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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Cool Things Every Amateur Scientist Should Know

HAPPENING THINGS IN THE WORLD OF SCIENCE

Science is an ever-changing concoction of new ideas, theories and innovation. Some of Victoria University’s science gurus offer a selection of the latest developments from the world of science.

KIWIS SHOW THE WORLD HOW TO DEAL WITH ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES; MAKES POLITICS LOOK BAD.

An Auckland-based biotech company, Lazantech, has been winning international eco-awards for their discovery of microbes that convert wasteful and environmentally damaging gases into useful products. This makes recycling gases an economically attractive pursuit for companies, while boosting their ‘socially responsible’ brand image. The finding has massive potential to help solve many environmental problems—not to mention the huge boost that will be given to our economy. The ‘green-tech’ revolution really is upon us.

William Guzzo

DROSOPHILA LEARN WHAT HUMANS HAVE KNOWN FOR AGES. STILL NOT ENOUGH TO NUMB THE LONELINESS.

It’s a known fact that rejection usually leads to an alcoholic binge in the human population, but UC San Francisco researchers have found we are not so different from the common male fruit fly, which turns to alcohol spiked food in the event of failed copulation. This addictive behaviour was analysed by a team led by Ulrike Heberlien, and it was found that the brain’s “reward pathway” is involved. A small protein-like molecule called Neuropeptide F (NPF) is present at high levels after successful mating, whereas rejection induces lower levels of NPF, which in turn leads to addictive behaviour. Extrapolating this study to similar molecules found in the human reward pathway helps link sex and alcoholism in studying patterns of human addiction.

Hanna Peach

NERDS HELP OTHER NERDS OUT. CELEBRATE WITH SKYRIM MARATHON.

Back in 2008, a group from the University of Washington developed a computer programme to get the public actively participating in research. These scientists, along with most biochemists nowadays, were concerned with proteins: large molecules that are the workhorse of everything you’re made up of. Proteins provide structure, act as communication molecules, and control what comes into and out of cells–amongst many other useful functions. They are notoriously tricky to figure out, as they are made of long chains that fold together into complex 3D shapes. This is where the programme, fold.it, comes into play. In fold.it, you are given a long chain of unfolded protein, which you then manipulate until it obeys all the laws of thermodynamics. It’s really just as “thrilling” as it sounds–the author of this article tried it last year and couldn’t get past ‘beginner’, although my pitiful attempts at that one time I played Halo leaves doubt as to whether that’s due to me or the game. Fortunately, the online community came to the rescue—within just 10 days, an international syndicate of gamers had solved the structure of retroviral protease, a protein in the HIV virus which helps it replicate. Their discovery may create new targets for anti-HIV drugs, as well as providing a useful function in society for gamers everywhere.

Jessica Fulton

OPERA AND EINSTEIN; PHYSICS SUDDENLY RELEVANT.

Everyone got super excited last year. And the cause wasn’t the kind of thing that usually creates shocker headlines. It was about Physics. Yeah boy. You all would have heard about that whole “faster than light” neutrinos shebang. Everyone was getting real hyped up being like, “Einstein was wrong—I never liked the guy to begin with”. Well. Here’s the lowdown from your uncle Felix. Last September, some people with too many letters after their names did an experiment at CERN entitled “OPERA” and found that particles that they were measuring—“neutrinos”— were travelling slightly faster than the speed of light. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity tells us that movement faster than the speed of light is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Naturally the scientific community (including the OPERA researchers) were a little sceptical until the findings could be replicated, although that didn’t stop an astonishingly large media surge over the whole business. Recent measurements using the same neutrino source indicate a speed which seems to be in line with the speed of light– what one would have expected before the OPERA experiment threw a spanner in the works. This proves little, except that the initial experiment was flawed.

Long story short—physics is still holding strong. The real question is: why were people so worried to begin with? These discoveries give people the false impression that the theory developed thus far could be rendered completely useless. In reality, all an isolated measurement would do, is give String theorists a few more years grace to attempt to unravel its stunning implications. Special Relativity would still be used in the situations where it worked (basically everything). It just might not hold the nigh-on-untouchable standing that it does currently.

Felix Barber

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