March is the month for the planet hunters among us. Not just for the Kepler spacecraft, which recently discovered a haul of 700 new exoplanets, but also for the amateur astronomer. This month sees the Moon very close to many of the Solar System planets, meaning they are impossible not to spot.
Firstly, Jupiter is still one of the brightest objects in the night sky throughout the month and will come very close to a perfectly half Moon on Sunday 7th week – catch a glimpse of it when you come out of Formal in the southwestern sky near the Orion’s belt.
The moon has its second showdown with a planet when it skirts close to Mars midmonth when it is spectacularly full, low in the sky in the southeast. Look for the moon as the pubs let out on the 18th (just after Hilary has ended) for the best view: remember to compare Mars to the stars around it to see how it appears red!
Saturn, as the diva of the solar system and is not willing to give Mars all the limelight, approaches even closer to the moon two days later, at around midnight. Again they will both be visible in the southeastern as the moon begins to wane from full. You will be able to see Saturn pass begind the moon and overtake it throughout the night before it reappears on the other side at around 6am.
If you are always up at that time in the morning (rowers I am looking at you), towards the end of March shortly before dawn, Venus will be extremely bright in the eastern sky. The moon will be a thin crescent by this point and the two together on the sky will create an amazing prelude to a spring sunrise.
For those of you who prefer your night sky objects not to wander, one of the most beautiful constellations will be in prime position this month: Gemini (the Twins). Gemini will be easy to find as it is just up and to the left of the famous constellation of Orion, high in the southwestern skyin the late evening (see star chart). It takes the shape of two very obvious stick men, the heads of which are the two brightest stars in the constellation: Caster and Pollux. They were the famous twin brothers of Helen of Troy in Greek mythology, popping up in all manner of stories from the Argonauts to the legend of Troy.
The Milky Way band also passes through Gemini; once you have found it, give your eyes about ten minutes to adjust and wait to see the multitude of fainter stars to appear.
Figure 1: The night sky on 15 March 2014 at 9pm.
IMAGES/ Rebecca Smethurst
Many people argue that we need more women in higher positions in the work place. Usually, they wave their hands and mutter something about gender equality and feminism, and others (depending on the crowd) will either nod somberly, or roll their eyes.
Hard evidence of this necessity is rare, but is slowly being made more widely known. “The evidence shows that science is not as excellent as it thinks”, says Elizabeth Pollitzer, the founder of Portia, a company which aims to target gender inequality in science. “We have plenty of research now to show what is important, what can be done, and what should be done.”
There is a startling shortage of research that has been carried out using women relative to men – from biological to engineering problems – and the gender bias in the data collection can have serious side effects on women’s welfare. A recent study by the American Journal of Public health showed that women are 47 per cent more likely to be injured in car accidents than men. The research gone into car safety was, impressively, all done with a crash dummy with a male build, and hence safety measures are only built to accommodate for men.
The incomplete research extends to various areas of science, including that done on vaccinations. Women are thought to respond somewhat more strongly than men, but too little research has been carried out in this ﬁeld to conﬁrm dosages. One reason for this problem could be the fact that, historically, very few women have been working in the sciences, especially high up in ﬁelds of research, and therefore it the idea to have gender balanced studies simply did not occur to people. “At each level, women get pushed out from the system”, Pollitzer said. “There is a small but systematic preference for men to get the grants”.
With a team of female scientists from Imperial College, Pollitzer established a company that gathers evidence to demonstrate the gender imbalance in science today. The company was named Portia, initially because of the feisty Shakespearean heroine with a strong sense of self-worth. Admittedly, at the end of the play, said heroine proceeds to commit suicide for the sake of her husband. That is possibly not the feminist message the group were attempting to convey. However, Portia labiata happens to be the name of a small, highly intelligent species of spider, which hunts by jumping on its prey at strategic opportunities.
What did Pollitzer ﬁnd about women’s image in science? There are certain questions to ask yourself as a female researcher: Who has chosen your research topic? Is it broad, or are you stuck in a narrow ﬁeld with little potential? Is there enough time to commit to research or do you have more teaching responsibilities? When applying for research grants, women also tend to ask for less money, and, depressingly, men tend to receive more appealing recommendations from former employers. “You will be described as a good team worker,” Pollitzer told us, “men will be described as a problem solver”. Still, she made an attempt at optimism, noting that “a science career takes forty years; don’t give up too early.”
In order to improve the quality of research carried out, it is crucial that more women move into the scientific field. Women and men have been proven to tackle science in different ways; when an experiment does not proceed as expected, in general women will aim to analyse it further, while men will attempt a different approach to confronting it. Neither is inherently better than the other; however in a team of scientists it is important that both methods are represented, and hence teams of mixed gender are often far more effective in producing research.
