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Science News Digest - 18th September 2012

In the science news this week, a journey across Antarctica during the winter is announced, first nuclear fusion reactor built, the mystery behind the killer whales’ menopause may have been solved, and finally… Google launches new Easter Egg feature.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes announces latest record attempt

Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has announced he is to attempt the “Coldest Journey”, leading a team on foot across Antarctica during the winter, reported the BBC.

The expedition will take six months and will involve crossing the continent when it is at its coldest – temperatures can drop as low as -90C.

Sir Ranulph is famous for his daring record attempts and polar exploration. He was the first person to cross Antarctica unaided in 1992-93, and he was the oldest Briton to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2009 at the age of 65.

"We do it because we like to break world records," said Sir Ranulph. "Sometimes we don't succeed, but it's what we go for. It's our specialty."

"We looked at this 25 years ago and realised it was impossible. [But,] we heard a rumour that Norwegian explorers were contemplating this. We realised we were going to have to have a go."

The team will be dropped off by ship on the Pacific coast of the southern continent, and then wait for the equinox on 21st March 2013 when they will set off across the ice shelf.

They will then climb 10,000ft (3,000m) on to the plateau where they will cross the island heading for the south pole. From there, it is several hundred miles to where they will descend back down onto the ice shelf about 11,000ft below, and travel across to the Ross Sea, marking the end of their 2,000mile (3,200km) journey.

The team will also be raising money for the charity, Seeing is Believing, an initiative to fight avoidable blindness.

A big part of the expedition will be the scientific experiments. The sea voyage will involve a number of observations on marine life, oceanography and meteorology. The crossing itself will also be a chance to monitor changes to the ice shelf and the effect of climate change upon the pole during the winter months.

Unlike previous expeditions, Sir Ranulph and his fellow explorers will not be pulling all their equipment on sledges themselves. This time, Sir Ranuph and a skiing partner will lead on foot, followed by two bulldozers dragging industrial sledges that will hold all their supplies, food, fuel and a science lab.

The conditions expected during the Antarctic winter present a whole new set of problems for the expedition.

Every bit of kit needs to be able to work in temperatures well below -70C. To help them avoid crevasses – huge cracks in the ice shelf that can be hidden by snow  – the two skiers will pull a ground-penetrating radar system that will send images to the lead vehicle behind them. However, like much of the equipment, they don’t know if it will work in the extreme conditions.

"This technology is used extensively in Antarctica, but in the summer," says Steve Holland, who is running the expedition's equipment research team.

"For smaller items of equipment we can do cold chamber work - and we did this with clothing. But that's to see whether it becomes brittle and is going to break. It doesn't tell you if it's going to work at those temperatures."

Dr Mike Stroud who has accompanied Sir Ranulph on a number of his previous expeditions and is advising him on this one, is concerned on the impact the conditions will have on the team themselves.

"The challenge is whether it is possible to operate and be out there in the coldest place on earth at the coldest time of the year,” he said.

"Your lungs definitely suffer. The air going in is so cold it's going to freeze some of the moisture that's in that system."

Another major problem is frostbite – during one training session in Sweden, a team member suffered frostbite in his fingers simply from exposing them to the cold for too long at a mere -40C.


The first nuclear fusion reactor under construction in France

Often only half-seriously acknowledged as the world’s energy future, nuclear fusion is a sci-fi fantasy that may soon become reality. Under the guidance of a major international collaboration project, the Earth’s first nuclear fusion reactor is under construction in France, and is planned to start operating in 2020, reported The Guardian.

While the potential of nuclear fusion for generating incredible amounts of energy with very little by-product has long been known, the technology to harness this knowledge has lagged far behind.

The advantages of fusion over current fossil-fuel and nuclear fission reactions are immense. For every 100 tonnes of coal we burn, fusion can deliver the same amount of energy without any carbon dioxide emissions, using a small bath of water and the lithium contained in a single laptop battery. Not only is it more efficient, therefore, but many of the destructive side-effects suffered by our current systems just aren’t there. No carbon emissions, no nuclear waste.

The end is still a long way off, however. The reactor under construction, called Iter, will be used as a model to test the viability of the technology on the scale of a small power plant. And while success is widely anticipated, the next step would only be to build a “demonstration power plant” to start operating in the 2030s. Its commercial application is still a long way off.

 The real challenges lie not in proving fusion’s use in the lab, but in providing a genuine alternative to our current energy systems. Professor Chris Llewellyn Smith, director of energy research at Oxford University, is reported in the Guardian as saying: "with enough money we could probably build a fusion reactor now but it would not be economical. The challenge is to make it reliable and competitive."


Killer whales have menopause to help protect their sons

A 36 year study into the lives of nearly 600 killer whales may have revealed why orcas are one of just two non-human species that go through an extended menopause, reported New Scientist.

The study involved 589 identifiable orca off the coast of Washington state in the US and British Columbia in Canada.

Female orcas can live to be 90 but stop reproducing when they are relatively young – at between 30 and 40.

Darren Croft from University of Exeter analysed the death patterns of the whales using the data collected by his US and Canadian colleagues between 1974 and 2010.

His team looked at the probability that a whale aged between about 5 and 50 years old would die in any given year. They then compared the death rates for animals whose mothers had died, with those whose mothers were still alive.

The team found that for the whales who had a living mother, the chance of survival was much higher, particularly for the males that were over 30.

"There's a 14-fold increase in the risk that sons over 30 years old die in the year after their mothers die," says Croft.

This could potentially mean that the mothers play a significant role in ensuring the survival of their sons, explaining why they go through an extended menopause.

There are two theories as to why humans evolved to have a menopause. One is that, by preventing further childbirth, the menopause allows a woman to survive long enough to raise their youngest child. The other is known as the grandmother hypothesis, which suggests that by living long enough to help raise her grandchildren, a woman ensures the continuance of her genes down the generations.

"There are differences between the human and orca case," says Ruth Mace, who studies human evolution at University College London. "The new data suggest the mother is crucial to the males' ability to stay with his group, which is not common in human societies."


And finally…

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon just got easier


Google has incorporated the infamous 90s party game, Six degrees of Kevin Bacon, into the search engine, allowing users to simply type in an actor’s name followed by “bacon number” to find how many steps it takes to get to the Footloose actor, reported The Guardian.

The original game centred on the notion that it was possible to connect any actor in Hollywood back to Kevin Bacon in six steps or fewer. Lead engineer at Google, Yossi Matias, said that the project was about highlighting the power of Google’s search engine.

He told the Hollywood Reporter that: "If you think about search in the traditional sense, for years it has been to try and match, find pages and sources where you would find the text. It's interesting that this small-world phenomena when applied to the world of actors actually shows that in most cases, most actors aren't that far apart from each other. And most of them have a relatively small Bacon number."


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