There’s an App For That

Alys Dunn

Since the Apple app store’s opening in 2008, $60 billion has been made by developers of apps. On New Year’s Day alone this year, $240 million was made by purchasing just apps. With 2.2 million apps to choose from on the Apple store alone, we have come a long way from playing snake on our Nokia’s.

So isn’t it fitting that something as revolutionary as the smartphone app is now being used by an application that is equally as innovative?

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Over fifty years ago the world was transformed by the advent of The Pill. Since its approval in the 1960s for contraceptive use, over 200 million women have taken it. It put women in control of their own lives enabling them to choose if and when they wanted children. For the first time in the history of mankind, women were able to take responsibility for a method of preventing pregnancy.

Swedish particle physicist Dr Elina Berglund has now made an app for that. Natural Cycles is an app that prevents pregnancy by tracking measurements you plug into it; measurements taken by a thermometer you pop into your mouth every morning. Depending on these measurements, the app’s algorithm will tell you if it’s safe to have unprotected sex, termed a ‘green day’, or whether you should take other forms of protection, a ‘red day’. The basic scientific fact behind this is that a woman can only get pregnant on six days of her monthly cycle. So by using an algorithm that takes into account temperature and many other factors like sperm survival, temperature fluctuations and cycle irregularities the app is able to predict the likelihood of becoming pregnant that day. Other factors can also be added into the app to reduce your red days and increase your green, like when you’re having intercourse or by taking LH tests (Luteinising Hormone tests can detect ovulation through urine).

The pearl index is a way of measuring how effective contraceptives are. The closer to zero, the better the contraceptive. Seven women in 100 per year using Natural Cycles as their main contraceptive got pregnant. This equates to a pearl index of seven: very high protection. Compare this to the pill which has a pearl index of nine, which is also very high protection, yet less effective than the app. Plus Natural Cycles has no added hormones which cause the side effects (like certain cancers and deep vein thrombosis) of the contraceptive pill.

The app is still not considered as effective as other contraceptive methods, such as the Nexplanon contraceptive implant, with a Pearl Index measured between 0.00 and 0.4. However, it’s really interesting how the advancement in computer technology and an algorithm written by a particle physicist has now meant that we are now able to control and understand our own bodies better via a mobile app, without harmful side effects.

Shrimps and Sonoluminescence

SAlys Dunn

So, what links sonoluminescence and shrimp? Mantis shrimp have an incredibly strong claw. This claw can move at around 100km per hour! When this claw closes in water it produces a bubble. This is a very special bubble though; it’s called a cavitation bubble. Mantis shrimp can use these cavitation bubbles as a defence mechanism or to stun their prey. Here’s a video of a shrimp making some bubbles: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXK2G2AzMTU).

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Whenever the pressure in a liquid suddenly drops, cavitation occurs. This physics phenomena can even break beer bottles. Cavitation bubbles are formed when the force from the shrimp’s claw causes a low pressure bubble of air to be formed within the water. The water around the bubble is at a higher pressure. This difference of pressures causes the bubble to collapse.  This is when all the interesting stuff happens.

The inside of the bubble becomes incredibly hot, estimates are that the temperature of the bubble can reach five to ten thousand Kelvin. This can be hotter than the surface of the sun. Blueish light has also been detected for mere trillionths of a second. The light and heat produced by the bubble is called sonoluminescence. Bubble dynamics and their stability are theorised to be responsible, but sadly scientists have not yet definitively proven how this sonoluminescence occurs.

What if we could harness the heat produced in this very small bubble and scale it up to cause thermonuclear fusion? Nuclear fusion, the joining of two atomic nuclei into one which releases heat, requires a lot of heat energy to get started and as of yet is incredibly unstable. Could we solve the global challenge of finding a source of energy that is both carbon-neutral and sustainable, with a single bubble?   

Non-carbon-based life; are we looking in the right places?

Alys Dunn

Between one and three planets in each planetary system lie within the ‘habitable zone’, so it is hard to imagine the true scale of the area we are searching. What if it turns out we have been searching for the wrong life in this huge area? All life we know of on Earth contains organic molecules based on carbon. Could it be possible that carbon-based life forms are not the only variation of life within the endless boundaries of space? Perhaps our Earth-centric idea of life has skewed our search strategies; we may have missed a whole spectrum of life that we didn’t know existed.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Why Carbon?

Carbon, the fourth most abundant element within the universe, is regarded to be the basis of all life on this planet. The essential building blocks needed for life, including DNA, fats, tissues and proteins, all contain carbon. It also makes up other vastly different materials, such as graphite and diamonds.

So why has life on Earth evolved to use carbon within its cells? For one thing, carbon has a special property; it can form stable chains of atoms that are at an appropriate strength, which can be broken down or reformed by our cellular processes. Carbon can also combine with lots of other atoms in order to form a large variety of structures with lots of different properties.  This variability, stability and manipulability are the main reasons we have evolved on the basis of carbon.

Silicon

Silicon, like carbon, is found in group 14 of the periodic table, which means they share the same type of chemical properties. These properties are dependent on the fact they both can form four bonds with other atoms. These similarities make silicon a good contender for a non-carbon basis for life.

Silicon is able to make building blocks appropriate for life that are very similar to those made by carbon. It has even been suggested they would be more stable in more extreme environments, like those found on other planets. For example, silicon based sugars are soluble in liquid nitrogen, which is only liquid below -195.8oC. Nitrogen ‘glaciers’ forming liquid nitrogen lakes and rivers may have been found on the surface of Pluto by NASAs spacecraft New Horizons. However, silicon is more unstable and forms a smaller variety of bonds in comparison to carbon, and so may be less versatile when it comes to the complexity of forming life.

Boron

Boron has also been suggested as an alternative to carbon. The properties of boron mean that, like silicon, it is able to form similar building blocks to those made by carbon. It would also be incredibly stable in environments containing ammonia instead of water. However, the relative scarcity of boron compared to carbon in the universe makes it an unlikely candidate for non-carbon based life.

iCHELLs

Inorganic chemical cells (iCHELLs) are an invention by Professor Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow. These cells are made from lots of metals but no carbon. Cronin claims that these iCHELLs have selective outer membranes, compartments within their cells, and the ability to adapt to their environments. It has also been suggested that they are working on making these cells ‘photosynthesise’ like plants. This photosynthetic-like ability would mean that the cells would be able to power themselves. As of yet these iCHELLs do not divide, which as a microbiologist I think is a key concept for something that is living rather than merely surviving. But this experiment does prove a valid point that carbon may not be vital to life on another planet.

But who knows what is out there in the limitless expanse of space? It is quite possible that a variety of different life forms are waiting to be discovered, regardless of whether they are made up of carbon or something else entirely.