Cosmos Magazine

Cosmos Magazine Issue 90

Global science, from a unique Australian perspective.

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The Royal Institution of Australia Inc
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1 min
from the executive director

I’M ALWAYS AMAZED when I look at the breadth of scientific investigations throughout the world – at efforts to probe everything from phenomena of unimaginable size and distance to the unimaginably small. I love the way science makes sense of incredible complexity and synthesises this complexity into the daily rhythms of our world. Regardless of the scale of scientific endeavour, it’s united by a common single process: a boldness of imagination to view the world in a new or deeper way, followed by rigour in investigation and testing to arrive at conclusions that all of us can rely on for our betterment. Twelve months of global pandemic has pushed this process, the scientific method, to the front of all our lives. Not just in the incredible effort that went into developing vaccines,…

1 min
from the editors

It defies belief that little more than a year has passed since the SARS-CoV-2 genie escaped its biological bottle and began its capricious rule of our lives. Yet we wade into 2021 knowing that by year’s end, COVID vaccines will likely have been delivered to most Australians, plus many in the Western world and, we fervently hope, many others in the developing world. Our story about COVID vaccines in this issue concentrates on a failed effort: we look in detail at the University of Queensland’s innovative molecular clamp approach – abandoned in December – and consider the valuable lessons learned and the tech’s possibilities for future vaccines. In another Australian state – SA – people are innovating for outer space. We talk to the people working on technologies that will help humans…

2 min
star-making motion

Quantum physicist Richard Feynman once called turbulence “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics”. Now, in a study published in Nature Astronomy, Australian and German scientists have used the computing power of the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) in Germany to probe how turbulence shapes the interstellar medium, and thus helps form stars and planets. “Turbulence is a key ingredient for star formation,” says co-lead author Cristoph Federrath, an astrophysicist from the Australian National University. “It controls the pace of star formation, stirring up gas and slowing down the action of gravity, which – without turbulence – would make stars form a hundred times quicker than observed. “The formation of stars powers the evolution of galaxies on large scales and sets the initial conditions for planet formation on small scales.” Turbulence itself can take a…

1 min
we’ve made more than the earth has grown

Among its other dubious distinctions, the year 2020 marked the approximate tipping point between anthropogenic mass and living biomass, scientists say. The Israeli team has calculated that the mass of human-made products exceeds that of all of the Earth’s plants, microorganisms, people and animals. And this mass is now doubling around every 20 years, they write in the journal Nature. At that rate it could be more than triple that of the Earth’s dry biomass by 2040. Defined as “the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans (that have not yet been demolished or taken out of service)”, anthropogenic mass includes infrastructure and products made with concrete, asphalt, bricks, metals, glass and plastic. Construction materials comprise the vast bulk of it, and building and infrastructure mass recently surpassed that of all trees…

1 min
the origins of money

In a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands are adding an Early Bronze Age piece to the currency puzzle. They’re proposing that Bronze Age people may have used rings and axe blades as an early form of standardised currency. The authors studied just over 5,000 objects made of bronze in rings, ribs and axe blades from more than 100 ancient hoards. Based on the similarity in weight and shape of the bronze objects, they suggest the objects were standardised as currency. “Found in bulk, sometimes in hoards containing multiple hundreds, many of the rings, ribs and axe blades are considered to have no other practical function besides their tentative use as ingots, or rough-outs for further production,” the authors write. The objects’ weights were compared using…

2 min
perfect f luid? i like the sound of that

Physicists in the US say they have been able to measure sound diffusion in a “perfect fluid” for the first time. That’s not just technically impressive – it could, they suggest, be used as a model for more complicated perfect flows to estimate the viscosity of the plasma in the early Universe and even the quantum friction within neutron stars. “It’s quite difficult to listen to a neutron star,” says Martin Zwierlein from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “but now you could mimic it in a lab using atoms, shake that atomic soup and listen to it, and know how a neutron star would sound.” For physicists, “perfect flow” refers to a fluid that flows with the smallest amount of friction, or viscosity, allowed by the laws of quantum mechanics. It is rare…