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Tech Designed For Space Is Saving Lives On Earth

Space travel calls for a lot of creative solutions and space agencies invest a ton in developing technology that’s the best of the best. But astronauts aren’t the only beneficiaries. Space technology is all over, in unexpected places like memory foam mattresses and those cool clear braces for straightening teeth. Space science gets applied in all sorts of ways that were never intended, like making us healthier here on Earth.

Earlier this year, for example, NASA just happened to develop the perfect material for some really high-tech stitches while doing research for Mars. It all started because researchers were trying to figure out how to bring back a sample from the Red Planet. We have never done that before and that’s because it’s kind of tricky.



Drilling gets messy and any dust that gets on the seal of a container could keep it from closing all the way. That’s a big problem because scientists needed to be 100% positive that Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t contaminate the sample on its way in. That means they needed a really strong seal. They wanted this thing to close so tightly that they could measure the amount of leakage on the scale of molecules.

The idea was to use what’s called a knife edge seal, where a sharp edge literally cuts into a softer metal edge, but if the knife part wasn’t clean, the seal still wouldn’t be perfect. So, engineers set out to make an extra layer that would wipe the knife edge clean on its way toward the softer metal, which would strengthen the seal. The only appropriate material that was space-friendly and wouldn’t contaminate the sample seemed to be Teflon.



Fortunately, that nonstick coating on your pans is just one of Teflon’s many forms. It starts as a powder that can have different properties depending on how it’s processed. In this case, engineers processed it under high pressure to make a soft, flexible and strong ribbon. And it worked great. But that wasn’t all. In addition to being delicate and strong, these ribbons of Teflon are also compatible with the human body. That means they can be implanted without the immune system attacking them. For procedures like heart surgeries where it’s kind of inconvenient to cut a person back open just to take stitches out, these could be a gamechanger.

As it happens, these fancy stitches are not NASA’s first contribution to heart health. In the mid-80s, a NASA scientist struck up a collaboration with his former heart surgeon and the two built a heart pump inspired by the fuel pumps for rocket engines. They wanted to create a pump that would help people whose hearts didn’t circulate blood properly, especially because many of them were dying while they waited for a transplant. 



This unusual pair thought they might have a solution. So they pulled together a team. The researchers took NASA supercomputers, which were designed to model the flow of fuel through rocket engines and used them to model the flow of blood through the heart. They then used that data to build a heart pump. 

It wasn’t perfect, but after about a decade of work, they came up with a design that would do the least possible damage to passing blood cells. It also got rid of stagnant areas where clots could form. But most importantly, it was about 1/10th the size of other heart valves at the time. That made the device much less invasive, and it also meant it could be implanted in kids.



In 2004, after two decades of research, the FDA approved the life-saving device for small children. In case exploring the universe and saving heart patients weren’t enough, NASA technology is also helping cure cancer.

Recently, NASA developed an image-analysis software that could look at cancer in 3D. The technology started with a completely different health problem that was affecting astronauts. After being in space for months, people begin to have vision problems. Scientists thought that this might stem from blood flowing differently in microgravity. But they wanted to be sure. 



Some researchers had the chance to study tissue samples from mice in space and they thought to examine the blood vessels in these samples might help them get to the bottom of what’s going on. But it was hard for them to do the analysis manually. They were trying to do things like count blood vessels and determine their shapes, but different people were getting drastically different results, because, well, humans don’t have perfectly consistent judgment. So the team needed something more reliable.

They turned to a company that specializes in image-analysis software. The company came up with an algorithm that could spot blood vessels within tissue samples and collect some important details. The end result was much more reliable than a human. Though, doctors still haven’t fully solved the mystery of space-induced vision problems.



Luckily, this same software is probably going to be useful for diagnosing and monitoring lots of medical conditions, like cancer for instance. It can pick out subtle differences in the shape of tumours, which can help oncologists tell whether or not they’re likely to be benign. It can also look at tumours in 3D and pick up on growth or shrinking that might not show up in standard 2D CAT scans. The technology is still new, but already, it shows a lot of promise for keeping humans healthy in space and on Earth.

