Highlighting science news you may have missed, and telling you why it matters in about a minute.
What it is: Mozilla is advancing plans to have the Firefox browser block, by default, many types of tracking used by numerous websites.
In an era of Orwellian surveillance, there seems to be a breath of fresh air. Despite strong opposition from the advertising industry, Mozilla is fast-tracking its plans to introduce a technology that will block all third-party cookies and, thus, tracking of user data.
At the moment, nearly 20 per cent of the world’s computers use Firefox. According to Brendan Eich, CTO, Mozilla, the technology, which is based off the kind that is used by Apple’s Safari browser, will go live in the next few months.
Why is Mozilla doing this? Mr. Eich says it is to “change the dynamic so that trackers behave better.” The only problem here is that Internet advertisers use the type of cookies that will soon be blocked to track users across multiple websites.
The main objective of this rollout, which has been plagued with legal issues over the last few years, is to let users have new privacy options. For instance, the type of cookies that will be blocked by Firefox will be determined by the Cookie Clearinghouse, a U.S-based think tank.
Why it matters: The Cookie Clearinghouse will publish lists that web browser companies will choose to adopt, providing a greater number of privacy options for the end-user.
What it is: Physicists have found a new form of matter containing four quarks, instead of the more conventional two or three quarks.
The smallest, ‘most fundamental’ particles in the universe are called quarks. They and their antimatter counterparts come together in different combinations to make up different kinds of matter. In twos, they are called mesons; in threes, baryons, such as protons and neutrons. In fours... well, there have been no fours until now.
The set of scientific rules that describes quarks is called quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and it doesn’t say anything about how many quarks can clump together. In some other part of the universe, quarks could be combining in strange conditions in the tens. However, that they do come in fours has been observed for the first time.
These ‘tetraquarks’ were spotted at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, Japan, and have been titled Z_c(3900). The ‘c’ denotes charm, which is a kind of quark, two of which have been found in the new particle. Z_c(3900) also has a charge. If anything, this particle and its properties stretch the bounds of QCD, and establish its dominion over more exotic subjects.
Why it matters: QCD is also the theory that plays a significant role in describing what happened immediately after the Big Bang 13.82 billion years ago. And studying Z_c(3900) further could reveal more details of our universe’s birth, and the kind of strange matter that could’ve existed then.
What it is: A Japanese stem cell scientist has succeeded in making his government reconsider its ban on creating human-animal hybrids.
Hiromitsu Nakauchi wants to be allowed to implant human stem cells (cells that can develop into any kind of tissue) into genetically engineered pig embryos without breaking the law.
Unlike most of America, Japan frowns upon experiments involving human-animal embryos (or ‘chimeric embryos’ as they are called). The government allows their creation in lab conditions, but not in whole living organisms.
But Nakauchi, one of the world’s leading stem cell scientists, has finally convinced the decision-makers to soften their stance. New guidelines are set to be formulated, though Nakauchi fears this might take another year or two - and even then, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.
He has already successfully created mouse-rat hybrids and white pig-black pig hybrids (‘hybrids’ are simply organisms that carry DNA from more than one organism). To avoid delays, Nakauchi is considering moving his research to the U.S.
Nakauchi’s objective is to grow human organs in animals. Human stem cells are put into a pig embryo that has been rendered incapable of developing a pancreas of its own.
Why it matters: If things go as planned, we ultimately get a pig with a human pancreas, which can be transplanted into a person who needs it. Why pigs? Because their organs are of a similar size to ours.
What it is: Environmental activists have secured a deal with the US government and oil industry officials against the wanton use of airguns in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf of Mexico is a bruised part of Earth. In 2010, it suffered the worst marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, affecting over 8,000 species of fishes, birds and molluscs, and creating vast oxygen-depleted zones because of the heavy methane discharge.
Despite its treasured biodiversity, the Gulf of Mexico still draws the wrong kind of attention because it sits on oil deposits. Companies constantly prospect for larger pockets of oil and then set up mining rigs to draw the fossil fuel up. The method they adopt for prospecting is, importantly, differently harmful than an oil spill can be.
