Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Plastic Pollution from Puffer Jackets?

The microplastic issue that won’t leave you feeling as warm and fuzzy as your puffer.

Image by Matthew Henry via Stocksnap

It’s a staple item of clothing to combat the winter chills but how bad is your puffer for the environment? As it turns out, the microplastic particles from these jackets may be one of the biggest threats to our marine life…

A Plastic Problem

When we think of plastic pollution in our oceans, images of water bottles and plastic bags typically come to mind. Studies have recently shown however, that there are up to 236,000 tonnes of ‘microplastics’ in our oceans as of 2015 – the weight of over 1000 blue whales!

Where are they coming from? Our clothes.

These microplastics are so small that they’re unable to be seen by the naked eye. This is a disaster for our marine life because, as a result, huge quantities of microplastic particles are mistakenly consumed as part of their diet.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Worse for Wear

A report by research group Eunomia (funded by Friends of the Earth) has shown that the microfibres causing damage are contained within up to 64% of our clothes. Plastics including polyester, acrylic and nylon make up a range of our everyday clothes not limited to puffer jackets.

The problem is, that as a result of repeated wash and wear, microplastics from our clothes shed. In fact in 1 wash, each synthetic fleece jacket can release at least 1.7 grams of microplastics with older jackets releasing more. During the washing process, these particles are circulated to wastewater treatment plants however, due to their size, go undetected. They are consequently washed out to sea and end up on coastal shorelines, causing problems for many unsuspecting creatures.

Photo by Jay Mantri via Stocksnap

Sensible Solution?

Recently, a number of companies including Adidas have taken to producing clothes with materials made from plastic. These materials would usually end up in the environment. In fact, in an effort to recycle the enormous amount of plastic we produce, Adidas have committed to including plastic materials in all of their products by 2024. The process involves the cleaning, chopping up and melting of plastic so it can be moulded into another form such as yarn for fabrics. While this sounds fantastic in theory, the bigger picture is more complicated.

Unfortunately, these good intentions don’t provide the solution to our plastic problem as initially thought. Yes, the initiative reduces the level of virgin plastic produced and the amount of plastic entering the environment but, it provides greater opportunity for microplastics to pollute particularly the marine habitats in a much more harmful form.

 

Wear with Pride

So what can we do on an individual level? To make an impact regarding the amount of microplastic entering the environment, we need to consider the overall amount of plastic we consume. At this rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish (by weight). To stop this, we need to adopt the 5 R’s approach.

 

“Reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle and remove”

 

Image by Steven Leith via Flickr

REDUCE the amount of clothing you buy and how often you wash it. REFUSE to settle for cheap quality items that contain plastic. REUSE your winter clothes from last season. RECYCLE your clothes by giving them a second life and finally, REMOVE unnecessary plastic from your wardrobe by limiting what you buy.

We only have one planet. Let’s clean it up.

 

 

Interesting Links:

https://www.outsideonline.com/2091876/patagonias-new-study-finds-fleece-jackets-are-serious-pollutant

https://www.amanprana.eu/en/save_the_sea/microplastics-clothing-sustainable-tips/

https://cdn.friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/reducing-household-plastics_0.pdf

 

 


Are we alone in the universe?

Remember when the internet blew up with the joke on how everyone would raid Area 51 to find aliens? Well, have you ever wondered if aliens actually exist? Scientists currently do not have the answers just yet, but have created some theories and found fascinating discoveries on the likelihood and ways to discover extraterrestrial life.

 

3d render of a grunge style alien by kjpargeter via Freepik

 

Explanations and theories

“Where is everybody?” This is the famous quote from Enrico Fermi that asks the world to think about the existence of life from other planets. The universe is infinitely huge and very old. We would think that from all that time, there would be a record of meeting life forms not from planet Earth, and yet there is none. This essentially is the Fermi paradox.

Scientists have been trying to figure out the solution and explanations of this paradox for a long time, and made many theories on if extraterrestrial life actually exists. I will try to explain a few hypotheses that I find interesting and hopefully help open your eyes on the happiness or despair on the impending future.

 

Planets’ self-destruction

This hypothesis says that a civilization on a planet would destroy itself first before or recently after inventing spaceflight technology. The theory on how civilizations destroy themselves includes: “war, accidental environmental contamination or damage, synthetic life like mirror life, resource depletion, climate change, or poorly designed artificial intelligence.” This is a very depressing hypothesis because not only would we not find any aliens, but also means that our planet is on the road to self-destruction.

