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Science news digest – 19th March 2013

In the science news this week, evidence grows in support of Higgs discovery, the bottom of the ocean is teeming with life, Martian rock dazzles NASA scientists, and finally… water voles are given a boost at a London canal.

Scientists more confident that particle discovery is the Higgs

Last year, scientists from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced that they had possibly seen evidence of the existence of the Higgs particle – the last piece of the jigsaw needed to prove the current particle physics theory. However, the result was only a tentative one, and needed to be backed up by further analysis before being accepted as the much sought-after discovery.

However, it would seem that further analysis has indeed supported this original find. The most recent analysis is based on twice as much data as was used for the preliminary results last year, reported the Guardian.

The measurements show that the particle behaves exactly as was expected. Some scientists are even prepared to now accept this new particle as the Higgs even without the rest of the results that are still to come.

“I'm confident that it's a Higgs particle. I don't need to call it Higgs-like any more," said Joe Incandela, spokesman for the CMS team at Cern. "I may need to eat my words one day, but I think that's very unlikely."

The particle was found amongst the debris thrown out from the hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the LHC by the two huge detectors, Atlas and CMS.

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The bottom of the ocean is teeming with life

A team from the University of Southern Denmark in Odense have found unusually high levels of microbial activity in the sediments taken from the deepest point in the world’s oceans.

The sample was taken from the dive made by Hollywood director, James Cameron, last year in the Challenger Deep submarine. He dived nearly 11,000 metres into the western Pacific’s Mariana Trench.

The team from Denmark dispatched autonomous sensors and sample collectors into the trench to measure microbial activity in the top 20cm of sediment on the sea bed, reported New Scientist.

The pressure at this depth is 1,100 times greater than at the surface, and food is hard to come by as much of the detritus that falls down to the sea bed is eaten by other organisms on the way down.

Only 1 per cent of the organic matter generated at the surface reaches the sea floor – typically 3,000 to 6,000 metres below sea level – so you would expect even less to reach the bottom of the trench.

However, Ronnie Glud from the University of Southern Denmark found that when he compared the sediment samples taken from Challenger Deep with those taken from a site on the sea floor, the sample from the trench had around 10 times more bacteria.

The deep microbes were also twice as active as the bacteria from shallower waters.

Glud says that this isn’t too surprising as deep ocean trenches are quite good at capturing sediment, and even if it does contain no more than 1 per cent of the organic matter, so much of it cascades down to the bottom of the trench that the microbial activity shoots up.

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Curiosity uncovers dazzling rock on Mars

A rock that was crushed by the massive Mars rover, Curiosity, has revealed a dazzling interior, reported the BBC.

NASA scientists were shocked to see that the rock was in fact a bright white colour, which suggests the presence of hydrated minerals that formed when water flowed over the surface thousands of years ago.

The rock has been dubbed “Tintina” and it adds to the growing evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface, or at least on the landing site of the rover in the Gale crater.

“This is one of the brightest and whitest things we've seen with the Mastcam at the Gale Crater site," said Melissa Rice, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in Pasadena.

"This rock, Tintina, has a very strong hydration signal that corresponds to all that white material we see inside the rock. But that hydration signal doesn't show up anywhere else in the image.

"The first time we tried to take the image [of Tintina], it saturated the detector, because we had no idea we'd have something so bright," said Jim Bell, from Arizona State University in Tempe.

However, along with this discovery, NASA scientists have also revealed that the rover is suffering from yet another computer problem – the second in the space of a month.

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And finally…

Water voles are given a step up at a London canal

Tiny ladders are being installed at a London canal to give the resident water voles better access to new nesting and feeding sites, reported Wired.

The project is part of a wider conservation effort costing £100,000 by the Canal and River Trust aimed at boosting the water vole population. The ladders are being installed at the Hanwell Lock Flight in Ealing.

Water voles have become an endangered species in the UK, with a population drop of over 90 per cent in the last three decades. This is mostly because of mink predation and the loss of their natural habitat. It is hoped that the ladders may help solve the latter problem, giving the water voles better access to other sites.

"The slow moving waters of our canals and rivers can be ideal homes but colonies are often isolated," said Leela O'Dea, an ecologist for the Canal and River Trust. "This work makes a massive difference as we can extend the water voles' territory, enhance the areas where they live, and play our part in conserving and restoring their populations."

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