Category Archives: Science Talk

Colonizing Mars by 2024

Virgil Grissom, the second American astronaut to fly in space, once said that “the conquest of space is worth the risk of life”. By the time we are writing, it seems that thousands of men would agree with him. 

Through this video, we discovered the megalomaniac, the grandiose, and at the very least, the disturbing project called ‘Mars One’. 

‘Mars One’ is a Dutch non-profit foundation that will establish the first permanent human settlement on planet Mars in 2022. Founded in 2011, the ‘Mars One’ team launched its Astronaut Selection Program in 2011 and 78,000 people have applied to it. By now, this 6 billion dollars project has preselected around 700 potential candidates. 

The most troubling part of the mission? The ‘Mars One’ project offers only a one-way ticket to its astronauts. As there is no technology to come back, the departure will represent the end of life in earth for the astronauts. 

By 2015, six teams of four individuals will be selected to start a eight-years training program. Their “ability to deal with prolonged periods of time in a remote location will be the most important part of their training”. Moreover, they will learn to grow food, to repair components of their future habitat and train medical procedures. 

In 2024, the first group of four people will leave earth to land in Mars in 2025 and live there forever. The journey to Mars will be a tough one. The flight will take between seven to eight months, where astronauts will be confined to a very small place, where showering will be impossible and canned food the only option. Why do they want to go? Hear it first hand here in Korum Ellis’ interview.

According to ‘Mars One’, “the one-way mission to Mars is about exploring a new world and the opportunity to conduct the most revolutionary research ever conceived, to build a new home for humans on another planet”.

Crazy? Amazing? Unrealistic or visionary? 

Learn more about it here and tell us your thoughts ! 

Masdar, the Green City

What should the city of the future be like? Should the focus be on technology? Catering to everyone’s needs? To answer that we would probably need to know what the future is going to be like. Either way, Abu Dhabi went ahead and designed their version of a city made for the future and they have already started building it. It is called Masdar City and it aims to be a sustainable place that relies solely on renewable energy sources. Six square kilometres of environmentally sustainable architecture, with a capacity to house up to 50,000 people, 1,500 businesses and an extra 60,000 daily commuters.

The city will be powered by a mix of renewable energy sources the main one being solar energy. Two gigantic solar power plants will be built on the outskirts of the city and solar panels will be placed on most roofs, with the total production amounting to 130 megawatts. Wind and geothermal energy will also be used to power the city but on a much smaller scale. In addition to these energy sources, Masdar City will have the world’s largest hydrogen reactor.

The aim of the city is not only to produce clean energy but to maximize its use. Thus, the city has been designed to minimize the use of air conditioning. Buildings will be build close together, making sure they shade each other, and carefully positioned as to maximize the cooling powers of wind currents. Most materials, such as the tiles on the floor, will have cooling properties, and the city will have a perimeter wall designed to keep out the hot desert winds.

Masdar City
Masdar City’s architecture and materials reduce the need for air conditioning

As for transportation, the motorized vehicles are banned from the city, to reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The original project intended for people to move around using public mass transit and personal rapid transit (PRT) systems. The idea was abandoned to reduce costs but only electric vehicles will be allowed to circulate inside the city. A minor setback in a project that seems to be worth the wait and that, besides its environmental motivation, has an economic one.

Masdar means ‘source’ in Arabic, and the thought behind this project is also to make sure Abu Dhabi is ready when fossil fuels become obsolete or the country’s reserves run out. In a way, it is a way to diversify the country’s income and energy source. The emirate’s economy is dependent on oil exports so why not diversify? The aim is to spend less on energy production to maximize oil profits, while they last. At the same time, the country’s government, which is main stakeholder of the entire project, is investing in the development of new technology that one day might be sold to every corner of the planet, as the world turns green.

The entire project is expected to cost between 13,4 and 15,8 billion euros and has been delayed due to the global impact of the financial crisis. It was supposed to be completed by 2015, a deadline that has been pushed to 2025. However, despite the delays, some of the city’s facilities are already functional, such as the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a research facility developed in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and that has been helping with the engineering plans for the city.

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

What at first looks like one of the many megalomaniac projects we are used to see in Gulf countries, is actually an interesting endeavour to create a sustainable, efficient and, ultimately, marketable concept of a city that can become essential in years to come. Men’s impact on the planet is less and less up to debate and Masdar City explores solutions to some of the issues posed by our actions on Earth. The idea can inspire others to follow the same path and, hopefully, lead humankind towards a more clean and sustainable way of life.

