Dark forces are afoot: a glimpse of dark matter?

What makes up 96% of the universe? Not rocks or dust, or even microscopic aliens. No, the universe is mostly dark. And that shouldn’t elicit a “well done Sherlock Holmes – I can see that most nights when I’m having an essay crisis in the library at three in the morning” sort of reply. When we say it’s 96% darkness, we mean it’s made up mostly of dark matter and dark energy. This is, however, another way of saying that we have just about no idea what it’s made of, because dark matter and energy are names that we have given to substances that we don’t understand. We didn’t even have much evidence – until now.

Gamma rays originating from the heart of the Milky Way have been detected by a research group using the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. At first scientists were skeptical, but the most recent analysis of the results, carried out by a team including Daniel Hooper, from the university of Chicago, has revealed that the signals are most likely due to a particle which is thought to be hiding under the shroud of dark matter – known as the WIMP. WIMP is not just an abusive name from a rather irate astronomer – it stands for Weakly Interacting Massive Particle. When these WIMPs annihilate one another, they are predicted to emit electromagnetic radiation in the gamma region, exceedingly similar to what has been observed. The team in their paper confirmed that the analysis of the results were “in good agreement with that predicted by simple annihilating dark matter models”, implying that there are now few other alternatives to the dark matter theory.


[caption id="attachment_52532" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Gamma-ray emissions detected, thought to be produced by annihilating WIMPs Gamma-ray emissions detected, thought to be produced by annihilating WIMPs[/caption]


The reason for the lack of direct evidence for dark matter is that it does not interact at all with electromagnetic radiation, i.e. visible light and the whole spectrum of waves above and below. Right, you say, but even when it’s completely dark, I can just feel my way around – I may trip over a few textbooks but I find the way to the bathroom eventually. Well, dark matter does not experience a nuclear strong force either, so not only can we not see it, it will not be held in any atoms. We can’t see it, touch it, or use any other sensory means to establish its existence. We must, therefore, rely on more indirect evidence, in this case the annihilation of WIMP particles, to infer their existence.

One force dark matter is predicted to experience is gravity. If it were found, its presence could help to explain the continued expansion of the universe, and also the behaviour of various galaxies that is not explained by the visible matter inside them. This was one of the lines of reasoning that lead to the dark matter hypothesis in the first place. Now, we may be well on the way to confirming this theory and explaining one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe.

However, this is not the discovery of a new field of substance in our universe yet. In order to confirm the theory, research must be done into other systems which are predicted to exhibit similar behaviour, beyond our Milky Way, such as certain dwarf galaxies which orbit around us. Should similar signals be seen, this would provide further evidence for the theory of dark matter and help to confirm it. Only then will we be able to say with confidence that we are taking our first look into the darkness of the universe, and seeing what is really there…


PHOTO/ NASA/Goddard Space Flight Centre Scientific Visualisation Studio

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App-arently we’ve been duped!

Over the past week a new app has been making some serious waves in the Android apps marketplace. “Virus Shield”, a new security app, claimed to prevent “harmful apps from being installed on your device,” and to scan apps in real time for malware in order to protect user information. Furthermore, and what must have seemed a blessing to owners of power-hungry smartphones, it claimed to use very little battery life, a key feature picked up on by numerous satisfied reviewers who also praised the lack of advertisements and the cool, incredibly user-friendly interface.

At the touch of a slickly designed button Virus Shield offered complete reassurance that your device was perfectly secure. All this for $3.99? Understandably thousands snapped it up and the app quickly rose to the top of the paid charts. Perhaps most incredibly of all, Virus Shield comprised only 219 lines of code and was a puny 859kb download. If Albert Einstein was correct in saying: “genius is taking the complex and making it simple,” then 17 year old developer Jesse Carter is surely the Da Vinci of the age.

That would be of course, if Virus Shield wasn’t a total sham. Yes, Google recently removed the wonder-app from their play store after it was revealed that the entire functionality of the program was a user-activated image toggle which caused the shield button to display a tick instead of a cross. However, the app’s design appears to have caused a Pavlovian frenzy as thousands (over 30000 to be exact) flocked to download it, conditioned surely by the trend in minimalist icons such as the bitten grey apple or Twitter’s blue bird, symbols which we have learned promise so much in their infinite simplicity. Almost painfully ironically the basis of many of the 5 star reviews, specifically the app’s very low power requirements and complete lack of advertisements, held up under scrutiny, with the exception that Virus Shield did not of course shield devices from viruses in any discernible way.

