10 Top Science News of the Month: December 2017

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Ionizer’s monthly science digest is back with yet another iteration to inform and amaze you. The Top Science News for December 2017 will give you a quick overview of what’s buzzing in the science world within 7 minutes. December was packed with some exciting findings such as the discovery of the biggest Black Hole so far, and a newly discovered form of matter. Read on to know more about them!

Top Science News for December 2017

1. The Biggest Black Hole Ever Discovered!

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Credit: Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science

Astronomers at the Carnegie Institution of Science have discovered the most distant, supermassive black hole ever observed using their Magellan Telescopes.

It is 800 million times the mass of our Sun. It resides in a quasar* whose light has taken more than 13 billion years to reach us. Its light reaches us from when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age, that is, just 690 million years after the Big Bang, as the Big Bang is estimated to have happened 13.9 billion years ago.

*Quick Fact
Quasar: A Quasar is an extremely bright object, (that makes up the centers of galaxies), and consists of a supermassive black hole surrounded by an orbiting accretion disk of gas.
Source Wikipedia

 

We’re looking at this black hole in its days of infancy, hence, it can help us learn more about how things were when the Universe was quite young. Astronomers are considering the fact that the early universe would have had suitable conditions that allowed for the formation of such large black holes that easily reached 100,000 times the mass of the Sun. This is unlike the black holes in the present-day universe, where they only exceed a few dozen solar masses at max.

Full Release: Carnegie Science

2. Stretchable Bio-Battery Made Entirely out of Fabric

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This entirely textile-based, bacteria-powered bio-battery could one day be integrated into wearable electronics.
Credit: Seokheun Choi

The next thing that made the top science news comes from a team of researchers at the Binghamton University, State University of New York. The team developed a stretchable battery which is entirely textile-based. The team was led by Electrical and Computer Science Assistant Professor Seokheun Choi (Binghamton University).

Along with being made entirely of fabric, the battery is powered by bacteria. It is a bio-battery which can produce maximum power similar to that produced by his (Professor Seokheun Choi’s) microbial fuel cells.

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These bio-batteries have exhibited the capability to generate electricity stably and steadily even when tested under repetitive stretching and twisting cycles. Hence, according to Choi, this textile-based bacteria-powered bio-battery can be integrated into wearable electronics and technology in the near future.

Choi is of the opinion that flexible electronics which can be integrated with varied surroundings to collect real-time information are a mandate for the future of wearable technology. These bio-batteries will serve as useful energy tech as they are renewable, sustainable, and eco-friendly.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, Binghamton University SUNY, Wiley Online Library

3. Weak Magnetic Fields of Black Holes

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An outburst from V404 Cygni.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Black holes are known for their intense, terrifying gravitational pull that can engulf entire stars. Or so we all previously thought. In light of a recent and very surprising discovery, it has been found that black holes don’t quite live up to their hype. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida, and published in the journal, Science, it has been found that black holes have significantly weaker magnetic fields than previously thought.

The first precise measurements were obtained from studying the magnetic field of V404 Cygni. It is a 40-mile-wide black hole which is 8,000 light years away from Earth. The magnetic energy around the black hole was found to be almost 400 times lower than previous crude estimates.

These measurements were developed with the help of data that was collected back in 2015 during V404 Cygni’s (rare) outburst of jets which lasted only for a few weeks.

All thanks to these measurements, scientists are a step closer to understanding the working of the magnetism of black holes. This will deepen our knowledge of how matter behaves under the most extreme conditions.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, Science

4. Excited for Excitonium? New Form of Matter!

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This is an artist’s depiction of the collective excitons of an excitonic solid.
Credit: Uni. of Illinois, Department of Physics and Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois College of Engineering has discovered a new form of matter – EXCITONIUM – which was first theorized almost 50 years ago, and hence had generations of scientists confused. That is, up till now.

What makes this top science news noteworthy is the description of what Excitonium is like.

Excitonium is a condensate. It exhibits quantum phenomena at the macroscopic scale, rather than the atomic scale, where quantum effects are prevalent, similar to a superconductor*, or superfluid*, or insulating electronic crystal.

