UK Science After Brexit

Sophia Akiva

On the 23rd June 2016, the public voted for Brexit: Britain’s exit from the European Union, an event which will inevitably affect the careers of scientists both in the UK and the European Union. It is difficult to predict what the long-term outcome of Brexit will be and many of the arguments supporting Britain leaving the EU were based on speculation rather than fact.

Eight months on, what changes have already been made and what can we extrapolate to form a hypothesis for the future? There are many factors to be considered but today we focus purely on science.

Open communications and data sharing are vital to scientific progress. The European Union is currently working on a cloud network that aims to unite businesses and public services as part of a single data infrastructure. More specifically, it hopes to open the European Open Science Cloud specifically to benefit researchers and scientific professionals across all disciplines.

This enterprise requires an investment of 6.7 billion euros, and there are many who believe that these funds could be put to better use elsewhere, because cloud systems such as Dropbox and Google Drive are sufficient. Yet the greatest strides of discovery are often made through collaboration and exchange of knowledge so an investment in a shared cloud is bound to boost our progress.

The government’s attitude to the referendum result has been to seek out the best outcome for British researchers, but it is important to consider what we ourselves can offer in return. Many prominent scientists support us remaining in the EU because of our contribution to global progress. In a letter to the government signed by 13 Nobel Prize winners, they consider the EU to be the “biggest scientific powerhouse in the world,” stressing that losing EU funding would put British research in “jeopardy.”

Many of the promises made by the Leave campaign were based on the Swiss and Norwegian Models – countries that whilst not members of the EU, are still very prosperous. Switzerland has carried out a lot of ground-breaking scientific research and has become a hub for particle physics due to its hosting of CERN. Perhaps it is because of this that Switzerland is still a member of the European Horizon 2020 science and technology funding scheme?

However, the level of openness in data exchange between Switzerland and other countries in the scheme may be affected by a recent referendum in Switzerland regarding the free movement of people. There is hope that once Britain does leave, we too may still have access to research and information being shared across the European Union. Considering Theresa May’s Hard Brexit plan, though, we can’t be too sure.

The Prime Minister has said that we can achieve great things, and has promised that a further £2 billion is to be invested in scientific research every year until 2020. The funding aims to strengthen the UK’s position in leading fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. It is anticipated that by supporting research and development in Britain, we will be able to attract more innovators and investors in technology, providing a steady long term solution to scientific funding and securing Britain’s status as a powerhouse of its own.

Let us hope that the only market not affected by us leaving the EU is the one of information exchange.

On Good and Evil

Rowan Jaines

The concept of evil is often understood to be the polar opposite of being morally good. Marcus Singer referred to the term “evil” as the worst possible term of criticism imaginable. He argued that evil is a human phenomenon since evil deeds must flow from the will to do something evil. In other words, Singer claims that if only humans are moral agents, then it must follow that only humans can perform acts of evil.

Perhaps because of the way in which morality has been entwined with religion and superstition over history, there are branches of thought that state that concept of evil is problematic due to its association with dark spirits and its subsequent denial of explanatory and contextualising factors. Critics of the concept of evil see this denial as dangerous when used in moral, political and legal contexts.

Some, however, believe the term evil is very useful and important in understanding the human world. Back in 2006, Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, claimed that “it’s time we [psychologists] asked the big questions like the nature of evil.”. In his famous talk, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he claimed that the right conditions, often conditions designed to elicit obedience as we see in military situations, can create the potential for evil actions in any and all human beings.

The debate over whether evil is something some are born with or a potential we all have within us has raged through the centuries, however, in the early 1990’s the murder of two-year-old James Bulger rendered that question newsworthy.

In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was led away from a shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who proceeded to torture and murder him. Bulger suffered so many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Terry Eagleton, critical theorist, uses the Bulger case as a way to illustrate our contradictory thinking with regards the nature of evil in his book On Evil.  Like Zimbardo, Eagleton is firm that evil does exist, following Augustine and Aquinas in seeing evil as an “absence” rather than any kind of object.

Both boys in the Bulger case came from difficult backgrounds. Thompson’s mother was an alcoholic who frequently left her seven children alone at home, whilst Venables’ mother suffered from severe depression and repeatedly hit him. Accounts state he was afraid of her, arranging his toys on his bed for protection. It’s very common for those who commit unspeakable crimes to have had abusive and neglectful childhoods, but how can we understand this when equally some who have had loving childhoods still commit unspeakable acts?

It may be a question of empathy. Although for most people the development of empathy is something that begins in infanthood, both developmental trauma and genetic abnormalities can mean that a person develops into adulthood with a lack of empathy. The ability to imagine another person’s experience is a cornerstone of what we imagine it is to be human and takes a central role in much of our moral coding. This makes more sense of Singer’s claim that evil is the worst insult one can level at another person, since the will to perform an evil act indicates a lack of humanity. This also dovetails with Zimbardo’s argument. His examples of conditions which are seen to encourage acts of evil are all conditions where people are stripped of their individuality and their humanity.

