Scientific News (November 2017)

Measuring up

The measurement systems that we take for granted are about to receive a long overdue overhaul. The original metric system was first created in France following the French Revolution in 1789. When first introduced, it had only two standard units, these being the kilogram and the metre. It was during the 1860’s that James Clerk Maxwell and William Thomson (also known as Lord Kelvin) developed a new system with three base units – known as length, mass and time.

Scientific experiments involving electricity and magnetism led to the realisation that other units of measurement were required and needed to be introduced, as many confusing versions of the metric system were created during the middle of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t until 1954, at the 9th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) that the first version of the International System of Units (known as SI Units) was introduced. The naming of the now six base units were revealed as the Metre, Kilogram, Second, Ampere, Kelvin and Candela. It wasn’t until 1971, when the 7th base unit was introduced as the Mole.

The SI is used almost everywhere around the globe – even so, a major revamp of four of the basic units are about to be revealed. The Ampere, the Kilogram, the Kelvin and the Mole will be measured using fundamental constants instead of using abstract or arbitrary characterisations. For example, the measurement taken for the Ampere will be based upon the charge of an electron.

The redefined method will not affect measurements taken on an everyday basis. It will however give scientists who seek the highest levels of precision and accuracy the ability to utilise this at any given time, location, and scale without losing defined accuracies.

Measurements taken using today’s conventional scales are deemed insufficient for the changes to modern science and measuring at high levels. The new redefined measurements will aid scientists moving forward with their findings.

The new plans were revealed in Paris during October, prior to the next General Conference on Weights and Measures this month. The changes will take effect in May 2019.


Interstellar visitor

Travelling at a speed of just over 40 kilometres per second, astronomers have witnessed an asteroid, currently known as A/2017 U1 racing through the Earth’s solar system. Reports show that it’s size is just that of half-kilometer in diameter. It is believed that the object has originated from another solar system, and is moving faster than any man made space probes currently in orbit.

Due to the significance of the object, the first of this type ever to be found, no official rules have become apparent in regard to giving the object an official name. Astrologers who discovered the object have held back with suggestions other than “Interstellar”.

Teams of astronomers have rushed to their observatories to view the object before its full view ceases and disappears into the abyss of interstellar space.

Karen Meech, from the University of Hawaii described the object as, “Something that was tossed out of another star system”.

Astronomers from Chile and Hawaii are continuing their investigations hurriedly in order to conclude their findings. From the object’s exact size (measurements have been taken from its brightness), its shape and the rate of spin (where measurements are taken on the fluctuation of it’s brightness). Identification of the object’s composition and more intense measurements will be sought from spectral analysis of the object (the subtler details of the emitted and absorbed light, which indicates which elements are present in it’s make up).

The final conclusions to all the measurements taken will be used to establish what kind of object it is, defining whether it is rock or ice. The data received may also give astronomers an idea of where the object originated from.

Meech believes that the object has been expelled from another star system, and described the objects movements as “A space rock flung out during the star’s turbulence when it was surrounded by freshly formed giant planets embedded in a disk of debris”. It is believe to have gone interstellar when a planet could have been disturbed by an impact, and it is thought that the object has been ejected and left to wander into our solar system.

Upon analysis of the findings, A/2017 U1 as it is officially classified, appears to have come from a constellation of stars called Lyra. The object is coming in fast from the ecliptic plane, in an elongated orbit that houses our sun’s planets whilst moving at an impressive 25 kilometers per second.

When making the calculations, the flight path of the object has taken it 25 times farther than Pluto was back  in 1837, crossing the orbit of Neptune during November 2012, then plunging towards the sun. On September 9th the object was captured by Earth’s sun’s gravitational pull, A/2017 U1, and then within 40 million kilometres of the sun, fell within Mercury’s orbit prior to rebounding up and exiting the solar system via the ecliptic plane towards the constellation Pegasus at a speed of 44 kilometers per second. On October 14th, the object appeared less than 25 million kilometres from Earth (approximately 60 times the distance between the Earth and the moon).

When the objects distance to the sun increased, less sunlight appeared on the surface forcing the brightness of A/2017 U1 to fade. The glow has been reported at diminishing to the size of Pluto’s small moons. It is felt that by the end of November, even the world’s strongest ground based telescopes will struggle to view the object, as will space based laboratories such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

During a recent interview, Meech explained that the window to discover the object fully lasted between 1 – 2 weeks, and that the speed the object was moving made the object difficult to detect, and that it appears that the detection was more by luck than judgement.

Improvements are already in place to revolutionise the field of “transient” astronomy. A ‘Large Synoptic Survey Telescope’ (LSST) is set to be completed and in use by 2020. This new telescope will study objects that move rapidly and change shape throughout the night sky. It will be aimed at exploding stars, spinning asteroids and comets, as well as anything else it picks up within its range.

It is unsure what the LSST will discover, but astronomers believe that further objects like A/2017 U1 will be detected, and precise conclusions can be made as to where they originated from and what they are made of.


Magic Mushrooms anyone?

Scientists have discovered that mushrooms could be the secret to slowing down the ageing process, which in turn might delay the early onset of Alzheimers, or in some cases even prevent it according to their ground breaking research.

Pennsylvania State University studies have revealed that by consuming high amounts of edible fungi rich in specific antioxidants may contain and generate anti-ageing effects on the brain. The studies have been revealed following the investigations into anti-agapic properties found within mushrooms that was part of a dementia study.

Researchers were keen to discover two rich antioxidants (compounds that prevent or stop cell damage) that mushrooms contained. Ergothioneine (a naturally occurring amino acid and a thiourea derivative of Histidine, containing Sulphur atoms on the Imidazole ring) and Glutathione (an important antioxidant found in plants, animals and fungi).

It was within a study by the University of Malaysia, published in January this year, that it was revealed that certain types of fungi contained compounds that could be used to protect and fight against inflammation, that could promote nerve growth to the brain, therefore combating conditions like dementia. The new study shows how researchers have further explored the use of the antioxidants found in mushrooms and how they can assist with neurodegenerative illnesses.

Studies undertaken by Robert Beelman, Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Director of the Penn State Centre for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health, linked levels of the antioxidants and the levels of dementia and Parkinsons Disease across the globe. He outlined that across, the Mediterrean, higher levels of Ergothioneine were consumed, and lower numbers of patients were admitted or diagnosed with neurodegenerative illnesses. Thnis was compared to a study in the USA, where the consumption of Ergothioneine was particularly lower, therefore higher numbers of illnesses related to neurodegenerative conditions were recorded.

Other foods containing both antioxidants are liver, black beans, egg yolk and oat bran, but mushrooms it appears have been deemed to have highest source. The theory behind the findings are based on “free radical theory of ageing” – a theory that has been known for many years, and is concerned with the oxidisation of foodstuffs to produce energy. During the process, these free radicals are produced, and in fact,many of these can be quite toxic. A body has the mechanisms to control the majority of free radicals, including Ergothioneine and Glutathione. However, high exposure to these can slowly accrue damage to human tissues – this damage is linked to many diseases like cancer, coronary heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Consuming high levels of mushroom based antioxidants could therefore be a crucial way of cleansing the body.

Out of 13 species of mushroom studied, it has been revealed that the Porcini mushroom possessed the largest quantity of the two key antioxidants. Other species of mushroom were tested, including the White Button Mushroom. Although it contained more than other food, it still held the least quantity of the antioxidants. Heat does not affect the levels of antioxidant, so whether they are consumed raw or cooked, it makes no difference to the levels contained. Research by scientists continues.


It’s the end of the world as we know it…no it’s not…

If you’re wondering why, on 16th October, the sky went a dark red colour, the sun went a blood red colour, the sky was littered with red clouds and a strange orange hue, then blame Hurricane Ophelia. It was the start of an oncoming storm many thought, but no, it was a harmless but nethertheless unusual phenomenon seen from the West Coast of the country, stretching right up to the Cumbrian Fells and across towards the East Coast of the United Kingdom.

Thousands upon thousands of photographs appeared on social media, street lights were forced to turn on in the middle of the afternoon as dust particles from the Sahara Desert, combined with high altitude ash blown into the upper atmosphere from the Spanish and Portugese forest fires blanched and eventually blocked out the natural sunlight, turning the skies to a hazy orange whilst the sun displayed an angry red hue.

© Copyright Roger Jones and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Roger Jones and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The Met Office reported that the light from the sun was then reflected and refracted through the fine particles into longer wavelengths, enhancing the colour and giving it a red presence in the sky. The winds that had been created from Hurricane Ophelia, which at the time was inbound towards north towards Ireland from the Azores, was drawing dust already airborne from the Sahara, which then dragged that dust higher from the tropical air high into the upper atmosphere along with the airborne ash from the Iberian peninsular.

Ophelia drew warm winds from North Africa and Spain which then brought in warm winds to the UK, and temperatures reached over 22°C in some places across the weekend and early half od the week. Although Ophelia bought us unusual coloured skies and unseasonably warm temperatures, other European countries were not so lucky. The huge forest fires that swept across Portugal and Western Central Spain cost at least nine human lives, and killed large numbers of plants and wildlife.  The Met Office confirmed that the air was not polluted, and it is safe to breathe due to the height of the particles in the atmosphere.


Scientific News (October 2017)

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