Aug 17, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

I hope you are having a good Thursday afternoon. Thanks for reading and for your continued feedback. Send your comments to me at alison@axios.com and, if you like Axios Science, I hope you'll share it far and wide.

1. What we still don't know about the Sun

When the Moon dims the Sun for a few minutes next week, scientists will get a rare view of our star. Studying an eclipse seems almost quaint — we have telescopes that continuously observe the Sun and NASA is sending a probe to it next year — what further knowledge can we gain?

We asked four researchers what we still don't know about the Sun and what might be learned from next week's eclipse:

2. Tried and true: What stars are made of

From Erin Ross, who is en route to Oregon for her own eclipse viewing:

Back in June, we explained the eclipse experiment that rocketed Einstein into the public eye. (Some scientists plan to re-create it during Monday's eclipse.)

But another classic eclipse experiment by French physicist Pierre Janssen set the course for solar science.

What he did: If you put a prism in front of the Sun, its light will separate into its component colors — a distinct rainbow. On Aug. 18, 1868, Janssen used a prism in the form of an instrument called a spectroscope to observe the Sun during a solar eclipse. He saw a bright yellow line in the gaseous clouds that erupt from the Sun's surface, but its wavelength didn't correspond to any of the elements known at the time. He'd spotted helium, which wasn't discovered on Earth until a few years later.

The legacy: Since then, scientist's use of spectroscopy during eclipses has led to the discovery of the incredible heat of the sun and the presence of highly charged metal ions, like nickel and iron, in the corona. Today, modern spectroscopy techniques are used (with or without an eclipse) to study the composition of distant stars, moons and planets.

3. Cholera's misinformation problem

The World Health Organization reported this week there have now been more than 500,000 cases of cholera in Yemen since April — making it one of the world's largest and fastest growing epidemics of the diarrheal disease to date.

  • Yes, but: In July, the organization made a surprising announcement that it wasn't moving forward with plans to begin administering half a million doses of cholera vaccine that were standing by for delivery, saying it would be ineffective given the security situation in the country and the epidemic's rapid escalation. Instead they intend to focus on improving sanitation and access to clean water and treatment.
  • Expert opinion: I spoke with cholera experts who have been involved in vaccination campaigns around the world. All noted they haven't worked in Yemen, but from a global perspective are concerned the current plan in the country doesn't reflect what's known about the vaccine's effectiveness, and could perpetuate a belief that vaccinating people in the midst of an epidemic won't have an impact.
  • Read more here.
4. Axios stories to spark your brain:
  • Resilient robots: Engineers have created a self-healing material for robots, writes Axios intern-turned-reporter (congrats!) Erica Pandey.
  • Uber-amphetamine: Chemists have figured out what makes Captagon, an illicit drug that is popular in the Middle East and has been linked to ISIS, so potent — and how it could be combatted with a vaccine.
  • Cancer detection: Eileen O'Reilly on the endeavor to develop non-invasive tests for spotting cancer early on.
  • Where the robots are: Steve LeVine on the geographic clustering of industrial robots in the U.S.
5. What we're reading elsewhere
  • Taking stock: Gizmodo's Ryan Mandelbaum on where lab-grown meat stands. "Today, cultured meat is a lot of hype and no consumer product."
  • AI discrimination: "... services and products built on top of language systems may already be unfairly discriminating against certain groups," Will Knight writes in Technology Review.
  • Animal cognition: Ed Yong looks at an experiment designed to measure cognition in dogs and the larger challenges of tests for a theory of mind in other animals.
6. Something wondrous

Each day, larvacean plankton about the size of a pinkie finger construct 3-foot-wide mucus nets that serve as their fleeting homes. These structures filter seawater in massive amounts for bits of food for the plankton. In a study published yesterday, researchers report the zooplankton can capture plastic particles in the ocean's surface waters in the same way, ingest them and dispose of them on the seafloor.

Why it matters: These tiny organisms moving tiny particles of plastic could inspire technologies to clean up the sea.

Alison Snyder