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Unveiling the Mystery: Antimatter Dances with Gravity

Antimatter, the unusual counterpart to ordinary matter, has captivated the minds of physicists and science enthusiasts. In 1928, when Paul Dirac was finding an equation to describe the behaviour of electrons, now known as the Dirac equation, he predicted two possibilities, one positive and one negative, similar to how a quadratic equation has two answers.

He didn’t leave out the other answer; instead, he called it the anti-electron (now known as the positron). In 1932, Carl David Anderson confirmed Dirac’s predictions when he discovered the positron by observing the tracks of cosmic ray particles in a cloud chamber.

One of the most intriguing aspects of antimatter is its behaviour under the influence of gravitational force. If we drop an ordinary book from a height, thanks to Isaac Newton, we know it will fall, but what if that book was made of antimatter? Existing theories state that antimatter behaves opposite to ordinary matter but not under the influence of gravity, but is this correct?

Will an anti-book fall or go upward? To better understand this and the beginning of our universe, we will delve into the perplexing properties of antimatter when subjected to the gravitational forces that shape the cosmos.

We first need to grasp the fundamental nature of antimatter to fathom the properties of antimatter in gravity’s presence. Antiparticles like antiprotons and positrons are mirror images of their counterparts with opposite charges and magnetic moments. For example, in the standard model, a proton contains two up quarks and one down quark, whereas an antiproton has two anti-up quarks and one anti-down quark.

Similarly, a positron (an anti-electron) has a positive charge, unlike an electron with a negative charge. Small amounts of antimatter travel down on the Earth through cosmic rays. Still, they are minute compared to the amount of normal matter, so scientists need to make them in a laboratory to study antimatter.

In the standard model, a proton contains two up quarks and one down quark, whereas an antiproton has two anti-up quarks and one anti-down quark.
In the standard model, a proton contains two up quarks and one down quark, whereas an antiproton has two anti-up quarks and one anti-down quark.

 One of the places where this happens is at CERN (European Council of Nuclear Research), the most extensive laboratory in the world for particle physics research located near Geneva at the border between Switzerland and France. The scientists here create antihydrogen atoms by binding negatively charged antiprotons, generated and decelerated in the Antimatter Factory’s AD and ELENA (Extra Low Energy Antiproton ring) machines, with positively charged positrons collected from a sodium-22 source.

When antimatter comes into contact with ordinary matter, it annihilates, resulting in a huge release of energy. This reaction is shown by Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation below:

E=mc2

This interaction raises questions about how antiparticles behave under gravity.

 Now, let us talk about whether antimatter would fall or go up under the influence of gravity. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity is a curvature of space-time; therefore, matter and antimatter should behave similarly. Thus, existing theories assumed that antimatter, although opposite to ordinary matter, would fall under gravitational force. However, as Jeffrey Hangst said, “In physics, you don’t really know something until you observe it.”

Scientists at Stanford University tried an experiment in 1968 that attempted to measure the free fall of positrons. In the end, a trial experiment with electrons showed that environmental effects interfered with the effect of gravity, and the final experiment was not executed. Recent technology and CERN’s ELENA machine construction have been experimented with at the Antiproton Decelerator (AD) in the Antimatter Factory.

Current projects like ALPHA (Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus), AEgIS (Antihydrogen Experiment: Gravity, Interferometry, Spectroscopy), and GBAR (Gravitational Behavior of Antimatter at Rest Experiment) are working on research on antimatter and its properties.

CERN launched the ALPHA Experiment, which is a cutting-edge scientific endeavour designed to explore and understand the properties of antimatter, particularly antihydrogen.
CERN launched the ALPHA Experiment, a cutting-edge scientific endeavour designed to explore and understand the properties of antimatter, particularly antihydrogen.

CERN launched the ALPHA Experiment, a cutting-edge scientific endeavour designed to explore and understand the properties of antimatter, particularly antihydrogen. The subproject of the ALPHA experiment, the ALPHA-g experiment, aims to study antihydrogen in gravity by releasing its atoms from a magnetic trap; this trap is essential so it does not annihilate.

It is important to note that most of the antihydrogen atoms are moving too fast to be captured in the magnetic trap, and only a few get captured; thus, they do this process many times to get a measurable quantity of them trapped in the magnetic trap. They then observe their behaviour under gravity by releasing them from the trap. When doing this with normal hydrogen, 80% of it falls, and they hoped to see the same percentage with antimatter.

The scientists at CERN’s ALPHA experiment published their observations on September 27, 2023, confirming that antimatter does experience a gravitational force similar to ordinary matter, and approximately 80% of them fell upon experimentation. This result aligns with the existing theories mentioned above. This is not the end of the story, and future experiments are focused on finding whether antimatter falls at the same rate as regular matter or not.

This was the first attempt to drop antimatter, and it proves what the human race is capable of doing in the future.
This was the first attempt to drop antimatter, proving what the human race can do in the future.

  It is a remarkable feat of science that we have come to the point where antimatter can be created in a lab, contained without annihilation, and then experimented with. CERN’s Antimatter Factory is an extraordinary facility in the world that produces and studies antimatter. Future endeavours for scientists include finding more properties between antimatter and its counterpart. This was the first attempt to drop antimatter, proving what the human race can do in the future.

References:  

Also read: LITTERBUGS IN SPACE: THE NEXT FRONTIER FOR CARBON FOOTPRINTS?

Blue Biotechnology: The secrets of the ocean are yet to be explored

“THE SEA, ONCE IT CASTS ITS SPELL, HOLDS ONE IN ITS NET OF WONDER FOREVER.” -Jacques Cousteau

The marine ecosystem covers about 70 percent of our Earth’s environment. From the smallest marine microorganisms to the largest, the enormous Antarctic blue whale, this percentage comprises a vast diversity of living and non-living things. The world’s population in 2015 was about 7.3 billion, which increased to 7.9 billion in 2021. To meet the needs of this ever-growing population, we need to move towards new sustainable goals that provide basic needs to the people without negatively impacting the environment. 

Blue biotechnology or marine biotechnology is a relatively new field. It utilizes marine biodiversity in terms of chemistry, physiology, and marine organisms. Unfortunately, the marine ecosystem remains the most under-explored, under-studies, and under-utilized, even with so many beneficial properties. 

POTENTIALS OF BLUE BIOTECHNOLOGY

Science and technological improvements have made it easier for marine biotechnology to be applied in various industries, from food and feed to biomedical research and pharmaceuticals (Rotter et al., 2021). Marine biotechnology involves the production of commodities and processes obtained from marine creatures using technologies such as biotechnology, molecular and cellular biology, and bioinformatics. 

This field is fascinating both scientifically and commercially. There are no ecosystems on the Earth that can provide greater genetic diversity for creating new commodities and processes than the marine environments. The marine ecosystem is undeniably enriched with many sources for compounds that have great importance in biotechnology (Thakur & Thakur, 2021).

Following are a few areas where blue biotechnology is beneficial:

PHARMACEUTICALS

Exploration of the marine ecosystem revealed evidence of various compounds derived from marine species, unraveling the application of marine biotechnology in the pharmaceutical sector. Marine natural compounds have up to four times the success rate of other naturally produced substances, making them a valuable source in medication development (Sigwart, Blasiak, Jaspars, Jouffray & Tasdemir, 2021).

These compounds are being used as antioxidants, antibiotics, analgesics, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal medicines in the pharmaceutical sector (Mayer et al., 2019). Some FDA-approved medications based on marine biotechnology include YondelisR, PrialtR analgesic, and antitumor agent Cytosar-UR (Martins, Vieira, Gaspar & Santos, 2014).

NUTRACEUTICALS 

Due to the growing population and dwindling agricultural food production, a considerable amount of food must be generated from ecologically favorable marine alternatives. (Olsen, 2011). Marine biotechnology, for instance, is extensively used to extract minerals, fibers, and secondary metabolites from macro-, micro-, and cyanobacteria for use as dietary nutrients or nutraceutical supplements. 

Fish are known to have established antioxidant and cardioprotective properties due to omega-3 fatty acids (Suleria, Osborne, Masci & Gobe, 2015). Thus, marine biotechnology is critical for assisting in resolving the worldwide crisis of health and nutrition. 

Fish are known to have established antioxidant and cardioprotective properties due to omega-3 fatty acids
Fish are known to have established antioxidant and cardioprotective properties due to omega-3 fatty acids.

COSMETICS AND COSMECEUTICALS

Marine biotechnology contributes significantly to the cosmetics sector by introducing novel substances into cosmetics formulation with additional health benefits that attract people’s attention. Several marine-based cosmetics have been obtained biotechnologically and are now on the market (Guillerme, Couteau & Coiffard, 2017). 

