Ring Nebula, Friday afternoon slump, mouldy produce, and butterfly-inspired films

Stunning new images of the Ring Nebula captured by JWST

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has recorded gorgeous new images of the iconic Ring Nebula, also known as Messier 57.

The Ring Nebula is located about 2,600 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. It is a planetary nebula, meaning it’s the remnants of a dying star that expelled its outer layers into space at the end of its life. 

Close up of ring nebula
A close-up of the southern part of the outer halo, the part outside the main ring. How a single star can create such a complex nebula is not well understood. In the background, thousands of more distant, numerous faint galaxies can be seen, some with clear spiral structure. Credit: The University of Manchester

“The James Webb Space Telescope has provided us with an extraordinary view of the Ring Nebula that we’ve never seen before,” says Dr Mike Barlow, lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Project.

“The high-resolution images not only showcase the intricate details of the nebula’s expanding shell but also reveal the inner region around the central white dwarf in exquisite clarity.

“We are witnessing the final chapters of a star’s life, a preview of the Sun’s distant future so to speak, and JWST’s observations have opened a new window into understanding these awe-inspiring cosmic events.

“We can use the Ring Nebula as our laboratory to study how planetary nebulae form and evolve.”

Clumps in ring nebula
A close-up of part of the nebula shows that the ring consists of large numbers of small clumps. About half of all gas in the nebula is in these clumps. Credit: The University of Manchester

Workers make more typos on Friday afternoons

We finally have objective, scientific evidence to back up the perception that most office workers feel less productive toward the end of the day, and at the end of the work week.

According to a recent study in PLOS ONE, employees are less active and more prone to mistakes on afternoons and on Fridays – with Friday afternoons representing the lowest point of productivity.

The team of US researchers looked at the computer usage metrics of 789 in-office employees at a large energy company in Texas over a 2 year period from 2017 to 2018.

“People typed more words and had more mouse movement, mouse clicks and scrolls every day from Monday through Thursday, then less of this activity on Friday,” says Dr Taehyun Roh, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Texas A&M University, and lead author of the paper.

“Employees were less active in the afternoons and made more typos in the afternoons – especially on Fridays.”

The researchers say that flexible work arrangements, such as hybrid work or a four-day work week, may lead to happier and more productive employees.

No more mouldy strawberries

If you’ve ever forgotten about the berries at the back of your fridge before, then you’ve probably seen grey mould (Botrytis cinerea). It’s one of the most common fungal diseases affecting fruit and vegetable crops, and there’s currently no way to cure it.

Now, new research has discovered that lipid “bubbles” secreted by the mould cells may provide an avenue for controlling it.

Strawberry and cherry tomato with mould on them
Grey mould growing on produce. Credit. Hailing Jin/UCR

“Because they are hard to isolate and study, the important functions of these lipid bubbles, also called extracellular vesicles, have been overlooked for decades,” says Hailing Jin, a professor of microbiology and plant pathology at the University of California – Riverside, US.

“Now we know the mould, just like its plant hosts, also uses extracellular vesicles to protect and deliver what amount to weapons — small RNA molecules that silence genes involved in plants’ immune systems,” says Jin, who led the research project. 

They also determined that a particular protein, called tetraspanin, is key to the mould’s ability to produce the bubbles.

Knocking out the function of genes that allow the fungus to produce small RNA molecules and tetraspanin could enable new fungicides to inhibit grey mould disease.

The findings are published in Nature Communications.

Butterfly-inspired films could cool buildings or vehicles

Researchers have drawn inspiration from the nanostructures in butterfly wings to develop new nanofilms which don’t absorb light, according to a new study in the journal Optica.

Butterflies next to cooling films
Inspired by the way that the Morpho butterfly creates colour, researchers developed colorful cooling films that don’t absorb light and thus don’t heat up. Credit: Wanlin Wang, Shenzhen University

The films lower the temperature of colourful objects to about 2°C below the ambient temperature and could be used on the outside of buildings, vehicles, and equipment to reduce the energy needed to cool them.

“Thanks to the layered structure we developed, we were able to extend the passive cooling method from colourless objects to colourful ones while preserving colour performance,” says Wanlin Wang, assistant professor in the Institute of Microscale Optoelectronics at Shenzhen University, China.

Diagram showing lots of blue light and some yellow light reflecting off surface
The blue version of the films uses a multilayer structure designed to reflect yellow light in a very narrow range of angles while the disordered structure diffuses the blue light across a broad area. To prevent the absorption of solar radiation and the associated heating, the structure is placed on a silver total reflection layer. Credit: Wanlin Wang, Shenzhen University

“In other words, our blue film looks blue across a large range of viewing angles and doesn’t heat up because it reflects all the light,” says Wang, who led the research.

When left outside all day, the blue version of the films was approximately 26℃ cooler than traditional blue car paint. 

Four photos of cooling films demonstrating their cooling potential
The researchers used infrared photographs (right) to compare their cooling films (bottom) with traditional paint (top). The samples were placed on a car hood under direct sunlight at noon. Credit: Wanlin Wang, Shenzhen University

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