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