I recommend watching the following report from Bloomberg Brink for additional information:

Watch the full report here.

The Miracle of LifeStraw

It took us a while to learn about LifeStraw, a product made in Switzerland by the company Vestergaard Frandsen, “designed for the poorest”. This revolutionary straw, can filter about 1000 liters of water, enough for one person for a year. In the company’s own words, for 25€, you have “1000 liters of water in your pocket” with “99.99999 percent” of waterborne bacteria completely eliminated. It is complemented by the second invention of the Swiss company, LifeStraw Family, which can filter 18 000 liters of water, i.e. up to three years of water for a family of five.

The two products have already been distributed following natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Pakistani and Thai floods. This could be revolutionary in a world where an enormous part of the population lives in dry areas and where 780 million people still lack access to clean water and where still 3.4 million people die from water-related diseases every year.

With LifeStraw, the water is filtered through micro-organisms, which annihilate dirt, parasites and other pathogens. So far, it looks like it really works. It has been distributed in  several countries, since supposedly, each time a person buys a LifeStraw this impacts directly several countries, where the straw is then implemented. Nevertheless, some criticize it for being still too much expensive for developing countries.

Still, some international agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or the World Health Organization, have referred to this filter while analyzing access to drinking water, and Time magazine referred to it as the “Best Invention of 2005”.

Evidently, LifeStraw is not yet able to resolve the necessity of implementing clean water worldwide. Still, there is no doubt that this could be life-changing for many people in the world, and we seriously hope it will work.

[We thank Frederico Zenóglio for giving us to know LifeStraw]

Hypersonic, the weapons of the future

The three big military powers of the world today (USA, China and Russia) have spent the last few years researching a new type of weapon that is supposed to change the way they approach conflicts, in the future. Hypersonic weapons are the dangerous new toy that these militaries want to get their hands on and fast. These ultra-fast and long range weapons, which are still being researched, are meant to strike any target, anywhere in the planet, in less than one hour. All with an accuracy of ten meters or better.

The United States have been researching a way to do it and the resulting technology has been named “boost-glide”. These weapons are designed to be launched by large rockets, such as the ones with which the US and Russia threatened each other during the Cold War. However, instead of arcing above the planet, like conventional ballistic missiles, boost-glide weapons re-enter the atmosphere and then glide at high speeds, towards their intended target. They can supposedly reach up to 20,000 km/h, a speed at which they cannot be intercepted by traditional missile defence systems.

Logically, as soon as the US managed to conduct some successful experiments (the last one occurred in May, 2013), China and Russia wanted to get in on the action. The first one to produce good results was China which managed to successfully test a missile of its own this past January. The hypersonic glide vehicle was detected flying over the country at a speed above Mach 10 – or 12,359 km/h. Russia is farther behind but has promised to step up its research if the US continues to develop precision-guided weapons systems with global range.

1898927_10151851002876981_521184887_n

These new military developments bring with them the threat of a new global conflict, especially because boost-glide weapons are able to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. For that reason, some analysts have raised concerns about the possibility that one of these countries might misinterpret the launch of a missile with conventional warheads and conclude that it carries nuclear weapons. Even if they are not being targeted, the high velocity at which these weapons travel demand an immediate response, one that might not allow for an accurate assessment of the situation and that can lead to a nuclear response.

Although these weapons are still being researched, they are already impacting the policies of the countries pursuing them. Fear of the United States’ boost-glide capabilities is making China reconsider its policy of not using nuclear weapons as a first measure. The same goes for Russia that, seems unwilling to reduce its nuclear stockpile in the face of such developments by the American military. News of a successful test by the Chinese military also raised concerns among the US Congress that the country might be falling behind. Some immediately railed against defence spending cuts and argued for the renovation of the armed forces’ equipment.

As there is no dialogue between theses countries concerning boost-glide weapons, the impact on policies might increase over the next few years. If these projects continue, the impact might come sooner than later, as the US expects to deploy boost-glide weapons in 2025.

“The Evolutionnary Road” – The Middle Awash

Ethiopia, one of the countries of the Horn of Africa, has a regional state known as Afar. Through here travels the Awash River and lies part of the Afar Depression. Ethiopia, and this particular area, are well-known for archeologists and in particular for being one of the places on earth that has given us the most details about the human evolution, to the extent that the National Geographic calls it “The Evolutionary Road”.

