Here is this weeks collection of science news stories that triggered my “Hey, that’s cool” detector. If I’ve missed anything that is truly cool then , as always, drop a comment and I’ll do an update that includes a hat tip you.
First up is a bit of fun from the 28th Aug 1845 edition of Scientific American about the wonder of the age …
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This wonder of the age, which has for several months past been in operation between Washington and Baltimore, appears likely to come into general use through the length and breadth of our land. Arrangements are already made for extending the lines to Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Springfield, Boston, and various other cities and sections. Hon. Amos Kendall, Ex-Post-master General, has taken the management of the invention—whether as proprietor or agent we are not informed—while the inventor is on a tour to Russia. We shall take an early opportunity to give our readers a full and minute description of this invention, with explanations and illustrations of its principles; but in consequence of the press and variety of matter which presses on this our first number, we are constrained to defer it. We will add the remark, however, that it is contemplated by the merchants of our Western states, to communicate their orders for goods, etc., by means of the telegraph, instead of abiding the slow and tedious progress of rail-road cars.
The Frozen Zoo aiming to bring endangered species back from the brink
San Diego Zoo began collecting ski samples from rare animals in 1972 in the hope they might be used to protect these endangered species in the future. A breakthrough in stem-cell technology means that day is getting closer.
The inside of a metal box filled with liquid nitrogen and frozen to -173C (-280F) is hardly the ideal habitat for a large African mammal. But, as a test tube is fished out of the frigid container amid a billowing cloud of white gas, a note written on its side is unequivocal about its contents. “This is a northern white rhino,” says Scripps research scientist Inbar Ben-Nun as she reads out the label and holds the freezing vial with thick gloves that look like industrial-grade oven mitts.
Ben-Nun is holding no ordinary scientific sample. For the frozen cells in that test tube could one day give rise to baby northern white rhinos and help save the species from extinction. They would be living specimens of one of the most endangered species on Earth, who after a few months would be trotting into wildlife parks, and maybe, just maybe, helping repopulate their kind on the African grasslands. No wonder that the place where the sample came from is called the Frozen Zoo.
Generation X More Loyal To Religion Than Previous Generation
Research published this week reveals a surprising trend among the American Generation X—the group who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s and are known for their rejection of all things conventional. It appears that in comparison to the Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers are significantly more loyal to religion.
Scientists analyzed survey responses from more than 37,000 people between the years 1973 to 2006. Their results are published in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. They found that Boomers are 40 to 50 percent more likely to abandon their religious faith, than Gen-Xers.
Interesting to note, from those surveyed, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation doubled in the 1990s and continues to increase through the first decade of this century.
The researchers attribute this drop off to the Boomers who were likely to have abandoned religion in young adulthood perhaps due to the rejection of organized authority or what the researchers call the “1960s effect.”
So what’s up with this newfound loyalty in the younger Generation X?
Well the authors note that it probably has to do with the expansion of the “religious marketplace” in recent decades, and suggest that instead of this trend watering down religious faith, they say that more choices is influencing the increase in affiliation and commitment to religion.
Real invisibility threads would be fit for an emperor
FORGET the imaginary filaments used to weave the clothes that fooled the fabled emperor, can we make real invisible threads instead? Combining techniques used to produce light-bending metamaterials with those used to make optical fibres might just do the trick.
Alessandro Tuniz at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Photonics and Optical Science in Australia is one of many physicists interested in the optical metamaterials that are being fashioned into “invisibility cloaks” in labs across the world. These metamaterials incorporate components much smaller than the wavelength of light, which allows them to control the light waves and gives them optical properties beyond those of conventional materials.
However, as physicists have discovered, fabricating metamaterials using components small enough to manipulate the sub-micrometre wavelengths of visible light is no mean feat. To avoid that problem, Tuniz’s colleagues Boris Kuhlmey, Simon Fleming and Maryanne Large have suggested an elegant way to shrink a larger metamaterial-like structure down to a size capable of controlling visible light:
Scientists Unveil Structure of Adenovirus, the Largest High-Resolution Complex Ever Found
After more than a decade of research, Scripps Research Institute scientists have pieced together the structure of a human adenovirus — the largest complex ever determined at atomic resolution. The new findings about the virus, which causes respiratory, eye, and gastrointestinal infections, may lead to more effective gene therapy and to new anti-viral drugs.
The study was published in the journal Science on August 27, 2010.
“We learned a number of important things about the virus from the structure, including how its key contacts are involved in its assembly,” said Scripps Research Professor Glen Nemerow, who, together with Scripps Research colleague Associate Professor Vijay Reddy, led the study. “That’s very important if you want to reengineer the virus for gene therapy.”
