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Nobel Prize Winner: Give Scientists Time to Make ‘Curiosity-Driven’ Discoveries

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Donna Stickland nobel prize award

Donna Stickland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in December 2018 in Stockholm, Sweden. Her work “paved the way toward the most intense laser pulses ever created.” (Credit: Bengt Nyman/Wikimedia Commons)

Since the announcement that I won the Nobel Prize in physics for chirped pulse amplification, or CPA, there has been a lot of attention on its practical applications.

It is understandable that people want to know how it affects them. But as a scientist, I would hope society would be equally interested in fundamental science. After all, you can’t have the applications without the curiosity-driven research behind it. Learning more about science — science for science’s sake — is worth supporting.

Gérard Mourou, my co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, and I developed CPA in the mid-1980s. It all started when he wondered if we could increase laser intensity by orders of magnitude — or by factors of a thousand. He was my doctoral supervisor at the University of Rochester back then. Mourou suggested stretching an ultrashort pulse of light of low energy, amplifying it and then compressing it. As the graduate student, I had to handle the details.

Revolutionizing Laser Physics

The goal was to revolutionize the field of high-intensity laser physics, a fundamental area of science. We wanted the laser to show us how high-intensity light changes matter, and how matter affects light in this interaction.


Noble Prize winner Donna Strickland in her lab at the University of Waterloo. She was awarded the prize for her groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics which has a variety of applications, including corrective laser eye surgery. (Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

It took me a year to build the laser. We proved that we could increase laser intensity by orders of magnitude. In fact, CPA led to the most intense laser pulses ever recorded. Our findings changed the world’s understanding of how atoms interact with high-intensity light.

It was about a decade before practical uses common today eventually came into view.

Many Practical Applications

Because the high-intensity pulses are short, the laser only damages the area where it’s applied. The result is precise, clean cuts that are ideal for transparent materials. A surgeon can use CPA to slice a patient’s cornea during laser eye surgery. It cleanly cuts the glass parts in our cell phones.

Scientists are taking what we know about high-intensity lasers and are working on a way to use the most intense CPA lasers to accelerate protons.

Hopefully, one day these accelerated particles will help surgeons remove brain tumors that they can’t today. In the future, CPA lasers might remove space junk by pushing it out of our orbit and to the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up and not collide with active satellites.

In many cases, the practical applications lag several years or even decades behind the original findings.

Albert Einstein created the equations for the laser in 1917, but wasn’t until 1960 that Theodore Maiman first demonstrated the laser. Isidor Rabi first measured nuclear magnetic resonance in 1938. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944 for his research, which led to the invention of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. The first MRI exam on a human patient took place in 1977.


Prof. Donna Strickland delivers the Nobel Lecture in Physics 2018.

Certainly, applications deserve a lot of attention. Before you can get to them though, researchers first have to understand the basic questions behind them.

The term fundamental science may give some the false impression that it doesn’t really affect their lives because it seems far removed from anything relatable to them. What’s more, the term basic has the non-scientific definition of simple that undermines its importance in the context of basic science.

We must give scientists the opportunity through funding and time to pursue curiosity-based, long-term, basic-science research. Work that does not have direct ramifications for industry or our economy is also worthy. There’s no telling what can come from supporting a curious mind trying to discover something new.The Conversation

Donna Strickland, Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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