Compounds used in cosmetic formulations are often isolated from microalgae or other marine organisms and then grown in photo-bioreactors. For instance, these components may be employed as antioxidants, gels, pigments, and other ingredients in skincare and hair care products. (Alves, Sousa, Kijjoa & Pinto, 2020). 

Although several firms in the cosmetics industry, such as Mibelle BiochemistryR and GreenaltechR, fund marine biotechnology, there is relatively limited scientific evidence in this field (Barcelos, Lupki, Campolina, Nelson & Molina, 2018). Hence, research in this area should be promoted to enhance manufacturing procedures and the use of marine organism-derived chemicals.

BIOMATERIALS 

Marine biomaterial is an ever-growing topic of study with substantial applications in industry, health, agriculture, biofuels, bioenergy, and other sectors. Despite industrial pollution, overfishing, and unforeseen climate change, marine biomaterials are plentiful. Marine biomaterials, including polysaccharides, bioceramics, enzymes, peptides, lipids, and nanoparticles, have a broad spectrum of biocompatibility. 

Harvesting marine biomaterials is integral to the application of marine biotechnology. Marine biomaterials are a great alternative to traditional materials due to their extensive biocompatibility and ability to biodegrade with little to no side effects. Globally, marine biomaterials have established a strong market position and are attracting a broad spectrum of marine researchers and customers (Ali, Mir, Hyder & Yang, 2020). 

BIOFUELS 

Marine biofuels are obtained from micro and macro algae and therefore have evolved as a potential substitute for terrestrial ecosystems. Marine biofuel produces 10-100 times increased yields than traditional biofuels obtained from the terrestrial ecosystem. 

Marine biofuels are obtained from micro and macro algae and therefore have evolved as a potential substitute for terrestrial ecosystems.
Marine biofuels are obtained from micro and macro algae and therefore have evolved as a potential substitute for terrestrial ecosystems.

Bioethanol, often referred to as 3 G ethanol, is the most widely synthesized biofuel using marine biotechnology. It is created from algae biomass (John, Anisha, Nampoothiri & Pandey, 2011). The energy produced from algae has considerable advantages, including minimal land usage; it does not impact agricultural production, and technologies with minimum costs are now being established.

Further, it is anticipated that biofuel generation would efficiently and successfully eliminate reliance on imported fuelsUtilizing microalgae’s capability to produce biofuel in Pakistan might help the nation become energy self-sufficient. 

Even though Pakistan’s government has established many entities to nurture and facilitate alternative energy sources and achieve a 10% profit margin of biofuels in the energy industry by 2020, the goals have yet to be accomplished on ground levels (Shah et al. 2018).

FUTURE ASPECTS

Food security and world hunger are among the most recurring issues for developing nations. Amidst such problems, biotechnology is paving different ways and technologies to cope. 

It offers promising, exciting, and environmentally friendly alternatives to meet the consumer demands for the sustainable development of agriculture. Biotechnology has different applications that can significantly impact and resolve world hunger by revolutionalizing fertility, agricultural biotechnology, and wellbeing. 

As Mike Pompeo said:

“Feeding the world will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. It will be impossible without using scientific advancements and biotechnology.”

REFERENCES

Ali, M., Mir, S., Hyder, M., & Yang, W. (2020). Harvesting of Bioenergy and Biomaterials from Marine Resources. Encyclopedia Of Marine Biotechnology, 711-736. DOI: 10.1002/9781119143802.ch27

Alves, A., Sousa, E., Kijjoa, A., & Pinto, M. (2020). Marine-Derived Compounds with Potential Use as Cosmeceuticals and Nutricosmetics. Molecules, 25(11), 2536. DOI: 10.3390/molecules25112536

Barcelos, M., Lupki, F., Campolina, G., Nelson, D., & Molina, G. (2018). The colors of biotechnology: general overview and developments of white, green, and blue areas. FEMS Microbiology Letters365(21). DOI: 10.1093/female/fny239

Guillerme, J., Couteau, C., & Coiffard, L. (2017). Applications for Marine Resources in Cosmetics. Cosmetics4(3), 35. doi: 10.3390/cosmetics4030035

John, R., Anisha, G., Nampoothiri, K., & Pandey, A. (2011). Micro and macroalgal biomass: A renewable source for bioethanol. Bioresource Technology102(1), 186-193. DOI: 10.1016/j.biortech.2010.06.139

Martins, A., Vieira, H., Gaspar, H., & Santos, S. (2014). Marketed Marine Natural Products in the Pharmaceutical and Cosmeceutical Industries: Tips for Success. Marine Drugs12(2), 1066-1101. DOI: 10.3390/md12021066

Mayer, A., Guerrero, A., Rodríguez, A., Taglialatela-Scafati, O., Nakamura, F., & Fusetani, N. (2019). Marine Pharmacology in 2014–2015: Marine Compounds with Antibacterial, Antidiabetic, Antifungal, Anti-Inflammatory, Antiprotozoal, Antituberculosis, Antiviral, and Anthelmintic Activities; Affecting the Immune and Nervous Systems, and Other Miscellaneous Mechanisms of Action. Marine Drugs18(1), 5. doi: 10.3390/md18010005

Olsen, Y. (2011). Resources for fish feed in future mariculture. Aquaculture Environment Interactions1(3), 187-200. DOI: 10.3354/aei00019

Shah, S., Raja, I., Rizwan, M., Rashid, N., Mahmood, Q., Shah, F., & Pervez, A. (2018). Potential of microalgal biodiesel production and its sustainability perspectives in Pakistan. Renewable And Sustainable Energy Reviews81, 76-92. DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2017.07.044

Rotter, A., Barbier, M., Bertoni, F., Bones, A., Cancela, M., & Carlsson, J. et al. (2021). The Essentials of Marine Biotechnology. Frontiers In Marine Science8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.629629

Sigwart, J., Blasiak, R., Jaspars, M., Jouffray, J., & Tasdemir, D. (2021). Unlocking the potential of marine biodiscovery. Natural Product Reports38(7), 1235-1242. DOI: 10.1039/d0np00067a

Suleria, H., Osborne, S., Masci, P., & Gobe, G. (2015). Marine-Based Nutraceuticals: An Innovative Trend in the Food and Supplement Industries. Marine Drugs13(10), 6336-6351. DOI: 10.3390/md13106336

Thakur, N., & Thakur, A. (2021). Marine biotechnology: An overview. Retrieved 19 December 2021, from http://nopr.niscair.res.in/handle/123456789/7759

Metaverse and Pakistan– Merging the Parallel Worlds

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The unprecedented takeover of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the downfall of several industries, yet it bloomed the digital world quickly. Humans have created a real-life version of a digital world known as the Metaverse. 

Photo Credits: voicebot.ai
Photo Credits: voicebot.ai

Meta, formerly Facebook, aims to extend its services beyond a 2D interface and towards an innovative 3D space to create more meaningful connections. People can experience the Metaverse through various ways, including Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Although the online gaming world has dominated the Metaverse, it is much more than that. If executed successfully to the mass audience, Metaverse can change the traditional nine-to-five office lifestyle. It will allow people to free themselves from the shackles of an office routine and let them work remotely.   

According to published research in 2023 called “Digital Business Model Innovation in Metaverse: How to Approach Virtual Economy Opportunities”, the change in the name of ‘Facebook’ to ‘Meta’ shows the significance of the digitalized universe. 

Famous AI Assistants Photo Credits: Meta
Famous AI Assistants Photo Credits: Meta

Meta recently introduced AI versions of known personalities such as Kendall Jenner and Mr. Beast. This feature allows users to chat with these AI bots who have a name, personality and background story. It has met with significant criticism amongst some people on Instagram, who have labelled this as ‘creepy’ and said this further disconnects real and meaningful interactions. Additionally, Meta has accepted that the information provided by these AI characters may be outdated as it is before 2023, and further improvements will be made with time. 

However, the Metaverse is not limited to social media platforms. It extends to companies selling physical products, such as Coca-Cola, Dyson and IKEA, who have already invested in the Metaverse. The increased interest of considerable corporations in virtual reality is a good enough reason to understand its impact on our future. 

The economic aspects of the Metaverse 

Much like the real world, no human being owns the Metaverse. It simply consists of different technologies and companies. People, therefore, are needed to buy, sell, operate and maintain parts of this digital world. In an article published by Gartner, a management consulting company, Jackie Wiles writes that the Metaverse will run on digital currency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Unlike Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, NFTs cannot be replaced with another NFT. Although anyone can access and print the NFTs bought, it gives the owner of NFTs full rights to the original digital work.

