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Before yesterdayThings We Don't Know

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.
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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

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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 β€œglacier 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 β€œnucleation” 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.

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Transphytoism

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.
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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.  松岑明芳 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.
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Snake acrobatics

Β 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.
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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.
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Whale geologists

The voice of the fin whale penetrates the earth’s crust beneath the sea floor – a whale born ultrasound.
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The Earth’s layered structure. (1) inner core; (2) outer core; (3) lower mantle; (4) upper mantle; (5) lithosphere; (6) crust. Wikimedia commons.
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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 β€œracetrack” 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.
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A sailing stone in Death Valley. By Lgcharlot - via Wikipedia Commons.

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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.
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Artist's impression of the Curiosity landing on Mars – NASA.

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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.
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Public Domain via Nadya_il (Pixabay)
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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].
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Types of twins

Scientists are very interested in twins because it helps us identify the differences between genetic and environmental factors that influence health and behaviour. As a result, there’s been a lot of research on them, and this has uncovered some unusual types of twinning… such as sesquizygotic twins.
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Three Things I Don’t Know (Part III): Eyes

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three β€œThings I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!

Why were my baby’s eyes indigo at birth?


Baby with dark blue eyes. Wiki Commons.
I’ve never heard of purple eyes before, but I know that the colour you’re born with can change. So, you can imagine when I looked into my baby daughter’s face and saw her eyes were a deep, dark purple that I was surprised – but I accepted it would be temporary. And temporary it was. Over the first year of her life, the time scientists say it takes eye colour to settle down, they have lightened to a medium blue, with that reminiscent darker blue round the edges.

I don’t have very clear pictures of the first month or so of her life: she kept her eyes mostly shut, and those I do have simply show their darkness, but me and her father remember that deep indigo colour – a bluish, purplish darkness, which looked indigo both under the artificial lights of the midwife unit, and under natural light from the window at home.

I turned to the internet…
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Three Things I Don’t Know (Part II): β€˜Flu

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three β€œThings I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!
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Why do we get colds and β€˜flu more in winter?


In places with temperate climates, like the UK, colds and β€˜flu are more common in winter. There’s a predictable seasonal pattern. Vaccines come out each year to help tackle new strains. But what drives this? Since we know about the germ theory, it’s clear that we don’t catch colds from chill winds, but instead from microbes that are passed from person to person. Since microbes thrive in the 37 degree environments of our bodies, why, I wonder, do they transmit more when it’s cold?

I turned to the internet…

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Three Things I Don’t Know (Part I): Cold

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three β€œThings I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!
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Why do both children AND fatter people feel the cold less?


People with a higher BMI have more fat on their body; fat acts as an insulator, and keeps them warmer, meaning they feel the cold less than people with a lower BMI. ...So why do children also feel the cold less? Children tend to be smaller, have less fat on their bodies than grown ups, and have a bigger surface area to bulk ratio.

I turned to the internet…

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Of quartz – A colourful problem

Where does colour come from? Pigments, we say: the ability of certain materials to absorb and reflect different colours of light as electrons are excited along or within their structure. It’s true: sometimes we have to go as deep down as the chemistry, the connectivity between atoms, to see where colour comes from. Other times we don’t.

Structural colour arises from the nanostructure of materials: the arrangement of atoms in giant structures, or of groups of molecules. As they cluster together, they form planes, angles, surface details, and other interesting geometry with gaps and overlaps the same size as the wavelength of light. Like the colours seen on an oil slick, this structural colour happens when light interacts with the shape of matter.
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Going with the flow

Inkanoack (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)
Ice is often overlooked. A small fraction of water, hostaged on land – it’s even missed out on the water cycle provided by the national curriculum. However, as the climate changes, so do habitats, including icy ones. When the glaciers melt, less water is locked up as ice and more is available as freshwater for life. Researchers have been fascinated by this process and in particular the kind of new life that springs from glacial melts. Interestingly, however, as more water becomes available and the climate becomes more temperate, what is observed is a loss of biodiversity. Specialist organisms designed for living in harsh, cold, wintry environments die or are out-competed by more common species already found in neighbouring environments. The conclusion is that the unforgiving glaciers provide pockets for more unusual lifeforms to flourish.

