Gender failings put half of science talent at risk

Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. Copyright:

Speed read

  • Liliam Álvarez Díaz is secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences
  • She authored the book Be a female scientist or die trying
  • She became interested in gender due to the imbalances she saw

CIf science fails to take advantage of girls who are graduating, it is wasting 50 per cent of the available talent, according to Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

She is a staunch defender of the value of so-called hard sciences in development and has a PhD in physical and mathematic sciences, and in 2016 published the book Be a female scientist or die trying. SciDev.Net asked her how to tackle some of the challenges faced by women in science today.

What was it like studying physics in Cuba in the 1970s?

When I climbed the steps of the University of Havana in 1968 and enrolled in physics, it was like a challenge. The second year I realised that I should have studied maths because I was doing much better in maths-related subjects. But, a diligent girl with a conservative spirit, I said: “I started physics, I’ll finish physics.”

What was the context? Were you the only woman?

No, there were other girls. Those years were very interesting. You enrolled in what you wanted. There were no entrance exams. There was a wonderful student residence. It was a great privilege. In the first class of physics, there were more than 100 students in a huge classroom. When we finished there were only 25 of us. At that time nobody talked about gender.

What is your research area about? How is it related to applied science?

In many spheres of science, many phenomena are modelled with mathematical equations. For example, how is the hurricane path calculated? With equations. How was the dome of the Sports City, in Havana, calculated? It was the work of civil engineers, with a mathematical model.

Calculations of differential equations are applied to meteorology, chemical kinetics. For example, if you inject a drug, how is it going to distribute inside the organism? That is kinetic, and it is a system of equations.

liliam alvarez en costa rica.JPG
Liliam Álvarez Díaz with colleagues from a recent Teaching Mathematics Symposium in Costa Rica..

What drew you to studying gender in science?

I got into gender issues in the 1990s because I observed that, not only in Cuba but in the world, there were very few women in physics or mathematics. I am not a gender expert, but I learned what gender is, that is a cultural definition, not given by biology.

I was always interested in the metaphors that experts in gender use, and I started to collect them. The first one: glass ceiling. Gender specialists explain it in a certain way but for me it is something all women face. Above is the power and below is us, and to get there we have to hit that glass ceiling.

What did you achieve in the eight years you worked as director of science?

We transformed national programmes, we opened institutes, which did not exist until then. We did a lot with schools, especially teachers, to promote science, because we realised that the creation of new generations of scientists in Cuba happens through the training of teachers.

We introduced science festivals. We were the pioneers in Cuba of something that already existed in the world: the experience of talking about science to the general public. We filled the Capitol with teachers talking about genomics, protons, and stem cells.

Despite Cuban statistics where women make up more than 50 per cent of parliamentarians, or 63 per cent of the science sector, there are still obstacles. What are they?

First, in general, in daily life. As I meet with my counterparts, scientists from other countries, I see that their daily life is not as difficult as ours.
Second, wages. The standard of living is a great obstacle, not only in your personal life, but as a role model for young girls. You’re competing with successful artists or singers.

What signs of discrimination do you see in the science sector?

They are not very open, but they exist. For example, I had a very pretty student who dressed in short skirts. My colleagues asked why this girl was studying maths instead of dancing at the [Havana cabaret club] Tropicana. That is discrimination.

UNESCO reports that only 35 per cent of people in STEM careers are women. How can this be reversed?

If science does not take advantage of those girls who are graduating, it is wasting 50 per cent of talent.
How can you influence this reality from an early age? You have to design strategies and policies. A Spanish teacher recently told me that she got her girls to write on the theme I do not want to be a princess; I want to be a quantum physicist. I give you this example because we need a strategy from the ministries and then from the media.

Another study just linked chronic fatigue syndrome to gut bacteria.

A new study has shown that people with chronic fatigue syndrome have abnormal levels of specific gut bacteria – providing even more evidence that the condition isn’t “just in a person’s head“.

