Great scientific mysteries: the researchers puzzle it out

From freak waves to gut bugs, Irish scientists are working to crack some of the imponderables in life

 

Science is about asking questions, and then by figuring out answers we can solve some of life’s great mysteries and problems. Some of the questions Irish scientists are addressing include:

How can we make the internet work faster?

As more and more people transfer more and more information using the internet, the fibre optic cables that carry the information are getting choked up, but a group of scientists in Cork is on the case.

“The internet is under quite a bit of strain at the moment, and the demand for moving information along the fibre optic cables that link regions of the world is growing all the time,” explains Prof Paul Townsend, director of the Irish Photonic Integration Centre, Tyndall National Institute, Cork, who is using light-based technology to make more information flow along the cables.

“We make miniature devices that use lasers to generate light and super-fast ‘modulators’ that add data to the light. This ensures the information can move more efficiently in these fibres,” he says. “That flow needs to grow by about a factor of 10 times over the next five years without using more energy, and our research will help to reach those goals and allow the growth of social networks and cloud computing networks.”

How can we help people with Parkinson’s disease control their movements?

This can mean the person’s muscles tremble when they don’t want them to, their hands shake and they have trouble “telling” their legs to start walking. Doctors can help people with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders to control their bodies better by implanting a small device inside their brains. Called “deep brain stimulation”, it stimulates cells of the brain involved in movement. If the device is switched off, the person has tremors and can’t sit still. Switch it on and the person suddenly has control of their movement.

Dr Madeleine Lowery, University College Dublin, is looking at how we can make these implanted devices work even better. How? She uses maths to “model” how the implanted electrodes interact with the brain and she hopes it will lead to smarter technology.

“At the moment the electrode is either on or off, but by understanding better how the electrodes work in the brain we could hopefully inform the design of ‘smart’ systems,” she explains. “They could detect when the voltage at the electrode needs to ramp up a bit, or when it can be turned down, and ultimately this would mean the device works more in tune with what the patient needs.”

Can we predict freak waves?

Further out to sea though, extremely big waves can be a hazard for boats and ships. Most of the time we can get a forecast saying when the waves are going to be really strong and ships can avoid the area. Or if an earthquake happens under the ocean we know it can cause a huge wave called a tsunami, and hopefully take action in time to protect people nearby.

But rarely a “freak wave” can seemingly come out of nowhere. These rogue waves can be the height of five double-decker buses; they arise in deep water and they can pose a threat to ships and nearby shores.

Dr Fréderic Dias at University College Dublin is using sensors and maths to find out what conditions allow these sudden waves to appear and help to improve prediction. Knowing more about these rogue waves will also be important for people who build and run tidal and wave energy stations in the future, because they would know in advance to protect their machines.

Could we grow someone a replacement knee?

Dr Daniel Kelly is a tissue engineerwhere he works at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute and his goal is to grow people new knees to replace damaged or worn ones, but this is an extremely complex thing to do. First, he needs to understand how the different tissues in the knee normally grow and interact, and then he needs to figure out how to keep those tissues happy as they grow in the lab.

Already though, he has been able to take stem cells out of fat in the knee, put the cells on a scaffold in the lab and use them to grow tissue called cartilage, which is crucial for the leg joint to be able to work without hurting.

There’s a way to go before being able to build a fully functional knee in the lab, but it could ultimately mean that a knee (or hip) containing bone and cartilage could be grown to order outside the body so it can fit neatly back into the patient.

How can we keep our gut bugs healthy?

TeagascUniversity College Cork

They recently found older people who eat a lot of different foods rather than eating the same thing every day tended to have more types of bacteria living in their guts, and they were healthier too.

The science on how this works is still very new, and research is looking more deeply into the specific foods that are good for your gut bugs. The best advice so far is to try to eat a variety of vegetables, fruit and unprocessed foods to keep those bugs in your tummy happy.

How can we keep our personal information safe?

