News round-up: Space-Age China, In-Utero Surgery and Sexist Science

Chinese astronauts reach orbiting space lab

ChineseSpaceDocking

China’s Shenzhou 9 rocket – which last week became the first Chinese mission to carry a female astronaut – has successfully docked with the orbiting Tiangong-1 station 340 km (210 miles) above the Earth. The arrival of the three crewmembers marks the first time anyone has boarded the station since its launch in 2011, and makes China only the third country to ever achieve a manned space docking.

Tiangong-1, whose name means Heavenly Palace, is the forerunner to a series of orbiting laboratories that China hopes to launch later this decade. A mission to return samples from the moon by 2016, and a long-term goal to land a crew on the moon, also form part of the country’s ambitious space program.

The astronauts will run a range of experiments in the lab before returning to Earth by the end of the month.

Doctors perform unprecedented in-utero surgery

Leyna

Surgeons in Miami have revealed how they performed a life-saving operation on a baby while she was still in the womb. Leyna, now a toddler, had a rare tumour on her mouth that meant she was unlikely to survive the pregnancy. Initially given the choice between terminating the pregnancy and losing her child at birth, Leyna’s mother sought out a pioneer in foetal medicine, Dr Ruben Quintero, who offered her a third option.

Guided by an ultrasound and an endoscope, and using a laser as a scalpel, he removed the tumour from the unborn child’s mouth, leaving a small scar as the only sign of the surgery. Although the operation had never been tried before, it was a success, and five months later, Leyna was born healthy to two relieved parents. Dr Quintero, who specialises in treating birth defects before infants are born, said he hoped this would further extend the range of treatments available, and give hope to all expectant mothers.

Physics words translated into sign language

BSLGlossary

As any physics student knows, ‘mass’ and ‘weight’ are not the same thing. But until now, British Sign Language (BSL) had no official sign for ‘mass’, meaning that deaf students either had to settle for the incorrect word, or spell the word out.

That might not seem too bad for a short word, but when you realise that terms such as ‘emission spectrum’, ‘angle of incidence’ and ‘specific heat capacity’ are also missing, scientific communication becomes a lot more time-consuming.

Now, a team at the University of Edinburgh has devised a glossary of 119 terms that can be used alongside BSL, to join similar glossaries of biology, chemistry and maths. Every term is accompanied by a video demonstration, as well as an explanation of the word. As it is designed to be used by A-Level students, there are no terms for words such as ‘quantum’ and ‘thermodynamics’, but the hope is that students who would once have been deterred from studying at a higher level will now face one less barrier to taking part in science.

EU tries to eradicate institutional sexism with sexist advert

The EU’s latest campaign to get more girls interested in science has drawn widespread criticism for being patronising and sexist. The video – Science: It’s a Girl Thing – uses lipstick, high heels and pink to liven up an apparently boring and male-dominated laboratory. Shots of Petri dishes, molecules and circuit boards are interspersed with scenes of pouty lips, make up brushes and dancing. Because that’s what’s keeping women out of science – not enough dancing.

Although the video (which quickly disappeared from the official EU YouTube channel) has been almost universally criticised, the campaign behind it is more admirable: the website celebrates women who already work in science, and features potential career paths for anyone whose interest is piqued. So given all the free publicity that has come from the video, perhaps it will have the desired effect after all.

Deadly flu study published despite terrorism concerns

Influenza-A

A controversial paper examining how the H5N1 (‘bird flu’) virus could be made airborne was published this week. The research, performed at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, had been held back by a US biosecurity committee that feared the knowledge could be misappropriated by terrorists. Although they have since approved the paper, a separate moratorium on flu research currently prevents scientists from performing similar research on other strains of flu.

While the H5N1 virus is deadly to humans, it has not yet caused a pandemic as it cannot pass from person to person. This study found that just two genetic mutations could enable it to make that leap, with no drop in lethality. The researchers argued that this was vital information for virologists who monitor the mutations of the virus in the wild, as well as for other labs who might inadvertently create viruses with the necessary mutations.

IMAGE 1: Xinhua/Wang Yongzhuo via Xinhuanet
IMAGE 2: Jackson Memorial Hospital/University of Miami
IMAGE 3: BSL Physics Glossary
IMAGE 5: Influenza A virus by CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

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