For decades, millions of people have reported experiencing symptoms now associated with a condition called chronic fatigue syndrome – a debilitating disease that causes brain fog, severe pain, and exhaustion so extreme, patients can’t go about their daily lives, and sometimes can’t even get out of bed. But a physical cause has been elusive, leaving many feeling that their condition isn’t being taken seriously.

It was only in 2015 that the US Institute of Medicine detailed a comprehensive way to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS), and earlier this year, scientists linked the condition to faulty cell receptors in immune cells for the first time – which explains why the side effects can be so varied and hard to pin down.

But there are still no effective treatments for the disease, and no cure – some commonly prescribed treatments for the condition have been cognitive behavioural therapy and exercise, neither of which have any evidence to support they work, and could actually be doing more harm than good.

Now, new research has shown that patients with ME/CFS have abnormal levels of specific gut bacteria – and those levels change depending on the severity and type of symptoms they have.

“Individuals with ME/CFS have a distinct mix of gut bacteria and related metabolic disturbances that may influence the severity of their disease,” said one of the researchers, Dorottya Nagy-Szakal from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“By identifying the specific bacteria involved, we are one step closer to more accurate diagnosis and targeted therapies,” added lead researcher Ian Lipkin.

The study adds to research from last year, which showed that up to 80 percent of patients with ME/CFS could be accurately diagnosed by looking at their gut bacteria.


And it’s also known that up to 90 percent of ME/CFS patients have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), so the latest research began to untangle the specific gut bacteria changes associated with each condition.

The team followed 50 ME/CFS patients and 50 healthy controls, who had been carefully matched. They tested the number of bacterial species in faecal samples, and looked at the immune molecules in their blood.

They found that seven distinct intestinal bacterial species were strongly associated with ME/CFS, so much so that an elevated presence of all of them could predict a diagnosis.

The strains were:

  • Faecalibacterium
  • Roseburia
  • Dorea
  • Coprococcus
  • Clostridium
  • Ruminococcus
  • Coprobacillus

There were also specific changes seen in the gut bacteria of those who had chronic fatigue syndrome with IBS, and those who didn’t have IBS.

Interestingly, when the team measured bacterial metabolic pathways – the ways that bacteria break down food and send signals to the brain – there were clear differences between the healthy controls and the ME/CFS group.

There were also measurable differences depending on the severity of a patient’s symptoms, which suggests that are different subtypes of ME/CFS that could be identified.

While this study involved only a small sample size, with further verification, this could be the first step towards coming up with targeted ways to not only diagnose the debilitating disease, but also treat it.

“Our analysis suggests that we may be able to subtype patients with ME/CFS by analysing their fecal microbiome,” said one of the team, Brent L. Williams.

“Subtyping may provide clues to understanding differences in manifestations of disease.”

Early Clinical Trial Shows ‘Cancer Vaccines’ Can Protect Humans From Tumours 

Cancer comes in many different forms, and it is not unusual for diagnosed patients to endure multiple kinds of treatments before one that is effective against their particular form of cancer is found.

If it takes too long for doctors to find the right treatment, the consequences can be fatal.


The severity of cancer has fuelled physicians and scientists from all walks of life to explore any possible solution, including those that seem natural to those that may at times seem unconventional.

Well, researchers are now taking vaccines, which typically target viruses and bacteria, and reworking them to zero in on the patient’s specific cancer cells.

Physicians and scientists led by Catherine Wu at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston just presented their results of their new cancer therapy to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Washington, DC.

Their personalised vaccines have prevented early relapse in 12 patients with skin cancer, while also boosting patient immunity when combined with a cancer drug.

While earlier cancer vaccines targeted a singular cancer protein found ubiquitously among patients, these personalised vaccines contain neoantigens, which are mutated proteins specific to an individual patient’s tumour.

 These neoantigens are identified once a patient’s tumour is genomically sequenced, providing physicians with the information they need to pinpoint unique mutations.

