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Science news digest – 31st January 2014

In the science news this week, a new region of the brain is discovered that helps humans to weigh up the alternatives, a skinsuit is created that helps astronauts battle the effects of microgravity, the mystery behind flying snakes is revealed, and finally… British-built cameras attached to the ISS.

Brain area discovered that helps us spot when we’re going wrong

A region in the brain has been discovered, that appears to help humans identify when they have made bad decisions, reports the Guardian.

Called the lateral frontal pole, the region was identified by researchers at Oxford University after scanning the brains of 25 healthy people using diffusion-weighted MRI and functional MRI.

The area is about the size of a large Brussels sprout and seems to be crucial in allowing humans to consider better options when a situation isn’t working out. The lateral frontal pole essentially allows for flexible thought and weighing up alternative solutions.

The region appears to be exclusive to humans, as scans carried out on monkeys failed to identify a comparable region.

"We know there are differences between humans and monkeys. But it is surprising how many similarities there can be, and how a couple of differences can mean our behaviour is so far removed from them," said Matthew Rushworth, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, who led the study at Oxford University.

"There are a few brain areas that monitor how good our choices are, and that is a very sensible thing to have. But this region monitors how good the choices are that we didn't take. It tells us how green the grass is on the other side of the fence."

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Skinsuit could help astronauts beat bone density loss

Astronauts on the International Space Station often suffer bone density loss due to the effects of microgravity.

They try to battle this with rigorous daily exercise on board the station – roughly two and a half hours each day – but even so, they still return to Earth having lost 1.5 percent of bone density for each month in space, plus a reduced muscle mass that causes back problems.

In addition to this, because the astronauts experience no compression of their spines, as they would do walking around on the Earth, astronauts grow – in some cases by as much as 7cm. This causes stretching of the muscles, fibres and nerves, causing back pain.

A new approach to battle these issues is the skinsuit – a suit that is purposefully designed to replicate the forces that act on the body whilst on the Earth. The skin-tight suit is lightweight and elastic, and firmly holds the body due to the horizontal fibre strands it is designed with, reported Wired.

The suit has been created by James Waldie and made by a joint research team from King’s College London, MIT, and the Space Medicine Office of the European Astronaut Centre at the European Space Agency (ESA).

"The gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit (GLCS) utilises a lightweight, non-compressive, elastic weave to generate a calculated, staged, loading regime that mimics, with high resolution, the force or 'pull' of gravity on the musculoskeletal system," said co-researcher Phil Carvil of KCL's Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences.

"It does this by using these staged segments as a 'belt' from which to graduate the load towards the foot."

The suit could even be worn by Major Tim Peake when he begins his mission on the International Space Station in 2015.

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Scientists discover the secrets of flying snakes

Scientists have solved the mystery of how flying snakes glide through the rainforest canopy, reported the BBC.

There are five species of flying snake, all belonging to the genus Chrysopelea, and found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia.

Professor Jake Socha, from Virginia Tech in the US, found that the reptiles radically alter the shape of their body in order to generate the aerodynamic forces needed to fly.

"The snake is definitely not an intuitive glider. When you look at it, you say: 'that thing should not be able to glide'. And in its normal body configuration that is probably true,” Socha said.

"But when it enters the air, when it takes off and jumps and leaps from a branch, it massively transforms its body.

"As it jumps, it flattens out from just behind the head to where the tail starts. What it is doing is taking its ribs and rotating them forwards toward the head and upwards toward the spine.

"And this makes it much wider - so it doubles in width - and it forms this unique cross-sectional shape."

This unusual shape produces an aerodynamic force that is comparable to that created by an airplane wing. This force accompanied with the snake’s mid-air wiggle dance allows the snakes to glide gracefully through the air.

"It is moving its head from side to side, it is passing waves down the body and it looks like the animal is swimming in the air," said Prof Socha.

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And finally…

Cosmonauts attach British-built cameras to the ISS

Two British-built cameras have been successfully installed on the International Space Station (ISS).

The two Earth-observation cameras will be operated by the Canadian Urthecast company, which will stream high-res films of the Earth to web users. The cameras were built at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, UK, and were originally planned to be installed in December, but the mission had to be aborted after issues in getting the telemetry to Moscow mission control.

However, Russian cosmonauts managed to attach the cameras during a six-hour spacewalk earlier this week. Urthecast confirmed that they were receiving data on the ground shortly after, reported the BBC.

"During the installation, we were able to complete all of the intended tests during the spacewalk," the statement read.

"At this time, all telemetry received and analysed is within our expected results."

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