Category Archives: Science

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LHC Experiment Sets Record For The Hottest Substance Ever Created!

The sky is no longer the limit — the limit lies deep within sub-atomic particles. After the glory of the Higgs discovery, the LHC has now set a record for obtaining the hottest temperature mankind has ever seen. The trick — make a hot enough quark-gluon plasma.

The ALICE detector

At the center of this achievement lies the less talked about detector ALICE (short for A Large Ion Collider Experiment). We get to hear about the CMS and ATLAS detectors, since these are dedicated to the Higgs boson search and its subsequent measurement. The ALICE detector is a heavy-ion detector. Heavy ions, i.e. ions with very high atomic numbers and weights, like Gold and Lead, are collided at high energies. The end products are then analysed.

What the hell is QGP?

The generic end product is quark-gluon plasma (QGP), a soup of quarks, which are building blocks of protons and neutrons, and the so-called gluon particles. This is regarded as another form of matter and this was indeed the state of the Universe just moments after the Big Bang! In QGP, matter behaves like a perfect fluid, with no drag or friction.

Numbers, just for the record

Now, for the record you need numbers. The earlier record was set again by a QGP factory called the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the temperature they attained was a whopping 4-trillion degrees!! That’s a 4 followed by 12 zeroes!

ALICE isn’t quite sure of its figures yet, but the energy to temperature conversion should indicate temperature of close to 5.5 trillion degrees! But the ALICE collaboration wants a few days in order figure out the actual numbers.

The ALICE experiment is colliding beams of lead ions, but the collision between unlike heavy ions is a likely possibility for the future. That will be important to know the dependence of the parameters of the resulting fireball on the geometry of the colliding particles.

Brain’s Drainage System Discovered

Our body comes with an inbuilt drainage system called the lymphatic system. The tissues in our body lie in a pool of fluid called the interstitial fluid. While most of this fluid is directly circulated and recirculated from and into the blood vessels (called the body’s circulatory system), about 1% of this fluid is re-circulated through a different route. Interstitial fluid enters a network of vessels called lymph vessels, which in turn drain excess proteins and waste material from this fluid and into larger blood vessels for recirculation or destruction. The lymphatic system is thus an accessory system that acts in parallel with the blood circulatory system to remove excess proteins and solutes from tissues.

Fluid Flow in the Brain

Apart from blood vessels, the brain also has a fluid called the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulating in its outer parts. This fluid maintains brain pressure and protects the brain from physical injury. However, a system analogous to the body’s lymphatic system has not been seen in the brain till date. This is surprising because the brain has a very high metabolic rate and brain cells are particularly sensitive to the balance of chemicals in their environment. So how does brain tissue drain waste? It has been speculated that the CSF could perform the drainage role in the brain.

Injecting Fluorescent Molecules into the Brain

How does waste from the brain tissue get out of the brain? If it is through the CSF, then the question becomes—how do tissues release their waste into the CSF which has so far been found only in the sub-arachnoid space, the outer areas of the brain? Researchers from the University of Rochester injected small amounts of fluorescent ‘tracer ‘molecules into the brain’s CSF, and as the name suggests, traced the destinations of these tracers by brain scans. They found new channels through which the CSF flows, right into the brain tissue, called brain parenchyma. They could trace the paths of these molecules, and using molecules of different sizes, they could estimate the volumes of these paths through the brain.

The thick vessel is an artery in the brain of a mouse. In green is cerebrospinal fluid in a channel along the outside of the artery. [Image Credit: University of Rochester medical Center]
They found that the CSF traverses the inner parts of the brain including the space around brain tissue in hitherto unknown channels that lie parallel to and on the boundaries of the brain’s arteries and veins, formed by cells called astrocytes. Moreover, when a water-transport gene called AQP4 was deleted in mice, fluid flow through this system was suppressed, meaning that water-transport helps build up the pressure to move things along in this system using bulk-flow or convection. The water-pressure creates a pressure allowing waste to be drained away faster. The brain’s lymphatic system has thus been found, and is being referred to as the ‘glymphatic system’, called so because cells called glial cells help create pressure.

Alzheimer’s Molecule Takes This Route

The researchers went one step further and traced the path of fluorescent-tagged amyloid b, the protein responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. They found that this protein travels along this route of ‘glymphatic’ blood vessels. This insight provides therapeutic possibilities. Improving flow through this system could speed up clearance of neurodegradative molecules like amyloid-beta from the brain. Conversely, impeding or reducing flow through this system might help retain vaccines or drugs in the brain tissue for a longer period of time. If these vessels are also routes for migrating cells, could the metastasis of cancerous tumour cells be dependent on this system too?