Not long ago, some were suspicious of the emergence of digital currency, whereas others quickly invested in it and promoted this idea. Despite the constant change in the economic value of digital currencies, it can be used in the Metaverse. After all, the physical currency we use today also changes in value in the real world.

A while back, Damac, a real-estate company based in the UAE, invested $100 million in the Metaverse. One might think that such a massive investment in a developing idea is a bold step, but not Damac. Upon financial considerations, the company is optimistic about the outcome. 

 According to their estimations, the current monthly sales of $27.2 million can be multiplied by seven to eight times with this investment. They aim to expand their sales to customers worldwide through the Metaverse. That is, anyone sitting anywhere in the world can experience a virtual property tour and potentially purchase it with NFTs.

Depending on the product or service, respective companies have different plans for fitting themselves into this new universe. So, what is Pakistan’s goal?

Dawn News uploaded paid content on 20th October 2022, which advertised Pakistan’s first ever Metaverse start-up called “The Cloud City Metaverse”, or TCCM. This is a newly launched business, co-founded by Umer Abbas, where users can play in a virtual world free of charge.

A Digitalized Pakistan?  

I tried to find research papers to understand Pakistan’s stance on this hot topic. Upon searching, I found zero published research that discusses the Metaverse and Pakistan in the same article; this is concerning. As the world promotes and invests in the Metaverse, Pakistan is not even in the picture’s background.  

A 2015 research paper, “Design Consideration of Online Shopping Website to Reach Women in Pakistan”, published in the Procedia Manufacturing journal, shares that Pakistan ranks second as the world’s leisurely adopter of online shopping. 

Another research, “Impact of Factors on Consumer’s Decision-Making Process for Online Shopping in Pakistan”, published by Salahuddin and Tahir (2021) in the Journal of Economic Development, Management, IT, Finance and Marketing, informs that the State Bank of Pakistan reported a 93.7% rise in the e-commerce sales of Pakistan as of 2018. This significant increase is due to the availability of the Internet to a larger population.

Editing Sarah Arif via canva.com
Editing Sarah Arif via canva.com

This country is home to many diverse shops. What if these stores opened up in the Metaverse and ultimately brought in customers in this universe as well? It will also introduce foreigners to famous and unique Pakistani items they can buy. That being said, enabling residents to invest and adapt to the Metaverse before it is too late is an issue that needs to be resolved.  

In September 2022, Dawn News published an article titled, “The Metaverse opens up a world of possibilities for Pakistan. Can we take advantage?” The author, Hassan Baig, criticises Pakistan’s non-existent presence in this new era of technology and gives good initiatives it should take in the Metaverse. He emphasizes the government to do its honest part in promoting and establishing services in the Metaverse safely.

Moreover, Baig also shares various ways of utilizing the digital world in Pakistan. He suggests renowned Pakistani universities should offer courses in the Metaverse where world-renowned educators can teach. This approach will prepare undergraduates to tackle the digital world once they enter the corporate world. He also mentioned how Pakistan could effectively use the Metaverse, including investments in real estate, fashion outlets, security, crisis relief and skills training.

Furthermore, Dawn News uploaded paid content on 20th October 2022, which advertised Pakistan’s first ever Metaverse start-up called “The Cloud City Metaverse”, or TCCM. This is a newly launched business, co-founded by Umer Abbas, where users can play in a virtual world free of charge. At the same time, players can customize and own virtual infrastructure if they buy NFTs. Moreover, TCMM has also been invited to attend the Dubai Metaverse Assembly, among other international events, where it has received appreciation for its work.

The End is Near 

The reign of the Metaverse is approaching with the introduction of every new technology. On the one hand, business owners and investors are keen on spending millions of dollars to expand and actualize the digitalized universe. Many employees would be happy to return to working from home, which is one of the dreams that the Metaverse aims to meet. An open and easily accessible worldwide market further enhances the available opportunities for merchandisers and consumers.

A 2023 article titled “Digital Business Model Innovation in Metaverse: How to Approach Virtual Economy Opportunities” in the Journal of Information Processing & Management predicted that the metaverse market could be worth $13 trillion by 2030. It would be not very pleasant to know that out of this $13 trillion, not a single penny belongs to Pakistan.

This can be changed if more tech-based start-ups like TCCM are encouraged and funded by the country. Pakistan should adapt its people to the constant change in technology to stay up-to-date and contribute to the advancements in the world.

 Amid the rise of the Metaverse, Pakistan must secure its position as a vital member of the virtual world to promote employment and success amongst its citizens. Nonetheless, the Metaverse is still a relatively new concept that needs to be perfected and understood better before people can entirely rely on it. 

References: 

Also, Read: Pakistan; The Road towards Digitalization

Waging a war against cancer using our fighter cells

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Everyone, at some point in their lives, is introduced to a survivor who has suffered through the dreadful ailment – Cancer. Or we may have lost our loved ones and before death, observed them tread through a path that no one wishes to walk. Countless times, we wished to end their suffrage, but at a certain point, everything must be left to fate. In this age of advancement and technological innovation, it is hard to believe that no proper escape from cancer is available yet (with few exceptions). But one area has caught the attention of researchers and scientists who believe it to be the getaway from cancer: Immunotherapy.

Before jumping on what it is, let’s take a minute to appreciate the human body. You don’t have to be a biologist to be able to praise its delicacy and complexity. The human body is beautiful indeed, how nature has endowed us with complete systems to maintain our existence. From growing into an adult to consuming food to making complex decisions, it is a wonder how intricately interconnected these systems are with each other. Anything goes wrong, and our defense system jumps in to revert everything to normal. But as the saying goes: Nothing is perfect. Sometimes, our cells change so drastically that they can’t stop multiplying, and this uncontrolled abnormal growth is what we call ‘Cancer.’

The Body Patrol

Over the years, many treatments have been suggested, tried, and tested. But few seem to work given that certain circumstances are provided. Cancer cells are so smart and highly advanced that it is a daunting task to treat them. Cancer is killing millions of people each year; it is a health challenge, complicated to tackle. After trying different treatments, scientists have stumbled upon the powerful weapon we all have; our immune system. Present throughout the body, it gives us resistance and fights harmful infectious agents and diseases. At times we don’t even know about all the battles taking place inside our bodies.

Immunotherapy seeks to trigger and restore the immune system to recognize and confront cancer

One is inclined to think that if it’s efficient, then why cancer cells escape our immune system in the first place? Well, that is because, as mentioned, they are very clever and are our body’s mutated cells, they aren’t recognized as a foreign threat by the immune system. As they progress and develop, they gain the ability to dodge, fight, and gain control over the defenses. Immunotherapy is such a treatment that seeks to trigger and restore the immune system to recognize and confront cancer.

How it works

Certain parts of the immune system are used in various ways to target cancer cells. Either simulation or recognition abilities are provided to make them work par cancer or components are given that aid in the process of destruction. It may vary according to the different types and may work better for some than the others.

In the case of the detection of harmful agents, the body also makes proteins called antibodies that attack specific parts on an infected cell. These ‘monoclonal antibodies’ can be used to mark cells that can then be degraded by the immune system.

Our immune system’s ability to discriminate between native and foreign cells mostly involves T cells, which are a type of white blood cells. There are accelerators and brakes (yes, just like that in the cars) that modulate a balance so that only foreign cells are killed, and no autoimmune destruction of the standard cell occurs. These are manipulated by cancer cells so that they can remain incognito.

James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded Noble Prize “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation”

In immunotherapy, drugs are used to release these brakes leading to wipeout of dangerous cells. The Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 was awarded to scientists James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, who discovered the crucial pathways i.e. PD-1 and CTLA-4 that cancer cells use to escape. But by blocking these pathways with antibodies, a response is restored. This treatment is called ‘immune checkpoint therapy.’

Another type of T-cell therapy includes targeting receptors. These are the proteins present on the cell surface which help in recognition, signal transmission and are basically the “eyes and ears of the cell.” Altering the receptors in the cell makes them efficiently recognize cancer cells which are then sought from the entire pool and degraded. This therapy is called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy and has been helpful in certain blood cancer treatments. Scientists are researching to understand it better and develop effective therapies.

