Monday, March 15, 2010

The geek's alive! Alive!

A couple of science stories that have ranked high on my Kewl! meter lately:

- A report published a few issues back in "Current Biology"
argues that a population of birds [in central Europe] known as black­caps has split into two “reproductively isolated” groups in under 30 generations, despite continuing to breed in the same forests. In other words, the groups aren’t breeding with each other, setting the stage for them to evolve differently in the future.
What's more, the split was caused by humans. People began providing food in winter for the migrating birds, with the result that there's now a migratory divide, with some birds following one route and others another, influenced by the food. There are already visibile differences between the two groups:
“The new northwest migratory route is shorter, and those birds feed on food provided by humans instead of fruits as the birds that migrate southwest do,” [Martin] Schaefer [of the University of Freiburg] said. “As a consequence, birds migrating northwest have rounder wings, which provide better maneuverability but make them less suited for long-distance migration. They also have longer, narrower bills that are less equipped for eating large fruits like olives during the winter."
What is the importance of this?
“Our results now show that the initial steps of speciation can occur very quickly in a highly mobile, migratory bird,” and “it doesn’t have to take millions of years.”
And humans can directly influence that process. Eat it, creationists.

- The Fibonacci sequence is a well-known number progression where each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. It's a progression widely found in nature and as it proceeds, the ratio between successive numbers in the sequence draws ever closer to the so-called "golden section" or "golden ratio," used since the Renaissance to compose paintings and in architecture to design visually-pleasing buildings. That ratio is 1:1.618.., the ellipsis at the end indicating that, like pi, the ratio does not have an exact value but continues indefinitely. An interesting aspect to this is that if two numbers are related by that ratio - that is, if a/b = 1.618 - then they are also related by their sums divided by the larger of the two - that is, (a+b)/a = 1.618.

Now, it develops that the same sort of symmetry can be found at the quantum level.
The researchers in the new study focused on the magnetic material cobalt niobate. It consists of linked magnetic atoms, which form chains like a very thin bar magnet, but only one atom wide. They are considered a useful model for describing magnetism at tiny scales in solid state matter.

When a magnetic field is applied to the chain at right angles to an aligned “spin” of its particles, the magnetic chain transforms into a new state called quantum critical, according to the physicists. This can be thought of as a quantum version of a fractal pattern, a pattern that looks the same at any scale.
Without getting further into quantum physics, suffice it to say that the researchers discovered that they could "tune" the string of atoms to act like a guitar string - or more precisely, a series of guitar strings - with the resonant frequencies (or "notes") related by the tension between adjacent atoms.
“The first two notes show a perfect relationship with each other,” [said Radu Coldea of Oxford University,] principle author of a paper on the findings [that appeared] in the Jan. 8 issue of the research journal Science.
That ratio is 1:1.618 - which is to three decimal places precisely the same as the golden ratio. It appears that the quantum state has a hidden symmetry, it's own underlying order - and it's a pleasing one.

- Okay, if this doesn't rank high on your Kewl! meter, I don't know what would.
The colour of some feathers on dinosaurs and early birds has been identified for the first time, reports a paper published in the research journal Nature....

An analysis concluded that Sinosauropteryx, a much smaller relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, sported bristles that were precursors of feathers in alternate orange and white rings down its tail. And the early bird Confuciusornis had patches of white, black and orange-brown colouring, scientists said. Future work is expected to allow precise mapping of colours and patterns across the whole bird. ...

The researchers from the U.K., China and Ireland reported identifying two kinds of melanosomes, or cellular structures, in the feathers of many birds and dinosaurs from northeastern China’s famous Jehol fossil beds.

Melanosomes are colour-bearing compartments within the cells of feathers and hair in modern birds and mammals, giving black, grey, and tones such as orange and brown. Because melanosomes are part of the tough protein structure of the feather, they can survive for hundreds of millions of years.
This also has a connection to evolution: The research clearly shows that feathers preceded birds, making it a clear case where something that already existed (feathers for display or heat regulation or perhaps another purpose) was adapted to an entirely different purpose (flight). It's another example of being able to answer the creationists' "How could that have just happened all at once," in this case related to birds, feathers, and flying, with "It didn't."

- Finally, there's this for all the exobiology fans out there.

The more we learn about how life can survive and even flourish in extreme environments and in places we thought it couldn't or wouldn't exist, the more we realize just how adaptable and tenacious life is - and therefore how the chances for life other than on Earth increase. And it seems we've done it again.

A NASA team drilled an eight-inch wide hole some 600 feet through the ice of western Antarctica and lowered a video camera and light down through it to get a first look at the underside of an ice sheet.

The temperature below freezing and no light reaches it. Scientists had figured nothing much more than a few microbes could live there.

Instead, to their surprise they saw a shrimp-like creature come swimming along and settle on the camera's cable. When the cable was pulled up they found a tentacle from what they think was a foot-long jellyfish.
"We were just gaga over it," [NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler] said of the 3-inch-long, orange critter starring in their two-minute video. ...

The video is likely to inspire experts to rethink what they know about life in harsh environments. And it has scientists musing that if shrimp-like creatures can frolic below 600 feet of Antarctic ice in subfreezing dark water, what about other hostile places? What about Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter?

"They are looking at the equivalent of a drop of water in a swimming pool that you would expect nothing to be living in and they found not one animal but two," said biologist Stacy Kim of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California....
Microbiologist Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey suggested the creatures might have swum in from far away and don't live there permanently, but Kim doubts it, noting the nearest open water is 12 miles away and the chances of two creatures just happening to be in the tiny amount of water examined seem quite small.
Yet scientists were puzzled at what the food source would be for these critters. While some microbes can make their own food out of chemicals in the ocean, complex life like the amphipod can't, Kim said.

So how do they survive? That's the key question, Kim said.

"It's pretty amazing when you find a huge puzzle like that on a planet where we thought we know everything," Kim said.
Damn effing straight. Science is Kewl!

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