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Mon, 19 Feb 2018
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Science & Technology


Bioremediation: A microscopic fungus could mop up nuclear waste

This strain of the yeast Rhodotorula taiwanensis could one day help clean up radioactive waste
This hardcore yeast thrives amidst acid and radiation.

During the Cold War, the United States produced a truly mind-boggling amount of radioactive waste. We failed to properly dispose of much of that sludge, and it's been leaking from underground storage tanks since the 1950s. Over the years it has contaminated more than 2 billion cubic feet worth of soil and nearly 800 billion gallons of groundwater at low levels.

Cleaning this mess up will be a daunting task, but scientists have just enlisted a new ally. It turns out our best bet for containing radioactive waste might be to stick yeast on it. Many of these tiny fungi can survive extremely radioactive and acidic conditions, scientists reported January 8 in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. What's more, they form gunk called biofilms that could potentially trap the waste.


The pirate queen of science

Alexandra Elbakyan is plundering the academic publishing establishment
Alex Castro art
© Alex Castro
In cramped quarters at Russia's Higher School of Economics, shared by four students and a cat, sat a server with 13 hard drives. The server hosted Sci-Hub, a website with over 64 million academic papers available for free to anybody in the world. It was the reason that, one day in June 2015, Alexandra Elbakyan, the student and programmer with a futurist streak and a love for neuroscience blogs, opened her email to a message from the world's largest publisher: "YOU HAVE BEEN SUED."

It wasn't long before an administrator at Library Genesis, another pirate repository named in the lawsuit, emailed her about the announcement. "I remember when the administrator at LibGen sent me this news and said something like 'Well, that's... that's a real problem.' There's no literal translation," Elbakyan tells me in Russian. "It's basically 'That's an ass.' But it doesn't translate perfectly into English. It's more like 'That's f*cked up. We're f*cked.'"

Sci-Hub posed a direct threat to the academic publishers' business model



'Bulletproof wood': Scientists just figured out how to make wood as strong as steel

© Anne Kauranen / AFP
Scientists at the University of Maryland have fortified wood using a process which makes it 12 times stronger, producing a natural substance more durable than many titanium alloys and capable of stopping high-speed projectiles.

"This could be a competitor to steel or even titanium alloys, it is so strong and durable. It's also comparable to carbon fiber, but much less expensive," said Liangbing Hu, head of the research team at UMD's A. James Clark School of Engineering, in a press release. "This new way to treat wood makes it 12 times stronger than natural wood and 10 times tougher."

The team of researchers boiled different varieties of wood in a caustic solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfite for seven hours. This process removes some of the compounds that surround the cellulose in the wood, creating additional space within. They then pressed the block at 100 degrees Celsius for an entire day. This reduced the wood to one fifth its original thickness but increased its density threefold.


Flowers attract bees by using 'blue halo' optical trick

fower ultra violet
© Edwige Moyroud/Assoiated Press
The region at the base of the petals of this Ursinia speciosa flower appears blue at certain angles due to an optical effect.
The blue light, which can sometimes be seen by humans, is cast by tiny ridges of different height and spacing on petals, scientists have discovered

Flowers might seem like one of life's simple pleasures, but it turns out there might be more to them than meets the eye.

Researchers have discovered that certain species of flowering plants boast tiny ridges on their petals that, thanks to variations in their height or spacing, scatter light to cast a blueish hue over the blooms.

While the effect is not always visible to humans, it can be spotted by bees - suggesting the optical effect might help to attract the pollinators.

"The exciting thing is that it is a new optical trick - we didn't know that flowers could use disorder to generate a specific colour, and that is quite clever," said Professor Beverley Glover, co-author of the research from the University of Cambridge.

Comment: More bee information. Fascinating creatures!

Magic Hat

'A nice trick': Russian space agency downplays significance of SpaceX Falcon launch

SpaceX  launch
© SpaceX / Flicr
Russia's state-owned space corporation Roscosmos has brushed off the significance Elon Musk's successful launch of a reusable rocket toward Mars carrying a red Tesla.

Although the upstart billionaire's SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch on Tuesday was seen as a landmark moment in space exploration, the reaction in Russia was more ambivalent.

"I don't know if this is a conspiracy or not, but in fact it's a very good trick," Roscosmos spokesman Igor Burenkov said about the launch in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Thursday.

Comment: See: Another historic SpaceX launch: 'Triple-rocket' Falcon Heavy launches Tesla Roadster to Mars orbit - Two rockets synchronize vertical landings (VIDEO)


Plants have consciousness, new study suggests

Plant Consciousness
© YouTube/Unsplash
The benefits of talking to houseplants have long been relegated to the halls of pseudoscience, while the benefits of playing them music has seemed even goofier. Now, a study published in The Annals of Botany journal suggests that plants are much more complex in their range of reactions and much closer to animals than previously assumed.

