Monday, January 30, 2012

On Scale

I recently encountered this "Scale of the Universe" widget: an animation tool that places the human body in the center of a sliding scale of dimensions ranging from the very big—the estimated size of the universe—to the unimaginable small of Quantum foam and string theory. Everything in-between is visualized comparatively: pollen grains set against Ultraviolet light and the width of human hair, mountain ranges against galactic distances.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Cloud Prototype No. 1 (2001), fiberglass and titanium alloy foil

The schema of extreme polarities in size reminded me of the two scientific images—an image of a cell and of an exploding star—I found so striking when thinking about impossible images. In many ways science works with scales that stretch the limits of the imaginable, or by using mathematics and data as forms of abstraction to manage the quantitatively big or the inconceivably small.

But conceiving scale concretely, as a visual image, can matter a lot in social ways. The first images of the earth from space created a point of view that had not existed before the 1960s, even though they described a concept that had been comprehended for centuries—a post-Copernican universe, in which the Earth is a planet among others. But those images entered the collective social imaginary instantly and viscerally, as something quantitatively new. In an odd way, the Apollo photographs didn’t de-centre the Earth into a universe wider than we can imagine so much as re-center it for our vision. By placing the whole Earth in the center of the frame of television images beamed to one of the first global audiences, those photographs let us see the planet in an entirety new way: as an entity. Many descriptions of these images invoke a sense of the fragility of the Earth, and they have been credited with contributing to a ecological consciousness.
For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light - our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
-Ulf Merbold

Monday, January 16, 2012

The ISW mystery I: Introduction

Looks nice Roger, but what are the industrial applications?

Making science a spectator sport

A huge part of the motivation for us starting this blog, if not the main motivation was to present new research as it is being done. In other words, to present the view of new research from the very trenches where the discoveries are made. I still intend (at some point in that mythical, utopian, land called later) to write a more thorough “motivation for the blog” post; however, the main motivation for presenting new research now, rather than waiting for Brian Cox to make a documentary about it, is this: it allows everyone in society to feel involved in scientific research. The hope is that science will then go beyond being just what those guys with beards in white coats do that we, everyone else, don't understand and instead becomes something that society as a whole gets behind and becomes fascinated by and talks about excitedly during their lunch-break.

You might think this is over-ambitious (though possibly not if you're reading this blog). But, meh, I think you are wrong. The public response to scientific discoveries/announcements last year like this and this tells me that people do care and are immensely fascinated by what scientists do. If society is not talking about science at the water-cooler it is because we, the scientists, are not collectively trying hard enough to involve society in science. There are numerous hard working and successful exceptions of course. The fact that they are exceptions is the problem.

Some scientists reading this might wonder why we even want society talking about science at the water-cooler. Mightn't science become corrupted by such base chatter? Think about this again the next time you are applying for some grant money and have to bend over backwards trying to come up with possible industrial applications for your work. Especially when later that evening you could watch a sportsman get paid millions for doing what he or she chooses to do. I doubt Nike have ever asked Roger Federer to come up with potential industrial applications for his backhand. Sportsmen are paid simply because people like watching them play and think they are cool. But people also want to keep track of scientific progress and they definitely also think it is cool. This latent popularity isn't a bad thing and it isn't being utilised enough by science.

In this sense this blog, and others like it, could be described as attempts by scientists to start making science a spectator sport. Hopefully we'll get better with time.

So, with that unnecessarily long introduction out of the way, let me finally (from the perspective of both this post and the blog itself) start telling you about some of my own research...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Treason in the immune army - betrayed by your own

The previous post in this series can be found here.

So far in my series of posts, I’ve tried to give you an insight into how your immune system is organised into divisions with specific roles: B cells  produce antibodies against pathogens; killer T cells demolish infected cells; and helper T cells act as the battle strategists, determining the tactics that will be used to destroy the invaders. Alongside these high-ranking immune cells are innumerable other footsoldiers that take their orders from T cells and sometimes from the antibodies released by B cells: neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils etc.

In any army there is the odd defector, a rogue agent who changes sides or simply goes it alone, and your immune system is no different. The lowly footsoldiers mentioned above are not capable to acting without orders from higher up and so when a turncoat T or B cell starts to send out treacherous commands that you might be in trouble.  In this post, I’m going to explain the different forms of autoimmunity (when the immune system attacks the body) and allergy (when it attacks innocuous molecules). I will also explain how our understanding of the immune system is starting to allow us to treat these disorders and save or improve countless lives.

Autoimmunity and allergy – T and B cells gone bad

Autoimmune diseases affect roughly one in twenty people in the western world; allergies, far more. Their symptoms are hugely variable and range from mild rashes to fatal anaemia. All are caused by misdirection of the adaptive immune system and are driven by conspiratorial T or B cells. Luckily for you and me, immunologists have been working furiously for the last century or so to unravel the causes behind these disorders and are now starting to produce fairly effective and specific cures. As you might expect, the effect of an autoimmune response depends very heavily upon what is rebelling: antibodies fired out by a B cell, for example, will have a very different outcome to a psychotic killer T cell.