Pollitzer had three words of advice for any women looking to undertake a scientiﬁc career: “go into science”. Easier said than done, maybe, but the gender gap is slowly closing, we have it better today than it has ever been. Maybe that’s not incredibly comforting, but it’s a start. Hopefully, a start to improving both the quality and equality in the practice of science in the future.
Pollitzer was speaking in the annual symposium of the OxFEST. To find out more about OxFEST and their events, visit ox-fest.org or follow them on twitter @Ox_FEST or like them on Facebook.
If you are short-sighted or long-sighted and you can’t see clearly, what would you do? Wear a pair of eyeglasses? Or even a pair of contact lenses? But who is going to pay for those if you are in a developing country earning less than a pound a day?
Self-adjustable eyeglasses, which can be produced for just over one pound each, use technology invented by Oxford Professor Joshua Silver, the CEO of the Centre for Vision in the Developing World. It is estimated to benefit 40% of the population who suffer with uncorrected vision, especially in developing countries.
But how does it work? We have tried the product (look at the photo with Jonathan and Prof Silver for proof!) and to ‘self-refract’, which means to adjust the variable focus glasses ourselves. There is a syringe connected to a fluid-filled lens of the eyeglasses. When we rotate the adjustment wheel of the syringe, it alters the amount of fluid in the lens to change its refractive power: when more liquid is pumped out of the hollow reservoir between the two flexible membranes of the lens, for example, it becomes more concave so the refractive power is reduced (the incoming light rays become more divergent). A short-sighted person could thus see a long-distance object more clearly. This way, we can produce a personally adjusted pair of glasses without the need for a health professional.
A series of trials has shown that people can use self-refraction and end up with lenses that are not significantly different from that determined by a trained optician quite well, but the tests so far have only involved teenagers and adults. Silver explains: “Performing refraction on a small child is actually difficult. If you say to them: ‘focus in the distance’, they don’t really understand what you’re saying. It turns out to be difficult to accurately refract younger children.” However, he defends the current lack of functionality on children by explaining that many children’s glasses are actually not accurately adjusted when a professional does it for the same reasons.
The numbers involved are astronomical. “It costs the world a trillion dollars per year,” Silver claims. “When we went to Ghana, and word got out that we had eyewear that could help people see, we were inundated: hundreds of people would appear from nowhere in rural areas.”
“It’s not just reading: [uncorrected vision] impacts your life: cooking, cleaning and even farming.You’ve got billions of people that need eyewear and have very poor quality of life because they don’t have it. That’s a very high priority.”
Silver, along with Chris Wray, a senior advisor of the Centre, point out that having the technical solutions problem is about its implementation. “The obvious thing is to make a couple of billion pairs, give them away, and you will increase GDP by a trillion dollars. But that’s like saying you’d obviously vaccinate everyone against polio.”
Not everyone is convinced by the idea. “I’ve pointed out to the health minister that there is the potential to save the public over a billion pounds [in the UK alone], and got a rather dusty reply.” The World Health Organisation is also opposed to the idea as they believe in building more clinics and developing infrastructure. But at the same time, the US government has sent thousands of pairs to developing countries with the message “a gift from the American people”.
And part of the opposition comes from opticians and eyewear companies themselves. “If someone goes to an optometrist, it’s in the optometrist’s interest to make the money. They put their professional costs onto their eyewear.”
Silver adds that he recognises the need to have an optician: “You may not need an optician to make you eyewear, but you certainly need them. If you’ve got some eye health issue, for example diabetes, they should pick it up.”
Current UK legislation also prevents individuals form selling glasses without a license, meaning that adjustable eyeglasses cannot be marketed here as an alternative to prescription glasses. “They wrote this legislation when no one had even conceived of self-adjustable lenses,’ says Wray.
Despite the hurdles of distributing these eyeglasses to people in need, Silver remains very optimistic: he hopes to see a billion pairs being worn by 2020. “It is now technically feasible. The real question is: is a for-profit way or a not-for-profit way better? I would say it should be tested by experiment.”
Wray has an idea of what the best way to achieve maximum impact in the most remote regions of the world is: “it could be an entrepreneur in a village in the middle of nowhere making a small profit.”
And let’s hope that their work and effort will not sink into the ocean in the middle of nowhere.
Prof Silver was also speaking in a lunchtime talk in the exhibition Great Medical Discocover: 800 years of Oxford Innovation, and the exhibition is still running in the Bodleian library until 18 May 2014.
