The Best of 2011: Mustard Gas, Missions to Mars and Painful Decisions
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How do you date scientific discoveries? Do you credit them to that “Eureka” moment when a light bulb flips on in someone’s head and the seeds of something ground breaking are laid? Perhaps it’s when the research is finished and the hypotheses supported? Or when it’s been peer reviewed and finds greater acceptance in the scientific community at large?
American physicist Hugh Everett III laid the groundwork for the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics in the 1950s but faced scorn and derision from establishment voices at the time, his work only finding greater acceptance in the 1970s and 1980s. So, when was that discovery made: in the 1950s or when it achieved credibility decades later?
Some of 2011’s biggest science stories have proved to be similarly contentious. In a marquee year for science and technology we round up some of our favourite stories.
Time is Everything
Such as faster than light travel. Researchers on both sides of the coin have published research in the last few months that lends weight to their take on particles transcending the speed of light. We published one piece this year covering Professor Stephen Hawking’s belief that moving beyond the speed of light is the key to moving through time itself.
In the latest development in the field, scientists at the CERN research facility in Switzerland have managed to replicate the results of an experiment where neutrinos fired to researchers at a fellow research facility at San Grasso in Italy, more than 400km away, appeared to arrive approximately 60 billionths of a second faster than a pulse of light would have done.
It’s still some way from being incontrovertible proof that E doesn’t always =MC2 but it’s certainly had the physics establishment hopping with excitement.
In the Iron Man movies, inventor and scientist Tony Stark comes up with all manner of materials and alloys that make his suit the most impregnable on the planet. In real life most of us are still stuck with boring old steel, aluminium and all the normal production grade materials that surround us everyday.
That could all change with the discovery of graphene. A sheet of carbon atoms one atom thick, graphene is 'most easily visualized as an atomic scale chicken wire'1. It’s hundreds of times stronger than steel but the key to its versatility lies not only in its strength but also in its conductivity: it may be the strongest and most conductive material of all time.
And its incredible thinness makes it suitable for thousands if not tens of thousands of applications from capacitive screens and films to new forms of wearable armour and protection to nano tubes twisting into space. It’s also a natural successor to silicon, suited to a new generation of hardwearing miniature devices. Its being touted as the first 21st century material and some of the world’s biggest manufacturers - from IBM to Samsung – are pouring tens of millions of dollars into a future shaped by graphene.
Ground Control to Major Tom
Earlier this year we reported on the end of an era – the last manned space shuttle flight to be operated by NASA. The last flight of Atlantis marked the end of our current dreams to send manned space missions to explore the universe Star Trek style. For now we are limited to the kind of low orbit missions characterized by the International Space Station, while relative newcomers to the intergalactic scene like China, India and Brazil prepare their own missions to destinations like the moon.
And while our dreams of sending astronauts to Mars may be on the backburner for the time being, the news isn’t all bad. The US Air Force’s extremely secret X-37B mini-shuttle, a reusable space shuttle has been in orbit for well over its original 270 planned mission days. By contrast the longest a traditional space shuttle managed was 17 days. Thanks to its solar cells and an extremely thrifty propulsion system, missions of a year or more should be possible. This could be useful if manufacturers Boeing get the green light to move forward with a larger, astronaut friendly version of the craft.
And should we ever reach the point where our vehicles can transport us to Mars then research by the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow should prove essential. On November 05 a six man international crew ‘returned’ from a 520 day simulated mission to the Red Planet. Designed to monitor the psychological effects of long distance space flight on human beings, the study found that the astronauts quickly became an insular team, shutting out email and other contact with friends and family ‘back’ on earth.
Like a Leaking Tap
In one of the stranger pieces of study in 2011, Mirjan Tuk, a consumer psychologist at the Dutch University of Twente, decided to examine the impact of a full bladder on our critical decision making abilities. Participants in the study were asked to drink varying amounts of water before undergoing a series of tests. Their financial self-control response was then tested: they were asked to choose between instant gratification – a small sum of money awarded the next day – or delayed gratification – a larger sum of money awarded in 30 days time.
Interestingly, her study found that those with a full bladder exhibited more, rather than less, self-control with the majority of participants choosing to take the larger sum of money in 30 days time suggesting that it might be a good idea to down a couple of cups of coffee just before the next time you go shopping.
Alarmed by Wasabi
Proving that science can be a little silly too, a team of Japanese researchers has found a way to rouse those who sleep through fire alarms. Anyone who has overdosed on the Japanese horseradish paste wasabi will be familiar with that tingling and burning sensation as your olfactory system goes into a shocked shutdown and you don’t know whether to sneeze, spit or cry.
Having isolated the compound in wasabi that causes the irritation – allyl isolthiocyanate – the team tested it on sleeping volunteers. An irritant classed as a somatosensation, the wasabi ‘vapour’ emitted by the alarm causes users to wake up feeling the same symptoms as eating a chunk of fresh horseradish, alerting them to fire and potential danger at the same time.