A Chinese company plans to launch a rocket into orbit this year

21 Jun 2018, 2:48 pm

THE first rockets were Chinese. In the 1230s the armies of the Song dynasty, who were fighting Mongol invaders, started launching “fire arrows” propelled by gunpowder some 300 metres into enemy lines. When the Song’s artillerymen realised that these arrows continued to fly straight even after their fiery exhaust had burned away their feathers, they removed the fletching and the rocket was born.

Almost eight hundred years later Shu Chang, the head of a company called OneSpace, is trying to build on that historical tradition—though not for military purposes. The charred and twisted remnants of OS-X, the firm’s first launch, are strewn across the floor of its laboratory in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing. The launch took place in May, from an undisclosed location in the north-west. OS-X, nine metres tall, climbed to an altitude of 40km and travelled 287km downrange. It remained airborne for five minutes before crashing into desert sands.

This lift-off was a first not only...Continue reading

A practical guide to the most nail-biting part of the World Cup

21 Jun 2018, 2:48 pm

WHEN the World Cup, now under way in Russia, progresses to the knockout phases of the competition on June 30th attention will focus on the dreaded penalty shoot-out. Forty years ago, if a game was level after 120 minutes, the winner was decided by luck: a simple coin-flip. But in 1978 the rules were changed to create results that, at least in some sense, depend on skill. The question is, how much skill? Since 1982, the first competition in which penalty shoot-outs actually happened, there have been 26 of them—with seven of the 18 teams in the nine pertinent finals having arrived there thanks to success at penalties, and two of the finals themselves having been decided by them.

The format of a shoot-out is simple. Teams take it in turn to try to kick five penalties past the opposing team’s keeper into the goal. If the score is even after five penalties a side then “sudden death” ensues: victory is achieved by a single winning kick that is not successfully replied to. Whether this is...Continue reading

The first clear evidence of a sense of magnetism in insects

21 Jun 2018, 2:48 pm

Compass bearing?

BOGONG moths are not as glamorous as monarch butterflies. Their name means “brown” in Dhudhuroa, a now-extinct language once spoken in eastern Australia, where they live. And that is what they are—in contradistinction to a monarch’s glorious orange and black. But drab though they may be, bogongs surely match monarchs in migratory tenacity.

Monarchs, famously, fly across much of North America, starting or ending their journeys in one of a few groves of trees in central Mexico. An adult monarch, though, migrates only once. During their lifetimes, bogong moths that survive to do so will make a pair of 1,000km journeys. One is from their winter birthing grounds in sun-scorched Queensland and New South Wales to a small number of cool caves in the mountains of Victoria where they will spend the summer months resting. The other is back again.

How they find their way to and from these caves is a mystery. But it is less mysterious in light of...Continue reading

Some science journals that claim to peer review papers do not do so

21 Jun 2018, 2:48 pm

WHETHER to get a promotion or merely a foot in the door, academics have long known that they must publish papers, typically the more the better. Tallying scholarly publications to evaluate their authors has been common since the invention of scientific journals in the 17th century. So, too, has the practice of journal editors asking independent, usually anonymous, experts to scrutinise manuscripts and reject those deemed flawed—a quality-control process now known as peer review. Of late, however, this habit of according importance to papers labelled as “peer reviewed” has become something of a gamble. A rising number of journals that claim to review submissions in this way do not bother to do so. Not coincidentally, this seems to be leading some academics to inflate their publication lists with papers that might not pass such scrutiny.

Experts debate how many journals falsely claim to engage in peer review. Cabells, an analytics firm in Texas, has compiled a blacklist of those which...Continue reading

A new type of battlefield network is in development

14 Jun 2018, 3:09 pm

MOBILE armies need mobile communications. Those communications, though, must be secure—and not just from eavesdropping. They also need to be uninterruptible. And that is a problem. Many mobile networks (think Wi-Fi routers or mobile-phone towers) operate via hubs. Destroy the hub and you destroy the network. Even a peer-to-peer system in which messages travel in a series of hops between nodes (in the form of the devices that comprise the system) rather than via a hub, can be degraded by a loss of nodes. Existing versions of such systems, which are usually static, rather than mobile, require each node to be set up individually, in advance, to talk to particular other nodes. Mobility brings a need for constant reconfiguration.

In theory such a system is possible. It is called MANET, an approximate acronym for mobile ad-hoc network. In practice, though, a workable MANET has proved impossible to design—until now.

The main problem is mathematical. To avoid the pre-programming required by...Continue reading

When faced with a killer whale should you fight or flee?

14 Jun 2018, 3:09 pm


THAT the best form of defence is attack is an old maxim. In reality, it is frequently untrue; running away is a far better option. But it seems to be the approach taken by pilot whales when faced with a pod of killer whales which are looking for dinner.

That, at least, is the conclusion of Matthew Bowers of Duke University in North Carolina. He came to it as the result of a study, just published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, which he and his team conducted on pilot whales (pictured) and Risso’s dolphins—two closely related species of small cetacean. He knew that killer whales, which are partial to snacking on both of these species, chat with one another during the normal course of events, even if they tend to stay quiet when making an attack. He therefore speculated that potential prey would react to distant killer-whale communications, it being risky to do nothing. What he did not know was what the reaction would...Continue reading

Making buildings, cars and planes from materials based on plant fibres

14 Jun 2018, 3:09 pm

USING carrots to create concrete, turning wood into plastic, or even compressing it into a “super wood” that is as light and strong as titanium might sound like a series of almost Frankensteinish experiments. Yet all three are among the latest examples of employing natural fibres from plants as eco-friendly additives or alternatives to man-made materials.

