Four ways science has made our lives better recently: diamonds out of plastic bottles, and more

Here are four Good News stories about how science is making our lives better.

  1. Scientists have found a way to create nanodiamonds from PET plastics.
  2. A universal and future-proofed COVID-19 vaccine is about to be tested on humans.
  3. There are new findings on the power of carrying out random acts of kindness.
  4. A woman with a keen sense of smell has helped create a simple test to diagnose Parkinson’s.

Watch the video above to get the full digest and find out more on the following:

1. Scientists have found a way to create nanodiamonds from PET plastics.

Turning plastic into diamonds sounds like something from a modern fairy tale, but an experiment that was originally designed to better understand the planets known as ice giants – such as Uranus and Neptune – has led to an unexpected discovery.

Scientists were investigating a phenomenon called ‘diamond rain’, which is thought to form because of the unique mix of elements within these planets.

They ran the experiments using PET plastic, the polymer found in packaging such as water bottles, which is composed of a mix of hydrogen and carbon. The team managed to mimic the process that takes place within the ice giants, by creating high-pressure shockwaves with an optical laser on the plastic.

If you imagine between a million and two million elephants jumping on an object at once, that’s the kind of pressure we’re talking about.

Researchers were excited when this produced tiny synthetic diamonds.

What is really extraordinary is the clarity of the results they saw in the results, says Prof. Dr Dominik Kraus, from the University of Rostock, who participated in the experiments. “A large fraction of the carbon atoms are turned into diamonds, very quickly in a few nanoseconds,”

“Also when the pressure is released, the diamonds remain. And that means that there are ways to recover these and make them applicable and use them maybe for other things,” he told Euronews.

Man-made diamonds share many of the most important properties of natural diamonds, so – as well as being very pretty – these nanodiamonds have potential applications for quantum technology and medicine.

The experiments were set up to get a better understanding of the planets in our solar system. “This could again be one of the many examples in the history of science where such curiosity and something that looks very distant could then result in some real-world applications,” says Prof. Kraus.

If this is, as it seems, a new and efficient way to produce nanodiamonds using the same plastic that goes into landfill every year, this could be great news for our planet.

2. A universal and future-proofed COVID-19 vaccine is about to be tested on humans.

For years, public health figures and scientists had been complaining about a lack of funding to develop vaccines to protect us against present and future viruses. But COVID-19 changed everything.

After the pandemic started, tens of millions of dollars were allocated to research groups looking into universal coronavirus vaccines, which we now need urgently if we’re ever going to be sure of a future without COVID.

A universal COVID-19 vaccine would defeat any variants that might appear in the future, as well as any future illnesses caused by entirely new types of coronaviruses.

The good news is that people had already started work on this long before we’d ever heard of alpha, delta, omicron and the rest of them.

One of these scientists was Alexander Cohen, a PhD student at the California Institute of Technology, and researchers at Cohen’s lab are getting very close to their objective.

The initial results seem really promising, as the antibodies produced in the lab’s vaccine identified not just all eight coronaviruses included in the vaccine, but also four additional coronaviruses that were not included. In March of this year, the group reported that the vaccine appeared to protect mice and monkeys that had been exposed to an array of coronaviruses. In July, they published the results in Science.

The next step is to test the vaccine in humans, and the funding for that is already in place. If it’s successful, it could save us from ever having to put up with another COVID-related lockdown again.

3. There are new findings on the power of carrying out random acts of kindness.

Carrying out small gestures of kindness makes everyone happy – those who give, and those who receive. The strange thing is, though, that the Good Samaritans of the world tend not to realise just how happy they are making people, according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Researchers believe this could be holding many of us back from doing nice things for others more often, which means people are missing out on opportunities to feel good and make others feel good.

They ran experiments with hundreds of people, who performed and received random acts of kindness, such as buying a stranger a coffee or a cup of hot chocolate, and in all of them, those carrying out the kind acts consistently underestimated how positive it would make other people feel.

The idea that kindness can boost well-being isn’t really new. Many studies have already shown how voluntarily helping others generates positive emotions for both parties.

But experts say that each new finding strengthens the idea, making it a stronger scientific argument, and not just something that seems logical. 

4. A Scottish woman with a keen sense of smell has helped create a simple test to diagnose Parkinson’s.

72-year-old Joy Milne has accidentally provided a major breakthrough in the detection of Parkinson’s disease.

She had noticed that her husband’s smell changed 12 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, noting he had developed a musky scent, different from his normal scent.

“Strangely enough when I wake up in the morning I don’t open my eyes, I smell what’s around me,” she said.

Joy Milne has hereditary hyperosmia; people with this condition are known as ‘super smellers’.

A team at the University of Manchester harnessed her power and discovered that Parkinson’s disease does indeed have a particular odour.

With the help of Mme Milne, they have developed a test that could determine in just three minutes whether someone has Parkinson’s disease.

“We swab people’s backs just like that, and then we take it to the mass spectrometer where we analyse the compounds on the skin, and from those we can find out whether someone has Parkinson’s or not,” explains Professor Perdita Barran, who led the research, to Euronews.

“Our focus is to make what’s called a confirmatory diagnostic for the specialist to help them to get the right treatment.”

Until now there has been no specific test for Parkinson’s, and the diagnosis was based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history. All of that is about to change, with a simple cotton swab.

Remember, it can be hard to find among the headlines, but some news can be good news.

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