“Even though a number of viral structures have been solved by x-ray crystallography, this is the biggest to date,” said Reddy. “The adenovirus is 150 megadaltons, which contains roughly 1 million amino acids — twice as big as PRD1, previously the largest virus ever solved to atomic resolution.”
Distant Star’s Sound Waves Reveal Cycle Similar to the Sun’s
In a bid to unlock longstanding mysteries of the Sun, including the impacts on Earth of its 11-year cycle, an international team of scientists has successfully probed a distant star. By monitoring the star’s sound waves, the team has observed a magnetic cycle analogous to the Sun’s solar cycle.
The study, conducted by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and colleagues in France and Spain, is being published in Science.
The scientists studied a star known as HD49933, which is located 100 light years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn, just east of Orion. The team examined the star’s acoustic fluctuations, using a technique called “stellar seismology.” They detected the signature of “starspots,” areas of intense magnetic activity on the surface that are similar to sunspots. While scientists have previously observed these magnetic cycles in other stars, this was the first time they have discovered such a cycle using stellar seismology.
Wheat’s Genetic Code Cracked: Draft Sequence Coverage of Genome to Aid Global Food Shortage
A team of UK researchers, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has publicly released the first sequence coverage of the wheat genome. The release is a step towards a fully annotated genome and makes a significant contribution to efforts to support global food security and to increase the competitiveness of UK farming.
The genome sequences released comprise five read-throughs of a reference variety of wheat and give scientists and breeders access to 95% of all wheat genes. This is among the largest genome projects undertaken, and the rapid public release of the data is expected to accelerate significantly the use of the information by wheat breeding companies.
The team involved Prof Neil Hall and Dr Anthony Hall at the University of Liverpool, Prof Keith Edwards and Dr Gary Barker at the University of Bristol and Prof Mike Bevan at the John Innes Centre, a BBSRC-funded Institute.
Prof Edwards said: “The wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome and presents a huge challenge for scientists. The genome sequences are an important tool for researchers and for plant breeders and by making the data publicly available we are ensuring this publicly funded research has the widest possible impact.”
The science and art of whisky making
… drinking whisky is never about just drinking whisky; we’re social creatures and we tend to drink in a social context… Even if we resort to drinking alone, we drink with memories and ghosts.” Iain Banks
If you are lucky enough to be reading this with a glass of whisky in your hand then take a second to regard the contents of your glass. Is it a pale golden or dark ruby colour? Does it greet your nose with memories of heather moorland or salty coastlines? Is your mouth filled with a honey sweetness or a dark acrid smokiness? All of these and many more are possible from the most multifaceted of spirits known variously as whisk(e)y, liquid sunshine, and the water of life.
Whisky is the liquid gold that emerges from the distillation of base beer. It is “the separation of the gross from the subtle and the subtle from the gross … to make the spiritual lighter by its subtlety” (Hieronymus Brunschwig, 15th century doctor and distiller).
Black holes + dark matter = light
TWO of the darkest things in the universe may be making light – or at least, radiation. When jets spat out by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy collide with dark matter, they could produce gamma rays detectable from Earth – possible evidence of the elusive dark stuff.
Jets of particles are propelled away from black holes at near the speed of light. Akin to a cosmic belch, they are thought to be connected with matter falling into the black hole. Stefano Profumo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues calculated how electrons in one of these jets would interact with any surrounding dark matter.
They looked specifically at the types of dark matter particles predicted by two major theories: one is supersymmetry, which proposes that each ordinary particle has a superpartner, and the other assumes that the universe is hiding a fourth spatial dimension.
They found that rather than simply ricocheting off one another, some of the electrons and dark matter particles could fuse together, transforming into a single, supersymmetric or extra-dimensional version of the electron. This particle would be heavy, and much of the electron’s kinetic energy would be dumped into making the new particle. As a result, the particle would be almost standing still.
Mars’s Mysterious Elongated Crater
Orcus Patera is an enigmatic elliptical depression near Mars’s equator, in the eastern hemisphere of the planet. Located between the volcanoes of Elysium Mons and Olympus Mons, its formation remains a mystery.
Often overlooked, this well-defined depression extends approximately 380 km by 140 km in a NNE-SSW direction. It has a rim that rises up to 1800 m above the surrounding plains, while the floor of the depression lies 400-600 m below the surroundings.
The term ‘patera’ is used for deep, complex or irregularly shaped volcanic craters such as the Hadriaca Patera and Tyrrhena Patera at the north-eastern margin of the Hellas impact basin. However, despite its name and the fact that it is positioned near volcanoes, the actual origin of Orcus Patera remains unclear.