The idea that “we need to do something about climate change” is one frequently tossed around by both scientists and politicians alike. Usually, the impact it carries is of the same order as comments such as “we need to do the washing”, or “we need to get up for the rowing gym session tomorrow morning”. In theory it may sound like a sensible notion, but in practice you are just not going to get round to it.
To examine the point further, it’s only natural to ask the three interrogative questions – who, why and how? Firstly, who is ‘we’? John Broome, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Corpus Christi College, introduced his talk on the Morality of Climate Change at the Oxford Climate Change Forum by considering this question. Is it referring to we, the community of the world, or we, as individuals, acting to reduce climate change?
“All of us are causing harm as we go about our private lives,” Broome told us. Sure, you might think that boiling the kettle to make a cup of coﬀee isn’t doing much harm in comparison to the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere, and you would be right. However, the harm done is not zero, and so however insigniﬁcant it may seem, when all of the carbon dioxide produced from all of the cups of coﬀee made by billions of people trying to wake themselves up in the morning is added together, this can amount to a great deal of harm.
So although the collective action of the world is ultimately essential, individual actions, when put together, have the capacity to substantially alter a situation.
Now you ask, why? This was the primary focus of Broome’s talk. “A moral philosopher, before he dies, should make some vague attempt at being worthwhile,” he informed us, and later directed me to his most recent book, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World. The answer is simple: because the harm done quite literally has a life and death impact. “There are lots of ways in which climate change kills people,” Broome said, casually listing ﬂoods, famine and disease.
He also outlined some rough ﬁgures. The average inhabitant of a rich country, like the UK, will cause the emissions of around 800 tonnes of carbon dioxide during their lifetime. This would result in the temperature of the Earth rising by about half a billionth of a degree. Not much, maybe, but in the future this will directly result in shortening somebody’s life by approximately half a year. That is, two and a half days taken oﬀ their life for every year that you live yours.
The driving ethical argument behind the climate change conundrum is eﬀectively that we should be preventing harm done to people in the future by reducing our impact in the present. This is consistent with one of the main principles of moral philosophy – that we should not commit harm to other people for our own beneﬁt.
“I’ve been struck by the number of people who have said to me – ‘what’s moral philosophy got to do with climate change?’ ”, Broome told us. Any moral philosopher would likely tell you that it is, in principle, morally wrong for us to cause the emission of any carbon dioxide gas whatsoever. Broome, however, added, “we don’t go around preaching. We leave that to the religious types and militant atheists.”
It is worth keeping in mind, however, that reducing our carbon footprint is a moral point that is “to do with justice, not to do with goodness”. Any mediocre philanthropist would likely do more good in a relatively productive afternoon than you would do in your lifetime by reducing your carbon dioxide missions. The argument is only that it is morally right to avoid harming people by our actions, irrespective of what is good.
The ﬁnal point, then, is how? If you know anything at all about philosophy you would know that is a foolish question to pose. When have you ever known a practical philosopher? They only tell us that it must be answered. The question of ‘how?’ is still up for debate, open to anybody brave enough to take it on.
I have always had the impression that green energy is an exclusive “luxury” for developed countries: the costs in developing a green technology, getting a patent, manufacturing the product and employing and training people with enough expertise to install and maintain the infrastructure needed to collect the energy are simply too great for developing countries.
Yet Dipal Barua, the founder and chairman of the Bright Green Energy Foundation, a company delivering green energy technology products (solar panels and the like) in Bangladesh, has proved otherwise. Winning the first Zayed Future Energy Prize for his ‘installment-based payment system’ in Bangladeshi rural areas, he explained that there are many people in Bangladesh do not even have electricity: “You can buy a solar home system because we have plenty of sunshine.”
The initial cost, according to Barua, is high, but users only pay a small amount per month of around two to ten dollars a month. Different components of the solar panels have different life spans: while the solar panel can last for 20 years, the batteries, charge controllers and some spare components can only last for three to five years.
“People pay every month, and they become the owner of the system […] for 20 to 25 years,” he explains. The company offers some financial incentives to the customers to return the used batteries back by giving them a 30 per cent return: “So they can buy a new one, and they can take another loan.”
He then lists some benefits of the solar system brought to the family and to the community. They include a better education for the children and higher revenues for local business brought by the extension of working hours.
“I believe [those using solar] are connected to the country and the whole world because they can watch television, they can charge their mobile phone[s], some of the students [are] using laptops and other digital technologies.”
Barua is very keen to get Bangladeshi women involved in the green energy sector: “If we don’t have energy, we [can’t] work [with] full potential. When there’s no energy, people are victims, but women are double victims because men go outside and have a job, and then send money to their home; but women work [through] cooking for their children, for their family, and they raise their cows and cattles.”
