Category Archives: New Scientist


Ocean exploration, from empire to empirical

Creatures in chloroform, musty maps, and navigation by brass instruments. That was ocean exploration 18th-century style. Nowadays it’s satellite links, mandatory life vests on deck, and flow cytometers measuring minute lifeforms from the murk below – a very different kettle of fish.

The España Explora. Malaspina 2010 exhibition juxtaposes two Spanish expeditions launched over 200 years apart: between 1789 and 1794, commander Alessandro Malaspina led Spain’s imperial survey of its global holdings. In 2010, the Spanish government launched the high-tech Malaspina expedition, an oceanographic venture far removed from anything the commander would be able to recognise.

Tucked into a pavilion at the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid, the exhibit offers visitors a choice between immersing themselves in Spain’s imperial past, or its oceanographic present.

Malaspina would be familiar with the paintings and sketches of the indigenous people encountered by his two-ship expedition, which are exhibited in the historic exhibition. He might nod in recognition at the exquisite charts his surveyors drew of the coastlines and harbours, which served as Spain’s nautical highways and rest stops. And he would have reason to be pleased that some of the plants and animals collected by his hard-working naturalists, unpublicised during his lifetime thanks to political intrigue, are now before the public.

The artefacts are a kind of unintentional art, the by-product of busy empire-building. That empire was more concerned with politics than scientific legacy, however, as was Malaspina. His missives on the political structure of the empire and his ambitions for ministerial office offended prime minister Manuel de Godoy. The exhibit narrates Malaspina’s fall from grace  with fairness and illustrates his island imprisonment with a near-contemporary painting of the fortress where the scheming minister shackled him for years.

The exhibition’s modern displays focus on Spain’s 20th and 21st-century oceanographic research efforts. Videos at the exhibition reveal Spain’s modern research vessels at work on their ambitious tasks: studying climate change, Antarctic biodiversity, and the global reach of atmospheric pollutants.

One display case contains leftover sampling bottles and the label “The Treasure of the Malaspina Expedition: A Collection for the Future.” The genetic material the team collected sampled from as deep as 4 kilometres below the ocean’s surface are indeed a treasure. Few research vessels are equipped to send sampling bottles so deep, and scientists know little of what lives there. While Spain’s researchers and their partners are already analysing the data collected last year, they are also storing some of the samples in the hope that future technologies will unlock even more secrets. It’s a shame that such fascinating details are not mentioned in the exhibition.

The videos and photos are, however, an intimate glimpse at how dozens of scientists and technicians cruised the world for seven months last year gathering evidence of biological change. One stop-motion video from above the helicopter deck of the B.I.O. Hespérides is particularly gripping, showing sailors and scientists as they wander the ship on its travels. It makes the mundane mesmerising. Malaspina, with all his leadership experience, would likely respect biological oceanographer Carlos Duarte, of the CSIC’s Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Mallorca, for coordinating such a spectacular effort.

España Explora. Malaspina 2010 opened 2 February and runs until 31 March at the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid, Spain.

This review first appeared in New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog: [html] [pdf]


Sounding out cancer cells

A device that filters cancer cells from human blood using sound could help to identify tumour cells that have spread.

Finding tumour cells in the blood indicates a cancer has metastasised – but the molecular markers that are used to identify the cells can modify them and make them unsuitable for studying how treatment is proceeding and for performing basic cancer research.

So Itziar González at the Institute for Acoustics in Madrid, Spain, and colleagues developed an alternative: a tiny vibrating plastic chamber through which a blood sample flows. The vibrations create a standing wave that deflects cells in the blood to a different degree depending on their size. Tumour cells are often larger than blood cells and so collect in a different region of the device. The process does not alter the cells.

Read the rest of this story on New Scientist’s website [html] or here [pdf] or see the brief version which appeared in print: [pdf]

Update: I should note that the version which appeared in print has an error. It says that the method makes tumor cells “unsuitable for study to confirm metastasis.” but should probably just read “unsuitable for study” since you don’t need intact cells to confirm that a cancer is metastasizing. Counting them will do for that. But to study them in the lab, as biomedical engineer David Beebe said at the meeting, researchers prefer unmodified cells.


Avatar’s gaze illuminates social brain

gazingThey may seem a little unsettling but the staring eyes of this female avatar were designed to grab your gaze and hold it, and also to obligingly follow where you look. By performing these actions with people placed inside a brain scanner, she has helped to demonstrate that guiding the gazes of others activates different brain areas than following.

This could help unravel the brain activity underlying the process of “joint attention”, thought to be key to complex, human social interactions. It could also offer insights into why social interactions can break down for people with autism.

See the entire story and accompanying video on [html] [video]