Irish scientists find arthritis ‘off’ switch; Chinese space station falling to Earth; New organ found; Holding on to memories in Alzheimer’s using implants

Chinese Space Station
The 9.4 tonne Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is set to fall to Earth over the easter weekend, but scientists are not sure exactly where (Photo: NBC News)

Listen to weekly round up of science news broadcast on East Coast FM: 29th March 2018

My weekly science news round up on East Coast FM: weight loss; mindfulness; ancient Egypt; super volcano; Chinese space station

The latest science news from around the world 

Broadcast on The Morning Show on East Coast FM (20/10/2017)

A group of scientists say there is no evidence for many of the benefits claimed for mindfulness (Source: http://www.positivepsychologyprogram.com)

 

Every two lbs overweight knocks nine weeks off your life

Source: Telegraph, UK

  • Study of 600,000 people study link between longevity and lifestyle
  • Smoke pack of cigs per day, die seven years earlier on average
  • Edinburgh University researchers did this as a so-called big data project, which means analysing and cross referencing vast amounts of data.
  • If you are two stone overweight, then it will take, on average, six months off your life.
  • Data came from Europe, North America and Australia, via the UK Biobank.
  • But… also found that life is extended by one year for every year a person stays in education after school, on average. That’s a massive effect.
  • Life expectancy continuing to increase, and in the UK it stands now at 79.5 years for a man, on average, and 83.1 for a woman.
  • But, Public Health England found this year that the average ‘healthy’ average life expectancy – the number of years a person can live largely free of illness – is less than the age people get the state pension

Little proof mindfulness meditation works, say scientists

Source: Scientific American

  • Scientists in the US now asking where is the proof that mindfulness works? Question asked by a group of 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
  • Lots of studies have been done on mindfulness and it has been reported to relieve stress, pain and even slow ageing.
  • But, these researchers are critical of these studies because they say they are poorly designed, they have inconsistent definitions are what mindfulness actually is, and often do not use a control group to rule out the placebo effect.
  • Only some 9 per cent of studies on mindfulness has been tested in clinical trials, one report said, and meta analysis of mindfulness research not impressive.
  • In 2014, a review of 47 meditation trials, involving over 3,500 people found that no evidence mindfulness enhanced enhanced attention, curtailed substance abuse, helped sleep or controlled weight.
  • Mindfulness meditation and training is now a huge industry, so there are vested interests promoting its effectiveness, the scientists state.
  • Less than 25 per cent of trials on mindfulness monitor potential negative effects and that is causing worry among scientists too.
  • The 2014 review did find some benefits, modest benefits, for anxiety, depression and pain from the use of mindfulness.
  • A reputable trial this year found that mindfulness attention training reduced self perceived stress, but not the stress hormone cortisol. What does it mean?
  • Another trial found that mindfulness increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex around of the brain, which is associated with complex behaviour, decision making and shaping the personality.

Ancient Egypt brought down by volcanoes and climate change

Source: Independent UK

  • Volcanic eruptions caused riots and rebellions against Ptolemaic rule and Cleopatra was one of those leaders.
  • Ancient Egypt relied on monsoon weather to provide water irrigate the nile delta region, as does 70 per cent of the globe still today
  • Researchers at TCD and Yale looked at the historical records and used climate modelling methods (working backwards) to do this study.
  • Summer floods helped crops to grow, fed population and were the fundamental basis for the wealth of ancient Egypt at this time 350BC to 30 BC or so.

Yellowstone Super Volcano could erupt inside decades causing global volcanic winter

Source: Independent UK

  • The last time it erupted was 630,000 years ago and created the Yellowstone caldera, which is 40 miles wide.
  • The volcano is so big that if it erupted, it could choke the Earth’s entire atmosphere with ash, blocking out a lot of sunlight, causing temperatures to dip, and this would continue for years.
  • That last massive eruption, scientists at Arizona State have found, occurred following two influxes of fresh magma into the magma chamber.
  • The temperatures increased around the volcano as this happened over decades, not centuries, as previously thought.
  • This shows that the the yellowstone volcano could become dangerous inside decades, at any point, when temperatures start to rise.
  • Large parts of the USA would be covered in dangerous ash if it erupted, the Earth would dramatically cool, sunlight would struggle to get through and the impact would last more than a decade. Life would get very tough, esp in US.

