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BBC World Service - Science in Action

Science in Action

The BBC brings you all the week's science news.

Science in Action

  • Oil Spill in East China Sea
    At the time of reporting, Sanchi, the oil tanker which collided with a cargo ship off the coast of China on Saturday, is still burning. The tanker contained about a million barrels of ‘condensate’ – a very light crude oil. Initial concerns are, of course, for the 32 crew unaccounted for, but longer term environmental damage from this toxic fuel could be serious, especially if the ship breaks up. Gut Gas Detecting Electronic Capsules Gases produced in the digestive tract (from mouth to anus) can tell us a lot about the activity of essential and harmful bacteria in the gut and consequently about our health. Ingestible sensors (capsules that you swallow), which then detect gases throughout the alimentary tract, are now being trailed in humans as a powerful tool for monitoring human health. Chimp-Facial Portraits A new citizen science project is being launched at the end of the month exploring relatedness in chimpanzees. In humans it seems like there is a (fairly robust) trend towards looking like your father early in life, perhaps because being recognised is important and there is little doubt about who the mother is. When it comes to chimps it is even more interesting because fathers commit a lot of infanticide- great to look like your Dad if he's a big alpha male, but you are essentially broadcasting to all the other males that you are not theirs! The Rise of The Flowering Plant Darwin had an ‘abominable mystery’ – he couldn’t work out why flowering plants, after they evolved in the Cretaceous, suddenly became so varied and widespread. This went against his ideas that evolution happened slowly. It turns out that flowering plants (angiosperms) evolved very early to shed unnecessary genes and therefore reduce their genomes and cell size, which meant they could pack a lot more functionality into their leaves and out-compete their non-flowering neighbours. (Photo: The burning oil tanker Sanchi at sea off the coast of eastern China, Credit: Transport Ministry of China/AFP) Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • The Galaxy's Most Peculiar Flickering Star
    KIC 8462852 is otherwise an average star, about a 1,000 light years away in the constellation Cygnus. It is about 50 percent bigger and 1,000 degrees hotter than the Sun, which is not particularly peculiar. What is very peculiar is that it flickers and dims in a way that has never been observed in any star so far. This led to some intense debate amongst the astrophysics community, and the press, including the possibility that the dimming was being caused by some sort of alien megastructure – A ‘Dyson Sphere’, set up to harness the power of the star. New work sheds some light of this very strange star (spoiler alert, it’s never aliens!) Red Spot of Jupiter The red spot visible on the surface of Jupiter is a giant storm that’s lasted over 150 years, to our knowledge. Now new results from NASA’s Juno mission shows that the storm extends deep inside the planet and is shrinking and dying out. Blue Zones Villagrande in Sardinia is a “Blue Zone”. A Blue Zone is a ‘longevity hotspot’. A region with a much higher proportion than average of people over 100. Sardinia is not the only place where larger percentage of people get to celebrate their 100th birthday. Also Greece, Japan and Costa Rica, all have Blue Zones. Now you would expect such zones to be a perfect opportunity for scientists to try and find out the secret to a long life. But how easy would it be? Plant Nanobionics Plants may not be the obvious starting point for new technology, but in fact they offer many advantages that our electronics do not. A team from MIT have created a glowing plant using nanoparticles that can enter previously impenetrable parts of the plant cell. Their work is part of a new field called plant nanobionics and is paving the way for plants that can light up highways. Picture: Tabby's Star (Illustration), Credit: NASA Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • The Best Science of 2017
    Detecting a ‘Bling Nova’ In the short window of time between the VIRGO gravitational wave detector being switched on, in Pisa in Italy, and the LIGO detector, in the US, being switched off for an upgrade, the teams detected the signal they had hoped for, but dared not expect. A space-altering gravity ripple, followed by a gamma ray burst signal and when the world’s telescopes turned to the Hydra constellation they also saw an optical flash. These signals were from two neutron stars, having danced a death spiral and crashed into one another 130 million years ago. It’s been nicknamed a ‘Bling Nova’, because this massively energetic reaction, is where lots of the gold, platinum and heavy metals in the Universe come from. Unexpected Exoplanet Atmosphere A good way of finding out about how our solar system formed is to look at other star systems and their planets. From the exoplanets so far examined in detail, a general correlation has emerged between the amount of elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, in the atmosphere, and the mass of the planet. It’s complicated, but this gives us clues to the size and composition of the planet as well as how and when it formed. But new observations of planet HAT-P-26b, 437 light years away, do not fit this trend. So what’s going on? Measuring Rainfall in the ‘Green Sahara’ 5-11,000 years ago, the Sahara in Africa was green with plant life. Wobbles in the Earth’s rotation about its axis meant that the monsoon covered what is now a vast desert. We know this from ancient lake sediments and archaeological finds. But new work looking at deposits of ancient leaf wax buried in sediment under the ocean is giving clues as to how much