These are just a few of the life-saving inventions that are twists on technology from space. Each year, space programs inspire inventions that are perfectly at home here on Earth. And that’s because, while these programs have the tools and inspiration to produce these amazing technologies, in the end, space research is not just for people in space it’s for all of us.



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What Happens If You Get HIV / AIDS?

Today we’re going to talk about a very important topic. And that topic is HIV and AIDS. Human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is one of the incurable STI or Sexually Transmitted Infection. While some of these STIs are easy to treat once identified, others like HIV have no cure. Once you are infected, you have the virus for life. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to practice safe sex in order to avoid contracting sexually transmitted infections.

An HIV test is a simple way to see if you have been infected with the virus - but more on that later. First, let's take a look at how HIV works. It is passed from one person to another through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk. Once contracted, it attacks important cells in your immune system called CD4 cells or T cells. 



These cells help your body fight off infections and infection-related cancers. So as HIV destroys them, it becomes easier for you to get sick or even die from common illnesses. If left untreated and the number of CD4 cells falls below a certain threshold, HIV progresses to its final stage - acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. 

At this point, the immune system is so destroyed that you get more and more severe illnesses known as opportunistic infections. People with AIDS who don’t get treatment often don’t survive more than three years.



In the 80s, an outbreak of HIV spread across the world creating one of the most deadly epidemics. Since then, over 77 million people have become infected with HIV and over 35 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses. But after a lot of research and studies, scientists developed medicines for the treatment of HIV, called antiretroviral therapy or ART, that lower the amount of HIV in the body - though again, there is no way to get rid of it completely. But these medicines allow those who take it to live for nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV and has been shown to prevent infections in sexual partners.

Scientists have also developed ways to prevent HIV infection from occurring in the first place. In addition to barriers like condoms and dental dams, there is a daily pill called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP for those at high risk for HIV that can be taken to reduce the chance of contracting it from sex by over 90%. Because early symptoms of HIV resemble the flu, followed by a long period of latency, the only way to know for sure if you have become infected and to keep you and your partners safe is by getting tested.



HIV tests work by detecting either antibodies - which are used by your body to fight off infections - or antigens - which are part of the virus. These usually can be detected starting three months after exposure, but more advanced tests can be performed if someone had a high-risk exposure or are displaying early symptoms of HIV. Getting tested is the only way to know your HIV status.

If you are HIV-positive, you can start getting treated, which can improve your health, prolong your life, and greatly lower your chance of spreading HIV to others. Tests are confidential, quick, easy and sometimes even free. They are performed using an oral swab or blood sample and can be administered by a health care professional or through at-home testing kits. Results from rapid or certain at-home tests can be ready in as little as 20 minutes.



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Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

Have you ever kept track of how much time you spend looking at a screen? Like, actually log what you are doing and for how long? Well, that's what I did over the last few days. And on an average day, I spent about an hour on Instagram, way too much time on Facebook, over three hours, and a little over an hour or so on Youtube. So, in total, I'm spending over five hours every day in front of a screen, and that's not counting text messages or listening to music. That's literally a quarter of my day every day. So, what's all this screen time doing to me?

Well, I start looking for all research done on this. And the results I got fell into two buckets. The first bucket blamed smartphones, video games and social media for increases in depression, anxiety, and even obesity. The second bucket said that screen use might help improve how we feel about ourselves by keeping us connected with people.

So, what actually does the scientific research say? Is all this screen time really bad for us?



Okay, first things first. Screen time as a term isn't that useful because it doesn't really tell you what you're doing on the screen. It's kinda like if someone asked you what you had for lunch and you say, "Food." That doesn't really provide any real info. And not all screen time is created equal, Context matters. Spending four hours writing an article for the blog is way different than spending four hours watching funny videos. How you feel about and how you process each of those situations won't be the same, so lumping them under screen time doesn't make much sense.

If researchers wanna figure out what spending so much time on our screens is doing to us, they need to break down a few variables. What's the specific screen activity? Are we passively scrolling and looking at pictures or are we commenting and posting? How long and how often are we on the screen? Because there's so much to untangle, the research is kinda all over the place.



