The Cosmos scientists’ gift guide

What do you get the researcher who has everything? What present could possibly top a giant telescope, or a home-made mRNA facility?

While some scientific research relies on massive, expensive equipment to work, there are also a lot of smaller things that scientists use. Here are some of our favourite objects used in 2021.

Mathematicians: a ticket to a museum exhibition

Trigonometry is a study that goes back millenia. Over a thousand years before Pythagoras even set foot on Earth, the Babylonians were not only aware of Pythagorean triples, they were using them in sophisticated ways.

Dr Daniel Mansfield, along with collaborators from the University of New South Wales found evidence of this trigonometry on an ancient tablet – but he needed more data to back his findings up.

Like a modern-day Indiana Jones, he went searching in museums, private collections and libraries around the world for similar types of mathematical documents from the same period that also contained Pythagorean triples.

Read more.

Plimpton 322: the world’s first trigonometric table
Plimpton 322: The world’s first trigonometric table(UNSW/Andrew Kelly)

Chemists: an over-ripe orange

Have your oranges gone bad? No need to throw them in the bin because University of Sydney PhD student Pooria Lesani has developed a cancer detection technique made from the juice of rancid oranges.

In a study, published in Chemical Engineering Journal, Lesani described the orange-based, low-cost probe, which proved to be a useful nanobiosensor for screening cells that may be at risk of cancer.

Read more.

Purple dots on a black background
Cells in an acidic environment, as demonstrated by the nanobiosensor. Credit: Pooria Lesani

Earth scientists: a fishing pole

A year ago, a group of researchers dropped 27 seismometers on the ocean floor. A month ago, another group of researchers set out to get them back.

The seismometers were connected to concrete ballasts when they were dropped, but they’re fitted with a release mechanism. When instructed – usually by an acoustic signal, but with other messages if that fails – the seismometer will disconnect from the concrete and float to the ocean surface.

“Then, when they are spotted by the crew, at the deck, they get picked up by a long pole with a hook,” says Professor Hrvoje Tkalčić, of the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University.

Read more.

Retrieving obs 850
Scientists Ian Smith, Ollie Twigge and Sam Harrison retrieving one of the seismometers from the ocean floor. Credit: Joshu Mountjoy / NIWA.

Astronomers: a water tank

Researchers are setting up a new pilot project to detect the highest-energy gamma rays arriving in the southern hemisphere – using the humble water tank.

Dr Jose Bellido Careces, from the University of Adelaide, will lead a team to set up the Southern Widefield Gamma-ray Observatory (SWGO) in Arequipa, Peru, the first of its kind capable of surveying these high-energy gamma rays in the southern hemisphere.

“The custom-built tanks contain a geomembrane that creates a light-tight environment, the perfect condition for the sensors to record the Cherenkov light produced by the secondary particles as they arrive,” says Bellido Caceres.

Read more.

A man stands in from of a giant black inflated ball. The ball has two long orange pipes coming out of it
Dr Bellido Caceres in front of a geomembrane at Aquamate’s facility. Credit: University of Adelaide.

Ecologists: a plastic animal

Researchers have revealed the nuanced calculations that purple-crowned fairy-wrens make when deciding to defend others from predators.

How did they reveal these calculations? By threatening nests of the birds with stuffed animals – and a painted plastic goanna.

“Our new approach allowed us to work out what incentives drive anti-predator behaviours in social groups,” says Dr Niki Teunissen, from the Monash University School of Biological Sciences, and lead author on a paper describing the research, published in Current Biology.

Read more.

Photo of two purple-crowned fairy-wrens, male and female, sitting together in a tree.
A pair of purple-crowned fairy-wrens. Credit: Dr Niki Teunissen

Engineers: a glass pergola

When a glass bridge in China collapsed earlier this year, many people wanted to know why you’d ever build something so important out of something so fragile.

But, according to Dr Colin Caprani, a senior lecturer in civil engineering at Monash University, glass is actually a “very strong material”.

“Property durability is probably one of the main benefits,” says Caprani.

“[Glass is an] extremely durable material, it’s not going to corrode, it’s not going to discolour and so on. You just have to get out there and clean it.

“[…You] can enjoy a barbecue on a pergola completely made of glass.”

Read more.

Gettyimages 1022480202
A glass bridge in Zhangjiajie, China. Credit: Khaw Sue Jane / EyeEm / Getty Images.

Physicists: a book of poetry

When it comes to complex physics, how do you communicate? Through poetry, of course.

Cosmos spoke to Rachel Rayner, Science Explainer about the photon, bringing attention to the many colours of our universe and the need for robust, poetic science communication.

Read more, or watch the interview below.

Medical researchers: a kettle

Dialysis treatment typically relies on regular deliveries of ultra-pure water, along with other dissolved solutions.

But Sydney-based start-up Ellen Medical Devices has received $427,000 in government funding to develop a new system.

“The concept is very, very simple,” says Ellen Medical Managing Director, John Knight. “The distiller that makes pure water [for the dialysate] is basically like a kettle on your kitchen bench to boil water for a cup of tea.

“It’s got a few extra bells and whistles, but the technology is really like that of a kettle. We can mass produce it for the same sort of price as you might expect to pay for a good quality kettle in [an appliance store].”

Read more.

A dialysis machine
Prototype of the Ellen Medical Affordible Dialysis System. Credit: Ellen Medical.

Computer scientists: five atoms

We know there’s a semiconductor shortage going on, and it’s unlikely to end anytime soon. But one of the hopes for computing is the ability to get small – even smaller than current transistors.

This year, a research team announced they’d made a transistor that’s one nanometre wide – or five silicon atoms.

Read more.

Tiny computer chip held in tweezers
Credit: Columbia Nano Initiative.

Please login to favourite this article.