Tag Archives: research

Peer Pressure

Let’s talk about the importance of peer review.

Particularly in light of the recent announcement by NASA scientist Richard B. Hoover in the Journal of Cosmology, that fossil evidence of bacterial life has been found in meteorites.  That we are not alone out there, and that life on alien worlds may actually be more similar to life on our dear planet than we had expected.

A photograph taken through a scanning electron microscope of a CI1 meteorite (right) is similar in size and overall structure to the giant bacterium Titanospirillum velox (left), an organism found here on planet Earth, a NASA scientist said.

“I interpret it as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet earth,” Hoover told FoxNews.com. “This field of study has just barely been touched — because quite frankly, a great many scientist would say that this is impossible.”

Before we get all excited about our extraterrestrial cousins making contact, it is important to realize claims of this type have been made before, and they have been discovered to be false. PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota has something to say about this…

However, given the controversial nature of this paper. Dr Rudy Schild, the editor-in-chief of the journal has invited 100 experts and issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. He says “No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough vetting, and never before in the history of science has the scientific community been given the opportunity to critically analyze an important research paper before it is published”.

So, peer pressure indeed. Are we to believe that if the paper gets through the nano-fine tooth comb of 5000 critical scientists, the research is reliable? Does that settle the question once and for all?

Anyone for Mars?

The planet Mars is the closest we have in our solar system to being called hospitable (well, after our own beloved Earth)- it has surface gravity, an atmosphere, carbon dioxide, minerals and most importantly, water. But would you want to take a one-way trip over there?

The desert-like landscape of Mars


Some scientists, like Dirk Schulze-Makuch, speculate that to safeguard the human species against catastrophe on Earth, within 2 decades we could start sending over small groups of colonists to start living on Mars. Others, like Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell, say we are not ready to be discussing living on the red planet. NASA is not going anywhere near the idea, but Schulze-Makuch claims that the private sector may be more interested in investing in the missions.

After all, humans are dreamers-of-what-could-be, and pushing the boundaries is what drives scientific exploration. After exploring the surface of planets, the next step would be visiting in person- think of the incredible technology we would develop to deal with travel to and life in such a harsh environment.

But we haven’t even sent a human to Mars to walk on the surface, let alone try to make a life there. Which of us will be ready to literally leave their world behind and survive on an alien planet? And why should we colonize other planets anyway? If it won’t benefit the individual -and most of us remain on Earth to perish when an asteroid hits us- why should we care if the species propagates itself through the universe?

If you do decide to hold a classroom discussion around this topic, look into our Mars Mission Box as an extension activity for your students to practically explore some of the challenges to life on Mars, for example protecting ourselves against radiation. 

Good luck!

A sticky solution to pollution.

Air pollution levels in London are dangerously high and currently exceed EU recommended maximum levels. So what are we doing about it?

Car exhaust

Car exhaust is one of the causes of air pollution

Scientists have come up with a sticky solution. A layer of a special substance is being spread on roads which will literally stick polluting particles to the ground and stop them recirculation in the air.

High levels of particulate matter in the air are mainly caused by vehicle emissions and can lead to increased respiratory problems such as asthma. It is hoped this new method will reduce air pollution by 10-20%.
Is this just a quick fix solution? What about the alternatives:
changing to alternative fuels (electric, hydrogen, biofuels)
congestion charging and car free town centres;
switching to alternative forms of transport

You could get groups of students to each research one solution and then pitch them to a panel, Dragon’s Den style.

Good luck!


The Little Bang

So, in the news, you may have heard that scientists working on that massively epic underground experiment at CERN aka the Large Hadron Collider, have successfully created a mini-Big Bang (so should it be called a Little Bang?) by smashing lead ions together to recreate the kind of conditions that are believed to have given rise to the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

 Incredibly, the experiment generated temperatures a million times hotter than the centre of the sun, so outrageously hot that the protons and neutrons actually MELTED, ending up in a “hot dense soup of quarks and gluons known as a quark-gluon plasma” to quote Dr David Evans, one of the researchers on the experiment. Sounds yummy. Quarks and gluons are subatomic particles that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons, and therefore, of matter in general. By studying the plasma, scientists hope to learn more about the ‘Strong Force’ which gives atoms most of their mass.

Image of data from lead ion collision at LHC, courtesy of BBC

Data from lead ion collision experiment at LHC

It is extremely expensive to run experiments within the LHC, so it’s great to hear about such fascinating research coming out of it. In terms of benefiting humanity directly though, it’s not a cure for cancer or a solution to world hunger- so are we justified in putting this much money into it? How will working out the intricacies of the universe’s formation help us as a species? And who is to say what research is worth our pennies, and what isn’t?