He claims that some Bangladeshi women involved in his project are earning 100 dollars a month because they are trained how to produce charge controllers, assemble fluorescent lamp, maintain the system and sell spare parts to others.
“Women are important because they live in the village. The small income [they receive] is good for them and their family. Men go elsewhere sometimes but women are sustainable.”
But given the fact that many Bangladeshi women in rural areas have not received a good education, how can he train them to become “green entrepreneurs”? Barua emphasises that he trains all women, but having some education, say 5th grade or 8th grade, is good for calculation, training and educating other women in the village: “Simple education is enough, because we train them [with] practical education.”
“In the long run, if there are 5 million systems in Bangladesh, we need a lot of women [to] help to maintain the system and I am working on that – I believe they will play a very important role in the future.”
Another challenge for development in Bangladesh’s rural areas is the frequent power cuts experienced in the summer because of the huge demand for electricity for fans and air conditioning. The solar panels, Barua explains, thus , “play a very important role in filling the gaps and [acting as a] complementary approach.”
And the celebrated prize winner has plans for the future. He first wants to introduce fans linked directly to home appliances currently provided by the current solar home system. Over the longer term, he is a strong advocate for providing solar energy to urban areas via power grids.
He also wants to replace diesel water pumps with their solar equivalents. This is a particularly important issue in the rice-growing (and rice-consuming) Bangladeshi countryside due to its heavy demand for irrigation. “In the dry season we need water so now solar plays an important role.”
The Oxford Climate Forum was held with the Oxford Hub over the weekend of 3rd week. Using the banner ‘Climate Change: An Opportunity’, Fleur Nash, one of the coordinators of the Oxford Climate Forum held over the weekend of 3rd week, explained that climate change is a multiple opportunities, linking innovation, change and ideas, instead of a specific one. “We want climate change to be seen in a more positive light.”
Caroline Taylor, another coordinator of the event, added that the Oxford Climate Forum want to inspire people who come to the conference to believe that they can real impact, such as getting involved in bringing climate change to a wider audience, or take routes down climate science or business. “We want to open students’ eyes […] to the whole spectrum of opportunities.”
But are these opportunities come at a cost – is cleaner energy more expensive? Nash disagrees, raising an example from the work done by Dipal Barua, one of the speakers in the conference. “Solar energy we heard […] is cheap, it’s falling [in price]. Chinese mass production has meant that solar panels can be bought by ordinary people.”
Taylor continued to emphasise that business should get involved as they can “drive such a proportion of that change”.
“They are the system, but if we can get that system to take in the factors of climate change greatly, you need to think that you can factor in the external cost of climate change, then business is probably the best place to make that shift and to make that a really big difference in tackling mitigating climate change.”
When asked about reports that one of the sponsors, IBM, pouring in huge sums of money into oil extraction investment, the coordinators are quick to clarify that IBM are a sponsor to the Oxford Hub, not directly to the Oxford Climate Forum, but across all climate forums in the UK run by the student hubs working at various universities, so they do not get a say in accepting or rejecting IBM.
“Our criteria [to whether accept sponsorship from a company] would be to look at the overall impact and to see what their message is, and what their goals and aims are.” Taylor commented.
“With IBM, obviously they work with oil companies and in the tar fields – they have that side of their business. They do also have sustainable side of their business as well, which we feel like that you need to support and expand for that to overcome the other side of their business for them to grow as business on a whole in a sustainable area.” Nash says.
“If you have that complete divide, then nothing’s gonna happen – it’s all about working together.”
“The fact that they have sponsored us and given us money – this has allowed for all these speakers to come together and to inspire students, that’s a really valuable thing. Without them, we could not really have done that.”
“People start to need accepting is that it’s not a win-win clear situation – you really got to battle through and got to make those compromises for actual change to occur.”
On 1st week Hilary Term, the OUSU Council has passed a motion on fossil fuel divestment campaign, which requests the University to stop directly investing in fossil fuel companies, which are defined to be those participating in exploration for or extraction of fossil fuel reserves.
Daniel Tomlinson, the OUSU VP for Charities and Communities, commented: “We believe that universities and institutions up and down the country should start taking money out of these companies in order to say to them: we don’t believe what you are doing is right.”
Tomlinson also raised the point that these fossil fuel companies are overpriced, given the expectation that there will be more regulations on these companies. “We want the University to understand that it’s probably not its long-term financial interest to invest in these companies.”
“There’s some evidence that shows that actually investment in fossil fuel companies have a lower return than other investments.”