It makes sense to consider that although we all have the capability to make moral choices, making a socially responsible decision may be more difficult for people with genetic or developmental barriers to empathy. Considering the concept of evil in light of all we have learnt in modern neuroscience, more shades of grey appear and allow us to develop a more subtle and nuanced understanding of phenomena that previously we needed strong terms such as “evil” to describe. Here we have an excellent example of the power that modern science has in transforming age old moral debates and hopefully allowing us to develop more empathy even towards those who have performed “evil” atrocities in order to understand and grow as a species.  

 

The Butterfly Molecule

Jonathan James

If you cast your mind back to chemistry class at school, you’ll probably remember learning about various types of atomic bonds. Typically, we think about the way atoms bind to one another in a couple of ways – ionic bonding, where oppositely charged ions are held together by electrostatic interactions, and covalent bonding, in which electrons are shared between atoms. For a long time, these looked like the only types of bonding that could exist under our current understanding of how atoms bind one another, but a recent discovery has unveiled a whole new type of bonding that seems to defy our understanding of chemistry.

Let’s quickly recap what we know about atoms. In the traditional model, atoms are made up of a positively charged nucleus, made up of protons (which give it its positive charge), and neutrons. This nucleus is tiny, and the clear majority of the atom’s size is empty space. Surrounding the nucleus are negatively charged electrons, which orbit in ‘shells’, a bit like planets around the sun (but not really… That could be an article all by itself!) Typically, atoms take up a volume so small, that you could fit 200,000,000,000,000,000 of them inside the dot on this exclamation point!

Recently, however, scientists have been able to confirm a theory that they’ve had since 2002. The existence of ‘Rydberg molecules.’ Affectionately referred to as ‘Butterfly molecules’ because of the butterfly like distribution of the orbiting electrons, Rydberg molecules are enormous. In fact, at a millionth of a meter across (huge for an atom!), they are about the same size as an entire E. coli bacterium. Their electrons are anywhere from 100-1000 times further away from the nucleus than they should be. At these distances, the electrons become ‘super electronically excited’, which allows them to act like a lasso, grabbing nearby atoms and forming weak interactions with them.

The researchers created the molecules by super cooling Rubidium gas to a just above absolute zero, before exciting them into their Rydberg state using lasers. They then kept the atoms under observation, looking for changes in the frequency of light that they would absorb, as this would show that a bond had been formed. Eventually they discovered that they had indeed triggered the formation of these butterfly molecules.

But why should you be excited about this discovery? After all, it’s just another type of dull chemical bond that kids will be forced to learn about, right? Actually, there is a lot of excitement around Rydberg molecules and how they might be used in nanotechnology and small scale electronics to make them much more efficient. There are even hopes that they might be used in quantum computing, pushing technology even more into the future!

Hunting to Extinction

Katy Drake

Our planet is flirting dangerously with the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. Humans the culprits; habitat destruction and direct exploitation of species the crimes. As the decline of terrestrial land mammals continues to accelerate, bushmeat hunting, in particular, has gained new attention.

An international study, led by Professor William Ripple of Oregon State University and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, provides an analysis of 301 species – including 126 primates, 65 ungulates (hooved animals), and 26 bats – signifying that they could be on their way out if unsustainable hunting practices for meat and medicine are not regulated.

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Pangolin

Image Credit: One Green Planet

Most of the threatened species occur in developing countries. The primary reason for hunting these mammals is meat consumption, followed by medicinal use. Bushmeat has long been a source of sustenance for many rural populations. However, the line between necessity and luxury is being blurred as population growth explodes and the demand for bushmeat is pushed higher still by urban populations and more prosperous countries, particularly Asia.

Demand alone cannot explain the entirety. The success of large scale commercial hunting has followed on the heels of greater hunter efficiency. Technology has driven a move from bows to firearms and foot to motorised vehicles, increasing the effectiveness and spatial extent of hunting. Yet, bushmeat hunting is not always selective and several modern methods, including traps and snares, produce substantial bycatch, cause injury to animals and increase carcass loss to scavengers.

Of the 301 species identified in Professor Ripple’s research, large mammals, many of which impact the landscape through seed dispersal and foraging, are disproportionately at risk of extinction from hunting. Large carnivores, which also form part of this group, help control populations of herbivores who otherwise would overconsume grasslands. No other taxonomic group comprises of terrestrial animals in a similar size class. As such, the loss of ‘top-down’ control on ecosystems, provided by large-bodied mammals, cannot be compensated for and would result in permanent ecosystem changes.

