Interesting science for the week of September 26, 2014

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Sep 262014

From the big bang to hunter-gathering peoples, we have hypotheses and theories for just about anything that exists. The proof that we don’t know any of this for sure is in the new findings – and refutations of previous findings – that happen all the time.

Particle Physics/Cosmology: Dark matter

hs-2012-10-a-web (Image: NASA)

According to Bill Nye in a Reddit interview, dark matter is “apparently the source of gravity that is at once holding galaxies together and pulling them apart at an accelerating rate.”

Dark matter was first thought of back in 1932, and we still don’t know what it is. Or even if it is. We can’t see it. The only evidence we have is that it is implied indirectly. Basically, gravity calculations in space don’t give the answers scientists expect. The suggested explanation is that there is matter out there that we can’t see, and it’s affecting the gravitational pulls of stars, planets and other bodies. You can find a more complete explanation on Wikipedia.

This week, scientists who have been studying cosmic rays as a means of detecting dark matter have found further evidence to support the existence of dark matter.

Anthropology: Storytelling in ancient cultures

As with dark matter, archaic humans cannot be studied directly (not without a time machine, anyway). Instead, they are studied through what they left behind. This could include material things (such as stone tools, butchered bones, and geoglyphs (see below)) and immaterial evidence (like cultural ideas, oral history and morality tales, and what other cultures have said or written about them).

One anthropologist, Polly Wiessner, has used the study of present-day hunter-gatherers as a way to study ancient hunter-gatherers. The assumption she works on is that hunter-gathering is a pretty simple form of a society, and so past and present societies will be similar. She’s used this study to hypothesize that the introduction of fire – lengthening their day – gave ancient hunter-gatherers the ability to tell stories and strengthen their society.

Quantum Physics: Teleportation and quantum entanglement

Quantum entanglement is the hypothesis that two parts of a quantum particle are linked in a way that can be measured mathematically, even if they are no longer in contact.

In this article, scientists show that, even if one part is sent very far away through fibre optics, it still remains linked to the other. One thing this means is that, by studying the part that was sent away, you are able to make predictions about the part that remained.

While a practical use for such quantum research is still far in the future, it’s often used in science fiction to explain things that are otherwise impossible using general physics, such as teleportation and interspace communications.

Biology: Brain cells

The brain is another area where we still have a lot to learn. In various studies, we’re learning how the brain works, what chemicals are in the brain and what they do, and so forth.

Generally, we know that nerve cells in the brain send information to other nerve cells via axons, like sending produce from town to town on highways.

However, scientists have come across an interesting difference – a new brain cell shape that takes the information from one axon and sends it to another, going around the nerve cell like a bypass around a city. This makes for a more efficient transfer of information.

They’re now studying this new cell shape to see how the information it carries affects the brain and body processes.

Physics: The Big Bang Theory

We are still learning about our universe. We make hypotheses, test them, and see if they hold up. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not.

One theory – the Big Bang theory – theorizes that the universe began as a huge explosion. Many physicists are trying to prove or disprove the theory.

Earlier this year, one group of scientists claimed to have found evidence of gravitational waves, indicating a rapid expansion of the universe at its beginning.

Now, this claim is being refuted by another group, saying the same patterns could be found in galactic dust radiations.

The theory itself is still possible. It’s just this ‘proof’ that is in doubt. And so, the search goes on…

Geography/Archaeology: Geoglyphs

(Image copyright DigitalGlobe, courtesy Google Earth, via Live Science)

Geoglyphs are large man-made designs on the surface of the ground. These can be made from stones or by sculpting the earth in any number of ways. Many of these are hundreds of metres long.

Some existing designs are the Uffington White Horse, made of chalk, in England; the earth designs  in Peru’s Nazca desert; and boulder monuments and effigies on the northern plains. It can be difficult to see such items from ground level, but they can usually be seen from surrounding hills and mountains.

Now, scientists have found over 50 new geoglyphs in Kazakhstan using a new technology – Google Earth. Most were made by creating mounds in the earth, but at least one was made of wood.

As with all ancient phenomena, we can hypothesize as to why geoglyphs were created and by whom, but we can’t know for sure. Work is being done in many of these areas to try to find more clues, though.

Archaeology: Saskatchewan

On a more personal note: I was very pleased to see how wide-spread this article went on Twitter. Although it’s not new or groundbreaking research – it’s mostly a description of the archaeological sites in Saskatchewan – it’s home to me. I’ve been involved in archaeology in Saskatchewan through the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society and the Regina Archaeological Society, and I’ve worked on a number of sites. It’s nice to see this area get some press.