The Year in Scientific Firsts - First Time Week


By Daniel Knighton

In the dubbed words of Bill Nye, “science rules.” To give a sense of the accomplishing speed of scientific research worldwide, here are four first-time discoveries from November 2012.

Bill Nye, the “Science Guy”. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Unconsciousness Located

It may inspire a less-than-terrific plot for a Hayden Christensen movie, but when you’re the one under the scalpel in a failed loss of consciousness from faulty anesthesia, it is no laughing matter. Luckily, researchers at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital may have spotted a readable brain signal that determines if a patient has lost consciousness. “We asked patients to listen to a series of repeated sounds and press buttons when they heard the sounds,” Patrick L. Burdon, Ph.D. tells BTR. “They did this task continuously while the anesthetic drug was administered. We interpreted the loss of response as an indication of loss of consciousness. By observing this transition to unconsciousness, and comparing the conscious and unconscious states using this task, we were able to identify the brain activity patterns related to unconsciousness.”

A scenario where a patient is aware but unable to respond is rare, but it would take such a scenario to prove the brain signal reading wrong. However, it is unlikely this could happen. According to the article, “a breakdown of communication between certain brain regions” causes the lack of consciousness. Burdon explains that a patient is unlikely able to recall things that happen. “Our interpretation of the ‘fragmented’ cortical state is that patients would be much less likely to form memories in this state. Memories are stored within a specific part of the brain called the hippocampus. Our hypothesis is that the anesthesia-induced fragmentation of cortical processing would likely prevent information from reaching the hippocampus. But more research will have to be done to determine if this is correct.”

Alien Vs. Scientist

We may be light years from any discovery of intergalactic alien life, but last month researchers found life adapted to an environment unsustainable to any known living organism. In Lake Vida, buried 60 feet below the surface of Antarctica, the team found bacteria. You may as well call it a trial alien discovery: the encapsulated lake has been cut off from the world—and sunlight—for over 2,000 years! Chemical reactions in the water are believed to nourish the bacteria for survival.

The discovery encourages speculation of how alien life may dwell in alternative systems where water is found. “Specifically, we do not presently know whether there is an ‘identical’ ecosystem to the Lake Vida brine in the solar system,” Alison Murray of the Desert Research Institute tells BTR. “Our findings expand our understanding of the types of habitats that can support life.”

In the meantime, British scientists are preparing to drill to Lake Ellsworth, a similarly encapsulated lake two miles below the surface on the opposite side of Antarctica. “The Lake Ellsworth system is very different from Lake Vida and has been isolated from surface processes for a far longer period,” Murray continues. “It is likely not as resource-rich as what we found in the brine, and not as cold or salty. Thus, the discoveries from that program will likely be quite different; if they detect life, I’d expect the organisms to be quite different, though time will tell.”

Readers of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain may feel a little paranoid over the health of our ecosystem interacting with the anciently removed organics beneath the ice. Murray tells BTR, “In approaching a natural and isolated system such as the brines within Lake Vida ice, we develop and implement stringent procedures to ensure that we will not introduce foreign material into these ecosystems. Based on what we found, the bacterial life forms detected and cultivated pose no known threat to human health.”

The Lonely Planet

The Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in France has introduced a new kind of stellar object to discuss: a planet without a star. The planet, CFBDSIR2149, is floating on its own around the Milky Way Galaxy without any known relative planets or stars to call its own. Philippe Delorme, the study leader, tells BTR that any possibility of the planet orbiting a distant object has been ruled out: “We looked for such a distant stellar companion and found none while we had good data at hand.”

Though the planet is unable to reflect or block light from a parent star, the planet’s formation energy is what made it detectable to Earth telescopes. Delorme explains, “It is quite dim in the visible, but it does emit some light in the infrared, a wavelength at which it emits light. It does that because it is still young.”

Such light could also be emitted from an older, weak star known as a brown dwarf. “You need an age to know if an object is a free floating planet or brown dwarf: an object of a given luminosity can be either a young planetary mass object or an older more massive brown dwarf that had more initial energy but also more time to cool down,” Delorme says. The age of CFBDSIR2149 is estimated with reference to its proximity to the AB Doradus group of young, traveling stars.

Get Down with the Sickness

The mid-life crisis phenomenon has plagued the 20th century human psyche into humiliation for its trend of embarrassing moral and consumer behavior. But it turns out this psychological state may go further back than history would allow us to know. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the mid-life crisis may be traceable to our evolutionary ancestors.

After an analysis of 500 chimpanzees and orangutans it was determined that there is a trend in middle-aged apes to suffer from a lack of happiness. The study however, is not behavioral. “We just observe low happiness and mental health in apes and in humans. We are not counting how often the apes throw faeces or chat up other apes’ females,” says Dr. Andrew Oswald of Warwick University.

The mid-life crisis itself may have evolutionary benefits, suggests Dr. Oswald. “It is possible that it is helpful to the species to have middle-aged animals who are discontented. The babies have been born, so it may be that nature does not want the animals lounging around for the rest of their lives. Discontent may foster an adventurous spirit that discovers better pastures for the next generation.”

What is more, the study didn’t find a contrast between male and female results. “That is one reason the data are so interesting,” continues Oswald. “Whatever it is that drives the midlife low, it is common to males and females. So it must be very deep in a species and go far beyond normal sexual cycles and the rest.”

Saran Wrap of Invisibility

Researchers at Duke University have crafted the impossible: a prototype for the real world’s very own “invisibility cloak.” The current design, however, is only able to shield objects from microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum. To be shielded from light also means shielding from heat: a TV dinner dressed in a properly designed cloak could feasibly remain unaffected by a microwave oven. The team tells BTR via email, “If we knew the specific frequency that the microwave used, we could design a cloak to operate at that frequency. The only concern would be the power output of the microwave. If the power is too high, the tiny circuit elements that comprise the cloak could be fried.”

It is also possible for light to pass through undistorted. The researchers say that even information can pass through uncorrupted. “If we assume that the information in encoded in a narrowband frequency signal than it could be sent without corruption through the cloak. Alternatively, that information could be encoded spatially, as in an image,” they say.

As for the size, the current model is only a square foot, just for practical lab reasons. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t make it large enough for a person to fit inside. Of course, the person wouldn’t be able to move or see out of the cloak!”

The greatest of wizards could probably live with that.