vehement anti-fracking protests across the UK in recent months, it looks like the controversial process will be going ahead as planned.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process by which hundreds of gallons of pressurised water, chemicals and sand are blasted into the ground to open up trapped deposits of gas. In the current controversy the focus is on shale gas extraction, although fracking can be used to extract various gases for use as fuel. The process is nothing new. It made its first appearance in 1947 and was first commercially implemented in 1949.

Fracking process

(Illustration of the hydraulic fracturing process. Image Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency)

Recent events have sparked public opposition to fracking, with many perceiving the risks outweighing the benefits. In 2011, two earthquakes struck Lancaster following prospective fracking exercises by Caudrilla Resources (the main company with fracking contracts within the UK), resulting in a nationwide moratoria while a formal investigation into fracking’s dangers took place.

However, the risks of fracking stretch beyond the chance of mild earth tremors. And it is these environmental concerns which activist groups like Greenpeace are desperately trying to bring to the public’s attention.

In their recent publication, ‚ÄúFracking: What‚Äôs the Evidence?‚ÄĚ, Greenpeace set out the wealth of environmental consequences aligned to this extraction technique. Greenpeace says about its report:¬† ‚ÄúFrom water pollution, to gas flares, to seismic activity to property prices, the report takes an in-depth look at what fracking involves, and the key social and environmental risks that should be taken into consideration as the UK Government attempts to open England up to this new form of extreme energy.‚ÄĚ

One major concern raised over the fracking procedure is the contamination of groundwater, and the possible contamination of drinking water. In the USA this has indeed taken place, although the Geological Society has said that with proper regulations in place, the contamination of groundwater should not be an issue. Another consideration is the fact that fracking uses a large amount of water and some groups claim the water supply couldn’t take the strain. In reality fracking in the UK should only require the use of around 0.01% of the current usage.

But even without these various local environmental concerns, it would still be true that one of the major risks of fracking is our continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the inability to cut our emissions; therefore the inability to halter the seemingly glacial march of climate change. This is one of the biggest concerns anti-fracking groups can urge, and it is almost an uncontested one from the supporters of fracking. Some politicised points about shale gas producing less greenhouse emissions than coal have been made however, along with the claim that it is a ‚Äúgreener alternative‚ÄĚ to traditional fossil fuels.

The UK government has agreed to a number of targets aimed at decarbonising the home economy. This includes the Kyoto Protocol, which promises an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050. The Kyoto Protocol gave rise to the Climate Change Act 2008, which makes it the duty of the Secretary of State to adhere to cutting the greenhouse emissions laid out within the Kyoto agreement. Although large original signatories, such as the United States and Canada, have since not ratified the agreement and subsequently dropped out, the protocol is still taken seriously within European governments.

Our reduction promises are one point which anti-fracking campaigners have cited in opposition to fracking. In a world where we are committed to reducing our greenhouse emissions, should we not be more focused on alternative forms of energy such as wind farms, solar panels and tidal generators? These technologies have benefited other European economies, whilst continuing to honour the Kyoto agreement. Germany, for example, which boasts Europe’s leading economy, now produces over 25% of their energy from renewables in this way.

frack protest

(Fracking protest south of Balcombe, 18 August 2013. Image Credit: © Copyright Robin Webster and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

On 27th September, 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fifth Assessment Report and in response to this comprehensive collection of climate change science, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, Edward Davey acknowledged:

‚ÄúThe message of this report is clear – the Earth‚Äôs climate has warmed over the last century and man-made greenhouse gases have caused much of that global warming. The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today. The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.‚ÄĚ

This is where the intersection of politics and science is greatly evident. Quite obviously, shale gas will be contributing to climate change. Quite obviously, it is not a green alternative. And, quite obviously, the solutions are not being ‚Äúset in motion today‚ÄĚ. Yet it seems like the government are set to launch full-scale shale extraction within the UK.

On the 24th January, 2014, David Cameron said to the World Economic Forum (Davos): ‚ÄúGovernments need to reassure people that nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers. But if this is done properly, shale gas can actually have lower emissions than imported gas. We should be clear that if the European Union or its member states impose burdensome, unjustified or premature regulatory burdens on shale gas exploration in Europe investors will quickly head elsewhere.‚ÄĚ

From Cameron’s focus on loss of investors over the environmental consequences, it is quite obvious that there are more factors in this decision than solely the scientific evidence of environmental damage and climate change contribution.

For some time now the UK, like a lot of European countries, has been trying to decouple its energy dependence from Russia. With current Ukrainian crisis highlights the fragility of the West’s relationship with the old Soviet state. Although the UK’s gas imports from Russia are now only around 1%, we still import over 40% of our coal and solid fuels from the nation.

pipeline

(Russian oil and gas pipelines to Europe. Image Credit: US Department of Energy)

Russia’s power on the world stage comes mainly from its abundance of energy resources. These are resources which Russia has exploited for power in the past. Even despite the West’s efforts to reduce our dependence on Russian power, statistics from 2010 show how Russia’s energy exports were more than twice as much as any other OECD country, and represented a massive 40% of the total OECD energy exports.

