October 20, 2012 - Ironing the Ocean * Fish Feces Combat Carbon * Say "Micro-cheese" * The Slimy Road Not Taken * Earth Two * Baboons with Personality

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Today, we mark Bob McDonald's 20th anniversary as host of Quirks & Quarks.  In 20 years, he's interviewed about five thousand scientists, from graduate students to Nobel Prize winners, from astronauts to academics.  And the best way to celebrate is to keep the streak alive. 

So, on today's program, you'll hear from a young scientist who has discovered how fish poo is helping to battle climate change. We'll speak to the Canadian inventor who's invented a tiny, lensless camera  that's smaller than a flake of pepper. We'll speak with another Canadian scientist who can explain how slime mold might be the smartest brainless creature on the planet.  We have a Swiss astronomer who has found an Earth-sized planet in our galactic back yard, and we'll hear about baboons whose nice personalities lead to reproductive success. But first - Ironing the Ocean.

 

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Ironing the Ocean
Thumbnail image for Spring_Bloom_and_Dust_off_Argentina.jpgIron rich dust blowing off Argentina and stimulating Pacific plankton bloom.

Many scientists were alarmed to hear that a team led by US businessman Russ George performed a kind of wildcat experiment recently, dumping 100 tonnes of iron-enriched material into the Pacific Ocean, 300km of the coast of Haida Gwaii.  The apparent point of this was to stimulate plankton growth, which would, in turn, lead to increased food for salmon, and, possibly, to an increase in carbon uptake into the ocean.  But, according to Dr. Kenneth Coale, this kind of action is far ahead of the scientific understanding of what "iron fertilization" like this can accomplish.  Dr. Coale is a Professor of Marine Biogeochemistry at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories at San Jose State University, and a leader of the ISIS consortium, an international research group trying to understand issues around iron fertilization of the ocean. He says current research has not at all demonstrated that this kind of endeavour can accomplish its goals, and that it may lead to unfortunate unanticipated impacts on the ocean ecosystem. Related Links


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Fish Feces Combat Carbon

fish_fecal_pellets.jpgClimate change is reviving the world's most northerly lake, Kaffeklubben So, in Greenland.  Photo:  D. Mazzucchi
The 'biological pump' is a process by which marine life, including various types of phytoplankton, transport carbon dioxide from the surface of the ocean to the bottom.  There, it is out of harm's way, in terms of contributing to climate change.  It has been unclear how effectively fish contribute to this process of carbon fixation.  But a new study by Dr. Grace Saba, a post-doctoral Research Associate at the Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has discovered that at least one fish plays a part.  Anchovies ingest phytoplankton as a food source, but, in the process, are also taking in carbon.  In the area of study alone  - the Santa Barbara Channel off California - it adds up to an estimated 250 milligrams of carbon being taken to the deep sea, per square metre of water, per day.  Based on this equation, scientists believe fish may play a bigger role in this carbon cycle than previously understood.

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Say "Micro-cheese"

mona_lisa.jpgThe PFCAs image of the Mona Lisa, courtesy P. Gill 
Modern digital cameras are amazing, and can be remarkably small.  But because all conventional cameras require a lens, there's a limit to how small they can be.  Dr. Patrick Gill, who recently finished his post-doctoral research at the University of Toronto, has invented a new kind of camera, called a Planar Fourier Capture Array (PFCA) which requires no lens, and thus can be made incredibly tiny - the size of a flake of pepper - and very cheaply as well.  It takes an image in a way that's very different from a conventional camera.  Each pixel samples the image as a whole in its own way, and the unique perspectives of all the pixels are then mathematically combined to form an image.  The cameras are quite low resolution, but could find applications as inexpensive sensors in a whole range of technologies.
    

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The Slimy Road Not Taken

Slime mold has been studied extensively in recent years, and never ceases to amaze scientists.  It is a single-celled organism in the amoeba family, although describing it as a 'yellow pulsating blob' may be just as accurate.  Slime mold is brainless, yet capable of incredible feats, including navigation, calculated risk, and as scientists recently discovered, a type of memory.  A new study by Dr. Tanya Latty, a Canadian post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Sydney in Australia, has found that the 'gooey' trail of proteins and sugars slime mold leaves in its wake is actually a way of determining where it has already traveled, and therefore, where it not longer needs to go.  It is a form of externalized spatial memory that makes for more efficient foraging. 
 

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Earth Two

alpha_cen_Bb.jpgArtist's impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.
A planet practically identical to the Earth in mass, and very likely quite similar in size, has been found in the nearest star system to us, only 4.3 light years away.  The planet orbits Alpha Centauri B, and was detected by the very faint "wobble" it creates in the light of the star as it orbits and its gravity pulls the star back and forth.  However, the small size of the planet made this detection very difficult, as the wobble in the light was very small - often smaller than the normal variation in the star's light from sunspots and solar storms.   The planet is not likely to be habitable, as it orbits very close to its star - circling it every three days - and so is scorchingly hot.  But Xavier Dumusque, the planetary astronomer from the Geneva Observatory who was part of the team that discovered the planet, thinks that the discovery of one Earth-sized planet around Alpha Centauri probably suggests there are more of them in more amenable environments.

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Baboons with Personality

RMS with baboons.jpgDr Seyfarth and friends
Baboons seem to violate a lot of human cliches.  For example, nice baboons seem to finish first.  Violating another human cliche, baboons with nice personalities also seem to do best in the mating game.  These are the results of a long term study of baboons in Botswana by Dr. Robert Seyfarth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues, who were studying variations in baboon social behaviour.  They found there was significant variation in female baboon personality, breaking down into different types.   And the "nice" baboons - those who were most approachable by other baboons, and who approached other baboons most often - had wider social networks, lived longer and had more reproductive success than other personality types.  This opens interesting questions about the role of personality in natural selection.
 

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