Great scientific discoveries hide in boring places

NASA's Michelle Thaller explains how an accidental discovery led to the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

MICHELLE THALLER: So, Danial, you have actually asked a question that I have never gotten before and that is: What is the most boring thing in space? Can astronomers agree on what the most boring thing is? I normally get asked about what's the most interesting things are in space, but I've never been asked about what the most boring thing is. And actually this gives me a chance to talk about how science works.

We have a saying in science that everybody's data is somebody else's noise and everybody's noise is somebody else's data. Let me explain what that means. When you're taking a measurement – say you want to observe a star that's very far away – there's stuff that can get in the way. There's a lot of gas and dust in space between you and the star so when you observe the light from the star you need to correct out all that crud that got in the way. You don't want to look at that, you want to look at the star. But people who want to study the gas and the dust itself can use the starlight as a probe to actually go through it. Some people will be interested in different parts of the data. Everything you do in science, there's a bit that's inconvenient, noisy, you want to actually correct it out from your data. Somebody else wants to know about that. And some of the most amazing discoveries in the universe have been what people assumed were noises, things that had to be corrected, things you didn't want.

Most spectacularly, there's something called the microwave background radiation. Now there were some astronomers back in the 1960s and '70s who wanted to study the sky in microwave light. The Sun emits microwaves, the planets emit microwaves – everywhere they looked on the sky there was noise, there was a bit of background noise that they wanted to correct out; they did not want that noise at all. And they thought it was a problem with their telescope at first. Famously, there were pigeons roosting in the telescope and they thought that the pigeon poop might be generating this noise so they scrubbed out all the pigeon poop. The noise never went away. It stayed there through every attempt they had to make it go away and all of a sudden people realized what they had detected, what this noise was, was a signal from the Big Bang itself. It was actually the farthest observation of the universe we've ever been able to make.

It was from light shining from a distance of 13.7 billion light years away: the cosmic microwave background. So the answer is that there are plenty of things in astronomy that I'm not interested in, plenty of things that get in the way of my data that I want to correct out and not know about. And there are other astronomers who want that specific data. Everybody's junk is somebody else's treasure.

  • In 1964, two American radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background by accident. Their resulting work earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.
  • They had long been trying to get rid of the annoying "noise" in their data (even thinking it was all the pigeon poop in their telescope) only to realize the noise was the treasure. They had stumbled upon the oldest light in the universe, and some of the strongest evidence to support the Big Bang theory. (What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?)
  • That's why space and science are never boring, explains NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller. One scientist's junk data can be another's Nobel Prize.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.