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’.

Cone snail poison tea

Snail Tea
Kayla found the best thing for her back pain was a warm cup of tea.

Image: Mike McRae

More from the CSIRO science by email. They ask, “Consider the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”

Oooch, that would have to be my tangle with the stinging tree. “Imagine if it was constant and never went away.” Oh yeh, I remember.

“For some people, this scary thought is an everyday reality, where even the strongest pain killers fail to bring relief or come at a great cost.”

Oh no, no amount of chronic pain equals the pain of the stinging tree. Maybe terminal cancer pain.

“The type of snail the researchers are studying is known more for its ability to kill than bring relief. Cone snails are a group of aquatic mollusc that can be found in tropical waters worldwide. Their beautiful shells are prized by collectors, however some species pack a powerful punch in the form of a tiny poisonous harpoon they shoot from a tube. It’s this toxin that has captured the scientists’ interest.”

Oh yeh, we were trained as children to be very careful to avoid them on the Barrier Reef. Likewise of the stinging tree, but one day I just lucked out.

“It is a complex mixture of a large number of short proteins, or peptides, which contribute to shutting down the nervous system of the snail’s prey. In the case of some of the larger species, enough of the venom can be injected into humans to lead to a quick death. On their own, some of the proteins can stop nerves from sending pain signals to the brain. Finding which ones has been a challenge. Researchers have narrowed down their search for suitable pain-relief to a handful of peptides that can be synthesised in a laboratory. While they look promising, they all need to be injected into the nerves of the spinal cord. Swallowing a pill would be far easier, yet most proteins can be quickly broken apart by the acid and enzymes of the digestive system.

Fortunately, there are a few proteins that can survive the journey from the gut and reach the body’s nervous system. The chemists considered one found in an African plant that is used in traditional herbal medicine to speed up childbirth. They discovered it had an unusual circular shape, making it less likely to be broken apart in the gut. By copying the shape, it’s possible to turn the cone snail’s peptide into a form that could deliver the medication through the mouth rather than a needle.”

Perhaps they could genetically engineer a stinging tree with that peptide, and there is the injector and drug all in one.

“Although it’s still being tested, it so far promises to have fewer side effects than other medications and a low risk of chemical addiction. A variety of organisms rely on poison or venom to kill their prey or act as protection. How many hide secrets that could instead be used to heal rather than harm?”

Are we (literally) pissing our future away

While the federal electioneering game is being played around Australia, and leaders of the main political parties spend their time bidding for the nation’s approval, another timely reminder of the real stakes for human society, was issued through the ABC Science Website. Science Reporter, Stephen Pincott, points out that “each year globally, we generate three million metric tons of phosphorus in our pee and poo”, while scientists warn we may only have 25 years to pass the peak levels of the world’s supply of phosphorous, in a period that will see an increased global population of 3 billion people.

As phosphorous levels are exhausted, and demand increases, prices will steadily increase, reducing the amount of food grown with rock phosphate sources. With the increased population, food security throughout the world becomes very weak. The weaker food security becomes, the weaker becomes the broader security of nations as despairing populations take to whatever means will let them survive or perhaps take over fertile lands. The potential for massive warfaring fallout, including the use of dirty and refined nuclear weapons increases markedly.

If the last century was the century that proved that war was a useless method for solving problems, this century will be the century in which ye old capitalist economics will be shown to be a useless method for solving global and national problems. Unchecked capitalism will result in loss of lives through economic fallout this century that will make the losses of the World Wars and communist regimes pale into insignificance.

As with the World Wars and communism, there is opportunity to check the problem, providing the aspirants to political leadership have the will, the intelligence and the self-sacrifice, to work with high-minded people within each nation and around the world, to reform the economic and security approaches throughout the world. If they and we, the citizens, fear these steps, then think this, what you fear today is miniscule coompared towhat you might bring upon the heads of your grandchildren by inaction and lack of sacrifice.  Without courage, we are literally pissing the future of human society away.

Mango, parrot, bat, rabbit, car crash

I planted a seedling Bowen Mango nearly 20 years ago. It grew slowly as seedlings tend to, and never put on more than a couple of magoes until this year. This year it had a flourish of flower that have provided a feast for flying foxes, parrots, bush turkeys (when the half eaten ones fall to the ground) . My dearest bagged a few branches to ensure they mangoes rippened without been eaten first and we have managed to eat a couple ourselves, this week. Quite a nice flavour.

A hole appeared near a small grevillea I planted a few months ago. I filled it in but it appeared again yesterday. This time the culprit, a rabbit, was almost caught in the act. I wonder whether a burrow is being prepared. I have filled it in.

A cyclone named Olga, is coming this way. It has been raining heavily, steadily for a couple of days. The local Baha’i assembly had organised an inter-faith event for World Religion day, this afternoon. It was decided to postpone it while the rain made driving difficult and people may not turn up as the cyclone crosses the coast.

This morning my son, being out at a friend’s place in the countryside, rang to say he crashed the car through a farm fence last night. No one was hurt but he spent the night at the friend’s place. I arrived on the scene as a policecar pulled up, having been alerted by the farmer. The airbag had inflated. The front panelling is quite destroyed. The radiator has a buckle in it. Yet it drives so hopefully the chassis is okay. An hour in the rain with tow truck driver and farmer getting the car out, fixing the fence. Five minutes of chastisement for my son and a smattering of ongoing ‘debriefing’ for the past few hours.

Back at home, two parrots strolled around the fallen mangoes on our lawn, allowing me to get quite close and take some photos before their discomfort overwhelmed their captivation with the fruit. This is the wet season of January 2010.