Once a patient’s immune system is provided a dose of the tumour neoantigens, it can activate the patient’s T cells to attack cancer cells.

Unlike previous attempts towards cancer vaccines, which did not produce conclusive evidence in halting cancer growth, Wu’s team made their personal vaccine much more specific to each patient’s cancer, targeting about 20 neoantigens per patient.

The vaccines were injected under the patients’ skin for a period of five months and indicated no side effects and a strong T cell response.

All of Wu’s patients who were administered the personal vaccine are still cancer-free more than 2.5 years after the trial.

However, some patients with an advanced forms of cancer also needed an some extra punching power to fend off their diseases.

Two of Wu’s patients who did relapse were administered an immunotherapy drug, PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor, in addition to the personalised vaccine.

Working in conjunction with the enhanced T cell response from the vaccine, the drug makes it difficult for the tumour to evade the immune cells. The fusion of the two therapies eliminated the new tumours from both patients.

But we can’t get too excited yet. While these results are promising, the therapies are relatively new and require much more clinical testing.

Many physicians around the world are working together to test the potency of neoantigens in order to verify if the vaccine works better than current immunotherapy drugs over a sustainable period of time.

Personalised vaccines are costly and take months to create, a limiting factor in providing care to patients with progressing cancers.

Still, this study is an encouraging sign for many oncologists who are interested in using the immune system to fight cancer.

More than a million new patients are diagnosed with cancer each year in the U.S. alone, and even in situations where the cancer is treatable, the available chemotherapy agents themselves can be very toxic.

If proven safe and effective, this personalised cancer vaccine could give patients around the world hope for powerful treatment with fewer side effects.

The internet is freaking out over this spooky prediction by Carl Sagan about the future.

It’s disturbingly accurate.

 Back in 1995, everyone’s favourite astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, published a book called The Demon-Haunted World, which warned against the dangers of pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy, and encouraged its readers to learn critical and skeptical thinking.

Pretty standard stuff for a socially conscious scientist, but one passage in particular has been blowing up on Twitter this week, and it’s not hard to see why.

 Somehow, (we’re not saying time machine, but probably time machine) Sagan managed to predict the state of things as they are today – and it’s unnervingly accurate.

We’re talking the decline in manufacturing jobs; people feeling hopeless about politics; politicians refusing or unable to represent the public interest; and brilliant, revolutionary technologies that never seem to change the lives of anyone but the 1 percent.

The result? Sagan predicts people will opt for superstition and pseudoscience over reality – and even more concerning, he says the public will be intellectually incapable of distinguishing between what makes us feel good, and what’s actually true. Fake news, anyone?

Yep, this passage has got it all:

So did Sagan somehow know enough about society in 1995 that he could accurately predict what life would be like in a couple of generations, or are we all reading too much into it?

Oddly enough, the way we interpret this kind of prediction actually has a lot to do with how we interpret horoscopes – one of Sagan’s biggest bugbears.

 Horoscopes have nothing to do with reality, but they owe their enormous success to the fact that humans tend to see what they want to see.

So while we can be pessimistic about the future of society as a whole, humans are generally pretty optimistic about their individual future prospects – a concept known as optimism bias.

It’s actually an evolutionary survival tactic – and that’s something horoscopes directly tap into.

As Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist from University College London, explains for TIME:

“You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.”

Thanks to humanity’s optimism bias, you could show someone all the statistics related to divorce, cancer, and average lifespan, and more often than not, they’ll choose to believe that those negative experiences won’t happen to them.

So when we see horoscopes that tell us we’re going to meet our soulmate or get a big promotion this month, we choose to believe it, and don’t tend to go back and fact-check it – the horoscope has already done its job by making us feel good.

A similar thing goes on when we’re presented with a spookily accurate prediction of the future – part of the cognitive bias that’s wired into all humans is that we are drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs.

As Matt Novak points out over at Gizmodo: “[I]t’s important to remember that the ‘accuracy’ of predictions is often a Rorschach test. An interpretation of a particular prediction’s accuracy usually says a lot about the people interpreting them, and their own hopes or fears for the future.”

We also need to put these predictions into context, because once you read past the viral passage, you’ll see that Sagan is kinda trying to blame the state of things in the future on… Beavis and Butthead?

“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and DumberBeavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. The plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.”

How delighted Sagan would be to know that in 2016, more young people were watching David Attenborough than The X Factor. Mind-numbing television is actually the least of our problems right now.

But even with all that said, we do have to give props to Sagan for coming up with a really cracking prediction for the beginning of 2017. Let’s hope for better things to come in the months and years ahead.

From decapitation to consciousness: how one nerve connects body, brain, and mind 

What we learned from gruesome decapitation experiments.

The relationship between mind, brain, and body has kept philosophers and scientists busy for centuries. Some of the first interesting – albeit gruesome – experiments on the role of the body in human consciousness considered life after decapitation. The Conversation

In 1905, French physician Gabriel Beaurieux believed he had communicated with prisoner Henri Languille after his head had been severed from his body.

 Writing of the experience, Beaurieux said:

“I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.”

Almost two decades later, Soviet scientist Sergei Brukhonenko reportedly kept a dog’s severed head alive for nearly six months using a primitive heart-lung machine.

Video footage allegedly shows the head responding to light, sound and citric acid stimuli.

But while Brukhonenko’s research may have been an important in the development of cardiac surgery – it is more often regarded as faked Soviet-era propaganda.

Consciousness and non-physical properties

Investigations into human consciousness have moved on since these initial observations – though we haven’t got away from decapitation just yet. More recently, however, neuroscientists have questioned just how it is that physical matter comes together to make the mind.

In 1995, Francis Crick wrote in The Astonishing Hypothesis that we are nothing more than an “immensely complex collection of neurons”.

 This hypothesis is a form of reductive physicalism – a philosophical position to which modern neuroscience typically subscribes – that everything in existence is no more than its physical properties.

Again using animal decapitation, though this time with rats, neuroscientists have explored the question of how long brain activity is observed after death – a step forward from just consciousness.

In a 2011 experiment, it was reported that decapitated rats’ time to unconsciousness – defined by a decrease in cognitive activity of 50 percent – was 4 seconds.

The researchers also observed a very large and much later slow wave in brain activity. This was interpreted as what they called a “wave of death” – when all the brain’s neurons died at the same time – and perhaps, the ultimate border between life and death.

But some believe that the mind is more than just the sum of its physical brain cells. A contrasting position to physicalism is the dualist assumption that the physical and the mental are fundamentally different substances.

Furthermore, some philosophers and scientists have suggested that “information may be the key to consciousness“.

Consistent with this idea is integrated information theory, which accepts the existence of consciousness, but controversially implies that anything at all may be conscious – even a smartphone – if it possesses a sufficiently high “phi”: a measure of information in a system which cannot be reduced to that specified by its parts.

From psychological moments to mortality

While I have left out many important details in this fascinating discussion, better understanding the link between mind, brain and body has been the focus of my own research, in recent years through looking at the functions of the vagus nerve.

Higher vagus nerve function (measured and indexed by heart rate variability) supports a person’s capacity for emotion regulation, social engagement and cognitive function.

By contrast, impaired vagal function – and lower heart rate variability – may play a role in the onset of depression.

But the vagus nerve doesn’t just affect the mind. Higher levels of vagal function may lead to improved glucose regulation, reduced inflammation, and reduced risk of disease and death.

Vagal function is also known to play an important role in brain cognition. It helps to suppress irrelevant and interfering stimuli.

Studies have also suggested that the vagus nerve might play an important regulatory role over inflammatory processes, contributing to diabetesobesityand cardiovascular disease – all of which also impact on cognitive function.