Chinese space station will crash to Earth in months

Source: Guardian UK

  • The 8.5 tonne orbiting laboratory (two large male bull elephants) is now out of control, and in a death spiral, and the ISS will follow perhaps as earth as 2020.
  • The Tiangong-1, or heavenly palace, lab was launched in 2011 as part of China’s push to become a space superpower.
  • Visited by taikonauts including China’s first female taikonaut Liu Yang in 2012.
  • Much of the craft will burn up in the atmosphere, but scientists in the west estimate that pieces as large as 100kg (16 stone man) will crash to Earth anytime between now and April 2018.
  • Impossible to predict when and where the pieces will fall scientists say.
  • No-one has been hurt by space debris falling to Earth, but in 1979 NASA’s 77-tonne Skylab space station crashed to the ground with some large pieces landing outside Perth.

 

Tallaght students set to make radio contact with the International Space Station

Fifth year students from Tallaght Community School pictured preparing for radio contact with with the International Space Station. (Pic: Colin O’Riordan) 

Tallaght Community School will this Thursday, 19th October become the first Irish school to make radio contact with the International Space Station (I.S.S.)

The I.S.S. travels in orbit around the Earth at a speed of 27,600km/hour and for a window of six to 12 minutes it will pass over Tallaght Community School.

The students will get the opportunity to speak to Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli while he takes a break from his extensive daily duties on board the ISS.

“The opportunity to talk to the astronauts on board the ISS will hopefully encourage students to pursue a career in STEM education, but also be a memorable moment in their journey through education in Tallaght Community School,” said Ian Boran, physics and maths teacher.

In 2014 Paolo was interviewed for an RTE Radio 1 science series called ‘What’s It All About? where he spoke about life on a previous ISS mission.

Paolo Nespoli, the Italian European Space Agency astronaut will speak to Tallaght students via a radio link (Source: European Space Agency)

Radio equipment on the ground in Tallaght will beam a line-of-sight signal to the ISS. The students in Tallaght have set up a radio station on the ground, using amateur radio equipment which includes an antenna, and a two-way radio system.

The ISS has been a channel for educating school students around the world about on the work that takes place on the ISS and life on-board the ISS.

Amateur radio is a hobby which facilitates learning about how radio technology works , communicating with others and long distance communication.

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, is a global voluntary group that formalised a programme for helping schools to connect with the ISS through the use of amateur radio equipment.

The ARISS runs a competition where thousands of applications are received from schools worldwide to connect with the ISS, but only a few are chosen.

Schools in the home country of a specific astronaut on board the ISS received 70 per cent of the limited number of contact events per year.

So, for countries like Ireland, which have no astronaut on board the ISS, it is extremely difficult for a school to be chosen.

 

Women make better surgeons; Trump plans Moon return; Women brain’s wired to be selfless; voice key to emotional state

Patients are 12 less likely to die 30 days post-op if the operation was performed by a female surgeon (Source: gender.stanford.edu)

Broadcast on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan on East Coast FM 12/10/17

 

Student competition to build a mini-satellite launched

A competition has been launched for secondary students to build a mini-satellite.

A competition to design, build and test a mini-satellite, which is open to second level students, was launched this week to coincide with Space Week.

CanSat 2018 is a simulation of a real satellite, but built inside an empty soft drink can.

In 2016 Ireland finished 3rd in the European finals and in 2017 Ireland finished 2nd in the European finals, so this year Ireland is hoping for an overall win in Europe.

CanSat Ireland is open to post primary students, Transition Year and upwards. The competition is designed to give students experience of a real space project and aims to encourage them to consider careers in science and engineering.

CanSat Ireland started in 2012 and is co-ordinated by the European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) Ireland.

The winner of the national final then has the opportunity to represent Ireland by participating in the European CanSat Competition which challenges teams from other European countries to compete against each other.

Schools interested in participating in CanSat should contact Alan Giltinan at Blackrock Castle Observatory by email at alan.giltinan@bco.ie and by phone at 021 4326125

 

Ireland ‘switches on’ to astronomy in historic event at Birr Castle

Broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Drivetime, 27th July 2017

I-LOFAR, Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle, pictured, was switched on today in a historic moment for astronomy here (Credit: RTE)

The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing  the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.

