Weird sci­ence

Ever think of a ques­tion you’d love to put to a sci­en­tist but feel too silly to ask? Jamie Mor­ton asks New Zealand re­searchers.

Weekend Herald - - News -

Why do we dream? Can earthquakes be pre­dicted? We an­swer all of the sci­ence ques­tions you were too afraid to ask.

1 Why do we dream?

Dreams can al­low an al­ter­nate ex­pe­ri­ence in an ad­junct world where the rules and sen­sa­tions of wak­ing life dif­fer, says Rosie Gib­son, a post­doc­toral fel­low at Massey Univer­sity’s Sleep/Wake Re­search Cen­tre.

Tra­di­tion­ally, dreams are held to of­fer sym­bolic in­sight re­gard­ing spir­i­tu­al­ity or un­con­scious wishes, en­abling us to live with a bal­anced psy­che dur­ing wak­ing.

Now a body of re­search into the neu­ropsy­chol­ogy of dream­ing in­di­cates how dream­ing fa­cil­i­tates learn­ing and mem­ory con­sol­i­da­tion.

Dur­ing our nightly pe­ri­ods of rapid eye move­ment (REM) sleep, ar­eas of the brain used for mem­ory, emo­tion, vi­su­al­i­sa­tion and move­ment are re­ac­ti­vated while the parts nec­es­sary for phys­i­cally play­ing out that ac­tiv­ity are dis­en­gaged.

This has led to the­o­ries re­gard­ing dream­ing to erase use­less in­for­ma­tion from mem­ory as well as strength­en­ing the im­por­tant parts.

“The ac­tual dream ex­pe­ri­ence is deemed a by-prod­uct of this ac­tiv­ity, which the ex­ec­u­tive area of the brain tries to piece to­gether into a co­her­ent story on wak­ing from a dream,” Gib­son says.

“So the process of dream­ing is im­por­tant for wak­ing life with re­gards to ac­quir­ing and re­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion and men­tally re­hears­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as growth and devel­op­ment through a kind of off-line pro­cess­ing.”

2 What’s out­side the uni­verse?

Noth­ing trav­els faster than light, and a light year is the name given by astronomers to the dis­tance light trav­els in a sin­gle year.

So you may guess that the “ob­serv­able uni­verse” is a sphere with us at the cen­tre and a ra­dius of 13.8 bil­lion light years — which re­flects the time that has elapsed since the Big Bang, the giant ex­plo­sion that marked the be­gin­ning of the uni­verse.

Any­thing fur­ther away is sim­ply too dis­tant to see.

“In fact, as the uni­verse is ex­pand­ing, dis­tant ob­jects move away from us be­tween their emit­ting their light and our see­ing it,” Univer­sity of Auckland cos­mol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Richard Eas­ther says.

To ac­count for this, we can cal­cu­late the ac­tual vis­i­ble uni­verse is about 40 bil­lion light years in ra­dius — or about 80 bil­lion light years across.

Dis­tant ob­servers would see them­selves at the cen­tre of their par­tic­u­lar “ob­serv­able uni­verse“, which only par­tially over­laps with ours.

Since our uni­verse was roughly ho­moge­nous — that is, its av­er­age prop­er­ties are the same at all places — we think those ob­servers should see a sim­i­lar uni­verse to as we do.

And this sug­gests that the an­swer to the ques­tion “What’s out­side the ob­serv­able uni­verse?” is, sim­ply: “More uni­verse.”

“But we can’t be sure, since we can’t see it,” Eas­ther says.

“On grander scales, some the­o­ries sug­gest that our own uni­verse is one of a pos­si­bly in­fi­nite num­ber of uni­verses that forms a mul­ti­verse — each with their own Big Bang and per­haps each with their own laws of physics.”

3 Is time travel pos­si­ble?

Wellington physi­cist Matt Visser is a world ex­pert on time travel and he has shown it may be pos­si­ble.

In­ter­est­ingly, the speed at which we travel into the fu­ture is not al­ways the same.

Clocks in satel­lites run ever so slightly faster com­pared to those on the ground be­cause they ex­pe­ri­ence a weaker pull of grav­ity in or­bit. Grav­ity warps time.

What about travel into the past? Visser has shown that, in the­ory, grav­ity could sup­port tun­nels or “worm­holes” that con­nect dis­tant parts of the uni­verse.

How­ever, Univer­sity of Auckland physi­cist Pro­fes­sor Shaun Hendy says, there is no ev­i­dence that there are any worm­holes out there and we have no idea how to go about mak­ing one.

“But imag­ine we fig­ured it out,” he says.

“It might then be pos­si­ble to use the worm­hole to take short­cuts across the uni­verse.”

We might also be able to use it to travel back in time — al­though you couldn’t use the worm­hole to go back to be­fore it was made.

Physi­cists don’t how­ever think you could go back to change his­tory, even if you had a worm­hole handy.