However, little research has been done which looks at how the vagus nerve affects body and mind together.

That’s why I teamed up with colleagues to question whether previously reported relationships between vagal function and cognitive performance could be explained through a single neurological-psychological-physiological pathway.

Supporting this possibility, we observed that impairment in vagal function appears to increase insulin resistance, which contributes to a thickening of the carotid arteries, which in turn adversely impacts on cognitive function.

This means that low vagal function initiates a cascade of adverse downstream effects which subsequently lead to cognitive impairment.

While simple health behaviours – weight loss and exercise for example – may ‘short circuit’ adverse effects on brain function, more research into the causal pathways involved is still needed to discover just how the vagus nerve connects the body, brain and mind.

Our research is a first step into uncovering how the health of the body and mind can be affected by this one nerve.

But it is one step on a path that we hope will develop with our own research into “positive psychology” for people living with neurological disorders.

Watch the video. URL:

An Atmosphere Has Been Detected Around an Earth-Like Exoplanet for the First Time

Astronomers have detected an atmosphere around an Earth-like exoplanet called Gliese 1132b (GJ 1132b for short), which is located around 39 light-years away in the constellation Vela.

This is the first time atmosphere has ever been detected around a planet with a mass and radius so similar to Earth’s, and that makes it a hugely promising (and exciting) target for researchers searching for signs of extraterrestrial life.


“While this is not the detection of life on another planet, it’s an important step in the right direction: the detection of an atmosphere around the super-Earth GJ 1132b marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around an Earth-like planet other than Earth itself,” said lead researcher John Southworthfrom Keele University in the UK.

There’s still a lot to learn about GJ 1132b’s atmosphere, but early observations suggest it could be a “‘water world’ with an atmosphere of hot steam” – AKA, a pretty awesome place to go looking for life.

So far, we know that GJ 1132b has a mass about 1.6 times that of Earth’s, and has roughly 1.4 times its radius – which in terms of exoplanets makes it remarkably similar to our home planet.

But as with all exoplanet discoveries, the researchers are quick to remind the public that the observations to date still really don’t give us much insight into how similar GJ 1132b could be to Earth – or how habitable.

Some bad news upfront is it has an estimated surface temperature of 370 degrees Celsius (698 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it unlikely that it could host life like us.

And let’s not forget that we’ve recently been burned by the detection of the TRAPPIST-1 ‘sister solar system’ and neighbouring Earth-like planet Proxima b, both of which are unlikely to be the friendly places for life we first thought they were.

 But none of those planets had ever gotten as far as having an atmosphere detected, so GJ 1132b is already doing pretty well in terms of a spot that could potentially host life.

Right now, the top strategy for astronomers in the search for life on another planet is to detect the chemical composition of that planet’s atmosphere, looking for certain chemical imbalances that could hint at the presence of living organisms. For example, on Earth, the large amount of oxygen in our atmosphere is that ‘smoking gun’.

We’re a long way off having that much insight into GJ 1132b, but the fact that we’ve detected its atmosphere at all is a good first step.

The planet orbits the not-too-distant red dwarf star Gliese 1132, which Southworth and his team studied using the ESO/MPG telescope in Chile.

They measured the slight dip in brightness across seven wavelengths of light as GJ1132b passed in front of its host star every 1.6 Earth days, in order to get a better idea of the size and composition of the planet.

They were surprised to find that the planet appeared larger when observed in one type of infrared wavelength of light, which suggests that the planet has an atmosphere that’s opaque to these wavelengths.

The team went on to model different possible versions of this atmosphere, and found that an atmosphere rich in water and methane could explain what they were seeing.

Prior to this, the only exoplanets that researchers have detected atmospheres around were planets that were more than eight times more massive than Earth, and gas giants similar to Jupiter.

“With this research, we have taken the first tentative step into studying the atmospheres of smaller, Earth-like, planets,” said Southworth. “The planet is significantly hotter and a bit larger than Earth, so one possibility is that it is a ‘water world’ with an atmosphere of hot steam.”

