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Four awesome scientific ideas you should know about

2018-06-13 13:05

Founded by research scientists Michael Motskin and Praveen Paul in the UK in 2013, the Pint of Science festival is a platform for leaders in their field to present their groundbreaking work in a fun format. It’s a friendly environment for lovers of both science and beer. This year’s programme topics spanned mind, body, earth, tech, space and society.

Here are four interesting ideas audiences learnt about:

Idea: A space-junk cleaner

For his M.Phil thesis, Louis Wei-Yu Feng is prototyping a space debris-capturing mechanism

Louis Wei-Yu Feng is one scientist with his eye on the sky. Currently pursuing his master’s degree in Space Studies at the University of Cape Town , he’s among 14 recipients of the Emerging Space Leaders grant issued by the International Astranautica Federation last year. For his M.Phil thesis, he’s prototyping a space debris-capturing mechanism driven by shape-memory alloy called Medusa (Mechanism of Entrapment Debris Using Shape Memory Alloy) in response to the growing global need to manage the ever-increasing amount of space debris generated by colliding satellites, which threatens the possibility of long-term sustainability of space.

“The definition of space debris or space junk is any space object that doesn’t serve any use or purpose and is out of control,” says Feng.

Colliding space objects such as dead satellites, rocket stages, fragments of material and even paint particles create a chain reaction that can damage working satellites. Space agencies around the world are working on devising ways to minimise these collisions through post-mission disposal and active debris removal.

Feng says there are currently 47 000 trackable pieces of debris, defined as any object larger than 10cm. “That debris travels at approximately 6.5km/second, which is seven times the speed of a bullet,” he says.

When pieces of debris collide, they break into pieces, like projectiles, crashing into other pieces and creating more debris. It’s called the Kessler Syndrome.

“Basically, rubbish creates rubbish,” says Feng. “Active debris removal (what I do) happens when a space craft is sent into space to identify, get close to and capture an out-of-control satellite in order to remove it. They both then re-enter the atmosphere.”

Medusa is currently undergoing testing at the Institute for Space Systems in Stuttgart.

Idea: Why space governance is important

Pontsho Maruping, chair of the South African Council for Space Affairs as well as the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nation’s Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space

Pontsho Maruping, chair of the South African Council for Space Affairs as well as the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nation’s Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, shed some light on international governance of outer space.

The UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is the main body responsible for space governance. The legal framework is made up mainly of treaties such as the treaty on principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies (“the outer space treaty”). There are also voluntary instruments that various countries can use to improve governance at national level such as codes of conduct that deal with, for instance, nuclear power sources in space.

“South Africa is a signatory of the outer space treaty, which establishes how we must behave in space,” explains Maruping.

South Africa has a Space Affairs Act and Nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, which are managed through the trade and industry department. The South African National Space Agency, which was created to promote the use of space and cooperation in space-related activities while fostering research in space science, advancing scientific engineering through development of human capital and providing support to industrial development in space technologies, falls under the department of science and technology. The country’s national space policy is the responsibility of the trade and industry department.

“Key principles in the outer space treaty cover satellites for peaceful uses and protection of celestial bodies (the moon agreement). Nobody can occupy a celestial body and therefore prevent anybody else from exploring.

“The good news is apparently you can buy a piece of land on the moon. You can get 80000m² for $250 (about R3314), with a deed and a frame and sometimes even a sample of moon rock. Compare that with having to pay R35 million for 1700m² on the Atlantic Seaboard.”

Why should we care? It’s about collaboration for the benefit of humankind. “The space race started when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik1 satellite sent a signal from outer space more than 60 years ago. In 1975 that famous handshake in space between a Russian and an American astronaut showed the world that it’s better to collaborate than independently try and outdo each other,” says Maruping.

What has changed in past 60 years? There’s now a lot of activity relating to space mining and space tourism, explains Maruping. “In the beginning the main actors were governments – they had the financial muscle to build rockets and satellites, and launch them. Now the private sector launches more satellites than governments combined. There are concerns around peace and security that perhaps were not at the same level then as they are now.”

Idea: Stephen Hawking’s legacy is as important today

Dr Jonathan Shock discusses the legacy and impact of Stephen Hawkings’ research about the bizarre behaviour of black holes and our understanding of the very early universe

The basis for Dr Jonathan Shock’s talk was the legacy and impact of Stephen Hawkings’ research about the bizarre behaviour of black holes and our understanding of the very early universe. Shock is a senior lecturer in the department of mathematics and applied mathematics at UCT as well as a researcher in string theory. The work Hawking did on black holes has had extremely important implications for the development of string theory, Shock explains. “His results surrounding the thermal behaviour of black holes (particularly that they evaporate over time), and subsequently that information must somehow be encoded on their surface, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the holographic principle, which tells us how information in a volume of space can be encoded on the boundary,” he says.

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists were beginning to understand relativity and quantum mechanics, and they had no goal other than to try and understand them.

However, without their research, we would not have any of the modern electronic technology that we have now, Shock adds.

“Computers work with transistors, which work on the principles of quantum mechanics, and GPS satellites work only by taking into account Einstein’s theory of general relativity. So while there may be no further goal in mind now than to simply understand the universe to a deeper level, without studying these seemingly very abstract ideas we will not be able to make progress in the future.”

Idea: Quinine – shining new light on an ancient molecule/teaching old drugs new tricks

Dr John Woodland focused his talk on the success of quinine in the treatment of malaria

Dr John Woodland, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UCT, focused his talk on the success of quinine in the treatment of malaria.

Malaria is a devastating infectious disease that mainly affects the developing world. Quinine is a compound that was first isolated from the bark of the Cinchona tree centuries ago. It is the first effective treatment for malaria, and has many therapeutic properties. It is also used as a bittering agent in tonic water.

Part of Woodland’s research is studying quinine’s fluorescence. Under UV light, quinine glows blue.

“You can take advantage of the electromagnetic spectrum by developing special dyes that stain the nucleus of the cell, where all the genetic material is. This photophysical technique can be harnessed to see what’s happening inside cells using fluorescence imaging. I look at quinine’s fluorescence inside the malaria parasite, for example,” says Woodland.

Understanding how current antimalarial agents work and how they accumulate in parasitised human red blood cells, such as the fluorescent drug analogue in the below image, can inform the rational design of new antimalarial drugs.

“After having been used for almost 400 years, we still don’t understand exactly how it does what it does so well,” says Woodland.

“There’s a lot of exciting work happening at UCT looking at infectious disease and malaria drug development in particular. Investigators from UCT’s department of chemistry are able to generate new insights into the cellular localisation and targets of antimalarial drugs by labelling human red blood cells infected with the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, with a fluorescent drug (green).

Zambian chemist Prof Kelly Chibale who has built H3D, Africa’s first integrated drug discovery centre, at UCT already has a potential drug for malaria. He was nominated by Fortune 500 as one of its 50 greatest leaders.

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October 14 2018