Monday, July 20, 2009

Why astronomers are twittering

Here’s my Lab Report column for the August issue of Prospect…

Visitors to the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire typically take one look at the gigantic dishes of the radio telescopes and ask the same question: what is it looking at? But it’s not just outsiders who wonder that. Astronomers who have been granted viewing time at the big observatories to look at their favourite objects also want quick notification of when the telescopes have done the job. This is just the sort of question for which Twitter was invented: what are you doing now? And so radio astronomer Stuart Lowe at Jodrell Bank proposes that the astronomy community set up an AstroTwitter service dedicated to letting followers know in real time what the world’s telescopes are up to.

A service like this has already been created for NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander, which had 3,000 followers by the time Phoenix touched down on Mars in May of last year. By September it had 35,000. Phoenix is studying the composition of the martian ‘soil’, particularly to look for clues about the planet’s suspected watery (and perhaps habitable) past. It’s arguable that NASA’s decision to put the feeds in the first person (‘I’m on MAAAARS! Now it’s back to work digging for treasure…’) is over-egging the cuteness, but as a public outreach tool the Phoenix twitter was a triumph. Inspired by this, Lowe fantasises about online mash-ups that show the locations of all the telescopes on the globe, each linked to its own twitter stream. And with the help of Google Sky, we could see what’s in the telescope’s sights too. No doubt all the big-science installations will be at it soon: stand by for HiggsTwitter.

A prime candidate for a service like this would be the Mars rover Spirit, currently stuck in deep sand on the martian surface. NASA has set up a web site (with the corny but inevitable tag ‘Free Spirit’) to provide regular updates on efforts to get Spirit out of the sandpit in which it has been trapped since May. This has involved making a mock-up of the predicament at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, lodging a replica of Spirit in a sand tray and trying out escape manoeuvres. A rock revealed by Spirit’s cameras under its ‘belly’ offers some hope of finding purchase. Without the earthbound tests, the scientists fear that any attempted move might just dig the rover in deeper.

Spirit and its companion Opportunity have become the indomitable Wall-Es of Mars, anthropomorphized way beyond Phoenix to the extent that ending the rover missions would now be seen by many as akin to putting down a pair of favourite pets. It’s all projection, of course – no one felt this way about the lunar buggies of the Apollo teams, because there were people around them to identify with. All the same, the Mars rovers have vastly exceeded expectations by remaining active for five years on the planet’s surface, prompting the question of whether humans could do any better. Spirit’s current predicament, however, suggests that future landers on sandy worlds like Mars might be better off with legs rather than wheels. NASA is testing a scorpion-like robot explorer, and last February a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology reported that their six-legged ‘SandBot’ could alter its gait to make good headway in sand that would leave a wheeled vehicle floundering.


After the genome, the proteome and the metabolome, here comes… the shitome? Well, someone has to do it (quite literally, I fear). The microbial community of the gut is vital to human health, and changes in the ecological balance of the 500 or so bacterial species (comprising around a trillion cells per millilitre of faeces) might offer early warnings of disease. So two microbiologists at MIT are planning to look at the genetic sequences of microbes in their stools every day for six to 12 months, tracking changes in the community structure in response to shifts in diet, mood, general health and so forth. Unfortunately, that means storing a lot of frozen samples. At the moment they are going into the freezer of graduate student David Lawrence, apparently next to the chocolate ice cream. The study could reveal a lot about this poorly understood aspect of human biology. But right now, Lawrence’s supervisor Eric Alm admits, ‘it’s just a freezer full of shit.’


Recent research reported in Nature by three international collaborations has revealed that the genetics of schizophrenia involves variants of genes that govern our immune response. Since schizophrenia runs in families, it’s long been clear that genetic factors are at play, even if these may also depend on environmental triggers. The new discovery shows where a significant focus of the genetic origin lies. But it’s important to remember how dispersed the genetic causes are nevertheless. Both these studies and previous work have found links with genetic variants on several of our 23 chromosomes. Earlier talk of “a gene for schizophrenia” merely highlighted the simplistic notion of genetic causality that the genomic age has tended to foster. Illnesses caused by variations in one or just a few genes are rare: more are like this one, caused by poorly understood interactions of many genes. Much has been made of the link reported in the new studies between the genetics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. That’s not a new finding in itself, however, as a paper in the Lancet announced the same thing in January. But the new results help to show where the genetic overlaps occur.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It has been made of the link reported in the new studies between the genetics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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