4 Can we pre­dict earthquakes?

Earthquakes be­gin on faults that are buried at great depths be­neath the Earth’s sur­face, of­ten sev­eral kilo­me­tres or more deep.

This makes it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to know how close these faults are to fail­ing in an earth­quake.

That said, there are new tech­niques in place that can be used to give peo­ple at some dis­tance from an earth­quake — usu­ally 50km or more away — up to a few min­utes of warn­ing that an earth­quake has oc­curred and strong shak­ing is on its way.

These types of Earth­quake Early Warn­ing sys­tems do not pre­dict earthquakes, but they can quickly fore­cast ex­pected shak­ing af­ter a large earth­quake has started.

Al­though ac­cu­rate predictions of earthquakes are an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult goal, seis­mol­o­gists al­ready pro­vide fore­casts of how likely an earth­quake is to hap­pen over a spec­i­fied pe­riod of time.

These are called “earth­quake fore­casts”, which in many ways are sim­i­lar to weather fore­casts.

Im­proved es­ti­mates of the like­li­hood of a da­m­ag­ing earth­quake in a spe­cific re­gion in the com­ing years to decades can give im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion for com­mu­nity plan­ning and in­fra­struc­ture de­sign.

5 How bad might cli­mate change get?


Let’s imag­ine we do noth­ing to cut emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gases.

By 2100, we’d see the globe warm an­other one, then two, then three, maybe four de­grees above where we are now.

We’d lock in the melt­ing of most of the Antarc­tic and Green­land ice sheets — plus all of the world’s glaciers — so sea lev­els would rise by around

2m by 2100, with an­other

60m over com­ing cen­turies, Vic­to­ria Univer­sity cli­mate sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor James Ren­wick says.

Many places where heat and hu­mid­ity are al­ready a prob­lem would be­come un­in­hab­it­able, and heat­waves be­yond any­thing so far ob­served would be­come com­mon­place every­where.

Ex­tremes of drought and heavy rain would in­crease dra­mat­i­cally.

“All of which would lead to mass dis­place­ment, wa­ter avail­abil­ity prob­lems, and food short­ages across the globe,” Ren­wick says.

“Which al­most in­evitably lead to so­cial break­down and mass vi­o­lence — think the sit­u­a­tion in Syria and North Africa spread­ing out around the world. Bil­lions of lives would be at risk.”

6 Will bac­te­ria beat us in the end?

Health au­thor­i­ties warn that by 2050, 10 mil­lion peo­ple could be dy­ing ev­ery year from bugs that an­tibi­otics are now hold­ing back.

Would we soon no longer be able to out-run these nas­ties?

“That’s a tough ques­tion, be­cause not all bac­te­ria or an­tibi­otics are cre­ated equally,” says As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Siouxsie Wiles, a Univer­sity of Auckland mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist and au­thor of the book An­tibi­otic Re­sis­tance: The End of Mod­ern Medicine?.

“But we’ve been do­ing pretty well up till this cur­rent cri­sis, so I’d like to think the an­swer was yes if we changed our be­hav­iour in a bunch of dif­fer­ent ways.”

Firstly, we needed to lower rates of in­fec­tious dis­eases — the fewer peo­ple ex­posed to and suffering from these dis­eases, the fewer an­tibi­otics needed.

Se­condly, we needed to in­vest glob­ally and heav­ily in R&D to de­velop new an­tibi­otics that acted in dif­fer­ent ways.

“We’re in our cur­rent predica­ment be­cause the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try largely pulled out of an­tibi­otic R&D sev­eral years ago,” Wiles says.

“This means that steady stream of new an­tibi­otics be­ing de­vel­oped has dried up, while at the same time the an­tibi­otics we do have are be­com­ing less and less ef­fec­tive be­cause of bac­te­rial re­sis­tance.”

And lastly, we needed to care­fully use the an­tibi­otics we did have.

But, she says, even if we did ev­ery­thing we could, we’d never com­pletely over­come bac­te­rial re­sis­tance.

“It’s a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non that hap­pens be­cause lots of bac­te­ria grow very fast and reach mas­sive num­bers — in their mil­lions to tril­lions.”

7 Will a ma­chine re­ally steal your job?

Many jobs could be lost and changed as a re­sult of “ro­bot re­dun­dancy” in the com­ing decades.

How­ever, there is a wide de­bate around if this will hap­pen, how long this will take and how many jobs will be im­pacted.

Es­ti­mates range from 9 per cent to more than 50 per cent.

At present, fewer than 5 per cent of jobs can be done en­tirely through au­to­ma­tion.

How­ever, and more im­por­tantly, parts of one’s job can be au­to­mated — and this is pos­si­ble when a job is made up of highly repet­i­tive and less com­plex tasks.

“When parts of the job are au­to­mated, you may see a net loss of em­ploy­ees needed over­all, or, that na­ture of the job changes to in­clude more so­cial and creative as­pects,” says Dr David Brougham, of Massey Univer­sity’s School of Man­age­ment.

As such, more and dif­fer­ent jobs will be cre­ated as a re­sult of au­to­ma­tion.

