Category Archives: Science and Tech

“It Only Takes One Bad Apple…”

By Maddy Simpkins

Try to imagine the simple indulgence of biting into a perfectly juicy apple. The tartness of the fruit mixed with that familiar, satisfying ‘crunch’ is what holds the apple-eating experience high above any other type of produce. What if I told you there could be a way to make your enjoyment of this healthy snack infinitely more wholesome?

You know when you cut up an apple into pieces, perhaps to eat for later or to share with a friend, the slices begin to turn brown. As the fruit’s exposure to oxygen increases, the browning occurs. This is discolouration is due to a chemical process called enzymatic oxidation.  Apples are not unique in this case – bananas, avocados, potatoes, and even shrimp are among the foods that are commonly effected by natural oxidation. However, through the innovative industry of biotechnology, the once thought to be inevitable issue of apples browning too soon has recently been proven preventable.

A promising Canadian biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. (OSF) recently trademarked a strain of apples designed to bypass the entire browning process. Introducing “Arctic Apples” required a plethora of genetic-engineering precision, using a specific ‘gene-silencing’ method to nullify the expression of polyphenol oxidase, the agent responsible for the browning.

In the economic world the browning of food is a detrimental cost, as the value of the market goods begins to depreciate. Methods of preventing enzymatic oxidation are available, yet each operation manipulates a different biochemical process. There is the addition of acids, such as lemon juice, to decrease the pH level and kill the copper cofactor which is essential for enzyme functionality. “Blanching”, better known as roasting, destroys all responsible reactants. Lowering temperatures can also prevent browning by reducing the rate of reaction. Finally, utilizing other chemicals like sodium bisulfate or nitrogen prevents the oxygen necessary for browning from reacting. Nevertheless, the alteration of our food is a growing demand as we live in a time where we simply don’t have the patience for these inconvenient means of preservation.

Various oppositions concerning these new apples voiced that they may pose an un-assessed risk to human health, that they are an attack on mother nature, and others believe they are just plain redundant. Sarah Dobec, board member of the Canadian Organic Growers, based out of Toronto, speaks for her association: “We really just think it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Apples brown for a reason and that’s nature telling us that it’s slowly degrading or oxidizing, so to remove that function of the biology of the apple doesn’t seem to serve anybody really.”

The fruit industries in Canada and other Western countries must have their produce withstand strenuous inspections prior to selling for human consumption. In other words, your apple will be classified, graded, and scanned for any uncommon aesthetics or traits. The new Arctic Apple is quoted as having “more eye appeal, more mouth appeal, and more nutritional appeal” (arcticapples.com). Yet despite the company’s fantastic use of word play, the a-peeling product will not be hitting stores in 2015, but a small quantity may be available in the US next year, where the deregulation of GMO products is speedy. In Canada, it is a “seven to ten year process to research, develop, test and assess the safety of a new genetically modified food”,  but Health Canada goes on to state that the labelling of these items is discretional: “The Government of Canada recognizes that for many Canadians, labelling of foods derived from biotechnology is an important issue of consumer preference or choice (…) a Canadian standard for voluntary labelling of GE foods entitled Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods that Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering was developed to address non-health and safety labelling.” In a nutshell, the meagreness of enforcement and regulation of newly-introduced genetically altered foods, and the lack of definitive legislation within Canada is quite an ambiguous gesture for a nation who is in the arms of Big Pharma (biopharmaceuticals) and is the birthplace of many flourishing private biotech companies.

The way the saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. But in this case, the controversy itself is much like our apples: once left out in the open and fully exposed to the elements, it is subject to deterioration. Without labelling, consumers lose the power to make their own judgements. And without the support of the consumers, the reasoning for creating more unpredictable, altered foods will no doubt begin to brown.

The Diplomat – A world of extremes!

By Alessandra Goio

Finally, spring! The sun is shining again and the new edition of the Diplomat will soon be published. This time we decided to explore the extremes that characterise our world.

Today, when we think about something extreme, we immediately link this idea to the world of Islam. To make us understand from where Islamist terrorism comes from, Jana drew a historical overview of this phenomenon. However, Alessandra reminds us that extremism is not just about Jihad and ISIS, but it can happen everywhere if the right conditions are met. Ilaria colours the debate by looking at eco-terrorism. She looks at the violent practices adopted by movements fighting in the name of animal and the environmental rights, when protection is not guaranteed by the authorities.

