New Frontiers, New Adventures

18 August 2014
This photo, shot across the south-western tip of South Africa, was taken from the International Space Station on 9 May 2013 by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Writing in Wired, Hadfield said: "While I was on the space station, I used Twitter to ask hundreds of thousands of people what they would like me to take a picture of. Resoundingly, the answer was 'home'. After millennia of wandering and settling, we are still most curious about how we fit in and how our community looks in the context of the rest of the world." Image courtesy of NASA/JSC.
This photo, shot across the south-western tip of South Africa, was taken from the International Space Station on 9 May 2013 by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Writing in Wired, Hadfield said: "While I was on the space station, I used Twitter to ask hundreds of thousands of people what they would like me to take a picture of. Resoundingly, the answer was 'home'. After millennia of wandering and settling, we are still most curious about how we fit in and how our community looks in the context of the rest of the world." Image courtesy of NASA/JSC.

"Discoveries in science ... will continue to create a thousand new frontiers for those who would still adventure," said former US president Herbert Clark Hoover. Helen Swingler asked a handful of UCT researchers to speak about their adventures at the outer limits of science.

The debate is over – Climate scientist Professor Mark New

"The debate about whether greenhouse emissions cause climate system warming is over. Frontiers of knowledge in the physical and natural sciences now concern how different aspects of the climate system will respond to overall warming. At the most fundamental level, there is still a lot to understand about feedbacks in the climate system – those internal responses that can act to amplify or dampen the direct greenhouse gas effect.

"In the Southern African context, we have a critical role to play in southern hemisphere climate change research. With regard to carbon cycling, the southern ocean is a key player in ocean carbon cycling, and is very poorly understood. Also, we do not have a good understanding of how carbon cycling in African grasslands and forest biomes will respond to climate change.

"There are also a number of critical research challenges and questions around adaptation. First, the development of methods and techniques that enable the interpretation and development of response strategies that embrace uncertainty; and of course, training practitioners and policymakers to be comfortable with planning for a more climate-resilient society as part of an overall sustainable-development agenda.

"Second, and related, is the need for integration. Climate will impact on society as a whole, so the classical reductionist approach in science, while useful for building basic understanding of components of a system, does not address the complexities of the real-world systems, whether these are cities, food systems, or ecosystems in the larger social-ecological systems we are part of; and in particular, the political-economic realities of responding to climate change.

"We need new paradigms of thinking, drawing on – among others – complexity science and transdisciplinary methodologies. We need to bring together expertise from both the natural and physical sciences, with other disciplines such as law, economics, humanities and health, all on an equal footing."

The emergence of complexity – Cosmologist and Distinguished Emeritus Professor George Ellis

"Key questions for today's cosmology are the nature of dark energy and the nature of dark matter. The nature of dark energy, and particularly why it is so small, is still a mystery.

"There are also many other key areas where new theory and observations are needed to probe the nature of fundamental physics. One example is that we still don't understand the foundations of quantum physics, even though we understand a great deal of how it works.

"There are really great experiments taking place in this regard. This might have repercussions for many questions in physics, cosmology, and even biology – where a key issue is what (if any) genuinely quantum effects influence biology in general, and the brain in particular. For me, that kind of issue – a deeper understanding of the emergence of complexity from the underlying physics and chemistry – is one of the most exciting areas of all.

"We need to do both blue-sky research and research directed at areas of critical need, such as the coming water crisis. The whole point of blue-sky research is that what will come out in genuine discovery is often quite unexpected – for example the nature of quantum theory, of the genetic code, of the way the brain is structured. This can then lead to major, important new applications, such as the existence of transistors and lasers.

"However, research into areas of critical need is essential; indeed, it is our duty to society to work on these areas too – for example, climate change and energy issues on the one hand, and poverty on the other.

"A particular critical area is education. Our educational success or failure relates to how we understand learning processes in the brain. There are some high-profile neuroscientists out there with reductionist views who are advocating disastrously low-level educational methods. Tackling this area should be a high priority for quality interdisciplinary research that takes a deeply human view as well as being fully aware of the latest scientific understandings of brain structure and function."

Under the sea – Marine taxonomist Professor Charles Griffiths

"Some frontiers are tantalisingly close; a mere 1 000 metres under the ocean. We're describing some 30 new marine species a year in South Africa; and many of these are 'on our doorstep' in False Bay, as that's where most of our sampling is done. If we could get deep-sea samples, the majority of the species would be new; but we lack the capacity to collect these samples.

"So, the frontier regarding biodiversity is certainly the deep sea, which is extremely poorly explored. I'd want to get my hands on samples from the 70% of South Africa's Exclusive Economic Zone that lies deeper than 1 000m.

"Continental South Africa has a coastline of some 3 650km, and the EEZ is over one million square kilometres. Waters here are as deep as 5 700m, with more than 65% deeper than 2 000m. Although the coastal zone is quite well sampled, most samples were collected before 1980. And over 99% of existing samples are from depths shallower than 1 000m – in fact, 83% are from less than 100m. The abyssal zone thus remains almost completely unexplored.

"Yes, there are vessels that can take samples, and a handful of submersibles that can physically take researchers down to those depths; but they cost tens of thousands of dollars a day, and we have not been able to raise that type of funding."

Currents of change – Oceanographer Professor Frank Shillington

"Climate change has affected both the scope and the urgency of particular aspects of the various branches of oceanographic research. Firstly, it's impressed on us the need for longer and more comprehensive observations of the ocean, particularly around the southern tip of Africa.

