Particle Accelerators are Really Expensive

Plasma inside of a Plasma Lamp, from Wikimedia Commons

Plasma inside of a Plasma Lamp, from Wikimedia Commons

Particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) or the TRIUMF facility here at UBC are massive projects. The LHC cost roughly 7.5 Billion Euros to build, and has a circumference of 27 kilometers. These facilities allow scientists to perform all kinds of experiments about fundamental physics, but they take years and incredible amounts of money to construct. Ars Technica reported on an experiment at SLAC National Accellerator Laboratory at Stanford that could help reduce the cost of these projects by helping to accelerate particles faster in a shorter distance. All current particle accelerators work by using electromagnets to give energy to a stream of particles. Different designs arrange them in different ways, but the basic design involves a electromagnets arranged around a cavity which the particles pass through. Because the various particles that are accelerated are charged, they can be manipulated by electromagnets. Speeding them up is really not all that different from spinning up an electric motor or any other electromechanical device. The most powerful particle accelerators are large circular tunnels which pass the beam through the same cavities multiple times. The bigger the tunnels can be, the more speed can be added to the particles, which is a big part of why they’re so expensive. Building a 27 kilometer tunnel is expensive in and of itself, and the cost only grows when that tunnel needs to be built with incredibly precise dimensions. With science funding flagging in most developed countries, these costs might make it difficult for researchers to get the kind of investment they need to keep making progress on fundamental physics research using particle accelarators. What the SLAC group proposes is instead to use a field of plasma to transfer energy to particles. A state of plasma occurs when atoms are stripped of their electrons, leaving electrons and positively charged atoms floating freely around each other. The SLAC group found that when a group of electrons was passed through plasma, a “wake” (not unlike the wake of a ship on the ocean) followed them, pulling more electrons with them. These wake electrons were accelerated to nearly the speed of light, drawing energy from the surrounding plasma. This technique is far less straightforward than accelerating particles with electromagnets, but it is also far more efficient, so it could allow us to build more powerful particle accelerators without requiring as much space or money. There is still a great deal of research to be done on the dynamics of plasma, but this is a promising discovery.

The Benefits of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy and the cognitive benefits of owning pets is something that has touched my life in many ways. Being an animal welfare/pre-vet student and a veterinary assistant, the human-animal relationship encompasses the majority of my professional life; however, perhaps more importantly, pet therapy has changed the life of my grandmother following a stroke. While her motor skills were completely restored, she was constantly wrought with anxiety and depression until my grandfather suggested that they adopt a puppy.

Enter Molly, the West Highland Terrier, who would completely reshape my grandmother’s mental health for the better. Whether it was having something to care for other than herself or simply her affection for the puppy, my grandmother took control of Molly’s care: she started walking, smiling and laughing again, socializing with friends, and feeling less anxious about her health.

Lady and her cat

Lady and her cat. Source: Flickr

My grandmother is among many elderly people who have benefited from exposure to animals. Studies on lonesome, mentally ill, and physically ill people have all been relatively conclusive: exposure to animals improves people’s outlook on life and improves their cognitive well-being. In the case of the use of therapy animals on joint pain, it even reduced the amount of pain medication required by patients. It isn’t necessary for the patient to own the pet: regular visits from registered therapy dogs, puppies, kittens, and shelter cats have all proven therapeutic in various situations.

Recently, animal therapy has been implemented in many situations outside of the ill and elderly. It has been used to help treat people of all ages following traumatic events such as school shootings or dealing with the stress of school exams. The following video discusses the use of therapy dogs for students following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
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PTSD therapy dogs are also becoming popular among soldiers with the disorder. The following commercial describes how these dogs assist PTSD sufferers.

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Elderly lady on a hike with her dog. Source: Flickr

Why do we find animals so therapeutic? How can bumbling little puppies have such a drastic effect on our health? Experts believe it may boil down to the nature of our relationships with animals. Because of our inherent sociability as a species, we thrive on the social benefits of owning a pet. It has be found that pet ownership and interaction with animals is associated with positive feelings and reduced anxiety. Pet ownership has even been observed to increase the life of people who own pets compared to people who don’t.


Molly needs a treat.

While she is just a dog living a simple life, Molly has changed my grandmother’s life for the better- no doubt she has increase her lifespan significantly. I will always be grateful to that silly white dog for what she has brought to my family.

The Slow Carbon Cycle

As we may already know, the carbon atom is very essential to life on Earth.
We use carbon to fuel our economy and we also eat the carbon we get in form of
sugar from plants.  The reservoirs of carbon are where the carbon is stored. Being the fourth most abundant element in universe, carbon is mostly stored in rocks. It can also be found in fossil fuels, ocean, soil, atmosphere and plants.

The carbon cycle is when carbon flows from one reservoir to another in an exchange. In this blog, I will describe the slow carbon cycle, which is the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, land and ocean.