Our digital lives can take a physical toll on us, and I will be the first to admit. I'm usually on my phone right before I go to bed, even though multiple studies have shown that that leads to bad sleep. And we all know what can happen without enough sleep. Concentrating on things is hard, you can get irritable.

In 1991, 26% of teens were getting less than the doctor-recommended seven hours of sleep a night. Today, that number is over 40%. Now, that doesn't mean you can place the blame on screens, but that same study did find that teens who spent five hours a day online were 50% more likely to not sleep enough than those who only spent an hour online each day. I am sceptical though. Who are those people that say they only spend an hour online a day and why are they lying to researchers? Doesn't make sense, doesn't add up.



Some researchers even use the term addiction when talking about how we interact with our devices. Whether it's video games or waiting for a like on an Instagram post, we get caught in short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops where we get a quick pleasure boost but then constantly crave the next one. Now, there's a lotta debate on whether or not this stuff is a bonafide addiction like gambling. And if you wanna learn more about that, check out our video that looks into whether or not video game addiction is real.

One study in 2017 found that the more time people spend in front of a screen, the more it affected their wellbeing. Their chances of developing depression and suicidal thoughts went up. It was all the ammo that the news media needed to fuel the panic about screen time. But that one study is just one study.



Another group of researchers came along and looked at the same data and asked, "Is there really a link between screen time and depression? "And if so, how strong is that link?" They found that screen time is correlated with depression, but that correlation is really small. 

In fact, it was the same as eating potatoes regularly. The correlation between wearing glasses and depression was even stronger. And we're not seeing headlines worrying about potatoes and glasses ruining an entire generation, so maybe screen time, in general, is less important than we think.



The connection between screen time and health gets a little bit clearer when you look at how people are using their screens. It's not just about quantity, it's also about the quality. Passive screen time, things like watching TV or scrolling through your Instagram feed is usually associated the negative stuff like depression, moodiness, anxiety, and even laziness. Active screen time, stuff that engages you physically or cognitively, can actually be helpful.

Screens also allow us to stay connected with people. With technology like FaceTime, I could talk to my best friend who's on the other side of the country, right now. Now, sure, some people have to deal with feeling overwhelmed because of drama or feeling pressure to only post a highlight reel of themselves to make them look good to others. But in many studies, a majority of teens say that social media mainly helps the relationships they already have with their friends.



And when you look at stuff like multiplayer video games, Twitch streams, or Reddit, wandering around online allows you to find your tribe. If you don't quite fit in where you live or you live in a small or isolated community, quality screen time might be essential to keeping you sane. So, what do you think? What screen activities do you value? And what do you wanna cut out? Let us know in the comments below.
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The Horseshoe Crab That May Have Saved Your Life Countless Times Is In Danger, But There Is A Hope

The horseshoe crab is a living fossil that has called Earth it's home for almost half a billion years. It’s outlived dinosaurs and survived mass extinctions and ice ages, but today it’s facing a new threat.

Their adaptations have worked with the way the Earth has changed and it’s only in recent years with humans bringing impacts to their population that they have started to have declined.



Rising sea levels, habitat loss and overharvesting all threaten the population. But if you have ever had a vaccine, injection or a medical implant, then you might not know that you have been relying on this prehistoric creature’s blood to save your life. Now, after decades of waiting, a new synthetic solution could change all of that.

In May and June on the Delaware Bay, millions of crabs come out on a high tide to lay their eggs about six inches deep in the sand and they will stay in the sand and hatch in about a month. And horseshoe crab eggs are a really critical part of the ecosystem of Delaware Bay. If a single crab is laying almost 100,000 eggs, that is providing a food source for shorebirds, for gulls, for fish, for terrapins and then all up to the food chain for that. And then what happens with the horseshoe crabs then trickles down to the whole ecosystem here. They just have managed to evolve with the changing oceans and the changing land.



The reason this crab has been able to evolve for so long? Its blue blood. This copper-based blood contains special cells called amebocytes, which are extremely sensitive to endotoxins. These are contaminants released from the cell walls of harmful bacteria and they can cause life-threatening fever or toxic shock. As soon as the amebocytes detect any of these endotoxins, the blood clots around the intruder, immobilizing it and protecting the crab from infection.

