Taking climate change by storm – what does the butterfly effect, actually affect?

Chaos theory is the idea that small changes in initial conditions result in vast differences in the final outcome. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings could result in a hurricane forming several weeks later. Weather can be considered to be ‘chaotic’ as small fluctuations in atmospheric conditions can build up into large weather effects over time. This makes it impossible to predict more than a few weeks in advance, and for weather forecasting to be unreliable.

So how is it that climate change, which is essentially how average weather changes over time, can be predicted 50 years or so into the future when weather can barely be predicted 5 weeks? If they are so closely linked, how is our ability to predict each so radically different?

Although weather is chaotic, climate is not. In the same sense that although we are unable to predict the age at which a specific man will die, we can make reasonably accurate predictions as to the average age at which 100 or so men will die, and how this will change over time if we look at statistics on eating habits and changes in public health. We can measure many of the factors that affect climate change, most significantly the atmospheric conditions, and how these are likely to change over time, and are therefore able to make predictions into the future.

Yet chaos still does not mean randomness. Seemingly chaotic systems can show recurring patterns emerging, a famous one being the golden ratio. In flower petals, pine cones, shells, hurricanes and even spiral galaxies, these seemingly random formations show this Fibonacci sequence. Even at a microscopic level, the DNA molecule measures 34 angstroms long by 21 angstroms wide for each full cycle of the double helix spiral. These two numbers are in the Fibonacci sequence, with their ratio closely approximating Phi (the golden ratio).

Trust your Gut!

sally ane

When we are born, we have an innate ability to swim, yet this is lost and a much more advanced swimming ability is developed. This skill can develop twice in our life, an initial simpler version to cope with immediate needs, and a more matured version when we have the mental capacity to learn it.

This is mirrored in how we learn to understand others; how their thoughts, feelings and desires may be different to our own. For a long time it was believed that it is not until around the age of 4 that we develop this ability, known as theory of mind, and is tested using the Sally Anne test. In the Sally Anne test, the doll ‘Sally’ doesn’t see where the doll ‘Anne’ has moved a ball to and the child has to say where Sally will look for it. This requires the child to understand that what Sally knows about the position of the ball is different to what they know, and therefore that sally will look for the ball where it was before Anne moved it.

Yet more recent studies have shown that babies as young as 15 months possess theory of mind, and are capable of understanding the Sally Anne test. This is because we know that babies look for longer at things that surprise them, and when Sally looked for the ball where she hadn’t seen it placed, the babies stare for longer, showing that they were surprised that Sally knew where the ball was.

This suggests that we have a dual system for attributing mental states to others, one an automatic intuitive system for making gut decisions, and a second with flexibility that we develop at a later stage. Studies like these give much more credit to our gut instincts over our conscious decision-making processes, and so we should listen to our gut more often.

Sleep – or lack of it

sleeping baby

As stress levels are building up, and sleep is becoming a luxury, it’s hard not to wonder what effect this is having on my body, and how my body manages to cope.

Firstly, sleep is a necessity for most vertebrates, without which physical fitness and immunological functions suffer significantly.  Although scientists don’t fully understand why we need sleep, it is thought that it is necessary to restore what is lost while we are awake. Muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases solely, during sleep.

Not only is sleeping necessary, it also prefers to stick to a pretty tight schedule. The circadian rhythm is the daily cycle of activities observed in many living organisms, i.e. a body clock. The body regulates its own times for sleeping and waking, and is cued by a number of factors. These include the optic nerve sending signals to the brain and a bundle of nerves in the hypothalamus.

A chemical that effects our perception of tiredness is adenosine, which is a by-product of our neurons activities during the day that builds up in the brain. Caffeine works by blocking the actions of adenosine in the brain, thus counteracting the tiring feeling caused by adenosine.

A key hormone in initiating and maintaining sleep is melatonin, which is regulated by exposure to light. It is even known as the “hormone of darkness” because it is secreted when it is dark. Consequently, using a mobile phone just before bed is going to effect this regulation, and will make it much more difficult to fall asleep. Before the invention of the light bulb, people slept on average 3 hours longer.

Light isn’t the only issue we face nowadays when it comes to sleep. Clashes between what our bodies need, and what our lives demand, causes ‘social jet lag’. This includes having different amounts of sleep on weekends and weekdays, and spending less time outside (affecting the circadian rhythms). This is particularly significant for teenagers, as our wake-sleep cycles are set later. We tend to not feel sleepy till later, and then need to sleep later, yet we have to wake up early to fit into the normal working day of adults.

When we really don’t get enough sleep, our body has an impressive and quite surprising method for staying awake. If you’re deprived of sleep for longer than 40 hours, your body goes into brief and unpreventable microsleeps. These can last for a fraction of a second or up to thirty seconds.

It is clear that social demands of the modern age have caused our sleep to suffer, and given our complex sleep cycles it is not always as simple as just ‘going to bed earlier’ and then wondering why we’re still lying there wide awake at midnight. However there are some steps we can take to improve our sleep. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, caffeine opposes the effects of natural sleep-inducing chemicals produced by your body, so avoiding caffeine along with other chemicals that interfere with sleep is going to help. Secondly, creating a dark sleeping environment will help your body regulate the correct levels of melatonin needed for sleep. Getting into a regular routine will also help your body to maintain its circadian rhythm, especially maintaining that on weekends.

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

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The gradual adaption to life on land was a milestone in evolution, and can be largely attributed to the evolution of eggs in reptiles and birds.  

 

Firstly, let’s look back to one step before reproduction became fully independent of water. Amphibians, although able to live on land once adults, are limited to areas containing water for reproduction. This is due to the spawning of their eggs, with external fertilisation, making the eggs very susceptible to desiccation. 

 

Reptiles, however, have eggs contained within an eggshell, reducing water loss. The egg also shows a number of other advances, such as a substantial food supply (the yolk), and internal fertilisation. This enabled the domination of the terrestrial environment, with few other competitors.

 

The evolution of the egg, and how its advances shaped the development of life on land, still begs the question: what came first, the chicken or the egg?

 

We must first define an ‘egg’. Egg laying animals obviously existed long before the chicken so technically the egg came first but in this context, we are referring to a chicken egg. But secondly, we must define a chicken egg. Is a chicken egg an egg produced from a chicken or an egg containing a chicken?

 

 Eggs produced by a chicken require a protein, known as OV-17, which is only found in chicken ovaries; therefore you can’t produce a chicken egg without a chicken. However, new species are formed from small genetic mutations over thousands of generations, and these must occur in the zygote. A creature (let’s call it a proto-chicken) very similar to a chicken produced an egg which, due to a small genetic mutation, developed into the first chicken. Therefore the first chicken hatched from the egg of the proto-chicken, and the egg came first. Although you could argue that this egg was not a chicken egg, no one mutation could constitute a new species.

 

Despite this question still being an on-going debate, it does provide some food for thought over breakfast.

Let’s start over…

Let's start over...

In 2006 Shinya Yamanaka, a japanese physician and researcher of adult stem cells, generated iPS cells from human adult fibroplasts. This breakthrough was a result of identifying the 4 key genes involved in reverting the specialised fibroplast cells to a more pluripotent state: Oct4, Sox2, Klf4 and c-Myc.

By using vector molecules to carry the extra DNA into the fibroplast, where they were switched on using chemical treatments or electrical impulses, they started to produce proteins that caused the cells to become iPS cells. From these iPS cells they were able to reprogram the cells into the three major tissue types from which all organs of the mammalian body are formed: ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm.