* The Japan Syndrome * Orchids Wear the Scent of Death * Missing Every Beat * Ozone Woes * Moths Go with the Flow *

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The Japan Syndrome

hi-fukushima-nuclear-003188.jpg Explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.  AP photo
The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has made a tragic natural disaster even worse.  While the reactors themselves appear to have survived the earthquake and tsunami with little damage, in the aftermath of the disaster, crippled infrastructure in and around the plant has led to a shocking cascade of failures.  Workers are struggling to control overheating reactors and ensure spent fuel stays cool so radiation releases don't become worse.  And even though this was an unprecedented natural disaster, the risks inherent in nuclear power demand that, even in the worst case scenario, the systems must be robust.  We need them not to fail.  So, in the wake of this disaster, we look at the question of nuclear safety.  The Fukushima Daiichi reactors were 40 years old, based on a design from the sixties.  Are newer reactors designed more safely, and are they safe enough?  Dr. David Novog is NSERC/UNENE Industrial Research Associate Chair in Nuclear Safety and Director of the Institute for Energy Studies at McMaster University.  He discusses the features of newer and presumably more robust designs that incorporate passive safety features, and future designs for "walk-away" safe reactors.

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Orchids Wear the Scent of Death

orchid_death.jpg Flesh fly with pollen from Orchid - Dennis Hansen
It is common for orchids to deceive insects into pollinating them.  But new research by Dr. Timo van der Niet at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa has found that the tiny orchid Satyrium pumilum lures flies into its flowers by mimicking the smell of rotting flesh.  It specifically attracts flesh flies, which are known to find the smell of the rotting flesh of the small rock hyrax irresistible.  Chemical analysis of the scent produced by the orchid was found to be remarkably similar to that of the dead hyrax.  This orchid does not produce nectar, so it tricks the insect into pollinating it, but offers no reward in return.  Previous studies have found that plant mimicry is generally not very successful.  However, in this case, an astounding 35 percent of the flies found at the hyrax carcass, had also visited, and therefore been tricked by the orchid.  

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  • Paper in Annals of Botany 
  • News from Annals of Botany
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Missing Every Beat

Mathieu bouncing from Science News on Vimeo.

A dancer who sticks out in a crowd because "he's got no rhythm" may suffer from more than just a lack of talent - he may have a new scientifically described disorder, called "beat deafness."
Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver, a postdoctoral researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the Université de Montréal, reports the first case of the disorder ever studied in the lab - a 23-year-old man named Mathieu.  Mathieu is a music lover who has taken both music and dance lessons in the past. Despite that, Phillips-Silver's experiments showed he consistently could not bounce in time to the beat of a merengue song. Nor could he tell whether someone else was dancing in sync with the music.  Phillips-Silver suspects beat deafness is a new form of congenital amusia similar to tone deafness.   

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Ozone Woes

ozone_hole.jpg Polar stratospheric clouds above the Arctic (Courtesy Alfred Wegener Institute)

Back in the 1980's, before climate change dominated the news, ozone depletion was considered the main threat to the environment.  And you may have thought the hole in the ozone layer, the part of the atmosphere that protects us from the sun's ultraviolet rays, is no longer a problem. After all, the ozone has been recovering since 1987, when an international agreement called the Montreal protocol banned CFCs - chemicals found in aerosol cans, refrigerators and air conditioners that were eating away at the ozone. Besides, wasn't the hole far away, above Antarctica?
Unfortunately, this year, there's a large hole in the ozone layer above the Arctic. And it might just be the biggest ever - thanks, in part, to climate change.  Dr. Kaley Walker, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Toronto, is measuring  ozone above Eureka, Nunavut. She and her research team have found that there is 40 per cent less ozone so far this year, compared to the 1970s and 1980s. And the hole is still growing.  Walker says climate change aids the formation of polar stratospheric clouds, which in turn allow CFCs in the atmosphere, leftover from before the Montreal Protocol, to destroy more ozone during the winter.   

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Moths Go with the Flow

butterfly_hill_218.jpgSilver Y Moth - Dr. Jane Hill
European songbirds share similar migration routes and patterns to those of one particular moth.  The songbirds, which are mostly thrushes and warblers, and the Silver Y moth, migrate from Southern to Northern Europe in the Spring, then back again in the Fall.  But Dr. Jane Hill, a biologist at the University of York in England, found another similarity that is very surprising.  Both migrating groups were tracked by radar and the results presented an aviation mystery.  The songbirds, which are medium-sized efficient fliers, and the thumbnail-sized moths, cover the same distance over the same period of time - about 4 nights.  The study found that the moths have a built-in compass sense that tells them to fly only when the wind direction is right for their destination.  The songbirds, on the other hand, take flight in any wind, which sometimes slows their progress.  The moths may be making use of moon light, the earth's magnetic field or smells they detect in the favourable winds.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0