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Curious Kids: why do I have boogies and why does my nose keep replicating them?

Curious Kids: why do I have boogies and why does my nose keep replicating them?

Is that what I think it is? Shutterstock.

Why do I have boogies and why does my nose keep replicating them? – Duncan, aged seven, Sydney, Australia.

Boogies, bogeys or even boogers – whatever you call them, the little bits of dry snot (or “mucus”) that form in your nose actually help protect you from harm.

Your nose makes mucus to help collect the tiny dust and dirt particles in the air you breathe, to stop them getting into your lungs.

The mucus also contains special molecules (with interesting names like “immunoglobulins” and “enzymes”) that help protect you against infection or break down the dirt that you pick up from the outside air.

Mucus is usually runny, but since you breathe through your nose (as well as your mouth) the air flowing through it will dry out some of the mucus and dirt. That’s what forms the little nuggets at the front of your nose you call “boogies”.

Curious Kids is a series by The Conversation, which gives children the chance to have their questions about the world answered by experts. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskids@theconversation.com. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we’ll do our very best.

An adult’s nose produces about 750ml of mucus every day – that’s about the same as ¾ of a carton of orange juice. That sounds like a lot, but most of it flows down inside the nose to the back of your mouth, where you swallow it without even thinking about it.

Cleaning machine

The mucus is produced by tiny little cells in the lining of your nose and sinuses, which are air pockets in your face.

Tiny little hair-like endings on the cells (called cilia) beat the mucus towards the back of your nose.

If you looked at the cilia under a microscope, you might see them all waving in the same direction.

Clear or colourful?

Mucus is normally clear, but you might have noticed that bogeys can come in different colours. Remember, your bogeys pick up particles in the air you breathe, so it’s normal for them to be different colours sometimes.

But if your bogeys are pink, red or brown, it might mean the inside of your nose is bleeding. And if your bogeys have a green or yellow tinge, it might be a sign that your body is fighting back against an infection.

Whatever colour they are, your bogeys are a sign that your nose is working to protect you.

Children can have their own questions answered by experts – just send them in to Curious Kids, along with the child’s first name, age and town or city. You can:

Here are some more Curious Kids articles, written by academic experts:

The Conversation

Carl Philpott receives funding from NIHR, Rosetrees, Sir Jules Thorn Trust and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He is affiliated with the charity Fifth Sense.


NASA Opens Accreditation for Launch of Mission to Explore Ionosphere

[rNASA Opens Accreditation for Launch of Mission to Explore Ionosphere NASA has opened media accreditation for the launch of its Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission, targeted to be air-launched over the Atlantic Ocean on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket Wednesday, Oct. 9. Source: NASA Breaking news http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-accreditation-for-launch-of-mission-to-explore-ionosphere

How pregnancy changes women’s metabolism and immune systems

How pregnancy changes women’s metabolism and immune systems

Some changes are more noticeable than others during pregnancy. Thanakorn.P/Shutterstock

Some of the changes that happen to a woman’s body during pregnancy are more obvious than others. We all know that women usually get a visible bump, they might have morning sickness initially, and swollen ankles later on, but pregnancy can also change some of their key bodily processes and functions too.

One of these less obvious changes occurs to women’s metabolism. This is the way the body uses dietary sugars, fats and proteins to provide the energy and building blocks needed to ensure the proper functioning of cells, tissues and organs.

As pregnancy progresses, women develop insulin resistance, becoming diabetic-like. This is to ensure plenty of glucose reaches the baby and the placenta so that they grow and develop appropriately. To ensure her own energy demands are met too, a pregnant woman stores fat early on and then burns it as an energy source later. So, when a pregnant woman is at her largest – during the last 13 weeks of pregnancy – she is burning fat perhaps like never before.

Immune system changes

The immune system changes during pregnancy too. These changes contribute to the success of the pregnancy, and are generally thought to be caused by the many hormonal changes that occur while women are with child.

If we consider that a baby is half-mum and half-dad, the mother’s immune system must be tightly regulated so that it doesn’t reject the baby like it would a transplanted organ. This is achieved by altering the numbers, location and/or activity of multiple subsets of maternal immune cells. Monocytes (a type of white blood cell) become more active, for example, while neutrophils (another type of white blood cell) increase in number. Both of these cell types play a role in defending the body against bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Changes also occur in the body’s T cells – a type of lymphocyte (which are also white blood cells) that has an important role in what is known as immunological memory. This is where the immune system “remembers” that it has encountered a particular danger before and enables the immune system to make a quicker response on a second or subsequent exposure. T cells do this by secreting lots of different types of proteins and other mediators (chemicals that are secreted to make other cells respond in a particular way). Different patterns of these mediators support different types of immune responses. Some are good for fighting viruses, others for fighting bacteria. And disruption of these patterns of mediators is linked to cancer and autoimmune disease.

