Archive for Science

Einstein’s ‘impossible’ hope: Light bending theory directly observed in distant stars for first time

From ABC Science, 8 June 2017:

Astronomers have used the gravitational warping of light, predicted by Einstein nearly a century ago, to measure the mass of a distant star for the first time.

The team, led by Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, measured the mass of a white dwarf star called Stein 2051 B as it passed in front of another more distant star — an event Einstein thought would be impossible to observe.

The findings, publishing in today’s edition of Science, will help us understand more about these small dense stars and the ultimate fate of our Sun, which will become a white dwarf star when it burns out.

Dr Sahu relied on Einstein’s idea that the gravity of an object can bend and magnify rays of light.

According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, an object passing in front of another bright object would bend the light of the more distant object and cause it to appear to move from its original position.

In this “gravitational lensing”, the distance apparently travelled by the background object depends on the mass of the object in front, which is curving the light. Read more.

Who were the ancient Egyptians? Mummy DNA reveals surprising clues

From ABC Science, 31 May 2017:

Mummies from ancient Egypt have revealed another secret — some of them share very little of the sub-Saharan African ancestry that dominates the genetic heritage of modern Egyptians.

The discovery, published today in Nature Communications, suggests the African heritage evident in modern Egyptian populations may have been the result of the slave trade down the Nile in the past 1,500 years.

Researchers used modern genetic analysis techniques to study the genomes of 93 mummies that lived between 1300 BC — the late New Kingdom Period — and around 30 BC during the time of the Romans.

The mummies were buried at Abusir el-Meleq, which was an important religious and trading centre. Read more.

Australian funding agency announces new chief

From Nature Index, 28 April 2017:

The appointment of Sue Thomas as head of the Australian Research Council adds to a growing number of women at the helms of Australia’s key scientific agencies and funding bodies. Thomas, currently the provost and deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of New England, will take over from Aidan Byrne on 3 July.

Her appointment means Australia’s two largest science funding agencies are now led by women, with Anne Kelso the CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council. There’s also Margaret Hartley, who is the CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; Kylie Walker, the CEO of Science & Technology Australia (STA); and Anna-Maria Arabia, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Science. Read more.

Age discrimination: older Australian workers viewed as slow to learn

From The Guardian, 20 April 2017:

The trope of the older worker thrust back into the hurly-burly of working life made for great comedy in the 2015 film The Intern. But in reality this scenario isn’t always such a laughing matter.

Older workers face unique hardships. Hampered by unfair stereotypes about their abilities, their role in society and their responsibilities, they are regularly overlooked for interviews, jobs, promotions and recognition.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2016 report Willing to Work found 27% of people over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination at work, a third of the most recent episodes occurring when applying for a job. One-third of those gave up looking for work.

Age discrimination was particularly acute among older women, who were more likely to be viewed as having outdated skills, being slow to learn, or as being likely to do an unsatisfactory job. Seniors with disabilities face an even steeper uphill battle for jobs and recognition. Read more.

Alien solar system of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby dwarf star could be rich with water and life

From ABC Science, 23 February 2017:

Seven Earth-sized planets, many of which could harbour life, have been discovered orbiting a dwarf star in our own galactic neighbourhood.

The complex alien solar system hosts the largest number yet of detected worlds capable of having liquid water on their surface, a team of astronomers reported on Thursday in the journal Nature.

The planets have been found around TRAPPIST-1, a Jupiter-sized ultra-cool star located 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius.

“It’s the first time that we have so many Earth-sized planets around a star,” said lead author Dr Michaël Gillon, of the Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics Research Institute in Belgium. Read more.

Pregnant reptile fossil suggests bird ancestors gave birth to live young

From ABC Science, 15 February 2017:

The discovery of a fossil of a pregnant marine reptile has provided the first evidence that an ancestor of modern-day birds and crocodiles gave birth to live young.

The fossil of the long-necked Dinocephalosaurus, which swam the seas during the Middle Triassic period around 245 million years ago, was unearthed by an international team of scientists in south-west China.


Inside the fossil was a much smaller fossil of the same species positioned in a way that suggested it was an embryo rather than the remains of prey, according to a paper published today in Nature Communications.

The marine reptile came from a group called the Archosauromorphs, which evolved 260 million years ago and includes modern-day birds and crocodiles, as well as extinct dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Read more.

Concrete products reabsorb nearly half CO2 released in cement manufacture

From ABC News in Science, 22 November 2016:

The production of cement is a major source of carbon dioxide, but new research suggests the material that makes up our concrete jungles also plays an important role in reabsorbing carbon emissions.


But as cement ages and weathers over time, it also absorbs carbon dioxide in a process called carbonation.

In a paper published today in Nature Geoscience, a team of researchers calculated that the carbonation process has offset as much as 43 per cent of the emissions associated with cement production, not including the emissions associated with fossil fuel use during cement production, over the past 70 years. Read more.


Bonobos suffer from failing eyesight as they get older

From ABC Science, 8 November 2016:

You may struggle to see your computer screen as you get older, but we are not the only primates to suffer from declining vision as we age.

The discovery, published today in the journal Current Biology, challenges the idea that we live longer after the end of our reproductive lives than other primates because we are physically more robust.

Long-sightedness, or presbyopia, is caused by the gradual hardening of the lens and weakening of the muscles around it, which makes it more difficult to focus on objects up close.

While studying a group of bonobos in Wamba, Congo, a team of researchers noticed the strange grooming behaviours of the older members of the troop.

The oldest male bonobo — Ten — had to stretch his arm out to groom another bonobo called Jeudi. Then, when he found something, he would come back in close to remove it with his mouth. Read more.

‘The heat is there’: is there a future for geothermal energy in Australia?

From the Guardian, 4 November 2016:

In July 2010, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena) took a $32m gamble on geothermal energy, investing in Australia’s first demonstration of geothermal electricity generation.

Six years later, the wells in South Australia’s Cooper Basin have been filled with concrete and abandoned, and the geothermal exploration company involved – Geodynamics Limited – has announced it is rebranding and pivoting to biogas, solar photovoltaic, battery storage and hybrid solutions.

Although geothermal energy is a mainstay of electricity generation in countries such as Iceland and El Salvador, the ancient, slumbering strata of Australia presents a more challenging landscape.

Since 2009 Arena has funded seven geothermal projects at a cost of more than $40m. Only one is still active.

In 2013 the agency established an international geothermal expert group to review Australia’s prospects for commercial geothermal energy generation. That group came to the conclusion that, despite more than $1bn worth of investment from the private sector and governments since the 1990s, the Australian geothermal energy sector faced significant technical hurdles, and the prospect of commercial viability before 2030 was slim. Read more.

Tracing bloodlines for the roots of an age-old friendship

From Nature Index, 17 July 2016:

Performing a medical procedure on a live animal isn’t for a faint hearted researcher. So when a village dog in rural India bit Ryan Boyko’s thumb, he figured it was a small price to pay (although he got a tetanus shot to be safe) for the opportunity to explore some of the big questions of dog lovers — when and where did that special relationship between dog and human begin?

To answer these questions, Boyko and an international team of collaborators, led by his brother Professor Adam Boyko from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, took on a project that would make most vets blanch: to collect blood from 549 village dogs across 38 countries.

The aim was to map the dogs’ genetic relationships and through that, trace the history of dog domestication. Boyko, the CEO of dog DNA testing company, Embark Veterinary Inc, wanted to know “what makes dogs dogs and to what extent does that help us understand what makes people people?” Read more.