Seabird poop helps the Arctic keep its cool, new research suggests.
The droppings release ammonia into the atmosphere, where it reacts with other chemicals in the air to form small airborne particles. Those particles form the heart of cloud droplets that reflect sunlight back into space, researchers propose November 15 in Nature Communications.
Even though the poop’s presence provides only modest cooling, understanding the effect could help scientists better predict how the region will fare under future climate change, says study coauthor Greg Wentworth. “The humor is not lost on me,” says Wentworth, an atmospheric chemist at Alberta Environment and Parks in Canada. “It’s a crucial connection, albeit somewhat comical.” Arctic air temperatures are rising about twice as fast as temperatures in lower latitudes (SN: 12/26/15, p. 8), a shift that could threaten ecosystems and alter global weather patterns. Scientists still don’t fully understand Arctic climate, though.
Earlier this year, Wentworth and colleagues reported finding surprisingly abundant ammonia in Arctic air. They linked the chemical to the guano of the tens of millions of seabirds that flock to the frigid north each summer. Bacteria in the Arctic dine on the feces and release about 40,000 metric tons of ammonia annually. (The smell, Wentworth says, is awful.)
Once in the atmosphere, that ammonia reacts with sulfuric acid and water to form small particles that increase the number of cloud droplets, the researchers now propose. A cloud made up of a lot of smaller droplets will have more surface area and reflect more sunlight than a cloud made up of fewer but larger droplets.
This effect causes on average about 0.5 watts of summertime cooling per square meter in the Arctic, with more than a watt of cooling per square meter in some areas, the researchers estimate using a simulation of the Arctic’s atmospheric chemistry. For comparison, the natural greenhouse effect causes about 150 watts of warming per square meter worldwide. On top of that, carbon dioxide from human activities currently contributes about 1.6 watts per square meter of warming on average.
“Birds are in the equation now” when it comes to cloud formation, says Ken Carslaw, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds in England. Understanding how climate change and human activities in the Arctic impact seabirds could be important to forecasting future temperature changes in the region, he says.
Bacteria may be a meat-eating plant’s best friends thanks to their power to reduce the surface tension of water.
The carnivorous pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica releases water into the tall vases of its leaves, creating deathtraps where insect prey drown. Water in a pitcher leaf starts clear. But after about a week, thanks to bacteria, it turns “murky brown to a dark red and smells horrible,” says David Armitage of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Now, he’s found that those bacteria can help plants keep insects trapped. Microbial residents reduce the surface tension of water enough for ants and other small insects to slip immediately into the pool instead of perching lightly on the surface, he reports November 23 in Biology Letters.
Armitage seeded tubes of clean water with fluid from the trap pools of pitcher plants and added dead crickets to feed the microbes. After sitting for a month, the mess had about the same surface tension properties as natural pitcher plant pools. Then, he created a series of increasingly dilute samples of pool soup and dropped harvester ants into each one. He found that the ants sank immediately in all but the bacteria-free water sample.
Bacterial populations in a pitcher leaf are akin to those in a mammal gut or bovine rumen, Armitage’s preliminary analysis finds. The microbes can help digest the prey as well as catch it, he says.
Cells grown in the lab devour nano-sized wires of silicon through an engulfing process known as phagocytosis, scientists report December 16 in Science Advances.
Silicon-infused cells could merge electronics with biology, says John Zimmerman, a biophysicist now at Harvard University. “It’s still very early days,” he adds, but “the idea is to get traditional electronic devices working inside of cells.” Such hybrid devices could one day help control cellular behavior, or even replace electronics used for deep brain stimulation, he says. Scientists have been trying to load electronic parts inside cells for years. One way is to zap holes in cells with electricity, which lets big stuff, like silicon nanowires linked to bulky materials, slip in. Zimmerman, then at the University of Chicago, and colleagues were looking for a simpler technique, something that would let tiny nanowires in easily and could potentially allow them to travel through a person’s bloodstream — like a drug. Zimmerman’s team had previously shown that cells could take in silicon nanowires, but no one knew how it worked. So he added the nanowires to different kinds of cells — including human umbilical vein cells, rat nerve cells and mouse immune cells — in laboratory dishes. Under a microscope, Zimmerman says, “you can see the cell grab the wire, wrap a membrane around it, and pull it inside — kind of like a lasso.” Then, the wire travels on molecular tracks through the cell’s interior to settle around the nucleus. Molecular tests suggested that nanowires entered via phagocytosis, a process by which some cells take in bacteria and cellular junk. During phagocytosis, a cell’s membrane encapsulates the junk, forming a pouch that carries the cargo to a recycling center inside the cell.
