Category: Top Posts

Why Nuclear Fusion Is Always 30 Years Away

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 23, 2016 11:50 am
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The Joint European Torus tokamak generator, as seen from the inside. (Credit: EUROfusion)

Nuclear fusion has long been considered the “holy grail” of energy research. It represents a nearly limitless source of energy that is clean, safe and self-sustaining. Ever since its existence was first theorized in the 1920s by English physicist Arthur Eddington, nuclear fusion has captured the imaginations of scientists and science-fiction writers alike.

Fusion, at its core, is a simple concept. Take two hydrogen isotopes and smash them together with overwhelming force. The two atoms overcome their natural repulsion and fuse, yielding a reaction that produces an enormous amount of energy.

But a big payoff requires an equally large investment, and for decades we have wrestled with the problem of energizing and holding on to the hydrogen fuel as it reaches temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Fahrenheit. To date, the most successful fusion experiments have succeeded in heating plasma to over 900 million degrees Fahrenheit, and held onto a plasma for three and a half minutes, although not at the same time, and with different reactors.

The most recent advancements have come from Germany, where the Wendelstein 7-X reactor recently came online with a successful test run reaching almost 180 million degrees, and China, where the EAST reactor sustained a fusion plasma for 102 seconds, although at lower temperatures.

Still, even with these steps forward, researchers have said for decades that we’re still 30 years away from a working fusion reactor. Even as scientists take steps toward their holy grail, it becomes ever more clear that we don’t even yet know what we don’t know. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: energy

Archaeologists Race Against Climate Change to Save Cultural Treasures

By Hannah Hoag | March 22, 2016 1:40 pm
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The remains of a 500-year-old Inuvialuit village are sliding into the ocean as the coast gives way. Archaeologists are moving quickly to excavate the most impressive of the semi-subterranean dwellings to understand the people who lived there. (Credit: Max Friesen)

(This post originally appeared in the brand new, online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

On a bright and buggy day in July 2014, Max Friesen, whiskered and encased in denim and Gore-Tex, inched across a stretch of tundra overlooking the East Channel of the Mackenzie River, where it unravels into the Arctic Ocean. The archaeologist pushed his way through a tangle of willow brush that grew thick atop the frozen soil sloping towards the ocean.

Friesen was searching for signs of a long-buried house, feeling for the berms and sharply defined depressions in the ground that pointed to subterranean walls and rooms. The work was difficult and stressful. Shrubs obscured the ground. Friesen had to trust that what he felt beneath his boots was in fact the structure of a large home hundreds of years old.

“I was under horrible pressure,” says Friesen from his office at the University of Toronto a year later. “I had this crew of 10 that I wanted to get digging. But if you make a mistake, you’ve devoted 10 people’s labor for weeks at incredibly high costs to get the project going, and if you came down on a crappy house it would be really terrible.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

The Man Who Fought a Bull With Mind Control

By Jack El-Hai | March 21, 2016 11:42 am
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Jose M.R. Delgado steps into a Spanish bullring as a bold demonstration of his research. (Credit: Yale University News Bureau)

The investigator, dressed incongruously in sweater and tie and holding a small metal box, stands in a bullring. He taunts a bull with a gesture of his hand. Suddenly the bull faces him and charges. Taking a couple of steps back, the investigator presses a button on the box to send a radio signal, and the bull halts in mid-stride. It turns away. The animal’s natural aggression has evaporated.

This risky behavior-control demonstration, conducted in Spain in 1963, was the signature experiment of José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado, a physiologist and scientific showman who explored the varied responses of the brain to electrical stimulation.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, Delgado grew notorious for using electricity to elicit rage, anxiety, pleasure, drowsiness, and involuntary movements in his animal and human subjects. Critics complained that he was paving the way for mind control; Delgado countered that changing the functioning of brains through electrical stimulation was not necessarily a bad thing. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Driving: We’re Doing It Wrong

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(Credit: Artesia Wells / Shutterstock)

If you use a car to get around, every time you get behind the wheel you’re confronted with a choice: how will you navigate to your destination? Whether it’s a trip you take every day, such as from home to work, or to someplace you haven’t been before, you need to decide on a route.

Transportation research has traditionally assumed that drivers are very rational and choose the optimal route that minimizes travel time. Traffic prediction models are based on this seemingly reasonable assumption. Planners use these models in their efforts to keep traffic flowing freely – when they evaluate a change to a road network, for instance, or the impact of a new carpool lane. In order for traffic models to be reliable, they must do a good job reproducing user behavior. But there’s little empirical support for the assumption at their core – that drivers will pick the optimal route. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: transportation

Mercury Keeps Getting Weirder

By David Rothery, The Open University | March 11, 2016 11:58 am
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An image of Mercury via the MESSENGER spacecraft. This false-color image is enhanced to show the chemical, mineralogical and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

For such a tiny planet, Mercury is a pretty big puzzle for researchers. NASA’s MESSENGER probe already has revealed that the planet is surprisingly rich in elements that easily evaporate from the surface, such as sulphur, chlorine, sodium and potassium. This is incredibly odd as these kind of substances most likely would disappear during a hot or violent birth – exactly the type of birth a planet so close to the sun, such as Mercury, would have had.

Scientists are also struggling to understand why Mercury is so dark and what its earliest planetary crust, created as the newly-formed planet cooled down, was made of. Research has now started to throw up answers – but these are raising a lot of new questions. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

Saving Black Rhinos Through ‘Radical Conservation’

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 9, 2016 12:15 pm
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An endangered black rhinoceros on the African savannah. (Credit: PicturesWild/Shutterstock)

Today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the black rhinoceros as “critically endangered.” In the early 20th century, nearly 1 million black rhinos roamed the planet, but their numbers dipped below 3,000 by the late 1990s. Rhino horns can fetch up to $30,000 a pound, and rampant poaching is largely to blame for black rhinos’ rapid decline.