The type of star GJ 1132b is orbiting also makes the planet of particular interest – its host star is a low-mass red dwarf, which are incredibly common throughout the Universe and are frequently found to host small, Earth-like planets.

But they’ve also been shown to be particularly active, often blasting huge solar flares out at their surrounding planets – something previous research has suggested would evaporate any traces of a planet’s atmosphere.

But the new discovery suggests that an atmosphere is possible of enduring this bombardment for billions of years without being destroyed – which opens up the possibility that thousands more planets orbiting low-mass stars could potentially harbour atmospheres.

“Given the huge number of very low-mass stars and planets, this could mean that the conditions suitable for life are common in the Universe,” a press release explains.

We still have a lot to learn about GJ 1132b, and hopefully we’ll have some more answers soon – the new discovery makes it one of the highest-priority targets to be studied by instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018.

Meditation and the psychedelic drug ayahuasca seem to change the brain in surprisingly similar ways.

At the end of a dark earthen trail in the Peruvian Amazon stands a round structure with a thatched roof that appears to glow from within.

In the Temple of the Way of Light, as it is known, indigenous healers called Onanya teach visitors about the therapeutic uses of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew that’s been used by locals for thousands of years.


Across the Atlantic, researchers in an ornate blue-tiled hospital in Barcelona, Spain are studying ayahuasca’s physical effects on the brain.

The teams in those two disparate locations approach the study of the psychedelic drug very differently, but researchers at each one are coming to similar conclusions about the way ayahuasca affects the mind.

Among volunteers who take ayahuasca for studies, scientists have documented a rise in certain key traits that mirror those of experienced meditators. These changes include increases in openness, optimism, and a particularly powerful ability known as decentering.

Amanda Feilding, the founder and director of the UK-based nonprofit Beckley Foundation, collaborates with scientists around the world to understand how psychedelic drugs affect the brain.

Feilding describes decentering as “the ability to objectively observe one’s thoughts and feelings without associating them with identity”.

Decentering might sound esoteric, but it’s one of the key aims of mindful meditation and is also a goal of successful depression treatments in some cases.

In volunteers who’ve taken ayahuasca as part of Beckley’s research, decentering has been linked with higher scores on questionnaires designed to measure well-being and happiness and lower scores on measurements of depressive or anxious thoughts and symptoms of grief.

“It’s interesting because even though our research out of Peru is based on surveys, while in Barcelona it’s based on more traditional scientific research, our results out of both places are showing an increase in these traits,” Feilding says.

“It seems patients are finally able to liberate themselves from the emotional pain they have long been suffering from. To calmly observe one’s thoughts and feelings in an objective way in order to become less judgemental and more self-accepting.”

Since the findings out of Peru are based on surveys, they can’t prove that ayahuasca caused the reduction in symptoms of depression and grief – only that there’s a connection between the two.

But in Spain, as part of a collaboration between Beckley and Sant Pau hospital, neurologist Jordi Riba is looking at the brain activity in depressed volunteers who are given ayahuasca.

His findings indicate that in addition to people simply reporting that they feel more decentered and less depressed after taking ayahuasca, there is a corresponding neurological change in their brain activity.

One small study of 17 depressed volunteers who took ayahuasca saw a decrease in activity in areas of the brain that tend to be overactive in conditions like depression and anxiety.

And a new study of regular ayahuasca users suggests a physical shrinking in these parts of the brain, though that work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

These findings are bolstered by other research on the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics. Studies out of New York University and Johns Hopkins suggest that the psychedelic drug psilocybin – the ingredient in magic mushrooms – elicits similar effects among depressed people.

“With the psilocybin, you get an appreciation – it’s out of time – of well-being, of simply being alive and a witness to life and to everything and to the mystery itself,” Clark Martin, a patient who participated in one of the Johns Hopkins trials, previously told Business Insider of his experience.

