Interesting science from the week of September 30, 2014

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Oct 012014

As I read more and more science news, I’m beginning to think I may need to make this a biweekly blog post!

This week began with International Coffee Day, on Monday, September 29, 2014. For that reason, a cool image on the chemistry of coffee, from the fine folks at IFLScience:



Astronomy: Water

What does water have to do with astronomy? Well, life on Earth could not exist without a very simple compound H2O, or water. Scientists who want to study life off Earth therefore look for water.

My personal view: There is no reason why life must be based on water to be called life. I feel scientists are limiting themselves unnecessarily. But until I can come up with an organism that does not depend on or contain water in any way, I’ll just have to accept that scientists want water-based life.

Water on Earth pre-dates the Solar System – or so say two American scientists studying heavy water formation during simulations of the solar system being born, according to Much of Earth’s water was formed in interstellar space, before the sun was born.

Other astronomers have found water vapour in the atmosphere of an exoplanet the size of Neptune – so far, the smallest non-Earth planet found to have water in it’s skies.

Archaeology: Stone Age

Humans are innovative, flexible and varied peoples. While the idea that certain technologies were created in one area then spread is a nice simple way of looking at the development of technology, it’s probably too simple. Groups of humans have been known to develop similar types of technology independently of one another. Examples include the wheel, alcoholic beverages, and agriculture.

Some archaeologists in Armenia have found a culture that existed within a specific timespan, but with stone tools made with two different technologies: biface (a technique used to make hand axes by knocking flakes of stone off to create a sharpened edge) and a type of technology where the flakes themselves are made into smaller, more efficient tools.

Finding the two technologies in one area at the same time challenges the idea that both technologies spread from Africa. “The combination of these different technologies in one place suggests to us that, about 325,000 years ago, people at the site were innovative,” says the leader of this team of archaeologists. In other words, humans in different areas can create similar technologies.

Biology: Aging

As cells divide, their chromosomes are duplicated in each new cell. Telomeres are bits on the end of chromozomes that wear out, causing cells to stop dividing. This causes aging of tissues that the cells are a part of. Telomerase is an enzyme that rebuilds the telomeres as the cell divides.

Scientists have discovered a way to turn off the telomerase to control the division of cells. This can have effects on aging and certain age-related illnesses.

Astronomy: Galactic Archaeology

Don’t you love that name? Of course, on Earth, archaeology is a study of ancient humans. In the galaxy, archaeology is the study of ancient stars.

Scientists have found that the earlier the star was formed, the less heavy metals – like iron – would be found in their makeup. And now, they’ve found a star with hardly any iron at all (on a stellar scale), and they speculate that this may be the oldest star found so far.

Astronomy: Galaxies

How do scientists know how old a galaxy is? Well, galaxies tend to grow as they merge with other galaxies. The larger a galaxy, the older it is. Younger galaxies tend to be small, with a limited chemical makeup. Our galaxy is in an old area of the universe, so galaxies closer to us tend to be old. We have to look very far back in time – and since we’re already seeing stars as they were billions of years ago, all we need is a very strong telescope to see far enough away.

The funny thing is, they’ve found a galaxy only 39 million light-years away that looks pretty young. It’s smaller, and seems to have fewer chemicals than the older galaxies around us. Now scientists are watching it closely, to see if they can determine the age of the stars in the galaxy. If there are older stars, like red giants, then the galaxy is not as young as it appears.

Medical research: Funding

The Globe and Mail (a Canadian newspaper) has an in-depth article on Jim Woodgett, scientific director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, and the struggles of getting funding for biomedical research. Why is this so difficult when biomedical research is so necessary to our future?

“Our return on investment is measured in decades, not months,” Dr. Woodgett says. “It’s an investment in the future and that can be a tough sell.”

The Canadian Institutes for Health Research is the federal funding agency. Its grants come out to just under $1 billion per year. Other institutions – federal, provincial and charitable – bring in another $1.5 billion per year. Donations to charitable research foundations – like the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, which invested over $38 million in research in 2013 – are necessary to be able to fund the research that will save our lives in the future.

More general information on Canadian research and its funding can be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Psychology: Cancer

Did you know that the rate of depression is two to three times higher in people with cancer than in the general population? When you think that about one in ten people experience major depression in their lifetime, this means a lot of cancer patients are suffering.

A group of scientists have developed an intervention of depression care for people with cancer that includes both medical and psychological treatment.

Environment: Greenhouse gases

Coal generates about 40% of the world’s power. It also, unfortunately, generates a high percentage of greenhouse gases – especially carbon dioxide.

It’s not easy to stop using coal. Technology has not developed enough yet to be able to rely on solar or wind energy for 100% of our power and still be affordable. In Saskatchewan, Canada, coal accounts for 47% of fuel used to create electrical power.

One thing that can be done is to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions through carbon capture and storage (CCS). Towards this end, SaskPower (Saskatchewan’s crown utility for supplying power for the province) is launching the first commercial-scale CCS project in the world. The goal is to reduce the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by 90%. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best solution currently available.

Geology: Tsunami

The March 11, 2011 tsunami that killed 18,000 people in northern Japan is still being studied for causes. There are two current theories:

  • two earthquakes, one farther north than the other
  • a huge landslide into the Japan trench

A geophysical survey would likely prove one or the other. If it does turn out to be a landslide, it would mean that future tsunamis would be nearly impossible to forecast.

Astronomy: Supernova

There is a rare type of supernova that is caused by a loss of hydrogen followed by a collapse and a rebounding explosion. But how does a star lose its hydrogen? Most likely it was stripped away by another star nearby.

Twenty years ago, astronomers discovered this type of supernova only 11 million light-years away. All this time, they’ve been looking for the culprit that stole the hydrogen. Now, they believe they’ve found it: It was SN_1993J in galaxy M81 by hydrogen robbery.

Biomaterials: Hagfish slime

Why would anyone want to wear a material made of hagfish slime? Well, why would anyone want to wear a material made from the excretions of a worm (a.k.a silk)? Certain creatures of our world can create incredible biological materials that offer unique properties not found elsewhere.

Take hagfish. They’re a primitive, spineless, eel-like scavenger of dead and dying fish. Kind of gross, huh? But when they’re threatened, they exude a gelatinous slime that makes it impossible for their attacker to breathe. Okay, so that’s kind of gross, too.

The thing is, this slime is made of filaments 100 times thinner than the human hair, but 10 times stronger than nylon. Scientists from Benthic Labs are looking into synthesizing this fibre and using it in various ways. As they say on their site: “With demand for such a product in the military, medical and automobile sectors, the possibilities are endless!”

From Benthic Labs: 10 Amazing Facts About Hagfish

Optics: Invisibility

Scientists have been working on creating ‘invisibility cloaks’ for years, with some success using high-tech approaches.

Two scientists at the University of Rochester, however, have done it with simple lenses, like the kind you might find in your eye glasses. Better than that – they’ve told us how to do it ourselves!

Archaeology: Artifact

How did the Babylonians see their world? A clay tablet found in Sippar, Iraq, in the late 1800s can show us. It’s a map of the world, surrounded by oceans, with Babylon in the middle.

I have one problem with this article. It mentions an argument for the use of this map – practical or mythological. A mythos, to the people who believe it, is fact, not fiction. This map wouldn’t be a ‘view of the mythological world’. It’s a view of the world, period. Those mythological creatures? They’re there. That’s why they’re on the map. You can’t separate a person’s belief system from their practical life. That would be like trying to separate air from the world around you.

And this, just because it’s cool – from IFLScience, Orion, then and now: