Astronomers have discovered evidence for life in the universe - but only down here on Earth. In this NewsFlash, we'll find out how light from Earth bounced off the Moon could pave the way to look for life on other planets. Plus, can we trust the upper classes? New research shows that increasing wealth and social status may also increase selfishness and dishonesty!
In this episode
00:17 - Looking for Evidence of Life on Earth
Looking for Evidence of Life on Earth
Astronomers have found compelling evidence for life in the Universe - but only on Earth. Using a phenomenon known as Earthshine, where light from Earth is reflected off the surface of the Moon, researchers from the European Southern Observatory were able to view the Earth as if it were an exoplanet, and use the reflected light to look for tell tale signatures of life.
We can get a very good idea of the composition of something from the light it emits or reflects. Certain molecules leave their fingerprints in the spectrum of light, and our understanding of the chemistry of these molecules can give us a good idea as to what is going on. However, observing light from planets around other stars is challenging - any reflected or emitted light will be drowned out by the glare of the parent star.
One solution comes in the fact that while emitted light, such as that from a star, will arrive in any and all orientations, reflected light is polarised - it comes in just one orientation. By looking at both the spectrum and the polarity, in a process known as spectropolarimetry, astronomers can look for chemical signatures in just the light reflected off a planet.
In this case, they were looking for biomarkers - evidence of certain combinations of gases in certain ratios that can only exist in the presence of life, such as molecular oxygen and methane. These chemicals can exist on a sterile planet, but settle into a different equilibrium in the absence of living organisms. They also looked for a "Red Edge" - a change in reflectance of near infrared radiation that indicates the presence of vegetation.
Using just Earthshine light, the researchers were able to determine the fraction of Earth's surface covered in seas, and that it has a cloudy atmosphere. Crucially, they could also detect the existence of vegetation, and could determine that it varied across the surface of the planet.
While the presence of life on Earth may not be news to us, it is proof that this technique works, and can be used in future to look for evidence of photosynthetic plant life elsewhere in the universe.
03:56 - Electromagnetic force strengthening
Electromagnetic force strengthening
There are many areas of modern life that are driven by electromagnetic forces, from electric motors, and door locks to experimental long range artillery.
It would also be very useful to be able to make objects levitate for transport or just low friction bearings, without using superconductors, this involves using rapidly changing magnetic fields which induce currents in other objects. To produce a very large force, you need very strong fields, and whilst magnetic fields aren't very bad for humans, electric fields can cause problems.
Ways of strengthening these forces would be immensely useful, in fact we already use materials which concentrate magnetic fields - ferromagnets like iron which are attracted to magnets and are said to have a positive permeability. But there is a limit to the effect they can produce, and iron is heavy.
Yaroslav Urzhumov and collegues may have invented a way of helping, they suggest using a material which can have a negative permeability - it is repelled rather than attracted to magnets. These materials would have to be a metamaterial designed carefully and consisting of a large number of tiny coils which have currents sloshing back and forth inside them, these can be made to resonate by the changing magnetic field. By making a composite of these materials and conventional positive permeability materials it is possible to hugely increase the forces involved. Possibly increasing them by a factor of 10,
They haven't been built yet but this could make many devices smaller and particularly lighter as the metamaterials are mostly plastic and air rather than metal, and make machines more efficient plus make new applications practial.
07:06 - Should We Trust the Upper Classes?
Should We Trust the Upper Classes?
Should We Trust the Upper Classes?
Ben - Throughout history, a gentleman was something that the lower classes would defer to and would aspire to become.
But now, research reveals that, paradoxically, those most likely to indulge in unethical, ungentlemanly actions are actually the upper classes themselves!
Paul Piff led the team behind a study that proves this and he joins us now. Paul, what were you looking at? Why was this so interesting to a social scientist?
Paul - What we were, and have been, basically very interested in for the last few years in our laboratory work is how different levels of status and wealth shape individual patterns of behaviour. So how does wealth and your status relative to other people in society influence, and really inform, how you see the world and operate toward other people?
We've run dozens of studies that look at these very different kinds of behavioural patterns among upper and lower class individuals. In this most recent set of studies, we really wonder - very specifically examine - whether wealth and status would shape people's tendencies to behave unethically - their willingness to break the rules, or forego certain kinds of societal norms and standards in the service of their own self-interest. And so, we conducted a number of studies to look at this. In some, we conducted sort of naturalistic or field studies where we looked at whether drivers with more or less expensive vehicles were differently inclined to break certain kinds of laws whilst driving. And we also conducted a series of experiments in the lab to more directly test that question.
Ben - So take me through some of the other experiments you did. You've watched people to see whether or not they were likely to break the rules when driving an expensive car or a cheaper car. But other experiments relied on trusting people and their own self reporting. How did you do this and what were they telling you?
