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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

  • The Path of Hurricane Florence
    Despite the threat of Hurricane Florence to the US Eastern Seaboard, and the recent succession of tropical cyclones around the world, this current Atlantic hurricane season looks like it’ll just be an average storm season, after a slow start. Dr. Jill Trepanier, a climate scientist at Louisiana State University, studies the processes that create and sustain hurricanes, and explains why Florence is taking its unusual track to the North and South Carolina coast. Earliest Drawing A 73,000-year old ochre drawing in a cross-hatch design has been discovered in Blombos Cave on the southern coast of South Africa. It is now the earliest known human drawing in history. It completes a suite of discoveries revealing early human culture from the same cave: paint and paintbrush, ochre crayons, engravings, and shell beads. The cross-hatch drawing, found on a flake from a grindstone, pushes drawing, as an indicator of modern human behaviour and cognition, nearly twice as early as previously known. Arctic Expedition Update from physicist Helen Czerski. She is part of a group of scientists on board the Oden, a Swedish icebreaker and scientific research vessel currently in the high Arctic. The international team of researchers have spent nearly a month anchored to Arctic sea ice near the North Pole. The mission is to study the interaction between sea, ice and atmosphere at the North Pole. Helen’s job is to study the bubbles forming between ocean and atmosphere to see whether cloud-seeding organic particles are crossing from sea to air. Making the Grasspea a Safer Staple Crop The legume – grasspea - is grown in India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. It’s a high protein crop which can withstand droughts and floods. So why don’t more countries grow it? If it’s eaten in too large quantities it can make you very sick. Researchers are now looking for varieties with lower levels of the poisonous compounds in a race to make the robust crop popular again. Picture: Satellite image of Hurricane Florence, Picture: Credit: NOAA/Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • The True Cost of the Brazil Museum Fire
    A fire has destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Most of the natural history and anthropological artefacts have been wrecked. What is the impact on on-going scientific research and what is the loss to science in the future? Silurian Signature The Silurian hypothesis speculates on the possibility of a prior, advanced, industrialized civilization on Earth. But if there were such a civilization millions of years ago, what evidence would they leave behind and how would we detect it? By figuring out the likely geological fingerprint we humans will leave during the Anthropocene, researchers think about how this could give clues to any Silurian signal in the geological record that we could have missed. Twitter Mining Can social media provide answers to ecological questions? Professor Adam Hart thinks so. He’s been testing the scientific robustness of data-mining of Twitter for tweets about winged-ant emergence, the first Autumn sightings of house spiders and the occurrence of vast dancing clouds of starlings, called murmurations. A New Era for the Kilogram The kilogram is being officially redefined – the plan is to no longer base it on reference masses in London and Paris but on a number. Under the suburbs of Paris, in a vault deep underground, lies one the most important physical objects in our world: the international prototype of the kilogram. This lump of metal has been used to define the mass of everything for 126 years. However, in November, scientists will vote on whether to relate the kilogram to a number instead: the Planck constant. Picture: Fire Blazes at National Museum of Brazil, Credit: Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Devastating Floods in Kerala
    Why is the monsoon experienced in Kerala in South West India so wet? The monsoon is a combined meteorological event, where several factors - altered low pressure systems in the Bay of Bengal, altered winds and a warmer ocean - interacted to deliver devastating rainfall. Is this extreme weather event a symptom of our changing climate? Human Triggers for Landslides Analysis of a global dataset on landslides has shown that the occurrence of landslides triggered by human activity is increasing. The dataset will continue to be built by scientists and members of the public over the next decades, allowing us to ask whether there is link between the occurrence of landslides and our changing climate. Epilepsy and drug delivery in the brain A new brain probe combines electrodes and a micro ion pump, giving it the capacity to detect neuronal activity and release a drug in response. This drug can alter charge balances in the neurones to prevent them from firing, stopping an epileptic seizure. This highly specific drug delivery system also has potential in the treatment of other neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and inoperable brain tumours. The device is in its first stages of application in mice, but results indicate it could revolutionise healthcare for those with otherwise intractable disorders. When brain cells are given narcotics What happens when brain cells in a petri dish are given methamphetamine? Picture: Marooned Buildings in the Kerala Flood. Credit Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty Images.