“Waste clearance is of central importance to every organ, and there have been long-standing questions about how the brain gets rid of its waste,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., lead author of the paper and co-director at the University of Rochester’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine. “This work shows that the brain is cleansing itself in a more organized way and on a much larger scale than has been realized previously.You can read about this research here and here.

Mystery of the Floating Pumice Island Solved!

It was really an underwater volcanic eruption, but then that was already known. What wasn’t known was which underwater vent it was that caused this huge pumice spread. Samples were taken from the unusual island and analysed. Now, a source has been identified.

We reported the news here:

The floating island of pumice.

One suspect ruled out, another implicated

Many volcanologists have suggested that an active seamount, the Monowai seamount, erupting along the Kermadec arc was responsible for the huge emission of the light rock. The problem is with the alibi – the island was reportedly spotted as early as 1st of August by an airline pilot, while Monowai erupted only on the 3rd of August. Ruling out time travel, the only logical explanation seems to be another source, a bit farther away.

The offender has been pinpointed as the Havre Seamount, says volcanologist Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University. The data going into this analysis comprises pictures from the Moderate Resolution Imagine Spectrometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites and accurate depth mapping of the seabed. Ocean bathymetry, or seafloor topography, maps out the physical features of the seafloor. An erupting underwater volcano is like a new pimple on the face of the seafloor.

How they did it

The seafloor map revealed a volcanic plume and the MODIS images from the 19th of July revealed high ash content in the water and also some pumice in and around the Havre seamount. The MODIS thermal images from a day, taken at 10:50 PM, before revealed a lot of heat in the region, indicating that the volcano was erupting. The eruption was strong enough to breach the surface in under 12 hours, which means penetrating a column of water more than a kilometer in height.

The Havre seamount activity receded around the 21st of July, but, by then, it left off enough pumice residues to create the huge island that was seen.

First hand look

But people are still not satisfied. They want to view the Havre eruption first hand, after going down to the seafloor in a research vessel and photographing the area.

It has been speculated that such underwater vents spewing out pumice can be responsible for replenishing the pumice content in the coral reefs around the world.

The CIA Declassifies Documents Outlining Incredible Deep-Sea Recovery of Spy Satellite Capsule

It was July 10, 1971 and we were in the heart of the cold war. The U.S. was running a super secret satellite spying operation code-named Hexagon. This was long before the days of digital cameras and Google earth. Spy photos were stored on Kodak film and when the time came for them to be sent back to earth, they were jettisoned from the satellite via a capsule called a Hexagon recovery vehicle. Unfortunately, on this particular day things went very wrong. The parachute carrying the RV didn’t deploy correctly and literally tore off at the swivel. The RV hit the surface of the ocean at 2600 g’s and sank in 16,000 feet of water. This is just a piece of a riveting story that can be found in newly declassified CIA documents. What follows is a story of a rescue mission that reaches record depths and is mingled with excitement and disappointment.

According to the CIA “Memorandum for the Record“, it was decided to bring in the Navy for a recovery attempt. This was no easy task. There were several challenges outlined in the memorandum:

a. The ability to locate the impact area accurately.
b. The amount of damage caused by the impact and the corrosive
effects from sea water.
c. No object of this size had been actively searched for and
located by sonar.
d. The Trieste II had not gone below 10,000 feet.

Three recovery attempts were made. The first failed attempt was November 3, 1971. The second failed attempt was November 30, 1971. The third attempt was a little more successful. On April 25, 1972, the Trieste II successfully found and grasped the RV capsule. Unfortunately, due to the pressure changes while rising to the surface, the film basically shredded and they were only able to recover a remnant. The end result was not ideal but the CIA remained pretty optimistic despite the circumstance. It appears what the Navy was able to accomplish in the midst of much turmoil proved to be an encouraging turn of events. The memorandum ends with the following.

In summary, the significance of the objective of recovering the film for intelligence use was considerably reduced after the 1202 mission,
and the motivating force became the demonstration of the capability to effect a deep sea recovery. This was successfully accomplished with the
recovery of the two film stacks on the third dive. All of the men involved remained enthusiastic and determined throughout the many frustrations and
are to be commended for their fine efforts.

