As commutes dropped during coronavirus lockdowns, many of Europe’s city-dwellers breathed cleaner air. In July, Horizon takes a look closer look at our air pollution problem, what it is, how it affects human health and whether now is the time to make the move to greener transport. We spoke to social epidemiologist Dr Basile Chaix about what it will take to capitalise on the post-coronavirus calls for greener cities to really change our urban spaces – and transport habits. We dissect the properties of particulate matter to understand how characteristics such as particle size or number relate to toxicity, and what they do to human cells. With wildfires known to strike particularly in the summer, we look at how scientists are tracking this lesser-known source of air pollution to better understand the impact on human health. And we find out how a soybean-related asthma outbreak in 1980s Spain is influencing air pollution research today.
Current regulations on air pollution mainly focus on the mass of particles of a particular size range in a sample, and this has been used as a marker for their threat to human health. But these air quality standards do not address the medical implications of the very smallest particles – nor other attributes that may be damaging, such as their chemical makeup.
The emergency rooms in Barcelona were collapsing under the pressure. Hundreds of patients were arriving in desperate need as they struggled to breathe, while intensive care units struggled to cope with the sudden influx of respiratory problems. Epidemiologists scrambled to trace the source of the outbreak.
People in cities experienced cleaner air during lockdowns, but a permanent shift to greener modes of transport and habits is ‘extremely complex to achieve’ given how much space is devoted to cars and the groups resisting change, says Dr Basile Chaix, who studies the health trade-offs we make as we travel.
The construction industry has a heavy carbon footprint, accounting for some 40% of global emissions, and yet, as the world’s population grows, demand for housing and building is only soaring. We kick off 2021 by looking at how the construction sector can become greener and some of the radical solutions required. We speak to sustainable architecture expert Dr Catherine De Wolf about the need to design recyclable buildings and how that will require a fundamental restructure of the way the construction industry works. We look at nearly zero energy wooden homes and investigate whether this material can help us kick our concrete habit – concrete being the most used substance on Earth. We home in on techniques to make cement greener and piezoelectric to light up spaces with the addition of vegetable waste, and at how self-healing building materials can prolong the life of civil infrastructures. And we explore the promise of fungal architecture to see whether structures grown from fungus can green the way we build.
In December, as the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to create a precise 3-D map of a billion objects in the Milky Way releases its next tranche of data, we take an in-depth look at what we know – and what we don’t – about our home galaxy. We speak to astrophysicist Prof. Ralf Klessen about why it might enhance our understanding of the Milky Way to consider it as a constantly evolving ecosystem rather than studying different parts in an isolated way. We speak to scientists who are trying to image the centre of the galaxy, which is hidden from view behind giant dust and gas clouds, and we explore the latest research into how stars are formed. And finally, we find out what the galaxies surrounding the Milky Way can tell us about our home system.
In the summer of 2014 a strange building began to take shape just outside MoMA PS1, a contemporary art centre in New York City. It looked like someone had started building an igloo and then got carried away, so that the ice-white bricks rose into huge towers. It was a captivating sight, but the truly impressive thing about this building was not so much its looks but the fact that it had been grown.
Bilingual people can effortlessly switch between languages during everyday interactions. But beyond its usefulness in communication, being bilingual could affect how the brain works and enhance certain abilities. Studies into this could inform techniques for learning languages and other skills.
Live mycelium networks, capable of information processing, could be used as building materials.
Researchers are investigating whether bilingualism enhances certain cognitive abilities.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.