Non-Specific Immunotherapies are another class that aids the immune cells in their quest to destroy cancer. These can be given during other cancer treatments (such as radiation and chemotherapy) or after their completion. Most common include Interferons and Interleukins. The former slows down and hinders the growth of cancer cells and the latter helps in the production of those that are involved in the fight. The medicinal treatments also have drawbacks as well which may vary from person to person, but common side effects include hair loss, high risk of infection, weight gain, low blood pressure, etc.

Expectations vs. reality

All this sounds very impressive and using one’s defense system is a great idea, but has its limitations and problems. While some may be cured on a miraculous level or experience an everlasting response, other patients may not respond that well to immunotherapy. The majority don’t receive a positive effect and studies have shown that the response rate is 20% with a varying survival rate. To find which cancers are the best enemies of this therapy, extensive research is being conducted and methods are being identified. New immunotherapy approaches include improvements through nanotechnology, precision therapy and many more.

Immunotherapy approaches include precision medicines and therapy
In Precision Therapy drugs are tailored according to the genetic makeup and need of the patient
Image Credit: HYACINTH EMPINADO/STAT

Those who receive it may go through drastically different phases: fine at first, sick later. New side effects may originate confusing both the doctors and patients, and severe toxicities startle researchers. This ‘trial and error’ situation is depressing but necessary. Pressure from big pharma and medical industry to develop effective drugs and treatment against cancer is high leading to the conduction of thousands of trials (in which participation rates also drop now and then) where the researchers aim to explore and find the expectations of others suppress an answer. Challenges arise for oncologists who not only have to work out solutions but also have to convince patients who demand immunotherapy without being aware of its pros and cons, just because they have heard about its miracles.

But this shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that it is rouge role outperforms the benefits. There are success stories as well, and various research institutes around the world are leading the way. Who knows, it may even beat out conventional chemotherapy. But a reality check can help to keep things in place and create a balance between the trend and its potential. Immunotherapy surely has the potential to alter the landscape of cancer treatments and deserves all the praise and attention. It has a long way to go, but hope should keep alive for it can indeed change and save lives of millions of people who have cancer, a feat yet to accomplish.

Did you like that? Then check out The Taboo around Cancer in Women

The Hidden Culprit of Winter Smog- Temperature Inversion

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As the cold grips the city of Karachi and the rest of the country, everyone is concerned with the smog, but fewer are aware that an important phenomenon and one of the main reasons for smog is known as the “Temperature Inversion Layer”.

The inversions are stable air masses where the warm air overlays the excellent air mass. The more generous top layer creates a blanket over the more excellent air mass below, which seizes the vertical movement of the atmosphere by trapping the cool air mass underneath it, along with all the pollutants suspended in it.

This is precisely the opposite of the typical temperature profile. Hence the name “temperature inversion”. Earth’s atmosphere is divided into layers i.e., troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, exosphere, etc. These layers are divided based on their physical parameters, such as temperature and density. In each layer, these parameters change. Usually, the air temperature decreases with increasing height in the troposphere.

In the case of inversion, the temperature gradient behavior inverts i.e., the lower layers of air become cooler than the upper layers. 

thermal invasion

How is it formed?

One of the reasons for temperature inversion to form is when a warm, less dense air mass moves over the cooler and denser air mass. This traps the cool air below the warm air, creating an inversion layer.

Under normal conditions, the lower layers of the air in the troposphere are heated by the radiation emitting from the Earth. The heat then travels upwards via convection and increases the temperature of the upper layers of air in the troposphere. Temperature inversion can also form if the Earth cools rapidly via radiation. This usually occurs during the winter or at night. The air near the Earth’s surface cools along with it. The air above the surface layer does not cool as rapidly as the air near the surface, creating an inversion layer.

Conditions

There are a few conditions for this phenomenon to occur:

  • The first is the temperature. The winter season provides the necessary requirements to trigger an inversion event.
  • Similarly, the time of the day is another factor. The inversion layer occurs during sunrise when the ground has cooled off and starts cooling the air layer near the surface.
  • Strong winds help in the mixing of air masses. During calm weather, the air masses stay stable and do not mix. This increases the chances of an inversion layer occurring.
  • Similar to the wind effect, precipitation also helps in the mixing and moving of air masses. Lack of rainfall allows stable air masses to exist, contributing to the inversion layer events.
  • Additionally, the topography plays an important role in this. Cool air sinks at the bottom of the valleys and depressions, increasing the possibility of an inversion layer.
A depiction of how pollutants get trapped due to inversion. Credits: University of Missouri.
A depiction of how pollutants get trapped due to inversion. Credits: University of Missouri.

Types of Inversions

There are four kinds of inversions: ground, turbulence, subsidence, and frontal.

Ground Inversion: The air near the surface cools rapidly due to the cooling of the Earth’s surface. The upper layers remain warmer than the bottom layer. Additionally, if the temperature of the bottom layer reaches the dew point, fog will form.

Moreover, in hilly areas, the cool air sinks from the hill slopes toward the bottom, creating an inversion layer.

Turbulence Inversion: This occurs when a turbulent air mass is overlain by static or calm air mass. Turbulent air mass loses heat due to mixing, whereas the static air mass remains warm.

Subsidence Inversion: Due to high pressure, the air descends rapidly from a higher altitude and heats up due to compression. The air at the bottom remains cooler, hence creating an inversion layer.

Frontal Inversion: This type of inversion happens when a warm air mass overlays a cool air mass. The difference in their densities doesn’t allow mixing; therefore, the warm front, being less dense, wedges over the cool front.

frontal inversion
Frontal Inversion

The Problem

In normal circumstances, the vertical movement of the air persists, which allows the mixing and dispersion of the air. In the case of temperature inversion, warm air rises, trapping the cool air underneath it. This seizes the vertical motion of the air. This also traps the smoke and pollutants from escaping. These particles don’t move because the airflow is blocked. The particles then combine to become even more lethal, leaving behind persistent, dangerous smog.

In the northern hemisphere, inverse temperatures are more frequent in the winter. Additionally, burning wood or coal in homes for heat increases air pollution by releasing more dangerous contaminants into the atmosphere. Increased pollution combined with the inversion mechanism is the perfect recipe for respiratory diseases among people. Diseases such as sore throat, conjunctivitis, and lung irritation are a few common issues related to being in so much polluted air.

Understanding the Temperature Inversion Layer is crucial in addressing the air quality challenges that arise during winter. Efforts to mitigate pollution should consider these atmospheric intricacies. Whether it’s promoting cleaner energy sources, regulating industrial emissions, or fostering awareness about the impact of individual activities, acknowledging the role of temperature inversion is a vital step toward breathable and healthier urban environments.

As we navigate the winter season, it’s not just about bundling up against the cold; it’s about unraveling the layers of atmospheric complexities that impact our health and well-being. By unveiling the secrets behind temperature inversion, we can make informed decisions that contribute to cleaner air and a safer environment.

References:

Met Office

Read more: SUSTAINABILITY IN ASTRONOMY — A CONVERSATION WITH DR LEONARD BURTSCHER FROM “ASTRONOMERS FOR PLANET EARTH”

Cow burps heat up the Earth; Biotech company invents Bovine Beano

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Cows burp out Methane, which is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide among the greenhouse gases that heat up the world. A biotech startup, Lumen Bioscience, based in Seattle, has come forward with a solution to this problem. An enzyme—made of spirulina breaks down the microorganism responsible for reducing these emissions at a low cost.

Methane — a hot gas

Greenhouse gases help maintain the temperature of the Earth; they are a combination of carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapour. Methane is a greenhouse gas released during the breakdown of organic substances, for example, in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Researchers at Wageningen University have found Ruminants (cows, goats, sheep) to be a particular source of much methane.

Agriculture is also known to be the predominant source of methane. In fact, according to data from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, even as carbon dioxide emissions decelerated during the pandemic-related lockdowns of 2020, atmospheric methane shot up. Sustainable development has become a crucial step to combat global warming and reduce carbon footprints that heat the Earth. Companies are finding effective strategies to take part in this initiative.

Lumen to the Rescue

Lumen Biosciences, a biotech start-up based in Seattle, is dedicated to producing cost-effective and patented biologic drugs to cure gastrointestinal diseases in the human gut using spirulina. One such product is the study on bacteria C. difficile to treat recurrent infections in the human gut. 