Not all cell types swallowed the wires, though. Knowing which types do, and how the wires get inside is important, Zimmerman says, because it could help in predicting where they would end up in the body. But there’s still a long way to go from nanowire-loaded cells to working electronic devices, says Mark Reed, a physicist at Yale University. “This is the big question,” he says — because the nanowires aren’t actually hooked up to anything yet.
Tricking some bug into drowning takes finesse, especially for a hungry meat eater with no brain, eyes or moving parts. Yet California pitcher plants are very good at it.
Growing where deposits of the mineral serpentine would kill most other plants, Darlingtonia californica survives in low-nutrient soil by being “very meat dependent,” says David Armitage of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Leaves he has tested get up to 95 percent of their nitrogen from wasps, beetles, ants or other insects that become trapped inside the snake-curved hollow leaves. The leaves don’t collect rainwater because a green dome covers the top. Instead, they suck moisture up through the roots and (somehow) release it into the hollow trap. “People have been doing weird experiments where they feed [a plant] meat and milk and other things to try to trigger it to release water,” Armitage says. Experiments tempting the green carnivore with cheese, beef broth, egg whites and so on suggest there’s some sort of chemical cue.
However the water enters the leaf pool, it starts out clear. As insects drown, the liquid darkens to a murky brown or red and “smells just horrible,” he says. The soupiness comes from bacteria, which help doom prey by lowering the surface tension of the drowning pool, Armitage reports in the November Biology Letters. Ants or other small insects sink below the surface immediately instead of floating at the top. But first, pitchers lure victims to the pool by repurposing an old plant ploy: free nectar. It’s “highly nitrogen-rich and full of sugars, so it’s delicious — I’ve tasted it,” Armitage says. Pitcher plants sprout blooms, but the trap nectar doesn’t come from the drooping flowers. A roll of tissue near the pitcher mouth oozes the treat.
That nectar-heavy roll curves onto what’s called the fishtail appendage. Mature plants (2 years or older) grow this forked tissue like a moustache at the pitcher mouth. Biologists for more than a century have presumed that this big, red-veined, lickable prong worked as an insect lure. Armitage, however, tested the idea and says it may be wrong. Clipping fishtails off individual leaves, or even off all the leaves in a small patch, did nothing to shrink the catch compared with fully mustachioed leaves, he reported in the American Journal of Botany in April 2016. The only thing fishtails lure, for the time being at least, are puzzled botanists.
Penguins have been pooping on Ardley Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula for a long, long time. The population there is one of the biggest and oldest Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) colonies. But evidence from ancient excrement suggests that these animals didn’t always flourish.
Stephen Roberts of the British Antarctic Survey and colleagues set out to see how the Ardley population responded to past changes in climate to better inform future conservation efforts. The researchers studied the geochemical makeup of lake sediment samples and identified elements from penguin guano. Knowing the fraction of guano in lake sludge over time let the researchers track penguin population changes.
The Gentoo penguin colony was nearly wiped out three times over the 6,700 years that the penguins have occupied Ardley Island. But rather than lining up with changes in temperature or sea ice levels, these population dips corresponded to volcanic ash preserved in the geologic record from big eruptions of a volcano on nearby Deception Island. After each population crash, the colony took 400 to 800 years to recover, the team reports April 11 in Nature Communications.
Physics fans are a lot like surfers. Both think waves are really fun.
For surfers, it’s all about having a good time. For physicists, it’s about understanding some of nature’s most important physical phenomena. Yet another detection of gravitational waves, announced June 1, further reinvigorates the world’s science fans’ excitement over waves.
Waves have naturally always been a topic of scientific and mathematical interest. They play a part in an enormous range of physical processes, from heat and light to radio and TV, sonograms and music, earthquakes and holograms. (Waves used to even be a common sight in baseball stadiums, but fans got tired of standing up and down and it was really annoying anyway.)
Many of science’s greatest achievements have been discoveries of new kinds of waves or new insights into wave motion. Identifying just the Top 10 such discoveries (or ideas) is therefore difficult and bound to elicit critical comments from cult members of particular secret wave societies. So remember, if your favorite wave isn’t on this list, it would have been No. 11.
