Highlighting science news you may have missed, and telling you why it matters in about a minute.
Antarctica: Lake Vostok teeming with life, study says
What it is: A study has found that Lake Vostok, a massive lake 2 km into the Antarctic ice shelf, contains life.
In February, 2012, a team of Russian and American scientists breached the surface of Lake Vostok, a 12,500-sq. km lake almost 3 km below the gigantic glaciers of Antarctica. They’d used a drill to bore through the thick ice. In January, 2013, the team was able to obtain a ‘core’ of water samples from the lake for analysis.
On July 7, Scott Rogers, the study’s author, announced that they had found the DNA of a whopping 3,507 different organisms in the water. This find is awesome not only because of Lake Vostok’s hostile conditions, bereft of direct sunlight and containing very little oxygen, but also because it has been isolated from the rest of the world for 15 million years.
In all this time, as the rest of the world underwent drastic geological, meteorological and biological changes, Lake Vostok was able to preserve exotic forms of life that could survive on sulphur compounds and the like.
Why it matters: Conditions similar to those in Lake Vostok are thought to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which contains large oceans of water beneath kilometers of ice. If Vostok harbours life, so could Europa, think astrobiologists.
‘Wind Mines’ could become the savior that datacentres need
What it is: Pumping pressurized gas into caverns deep underground could prove to be a method by which one could store wind energy (essentially saving the wind that generates the power)— which could in turn be used to keep the power levels of huge datacenters steady.
Datacentres are often cheekily referred to as power-hungry monsters. Indeed, this particular negative attribute as led several major IT firms to include wind and solar power farms as part of their datacenter construction plans.
Unfortunately, wind and solar power are often unreliable-especially by the standards that datacenters need as a way to compensate for any unexpected surges or drops in power.
Researchers at the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have used an old technique called compressed air energy storage (CAES) which involves storing compressed air in underground salt caverns hollowed out by solution mining.
The energy then could be let out whenever demand spikes or wind drops or even when the above-ground facilities need help spinning enough turbines to keep power levels steady.
The only catch, of course, is finding giant underground salt caverns, which as one could imagine, aren’t very common. The researchers have an answer for that-they believe that porous rocks deep in the Earth could store the wind’s intermittent power.
For instance, volcanic rocks, found commonly as part of petroleum explorations, could store enough energy to power a total of about 85,000 homes per month.
Why it matters: This method essentially means that by storing the wind’s intermittent power, it is possible to deploy renewable energy on command-without depending on the vagaries of nature.
Hawkmoths zap bats with sonic blasts from their genitals
What it is: A number of species of a tropical moth was shown to be able to beam ultrasound from their genitals at approaching bats.
Bats are known to use high frequency sounds as an echolocation technique, enabling them to identify and locate the position of a prey. Moths are a common example.
Hawkmoths species are some of the fastest flying insects. Scientists recently discovered that they respond to bat (their predator) sonar with their own sonic pulses produced from their genitals.
While it was known that another variety of moth called the tiger moth uses ultrasound as a defense mechanism, they do so using a vibrating membrane in their thorax (between the head and the abdomen), not from their genitalia.
Scientists understand that the hawkmoth probably evolved this mechanism as physical defense, to warn other moths, or to jam the bats’ echolocation. This is particularly fascinating for evolutionary biologists as it is an example of ‘convergence’ -- the appearance of similar features in separate groups of animals.
Why it matters: The more we learn about echolocation, the better we can design our ultrasound-based medical tools which are vital to observing the development of foetuses and tumour diagnosis.
Optical transistor switches states by trapping a single photon
What it is: Scientists have created a transistor that doesn’t operate with electrons but with photons.
Transistors are integral to modern computing. They use electric signals to manipulate electrons’ paths inside a circuit, such that traveling down some paths represents one function, etc.
The manipulation occurs mostly through what are called gates, which, depending on what the user wants, decide to block or let electrons through.
However, since electrons have to flow through wires, the speed of computing is limited by the speed of electrons moving through the wires. It was long ago realised that using transistors operated by light would do the trick, but nobody knew how.
On July 4, scientists from MIT announced a solution. Manipulating a cloud of ultracold atoms, they were able to pass some light through and block some light out using lasers.
These atoms were of cesium, which has a cool property of two ground states. Each ground state represents the cesium atom’s most stable, non-excited state. If a photon with a particular energy was beamed at them, its energy would be taken up by the atoms and they’d become excited to the energy level corresponding to one of the two ground states.
When this happened, photons with the energy corresponding to the other ground state could pass through the gas; the rest would be blocked out.
Why it matters: Optical transistors could speed up classical computers by orders of magnitude, not to mention also reduce energy losses like heat.
Preserving a tortoise, and a legacy
What it is: An unusual project, that of stuffing a celebrity animal Lonesome George’s preserved body, was announced by a New York City museum.
George was the last known individual belonging to the Pinta island tortoise subspecies, gaining him the nickname “Lonesome George”. He died last year, aged more than a hundred, as a symbol of conservation efforts around the world.
It was this iconic status that has prompted the American Museum of Natural History and the Galapagos Natural Park to decide to have George’s preserved remains stuffed by a taxidermist.
The process involves incredible levels of meticulousness (even sculpting George’s wrinkles accurately!) and is expected to take about 6 months. The only ‘unnatural’ part of the stuffed product will be the eyes.
Notably, researchers last year found a group of tortoises carrying some Pinta genes indicating that there might yet be full-blooded Pintas living today.
Why it matters: This move may not be of as much scientific value as symbolic value. Efforts sparked by George’s discovery to repopulate the Galapagos Island with tortoises are still on. Tortoises enriched the ecosystem by opening up the land and spreading seeds. Attempts to mate George may have failed (using females of related subspecies did not work), but conservationists are hopeful especially after last year’s discovery.
Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Nandita Jayaraj, Anuj Srivas