Extremism also manifests itself in the realm of Western politics, and this is the central theme of Alex’s article. Narrowing down the focus to Europe, Victoria and Gesine analyse the rise of Pegida in Germany as one form of extremism against another.

Extremes are not just about politics, but they are all around us. Zach looks into natural disasters as extreme phenomena. As global warming threatens our future, he investigates whether instances of extreme weather should still be considered as such, or if they are becoming the norm.

Sebastian focuses on the economy and its extreme manifestations and staying in the realm of economics, Marta turns the spotlight on to corporations. She tries to determine how dangerous their interests can become for the sovereignty of the modern State. Patricia adopts an historical point of view as she analyses the Spanish Inquisition. At that time, what we call now extremism was the norm.

Extremes can be studied also in psychological terms. This is what Lucia does, by exploring the world of Facebook and its consequences on human behaviour. Lifestyles can be also extreme and in order to explain this Kaloyan refers to the example of the movie “Rush”. Last but not least, Maddy looks at the opposition between anthropocentrism and eco-centrism. They represent two world views for the future of our planet.

This is just a taste of what the Diplomat is going to be about. If you want to feed your mind with interesting ideas and opinions, the Diplomat is definitely for you.

Where No Probe Has Gone Before

By Alexander Holst

Forty-two years ago was the last time a human set foot on the moon, marking the end of the Apollo 17 mission. Upon leaving the lunar surface on December 14th, 1972, astronaut Gene Cernan remarked
“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

In the four decades since the last Apollo Mission, humans have not travelled further than to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit. NASA’s Orion program is not scheduled to bring humans to the Moon and beyond before 2021. Until then, humanity relies on unmanned space crafts for exploring the vast unknown. And our machines have been busy:  Voyager 1, launched in 1977, was the first probe to leave the solar system and reach interstellar space in 2012. While NASA’s rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are still driving around Mars, more space crafts on their way to the Red Planet. The Juno probe is scheduled to reach Jupiter in 2016. And Saturn has been orbited by Cassini for over 10 years.

Last month, Philae, part of the European Space Agency’s mission Rosetta, was the first human-made object to land on a comet. Its arrival on the surface was bumpy. Literally. Due to malfunctioning landing harpoons, Philae bounced back twice before settling on the surface. Upon arrival, the lander did not only shoot magnificent pictures, but also began to analyze the comet’s chemical composition and internal structure.

Comets are cosmic objects consisting of rock, dust, frozen gases and water. They are considered to be primitive building blocks of the solar system. Scientists hope that data collected by Philae will lead to new insights about the birth of our planets. Comets are also suspected to have played a key role in bringing water and organic molecules to Earth, thus contributing to the conditions in which the earliest life forms could form on our home planet over 3.5 billion years ago.

A few days after its landing, Philae sent its last signal at November 15th. Having exhausted its battery, the lander went into hibernation. Scientists hope for a possible reawakening in August 2015, when the comet has travelled closer to the sun so that Philae’s solar panels might provide enough power to resume its mission. But even if Philae stays silent, exploration of space continues. On December 3rd, the Japanese Space Agency launched Hayabusa 2. The probe is scheduled to arrive at an Asteroid in 2018, retrieve material and return it to Earth in 2020. By then we may have come up with plans to follow in our probes footsteps and send out humans to travel far, far away.

Big Eye is Watching You or: the Black Market is everywhere

By Marta Ziosi

The World’s first e-commerce transaction was a drug deal. In the early 70s students from Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  conducted a small transaction involving a quantity of Marijuana. Nowadays, people might not be aware of what is to be found behind their shiny flat screensbut, I can assure you that a sleepless community relentlessly forges and moulds the ‘Dark Side of the Web’. If you are eager to know more, you better stay wired.

A quick starter: first, what is the black market? As any other market, it is an online hidden platform which includes activities like: production of malware (malicious software), “logistics” – delivering malware to web users and catching their online data – sales (of users’ data), marketing and promotion of cyber-products obtained illegally. It might sound like an utopian, a-temporal thieves’ conclave to our ears. Conclave could actually be a contentious word to express the fake theatre of values and morals playing a big part in the game. ’It is the ultimate irony’ claims a researcher who asked for anonymity ‘a den of thieves who don’t know each other but need to trust each other’. Reputation in fact appears to be crucial in the black market and inspiration is drawn from the most famous and efficient market strategies; two-for-one special loyalty discounts, promotional campaigns (smoke weed day!), money back guarantees, mission statements and a five-star amazon-like rating system backed by several aficionados.