Prospectors use what are called airguns that blast the water with extremely loud noise - often approaching the deafening 120 decibels - that bounce off the ocean floor at different rates indicative of what’s beneath it. These noises seriously disrupt communication among whales and dolphins, and can affect feeding and breeding patterns adversely in the long term. However, there could be worse consequences, too, simply because we’re not aware of what less overwhelming disasters than an oil spill are capable of.
Why it matters: The victory that the activists have secured includes not only regulating the use of airguns, but also awakening the government to previously unconventional and unregulated threats.
What it is: Scientists have gained an idea of how the female and male gametes of flowering plants communicate with each other to ensure that fertilisation happens successfully.
Sexual reproduction in flowering plants begins when a pollen grain (carrying sperm) is deposited on the tip of a flower’s pistil, the female sex organ. The pollen grain grows tubes down the flower’s style to reach the ovaries, where the pollen tubes promptly burst open letting loose two sperm cells which fertilise the egg cell in the ovaries.
High school biology taught us this, but not how the pollen tubes know precisely when to stop growing, how out of the hundreds of pollen tubes only two sperm cells are released into the ovaries every time, and what signals the tubes to burst open at the right time.
Scientists investigated, and discovered three transcription factors (proteins that regulate gene expression) that seemingly play a role in making these decisions. Without these three factors, they found that the pollen tubes kept growing, coiling up, and failed to release sperm.
These factors were found to be necessary for the secretion of a protein that has been known to play a role in bursting open cells. This could be the protein driving the pollen tube’s self-destruction.
Why it matters: Attempts to crossbreed crops like wheat and barley are often impeded by failure of the pollen tube burst-and-release step. Understanding the mechanics of this step can enable engineering of the cells to reproduce correctly.
What it is: A development in optical data storage that allows storage of 10.6 years of HD video on a DVD.
Data is stored in a DVD as bits - binary 0 and 1. When a DVD is 'written', a single laser beam 'burns' the data as dots of light, to denote 0s and 1s. In 1873, German physicist Ernst Abbe had said that the diameter of such a dot of visible light cannot be smaller than half its wavelength - about 500 nanometres. Because of Abbe's law, a DVD can only hold a limited number of dots, i.e. 4.7 GB’s worth.
Now, researchers from Australia have come up with a new technology that circumvents Abbe's law by using two beams: one the round-shaped writing beam and the other, a donut-shaped anti-recording beam. When overlapped, the donut cancels out parts of the writing beam except at a very small focal spot of just nine nanometres’ width.
It’s like filling a larger tank of water using two cups of specific volumes. You add some extra water with the bigger cup, and then subtract some by removing it with the smaller cup. You keep doing this until you have the perfect amount you need.
Why it matters: Beside the implication that you can store 50,000 HD movies on a DVD, the new technique suggests that optical technology can still be refined to accommodate more data than thought possible. This is great at a time when information production is still accelerating.
What it is: Internet search giant Google has decided to junk GPAs and test scores as criteria for evaluating potential employees after internal evaluation. It has also decided to do away with esoteric interview questions such as ‘how many manholes are there in New York City?’.
Any computer engineer worth his or her salt has, at some point, wondered how it would be to work at Google. The only problem: Getting through their tough requirements and whacky interview questions!
According to a recent interview published by The New York Times, however, SVP Laszlo Bock has admitted that an internal evaluation of the effectiveness of the company’s interview process produced some sobering results.
Apparently, an analysis of how well employees had done at answering those crazy interviews and how well they ultimately performed their job showed that there was zero relationship between both parameters.
In addition to this, the search giant has also decided to do away with GPAs and test scores as they are pretty much “useless for evaluating candidates”—except in the case of fresh college graduates.
Brainteasers and esoteric technical questions are out, says TechCrunch, indicating that the new version of interviews at the top tech. giants may soon be quite different. The move has also sparked a general debate throughout the Internet, with some declaring that ‘the technical interview will soon be dead’.
Why it matters: It is time tech. giants found better, more pertinent ways to hire employees instead of just picking up those who stood out from the crowd.
(Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Nandita Jayaraj, Anuj Srivas, and Anand Venkateshwaran)