With the recent events in the Ukraine, giving fracking the go ahead seems to makes more and more political sense. Even though there may be water contamination, even though there may be earthquakes, even though it will not be a step in the direction of fulfilling our Kyoto Protocol obligations, there is a sense that somehow the scientific facts of the dangers are going to give way to possible political dangers of not acting. This is not a certainty, but it seems likely.

When calculating the risks of such a decision, it is a fine balance of deciding between two possible futures. One in which your obligations to reducing greenhouse gases helps to curb insidious climate change, which may for the most part be irreversible; and the other option, the reduction of dependence on the energy exports of a country vying for power, a country which has used its position as an energy provider for geopolitical influence and intimidation before, and could easily choose that path again. When presented as two options it becomes clear how the waters of policy can become muddied by much more than just science’s view the world. Not that these two futures are the only possible options, there is the truly green alternative. Is it not time we start to take renewable energy more seriously?

References

P Bolton (2013) Energy Imports and Exports. House of Commons Library. Social & General Statistics. 30th August 2013

D Cameron (2014) World Economic Forum (Davos): Speech by David Cameron. Cabinet Office. 30th January 2014

K Cumming (2013) Fracking: What’s the Evidence? Greenpeace. Available at: | http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/fracking-evidence-report. Accessed 10/03/2014

E Davey. (2012) New controls announced for shale gas exploration. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United Kingdom Government: Published 13th Dec 2012.

E Davey, (2013) Response to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5): The Latest Assessment of Climate Science. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United  Kingdom Government. 27th Sept 2013.

Royal Society (2012) Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing. Royal Society Policy Projects. June 2012

It‚Äôs not just a girl thing: A health crisis that‚Äôs being ignored

By Alex Hale

A sex induced epidemic could be sweeping across the western world. 80% of people get some form of a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection at a point in their lives. This is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and is the cause of many preventable types of cancer, but why are only women vaccinated against it? The HPV vaccine is in widespread use to help prevent cervical cancer and several other types of cancer in women. However, it’s now widely accepted that this fantastic vaccine could also benefit males by reducing cancers in areas like the mouth, anus and penis. Should men be vaccinated for the savour of their manhood’s?

The human papillomavirus has over 120 different types, which are generally fairly mundane in nature. It is mostly transmitted by sexual activity of all varieties and although it currently isn’t curable, it clears itself up within a year in 90% of cases. When the more malicious types are present however, diseases like genital warts and skin warts develop, usually these are treatable by doctors. In some uncommon cases, the infection progresses and causes some cells to turn cancerous.

Those cancerous cells originate in the sensitive parts of the body that the virus is most prone to infecting like skin cells and mucosal membranes. The mouth and vagina are perfect example of mucosal membranes, they cover areas of the body that are involved in secretion and absorption and have outside exposure. This makes a perfect environment for the virus to live and then get passed on. Sex makes that process so much easier as most of the mucosal membranes susceptible to HPV infection happen to be pleasure related as well.

Vaccination. Image Credit : Yanivba
Vaccination. Image Credit : Yanivba

The vaccine for the most malevolent forms of HPV was introduced in 2008 to help prevent the second most common cancer in women, cervical cancer. As many as three quarters of all cervical cancer cases are caused by two specific types of HPV, types 16 and 18. The new vaccine defended against those two types as well as types 6 and 11, which are the cause of 95% of genital warts. On top of massively reducing the chance of getting this horrible disease, the vaccine also reduced the chance of getting several other types of cancer including vaginal, vulval, anal, oral and penile cancer in men.

With the mention of anal, penile and oral cancer, there is obviously some vested interest for males here as well. Oral cancer is a major problem for men around the world. There are four times as many male oral cancer sufferers than there are women sufferers, with almost a third of those being caused by HPV. A big push towards vaccination could help a massive group of people by protecting them from this disease.

Who needs protection?

The idea that is being discussed in government now is that all boys should be vaccinated at around ages 11 to 12, before sexual activity starts. The campaign to vaccinate girls at the same age has gone really well in the UK with the government claiming 80% coverage of girls last year. This full coverage in girls raises the question of whether vaccinating the boys is really worth it and affordable. So called ‚Äėherd immunity‚Äô is an effective way of controlling rising infection levels, the greater the proportion of people who are resistant, the smaller the probability that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infectious person. Six years into the programme and a substantial amount of the teenage girl population is now immune to the virus and wouldn‚Äôt be able to be infected or be infectious to anyone else.

