All posts filed under: Science

Science

How animals taking communal decisions

Today we opt for ballot boxes but humans have used numerous ways of voting to have their say throughout history. However, we’re not the only ones living (or seeking to live) in a democratic society: a new study has suggested that African wild dogs vote to make group decisions. A new study has found that these dogs sneeze to decide when to stop resting and start hunting. Researchers found that the rates of sneezing during greeting rallies – which happen after, or sometimes during, a rest period – affect the likelihood of the pack departing to hunt, rather than going back to sleep. If dominant individuals start the rally it is much more likely to result in a hunt, and only two or three sneezes are required to get the pack started. But if a subordinate individual wishes to start a hunt, they have to sneeze a lot more – around ten times – to get the pack to move off. The researchers think that this sneezing is the pack members voting on when to …

Affects of some of the most addictive substances

Affects of some of the most addictive substances

What are the most addictive drugs? This question seems simple, but the answer depends on whom you ask. From the points of view of different researchers, the potential for a drug to be addictive can be judged in terms of the harm it causes, the street value of the drug, the extent to which the drug activates the brain’s dopamine system, how pleasurable people report the drug to be, the degree to which the drug causes withdrawal symptoms, and how easily a person trying the drug will become hooked. There are other facets to measuring the addictive potential of a drug, too, and there are even researchers who argue that no drug is always addictive. Given the varied view of researchers, then, one way of ranking addictive drugs is to ask expert panels. In 2007, David Nutt and his colleagues asked addiction experts to do exactly that – with some interesting findings. 1. Heroin Nutt et al.’s experts ranked heroin as the most addictive drug, giving it a score of 3 out of a maximum …

Steady State Theory

Steady State Theory was a theory proposed in twentieth-century cosmology to explain evidence that the universe was expanding, but still retain the core idea that the universe always looks the same, and is therefore unchanging in practice (and has no beginning and no end). This idea has largely been discredited due to astronomical evidence that suggests the universe is, in fact, changing over time. STEADY STATE THEORY BACKGROUND AND DEVELOPMENT When Einstein created his theory of general relativity, early analysis showed that it created a universe that was unstable — expanding or contracting — rather than the static universe that had always been assumed. Einstein also held this assumption about a static universe, so he introduced a term into his general relativity field equations called the cosmological constant, which served the purpose of holding the universe in a static state. However, when Edwin Hubble discovered evidence that distant galaxies were, in fact, expanding away from the Earth in all directions, scientists (including Einstein) realized that the universe didn’t seem to be static and the term …

How safe is exercise supplements

An Australian woman with a genetic disorder died from consuming too many protein supplements, it was recently reported. The woman in question, Meegan Hefford, a 25-year-old bodybuilder, suffered from a rare, undiagnosed disorder that caused a fatal build-up of ammonia in her body (ammonia is produced when the body breaks down protein). This raises the question: are exercise supplements safe? In healthy people, most commonly used supplements intended to enhance the body – often referred to in the scientific literature as “nutraceuticals” or “functional foods” – are harmless. Nonetheless, there are rare cases where underlying health conditions or excessive consumption could cause ill health. By far the most common supplement taken by gym goers are those containing amino acids in the form of protein, protein hydrolysates (such as whey protein), or individual branched chain amino acids (BCAA), containing leucine, isoleucine and valine. People take these supplements to support muscle building on the premise that amino acids are the building blocks of muscle tissue. Aside from the rare genetic disorder suffered by Meegan Hefford, are there …

Physics of bubbles can tell us about language

What do the physics of bubbles have in common with the way you and I speak? Not a lot, you might think. But my recently published research uses the physics of surface tension (the effect that determines the shape of bubbles) to explore language patterns – where and how dialects occur. This connection between physical and social systems may seem surprising, but connections of this kind have a long history. The 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann spent much of his life trying to explain how the physical world behaves based on some simple assumptions about the atoms from which it is made. His theories, which link atomic behaviour to the large scale properties of matter, are called “statistical mechanics”. At the time, there was considerable doubt that atoms even existed, so Boltzmann’s success is remarkable because the detailed properties of the systems he was studying were unknown. The idea that details don’t matter when you are considering a very large number of interacting agents is tantalising for those interested in the collective behaviour of large …

Decriminalising sex work will not protect human rights

Amnesty International declares itself to have an overarching commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights. Against the backdrop of this ethical aspiration, a controversial new policy has been adopted. It calls for the decriminalisation of prostitution, in order to protect the human rights of sex workers. Sex workers are one of the most marginalised groups in the world and are at constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Amnesty International has concluded the criminalisation of consensual sex work encourages – rather than alleviates – this abuse. The policy calls on states to decriminalise prostitution and to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence. Where’s the evidence? The policy, which was recently ratified at Amnesty’s decision-making forum in Dublin, has wrought heated discussion since it was first drafted two years ago. Two opposing camps have arisen. A camp made up of pressure groups, academics and sex workers applauds Amnesty’s decision. They see it as a victory for a marginalised and vilified group of people. They cite research …

Search for extraterrestrial life always good

EThe search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars. The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society. Why is this the case? First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them. By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology …

Regrets and how children to make better decisions

Regret gets a bad press. It is a painful emotion experienced upon realising that a different decision would have led to a better outcome. And it is something that we strive to avoid. In sharp contrast, our recent research on children’s decision making emphasises that the ability to experience regret is a developmental achievement associated with learning to make better choices. The results of this research suggest a different, more functional relationship between regret and decision making. How does one go about studying regret in children, given that they may not have the term “regret” in their vocabularies? Developmental psychologists ask children to make simple choices between two options. Outcomes are engineered so that once they have received a small prize associated with their choice, they see that they could have obtained a better prize had they chosen the other option. Using this task, the ability to experience regret can be tested for by asking children to express how they feel about the outcome of their decision on a child-friendly rating scale before and then …

Why people nearing the end of life need the same protection we offer children

Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man (from As You Like It) famously and effectively portrays humans in deep old age as returning to infancy. But in many societies, the approach to end of life care requires us to continue as active and responsible citizens for as long as our mental capacities allow – to make choices about what kind of care we want, and where. In anticipation of losing capacity, people are urged to act responsibly and make preferences known in advance while they are still able. This approach to policy has not of course prevented a series of elder care scandals in hospitals and care homes in Britain. That is because these scandals were not about lack of choice, but about neglect and abandonment: patients not turned over in bed, food being left out of reach, residents not helped to the bathroom. Those with complex interacting conditions (typical of those without …

What is ‘dark DNA’ ?

DNA sequencing technology is helping scientists unravel questions that humans have been asking about animals for centuries. By mapping out animal genomes, we now have a better idea of how the giraffe got its huge neck and why snakes are so long. Genome sequencing allows us to compare and contrast the DNA of different animals and work out how they evolved in their own unique ways. But in some cases we’re faced with a mystery. Some animal genomes seem to be missing certain genes, ones that appear in other similar species and must be present to keep the animals alive. These apparently missing genes have been dubbed “dark DNA”. And its existence could change the way we think about evolution. My colleagues and I first encountered this phenomenon when sequencing the genome of the sand rat (Psammomys obesus), a species of gerbil that lives in deserts. In particular we wanted to study the gerbil’s genes related to the production of insulin, to understand why this animal is particularly susceptible to type 2 diabetes. But when …