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Science news digest – 3rd December 2013

In the science news this week, comet just about survives close encounter with the Sun, a device to help difficult births, and finally…the mystery behind the koala's booming voice solved.

Comet Ison – back from the dead?

Last week, a comet from the outer reaches of our Solar System stole the science headlines. Comet Ison promised to be one of the brightest comets in the sky for decades, but only if it could survive its journey past the Sun.

Astronomers watched the comet as it approached the Sun, travelling at over 200 miles per second, when it disappeared behind the star. It skimmed the Sun at just 730,000 miles above the surface, heating the comet to a blistering 3,000C.

"It would be an absolutely hellish environment, there's never been a better time to use the words 'snowball's chance in hell'," said Tom Kerss, astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

On Thursday night, it was announced by several observers that their fears had been realised – Ison had been destroyed by the Sun. The amazing spectacle that it had promised to so many astronomers was not to be.

But, it turns out that that wasn’t the last we would hear about comet Ison. Remarkably, despite being announced as a goner by NASA and ESA scientists alike, a faint smudge was seen reappearing from behind the Sun following further analysis of the images.

"To all intents and purposes it looked like it had gone, and then amazingly this thing appears out the other side," Professor Tim O'Brien, associate director of the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank observatory told the Guardian.

"What we don't know is whether the whole thing fell apart and whether the dust that was embedded within the ice is just basically in a big cloud and that is continuing to orbit," he explained. "The question is, is it just a cloud of dust … or is there still either one or more remnants of the nucleus."

Only time will tell whether what astronomers are seeing is a bit of comet or just some dust – if it is dust, it will quickly dissipate. But O'Brien is optimistic.

"It looks pretty bright in the images we are seeing from spacecraft but I wouldn't like to say whether it will be visible to the naked eye just yet. We'll know in the next few days."

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Device to help women during difficult births created by car mechanic

It sounds like a pretty unlikely story, but Jorge Odon – a car mechanic from Argentina – may have developed one of the most important inventions for mothers and babies around the globe.

Odon, who has no connection with obstetrics, has developed a device that is an alternative to forceps or ventouse, to help women during a tricky birth. The device is loosely based on a party trick Odon saw that involves getting a loose cork out of an empty wine bottle!

The party trick is done by placing a plastic bag over the bottle opening, and blowing in it to inflate the bag inside the bottle. Then you simply pull the bag out, removing the cork with it.

Odon immediately saw the potential in adapting this technique for childbirth. His device is essentially a piece of plastic that is inserted in the birth canal, and then inflated around the baby's head, under the chin. This then allows the midwife or doctor to adjust the baby's position and help the mother give birth.

The device has been trialled with 100 healthy women in Argentina, and the next phase will see it tested in problem births in Africa, Asia and Europe. The hope is that this could be a safe and cheap alternative for midwives in developing countries. It also reduces the risk of transmission from mother to baby of infections or HIV.

"The important thing is that it's affordable so that it can reach everywhere," Odon told the BBC. "More than the economic side of this I have always wanted to save lives, to help people."

The doctor who first helped Odon develop the idea, Dr Mario Merialdi, isn’t surprised that a mechanic was the one to think of this solution.

"Albert Einstein used to say that sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge and this is actually the case, because Jorge didn't have any knowledge of obstetrics," Merialdi says.

"It's also true that although delivery is a biological function, it's also a mechanical process and so it's not surprising that a mechanic found a way to solve the problem of protracted or obstructed labour. I doubt an obstetrician like me would have thought of a plastic bag with an air chamber in it."

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And finally…

Koala's bellow made by unique organ

Scientists have finally got to the bottom of the reason why koalas have such a deep bellow.

It’s a fairly unlikely noise to come out of such a small critter, and scientists have found that this is because koalas have a completely unique structure in front of their vocal cords in order to produce the sound.

"The first time I heard a koala bellow I was genuinely amazed that an animal this small could produce such a sound," said Benjamin Charlton, of the University of Sussex, who led the research.

The pitch of the bellow, Dr Charlton told the BBC, was about "20 times lower than would be expected for an animal of its size".

But it seems that koalas have a second, larger set of vocal folds in their voice box that make the sound a lot deeper.

"Larger structures can oscillate at lower frequencies,” said Dr Charlton.

"Just think of a guitar string - as you shorten the string by placing a finger on the fret board, you raise the frequency of the sound produced, and the thickest strings produce the lowest frequencies."

This vocal set-up seems to be completely unique to koalas but the reasons behind it are still to be determined said the researchers.

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