Unfortunately the placebo effect does not have cross platform capability and as yet is not compatible with the Android operating system and therefore Virus Shield, it can be stated, did absolutely nothing to protect these devices. Fortunately the scam was uncovered, and the app’s popularity was its own undoing when reviewers from the “Android Police” website got involved and unpacked its components. Moreover Google, as previously stated, has now removed the app and will be refunding customers.

The creator, Carter, claims that he won’t be receiving any profits since Google suspended his account, and the app was indeed pulled before the 15th of the month, the date when Google reportedly processes developer payments. Investigations into the developer reveal a shady past, suggesting that Carter’s account on, a website specialising in virtual goods (items in multiplayer games, Steam accounts, etc.) was deleted due to his attempts to scam other users. Moreover, a cursory glance into the publishing history of “Deviant Solutions,” the official creators of Virus Shield, should raise an eyebrow or two- would you trust your phone with the developers of “Yolo Bilbo Swaggins”?

The issue has raised some important questions about the security and reliability of the Android marketplace. Google reputedly has a far less draconian vetting system than its competitor Apple. Many prefer the Android system, and Apple’s reputation has suffered several minor blows as a consequence of their app-checking process. For example, many commented on their recent hypocrisy in refusing to publish programs such as Pulitzer-prize winning Mark Fiore’s satirical cartoon app on the grounds that it contained “objectionable” material whilst continuing to offer downloadable music containing homophobic, violent and often misogynistic lyrics. In comparison to Apple, Google appears to be a much less restricted marketplace, which obviously has its pros and cons. For every Mark Fiore out there, there could be a Jesse Carter.

This is not to say that Google doesn’t have a strict policy for app developers to follow. On their webstore developer FAQ the company claims: “All apps go through an automated review process and in most cases, an app will be published without further manual review.” However, whilst malware can be automatically scanned for, it is far harder to detect when an app may be misleading customers or providing a sub-standard service. Consequently users should still be wary when downloading apps from the Play store. Remember to check details such as the history of the developer, including previous apps published. Also rely only so far on reviews, and then check for longer, more in-depth assessments rather than glib, five-star statements. Furthermore be vigilant in reporting fraudulent or misleading products as, unless Google adopts its competitor’s publishing policies (not necessarily a positive), the community must help itself and look out for the interests of other, perhaps less tech-savvy users who may be dolloping out their hard earned cash for an empty shell of a program.


If you would be interested in writing for the OxStu science team contact us on We provide lots of interesting interviews and topics each week and are open to suggestions for article ideas.


Are robobees the bees’ knees?

Disclaimer: we do not hold any responsibility for humour failure due to unfunny bee puns.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Obviously not – you should be able to tell that by the title. Ask the question we want to answer – is it actually a bee?

If you are a regular watcher of either the news or Doctor Who, you will be aware that the bee population has been in dramatic decline. The cause is still unknown but the effects of the disappearing insects is quite clear; not only will honey and toast become a rare delicacy, but many other foodstuffs will not be produced due to a lack of pollination the flowers by the bees, and we are at risk of famines across the world.

In 2009, engineers at Harvard university came up with an unlikely solution: the Robobee. If they could design a synthetic bee, they could be programmed to do the job of pollination of crops around the world and the food shortage crisis due to the dying of real bees would be avoided.

The robotic insect is an idea that has been flying around the scientific community for thirty or so years, but we have never been able to amass the right technology. Now, huge breakthroughs are being made with the flight, intelligence, and interaction of the models.

So, how does one build a bee? When taking into account not only their ability of flight, but also their sensory capacity and communication abilities with an entire colony, they are highly complex animals.

Firstly, the body. They must beelieve they can fly. Nature has already spent billions of years figuring out the perfect way for small bodies to fly around, so why not simply copy? Using an origami-like method of folding sheets of material, scientists created a lightweight, versatile model based on the design of a bee. The wings are one of the most similar aspects, as the shape proved ideal for flight of the robot. In total, they weigh less than one tenth of a gram, and have a wingspan of about three centimeters. Ideal for all of their bee-substituting functions. One of the main problems still to be tackled is a seemingly simple one: power. So far, modern technology simply does not have a small enough system that can store enough power needed for bee flight. Currently, bees are having to be sustained in flight by small wires. However, with the rapid advances in electrics, it is hoped that a solution to this will be found in the near future.
Secondly, they must beehold what is around them at all times. Like real bees, the robots have sensory antennae which aid in detection and interaction with their environment. This ability to gather data means that it is hoped the bees will one day be used not only for military surveillance, but also for analysing the scenes of natural disasters and for exploring hostile environments where it is considered too dangerous to send people.

