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

MIT researchers can see through walls using ‘Wi-Vi’

What it is: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a technology that uses Wi-Fi to track moving objects.

MIT says it has invented Wi-Vi — a technology that seems to triumph even Google’s Glass. Wi-Vi basically works by sending Wi-Fi radio waves through a barrier and measuring the way it bounces back.

Using some of the same principles behind the working of radar, Wi-Vi basically transmits two Wi-Fi signals, one of which is the inverse of the other. Because of the way researchers have coded the signals, they don’t cancel each other out when they hit moving objects.

In this fashion, the technology can make the reflection of a moving person behind a wall visible. To top it all off, MIT researchers also believe that this technology could be built into a smartphone or special handheld device that could be used in search-and-rescue missions or be helpful for law enforcement.

Why it matters: Wi-Vi has some great benefits over the current ways of seeing through walls (radar, sonar), with the advantages being especially seen in cost, power and size. The fact that it can be built onto a handheld device also indicates a certain amount of portability that one cannot achieve with radar.

Fewer chimpanzees will be used in US research

What it is: The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it will be retiring most of its research chimpanzees, leaving only 50 available for experiments.

The NIH, the American government’s biomedical research agency, this week agreed that in the light of newer scientific methods available today, chimpanzees (which share 99 per cent of DNA with humans) are no longer as crucial to research as they used to be.

In the coming years they will be retiring almost all of their 350 chimpanzees, leaving only 50 for use - providing they surpass strict regulatory criteria, and use the specimen to study behaviour and genetics, not for invasive experiments.

Though the NIH has agreed to most of the recommendations made to it, there is still a dispute over the amount of living space to be allotted to each chimp. The NIH feels that the recommended 1,000 sq. feet per animal may be an overestimation.

This decision is especially important as the US Wildlife service recently proposed to upgrade the status of captive chimpanzees from “threatened” to “endangered”.

Why it matters: All developed nations except the US have banned the use of great apes in research. Pressure has been mounting from animal rights as well as environmental groups to outlaw the outdated use of these endangered species.

Laser creates high-energy positron beam

What it is: Scientists from Ireland, USA and Germany have created a tabletop laser that can produce jets of anti-electrons, a.k.a. positrons.

At the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, protons are accelerated using large electric currents and heavy superconducting magnets through a 27-km long ring to energies of 7 million mega-electron-volts (about 7,000-times heavier, according to the mass-energy equivalence).

In such a state, these protons can be smashed against each other to open them up, bombarded on secondary targets to distort them in specific ways, etc.

The field itself is of great use to scientists because it opens up energy scales that existed in the early universe. Unfortunately, the equipment used to recreate such scales is extremely massive and costly. Scientists are constantly looking for cheaper alternatives to reduce the cost of conducting such important research.

On June 20, scientists from Ireland, USA and Germany created a laser which, they claimed, exploited phenomena called plasma wakefield acceleration and pair-production to produce focused beams of positrons.

What makes the invention more significant is that the positrons the scientists produced were at the highest energy ever produced in a lab: more than 100 mega-electron-volts; previous attempts barely managed 20.

Why it matters: More efficient versions of such tabletop accelerators could speed up antimatter physics research. They could also replace gargantuan experiments like the upcoming 32-km long International Linear Collider, which will also accelerate positron beams for study.

DNA buried 7,000 centuries is retrieved

What it is: The genome of a 7,000 century-old horse has become the oldest genome to be sequenced.

The DNA was sourced from a foot bone that was found preserved in permafrost (frozen soil) of the Canadian Arctic. It was known that genomes upto 70,000 years old could be sequenced, but in this case the exceptionally cold temperatures preserved the horse DNA and scientists were able to extract horse DNA from the ocean of contaminant DNA.

In the study, the genome of this ancient horse was compared with that of a 43,000-year-old one, some modern breeds, a donkey and the last living breed of wild horse - the Przewalski’s horse.

Using this data they learnt that the Equus lineage (that evolved into horses, donkeys and zebras) arose about 2 million years earlier than once thought. They also gained insight into the highly endangered Przewalski’s horse and found that they shared a common ancestor with the modern horse around 50,000 years ago.

Why it matters: This study has proved that it is possible to gain access to many more extinct species (maybe even a million-year old human ancestors). Moreover, the study revealed that the Przewalski’s horse is much more genetically diverse than was thought. This means that conservation efforts could indeed pay off.

What the frack is up with drinking water and shale gas extraction

What it is: A study has found that a technique used to extract shale gas can contaminate underground water reserves.

Between layers of rock underground, there are fuels like shale gas that are of interest to humans. One technique to extract them is called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”: water is mixed with sand and some chemicals and injected into the ground at a high pressure to fracture the rocks with. This liberates the gases and oils which are then drawn up.

Many environmentalists are demanding that fracking be called off because chemicals and gases involved in its use could contaminate the soil and groundwater.

Where there have been attempts to settle such disputes, little evidence has emerged that fracking does or does not contaminate groundwater. On June 24, a study insisted that it was, indeed, harmful. Many celebrated the result, but also overlooked that the report had its limitations.

It found that homes within a kilometre of the fracking site had 82 per cent more methane in their drinking water than normal. However, the report also stated that this was largely due to imperfections in the equipment, not the act of fracking itself.

Why it matters: While fracking can sound dangerous, it is wrong to dismiss it with an emotional debate when, in fact, there can be a factual one. Without dismissing something because it was imperfectly conducted, we can be aware of the problems and solve them.

‘Corkscrew’ light could turbocharge the Internet

What it is: Differently shaped light beams have been found to have greater information storage capacity.

From the time the Internet was set up, problems of speed and congestion have always occurred. Consequently, researchers perennially seek ways to squeeze ever more information into the fibre-optic cables that carry it.

New research from Science tells us that twisty beams of light could boost the traffic-carrying capacity of the internet. How does this work? Scientists, of late, have been able to encode information in the form of light beams to ease congestion, using a property of light called orbital angular momentum.

The current flow of Internet traffic through cables is done via straight beams of light. A new record has now been created: researchers have found a way to keep different light beam shapes separated for 1.1 kilometres. The breakthrough was prompted by using cables that had a varying index of refraction, allowing both twisty and straight beams of light to flow down the same cable.

Why it matters: The basic research that is coming out right now suggests that about ten different beam shapes can be used to convey information, each shape potentially acting as an entirely new level of Internet traffic. Think of how fast the Internet could truly be, eh?

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