David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London, has been working with Feilding, and says the brains of people with depression or addiction get locked into patterns of thinking driven by the brain’s control centre.

“Psychedelics disrupt that process so people can escape,” he says.

This New Smartphone Screen Material Can Repair Its Own Scratches.

If you drop your phone and the screen shatters, you usually have two options: get it repaired or replace the phone entirely.

Chemists at the University of California, Riverside, have invented what could become a third option: a phone screen material that can heal itself.


The researchers conducted several tests on the material, including its ability to repair itself from cuts and scratches.

After they tore the material in half, it automatically stitched itself back together in under 24 hours, Chao Wang, a chemist leading the self-healing material research, tells Business Insider.

The material, which can stretch to 50 times its original size, is made of a stretchable polymer and an ionic salt.

It features a special type of bond called an ion-dipole interaction, which is a force between charged ions and polar molecules. This means that when the material breaks or has a scratch, the ions and molecules attract to each other to heal the material.

This is the first time scientists have created a self-healing material that can conduct electricity, making it especially useful for use for cell phone screens and batteries, Wang says.

material heals after being cut

Some LG phones, like the G Flex, already include a similar material on its back covers that can self-heal scratches. But this material can’t conduct electricity, so manufacturers can’t use it for screens.

Most phone screens have a grid of electrodes underneath, and when you touch it, your finger (which is also conductive) completes a circuit, telling the phone what to do.

 Wang predicts that this new self-healing material will be used for phone screens and batteries by 2020.

The team will present its research at an April 4 meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific organisation devoted to the study of chemistry.

“Self-healing materials may seem far away for real application, but I believe they will come out very soon with cell phones. Within three years, more self-healing products will go to market and change our everyday life,” he says.

“It will make our cell phones achieve much better performance than what they can achieve right now.”

Bad news, humans: TRAPPIST-1 is not the alien paradise we were hoping for – ScienceAlert

Our newly discovered ‘sister solar system’ – a seven-planet conga line orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1 – has been hailed as a potentially habitable pocket of the Universe, flush with liquid water and temperate climates, and only 39 light-years away.

But the closer we look, the less ‘alien-friendly’ this star system appears, with scientists now finding that TRAPPIST-1 is so volatile, either its three ‘Earth-like’ planets have one hell of a magnetosphere, or we’re looking at yet another set of uninhabitable worlds.


A team led by astronomer Krisztián Vida from Konkoly Observatory in Hungary has been analysing luminosity patterns in the raw photometric data of TRAPPIST-1, obtained during the K2 mission of NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

Over an 80-day period, they clocked 42 high-energy flares blasting from TRAPPIST-1, including five that were ‘multi-peaked’ eruptions, meaning they gave off several bursts of energy in one go.

The strongest eruption the team identified was about as powerful as the largest flare we’ve ever witnessed from our own Sun – the infamous Carrington Event of 1859, which if it happened today, would devastate global communication systems.

At the time, the flare sent electrical surges through telegraph lines, and gave rise to aurorae so bright, they woke up gold miners in the Rocky Mountains, fooling them into thinking it was morning.

But if life on Earth can withstand flares like the Carrington Event, why can’t hypothetical aliens on TRAPPIST-1’s three Earth-like planets?

The first thing to consider is that the average time between these flares was just 28 hours, so we’re talking serious and near-constant bombardment here.

 And the researchers go so far as to say the solar storms caused by TRAPPIST-1 ‘s flares would be hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than the storms that hit Earth.

According to a separate study released last year, it would take 30,000 years for a planet’s atmosphere to stablise after one of these powerful flares – so they’re not getting much done in just 28 hours.

On top of all of that, the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 star system are much closer to their star than we are to our Sun.

That means this relentless bombardment would likely destroy any stability in their atmospheres, making it very difficult for even the most primitive life to get a foothold.