*Quick Facts:

Superconductors are materials in which there is exactly zero electrical resistance and expulsion of magnetic flux fields when they are cooled below a characteristic critical temperature.

Superfluids are fluids with zero viscosity which flow without loss of kinetic energy. On stirring, a superfluid forms cellular vortices which continue rotating incessantly.

 

Excitonium, is made up of excitons (sounds kind of obvious, doesn’t it?).

Excitons are particles formed in a very strange quantum mechanical pairing, namely that of an escaped electron and the hole it left behind.

When an electron, which lies at the edge of a valence band (which is crowded with electrons) in a semiconductor gets excited, it jumps over the energy gap to the empty conduction band. This process leaves behind a “hole” in the valence band. That hole behaves like a particle with positive charge and attracts the escaped electron. When the escaped electron (with its negative charge), pairs up with the hole (here, positive charge), the two form a composite particle, a boson, which we refer to as an exciton.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, University of Illinois, Science

5. Tiny Robots are Being Programmed to Behave like Real Insects

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RoboBees manufactured by the Harvard Microrobotics Lab.
Credit: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

Engineers have successfully built small, insect-like robots, but are facing issues in order to have these robotic insects behave autonomously like real ones.

Under the guidance of Professor Silvia Ferrari (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor as well as director of the Laboratory for Intelligent Systems and Controls), engineers at Cornell have teamed up with the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory (HML). HML has developed the 80-milligram flying robot-insect inspired by bees (displayed in the image above) which is outfitted with a number of sensors for vision, optical flow, and motion.

For the robot to sense a gust of wind and adjust its flight according to that alone would require a lot of computer processing power. According to the team, that amount of computing power would require the 80-milligram RoboBee to carry a desktop computer on its back. So, they would obviously have to improvise for the situation.

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This is where Professor Ferrari came in with her vision for shrinking the robot’s payload, with the help of neuromorphic computer chips. Regular chips process binary code (combinations of 0s and 1s) in order to perform action, but neuromorphic chips function similar to neurons inside our brains. They process spikes of electrical current and then perform actions. Professor Ferrari and her team are developing a whole new type of ‘event-based’ sensing and control algorithms, which imitate the neuron’s activity and can also be implemented on neuromorphic chips.

Full Release: Cornell Chronicle

6. Many Bacteria Have Electrically Conducting Filaments

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Electrically conducting pili or ‘e-pili’.
Credit: UMass Amherst

Derek Lovley is an internationally renowned microbiologist for his research on the bacterium Geobacter in which he discovered electrically conducting microfilaments or ‘nanowires’. He explained that Geobacter has evolved these special electrically conducting filaments with a subunit called pilin (fibrous proteins found in pilus structures in bacteria).

The electrically conducting pili or e-pili is a recent evolutionary event, and so, it was a working hypothesis in itself that this ability could also exist in the bacteria’s close relatives.

So, a team of microbiologists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, led by Derek Lovley started work on the same, and in a new paper release, have announced that they have discovered the e-pili in many other bacterial species.

Lovley claims that over the years, the unique characteristics and structural features of Geobacter have resulted in many ‘microbiological firsts’, be it in the field of bioremediation, or renewable energy, or biogeochemistry; and now, Geobacter has drawn microbiologists into electronics. He is excited as to how this new discovery will unfurl as he and his team further work on it.

Full Release: UMassAmherst, Nature

7. Newly Designed Nanoparticles Can Destroy a Broad Range of Viruses

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A molecular dynamics model showing a nanoparticle binding to the outer envelope of the human papillomavirus.
Credit: Petr Kral, UIC

We are all aware of how viral infections kill millions of people worldwide every year, but currently available antiviral drugs mostly act against one or a few related viruses. However, these newly developed unique nanoparticles might just be the ray of light that we’ve been looking for!

