Tree of 40 Fruits

I’m sure we’ve all seen a tree or two at some point in our lives, sometimes carrying fruit, but never a single tree with branches full of 40 different varieties of fruit.

This truly innovating project was actually led not by a scientist, but by an artist. His name is Sam Van Aken, and he is an art professor at Syracuse University in New York who some years ago planned to create a tree where each branch produced a different fruit, so that in spring, every branch would bloom into a different colour, but all in shades of pink, white and red.

tree 40 fruit

A CGI image of what the tree will look like in spring

To accomplish this gardening feat, he used a technique called chip grafting. It consists of cutting a fragment of a flowering tree that gives one type fruit (including the bud), and adding that onto a previously-made cut on the ‘master tree’ (the original tree that will hold all the different fruits). Then, it is held together with tape and left during the winter so the two parts join.

And so step by step, the tree became larger, and every year it had the ability to produce more and more fruits until, after 9 years, it could make up to 40 types. This project has been carried out for quite some time, so now, in total, there are 16 of these hybrid trees, each with a different combination of fruits. However, they all produce variations of stone fruits, like apricots, cherries, plums and peaches because they are easily compatible. To find these trees, you should look all over the US, in museums and community centres, or if you’ve got enough money to spend on this, you can even buy your own for around $30,000.

The idea originally was just to create beautiful trees as a work of art, but as Van Aken was collecting different varieties of fruits to add to his trees, he discovered a growing problem: a lower variety of species had become available, and only a few were being grown at an industrial scale. The less-common varieties were not being used because they were not as good for selling: the colour may not be as appealing, the size may be too small or too large, or the may last very little time on the shelf. This meant that some of the native, antique species were being lost, which worried the artist and made him change the focus of the project onto conservation. So now, not only do his trees carry some of these rarer species so they are still around, but he’s also spending the money he earns from the ‘Trees of 40 Fruits’ into creating an orchard collecting all the different varieties of stone fruit, especially the uncommon ones, so they are still go and people can even go and have a taste!

Meeting Pluto (The Planet)

NASA made history this week, once again, when the project New Horizons, launched 9 years ago, reached the ‘ex-planet’ Pluto and its surrounding moons. Ever since it has arrived, it’s been sending us information from there, and putting it lightly, it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Scientists previously believed Pluto to be a calm, inactive dwarf planet; just a mass of ice and frozen gases floating around the Solar System. But defying all these expectations, Pluto seems to be very geologically active, actually similar to Earth, (or rather, one of Neptune’s moons, since it has a large ice mantle).

The clues that point to this surprising conclusion are many. For one, there are areas with no signs of craters caused by asteroid collisions, which would be impossible unless these sections are relatively new, as they would be if they had been formed recently by geological activity. There are also fault lines and rift valleys, both characteristic features of tectonic movement.

However, scientists are still puzzled as to how these movements are brought about. In Earth, tectonic movements happen because of the melted rock in the core of the planet, but this is not possible in Pluto, so a popular theory suggests that since it is filled with radioactive material (like most astronomical bodies), this somehow produces enough energy to heat up the surface of Pluto and causes the movement of large amounts of ice that act as tectonic plates.

But don’t think this trend of unexpectedness stops at Pluto. Its largest moon, Charon, is not far behind. It also displays signs of being geologically active, as it has deep canyons and very smooth expanses.


Pluto sure is a sweetheart

Since many new areas in Pluto and Charon have been true wonders, scientists have decided to give them appropriate names. The most famous one, unofficially nicknamed ‘The Heart’ because it is heart-shaped, is now probably going to be known as Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto in 1930. Another feature is a plane made of ice, which shows troughs at regular intervals, and has been dubbed the Sputnik Planum, in honour of the first spaceship. The Norgay Mountains are named after the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest, and are a range of 3300 meter-high mountains made entirely of frozen ice which behaves like rocks. Astronomers also seem to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as they have named a feature in Pluto ‘Balrog’, a monster from this series, and a dark region in the pole of Charon is being called Mordor.

The mission also offered an opportunity to accurately measure Pluto’s diameter for the first time. The results show that it is 2.370 km large, possibly the largest of the five recognized dwarf planets in the Solar System.

Although the official flyby has ended, New Horizons’ adventures are not over. All this baffling information it has sent us only represents about 2% of all the data it has collected, so we can still expect many surprises from this mission for about 16 months as the rest comes in. And after the visit to Pluto, it is going to fly to the Kuiper Belt, a zone beyond the planets full of small icy bodies that may contain some interesting information as to how the Solar System was formed.

The Infamous Dress

At the expense of becoming another sheep in the herd of humanity’s trends, today’s article is going to be about the dress that has invaded the Internet. For those of you who don’t know, ‘the dress’ is a picture of a dress taken at a wedding and published on Tumblr, where it proceeded to reach international fame due to an odd fact: different people see the dress being different colours. It may sound like a weird online hoax, but it’s just an optical illusion that causes some people to see the dress and white and gold, whereas others see it as blue and black. Recently, there have been many theories suggested to explain why this phenomenon happens (for example, because of bad eyesight), but it actually has nothing to do with our eyes, but rather, with our brains. If you’re curious, the actual dress is blue and black, but that doesn’t mean that those who see it in other colours have worse eyesight or worse brains, as you will see.

