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Underwater Crop Circles

Are extraterrestrial beings to blame for the underwater “crop circles” seen in the photo to the right? This may have been one theory to explain what recreational divers off the coast of Japan reported seeing in the years since they were first spotted in 1995. It turns out that these elaborate structures are actually created by male puffer fish (Torquigener sp.) to both attract females and act as a spawning/nesting site. It is in these elaborate underwater structures that the male puffer fish watches over his eggs until they hatch.

Hiroshi Kawase and associates observed several male puffer fish for an average of 7-9 days using their fins to dig out valleys in the sand, stir up fine particles of sand for the center of the nest and place “ornaments”, such as sea shells and coral, all in hopes of attracting a female. After spawning, gaurding and hatching takes place within the “nest”, the structure is all but destroyed by ocean currents. The team noticed something very interesting at this point: instead of repairing the original structure, the fish moves to a new location and begins the process anew. This, they believe, is due to the disappearance of the fine particles of sand that make up the central structure which are borne away by the ocean current. Apparently, the amount of these fine particles are extremely important in attracting a female. So much so that the male must start over in a new area possessing enough fine particles of sand to increase his chances of passing on his genetics to the next generation of puffer fish.

The article written by Kawase and associates can be read in its entirety in Scientific Reports at Nature.com.

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YouTube Geek Week

This will be a quick post, but I couldn’t resist posting this. If you use YouTube at all (and if you are reading this, you probably do), you’ll want to check out YouTube’s Geek Week.

What’s Geek Week, you might ask? Well, it’s basically a compilation and celebration of some of YouTube’s best geeky channels. It includes everything from Stan Lee to Neil deGrasse Tyson to the Veritasium. It’s a great way to discover some cool new channels, and if you watch the science videos, you’ll learn quite a bit. My personal favorite so far is below. I intend to share it with every kid I know with even a passing interest in science.

If you decide to check out Geek Week, post your favorite video in the comments!

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Unlocking the Power of Light

If you have ever had the pleasure of taking a physics class you probably know that light travels extremely fast.  299,705,000 meters per second or 670,422,658 miles per hour in air to be exact.  One may believe that freezing something that travels this fast for even a fraction of a second is impossible. Would you believe that researchers from the University of Darmstadt in Germany were able to halt light for a whole minute?

The team, led by George Heinze, accomplished this amazing feat by firing a laser beam at an opaque crystal in turn exciting the atoms of the crystal to the point of being transparent. A second source of light was directed at the crystal at which point the laser beam was turned away. This caused the crystal to become opaque once more and the light from the second source to become “trapped” inside the crystal. By tweaking the magnetic field surrounding the crystal the researchers were able to keep the light “trapped” inside the crystal for a whole minute. A minute may not sound like much time but in that amount of time light can travel about 11,173,711 miles or more than 40 trips to the moon!

What makes this research so significant to the public at large is the implications it can have on data storage in the future. The ability to “store” information in light by storing light in a medium, such as a crystal, could lead to long range quantum networks.

If you are interested in the physics behind the phenomenon that makes this research possible, be sure to check out the complete article in Physical Review Letters.

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Beavers: Nuisance or Environmental Allies?

thats-a-beaverA lot of communities don’t appreciate their beavers. Personally, I love beavers, and I think more people should. Beavers are often considered a nuisance because they dam up water flow and create wetlands and minor floods. Although some people have no appreciation for wetlands, they’re an important part of our ecosystem, and they bring a great deal of biodiversity with them.

These days, we have less than 10% of the beaver population we had before European colonists settled in North America. We have far fewer wetlands, and a whole host of ecological problems that could be alleviated to some degree with more beaver tolerance.

That’s why it makes me so happy to hear about the beaver festival in Martinez, California. It’s on August 3, and festival-goers will have the opportunity to go on a beaver tour and learn more about the region’s wildlife. Who knows, maybe they’ll even have “I <3 Beaver” t-shirts. I’d buy one.

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Underwater Spider

For those of you that hate spiders and think you are safe from them underwater think again. The Diving Bell Spider, Argyroneta aquatica, can be found in most small bodies of water in Europe and Asia. It is the only spider that spends most of its life underwater. Even mating rituals and catching and eating prey are accomplished underwater. Check out the video below to see the spider in action.

As you can see from the video, the spider “grabs” air from the water surface via fine hairs on its abdomen. It then pulls the air below the surface of the water to fill its webs which it normally spins around aquatic plants. Recently, Professor Roger Seymour and Dr Stefan Hetz concluded that the spiders can stay underwater for up to 24 hours. Their success is due to the web air bubble that they surround themselves with. The air bubble acts in a similar manner as the gills on a fish. Oxygen from oxygen rich water is freely absorbed by the air bubble while carbon dioxide is easily dissolved in the surrounding water. Interested? Why wait to learn more about this amazing little spider. Check out the full article at the BBC Nature News website.

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Evidence of Oxygen on the “Rusty” Planet

mars-planet Astronomers have speculated that the 4th planet from the sun once possessed an atmosphere containing oxygen. After all, Mars is red in color due to the oxidation of iron to form iron oxide (rust) likely brought on by oxygen gas. Recently, Nasa’s Spirit Rover collected another piece of strong evidence to back up this theory.

By comparing rocks collected by the Spirit Rover with Martian meteorites that were thrown into space via large collision or volcanic eruptions, scientists have made a strong case to support the presence of an oxygen rich atmosphere on Mars. The roughly 3.7 billion year old rocks collected by the rover exhibit hallmark compositions indicating that around 4 billion years ago oxygen gas did exist in abundance in the atmosphere. However, the composition of the meteorites, about three times younger, do not show hallmark compositions of an oxygen rich atmosphere. This can only mean one thing. Either life thrived and produced oxygen, or oxygen was produced via chemical reaction on the red planet about 4 billion years ago.

Read the full article in the June 2013 journal of Nature.

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Minuscule Printed Batteries

3-D printing has become very popular in all fields of research recently. This is partly due to the materials the devices can utilize including various types of plastics and even specialized living cells. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Illinois have teamed up and managed to add another material to the growing list that the printers can create with: lithium metal oxides.

lewis-battery-schematic-500px

What is the point of printing with lithium metal oxides, you ask? Two words: minuscule batteries. The team has developed the “ink” to create a stacked structure of anodes and cathodes printed on a gold comb which can then be enveloped into a tiny case and filled with an electrolyte solution. The illustration to the right, provided by Jennifer A. Lewis, gives a visual representation of the minuscule battery.

These tiny batteries could be used in a large array of devices that have already been developed but have been put on hold until power cell technology could catch up. These include but are not limited to medical implants, communication devices, robotics and many more. If interested in learning more, check out the full article on Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website.

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One Step Closer to Reviving the Mammoth

Source: Wikipedia.com.

Source: Wikipedia.org.

The arctic climate of Siberia has possibly given science a chance to clone the long lost Mammoth. Researchers at North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk have discovered the remains of a very well preserved mammoth on an island off the coast of Siberia. The researchers estimate that the mammoth lived some 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. They believe that the animal may have been brought down by a natural predator due to evidence of gnawing on the upper torso and legs.

The specimen is so well preserved that while being exhumed, it was struck with an icepick and began to bleed. The blood was collected for analysis and is hoped to contain large strands of intact DNA for study and even cloning. If present, the DNA could replace the DNA in the egg of a modern elephant allowing the birth of a creature that has been extinct for 10,000 years or more. Some researchers even envision creating a wildlife sanctuary in Siberia for the cloned, extinct mammals in the future.

Read the full article and see the photos taken at the dig site on Live Science.

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An Asteroid’s Worst Nightmare

Despite government agencies and amateur astronomers constantly watching the skies on the lookout for that single piece of space rock large enough to wipe us off the Earth, two asteroids larger than a school bus entered our atmosphere over Russia earlier this year causing about 1,500 indirect injuries. Over the years, scientists and researchers have dreamed up many ways to protect the Earth from certain doom. A new device invented by Philip Lubin, a physicist at UC Santa Barbara, and Gary Hughes, a statician at California Polytechnic State University, uses a rather large laser to either vaporize threatening asteroids or provide enough thrust to divert the asteroid from Earth.

DE-STAR, or Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, orbits the Earth and consists of two panels: a photovoltaic panel and an array of lasers, that when phased, creates a 70 gigawatt laser. The laser would be directed at the asteroid in question by an onboard system and, powered by the sun via the photovoltaic panel, vaporize the asteroid by heating its surface to thousands of degrees Celsius. In under an hour the laser could vaporize an asteroid the size of the one that entered our atmosphere earlier this year or could be diverted by a much shorter blast.

Check out the full article in the July 2013 edition of Popular Science.

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Flare Stacks and the Environment

flare stack burning If you have ever driven past an petroleum processing plant, or even a large landfill for that matter, and seen a stack with a rather large flame burning at the peak, you have witnessed a technique that protects the public and the environment from harmful gases. During the processing of petroleum products especially, large amounts of harmful hydrocarbons such as propane, ethylene and butadiene are released as byproducts and must be destroyed via ignition to produce carbon dioxide and water. These hydrocarbons have been shown to cause a plethora of health issues including asthma, heart problems and even cancer. These stacks allow for safe ignition of these gases with minimal smoke, radiation and noise.

In order to ensure that complete ignition is occurring without release of harmful gases, instrumentation such as the process mass spectrometer is regularly used to carefully and accurately determine which gases are being released into the air that we breathe. Some industries are even going a step further by collecting the generated carbon dioxide for other industrial uses thereby also reducing carbon emissions.

So, the next time you drive past an industrialized part of town and see these stacks burning off in the distance you can comment on their importance to our health and the health of the environment that we live in.

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