A group of researchers at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with various international researchers, have designed new anti-viral nanoparticles. Other broad-spectrum antivirals simply prevent viruses from infecting cells, but the new nanoparticles bind to viruses and destroy them. Also unlike other antivirals, these nanoparticles can bind to and destroy a variety of viruses. These viruses include the herpes simplex virus, human papillomavirus, respiratory syncytial virus, the dengue virus, and lentiviruses.

These new nanoparticles mimic heparin sulfate proteoglycan (HSPG), which is a cell surface protein. Usually, viruses infect cells by binding to the HSPGs on their surface. Presently existing antiviral drugs that mimic HSPG, bind to the virus and prevent it from binding to cells. The problem is that the strength of this bond is quite weak. To add to that, these drugs can’t destroy viruses like the newly devised antiviral nanoparticles can. So, with the present drugs, the viruses can get reactivated once the drug concentration is lowered.

The team’s final draft of the anti-viral nanoparticle also mimics HSPG but it can bind irreversibly to a range of viruses, and cause lethal deformations to the viruses. As an added bonus, it has no effect on healthy tissues or cells. It is completely non-toxic.

Full Release: UIC Today, Nature

8. Fish Consumption Linked to Higher IQ & Better Sleep

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Credit: Pexels.com

It has been previously known due to various (conducted) studies that omega-3 (fatty acid present in a variety of fishes) and improved intelligence are linked. Different studies have also indicated a link between omega-3 and better sleep. However, there was no study that implied an interconnection between all three of them.

In this top science news context, a team from the University of Pennsylvania has published its new findings in the Nature journal ‘Scientific Reports’. Based on their study, they have found that children who consume fish (at a minimum of) once every week have better and undisturbed sleep cycles, and on an average, they have an IQ which is 4.8 points higher as compared to children who consume fish either rarely or perhaps not at all.

Via this study, the researchers’ conjecture has proved to be true, that sleep acts as the missing link, the mediator in the fish consumption – better cognitive functioning relationship.

The team consists of specialists, viz., Jennifer Pinto-Martin, Jianghong Liu and Alexandra Hanlon of the School of Nursing and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Adrian Raine, who are actively promoting the consumption of fish for children especially. The taste becomes more palatable if it is introduced at an early age in the phase of growing up.  

So, dear readers, we encourage you all to make fish a part of your staple diet as soon as you can.

Full Release: Penn News, Nature

9. Directing the Flow of Photocurrent by Spinning Light

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This image shows a false-colored electron microscope image of the University of Minnesota device.
Credit: University of Minnesota

In semiconductor materials, light has the capability to generate electric current (photocurrent). This is the property behind the working of solar cells, and this is also how your phone’s camera takes pictures. By norm, to force the photocurrent to flow in a particular direction, an electric voltage is required. However, as per a new research conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, the direction of photocurrent can be controlled without the electric voltage.

The team used a device, which is the first of its kind, to demonstrate a method of controlling the direction of flow of photocurrent without employing voltage. As per the study, the control is affected by the direction in which the photons are spinning — clockwise or counterclockwise. The photocurrent generated by this way is spin-polarized, which means that there are more electrons with spin in one direction than the other.

Mo Li, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota was quoted saying, “The observed effect is very strong and robust in our devices, even at room temperature and in open air.” Therefore, this device holds great potential for being used in the field of microelectronics in the future by using electron spin as the fundamental unit of information. It can even be used for energy-efficient optical communication.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, Nature

10. An Eighth Planet Found Orbiting a Distant Star

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Credit: NASA

We’d like to end the top science news list with informing you about the 8th planet that was found orbiting a distant sun-like star, called the Kepler-90. It was discovered by using machine learning from Google. In this case, computers learned to identify small planets using previously stored Kepler data.

With the discovery of an eighth planet, the Kepler-90 system is the first to tie with our solar system in the number of planets. The exoplanet, named Kepler-90i, is a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days.

Christopher Shallue, a software engineer at Google, who came up with the idea of applying a neural network to the Kepler data, believes that this tool will help increase the productivity of astronomers.

Full Release: NASA

Did you read any other news that you felt that can make it to the top science news of our December list? Mention it in the comments below!

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