Science Interviews

Interview

Sat, 6th Oct 2012

Binary black holes, artificial bee brains and hypo-allergenic milk

Jay Strader, Michigan State University, James Marshall, University of Sheffield, Alex Copley, University of Cambridge, Warren McNabb, AgResearch

Part of the show Tricks of the Mind

Two’s company for black holes

Large collections of stars known as globular clusters were previously thought to contain, at most, one large black hole at their centre. Now it appears they may have company, in the form of a companion black hole.

The aftermath of a large star being consumed by a black holeResearchers at Michigan State and Northwestern Universities set out to find intermediate mass black holes (1000 times the mass of the Sun).

Jay Strader, a co-author on the paper published in Nature, explained the new techniques used to find them:

 

 

 

 

Jay -   All of the other known stellar-mass black holes in our Milky Way have been found through x-rays, and these are the first ones that have been found through radio, and that sort of indicates this might be a new way of finding black holes.

Previous theories suggested that all black holes bar the largest one would be ejected from the globular cluster. Instead, it appears that the ejection process is less efficient than thought, leaving two or, depending on how inefficient the ejection is, as 100 more black holes in a globular cluster.

Dr Strader summed up the work:

Jay -   With this finding, globular clusters have sort of gone from one of the worst places to look for black holes in the galaxy to potentially one of the best places.

Do android bees dream of electric flowers?

To develop a fully-functioning artificial model of a bee’s brain, researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex have been given 1 million pounds funding by the EPSRC.

The group plan to use so-called “GPU accelerators” that are more often found in the graphics cards of home PCs. Using these they will be able to efficiently perform the huge number of calculations needed to simulate the brain of a bee on a standard desktop PC, rather than on an expensive supercomputer.

This work could lead to vastly improved artificial intelligences, artificial pollinators and autonomous flying robots.

Dr. James Marshall, from the University of Sheffield, explained the challenges the project presents:

James -  So, the really big challenges are, understanding the neuroscience of honeybee, so a lot of work on that has already been done by our collaborators in Toulouse and by other labs around the world.  And then the big challenge will be, we have a lot of computing power, but squeezing a description of quite a lot of the bee brain onto a computer and then simulating it so it actually runs in real-time, sufficiently fast to control a flying robot.  That will be the other big technical challenge.

New technique has seismologists quaking

The conditions at a fault line during an earthquake have been created in a laboratory more realistically than ever before by scientists at the University of Oklahoma, publishing in Science.

EarthquakeIn a real earthquake, a finite amount of energy is abruptly applied to a rock fault and the rock composition of the fault determines how long the fault moves or slips for.

To mimic this process, the researchers created a machine that abruptly transferred energy from a spinning fly-wheel to a rock sample. This meant the duration of the experimental fault movement was determined by the rock composition, as in a real earthquake.

In previous studies, researchers had only controlled the velocity of the fault movement by applying energy continuously.

Dr. Alex Copley, a lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and not involved with the study, commented on the improvements the new machine makes on previous work:

Alex -   Previous attempts to produce laboratory earthquakes have been hampered by not being able to produce the kind of large displacements in rapid times that you see in real earthquakes.  So, we’ve had a hole in our understanding of the earthquake physics.  By creating this new machine, these people have been able to simulate the kind of motion on faults over the kind of times that we see in earthquakes themselves, which have let us learn about what is controlling how the fault behaves during the earthquake and the variations in the strength of the rocks as the earthquake is progressing.

Hypo-allergenic cow’s milk

And finally…

Hypoallergenic milk has been produced from a genetically-modified cow by researchers in New Zealand.

Some infants are allergic to a milk protein called beta-lactoglobulin or BLG, which is found in milk from cows but not from humans.

The group, from AgResearch and the University of Waikato, used a technique called RNA interference that stopped the BLG being produced by suppressing the expression of the genes involved in BLG production.

The modified genetic code was implanted into a cow egg, and a healthy, female calf was born, which produced milk that was high in protein and very low in BLG.

Prof. Warren McNabb, Research director at AgResearch, explained the major step the group have taken:

Warren -   It’s an important discovery from a point of view of the technology works in large animals.  So, other organisations could pick up on this type of work, and go down this route themselves.

And that work as published in the journal PNAS.

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