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Scientists discover a ghostlike particle in the Antarctic, a potential loophole in Einstein’s cosmic speed limit, a noise-cancelling ability in frogs, and more!

Working around the cosmic speed limit

The speed of light. 3.08 x 108 m/s. An absolute cosmic speed limit.

If you were to break it (thereby challenging fundamental laws of physics), you could reach the moon in 1.3 seconds, a Star Trek-level feat.

<strong>The speed of light</strong> is a constant in that we have never observed something in the universe moving faster than light. Without a currently theoretical "warp drive," faster-than-light travel is simply impossible.

Whether or not lightspeed travel is feasible is a question that continues to be bandied about on online publications, but most scientists gave up on the idea long ago (as Einstein’s theory of relativity gained increasing credence), at least with anything other than massless or near-massless objects.

But, in 1994, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre found a possible loophole with his proposed “warp drive.” It would rely not on attaining speeds faster than light but rather on altering the space around a spaceship, compressing that ahead of it and elongating that behind it — essentially creating a shortcut.

However, achieving this deformation in space would require massive amounts of negative energy. Recently, researchers Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire suggested the use of a massive gravitational force instead, in their paper which includes the world’s first physical model for a warp drive.

So, has humanity finally found a method for cosmic gulf-hopping? The verdict’s still out; the new model, while not breaking any laws of physics, still requires great (and likely far out) feats of engineering and energy conversion.

Spotting a high-speed, extraterrestrial particle

On December 6, 2016, a telescope buried below thousands of feet of Antarctic ice (acting as an optical medium) detected the world’s first observed Glashow resonance event.

The phenomenon was predicted by the Noble laureate physicist Sheldon Glashow six decades ago.

On the long-awaited day, a high-energy antineutrino carrying 6.3 PeV of energy crashed into an electron in the Antarctic ice, decaying into a W- boson.

<strong>This is a neutrino detector</strong> at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica.

No human-made accelerator can produce that level of energy in a particle, indicating that the antineutrino had likely journeyed from some faraway galaxy after being expelled by a cosmic accelerator (such as a supermassive blackhole).

Scientists believe antineutrinos, as well as their neutrino counterparts, hold key information about the Universe’s formation. And this detection confirms the ability of new technologies to study them.

With these advancements, will scientists finally understand some of the mysteries of the Big Bang?

Influencers: maybe not as influential as we thought

To this day, listicles based on Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 bestselling novel The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference abound on the internet. 

The highly-referenced source has been closely examined, distilled, and disseminated — sometimes as an ultimate guide to viral marketing — by academia and industry writers alike.

<strong>Influencers not influencing.</strong> Recent research indicates that the effect influencers have on people or trends may have been overexaggerated.

But a recent study (published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) suggests that the novel is fundamentally wrong about the importance and power of influencers in information campaigns.

The study’s authors tested Gladwell’s theory by simulating the way information spreads across various networks (i.e. word-of-mouth, advertising, and combination networks) using R.

As it turns out, the presence of even a small amount of advertising neutralizes the effect of influencers. Word-of-mouth is still important, but essentially, it doesn’t matter what mouth that word comes from.

Myth busted. No more too-good-to-be-true guides, please.

Genuine, unflinching selective hearing

Hearing aids and cochlear implants rely on signal-processing algorithms to suppress, or filter out, unnecessary sounds while amplifying relevant ones, in a process known as spectral contrast enhancement.

Recently, researchers discovered that female treefrogs take an analogous approach to hearing mating calls amidst the din of nature’s sounds.

<strong>Tree frogs</strong> have the ability to selectively cancel out certain noises, thereby allowing them to hear mating calls better.

By inflating their lungs, giving their throats a bubble-like appearance, treefrogs can dampen sound vibrations in specific frequency ranges. This allows the frogs to selectively cancel out noises that fall between the two peaks of its own specie’s mating call. 

Scientists have long known that acoustic coordination is important for many types of frog’s reproductive and survival success. But they previously did not know the exact function of their specialized ear-to-lung pathways, some believing that vibrations provided directional cues (allowing them to locate the source of mating calls).

The digital divide widens

With the move to remote work, researchers report the digital divide has widened.

Even after a year with the pandemic (and months of mobilization efforts by schools), reports continue to surface of students being left offline, due to lack of internet and technology access, as their distance learning classes and classmates move ahead.

<strong>The internet</strong> is no longer a luxury. The pandemic proved that it has changed into a necessary utility, and perhaps the time has come to treat it as such.

Prior to the pandemic, the digital divide was already a prevalent and deep-seated issue in many countries, including the United States. With its advancing digital economy, those with IT skills will have an increasing edge in the job market.

But the researchers report that, surprisingly, people with basic IT skills are also more likely to be employed in jobs that do not actually require those skills.

In light of these trends, the researchers are calling for robust public policy that ensures people receive training in the basic skills needed to find employment in today’s market.

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