What do you get, when you combine 3D printing, Life Chemistry and Artificial Intelligence?

A robotic liquid 3D printer that can create artificial life

Continue reading

Posted on by Benjamin Maclaren | Leave a comment

Social media and the Fear of Missing Out: Why are you reading this? Shouldn’t you be doing something cool?

We’re all aware of the existence of the black sorcery that is social media.
We all use it and we’ve all read the disparaging articles, heard the misinformed talking heads going on about its corruptive influence and then seen it all replayed again on TV – so it’s to our credit that we’re unaffected by this supposedly insidious force.

Mostly.

The thing is that whilst most forms of social media do not directly harm anyone, its extensive use has been seen to correlate with a high dissatisfaction of several fundamental psychological needs – the result of which is the phenomenon referred to as “The Fear of Missing Out”, or FoMO for short.

A psychological research study conducted by Andrew K. Przybylski, Kou Marayama, Cody R. DeHaan and Valerie Gladwell in 2013 defined the term and aimed to discover it’s social, mental and emotional correlates amongst those most heavily affected by it – social media users. The results of the study were predictable for those of you that have gleaned the onus of this blog post already; amongst users of social media, those individuals who felt they were lacking in autonomy (self-authorship), relatedness (closeness with others) and competence (ability to affect the world) were extremely likely to exhibit FoMO, defined in the study as: “the uneasy or sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in the possession of more or something better than you”.

Now ignoring how much of a pain in the ass that definition is to say, this has dire implications that users of social media should be aware of. The first of which is its potential impact on those individuals already suffering from depression or other depressive mental illnesses. For those fitting the above criteria for dissatisfaction of basic psychological needs (well over half of social media users, according to Przybylski et al.), use of social media can feel like you’re looking through a two way mirror: you can see everyone else getting on with their lives, seemingly unaffected by need-deprivation and un-afflicted with the all-too-common Fear of Missing Out, whilst you’re stuck on the other side, unable to be seen or interacted with. For an individual in a depressive state this could be damaging, and according to the study, FoMO is heavily correlated with pre-existing negative mental states.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way this can be combatted. The purpose of this post is to bring awareness of the phenomenon, and awareness of the fact that someone close to you is likely affected by it – on its own FoMO is unlikely to provoke any negative mental effects that aren’t already there, but hey, nothing bad ever came from caring for your fellow man.

Posted in science communication of some kind..., SCOM1001 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Abortion: A public battleground???

Did you know that the Catholic Church wasn’t always pro-life like it is now? Until 1869, the Catholic Church considered the fetus to have a soul at around 19 weeks, and supported legal abortion until that time.

The legal status of abortion has always turned on this weird notion of whether and at what point a fetus becomes person, but science has never been able to truly quantify this point. Some think it’s when the fetus has a heartbeat: others think it’s when the sperm and egg form the unique DNA that a future baby will have for life.

Even today, the UK and USA have questionable abortion laws. The UK hasn’t seen any abortion reform since way back in 1967. In America the abortion situation is a little more crazy: recently, pro-lifers bombed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wisconsin. Violent anti-abortion rhetoric is endangering both the rights of women and the physical safety of citizens.

This kind of anti-abortion activism is easy to spot. However, the more enduring kind is the sort that flies under the radar: abortion rights are being stifled in other ways.

An interactive map of the world abortion laws can be found at: http://worldabortionlaws.com/map/

In Nepal, all abortions were illegal until 2002 and women found to have undergone abortion were jailed for infanticide. The abortion pill is legal in Nepal, but the process is highly supervised, which can be kind of confronting given the history of abortion in Nepal. However, a recent study in Nepal has conclusively proven you can take the pill at home. 98.4 and 97.8% of providers and recipients involved recommended the choice to take the pill at home.

So why haven’t women already been given this option? I think it is reflective of something greater. Laws require women to jump through hoops to get an abortion so that women are reminded their right to abortion isn’t really theirs.

The abortion pill induces a miscarriage. Until invention of this pill, pregnant women had to wait until approx 8 weeks after conception to get an abortion. This pill reduces the rate of late term abortions, yet the pro-life opinion on the pill is still summed up with this quote: “Approving chemical abortion will further numb our consciences to the violence of abortion and the taking of innocent human life.”

…WTF?!

But lets take it back to the beginning for a moment: Abortion is a matter of a woman’s personal choice and her own body. When the very basis of the abortion debate is so clearly down to personal opinion, why is it so hard to leave women free to make their own decisions?

 

Posted in health and medical, science communication of some kind..., SCOM1001 | Leave a comment

Think a Parasite that Kills Bees Doesn’t Affect you? Think Again.

Varroa Mites on a Bee Larvae

Varroa Mites on a Bee Larvae

Bees are a fantastic source of delicious golden honey. That wonderful sweet syrup that brightens up your tea and livens up your oatmeal. And that’s about all they’re good for…right?

Well no. Bees actually provide us with an extremely important service that has a massive impact on all Australians. They may just be the insect that has the most significant effect on our lives.

So what is so special about bees? In short, they pollinate plants.

Doesn’t sound that important? Many Australian fruit, nut and oil industries depend on bee pollination for most of their production.

Need more info? The pollination provided by bees is estimated to account for $1.7 billion worth of crop yield in Australia per year.

Still not convinced? Let’s put it this way. Approximately one in every three mouthfuls of food consumed in this country comes from the aid of pollination by bees.

A Bee Helping to Pollinate a Flower

A Bee Helping to Pollinate a Flower

Yet this vital insect that plays such an important role in agriculture is under serious threat. Since its discovery in the 1950s in Asia, a parasite known as the Varroa Destructor has been devastating beehives as it has spread to nearly every continent. The parasite attaches itself to bees, impairing their cognitive abilities, while making them more susceptible to diseases and ultimately shortening their lifespan.

Although the Varroa has not yet arrived on Australian shores, it seems only a matter of time (the parasite has appeared in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand in the last 10 years). A solution to the Varroa problem would not only provide a safeguard to Australia’s many industries that rely on the pollination provided by bees, but also to the other countries that are already affected by this troublesome parasite.

There have been many attempts to deal with the Varroa Destructor through the use of chemicals, beehive devices and even genetic engineering. But none have been particularly effective in the long-term battle against it. However, new research done by a team of Canadian and Israeli scientists may provide an effective method of destroying the Destructor!

In the study, the parasites were exposed to various chemical compounds and their behaviours monitored. Some of these chemicals showed promising results as they caused the Varroa to be much less likely to attach themselves to bees. One compound in particular caused the parasite to totally reverse its behaviour from preferring nurse bees (those that look after the larvae) to forager bees (those that go out and search for pollen). This is quite significant as forager bees are much more able to effectively deal with the Varroa.

This research provides an exciting new possibility of solving the worldwide threat of the Varroa Destructor. It is important that new studies like these be taken notice of and funded in order to protect our bees and their vital role in providing many of the world’s food products.

Posted in environment and conservation, science communication of some kind... | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Catastrophic Flooding

You know what the difference is between someone who accepts climate change and someone who doesn’t? Well if you look at their behaviour from day to day, nothing at all. A difference of opinion, that’s as far as it goes.

Why is that?

If the majority of us think that another hundred years of industry will bring on catastrophic weather, stagnation of the oceans and the toxification of the air, why are we all still driving cars to work and using gas heaters in the Autumn?

It could be that we simply didn’t evolve to consider threats outside of our immediate future. To us, climate change is this hazy mirage of doom, way off in the distance, out of focus. Now, if climate change were a big grizzly bear, in ready mawing stance, about to de-spleen us, perhaps we’d act differently. But it isn’t. So we won’t.

You may think this is defeatist, that I’m saying the cause for climate change activism is hopeless and we should just pack up our picket signs and go home. Maybe I don’t think the issue is that serious. But I do. I think it’s so serious, that we shouldn’t be relying on people’s willingness to act on it.

SUPPORT

Sad as it may be, any solution to climate change has to work around our innate, short-sighted behaviour. Humans are clever, we’ve come up with many ingenious ways to overcome our biology, but let’s not forget that any time a new form of media has been invented, it’s taken almost no time at all for us to start utilising it for sex. We’re primates first, smart people second.

What would be ideal is if there were a method of combating climate change, without having to drastically change our lifestyle. Fortunately, there is (at least) one. I’m referring to what’s known as passive cooling.

Passive cooling is essentially a design strategy. You can save a bunch on heating and air conditioning if you design your house in such a way that you can control how much heat it absorbs and how much it loses. And saving a bunch on heating and air conditioning means a whole lot less CO2 emissions.

A recent promising innovation in passive cooling is a material called Fan, a compound of silicon and quartz, with a silver base, which reflects 97% of light from the sun. It also emits most of the heat it absorbs, in a specific band of infrared, that doesn’t interact with the atmosphere, and so, passes right through it. So when applied to the roof of a building, it take the heat from within, and ejects it into space.

And remember, this is all done passively. No electricity. Virtually no upkeep. No one had to trade their car in for a bicycle for it to work.

Will this save us? Not likely. But it’s through this line of thinking, (like that of Elon Musk’s solar battery project), that the only foreseeable not-so-doomed future lies. Rely on the human tendency to resist change and favour convenience. If there are ways to curb CO2 emissions that do not require our minds and habits to change, they are what will make the difference.

Posted in science communication of some kind... | Leave a comment

Height, Heart Disease and Keeping Perspective

A study published by the University of Leicester last month gained a lot of media attention when it linked genetically short adult height to coronary artery disease. The results prompted some to ask questions of the medical field, and what doctors are doing to help their short statured patients preserve their health.

This request sounds reasonable in theory – the public should be aware of potential health risks regardless of who is affected. But unless there is a sense of perspective used in communicating the findings, there is potential for over exaggeration and misinterpretation. In particular I am referring to the simple and unavoidable fact that being short is not a disease in itself, and to treat it as one is insulting and unproductive. The issue is how medicine and society in general address the health of shorter individuals, without pigeonholing people unnecessarily.

Let’s start from the beginning. Why are some people shorter than others? Well, there are a variety of answers to that, each with varying degrees of complexity. The first is the genetic component to adult height. In very very general terms, if two short people from two short statured families have a child, there is a high likelihood that that kid will also be short. Adult height, unlike a lot of other physical attributes, is strongly (up to 80%) determined by ones genes.

The second is environment. Children who have poor nutrition, poor health and who live in low socioeconomic conditions will, on average, grow up to be shorter than those who were better off. This is primarily due to the quality and quantity of food that the child eats over the course of their development, combined with genetic factors.

But why does this matter?

Well, the study that inspired this article concluded that the shorter you are, the higher your risk of developing coronary artery disease. Specifically, for every 6.5cm decrease in height, there is a 13.5% higher chance of disease development. This information is fascinating and has potential for clinical advancement on the issue, but it poses some interesting ethical questions for how to approach disease prevention and risk communication.

As people learn about this research, and the results inevitably become blurred by journalists and bloggers, I can easily foresee some misinterpretation. I fear that if this is the case, short people will be viewed as less healthy than taller people – giving rise to discrimination and judgement against them. This would not be the first time shorter people have experienced discrimination either. Or the second time

The shorter you are, the higher your risk of coronary artery disease

The shorter you are, the higher your risk of coronary artery disease

. Eventually, short people will be seen inherently as victims, a title that is neither correct, nor beneficial to them. We must stop this before it starts.

As a community, science and science communicators in particular must emphasise that being short alone is not a statement about one’s health. The risk factors associated with short stature must be addressed, of course, but with a sensitive and realistic sense of what the health impacts actually are.

Posted in health and medical, science communication of some kind..., SCOM1001 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

To bee, or not to bee: What everybody needs to know about Varroa destructor.

A European honey bee with a Varroa Destructor mite: https://beesandchicks.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/mite2.jpg

A European honey bee with a Varroa destructor mite: https://beesandchicks.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/mite2.jpg

Varroa destructor is a small creature causing big problems. But what exactly is Varroa destructor, and why should you care?

