The Brightside Blog: volume 4

Welcome to the latest edition of The Brightside Blog — it’s lovely to see you again! With more and more lockdown restrictions being lifted in the UK, things are generally looking up. But that’s not to say another indoors-pint of positivity isn’t always welcome.

Here are our favourite good news stories from the last month.

Kelp can help

The health benefits of eating different types of seaweed are well documented. But it turns out, the super sea plant could also be used as an important weapon in the fight against climate change.

Seaweed has a number of attractive properties — or at least useful properties in this context. For example, it has the ability to grow up to two feet per day without requiring nitrogen-rich fertilizer like terrestrial crops. Combine this with the fact that it absorbs carbon at a much, much faster rate than its land relatives and you have yourself an effective climate cleanser.

The idea, according to the BBC’s Isabelle Gerret, is if we “created seaweed islands, we would actually eliminate a lot of the climate change issues we have today”. Experts believe it has potential to balance emissions, deacidify the oceans, change the way we farm, and open the door to new materials research that could include everything from biodegradable plastics to construction materials — and even artificial body parts.

Will it all come to fruition? Weed have to sea… I’ll grab my coat.

Mind control

There are countless examples over the years of technological innovation and healthcare combining to amazing and inspiring effect; illnesses or conditions that once debilitated and killed are now manageable. And this latest development from Stanford University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is set to make a huge difference in the lives of thousands.

In a new study, researchers have shown that a man paralysed from the neck down is able to type words using his mind. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, it can be done at a similar pace to the average smartphone user — which is pretty quick!

This ‘mindwriting’ was done through a science-fiction sounding brain-computer interface (BCI) that picked up neural signals and fed them into an algorithm which translated them into letters. In this particular case, the user simply imagined writing letters and words by hand, and the BCI did the rest.

The man was able to ‘type’ at a “rate of around 90 characters per minute, with a 94.1% raw accuracy online, and greater than 99% accuracy offline with a general-purpose autocorrect” according to one of the authors of the research report.

Turtle’s best friend

Any regular readers of this blog will be aware of our love and appreciation for dogs. And here they are again — we can’t help it, they’re just so damn clever.

This time it’s turtle-sniffing spaniels. Yep, you read that right. This story comes from St Louis Zoo WildCare Park in the US, a 425-acre site opened last year to be used as part of the zoo’s extensive conservation programming. When it was discovered that a worrying number of three-toed box turtles were falling ill to a deadly pathogen called Ranavirus, staff knew they needed to act.

Enter John Rucker, a man known to the zoo as ‘The turtle whisperer’. He has successfully trained a pack of Boykin spaniels to find these turtles and deliver them to conservationists who can then perform tests and tag the animals before releasing them. These amazing doggos have soft mouths, so they’re able to carry them without hurting the turtles.

John and his pack of proficient pups have played a key role in the conservation of the species — a round of app-paws for them.

Forget the debt

Almost everyone has been affected by the pandemic in one way or another, but students at Delaware State University have been given some relief thanks to a kind gesture from the college. The university has decided to cancel over $700,000 of student debt, with more than 200 graduates eligible.

“Too many graduates across the country will leave their schools burdened by debt, making it difficult for them to rent an apartment, cover moving costs, or otherwise prepare for their new careers or graduate school,” said Antonio Boyle, DSU’s Vice President for strategic enrolment management. “While we know our efforts won’t help with all of their obligations, we all felt it was essential to do our part”.

Experts have noted that the US is on the brink of a student debt crisis, with more than $1 trillion owed by graduates across the nation. It’s really refreshing to see a major, prestigious institution perform such a selfless gesture and help a relatively small handful live with more financial freedom.

That’s the spirit

“I can’t just make it appear out of thin air!” — well, when it comes to vodka, you can actually. Or at least the brainboxes at Air Company can.

Air Company is a startup that has worked out a way to convert CO2 into ethanol in the same way that plants use photosynthesis. Once the high-purity ethanol has been extracted, that can then be converted into glucose. One of the founders, Stafford Sheehan, says that they wanted to “help empower other people to fight climate change in the everyday decisions that they make”.

And it’s not just premium spirits (the bottles sell at an eye-watering $75), the Air Company is exploring perfumes and even working closely with NASA to create specialised space food like lab meat — although we admit, “lab meat” doesn’t sound like the most appealing delicacy in the world.

That’s all until next time — feel free to check out the other editions of the Brightside Blog for more good news. 

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