While these immune system changes protect babies, they also make pregnant women more vulnerable to severe responses to viruses such as influenza. This is because of changes to their immune response. We don’t really understand what the changes are yet, but it is why flu vaccination is recommended to pregnant women.

Women who suffer autoimmune diseases can also experience changes in their disease symptoms while they are pregnant. For example, women with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis often feel better, while women with systemic lupus erythematosus often suffer worsening of their symptoms. Very soon after the baby is born, patterns of autoimmune disease symptoms return to what they were like pre-pregnancy. Again, we don’t really understand why this occurs just yet, but changes to the patterns of mediators made by T cells in pregnancy probably contributes to this.

Cleverly, some of these immune system changes are also harnessed in the womb to optimise growth and development of the baby and placenta. Some immune cell subsets – like the T cells mentioned above and cells known as natural killer (NK) cells – accumulate in the uterus, and provide signalling factors such as proteins and hormones. These act on the placenta via specific receptors to support the passage of nutrients to, and waste from, the baby. Keeping the placenta working properly helps to ensure the baby grows steadily and happily over the course of pregnancy.

Physiological phenomenon

These changes in metabolism and immune function are more than just points of interest, or factors for individual women to be aware of during pregnancy, however. Understanding them can not only help us better understand the natural physiological phenomenon of pregnancy but also why things like miscarriages or preterm births happen, or why some women develop gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia.

In addition, if we can understand why symptoms of autoimmune disease fluctuate before, during and after pregnancy we might be able to better appreciate the immune system features that drive the occurrence of these diseases in general, and identify new ways to treat them.

There is already lots of interest in the overlap between metabolism and the immune system – for example, how energy substrates (sugars, fats and proteins) are used by immune system cells to regulate the immune response, especially when a person has cancer. We think it is changes in the use of these energy substrates by immune cells that also drives the immune system changes that occur in pregnancy.

This is something that our research group is now looking into. Using blood samples from pregnant and not pregnant women, we are studying how different subsets of immune cells use different energy substrates to support their functions. We are mapping how this changes over pregnancy and contributes to the dynamic immune system changes that occur with pregnancy.

If we can learn how our body naturally changes the way it uses these sugars, fats and proteins before, during and after pregnancy we might be able to identify new ways to switch these pathways on or off, and use this to treat cancer and other diseases.

The Conversation

c.a.thornton@swansea.ac.uk receives funding from Diabetes UK.

April Rees and Ben Jenkins do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


MIT Future of Work Report: We Shouldn’t Worry About Quantity of Jobs, But Quality

MIT Future of Work Report: We Shouldn’t Worry About Quantity of Jobs, But Quality

Robots aren’t going to take everyone’s jobs, but technology has already reshaped the world of work in ways that are creating clear winners and losers. And it will continue to do so without intervention, says the first report of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future.

The supergroup of MIT academics was set up by MIT President Rafael Reif in early 2018 to investigate how emerging technologies will impact employment and devise strategies to steer developments in a positive direction. And the headline finding from their first publication is that it’s not the quantity of jobs we should be worried about, but the quality.

Widespread press reports of a looming “employment apocalypse” brought on by AI and automation are probably wide of the mark, according to the authors. Shrinking workforces as developed countries age and outstanding limitations in what machines can do mean we’re unlikely to have a shortage of jobs.

But while unemployment is historically low, recent decades have seen a polarization of the workforce as the number of both high and low-skilled jobs have grown at the expense of the middle-skilled ones, driving growing income equality and depriving the non-college-educated of viable careers.

This is at least partly attributable to the growth of digital technology and automation, the report notes, which are rendering obsolete many middle-skilled jobs based around routine work like assembly lines and administrative support.

That leaves workers to either pursue high-skilled jobs that require deep knowledge and creativity, or settle for low-paid jobs that rely on skills—like manual dexterity or interpersonal communication—that are still beyond machines, but generic to most humans and therefore not valued by employers. And the growth of emerging technology like AI and robotics is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

This isn’t the first report to note this trend. The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report noted how technology is causing a “hollowing out” of labor markets. But the MIT report goes further in saying that the cause isn’t simply technology, but the institutions and policies we’ve built around it.

