Wednesday, 7 October 2015

And the winners are...

Yesterday the winners of this year's Nobel Prizes were announced. I've never really been one to follow the announcements, however as the years have progressed, and I've started to read more literature and papers, I find myself gradually intrigued by the winners and their accolades. 

And the winners are:


Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald jointly share the Physics prize for 'the discovery of neutrino oscillations which shows that neutrinos have mass'.

Physiology or Medicine
William C. Campbell, Satoshi ┼îmura and Youyou Tu share the prize for physiology or medicine. The prize was split in half with one half being shared amongst Campbell and ┼îmura for  'their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites'. The other half of the prize went to Tu 'for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria' 

Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar all take a third of the prize for their work 'on the mechanistic studies of DNA repair'.

A huge congratulations to all the winners!

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Happy Autumn Day!!

Today, Wednesday 23rd September marks the official start of the marvellous orange and brown tinged season of Autumn. It is my favourite time of year, the nights get longer, the temperature starts to drop and the fallen leaves get oh so crisp and crunchy under foot. I basically LOVE Autumn. Anyway here's a quick recap of some of my favourite bits of science from this year (Jan-Sept).

The desert tawny owl became a new owl species on 25th January.The owl is of a medium size, which tends to be found around The Middle East, namely Syria, Israel and Egypt. The desert tawny owl feasts upon large insects and rodents.

The British Government voted in favour of 3-person babies in a bid to try and combat inherited mitochondrial disorders. This ruling is yet to be passed by the House of Lords, but if it is, then the UK will become the first country in the world to offer this form of prevention of mitochondrial disorders

On the 20th March a total solar eclipse occurred over most of Europe. A solar eclipse is when the moon moves infront of the sun, blocking the light of the sun; creating temporary darkness. This particular eclipse lasted for just over 1 minute when it began at 8.30 am GMT. (I actually missed this because I was in the lab!)

The Large Hadron Collidor returns to action after a stint of maintenance and an upgrading.

Nivolumab, a drug which is a monoclonal antibody (mAb) was approved for treatment of lung cancer and was shown to double life expectancy in some patients.

A 3D printed titanium jaw was implanted successfully into a male patient in Melbourne, Australia. Who knows what will be next? This is marvellous news, for patients who require uniquely designed implants to help rebuild body parts. A step forward in the right direction!

Stephen Hawking launches Breakthrough Initiatives, a program founded with the main intention to look for extraterrestrial intelligent life.

2 new venomous frog species were discovered in Brazil: Greening's frog and Bruno's casque-headed frog. Both species of frog have spines on their heads. By headbutting their victim they are able to inject poison.

WWF and ZSL found that populations of marine creatures, such as birds, fish, reptiles and mammals have declined around 47% since 1970.

Hopefully the next 3 months of 2015 will be just as spectacular in the world of science!

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Are you AI-live?

We know all about robots and the obsession we seem to have with creating something in as much of a life-like way as possible. The awe which we hold when robots carry-out complex tasks which we label as being 'human'.

ASIMO, Honda's robot.
Even TV shows are appearing with the idea of AIs overtaking humans (my whole reason behind this post, is because I have started watching a drama series on AIs), not in number, but ability and intelligence. Obviously, this is a figment of someone's imagination on what the future holds, however, is the rise of the AI as fictitious as I would like to believe?

A couple of months ago a New York robot passed a test which is known as the King's Wise Men puzzle. This puzzle acts a method for detecting self-awareness. The test was adapted for 3 robots. The robots were told that they had been given a dumbing pill that prevented them from talking. They were then asked which of them could talk.

Initially all the robot's claimed not to know the answer to the puzzle until a single robot piped up after hearing its own voice and said 'Sorry, I know now!'

This is only the first step in achieving consciousness in a man-made being, however, actual self-awareness and the idea of robots with a 'conscience' is a way into the future.

What do you think about the possibility of a being so technically advanced that we would be unable to fix it or even compete with it on the basis of intelligence?

I have mixed feelings. It's great for the advancement of the fields of robotics, engineering and technology but what I would really like to know is where the line gets drawn between 
what is classified as living and not.

I will continue watching my AI drama series and live tweeting later today on Twitter: @TheScienceTree

Thursday, 3 September 2015

En route for Collision!

I don't know whether it was because I was watching Angels and Demons this morning, that I suddenly thought what was happening with the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). Having not heard anything about it since they switched it on in 2008/2009, and apart from the Higgs Boson particle discovery,  I thought it was time to find out what was happening in regards to this pretty awesome piece of scientific kit.

The background
The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator. It is comprised of superconducting magnets along its 27 km circumference. The role of the magnets is to boost the energy of the particles moving inside the accelerator. Two high energy particle beams are put into the accelerator, in different pipes; where they move almost at the speed of light. As the beams whizz around, another magnet is used to push them closer together to increase the likelihood of a collision. If and when the particles collide, the energy released is received via 4 particle detectors.

One of the Particle detectors
(image sourced from:

The LHC has been switched off which allows the engineers and technicians to carry out maintenance on the $9bn machinery. Although there is no current time frame for when the collider will be up and running again, it is very important that the work is carried out properly for 3 reasons: to ensure more positive results for physics; a machine working to its full potential and above all safety of  those who work alongside it. Ensuring these constraints are met, means no rushing to finish the repairs by a specific date.

I understand that a thorough maintenance of the LHC is what truly matters, and is potentially the gateway to exciting new discoveries in physics.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Flight of the Ants

Yesterday, sitting at the train station, I noticed that I was being attacked by a barrage of winged critters. Looking on the floor I saw they were winged ants. Now, I've seen winged ants before, however the sheer enormity of their number was something!! I don't know whether what I was wearing was attracting them, or the perfume I had on, but within 5 minutes of sitting on the bench I felt like a beacon attracting them. This is when I thought, why is it only on 1 day do these ants take flight?

So Flying Ant Day (as it has been colloquially termed) is actually the nuptial flight of an ant, and it is very important in the reproductive life cycle of the colony. A colony of ants will produce winged ants of both genders, male and female (queen). These winged 6-legged critters stay within the colony until the external conditions are optimal (generally a clear day with no rain). Interestingly, colonies in the same area synchronise the release of their winged queens and males, to coincide, in order to avoid inbreeding of the colony.
 A female winged Carpenter Ant

So when queens and males from the same colony leave, they scatter to ensure outbreeding will occur as much as possible. Like bees, ants release pheromones and the queens release this potent chemical scent to attract a mate.

Once mating has occurred the queen ant will land and remove her wings, and attempt to create her own colony. Although this process appears to be relatively a simple procedure, the actual chances of a successful colony being created is very low. The ants have to outcompete a number of factors to survive, which can act as a selection pressure. These factors could be the climate, predators, environmental occurrences and the raising of infant ants (larvae) into workers to name a few. Thus when a queen is successful in establishing a new colony, she is passing advantageous genes onto her offspring, making stronger and fitter ants in the next generation.
A winged male Carpenter ant

So the next time you witness flying ant day, don't swat away the little bugs, leave them to find their true mate and create a new colony of ants, who will be ready to take flight in the following season.

Explorer Fact: Termites and some bee species take part in a nuptial flight and their flight will often coincide with with the flight of the ants, often to confuse predators and ensure a greater chance of success.