It’s that time of the month again; time to round up some of the coolest and latest happenings in the world of science. So here’s Everything Scientific Vol. III (the archives are here).
The final frontier, space, has become less of the unknown thanks to a series of satellites sent out to boldly go where no man has gone before. The satellite Voyager I (launched way back in 1977), has truly reached the unknown beyond, as it has just reached the outer atmosphere of the Sun, and reaching interstellar medium. What’s the big deal, you ask? The outer atmosphere of the sun expands into what’s called solar-wind. At some point, solar winds decelerate to finally merge with the interstellar medium. This deceleration is due to “supersonic flows” causing shock-waves (with rapidly decreased speed). This is like a supersonic aircraft (where there is a sonic boom, which decelerates the air ahead, enabling it to flow smoothly around the craft). The location of this solar termination shock was unknown and under intense debate. Thanks to Voyager, we’ll now know where it is. (four articles and an editorial in Science, Vol 309, Issue 5743, 2016-2029 , 23 September 2005).
Salt on the roads?
Road salt is widely used across the Northeast and Midwest to help melt snow that accumulates on roads during winter. But now it’s becoming clearer that using these vast quantities of salt is having an adverse effect on local fresh-water sources. In some streams in Maryland, New Hampshire or New York, the salinity of the water has reached 25% that of seawater (that’s a 100 times more salt than pristine forest freshwater streams). Watersheds where there is a dense network of roads are by far the worst affected. Continuing use of rock salt will eventually lead to making a number of these water sources unusable. It’s perhaps high time to figure out better and more efficient ways of getting rid of snow on roads (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 102, 13517 (2005) link).
Any ideas out there?
Nylon that’s good for you
Nylon-6 is a very widely used form of nylon, used extensively in textile and industrial fibers, injection molding resins, and extrusion resins. These substances have tremendous uses due to their high tensile strength, chemical and heat resistance, and low friction. Almost all of us have used it in some form or another, and modern life is almost impossible without it. Nylon-6 is made from a precursor called caprolactam. Unfortunately making this uses a range of organic solvents and strong oxidants, and a pile of ammonium sulfate waste. Some recent research has found a more environmentally sound way of doing this, using microporous bifunctional aluminophosphate as a catalyst, and air the oxidizer, researchers converted cyclohexane to caprolactam with high efficiency, and NO Ammonium Sulfate waste (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A, 102, 39, 13711-13712 (2005)link).
More power to such research!.
Hurricanes and climate change
It’s really, really hard to directly link massive hurricanes to global warming. The evidence is not direct, or strong, and it has split the research community. Today’s cyclones are stronger than they were 35 years ago, but they are a lot less common than they were 35 years ago (Science 309, 1844−1846; 2005 and Nature 436, 686−688; 2005). It’s still hard to directly hold global warming (which is happening, and is a different issue) responsible for it all. Natural fluctuations seem to favor different hurricane patterns in different ocean basins. It might be nice if the media or groups stopped throwing their own notions or taking strong sides, and if research were allowed to progress and present its findings better.
Intelligent design in court
The theory of “Intelligent design” was created to find a way around court decisions that barred the teaching of creationism in classrooms. It’s a vaguer concept than creationism and doesn’t try to prove it’s own explanation of the origin of species (it’s a back-door entry for creationism). A federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is beginning to hear arguments on whether Intelligent design should be promoted in classrooms. Some parents of children in a school in Dover district have gone to court, saying that the school board is violating the constitutional separation of church and state by requiring a statement promoting intelligent design to be read by teachers before they teach evolution (see Nature 437, 596 (29 September 2005) for more details).
Teaching Intelligent design in a philosophy or religion class is one thing, but there is no room for superstition in science education.
West Nile virus killer
West Nile virus is a rather nasty virus transmitted by mosquitoes (not unlike the Japanese encephalitis virus that’s causing some scares in Northern India presently). A recent study researches the effect of a very effective monoclonal antibody which protects from West Nile virus challenge, even if given days after infection. Using X-ray crystallography, researchers have found the specific regions of the virus that this anti-body targets. They also find out that this inhibits the infection after the virus attaches, by potentially preventing the virus envelope’s conformational (shape) changes. This is a tremendous breakthrough (since it stops the virus AFTER it has entered, thus it’s independent of the mode of virus entry, of which there’s more than one) and points out to specific regions in the virus that a new vaccine can target (Nature 437, 764-769 (29 September 2005)).
Managing India’s biodiversity
In 2000, the Indian Ministry of Forests and environment commissioned a study called “Securing India's Future--Final Technical Report of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan”. This was to figure out how India should manage it’s tremendous biodiversity. Outside experts saw this as a model for other developing nations. The study apparently concluded that many aspects of India’s present model for development are unsustainable. Well, the government didn’t like the results, and so decided that the report should not be “published in full, or part thereof”. Ministry officials decline to comment further (Science, Vol 309, Issue 5744, 2146 , 30 September 2005).
I think we DO have a right to know what it says, and why the government doesn’t want it out.
Science education resources
Finally, to round up this edition of Everything Scientific, here are a few outstanding online resources for science education, with great bits of information for you or your kids.
The American Museum of Natural History’s “ology” site, on all “ologies”
The TryScience project with lots of little science projects for kids (or kids at heart).
Chemistry, Biology, or Geography for kids.
Have fun playing with science there!