In the 1960s scientists found a way to harness this unique superpower to make sure our medical supplies were free from contamination. It replaced slower, more unpredictable tests involving rabbits. The formula is called Limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL, and relies on amebocytes taken from horseshoe crab blood.



So every year half a million crabs are collected along the Atlantic coast, as well as across the eastern shores of Mexico and China. A third of the crab’s blood is drawn before they are released back into the ocean. It’s estimated that 15% of crabs collected die as a result of this bleeding process, which could mean the loss of 75,000 crabs only in the US alone every year.

All this could change in the near future as an alternative was found. In the mid-'80s Professor, Ding Jeak Ling needed LAL for work involving IVF embryos, but there was a problem. Singapore research was not very well funded. So because the LAL was so expensive, They had to find a good way to understand how the horseshoe crab blood works. They took only a small volume of the blood, isolating the blood cells from the horseshoe crab and start to study it. Eventually, they produce a synthetic equivalent of LAL.



This synthetic equivalent is called recombinant factor C, and it’s a clone of the main gene in a horseshoe crab’s blood, which is sensitive to bacterial endotoxins. It was a moment of realization that it is going to change the biomedical industry and it's going to save a very, very highly threatened species.

But the pharmaceutical companies didn’t come around as quickly as Professor Ding had hoped. A lot of people are reluctant to take a chance on trying something new. That’s until a scientist at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly came along. 



He said, "the horseshoe crab is a keystone species in its ecology obviously for its own sake but then for a lot of other animals that depend on it. If we use RFC then there aren't any crabs that are affected, whether it's mortality or whether there's some behavioural effect by taking the blood. Studies have shown that the RFC test is a more effective and potentially cheaper solution than LAL. Changing minds, however, remained the biggest challenge."

In 2018, the first drug to use the recombinant factor C test was approved by the FDA, and Eli Lilly is planning to transition 90% of its tests to the synthetic by the end of 2020. Eli Lilly thinks that the consequence if industry carries on with bleeding crabs, is that at some point there won't be any. So there are real impacts on what he is doing.



It is important that we as humans are playing a role in protecting biodiversity and not impacting biodiversity. The synthetic version of the horseshoe crab lysate used by the pharmaceutical industry is going to have a major impact on horseshoe crab conservation. It's not the only factor that we need. We also need to continue with harvest limits and with beach restoration. But reducing the need to harvest crabs for the use of their blood will have a major impact.
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How Does the Power Grid Work?

The modern world depends on electricity. It’s not just a luxury we use to power our devices and enjoy our free time. It’s not even just a convenience of having light, heating and cooling in our buildings. Electricity is a crucial resource, especially in urban areas, providing public security, safety, and health and making possible everything from emergency response to modern medical care in hospitals to even the other utilities we require like fresh water and sanitation systems.

But unlike those other utilities, electricity can’t be created, stored and provided at a later time. The instant it’s produced, it’s used no matter how far apart the producer is from the user. And the infrastructure that makes all this possible is one of humanity’s most important and fascinating engineering achievement the power grid.



Like most people, you probably take the grid for granted. Electrical infrastructure is so ubiquitous, it’s easy not to notice that the majority of our power grid is out in the open for anyone who wants to have a look. Depending on your definition, an electrical grid can be considered one of the world’s largest machines. So how does this machine work?

The basic function of generating electricity and delivering it to those who need it may seem simple. I can hook up a small generator to light and boom; electrical grid. With the cost of solar panels reaching record lows, many are exploring the possibility of generating all the power they need at home and forgoing the grid altogether. But, a wide area interconnection (that’s the technical term for a power grid) offers some serious advantages in exchange for increased complexity.



Here’s a simplified diagram showing the major components of a typical power grid, and we’ll follow the flow of electrical current as it makes its way through each one.

We start with the generation, where the electricity is produced. There are many types of power plants, each with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, but they all have one thing in common: they take one kind of energy and convert it into electrical energy. Most power plants are located away from populated areas so that electricity they create needs to be efficiently transported. That’s handled by high-voltage transmission lines.