Paul - So, understandably, the kind of car, the kind of vehicle a person owns isn't a perfect indicator of their socio-economic status or their social class. So, we wanted to conduct a series of different laboratory experiments to more directly assess where a person ranks relative to others in society, how much wealth they actually have, and then associate that with their actual levels of unethical behaviour. So for instance, in one study, we brought a group of nationwide adult participants from all over the United States and told them that they would today, very lucky for them, get to participate in a game of chance where the computer would virtually roll a die for them five times. They would have to keep track of their scores. Higher scores in the game would be equal to better chances of winning a cash price, a $50 cash price.
So we asked participants to report their total scores upon the conclusion of all five rolls, but what participants didn't know was that we had rigged the game so that all scores across the board were going to be totalling up to 12. So there was really no way a participant could actually get a score higher than 12. By looking at the difference between what they reported and 12, we could see whether or not participants were actually cheating in this game to improve their chances of winning this cash prize.
And amazingly, what we found was that there was a very significant correlation such that even when accounting for a whole slew of other variables, as a person's socio-economic status increased, their tendencies to cheat in this game did as well.
In fact, the people all the way at the top of the socio-economic hierarchy were actually cheating by up to three times as much in this very simple game, relative to their lower class counterparts.
Ben - Well that's a very striking result. I was wondering, what do you think we can really conclude from this? Is it just that people who are wealthier and are more successful got there by being more selfish, or do you think it's the cause and effect is a bit mixed up?
Paul - I think that's a very, very nice and elegant point and your audience is probably wondering the same thing. Correlation obviously does not equal causation so it might very well be the case that unethical people are going to be those more likely or the most likely to also improve their material wealth.
So I imagine that there's going to be sort of a cyclical or self-perpetuating dynamic at play here. But at the same time, we've run a host of experimental studies where beyond just measuring a person's socio-economic status, we actually manipulate it and we do that in a few different ways, but across the board, what we find is even when people are made to experience a higher sense of social class, even if they're actually from lower class backgrounds, that experience of higher class actually causes them very directly to increase their unethical tendencies and increase their self-interest behaviour. This suggests that there really is a very specific effect associated with occupying or believing that you occupy a more privileged position in society with your tendencies to prioritise yourself, and prioritise the pursuit of self-interest, above the well-being and welfare of other people.
Ben - What do you think this tells us about our interactions in the real world? Politicians, for example, tend to be people from wealthier backgrounds. They tend to be very successful people in themselves. Does this mean that we should conclude really that we shouldn't trust politicians?
Paul - I don't think that's necessarily the implication at all. I think that again, it's important to point out that these are not sort of categorical differences that we're finding and it's not necessarily the case that if you're say, "rich" you're necessarily going to behave in an unethical way and also, if you occupy lower rungs in society, that's not to say that you're also going to then be more ethical.
But what I think our findings suggest is that it's not necessarily the people who are occupying the most privileged positions in society, whether that's powerful politicians or wealthy executives who work in companies or financiers that work on Wall Street, they're not necessarily the most inclined to think about first and foremost, the welfare of other people.
I think this is partly as a result of the particular culture that they inhabit in that professional and organisational setting. So, if you work in a place that really hones self-interest and says that the pursuit of competition and self-interest is above all else a good thing then it's likely that it could lead to some fairly socially pernicious consequences. But of course, some politicians are fairly public and people are directly observing of their behaviour. So I think in situations where there are very direct and specific repercussions to one's actions, that may go a long way in curbing what may otherwise be naturally unethical tendencies among those who are the most powerful in society.
Ben - That is Paul Piff from the University of California at Berkeley, with research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
14:03 - Speech stopping ray
Speech stopping ray
If you have ever been annoyed by someone chatting in a meeting, or even in a concert, help might be on its way.
Kazutaka Kurihara and collegues have built a device which can stop someone speaking from across a room. It takes advantage of an effect you may have noticed when talking on a very bad phone line - if there is a delay of about a quarter of a second between you saying something and hearing yourself it is almost impossible to talk, because your brain is listening to your speech as you are talking, and using that to control that speech. If you hear yourself slightly delayed the whole system gets confused and you start to stutter, and find it very difficult to talk at all.
So they have mounted a very directional microphone next to a very directional loudspeaker with a laser pointer for aiming. When they point the device at someone speaking, it picks up the noise coming from that direction, and then plays the sound back at them with a delay adjusted for the time sound takes to travel that distance, causing the speaker to stutter and have great difficulty talking.
They are not intending to manufacture these devices but the technology is very simple so it is inevitable that someone will, which brings up interesting ethical issues as it would be possible to point it at a lecturer for a laugh or more sinisterly use the device at a political meeting to silence a competitor.
17:21 - Twinning Tech to make Electricity from Waste Water
Twinning Tech to make Electricity from Waste Water
By combining two existing but limited technologies, researchers in America have devised a novel way to generate electricity from waste water - and all it took was a pinch of the right salt.
The two technologies are Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC) and Reverse Electrodialysis (RED). MFCs use naturally occurring microbe species known as Exo-electrogenic bacteria, which break down organic matter and release electrons, creating a voltage.