This technique inspired the researcher at Lumen, Mark Heinnickel, who had grown up on a dairy farm, to realize that if the same basic approach targeted methane-producing bacteria, it might help cows’ climate problem. In an interview for Fast company, he said, “He realized if we can kill the C. difficile bacterium that causes human suffering, maybe we can make the same class of enzymes, feed it to cows, and stop methane,” this can in turn, potentially help reduce the greenhouse effects, as methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Credits: Lumen Biosciences. Mesfin Gewe, senior scientist at Lumen Bioscience, holds a dish filled with powdered spirulina cells, each with a therapeutic protein payload. To target methane gas, the spirulina will have been engineered to express the methanogen-targeting lysin protein. Once in the cow rumen, the protein will destroy the methanogen microbes.
Mesfin Gewe, senior scientist at Lumen Bioscience, holds a dish filled with powdered spirulina cells, each with a therapeutic protein payload. To target methane gas, the spirulina will have been engineered to express the methanogen-targeting lysin protein. Once in the cow rumen, the protein will destroy the methanogen microbes. Credits: Lumen Biosciences.

Spirulina is an edible algae that is considered to be a valuable tool in the making of biological medication if only it could be engineered. Researchers at Lumen Biosciences are the only company with successfully engineered spirulina and commercially produced viable, orally administered patent biologics at low cost. They have a large-scale manufacturing process contrary to traditional medication, which uses conventional methods like mammalian cells or injections, and they take pride in the efficacy and high yield of their product.

Other companies have suggested using seaweed supplements to treat the exact cause. Still, there are health and safety concerns regarding additives like bromoform, a potential carcinogen found in the plant, in addition to low yield and high costs. Using spirulina avoids such concerns as feeding the cows spirulina containing the enzyme does not in any way get absorbed in the cow’s bloodstream or milk.

While addressing the fast company, Lumens CEO Brian Finrow assured that the technology used and the enzyme lysin work like a sniper rifle that only targets harmful microbes. He also compared the product to Beano, an enzyme that humans take as a supplement to reduce gas.

Credits: Lumen Biosciences. The powdered spirulina can be pressed into a capsule or pelletized to be taken orally.
The powdered spirulina can be pressed into a capsule or pelletized to be taken orally. Credits: Lumen Biosciences.

Wilkes Center Climate Prize of $1.5M awarded to Lumen Biosciences

The University of Utah recognized Lumen for its groundbreaking proposal to significantly reduce methane emissions from cattle using a patented enzyme mixture. This innovative approach outshone 77 international competitors and holds the potential to revolutionize climate change mitigation efforts. 

Lumens CEO Brian Finrow and Chief Scientific Officer Jim Roberts founded Lumen with the vision of revolutionizing protein therapeutics manufacturing, enabling them to address global challenges that conventional biomanufacturing technologies cannot tackle. The recognition bestowed by the Wilkes Climate Prize at the University of Utah serves as a powerful affirmation of Lumen’s commitment to making a positive impact on the world.

William Anderegg (right), director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, awards the inaugural Wilkes Climate Prize at the University of Utah to Jim Roberts, chief scientific officer at Lumen Bioscience. Photo credit: Todd Anderson/University of Utah College of Science.
William Anderegg (right), director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, awards the inaugural Wilkes Climate Prize at the University of Utah to Jim Roberts, chief scientific officer at Lumen Bioscience. Photo credit: Todd Anderson/University of Utah College of Science.

It is important to note that these drugs are in the development phases and have promising lab results. Researchers at Lumen suggest one supplement a week for cows once all trials are successful. In an interview with Fast Company, Joseph McFadden, a professor of dairy cattle biology at Cornell University, said, “Clinical efficacy and safety trials are needed for that kind of technology.”

Lumen plans on launching the Rumen biosciences company if the drug trials on cows are thriving, along with approvals from the governments, for example, the FDA. Their patented enzyme mixture will target methane-producing microorganisms in the rumen, a specialized compartment of the cow’s digestive system. This groundbreaking technology, developed by Lumen’s highly skilled scientists, has the potential to mitigate cattle’s contribution to climate change significantly.

References

FAQ: What is the greenhouse effect? (n.d.). Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Retrieved 4 November 2023, from https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/19/what-is-the-greenhouse-effect

Lumen Bioscience wins historic $1.5M Wilkes Center Climate Prize—@theU. (n.d.). Retrieved 4 November 2023, from https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/wilkes-prize-winner/

Methane emissions are driving climate change. Here’s how to reduce them. (2021, August 20). UNEP. http://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/methane-emissions-are-driving-climate-change-heres-how-reduce-them

Muizelaar, W., Groot, M., Duinkerken, G. van, Peters, R., & Dijkstra, J. (2021). Safety and transfer study: Transfer of bromoform present in asparagopsis taxiformis to milk and urine of lactating dairy cows. Foods, 10(3), 584. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10030584

Peters, A. (2023, September 26). Cows burp out too much methane. This biotech startup is making a bovine Beano. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90957325/cow-burps-methane-biotech-startup-enzyme-bovine-beano

PPT – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) PowerPoint Presentation—ID:4766348. (n.d.). Retrieved 5 November 2023, from https://www.slideserve.com/morty/intergovernmental-panel-on-climate-change-ipcc

The Greenhouse Effect | Center for Science Education. (n.d.). Retrieved 4 November 2023, from https://scied.ucar.edu/learning-zone/how-climate-works/greenhouse-effect

Also Read: BREAKING THE ODDS IN FIELD EPIDEMIOLOGY IN PAKISTAN

Tales of Women Pioneers in Astronomy: From Aprons to Space

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Astronomy, like many fields of science, has historically been male-dominated. From the ancient stargazers of Greece to the renowned astronomers of the Renaissance, women were often relegated to the periphery and denied the opportunities to explore the cosmos. This was not due to a lack of talent or interest among women but rather the systematic barriers they faced in accessing education and pursuing scientific careers.

Before 1900, women interested in studying the stars needed a male relative (father, brother, or husband) to gain access. Even well into the 20th century, despite their significant intellectual abilities, women astronomers faced barriers preventing them from seizing opportunities. This was the reality faced by women who wanted to pursue a career in astronomy.

They were often excluded from educational opportunities, denied funding for their research, and passed over for promotions. Despite these challenges, many women persevered and made significant contributions to astronomy.

Maria Mitchell was one of the earliest women to break through these barriers. Her father encouraged her love of astronomy and helped her to build her own telescope. Mitchell made her first astronomical discovery in 1847 when she spotted a new comet, which made her an international celebrity.

The culture in astronomy and science, in general, has evolved since then. There has been a growing awareness to promote gender equality and inclusion in science. This movement has increased the number of women studying astronomy and a greater recognition of their contributions to the field.

Ekta Patel, a Miller postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley who studies satellite galaxies, says, “We don’t want to change ourselves to fit the mould.” Lia Medeiros, an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, agrees, “I enjoy being a girl. I’m going to be a girl all over their physics. This is my world, too.”

Let us embark on a journey as we appreciate the outstanding achievements of women astronomers who shattered gender norms, leaving an indelible mark on our comprehension of the cosmos.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Eventually, Cecilia became the first woman chair of the astronomy department at Harvard.
Eventually, Cecilia became the first woman chair of the astronomy department at Harvard.

She was starting with the inspiring story of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an American astrophysicist who proposed that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. In 1925, with her thesis entitled “Stellar Atmospheres,” she became the first to earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College of Harvard University. Her claims were contrary to prevailing beliefs, so her doctoral thesis was not taken well.

In those times, male astronomers dominated at the highest level; as a result, Payne-Gaposchkin faced a long struggle to gain recognition. She taught several astronomy courses, but her contribution went unlisted in the course catalogues, and they paid her as much as a technical assistant. Despite gender bias affecting her career, she remained persistent.

A few years after her Ph. D., independent researchers verified her research on the composition of stars. Eventually, Cecilia became the first woman chair of the astronomy department at Harvard. Even today, her thesis stands as the cornerstone of astrophysics textbooks, and her lifelong inspirational contributions continue to motivate generations of women to follow.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Leavitt established the basis for measuring distances in the universe.
Henrietta Leavitt established the basis for measuring distances in the universe.

Like Cecilia, Henrietta Leavitt worked as a ‘computer’ at the Harvard College Observatory to analyze the enormous volume of data the observatory collected. Women were hired as they accepted lower wages. Even college-educated women were paid like unskilled workers, at 25 to 50 cents an hour.

Battling all the gender discrimination, Leavitt went on to discover the properties of Cepheid variable stars that gave astronomers the first ‘standard candle’ to work with, a means to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. Today, as we map the night sky in extensive sky surveys, Henrietta Leavitt established the basis for measuring distances in the universe.

“I am proud of the work that I have done at NASA. I believe that I have made a real difference in astronomy. I hope my work will inspire other women to pursue careers in science.”

