What’s New in the World of Science?

By Leong Qi Tyng – Contributing Writer

A new year brings new scientific discoveries. In this article, I summarised a few of the recent discoveries made by researchers around the world. While researching for this topic, I was amazed and excited to find that some of the new studies were published just a week ago!

  1. Trump, the moth
Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

The poor moth was named after Donald Trump, all because it has golden flakes covering its tiny head. The Neopalpa donaldtrumpi was discovered by researcher Vazrick Nazari in California, and is native to southern California and the Mexican region of Baja California. Mr. Nazari hoped by naming the moth after Trump, the president would make the conservation of fragile ecosystems his top priority.

2. Aliens in Australia

Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

Heavy rains in central Australia caused a sudden boom of alien-like creatures; a type of crustacean known as the Shield Shrimp, described by the Telegraph as looking “more like an alien tadpole with double-pronged tail.” One of the species in Australia, the Triops australiensis, is commonly found in the middle of the continent. Its eggs will remain dormant for years until there is significant rain, which will trigger a population explosion, and the eggs can survive for years in the desert clay before hatching. Although not considered a true shrimp, it belongs to a crustacean group known as Branchiopods. This means that they have gill feet: leaf-like and lobed, each bearing a gill plate to enable them to breathe.

3. What happened to the woolly giants in St Paul Island?

Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

Researchers estimated that mammoths disappeared from North America’s mainland 10000 to 14000 years ago. However, the mammoths on St. Paul Island, Alaska, persisted for millennia after that. The mammoths survived even longer on Wrangel Island, deep in the Russian Arctic, the Wrangel mammoths were alive even as Egypt erected its great pyramids.

St. Paul wasn’t always an island: around 11000 years ago, climate change rose temperatures and made the sea level rise, turning the area into an island over the next 2000 years. This trapped the mammoths and the isolation protected the mammoths for a while.

So, what killed the mammoths? Thirst. The combination of the diminished size of the island, rising temperatures, and erosion caused by the mammoths themselves led to the fouling of their own water. According to Russell Graham, a paleontologist from Pennsylvania State University, elephants need 70 to 200 litres of fresh water every day – mammoths were no different.

4. Turf wars: fairy circles in Namibian desert not done by Tinkerbell

Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

Fairy circles are simply circular patches of barren land, often encircled by a ring of growth such as grass. Initially, there were two theories for the cause of fairy circles, the first being that the circles were created by termites; the second that the plants were competing for water. Corina Tarnita of Princeton University said the water competition theory could explain the regular patterns, but it had yet to be proven in any test. The termite theory, however, was backed up by observations of termite nests in the circles, but its presence still did not explain the regular patterns.

According to Tarnita and her colleague, Rob Pringle, termites forage in a circular area around their nest. A bigger termite colony would destroy a smaller one and take over the territory, but if two colonies were of a similar size the termites would establish a border. A computer model made by both researchers showed that the competition between termite colonies could lead to a regular honeycomb pattern, with each colony surrounded by six neighbouring colonies. This pattern could be seen in termite colonies in Arizona, Brazil, Kenya, Mozambique and Australia.

5. Zircons spill beans about the moon’s real age

Via Flickr
Via Flickr

Zircons, minerals from the moon brought back by the 1971 Apollo 14 mission, showed researchers from UCLA that the moon is 40 million to 140 million years older than scientists previously thought.

Mélanie Barboni, the study’s lead author and research geochemist in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences said it was time everyone knew the moon’s real age. This newest research, published in January 11 this year, would mean that the moon formed about 60 million years after the birth of the solar system.

It is usually difficult to determine the age of moon rocks, because most contain a mixture of fragments of multiple rocks, but Barboni was able to analyse eight zircons in pristine condition. To determine the age of the moon, she examined how the uranium contained has decayed to lead and how the lutetium it contained decayed to an element called hafnium.

6. Who stole from the Sagittarius dwarf?

Via CfA
Via CfA

The 11 farthest known stars in our galaxy are located about 300,000 light-years from Earth; way outside the Milky Way’s spiral disk. Recent research by Harvard astronomers showed that half of these stars might have been ripped from another galaxy: the Sagittarius dwarf. The Sagittarius dwarf is one of the dozens of mini-galaxies that surround the Milky Way, making several loops around our galaxy, and on each passage the Milky Way’s gravitational tides tugged on the smaller sized Sagittarius dwarf, ‘pulling it apart like taffy.’

The movements of the Sagittarius dwarf over the past eight billion years were simulated using computer models by Marion Dierickx of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and her PhD advisor, Harvard theorist Avi Loeb, in the video below.

7. Tabby’s Star is hungry

Via Wikipedia
Via Wikipedia

Tabby’s Star, KIC 8462852, startled scientists by quickly and erratically losing brightness. Observed over a period of 100 days, the Kepler telescope captured the star dimming dozens of times, once by 22 percent.

Some astronomers suggested that advanced alien life might be responsible for altering the star’s luminosity: in theory, a civilization more advanced than ours could have built a Dyson Sphere around KIC 8462852 to collect the star’s massive energy output.

Alas, a new study suggests that a planetary collision with Tabby’s Star was to blame. The star’s recent dimming episodes were allegedly due to the debris mass moving around the star and absorbing its light, making it appear significantly dimmer. Whatever the theory, Metzger believes that Tabby’s Star might not be so rare. The Kepler telescope, which found Tabby’s Star, only looked at 100,000 stars in a small section of the sky – if all the stars in the galaxy were observed, millions of other planet-consuming stars could be found.

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What’s New in the World of Science?