Super-senses in the Animal Kingdom

Sophia Akiva

Some hold the belief that humans were made in the image of an omnipotent being, while others consider us to have adapted through evolution to become the dominant species on our planet. The debate between these views is best left for another time, but for a species that has no natural predators, can survive on all seven continents and has built technologically advanced civilisations, our sense of superiority over our four-legged cousins is well justified. Yet still we yearn for more, imagining superheroes with inhuman abilities and senses, taking inspiration from the very creatures we consider to be less than us. Our brains may be better developed when it comes to reason and logic, and that in itself can be considered a superpower, but the animal kingdom is filled with creatures that have brilliant powers of their own.

First of all, let us consider eyesight. Human vision is very advanced and adapted perfectly to the peak wavelength of sunlight we receive through the atmosphere, however as soon as the Sun sets we are left at a disadvantage. Animals like tarsiers on the other hand, are not. These tiny adorable creatures are also deadly predators, being the only primates to be fully carnivorous, and responsible for this are their super-sensitive eyes.

Unlike other nocturnal creatures, tarsiers do not have a reflective layer behind their retinas and so are unable to bounce faint light through them twice in order to absorb it. To compensate for this, their eyes have grown to colossal proportions relative to their small body size, with each eye being approximately the same size as the brain, which itself has grown large in areas responsible for processing all the visual information thus received. As well as turning these little mammals into perfect hunters, their incredible sight is also used to traverse the canopies in the night and to defend against predators, who are often attacked by one or more groups of tarsiers upon being detected.

The animal most famous for having incredibly powerful eyesight is the eagle. Not only can they see much further than a human but the images their brain interprets are of higher resolution due to a greater number of light-sensing cone cells within the retina. The range of light frequencies they can detect extend beyond visible light and into the ultraviolet, an ability that is also shared by a completely different creature, the mantis shrimp. This crustacean can show off an even more impressive eyesight than its feathered peer, with up to 16 visual pigments compared to five in the eagle and our own measly three.

Juvenile_Bonelli's_eagle wikipedia.jpg

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Like the two animals mentioned above, the mantis shrimp also uses its superhuman power to hunt down prey but is different in having the additional ability to identify the polarisation of light it detects through eye movements and distribution of cones. But it doesn’t end there, with their survival resting solely on their vision, these creatures have developed a way to insure it. This comes in the form of binocular vision, which is necessary for many predators, present independently in each eye of the mantis shrimp! So if they ever lose an eye, their depth perception would remain uninhibited. With so many processes going on within the eyes at the same time, the information has to be analysed by the eye itself before being transferred to the brain.

Let us now move onto the super sense of touch, which brings with it an introduction to another majestic predator of the animal kingdom, the star-nosed mole. This mammal is often rudely listed as one of the ugliest animals on Earth due to the tentacles extending from its snout, which are densely packed with sensory receptors and allow it to feel the movement of its prey. This specially adapted snout serves a second purpose of keeping soil from entering the mole’s airways as it burrows through its network of underground tunnels. This habitat has driven the development of such superb sensitivity in one sense, yet has caused the mole to lose almost complete use of another, leaving these animals practically blind.

Another animal  that appears to have sacrificed one sense to become the master of another is the snake, however their deafness in a long standing misconception. Although they do not possess sound detectors outside of their body, they are still able to process auditory information from the vibrations they pick up from the ground. This is the same mechanism they use to process their own super sense of touch. Snakes are able to differentiate the vibrations passing into their skeleton from the ground as either sound or mechanical and so the signals are passed through different sensory organs and processed by different parts of the brain. But the magnificence of the serpent doesn’t end there, their sense of taste is also superhuman. The famous forked tongue of the snake not only allows the animal to detect its prey, but also to determine the direction from which it is coming.

The animals discussed here are just a few examples of the vast variety of fascinating creatures that possess incredible sensory abilities, many of which are still currently being researched. We humans are not without our own merits. We may not be able to spot a rabbit from two miles away but we are the only species on Earth to have gazed upon the surface of Pluto – so perhaps our intelligence really is a superpower after all.

A Chance at Salvation

Sophia Akiva

Climate change is a scientific problem that is often erroneously portrayed as a matter of personal opinion. What remains of utmost importance is that the people responsible for making global decisions on the issues of climate change are well informed about the effects it will have on our world. Are the changes to the environment truly caused by human activity over the past three centuries, or will we be wasting our efforts improving the planet for nothing? Does an increase in temperature spell the end of days for humanity, or can we find a way to adapt to our new world? In the end, the key question we must address is can climate change be avoided?

