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Science news digest – 22 October 2013

In the science news this week, gas giants are showered with diamonds, “electronic blood that could fuel computers, and finally… monkeys use human speech patterns.

Up to four planets in our Solar System may see ‘diamond rain’

US researchers this week told the 45th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (American Astronomical Society) that ‘diamond rain’ could be the most common form of precipitation in the Solar System, with diamonds a centimetre wide being created in the atmosphere of the four outer planets.

Scientists have long suspected that two of the so-called ‘gas giants’, Uranus and Neptune, could harbour gemstones, although the new findings suggest that contrary to previous theories, the atmospheric conditions on Saturn and Jupiter may also lend themselves to the creation of diamonds.

The diamonds are thought to come in to existence when lightning storms turn methane into carbon, which hardens as it falls. After falling about 1600km, the carbon soot turns into chunks of graphite due to the increased pressure. By 6000km the high pressure turns the graphite into diamond.

Although the diamonds created on Uranus and Neptune are thought to remain in that state – the diamond ‘hail stones’ created on Saturn and Jupiter eventually melt, as they reach the extreme temperature at the core of the planet.

The findings are not yet peer reviewed, but experts speaking to BBC News said the possibility of diamond rain "cannot be dismissed".

"The idea that there is a depth range within the atmospheres of Jupiter and (even more so) Saturn within which carbon would be stable as diamond does seem sensible," Prof Raymond Jeanloz, one of the team who first predicted diamonds on Uranus and Neptune, told the BBC.

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Computers of the future may be fuelled by ‘electronic blood’

IBM have unveiled a new prototype computer, inspired by an animal brain. The biomimetic technology uses a fluid to fuel, and cool, the machine – a similar mechanism to that seen in the human brain. IBM describe the technology as ‘electronic blood’ – an electrolyte fluid that carries power in, and takes heat out of the machines.

The scientists behind the project described their desire to make the technology far more efficient, citing that the human brain is 10,000 times more dense and efficient than any computer currently in existence. By 2060, they hope that this kind of technology could be used to create a petaflop computer – which would fill half a football field today – that would fit on to the average desk.

Dr Bruno Michel, one of the researchers working on the project explained on the BBC why following the example of the brain may be the way forwards for computer technology:

"The computer industry uses $30bn of energy and throws it out of the window. We're creating hot air for $30bn," says Michel.

"Ninety-nine per cent of a computer's volume is devoted to cooling and powering. Only 1% is used to process information. And we think we've built a good computer?"

"The brain uses 40% of its volume for functional performance - and only 10% for energy and cooling," he said.

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And finally…

Monkeys take turns to get their point across

Researchers have observed marmoset monkeys taking turns to speak to one another in a speech pattern that is very similar to that of humans, reports the BBC.

The marmosets were recorded as they called out to one another from behind a curtain. Each monkey would call, and then wait for the other to respond before calling out again.

The results suggest an “alternative evolutionary route” for our own conversation habits. Taking turns to speak is crucial in order to allow us to exchange information properly. The paper has been published in the journal Current Biology.

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