The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.

 

Extraterrestrial radio 

Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.

After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.

The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.

Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.

History 

It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.

It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.

This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.

The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.

 

 

 

Exciting 
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.

Let the astronomical games begin!

The History of the Search for ET life – so far

The Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek California is set up to search for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (Image source: Sky & Telescope)

 

For millions of years – as long as humans have existed and gazed upwards –  people will have questioned are we alone in the Universe? Yet, it is only in the past 60 years or so, with rapid technological advances, that it has become possible to make serious attempts to answer that age-old question.

Listen to interview with Myles Dungan on The History Show, RTE Radio 1 (broadcast 2/04/17)

Ancient

The ancient Greeks, the foundation stone upon which much of our western way of life today has been built, were the first, in the west at least, to consider the possibility that the Universe was infinite and that it contained an infinite number of civilisations.

The arrival in the 16th century of the Copernican model of our Solar System, where the Earth revolved around the Sun, impacted on our thoughts of ET life too.

This radical science, which place the Sun at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth, implied that our planet was not perhaps as important as we had thought.

If Earth was just one planet of several orbiting the Sun, and not at the centre of everything, then why could there not be life, like us, on other similar planets?

This, of course, caused complications for some established religions, as if there was life, like us, on other planets, then had Jesus come down to save them too?

There things stood, with lots of questions, but no ability to answer them, for several centuries until the second half of the twentieth century.

Principles

In the 1950s, at the height of Cold War paranoia, the number of reported sightings of UFOs increased dramatically across the United States.

In 1959, two young scientists at Cornell University decided to try and take a serious scientific look at how mankind might try to tune in to alien communications.

The paper appeared in Nature, one of the world’s top scientific journals, and it was called ‘Searching for Interstellar Communications’.

This paper changed everything because it established the scientific principles by which scientists might try to find, and listen in to alien communications, if they existed.

The authors, Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison were both physicists based at Cornell University in upstate New York. They said that the possibility of extra-terrestrial ‘intelligent’ life couldn’t be determined, or ruled in or out. However, given that mankind evolved it was likely that other intelligent creatures evolved too, on planets near a Sun. Some of these civilisations might, the authors said, be more advanced than our own and may want to contact us and other intelligent beings that resided on planets – like them – close to a warm Star.

The two physicists considered how intelligent extra-terrestrials might make contact with us, and decided that electromagnetic waves, which travel at the speed of light and are not easily knocked off course, would be the most logical way to transmit a message.

Furthermore, they decided that the most likely frequency the aliens would broadcast on would be 1,420 megahertz as that is the ‘emission frequency’ of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe. This is the frequency of the radio wave emissions given off when an atom in an element, in this case hydrogen, is given off as the element moves from a high energy atomic configuration into a lower energy configuration.

The aliens, the logic went, would chose this frequency because they knew other intelligent beings would also understand its importance and tune in accordingly.

SETI

The paper inspired a now-famous astronomer called Frank Drake to perform the first scientific experiment to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. That was 1960.

Drake, is still alive, aged 86, and an active astronomer, and considered the Father of SETI the Search for Extra-terrestrial life, and the SETI Institute in the USA.

Drake pointed a radio telescope at two ‘nearby’ stars called Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani to see whether there was anything being broadcast from planets orbiting these Sun-like bodies in the hydrogen emission frequency from that location. There wasn’t.

Today, the SETI Institute, based in Northern California, has access to a $30 million array of telescopes, funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. It has a permanent staff of scientists, and is supported by donations and computer power by SETI enthusiasts all over the world. It is not reliant on US taxpayers’ support.

Drake, apart from founding SETI, is also famous for producing something called the Drake equation along with Carl Sagan, to predict how many civilisations there might be in the Universe, based on known parameters.

In 1961, when the Drake equations was first produced, it predicted there was from 1,000 to one billion such civilisations, and the range was down to the fact that the parameters were nebulous.

The Drake equation has become more accurate over the years, based on better knowledge of parameters such as how often Sun-like Stars form, and how many of these stars have planets. But we still don’t know how precisely life begins, even on Earth, or what fraction of life will evolve to become intelligent.