At the plant, transformers boost the voltage to minimize losses within the lines as the electricity makes its way to the areas that need it. Once it reaches populated areas, transformers then step down the power back to a safer and more practical voltage. This is done at a substation, which also has the equipment to regulate the quality of the electricity and breakers to isolate potential faults.

Some energy customers draw power directly from transmission lines, but most are served from feeder lines that carry power from the substation. This part of the system is called distribution. From the feeders, smaller transformers step down the voltage to its final level for industrial, commercial or residential uses before the electricity reaches its final destination. 



Rather than a constant flow of current in a single direction (called direct current or DC), the vast majority of the power grid uses alternating current or AC, where the direction of voltage and current are constantly switching.

The major advantage of AC power is that it’s easy to step up and down voltages, a critical part of efficiently and safely moving electricity from producer to consumer. The device that performs this important role, called a transformer, is as simple as a pair of coils next to each other. A varying voltage in one coil induces a voltage in the other coil proportional to the number of turns in each one. If the current doesn’t vary, like in direct current, the transformer can’t do any transforming.



It’s helpful to think about the grid as a marketplace. Power producers bring their electricity to the market by connecting to the grid and power consumers purchase that electricity for use in their home or business. The economics and politics of the grid are so much more complicated than this, but the important part of the analogy is that, in many ways, the power grid is a shared resource. Because of that, it needs organizations to oversee and establish rules about how each participant in the producing, transmitting and consuming of power may use it.

There are three overarching technical goals that engineers use to design and maintain the power grid. The first one is power quality. Our electrical devices and equipment are designed assuming that the power coming from the grid has certain parameters, mainly that the voltage and frequency are correct and stable. Some devices count the oscillations in the AC grid power to keep track of time, so it’s critical that the grid frequency not deviate.



Changes in the voltage can lead to brownouts or surges that damage connected equipment. One of the benefits of a large power grid is electrical inertia. All those huge spinning generators connected together provide momentum that smooths out the ripples and spikes that can occur from equipment faults or quickly changing electrical loads.

The next technical goal of the grid is reliability. If like most people, you take that constant availability of power for granted, that’s by design. Much of the grid’s complexity comes from how we manage faults and provide redundancy so that you are rarely faced with blackout conditions. It’s another inherent benefit of a grid that electricity can be rerouted when a piece of equipment is out-of-service, whether it was planned or otherwise.



The final goal of the power grid is simply that the supply meets the demand. Power production and consumption happen on a real-time basis. If it’s plugged in, the light from the screen you are reading right now was a drop of water in a turbine or a breeze across a windmill microseconds ago. By the way, did you call your utility and let them know that you were going to turn on your computer or phone. I am willing to bet you didn’t, which means not only did they have to adjust their production up to match the extra load, but they had to do it immediately without any warning whatsoever.

Luckily having millions of people connected to the same grid smooths out the demands created by individuals, but load following is still a major challenge. For the most part, electrical demand follows a fairly consistent pattern, but factors like extreme weather can make it difficult to forecast. Grid operators balance the demand by dispatching generation capacity in real time. The cheapest sources of power are used to fulfil the base load that’s more consistent, and higher cost sources are used for peaking when demand exceeds the base.



But it’s not as simple as flipping on a switch. Large power plants can take hours, days or even weeks to startup and shut down. Equipment needs to be taken out of service for maintenance. Fuel costs fluctuate. Renewable sources like wind and solar can have massive and unpredictable variations in capacity, providing irregular sloshes of power to the grid. You can see why balancing electricity supply and demand is this fantastically complex job of taking into account all these considerations, some of which are predictable and some of which aren’t.

That’s part of the reason we are trying to make the grid smarter by using the software, sensors and devices capable of communicating with each other. On the supply side, this can allow computers and software to do what they do best: take in tremendous amounts of data to help us make decisions about how to manage the grid. But a smart grid can also help on the demand side as well.



Unlike most of the goods we buy, consumers don’t have a keen understanding of power, how much we are using or how much it should cost depending on the time of day or year. A smart grid can take away some of the obfuscation, allowing us to make better decisions about how we use electricity in our day-to-day lives. 

Ultimately, a smart grid can help us use and take care of this huge machine - this shared resource we call the power grid - more efficiently and effectively now and into the future.



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