uniaktuell The online magazine of the University of Bern

uniaktuell from 2015

Simply a little bit smarter at the big festival of knowledge

Why do we sleep? How does a medication find its way in the body? These and similar questions were asked on the University of Bern’s social media channels in advance of the third "Researchers' Night". "uniaktuell" set off in search of the answers at the big festival of knowledge on Saturday, 16 September.

By Brigit Bucher

There was certainly a big crowd at the Grosse Schanze on Saturday, 16 September. More than 9,000 visitors in total attended the University of Bern’s "Researchers' Night". Despite the crowds at many of the 50 research stands, the more than 800 researchers involved were not fazed. They patiently and, more importantly, also clearly provided information for all kinds of questions from visitors. "uniaktuell" also mingled among the public and picked up on those questions that had been asked in short videos on social media channels before the event.

"Will Switzerland be by the sea in 100 years time?"

Three containers on the topics of climate, energy and mobility had been assembled at the Grosse Schanze in front of the main building. This was the last stop for the University of Bern and City of Bern’s "Container3" travelling exhibition, which had stopped at seven locations in all of Bern’s boroughs from 17 August onwards. In the climate container it quickly becomes clear: rising sea levels are predicted as a consequence of climate change, among other things. Good enough reason to ask whether Switzerland will be by the sea in 100 years time. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest status report assumes that the average global sea level rise will probably be somewhere in the region of 25 to 80 centimetres towards the end of this century. The sea level will rise more or less depending on whether the CO2 targets formulated in the Paris Agreement are successfully achieved. Precise statements about the sea level rise are difficult not just due to the uncertain economic and social development. The extent of it is also influenced by two different developments: if the temperature rises, seawater expands (thermal expansion) – this phenomenon can be calculated pretty reliably. Whereas it is considerably more difficult to predict the increase in the ocean mass due to ice melting.

Nevertheless, the answer to the question "Will Switzerland be by the sea in 100 years time?" is clear: definitely not. Bern, for example, is situated at 550 metres above sea level and therefore far over the predicted sea level rise as a consequence of climate change. However, the sea level rise will have a noticeable impact on regions and megacities close to the coast, such as Manila, Dhaka or Bangkok, despite coastal protection measures. 

"Why are evasive manoeuvres needed in space?"

In the stairwell of the Exact Sciences building, you could find out everything about satellites, the right place therefore to investigate the topic of evasive manoeuvres in space. 

Evasive manoeuvres are sometimes necessary for satellites to prevent collisions with other spacecraft or with space debris. Staff from the Astronomical Institute explained, for example, how observations are carried out at the Zimmerwald Observatory using telescopes to determine the paths and trajectories of space debris. This tracking of exact paths allows for collisions of space debris with satellites to be calculated in advance and the satellites to be manoeuvred out of the firing line. More than 20,000 space debris parts orbiting Earth are larger than a tennis ball. They travel at speeds of up to 30,000 km/h, fast enough for relatively small parts to damage a satellite or spacecraft. But as if that’s not enough: there are 500,000 space debris parts that are the same size or larger than a marble and many millions of even smaller pieces of debris. The rise in space debris increases the potential risk for all spacecraft, but especially for the International Space Station (ISS), spaceships and other spacecraft with people on board. ISS, for example, carries out 1.5 manoeuvres a year on average to avoid space debris. 

"How does a medication find its way in the body?"

To find out how a medicine affects the right place in our body, a visit to NCCR TransCure on the lower ground floor of the UniS building was called for. The National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) TransCure is a research network with scientists from all over Switzerland, which is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and managed by the University of Bern.

The following could be learned: as soon as a medication gets into our body, which can happen in different ways, it ends up in the blood circulation, circulates through the various organs and only binds to certain cell elements. In principle, this works like a key that only fits a specific keyhole. Many of the destinations for medication are so-called membrane transporters, which transport substances in and out of our cells. Medications can bind to membrane transporters easily as they can be found on the cell surface. One example is Amilorid, which blocks the sodium channels in the kidneys and therefore leads to more sodium being able to be reduced, thus lowering high blood pressure. Another example is Digoxin, which belongs to the group of so-called cardiac glycosides. This medication can increase the heart rate by influencing the sodium and potassium transport mechanism. 

The human genome codes roughly 2,000 of these transporters. Until now only a few of them have been used to treat illnesses though. The National Centre of Competence in Research TransCure is specifically investigating those transporters that are not known as binding sites for medication yet. 

"Why do we sleep?"

The University Hospital of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy had a room set up on the topic of sleep right next door. 

It is instantly clear: sleep is far more than just a passive resting phase for our brain. Sleep is namely a complex, active process that restores brain function. It is crucial for learning and for our memory, for brain plasticity and controlling emotions, to mention just a few functions. But sleep is not just important for the brain. The immune system, cardiovascular health and appetite control are all linked to sleep. 

Despite scientific progress in the field of sleep research, which shows its importance for our brain and body, the answer to the question why do we sleep is ultimately still unclear. There is therefore not a common sleep theory yet. At the moment, it can only be established that we sleep because we get tired and moody and cannot function normally without enough sleep.

"What did industrialisation sound like?"

The Institute of Musicology was a guest in the main building. The soundscape of world exhibitions in the 19th century could be explored in a "Parisian Salon". A suitable place therefore to delve into the question of what industrialisation sounded like. 

Man and nature have been producing sounds since time immemorial, but industrialisation permanently changed the soundscape. In contrast to manual activity, machines could be incredibly loud continuously: weaving mills, sewing machines and steam engines clattered and rattled to produce a huge noise level together, which not only workers were exposed to. 

The rural exodus lead to an acoustic separation between the town and country. In towns the clatter of horses' hooves gave way to traffic, in the countryside the noise of tractors pervaded ever quieter village scenery. Nature was also affected by this. Industrial noise also started to fill the entire airspace, for example noise from the roads or rescue helicopters. 

If you don’t ask, you don’t learn

The "Researchers' Night" tour was impressive and informative. And the many researchers appeared to also enjoy leaving their offices and labs for a few hours and explaining what they do at the University of Bern to visitors of all ages.

About the author

Brigit Bucher works as the Deputy Manager of Corporate Communication at the University of Bern and is the Editor of "uniaktuell".