Below, I have included a photo gallery with some of the amazing underwater photos from the recovery effort.


Record Breaking Python with 87 Eggs Found in the Florida Everglades

A record breaking Burmese python has been found in the Florida everglades. The snake was a record breaking 17-foot-7-inches long and weighed 164.5 pounds. It was also full of eggs which numbered 87, another record breaker.

Burmese Python
Gigantic Burmese python being examined by researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida photo by Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History)

The snake has been handed over to the Florida Museum of Natural History by officials from Everglades National Park. Burmese pythons are native to southeast Asia, but have become quite an invasive species in the Florida everglades as many people tried to keep them as pets. Once the pet owners realize how large these guys can get, they often release them into the wild. Unfortunately, due to the size of this particular find, it is becoming apparent that they are thriving in their new home. “This thing is monstrous, it’s about a foot wide,” said Florida Museum herpetology collection manager Kenneth Krysko. “It means these snakes are surviving a long time in the wild, there’s nothing stopping them and the native wildlife are in trouble.”

Skip Snow, a park wildlife biologist, said, “I think one of the important facts about this animal is its reproductive capability…There are not many records of how many eggs a large female snake carries in the wild. This shows they’re a really reproductive animal, which aids in their invasiveness.”

The researchers hope they can examine this specimen to find out what its eating habits are and hopefully discover some way they can curtail the spread of this deadly invasive species. As it stands now, the Burmese python has no known predators and one this size can eat just about anything it wants.

According to a University of Florida press release, “Florida has the world’s worst invasive reptile and amphibian problem.” Most of this is due to the pet trade. For more information about Florida’s wildlife program, visit the Florida Museum of Natural History at

Editorial: Curiosity Killed the Planet, Why Now is Not the Time to Explore Mars

The face of Curiosity

As I sit here wearing my NASA t-shirt, I feel like I am back in my old college speech class when the professor asked us to give a persuasive speech about something we didn’t believe in. You have to understand that I am a huge fan of NASA. I am fascinated by the idea of space exploration. Ever since I was a tiny boy, I can always remember looking up at the Milky Way and just being overcome by the feeling that I was adrift in space. I totally understand why some believe the stars can tell the future. The Universe is so vast, so amazing, it’s easy to look up and think, “The answers must be out there somewhere.” Unfortunately for me lately, I have reached a new stage in my life that when I look at the world around me, I suddenly come to the conclusion that we seriously need some answers down here before we go searching for answers up there. Of course, this stage in my life just happens to coincide with one of NASA’s crowning achievements, which is putting the Mars Curiosity Rover on the ground. Believe me when I say that I am extremely proud of the work the NASA team did to put Curiosity on the surface of Mars, but I have to say that now is not the time.

Prestige and Politics

NASA is fighting for its life right now. The political climate in the U.S. is the worst I have seen in my 40 years of living. There are many who reminisce about a time when the U.S. could really flex its muscle and do something that no other country could do. After World War II, the U.S. was filled with euphoria. Full of confidence and pride, the U.S. was more than willing to join in the international pissing match by joining the arms race. No way were we going to be outdone by the likes of the Soviet Union. Putting a man on the moon made us the best of the best. Now, fast forward to today. The baby boomers have inherited the country. They are the spoiled brat children of the so called “greatest generation”, having little if any clue what it was like to strap on a pair of work boots and really earn anything. They were the hippies, free lovers, draft dodgers, the “me” generation. They are something to be mocked by most of the world. Even our European neighbors have seemingly forgotten who it was that bailed them out of the grip of tyranny. I guess the point I am making here is that as incredible as it is to land this rover on Mars, the prestige factor just isn’t there like it was for the NASA of the 60’s and 70’s. If you don’t believe me, test yourself. Think back to where you were when the U.S. launched the first space shuttle into space. Think about the fascination and the hoopla surrounding that event. Try to match the events of this recent trip to mars with the excitement of that day. If it’s about prestige then consider this mission a fail.

Life on Mars?

NASA’s Mar’s Exploration Program Page details some of the history and the driving forces that lead NASA to explore Mars to begin with. Here is an excerpt from their website which I believe tells it all:

Among our discoveries about Mars, one stands out above all others: the possible presence of liquid water on Mars, either in its ancient past or preserved in the subsurface today. Water is key because almost everywhere we find water on Earth, we find life. If Mars once had liquid water, or still does today, it’s compelling to ask whether any microscopic life forms could have developed on its surface. Is there any evidence of life in the planet’s past? If so, could any of these tiny living creatures still exist today? Imagine how exciting it would be to answer, “Yes!!”