The Middle Awash, is an area covering around 5 000 km, that has been known since the 1960’s for some amazing archeological discoveries. There can be found fossils dating back to approximately 6 million years ago (the Miocene period) to approximately 200 thousand years ago (the Middle Pleistocene period). It is thought that it was one of the places of separation in the hominid group (group that includes all modern and extinct Great Apes, e.g. chimpanzees, humans, gorillas etc.), and where the hominin (group that gathers all species of humans, from our latest ancestors, e.g. Homo, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus) lived in continuity for the longest period of time. Indeed, there have been found approximately 260 fossils of hominids, including of Ardipithecus, some of the latest ancestors of modern humans, but also Australopithecus, Homo erectus and even of our species, Homo sapiens. The fossils of “Ardi” or “Lucy” were found there.

It is also an important area because paleontologists are able to observe the changes that occurred in the paleoenvironment, showing that the area progressively turned into a desert. Observing these changes could help explain why hominins evolved the way they did.

Ultimately, the Middle Awash presents an enormous interest because as the National Geographic puts itThe Middle Awash area of Ethiopia is the most persistently occupied place on Earth. Members of our lineage have lived, died, and been buried there for almost six million years.”. Therefore, there is no better place to understand where we came from.  Read more about it here.

“What men need to live a happy life”

In 2012, Harvard University concluded one of the longest-running studies in History – a research that started in 1938, with 268 male undergraduate students as a sample, with the goal of understanding “What men need to live a happy life”. “Triumphs of Experience” is the book that George Vaillant – the director of the study for three decades – published in 2012 and as stated in the synopsis, the study looks at“ all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects)”. The study has revealed a number of surprising findings and among the most unexpected, is that a man’s relationship with his mother determines a great amount of his well-being in life. A second remarkable discovery is the impact of the variable “warm relationships” in a man’s wealth as indeed, the men with the highest score in “warm relationships” were more likely to attain professional success and higher salaries. Among other extraordinary findings, the study found out that political ideology had an impact on a man’s sexual life: “the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s”. You can read more about it here. Finally, to conclude with the most important discovery, in George Vaillant’s own words, “the most important finding from the study is that happiness is love. Full stop”.

Egas Moniz and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

António Egas Moniz (1874 – 1955), was a Portuguese neurologist, known for his work on psychosurgery. He was the first professor of neurology of the University of Lisbon and was known for introducing the cerebral angiography in the 1930’s, a method of spotting intracranial diseases more effectively than any method had been capable so far.

As an interested observer of the human brain, he studied certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia and came to the conclusion that it was a question of the nervous connections between the two frontal lobes of the brain, and the thalamus, which is a part of the brain responsible for our sensory impulses and for regulating our consciousness. He  deducted that disconnecting the frontal lobes from the thalamus would be a way of calming the brain and the surges of schizophrenia, getting an individual back to his normal state.

Therefore, in 1936, with his associate Almeida Lima, he performed the first prefrontal leucotomy, which is a procedure that is more commonly known as “lobotomy”. It consists of disconnecting the frontal lobes from the remaining parts of the brain. Despite the fact that all his patients had complicated recovery states, more than two thirds of the operated patients, suffering from mania, schizophrenia, depression and other mental disorders, had seen their condition improved.

Initially, several of his colleagues opposed this practice, but soon it was one of the most utilized procedures to handle psychiatric conditions in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Indeed, the development of the prefrontal leucotomy gave the Nobel Prix in Physiology or Medicine to Egas Moniz in 1949, the first Portuguese Nobel Prize.

What we found incredible about this story is thinking how medicine is really a discipline of constant change and calling into question, that can be responsible for some of the greatest goods, but also for some atrocities committed against individuals. Indeed, while lobotomy was widely used for decades and was thought to be a very successful operation, it is today known to be responsible for driving the patients to become completely unresponsive, hardly capable of expressing emotions or taking initiatives, imagining or creating. This was true many times throughout history, such as with electroshock treatment to “cure” homosexual individuals.

In the quest of understanding sex: meet Masters and Johnson

Recently, one of our friends advised us to watch a new TV show called Masters of Sex. Entertaining and featuring good actors, the best of this American show was the fact that it actually made us discover the interesting story of the Masters and Johnson research team. They started working together in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the Washington University in St Louis. Composed by Dr. William H. Masters (1915-2001) and research assistant, Virginia Johnson (1925-2013), the team (who also became a couple) was a pioneer in research regarding sexual responses and dysfunctions from 1957 to the early 1990s. In 1964, at a time where the will to understand human sexuality was still a taboo -even in the medical world-, the team created the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in order to independently study human sexuality and revolutionise medicine.