Nancy Grace Roman— The Mother of Hubble

She earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949, breaking barriers as one of the few women in her cohort.
She earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949, breaking barriers as one of the few women in her cohort.

Nancy Grace Roman was a visionary leader who paved the way for the Hubble telescope and beyond. Born on May 16, 1925, in Nashville, Tennessee, Nancy Grace Roman’s fascination with the night sky began at an early age. Encouraged by her parents, she pursued her love for astronomy and mathematics. Roman’s journey in a male-dominated field was marked by resilience and brilliance. She earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949, breaking barriers as one of the few women in her cohort.

In 1959, Roman joined NASA as the first chief of astronomy, where she played a vital role in the planning and development of the Hubble Space Telescope. In her own words, in an interview, she said, “I am proud of the work that I have done at NASA. I believe that I have made a real difference in astronomy. I hope my work will inspire other women to pursue careers in science.”

Katherine Johnson

Her career began in 1953 when she joined NASA, where she was a "computer" at Langley Research Center "when the computer wore a skirt," Katherine once said.
Her career began in 1953 when she joined NASA, where she was a “computer” at Langley Research Center “when the computer wore a skirt,” Katherine once said.

In the chronicles of space exploration, the name Katherine Johnson shines like a brilliant star. Her remarkable contributions to NASA, particularly during the Apollo program, remain an inspiring testament to the power of intellect, perseverance, and breaking down racial and gender barriers. Her career began in 1953 when she joined NASA, where she was a “computer” at Langley Research Center “when the computer wore a skirt,” Katherine once said.

She was involved in calculating trajectories for numerous space missions, most notably for John Glenn’s historic orbit of the Earth in 1962. Her precise calculations were crucial in ensuring Glenn’s safe return. Yet, her most monumental role was in the Apollo program, where her brilliance and expertise in plotting the spacecraft’s trajectory provided the safe arrival of the first human Moon landing.

Katherine Johnson’s contributions did not go unnoticed. Over the years, her groundbreaking work received the recognition it deserved. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, by President Barack Obama.

Vera C. Rubin

She received several profound awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.
She received several profound awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Vera Rubin stands as an iconic figure in the world of astrophysics. She led the revolutionary research, which offered the initial direct proof of the presence of Dark Matter, the enigmatic substance constituting most of the universe yet emitting neither energy nor light.

Unfortunately, all women astronomers in those times—those earning doctorates between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s—had the same stories of gender discrimination. Rubin’s early contributions were met with scepticism from her fellow colleagues in the field, to the extent that she was advised to stay away from science. She kept going anyway by telling herself she was just different from other people.

Ultimately, like many women astronomers, she gained recognition only through her significant contributions to the field. Her groundbreaking work on the rotation curves of galaxies played a crucial role in our understanding of galaxy formation and modern cosmology.

She received several profound awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Indeed, her contributions to science serve as a beacon of inspiration, especially for women, to pursue careers in astrophysics.

“The fact that I was a graduate student and a woman, together, demoted my standing in receiving a Nobel Prize.”

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

"Women should not have to do all of the adapting."
“Women should not have to do all of the adapting.”

As part of her doctoral research at Cambridge University, Jocelyn Burnell was responsible for operating a radio telescope with her adviser, Antony Hewish, and Sir Martin Ryle, where they observed strange pulsating signals coming from space. After careful investigation, she and her colleagues determined that these radio signals were emitted by a rapidly rotating neutron star, which became known as a pulsar.

Burnell was the second author of the paper announcing the discovery of pulsars, but she was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, which was jointly awarded to Hewish and Ryle in 1974. In later years, she finally said, “The fact that I was a graduate student and a woman, together, demoted my standing in receiving a Nobel Prize.”

Ekta Patel, a Miller postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley who studies satellite galaxies, says, “We don’t want to change ourselves to fit the mould.”

Despite this setback, Burnell continued her pioneering work in astrophysics and has received numerous awards and honours for her contributions to astronomy. She was named the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She has been a strong advocate for women in science as well. 2018, she was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth three million dollars (£2.3 million). She donated all the money to fund women’s scholarships and under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.

She inspires scientists and aspiring researchers worldwide, reminding us that groundbreaking discoveries can come from anyone, regardless of their background or gender. Her own words, “Women should not have to do all of the adapting. It is time for society to move towards women, not women towards society,” conveys a profound source of inspiration.

Andrea Ghez

Among the other four female Nobel Laureates in physics, Ghez is the only astronomer.
Among the other four female Nobel Laureates in physics, Ghez is the only astronomer.

Andrea Ghez’s journey in astrophysics began at a young age, inspired by her father’s love for astronomy. She pursued her passion by obtaining her Bachelor’s degree in Physics from MIT and eventually a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Princeton University. Ghez’s most notable contributions evolve around the study of black holes, particularly at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

Through years of meticulous observations and data analysis, Ghez and her team were able to provide compelling evidence for the existence of Sagittarius A*, a supermassive Black Hole at our galactic centre. It was a commendable work that led to her recognition within the community. In 2020, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing the honour with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel. Among the other four female Nobel Laureates in physics, Ghez is the only astronomer.

This implies that the remarkable accomplishments of these women, and many others, transformed the narrative around astronomy to incorporate “women” as an integral part, essentially merging “women” with “astronomy”.

The same spirit of scientific discovery is still alive today, as proven by scientists such as Sara Seager, who has been recognized as one of the most influential figures in modern astronomy by the Times, Popular Science, and Nature. In addition, the admirable work by Katherine Bouman in developing an algorithm for imaging black holes has been groundbreaking.

At the same time, Nergis Mavalvala, an astrophysicist of Pakistani origin, played a crucial role in detecting gravitational waves and currently holds the position of Dean at MIT’s School of Science.

These are just a few examples of the many scientists today who are pushing the boundaries of cultural norms and revolutionizing the field. Their stories inspire all who dream of pursuing a career in science. Even though we are seeing a positive trend in women involved in STEM, they often encounter a lack of appreciation and recognition, uncertain career pathways, and harassment.

Recognizing these challenges, the astronomy community has launched initiatives to honour women in STEM. Organizations like the International Astronomical Union and the American Astronomical Society have created committees promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Additionally, various awards like the Annie Jump Cannon Award in astronomy, the Women in Space Science Award from the Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium, and the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women in the field.

These stories are inspiring and remind us that with passion and determination, anything is possible. They also highlight the ongoing journey towards gender equality in science. We can keep moving towards a future where everyone has a chance to reach their goals. We should celebrate the achievements of women astronomers and encourage more women to join the field. It is a reminder that the sky is for everyone, regardless of gender.

References:

  • Hughes, A. M. (2014). The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey: Portrait of a Generation of Women in Astronomy. STATUS: A Report on Women in Astronomy, January 2014, 1-9.
  • Dickmann, N. (2017). Women scientists in astronomy and space. Gareth Stevens Publishing LLLP.
  • Finkbeiner, A. (2022). Women Are Creating a New Culture for Astronomy. Scientific American. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0422-32
  • Stevens, S. (2021). 10 Female Astronomers Everyone Should Know. Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/female-astronomers-everyone-should-know-4864074
  • Green, K. (2023, June 6). Journey to the stars: the personal stories of women in astronomy – Physics World. Physics World. https://physicsworld.com/a/journey-to-the-stars-the-personal-stories-of-women-in-astronomy/
  • Rubin, V. C. (2011). An interesting voyage. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 49, 1-28.

Also, Read: Review: ‘Hidden Figures

The Anthropologist- A fresh take on Cultural changes due to environmental degradation

“The Anthropologist,” a critically acclaimed documentary that offers a fresh viewpoint on the subject narrated by two female anthropologists. Released in June 2016, the documentary was directed by Daniel A. Miller, Seth Kramer, and Jeremy Newberger.

The documentary follows environmental Anthropologist Susie Crate and her teen daughter Katie as they travel the world doing fieldwork, with Mary Catherine Bateson with context and running commentary on her mother’s work and the role of the Anthropologist. The film is brightly colored, moves fast, and revolves around Susie and Katie’s journey from Virginia to Siberia, Kiribati, and Peru to investigate how climate change and culture interact. 

The Anthropologist is a profoundly human portrayal of a single mother who is a scientist and has a teenage daughter who grows while traveling to the world’s most remote places and faces the challenges of choosing a career path. It may have been overtaken by history, as is sometimes the case with documentaries, but it beautifully portrays the consequences of climate change worldwide, including in non-Western cultures.