The smaller of the 301 mammals are of equal importance, performing specific ecological roles. Pangolin’s have recently joined the list of ‘high-profile’ species threatened with extinction. Their scales are believed to treat many illnesses, including psoriasis and poor circulation. All eight species of pangolin, the most illegally traded mammal in the world, are now threatened with extinction. They are a crucial component in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems providing effective ‘pest control’ and improving soil quality as they burrow for shelter and excavate for food.

However, ecosystem collapse is not the only consequence warned by the scientists of Professor Ripple’s international study. Rural forest communities depend on wild animals such as bonobos and antelope for up to 80% of their protein intake and while urban populations drive much of the new demand, as Nasi indicates in a new paper, ‘Empty forests, empty stomachs? Bushmeat and livelihoods in Congo and Amazon Basins’, bushmeat is not necessarily a luxury for all. It is one of the cheapest sources of protein available and therefore a necessity for much of the urban poor population.

An approximation indicates bushmeat consumption across the Congo basin and Amazon to be on average, 6 million tonnes a year. While some species are able to resist the pressures, only 2 percent of hunted mammal populations are stable or increasing. As the unsustainable practice pushes mammals closer to extinction, hunting returns continue to decrease, jeopardising the food security of the millions who rely on bushmeat as their main source of protein.

Awareness is certainly the first, crucial stepping stone to the solution but is by no means enough on its own. Increased legal protection of wild animals and efficient enforcement will be critical and has already had a proven effect on wildlife populations. The researchers also recommend empowering local communities to benefit from the protection of that wildlife, increasing education opportunities, improved family planning and providing food alternatives, such as plant-based proteins.

There are clear pressures today that threaten wildlife worldwide. Habitat destruction is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous. However, the enormous impact of bushmeat hunting on ecosystems and livelihoods cannot be overlooked. Is it really a victory to conserve a pristine habitat if it is hunted to the point of being ‘empty’?

 

Metallic Hydrogen: 80 years in the making

 

Ashley Carley

Rocket fuel, lightning-fast supercomputers and levitating trains are just three uses of the newly discovered metallic hydrogen – if, the Harvard scientists say, everything goes to plan.

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant of all the elements. It forms two thirds of every drop of water, and almost 75% of the gas in the Sun’s core. Alone, hydrogen is most often found floating around in its gaseous phase, but it has been predicted a metallic form may exist when exposed to intense pressure.

Two physicists at Harvard University claim to have isolated this incredibly rare form for the first time, in a paper published this week. By squeezing solid hydrogen between two diamonds at temperatures well below freezing, the researchers created pressures larger than those found at the centre of the Earth. In these conditions, the hydrogen atoms began to share their electrons. Using this new electron cloud, they could conduct electricity.

Isaac Silvera, who made the discovery alongside his colleague Ranga Dias, recognises the importance of his achievement, calling it the “holy grail of high-pressure physics.”

This breakthrough has been a long time coming; it has been over 80 years since Eugene Wignar and Hillard Bell Huntington made the first predictions about metallic hydrogen. Since then the goalposts have continually shifted. Estimates of the pressure required to make the substance have been continually revised upwards, from 25 gigapascals (GPa), 250,000 times above atmospheric pressure, in 1935, to the most recent estimate of 400-500 GPa.

Each time the prediction changed, it moved out of the range scientists were capable of recreating in a lab environment, making it somewhat of a carrot on a stick for researchers in the field. Jeffrey McMahon, theoretical physicist at Washington State University, told New Scientist that if the results were reproducible, the recent experiments had solved “one of the major outstanding problems in all of physics.”

It wasn’t easy – the synthetic diamonds had to be flattened, polished and heated to remove any imperfections that could result in cracking. They were then covered in alumina, an extremely hard material made from aluminium and oxygen that hydrogen could not leak through. The two diamonds were then crushed together with great force, and Dr Dias watched as the hydrogen between them turned from clear to black, until it began to shine. The force required was 495 GPa – higher than the pressure at the Earth’s core. Dr Dias then called Professor Silvera, and they took the measurements that would confirm their discovery.

The next step is to see if it retains its structure when compression is relaxed. Some predictions suggest it will be too unstable to survive at room temperature, and will gradually decay, although others have more hope. Graphite forms diamonds under high pressures and temperatures, but when the sources of compression and heat are taken away – the diamond remains. Scientists are hoping metallic hydrogen could act the same way once released from its diamond vice.

If it does, its potential applications are exciting. If the amount of energy used to create the metallic hydrogen can be released by breaking it down again, it could become the most powerful rocket fuel ever made. “We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important,” Professor Silvera says. Electronic systems would also be revolutionised, as “superconductors” could be made which reduce energy wastage in wires.

When Professor Silvera is asked what thinks will happen next, he responds “I don’t want to guess, I want to do the experiment.” After an 80-year wait, perhaps the suspense is great enough.