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

Scientists ‘freeze’ light for an entire minute

What it is: Scientists have trapped light, the fastest traveling thing in the universe, and held it still in a small space.

Light travels at 300 million meters per second – that alone is testimony to its slippery nature, and casts in comic light any suggestion to trap it. Imagine, it can make 7,500 trips around the Earth along the equator ever second! How do you trap something like that?

By simply being clever, think a bunch of German scientists, and they have a unique result to show for it. They were able to ‘freeze’ light inside a crystal for one full minute using a phenomenon called electromagnetically induced transparency (EIT).

A specially chosen crystal was found to be transparent for certain frequencies of light – an occurrence called EIT. They shot a laser beam, which is a source of light, into the crystal. After some time, they turned on another laser that cut off the first one. This immediately killed the crystal’s transparency, trapping the first laser beam inside.

The achievement is awesome in another context, too. Light has a property called quantum coherence. If quantum coherence is preserved, then the light beam can carry information without losing it. The German researchers found that the laser beam trapped inside for a minute retained its quantum coherence.

Why it matters: Therefore, such EIT crystals can be used to store light – for longer and longer periods of time – using lasers, setting the stage for high-efficiency, high-speed data storage devices.

Firefox: Let us tell websites what you’re interested in

What it is: Browser-maker Mozilla is proposing that their trademark Firefox browser allow you to choose what data you exactly wish to share to different websites, without having those sites suck up your browsing history as they do currently.

Advertising and web browsing are often referred to as Cain and Abel. Both cannot live without each other, as advertising serves as the economic backbone of the Internet, but privacy issues often arise when they are put together.

Most websites suck up a user’s browsing history, through various methods, and use it as a reference point when implementing targeted advertising.

As one would guess, this often does respect the privacy of the user in question. What Mozilla is proposing is that Firefox will now analyze a user’s browsing history within the confines of the Firefox client. Once Firefox has a list of interests, such as gadgets, comedy films and cricket, it will compile an internal list.

Users can then, while browsing the web, choose what interests they want to share with a specific website—thus providing a personalised experience without causing privacy issues.

Why it matters: With this proposal, Mozilla is essentially offering a win-win solution to both Firefox users (who want privacy) and Internet companies/websites (who make a living by offering up advertisements).

This assumes greater significance when one considers the proliferation of software like Adblock that are driving various online advertisers out of business.

English High Court blocks publication of a scientific paper

What it is: England’s highest civil court has blocked the publication of a scientific paper that would have revealed the full details of a vulnerability in Volkswagen’s immobile mechanisms.

Researchers at the Birmingham University were going about their normal day, when after the end of a long experiment, they were able to crack the security system that is put in place to stop illegal theft of luxury cars (including Volkswagen).

Before they could blink, they were slapped with injunctions by the High Court after various carmakers complained that publication of such data could allow sophisticated criminal gangs to break easily into their luxury models.

The scientists, who also wanted to publish their paper at the well-respected Usenix Security Symposium in Washington DC in August, have been asked to put out redacted versions of their paper instead. The researchers have declined to do so.

The technique that was used to crack the security system was called ‘chip slicing’—which involves analyzing a chip and inferring the algorithm from the arrangement of transistors on the chip itself.

Why it matters: The decision by the Court has major significance to the world of academia. The scientists argued that the‘public should have a right to see weaknesses in security on which they rely, otherwise only the criminals would know the security was weak.’ The Court on the other hand, believes that car crime would be facilitated by publishing of this data. Clearly, a middle ground must be found.

Asymmetrical glycans synthesized in lab

What it is: A new method to synthesize a crucial group of carbohydrates called glycans has been discovered.

Glycans (e.g. cellulose) are made of chains or other complex arrangements of sugar molecules , like glucose. They are found almost everywhere in the living world, most importantly on the outer membrane of living cells whether human, viral or bacterial.

However, glycans have proved to be extremely difficult to extract from cells or synthesise in the lab for research purposes. Only those with symmetrical structures – which account for only about 15 per cent of glycans in nature – are currently synthesized easily.

The new method allows involves a compound that is used as starting material and lengthening it on targeted sites to build the desired glycan. In this way a broad family of asymmetric glycans which commonly exists in living cells can be synthesised.

Why it matters: Our immune cells are able to recognise pathogens based on the type of glycans present on its surface. A suitable response against the bacteria or virus is then mediated. This forms the basis of almost every major disease, but scientists were unable to exploit this as there was no good way to synthesise glycans. This discovery could change that.

Genome of oil palm sequenced

What it is: The genome of one of the world’s main commercial crops, the oil palm, has been sequenced raising the possibility of making its production much more sustainable.

Palm is common ingredient in toothpaste, soap, fried foods and several other products we use everyday. Today, 64 million tonnes of palm oil are produced in plantations every year.

Scientists last week announced that they have finally managed to sequence the genome (the complete set of an organism’s genetic material) of the oil palm tree. They have also identified a gene called SHELL which determines how much oil the tree will produce.

Oil palms have different varieties and not all of them are suited for oil production. But cultivators usually find out if they have the right variety only once the tree has grown. Now that we know of SHELL, cultivators can predict what variety of tree will result just by testing the seed. These high yielding varieties alone can be bred.

Why it matters: Palm oil production has a dark side to it. The trees grow best in conditions suited to rainforests. As a result, plantations have replaced vast areas of rainforest land driving several species like the pygmy elephant near extinction. Scientists say that by selectively breeding only high-yield oil palms, this deforestation can be reduced.

First observation of high-energy neutrino oscillations by IceCube and DeepCore

What it is: Two experiments operating out of the relatively pristine environmental conditions of the Antarctic have recorded a hard-to-observe natural phenomenon at a high energy.

Wherever you are, raise your palm into the air. Every second, billions of minuscule particles called neutrinos will fly through it, leaving no trace behind. These particles are generated by turbulent reactions inside stars, and they shoot through space at a little less than the speed of light, hardly interacting with any matter along the way.

Because they pay little heed to matter, scientists have to devise extremely sensitive instruments to trap and study them. These instruments have to be perfectly clean and highly efficient, which is why the best of them are located thousands of feet underground – beneath mountains, lakes and ice-sheets. Two such instruments, beneath the Antarctic landmass, are called IceCube and DeepCore. These are two of the most powerful such instruments out there, and given their environment, they are well positioned to throw any light on these mysterious particles.

One of the reasons scientists are fascinated by neutrinos is that they were one of the first particles to be formed in this universe.

Why it matters: Another is that they exhibit a unique behaviour. There are six types of neutrinos, and each neutrino can instantaneously transform into another type without warning. IceCube and DeepCore are poised to unlock the secret behind this trick, and if and when they do it, humankind will be another step closer to understanding the wondrous Big Bang.

Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Nandita Jayaraj and Anuj Srivas