The motivation for introducing new technology is broadly assumed to be to increase productivity, but the authors note a rarely-acknowledged fact: “Not all innovations that raise productivity displace workers, and not all innovations that displace workers substantially raise productivity.”

Examples of the former include computer-aided design software that makes engineers and architects more productive, while examples of the latter include self-service checkouts and automated customer support that replace human workers, often at the expense of a worse customer experience.

While the report notes that companies have increasingly adopted the language of technology augmenting labor, in reality this has only really benefited high-skilled workers. For lower-skilled jobs the motivation is primarily labor cost savings, which highlights the other major force shaping technology’s impact on employment: shareholder capitalism.

The authors note that up until the 1980s, increasing productivity resulted in wage growth across the economic spectrum, but since then average wage growth has failed to keep pace and gains have dramatically skewed towards the top earners.

The report shies away from directly linking this trend to the birth of Reaganomics (something others have been happy to do), but it notes that American veneration of the shareholder as the primary stakeholder in a business and tax policies that incentivize investment in capital rather than labor have exacerbated the negative impacts technology can have on employment.

That means the current focus on re-skilling workers to thrive in the new economy is a necessary, but not sufficient, solution to the disruptive impact technology is having on work, the authors say.

Alongside significant investment in education, fiscal policies need to be re-balanced away from subsidizing investment in physical capital and towards boosting investment in human capital, the authors write, and workers need to have a greater say in corporate decision-making.

The authors point to other developed economies where productivity growth, income growth, and equality haven’t become so disconnected thanks to investments in worker skills, social safety nets, and incentives to invest in human capital. Whether such a radical reshaping of US economic policy is achievable in today’s political climate remains to be seen, but the authors conclude with a call to arms.

“The failure of the US labor market to deliver broadly shared prosperity despite rising productivity is not an inevitable byproduct of current technologies or free markets,” they write. “We can and should do better.”

Image Credit: Simon Abrams / Unsplash/a>

Source: Singularity Hub:  https://singularityhub.com/2019/09/16/mit-future-of-work-report-we-shouldnt-worry-about-quantity-of-jobs-but-quality/

Climate change is too middle class – here’s how to fix that

Climate change is too middle class – here’s how to fix that

Danny Lawson/PA

Researchers working in the field of climate change communications have, for many years, been confronted with the same puzzle: why, when there is widespread recognition of the importance of climate change, has there not been any sustained demand for action? In opinion polls, people said they cared about climate change, but compared with issues such as immigration, the economy and more recently in the UK, Brexit, they didn’t care that much.

In the past year, however, we have witnessed a genuine shift – a growth in momentum which can be traced variously to the power of a unique Swedish schoolgirl, the social disruption of Extinction Rebellion, and a hard hitting David Attenborough documentary all building on the decades of work done by scientists, NGOs and activists. Public concern about climate change is at an all time high, a number of councils as well as the Scottish government are calling for a climate emergency to be declared, and the liberal media, most notably the Guardian and the BBC, are changing the language of climate to talk of crisis, emergency and catastrophe.

But this is not a balanced shift across all of society. While researchers and the media often discuss political polarisation of climate attitudes, and more recently the generational divide, there is far less discussion of what might be described as climate’s class problem.

The class divide is real

One side of this is clear cut: climate change will disproportionately affect those in the most disadvantaged groups. The other is empirically trickier to pin down, not least because social class itself is subject to a range of different and disputed measures. And while, broadly speaking, climate engagement tends to increase with education and income, these variables are affected by a range of regional, socio-economic and political alignments, and are forever shifting.

Your choice of newspaper can make a big difference.
Robert Adrian Hillman / shutterstock

In my own research, I have found correlations between regional media consumption and climate belief that cut across income-based groups in unpredictable ways. So, for example, readers of The Sun (a right-wing tabloid) showed much higher levels of scepticism than those loyal to the left-leaning Scottish Daily Record, but with no clear link between income and climate belief. Maybe partly because of this, researchers have tended to focus on questions of identity and values rather than class (or race).