On the other hand, James Rainey, the chair of the Environment and Ethics Campaign, maintained that their core business is still fossil fuel extraction and exploitation. “As long as that is their core business and that is what their valuation’s depend on, then really it’s not responsible for them to plan to exploit all of those reserves.” However, he has acknowledged that these companies have taken reasonable steps in terms of developing renewable energy,
Rainey also disputed arguments that the divestment campaign will deter companies to invest in the University, claiming that colleges in America, despite only having six examples, have not experienced such issue. He also added fossil fuel companies have much more to gain from partnerships with the University than the University investing in them. “Part of their [fossil fuel companies] business model is that they couldn’t just pull out of the University – they need those universities to carry out research.”
In a statement, the University defends its decision to invest in fossil fuel companies. “The University of Oxford’s core mission is education and research and as a charity it has a legal obligation to maximise the returns on its investments to support this mission. To this end the University invests in funds that invest in the world’s top companies, which may include oil and gas companies. The University’s policy on socially responsible investment is regularly reviewed by the Socially Responsible Investment Review Committee.”
The spokesperson goes on and says: “The University has set a target to reduce its carbon emissions by 33% by 2020/21 (compared to 2005/6 levels), and we are following a carbon management plan to achieve this target through a range of projects. The ‘Oxford Student Switch Off’ is a large-scale project to engage students and staff in sustainability, and 28 colleges have already signed up to this. 21 departments have signed up to the Green Impact scheme, which involves students in auditing the changes made by departments to improve their environmental practices.”
Featured Photo/James Ennis. The photo shows students in the Tufts University protesting for fossil fuel divestment.
I begin my visit in a lab at the West Wing of the John Radcliffe Hospital, being shown around by Dominik Fischer, who introduces me to the various pieces of eye-wateringly expensive equipment he works with every day.
“This costs more than a house”, he grins, and encourages me to touch the table upon which is mounted a vast laser scanning microscope attached to three or four equally massive power units. A tentative press of my finger elicits a loud hiss from the mechanism, and fearing I have angered the science Gods, I back away immediately. Amused by my incredulity, Fischer, a clinical research Fellow of the Medical Research Council, quickly explains that the microscope measures such tiny objects that even the slightest tremor could be catastrophic, and that the table adjusts for these movements to keep the equipment stable.
In a lab meeting with Ophthalmology (eye-studies) researcher Professor Maclaren, he emphasises the need to sequence every piece of DNA used in experiments, to understand fully what is being worked with.
The general focus of the team has been the use of gene therapy to treat choroideremia, a degenerative disease which causes blindness. Affecting several cell layers which are essential to sight, it is a genetic disease which causes the deletion of the vital protein REP1, leading to the deterioration of important cells in the choroid which provide oxygen and nutrients to photoreceptor cells. As a consequence these cells are deteriorate, leading to loss of vision. As a mutation linked to the X chromosome, it is generally only men who show signs of the disease. However, Maclaren’s team have, over the last couple of years, managed to restore some vision to patients in clinical trials through the application of gene therapy. The treatment involves inserting DNA which encodes a required protein into an affected area through the vehicle of a vector, commonly a virus, which artificially carries the DNA into the body.
As yet, the treatment is not commonplace. In order for it to become widespread, companies must be capable of exactly reproducing the vectors and DNA components of the treatment in factory conditions, and this is a difficult task, since even the slightest change could mean that something useless (or downright toxic) is accidentally created. As Maclaren points out, a rigorous regulatory process must be fully worked out, and the production of gene therapy treatments will have to match these necessarily draconian standards. A vector taken from any point in the assembly line must be identical to any taken from another, and tests must be put in place to ensure this, for example, taking a certain number of samples (at least three or more) from entirely random places in the line. High standards must be maintained throughout.
One of most positive pieces of news for the department is the recent £12 million donation from Syncona, a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, to the University’s company Night Star, with the hope to turn the work done by Maclaren’s team into a treatment available for patients. Nightstar will handle the regulatory side of the process, setting up factories and ensuring that the vectors are reproducible, and at the right concentration. If the company’s aims are successful, it is hoped that the setting up of the necessary processes to regulate production of this treatment could form the model for future gene therapy treatments. This would allow them to reach the market more quickly since they would simply follow a pre-existing set of regulations and would benefit from the knowledge provided by the results of the current gene therapy research.
Given the challenges involved the potential for gene therapy to become a commonplace, game-changing treatment is still uncertain. However, with the funding and support of the Wellcome trust, we have good reason to be optimistic about the future of this branch of medical science.
Photo/University of Oxford