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A smart race

Nanorobot swarms are the stuff of sci-fi films, but smart dust is being developed now.

Johan Oomen.
An assembly of microelectromechanical systems or β€œMEMS”, smart dusts consist of a party of tiny robots that detect light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, or chemicals. They talk to each other via wireless network and employ radio-frequency sensors. Smart dust particles are just a few millimetres across – much like intelligent grains of rice. A dependent species, they have to operate together, like bees, ants, or other colony creatures. And they have their weaknesses too: smart dusts are vulnerable to microwaves, which could electromagnetically disable them.

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Resistance

In 1929, Alexander Fleming published his first observations of penicillin under a microscope. A sloppy technician, he’d returned from holiday to find a fluffy, white mass growing on his staphylococcus culture – and decided to observe it. Through the microscope, he saw the penicillin inhibiting the staphylococcus, and postulated medical applications in his paper.
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Public Domain via Nadya_il (Pixabay)

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Performing dogs and molecular roulette

Performing dogs

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Performing dogs take nerve-settling beta-blockers. Habj
How do we make new chemicals?

It was a question James Black asked himself in 1964 (or perhaps a bit before then), when he developed a new approach to molecular synthesis, and thus discovered propranolol hydrochloride – the compound that won him the 1988 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

An unexciting-looking chemical, it’s just two fused benzene rings and a side arm, but it’s been used to alter mood, easing aggression, phobias, and improving the social skills of people on the autism spectrum. It is used to treat PTSD, and commonly to ease performance anxiety amongst musicians and performing dogs.


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Discovery

Carbon nanotubes were known before bucky balls – discovered in 1985 by Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl. Yet eight years later, in 1993, Nature published two independent papers recording the β€˜new’ breakthrough discovery of rolled up graphene tubes forming close-ended pipes. How does this make sense?

The question of who β€˜discovered’ carbon nanotubes is difficult to give a simple answer to. Like many material discoveries, there is more than one level of known and unknown. Although the debate over which individual deserves the title β€˜discoverer of oxygen’ cannot be firmly settled, our choice of answer forms part of the foundation by which we understand the nature, concept and goals of science as a field. And don’t forget, recognition can be career-making.
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Riichiro Saito, saito@mgm.mit.edu, rsaito@ee.uec.ac.jp
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Listening to the Ocean

This is a guest blog post. The article was adaped with permissions from Sofar Ocean.

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What has climate change done to oceans? And what do our oceans do for climate change?

For more years than we can count, oceans have helped us mitigate climate change, including the early effects of human greenhouse gas emissions. Acting as a giant carbon dioxide and heat absorber, or "sink", 90 percent of the warming that happened on Earth between 1971 and 2010 occurred in the ocean. Scientists think that gathering more and better data from the ocean and "listen" to what it has to tell us could be crucial to helping our mitigation efforts catch up to climate change.

Unsplash (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

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Counterfeit brandy

Szalony kucharz via Wikipedia Commons
In the 15th and 16th centuries, working out the alcohol percentage of wine was no easy feat. For ease, the authorities taxed alcohol according to volume rather than percentage, making importing gin a better deal than wine or beer. And so, naturally, the merchants looked for a loophole, and they found one – or so they thought: distil down the wines, and add the water back in after passing customs. It seemed foolproof. But they had not accounted for one thing: warming wine changes its chemistry. Volatile chemicals are lost, other chemicals – esters, acids, aldehydes – decompose, or undergo reactions. When the merchants rediluted their wine, it tasted different. Wrong. β€œbrandewijn”, or β€œburnt wine”, they called it, and nowadays, we call it brandy.

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The sweet taste of unknown

Β© TWDK
I eat my artichoke-aubergine breakfast dish (my vegetarian take on Antigua and Barbuda’s traditional aubergine saltfish breakfast), and take a swig of water. It tastes sweet. But then, I’m not surprised by that. Water always tastes sweet after eating artichoke.