The slow carbon cycle initiates when atmospheric carbon combines with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). This acid falls on rocks and it dissolves them. When the rocks dissolve they form ions such as calcium and these ions flow into the rivers, which leads to the ocean.  In the ocean, the calcium ions react with carbonate and produce calcium carbonate, which makes the shells of different organisms. When these organisms die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean where layers of sediment are buried and carbon is stored in limestone.


These are four marine organisms living in the ocean. The micro organisms in c and d have shells that are made of calcium carbonate. When these organisms die, these shells sink to the ground to form limestone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then how is the carbon transported from the bottom of the ocean back into the atmosphere? This is done though volcanoes. Volcanoes make the rocks at the bottom of the ocean melt under extreme pressure and heat. When the rocks are heated they combine with silicate minerals and from this process carbon dioxide is formed and released back into the atmosphere.


This is a volcano in the ocean which effectively melts calcium carbonate in the bottom of the ocean and through reactions produces and releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I find this process to be very unique. Through the slow carbon cycle, carbon flows through different reservoirs and meets the biological needs of the living organisms in that reservoir. When the organism no longer needs the carbon, the carbon then flows out of the system and into another system where it is more useful.

Naqsh Fatima Bhangu

Flu Season is coming

The weather is getting cold. We can see people who get flu (influenza). I also had flu and could not leave from the bed for a weak. During staying in the bed for a weak, I wanted to know more about flu and how can we prevent this flu from our ordinary life.

What is flu?

Influenza is well known as “the flu.” It is an infectious disease of birds and mammals caused by RNA viruses of the family Orthomyxoviridae. The most common symptoms are fever, sore throat, muscle pains, headache, coughing, and general discomfort. However having influenza also forces you to infecting other diseases. Flu can affect the lungs. Seniors old people, young children, and people who have lung or heart diseases, certain chronic health conditions, or weakened immune systems.

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Transition passage of flu

Influenza can be spread in three main ways. First is by direct transmission. Influenza can also be transmitted by direct contact with bird droppings or nasal secretions, or through contact with contaminated surfaces. Second is by the airborne route. The most of influenza is transmitted through the air by coughs or sneezes from other people. Air contains the virus and when people breathe, the virus goes into other people’s body. The last is through hand-to-eye, hand-to-nose, or hand-to-mouth transmission. All the routes are from contaminated surfaces or from direct personal contact such as a hand-shake. Especially in the airborne route, the droplets that are small enough for people to inhale are 0.5 to 5 µm in diameter and inhaling just one droplet might be enough to cause an infection. Also influenza survives in airborne with low humidity and a lack of sunlight in winter aiding its survival.

Mechanism of flu

The mechanisms of influenza infection is the inhibition of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) resulting in lowered cortisol levels. Therefore it will cause fatigue and headache. Also influenza invades cells and the cleavage of the viral hemagglutinin protein can not work normally. The normal structure of the hemagglutinin can only be cleaved by proteases and viruses cannot infect other tissues. However, influenza harms the hemagglutinin structure and infect other tissues in lungs.

How to prevent flu?

How can we prevent from the flu in this cold winter season? For the accurate answer for preventing flu, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 3 steps to prevent from the flu.

First is take time to get a flu vaccine.

Second is hygiene and actions to stop the spread of germs-washing hands, covering nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, avoid touching eyes, noses, and mouth

The last step is taking flu antiviral drugs which the doctor prescribed. Wrong antiviral drugs can make illness worse and people have different flu virus, so the antiviral drugs are not always work for every situation.

From Inkjets to Human Skin: Using A Regular Ink Printer to Print Human Tissue


Ink printers are used daily to print assignments and papers. The general population is also relatively aware of 3D printers, printers that print three dimensional objects of any shape. Now, a new kind of printer is being developed to print human tissue.Researchers at Wake Forest University, lead by Anthony Atala, have been researching the treatment of burns.

Current methods to treat burns include skin grafting. Skin grafting requires doctors to take skin from a healthy donor site on a person’s body (an area that is usually covered by clothing) and transplant it to the damaged site. The new skin graft is held in place by stitches and dressing. Unfortunately, this procedure is prone to infection and requires the damage to the donor site to help the damaged site. Another method requires skin cells to be grown in vitro then, applied to the affected area on the body. This method requires careful handling, as the skin grown in vitro can break down or warp in shape very easily.

Skin graft.  Image credit: Wikipedia

Skin graft.
Image credit: Wikipedia

This new technology to print human tissue is a medical breakthrough. Using the same technology as a regular inkjet printer, researchers were able to successfully print skin tissue. Instead of the inkjet printhead being connected to a well of different colours of ink, the printhead is connected to “wells” of different types of cells. A laser first scans the burn area and the printer can print skin cells directly onto the wound, thus eliminating the complications that arise from the traditional methods of burn treatment.

