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BBC World Service - Science in Action

Science in Action

The BBC brings you all the week's science news.

Science in Action

  • Rolling out the vaccines faster
    Two weeks ago several G7 leaders called for an international treaty on Pandemic Preparedness for the future. This week 175 prominent leaders called for lifting the IP on vaccine design. And former UK PM Gordon Brown called on the G7 to finance vaccines for the world in the next two months. But are there technical difficulties that limit the pace of manufacture? Anthony McDonnell is an economist at think tank Centre for Global Development who has been looking at the problem since last year. He suggests, amongst other things, one limit is the human expertise in manufacturing these brand-new technologies, with another being a level of vaccine nationalism that is seeing a lack of exports of components involved in manufacture. Professor Trudie Lang heads the University of Oxford’s Global Health Network, and looks at health research across the world. She says in most countries there is no lack of public health or infrastructure potential for rolling out the vaccines, if only the supply existed. The volcano that erupted explosively on St Vincent last week has led to many thousands of people being evacuated. Dr Joan Latchman of the University of West Indies Seismic Research Centre - who has monitored Caribbean volcanos for several decades - describes from Trinidad how the layers of ash mean recovery will take a long time, even if the explosions and pyroclastic dangers subside reasonably soon. Back in The UK, Prof Jenni Barclay and colleagues are examining rocks from the early part of the eruption, before the explosive phase began, to see if there are clues in the microstructure that could provide clues to the future. And how do our brains so quickly tell a scream of delight from a scream of horror? Or of pain? Prof Sascha Frühholz of the University of Geneva has written in the journal PLOS Biology this week about work looking at how we identify the nature of different human screams. One finding is that we perceive joy quicker than fear.. (Image: Getty Images) Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Alex Mansfield

  • On the trail of rare blood clots
    On Wednesday the EU’s EMA and UK’s JCVI announced a suspected correlation between vaccination and an extremely rare type of blood clot. Prof Sabine Eichinger is a co-author of a new paper suggesting a link with vaccination or the immune response to Covid vaccination and suggests the name VIPIT for the condition. One of her patients died at the end of February having presented with a rare combination of symptoms – blood clots and a low blood platelet count. Sabine tells Roland the dots they have managed to join in the story so far. Scientists at Fermilab in the USA posted four papers and announced an exciting development in particle physics that might lift the curtain on science beyond the Standard Model. Their measurement of something known as g-2 (“gee minus two”, just fyi), by measuring with phenomenal accuracy the magnetic properties of muons flying round in circles confirms a 20-year old attempt at a similar value by colleagues at Brookhaven. At the time, it was breathtaking but suspicious. Muons, rather like heavy electrons, don’t quite behave as the Standard Model might have us believe, hinting at fields and possibly particles or forces hitherto unknown. Dr. Harry Cliffe – a member of the LHCb team who found something similarly weird two weeks ago - describes the finding and the level of excitement amongst theorists worldwide. Superfans around the world have learned to speak fluent Klingon, a fictional language originating from Star Trek. In a quest to understand the science behind these languages often dismissed as gobbledygook, Gaia Vince has been speaking to some of the linguists responsible for creating these languages. It’s time for her to relax the tongue, loosen those jaw muscles and wrap her head around the scientific building blocks embedded in language and what languages like Klingon tell us about prehistoric forms of communication. Meanwhile, primatologist Edward Wright of the Max Plank Institute has been hanging out with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and recording the sound of their “chest clapping”. As he describes in the journal Scientific Reports his work confirms what scientists have long suspected - that the famous gesture - often portrayed in films - is a measure of size and strength - allowing communication in the dense, tropical forests in which the animals live. Image: Platelets, computer illustration. Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki /Science Photo Library via Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Alex Mansfield

  • Post-Covid outcomes after release from hospital
    After last year’s first wave of covid-19 in the UK, individuals who had been discharged after hospitalisation suffered higher rates of coronary and respiratory disorders, and even diabetes subsequently over 140 days. As Dr Ami Banerjee of University College London explains, out of 48,000 cases, patients who had had acute covid-19 were four times more likely to be readmitted and 8 times more likely to die. Ami’s team suggests in their paper published in the British Medical Journal that diagnosis, treatment and prevention of post-covid syndrome needs an integrated approach. In France, researcher Xavier Montagutelli describes how his team has observed that unlike the original virus, some of the newer Variants of Concern can infect mice in laboratories. They do not show serious illness, but nevertheless host the virus in their lungs. Whilst infection is unlikely in natural environments and not yet observed in the wild, it does show how the viral variants can extend the host range, perhaps leading to more opportunities for mutation. But this finding, posted as a pre-print, also perhaps represents an avenue for deeper gene-specific research that has not so far been possible. Over in Colombia, Monica Carvalho of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute describes her team’s findings regarding the origins of the diversity and habitat of rainforests in south America. Looking at leaf fossils and pollen grains from 60 million years ago, they have found significant differences between the forests of the dinosaurs, and the ones we see today. As they write in the journal Science, it all changed when the Chixulub meteor hit the Gulf of Mexico and the global lights went out. The rainforests that grew back were simply not the same. But much further back in time, some billion years ago, the forests of the world that were changing the chemistry and making seas inhabitable allowing complex multicellular life, consisted of pencil-lead sized algae quietly photosynthesizing in the shallows of an ocean in what is today remote Canada. Katie Maloney of University of Toronto Mississauga spotted fossils of just these when out on a field trip in Yukon territory. Publishing in Geology Magazine this week, her eagle-eyed finds shed light on this crucial epoch in life history of which there are scant fossilized remains. Image: Rainforest canopy Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Alex Mansfield

