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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 Many governments with bans or restrictions on the consumption of single-use plastics have withdrawn the bans and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our consumption of them in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) has escalated, with estimates as high as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.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Talking of naked mole rats...

BFS Man via Wikipedia Commons.
Social animals, naked mole rats live in colonies of around 60 individuals, but groups of as much as 300 are not uncommon. They have a single queen, and the workers pull together to help the community survive and thrive. When enemies threaten, they attack together, on cue, a naked army of rodent warriors.

To communicate, they chirrup, chatter, gruntle and squeak. If you’ve ever come within close proximity to a naked mole rat population, you’ll know about it.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Whale geologists

The voice of the fin whale penetrates the earth’s crust beneath the sea floor – a whale born ultrasound.
 
The Earth’s layered structure. (1) inner core; (2) outer core; (3) lower mantle; (4) upper mantle; (5) lithosphere; (6) crust. Wikimedia commons.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Sailing stones – a SOLVED scientific mystery

Have you heard of the sailing stones?

One of the strangest natural phenomena ever identified, these are dolomite and syenite rocks around 8-17 kg that rest on the flat, barren lakebed known as the “racetrack” in Death Valley. And move. Yes, that’s right. They move. And they leave skidmarks behind them.

Different rocks even move in different ways. Lighter ones move more. Rough-bottomed rocks move in straight lines, whilst smooth ones wander.

The mystery has bewitched researchers and the public alike since the early 1900s. The movements are rare, and no one had been able to observe them and so identify the cause – until December 2013.
 
A sailing stone in Death Valley. By Lgcharlot - via Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

The methane mystery

The methane mystery Methane on Mars is really interesting – and really hard to explain.

On Earth, methane signals microbes: they produce it, lots, as they break down organic matter. Although there are other, non-living sources of methane, such as some geological processes, it is generally considered a useful biomarker: i.e. if you find methane, you may have found life. No wonder scientists are all excited to find lots of it.

At least, lots according to the Mars Curiosity Rover. But very little according to the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) – which is where most of the mystery comes in.
 
Artist's impression of the Curiosity landing on Mars NASA.

Friday, 30 July 2021

The smallest astronauts ever

The extremes of space are sufficient to rip the atmosphere off Mars (our is protected by our magnetic field!) – so what hope does a little bacterium have? Actually, it turns out, rather a lot.

Despite very low pressures and temperatures and direct exposure to ionising radiation, Deinococcus bacteria dumped on the outside of the International Space Station managed to survive there for three whole years[1]! They’ve also been found to survive on and inside meteorites, and scientists are excited to find that they could be little interplanetary travellers – perhaps even explaining where life came from on Earth (yes! We might all be aliens!). This theory is known as panspermia.
 
Public Domain via Nadya_il (Pixabay)

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Stress inner ear

Whale earwax has been studied to unlock the chemical history of the oceans[1]. Forming as a plug, whale earwax has rings in it like a tree that map the history of their hormones – letting us know when they were under stress, for example – and the chemicals they were exposed to. This has allowed chemists to assess which substances such as drugs and fire retardants make their way into the environment and are potentially ecologically harmful.

More recently, researchers have begun studying the chemistry of earwax in humans[2].