Vol. 1 / No. 23 — Breaking the Second Law, Clever Corvids, and an Explanation for the Great Dying

Breaking the Second Law

In a story reminiscent of last year’s discovery that (in very specific circumstances) absolute zero might not be so absolute, this week scientists reported that the second law of thermodynamics is (in  very specific circumstances) not so much a law as a strongly-worded guideline. An international team has discovered that in nanoscale objects, when trapped with laser light, entropy sometimes spontaneously decreases. It’s easy to forget, when discoveries like the gravity wave traces in the cosmic microwave background lead to the possibility of a quantum theory of gravity, how much difficulty we still have in connecting our observations of the very small parts of the universe with those of the very big ones. Perhaps this will help, too.

Clever Corvids

Crows are smart. Really smart. They have a language, use tools, and have a memory for human faces. And now new research has shown that they understand displacement. In a recent study from scientists at the Universities of Auckland, NZ and Cambridge, UK, crows have been shown to understand the causal relationship between dropping an object into water and raising the water level. In the video below, you can watch crows dropping objects into vials (the more full ones first) to bring a floating piece of food close enough to get it with their beaks. Something tells me that if we weren’t around, the crows and the raccoons would be fighting it out for who would inherit our cities.

The Great Dying

The Permian-Triassic extinction event is one of the worst ecological disasters to have occurred on the planet Earth. About 252 million years ago nearly all life on Earth was wiped out: up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates, not to mention more than 50% of all insect families went extinct. It’s no wonder it’s called “The Great Dying.” It was so bad it took nearly ten million years for the Earth to recover. A number of explanations have been put forward, and indeed it may have had to be a combination of disasters to have such a large effect — everything from supervolcanoes to a runaway greenhouse effect have been supposed, and now there’s a new piece of the puzzle: a small genetic leap that made a big difference. The seas up to that point had filled, age after age, with layers of organic sediments, a huge resource that couldn’t be digested until the single-celled life that lived down there learned how to process acetate, something in the sediments that had been locking away that food. New research has now tied the formation of that ability to the time of the Permian Extinction, suggesting that the sudden proliferation of microfauna capable of digesting these sediments caused a massive surge in the amount of methane in the atmosphere. This in turn would have caused a sudden spike in global temperatures (some estimates are as high as 8°C), acidification of the seas, and a changed chemical composition of the air. While the link between such an increase and the extinction event is not yet fully explained, it seems possible that the Great Dying was spurred on by a “Great Living” first.

A Bit of Pretty

Vik Muniz and Marcelo Coelho via PopSci
Photo Credit: Vik Muniz and Marcelo Coelho via PopSci

On a brief note, PopSci has an interesting collection of fascinating science images up this week, most notably this one, by artist Vik Muniz and artist/researcher Marcel Coehlo, of a castle engraved into a single grain of sand. Here’s a link to the artists’ website, and a video about the project below.

Launches Resume

Following this week’s successful launch of the USAF’s F-19 Meterological Satellite aboard an Atlas V from Vandenberg Thursday, the postponed launches from last week and the week before have been rescheduled. The NROL-67 Atlas V launch is now scheduled for April 10, and the SpaceX CRS-3 ISS resupply mission (with the first-stage return leg test!) is set for April 14. Fingers crossed, folks.

Carbs and Genes

In a new study out of Imperial College London, a correlative link (though not necessarily a causal one) has been found between a gene that helps us digest carbohydrates and obesity. The study found that people with more copies of the gene AMY1 — and who therefore produce more of the salivary enzyme amylaze which helps break down carbs into sugars — were less likely to be obese than those with fewer. Why this should be the case remains entirely unclear, so for the moment just eat a healthy balanced diet and get plenty of fluids.

Climate Deniers Intimidate Instead of Arguing

Finally, in another piece of evidence that there’s no science behind climate change denialism, a journal has recently been forced to withdraw an otherwise accurate piece of science writing because of charges of libel (and the expense to fight the charge). The study, which linked climate change denialism with belief in other conspiracy theories, was to be published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in February of 2013, but had to be withdrawn after the threats were made. The good news is that since then new legal protections have come into effect, but even so it sends a chill down the spine to think science could still be silenced this way. Scientific American has the complete story, and it’s worth a read.

That’s all for this issue. Have a great week.