The study used a single-lens reflex camera to follow organ movements in plants before, during, and after recovery to exposure to diverse and unrelated anesthetics. "Mimosa leaves, pea tendrils, Venus flytraps and sundew traps all lost both their autonomous and touch-induced movements after exposure to anesthetics," it said. "In Venus flytrap, this was shown to be due to the loss of action potentials under diethyl ether anesthesia. The same concentration of diethyl ether immobilized pea tendrils. Anaesthetics also impeded seed germination and chlorophyll accumulation in cress seedlings."

By trapping pea plants in ether-filled glass chambers, soaking garden cress roots and seedlings in lidocaine, and measuring the electrical activity of Venus flytrap cells, they soon determined the plants become unresponsive. This meant the anesthetics worked, and the plants' cells stopped firing. Once the medicine wore off, they seemed to regain consciousness.


Norway's ice instruments: Coolest sounds in music

Terje Lsungset
© Pinterest
Terje Isungset, the founder and artistic director of the Ice Music Festival, tests a musical instrument made out of ice.
Inside a giant igloo in a snowy Norwegian village, the sound of a horn rings out, warming the mood of a freezing audience, huddled together in -24 Celsius. But the four musicians performing are even colder: the instruments they are playing are all made of ice.

The xylophone, claves and wind instruments have been painstakingly carved from ice blocks extracted from a frozen lake, and are now part of a finger-numbing performance at the 13th Ice Music Festival in the mountain village of Finse.

The problem is, the longer the musicians play, the more the instruments start to disintegrate. It is not an easy task "to perform on instruments that are melting while you play them," says percussionist Terje Isungset, also the founder of the festival. Wearing thick wool gloves, he blows warm air into his ice-sculpted horn, illuminated under blue and turquoise lights.

Next to him, a singer with an angelic voice covers her mouth with a scarf to stay warm, while a bass player removes his gloves so he can pull the strings on his ice-made instrument.
chainsaw ice
© unknown
Musicians carve their own instruments.

Fireball 5

Astronomers have discovered swarms of tiny comets orbiting an alien sun

Star KIC 3542116
© NASA / arXiv
This image shows how star KIC 3542116 looks to the Kepler space telescope. Cooler colors represent darker regions, and warmer colors represent brighter regions.
There are tiny comets orbiting foreign suns. And human beings can detect them.

Six times, about 800 years ago, dark things passed between the bright-yellow dwarf star KIC 3542116 and Earth. They were small in cosmic terms, about 330 billion tons (300 billion metric tons). That's about the size of Halley's Comet, or just one-245 millionth the mass of Earth's moon.

But they were big enough. They blocked a fraction of a fraction of the light that was streaming outward from that star. Eight hundred years later, the sensitive lens of the Kepler Space Telescope - a nearly meterwide piece of precision-cut glass floating in the darkness of space - detected that dimming as KIC 3542116's ancient light reached this solar system.


Job One for Quantum Computers: Boost Artificial Intelligence

The fusion of quantum computing and machine learning has become a booming research area. Can it possibly live up to its high expectations?
Quantum nueral network
© Josef Bsharah/Quanta Magazine
In the early '90s, Elizabeth Behrman, a physics professor at Wichita State University, began working to combine quantum physics with artificial intelligence - in particular, the then-maverick technology of neural networks. Most people thought she was mixing oil and water. "I had a heck of a time getting published," she recalled. "The neural-network journals would say, 'What is this quantum mechanics?' and the physics journals would say, 'What is this neural-network garbage?'"

Today the mashup of the two seems the most natural thing in the world. Neural networks and other machine-learning systems have become the most disruptive technology of the 21st century. They out-human humans, beating us not just at tasks most of us were never really good at, such as chess and data-mining, but also at the very types of things our brains evolved for, such as recognizing faces, translating languages and negotiating four-way stops. These systems have been made possible by vast computing power, so it was inevitable that tech companies would seek out computers that were not just bigger, but a new class of machine altogether.


Ancient virus could be the reason humans developed the ability to think

© Getty
We all have consciousness, but explaining why and how our thoughts occur has always been a scientific mystery
An ancient virus could be responsible for human consciousness, giving you the ability to think for yourself.

New research has linked a human gene responsible for conscious thought to a virus that was spread in the early days of humanity.

Two papers published in the Cell journal discuss the origins of the Arc gene, which packages up genetic information and sends it around nerve cells in little virus-style capsules.

These packages of information are believed to be critical to how our nerves communicate and could be responsible for our thoughts.

Elissa D. Pastuzyn, who authored one of the studies, said: "Evolutionary analysis indicates that Arc is derived from a vertebrate lineage of Ty3/gypsy retrotransposons, which are also ancestors to retroviruses."

Comment: For more on the links between viruses and human evolution, see: