Blog Climate 04 August 2014
Warming causes the air above the Atlantic to rise. It then cools and descends over the Pacific Ocean

… although you might have heard otherwise. Over the past decade, scientists have been puzzling over an apparent "pause" in the warming of the Earth’s surface. Instead of going up quickly, as climate models predicted, temperatures appeared to have slowed.

We now know that most of that missing heat is going into the oceans, which are warming up, driven by faster winds at the sea’s surface. Scientists have found that the Pacific Ocean trade winds that blow along the equator from east to west have been speeding up since the early 1990s. They don’t just push heat into the ocean depths, they’re also increasing sea level rise in the western Pacific, and cooling waters in the east, which is partly responsible for California’s dire drought situation.

But what’s causing the winds to speed up?

Research published in Nature Climate Change today points the finger at the Atlantic Ocean. There, the sea’s surface is warming up – and fast. That warming causes the air above to rise. It then cools and descends over the Pacific Ocean, and when it does it drives the trade winds faster.

Dr Shayne Macgregor at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales said the study “highlights how changes in the climate in one part of the world can have extensive impacts around the globe."

But don’t expect the reprieve to last, warn the scientists. The cooling trend is likely to end, perhaps triggered by a serious El Nino, and when it does we can expect warming to return with a vengeance.

Marvel's latest superhero movie Guardians of the Galaxy might never have been made if it weren't for the famous physicist Richard Feynman, according to Wired.

An interview with the movie's screenwriter Nicole Perlman reveals it was Feynman who first inspired her to start writing.

He was my childhood crush object. I had printed out pictures of Feynman from the Caltech website when I was in high school. When my friends had pictures of Keanu Reeves on their wall, I had pictures of a dead physicist.

When Perlman was 16 her father gave her a biography of the scientist.

I loved the way that he could explain these incredible mysteries about the universe; there was something about the way in which he made it seem like you could explain this to anybody in the world, you just needed the right communicator. “That was what seemed miraculous about it. These amazing, lofty ideas, weren’t walled off from not-particularly-brilliant high school students like myself. It was inspiring.

Blog Society 01 August 2014
Knew you'd do that... Scientists have found goalkeepers attempts to dive for a ball follow a pattern.

Penalty shoot-outs in football could be a piece of cake for the kicker if he knows what to look for. Researchers have found goalies’ attempts to dive for the ball follow a predictable pattern.

After kickers repeatedly kick in one direction, goalkeepers become increasingly likely to dive in the opposite direction, according to an analysis of all 361 kicks from the 37 penalty shootouts during the World Cup and UEFA Euro Cup matches over 36 years. The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

“Cognitive fallacies can affect all of us, even if we are considered expert performers in a particular field,” says report co-author Patrick Haggard of the University College London. “It is important to try to be aware of situations in which we may be vulnerable to bad decision making. Then we may be able to avoid making mistakes.”

“In a penalty shootout, a goalkeeper and a group of kickers do their best to outwit each other,” Haggard’s co-author Erman Misirlisoy says. “How they control their behaviour gives an insight into cognitive strategies more generally.”

Misirlisoy suggests that the best strategy for a goalkeeper could be to decide on a random sequence of dives before the game and follow that sequence regardless of what kickers do.

Blog Biology 01 August 2014
The (A) dorsal and (B) ventral view of whole mouse after clearing for a week shows optical transparency of the body. The arrow in B points to cleared kidney, while C shows the brain for the same mouse.
Yang et al, Cell

Scientists have found a way to make animals bodies transparent, revealing connections between cells and fine-grained cellular structures, in what is expected to be a boon to biomedical research. The process could lead to more accurate clinical diagnoses and disease monitoring, and a new generation of therapies for conditions ranging from autism to chronic pain, its inventors say.

It “has the potential to accelerate any scientific endeavour that would benefit from whole-organism mapping, including the study of how peripheral nerves and organs can profoundly affect cognition and mental processing, and vice versa”, says senior study author Viviana Gradinaru of the California Institute of Technology.

“Tissue clearing”, as the process of making organs and tissue biopsies transparent is called, has been around for 100 years. But Gradinaru believes this study is the first to perform whole-body clearing, “as opposed to first extracting and then clearing organs outside the adult body”.

The new process allows researchers to build three-dimensional maps of intact organs and bodies, crucial for understanding complex, long-distance cellular interactions.

The research builds on a technique dubbed CLARITY, which Gradinaru and her collaborators previously developed for brain-clearing. It involves embedding tissue into hydrogels to preserve its 3D structure and important molecular features. Detergents are then used to extract lipids that make the tissue opaque.

In the new study, published in Cell, the researchers set out to make CLARITY suitable for whole organs and bodies, in part by making the process faster.

“Our easy-to-use tissue clearing protocols, which employ readily available and cost-effective reagents and equipment, will make the subcellular interrogation of large tissue samples an accessible undertaking within the broader research and clinical communities," Gradinaru said.

Cell has a Q&A interview with Dr. Gradinaru here.

Blog Biology 31 July 2014
What's that you say? Researchers now have a better understanding of the African penguin's communication skills.
Favaro et al

Italian scientists have listened to hundreds of audio and video vocal recordings from a large captive colony of African penguins in an effort to understand what the birds are saying. It turns out to be very little.

The team, led by Livio Favaro from the University of Torino, found that the adults used four vocalisations to communicate, juveniles just two (both of which apparently mean "I'm hungry!").

The four adult vocalisations are used as a contact call emitted by isolated birds, an agonistic call used in aggressive interactions, an ecstatic display song uttered by single birds during the breeding season, and a mutual display song vocalised by pairs at their nests.

Scientists already knew the birds could communicate but this research fills a gap in what previously had been only basic descriptions of the sounds they used.

Favaro says that, since the colony is captive, he can’t be sure his team has identified all possible vocalisations of the endangered seabirds, which could be more articulate in the wild.

The full paper was published by PLOS ONE and can be found here.

Blog Technology 30 July 2014
The Vaylon Pégase in a publicity shot. It and US rival the Maverick are aimed at the military, humanitarian and leisure markets.

French company Vaylon is spruiking its flying car Pégase – expected to go on sale next year – as a low-cost alternative to helicopters for humanitarian missions.

The Pégase has a propeller at the back and an extendable parachute, rather than wings. It is a similar design to the US Maverick, which is already commercially available. Both can take off and land in less than 100 metres, have a range of around 200km flying at up to 5,000 metres and carrying two people plus a load of 300kg

"The vehicle is a breakthrough technology," Vaylon's co-founder, Jérémy Foiche told SciDev as reported in the Guardian. "We are interested in working with the humanitarian sector to determine exactly how it could be used in the field," he said.

For the humanitarian sector, we could imagine such adaptations as replacing the passenger seat with a stretcher or putting in the front compartment a small camera for field reconnaissance, or a fridge to keep vaccines in, and the vehicle could also carry a doctor to give the vaccinations.

Inevitably, the military are also interested with the Pégase being tested by French special forces. And both companies are targeting the leisure market.

The Pégase is expected to cost around $100,000 while the basic Maverick sells for $94,000. The video below is of the Maverick in action and you can see more on the company's YouTube channel.

Well not in space exactly, but in low gravity. Science Alert tells us

Snakes appear to lose their sense of "self" when in microgravity, and can resort to attacking themselves or curling up and giving themselves a hug.

It's been a tough week for reptiles being harassed by scientists, what with the existential angst of these snakes and Russia's "space sex geckos" that were lost but now are found.

Blog Physics 29 July 2014

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has come up with a second edition of its International Energy Efficiency Scorecard (PDF), analysing the world’s 16 largest economies to see which use the least energy to achieve the same or better results.

Germany came out on top with a score of 65 out of 100, also winning in the industry category, followed by Italy on 64 points, which topped efficiency in transportation.

The ACEEE praised China, which was ranked fourth, for the rapid improvement in its energy efficiency, in contrast to the United States, ranked 13th, and Australia, 10th. The organisation highlighted the economic burden the poor performance creates.

The United States, long considered an innovative and competitive world leader, has progressed slowly and has made limited progress since the last International Scorecard in 2012.
In contrast,countries including Germany, Japan, and China are surging ahead. Countries that use energy more efficiently use fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable natural resources, and gaining a competitive edge over other countries. In the United States, a great deal of resources are wasted, and costs have been allowed to remain unnecessarily high.

Australia, which abolished its carbon tax, was in the bottom of the pack with 56 points. While it did well in terms of energy efficiency in the construction and manufacturing sectors, it performed worst of all the countries in terms of efficiency in transportation.