We will also in­vent new ex­pe­ri­ences, prod­ucts and ser­vices, which will cre­ate new jobs.

“Em­ploy­ees should al­ways as­sess tech­nol­ogy that could do parts of their job, and con­sider what this will mean for their pro­fes­sion.”

8 Will self-driv­ing cars be­come the norm?

In some places, this is al­ready hap­pen­ing.

The lat­est and great­est ex­am­ple of this is Waymo One, a com­mer­cial driver­less ride hail­ing ser­vice launched in Phoenix, Ari­zona, last month by the Google/Al­pha­bet sub­sidiary.

In the rest of the world, en­thu­si­asts must buy an ex­pen­sive semidriver­less ve­hi­cle such as the Tesla Model S, which still re­quires con­stant hu­man su­per­vi­sion in case it makes a mis­take.

It is hoped that driver­less ve­hi­cles will bring enor­mous ben­e­fits, such as in­creased safety, re­duced con­ges­tion, cheaper mo­bil­ity and — for those coun­tries that par­tic­i­pate in the ve­hi­cles’ early devel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment — high-pay­ing jobs and eco­nomic growth.

But New Zealan­ders shouldn’t ex­pect to see this hap­pen here any time soon.

“In New Zealand we are un­likely to see wide­spread driver­less fleets within the next 20 years,” says Michael Cameron, the au­thor of the new Law Foun­da­tion book, Re­al­is­ing the Po­ten­tial of Driver­less Ve­hi­cles.

“If we want faster up­take, then we need to adopt the proac­tive ap­proach of Amer­i­can states such as Ari­zona.”

9 How long will hu­mans be able to live?

Try­ing to slow age­ing in the 70 tril­lion hu­man cells that make up our bod­ies was a big chal­lenge — but what if we could re­place tis­sues with com­pletely new ones?

This is the prom­ise of­fered by a new tech­nol­ogy called in­duced pluripo­tent stem cell tech­nol­ogy, or IPS cells.

“There has been a lot of con­tro­versy over stem cells in re­cent years and there are many clin­ics of­fer­ing stem cell treat­ments of du­bi­ous clin­i­cal ben­e­fit — but IPS cells ap­pear to of­fer more hope of be­ing use­ful, if we can un­der­stand how to use them cor­rectly,” Univer­sity of Auckland re­searcher Pro­fes­sor Peter Shep­herd says.

“IPS cells are a spe­cial type of stem cell that can not only make new blood cells but the­o­ret­i­cally can make any tis­sue in the body.”

The very re­cent dis­cov­ery that we could make IPS cells from most peo­ple by a rel­a­tively sim­ple ge­netic re­pro­gram­ming of ex­ist­ing adult cells won Pro­fes­sor Shinya Ya­manaka the No­bel Prize for phys­i­ol­ogy or medicine in 2012.

Amaz­ingly, this even works from cells from adults, ef­fec­tively show­ing that the age of a cell can be re­set to its orig­i­nal start­ing point.

Shep­herd’s lab was look­ing at whether we could use these to make re­place­ment in­sulin-pro­duc­ing cells to help treat di­a­betes.

Else­where in the world, of clin­i­cal tri­als were un­der­way and ben­e­fits — such as slow­ing mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion — are start­ing to be re­ported.

“Al­though there is still no elixir of im­mor­tal­ity, these re­cent ad­vances in re­search once again show how sci­ence con­tin­ues to make ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to ex­tend­ing how long and how well we hu­mans can live.”

10 Can we kill ev­ery last pos­sum, stoat and rat?

It only seems like yes­ter­day that Sir John Key stood at Zealan­dia in Wellington and an­nounced that New Zealand was aim­ing for a “moon shot”: to be free of ev­ery last rat, stoat and pos­sum by 2050.

Two and a half years on, how is New Zealand track­ing?

Much progress has been made on im­prov­ing the tools we al­ready have to fight preda­tors, says Dr An­drea By­rom, a Manaaki Whenua — Land­care Re­search ecol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Bi­o­log­i­cal Her­itage Na­tional Sci­ence Chal­lenge.

One ap­proach called GIS means we can find the best spots to put traps with the ease of a lap­top, while an­other called Zero In­va­sive Preda­tors has a goal of “re­move and de­fend” across large ar­eas.

Species-spe­cific tox­ins — or baits that tar­get only rats, for ex­am­ple, — are prob­a­bly the next game-changer over the hori­zon.

“And while we’d like to think there might even­tu­ally be a magic bul­let in the form of gene-edited in­fer­tile rats or stoats, we’re a decade or more — and an im­por­tant pub­lic dis­cus­sion — away from de­ploy­ing such a tool,” By­rom says.

Oh­mio’s driver­less shut­tles be­ing tri­alled in Christchurch.

Pho­tos / Getty Im­ages; file

Earth­quake fore­cast­ing is im­prov­ing; repet­i­tive and less com­plex tasks can be au­to­mated.

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