"As researchers, one of the limits on our detailed knowledge of how the physical processes of the ocean behave is not having a comprehensive and detailed observing system. As this has steadily improved, along with the capability to numerically model the coupled ocean-atmosphere system, our knowledge will continue to increase.

"The next big frontier will be to sample the ocean at what are called 'sub-meso' scales, of between one and 10 kilometres.

"Within our context at the tip of Africa, the big unknown is how the great Agulhas Current, sweeping hundreds of tonnes of warm water down the east coast of South Africa towards Port Elizabeth and beyond, will change under changing wind conditions in the Indian Ocean.

"About 80% of this huge current does a U-turn on itself and re-circulates back into the Indian Ocean, but the important remaining part travels into the Atlantic Ocean, supplying both heat and salt to the northern Atlantic Ocean, and thus helping to complete the circuit of the Great Ocean Conveyor, or Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC).

"How this southern surface part of the MOC may change in response to changing wind forcing is being studied through the deployment of a deep-reaching array of moored ocean buoys, from Cape Town to South America, as well as by satellite remote sensing by different radar instruments.

"With the increasing availability of large data sets from satellites, and vast quantities of suitable numerical ocean model output, it is envisaged that big data and its visualisation, analysis and presentation will eventually be required."

Physics: the game-changer – Particle physicist Dr Andrew Hamilton

"The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 was very big news, and completed our understanding of the standard model of particle physics, our current best understanding of the fundamental nature of energy, matter, and force in the context of what is called quantum field theory.

"In many ways it was the missing piece that completed the puzzle. Unfortunately, the finished puzzle still does not give us a complete understanding of the universe – there are other puzzles out there! In my opinion, the largest question in physics (post-Higgs boson discovery) is the unification of gravity with quantum field theory.

"Is there one thing that underpins and connects our understanding of all three? Answering the quantum gravity question may lead to the nature of dark matter, dark energy and black holes.

"This will not change the way we think about rain, or ice cream, or emails, but if it were not for CERN researchers we might be thinking about emails in a very different way. Do you every wonder why an SMS costs 50 cents, but an email is free? Part of the answer is thanks to particle physics researchers at CERN."

[Hamilton points to a CERN link, which describes the birth of the World Wide Web – developed in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, initially to meet the demand for information-sharing between physicists at universities and institutes around the world. Twenty years ago CERN published a statement that made the World Wide Web technology available on a royalty-free basis. And so the web flourished, and transformed the world and the way we communicate, innovate, work and live.]

"Today's technology depends on fundamental physics: the GPS in your phone depends on general relativity, your computer depends on quantum mechanics. Without a clear understanding about the way in which the laws of physics work, we cannot use the laws of physics to build technology that helps our everyday life."

New uses for old drugs – Organic chemist Professor Kelly Chibale

"One of the exciting areas in drug discovery is the exploitation of genome information within the context of drug repurposing and repositioning – the investigation of existing drugs as potential therapies for other diseases.

"Whereas these two terms have been used interchangeably by some, drug repurposing specifically refers to cases in which an existing drug, approved by a regulatory agency in one disease area, is found to have activity against another disease.

"Drug repositioning describes a situation in which a drug active in one disease is 'derivatised', or used as a template for the synthesis of derivatives active in another disease.

"The concept can also be extended to new uses for drugs that have failed for one indication, either pre- or post-approval, or have been abandoned in development, in which case the term 'drug rescue' is used.

"These approaches can significantly shorten the drug discovery process, as in most cases the candidates will have been through several stages of clinical development, and will have well-known pharmacokinetic and safety profiles.

"One of the many scientifically rational approaches to repurposing and/or repositioning is the exploitation of genome information. This involves the exploitation of known biological targets in one disease for the development of drugs in other diseases with homologous targets. This has sometimes been referred to as 'target repurposing'."

Computer-aided design – Computational chemist Professor Kevin Naidoo

"The computational revolution has changed the way we do science. In every scientific discipline, the frontier lies in the progression of computation, from an adjunct to an essential part of our understanding nature. The cusp of progressive knowledge acquisition is in the reformulation of the scientific method. This relies on the production of computer models that are verifiable and able to predict the outcomes of experiments, and so provide a view into nature that's not accessible from microscopes, telescopes or spectrometers.

"We tend to believe what we can see and touch. Yet in many fields, such as chemistry, our knowledge is deliberately biased by what we indirectly measure with physical instruments.

"I say 'indirectly' because experimentalists often forget that the raw feed of light and sound wavelengths coming from their detectors has been washed through a theoretical model to produce what are considered unshakable results pulsing from the printer next to the machine.

"We must acknowledge that the bias lies in the model sitting between the detector and the scientist. In chemistry, for example, it is ironic that the very essence of this science relies on a model interpretation of things we cannot see, such as electrons and bonds between atoms.

"Reproducibility and prediction are the enviable achievements of the scientific method. Computational scientists increasingly provide predictable computational models of electrons, atoms and molecules that can be used to design materials and pharmaceuticals, and interpret the interwoven chemistry of cells to connect to the chemical events that have long passed in galaxies light years away.

"Computer models and data analytics provide a rational approach to discovery that is in contrast to traditional trial-and-error searching. This rational approach to chemistry and biology promises to address burning problems such as the development of biomarkers for early detection of cancer, drug resistance, and making bottomless barrels of biofuels from cellulose (the most abundant molecules in the biomass)."

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Volume 33 Edition 07

18 Aug 2014

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