In recent years, the International Rhino Foundation has worked to restore the black rhino population by tracking, monitoring, rehabilitating and sometimes even relocating the animals.

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Ed Warner.

However, tracking and caring for rhinos is a dangerous task. The black rhino is a notoriously aggressive creature that charges at the slightest provocation, moving at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour while brandishing its impressive horn.

Ed Warner, a former geologist and natural gas executive, retired from his field in 2000 to begin a second career as a philanthropic conservationist. He sits on the board of the Sand County Foundation, which works in the American west, and established an endowment at Colorado State University. He credits a lifelong love of nature for his charitable work, as well as a constant yearning to be out in the field. It was this passion for tangible work that drew him to Africa and the International Rhino Foundation, where he has spent over a decade working on the ground with rhino conservationists. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

Going Green With Blue Roofs

By Sophie Krause | March 8, 2016 9:51 am
A green roof on San Francisco's Bernal Hill. Photo courtesy of Ike Edeani.

A green roof on San Francisco’s Bernal Hill. (Credit: Courtesy of Ike Edeani)

(This post originally appeared in the online science magazine Hawkmoth. Follow @HawkmothMag to discover more of their work.) 

There are good reasons to think green when it comes to urban rooftops: planting gardens called “green roofs” atop skyscrapers benefits cities environmentally, economically, aesthetically, educationally, and psychologically.

But what about thinking blue?

Although newer and lesser known than green roofs, blue roofs are another nature-mimicking tool to improve our cities. More specifically, blue roofs help our urban watersheds by rethinking rainfall. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

5 Retro Space Missions That Failed to Launch

By Shannon Stirone | March 7, 2016 1:12 pm
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Frank Tinsley’s vision for what it would take to rope in a satellite in space. (Credit: American Bosch Arma/Frank Tinsley)

The space race officially started in 1957 when the USSR launched Sputnik 1 into orbit around the Earth. This demonstration of technological prowess during the Cold War spurred US leaders in 1958 to transform the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics into the agency we’re all familiar with: NASA. The newly minted agency needed to work quickly to reclaim the nation’s technological supremacy. NASA’s budget was increased to hire of the best scientists and engineers that money could buy. But NASA wasn’t the only red-white-and-blue pony running in the space race.

Private companies in the Land of Liberty were motivated to research, design and sell their cutting-edge technology to NASA for its future space missions. The private sector had big, bold plans to turn the US into a space-faring nation — perhaps too big. To market their ambitions, companies often turned to famed 1950s science fiction illustrator Frank Tinsley to visualize their concepts.

Some of these exciting ideas came to fruition — in a scaled-down form. However, most were left to live and die in the magazine pages where they were printed to build buzz. The concepts for many of these missions were certainly out of this world. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing they also failed to ever do. Here’s a look at some of the more notable missions that failed to launch. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Are Hatcheries Helping, or Hurting, Wild Fish Populations?

By Matthew Berger | March 3, 2016 12:52 pm
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A spawning steelhead trout works its way up the Lewis River at Lucia Falls near Vancouver, WA. (Credit: Greg Shields/Flickr)

The Columbia River basin, stretching from Idaho down through Washington and Oregon, is dotted with more than 200 hatcheries in which salmon and steelhead trout are raised before being released to supplement wild populations.

Those wild fish have struggled on their own, due to fishing, dams that block migration routes and other human-related pressures. Hatcheries can help stabilize populations, allowing fishing operations to continue, but only if they produce fish whose offspring can thrive in the wild.

Michael Blouin, a biology professor at Oregon State University, has long known that fish raised in the concrete troughs of a hatchery are different than wild fish. Blouin and his fellow researchers discovered this back in 2011. Their 19-year examination of steelhead trout — an anadromous fish in the same genus as Pacific salmon — found that steelhead raised in captivity were adapting to the evolutionary pressures of the hatcheries within a single generation. The steelhead that best adapted to hatcheries did worst, in terms of reproductive success, once they were released into the wild. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Are Stone-Throwing Chimps Performing ‘Sacred’ Rituals?

By Laura Kehoe, Humboldt University of Berlin | March 2, 2016 11:54 am

Stone throwing – in action and on site. Top line: Adult male tossing, hurling and banging a stone. Bottom line: Stones accumulated in a hollow tree; typical stone throwing site; and stones in between large roots. (Credit: Kühl et al [2016]).

I trampled clumsily through the dense undergrowth, attempting in vain to go a full five minutes without getting snarled in the thorns that threatened my every move. It was my first field mission in the savannahs of the Republic of Guinea. The aim was to record and understand a group of wild chimpanzees who had never been studied before. These chimps are not lucky enough to enjoy the comforts of a protected area, but instead carve out their existence in the patches of forests between farms and villages.

We paused at a clearing in the bush. I let out a sigh of relief that no thorns appeared to be within reach, but why had we stopped? I made my way to the front of the group to ask the chief of the village and our legendary guide, Mamadou Alioh Bah. He told me he had found something interesting – some innocuous markings on a tree trunk. Something that most of us wouldn’t have even noticed in the complex and messy environment of a savannah had stopped him in his tracks. Some in our group of six suggested that wild pigs had made these marks, while scratching up against the tree trunk, others suggested it was teenagers messing around.

But Alioh had a hunch – and when a man that can find a single fallen chimp hair on the forest floor and can spot chimps kilometers away with his naked eye better than you can (with expensive binoculars) as a hunch, you listen to that hunch. We set up a camera trap in the hope that whatever made these marks would come back and do it again, but this time we would catch it all on film. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals
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