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Meme on two young women’s scientific discoveries gets the facts wrong

The seemingly amazing scientific achievements of two young women – Aisha Mustafa (19) and Angela Zhang (17) – are described in a meme shared on Facebook in Nigeria and South Africa.

“At age 19, Aisha Mustafa, an Egyptian young physicist, devised a new type of propulsion system based on quantum theory that could propel space probes and artificial satellites without using any fuel,” it reads.

“At age 17, Angela Zhang, a Chinese schoolgirl, created an advanced nanoparticle, one that kills cancer.”

But the meme was flagged as possibly false by Facebook’s fact-checking system, prompting Africa Check to investigate.

Did the two teens really make these scientific breakthroughs?

‘So-called discovery false’

In 2012, a number of news outlets reported that 19-year-old Aisha Mustafa, a physics student at Egypt’s Sohag University, had patented a “propulsion system” that could drive spacecraft “without a drop of fuel”. The system was said to use quantum physics instead of thrusters.

One of the articles quotes Mustafa as saying that neither the astronomy department nor the physics department at her university were able to “practically test or implement” her discovery.

Africa Check asked physicist Dr Izak Snyman if such an invention was possible. He’s based at the School of Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

“I am very certain that the claims regarding the so-called discovery are false,” Snyman said.

He told us that, to his knowledge, no person by the name of Aisha Mustafa had made any claims to a new propulsion invention based on quantum theory on any scientifically recognised platform. 

Some of the 2012 news articles say the energy source for Mustafa’s invention is the quantum vacuum.

“The vacuum indeed has interesting quantum mechanical properties, but you can’t tap energy out of it,” Snyman said.

“It costs energy to accelerate a spacecraft, and energy cannot be created out of nothing.”

Design of potential treatment for cancer

Angela Zhang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the US. She’s currently a graduate student at the Stanford School of Medicine’s Joseph Wu Lab in California

While Zhang was still in high school, she designed a cancer treatment research project titled “Design of Image-guided, Photo-thermal Controlled Drug Releasing Multifunctional Nanosystem for the Treatment of Cancer Stem Cells”. 

The project was described as a “novel treatment for cancer that could someday lead to a cure”. It wasn’t an actual cure. 

Her design used nanoparticles – very small particles – to target cancer tumours, treat cancerous cells with medicine and monitor treatment responses. 

By 2012, Zhang had only tested the treatment on mice. It will take years to find out if it works on people.  

I created a nanoparticle that's kind of like the Swiss Army knife of cancer treatment in that it can detect cancer cells, eradicate the cancer cells and then monitor the treatment response,” Zhang was quoted as saying in an article on ZDNet.

In 2011, she won the US$100,000 individual prize at the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology for her project.

An expert said claims of Mustafa’s discovery were false, and hadn’t been reported on any scientific platform. Zhang did design a system with the potential to treat cancer, but it hasn’t been proven to “kill cancer”.

The meme is incorrect. – Eileen Jahn


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