They were the first doctors to work on sexual activity in ageing persons and found out that there was absolutely no age limit for one to be sexually active. Regarding female sexuality, they proved that the clitoral and vaginal stimulation produced physiologically identical effects and thus that women were capable of having multi-orgasms. They were also revolutionaries in what regards the study of sexual dysfunctions. Although previously dysfunctions such as impotence or premature ejaculation were especially treated by psychoanalysis, the team provided a new approach, involving couples instead of treating the patients uniquely with personal therapy.

Although several doctors have criticised the Master and Johnson’s methodology and even refuted some of their findings, this team was certainly revolutionary as it open the door to an unprecedented field in medical studies.

The Landscape of Space Exploration

In a world where science and technology advance at a breathtaking rhythm, it is interesting to think that almost 55 years after the beginning of space exploration and the launch of Sputnik 1 (the first artificial satellite) we are still amazed when an object is launched into space. Although much more has been accomplished in a fraction of a century than throughout the entire mankind existence, space remains very far from our daily reality. That is why movies like Gravity are able to make us dream so much.

The space race that started in the 1950’s, opposing Russia (by then, the Soviet Union) and the United States, is now dead. Russia launched the first satellite, put the first man in space, lost the race to have the first flag (and man) up on the Moon, and won again when it put men for the first time on a space station. If in 1976, the United States were able to land with a rover on Mars, Mars exploration was halted for a long time, despite a surge in space exploration during the early years of 2000. (check out this nice chronology by the National Geographic!) Although the Hubble telescope allows us to see the immense possibilities that are just beyond us, we still do not possess the knowledge to go further than we have so far.

For now, the exploration of Mars is the ultimate frontier and it is giving place to a new space race. Where before only the United States, Russia and to a certain extent, Europe, had been able to go, China and India want to go too: the orbit of Mars. Tomorrow, India launches its first mission to Mars, competing with the failed Chinese mission of 2011. If before big Agencies such as NASA, RFSA or the ESA used to have an absolute hegemony over this domain, more and more private actors (even individuals) start to invest in spatial research.

During the Cold War the space race was not only made for the sake of scientific advancement, but mainly as a means to display power and conquering new “territories”. India and China definitely want to enter the exclusive group of nations with spatial power. Nevertheless, as a very interesting article points out, this new “race” has mainly to do with economic interests. Indeed, Indians could profit from it by encouraging research and some “brain drain” from other countries. Plus, many still believe that a lot of richness can come from space. However, India is being criticized for its space program, that costs a non-negligent part of the budget of a country that has two thirds of its populations living with less than $2 per day. If the country is ready to do this investment it is because it believes that its economic benefits can be immense.

Finally, one must not forget the smaller actors that are now trying to conquer space, like Richard Branson. With Virgin Galactic, Branson expects to take people to space, in a sort of “spatial tourism”. The landscape of spatial exploration and its actors, are definitely changing.

All this just made us think: do we really want to explore more or are we looking for more to exploit?

The Benefits of Positive Thinking

In recents years, the question about the effects of positive thinking in our health has become one of the most controversial debates in psychology and to some extent, in mainstream medicine. We all heard about it, yet a lot of us still link positive thinking with some kind of superstition. Regrettably, those who tend to believe in its power are the ones who either have faced the panic of disease or the ones who have accompanied their beloved ones in illness. Unfortunately, research in this field has not been conclusive. Nevertheless, in a very interesting piece for CNN, Deepak Chopra, a senior scientist and mind-body expert, explains how could it be that positive thinking actually have health impacts. A central point according to Chopra is for us to understand that this debate is not about rescuing a dying patient thanks to positive thinking, but rather if we can maintain our wellness through it. Indeed, the research question should be about understanding if positive thinking could prevent disease or help someone in the very early stages of sickness. He believes that up to a certain point, yes, it can. One of the arguments in favour of the optimists, is that “thinking is real medicine, as proven by the placebo effect“. An average of 30% of people subjected to placebo drugs really show a positive response. This is scientifically evidenced: as we believe that the pain will pass, our body connects to our mind and believes in it as well. As he states, “medicine cannot be definitive on how mood affects wellness. But if I wanted to enhance a state of wellness before symptoms of illness appeared, there is much to be gained and no risks involved in trying to reach the best state of mind possible“.

To our psychologist friends, please do tell us about what you think of this subject.