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The death of a satellite, the smell of a tree – and other scientific surprises

28 Mar 2019

As the ERC=Science² communications project wraps up after more than 3 years, we provide an update on the work of some of the ERC researchers

Real science doesn’t always work out. Here, researchers at the Paris Observatory celebrate the brief life of their shoebox-sized nano-satellite after the sudden, unexpected loss of communication with it in 2018.

By Diane Fresquez

What is science? Better question: what isn’t it?

Since 2015, we have been chronicling the amazing diversity of work funded by the European Research Council – finding science in traffic jams, urban gardens, Turkish music, even the lifespans of monks. Science, it appears, is everywhere. Indeed, the specialised term, “scientist,” is only a few hundred years old; before then, there were “natural philosophers” or, as technical experts, crafts people – and their work of course affected every aspect of life.

In painting, for instance, Marieke Hendriksen, a Dutch historian studying the technology of the arts from 1500 to 1950, says: “we have come across examples where the reader is advised to taste a fluid for cleaning old paintings to establish its acidity,” Another example: “a pressing iron that should be cooled before use to the point where it no longer hisses when a wet sponge is pressed against it.” Her goal, as part of an ERC-funded team: to create a database of recipes and techniques, an online historical semantic map of (in Dutch) “techné”.

With this broad definition in mind, here are highlights and updates from some of the researchers we have written about and connected with through social media and events across the European Union.

Is food-sharing the future?

Irish researcher Anna Davies and her ERC-funded project is in its fourth year now, studying ways to share food within cities. The group built a database of food-sharing initiatives in 100 cities around the world, including New York, Santiago, Brussels, Mumbai, Nairobi and Christchurch. She has a book coming out, Urban Food Sharing, and is launching online tools to help these eco-friendly initiatives grow. They include a match-making service to help the initiatives inter-connect, and a set of indicators  to consider and communicate the impacts of the food sharing efforts they support.

In September 2019, her project is running an international workshop in Dublin to reflect on the findings of their research examining the governance of food sharing. The aim: a governance manifesto for sustainable food sharing.

“I’m hopeful that the impacts of urban food sharing will become more visible in decision making,” Davies says. “The long-term goal is of course the attainment of the (UN) 2030 Agenda and a food system that not only provides safe, healthy, and sustainable food for everyone, but which also provides opportunities for people to grow, cook and eat together.” 

Now smell this

Another ERC-funded researcher, Marianna Obrist, helped bring the smell of the forest to the World Economic Forum, a famous international gathering of the rich and powerful every January in Davos, Switzerland. There, New York-based designer New Reality built a virtual reality show that lets you feel what it’s like to be a growing rainforest tree, with your body as trunk and your arms as branches. Based partly on Obrist’s sensory research, the team developed a software and hardware system called OWidgets to delivers burst of compressed air – in this case, whatever it is a tree might smell if a tree could smell - to the user’s nose.

She has gone on, in a series of scientific publications, to explore smell in greater depth. One, which she entitled “Smell-O-Message”, had volunteers test “the effectiveness of visual, olfactory and combined visual-olfactory notifications in a messaging application.” The conclusion: adding smell to a message gets your attention fast – or, in the more formal scientific language: “We demonstrated that olfactory notifications improve users' confidence and performance in identifying the urgency level of a message, with the same reaction time and disruption levels as for visual notifications.”  

Power to the people

Jennifer Gabrys has been running a citizen science project to help people better understand the amount of pollution in their local environment. The group developed devices that city dwellers can use to measure particulate matter in the air around them, and demonstrated that urban vegetation can have a mitigating effect on air pollution levels. Or, as they put it: “While reducing emissions at the source is the best way to address air pollution, vegetation can play an important role in mitigating air pollution. Trees and plants can capture particulate matter, absorb gaseous pollutants, and phyto-remediate soils. In addition, vegetation can enhance biodiversity, capture stormwater and reduce flooding, and lessen the urban heat island effect.”

They then developed what they call an air quality garden with the Museum of London and the City of London. Through further workshops and walks hosted during Open Fest, the team developed a “phyto-sensor toolkit” for people to set up their own gardens to improve air quality.

Another citizen-scientist advocate is Manuel Franco, who organised people in an impoverished neighbourhood of Madrid to photograph their local food environment – the good, the bad and the ugly. The focus: habits or circumstances in the city that can endanger people’s cardiovascular health. Result? These citizen scientists were emboldened to develop their own food policy recommendations, which they gave to local authorities (for instance, get healthier workplace vending machines.)

Since then, the group has been helping similar citizen-science efforts in the US and Spain, and published 29 scientific articles. And it developed a method to identify “risky areas” in cities for cardiovascular health in cities.

What happens when a research project fails?

Of course, not every experiment is a success; if it were, it wouldn’t be real science.

For a brief time in early 2018, we had a wonderful Twitter connection with the ERC-funded project PICSAT (@PicSat), a nano-satellite the size of a shoebox aimed at observing the transit of a young planet outside our solar system, Beta Pictoris b, as it moves in front of its bright and equally young star Beta Pictoris.

PicSat, on Twitter, was an anthropomorphised, chatty, poetry-writing, “talking” satellite. Its purpose was scientific, but while en route it – or rather its human handlers - engaged with schoolchildren, astronomers and ham radio operators from around the world. We chatted with PicSat about astronomy in general, and PicSat’s mission in particular. We marveled at the close connection PicSat had with ham radio operators from around the world who regularly sent the PicSat team information they gathered from its “beams” back to earth.

As a reward, the team would regularly direct PicSat to beam down space-themed quotes and the like for the ham radio operators to decode. A sample:  On 1 March 2018, one ham radio operator @EA4SG tweeted: “@IamPicSat is telling us: ‘Enjoy your weekend with lots of apple pie! If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the Universe (CS)’”- a reference to the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

And then, after 10 weeks in operation, on the afternoon (in Paris) of Tuesday, 20 March 2018, PicSat suddenly fell silent. Attempts to re-establish contact failed. No sign of life. Did something in space hit it? Did its power fail? No explanation. Just the silence of space.

Of course, that isn’t the end of the story. The researchers learned a lot about managing this new breed of tiny, (relatively) inexpensive satellites, and are planning further research. The @SciSq tweet on 5 April 2018: “We're deeply saddened @IamPicSat ‘disappeared from our radar’ most likely, forever. We'll never forget the loyal & outstanding #citizenscience collaboration it had w/ #hamradio amateurs around the globe, & the way in which it delighted all who followed it. Farewell, stargazer!”

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