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Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

8. Quantum Physics Is a Type of Science That Just Got Weirder.

Albert Einstein said God doesn’t play dice. He meant that quantum physics breaks so many of the agreed-upon laws of physics that it is oftentimes not understandable. For this reason, scientists had to create an entirely new field. Quantum physics describes the laws that govern the quantum realm of the very small. A significant factor in quantum physics is the fine-structure constant. It is equal to about 1/137. And it is necessary for many of the chemical reactions that form the very basis of life itself. Scientists are pretty confused by this number. And then quantum physics got even weirder with the introduction of something called quantum spin ice. Quantum spin ice is not one thing in particular but rather a group of substances in which subatomic particles cannot agree on where the magnetic poles are.

The particles end up spinning in crazy directions. Even at a temperature of absolute zero, which is when supposedly all subatomic movement comes to a stop. The fine-structure constant actually has a different value in quantum spin ice. It is about 1/10 instead of 1/137. If this held this value throughout the entire universe, there would only be ten elements. We wouldn’t exist. What’s even weirder is that scientists don’t actually have any kind of substance that would actually qualify as quantum spin ice. There are candidates and the hope is that they will peg down a true quantum spin ice. If they do, they could play around with the fine-structure constant. Furthermore, they could see how matter behaves when this number changes slightly. Maybe there are other universes out there that have a different fine-structure constant and function entirely differently from our own.

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

7. Scientists Are Swirling Up Beams Of Atoms And Molecules.

Scientists, especially quantum physicists, really like to push the envelope and see how far they can go with new and crazy ideas. One of those ideas was spinning electrons and light particles, known as photons, into a vortex so that they could take better pictures on high-intensity microscopes. Electrons and photons are tiny, so small that they can only be seen under incredibly powerful microscopes. Doing crazy stuff with really small stuff is often easier than with much larger stuff, kind of like trying to throw a baseball as opposed to a giant bowling ball up in the air. The smaller one is easier. 

But why not push the envelope and try to create a vortex beam out of atoms and even larger molecules, which are combinations of multiple atoms? A team of scientists successfully created a vortex beam out of atoms and molecules, and they did so before they had any idea of what kind of practical use their findings might have. Often, science advances by simply scratching a curiosity itch without thinking about whether the end result will prove useful. Yet something significant is that by turning atoms and molecules into a vortex beam, they can cause them to behave differently. These findings could have profound implications for future studies of the quantum world and how the universe itself behaves.

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

6. This In Science News: Micro Fliers Take Their Inspiration From Maple Seeds.

Have you ever been around maple trees? You may know that they disperse their seeds in a pretty disingenuous way. Instead of letting the seeds drop to the ground or may travel a small distance in a pine cone, maple trees strap their seeds into little propeller-like wings so that they can fly far and wide before settling down and growing into a new tree. Nature is very efficient, and some of our best inspirations come directly from how nature performs its jobs. John Rogers is a scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, near the city of Chicago. He looked to the maple seed when designing a kind of micro flier.

These micro fliers are tiny, about the size of a grain of sand, yet can collect large amounts of data about the environment because they have sensors inside of them. They can track everything from radiation to pH levels to the presence of heavy metals to the detection of chemical spills. This information is critical to track things as important as air and water quality. Because they have propellers similar to maple seeds, they can travel far and wide with little effort from scientists. In the future, the hope is that these micro fliers can be made biodegradable so that they will have no negative impact on the environment. 

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

5. Sustainable Farms Could Run On Cold Plasma.

Agriculture is incredibly destructive for our planet. Virgin forests are constantly destroyed. This causes animals to lose their habitats. Also, potentially life-saving plants get killed to make room for more farmland. Pesticides and fertilizer devastate local ecosystems before draining off into rivers and lakes, wreaking havoc on marine life. Additionally, the carbon footprint of agriculture is astronomical. One promising avenue towards making agriculture more sustainable is through the use of something called cold plasma. Plasma is a super-energized gas. It is one of the most basic forms in which matter can exist, alongside liquids, solids, and gases. The sun and other stars are mostly plasma, as is lightning on earth. One of plasma’s properties is that it can kill many of the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that farmers often use pesticides for. Experiments have been underway to detect whether cold plasma could help agriculture become more sustainable.

Cold plasma is made by humans. The data is promising and shows everything from larger plants to fewer pathogens and pests. Plasma certainly does seem to be superior to current methods of pesticide use, and it also provides many of the benefits seen by high-quality fertilizers. In fact, one minute of exposure to plasma caused beans to sprout one full centimeter! The challenge is making its production and use by farmers more within reach so that the positive benefits of plasma-based agriculture can be experienced. However, for measure, artificial cold plasma is surprisingly within reach. Many novelty lamps that can be purchased for less than $50 use plasma to generate an effect in which lightning appears to strike the person’s finger.

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

4. Some Cows Are Now Getting Potty-Trained, Thanks to Science.

Dealing with dog poop can be a hassle if you have a furry friend at home. However, imagine if your dog was the size of a cow and pooped out several pounds every day. Combine that with tens of liters of pee. Yes, you have a big mess. Moreover, the mess is not only for the farmers because cow pee travels to rivers and streams. It can cause significant damage to marine ecosystems. Additionally, when the urine and feces mix in the giant cattle barns, the result is a toxic slurry. It includes the release of ammonia, a powerful greenhouse gas. We urgently need to deal with this problem!

So why not potty train the cows? How do you potty train a cow? Not all that different from how you potty train a dog or even a toddler. You provide a treat every time they potty in the right place. Scientists in Germany have been doing exactly that by creating “bathroom stalls,” which they termed “Moo Loos,” with artificial grass and training the cows to pee in there. They successfully potty-trained over 12 cows in 10 days. Eventually, they hope to collect the pee (I know, gross) and use it to make fertilizer. We will all be interested to see what they decide to do with cow poop.

