Friday, 30 January 2015

Sketchy Fact #78: Flounder on the Rocks

Researchers have discovered several species of transparent fish living in rivers beneath half a mile of ice in Antarctica where it was once thought nothing complex could survive.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Teleportation: Is it a thing?

Science has two purposes, a noble one and a selfish one. The former involves discovery to enhance our understanding of the natural world. We conduct chemical experiments to teach us about how plants turn sunlight into food and how DNA modifies itself over time allowing one species to evolve into another.  The selfish purpose that science serves is to give us cool things. Science is what allows us to take planes across countries and carry computers in our pockets. Some people differentiate this role of science by calling it “engineering” or “technology,” but it is all semantics. Engineers are just scientists that know how to make money.

One of the major areas of interest for these selfish types of scientists is transportation. How can we move people and objects between point A and point B as quickly and as economically as possible. The holy grail of this branch of research is the idea of teleportation: moving an object between two places without having to travel the space between. Imagine the extra sleep you could get if you could teleport to work or school every morning. Imagine how smog-free our cities would be if no one needed a car.

That’s a lot of imagining, but is teleportation a thing that is realistically possible? Well, actually we've been doing it for a while... And by "we" I means scientists with massive budgets. It’s a new and growing field of study but since 1993 scientists have known that on some level you can arrive without travelling.

Right now the best we can do is “quantum teleportation” involving photons and laser beams. The way it works is through something called quantum entanglement. See, when two particles become “entangled” they share information in a way that seems impossible. They move in perfect sync with each other even if they are miles apart. Poke one particle and the other jumps. Scientists have shown that they are increasingly able to entangle particles in this way at will and that allows them to transmit information about particles over great distances and even replicate an original piece of matter far from where it originated. In essence, they can teleport it.

There is a catch, though. In order to get the information you need to generate the new particle in the desired location, the original particle needs to be destroyed. It’s not even a philosophical problem involving the merits of cloning… You actually can’t know enough out the original to beam its essence across space without annihilating it. What that means is, unless we figure out a new approach for human teleportation, each trip will amount to suicide and reconstruction. The clone would have all your same memories, emotions, and thoughts but that isn’t exactly in the spirit of things. Also, recreating the particles even a millimeter out of place would lead to severe mental and physical damage... A pretty risky proposition to avoid traffic for.

Quantum teleportation will ultimately be more useful in helping us build the insanely fast quantum computers we learned about in our discussion of Moore’s Law a while back. Instantaneously moving information between two place could lead to a whole new internet, free from privacy concerns since the very act of trying to listen in on communication between two entangled particles breaks the connection between them.

So where does that leave us in terms of human teleportation? Well, one theorist has come up with an interesting idea that you might be familiar with from a certain James Cameron movie. Biotech expert J. Craig Venter has proposed the idea of scanning DNA and sending the information across space to be recreated elsewhere. That means that if humans build a base orbiting a distant star, we could send our DNA up to it and have clones get to work running the place. From there, we just need to focus on scanning and replicating the information contained in our brains and projecting that into the clones, making them sort of like our, dare I say, avatars.  As Discover Magazine put it, “That would reduce the teleportation problem from “probably impossible” to “wildly difficult.””

So, in the end, science may be a ways away from beaming us to our offices, but the work being done could lead to some amazing new technology. You may not get to be Captain Kirk in your lifetime, but you might at least get a crazy fast computer as a consolation prize.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Sketchy Fact #77: Smarty Pants

Since scientists started giving IQ tests, every generation of people tested has been smarter than the generation before it. This is true all over the world and it is called the Flynn Effect.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A Horse by Committee: Why Camels are Actually Amazing

Devoting a whole article to one animals is a little out of character for Sketchy Science. With a few exceptions that were screaming out to be explained (the disgusting lives of sloths, the indestructible tardigrades) we tend to relegate interesting facts about well-known animals to the world of Sketchy Facts. The thing is, if we tried to do that with camels, our loyal readers would miss out on a more complete understanding of one of the most incredible animals on the planet.

You often hear that a camel is just a horse designed by committee, meaning that the focus was on the details at the expense of the beauty and functionality of the overall animal. Despite the fact that no animal is designed at all, there are other reasons that this cliché is just dead wrong. All those details evolved over millions of years to make camels almost ridiculously well-suited to their environments (which, as we will see, vary insanely) and have left these creatures with a capacity to surprise that is beyond belief.

If you think you know about camels, odds are you haven’t even scratched the surface (unless you are some sort of camel biologist). Even the things the average person thinks they know about camels are just plain wrong. For example, a camels hump doesn’t store water. If it did, humps would jiggle around like elevated waterbeds with every step the animal took. In reality, the camel’s most defining feature is a massive mound of fat that can weigh as much as 80 lbs (41 kg). Having all their body fat in one place means the rest of the camel’s body is super-efficient at shedding heat, a handy adaptation to desert life. Their humps also contribute to their ability to go weeks without a real meal. They can use their humps as fuel (which is all fat really is anyway) and the longer they go without food, the more shriveled their humps get.