That my friends is truly the driving force is it not? The quest for life elsewhere is like a maddening life’s purpose for some. It confounds me sometimes when I try to reason out why we are so driven to find life somewhere else in the Universe. Are we really that lonely down here? I am no fool. I realize there are hundreds of reasons to want to find life on Mars, but let me ask this question; What has humanity done for life on this planet to deserve the distinction of finding life on another? Could it be because we are such good stewards of the world we live in? Does life not thrive everywhere we set our feet? I say this facetiously. In my opinion, we humans excel in selfish ambition, mindlessness, and destruction. Just think for a moment and imagine if we absolutely find evidence of life on Mars. Do you think that it will draw humankind closer together and improve life here on earth? Frankly, I don’t feel humanity is ready to find life elsewhere. As humanity stands today, and if we find life on Mars, I believe all of the traits which I previously stated we excel in will come to the forefront. The religious zealots will deny it. The atheists will revel that God is a man-made concoction. Braggarts will brag and the ambitious will start their money making engines. I don’t even want to imagine the political rhetoric. In the shadow of all this will be the poor who cannot get a hand up, the diseased who are waiting on miracles to save their lives, endangered species of whom humanity is both their biggest threat and only hope, and a world that groans for peace.

Mysterious Island of Pumice Spotted on the South Pacific

Sheets of pumice forming a giant floating island have been spotted in the South Pacific. The size of the island is larger than the entire area of Israel. The whole island is 480 kilometers in length and about 50 kilometers in width. The New Zealand Royal Air Force spotted the floating pumice raft southwest of Raoul Island.

A screenshot from the youtube video uploaded by the NZ Air Force (see below) Courtesy: Youtube

Pumice and how it forms

Pumice is made from lava which cools off too fast. The trapped air pockets in the rocks makes it both porous and buoyant. An underwater volcano could’ve created this gigantic pumice island. A possible candidate is the Monowai seamount, along the Kermadec arc which has been active in recent times. The sheet reportedly looked like a giant floating icesheet.

Samples of the pumice float have been collected by at least two research groups, one of them being Australian government supported. These will help answer the question as to where these come from.

Here is a Youtube video uploaded by the New Zealand Royal Air Force:

How pumice is related to the very origin of life

Interestingly, pumice rocks and pumice sheets are not just an interesting artifact. They might be vital to life on the planet as we know it! Pumice rocks could’ve provided nice habitat for early Earth microbes. They could cling on these and populate themselves.

Further, chunks of pumice could’ve ferried animals across vast stretches of water, maybe hop islands! Remote islands could’ve been seeded like this, which then evolved uniquely, giving rise to insular populations of animals not seen anywhere else in the world. So pumice may have been the substrate on which life formed and also a mode of transport for developed life forms!

Yes, science does hold a lot more mysteries than dreamt of in your philosophy, my Horatio!

Plate Tectonics on Mars!

Mars is more similar to Earth than you might think! For one, Mars also has tectonic motion, says a UCLA scientist. Yes, there are tectonic plates on Mars that move, create huge gorges and also develop prominent fault lines, just like they do on Earth. But then, they are not as similar as a naïve generalization might suggest.

Prof. An Yin, professor of Earth and space sciences explains why:

Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth.

Deeper and Longer than anything else!

At the center of his research, lies the huge canyon between two regions, called the Valles Marineris (Latin for “Valley of Mariner”, after the Mariner Mars craft). With vertical cliffs, jagged rocks and a length of nearly 2500 km – about 9 times that of the Grand Canyon here on Earth – this is clearly a geologic goldmine! How did it form?

The central part of the Valles Marineris (Courtesy: Google)

Yin argues that the forces at play are the familiar forces which generate steep cliffs here on Earth, namely the tectonic forces. The Valles Marineris, he argues, is actually a fault line and the forces have pushed up and submerged rocks, just like in Death Valley, California, which was also formed by tectonic action. And just for records of the superlatives, this is the deepest and longest canyon known in the Solar System.


The plates on Mars number just two, as compared to seven on Earth. They also move much slower than their terrestrial cousins. Mars being about half the size of Earth explains this slow motion – the initial ball of molten material was much more stable and there was less thermal energy to drive the whole process, which would’ve fragmented the crust even further. However, Yin thinks that the planet is on its way to becoming more fractured.