RED relies on a salinity gradient, using seawater and freshwater separated by a stack of selectively permeable membranes that only allow either positive or negative ions through. These membranes are connected to electrodes, and together contribute to an electric current. Each membrane only provides a small amount to the current, so a working RED cell requires many layers of membrane. To keep the supply of sea- and fresh-water, RED systems presently need to be built by the coast, and when using natural water sources, suffer from fouling unless the water is extensively filtered first.
By combining MFCs with RED and feeding in waste freshwater, Professor Bruce E. Logan at colleagues at Penn State University were able to make a "Microbial Reverse-electrodialysis Cell" or MRC, that not only generated significantly more energy than a fuel cell alone, but also needed fewer membranes than a traditional RED.
By using ammonium bicarbonate as their salt source instead of seawater, they were able to increase the efficiency and sever the tie to coastal regions. Ammonium bicarbonate solution is easily produced using waste heat, and can be reclaimed and recycled within the system.
Logan and colleagues argue that this technology could tip the energy balance of water purification, as their system helped to purify waste water while generating 0.94 kilowatt-hours of electricity per kilogram. Traditional treatment of waste water with activated sludge consumes 1.2 kilowatt-hours per kilogram of organic matter. This would provide a strong incentive to build MRC treatment plants in energy poor areas - providing both power and sanitised water.
20:28 - Targeting Alzheimers, Sequencing the Iceman, Sex Selection in hippos and Giant Penguins
Targeting Alzheimers, Sequencing the Iceman, Sex Selection in hippos and Giant Penguins
Li-Huei Tsai, MIT; Albert Zink, European Academy of Bolzana; Joseph Saragusty, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research; Dan Ksepka, North Carolina State University explains
Protecting the memory of Alzheimer's patients
new drug target has been identified to fight the memory loss and dementia seen in Alzheimer's patients.
Using mouse models, Li-Huei Tsai, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, identified increased levels of the enzyme Histone Deacetylase 2, or HDAC2, in mice with the disease.
The enzyme is known to play a role regulating the expression of genes involved with memory but it's increase can result in a blockade of these genes resulting in impaired memory formation and a decline in cognitive function.
Li-Huei - I think the good news from our study is that this blockade of impulses by the elevation of HDAC2 enzyme is potentially reversible. So, we are very hopeful that by coming up with inhibitors of HDAC2, that it will one day be possible clinically to recover cognitive function in Alzheimer's patients in terms of learning a memory.
Otzi the Iceman's Genome
genome of Ötzi, the 5300 year old iceman, has been sequenced by scientists at the European Academy of Bolzana.
Previous studies have shown that Otzi, was over a metre and a half in height, lived in the Southern Alps and was killed at the age of 46 by an arrow. But now, his genome has revealed detailed characteristics of his physiology such as brown eyes, lactose intolerance and his blood group being O as well as a predisposition to certain diseases providing insight into not only his health, but also our evolution as Albert Zink explains...
Albert - So we found that he suffered from Lime disease and this is the oldest evidence for this disease that we have so far. He also has a genetic predisposition for coronary heart diseases. It was not known that this kind of diseases are that old. We know now better about his ancestry, that he belonged to a population that came to Europe in the Neolithics and nowadays, we have this kind of population still present in Sardinia and Corsica where we found the same genetic structure but in the rest of Europe, this signature is mainly replaced.
Favouring Females in Hippo populations
Male pygmy hippos change the composition of their sperm to reduce the number of males born into the next generation.
Working with endangered pygmy hippos in a captive environment, Joseph Saragusty from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research found that male members of the group produced sperm with higher levels of X chromosomes than Y chromosomes, meaning more females, of genotype XX, rather than males, of genotype XY, will be born into the next generation.
This results in less competition between the territorial males but could also be exploited to improve conservation methods.
Joseph - In many endangered species, it would be better if we could have a little bit more females than males because females are the ones that produce the offspring. Then we have a better chance to save populations from extinction. The next stage would be to find the mechanism how they do it and once we have this in hand, we might be able to influence this mechanism or activate it when we want to.
Reconstructing a Giant Penguin
And finally, a large, extinct penguin which lived 25 million years ago has been reconstructed using fossil remains in New Zealand.
The kairuku penguin, named after a Maori word for 'diver who returns with food', was pieced together using two incomplete skeletons of the bird revealing a penguin with a slender body plan, standing at 4ft 2 in height with an elongated beak and long flippers.
The penguin provides new insight into the ecosystem of New Zealand at this time period, as Dan Ksepka from North Carolina State University explains.
Dan - It turns out there's 5 different penguin species of all different sizes living side by side at about 27 million years ago. So this is part of a fauna of penguins. They're a very, very important component of that ecosystem and based on their evolutionary relationships, we see that these penguins are actually a side experiment. They are a branch of the penguin tree that separated from the main trunk, evolved for several million years and they were very successful during that time. But ultimately, they died out and did not leave any living descendants but during that time, very, very important to the ecosystem.
The work was published this week in the journal Vertebrate Paleontology.