The Anthropologist is a deeply human portrayal of a single mother field who is a scientist and her teenage daughter, and as they travel the world’s most remote places to research the consequences of climate change
The Anthropologist is a profoundly human portrayal of a single mother field who is a scientist and her teenage daughter. They travel to the world’s most remote places to research the consequences of climate change.

During the film, Katie develops from an eye-rolling 14-year-old to a thoughtful first-year college student. She travels to a Siberian town built on rapidly melting permafrost with her mother. She boards a boat to Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation where rising oceans have engulfed communities and coconut fields. In the Peruvian Andes, where she witnesses firsthand what’s left of glaciers that have retreated up the mountains, she experiences altitude sickness.

In Kiribati, there were several new characters like a farmer who, due to environmental changes, can no longer grow the puma’s claw potato; a woman who struggles to educate Kiribati people about climate change and their options as the sea level rises.

Katie Crate is stern, delightful, and watchful—a natural anthropologist who observes her professional anthropological mother while interviewing local people, assisting them with their everyday tasks, and rejoicing with them during social events in the usual participant-observation approach.

Despite dealing with such undeniably severe issues, the documentary doesn’t seem heavy loaded with jargon or complex ideas. The film’s lightness and openness may be its most valuable feature. The documentary does not frighten you with facts; instead, it connects at a personal level.

Several documentaries and movies have attempted to depict the severity, complexity, and truth of global warming. The majority of these films try to describe climate change in its fullness, frightening or shocking audiences with the magnitude of the problem. They have action-movie-style compositions and generally include powerful sequences of hurricanes, demolishing houses, and glaciers smashing into the sea. This documentary is a light take on cultural changes due to the eminent global warming.

The Anthropologist isn’t, in the end, a feature on how to deal with climate change. It’s also not meant to persuade us that climate change exists or instill urgency in our minds. It engages audiences with fascinating real-life stories about how climate change affects humans on the planet. By the ending, the audience is not startled when the daughter attends college and follows in her mother’s footsteps. It teaches us that we should believe, like her, that gathering and conveying the stories of people whose lives and cultures are being altered by climate change is critical.

Also Read: DEEPWATER HORIZON – A TRUE LIFE CATASTROPHE

Nepal’s Scientist Dr Dhimal Honors as International Science Council Fellow

In recognition of his contributions to environmental health and climate change research, Dr. Meghnath Dhimal, a Nepali scientist, has been appointed as one of the esteemed fellows of the International Science Council (ISC). The ISC, a global organization dedicated to advancing science as a global public good, selected Dr. Dhimal as part of a cohort of 100 outstanding scientists worldwide.

Dhimal's expertise is in environmental health, focusing on the critical relationship between climate change and health.
Dhimal’s expertise is in the critical relationship between climate change and health. PHOTO Dr Dhimal

Dr Dhimal’s appointment as an ISC Fellow is the highest honor upon an individual by the council, underscoring his significant impact on promoting science for the betterment of society. He has been working for over two decades in research and policy development related to environmental health, climate change, and their intersection with public well-being.

Currently serving as the Chief Research Officer at the Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC), Dr Dhimal has played a pivotal role in advancing scientific understanding in Nepal, Maldives, Timor-Leste, and Germany, where he served as a guest scientist. His expertise lies in environmental health, focusing on the critical relationship between climate change and health.

‘With the SDGs seriously off-track mid-way through Agenda 2030 and the world facing multiple existential threats, the collective efforts of the ISC Fellows and Members to see science used for the global good have never been more important,’ ISC mentioned in its press release.

Dr Dhimal has led many research projects on environmental and climate change, non-communicable diseases, neglected tropical diseases, and health systems research in Nepal. He has also contributed to drafting policies and plans in Nepal’s health, population, and environment sectors and internationally.

Recognizing his outstanding achievements, Dr Dhimal has received several awards, including the “Young Scientists Award of the Year 2015” by the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the “Outstanding Health Research Award 2018” from NHRC, and the “National Science, Technology, and Innovation Award of Health Sector 2022” from the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, Government of Nepal.

With over 300 technical reports and research articles published in international, peer-reviewed journals, Dr. Dhimal’s impact reaches far and wide. His collaborative efforts with various international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, UNDP, and others, have further solidified his role as a leading figure in the global scientific community.

Read more: Environment Conservation Journalism Award Nepal goes to Scientia’s contributor Gobinda

Sustainability in Astronomy — A conversation with Dr Leonard Burtscher from “Astronomers for Planet Earth”

Astronomy, for many centuries, has educated us about the wonders of the cosmos. From the first discovery of a supernova in Cassiopeia (a constellation) by Tycho Brahe to today’s powerful telescopes such as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) or the James Webb, humanity has made significant technological advancements within the realm of Astronomy. As this discipline has evolved into a global multi-billion dollar industry, questions have emerged about how to sustain excellent research while considering its environmental impact.

Climate change is the most pressing issue humanity faces today, it is the responsibility of the residents of this only known living planet to nurture and take care of our home. To avert the crisis, we all should play our roles, especially scientists in acting upon what is necessary for the environment and engage in proper advocacy for environmental sustainability, as responsible citizens.

A group of astronomers took matters into their own hands and estimated the carbon footprint of astronomical research on the climate of Earth. Hence, it became the starting point for the formation of an organization called ‘Astronomers for Planet Earth’ (A4E). A group where astronomers, using their unique astronomical perspective, mobilize researchers around the world to address the present climate crisis.

Here, we are happy to share our conversation with one of the founding members of A4E, Dr. Leonard Burtscher. He sheds light on the organization’s mission and the vital importance of understanding the carbon footprint of astronomy. 

Aly: Beginning with – could you share about your work and elaborate on your area of research as an astronomer?

Leo: I worked in astronomy for 15 years, during which time I completed my PhD in Infrared Interferometry.  Subsequently, I joined the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching at Munich, where I contributed to the development of the new instrument  GRAVITY, which led a role in winning the Nobel Prize for my research group leader three years ago. After that, I became a staff scientist at Leiden University, working on the new ELT instrument, METIS. METIS is a mid-infrared instrument designed to characterize Earth-like planets and study active galaxies, which has been my primary focus.

Dr. Leonard Burtscher

However, this is my past to some degree. Approximately one year ago, I switched the courses completely. I am now an energy and climate policy advisor at a small NGO, a non-governmental organization called the Umweltinstitut – The Munich Environmental Institute.

In the past three or four years, I realized that studying distant galaxies and dusty clouds around supermassive black holes, while fascinating, was no longer aligned with my interests. Therefore, I joined this activist group and essentially trying to reduce energy consumption in Germany, which is currently one of my main priorities.

Aly: Nice! Can you highlight what ‘Astronomers for Planet Earth’ A4E is all about, its mission, and how it came to be? I assume that it has an interesting story behind its formation.

Leo: A4E is now over four years old and stands as the only, and certainly the largest, grassroots organization in astronomy dedicated to sustainability. It was created simultaneously at two locations. The first group, predominantly centered in San Francisco and Yale University around individuals such as Adrienne Cool and Debra Fischer had long been part of the AAS Sustainability Committee for the American Astronomical Society.

The second group, based in Europe, coalesced a few months later and jointly called ourselves‚ ‘Astronomers for Planet Earth.’ They initiated discussions on the social media platform Twitter during the European Astronomical Society annual meeting in Lyon, France, in 2019 — an event marked by a heatwave. The University of Lyon, where the meeting took place, lacked air conditioning, so it was very hot in all the meeting rooms. Not as hot for Pakistani conditions, probably, but hot for European conditions

Some of us began to argue about whether astronomers were part of this problem with frequent flying and extensive use of supercomputing. That is when we said, okay, we need to look into that and improve it by recognizing the need to first reduce the carbon footprint of astronomy itself. Our conviction was grounded in the belief that taking personal action was a prerequisite for advocating change to others.

Therefore, from the beginning, A4E outlined a four-year plan with two central pillars. The first involved reducing the carbon footprint of astronomy research, and the second aimed at utilizing astronomy to communicate what they termed the “astronomical perspective.”

Pale Blue Dot - image taken by Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990. Astronomy
Pale Blue Dot – image taken by Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990.

This perspective was inspired by the iconic image from Voyager 1—the ‘pale blue dot,” where can see a tiny dot, representing Earth from far away out of our solar system, all that we have, as Carl Sagan so beautifully wrote.

“Hence, we see ourselves as the Climate Voice in Astronomy. But also, the Astronomy Voice in the Climate Movement.”  That’s how I would describe what A4E is and does. 

