Highlighting science news you may have missed, and telling you why it matters in about a minute.

Nerves control prostate cancer

What it is: Nerves have been found to play a critical role in the development and spread of prostate tumours.

It is quite common for nerves to be found around tumours, but their role in cancers was previously undefined. Scientists tested their function by injecting human prostate cancer cells into mice and disabling different parts of the mice’s nervous systems to observe what the effect was on the cancer cells.

They found that the sympathetic nervous system (SNS gives us our “fight or flight” response) helps initiate the cancer process, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS controls activity when our body is at rest) contributes to the spread of cancer from its origin site (or metastasis).

Lending further credibility to this observation was the fact that patients with more aggressive tumours had greater nerve density. Though this was proved only for prostate cancers, the researchers suspect that this could be common of other cancer types as well.

Why it matters: Using this knowledge it could be possible to design a test to predict the aggressiveness of cancers. Moreover, it raises the possibility that drugs targeting the PNS and SNS could be developed to treat prostate cancer.

See the invisible with terahertz vision

What it is: Scientists from Caltech have created a small silicon chip that can emit and receive signals in the terahertz frequency.

Terahertz frequency signals are not often used to communicate between smartphones because it is very difficult to generate as well as receive. Historically, the devices that can do this have been bulky and expensive.

On July 8, electrical engineers from the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, announced that they were able to create a terahertz transmitter/receiver using a silicon chip the size of a one-rupee coin.

The size is important because it is the first time such a device has any scope in the future to be handheld. Terahertz signals can easily go through skin, paper, fabrics, etc., but not through denser materials like bone or metal, so they bounce off – making them excellent metal-detectors that can also double up as a detector for contraband goods.

Since the transmitter/receiver is the size of a small silicon chip, this Superman-like “X-ray vision” technology can be operated out of a smartphone. Because smartphones come with a variety of programmable hardware, the scope of the silicon chips can be expanded.

Why it matters: From inside a smartphone, a socially and economically viable plethora of applications are possible – including non-invasive cancer screening, ultrafast data transmission, better motion-sensing, and gesture-recognition.

HTTP 2.0 will be a binary protocol

What it is: The next generation of the principal system of digital rules (or protocols) that define the way communications work over the World Wide Web, HTTP 2.0, will include multiplexing.

The latest working copy of HTTP 2.0 is out, released by members of the Internet Engineering Task Force, and it is already causing waves. Unlike previous versions of the HTTP protocol, this version will be a binary format, which was put in mainly to reduce the huge delay in web surfing.

Binary protocols are protocols that were designed to have the advantage of terseness, which usually translates into speed of transmission, but they are also expected to be read by a machine rather than a human being.

This is controversial because, while binary formats are very useful in saving space and conserving bandwidth, they also make life very painful during the debugging process as binary protocols aren't meant to be read by humans!

However, the charter emphasizes that the protocol will be optional. While the document released is an alternative, it will not obsolete previous versions of the HTTP protocol. In practice, however, this may not work as one protocol will soon have to be adopted over the other.

Why it matters: It is expected that HTTP 2.0 will substantially and measurably improve the sluggishness that some internet users feel while browsing. It will also improve the way browsers interact when they connect to servers on the World Wide Web, especially regarding congestion control. That’s faster internet for everybody!

Superstrong fiber gets help from carbon nanotubes

What it is: The strength of certain polymeric fibers can be increased by adding controlled quantities of carbon nanotubes.

Of the various ways carbon atoms can bond with each other to create different materials, graphene and carbon nanotubes are garnering great attention from a variety of industries for their unique properties. While graphene is a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms, nanotubes are akin to a graphene sheet being rolled up to form a straight, slender cylinder.

Now, a researcher from Northeastern University, Massachusetts, has exploited another strange property of carbon nanotubes to create superstrong fibers. A famous example of such a fiber is Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests. These fibers are continuous chains of certain molecules, like ethylene, whose bonds are so strong as to prevent tearing.

The researcher, Marilyn Minus, has however found that adding small quantities of carbon nanotubes to ethylene chains and carefully heating the mixture results in something strange: the chains ‘skate’ along the carbon nanotubes’, as if they were guiding rails, and align themselves parallel to each other.

This alignment makes the chains much stronger. At the moment, Ms. Minus is testing this method with other fibers, such as polyacrilonitrile (PAN).

Why it matters: Such fibers are no longer confined to making bulletproof vests. They are also used as parts of aircraft wings, etc. So, making a stronger version could eliminate the need for heavier metals, and make future aircraft lighter and more fuel-efficient.

Data storage that could outlast the human race

What it is: Researchers have found a way to record and retrieve data onto a single disk of quartz glass that can withstand temperatures of up to 1000 C and should keep the data readable for up to a million years.

As we create increasingly more data, the problem has always been about storing it in readable, retrievable forms. Digital data from floppy drives just fifteen years ago are now quite unreadable, not to mention the damage it will sustain over long periods of time.

Scientists have now used nanostructured glass to experimentally demonstrate the recording and retrieval process of ‘five dimensional’ digital data by femtosecond laser writing.

Dubbed affectionately as the ‘Superman’ memory crystal, as the glass memory has been compared to the ‘memory crystals’ used in the Superman films, the data is finally recorded via self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz.

Why five dimensional though? This is because the information encoding is realized in five different dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of the nanostructures.

All that it remains is a method of being able to read the information—this is usually done by a combination of an optical microscope and a polarizer—as the self-assembled nanostructures change the way light travels through glass.

Why it matters: This new technique appears to have the tremendous potential for low-cost, long-term, high-volume archiving of enormous databanks. Previous contenders such as CDs/DVDs/hard drives have not worked out so far.

Sharks whip their tails to stun prey

What it is: A species of shark was shown to have evolved a complex predatory mechanism involving their tails.

Thresher sharks can grow up to 20 feet long and about 50 per cent of that is its tail length. No proof existed so far of what exactly the function of these sharks’ tails was, though biologists have toyed with the possibility that it may be used to enhance prey capture like those of dolphins and killer whales.

A group of scientists dived into the waters off the coast of the Philippines to study precisely this, and found out that thresher sharks slap their prey to death.

To elaborate, the sharks swim towards schools of sardines, waving its tail madly (up to speeds of 80 mph!). In this process they not only break up the school, but also strike several of the fish dead and instantly consume them.

This behaviour indicates that sharks are much more intelligent predators than thought.

Why it matters: Sharks are endangered species, whose existence is further threatened by decreasing population of their prey – in this case, sardines. If this tail lashing is indeed the chief hunting tactic used by thresher fish, then fisheries that reduce the population of schooling fish like sardines could soon pose a problem for them.

(Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Anuj Srivas, Nandita Jayaraj)