Science This Week: 7 Awesome Discoveries

Ryan Ashenhurst

Never let it be forgotten that science is a vehicle that is constantly travelling. Discoveries are made on a daily basis, new information is harnessed and added to the gathered knowledge we already have. It is the best tool that human beings possess. With this in mind, here are seven scientific discoveries that were made this week.

Laser Surfing Tardigrades

Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are one of the most resistant and sturdy creatures on Earth. They are able to withstand severe radiation, dehydration and climate, making them ideal candidates for space exploration. The use of a giant Tardigrade in the new Star Trek: Discovery series on Netflix is a nod to these creatures being relevant to potential space exploration projects today. They are the mascot for space science.

Tardigrades are being geared up to be the first to break through the Oort cloud that surrounds our Solar System. How? By firing a wafer-thin spacecraft on a laser beam travelling at around one-fifth of the speed of light.

Project Starlight plans to reach our closest star system, Alpha Centuari, in the next twenty to thirty years using this method. The reasoning behind strapping in a Tardigrade is that nano-cameras and sensors could be fitted to the animal and the data sent back to Earth.

Prof. Stephen Hawking Gives Earth A Deadline

The above project may be more important than we are comfortable in believing it is according to Professor Stephen Hawking, who has given human beings until 2617 to get their carbon-emitting hell together.

The exponentially rising energy use of the growing population is something that Hawking believes could burn us out within six-hundred years and has said that we need to take a cue from Star Trek and start looking elsewhere.

Is he referencing the inclusion of the Tardigrade in the new series? Probably, as Hawking is mentally invested in Breakthrough Starshot, a similar endeavour to Project Starlight as described above.

It also explores the quickest method we have at our disposal in exploring nearby star systems (miniaturising the process, firing on a laser or photonic beam with a Tardigrade/Worm astronaut strapped in) and is likely to be one of the most exciting and efficient space programs of our generation.

Mammoth Tusk Hunter Finds Ice Age Kitty

In the permafrost of Siberia, a man searching for mammoth tusks has discovered an almost perfectly preserved feline that has been mummified since the last Ice Age. It remains unclear as to whether the specimen is a cave lion or a Eurasian Lynx.

If it’s the latter, this will be the only the second specimen ever discovered in the region, and considering that people have been scouring the region for fossils and frosted bones for around 300 years, this discovery, with its whiskers still intact, could teach us more about Ice Age cats.

A Mysterious Flower That Tricks Pollinators

It has been recently discovered that Aspidistra elatior, a common flower found on the Japanese Island of Korushima, has the most bizarre pollination ecology among flowering plants. It tricks fungus gnats into thinking that it is in fact a mushroom. The research team involved explained the process and dispelled the 100-year belief that slugs were pollinating the flower.

“For two years we observed the animals that visited these flowers in their native habitat, continuously, day and night. The result? We discovered that no slugs visited, and hardly any beach fleas.

“The candidate that emerged as an effective pollinator was the fungus gnat. Fungus gnats that visited the plants quickly dived into the center of the flowers, attached a large amount of pollen to their bodies, and flew away.

We believe that the similar appearance of A. elatior and mushroom fruit bodies may help attract fungus gnats. In addition, A. elatior emits a strong musty odor. Therefore, the fungus gnats may be deceived by both visual and chemical mimicry.”

In a fungus gnat’s world, A.elatior is the ultimate troll.

Zombie Star

An astonishing observation has been made by the team at the Las Cumbres Observatory, who have witnessed a phenomenon that has challenged existing theories on the life of a star. When a star experiences a Supernova explosion, it usually spells a convincing closing curtain on a star’s life. Thousands upon thousands of Supernova observations have yielded the same outcome up until now.

Supernova iPTF14hls baffles because it was discovered in 2014 and looked like an ordinary Supernova until astronomers looked back through archival data and realised a Supernova had occurred in 1954 at the same site, meaning the star had survived despite experiencing the life-ending phenomenon. Lead author Iair Arcavi has theorised that this is the first Pulsational pair Instability Supernova that we have observed. He said,

“According to this theory, it is possible that this was the result of star so massive and hot that it generated antimatter in its core. That would cause the star to go violently unstable, and undergo repeated bright eruptions over periods of years.

“These explosions were only expected to be seen in the early universe and should be extinct today. This is like finding a dinosaur still alive today. If you found one, you would question whether it truly was a dinosaur.”

So this is the space observation equivalent to stumbling across a Velociraptor wandering around the high street. The next step appears to be feeling to check that the raptor’s face isn’t a rubber mask, although in doing so you risk losing an arm.

League of Legends/Intelligence Correlation

Researchers have found a link between skill in the popular multiplayer strategy game League of Legends and traditional pen and paper intelligence tests.

The researchers from York University stress that the study doesn’t generally correlate playing video games to higher intelligence, but within more specific data sets focusing on Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs such as LoL and Dota2), the correlation between intelligence and ability was similar to observations made previously with more traditional strategy games such as chess.

Interestingly, a second study included the FPS games Destiny and Battlefield 3 and found no correlation. So if you want to stay sharp, stick with MOBAs. Also, use “science” as a valid excuse for your next eight-hour LoL stint.

How Sunlight Can Make The Sea Drinkable

Sounds insane right? But according to a team at the University of California, there is science in the madness. The Californian team are harnessing light to manipulating the semi-conductive properties of water into generating ionic electricity that could desalinate water. Shane Ardo, an assistant Professor of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science said:

“There had been other experiments dating back to the 1980s that photoexcited materials so as to pass an ionic current through them, and theoretical studies said that those currents should be able to reach the same levels as their electronic analogs, but none of them worked all that well.”

But the researchers have confirmed that they have indeed crafted an ionic analogue that has the photovoltaic properties required to desalinate water, and this technology could be used to lengthen our drinkable water reserves quite significantly.

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