Materials-science researchers are finding that plant fibres can add durability and strength to substances already used in the construction of buildings and in goods that range from toys and furniture to cars and aircraft. A big bonus is that, because plants lock up carbon in their structure, using their fibres to make things should mean less carbon dioxide is emitted. The production of concrete alone represents some 5% of man-made global CO{-2} emissions, and making 1kg of plastic from oil produces 6kg of the greenhouse gas.

Start with the carrots. These are being investigated by Mohamed Saafi at Lancaster University, in England. Dr...Continue reading

Computer algorithms can test the dodginess of published results

14 Jun 2018, 3:09 pm

IN AN ideal world the data on which a scientific study is based should be, if not publicly available, then at least available to other researchers with a legitimate interest in asking. Sadly, this is not always the case. Though attitudes are changing, many scientists are still quite proprietorial about their data. They collected them, they reason, and thus they own them, and with them the right to analyse them without sharing them with rivals.

This attitude, though selfish, is understandable. But sometimes it can cover a darker secret. The statistics presented in a paper may have been manipulated to achieve a desired result. The author may, in other words, have cheated. If he releases the data, that cheating will be obvious. Better to keep them hidden.

That, though, will be harder in the future—at least for sets of data that consist of integer numbers in a known range, as do, for example, the answers to many questionnaires in psychology experiments. As they describe in a...Continue reading

Submarine cables could be repurposed as earthquake detectors

13 Jun 2018, 9:48 pm

EARTH is observed as never before. Satellites track typhoons, monitor volcanic-ash plumes and catalogue the changing ways in which human beings use the land. The sort of high-quality imagery that, a couple of decades ago, was the preserve of spies in rich and powerful countries is now freely available to users of Google Maps.

But despite its name, most of Earth is covered in water, and it is much harder to monitor what goes on beneath the waves. In a paper just published in Science, Giuseppe Marra, of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), proposes to shine a little light into the oceans by co-opting infrastructure built for an entirely different purpose. Dr Marra and his colleagues hope to use the planet’s 1m-kilometre network of undersea fibre-optic cables, which carry the internet from continent to continent (see map), as a giant submarine sensor.

Dr Marra is particularly interested in earthquakes. The dry bits of the planet are well-stocked with...Continue reading

The Cambrian explosion was caused by a lack of oxygen, not an abundance

7 Jun 2018, 2:45 pm

Creatures from the black lagoon

DURING the Cambrian period, which began 541m years ago, animal life took a remarkable leap forward. The first creatures believed by most (though not all) palaeontologists to be multicellular animals appear in the previous geological period, the Ediacaran. But though they are abundant and reasonably diverse, Ediacaran creatures do not look ancestral to modern animals. That is in contradistinction to Cambrian fossils, among which are found representatives of all the main animal groups (annelids, arthropods, brachiopods, chordates, cnidarians, echinoderms, molluscs and so on) that are around today. And these groups appear in what is, in geological terms, an eyeblink.

Several explanations have been put forward to explain the Cambrian explosion of animal life. One of the most popular is that it was fuelled by a dramatic rise in oxygen levels, permitting large and active creatures to thrive. However, a study just published in Continue reading

Extracting carbon dioxide from the air is possible. But at what cost?

7 Jun 2018, 2:45 pm

IN MAY some 250 scientists and policy types from around the world convened in Gothenburg, Sweden, to discuss a dirty secret of the three-year-old Paris climate agreement. Virtually all simulations which chart paths toward meeting that compact’s goal—to keep temperature rise “well below” 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels—assume not just a sharp reduction in actual emissions but also the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a massive scale. One reason such “negative emissions” have been absent from climate discussions—the Swedish shindig being the first of its kind—is that no one has a good idea of how exactly to bring them about. The obvious solution is to plant lots of trees, to convert CO2 into wood. But this would mean foresting an area with a size somewhere between that of India and Canada. Alternative, engineered fixes have been dogged by potentially stratospheric costs, uncertain efficacy or both.

No longer, reckons David Keith. Besides his day job as...Continue reading

Artificial intelligence will improve medical treatments

7 Jun 2018, 2:45 pm

FOUR years ago a woman in her early 30s was hit by a car in London. She needed emergency surgery to reduce the pressure on her brain. Her surgeon, Chris Mansi, remembers the operation going well. But she died, and Mr Mansi wanted to know why. He discovered that the problem had been a four-hour delay in getting her from the accident and emergency unit of the hospital where she was first brought, to the operating theatre in his own hospital. That, in turn, was the result of a delay in identifying, from medical scans of her head, that she had a large blood clot in her brain and was in need of immediate treatment. It is to try to avoid repetitions of this sort of delay that Mr Mansi has helped set up a firm called Viz.ai. The firm’s purpose is to use machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence (AI), to tell those patients who need urgent attention from those who may safely wait, by analysing scans of their brains made on admission.

That idea is one among myriad projects now under way with the...Continue reading