This is what makes the difference. The power here is finally shifted to the customers. Faceless members of society are given the possibility of feeling pampered and nannied by a market powered by their bitcoins (digital currency). What are buyers looking for? Drugs mostly. The advantages in this case are innumerable. First of all, it is physically less dangerous and second of all, the level of purity appears to be quite high thanks to the efficient rating system (FBI itself agreed on this, uhu!). Although there are many markets, the infamous ‘Silk Road’ is one of the biggest drug dealing sites. Its shut down, followed by the arrest of the alleged ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ (the site’s founder) lead to the consequent proliferation of other crypto-markets such as ‘Agora’ and ‘Evolution’. The latter, which is also the fastest-growing, appears to have effectively ‘evolved’ from the one-dimensional drug approach, forging and devising a new section regarding ‘Fraud’ where any wannabe kid is provided with a ‘how to’ guide on committing crimes. Perhaps, as the pervious markets were inspired by the Amazon-methods, the latter engaged itself in a celebration of Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses).

These sites have made the Internet Police’s life really hard in the last years, mainly for three different reasons. First of all, the physical separation of buyers and sellers in the market that defies any attempt of tracking culpable parties. Second of all, the technical complexity of the system together with the fact that, as there is no central control, the very concept of accountability is questioned. Eventually, although it may sound paradoxical, the dark net seems to retain some ‘valuable goods’, namely whistleblowers holding useful information.

One thing makes it highly valuable and attractive to several parties: its great potential.

Why the World does not exist!

By Ilaria Gliottone

After over a hundred national and international lectures all over the world, Markus Gabriel ( 34), the youngest Professor in Modern, and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn, came to Maastricht on 28th October to give another of his incredible philosophy lectures. The event, titled “Why the world does not Exist”, organised by Studium Generale, yielded the floor to Professor Gabriel to explain his innovative theory “Why the world does not exist”.

The content of the lecture was extremely broad. Many different and difficult concepts have been proposed and analysed to explain the reasons why the world does not exist. The starting point of the discourse was Gabriel’s explanation of the concept of existence which finds its bases in the Professor’s areas of specialisation: Post-Kantian Continental Philosophy, Metaphysics and Epistemology, and areas of competence: Ancient Philosophy, Aestetics and Philosophy of Religion, eventually described as “appearance in the field of sense”. To give proofs to his theory he presented and clarified a number of concepts, for example, the concept of “proper” properties, and other philosophers’ theories, such as Kant’s regulative idea and his island of truth (Earth) that stays in the middle of the ocean of ignorance.

Moreover, the lecturer illustrated the three elements he formulated to prove his theory of non-existence: first, the “List”, second, the “Cube”, and third, the “Misplaced Concreteness”. The first argument implies the presence of God. The second case states that there is no single answer to any question because of the Conceptual Relativity and the concept of Non-Contradiction. Meanwhile, the third element involves the fallacy of misplaced concreteness which states that human knowledge is an illusion because we cannot explain everything through scientific methods, which was also one of the lecture’s main points.

Another important concept that he pointed out was neuroconstructivism: “your neurones construct what you see”, followed by to the concept of quantification, the existential quantifier and the problem of self inclusion of totality. At the end of this interesting explanation, Professor Gabriel gave a strong, astonishing suggestion which breaks down all the formulated scientific theories: “Don’t think that you can explain something through scientific explanation because that is what is putting us in trouble nowadays”.

The last 30min were dedicated to Q&A. Although time was not enough to investigate such a number of elements and theories in detail, the ones the lecture presented and the additional questions made the event worth a visit: it is always interesting to listen to new theories which might sound “alien” at the beginning, such as the non-existence of the world, but eventually they would all makes sense somehow. Of course they would all create some kind of mess and confusion in our heads that lead us to doubt about ourselves. In this way, Professor Gabriel left us with a big question mark and many doubts: does the world exist or not? Is what we see real or just a projection of our mind? What should I trust: science or my own perspective?

A Nuclear Catharsis

by Borislav Bankov

Controlled, universal disarmament is the imperative of our time”, professes the U.S. President Eisenhower, 14 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, 3 summers later, the Cuban crisis will testify oppositely. It will accredit that rational choice sometimes prevails despite its long history of failures. The following text, drawing war images, rushes the reader into adopting own assumptions on arms’ progress and its consequences.

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