Quirks and Quarks

Jan 20: Tongan Volcano, why whales don't choke on their food, darkness doomed the dinosaurs and more…

Plastic into marine fuel, electrically stimulating cartilage growth and scientific colonialism.

Plastic into marine fuel, electrically stimulating cartilage growth and scientific colonialism.

A humpback whale surfaces, at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. (Ari Friedlaender)

This week on Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald

The Tongan volcano triggered record-breaking lightning and a never-before-seen tsunami

We're still waiting to find out about the humanitarian impacts of the January 15 eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano in the island nation of Tonga. But scientists are trying to understand some unique features of the eruption including intense ash-cloud lightning and something called a meteotsunami. We speak with volcanologist and science writer Robin Andrews, whose most recent book is Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond.

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Whale researchers do anatomy with heavy machinery to understand why whales don't choke on their food

The largest whales, the giant filter feeders like the blue and fin whales, feed by lunging at concentrations of prey and taking in vast quantities of food and water. Scientists have puzzled over how these massive animals can dive so quickly, with their mouths wide open, without choking. Researchers including zoologist Kelsey Gil from the University of British Columbia made the surprising discovery of a fatty "oral plug" that acts to block the whales' windpipe to allow them to feed with ease.

Darkness doomed the dinosaurs the extinction asteroid turned out the lights on Earth

When the dino-killing asteroid struck 66 million years ago, our planet was plunged into an extended period of darkness. New research, presented at the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and led in part by Peter Roopnarine from the California Academy of Sciences, looks at how that darkness would have affected global ecosystems in the days afterwards. The results suggest that Earth would have experienced up to 700 days of darkness, which could have been a huge influence on the extinctions that resulted from the impact.

The people behind The Ocean Cleanup that are currently cleaning up the plastic from the world’s largest ocean garbage patch in the Pacific aim to remove 90 per cent of ocean plastic by 2040. (Ocean Cleanup)

Plastic-collecting ships could use the waste for fuel while cleaning up the ocean

Efforts to have ships remove plastic from the world's oceans could be made more environmentally friendly on-board conversion of plastic into fuel for the vessels. In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, researchers outlined a method to rinse, shred, and then chemically convert plastic waste into fuel that could power the plastic-collecting ships. One of the researchers, Michael Timko, a chemical engineer from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, says this could significantly reduce the emissions associated with efforts to rid the world's oceans of plastic.

Regrowing knee cartilage with an electric boost

Thanh Nguyen, a mechanical and biomedical engineer from the University of Connecticut, has successfully re-grown cartilage in the knee of a rabbit. Loss of cartilage is a significant issue in people as they age, and it's proved difficult to regrow or repair. Nguyen and his team implanted a device in the rabbit's knee that used the animal's own movement to generate a small electrical signal which stimulated knee cartilage growth. His research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Researchers call for a new awareness of scientific colonialism

A recent study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, has highlighted the issue of scientific colonialism and what researchers are calling the global power imbalance in paleontology. The international team looked at thousands of paleontological papers and found that 97 per cent of fossil research came from scientists in high income countries, even though most of the fossils themselves were found abroad. The practice of scientific colonialism, or 'parachute science,' is increasingly in the spotlight as more countries join the call for items to be returned and knowledge to be shared. Emma Dunne, a paleontologist with the University of Birmingham, co-authored the study

Amber from Myanmar for sale at a streetside stall in Bangkok. Amber like this can contain scientifically valuable fossils, but some researchers are concerned about exploitation in how it is collected. (LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)

Quirks Listener Question: In which direction will the James Webb Space Telescope be looking? 

Mark Harelik in Los Angeles, California, asks "When the James Webb Telescope begins searching for the earliest stars, in which direction will astronomers be looking?" The answer comes from René Doyon, a professor at the University of Montreal, Director of the Institute for research on exoplanets, and Principal investigator for the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope.