Editor's choice: Raspberry-flavour galaxy, beetles, corals and computing
A round-up from the scientific and technical journals.
Our raspberry-flavoured Milky Way
Rasberry with notes of vinegar and almond. No, it’s not a description of a good pinot – but space! By probing gas clouds at the centre of our galaxy using radio telescopes, astronomers have detected flavoursome organic molecules in the bouquet. The compounds included ethyl formate, which gives raspberries their taste, acetic acid, which adds sharp vinegary notes, and the poison hydrogen cyanide, which smells of almonds. Astronomers suspect these surprisingly complex compounds form through reactions occurring on tiny grains of space dust. The next step is to sniff out whether molecules important for life, like amino acids, are also floating in interstellar gas.
Beetle-inspired device conjures water in the desert
Naturalists watching the Namib Desert Stenocara beetle waggle its behind probably thought it was trying to catch a mate. But the beetle is actually sucking moisture from the morning fog. Its fetching backside is covered with tiny hydrophilic bristles. Water droplets trickling down each bristle land in hydrophobic grooves on the creature’s carapace that channel the water straight into the beetle’s mouth. US researchers have now developed a material that mimics this trick. They coated a hydrophobic surface with a forest of hydrophilic nanotube bristles, and showed that it could draw water out of the air like a sponge – technology that could be invaluable for human desert dwellers, no bum waving required.
Corals tough out temperature rises
The Great Barrier Reef might just survive climate change. An analysis of the reef’s fossil corals shows that during the end of the last glacial period, 20,000 to 13,000 years ago, the corals survived much greater temperature variations than previously thought, with the sea warming up 5°C to reach today’s temperatures. But, the researchers caution, that temperature rise spanned millennia. The reef may not cope so well with the current temperatures rises that are taking place over decades.
Quantum computer's speed tested and found wanting
Quantum computers promise to solve certain problems much faster than conventional computers. Lockheed Martin and Google have bought the first commercial quantum computer, the D-Wave, but many computer scientists question whether or not it is truly capable of quantum performance. A study published in Science does nothing to dispel that doubt. Swiss and US physicists pitted the Lockheed Martin machine against a conventional computer. They threw problems of increasing size at the two computers – figuring the D-Wave ought to be less fazed by the increasing complexity. It wasn’t – the two computers performed at the same speed. The D-wave’s manufacturer counters the test was not tough enough to discriminate between the two computers.