rain fell, turning the desert into an oasis. Britain’s geological exit from Europe 450 thousand years ago Britain was in the grip of an ice age, it has long been thought that Britain’s separation from Europe resulted from spill over from a lake formed in front of the ice sheet but until now it has not been proved. New research shows that this is correct, 450 thousand years ago Britain geologically separated from Europe in two stages – a spill-over from a giant lake, followed by catastrophic flooding. Ancient Microbes in Crystal Cave Penny Boston was one of a group of scientists granted access to some scientifically special crystal caves. The researchers have extracted long-dormant microbes from inside the famous giant crystals of the Naica mountain caves in Mexico - and revived them. The organisms were likely to have been encased in the striking shafts of gypsum at least 10,000 years ago, and possibly up to 50,000 years ago. Critical Gene for Embryo Formation In the first few days after conception, the fertilised egg subdivides first into two cells, then four and so on. It eventually becomes a hollowed out ball made up of about 200 cells called a blastocyst. The gene for a protein called OCT4 appears to be critical in deciding how that embryonic foundation gets established. Synthetic Embryogenesis Two thirds of pregnancies fail in the first few days after fertilization. Researchers wanting to study and understand human embryo development, at these early stages, have so far struggled to get embryonic stem cells to develop into embryos in the laboratory. But now they have partnered the stem cells that develop into the embryo, with stem cells that develop into extra-embryo structures, like the placenta and yolk sac. When they add a synthetic scaffold for the cells, they manage to get the embryo to develop in what looks like a normal way. Picture: Exoplanets, Credit: PHL@UPR Arecibo (phl.upr.edu) ESA/Hubble, NASA Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Early Warning for Landslides
    A new research collaboration has been launched to look at ways to get early warning of landslides in the mountainous regions of south west India. The hill country of the Western Ghats suffer regular and deadly landslides, partly because they encounter a double monsoon season each year. An early warning system that factors in weather, topography and the geology of the region is being developed. Palaeontologists suing Trump President Donald Trump has moved to downsize two US national monuments in Utah. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is against lifting this protective status as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase –Escalante include some of the most important sites in the world for vertebrate fossils before and after the mass extinction that wiped out dinosaurs. 3D Printed Kidney By printing bio-ink on silicone scaffolding, a team at Harvard in the US can print the intricate components of an artificial kidney which can filter blood and produce urine. The work is still at the early stages, and an entire 3D printed kidney is still a way off. Applications and potential for clinical medicine could be a new kind of dialysis for people with kidney failure, as well as being able to safely test whether new drugs damage the kidney. Mosquito identification Different species of mosquito carry different diseases, and some are entirely harmless and provide useful ecological functions such as pollination. So it’s useful to know what species are around in order to take the right preventative measures for avoiding diseases such as Zika, Denge and Malaria. Luckily each species of mosquito makes a unique sound with their beating wings as they fly. A new app is being developed to identify the buzz and give users a heads up on the creature they’re dealing with. Picture: Landslide in India, Credit: Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • The Biggest Explosions in the Universe
    An international team of scientists have captured the biggest explosions in the Universe in unprecedented detail for the first time. These Gamma Ray Bursts sometimes last for just a few milliseconds, but for that time are trillions of times brighter than our Sun. The chance of capturing one of these rare bursts, which occur just as a dying star collapses into a black hole, is just an incredible one-in-10,000. Sight and Sound Despite the intuitive feeling that we can listen to something whilst looking elsewhere, our visual and auditory perceptions are - from the earliest points - processed together in the brain. Sight and sound work together to build up a picture of the world around us, and when the two senses aren’t aligned our brains have to work much harder to filter out distractions. Although this relationship is largely unexplored, it could tell us more about how to aid those with hearing impairments and even what effect technology, such as smartphones, might be having on our ability to concentrate. Old animals We humans like to think we live long lives, some of us are lucky enough to make it into triple digits. But we can’t compare to the humble tubeworm, casually hanging around on the ocean floor and researchers have discovered that they can live up to 300 years old! Iceland’s Molten Rock Origins Iceland’s volcanoes are one of the country’s most famous geological features. The island sits on a volcano hot spot and straddles two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and North American plates, otherwise known as the North Atlantic Ridge - making it highly volcanically active. New research into the Volcano Hot Spot under Iceland has revealed something unusual. New measurements of the Mantle region within Earth, appears to be feeding material in the form of a plume to the surface, where Iceland is located. Picture: Star being destroyed, Credit: Nasa Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Jack Meegan