“The frequent strong flares of TRAPPIST-1 are probably disadvantageous for hosting life on the orbiting exoplanets, as the atmospheres of the exoplanets are constantly altered and cannot return to a steady state,” the team concludes.

Just to drive this depressing point home even further, Evan Gough over at Universe Today points out that Earth’s robust magnetic field protects us from the worst parts of the Sun’s flares, but it’s unlikely the TRAPPIST-1 planets have the same shield up.

This study suggests that planets like those in the TRAPPIST system would need magnetospheres of tens to hundreds of Gauss, whereas Earth’s magnetosphere is only about 0.5 Gauss,” says Gough.

“How could the TRAPPIST planets produce a magnetosphere powerful enough to protect their atmosphere?”

So things aren’t looking so great for our sister solar system.

And while we’ve pretty much gotten used to the emotional roller coaster that is the search for life elsewhere in the Universe, this is a tough one, because remember that Google Doodle of our new planet friends?


They just look like such a cool hang.

One thing to keep in mind is that the study is still undergoing peer-review, so the results might be subject to change.

But if taken alongside previous studies that have already brought the system’s habitability into question, we might have to reconsider those awesome NASA travel posters, and come up with something more… Hellscapey.

Confirmed: Those mysterious radio bursts really are coming from outer space.

For almost a decade now, scientists have been trying to decode the origin of some of the most mysterious and explosive signals in the Universe – fast radio bursts (FRBs).

Lasting only milliseconds, these bursts of energy are about a billion times more luminous than anything we’ve ever seen in our own galaxy, and seem to be travelling across vast distances. But despite having detected more than 20 of them, scientists still aren’t sure where they’re coming from, or what causes them. Now researchers are one step closer by ruling out any source on Earth.


There are still several hypotheses out there that need to be ruled out before we can say for sure where FRBs do come from – perhaps the most bizarre one put forward by Harvard scientists last month is that the FRBs could actually be alien signals.

But the fact that we now know the answer lies in space is a big deal. It might sound obvious, but let’s not forget that back in 1998, researchers thought they had discovered a new type of radio signal coming from space, only to figure out 17 years later that it was coming from a microwave oven in their research facility.

The reason the origin of these radio signals is so hard to nail down is that we often find them using single-dish radio telescopes, which can ‘hear’ a lot without providing much perspective on where it’s coming from.

“Conventional single dish radio telescopes have difficulty establishing that transmissions originate beyond the Earth’s atmosphere,” said one of the researchers on the latest study, Chris Flynn from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

To overcome this problem and rule out terrestrial interference as the source of FRBs once and for all, the researchers used the Molonglo telescope in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which has a collecting area of around 18,000 square metres (194,000 square feet).

This huge collection area means the telescope is ideal for picking up FRBs, but back in 2013, the team also realised that because of its architecture, it’s not possible for it to detect any signals coming from within our atmosphere.

 So the team set about hunting through Molonglo’s data to see if they could find any traces of FRBs – seeing as the telescope produces more than 1,000 TB of data each day, that’s no easy feat. The idea was that if the telescope had detected the signals, then they must be coming from outer space.

Eventually, they uncovered three new FRB signals in the telescope’s data, which matched perfect with the signals we’ve picked up before – indicating that they couldn’t possibly be coming from Earth.

Their conclusions back up findings from earlier this year, when researchers were able to pinpoint the source of a FRB to a tiny dwarf galaxy more than 3 billion light-years from Earth.

But for now, the sources of the three newly detected FRBs remain relatively mysterious, except for the fact that they’re not of this world – the data suggest they’re coming from the direction of the constellations Puppis and Hydra (signified by the three red stars below):

Mongolo FRB LSJames 

The Molonglo telescope is now being updated with the hope that it might be able to provide some more insight in future – hopefully even going as far as pinpointing specific galactic origins.

“Figuring out where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them. Only one burst has been linked to a specific galaxy,” said lead researcher Manisha Caleb.

“We expect Molonglo will do this for many more bursts.”

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