From: California Academy of Sciences
Published February 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Planets Could Be Made Of Diamonds, and Other Stories

Planets Could Be Made Of Diamonds


The road to riches may lead to the heart of the Milky Way. Planets hiding layers of diamond many miles thick may exist in the center of our galaxy. Planets typically form from a disk of gas and dust rotating around a star. Disks where carbon is plentiful and oxygen rare might condense into planets made largely of carbon compounds, says astronomer Marc Kuchner of Princeton University. A type of meteorite known as carbonaceous chondrite sparked Kuchner's idea. Made largely of graphites, carbides, a few diamonds, and other carbon compounds, the meteorites suggest carbon-rich planets exist elsewhere in our cosmic neighborhood. High pressures within those planets could squeeze carbon into diamond formations. Carbides too are very heat-resistant, indicating carbon worlds could orbit their stars very closely, as they could survive the hellish temperatures. Likely diamond worlds include several extrasolar planets known to have star-hugging orbits, and those found in the interior of the Milky Way, a region quite rich in carbon.


Star-Nosed Mole Breaks Speed Feeding Records


A homely creature with 22 pink tentacles stuck to its snout, the star-nosed mole is the world's fastest feeding mammal. Kenneth Catania and Fiona Remple of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee filmed the mole snuffling for earthworm bits in an artificial tunnel. They report in the journal Nature that it takes the star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) on average less than a quarter of a second to find and gulp each morsel down. Most human drivers take three times as long to brake for a red light. The secret of the mole's magnificent eating speed is its nasal tentacles. Each touch-sensitive appendage can identify a food item within about 8 milliseconds. When feeding, the mole proceeds so rapidly that it occasionally outstrips its brain's ability to process information. In several instances, the moles touched but marched right past food items. It took a few moments for each animal to realize its error, reverse course and seize the snack in its tweezer-shaped teeth. The mole's feeding efficiency may be key to its survival. Because it expends so little energy to locate each item of food, this mole of northeastern North America can live off smaller prey items than its marsh-dwelling cousins.


Monkeys Will Pay To See Racy Pictures


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Researchers have found that male monkeys will pay for the privilege of viewing troop leaders and the hindquarters of female monkeys. In an experiment, Robert Deaner of Duke University Medical Center and colleagues let rhesus macaques choose between draughts of fruit juice and the chance to glimpse a range of pictures. The monkeys accepted smaller sips of juice to see facial shots of dominant males but held out for extra juice to see pictures of subordinate males. The subjects were willing to sacrifice the most juice to see the rear ends of female monkeys, information which would help them judge sexual receptiveness. They refused to sacrifice any juice to view socially neutral images. This new research, published in the journal Current Biology, demonstrates how valuable social information can be for primates.


A Miniature Solar System In The Making


When it comes to forming solar systems, size isn't everything. Astronomers have found a tiny, failed star with the makings of future planets swirling around it. Planets are thought to form when discs of dust and gas caught in orbit around stars coalesce into distinct bodies. The massive gravitational pull of a star helps collect enough disc material to form planets. Now, with the help of the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have glimpsed a brown dwarf just 15 times the mass of Jupiter with its very own dust disc. Brown dwarfs are bodies many times larger than planets but that don't quite have enough mass to ignite and burn as stars. The telescope indicates that the brown dwarf's disc has enough building material to create a Saturn-sized world plus an assortment of Earth-sized planets. The dwarf burns at a tepid 2000 degrees Celsius. So planets forming within the diameter of the disc could retain liquid water and could conceivably be habitable. The find was reported at a meeting on planet detection in Aspen, Colorado.


Tame Foxes Take Social Hints


Domesticated foxes are better at taking hints from humans, according to new research. The results could help answer a longstanding question in anthropology: whether people deliberately bred domesticated animals for their social intelligence, or whether these cognitive skills go hand in hand with the process of domestication. In the study, Brian Hare of Harvard University, Massachusetts, utilized a strain of Siberian foxes that have been bred for friendliness for the last 50 years alongside a wilder, randomly bred group of foxes. He put fox kits unfamiliar with people in a room where food had been cached in two places. A human experimenter in the room then pointed and looked intently at one of the food caches. He found that kits from the tame strain were far more likely to read the cue and find the food than the wild foxes. This suggests that social intelligence may be a typical byproduct of domestication rather than a selected trait.


Hot Times On Saturn's South Pole


Polar weather tends to be grim and cold, whether here on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system. But astronomers have now found a startling exception to this pattern--a hotspot on the south pole of planet Saturn. Astronomers at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii report in the journal Science that this area may be the hottest region on the planet. Eighteen straight years of sunshine have helped push temperatures to a balmy minus 122 degrees Celsius. A polar vortex much like Earth's jet stream has helped trap warm air over the pole. Tiny particles in the atmosphere that absorb heat and reflect sunlight back to the surface may further reinforce the effect. Scientists say seasonal variations as Saturn goes through its 30-year orbit don't explain the anomaly. Data from the Cassini spacecraft which is currently studying Saturn may help scientists answer this puzzle.


Life Thrives Within Earth's Deepest Reaches


The Challenger Deep is Earth's deepest known crevice. About seven miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, it reaches farther down than Mount Everest extends upward. Conditions there are harsh, with pressures reaching 1,090 times those at the surface. Yet scientists have found that life, ever resilient, can be found here too. Hiroshi Kitazato of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokosuka took mud samples from the trench using the remote-controlled submersible Kaiko. They report in the journal Science that the mud was chock full of unicellular organisms called foraminifera. Most marine foraminifera have hard shells made of silica, a material better known as glass. But nearly all of the 432 foraminifera found in the Challenger Deep lacked shells--likely an adaptation to the terrible atmospheric pressure. These primitive creatures likely feed on marine detritus that rains down on the bottom of the ocean. The demonstrates just how much pressure life can put up with in extreme environments.


Related Links:


Planets Could Be Made Of Diamonds: Yahoo Daily News (Reuters) / National Geographic / Space.com
Star-Nosed Mole Breaks Speed Feeding Records: New Scientist / National Geographic
Monkeys Will Pay To See Racy Pictures: Scientific American / news@nature.com
A Miniature Solar System In The Making: New Scientist / New York Times
Tame Foxes Take Social Hints: news@nature.com
Hot Times On Saturn's South Pole: CNN (Associated Press) / Scientific American
Life Thrives Within Earth's Deepest Reaches: BBC / CNN (Associated Press) / news@nature.com


Source: California Academy of Sciences


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