But I and many others have a strong sense of this divide. The environmental movement has always had a middle class aura to it and, in spite of attempts to use the language of inclusivity, it has never quite lost this tag. In my research I have seen, among those in the lower economic groups, a marked tendency to use distancing terminology such as “middle class tree-huggers” and “green lobby”. This is fed by a mainstream media that positions environmentalism as the privilege of the wealthy who don’t need to worry about bread and butter issues – as one of my respondents noted, it feels like “fiddling while Rome burns”.

People need to trust the experts

Engaging those in lower income groups is clearly a distinct challenge. In this respect, work I carried out with Chatham House on climate change and willingness to give up meat is enlightening. This research involved focus groups categorised by income across the UK, US, China and Brazil.

We found widespread collapse in public trust across all different groups in both the US and the UK. This extended beyond political actors to the range of voices which feed into public decision making – scientists with an agenda; economists who led us into the financial crisis; lawyers who let politicians off the hook and so on. The result is a real lack of faith in the political process, and a sense of a dysfunctional democracy. And while this crisis in trust was widespread and existed across all groups, the tendency was exaggerated among those in the lowest income groups – those who have been most impacted by decades of neoliberal policies.

Climate change, reliant on expert evidence, is to some degree impacted by this decline in trust. And this becomes more acute when it comes to the framing of solutions – in this case, eating less meat – where people were particularly aware of hypocrisy and the need for climate action to be fair. Who should be forced to eat less steak? And who has the authority and expertise to say so? We found a sense that solutions should not be imposed from on high without any consideration of the challenges of getting through everyday life.

In our focus groups there would be an initial bristle at the mention of measures which might increase the price of meat (of “nanny stateism”), but then fuller discussion of how lives are structured in ways which impose unhealthy diets. Eventually, almost all groups welcomed a meat tax, as long as they would have access to cheap, healthier alternatives which also benefited the planet.

Another example of more effective framing is politician Caroline Lucas’s “frequent flyer levy” which is rooted in the fact of flying is a middle-class addiction (with 15% of the UK population taking 70% of all flights).

And this reframing of climate as about everyday fairness and social justice is embodied in the Green New Deal taking root in the US and all over the world. As US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said: “You want to tell people that their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist?”

This is about a fair and just transition to clean energy with prioritisation of public health, security, housing and jobs at the centre of it. Scotland has now set up a Just Transition Commission aimed at bringing about a transition which also promotes “social cohesion and equality”. This is the seed of a political reframing, which moves climate change from a side issue to one which is integrated into every discussion, every decision and concerns every group. It’s up to a future-thinking media to translate this new political discourse into messaging that reframes the climate action from an exclusive movement to one which is by and for everyone.

This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series

This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.

The Conversation

Catherine Happer received funding for this project from the Avatar Alliance Foundation.

source: The Conversation: Environment

Taking paracetamol during pregnancy may affect the child’s behaviour in early years

Taking paracetamol during pregnancy may affect the child’s behaviour in early years

shutterstock Aleksandra Gigowska/Shutterstock

In the early 1960s, thousands of babies were born with malformed limbs as a result of their mother taking thalidomide – a drug used to treat morning sickness. The tragedy rocked the medical establishment and made doctors wonder what other drugs might have foetus-harming effects.

Several studies were launched to try to spot other foetus-harming (teratogenic) drugs. However, these studies were based on the assumption that any harm would be obvious at birth or soon after. So subtle effects, or those where an effect would not be obvious until the child was older (a teenager or even an adult), would be unlikely to be spotted.

More recently, scientists have begun to wonder whether paracetamol (a painkiller) could have a teratogenic effect. This is an important question as at least half of all pregnant women in Europe and the US take the drug during pregnancy – even if only occasionally.

There have been several studies, starting in the 1990s, designed to monitor mothers during pregnancy and then follow up their children. The most notable have taken place in Norway and Denmark. The researchers noted which drugs were taken in pregnancy, whether prescribed or bought over the counter, and followed up the children. Both studies found associations between mothers taking paracetamol in pregnancy and later behavioural problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in the child.

Our latest study, published in the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, also looked at the potential effects of taking paracetamol during pregnancy. Although our sample size is smaller than the Scandinavian studies mentioned earlier (almost 14,000 children, rather than 60,000 or more), we had more data on the children and it was collected more often.

Read more:
Thalidomide: the drug with a dark side but an enigmatic future

Avon study

In our study, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, we considered maternal paracetamol intake during a defined period – from 18 to 32 weeks of pregnancy, for which we had the best information on the reasons the drug was taken. We wanted to know whether children whose mothers had taken paracetamol during these three months of pregnancy had different temperaments, behaviours or IQ compared with children whose mothers had not taken paracetamol during this time.