So if their humps aren’t thirst quenching reservoirs, how do camels go so long without drinking anything? As it turns out, camels are not the arid-loving beings we all think they are. It is true that some camels can go months without drinking water, but how they do it has less to do with storage and more to do with economy. The camels that can go seemingly forever on grass alone are the ones that are adapted to the cold areas of the Mongolian steppe. Since mammals lose most of our moisture when our bodies overheat, cold weather is a great mechanism to holding in water. As a side note: scientists think that camels actually evolved in the Canadian arctic before migrating to Asia during the last ice age. Camels also have another wacky, water-saving adaptation that is far less obvious.

If you looked at camel blood under a microscope and compared it to the blood of, say, a wombat or Bratt Pitt you would notice that the camels red blood cells look warped in the manner of a Salvador Dali painting. Camel’s red blood cells are oval (egg) shaped whereas most mammals have circular cells. The cool thing about oblong blood cells is that they can keep flowing easily, even when the liquid they flow through (plasma) starts to dry up. Their blood cells can also expand to 240% their normal size to hold water without bursting compared to 150% in most mammals. In the end, the blood cells do the trick that most people credit the humps with.

The other thing camels have going for them in terms of water conservation is that their body temperatures can vary wildly before their start to feel any stress. Humans start to feel sick if our core temperature fluctuates more than a few degrees, but camels are comfortable with an internal temperature anywhere from 33 to 40 degrees C (93 to 105 F). They accomplish this with another amazing adaptation: the ability to cool their brains independently from the rest of their bodies. Camels use their massive, cavernous nasal cavities to cool blood before it enters their brains, protecting neurons from heat damage. The veins in their heads are also located right up next to their arteries, allowing the oxygen depleted (and cooler) venous blood to absorb some of the heat from the arteries fueling the brain.

Finally, while we are hanging out in the camel’s head, there is one last crazy thing we should check out before calling it a day. If we manage to prop open the camel’s mouth without getting spit on (camel spit is actually a mix of their stomach contents and saliva, used to ward of predators) most of us will probably recoil in fear at the sight of what appear to be inch long fleshy spiked sticking out of the animal’s cheeks. The inside of a camel’s mouth looks like some kind of alien bear-trap, but those spikes are just another awesome adaptation. The “papillai” as they are called are just grotesquely enlarged versions of the same structures that human taste buds grow on. For camels, they help direct chewy food items like sticks and leaves to the stomach while protecting the cheeks and throat from damage. When you live in the desert you have to take whatever food you can get.

Hopefully you found this tangent-filled exploration of one of nature’s most amazing animals interesting and ideally you will remember all the incredible things about these misunderstood animals next time you are tempted to use a judgey cliché. Lest ye get spit on. 

Friday, 16 January 2015

Sketchy Fact #76: Asparagus Pee Paradox

Not everyone excretes smelly pee after eating asparagus and not everyone can smell the stinky compound is asparagus pee. This means that you will always sound crazy to some people and it is best never to talk about it... Especially at dinner.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Savior From The Soil: The First New Antibiotic in 30 Years!

Frequent visitors to our little corner of the internet may remember that last April we told a semi-fictional story about antibiotic-resistant bacteria entitled Curious Geoff and the Antibiotic Resistant Superbug. The gist of the story was the true fact that all over the world bacteria are becoming stronger and are better able to resist the drugs we use to treat them. This is a serious problem given that a new antibiotic drug has not been discovered since 1987… until last week anyway.

On January 7, 2015 the journal Nature published an article by a group of researchers reporting the discovery of a new antibiotic. That alone would have been enough to pique the interest of the science and medical communities, but the authors went one step further in the boldness category and called their article “A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance.” As boring as that might seem, in the world of medicine it is the equivalent of calling your paper “Tyranosaurus discovered running surf school in rural New Zealand”… Basically no one was expecting it.

The new drug is called Teixobactin and in trials with mice it has been shown to effectively fight staph infections and antibiotic resistant forms of tuberculosis. That is big news given that the usual option for treating the latter is to prescribe drugs you know won’t work and cross your fingers really hard. Better still, the new antibiotic appears to have no side effects and can be given to mice in doses that make it practical for human use. That is, it doesn’t take a barrel of medicine to get them healthy again. Teixobactin works by inhibiting the growth of cell walls by bacteria, giving the immune system a fighting chance against them off.

So how did these researchers do it? How did they break science’s 30 year shut-out streak with regards to developing new antibiotics? Well, it turns out that the method they used might be even more of a breakthrough than the discovery of the drug itself. See, the thing about antibiotics is that the effective ones tend to come from bacteria that live in soil. The trouble is that we humans are pretty terrible at convincing soil bacteria to live and grow in labs. In fact, pretty much every one of our 100 or so antibiotics come from the roughly 1% of bacteria that we can get to grow in petri dishes. That means that 99% of the potentially world-changing drugs that exist in nature have been unavailable to us until last week.

