Science

A Month in Science: January 2020

Written by Tristan Jacquel

Author’s Note: Apologies for the lateness of this one. This article will also include catch-up from December 2019.

Physics

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) on the 18th December 2019. It is the first mission solely dedicated to studying nearby exoplanets, with its goal being to observe how planets roughly between the size of Earth and Neptune pass in front of their stars. It is placed into orbit 700km above the Earth, where it will observe stars known to host exoplanets (with its instruments pointed away from our sun to avoid interference). From the readings it will take, they hope to determine the densities of these planets, the first major contribution to our understanding of alien worlds. Read further at the ESA website.

On the 6th January 2020, SpaceX launched a new fleet of satellites. Among them, one called DarkSat, which was partially painted black. The aim of this design choice is to reduce the interference with astronomic observations caused by satellite ‘constellations’. Unfortunately, preliminary observations have not yielded promising results for this ‘test’. Nevertheless, it represents an important statement of intent that commercial businesses will make efforts not to interfere with the scientific community. Read more here.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has reported the presence of an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting within the ‘habitable zone’ of TOI 700. It, however, is much unlike Earth in other ways: its orbital period is a mere 37 (Earth) days and it appears 1.2x bigger than the Earth in size. Nevertheless, being that it is within the ‘habitable zone’, it represents a great step forward in the search for a home away from home. (and for aliens!) Read the paper here.

Quantum mechanics has long been one of the least intuitive and (in the words of Einstein) “spooky” areas of science. Most of all this ‘spookiness’ refers to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. This phenomenon can result in ‘informational transfer’ at what should be faster-than-light (FTL) speeds. This has been the subject of intense research and a recently published paper may suggest that the mechanism of quantum entanglement is principally unknowable. Read the full paper here.

Biology

The sense of touch has long puzzled the scientific community. It has just been much harder to explain than say sight, which involves photons passing through the eye to interact with the retina and the optic nerve. After identifying a genetic defect in a teenage girl who had difficulties with coordination, Carsten Bönnemann and his team were homing in on the PIEZ02 gene, which is associated with the PIEZ01 protein. It is this and several other pressure sensitive protein complexes which allow for our sense of touch. A more detailed (technical) explanation is available here.

The new coronavirus, the Wuhan virus, however we refer to it, it is now abundantly clear that it represents a serious health issue to Eastern Asia and potentially the entire planet. So, after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, labs across the globe have been desperate to get a hold of samples to work on a novel therapy. It has already proved a bigger issue than the SARS outbreak of 2002. There is promise, however, as several research teams, including some from China and Australia have already isolated samples of the disease, whilst others from France, Germany and Hong Kong are well on their way to doing the same. Read further about the coronavirus here.

Technology

In AI news, one individual (Joelle Pineau) has been leading a movement that attempts to circumvent one of science’s (especially in machine-learning) biggest problems: that being reproducibility. Simply put, when considering an experiment, to achieve similar or the same results, one requires precise details of how the experiment was performed. This is especially true of AI experiments, wherein slight differences in the parameters of the testing and indeed the test data itself that is used during the training can cause vastly different end-products. Joelle Pineau was interviewed by Nature magazine in December 2019.

With AI becoming ever-present in data analysis, it has finally been applied to the fossil record. Whilst the fossil record does constitute an incomplete data set (meaning there can be no certainties in predictions) the hope of researchers is that AI can be used to identify ‘small’ extinction events that humans would otherwise miss. Read more here.

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

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