ICYMI: Weekly Science News (11/14/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

While we don’t all have access to science journals and published papers in their entirety, we still have the opportunity to learn about the wonderful world around us. If you haven’t had a chance to do that recently and want some of the stories from the world of STEM from last week, you’ve come to the right place, because we’ve got your fix! ICYMI, here’s some of last week’s incredible and interesting science news!

Cats from the past found in the meow…

As the Siberian permafrost melts, new discoveries are being made in Russia. The most recent announcement is that of a well-preserved cave lion cub that likely passed away during the Pleistocene Ice Age somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago. The new cub, which appears to have died at 6-8 weeks old, is only the third of its species to have been found in such an incredibly untouched condition. At 17.7 inches long and 8.8 pounds, the grey cave lion cub has been found with its head resting on its front paws, all limbs intact and no external injuries observed. The cat is in such great condition, there has already been talk about possible cloning. There are plenty of ethical concerns, so don’t expect any Pleistocene Ice Age Parks in the near future, but with such an amazing specimen, science has some opportunities for study.

Middle-Earth Moves to the Middle East

If you find yourself in Israel, near Jerusalem, along the banks of Soreq Creek, you might come upon a nasty surprise. You haven’t stumbled into Shelob’s lair or fallen from the safe path through Mirkwood, although you might feel like fantasy has come to life. In the forest near the creek, millions of long-jawed spiders have made their home, creating a giant web-constructed blanket covering many trees (and inspiring lots of nightmares)! The spiders generally make their homes near bodies of water, so it is unexpected to find them in the Middle East. However, Soreq Creek is located near a sewage plant, which has supplied a healthy population of mosquitos for the millions of spiders to feed on. With winter approaching, the spiders will likely decline in population – until next year. If you have an unhealthy obsession with Spider-Man, hop on a plane and head over to see the magic for yourself, while you still can!

Is that coal in your stocking?

Just in time for the holidays and all the naughty boys and girls, a new “instant coal” has been developed. The new biofuel is created using agricultural waste without the toxic minerals that contribute to pollution. Rather than waiting for fossil fuels to develop over millions of years with pressure and heat, the same process is applied to the materials in a few hours. With similar efficiency in comparison to fossil fuels, the new “instant coal” is a renewable resource without all the negatives associated with coal mining. With partnerships to help increase the new coal output, it could become a commercially viable option as an alternative energy/fuel source!

Eye See You!

Most vertebrate animals have two main kinds of cells within their eyes, cones (for daylight and color vision) and rods (for vision in the dark). Depending on their lifestyles, some animals have evolved to have more or less of the different cells. In some deep sea fish, cones have been lost entirely, leaving some fish with only rods to help them operate in the dark. But the deep-sea pearlside fish defy all explanation with a totally new kind of cell within the eye! These fish have what researchers are calling “rod-like cones,” which appear to be some kind of combination of rods and cones. The cells have likely developed due to the habits of the fish to come closer to the surface of water near sunrise and sunset, unlike their nocturnal and dark-oriented counterparts. However, there is clearly more research to be done on the new kinds of unexpected cells in the eyes!

Taking a Quantum Leap into Computers

The research into quantum computing is one of the biggest things happening on technology today. On Friday, IBM announced at the IEEE Industry Summit on the Future of Computing the development of a new quantum computer that is able to handle 50 qubits (quantum bits). If true, IBM has topped the charts, making the largest and most powerful quantum computer so far. They also have a 20-qubit computing system in place. Both systems have been able to maintain the quantum state for 90 seconds. That may not be long enough to browse Facebook, but in quantum computing, it’s a big deal. With IBM taking the lead, what might be coming next?

You know you’re famous when…

There’s famous, and then there’s “sheep can recognize you” famous. Researchers have known that sheep are capable of correctly identifying their handlers and other sheep who are familiar to them. New research has shown that their identification abilities can be expanded to recognition of unfamiliar people, using only photographs. The study included eight sheep which could correctly identify Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Fiona Bruce, and Jake Gyllenhaal 8 out of 10 times (7 out of 10 when the faces were shown at different angles). The conclusions are part of a larger study about how sheep learn and process information, so they can be studied when that process goes wrong (due to diseases such as Huntington’s disease). With their large brains and social interests, discoveries with sheep might lead to better information about human brains. Onward with celebrity recognition, sheep!

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