Criticism

The implications of the Cocconi and Morrison article took time to be absorbed by the mainstream scientific community, but eventually, in 1971, NASA got on board by setting up Project Cyclops at NASA. This was the first formalised, publicly-funded research project into searching for ET life.

The funding wasn’t enough for scientists at Cyclops to do a great deal, but even at its low level of funding, it soon came under political attack.

In 1978, Senator William Proxmire bestowed one of his infamous ‘golden fleece’ awards on the SETI programme, deriding it as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In 1981, a Proxmire amendment killed off SETI funding for the following year with Proxmire saying that it was a silly search for aliens unlikely to produce results.

In 1993, NASA got back into SETI work, this time with the High Resolution Microwave Survey Targeted Search programme. But, again, this project too came under political attack and lost is operational funding just one year after it began.

It wasn’t just politicians who were critical of SETI work, scientists were critical too, who supported the view outlined by the late nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.

Fermi, who had died in 1954, did not accept the view (held by many at SETI) that the Universe was teeming with life, based on its size, and number of planets near Stars.

Fermi said that if the SETI people were to be believed, and the Universe was teeming The Earth was 4.5 billion years old, Fermi had said, and there was no evidence of extra-terrestrial life visiting here in all that time.

He had asked the question if there is so much life out there, ‘where is everybody’. It was a simple, yet, devastating riposte to the Drake equation.

Fermi had come up with his idea in 1950, but many scientists still point to it.

Evidence

Yet, Fermi was not alive when two things happened, both in the mid-1970s, which are the best pieces of evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

The first story concerns an experiment that took place when the Viking landers landed on Mars in 1976. Some readers will remember the amazing colour pictures of the surface of Mars shown on TV at the time.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 were NASA space probes sent to Mars for the sole purpose of determining whether life existed on the planet.

One of three experiments on board worked was set up to see if the soil contained microbes. If it did, the life forms in the Martian soil would ingest and metabolise the nutrients and release either radioactive carbon dioxide or methane gas which could be measured by a radiation detector on the space probe.

The minute the nutrients were mixed with the soil sample there was a huge reaction with something like 10,000 counts of radioactive molecules being produced. This was a huge spike because the radiation background on Mars was 50 or 60 counts.

The experiment was, thus, positive for life, but NASA did not announce it had found life because the other two experiments on board which were negative for life.

The other piece of ‘evidence’ that is put forward concerns what is called the ‘Wow signal’, which was received by the Big Ear Telescope on 15th August 1977. The telescope was scanning for signals coming in from potential ET intelligent beings.

This was a strong narrowband signal which appeared to come from the constellation Sagittarius, and was in the 1,420 MHz frequency band. It was precisely the sort of signal that the SETI researchers were looking for as being of ET origin.

Jerry Ehman, a volunteer astronomer working with SETI spotted this massive, powerful, narrow band Wo signal on the paper readouts he was going through while sitting at his kitchen table a few days later.

Ehman was stunned by the signal and was so taken back by it that he wrote the comment ‘Wow’ in the paper margins, hence the name Wow signal.

The signal lasted 72 seconds, then the Earth rotated, the signal dropped out of view of the telescope, and when the same region of sky came into view again, it was gone.

The signal helped inspire the film Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster.

Jerry Ehman went through every conceivable possible earthbound source for the signal, such as nearby military and civilian communications, but nothing could explain it. It remains the strongest candidate ever detected for an alien radio transmission.

Recent

The biggest thing to happen in recent years was the announcement in 2015 of $100 million privately funded search for ET life over 10 years, or about 10 million per year. This is big even compared to the annual funding for SETI of about 2 million dollars per annum. The Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message initiatives are supported by the Russian internet investor and physicist Yuri Milner and supporter by big names like Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees and Frank Drake.

This will survey the one million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth, as well as the 100 closest galaxies for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, in the form of artificial radio or optical transmissions that cannot be explained by natural phenomenon.

The advance of technology and our ability to scan more areas of our vast galaxy and Universe mean that people like Seth Shostak, an astronomer at SETI believes that we will have discovered ET life, intelligent or not, inside the next 20 years.

Get ready to meet ET!