Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Broken brain games

You’ve probably did them, brain exercises. Did you feel smarter afterwards? Scientists found out that it is indeed no more than a ‘feel’. The exercises create no more than a placebo effect.

Your brain’s lies
The placebo effect is a common thing in for example drugs and surgeries. People feel better when they take pills if they believe if the pill works, regardless if the pill actually works or not. People can even get drunk of water if they’re told that it’s vodka. This is also the reason that there’s always a control group in experiments with medicine. With this control group, scientist can compare the control group, that only experiences the placebo effect, and the real test group, that also experiences the advantage from the new medicine. With this, the researchers can determine if their new drugs actually helps. But now scientists have discovered that the placebo effect also occurs when you do brain games.

Misleading posters
The used posters for the programmes
Cyrus Foroughi and his team have discovered this with an experiment that created a placebo effect on purpose. They recuited students for either a ‘brain training and cognitive enhancing’ or just a ‘study’. They then compared the results and found an interesting difference. Because both programmes were exactly the same. Students that participated in the ‘brain training and cognitive enhancing’ programme performed better on an IQ test afterwards than the students who participated in the ‘study’. This is a clear sign that there’s a placebo effect going on. But what are the consequences of this discovery for the brain games industry?

Industry on its back
Because almost everybody wants to be smarter, brain games are really popular. Who doesn’t want to have higher grades, a better degree or a better paying job? There’s a billion-dollar industry behind brain exercises, which now seems to be based on a lie. Cyrus Foroughi and his team advice the brain game industry to ‘temper their claims’. But does this make the discovery of the placebo here only bad? No, it serves as a great starting point for new studies about how far the placebo effect can go, how much it can improve somebody’s IQ if somebody believes he or she is doing an exercise that improves the IQ. This can learn us a lot more about how our brains work, and on top of that, if you believe that brain exercises work, they’ll work for you!

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Saturday, 25 June 2016

Compass in your brain

Birds and bees can find their way using the earth’s magnetic field. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could sense that field too? Joe Kirschvink thinks we actually can.

Magnetic earth
The earth’s magnetic field is actually quite a weird thing. We still haven’t explained it completely. There are of course some theories. The most common theory is that the magnetic field is caused by the movements of magma in the earth’s core. The magma can conduct electricity, and it moves around in the core, so it creates something like a dynamo effect. It’s much like the dynamo that you use on your bicycle to power your lights. This big earth-dynamo creates a magnetic field, instead of an electric current, like the dynamo on your bicycle. This magnetic field is the reason that a compass points north and birds and bees can find their way. But Joe Kirschvink thinks humans are also able to sense the magnetic field, and not just with a compass.

Where is it?
The sensing of magnetic fields used to be something that was put away with telepathy and dowsing. Research about it is nowadays taken more seriously, after it was discovered that many animals have this sixth sense. It isn’t a sense that is located in once specific spot in the body of an animal, like a nose, or eyes, however. The sense is based on a magnetic protein, cryptochrome, that can be found anywhere in the body. It can even be located in a different place in the body for every species. This also makes it quite difficult to find the protein in humans, since we’ve literally no idea where it could be. ‘The receptors could be in your left toe,’ Kirschvink jokes in Science.

It’s there! - Maybe
If we can find the protein in humans, we could learn a whole lot more about how our brains processes information. And also about how the magnetic sense works in animals. But this magnetic sense could also explain some human behaviour. Like magnetic sensing in turtles can explain the patterns in which the turtles swim. It is unlikely however that you can actually consciously use your ‘new’ sense. The earth's magnetic field gets distorted by electromagnetic waves that are transmitted by phones, computers and other things so they’re basically everywhere nowadays. Nevertheless, Joe Kirschvink is determined to find the magnetic sense in people. “It’s part of our evolutionary history. Magnetoreception may be the primal sense.” he said in Science.

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Fuel your car with trash

Excess garbage is a big problem in the western world, same for the looming fuel shortage. Chinese scientists have found a way to turn garbage into fuel, with catalysts.

Lowering the mountain
Catalysts are special substances that can speed up chemical reactions. They do this by lowering the amount of energy that a reaction needs to happen. If the reaction needs less energy, it takes less time to get all that energy together. It’s a bit like climbing a mountain, which takes a long time. But when you only need to climb a lower mountain, it goes faster. It’s the same for the reaction, which also goes faster with a catalyst and a lower energy mountain. But the really convenient thing about them is that they don’t get used up in these reactions, so you can use them multiple times. Because of this, catalysts are everywhere, even in your own body, where they help with digesting your food and make your muscles able to move, to name only a few things.

