Atomic Velcro, Dark Energy, Seaweed, and Music



From Science by Email:

Organics and Carbon Sequestration: Organic describes a variety of compounds that all include carbon. However, some carbon-based compounds are organic, while others are inorganic. Living things contain proteins, sugars and fats, oanic compounds based on a chain of carbon, combined with other elements such as hydrogen and oxygen. Organic compounds are used to make plastics, pharmaceuticals, and even paints. Carbon has been called “atomic Velcro” because of its ability to make and break bonds with many different elements, and the resulting compounds are not all organic. Carbon dioxide and carbonate are examples of inorganic molecules containing carbon. In agriculture, it’s important to distinguish between organic and inorganic soil carbon. Organic soil carbon – such as plant and animal matter – can be increased, holding carbon and offsetting carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to climate change. Inorganic forms of soil carbon like carbonate are relatively inert and don’t offset carbon dioxide emissions. The Australian Government’s Soil Carbon Research Program has researchers developing new methods to accurately measure organic carbon in soil, without including inorganic carbonate.

Dark energy discovery earns Nobel Prize: Professor Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University is joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Brian is one of three astronomers awarded the prize for “the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”. Brian formed one of two teams to study distant exploding stars called supernovae. The teams found about 50 suitable supernovae. They were expecting to find the deceleration of the Universe, but there was a problem – the light wasn’t as bright as it should be. If the expansion was slowing down, the supernovae should be brighter. These observations indicated the opposite: that cosmic expansion is accelerating.  In order for this acceleration to be taking place, there must be a force at work. Astronomers now refer to this mysterious force driving the expansion of the Universe as dark energy. The Universe is composed of energy and matter. Physicists don’t know exactly what dark energy is but it makes up more than 70% of the Universe. Dark energy is one of the great mysteries of physics and one we didn’t even know existed until the work of Brian and his colleagues.

Warming oceans pushing seaweed to the edge:Warming oceans are driving seaweed on Australia’s coasts further south. Seaweed, or macroalgae, play a crucial role in marine ecosystems. Macroalgae provide food and habitat for a variety of fish, shellfish and other invertebrate species. Together with phytoplankton they also provide a significant amount of the oxygen in our atmosphere and absorb 25 per cent of the carbon dioxide. The Australian Virtual Herbarium (AVH) is an online resource that contains information on six million plant, algae and fungi specimens housed in herbaria around Australia, showed that the distributions of more than half the species had retreated southward. If they go too far south, however, and they’ll be trapped between water too warm on one side and too deep on the other. If the sea temperatures continue to rise as predicted, a number of species of macroalgae may become extinct. The full impact of such extinctions on other species is not known, but it could be severe. The east and west coasts of Australia are home to almost 900 species of macroalgae, and a quarter of world’s macroalgae species are only found near the shores of southern Australia. The full effect of climate change on macroalgae is not yet known, but future research may be able to protect this important part of the marine ecosystem.

What makes a musical masterpiece?: Compressibility might be the answer. Compression is a concept used in information theory. At its heart lies the concept that the size of a data set can be reduced (‘compressed’), and then used to recreate the original. Things that are highly ordered or have high levels of symmetry are more compressible than those that don’t. Music considered ‘beautiful’, such as classical music, has a higher degree of compressibility than other genres of music such as pop. Perhaps it’s because humans understand the world through patterns. Classical music sounds complex, but its compressibility means it’s simpler for our brains. Pop music sounds simple, but is actually quite complex. Our brains detect the patterns in the music even if our ears don’t and this could be why it is considered ‘beautiful’.


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