We explored 135 different outcomes in these children. For cognition (the ability to think and reason), we used tests administered by psychologists. And for temperament and behaviour, we considered scales in questionnaires that the mothers had completed about their children annually during the first ten years of their lives. In particular, we assessed the children’s hyperactivity and attention, aggression, emotional problems, difficulties relating to peers, sociability and a composite score of difficult behaviour.

In parallel, and oblivious to the answers given by the mothers, their teachers completed similar questionnaire scales on the children’s behaviour at ages seven and eight years and ten and 11 years.

Psychologists administered the cognition tests.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Of the 135 outcomes we investigated, we found only one associated with cognition. But 12 outcomes were associated with differences in behaviour and temperament. And these associations couldn’t be explained by things like headache, backache, infection, income and lifestyle as we’d taken these factors into account in our statistical analysis.

Read more:
What’s the point of paracetamol?

These results were mostly concerned with difficult behaviour and hyperactivity, as well as poor attention span. We found that as the child got older, the associations weakened. They were strongest among those aged three and four but had disappeared by age eight, whether we used the reports from mothers or teachers.

The fact that the children outgrew these difficult behaviours is reassuring, but it raises the question of whether other associations will be found in teenage years. Meanwhile, it is sensible to suggest that pregnant women should reduce their intake of drugs, including over-the-counter drugs, whenever possible, since no drug can be proven to be entirely safe for the unborn child.

The Conversation

Jean Golding does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


It’s wrong to assume that the choice not to vaccinate is always down to ignorance

It’s wrong to assume that the choice not to vaccinate is always down to ignorance

The WHO withdrew measles-free status from the UK after there were 991 reported outbreaks of the disease last year. Sascha Steinbach/EPA

More than 30,000 children will have started school this term without being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) amid a startling increase in cases of measles in England and Wales.

In 2018, there were 991 reported cases of measles in the UK, after which the World Health Organisation was obliged to withdraw the UK’s measles-free status, which was awarded in 2017. This raises questions about why some people are still choosing not to vaccinate their children.

Most people in the UK accept that vaccination is safe and effective at preventing the suffering associated with preventable disease. But the proportion of children in the UK who aren’t up to date with their MMR vaccinations seems to be increasing. This may have less to do with access to information than it does with social factors.

Many experts wonder why this is the case, given that there is abundant, clear and readily available evidence for the safety and effectiveness of routine vaccinations. There is no single answer to this question. Parents and guardians who don’t vaccinate their children are a mixed group with varying views on vaccination.

Some might not vaccinate due to a lack of engagement with healthcare services. Others might worry about the side effects of the vaccines. Vaccination might not be a part of their cultural or societal norms, or it might be at odds with their religious views. Others may mistrust expert opinions that advocate for vaccination – they may take the facts about vaccine effectiveness and safety to be fake truths.

Some of the people who reject the evidence for the benefits of vaccination become dedicated “anti-vaxxers”, people who eschew vaccination altogether. A larger group of people who are suspicious of vaccination become “hesitant” and delay or pick and choose from the vaccination programme.

It is often suggested that if only anti-vaxxers and vaccine-hesitant groups could be convinced of the evidence for vaccination they would be converted away from their position. But our latest research suggests that far from being the result of ignorance, vaccination hesitancy is found even among certain medical professionals.

Cliques of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

When we asked junior doctors about their thoughts about taking the seasonal flu vaccination, many had similar concerns to what we might expect from the general public. Some were worried about potential side effects or said they didn’t have time to vaccinate themselves, or even mentioned a dislike for needles.

Some junior doctors avoided vaccination because they previously experienced a physical reaction. Others were influenced by the practices of colleagues, or importantly, because their social group was against it.

One junior doctor said she would avoid the vaccination because her friends were avoiding it. She felt that, on vaccination “there are little cliques of the ‘yes’s and the ‘no’s”.

So it seems that even some doctors, who are trained to be advocates of vaccination, and are more able than most to access the relevant scientific literature, can be hesitant about vaccination.

