A pile of wood
- Published on Saturday, 07 September 2013 07:44
On a list of cutting edge materials, wood rarely comes to mind, yet for purposes of developing battery technology it is starting to have considerable appeal. The reason is because lithium, the material that most current battery technology is based upon, is getting rarer and more expensive. This is leading researchers to consider other materials, like sodium, that can be used. Sodium ions behave much like lithium ones in a battery environment, with one caveat - they are much bigger. This simple difference causes the larger ions to pulverise the materials that house them when charging and discharging, making such batteries rather short-lived. With this in mind a team noted that wood had chambers within it that are about the right size for sodium ions to fit into. They also realised that unlike the metals used to house lithium ions, which have no give to them, wood fibres are both flexible and forgiving, making it less likely that the large ions would cause damage as they impacted. Thus the idea of building a sodium battery from wood was born. Read on in my article in the Economist.
Realities of Avatar's Pandora
- Published on Wednesday, 28 August 2013 07:26
Many fans of James Cameron's Avatar have hoped against hope that the planet of Pandora, along with the subterranean internet that connects its inhabitants, might exist. And while the notion is still a far cry from being reality, a new study of aphids and bean plants may have just given it some surprising credibility. Watching aphids attack a community of beans, a Chinese team in 2010 observed some intriguing behavior. When the herbivores attacked one bean plant, the beans around it would release defensive chemicals that seemed to irritate the aphids. It was clear to them that the colony of plants was communicating about the presence of the aphids in some way, but whether this communication was taking place through the root network or via fungi attached to the roots of the beans, remained an open question. Now a follow-up experiment is finally shedding light on the matter and revealing that there is indeed much more reality to the science of Pandora than anyone realised with the plant communities being able to summon predators to defend them. Read on in my article in the Economist.
Scholarscribe summary authored by Benjamin Guggenheim.
Small but deadly
- Published on Thursday, 22 August 2013 09:23
In the matter of an instant, dinosaurs were wiped from the planet, as a rock from outer space smashed into what is now Southern Mexico. This marked the end of the Cretacious period and made it possible for mammals to rise up in a world once dominated by reptiles. Despite its obvious significance, however, the end of the Cretacious was neither unique nor the largest extinction. The one that trumps them all is the Permian extinction that took place 252.3 millon years ago. It signalled the death of more than 80% of the animals on Earth and drastically changed ecosystems in a very short time. Lots of scientists have wondered why the disappearance of life was so abrupt and, last year a group of geologists and paleontologists thought they had found the answer in the form of an impact crater in Brazil which appears to have formed very near to the Permian extinction. Tantalising as the find was, it had a problem in that it was only 40 kilometers in diameter. While it was undeniably a big impact, the team calculated that it was not big enough for it to have caused planet-wide devastation in the way that the 180 kilometer Cretacious impact likely did. However, closer examination of the rocks at the impact is revealing that the impact itself had help in causing mass mayhem, in the form of vast gas and oil deposits that were released in huge quantities when the meteor struck. Read on in my article in The Economist.
- Published on Thursday, 15 August 2013 09:58
After a long day of cleaning crayon off the walls and pulling bubble gum out of hair, having a set bedtime for the little ones often feels like a must for a parent to catch their breath. Indeed, even evolution seems to have carved this break period into the human lifecycle by driving seven year olds to have average sleeping times of ten to eleven hours a night and adults to average around seven or eight. Even so, a new study is arguing that having set bedtimes for children is not just important for parental sanity but crucial for child cognitive development
Keen to understand how cognitive ability reflects sleeping habits, a team of researchers examined 11,178 children and took a survey of their bedtimes three, five and seven years of age. Besides collecting information about their economic circumstances and other matters, they also asked the childen to take standardized reading, mathematical and spatial-awareness tests, from which their IQ's could be estimated. What was found was absolutely unexpected. Boys were largely unaffected by their bedtimes while girls, who had enforced sleeping hours, scored about 9 IQ points on average over their peers who did not. Read on in my article in The Economist.
Cheetah speed test
- Published on Monday, 22 July 2013 14:50
The cheetah is commonly known as the fastest land animal, but we have never really understood how it incorporates its legendary speed into daily life. Indeed, because of technology restraints, researchers have been forced to speculate about how cheetahs hunt by watching how captive animals run after lures. Now a new study has taken a big step forward by fitting five cheetahs in Botswana with innovative GPS tracking collars that closely monitored both animal speed and movement. These individuals were tracked over a period of 17 months for a total of 367 chases. To the researchers' surprise, the cheetahs never sprinted at their maximum capacity speeds. However, what proved even more shocking was how maneuverable the famed sprinters were under dense vegetation. Read on in my article in Nature.
Tyrannosaurus rex hunted for live prey
- Published on Friday, 09 August 2013 09:09
In the fictional film Jurassic Park, the mighty T. Rex was portrayed as the ultimate carnivore, inclined to gobble up everything from velociraptors to lawyers but practically, the question of whether the dinosaur actually hunted at all has been fiercely debated. To a certain degree, the debate is a ridiculous one stirred up by a couple of weather-beaten palaeontologists keen to make waves in the media because, frankly, a lot of carnivorous animals moonlight as scavengers and a lot of scavengers occasionally kill things. Even so, such folk do have a point in that there has been no hard evidence proving beyond doubt that T. Rex actually did kill things. Well, for those who really needed to know, there is now an answer in the form of a large tooth lodged into the vertebrae of a duck-billed dinosaur that seems to have escaped certain death as its bone has healed up around the tyrannosaur tooth. Read on in my article in Nature.
Raw cotton sopping up oil
- Published on Wednesday, 10 July 2013 14:53
After having witnessed the environmentally disastrous consequences of the Gulf oil spill, the world found itself scrambling for an efficient, yet economical method for cleaning up further mishaps. The soul searching has led to an unlikely, but highly promising, answer coming recently to light in the form of cotton. Whereas commercial stuff has been tested before with so-so results, it dawned upon a team that raw cotton, having more precise fibers and a higher wax content, could fare better with high quantities of oil at sea. Their findings proved intriguing. Read on in my article in the Economist.