 

Invasion on Earth

This might be the worst hypothesis as it involves us being invaded by a more intelligent species. This hypothesis explains that there are civilizations more advanced than us and that trying to message or communicate with them might just be the end of us. This is because if the aliens are competitive on resources, or dislikes our culture, or any other reason to become hostile with us, we would probably come to end.

 

We are alone

From the thousands to billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, this hypothesis explains that Earth is the only place that has complex life. To put into comparison, if Earth is a grain of sand, all other grains of sand in the Earth are all the stars in the universe. This is even said as understatement. Lonely, isn’t it?

 

Andromeda by Guillermo Ferla via Unsplash

 

How do we find them?

Some organizations such as NASA and SETI, has been trying to find proof of intelligent life outside Earth with very advanced telescopes. According to MIT physics professor Sara Seager, finding main elements from life on earth could be a key to finding life in other planets. Elements include: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and so on. Other ways to detect the possibility of life could be from the presence of oxygen and water vapour. A planet such as Europa, having a subsurface ocean of water, brings hope to scientists as it contains the foundations to support life.

 

What can we do?

Unless if you are an astronomer, you can’t really help to solve the question of alien life. However, the longer humans are still alive, the higher chance of scientists to answer the question. We can help solve climate change and environmental damage to keep human survival in check. Only time will tell what future lies ahead of us…or maybe we would never know.

 

Additional resources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNhhvQGsMEc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fQkVqno-uI

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Filter


Can blockchain fix the issues with My Health Record?

With an increasing amount of data being uploaded to the cloud, it’s no wonder that medical data is following suite. But storing large amounts of private data online comes with associated security and privacy risks. Some researchers believe that blockchain could be used to address this.

Storing Health Data in the Cloud

My Health Record is a personalised data service provided by the Australian Government’s Digital Health Agency (DHA). It allows you, your GP and other involved healthcare providers to view your health information when needed.
Cloud technology is a centralised storage system that is well suited for storing healthcare information for this data-intensive industry. Not only does the Cloud provide all your healthcare data in one place, it shifts the sole responsibility for managing it from your GP to the government.

 

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The Benefits of Accessible Health Data

There are significant benefits to having your health information stored online.
All your records from all your various providers are stored together. With online storage, access to data is no longer based on physical location. As people move interstate, or even across cities, they are still able to easily access their health information.
The collection of data is made simpler and cheaper, as less time is spent on paper forms, while less money is spent on storing and managing files.
The most significant benefit, however, is also the most worrying. This is how My Health Record allows other people to access this data. It can be lifesaving. Imagine you are in the emergency ward – would you want the medical staff there to know about your allergies and conditions?
Finally, the medical research community would benefit from access to de-identified health records of all Australians for researching diseases and communities. So, it is very beneficial for everyone to opt into services like My Health Record.

My Health Record – Lack of Social License

In the lead up to the release of My Health Record, there was significant public backlash. Many people opted out of the service, citing security and privacy concerns as their main reason.
Were they right to do so?
When you boil it down, no online system is 100% resistant to cyber-attacks and health data is financially valuable to cyber criminals. Therefore, a single system that contains massive amounts of this data such as My Health Record is particularly enticing to criminals. Health systems in Australia have already suffered significant breaches this year.
Also, there were concerns about legislation around who could legally access people’s health data, prompting the DHA to update their legislative protections for users.

How can Blockchain Help

Blockchain technology has become known due to its use in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. But Blockchain has other, more meaningful, applications. It can be also be used as a secure, decentralised and open database.
Blockchain involves storing blocks, which are purpose-built data structures, in a chain. Each block contains a hash (in this case, a unique ID constructed from all the data contained in a block) of the previous block, the timestamp from when it was made, and any data stored. In this way Blockchain provides an accessible, permanent and verifiable database for data.
This concept is perfect for health data. When medical data needs to be uploaded, a new block is created. The block would include the time, author and the medical data. This block is then distributed and approved by other systems on the network. Once it’s been approved, the block is added to the chain and the data cannot be modified without modifying the entire chain. This would provide My Health Record with the security required for such a large and important database.


