Science Stuff

From Science by Email

Super clock

A clock that lasts forever, without batteries or winding up, sounds like something from science fiction. Right now, that’s the case. But a research team led by scientists in the USA thinks it might actually to be possible to make such a device.

The team suggests making a ‘space-time crystal’. Most crystals are solids where atoms or ions have an ordered or ‘periodic’ pattern in three dimensions. A space-time crystal is also periodic in the fourth dimension, time. The proposed space-time crystal uses an ionic trap at extremely low temperatures to hold charged particles in a circular arrangement, creating a 3D crystal. A magnetic field would then cause the particles to rotate periodically, adding the fourth dimension to the crystal. The system would theoretically not require any further energy to be added, meaning it could be used as a ‘perpetual clock’, as well as in other applications in quantum physics.

Element 113 spotted

A few months ago, Science by Email reported on the naming of two superheavy elements, flerovium and livermorium. Now a team from Japan has reported making a third atom of another, new superheavy element with an atomic number of 113.

The element was reportedly created by firing atoms of zinc at a metal, called bismuth. The researchers didn’t expect to make much of element 113. For every 100 quintillion (that’s 100 000 000 000 000 000 000!) atoms of zinc, they only predicted to make six or less atoms of element 113.

The results will now be given to a team of international experts in chemistry and physics. If the results are confirmed, it will be the first superheavy element discovered in East Asia and the Japanese team will also have the right to name the element





New monkey species discovered

Scientists have announced the discovery of a new species of monkey in central Africa. It’s only the second new species of primate to be discovered on the continent in 28 years.

Actually, ‘new’ and ‘discovered’ aren’t completely accurate. While the monkey, Cercopithecus lomamiensis, may have only just come to the attention of scientists, it has been known to locals for years. A group of scientists on an expedition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a country in central Africa) saw a pet monkey in a village. They had never seen a monkey like it, but were told by local hunters that it was a lesula. The scientists then went looking for wild lesula, and eventually observed both living and dead specimens.

This was in 2007 – why has it taken so long to announce the lesula as a new species? Identifying a new species is tricky, and there are a few things taxonomists (scientists who classify organisms) must do to determine if a species is previously unknown to science. In the past, taxonomists mainly analysed an animal’s physical features, such as its size, colour and bone structure. These features were compared to those of existing species, and if they were different enough, a new species would be declared. An organism’s physical features, or morphology, are still considered to determine if it is a new species, but nowadays taxonomists have another tool: DNA testing. Even if two animals look similar, taxonomists can determine if the specimens are different enough to be separate species by comparing their DNA. These analyses, both of morphology and DNA, take time. Taxonomists want to be confident they have a new species before making an announcement. This is why it took years between scientists first spotting a lesula and announcing it as a species.

New species are constantly being discovered by scientists. Sometimes these are the results of field expeditions into the wilderness to identify new and existing species. Sometimes, as in the discovery of the lesula, they are found hiding in plain sight.



Bionic eye a step closer

Bionic vision technology aims to help people who are blind or vision-impaired regain their sense of sight. Like with the cochlear implant, or bionic ear, Australian researchers are again leading the way, this time to develop a bionic eye.

The eye is a delicate and complex organ. Light enters the eye through the cornea, a bulge at the front of the eye, and then passes through the pupil and a lens. The lens focuses light onto the retina, which sits at the back of the eye.
The retina has cells called rods and cones. These detect light, and convert it into electrical impulses. These tiny electrical pulses travel through the optic nerve to the brain, which then processes the information to form an image. This is how we see. Problems with any part of the eye may cause problems with vision. Almost 300 000 Australians are blind or vision-impaired. Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) is attempting to build a bionic eye that will allow people with some types of blindness to see again.
Researchers from BVA implanted a tiny device behind the retina of a patient with a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the retina to degenerate. The device has 24 small electrodes which detect light pulses directed into the patient’s eye. The electrodes then stimulate the retina’s cells, which pass information to the optic nerve then brain, which is interpreted as an image. Although all that the patient saw was flashes of light, it is still an important step in developing a bionic eye. It shows that BVA’s idea may just be possible, and people with retinitis pigmentosa may one day be able to see. If successful, BVA hopes to invent other bionic eyes to give sight to patients with other types of vision loss.



CSIRO’s got gas

It’s Australian footy finals season, and millions of eyes around the country are focused on the football field. Now imagine the area of that football field and fold it in half. Keep folding and folding until it’s small enough to sit in a spoon. Sounds impossible, right?

Actually, there are materials that contain a football field’s area in just one gram. They’re called MOFs and their gas storage abilities recently won CSIRO scientist Dr Matthew Hill a Eureka Prize.

MOF stands for metal organic framework. ‘Metal’ refers to the fact that these materials contain metal ions. MOFs usually contain relatively light metal ions, such as copper, calcium or magnesium. What holds these metal ions together? That’s where the ‘organic’ part comes in. Organic chemicals are a huge class of compounds based on the elements carbon and hydrogen. In MOFs, the metals are linked together by organic molecules. The metal ions and organic molecules are arranged to create a ‘framework’. The structure of the material is such that it has a huge surface area in a small mass. Think of scaffolding around a building. The surface area of the building is the combined area of its walls. The scaffolding, however, is made of struts, poles and platforms, which have a relatively large area. The scaffolding also has a large surface area inside its structure. So while the building has a much larger mass, the scaffolding weighs less with a higher surface area. MOFs are like the scaffolding – they form a structure that has low mass, but high surface area. MOFs have an important property: they can adsorb large volumes of gas. This is because the gas molecules can fit easily into the holes and gaps within the MOF structure. CSIRO is currently researching the use of MOFs to capture gases. Such research is an important part of broader research into reducing greenhouse gas emissions.