Why is that?

It turns out scientists don’t actually know. The theory goes that cynarin, an acid found in artichoke, inhibits our sweetness receptors. When washed away (e.g. by a nice glass of water), the sweet receptors reactivate. Just as if you taste a really sugary drink and then slightly sugary one, the slightly sugary one won’t taste sweet at all by contrast (try it!), the same thing happens here: your brain goes crazy now the receptors is no longer inhibited, and interprets the water as sweet.

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What colour were the dinosaurs?

The discovery that some dinosaurs were feathered rather than the initially-assumed scaly took palaeontology by storm. But the question didn’t end there. We still don’t know the extent to which feathers were found across the dinosaur kingdom. Skin-impressions of some sauropods show hexagonal scales or bony plates, suggesting they were unfeathered, whilst others such as the tyrannosaurus were definitely feathered. And what colour were these scales or feathers? For the most part, we don’t know.

Feathered velociraptor. Matt Martyniuk via Wikipedia Commons
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One Nobel Prize Later...

The Nobel-prize winning buckminsterfullerene, C60, discovery took place in September 1985. Its discoverers were Professor Harry Kroto, along with Richard Smalley and Robert Curl – but this wasn’t what they were looking for.
NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Kroto was interested in space. He was working on carbon-based molecules that could be detected in interstellar space using radio telescopes... and he thought he’d found good evidence for cyanopolyynes, molecules based on a chain of carbon and nitrogen atoms, but he still didn’t know how they were made. Kroto had had a good think about it, though, and one idea he had was that they were made by red giants, or near them. He’d have to test his theory, but how?

Smalley and Curl had a laser-generated supersonic cluster beam for their research on semiconductors; this had the potential to heat something up hotter than the surface of most stars. Kroto thought doing this to a bit of carbon would be a fantastic idea, and would potentially make a whole bunch of new stuff, including the mysterious cyanopolyynes. He persuaded them to let him have a go.
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Cop That!

Copper. Slang for a police officer. A coin. That metal pans and wires are made of.

What’s so mysterious? A lot.

Copper is a catalyst. It’s variable oxidation states and low coordination numbers allow it to do funky things, bonding and unbonding with whatever floats its way.
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Copper coins via Pikrepo.

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Whisky still IProspectIE via wikimedia commons.
Copper is used in whisky stills, partly because it’s malleable and conducts the heat through the whisky really well, and partly because it seems to affect the flavour. One story, related to me by Ben from The Whisky Shop, was the story of Old Pulteney whisky, back in the days when the distillery was first setting up, the days when they decided to make the most important feature of the distillery – the still. It was made offsite and transported carefully to the distillery in the Highlands of Scotland, where they tried to take it into the building – but couldn’t. The manufacturers, so the story tells, had made a mistake and ordered a still too tall for the distillery. Still, never mind, they said, and they lopped off the top, making a low, squat-looking still pot that led to shorter refluxes, forever after blamed for the β€œdirty” flavour of the Old Pulteney spirit.
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Wonderful wetlands

Oxford is built on a swamp.

The home insurers won’t let you forget that most of the houses are delicately balanced on a tiny strip of land just above the water level, like Noah on a beached ark.

When it rains heavily, the soils saturate and run onto the tarmac, creating rivers occupied by confused looking geese that stream down the streets. Adjacent fields take on the appearance of flooded paddy fields.

But believe it or not, these indomitable wetlands are crucial to the local environment, its habitats, ecosystems, and even the shape of the land. This is because of something called phytoremediation.
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Swampland in Oxford. By Jpbowen via Wikipedia Commons.
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Make me a monster

Is science on the verge of building a real Frankenstein’s monster?
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Frankenstein made his monster in his laboratory through techniques he never revealed. Christian Michaud (Victor Frankenstein) et Γ‰tienne Pilon (La CrΓ©ature) via Wikipedia Commons.

Well, with recent advances in protein design[1], the possibility of growing new organs and limbs in labs may not be as far away as we imagined.
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