  • Science on the side of a new volcano
    Sightseers and social media scrollers have flocked to the slopes of Fagradalsfjall, a volcano erupting 40 kilometres west of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Having produced less than 1 square kilometre of lava this eruption could be deemed relatively minor, allowing bystanders to get up close and personal. Among the hubbub, you might also spot Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya from University of Leeds, just one of the researchers measuring and observing the event from an alarmingly small distance. Her interest is more in the invisible toxic gases and trace elements being emitted from one of the deepest magma eruptions in recent times than the more cinematic molten rock. This week scientists working on results from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced intriguing evidence (NB “evidence” – not yet a definite discovery) of physics beyond our current understanding. Everything we can detect directly in the universe is made from a few basic building blocks, fundamental particles. These particles are governed by four universal fundamental forces. Our best understanding of these forces and particles are sewn together in the Standard Model of particle physics. Since the 1970s this model has been able to explain most of our experimental results, but not all. Professor Gudrun Hiller from Technische Universität Dortmund has been theorizing as to what sort of experiments might lead to evidence of where the model might be incomplete. And this week, she has reason to feel a little bit proud. As she and her fellow member of the LHCb consortium, Harry Cliff, explain, a mysterious asymmetry in the way certain quarks – beauty quarks – have been seen to decay could be pointing at a deeper, more sophisticated, picture of the nature of the universe. Theorists are theorizing all around the world: could this be a new class of particle called a “leptoquark” that mediates a whole new type of force? The new results have been submitted for publication in the journal Nature, but have also been made public online in what is known as a “preprint”. Science publication has, for hundreds of years, been governed by peer-review. This process has prevented the wider community of scientists from accessing new scientific reports and papers unless vetted by a smaller number of fellow experts in the field. But this hasn’t been the case for all disciplines. “Preprints”, uncorrected proofs, have for some decades played a role in the publication process of physics and mathematics. In these fields, on the whole, lives are not at risk if mistakes get through to publication, but over the past year the practice of posting proofs to preprint servers is now common in the biomedical and life sciences, to accommodate the deluge of research being conducted on Covid-19. Might this be a problem? Or could it demonstrate the value of preprints? A new paper from Jonny Coates (also a preprint) and colleagues has looked at whether much changes on a biomedical or life-science preprint as it travels through peer-review towards conventional publication. Image: Lava flows from Fagradalsfjall volcano in Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland Credit: Kristinn Magnusson/mbl.is Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Alex Mansfield

  • International science at sea
    In the UK thousands of scientists have signed open letters to the UK government protesting cuts to international funding announced this week. Abruptly and severely, the cuts may end hundreds of international collaborations between UK scientists and colleagues around the world working on health, climate change, disaster resilience, sustainability and many development topics. Professor Jenni Barclay is a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, and is one of the organisers of the protest. At the University of Cape Town, Dr Chris Trisos is the director of the Climate Risk Lab at the African Climate and Development Initiative, one of the authors of the IPCC 6th assessment, and has just learned his funding will be terminated, as the UK’s Royal Society must trim its output in this area by two thirds. Professor Otteline Leyser is CEO of UKRI – the UK’s main research funding agency, and will have to work out what will happen to over 900 projects currently under way. Antarctica Iceberg A74 break away Earlier this week German Research Vessel Polarstern released images from its remarkable circumnavigation of Antarctica’s latest iceberg, known as A74. This is the largest chunk of ice to break away from this sector of Antarctica since 1971, approaching the same size of Greater London. Dr Autun Purser describes a hair-raising voyage between the narrow gap left between the berg and the shelf, including the first images of life that have spent at least 50 years in total darkness, hundreds of miles from the open sea. Image: Polarstern between Brunt and iceberg A74, Antarctica Credit: RalphTimmermann Presented by Roland Pease Produced by Alex Mansfield