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Never Let it be said that geologists don't do anything useful 
8th-Apr-2009 01:26 pm
webcomics, science
 The hat tip belongs to So Science So What for this week's gem of Science is Fantastic! From Saturday's Telegraph:  How astrophysics could save heart patients.

Geologists studying how molten metal coagulates at the centre of planets while they are forming have discovered that their research can also be used to investigate blood flow in the human heart.
It goes like this: Nick Petford and a team from Bournemouth were studying the formation of metal cores of planets like Earth, which as most people are aware, has an iron core (and so far no underground seas populated by Mesozoic marine reptiles have been discovered. I still hold out hope). The original hope was to gain a better understanding of how this core formed; it's not, after all, like digging a great big hole is a feasible solution in this case.  From here on in, I'm considerably out of my usual comfort zone, and anything I say should probably be taken with a grain of salt and the knowledge that I'm a palaeontologist, not an astrophysicist.

One model for how the core formed is the Percolation Model, which proposes a slower mechanism in which the denser molten metal trickles down between solid silicate mineral grains, akin to water percolating through sand. It's this model Petford was investigating, using observations of artificially heated and crushed meteorites to create a computer model.

Meteorites are the raw materials of planets, and the way in which their component metals interact with the rock provide a good analogy for the behaviour of such materials in a young planet. Scans of the meteorites provide a model for how the molten metal flows within cracks and fissures within the rock, and might explain how liquid iron made into the core of the young Earth.

The Telegraph article has the rather dry quote When we started talking to clinicians... I like to think this was over a pint in the pub or the Bournemouth equivalent of the Senior common room, because that's where all the best ideas come from. However the discussion happened, the result was the realisation that blood flow through vessels might follow a similar model as the metal through fissures.

See, as every vascular system is individual, it's not easy to create a standard model of how blood should flow and identify irregularities that might indicate clots. So, working with Roger Patel, Petford helped to adapt his modelling system, using MRI scans of real patients and applying the same flow model, they've been able to build a picture of how the blood is flowing and locate a clot.

The complex science is in the flow dynamics and the modelling techniques, which I'm sure you've noticed I haven't even touched because I won't be able to represent it well, but the whole story is one of those things I love about science: techniques developed to learn about one part of the world around us can help us better understand another part, and in this case save lifes. Medical technology has a lot of uses in earth sciences: we use CAT scans and MRI and all sorts of imaging techniques to study dinosaurs, so the interrelation between areas isn't new, but I still think it's a lesson worth taking in; new ways of looking at one part of the world can help us better understand another. And I'm not even being figurative.

And the next time someone asks you what the point is to investigating the early formation of the planet, tell them it helps treat heart disease.

Links list:
Nick Petford at Bournemouth
The Core Issue
8th-Apr-2009 01:22 pm (UTC)
It's one of the things I love about science too. It's advances have so many unexpected benefits.

And the next time someone asks you what the point is to investigating the early formation of the planet, tell them it helps treat heart disease.

Do I have permission to just slap them across the head and tell them to stop being be so bloody stupid?
8th-Apr-2009 02:42 pm (UTC)
You very much do, yes.
8th-Apr-2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Splendid! :)
(Deleted comment)
8th-Apr-2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Yay! Good for Mr Fry. :)

I'm by no means Captain Clever myself, but I do appreciate the importance of those who add to the sum of human knowledge, and anti-intellectual types really annoy the hell out of me.

A couple of months ago a friend of mine started that "did they really go to the Moon" stuff. It took all my resevres of self-control to keep from ripping his throat out with my teeth.
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