  • Fungal Threat to World’s Favourite Banana
    The Cavendish banana is the favourite variety for much of the world – it’s big and seedless, accounts for 47% of the global production market and nearly all global trade in bananas are Cavendish. But it’s under attack. It’s a vegetative clone (i.e. all genetically identical) and a fungus which kills it and a variety of other bananas is spreading across the world. Can genetics save it? Hominim Hybrids Denisovans are an extinct group of hominins that separated from Neanderthals more than 390,000 years ago. Scant remains of only a handful of individuals of these early people, were described in 2010, after they were found in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia (a cave that has also been inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans over thousands of years). We don’t know what the Denisovans looked like, or much about how they lived. But from the DNA extracted from the handful of bone fragments we know a lot about their ancestry. And now, genomic analysis of the bones of one of the individuals, shows that she was around 13 years old and her mother was a Neanderthal and her father was a Denisovan - proving interbreeding between these two hominin lineages. Volcanic Lightning and Charged Ash How could a volcanic eruption in Indonesia have contributed to the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo? Recent findings show that the ash from a large volcanic eruption can reach heights in the atmosphere twice as high as previously thought, because the negatively charged particles experience electrostatic repulsion. If the charged particles of volcanic dust propel themselves into the ionosphere - the ionised upper level of the atmosphere that is responsible for cloud formation - they can effectively ‘short-circuit’ this layer and prevent clouds forming. This effect can spread around the globe within 100 seconds. Once the ionosphere has recovered, clouds form and release the built up moisture as rain. So the large April 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora may well have caused the unseasonably wet weather that made the fields too muddy for Napoleon’s cavalry, half way across the world in Europe. Bats and Fireflies A new study shows that the flashing green lights of fireflies aren’t just for attracting a mate. Researchers discovered that this bioluminescence acts as a warning signal to bats of the firefly’s awful taste. The study also revealed that the fireflies have another way to tell the bats to stay away: a very relaxed flight path. Bats can use both the fireflies’ three-dimensional flight pattern and light flashes to learn and remember to stay away from the noxious species, but learn most quickly when both signals are available. This is the first time multi-sensory signalling has been shown in a natural predator-prey system. Furthermore, the results suggest that, in fireflies, bioluminescence for bats came before bioluminescence for lovers! Picture: Bananas, Credit: Bebenjy/Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Water on Mars
    Scientists say they have discovered evidence of a 12 mile long body of water on Mars. Estimated to be at least a metre deep, the “lake” was found beneath the red planet’s southern polar ice cap by the agency’s radar probe, known as Marsis. While orbiting the planet on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, Marsis used ground-penetrating radar to send signals deep into the surface - and there was only one possible conclusion from the data that was bounced back to it. The discovery hints that, with all the necessary ingredients present, there may be a possibility of finding life beneath Mars’s surface. The last of the wild oceans A study led by scientists from the University of Queensland has discovered that only 13% of the ocean worldwide has not been severely impacted by humans. The majority of these wilderness areas are not currently protected by law, and the researchers are highlighting an urgent need for action to protect what little remains. Using fluorine to detect dementia University College London chemists are finding new ways to track degenerative diseases in the brain. They’ve used a radioactive form of fluorine which binds to areas of the brain that are diseased to illuminate those areas during scans, allowing them to track exactly how the disease develops. The return of the red shift S2, a star orbiting around a black hole at the centre of our galaxy, has shown to physicists that Einstein’s theories continue to hold up after all this time. By observing how the star changes colour during its orbit, members of the Max Planck Institute for Extra-Terrestrial Physics have been able to examine how light bends under the gravitational pull of a supermassive object. Picture: Photo composite of Marsis in front of Mars. Credit: ESA/INAF. Graphic rendering by Davide Coero Borga - Media INAF Presenter: ROLAND PEASE Producer: ANIA LICHTAROWICZ