The researchers on the new paper developed a technique that tricks soil bacteria into thinking they are at home when really they are doing our bidding. The approach makes use of what the researchers have termed the iChip, despite Steve Jobs not being listed as an author. It works by suspending bacteria in what basically amount to mini-petri dishes with semi-permeable walls, meaning some things can get in and out. Each iChip contains many of these little bacterial prison cells and is suspended in the type of soil that the bacteria usually thrive in. The result is that the bacteria have access to the nutrients they need to grow, but scientists are still able to isolate the bacteria from the soil for their experiments. This sneaky method of growing bacteria might finally give researchers access to an incredible number of new drugs.

Now, a caveat: this does not mean you can disregard all the advice you’ve been given about antibiotics. Teixobactin may be promising but it is nowhere near the point where you can get it from your local pharmacy. It still has to go through human trials, which could take as long as ten years… but hopefully more like 5. In the meantime, we still can’t afford to prescribe antibiotics willy nilly. Every time a farmer gives a healthy cow antibiotics so it can grow faster, we give up a little bit of our edge. Every time you leave a few pills in the bottle after you start feeling better, we lose some ground in the war on germs.

So remain diligent. Be smart about your use of antibiotics and don’t underestimate the enemy. This new paper may give us some hope and a nifty new trick for developing drugs; but until we truly master the soil, we are at evolution's whim in the fight against resistance.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The World’s Most Useful Table. Period.

On the first day of my first chemistry class in grade 11 my teacher opened the lecture by assuring the group of 15 and 16 year olds that sat worriedly in front of him that chemistry was nothing to be feared. Rather than thinking about the subject as an incomprehensible branch of science, beyond the grasp of the average person he told us that chemistry was a language. The language of the universe, in fact. Chemistry is what we use to describe the things around us in a way people from all corners of the world can understand. The frightening chemical formulas that lay before us like C­­2H4O2 (vinegar) were words in this new language that we would be studying and at the heart of this language was a unique alphabet: the periodic table of elements.

The periodic table is one of those scientific concepts that is so useful and understandable that most people can pick it out of a line-up by name and give you a rough understanding of what it does. At it’s heart, it is a list of all the known elements in the universe. An element is the most basic form of matter. It is useful to think of elements as simple, irreducible atoms. Each element has it’s own atom that is different from all the rest. If you take piece of gold, for example, and cut it in half and in half again over and over until all you have is a single atom of the stuff you are free to cut it in half again, but whatever you want to call the result, it isn’t gold anymore. Likewise, not every material can be called an element. If you look at a molecule of vinegar (presumably by squinting very hard) you will see it is actually many atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen stuck together. Since it doesn’t have a specific atom, it isn’t an element. The periodic table though is so much more than a list of atoms. It tells us about the way those atoms behave and how they interact with one another. You just have to know how to read it.

The periodic table is useful because of the periodic law, discovered in 1911 by Henry Moseley. Moseley took the existing period table (assembled in 1869 by Dmitry Mendeleyev) and attempted to fix some of it’s problems. The thing about the original periodic table was that it presented elements based on their atomic weight (the weight of their atoms) at the same time that it grouped them into columns based on similar traits. The trouble was that in order to maintain the groups occasionally elements had to be presented out of order with respect to weight. Moseley used X-rays to figure out that if you sorted the elements based on the number of protons or electrons their atoms contained (their atomic number), all the problems went away and you had neat and tidy groups.

The columns of the periodic table describe these groups (more or less). A few elements don’t satisfy all the criteria of their groups, but are included because of how they react with other elements. A good example is hydrogen which is in the column describing alkali metals despite not being anything resembling a metal. The rows of the table tell you about the reactivity of the elements included. Generally speaking, as you move left to right on the periodic table elements get less reactive. The alkali metals on the far left (and hydrogen) are the rambunctious toddlers of the family, closely followed by the alkaline earth metals in the second column. These elements are so eager to play with others that the results can be explosive, as anyone who has ever dropped a piece of raw sodium into a glass of water can attest to. Elements on the far right are the older, more solitary fellows called (appropriately) the noble gases. They know better than to go off causing explosions so they are unreactive, which explains why we fill balloons with helium (a noble gas) and not hydrogen.

The cool thing about the periodic table is that it is also predictive. Since the elements are sorted by the number of protons or electrons their atoms have, occasionally there are gaps. If you know about 2 elements and one has an atomic number of 12 and the other 14, you can be 100% positive that there is one out there with an atomic number of 13 that you just haven’t discovered yet. In practice, the gaps on the periodic table exist at its highest numbers and the undiscovered elements are all radioactive and don’t exist in nature for more than a fraction of a second at a time. Scientists discover them in particle accelerators and if the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry agrees that they have found a new one, they get to name it after a place, scientist, mineral or based on one of its traits. That is why we have elements with fun names like Einsteinium (atomic number 99).

So there you have it. A quick and dirty introduction to the periodic table. From this easy and accessible alphabet humans have built atomic bombs, air ships, and shiny necklaces. It doesn’t look half bad on a T shirt, either.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Sketchy Fact #74: Switching to a New Calendar

In 1582, the year the Gregorian Calendar came into effect, 10 days were erased from October to make up for too many Leap Years in the old Julien calendar.