Cambio-climatico wikimedia commons.jpg

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An increase in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide was detected and correlated with a rise in temperature as early as mid-1970s. The conclusion made was that human activity is the driving force for this change and over the decades that followed, enough evidence has been collected to make this an irrefutable fact. Analysis of the available data was carried out and several proposals for long and short term solutions were drawn up through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Yet nothing changed. The levels of carbon dioxide continued to rise. As did global temperatures. The proposals rightly took care to consider political and economic feasibility, however the focus of the industries contributing most to the emissions remained centred on financial agenda, leaving them reluctant to explore alternative sources of energy. This problem remains significant even today, and will continue to play a role in future developments.

The aim has been to keep average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Evidence suggests that such a seemingly small change would result in catastrophic alterations to weather patterns, from droughts on one side of the world, to floods on the other. Temperature rise has become a concept to be feared, an omen of disasters to come, but when considering the geological history of the Earth, we find ourselves in an ice age. Average global temperature has been as much as ten degrees higher in the past. Can this be taken as proof that what we are experiencing is a natural fluctuation of the world? Can we wash our hands of all blame?

So let’s say that temperature has risen by 2 degrees. Weather patterns have begun to show instability. Ecosystems have started to collapse. What effect will this have on humans? Several species have gone unchanged for millennia, despite the geological restructuring of the Earth and the changes in its atmosphere. Cyanobacteria have not only survived for several billion years but have also played a key role in altering the very chemistry of our world, producing the oxygen we need to survive. Surely a species that stepped foot on the Moon and produced nuclear fusion could survive a slight change in our environment? Yet we humans are a fragile breed. In developing our brains, we have lost our natural defences. We have frozen to death in the snowy mountaintops and died from overheating in desert planes. Even in its current state, our host planet can find innumerable ways to kill us. So perhaps a change in climate will not affect most species we share the Earth with – perhaps cyanobacteria will live on for another billion years but the ones most likely to be exterminated are the big brained apes responsible for causing this change in the first place.

Yet the technology that can come from these big brains may deliver us from such tragedy. We have developed ways to survive in the harshest of environments, to build shelter and produce food despite the geological obstacles. With advancements in irrigation we can harvest crops from formerly deserted land and alter the genetic makeup of these crops to make agriculture more efficient. We have even begun to atone for deforestation by developing vertical forests.

The effects of humanity on the planet may be so profound that some propose a new epoch has begun (The Anthropocene), which brings to light the changes we’ve made to the atmosphere, ecology, and composition of the Earth. If we have any hope of reducing these changes, a global collaboration requires immediate and decisive action.  Yet this will become increasingly difficult to arrive at as competition for land and depleting resources becomes more desperate.

We can no longer deny that the world is changing by our hand. The results may be irreversible and have already severed some of the fragile fibres of life holding our intricate ecosystems together. There is a lot we can do, both individually and collaboratively, to halt the oncoming transformation but it is unlikely that we can avert it entirely. The wheels of change are in motion and the reluctance to acknowledge this among world leaders will only lead to acceleration. We will be required to find ways to survive in this transforming world, to adapt and bear the changes. I have full faith that our innovative minds will carry us through.

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.

What If We Eradicate All Disease?

Sophia Akiva

That time of year has come around once again. The weather grows dreary and the rain starts to feel never ending. As we battle the elements on our trek back from lectures we feel a resurgence of fresher’s flu that we hoped was gone for good. We look back with longing at happier times when we were not plagued with coughs and sniffles, and wonder how long it will be before science and medicine make the breakthroughs necessary to prevent our dire suffering. But what would happen to the world if all contagious disease is eradicated?

pexels-photo.jpg

Image Credit: Pexels

With the advent of vaccinations, many diseases such as polio, measles, and smallpox, have already become horrors of the past. Thousands of lives are saved every year because of this and with great strides being made towards developing vaccines for more diseases, perhaps soon we will be risk free.

Diseases that are most common, such as colds and influenza, are especially difficult to prevent as new strains evolve rapidly. Thus, the NHS advises that anyone with a weakened immune system have a flu shot every year. Another hurdle in disease prevention comes from the frighteningly growing popularity of anti-vax and “natural healing” ideologies, which may limit the effect of herd immunity.

Suppose, however, that all infectious disease was eradicated. This would undeniably have countless benefits. But are there any new risks that would emerge once the world is saved? Some diseases are believed to have played a role in human evolution. ‘Survival of the fittest’ lead to humans with the strongest immune systems being the ones passing on their genes to the next generation. Once diseases have been completely eradicated, there would be no more need for vaccinations, so with no exposure to pathogens, will our immune systems become fragile? If this were true, and a new strain of disease was to suddenly emerge, the entire human population would be vulnerable and the results might be catastrophic.