What About Mars-quakes?

Slow movement between plates and just one stable fault line means that Mars-quakes are way less frequent than earthquakes. The rate of movement hasn’t been ascertained – it’s just that it’s slow! Yin, who uses data obtained from the satellite images taken by the THermal Emission Imagine System (THEMIS) aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and also from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), thinks more data collected in the next year or so will help in answering these questions.

Prof. Yin’s paper is set to appear in the journal Lithosphere soon.

Of Mice that Sing

A movie called ‘Ratatouille’ showed us a cartoon mouse that could cook up wonders. The real world matches this with mice that don’t just squeak, but sing too.

Singing for the Women

Scotinomys teguina are mice from the mountains of Costa Rica which communicate by singing. Before you start preparing to teach your next non-avian pet the latest from Adele, the singing capacity of these marvelous creatures is restricted to trilling—a rapid alternation between two adjacent notes. In several species of birds, males with greater trill production are seen to be greater threats by rivals, and seen as more attractive by females. Likewise, the male singing mouse emits a series of rapid high-pitched chirps to attract mates and fend off rivals.

Researchers at the University of Texas are now studying these mice to try and understand the genes that lead to this singing behavior—genes which could in turn regulate language in humans. It is known that music and language are processed by the same brain systems in humans in a part of the brain called the temporal lobes.

Looking for a ‘Singing Gene’

It is one gene in particular that is being studied, a gene called FOXP2 (Forkhead Box Protein P2). This gene is highly conserved across humans, singing mice and lab mice. In humans, mutations of this gene has been found to lead to speech and language disorders. In birds, removing this gene leads to inaccurate song imitation. The research team is sequencing this entire gene in the singing mice and looking for segments of DNA that are present only in the singing mouse as opposed to the lab mouse; from this set of changes, the team then filters out those that are likely to have occurred by chance and have no biological significance. The remaining gene changes are those that could be responsible for the ability of the singing mice to trill.

Another way to study this single gene is to look at its function. This protein regulates the expression and activities of a host of other proteins—what are they? “We found that when an animal hears a song from the same species, these neurons that carry FOXP2 become activated. So we think that FOXP2 may play a role in integrating that information,” said Lauren O’Connell, a researcher in Steven Phelps’s lab, where this research is being conducted. They are now making the mice listen to songs, and record all the genes that are activated, to see which ones could be activated by FOXP2. This information will help us form the complete link between the gene and the biological property of singing or language in humans.

You can learn more about this research here.

Update: Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas

Recently, I shared an article with you called “Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas“. You may want to take a moment and familiarize yourself with the original article before going any further. In a nutshell, the article laid out some interesting new research by Yale Ph.D. candidate Kristofer Covey. His research centered around the amount of methane gas, well known for its contribution to the greenhouse affect, that trees were putting out. His research found that trees that were diseased with a common fungus had conditions favorable to the production of greenhouse gases. Most of the trees were pretty old between 80-100 years old.

Red Maple
Red Maple which is a significant source of methane. (© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

The reason I am updating this article is because I was able to get in contact with Kris and found out a couple pieces of information that I thought might be worth sharing with you the reader. I had two questions for Kris and he was kind enough to respond. Below, you can see the questions I asked with his answer following.

Question #1. – I am curious how you or the authors feel this affects the global warming debate?

I think the most important thing here is that although it appears as though trees may be producing and releasing significant amounts of methane, they still offer significant climate benefit. Our results indicate that in the stands studied the methane being released is equivalent in it’s climate warming effect to 18% of the carbon sequestered annually. If, as we suspect, this phenomenon is widespread then there would be implications for carbon markets and other programs that make use of forests as a mitigation tool in climate change action.

Question #2. – What potential remedies could be put in place to eliminate the source of this fungal activity?

While there aren’t practical ways to limit fungal infection in forest trees (these fungi are normal and essentially ubiquitous agents); however, we did find species level differences (red maple seems to produce far more than the other species studied ex.) indicating that there may management strategies that could optimize the tradeoff between carbon sequestration and methane production. That said, there’s a great deal of questions to ask before specific recommendations could be made. We are only now recognizing this pathway exists!

I thought it was important to share this information because it clears up some concern that trees aren’t destroying our atmosphere. Basically, even the diseased trees still clean up bad carbon but just not as much as a healthy one could.

For more information about Forestry studies at Yale, visit