Aly: So, it is all about realizing and making astronomical research sustainable. Quite fascinating indeed. There is a very strong message visible from nearly all A4E campaigns “There is no PLANET B”. Certainly, it’s not just a catchy and attractive phrase, it’s actually the truth. Can you tell me more about how astronomers came to this realization and why you think it is important to emphasize?

Leo: Certainly, one of the statements we, as scientists, aim to affirm which is often shown at climate demonstrations is true, and it’s astronomical science that says this.

In recent years, astronomers have started to discover planets outside our solar system. Beginning with the discovery of ‘51 Pegasi b’, where the Nobel Prize was given to Michael Mayor and Didier Queloz in 2019. The Kepler mission further accelerated this revolution, revealing over 2600 exoplanets, and today, our knowledge extends to more than 5,500 planets outside our solar system. Some of these distant worlds bear similarities to Earth, with intriguing atmospheres that could potentially support life, including planets with oceans—a captivating prospect.

However, the story behind Planet B is that, even if you find another planet that’s just like Earth, there’s a catch, you have to be able to get there and for a scientist, it’s always very clear that this is impossible likely for centuries to come. Therefore, as scientists, we emphasize to the public that while exploring exoplanets is fascinating, it should not be viewed as an alternative to safeguarding our planet.

It is crucial to convey this message and use it as a powerful motivator for discussions on sustainability. The increasing fascination that people have with astronomy makes it an ideal catalyst for encouraging contemplation about our place in space and how unique Earth is. That is why the No Planet B story is such a good praise for astronomy.

Aly: Yes, you are right. I will say that the pandemic, on a positive note, was an eye-opener. It showed the astronomy community that online meetings are viable, leading to a significant reduction in flight emissions.

It is really important to understand the Carbon Footprint of Astronomy. Could you explain how big is the carbon footprint of astronomical research and how it is affecting our climate?

Leo: I will say that there are some caveats with computing accurate carbon footprints because that requires thorough research. While some researchers, including myself, have delved into this realm, it’s crucial to acknowledge that not all sources of emissions are always accounted for. What is relatively easy to compute is the emissions from flying to conferences. Knowing where people come from and which mode of travel they use, one can compute the emissions for a conference. 

Together with my colleagues, I conducted such calculations for the 2019 Meeting in Lyon and the 2020 online European Astronomical Society meetings. The important thing we found was that the difference in emissions between the in-person and online meetings was a factor of 3000. A single round-trip flight within Europe amounts to roughly one ton of emissions, with even higher footprints for those traveling from Asia, Australia, or the US.

However, even in this seemingly straightforward calculation, there are discussions surrounding the impact of airplane emissions, considering the radiative forcing index. C02 emissions released at high altitudes have different effects than C02 emissions on the ground. Additionally, planes have contrails that have effects that are not fully understood.

Expanding the analysis to the institute level involves accounting for emissions from heating, electricity, commuting, and possibly even food. Supercomputing also contributes to emissions, depending on the power source of the supercomputer.

In a comprehensive analysis catering to all the institutes in the Netherlands, we found that total emissions per staff researcher ranged from about 3 to 10 tons per year of CO2 equivalent emissions, including the radiative forcing index for flights.

A more recent study by Jürgen Knödlseder evaluated the carbon emissions of astronomical infrastructure, considering all the concrete and steel that is necessary. This analysis revealed the emissions were 37 tons of CO2 equivalent per year per astronomers (with quite some uncertainty due to the estimation method). Still, this is probably the single largest source of emissions for astronomy research. We should consider these emissions when discussing new astronomical infrastructure e.g., do we really need three extremely large telescopes or would two be sufficient if we focus a bit more on collaboration instead of competition perhaps?

We can see from these papers, that it’s a bit hard to pin it down to one number.

One of the earliest papers addressing the carbon footprint of research activities initially found a very high carbon footprint for research done in Australia, reflecting the country’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity production. Later the number was updated when their utility had switched to a cleaner form of energy and the carbon footprint was suddenly a lot smaller, although they use the same machines.

Breakdown of four sources of Australian astronomers’ emissions analysed in Stevens et al.

Therefore, it depends on the location and which sources and scopes of emissions you include. One of the widely accepted standards for carbon accounting is the greenhouse gas protocol. “The answer is complicated, but as a rough number, I would say something between 5 and 30 tons currently is probably the carbon footprint per astronomer per year, just for astronomy work!”

Aly: When you first started this initiative and went to the public, how did people react to this idea?

Leo: Among other astronomers, we had mostly positive reactions. When discussing our goals of measuring and reducing our carbon footprint and enhancing public communication, many expressed openness and acknowledged the importance of taking action. They eventually realized that we cannot go on and fly around like crazy and do nothing, we need to take active measures ourselves.

Unfortunately, some institutions, including professional societies, were not as open to embracing this change. They saw the difficulties in changing their meeting format. Sometimes they see financial challenges doing hybrid meetings, where they think they need to spend a lot of money to implement these, although much more economical ways of implementing hybrid meetings are available and have been tested successfully. The European Astronomical Society, for example, shifted back to in-person meetings, expressing a belief that online meetings alone may not align with participants’ preferences. The reactions, therefore, were a bit mixed.

Although, organizations like the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have taken steps toward sustainability by installing solar panels for telescopes in Chile. For another site, La Silla, they already had a photovoltaic plant for a couple of years now. However, they’re having a hard time being smart about flying for observations. While there have been improvements, the pace and extent of change have not met the rigorous standards advocated by A4E.

Astronomy report
The amount of climate change by the end of the century. (Source: IPCC Sixth Assessment Report)

Aly: Apart from the engaging videos I have seen, what other initiatives or projects have A4E undertaken to advocate the seriousness of the climate crisis? How one can approach spreading this message effectively?

Leo: Activities under the A4E umbrella, apart from these videos, several publications have been produced, including two special issues in Nature Astronomy. Ongoing work, led by Andrea Gokus, is delving into flight emissions of astronomers in 2019 on a global scale, analyzing correlations between emissions, conferences, and the wealth of the country, where the astronomers are from.

We also organize events at society meetings, collaborating with entities such as the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Sustainability Committee and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Special A4E-themed meetings have addressed astronomy and sustainability, featuring discussions with climate scientists, experts in light pollution, and representatives from telescope consortia sharing strategies to minimize emissions.

One of the biggest activities we initiated was an open letter to astronomy institutions and societies calling upon them to become active and to do whatever is in their power to reduce emissions. The letter gathered approximately 3,500 signatures within a few weeks, being quite successful.

More recently, A4E has engaged in localized outreach efforts, such as organizing an astronomical organ concert in Germany. This unique event combined the powerful experience of organ music with compelling videos from A4E, evoking emotional responses from attendees. Such events aim to convey the urgency of environmental stewardship and emphasize a positive narrative.

Our key focus is to shape a narrative around climate change that goes beyond scientific facts. Recognizing the need for adaptation, the organization advocates framing this change positively. The aim is to frame this narrative not as a loss of conveniences like flying or fashion but as an opportunity to protect the planet and still ensure a high quality of life for all. By sharing this story, A4E endeavors to inspire positive action and a collective commitment to environmental preservation. This is what we all should try to do.

Aly: As we wrap up our conversation, I would love to hear your advice for members of the astronomy community who are eager to spread this positive message about sustainability. What individual actions would you recommend to help tackle the climate crisis?

Leo: Quoting one of the climate communicators in the US, Katharine Hayhoe, who advocates for a climate positivity movement, emphasizes the importance of talking about the climate crisis. The idea is to ensure that individuals don’t feel isolated with their concerns but connect with others to collectively address the challenges. As an individual, you can very quickly get the impression that oh my god, there’s nothing I can do. While one person may feel limited in what they can achieve, the power lies in the collective effort of many individuals coming together. There are some positive examples of movements that started with something small, but with a group, they changed the world for something better.

This is the kind of hope that I would like to share with people that you’re not alone with this and this is also what A4E is for. We have a platform to foster this connection and maintain a network where people can share information, resources, and insights.  I believe that one of the most important aspects of A4E is that it helps people to feel not alone and tackle these huge problems as a collective team.

As individual astronomers, the best thing that we can do is to share the astronomical perspective, particularly the ‘Pale-Blue-Dot’ story. A4E encourages various creative ways to communicate this perspective, such as organizing astronomical organ concerts or hosting discussions during mountain hikes. The key is to incorporate elements that connect astronomy to the broader story of our place in the universe and the importance of protecting our planet. Whether through dance, music, traditional talks, or online meetings, the overarching message is to get people thinking about our place in the universe; about our place on Earth, and that it’s probably a good idea to protect this planet for a little while longer.

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