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Biomimetics for Your Christmas Wish List

Biomimetics (the imitation of nature) continues to promise cool gadgets and useful materials that will someday yield prized gifts under the tree. Some of them might even save your life.

Curiosity About Mars Rising

If all goes well on November 26, the newest Mars rover, nicknamed Curiosity, will rise above Earth’s atmosphere on a rocket pushing it toward the red planet. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is the largest and best-equipped rover ever built for the robotic exploration of another planetary surface.

Discovery Upsets Geological Dating

For a long time, geologists have used microscopic crystals called zircons as “time capsules” for dating rock strata. The tiny crystals are so durable it was believed they were virtually impermeable. Now, however, inclusions inside the zircons appear to be vastly different in age. This could have drastic effects on how certain formations are dated.

Selling Confabulation as Science

Science is supposed to be all about demonstrable proof through experiment. Should some scientists get away with confabulation – mere storytelling? Look at these recent headlines published on science news sites and consider whether some serious housecleaning is in order.

Space Physics and Fables

Physics is supposed to be the king of “hard science” because of its precise mathematics, predictability and falsifiability. When transferred off our planet, however, it seems speculation is the order of the day.

New Worlds

Members of our solar system that were little more than points of light for decades or centuries have now become familiar family members, seen up close and personal by spacecraft. Here are introductions to three worlds that are no longer mere names in a catalog. Even the names of members in this trio may be unfamiliar to some. They’re worth getting to know.

Can Biomimetics Shed Light on Evolution?

Biomimetics is part science and part engineering. The scientific part is to observe and understand the structure and function of a living thing. The engineering part is to apply that science into useful products. Science news articles today are claiming that a biomimetic flying machine modeled on insects is shedding light on evolution. Such a claim deserves some scrutiny.

Three Strikes Against Uranus

Uranus has an axial tilt of 98 degrees, giving it the appearance of a bulls-eye as it revolves around the sun. Its moons revolve comfortably around the planet’s equator. This unusual arrangement, unique in the solar system, has challenged planetary scientists since its discovery. A new model accounts for it through a series of gentle bumps from impacts as the planet was forming from dust and gas, but how would one ever test such an idea?

Mercury Messenger: Surprise!

As boring as the moon? Just a burned-out cinder? Not Mercury. True to tradition for planetary exploration, the MESSENGER spacecraft has served up a plate of surprises about the innermost planet. In orbit since March, the ship is sending theorists back to the drawing board to figure out a number of puzzling phenomena, some unique to Mercury. Commentators fall into two categories: those that are flabbergasted, and those who say all is well.

It’s Still a Rare Earth

Now that hundreds of extrasolar planets are known, how do they compare to ours? The Kepler spacecraft has found a varied assortment of all sizes and distances away from their parent stars. Only a few reside in their star’s habitable zones. But that’s only the first of many requirements for life. Two recent studies indicate that Earth remains a rare bird in the celestial aviary.

Where Do Gems and Precious Metals Come From?

Gold, diamonds, and other precious metals and gems... they are found close to the surface of the earth where humans can mine them and make jewelry. But they shouldn’t be there. Heavy elements should have sunk deep into the core of the Earth soon after it was formed. Wait till you hear some of the latest ideas about how precious metals and gems arrived near the surface. Maybe they shot up from the mantle. Maybe they came from outer space.

Freakish Star Stuns Astronomers

Astronomers have detected a star that should not exist. Current theory cannot explain the composition of a star in the constellation Leo. This “freakish star,” moreover, is probably not unique. What is it, exactly, that modern star formation theory does explain?

Lucky in the Sky with Diamonds

There are treasures all around us we do not perceive. Sometimes we speak figuratively about sparkling gems that are, if we realized it, literally real, right there under our noses. Children sing, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky” without knowing that there really are diamond stars up there, with diamond planets, so magnificent and huge they are unfathomable in value. These are actual discoveries that have been announced by scientists this week.

8.7 Million Species Is Not a Scientific Fact

Human beings love to classify things. We pigeonhole items into bins of our own making, for whatever the reason, to give us a feeling of having things organized and understood. Do our pigeonholes reflect categories that are “out there” in nature, or are they constructs of our own minds? Science reporters are announcing in bold print that there are “8.7 million species on Earth,” but a look at the fine print shows the error bars to be so enormous, there is more error than data. What does this imply about the scientific validity of human classification schemes?

Another Crash in Lunar Tunes

Our moon has two faces. One is the familiar man-in-the-moon side that always faces Earth. The other side is mountainous and heavily cratered, possessing a thicker crust with almost none of the large impact basins we see as dark maria on the Earth-facing side. The giant impact theory for the origin of the moon – that a Mars-size object hit the Earth and the debris coalesced into our planetary companion – has been controversial since it was first proposed. Will adding another impact help? It all depends on what one means by “scientific progress.”
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