Stories of modern science

By JIM KLING, UPI Science Writer   |   Nov. 1, 2001 at 12:23 AM


A desert beetle uses the covering on its abdomen to turn fog into drinking water, according to a report in this week's edition of the journal Nature. This surface has structures on it that capture droplets from the air, and channel the water into the insect's mouth. Researchers could copy the trick to exploit arid environments, for example by using water-trapping tent coverings. In the Namib desert in Africa where the beetle lives, rain is almost unheard of, but morning fogs are common. To gain its sustenance, the beetle Stenocara faces into the wind, presenting its fused overwings, which consist of alternating water-attracting and -repelling patches. Water droplets begin to form on the water-attracting surfaces, until they are big enough to touch the water-repelling surfaces, when they run off the wing surface and into the beetle's mouth. The work was performed by Andrew Parker of the University of Oxford, U.K., and Chris R. Lawrence, of QinetiQ, Farnborough, Hampshire, UK.


Placental mammals may be much older than researchers had thought, according to a report in this week's edition of the journal Nature. Most familiar mammals are placental -- they carry fetuses to a late stage of development, nourishing them via a placenta. Many paleontologists believe that there is little fossil evidence of placental mammals before the time that the dinosaurs died out -- about 65 million years ago. On the other hand, genetic evidence suggests that placental mammals have been around for much longer. Now, J. David Archibald of San Diego State University and his colleagues announce the discovery of 85-90 million year old fossils of an animal called Kulbeckia, which is a member of an obscure group of mammals called zalambdalestids thought to be related to modern rabbits and rodents. They new find represents the oldest remains of zalambdalestid ever found. The authors argue that if the zalambdalestids are more closely related to a subgroup of placental mammals than to placental mammals as a whole, then the evolution of placental mammals must have been well under way long before the dinosaurs became extinct.


Physicists believe they may soon be able to 'see' miniature black holes, according to a report in the conference proceedings of Snowmass 2001, "The Future of Particle Physics." "If certain theories of nature are correct, then black holes would be produced in high-energy collisions of particles in particle accelerators," said Steven B. Giddings, professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The next generation of particle accelerators -- the first will be the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland -- should be powerful enough to accomplish the feat. The miniature black holes, once formed, will evaporate extremely rapidly, physicists say, because there won't be enough matter around to allow them to grow. But physicists could detect the energy they release when they evaporate. Such studies could open the door to the study of other mysteries. "Black holes are perhaps the most profound and mysterious objects we've imagined. Being able to create and study them should teach us a lot. In particular, it can teach us about how quantum mechanics can be reconciled with gravity; it could allow us to explore extra dimensions of space and time; and it may tell us something about an ultimate unified theory of physics. It may also signal the breakdown of the very concepts of space and time at short distances," said Giddings.


On Wednesday, Australian scientists revealed that a revolutionary new rocket design potentially capable of flying at seven times the speed of sound failed its first flight test, according to a BBC report. The HyShot scramjet engine was fired from the back of a rocket at a testing ground near the city of Adelaide, but it apparently flew off course. "Although we didn't achieve all that we set out to achieve, we succeeded in gathering valuable data, and we are encouraged by the fact that the payload survived one hell of a ride," said project leader Allan Paull from the University of Queensland said in a statement. The test carried the scramjet into the upper atmosphere and then allowed it to plummet towards Earth. If it had worked properly, the scramjet would have begun to work under its own power just before crashing into the ground. If a scramjet is eventually developed, it could power passenger jets capable of traveling from London to Sydney in just two hours. It could also reduce the cost of space launches. Scramjets are very simple in design, using no moving parts to collect oxygen from the atmosphere for fuel combustion. That gives them a advantage over conventional rocket engines, which carry oxygen with them. The problem is that scramjets only begin to work after they reach five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. The US has already successfully tested a scramjet, which they fired from a gun a few weeks ago. They claim that it flew under its own power for a fraction of a second. "Ours is a low-cost alternative, and we've had to develop all sorts of ancillary equipment on the cheap," said Allan Paull, speaking before the launch. "We've bought a lot of bits and pieces off the shelf from automotive shops."

(Editor; for more information on black holes, call 805-893-7220)

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