What is Varroa destructor?

Varroa destructor is a species of mite. They have eight legs, are 1-2mm in length and width and are a red-brown colour. They are a parasite that attack honey bees, attaching to them and sucking their hemolymph (the circulatory fluid in arthropods, analogous to blood in vertebrates). This parasitic behaviour causes bees to have reduced weight, reduced lifespans and weakened immune systems. In addition, mites often transmit deadly viruses to bees. Varroa destructor infestation leads to reduced honey production and often causes bee colonies to collapse. As well as affecting the apiculture industry, this has serious consequences for agricultural industries that rely on honey bees for pollination.

A female Varroa destructor on the head of a bee nymph: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Female_Varroa_destructor_on_the_head_of_a_bee_nymph_(5048727154).jpg

Varroa destructor on the head of a bee nymph: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Female_Varroa_destructor_on_the_head_of_a_bee_nymph_(5048727154).jpg

What areas are affected?

Varroa destructor originated in Asia, where its natural host is the Asian honey bee (Apis cerena). The Asian honey bee evolved various natural defences against the mite. However, the mite spread to the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), who did not have any natural defences. As a result the mites quickly multiplied and spread through European honey bee populations across the world. Untreated colonies (including wild hives) typically collapsed within 3 years of being infected. Today the mite is a major problem in every major beekeeping region in the world, with the exception of Australia.

Varroa Destructor Distribution, 2010: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/varroa_mite01.jpg

How can we control it?

Scientists and beekeepers in affected regions have developed various chemical, physical and genetic engineering methods to try to control Varroa destructor. These methods are not totally effective and have various downsides, such as being expensive, labour intensive and potentially harmful to bees and humans. Progress is being made, particularly regarding genetic engineering methods, but much more research is still needed.

Australian efforts to control Varroa destructor are primarily focused on the short-term solution of preventing the mite from reaching Australian shores. This approach is working so far, but it is important that we also invest in long-term solutions to deal with the mite if it does arrive.

Why should I care?

If Varroa destructor arrived in Australia it would affect all Australians in some way. It would almost definitely lead to a significant decrease in the overall honey bee population, especially wild hives. This would be most heavily felt by the agricultural industry, who rely on honey bees for pollination of many crops. Less pollination would lead to lower crop yields, which would ultimately lead to an increase in the price and a decrease in the availability of most fresh fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. If you don’t want to have to pay more for your food, then you should care about Varroa destructor!

This is what your grocery store looks like without bees: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-epbuY7scRqs/UkmUPvq1sAI/AAAAAAAAG3A/lSkvsdXC9ng/s1600/Bees1.jpg

This is what your grocery store looks like without bees: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-epbuY7scRqs/UkmUPvq1sAI/AAAAAAAAG3A/lSkvsdXC9ng/s1600/Bees1.jpg

Posted in environment and conservation, SCOM1001 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Vaccines have never caused autism.

If you find yourself asking “Should I have my child vaccinated against Measles, Mumps and Rubella?”

The answer is an almost definite “Yes.” 

Continue reading

Posted in science communication of some kind... | Leave a comment

Power Freeze: Ice Isn’t Nice to Wind Turbines

We all know that we need to use renewable energy as much as possible in the coming years, thanks to fossil fuel shortages and the ever-present shadow of climate change. But this poses a few problems for some areas, particularly cold regions: how can they generate power off the grid without fossil fuels?

Solar power is useless in bad weather and is limited during polar winters, hydro power needs rivers not to freeze over in cold weather and geothermal power isn’t easy to harvest. So the logical choice would be wind power, right? It works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and generates even more power in high, alpine altitudes.

But there is a problem. And this problem can be succinctly illustrated by this scene from Iron Man.

Continue reading

Posted in science communication of some kind... | Leave a comment

Think About the Ink

Beware of cause-related marketing getting into your brain.

kfc-buckets-breast-cancer

Continue reading

Posted in science communication of some kind... | Leave a comment