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Updated: October 24, 2013 17:21 IST

Week in science: Farthest-yet galaxy & others

Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth
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The farthest galaxy yet found is more than 13 billion light-years away.
V. Tilvi/Texas A&M, S. Finkelstein/UT Austin, The CANDELS team, AND HST/NASA
The farthest galaxy yet found is more than 13 billion light-years away.

Excerpts from science, technology, environment and health reports from around the web.

The universe's farthest galaxy… so far

Astronomers have caught a glimpse of the farthest, most ancient galaxy to date, a star factory that was bustling with activity a mere 700 million years after the big bang. The researchers estimate the galaxy, named z8_GND_5296 and located 13.1 billion years away, formed stars at a rate that was a hundred times more prolific than today’s Milky Way. The find, reported in Nature this week, suggests the early universe may have witnessed more bursts of frenetic star birth than astronomers had thought.

The Decline of Wikipedia

The sixth most widely used website in the world is not run anything like the others in the top 10. It is not operated by a sophisticated corporation but by a leaderless collection of volunteers who generally work under pseudonyms and habitually bicker with each other. It rarely tries new things in the hope of luring visitors; in fact, it has changed little in a decade. And yet every month 10 billion pages are viewed on the English version of Wikipedia alone. When a major news event takes place, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, complex, widely sourced entries spring up within hours and evolve by the minute. Because there is no other free information source like it, many online services rely on Wikipedia. Look something up on Google or ask Siri a question on your iPhone, and you’ll often get back tidbits of information pulled from the encyclopedia and delivered as straight-up facts.

Chemists present a way to infer the enigmatic temperature variations inside a reactor

Most chemical products start their lives as oil. And most of the conversion processes used to turn the black stuff into plastics, fuels and the rest rely on catalysts. Given the sensitivity of catalysts and Earth’s dwindling supplies of oil, you might think that these reactions would be among the most studied and the best understood in the chemist’s cookbook.

Unfortunately not. In fact, for many chemists and chemical engineers — those who work with bucketloads of reactants rather than the contents of pipettes — what goes on inside an industrial reactor is something of a mystery. It’s a black box. Indeed, when some textbooks and academic papers on the subject show flow charts of chemical processes, they actually represent the reactor, the beating heart of our industrial society, as a black box. If process engineers want to know what happens inside — and so how to make it more efficient, safer or more environmentally friendly — they measure what comes out, compare it with what goes in, and make an educated guess.

New free expression tools from Google Ideas

As long as people have expressed ideas, others have tried to silence them. Today one out of every three people lives in a society that is severely censored. Online barriers can include everything from filters that block content to targeted attacks designed to take down websites. For many people, these obstacles are more than an inconvenience—they represent full-scale repression.

The threat in the pocket

Given all the talk about mobile malware—Trojans, viruses, keyloggers, phishing expeditions and other scams infecting the phones in people’s pockets—users might be forgiven for thinking cybercrooks are cleaning up at their expense. Truth is, surprisingly few bits of malware have found their way into mobile phones. More by accident than design, smartphones have turned out to be much tougher to infect than laptops and desktop PCs. At least, that is the case at present.

How trees drinking gold can help the mining industry

It’s not just the gods of antiquity who sloshed back cups of liquid gold. Trees drink gold, too.

A paper published this week in Nature Communications reports that gold crystals can be found in Eucalyptus trees growing above buried deposits of the mineral.

The report offers a tentative solution to a worldwide slump in new gold deposit discoveries, suggesting that, somewhat counterintuitively, an effective means of peering into the Earth is to look up – not to the gods, but to the trees.

Researchers keep mum on botulism discovery

Scientists have discovered a new strain — the first in 40 years — of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that is ultimately responsible for causing botulism. And although they have reported their findings in a scientific journal, the investigators have taken the extraordinary step of withholding key details of the discovery. That’s because the toxins made by C. botulinum are the most dangerous known to humankind and currently there is no antidote for a toxin generated by the new strain. The fear is that malevolent organizations or rogue governments might use the information to reverse engineer their own version of the new bug, making it a potent and real bioterrorism threat.

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