Whatever the reasons behind non-vaccination, the fall in MMR vaccine take up is worrying public health professionals. Measles, mumps and rubella can have serious health consequences, both for sufferers and for those they come into contact with. Not every child can be vaccinated, often because they have a compromised immune system. But if nearly everyone is vaccinated, the spread of the disease is effectively halted, a feature known as herd immunity. Because measles, in particular, is very contagious, at least 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated to gain this immunity.

Herd immunity is one reason why some vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-averse parents have children who, though never vaccinated, have not yet contracted the disease. It is not, as some parents claim, down to their use of alternative medical practices.

The average level of vaccination in the UK is likely to vary from place to place. Whereas in some places it may be above or at the 95% mark, in others it may be below. In these latter areas, outbreaks are more likely.

Some doctors are now calling for compulsory MMR jabs in schools to put a certain stop to the spread of measles. As our research shows, appealing to the rationality of parents doesn’t always work, and so this approach may only stir up more opposition.

To reach the anti-vaxxers and vaccine-hesitant parents, we need to understand the complex and varied reasons people avoid vaccination, rather than assuming they are ignorant.

The Conversation

Rhiannon Edge received funding from The Colt Foundation who supported her studentship whilst she conducted research exploring the seasonal influenza vaccination practices of healthcare professionals.

Thomas Keegan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


What neuroscientists are learning about our brains in space by launching themselves into zero gravity flight

What neuroscientists are learning about our brains in space by launching themselves into zero gravity flight

Image courtesy of author

More than 500 people have travelled into space to date and, while we know a little about how life without gravity affects our physical health, we know almost nothing about how it affects our minds.

So, my colleagues and I have been launching ourselves, rigs of equipment and our participants into “zero gravity flight” to perform experiments. It’s a thrilling – and sometimes extremely nauseating – life, but its opening new windows into how we think and perceive differently in space. This is no doubt important if we want to colonise outer space.

Living without gravity can be more than disconcerting – it can affect our health and the way our brains work. Rick Partington/ Shutterstock

Weightlessness is a key component of the spaceflight experience. Since the first space missions, however, it’s been clear weightlessness causes a variety of health issues – particularly degrading muscle mass, causing disorientation and blurred vision.

This should not be surprising as all living organisms have evolved under the constant “1g” of gravitational force. But we also need to find out how weightlessness influences our perception and behaviour. Without going to the International Space Station (ISS), the best way to do this is on a zero gravity flight. During these flights, a refitted Airbus A310 aircraft follows the trajectory of a parabola. This means it alternates between rises and descents, at a 45° angle of inclination.

Each parabola starts with a “pull-up” acceleration phase in which the gravitational load is double Earth gravity (hypergravity, 2g). This lasts about 20 seconds. The pilots then let the aircraft drop into “free-fall”. For the next 20 seconds, everything and everybody on board the aircraft is exposed to weightlessness (microgravity, 0g). Once the craft reaches a particular angle of tilt, the pilots perform a “pull-out” acceleration, in which gravity is again double. This is repeated up to 30 times and the entire flight lasts around three hours.

Bumpy ride

Doing science on these roller coaster parabolic flight manoeuvres is very challenging. There are severe constraints on time. Whatever the experiment requires, it has to be performed in about 20 seconds.

Because several experiments must go up together, space is also tight. So, forget the comfort of a lab. Instead, visualise a 1.5 x 1.5 metres allocated habitat – in which your equipment, experimenters and participants all need to fit. You can’t risk mistakes so each experimental step, even each movement, needs to be perfectly planned. These movements must also be perfectly synchronised with drops and lifts of the plane. Like a dance, we choreograph and rehearse in the days before lift off.

To me, the real challenge of doing science on a parabolic flight is dealing with motion sickness. It is not by chance that parabolic flights have earned the nickname “Vomit Comet”.

On Earth, we have a system in our inner ear that tells us the direction and amount of gravitational pull, relative to the position of our heads (the vestibular system). In weighlessness, the 1g pull we have experienced our whole lives disappears. The vestibular system can no longer function as it should, often leading to space motion sickness (which mimics a severe car motion sickness), nausea and vomiting.

The science

Why embark on such an adventure? This is the ultimate frontier of understanding how the brain can adapt to new environments and demands in microgravity. On a practical level, understanding the brain’s response to weightlessness is necessary to ensure the success and safety of future manned space missions.

We have also been investigating the effect of gravity on the perception of our own body weight. So far research has looked largely at how society and culture affects body weight perception. And we know that body satisfaction, body image and risk for eating disorders play a role.