Direct to consumer genetic testing: It’s more than just genes

There has been a recent trend of people undergoing direct to consumer (DTC) genetic
testing from companies to find out about their heritage going around. Approximately 12
million individuals have signed up with the companies such ancestry.com which have the
greatest number of users of about 7 million followed by 23 and me which had 3 million in
2008. You may have seen your favourite talks shows show do them as well and you may be
interested in well, but as this trend continues to arise, so do the ethical concerns and risks
associated.
When you spit into the tube and send it off waiting for a reply, the results may not be what
expected them to be. The test results have been inadvertently been used as paternity tests
such as when a family had learnt that they also had 15 donor siblings or a husband who had
learnt of his wife’s infertility. This does bring into question about whether these companies
have an obligation to warn their users about this.
The results of genetic testing can also have serious impacts on your life insurance if certain
disease related genes are found. It is required that individuals must disclose the results of
their test results to the company and they do have the right to refuse cover if they wanted
to. This could be disastrous for individuals who for example have a BRCA gene that increases
their risk of breast cancer. The information can be used against them as the company may
then increase premiums or deny coverage at all.
These results are also having more underlying information towards them and often require
a doctor or a genetic counsellor to be involved however within DTC testing there is
absolutely no requirement. Having patients being their own ‘doctor’ can be disastrous as it
can lead them to make uninformed decisions or unnecessarily stressed. If a person were to
have the gene for Huntington’s disease to show up on their results, then it could cascade
into many ethical dilemmas for them such as whether to tell their family or whether they
want to have children in the future on. Without any professional involved users can make
informed decisions.
The issue of privacy is also of concern. Many individuals who sign up for these services often
do not look at the fine print regarding the confidentiality and use of genetic data. Some
companies retain to the DNA information indefinitely and there are even companies
accused of selling the information to third parties. As genetic tests become increasingly
advanced, the amount of information retrieved from the genetic data can be increased and
may be used for purposes that are unknown towards the user.
So before thinking it may be fun to find out the results consider the impacts that the
information may have on you


Fill in the blank: To dream is to ___________.

Believe?

Achieve?

Retrieve?

Relieve?

Photo by choon_goon via Flickr

What do you think is the purpose of your dream?

And nope, I’m not questioning your dream, i.e. your dream of becoming an engineer, a doctor or an artist. I’m talking about the one you experience when you’re fast asleep.

Dreams last around 20-30 minutes. According to experts, we dream during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of our sleep. This is when our brain is the most active — as active as when we are awake.

Dreams are in nature challenging to study. However, a lot of professionals accepted the challenge. In studying this mysterious phenomena, a vast majority of the scientist concluded that dreams are only a series of thoughts, pictures and sensations with no purpose.

Yup, a lot of people say that, To dream is to dream.

But there are also a lot who chose to fill in the blank using other words, like,

 

Dreamer no. 1: Sigmund Freud (The Father of Psychoanalysis)

I bet you dreamt of something and hoped that your mom didn’t interrupt you from your beautiful 8-hour sleep… or maybe 4 (as a university student).

Well, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Anyway… Freud suggests that: To dream is to achieve our desires and wishes.

According to his book, The interpretation of dreams, dreams – including not-so-sweet-dreams – convey a person’s subconscious desires. He also claimed that dreams have two components:

  • Manifest content – literal matter and storyline of the dream (obvious stuff)
  • Latent content – symbolic meaning behind the obvious stuff

Freud states that the remembered elements of a dream can be analysed to reveal hidden psychological issues which can be better understood and hopefully, resolved.

Dreamer no. 2: Jie Zhang

Brain = Computer,

Dream = Screensaver.

This is what Zhang proposes in her Continuation Activation Theory.

It was hypothesised that our brains need to continually consolidate memories for it to function accurately. Zhang believes that our brain’s conscious and non-conscious subsidiary systems of working memory needs to be continually active. When the brain has low sensory input, it calls its memory storage to reminisce and be active.

In short: To dream is to retrieve memories for our brain to function properly.

Dreamer no. 3 & 4: Els van der Helm and Matthew P. Walker

Our brains can be our own psychologist. And the therapy happens when we dream.

This concept is conveyed in Helm and Walker’s research – Overnight Therapy? The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Processing.

During the most active period of sleep, our stress-neurotransmitter operates less.

We don’t get stressed as much when we are having a nightmare compared when a bad situation happened when we are awake.

This led the researchers to believe that dreams can be our brains way of healing from our traumatic experiences. They hypothesised that re-encountering bad situations in our dreams may help us have a calmer perspective.

This theory in a nutshell states that: To dream is to ­relieve emotional pain. 

Photo by Ki Young Lee via Flickr

These are only three of the many theories which supports that dreams have purpose.

For more dream theories, check out, Why do we dream? – Amy Adkins.

Our society discovered and explained thousands of fascinating stuff, however, dreams still remained as a mystery.

But, To dream is to believe.

And I believe that one day, earthlings will be able to uncover the wonders of dreaming.

So, keep on sleeping.

I mean, dreaming.

 


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