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

3. Climate Change Is Harming Rice Production.

There is a good chance that you had rice this week, or if not, something that was made from rice. Half of the world’s population gets at least 20 percent of its calories from rice, and many others eat the grain regularly. Demand for rice is increasing, yet a climate that is changing because of burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests is putting the future of rice farmers in jeopardy. Much of the rice in America is grown in California, which has been experiencing a severe drought. So much so that farmers have had to scale back their rice production. Why? Because they do not have enough water to grow the crops.

The situation is even more dire in other countries, which are much more dependent on rice both as an export and as a food that the people rely on. Much of the world’s rice is grown in paddies, which are farms that have about 10 centimeters of water. Any change in this amount, either from a flash flood or from a drought, can be a disaster for that year’s crop, and climate change is causing both floods and droughts to be more common. Additionally, saltwater from rising sea levels has been creeping into paddies, and the saltwater is toxic to the rice. There is increasing urgency to act to address and reverse climate change.

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

2. To Start, Only A Few People Will Receive Covid Booster Shots.

Do you remember when the vaccine was first available to the public? People were clamoring to sign up for their ticket back to normalcy. Since then, concerns have been raised that the vaccine’s efficacy wanes over time. With new and increasingly virulent strains of covid — such as Delta — there have been calls for booster shots. Not everyone will be able to get a booster shot at first; the shots will be made available to those in high-risk groups. That is just like when the vaccines first became publicly available at the very beginning of 2021. Those who will be able to get a shot first include seniors over the age of 65. Also, adults with a health problem that puts them at high risk for severe covid. People whose jobs put them at an increased risk of infection will also get it.

The booster shots are still controversial enough that there is no need to create a fake ID that will allow you to get one before everyone else. One concern from the World Health Organization is that making booster shots available in wealthy countries, including the United States, makes the first dose of the vaccine less accessible to people in poorer countries. Additionally, the evidence that the effects of the vaccine are waning over time is ambiguous. Nothing definitively says that those who are vaccinated will be at higher risk of hospitalization over time. When you do get your booster shot, which may ultimately turn into a yearly event because of emerging variants, be prepared to take a sick day afterward.

Snake-Eating Spiders and Other Science News People Missed

1. Gender-Affirming Medical Care Improves Mental Health.

Nearly two percent of American teenagers are transgender. That means that the gender they identify with is different from the one expressed by their genitalia at birth. Yet, for that small percent of teenagers, there has been a firestorm of controversy for everything from school sports to healthcare. One issue is what is known as gender-affirming care, meaning healthcare that helps a transgender person transition from the gender assigned at birth to the gender with which the person identifies. The process usually involves therapy from a mental health practitioner, hormone treatments, and surgery to change the genitalia. Some people believe that transgender is a mental health issue and not an expression of human diversity and therefore object to gender-affirming care. In some states, laws are being passed to prevent children from receiving gender-affirming care.

Yet, for transgender people, gender-affirming care can be life-saving. Going through the turbulent years of puberty, children are working out their own identities. Plus, they are dealing with raging hormones. During this time, transgender children are at a much higher risk of suicide. Why? Because they feel as if they are in the wrong body. Experts are concerned about the damage being done to children. Also that they are being used as political footballs to pass forward a far-right agenda. Yet politicians who oppose gender-affirming care say that they don’t think children should receive treatment that could change their entire life. They think these teens will later regret the choice. The question is whether healthcare providers or politicians should provide the grounds for which children receive the healthcare they need, care that can save their lives.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A volcano-induced rainy period made Earth’s climate dinosaur-friendly,” by Megan Sever. Science News. September 30, 2021.

“Snake-eating spiders are surprisingly common,” by Asher Jones. Science News. August 4, 2001.

“This is the oldest fossil evidence of spider moms taking care of their young,” by Freda Kreier. Science News. September 27, 2021.

“A blood test may help predict recovery from traumatic brain injury,” by Jackie Rocheleau. Science News. September 29, 2021.

“All identical twins may share a common set of chemical markers on their DNA,” by Jonathan Lambert. Science News. September 28, 2021.

“Ancient DNA shows the peopling of Southeast Asian islands was surprisingly complex,” by Bruce Bower. Science News. August 25, 2021.

“‘Ghost tracks’ suggest people came to the Americas earlier than once thought,” by Freda Kreier. Science News. September 23, 2021.

“This pictogram is one of the oldest known accounts of earthquakes in the Americas,” by Carolyn Gramling. Science News. September 7, 2021.

“These charts show that COVID-19 vaccines are doing their job,” by Erin Garcia de Jesus. Science News. August 31, 2021.

“Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and works well for kids ages 5–11,” by Tina Hesman Saey. Science News. September 20, 2021.

More Sources:

“How personalized brain organoids could help us demystify disorders,” by Laura Sanders. Science News. September 3, 2021.

“A pinch of saturated fat could make tempering chocolate a breeze,” by Nikk Ogasa. Science News. September 7, 2021.

“New ‘vortex beams’ of atoms and molecules are the first of their kind,” by Emily Conover. Science News. September 2, 2021.

“Whirling maple seeds inspired these tiny flying sensors,” by Emily Conover. Science News. September 22, 2021.

“Cold plasma could transform the sustainable farms of the future,” by Stephen Ornes. Science News. September 8, 2021.

“Rice feeds half the world. Climate change’s droughts and floods put it at risk,” by Nikk Ogasa. Science News. September 24, 2021.

“Why only some people will get COVID-19 booster shots at first,” by Erin Garcia de Jesus. Science News. September 21, 2021.

“Gender-affirming care improves mental health for transgender youth,” by Maria Temming. Science News. August 26, 2021.