In the News
In this roundup, Katie Burke summarizes notable recent items about scientific research, selected from news reports compiled in the free electronic newsletter Sigma Xi SmartBrief. Online: https://www.smartbrief.com/sigmaxi/index.jsp
Water under Moon’s Surface
The 2009 discovery of water on the moon came as a surprise, since current thought was that the moon was dry. At that time most scientists concluded that the moon’s water originated from an external source: the solar wind blowing across the lunar surface. But a new study using data from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper shows that the moon also has water underneath its surface. The space probe scanned the central peak of Bullialdus crater, which consists of material excavated from deep below when the crater was formed by an asteroid collision. Bullialdus is near the lunar equator, where water would not be found if it were produced only by the solar wind. Researchers found a local concentration of hydroxyl, a molecular fragment formed when water loses one oxygen atom. The discovery is leading to new ideas about the moon’s formation.
Klima, R., J. Cahill, J. Hagerty, and D. Lawrence. Remote detection of magmatic water in Bullialdus Crater on the Moon. Nature GeoScience doi:10.1038/NGEO1909 (Published online August 25)
Super-Heavy Element Confirmed
Between the newly named flerovium (element 114) and livermorium (element 116) at the far end of the periodic table, element 115 lingers, anonymous. Because this highly radioactive, short-lived element was observed only once, it had to be independently confirmed before official recognition. That day of corroboration has now come. Researchers produced more of element 115 by hitting a target coated with americium (element 95) with a barrage of calcium atoms (element 20). Not only did they observe a radioactive decay of element 115 similar to the first observation in 2003, but they also detected flashes of emitted light during the decay. Measuring the energies of these flashes further validated that they started off with element 115, a method that paves the way for new studies of super-heavy elements. The new element awaits official verification before it is named. Such elements, which exist only in the laboratory, offer a way to advance nuclear physics.
Rudolph, D., et al. Spectroscopy of element 115 decay chains. Physical Review Letters 111:112502 (September 10)
Brain Myth Debunked
Popular belief describes artistic people as right-brain dominant and analytical people as left-brain dominant, but neuroscience has never had convincing support for this notion. With the advent of a technique called functional connectivity MRI, which measures changes in blood flow in the brain, the case can be settled. After analyzing brain activity in 7,000 brain regions of more than 1,000 people while they were resting, neuroscientists found no evidence that people favor one hemisphere over the other. Although certain functions occur mostly in a particular hemisphere—for example, speech stems from networks in the left side for most right-handed people—it does not follow that people who are more proficient in that function use that hemisphere more than the other. Overall, participants’ brains showed equal connectivity on both sides. The concept of a dominant side makes no sense, the researchers note. If both hemispheres do not work in concert, a person cannot function.
Nielsen, J. A., B. A. Zielinski, M. A. Ferguson, J. E. Lainhart, and J. S. Anderson. An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. PLoS One 8:e71275 (August 14)
The new record for the world’s fastest spinning object is 600 million rotations per minute—500,000 times the rate of an average washing machine. The project arose out of a desire to study the no-man’s-land between classical physics of large objects and quantum theory of subatomic particles. Physicists predict that a phenomenon called quantum friction could slow particle motion in the absence of external friction, but so far they have not observed it. To investigate, researchers fabricated a calcium sphere four micrometers wide, about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. They levitated the sphere using laser light inside a vacuum, and then exerted a spin on the object by changing the polarization of the light wave. Because no air friction hindered its spinning, the sphere kept speeding up until it flew apart. Before that happened, the centrifugal acceleration at the equator of the sphere was one billion times that of gravity on Earth. This breakthrough sets the stage for follow-up experiments that could prove quantum friction exists.
Arita, Y., M. Mazilu, and K. Dholakia. Laser-induced rotation and cooling of a trapped microgyroscope in vacuum. Nature Communications 4:2374 doi:10.1038/ncomms3374 (August 23)
New Carnivore Species Found
Earth is full of undiscovered species, but it is rare to hear about the discovery of a new mammal, especially an unknown carnivore—such animals are generally big and cute enough to attract notice. The scientific community was astonished at the discovery of a new species of American carnivore—the first since the Colombian weasel (Mustela felipei) in 1978 in the Andes. The newfound creature, which the researchers called the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), is in fact a compatriot of this weasel. It is one of several olingos, relatives of the raccoon, native to South and Central America. The olinguito is morphologically and genetically distinct from other olingos. Its nocturnal habits in the remote Andean cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador explain how it avoided notice until now. Because of the limited and fragmented nature of its habitat, the authors recommended that the olinguito be listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List.
Helgen, K. M., et al. Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. ZooKeys 324:1–83 (August 15)