Yet the greatest danger would arrive much sooner. Earth’s population is already rising at a staggering 80 million people a year. If all contagious diseases were to suddenly disappear, human numbers would skyrocket. Resources are already becoming scarce and in our pursuit for more we have set about a devastating (and by now inevitable) change to our planet. For many years now, there have been plans to start colonies on Mars or on orbiting satellites, but the technology required is still in the process of being developed. Humanity may outgrow itself before it has a chance to spread out.

The competition for resources is a driving factor in another tragedy that may befall our species. The demand for food will escalate, causing a proportional increase in the value of land, which may lead to more frequent international conflicts. On a more local scale, rising food and property prices will widen the rift between those who have and those who haven’t.

When we can eradicate disease, we humans will become the ideal species – we will have made ourselves almost perfectly adapted to our environment. After that we would quickly grow beyond our ‘means of subsistence’, like a bacteria culture that outgrows its petri dish. Perhaps we ourselves aren’t that different from the pathogens we seek to eliminate…

Asgardia: A Space Nation

Sophia Akiva

On November 12th, 2016, the leader of the first space nation addressed their new citizens.

Perhaps this is how future historians will remember the rise of Asgardia, a pacifist nation located on an orbiting satellite and founded by Russian scientist and businessman Dr Igor Ashurbeiyli. There have already been over half a million applicants from around the world to become ‘Asgardians’ – inhabitants of this new nation. If the number of applicants continues to rise at the present rate, it will not be long before an appeal is filed with the United Nations by Dr Ashurbeiyli to officially recognise Asgardia as a member state.

Hubble_Extreme_Deep_Field_(full_resolution)wikipedia.png

Image Credit: Wikimedia

The study of space, both deep and close-Earth, is one of the three main goals of this new nation, the other two being expanding humanity’s reach beyond our green world and a new legal platform along with the introduction of ’astropolitics’. The government structure of this soon-to-be formed country was revealed back in October and will be compiled of 12 ministries. 11 of these have already been decided upon; the last will be left open to debate.

The first of three core satellites are set to be launched in 2017, fully equipped and ready to welcome new inhabitants. This project has so far been funded by Dr Ashurbeiyli, with additional capital from crowd sourcing and private investment. These investors will be the first to receive citizenship, together with scientists working in fields of space research, exploration and technology.

However, there are many problems facing an endeavour of this magnitude. The first is the immense cost associated with space exploration. Dr Ashurbeiyli has avoided discussing Asgardia’s budget so far and no solid financial plan has been outlined yet.

The scientific equipment needed to carry out such a study will require a constant source of energy, as will the maintenance of good living conditions for the residents. This is the second major issue facing a space state. Such a problem can be overcome by taking inspiration from the International Space Station, which is powered by 27,000 square feet of solar arrays. These panels are rotated by gimbals towards the Sun and can generate up to 120 kilowatts of power, which is either used by the equipment on board or stored in batteries for future use. Solar energy is ideal for a satellite as it has no by-products, is generously available above the atmosphere, and does not need to be transported from Earth. The solar-arrays themselves can fold up for take-off and expand once the satellite is safely in orbit.

As the population of this space nation grows, there will be an increased demand for food. Earlier this year, a zinnia flower was successfully grown aboard the International Space Station. An accompanying guide to gardening in microgravity was produced, showing our rapidly increasing understanding of what it takes to grow food in space. With such advancements being made, many are confident that citizens of Asgardia will not be without a solid and nutritious supply of food.

But what about other aspects of their health? Physical strength, endurance and a strong constitution are needed to withstand the forces acting on a space shuttle as it’s taking off. In addition, there are many risks associated with living in microgravity for a prolonged length of time. Even with regular exercise, astronauts can experience bone and muscle weakness, disturbances in heart rhythm and problems with both cardiovascular and nervous systems. Above the protective shield of our atmosphere, there is a much greater exposure to radiation which can lead to several health problems, such as cancer. Fortunately, these issues are currently being studied and with further research, these risks could be reduced. In any case, the early settlers of any space nation would have to pass rigorous fitness tests and physical training, much like the astronauts of today.

Despite the numerous problems facing the future residents of outer space, we must not lose heart. The field of space exploration is a growing one, with increasing public interest and a rising flow of investment. Because of this, more and more research can be undertaken and our understanding of the world beyond our own will continue to improve.  We can hope that it will not be long before humanity will walk among the stars.