Thomas Young: Light is a wave. In the opening years of the 19th century, the English physician Young tackled a long-running controversy about the nature of light. A century earlier, Isaac Newton had argued forcibly for the view that light consisted of (very small) particles. Newton’s contemporary Christiaan Huygens strongly disagreed, insisting that light traveled through space as a wave.
Through a series of clever experiments, Young demonstrated strong evidence for waves. Poking two tiny holes in a thick sheet of paper, Young saw that light passing through created alternating bands of light and darkness on a surface placed on the other side of the paper. That was just as expected if light passing through the two holes interfered just as water waves do, canceling out when crest met trough or enhancing when crests met “in phase.” Young did not work out his wave theory with mathematical rigor and so Newton’s defenders resisted, attempting to explain away Young’s results.
But soon Augustin Jean Fresnel in France worked out the math of light waves in detail. And in 1850, when Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault showed that light travels faster in air than water, the staunchest Newton fans had to capitulate. Newton himself would have acknowledged that light must therefore consist of waves. (Much later, though, Einstein found a way that light could in fact consist of particles, which came to be called photons.)
Michelson and Morley: Light waves don’t vibrate anything. Waves are vibrations, implying the need for something to vibrate. Sound vibrated molecules in the air, for instance, and ocean waves vibrated molecules of water. Light, supposedly, vibrated an invisible substance called the ether.
In 1887, Albert A. Michelson and his collaborator Edward Morley devised an experiment to detect that ether. Earth’s motion through the ether should have meant that light’s velocity would depend on its direction. (Traveling with the Earth’s motion, light’s speed wouldn’t be the same as traveling at right angles to the direction of motion.) Michelson and Morley figured they could detect that difference by exploiting the interference phenomena discovered by Young. But their apparatus failed to find any ether effect. They thought their experiment was flawed. But later Einstein figured out there actually wasn’t any ether.
James Clerk Maxwell: Light is an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell died in 1879, the year Einstein was born, and so did not know there wasn’t an ether. He did figure out, though, that both electricity and magnetism could be explained by stresses in some such medium.
Electric and magnetic charges in the ether ought to generate disturbances in the form of waves, Maxwell realized. Based on the strengths of those forces he calculated that the waves would travel at the fantastic speed of 310 million meters per second, suspiciously close to the best recent measurements of the speed of light (those measurements ranged from 298 million to 315 million meters per second). So Maxwell, without the benefit of ever having watched NCIS on TV, then invoked Gibbs’ Rule 39 (there’s no such thing as a coincidence) and concluded that light was an example of an electromagnetic wave.
“It seems we have strong reason to conclude that light itself (including radiant heat, and other radiations if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electromagnetic field,” he wrote in 1864. His “other radiations, if any” turned out to be an entire spectrum of all sorts of cool waves, from gamma radiation to radio signals.
Heinrich Hertz: Radio waves. Not very many people took Maxwell seriously at first. A few, though, known as the Maxwellians, promoted his ideas. One physicist who had faith in Maxwell, or at least in his equations, was Hertz, who performed experiments in his lab in Karlsruhe, Germany, that successfully produced and detected radio waves, eventually to be exploited by propagandists to spread a lot of illogical nonsense on talk radio.
His success inspired much more respect for the equations in Maxwell’s theory, which Hertz found almost magical: “It is impossible to study this wonderful theory without feeling as if the mathematical equations had an independent life and an intelligence of their own, as if they were wiser than ourselves,” Hertz said. His prime experimental success came in 1887, the same year that Michelson and Morley failed to detect the ether. Hertz died in 1894, long before his discovery was put to widespread use.
John Michell: Seismic waves. Michell, an English geologist and astronomer, was motivated by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to investigate the cause of earthquakes. In 1760 he concluded that “subterraneous fires” should be blamed, noting that volcanoes — “burning mountains” — commonly occur in the same neighborhood as frequent earthquakes.
Michell noted that “the motion of the earth in earthquakes is … partly propagated by waves, which succeed one another sometimes at larger and sometimes at smaller distances.” He cited witness accounts of quakes in which the ground rose “like the sea in a wave.” Much later seismologists developed a more precise understanding of the seismic waves that shake the Earth, using them as probes to infer the planet’s inner structure.
