Science Stuff

From Patrick Mahony’s Articles in CSIRO Science by Email.

New elements given names
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry recently announced new names for two recently discovered elements: flerovium and livermorium.
The heaviest element that occurs naturally on Earth is uranium, which has an atomic number of 92.
Flerovium and livermorium have atomic numbers of 114 and 116, much heavier than uranium. There are more than 20 other elements heavier than uranium on the periodic table. If they don’t occur naturally, where do they come from?
Chemists and physicists can synthesise elements heavier than uranium, by smashing a relatively heavy element together with a lighter one. In the case of flerovium and livermorium, the two elements were curium and calcium. The new elements get their names from laboratories in Russia and the USA where these experiments are carried out.
Elements such as these are highly radioactive. They decay almost immediately into lighter elements, releasing radiation in the process. This means you won’t be able to take a good look at a lump of livermorium or flerovium. They disappear in roughly the blink of an eye!

Blood test inspired by Harry Potter
Researchers from Monash University have invented an innovative way to determine blood type, inspired by the Harry Potter books.
Blood can contain antigens. These antigens help the body to recognise which are its own cells and those from somewhere else. Some types of antigens are A, B and the Rh factor. Your blood type depends on which of these antigens you have.
In emergency situations a patient’s blood type might need to be determined quickly. The Monash University scientists invented a type of ‘bioactive’ paper inspired by Tom Riddle’s diary from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
The paper is covered with a chemical that repels water, except for areas spelling out letters and symbols for the blood types. Antibodies are then put onto the appropriate letters. An antibody will react with the corresponding antigen: for example, A antibodies react with A antigens in blood.
A blood sample is then dropped onto the paper, mixed with the antibodies, then rinsed. If A antigens are present then the blood cells will clump together, leaving a red A after the paper is rinsed. The same thing goes for B antigens and the Rh factor.
The scientists who invented the paper hope that it will lead to faster, cheaper screening of blood, not just for type but for diseases as well.

Science on the farm
An important area of research in Australia is agricultural research. Agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so on some demonstration farms, cattle and other livestock go about their daily business, with their methane emissions monitored. Techniques include laser detection methods and special collars.
Scientists can change a variable, such as the animals’ diet, then measure the effect it has on their methane emissions. This means they can test their hypotheses with real-life data.
The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry funds research at a number of test farms around Australia as part of its Climate Change Research Program. For example, researchers at Trevenna, on a University of New England test farm, recently showed that increasing soil fertility and sheep feed efficiency results in less greenhouse gas emissions.

Did dinosaurs generate their own heat?
Humans are endotherms. This means human bodies are able to generate their own heat to keep warm. Other endotherms include mammals, birds and some types of fish and reptiles.
The opposites of endotherms are ectotherms. Most reptiles, fish and insects are ectotherms. They can’t generate their own body heat, instead drawing heat from the surrounding environment.
Being an endotherm has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, endotherms typically grow quickly and at a fairly constant rate, due to their more stable metabolism. However, maintaining a constant body temperature requires eating a relatively large amount of food. Ectotherms, on the other hand, often have fluctuating rates of growth, but don’t have to eat as much as endotherms.
Dinosaurs were reptiles, and for many years were thought to be ectotherms. Some evidence included the observation of rings in their fossil bones, like rings in a tree trunk. These rings indicate fluctuating rates of growth once thought only to occur in ectotherms.
However, recent research on mammal bones shows similar rings. In fact, the rings in the dinosaur fossils were more similar to the rings in mammal bones than those of modern reptiles. As all mammals are endotherms, this suggests that dinosaurs may have kept themselves warm on the inside – like us!

Fermions, bosons and Higgs – oh my!
Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have confirmed the discovery of a particle with properties that match those of the Higgs boson.
There is more to the Universe than just atoms. One group of particles is the fermions, which includes protons, neutrons and electrons. You can think of them as building blocks that make up matter.
The other group of particles, the bosons, are a bit trickier to understand. Rather than thinking of bosons as blocks of stuff, think of them as carrying forces, and telling fermions how to behave. Different bosons interact with different fermions, forcing them to stick together or move apart. An example of a boson is the photon, a tiny particle of light.
The Standard Model is a theory that predicts a set of fermions and bosons. The Standard Model grew over a long time and proved very useful. The Higgs boson was the missing piece, so finding it makes the theory stronger.
The Higgs boson tells other particles how to move. Some particles, such as photons, zip past Higgs bosons and don’t interact with them. They have no mass. Other particles do interact with Higgs bosons. This interaction is similar to the drag you feel moving through water. We see this interaction as mass.
Unfortunately the Higgs boson disappears nearly as soon as it appears, making it difficult to detect. One way to detect the Higgs boson is to smash protons together at high speeds. The energy of these collisions could be enough to create Higgs bosons, which would then decay into other particles that live long enough for physicists to detect.

On your marks
Nothing represents the Olympics like the 100‑metre sprint. In a race where mere hundredths of a second separate first from last, sprinters need to be almost perfect, right from the start. Reacting just a tiny bit too slow on the blocks could allow your competitors to build an unbeatable lead.
There’s a catch though – react too quickly, and you will be disqualified for a false start. In the past, officials relied on their vision to detect false starts. Today, they use technology.
Force sensors in the starting blocks detect changes in pressure from the feet of the runner, and use this to determine exactly when they started running. When this technology was first introduced, tests indicated that it is impossible for a human to hear the sound of the starter’s gun and react in less than 0.1 seconds.
The sensors are linked to the starter’s gun – when the gun fires, this starts the timers in the sensors. If a sensor detects that a runner started moving before 0.1 seconds after the gun, the starter will stop the race. The offending runner is disqualified.
The 0.1 second threshold might not be accurate. Researchers analysed the starts data from hundreds of male and female sprinters from the 2008 Olympics, and found that men reacted on average 0.023 seconds faster than women.
This research implies that the expected reaction is incorrect, so women may be false starting. For example, if the fastest possible reaction time for a woman is 0.15 seconds, a woman who reacts after 0.12 seconds has actually started early, but won’t be disqualified for a false start. This gives her an unfair advantage.
There are currently no plans to change the false start rules due to these findings, but keep your eyes peeled for sneaky starts in London 2012!

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