Finally, do they beehave like bees? The one of the main characteristics of bees – aside from buzzing, which, as far as I am aware, the Robobees do not do – is communication with their colony. When one says bee, we think beehive. One of the current hottest areas in Robobee research is to establish a mechanisms of liaison with fellow robots. This involves highly complex programming of the bees’ internal control systems, but could eventually lead large groups of them to be able to function just like a natural bee colony. Another issue preventing the perfect bee robot coming to life is the capacity to store information. Researchers are currently attempting to install the most recent small-scale hardware and software so that the bees can be properly programmed, and achieve the level of intelligence required to be able to function independently.
Robot bees may once have seemed an idea out of Scifi films, too farfetched to even consider in the real world. This is proof that thanks to modern science, many of our futuristic ideas are not only entirely feasible, but may soon become an integral part of our everyday lives. We must simply wait, and bee prepared.

PHOTO/Caroline Madigan

Jabujicaba – The Heart of Brazil


In a new e-book, ‘Jabujicaba’, Rosa da Silva delivers a thought-provoking environmental message about the state of the Brazilian rainforest through a powerful, yet subtle story of corrupt politics, covered up disasters, and exploration of the intricacies in the rainforest’s ecology.

The book follows Carmen Macedo, a journalist living in London, who upon returning to her home town in Brazil, is sent on an investigation deep into the Amazon rainforest to uncover the facts behind a fifteen year old tragedy. The journey in fact leads her to a wider mission – to stop the auction of Brazil’s forest land before it is too late.

Unlike many eco-campaigns, Jabujicaba is not in-your-face about the underlying message: the idea that we must all work together to save the rainforest for the good of the earth is delivered through an increased understanding of the implications of its destruction from the point of view of natives, scientists, politicians and ultimately, the rest of the world. By the end of the book the directive is clear – the price of the rainforest is in fact the price we must pay for a better tomorrow.

The plot is captivating from the off with mysterious spies lurking in Carmen’s garden, pirates haunting her mind’s eye, her closely woven familial connections to the Brazilian president and the Forestry Police. When she is sent as an investigative journalist to the Pedra do Altar, she meets the mysterious Braga – a kindred free-spirit from the Great Green City, and close friend of the Professor (a past lover of Carmen’s deceased mother, a genius scientist and rainforest nature enthusiast). They both represent two different ways to appreciate the rainforest, with it being Braga’s home and great love, and an endless academic joy to the Professor.

The whole book is hypnotizing; half the book can fly by in a blend of other worldly description of the rainforest; bright and vivid colours, animals and sounds, heat, humidity and the smells. Before you know it you find yourself at the dramatic climax with the rainforest on the brink of being sold off to people with little love for it. The plot line cleverly steers the audience to truly believe the rainforest is worth saving with unexpected twists and turns right up until the very end!

Da Silva has found a truly novel way to excite readers with real-life issues and allows them to discover the secrets of the rainforest, and hence gain an appreciation for it, alongside the main characters.

More details can be found at – with all royalties from the sale of the e-book going to the World Land Trust for forest conservation projects in Brazil.


Water in the Earth’s interior: evidence found inside diamond


The discovery of a rare mineral called Ringwoodite, buried some 660 kilometres below the Earth’s surface and found formed inside diamonds, confirms the theory that there exist huge reservoirs of water at this depth within our planet. The team of researchers who made the discovery, led by Professor Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta, Canada, were the first scientists to find a terrestrial sample of the mineral. Until 2008, Ringwoodite had only been observed in meteorites, as carrying out fieldwork at such great depths within the Earth is simply not feasible.

The Ringwoodite sample in question was found in the Juina area of Mato Grosso, Brazil, by artisan miners. They found the mineral in shallow rivers, where it was embedded in diamond that had been bought to the Earth’s surface by the most deeply derived of all volcanic rocks, known as kimberlite. At only 60 micrometres across (1 micrometre is equivalent to 0.001 millimetres), the Ringwoodite inclusion in the diamond is invisible to the naked eye. The Brazilian miners collected the diamond in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the Ringwoodite was found to be present in the mineral. The Ringwoodite was found by John McNeill, a scientist in Professor Pearson’s team, who described the finding as “a piece of luck… as are many scientific discoveries”.

Its fortuitous detection by no means undermines the importance of this discovery, however. Prior to finding the Ringwoodite, it had been theorised that the ultimate origin of all the water in the Earth’s hydrosphere – that is, all the water involved in the water cycle – was deep within the Earth’s mantle. It is notoriously difficult for researchers to experimentally prove theories based around events or objects at such great depths, for obvious practical reasons. Nevertheless, it was hypothetically, and then experimentally, shown that the water-storage capacity of minerals in the transition zone of the mantle (a region between 440 and 660 kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface) is incredibly high. Two such minerals, Ringwoodite and Wadsleyite, can absorb so much water that it may constitute up to 2.5% of their individual masses.  If the transition zone was thus hydrated, then that region of the Earth’s mantle would play a key role in the planet’s magnetism, and also in plate tectonics.