Nevertheless, the vaccination of men and boys should not be ruled out. There are still a substantial number of adult men and women unprotected that could easily be exposed to the virus; the vaccine should be available to all if they want it. The other group that would be unaffected by a virus free female population are homosexual males who are 20 times more likely to be diagnosed with anal cancer, which affects about 2 in 100,000 people, than a heterosexual male. It wouldn’t be possible to know which boys will become homosexuals at 11-12 so how can they be protected? Statistics like that would never be enough to convince a government to vaccinate all boys though.

Dr Krupar Patel, a GP and sexual health specialist from Dorset would like to see the vaccine available widely and freely. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so frustrating every time I see young people come into my surgery with entirely preventable diseases‚ÄĚ she said ‚ÄúI see a lot of patients about HPV related illnesses, mostly it‚Äôs people with things like genital warts but I do Pap smears [the test for cervical cancer] for ladies and I know several men with oral cancer. I‚Äôm not even allowed to give out the vaccine when I think someone could benefit from it, they have to pay privately and not everywhere offers that‚ÄĚ she added. Krupar considers having the HPV vaccine available to everyone as a ‚Äúvital step forward‚ÄĚ in both reducing the number of sexually transmitted diseases and in reducing the number of cancers in the general population. ‚ÄúTo be honest with you, I don‚Äôt think giving all boys the vaccination is worth it, especially not in today‚Äôs financial climate‚ÄĚ she went on to say ‚Äúbut I would really love the option to give it to anyone who needs it‚ÄĚ.

Some other options?

What else can the government do to help reduce the levels of infection then? Increasing pressure is being put onto policy makers to use sex education and public awareness campaigns to increase the public’s knowledge of this virus. It’s fairly common knowledge that HPV is the cause of most cervical cancers, the media frenzy around the vaccination of girls made sure of that.  An increase in the general knowledge around HPV infection could help both reduce the chance of infection and allow more people to make an informed decision on whether they want to be vaccinated.

Dr Patel said ‚ÄúI would love to see a big campaign letting everyone know that they can be protected from it [HPV], it‚Äôs just a shame the politicians keep stalling over what to do‚ÄĚ. She went on to outline some other methods that could be used in increasing general knowledge of the disease and for getting more people vaccinated. ‚Äú‚Ķit could be a mandatory vaccine to get into secondary schools. England doesn‚Äôt have any mandatory vaccinations for schools at the moment but some other countries do like the US [USA], I know Greece has compulsory HPV vaccinations for school‚ÄĚ.

Mandatory vaccination to get into secondary schools would certainly make sure parents got their children vaccinated but it does raise questions of compulsory mass medication. The government always wants to avoid any rumours of that sort of thing, it smells too much of political totalitarianism. If you use the public water fluoridation debate as an example, the media and the public rebelled heavily against any suggestion that they couldn’t be in control of what went into their bodies. Programmes like this are potentially very expensive though and the cost to the government may not be worth it compared to the cost of treating the patients in hospital or cheaper, easier programmes like ad campaigns or better education in schools.

Dr Patel’s colleague, Dr Roland Sedoo agreed with most of the Dr Patel’s

Condom. Image Credit: KONDOMI
Condom. Image Credit: KONDOMI

comments but had one major point to make that he thinks could make the difference if done by everyone. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm a big believer in the condom, it‚Äôs just so easy to use, super cheap and almost 100% effective‚ÄĚ he said ‚Äúthe other doctors in my surgery think I‚Äôm a bit excessive but I hand out a ludicrous amount of them. I like to think that the more you give out the higher the chance that people will use them‚ÄĚ. He went on to talk about how a big push to increase the use of condoms in young people could mean the world of difference. ‚ÄúCondoms have been around for ages now and there was a brief period a few years ago when there was a big push to get people to use them, especially in kids. But it‚Äôs sort of trailed off a bit now and I get lots of people come to see me who tell me they‚Äôve never used a condom. Mostly it‚Äôs people in their twenties who have forgotten their sex education lessons at school and then went and had a great time at university or something‚ÄĚ.

The Future

There are bigger problems and more serious problems in the world, no one is denying that. This however, is not something to be ignored. The Department of Health recently stated that ‚Äúthere are currently no plans to extend HPV vaccination to males, based on an assessment of available scientific evidence‚ÄĚ. Does there need to be detailed scientific evidence if there are very few risks and the potential to save many lives? Dr Patel and Dr Sedoo are both optimistic however, ‚Äúwe think that give it a few years and we will at least be able to give out the vaccine to at risk patients, maybe the boys won‚Äôt need it. We will just have to wait and see‚ÄĚ.

The efficacy of the vaccine in stopping the spread of the virus will take several more years for the full effect to be seen. Those girls who first had the vaccine in 2006 will be coming up to 20 years old now, so it will be a while before the vaccinated population will make an impact on cancer incidence rates. The true test of whether the girls only vaccine is enough is time.