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Thursday, 13 January 2022

The cannibal in the ocean

I’ve just learnt about a new shark – Orthacanthus – and maybe it’s Latin name will give you a clue as to why I hadn’t heard of it before: it’s extinct. But even when animals are long gone, the mysteries they leave in the ripples behind them continue to fascinate scientists. And all of us.
Orthacanthus. SaberrexStrongheart via

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Wielding (quantum) fields!

Quantum field theory takes an infinite number of field configurations and add them up with the proper weighting to come to a single conclusion. The Standard Model is one well-known example, but this could be much, much more useful. For example, we could predict readings on compasses – something we can’t do right now – at different altitudes as climbers go up mountains. It might sound simple, but gravity, and all the infinite number of fields generated by planet earth, are actually incredibly complicated.
Gaussian free field model by Samuelswatson via Wikipedia.

Friday, 3 December 2021

What has Juno found on Jupiter? Part II – It’s magnetic

Built with a 20 radius and designed to spin, Juno is made to measure the magnetic field of Jupiter. Thanks to Juno, we now know that the planet’s dipole is the opposite way round (North and South) to Earth, and tilted ~10o from its rotational axis. The strength of the magnetic field (20 x that of Earth’s!) allows us to calculate how long a day is on Jupiter – because we can’t tell just by looking at the bands: they seem to move in opposite directions to each other and at different speeds! It also allows Jupiter to deflect solar winds as far out as 6 million km from the planet and hold onto its atmosphere. At this point, we also see weird effects that Juno is attempting to explain, such as ring-like features, known as Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities, which scientists think may travel along the planet’s magnetic field lines. As well as the dipole, these include weaker quadrupoles and octupoles.
Jupiter's magnetosphere showing the Io Plasma Torus (in red). Yned via Wikipedia Commons.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

What has Juno found on Jupiter? Part I – Water and weather

One of Juno’s findings has been some measurements of the Great Red Spot – a giant Jovian storm that could fit three Earth-sized planets inside it. Although Juno has the power to image up to 350 km deep into the Jovian atmosphere, it turns out that the Great Red Spot is deeper than this. Measurements of its temperature show that, for the first 80 km, it is cooler than the surrounding atmosphere, and below that, it’s warmer. We don’t know why, but it could be linked to how the storm started, and whether it's permanent or will disappear with time.
The Great Red Spot has been observed for over 300 years now. It's so large it could accommodate three Earth-sized planets! Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Moving moss

In glacial landscapes across the world, small balls of moss form, oval in shape, and tumble simultaneously as the glaciers melt, as if moving in a herd.

Known as “glacier mice”, these moss balls are understudied, but recently researchers have taken notice of them and their weird, herd-like behaviour[1]. This has led to all sorts of questions and a couple of published papers on the phenomenon, such as...

How do they form?

Researchers have theorised that the moss balls form through “nucleation” at rough points on the glacier surface – just as crystals start growing on impurities in their containers. First, one crystal or drifting moss fragment attaches, and then others attach onto that, gradually coming together to make the shape of the final structure. It’s not clear how this always leads to oval balls, and none of them are round, but it does generally make sense as a theory.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021


You’ve heard of transhumanism? The concept of modifying humans with technology to make ourselves stronger and more able. Some people have argued that that’s exactly what prosthetics are, whilst others think the tech has to advance further. But, can we do it with plants?

New tech has ripped bits out of a venus fly trap and integrated them into a new robot to mechanise a grabbing claw. It is, if you like, a Frankenstein’s monster of the plant world, a terminator to terrorise all triffids. Or, you know, a cool little gadget. A bit like a litter-picker.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Plastic waste and the pandemic

Our use of plastic is changing worldwide – and not for the better. Many governments with bans or restrictions on the consumption of single-use plastics have withdrawn the bans and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our consumption of them in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) has escalated, with estimates as high as sixfold increases – much is unrecyclable, and domestic and small business users have no defined waste policy, with much of it ending up in recycling where, due to its medical nature, it cannot be processed. This causes bottlenecks in the recycling system, or illegal waste dumping.

Rubber trees.  松岡明芳 via WikiCommons.
Latex gloves are made from the rubber in rubber trees: a polymer of isoprene that is readily broken down in nature. However, not all plastics are so readily biodegradable. Some, such as nylon (also used in gloves), are a halfway house: they can decompose under warm, wet conditions, but are relatively sturdy; others, such as polypropylene (PP) (used in gowns and masks), which is a hydrocarbon with no oxygen nor nitrogen linkages to help make it compostable, may stick around for thousands of years.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Snake acrobatics

 By Pavel Kirillov via WikiCommons.
Brown tree snakes make a lasso with their tails to help them climb up wide trees. A non-indigenous invasive species in Guam, scientists think that this climbing technique may be a new adaptation to help them survive and persist in their new environment. The climbing technique isn’t easy, and requires a colossal amount of energy and concentration: but there is a reward at the end of it. The brown snakes eat the native birds – which is why they’re a problem – and also why they’re so determined to climb those trees.