Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Beneath Japan’s Mount Ikeno is a dazzling particle detector
The stunning Super-Kamiokande is hidden beneath a mountain in Japan to detect neutrinos shot from supernovas.
Sub-atomic neutrinos are passing through us and everything around us all the time. For each square centimeter, it’s estimated that some 65 billion of them make their way through each second. They go undetected because they’re extremely tiny, and more importantly, carry no electric charge. As a result, they’re immune to electromagnetic forces that might allow us to detect and study them as we can other particles. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson notes, neutrinos could “pass through a hundred lightyears of steel without even slowing down.” And so scientists have built the stunningly massive and gold Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector to trap some.
Super-Kamiokande, or “Super K,” is underground — way underground — 1,000 meters beneath Mount Ikeno in Japan.
Other particles can’t reach Super K due to the surrounding stone and its steel walls, but matter poses no obstacle to neutrinos.
It’s an amazing structure containing super-pure water, 50,000 tons of it in a cylindrical stainless steel tank 41.4 meters tall and 39.3 meters in diameter. The tank is lined with 11,146 photomultiplier tubes (PMT) that light when they detect neutrinos interacting with the water. The tubes are gold-tipped, which makes Super K so visually dazzling. It began operating 1996, a successor to the original, smaller Kamiokande detector. Super K detected its first neutrino oscillations two years later.
Why do neutrinos matter?
Neutrinos are elementary particles emitted when a star begins to collapse into a supernova and eventually a black hole. (There are three types of neutrinos: muon, electron, and tau.) Super K can, therefore, provide advance notice to astronomers that such an event is about to occur. On February 23, 1987, the original Kamiokande facility detected neutrinos from a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, confirming the link between supernova explosions and neutrinos, and as Amusing Planet puts it, signifying “a new era in neutrino astronomy.”
In general, neutrinos are fascinating particles whose behavior may let scientists in on how the universe operates. They may help us, for example, understand more about anti-matter. As Morgan Wascko of Imperial College tells Business Insider, "Our big bang models predict that matter and anti-matter should have been created in equal parts, but now the anti-matter has disappeared through one way or another." Neutrino behavior could provide the key to understanding why.
A few hundred of the neutrinos detected at Super K each year are from T2K. The aim of this project is to analyze neutrino oscillations from muons to electrons. The project announced the first-ever indications of these oscillations in 2011. The project also studies muon to tau oscillations that other detectors have identified.
Thousands of gold anti-lightbulbs
It’s been said that the PMTs are much like a light-bulb in reverse: A light bulb receives a voltage and produces light, while a PMT receives light and produces a voltage.
Such light occurs when a neutrino exceeds the speed at which light travels through water, which is just three quarters the speed it travels through a vacuum. Yoshi Uchida of Imperial College London explained to Business Insider how this happens, likening it to the way a supersonic plane produces a boom when exceeding the speed of sound. "If an airplane is going very fast, faster than the speed of sound, then it'll produce sound — a big shockwave — in a way a slower object doesn't. In the same way a particle passing through water, if it's going faster than the speed of light in water, can also produce a shockwave of light." The light occurs as a cone of Cerenkov radiation the PMTs capture and that the Super K graphs. Muons produce a sharp ring, and electrons generate a more diffuse one.
Super K publishes near real-time neutrino event images when the detector’s not offline for maintenance.
Super-pure water is dangerous stuff
To ensure that the cones of Cerenkov radiation successfully reach the Super K’s PMTs, the water inside the tank has to be super-pure. It’s continually re-purified and bombarded with UV light to kill off any bacteria floating around in it. The resulting liquid is so pure, it’s more like an acid and an alkaline than the H2O we know. Uchida notes, ”Water that's ultra-pure is waiting to dissolve stuff into it. Pure water is very, very nasty stuff.”
When technicians drained the tank in 2000, according to Wascko, they found what was left of a wrench left behind: Its outline. "Apparently somebody had left a wrench there when they filled it in 1995. When they drained it in 2000 the wrench had dissolved."
Wascko notes, in understatement, "If you went for a soak in this ultra-pure Super-K water you would get quite a bit of exfoliation. Whether you want it or not."
When technicians need to service a PMT, they travel out on this corrosive fluid in rubber rowboats.
Science isn’t always so amazing-looking
While new knowledge is often a thing of beauty, but rarely is the associated hardware so gorgeous as it is at Super Kamiokande. The hunt for neutrinos practically begs for exotic solutions, and this hazardous, glittering facility beneath Mount Ikeno is about as exotic as it gets.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.