2012 Eureka Prizes announced

 What do the electromagnetic force, rip currents, humpback whales and lizards have in common? They are just some of the subjects of work that won Eureka Prizes this year.

The Eureka Prizes were established over 20 years ago to recognise outstanding achievements in Australian scientific research, science communication and school science. The prizes are presented annually by the Australian Museum, and cover 19 different categories. The winners of the prizes come from the full range of scientific disciplines. The prize for Scientific Research went to a team of physicists who showed that the electromagnetic force (which is associated with electricity, magnetism and light) varies in strength as you move across the Universe. The laws of physics are assumed to be constant across the Universe. If the physicists’ results are accurate, it suggests that the laws of physics aren’t constant, which could have implications for all of science.

The Eureka Prizes don’t just deal with the grand questions of the cosmos. Dr Rob Brander received an award for his work with something much closer to many Australians’ hearts: the beach. Rob used his research on rip currents to start the Science of the Surf initiative to better educate the public about the dangers of this potentially lethal phenomenon. For his work, Rob received a Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research.

It’s not just scientists who win Eureka Prizes. Photographer Jason Edwards won the science photography prize for his picture of two humpback whales. Jason’s picture wasn’t just visually striking; it was also scientifically significant as it was the first time two of these gentle giants had been photographed mating.

School students Brandon Gifford and Iggy Fox also won Eureka Prizes, in the Sleek Geeks video competition. Brandon, who won the Secondary School prize, made his video about the properties of lizard skins that allow them to survive in often hostile environments. Iggy won the Primary School prize for his video about his experiment to grow extra-large eggs from his hens.

The Eureka Prizes are important for recognising the work of Australian scientists, as well as science communicators and teachers. They are a useful way of highlighting some of the greatest achievements made in Australia science in a way that that is interesting to the public. Who knows, maybe one day you will be the one crying ‘Eureka!


A level playing field

The Olympic Games have finished in London, which means it’s time for the Paralympics to begin. Like their non-disabled counterparts, elite athletes with a disability rely more and more on science and technology for that winning edge. But is it fair for everyone?

Technology plays an important role in sport, where fractions of a second can separate victory from defeat. It is sometimes controversial. For example, swimmers were banned from using certain types of swimsuits after dozens of world records were broken in a short time.

Many other sports also have strict requirements for the equipment that is used. For example, tennis racquets must be smaller than a certain size, and boats in Olympic sailing events must all comply with the same specifications. The reason for these rules on equipment is so that the winner will be determined by ability, not by who has the best gear.

Creating a level playing field is trickier at the Paralympics. This is because of the range and severity of impairments that athletes have. It doesn’t really make sense to have athletes who are vision-impaired competing against athletes who use wheelchairs. Athletes in the Paralympics compete in different classifications against other athletes with similar disabilities.

Oscar Pistorius is a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa. He is nicknamed ‘Blade Runner’ after the blade-like prostheses he uses to compete. Despite his disability, Oscar performed well enough to qualify for the World Championships and Olympics against non-disabled opponents. Some objected to his being allowed to compete, as they claimed that his running blades actually gave him an unfair advantage over runners with two legs.

Eventually athletics officials decided that he was allowed to compete, and he ended up making the semi-finals in the 400 metre sprint. While debate will probably continue about the role of technology in sport, it should not take away from the performance of these elite athletes

Reporting on our oceans

At school you receive report cards to keep track of how you’re going and to identify strengths and weaknesses. Report cards are good for students – what about our oceans?

The 2012 Marine Climate Change in Australia Report Card was released last week. It includes information on factors such as ocean temperatures, sea levels, ocean currents and the El Niño Southern Oscillation. It also includes the impacts these may have on marine plants, animals and microbes.

The report card isn’t the work of a few researchers – over 80 Australian marine scientists from 34 research institutions, including the CSIRO, contributed research to the report card. Why so many people? The reason is that scientists tend to specialise. For instance, a marine scientist may be an expert on ocean currents, but know very little about fish. The report card covers such a wide range of scientific disciplines that many experts were needed.

The report card is also different from many other scientific announcements in that it is not the result of a single experiment or group of experiments. Instead, it brings together the observations, results and conclusions from hundreds of scientists. This is useful as it means that the information closely reflects the current opinions of the scientific community.

The report card doesn’t just include observations, it also includes predictions. These both have a confidence rating from low to high. Science is not always clear-cut. Ideally, scientists will clearly communicate how confident they are in their results and conclusions. Some of the observations and predictions in the report card have a high level of confidence, while others only have a low level. By increasing the data from experiment and observation scientists can increase the confidence in their conclusions.

The previous report card was published in 2009. The 2012 report card confirmed that climate change is already affecting our oceans, which is in turn affecting marine life in different ways. It also included some ways that people are already adapting to the effects that climate change is having on our oceans and marine life. Report cards such as these are useful for drawing together results from a large number of studies into one place and for keeping track of how our oceans are changing. Hopefully in years to come, our oceans’ grades will start improving.


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