Sawing the plastic
Plastics are made of very long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. While most fuels are composed of short chains of those same carbon and hydrogen atoms. If you want to make fuel from plastics, that’s simple, isn’t it? Just cut the chain into pieces. Well, the atoms are actually very tightly connected, so it isn’t that easy to cut the chains. It’s a bit like trying to break a piece of wood in half with only pulling. But this is where the catalyst comes in. This can make it easier to cut the chains, like you suddenly have a saw to cut the piece of wood in half. But with this catalyst, or chemical saw, you can cut the long chain into shorter pieces. And these shorter pieces have the ideal length for diesel fuel.

A diesel molecule
A plasic molecule, as you can see, 
they're made of the same atoms.

Too good to be true, for now
But there are still a few problems, however. For example, the chemical saw goes dull quite quickly, or the catalyst wears down pretty fast, making it useless. This wouldn’t be a problem if the catalyst were cheap, but it is quite expensive. On top of that, the reactions are still pretty slow, taking longer than a day. This makes the catalyst not really useful economically yet, but the team of Chinese scientists are working on solving these problems. And maybe within a few years, you’ll have a car running on garbage bags.

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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Sixties’ pesticide still harms orcas

Scientists thought that a dangerous chemical, that was used in the 60s in among others pesticides and plastics, was no longer harming the sea life. But recent studies have made clear that they still do.

Dangerous wonder chemicals
The dangerous chemicals are so-called polychlorinated biphenyls. These chemicals don’t easily break down or degrade, making them very useful in the chemical industry. This is also the reason they were widely used in the 60s, until they turned out to be really dangerous. Polychlorinated biphenyls can cause rashes, liver damage and cancer. When this was discovered, the chemicals were quickly forbidden, and it seemed that the biphenyls disappeared quickly from the oceans. But the amount of biphenyls in the oceans can still cause harm to sea life. Because the chemicals don’t easily break down, the amount of these chemicals has stopped decreasing. Scientists are trying to find a way to get rid of the excess polychlorinated biphenyls anyway.

Poison accumulates in orcas
The polychlorinated biphenyls especially affects the sea animals that are high in the food chain. The explanation for this is that animals can’t digest the biphenyls. So, when a small fish eats plankton that has the chemicals in it, the biphenyls end up in the flesh of the fish. When that small fish then gets eaten by a larger fish, like a mackerel, that fish also eats all the chemicals from all the plankton that the smaller fish ate. And the mackerel can’t digest it either. Then, an even larger fish, like a tuna, eats the mackerel. And the tuna also eats all the biphenyls eaten by all the mackerels it ate. So the amount of polychlorinated biphenyls in the food increases if you go higher up the food chain. For the animal at the top of the food chain, for example a shark or an orca, that amount can be so high that the shark or orca dies.

Remove before 2028
With new studies, scientists hope to find out how the polychlorinated biphenyls move through the oceans. If they know this, they can predict where sea life will be most affected by the chemicals, and where they can try to remove the biphenyls from the oceans best. With this new knowledge, scientists hope to significantly reduce the amount of polychlorinated biphenyls in the oceans by 2028, which will benefit both sea life and people alike.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Carbon dioxide caught in stone

Carbon dioxide is one of the main causes of climate change. Researches from Iceland have found a new way to story this gas so it can’t harm the climate; by turning it into rock.

Turning the earth into a greenhouse
Carbon dioxide creates, together with other gasses like methane and water vapour, an isolating layer around the earth. The layer of gas lets the sunlight through when it comes to the earth, but when it bounces of the earth again, it reflects the light back to the surface. In the same way as a greenhouse keeps the plants inside it warm, and that’s way this effect of reflecting back the sunlight is also called the greenhouse effect. But the greenhouse effect is definitely not all bad. Without this isolating layer around the earth, the average temperature on earth would be a cold -18 degrees Celsius, compared to the comfortable 15 degrees Celsius that we have with the greenhouse effect. Because all the water on earth would freeze at -18 degrees Celsius, life would not exist. The effect is, however, getting a little bit out of hand, which can cause more droughts, a rising sea level and more flooding, but also more extreme weather and less ice and snow. This is harmful for all life on earth.

Set in stone
Still liquid basaltic rock
But Juerg Matter and his team have found a way to store the excess carbon dioxide, so it doesn’t end up in the atmosphere. They have injected the carbon dioxide that a local factory in Iceland formed into large pieces of basaltic rock, a black, volcanic kind of stone. And 95 percent of the injected carbon dioxide stayed inside the rock. But that’s not all, scientists experimented with store the greenhouse gas in rocks before, but they always used sandstone, which acts a little like a sponge. When you inject the carbon dioxide into it, it stays there, but when the rock breaks, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere again, because the little holes in the stone, that contained the gas, are now exposed to the open air. But with basaltic rock, it’s completely different. The carbon dioxide actually froms chemical bonds with the rock, making it almost impossible for the gas to escape. This method is therefore way more durable.

Good news for Spain and the US
This new method is particulary useful for countries that have a lot of basaltic rock in their soil, like Spain and the United States. They should be able to store most carbon dioxide that they produce in the rocks, because this new method, which is relatively simple, can be used on a larger scale too. Countries that don’t have much basalt in their soil could store their carbon dioxide in basaltic rocks somewhere else, but the CO2 that would produce, will easily outweigh the advantages of storing the greenhouse gas in the rocks. So they have to find other methods of dealing with their CO2.

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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Seeing through chips

Rayko Ivanov Stantchev and his team have found a way to look inside computer chips. With terahertz radiation, they are able to look through materials that are otherwise opaque.

Light, but not quite
Terahertz radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This spectrum also contains radio waves, ultraviolet rays and also visible light. All types of radiation are sorted by wavelength on the spectrum. Terahertz’s wavelength comes right between microwaves and infrared, making its wavelength slightly longer than that of light. This is excellent for looking through materials, because the longer the wave, the bigger the objects the wave can ‘see through’. That’s why your computer has no problem with seeing the WI-FI (that are in fact radio waves), that comes from your router, but you can’t see the router, if you’re not sitting next to it. Radio waves have a way longer wavelength, and thus they can ‘bend’ around your furniture, stairs and cat. While the visible light, that your eyes see, has a shorter wavelength and can’t bend around your cat. But in the ability of waves to bend around things also lays the problem. You don’t want the waves to bend around the thing that you actually want to see. Terahertz waves have just the right wavelength

The electromagnetic spectrum, terahertz radiation comes between microwaves and infrared
Looking straight through
With terahertz radiation, we can look through computer chips, while still being able to see the structures inside it. To be able to look inside the chip, Rayko Ivanov Stantchev and his team beamed patterns of radiation onto a slice of silicon, the material most computer chips are made out of, that was only a hundredth of a centimetre thick. Because of this pattern, the silicon become transparent for the terahertz radiation. But the structures inside the chip don’t become transparent, enabling the scientists to see them. With this technique, they were able to find malfunctioning parts in the chip as small as eight micrometres across. That’s about half as thick as the finest human hair.

Image made with terahertz radiation,
 you can clearly see the structure
Computers and biology
The researchers consider using terahertz radiation a technique with much potential. For now, the possibility to see through silicon is limited by the thickness of the material, and the material can’t be really thick yet. Scientist predict that with improving the techniques, much thicker materials could be used. This can be really helpful with checking computer chips for malfunctioning parts, since the chips can just be ‘scanned’. But terahertz radiation has another interesting use. It could also be used in biology to scan tissues, because water, which is abundant in all living organisms, absorbs the terahertz radiation, making it easy to detect were there’s a lot of water. Because the radiation doesn’t bounce off of those spots. All in all a very promising technique that will benefit both computer sciences and biology.

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Sunday, 5 June 2016

Sneak peek into Jupiter

‘We use Earth-bound radio observations to peer beneath Jupiter’s surface.’ says Imke de Pater in this week’s issue of Science. With radio waves, she and her team managed to see what goes on under Jupiter’s surface.

Mixed signals
An ammonia molecule
The scientists were able to see as deep as a hundred kilometres beneath the surface. They have discovered lots of ammonia. The ammonia has confused scientists for quite a while. When spacecraft Galileo dropped a probe into Jupiter’s clouds in 1995, the probe already discovered really high concentrations of ammonia. This was quite strange, since the VLA radio telescope in New Mexico never managed to find such high concentrations of ammonia. This made scientists think that Jupiter’s atmosphere must consist of two layers; one with high concentrations of ammonia, and one with low. That were sometimes mixed up a bit by thunderstorms. Recent studies with an improved version of the VLA radio telescope show that there’s no need for two layers in the atmosphere, and that Galileo’s space probe just dived into a strange part of the atmosphere.

The radio wave picture (top one) shows
 the movements of ammonia in Jupiter’s atmosphere, 
the bottom picture is a normal picture taken by Hubble.
Simplifying the stripes
The new version of the VLA radio telescope has discovered stripes in Jupiter’s atmosphere, close to its equator. These stripes have alternating high and low concentrations of ammonia. And the high concentrations are caused by plumes of ammonia that rise from deeper inside Jupiter. This discovery enabled Imke de Pater and her team to fit both the high and low concentrations of ammonia into the same pattern. This pattern gives us a more detailed understanding of what’s going on around a hundred kilometres deep in Jupiter’s atmosphere. And also of the processes that happen much deeper in the atmosphere, since the patterns higher up are influenced by the processes lower in the atmosphere. Like when you see the fiftieth domino in a line of dominoes fall, you know that the first one also has fallen.

Husband and wife
This knowledge is also helpful for a new mission to Jupiter. Next month, space probe Juno is going to arrive by Jupiter. It is going to orbit around Jupiter and researching its gravity field, magnetic field and also concentrations of water and ammonia. With researching the water concentrations on Jupiter, scientist hope to find out more about Jupiter’s origin. And the new explanation of ammonia concentrations can be tested by Juno. This space probe can also peek deeper into Jupiter, because it’s way closer.

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