What science might be doing for you

From super-charged batteries to longer-lasting youth, Dr Shane Bergin - a physicist at the School of Education at UCD - looks at some of the most exciting research projects currently under way in Ireland

 
Science is a way of looking at the world. The day-to-day habits of scientists have resulted in deeper understandings of questions fundamental to our shared humanity: Where did we come from? What are we made of? Where are we going next? As a physicist in UCD School of Education, I'm lucky enough to work with many of Ireland's most talented scientists. Schooled in a diverse range of scientific disciplines, and bringing their dogged inquisitiveness and creative flair to the most abstract of topics, the work of these scientists is always ambitious and often life-changing.

Imagining a world where every-day electronic materials heal themselves and mimic the human brain in how they learn, physicist Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (NUI Galway) works with tiny wires that are thousands of times thinner than a strand of hair. These wires are merely a few atoms wide and, as such, behave differently to their larger equivalents that may power your kettle. Working with a mesh of tiny wires, Jessamyn can access their quirky properties. The result is electronics that self-heal when damaged and even learn from past behaviour. One might imagine that cannier electronics may make objects like your smart phone, smarter.

While Jessamyn's work may increase the IQ of your phone, chemist Prof. Valeria Nicolosi (Trinity College Dublin) is busy building batteries that could see an end to nomophobia (the fear of being without a functioning mobile phone). Valeria's batteries rely on flat molecules, a few atoms thick, that store incredible amounts of charge. She and her team hope their work might lead to batteries that can be recharged in minutes and last many times longer than existing technology. Fast-charge, long-life batteries would not only have impact on your mobile, they would go a long way to making electric cars viable.

Considering approximately one-third of the food we eat comes from crops that benefit from insect pollination, it's nice to know that people like ecologist Dr Dara Stanley (NUI Galway) are looking at the effect insecticides have on pollinators like bees. Dara writes that even low levels negatively impact bees' foraging behaviour. Bees are an essential cog in the agricultural world helping many plants to mate and produce fruit. It's hoped Dara's work can positively impact upon farming practices and ensure their impact on the surrounding environment is green.

Alongside busy Irish bees, an incredible 1.5million pigs call Ireland home. Agricultural scientist Prof. John O'Doherty (UCD) is interested in how pigs' food affects their wellbeing. John has spent his career understanding the effects of adding seaweed to pigs' diet - something he first learned on the Co Clare farm where he grew up. According to John's research, it seems that adding seaweed extract to pig-feed improves the health of their gut, reducing sickness in the herd. A healthy herd, it's hoped, would mean fewer medicines being used in animals destined for our dinner plate.

It's estimated that if you are in a room with 100 people for an hour, your body will be exposed to approximately five viruses. Luckily, your immune system shields you from all but a few of these would-be attackers. Asking whether this defence system might be called on to also protect you from obesity or type-2 diabetes, Prof. Lydia Lynch (Trinity College Dublin) researches how special lipids (or fats) might influence the immune system into taking action. Considering obesity and type-2 diabetes do shorten lives, remedies to reduce their incidence are eagerly anticipated.

Zoologist Prof. Emma Teeling (UCD) has spent 20 years asking questions about bats. Beyond being the only mammal that can fly, bats can live an incredibly long time for a creature of their size and speedy metabolic rate. Emma ponders how exactly bats grow old without ageing. To learn from how they have evolved to do this, she looks at the main crossover between humans and their winged cousins - DNA. Looking to spot the difference between the genetic codes of humans and bats, Emma may yet stumble on a formula for longer lasting youth.

Most scientists agree that it is only a matter of time before we discover alien life. New generations of telescopes have shown the faint shadows of thousands of planets orbiting far away stars. Asking if there's anybody out there is physicist Prof. Aline Vidotto (Trinity College Dublin) who is interested in solar winds and their interaction with orbiting planets. This same interaction, she hypothesises, may in fact be the key to discovering which worlds may be home to little green men (in reality, any alien life we observe will, most likely, be primordial goo). Thanks to the Earth's iron core, an invisible magnetic shield protects us from our Sun's life-threatening solar winds. Along with liquid water, and being the right distance from your star, it's thought a magnetic shield is needed for life to evolve. It's hoped Aline's work can help point to far-off planets that have such a shield and then, maybe, alien life.

These are but a few of the quirky areas that fascinate scientists in Ireland. Like many others, these researchers are driven primarily by curiosity and rarely by the potential long-term impacts of their inquiry. History has undoubtedly shown, however, that societies that value such explorers reap significant rewards - on their health, their wealth, and their quality of life.

Tuesday 30 January 2018 Independent.ie

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