However, the true weight of our body – like any other object on Earth – depends on the pull of gravity. Because of this, we predicted the way we perceive our own body weight would also be dependent on the pull of gravity. We asked participants to estimate the weight of their hand and their head both in normal terrestrial gravity and during exposure to microgravity and hypergravity on a European Space Agency parabolic flight campaign at the German Aerospace Center (DLR Cologne).

We showed that alterations of gravity produced rapid changes in perceived weight: there was an increase in perceived weight during hypergravity, and a decrease during microgravity.

While this might seem obvious – our actual weight changes accordingly – it’s important, because perceptions of our body weight, shape and position are critical to successful movement and interactions with our surroundings. The fact that we are researching such basic things just goes to show how little we actually know about it. Imagine, for example, that you are an astronaut operating levers to control a robotic space arm. Misunderstanding the weight of your own arm could cause you to pull too hard, swinging the arm into the side of your spacecraft.

Ultimately, we aim to understand how the human brain builds a representation of gravity and uses it in cognition to guide behaviour. We have previously shown that gravity may influence how we make decisions, with a lack of it potentially making us more risk-averse. This sort of research has never been more timely and it yields advantages for enhancing human performance in upcoming space exploration.

Me in my flight suit on a recent trip into the atmosphere. Courtesy of author

We may have underestimated the effects of gravity on our cognition so far because gravity is so stable on Earth. It is arguably the most persistent sensory signal in the brain. I predict the next couple of decades will reveal a lot about how gravity has been affecting the way we think, feel and act – without us even noticing.

In the meantime, I am enjoying the ride – weightlessness is the best experience I have ever had. The pilots announce “3, 2, 1, INJECT”, and there you are floating. There are no bodily constraints, just effortless movements and unpredicted movements of your limbs that lead to euphoria, excitement and enhanced awareness of your body. It is very hard to sum up experience – I can only say it’s a feeling of awe and freedom.

The Conversation

Elisa Raffaella Ferrè received funding from the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Low Gravity Association Research (ELGRA) and the UK Royal Society to conduct this research.

Source: The Conversation: Technology http://theconversation.com/what-neuroscientists-are-learning-about-our-brains-in-space-by-launching-themselves-into-zero-gravity-flight-122359

Brad Pitt to Speak with NASA Astronaut on Space Station about Artemis Program

[rBrad Pitt to Speak with NASA Astronaut on Space Station about Artemis Program As NASA prepares to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program, Brad Pitt is playing an astronaut in his latest film, and now the actor will have the opportunity to discuss what it’s truly like to live and work in space with a NASA crew member living aboard the International Space Station. Source: NASA Breaking news http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/brad-pitt-to-speak-with-nasa-astronaut-on-space-station-about-artemis-program

Will AI Be Fashion Forward—or a Fashion Flop?

Will AI Be Fashion Forward—or a Fashion Flop?

The narrative that often accompanies most stories about artificial intelligence these days is how machines will disrupt any number of industries, from healthcare to transportation. It makes sense. After all, technology already drives many of the innovations in these sectors of the economy.

But sneakers and the red carpet? The definitively low-tech fashion industry would seem to be one of the last to turn over its creative direction to data scientists and machine learning algorithms.

However, big brands, e-commerce giants, and numerous startups are betting that AI can ingest data and spit out Chanel. Maybe it’s not surprising, given that fashion is partly about buzz and trends—and there’s nothing more buzzy and trendy in the world of tech today than AI.

In its annual survey of the $3 trillion fashion industry, consulting firm McKinsey predicted that while AI didn’t hit a “critical mass” in 2018, it would increasingly influence the business of everything from design to manufacturing.

“Fashion as an industry really has been so slow to understand its potential roles interwoven with technology. And, to be perfectly honest, the technology doesn’t take fashion seriously.” This comment comes from Zowie Broach, head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Arts, who as a self-described “old fashioned” designer has embraced the disruptive nature of technology—with some caveats.

Co-founder in the late 1990s of the avant-garde fashion label Boudicca, Broach has always seen tech as a tool for designers, even setting up a website for the company circa 1998, way before an online presence became, well, fashionable.

Broach told Singularity Hub that while she is generally optimistic about the future of technology in fashion—the designer has avidly been consuming old sci-fi novels over the last few years—there are still a lot of difficult questions to answer about the interface of algorithms, art, and apparel.

For instance, can AI do what the great designers of the past have done? Fashion was “about designing, it was about a narrative, it was about meaning, it was about expression,” according to Broach.

AI that designs products based on data gleaned from human behavior can potentially tap into the Pavlovian response in consumers in order to make money, Broach noted. But is that channeling creativity, or just digitally dabbling in basic human brain chemistry?

She is concerned about people retaining control of the process, whether we’re talking about their data or their designs. But being empowered with the insights machines could provide into, for example, the geographical nuances of fashion between Dubai, Moscow, and Toronto is thrilling.

“What is it that we want the future to be from a fashion, an identity, and design perspective?” she asked.

Off on the Right Foot

Silicon Valley and some of the biggest brands in the industry offer a few answers about where AI and fashion are headed (though not at the sort of depths that address Broach’s broader questions of aesthetics and ethics).

Take what is arguably the biggest brand in fashion, at least by market cap but probably not by the measure of appearances on Oscar night: Nike. The $100 billion shoe company just gobbled up an AI startup called Celect to bolster its data analytics and optimize its inventory. In other words, Nike hopes it will be able to figure out what’s hot and what’s not in a particular location to stock its stores more efficiently.

The company is going even further with Nike Fit, a foot-scanning platform using a smartphone camera that applies AI techniques from fields like computer vision and machine learning to find the best fit for each person’s foot. The algorithms then identify and recommend the appropriately sized and shaped shoe in different styles.

No doubt the next step will be to 3D print personalized and on-demand sneakers at any store.

San Francisco-based startup ThirdLove is trying to bring a similar approach to bra sizes. Its 20-member data team, Fortune reported, has developed the Fit Finder quiz that uses machine learning algorithms to help pick just the right garment for every body type.

Data scientists are also a big part of the team at Stitch Fix, a former San Francisco startup that went public in 2017 and today sports a market cap of more than $2 billion. The online “personal styling” company uses hundreds of algorithms to not only make recommendations to customers, but to help design new styles and even manage the subscription-based supply chain.

Future of Fashion

E-commerce giant Amazon has thrown its own considerable resources into developing AI applications for retail fashion—with mixed results.

One notable attempt involved a “styling assistant” that came with the company’s Echo Look camera that helped people catalog and manage their wardrobes, evening helping pick out each day’s attire. The company more recently revisited the direct consumer side of AI with an app called StyleSnap, which matches clothes and accessories uploaded to the site with the retailer’s vast inventory and recommends similar styles.

Behind the curtains, Amazon is going even further. A team of researchers in Israel have developed algorithms that can deduce whether a particular look is stylish based on a few labeled images. Another group at the company’s San Francisco research center was working on tech that could generate new designs of items based on images of a particular style the algorithms trained on.

“I will say that the accumulation of many new technologies across the industry could manifest in a highly specialized style assistant, far better than the examples we’ve seen today. However, the most likely thing is that the least sexy of the machine learning work will become the most impactful, and the public may never hear about it.”

That prediction is from an online interview with Leanne Luce, a fashion technology blogger and product manager at Google who recently wrote a book called, succinctly enough, Artificial Intelligence and Fashion.

Data Meets Design

Academics are also sticking their beakers into AI and fashion. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Adobe Research have previously demonstrated that neural networks, a type of AI designed to mimic some aspects of the human brain, can be trained to generate (i.e., design) new product images to match a buyer’s preference, much like the team at Amazon.

Meanwhile, scientists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are working with China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, on developing a FashionAI Dataset to help machines better understand fashion. The effort will focus on how algorithms approach certain building blocks of design, what are called “key points” such as neckline and waistline, and “fashion attributes” like collar types and skirt styles.

The man largely behind the university’s research team is Calvin Wong, a professor and associate head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing. His group has also developed an “intelligent fabric defect detection system” called WiseEye for quality control, reducing the chance of producing substandard fabric by 90 percent.

Wong and company also recently inked an agreement with RCA to establish an AI-powered design laboratory, though the details of that venture have yet to be worked out, according to Broach.

One hope is that such collaborations will not just get at the technological challenges of using machines in creative endeavors like fashion, but will also address the more personal relationships humans have with their machines.

“I think who we are, and how we use AI in fashion, as our identity, is not a superficial skin. It’s very, very important for how we define our future,” Broach said.

Image Credit: Inspirationfeed / Unsplash

Source: Singularity Hub:  https://singularityhub.com/2019/09/15/will-ai-be-fashion-forward-or-a-fashion-flop/