One way to protect information that is going between one point and another is to encrypt it, which means taking the information from the sender and using a mathematical key to transform the information into unreadable code. The receiver uses the key to unlock the information again, and hopefully no one can crack the code in between.

Prof Gary McGuire at University College Dublin is using complex maths to develop new keys that can handle the tough encryption needed to hide information but that can also be quickly decoded by the receiver so they are not waiting a long time for the message. “We have discovered new ways to calculate these keys on a curve,” he explains. “This allows for complication, which helps to stop eavesdroppers or hackers figuring it out, but it also means the data can be unencrypted quickly too by the receiver who has the right key.”

How can a kitchen blender, some soap and a rubber band help improve our lives?

Prof Jonathan ColemanTrinity College Dublin

He worked out how to make flakes of a really thin, strong and light form of carbon called graphene – the breakthrough used a kitchen blender and washing up liquid to turn cheap graphite (the lead in your pencil) into billions of flakes of graphene, which is normally expensive to make.

Coleman has since made flakes of other nanomaterials too, and he is using their super-flat structures and energy-storage properties to build batteries that last longer and work better. Being able to make these wonder materials cheaply means they can be mixed into plastics to make them stronger and lighter, and save money on fuel used to transport them.

Coleman has also found that coating silver wires with graphene could be used to make cheap and flexible touch screens.

And what about the rubber bands? Coleman, who works at the Amber centre in Trinity, has managed to infuse graphene into shop-bought rubber bands, meaning that electricity can pass through them easily and you can measure changes in the stretchiness of the rubber. These souped-up bands could be used in cheap sensors to monitor several aspects of our health.

Can we get new medicines from the sea?

Dr Margaret Rae, who is part of the “marine biodiscovery” team in NUI Galway led by Prof Bill Baker at the school of chemistry and Prof Mark Johnson at the Ryan Institute, is looking in the sea for new medicines.

The sea contains a huge diversity of plants, animals and microbes, and because they have to live in a salty, watery environment, they can produce quite different molecules to species that live on the land.

Rae is particularly interested in harvesting molecules from seaweeds, sponges and other creatures that could help humans. Already the team has found plenty of molecules that show potential to fight cancer, inflammation and infections. By looking at the biology and chemistry of these molecules, the hope is that at least some of them can be made in the lab and tested out to see how they would measure up as medicines.

Can we work out how living things evolved to survive?

Dr Mary O’ConnellDublin City UniversityMaynooth University

By crunching huge amounts of data through computers they compare genes between different species to find out how different species developed their own tricks to survive. They recently found that polar bears seem to have tweaked certain genes to be able to carry lots of fat on their bodies to keep them warm in the snow and ice without straining their hearts.

O’Connell has also discovered that hummingbirds altered their genes slightly so they could taste sweetness (which birds normally don’t do). Developing this taste for nectar in flowers has allowed hummingbirds to live in lots of places around the world.

“Looking at DNA and proteins gives us a way of seeing into ancient history, and it lets us solve puzzles about how life has evolved,” she says.

How can we get rockets safely into space?

Getting rockets up into space is an expensive business – every kilogramme of the spacecraft and everything aboard it counts, because the greater the mass the more fuel you need to overcome gravity.

That’s why rocket builders try to use light materials. A lighter rocket means you can put more on board without extra cost, but there is a trade-off. Lighter materials tend to vibrate more and when fuel in the tanks sloshes around during the launch, those vibrations could throw the rocket off course.

Dr David McKeown and Dr William O’Connor at University College Dublin are using maths to control those vibrations. Working with the European Space Agency, they are using information from sensors on the rocket to control how the rocket’s engines and thrusters fire. Doing this smartly will avoid vibrations and help keep the path true.

“Reducing the vibrations will also help to protect any sensitive instruments or machines that the rocket is carrying into space too,” says McKeown. “And it’s all down to some clever maths.”

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