The research team is also looking to successfully print organs. Unlike skin cells which could be printed flat, organs would need a 3D mould for the printer to print onto. They have successfully printed bone and mouse hearts and implanted them into mice. The one drawback is that organs do not exist as an island. They require connections (blood vessels, nerves, etc) to other parts of the body. While the tissue printer can print the organ, there is further work that needs to be done to figure out how to print the organ’s connections. Skin on the other hand, is more simple. Once the printed skin is applied to the body, it absorbs the body’s plasma and blood vessels begin to connect to it.

Since this development occurred a while ago (year 2010), more recent developments by another research team at Cornell have been able to print human heart valves. Other human body parts have also been successfully printed. These are important developments in the area of organ and tissue transplants. Here is a video illustrating tissue printing:

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– Jade Lu

Can’t decide? Roll a die


Image source: Flickr commons; Uploader: neni d

Do you ever feel as though despite your experiences, you repeatedly make the same mistake? Most of the time, we center our decisions on logic and prior experience. But…  can we ever get the best outcome by simply making a random choice and ignoring what we already know?

(Click here for an awesome article about how our brain helps our reasoning and decision-making!)

Rats were monitored by a computer that tried to predict the rat’s decisions. Image Source: Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)

In a study recently published in Cell, scientists from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) found that when faced with a challenging “opponent”, rats stopped using strategy to make decisions and made decisions randomly instead. In the experiment, rats were presented with two holes in a wall, one of which contained a sugary reward. Meanwhile, the rats were monitored by a computer-simulated opponent, which recorded the rats’ past choices so as to predict its future choices. To get the sugar, the rats had to choose the hole that was not predicted by the opponent. When faced with opponents that made weak predictions, the rats selected holes using strategy. However, when the computers used complex algorithms to predict the rats’ choices, the rats instead selected holes at random!

Are there advantages for animals to change behaviour from using logic to choosing randomly? Firstly, when animals encounter situations that are unpredictable in the wild, such as predators or prey that move erratically, it could be beneficial to move randomly to evade predation or capture prey. Moreover, random behaviour might be useful in the exploration of new environments. For example, a rat might find food in a place that it would not explore if it were making decisions based on past experience gained in a different environment.

The scientists from HHMI discovered that when the rats faced hard-to-beat opponents, the amount of a stress hormone (norepinephrine) increased in the rat’s brain. Furthermore, the rats continued to act randomly even after the opponent started to make weak predictions again! To free the rats from this state, the scientists suppressed the release of the stress hormone, causing rats to return to their strategic decision-making.

Further research into the role of hormones in the brain on decision-making may lead to novel treatments foe mental conditions. Image source: Flickr commons; Uploader: European Space Agency

This study may be a step in the right direction of developing a treatment for “learned helplessness” in people. Learned helplessness is a mental condition in which an individual becomes unwilling to avoid painful situations because they believe that they cannot control the outcome. The actions of people suffering from this disorder resemble that of the rats stuck in “random mode”, as their decision-making is impaired. Perhaps a treatment can be found in the near future for learned helplessness and other conditions, such as depression, with further research investigating the brain’s function in decision-making.

In the video below, uploaded to YouTube by LennyBound, an Oxford math professor participates in an experiment that aims to explain the brain’s role in decision-making:

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-Imran Mitha

Ebola: The Most Dangerous Virus In The World

Microbes, life forms too small to be seen by the unaided human eye, make our bodies their home and use it to live and reproduce. Among these microbes are viruses, more like machines than organisms, with only one purpose: to keep making more of themselves. Viruses inhabit living cells and use the cells’ machinery to reproduce, so the cells can’t work the way they’re supposed to. The results are generally horrible, and none more so than those of Zaire ebolavirus. Zaire ebolavirus can kill about 90% of the people it infects, though the current outbreak in West Africa has killed only about 65% of the confirmed cases according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Zaire ebolavirus image courtesy of The Tech Journal (click image).

Ebola is transferred through contact with infected bodily fluids, even sweat, and people infected with Ebola must be isolated in a health care facility. Symptoms of Ebola include vomiting, diarrhea, and haemorrhage (losing blood through openings on the surface of the body). In spite of this, contact with infected bodily fluids is not hard to come by, and Ebola is quite easy for a healthy person to contract. In addition, Ebola has started making its way around the world, and nobody is really safe. Humans have no official pharmaceutical defense (vaccines, drugs, medicine, etc.) against Ebola, making Ebola the deadliest virus in the world to humans, even more so than the almost invariably fatal (if untreated) rabies virus since humans have developed effective vaccines and treatments for rabies.

So how can we avoid Ebola? It’s worth pointing out that Z. ebolavirus can be killed with soap, so wash your hands frequently. If someone diagnosed with or suspected to have Ebola has been on your property, the area should be professionally cleaned and disinfected. Everyone who’s been on the property since the infected individual should be tested for Ebola as symptoms do not appear immediately after infection and may have been contracted by a visitor or resident. Ebola has a horrifying reputation, and the results are very real. Nonetheless, if we all do our part, Ebola is unlikely to become a global pandemic (rapid infections and outbreaks all over the world). A YouTube video by TestTube puts this matter in clear perspective:

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– Jared Martin