All posts by Tomas Martin

Writer and particle physics student from Bristol, England. My story 'A Shogun's Welcome' featured in Aberrant Dreams #7 and 'The Shogun and The Scientist' will be published in the anthology 'The Awakening' in January 2008. I review at SFCrowsnest and wrote the fictional blog miawithoutoil for the world without oil project.

Evolution observed in laboratory bacteria

Image of E Coli in the labFor the first time, a major evolutionary change has been observed in laboratory conditions, giving even greater weighting to evolutionary theory. The bacteria used, a strain of E. Coli, was first introduced into the Michigan State University lab twenty years ago by evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski. Some 44,000 generations later, the bacteria are still reproducing.

Somewhere around the 31,500th generation, the E. Coli developed a trait not present in the original strain: they began to be able to metabolise citrate, the inability of which is one of the main ways scientists distinguish E. Coli from other bacteria. Importantly, the paper says that evolution occurs as a sum of the previous steps of mutation and that as this history varies between groups of creatures, evolution is a random and unpredictable act.

“It’s the most profound change we have seen during the experiment. This was clearly something quite different for them, and it’s outside what was normally considered the bounds of E. coli as a species, which makes it especially interesting,” says Lenski.

One of the main criticisms of evolutionary theory has been that it is a theory that hasn’t been observed in the real world. Creationists are going to have a hard time explaining this result away, one suspects.

[via Daily Kos, image by scaliber001]

Shooting the moon

An artist's impression of MoonliteSpace scientists have come up with a novel way of studying the moon (and possibly later other satellites like Europa). Scientist Sir Martin Sweeting’s Moonlite experiment plans to launch a satellite to orbit the moon. Once in orbit, the satellite would fire four dart-like missiles at the moon’s surface, penetrating three or four metres to study the composition beneath the ground.

Planned for a launch in 2013, the project has had recent tests of the high powered darts in South Wales prove very successful. The subterranean probes are hoped to provide details on the heat flow, seismic activity and water components of our closest astronomical friend.

Meanwhile, the most recent astronomical mission is having problems with its own studies of extraterrestrial soil. The Phoenix lander is struggling to sift the clumpy Martian soil to small enough pieces to study in its compact detectors. The robotic lander is resorting to shaking and sprinkling soil samples with its robotic arm to get material small enough to study.

[picture by SSTL and story via BBC]

16 year old’s science project finds microbe that digests plastic bags

Plastic is a major environmental hazard

Plastic, and in particular plastic grocery bags, are a big environmental problem because of the huge time taken to degrade in the environment. A collection of plastic the size of a large country is currently floating in the gyres of the Pacific Ocean. Some plastic waste takes 1000 years to be broken down by nature.

Daniel Hurd, a 16 year old high school student from Canada, did a science project on microbes and isolated the bacteria that digests the plastic found in grocery bags and other packaging. By concentrating the solution, he found he was able to break down the plastic by up to 40% in just a week. In addition to winning plenty of local and national prizes, Daniel plans to develop his discovery to help get rid of the nasty disposable plastics problem… and ferment some freaky plastic beer in the process!

[via Daily Kos, picture by Phil Dowsing]

The little house that could

The house's heating water tank

Built for just £210,000, Michael and Dorothy Rea’s house on Britain’s northernmost inhabited island is amongst the most efficient in the world. Boosted by the strong winds surrounding the island of Unst, the house has its heating and power, plus an electric car and substantial greenhouse, entirely powered by renewable sources.

The house reminds me a little of the building in Susan Palwick’s ‘Shelter’ with its smart uses of technology. The house takes heat from the air around it and stores it in a water ‘battery’ to heat the home. The greenhouse uses hydroponics and LED lighting to simulate growing seasons, allowing hothouse plants like lemons and peppers to thrive. Is this a sign of how we will live in the future?

[story via the Guardian, Image from the Rea’s website]

Memristors – The new component of electronics

A new component of electronics, first proposed in 1971, has been built by researchers at Hewlett Packard. Memristors join the three existing main components of a circuit – capacitors, resistors and inductors. The main feature of a memristor is its ability to ‘remember’ what charge it had when power runs through it.

Today, most PCs use dynamic random access memory (DRAM) which loses data when the power is turned off. But a computer built with memristors could allow PCs that start up instantly, laptops that retain sessions after the battery dies, or mobile phones that can last for weeks without needing a charge. “If you turn on your computer it will come up instantly where it was when you turned it off,” Professor Williams told Reuters.

In addition the memristor is very small and once fully commercialised could allow computer chips far smaller than those today, giving good old Moore’s Law another reprieve as conventional methods to keep it going begin to run out of steam.

[via BBC]