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Science Sunday

Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 19, 2011

– and on the seventh day we learn.

Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. This week’s top stories:

Star swallowing Black Hole –

When astronomers received an automated text message, on March 28th, from NASA’s Swift satellite letting them know it had spotted something, they never imagined it would be a completely new astronomical phenomenon. As Dr Andrew Levan from Warwick University explains they found a star being swallowed by a black hole more than 3.8 billion light years away.

Credit: University of Warwick / Mark A. Garlick

In A Flash Of Gamma-Rays A Star Is Gone –

Data from the Chandra Deep Field South suggest that massive black holes were common in the early universe. Two teams of astronomers reporting in the journal Science this week say they’ve observed tell-tale gamma ray signals indicating that a star had been gobbled up by a massive black hole. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explains the finding and other news on black holes.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Hawaii/E.Treister et al;

Voyager 1 Probing Solar System’s Distant Edge –

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is at the outer reaches of our solar system. The Voyager 1 spacecraft is now 11 billion miles from Earth, speeding along at 38,000 miles per hour towards the edge of the heliosphere, the bubble that surrounds the solar system. Voyager chief scientist Ed Stone discusses the craft’s discoveries about the environment at the edge of the solar bubble

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Cyber Attacks May Be “Acts Of War” –

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon (in a report expected to be made public next month) has said an act of computer sabotage may constitute an “act of war.” Ira Flatow and guests discuss cyber-attacks and the challenges in defining and fighting cyber warfare.

Charting the Local Universe –

The Infrared Local Universe: this all-sky map shows galaxies in the 2MASS survey color coded by their distance from us with blue showing the nearest sources, through green to the most distant sources shown in red.

Astronomers speaking at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society have released the most complete 3-D map of our local universe to date, charting the location of galaxies out to 380 million light-years away. Karen Masters of the University of Portsmouth describes the 2MASS Redshift Survey project and its goals.

Credit: T.H. Jarrett (IPAC/SSC)

Probing The Sun’s Spots –

Using the Swedish Solar Telescope, a ground-based observatory, Goran Scharmer and colleagues probe the penumbra–that’s the stringy structure around the perimeter of the dark part of the sunspot. The images give scientists new insight into how that structure forms.

Reporting in the journal Science, Göran Scharmer, of the Institute for Solar Physics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and colleagues looked closely at a sunspot using the Swedish Solar Telescope. Sunspots are formed by magnetic fields interacting with boiling of hot plasma–but exactly how the plasma flows in the stringy penumbra region wasn’t well understood.

Credits: images: NASA/SDO, Institute for Solar Physics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. AAAS/Science. music by Malloc Baldwin

Single GFP-Expressing Cell Is Basis of Living Laser Device –

It sounds like something out of a comic book or a science fiction movie — a living laser — but that is exactly what two investigators at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed. In a report that will appear in the journal Nature Photonics and is receiving advance online release, Wellman researchers Malte Gather, PhD, and Seok Hyun Yun, PhD, describe how a single cell genetically engineered to express green fluorescent protein (GFP) can be used to amplify the light particles called photons into nanosecond-long pulses of laser light.


King Tut’s Tomb –
When English archaeologist Howard Carter first opened King Tut’s tomb in 1922, he photographed the elaborate paintings on the walls.  But on the images depicting life in Egypt at the time were thousands of mysterious dark brown spots.  For decades, scientists wondered what created them.  Dr. Ralph Mitchell, a microbiologist in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, has recently studied swabs of the spots.  Chemical analysis indicates that they are microbial metabolites, like a fungus.  Those early photographs prove the microbial spots have not changed and are therefore no longer active.  But the study of the spots leads to the suggestion that because King Tut died so young, his tomb was not completely prepared, as it would be for other Pharaohs.  His tomb was likely sealed before the paint was dry.  The moisture, along with food traditionally left in such a tomb, provided an ideal atmosphere for the growth of such microbes.

King Tut being welcomed into the underworld, © The J. Paul Getty Trust.


Business consultants PwC have just published a new report on the future technology for airplanes, civil and defence. One of the report’s authors, Anna Sargeant and Dr Colin Brown of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers join Quentin Cooper to discuss future planes and in particular, the new materials they may be made of. The list includes advanced new coatings and composites, self-repairing materials and ‘smart dust’ – minute sensors embedded in the fabric of a plane that can radio in with updates.

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