Science Technology

A Month in Science: March 2020

Written by Tristan Jacquel

Author’s Note: Apologies once again for the delay. This article will contain catch-up from February. I have decided to postpone/cancel these articles amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. quite frankly, it’s the only thing happening right now and I’m sure you all don’t need yet another reminder of that.

Physics

Neutron stars are formed in the supernovae of large (but not too large) stars. They are among the most dense and high energy phenomena in the universe; they are to such an extent that protons and electrons can’t exist under such pressure and instead fuse into neutrons (hence neutron stars). However, even knowing this much about the formation of neutron stars, what happens after that has long eluded the scientific community. But now, with a new instrument, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), sitting just outside the International Space Station (ISS), scientists are looking to finally shed some light on the inner workings of these stellar mysteries. NICER has already been operating for 2 years, and its data from last December are the most precise measurements made of a neutron star ever. Combining this promise with the consistent data coming from laboratories detecting gravitational waves, it truly seems that we are honing in on an understanding of these phenomena. Read further here.

The star Betelgeuse, recognisable as “Orion’s shoulder” in said constellation had been dimming for months on end. What was among the 10 brightest stars in the night sky had regressed in brilliance by almost two thirds from September 2019 to February 2020. However, recent observations show it is finally regaining some of its lost brilliance over the course of the last month, having levelled off its brightness prior. Most excitingly, this could be an indication that the star is nearing the end of its lifetime, thus giving astronomers the chance to observe firsthand one of the most spectacular events in recent history. Read further here.

On the 9th February 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a new craft, the Solar Orbiter. Over the course of the next two years (almost) it will utilise the gravity of Venus to launch itself into Mercury’s orbit, taking it as close as 42 million kilometres away from the Sun (approximately 0.28 times the average distance of the Earth from the Sun). From there, its mission will begin and it will attempt the first ever observations of the magnetic poles of the Sun. Read further at the ESA website.

Technology

Cryo-electron microscopy (the subject of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) is on a meteoric rise. The technique, which is used to create 3D models of various structures has become much more widely used and available in recent years and is now looking to overtake X-ray crystallography as the standard, with its use on the rise and crystallography’s use on the decline. Critically, cryo-electron microscopy doesn’t require the crystallisation of structures, some of which take years (or even never crystallise at all!) to do so. Read further here.

A compound called halicin has recently been determined through use of an AI to be an extremely potent antibiotic. The AI, which was developed at MIT using machine learning techniques picked out around 100 molecules from over 6000 candidates. Of these 100, halicin was found as a very promising antibiotic, whose mechanism is such that it has proved incredibly effective even against antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. Read more here.

Biology (No COVID-19 I promise)

In rather unfortunate news, it currently appears that as many as 17 papers surrounding spiders will be facing retractions after allegations of a co-author having fabricated data. The man in question, behavioural ecologist Jonathan Pruitt, has yet to publicly admit any wrongdoings although he has rejected several offers of interviews. In one case, analysis showed the blatant use of a formula in an excel spreadsheet to create new data points. Read further here.

A clinical trial under the name BRILLIANCE has become the first use of CRISPR to insert a gene directly into the body. This trial aims to use the specific technique to treat a type of blindness caused by mutations in several genes related to optics. The condition is called Leber’s congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA10) and is the largest cause of childhood blindness. This trial utilising CRISPR looks to be the most promising route to curing patients who are currently facing a complete lack of available treatment (as no therapies are available). Read more here.

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

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