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PubhD at The Vat and Fiddle: Deafness and Blindness, Carbon Capture, and Global Studies

21 March 17 words: Gav Squires

Spring has sprung, science is in the air. Three more researchers came down to PubhD to tell us all about their work over a pint or two, and our Gav Squires was there to gather up the good stuff…


First up is Jodie, who’s researching the hearing and seeing parts of the brain in people born deaf or blind. 

You see the world through your eyes and this information travels to the back of your brain where a map of the world around you is created. A large part of your brain is dedicated to vision. There is one area for processing objects, one area for recognising faces and one area for reading written words. What happens if you're born blind? What do these areas of the brain do? The part that usually recognises faces is repurposed for recognising voices instead. The part that deals with the written word instead becomes the part where Braille is processed. So they have the same function but a different input. The brain is very good at this and it's called cross-modal plasticity. There are also "echo locators", blind people who can tell where they are based on sound rebounding from walls or objects. They have a map of the world based on sound instead of vision.

There is also part of the brain for processing, which includes a network that responds to speech, to allow us to understand people talking. What happens if you're born deaf? The areas for hearing and speaking respond to sign language instead. Why is this important? For these language areas to develop, you need to be exposed at a young age. If you're born deaf, this can't be a spoken language. Children not exposed to a language when young have problems picking it up later in life.

However, some doctors believe that the plasticity of the brain is a bad thing. They think that if the hearing parts of the brain are repurposed for the processing of the visual sign language, then those areas can become hard-wired. Hence, these doctors think that these parts of the brain would not be able to process the signals from a cochlear implant fitted later in life. However, there is no evidence to support this, and cochlear implants should still work. If anything, it's more important to ensure that part of the brain is organised rather than chaotic. 

There is also an area of the hearing part of the brain that looks after timing. By looking in an MRI scanner and asking a deaf person to look at flashes of light and to concentrate on their timing and their brightness, Jodie and her team have been able to identify those parts of the brain that respond to timing information. All in all, the organisation of the brain of a deaf person is very similar to hearing people. However, more research needs to be done on the impact of what happens when children are taught sign language early. 

Key learning: The younger you are, the more plastic your brain is 


Next up is Hayden, researching carbon capture. 

The aim of this research is to try and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At the moment, we emit 404 mega tonnes of CO2 every year in the UK and 117 mega tonnes of this comes from our power stations. It's not possible to go straight from fossil fuels to just having renewable energy so we need an intermediate step - carbon capture. 

The idea is that you take the carbon emitted by a power station and store it deep underground. The rock has to be something porous like sandstone or an old coal field. The captured carbon is stored about a kilometre under the surface, and then the site it sealed with a non-permeable cap rock. Over a long enough time span, the captured carbon turns into rock. Some countries such as Canada and Norway are already doing this, but it's a very expensive technology. 

There are also a number of uncertainties with the technology including around underground bacteria. These bacteria can exist up to 4km deep and there can be anywhere between 106 and 108 in a carbon capture site. When you first capture the CO2, it's not always pure. It can contain other things such as sulphur, nitrogen and oxygen. The bacteria underground usually don't get any oxygen so this can really affect them. Some of them might die but some will get stronger. As the oxygen generates energy, the bacteria can corrode pipes, create other gasses or just create more bacteria. 

One of the gasses that they can create is hydrogen sulphide, which smells of rotten eggs. In a large enough quantity this can even kill humans, but a bigger problem in this environment is that it can block pipes and corrode iron. This can cause as much as £1.5million damage per carbon capture site. So, one of the things that Hayden is looking into is whether we can adjust the oxygen level in order to control the bacteria.

In the UK, we have around 650 years' worth of CO2 storage available here in the UK. In theory, this would give us plenty of time to move over to renewables. If we move away from coal, oil and gas and onto biofuels, which are carbon neutral, we could continue to use carbon capture and have a carbon negative energy source. 

Key learning: Microbiology is the reason that we have beer


Finally, we have Roy, whose work is in the field of global studies. 

Following on from Hayden, Roy is also looking at CO2 but he's looking at the unintended consequences of climate change on islands in the Pacific. Specifically, he's looking at Kiritimati and Tuvalu. Kiritimati has a population of around 100,000 while Tuvalu has about 10,000 and a land area of 27km2. However, they are both a lot bigger than just their land area, they are large oceanic states rather than just small island states. The inhabitants want help or they fear losing their island heritage. With rising sea levels, these people will have to move at some point. But what are the consequences of relocation? Is there some kind of sovereignty that can still exist, some kind of exclusive economic zone around the island that gives fishing rights or rights to seabed resources.

Tuvalu is a very religious community. They believe that Noah was told that there has already been a big flood so there won't be another. These people are the canary in the climate change coal mine. These are things that aren't just impacting small island states. While the people of Tuvalu don't want to move, the president of Kiritimati realised that they will have to move at some point and wants "migration with dignity". Even if they both have to move eventually, where will they go? Will they be able to clock up enough points to be able to migrate to Australia or New Zealand? Fiji is more welcoming, but their weather seems to be in flux as well, as it is in Tonga and Samoa. How much money would it cost to keep these people in situ? Would we be better just spending this on relocation?

What is the culture of these islands? Music, dance, storytelling and skills are all part of it and it's possible to keep these alive even if people do move. However, some people's identity is very much tied to place. For example, people would often be buried on these islands next to their family home. However, there is a difference between remembering their heritage and recognising where they are now – culture can change over time.

Key learning: The UK performed their first ever nuclear bomb test on one of the islands around Kiritimati

PubhD returns to The Vat & Fiddle on Wednesday 19 April at 7.30pm with talks on History, Mechanical Engineering and Mental Health and Wellbeing.

PubhD website

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