However, it is only with this discovery that the hydration of the transition zone can be conclusively proven, and all of the planet-wide implications that this encompasses can be accepted. 1.5% of the mass of the Ringwoodite found by McNeill in the Brazilian diamond was made up of water.

Professor Pearson commented that: “this sample really provides extremely strong confirmation that there are local wet spots deep in the Earth in this area. That particular zone in the Earth, the transition zone, might have as much water as all the world’s oceans put together”.

During the years of analysis between the initial finding of the hydrated Ringwoodite in the diamond, and the publication of Pearson et al’s conclusions in an article in Nature in March 2014, a combination of X-ray diffraction and Infra-red spectroscopy was used to determine first the presence of water, and then to measure the percentage mass of water in the mineral. In addition to the five years that passed between discovery and publication, there were approximately fifty years between the original, theoretical proposal of a hydrated transition zone, and the experimental evidence provided by the Ringwoodite mineral’s presence in a small river in Brazil.

The findings have helped seismologists, geologists, geophysicists and other scientists to better understand the composition of the Earth’s interior. Until this experimental evidence for the hydration of the transition zone, which lies between the outer and inner Mantle, there has been much controversy within the scientific community as to whether there is any water present in this region at all, or if it is desert-dry.

Professor Pearson concludes by saying: ““One of the reasons the Earth is such a dynamic planet is because of the presence of some water in its interior. Water changes everything about the way a planet works”.

How much for your life online?


Does the name Syrian Electronic Army mean anything to you? It certainly does to Microsoft, Ebay, Paypal, Facebook, Twitter, Obama’s website “Organizing for Action”, and dozens of others targeted by the organisation in the past few years. Their most financially damaging assault was the infiltration of the Associated Press’ Twitter account in April 2013. The false tweet:

“Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured”

Caused major panic and briefly wiped out $136bn of the S&P index’s value.

The group support the government of Syria’s president, and appear to target organisations or individuals they perceive to be undermining their cause. In January 2014 Microsoft were hit by a successful phishing attack, and later released a statement on their technet blog stating:

“We have learned that there was unauthorized access to certain employee email accounts, and information contained in those accounts could be disclosed.  It appears that documents associated with law enforcement inquiries were stolen.”

Documents fitting this description have been released online by the hackers, and purport to show interactions between Microsoft’s Global Criminal Compliance team and the FBI’s Digital Intercept Technology Unit (DITU), appearing to suggest Microsoft have been charging the FBI hundreds of thousands of dollars for user information, for around $200 per individual (as from August 2013). If this were the case, and assuming these documents are not in fact forgeries, Microsoft would be acting legally according to US law which states that, when required to release such information to the FBI and similar agencies, the provider may be compensated for expenses. Whether this practice is legal or not however, it raises some major questions about online security.

The Daily Dot- a website hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army- disclosed details of their ordeal, explaining that a sophisticated phishing attempt was made by the organisation. Emails manipulated to look like they were sent by a colleague were directed to members of the site management team, encouraging them to click on an enclosed link. When they did so they were required to give out their username and password, which were then used by the activists to infiltrate the organisation. In their article describing the incident, the Dot labels the method a “weakest link” approach- all it takes is one person to slip up and the entire system is compromised.

It’s no secret that companies are working all the time to improve online security. Only a few days ago, on the 20th March, Google announced they had made changes to their email services and are now encrypting 100% of messages sent internally, claiming:

“Today’s change means that no one can listen in on your messages as they go back and forth between you and Gmail’s servers—no matter if you’re using public WiFi or logging in from your computer, phone or tablet.”

Whilst some (the Mail Online, for example) have charmingly interpreted the move as an attempt to stop snooping from the US National Security Agency in the interests of user security, the fact remains that these agencies can and do request information from Google, Microsoft and the like on a regular basis. With regard to the interaction between these companies and government agencies therefore, the only effect of this increased security may be that Google could force the NSA to pay for the privilege of viewing user information. Whilst the knowledge of this increased security may seem comforting therefore, if recent events involving Microsoft and the Syrian Electronic Army have shown anything, it is that we still cannot put our complete trust in online security. Even if the hackers can’t access our personal information, there seems to be little stopping our governments- for a price, of course.

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991