Wilhelm Röntgen: X-rays. When Hertz discovered radio waves, he knew he was looking for the long-wavelength radiation foreshadowed in Maxwell’s equations. But a few years later, in 1895, Röntgen found the radio wave counterpart of the opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum — by accident. Mysterious short-wavelength rays of an unknown type (therefore designated X) emerged when Röntgen shot cathode rays (beams of electrons) through a glass tube. Röntgen suspected that his creation might be a new kind of wave among the many Maxwell had anticipated: “There seems to exist some kind of relationship between the new rays and light rays; at least this is indicated by the formation of shadows,” Röntgen wrote. Those shadows, of course, became the basis for a revolutionary medical technology.
Besides providing a major new tool for observing shattered bones and other structures inside the body, X-rays eventually became essential tools for scientific investigation in astronomy, biology and other fields. And they shattered the late 19th century complacency of physicists who thought they’d basically figured everything out about nature. Weirdly, though, X-rays later turned out to be particles sometimes, validating Einstein’s ideas that light had an alter ego particle identity. (By the way, it turned out that X-rays aren’t the electromagnetic waves with the shortest wavelengths — gamma rays can be even shorter. Maybe they would be No. 11.)
Epicurus: The swerve. Not exactly a wave in the ordinary sense, the swerve was a deviation from straight line motion postulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus around 300 B.C. Unlike Aristotle, Epicurus believed in atoms, and argued that reality was built entirely from the random collisions of an infinite number of those tiny particles. Supposedly, he thought, atoms would all just fall straight down to the center of the universe unless some unpredictable “swerve” occasionally caused them to deviate from their paths so they would bounce off each other and congregate into complex structures.
It has not escaped the attention of modern philosophers that the Epicurean unpredictable swerve is a bit like the uncertainty in particle motions introduced by quantum mechanics. Which has its own waves.
Louis de Broglie: Matter waves. In the early 1920s, de Broglie noticed a peculiar connection between relativity and quantum physics. Max Planck’s famous quantum formula related energy to frequency of a wave motion. Einstein’s special relativity related energy to the mass of a particle. De Broglie thought it would make a fine doctoral dissertation to work out the implications of two seemingly separate things both related to energy. If energy equals mass (times the speed of light squared) and energy equals frequency (time Planck’s constant), then voilà, mass equals frequency (times some combination of the constants). Therefore, de Broglie reasoned, particles (of mass) ought to also exist as waves (with a frequency).
That might have seemed wacky, but Einstein read de Broglie’s thesis and thought it made sense. Soon Walter Elsasser in Germany reported experiments that supported de Broglie, and in America Clinton Davisson and coworkers demonstrated conclusively that electrons did in fact exhibit wave properties.
De Broglie won the physics Nobel Prize in 1929; Davisson shared the 1937 Nobel with George Thomson, who had conducted similar experiments showing electrons are waves. Which was ironic, because George’s father, J.J. Thomson, won the 1906 Nobel for the work that revealed the existence of the electron as a particle. Eight decades later Ernst Ruska won a Nobel for his design of a powerful microscope that exploited the electron’s wave behavior.
Max Born: Probability waves. De Broglie’s idea ignited a flurry of activity among physicists trying to figure out how waves fit into quantum theory. Niels Bohr, for instance, spent considerable effort attempting to reconcile the dual wave-particle nature of both electrons and light. Erwin Schrödinger, meanwhile, developed a full-fledged “wave mechanics” to describe the behavior of electrons in atoms solely from the wave perspective. Schrödinger’s math incorporated a “wave function” that was great for calculating the expected results of experiments, even though some experiments clearly showed electrons to be particles.
Born, a German physicist and good friend of Einstein’s, deduced the key to clarifying the wave function: It was an indicator of the probability of finding the particle in a given location. Combined with Werner Heisenberg’s brand-new uncertainty principle, Born’s realization led to the modern view that an electron is wavelike in the sense that it does not possess a definite location until it is observed. That approach works fine for all practical purposes, but physicists and philosophers still engage in vigorous debates today about the true physical status of the wave function.
LIGO: Gravitational waves. Soon after he completed his general theory of relativity, Einstein realized that it implied the possibility of gravitational radiation — vibrations of spacetime itself. He had no idea, though, that by spending a billion dollars, physicists a century later could actually detect those spacetime ripples. But thanks to lasers (which maybe would have been No. 11), the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — two huge labs in Louisiana and Washington state — captured the spacetime shudders emitted from a pair of colliding black holes in September 2015. That detection is certainly one of the most phenomenal experimental achievements in the history of science. It signaled a new era in astronomy, providing astronomers a tool for probing the depths of the universe that are obscured from view with Maxwell’s “other radiations, if any.” For astronomy, gravitational radiation is the wave of the future.