Think about it like this. When you see an object in the shade, you automatically assume it is of a lighter colour than it actually looks like because you know shade makes things look darker. Therefore, your brain unconsciously tries to compensate for by processing the image your eyes are supplying and making it lighter.

But shade is not the only way images can be distorted. It also happens at normal daylight. If you are observing a piece of paper right underneath the sun, you will be viewing it thanks to a yellowish light. Your brain is smart enough to detect the light has a slight colour of its own and will therefore modify the image and subtract some yellow from it. If, on the other hand, you are seeing the piece of paper with the sun blocked but still receiving light from the sky, the light will be slightly blue, so your brain will take that bluish undertone away.

With this image, it’s the exact same scenario. The dress can appear to be in the shade to some people, and exposed to sunlight to others. Depending on how you unconsciously interpret it, you will see the dress a specific way. Those who think the dress is in the shade will unconsciously think it is darker than it should be, so their brains modify the image and make it lighter. This results in light colours like white and yellow-gold to appear. Those who don’t see the dress in partial darkness keep the colours mostly the same and don’t process the image, making it blue and black.

Interestingly enough, some people see it one way sometimes, the other way other times, and even a mixture of the two! This is just caused by our brains varying the amount of modification they do to the image, and may also have to do with the quality of the screen the picture is being viewed through.

But despite all of this, if you ask me, the dress is obviously white and gold.


What colour do you see this dress?


Philae Fall

The misadventures of the famous Philae lander have been the hot scientific topic of the week. 10 years of preparation, hard work and effort finally came to fruition when the robot detached itself from the Rosetta Spacecraft after being together for a decade and set off on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.


How Philae was supposed to look on the surface of 67P

A couple days before the actual separation, ESA, the European Space Agency, which has been supervising the mission all these years; carried out a series of tests to make sure all the machinery in the lander worked perfectly. There was a minor problem with the thrusters, but since there was nothing scientists at Earth could do to fix it, they decided to keep the mission going anyway.

On the 12th of November of 2014, Philae made history when it became the first object to ever land in a controlled manner on a comet. And although this feat is outstanding and impressive by itself, there were some technical difficulties. The idea was that the lander would fire some harpoons to adhere to the comet and use thrusters so that together, they would push the robot towards the comet. But neither of these devices worked as planned, so when Philae did ‘land’, it bounced back. Twice. The first bounce made Philae jump almost 1km high into space (another record), and took the incredible amount of 2 hours for it to fall back. The second leap was much smaller, and only took a couple of minutes for it to settle down. But this was not the last obstacle in Philae’s way. Due to all the bouncing around, the machine ended up about 1 km away from the original landing site, and on top of that, it has stopped in a rather unusual posture. Instead of having its three legs on the pressed on the ground, one of them is dangling midair.

Facing these problems head-on, scientists still tried to carry out some of the proposed experiments. For example, they wanted Philae to take a sample of the comet dust using a drill incorporated into it. This apparatus comes out of the bottom part of the robot, but since Philae is sloping, the drill couldn’t actually reach the ground.

But Philae actually has more pressing problems at the moment. After bouncing all around 67P, it stopped in an area of the comet where the sun rays can’t reach; a fatal location for a solar powered machine like Philae. This soon alerted scientists regarding the duration of the battery, which would quickly run out. The solution was to turn on a ‘power-saving’ mode, but right in the middle of this process they lost contact with the robot. As of the 15th, Philae has used up all its stored energy and has basically shut down. There is still hope that when 67P reaches areas closer to the Sun, the lander will become powered again, but chances are slim.

Regardless of the many problems with the landing and its consequences, Philae did end up on a moving comet, and that’s reason enough to congratulate scientists at ESA for so many years of dedication and a successful mission.

Nobel Prizes 2014: Part 1

Probably the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize is, for many, the intellectual event of the year, where the world’s greatest scientists are rewarded for their hard work and brilliance. As of yet, only two results have been announced, those for physics and physiology, and the rest will be unveiled as the week progresses.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to… John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the ‘GPS’ system in brains.  

human gps

Not a literal GPS in our head, but a group of cells that enable us to travel

It all started 40 years ago, when O’Keefe was investigating rats’ brains and their response to certain stimuli to understand their behaviour. In one experiment, he found that in a group of nerve cells in the brain, some became active when the rat physically moved to one area of the room, whilst other cells became active in other areas of the room. The conclusion he reached was that this group of cells was making a mental map of the rat’s environment to help it locate itself and move around. The ‘place cells’, as he called them, were a revolution in the field, but it took O’Keene 40 years and two collaborators to win the famous Prize.

The other recipients of the award are the Mosers, a married couple who, working in O’Keene’s lab, examined in more depth the mechanism and using modern technology, discovered that a close group of cells in the entorhinal cortex also helped in movement. What they found was that these new cells could be active in many positions of the room, not just one specific location. ‘Grid cells’ is their name and they do exactly what their name would suggest: they create a grid of their surroundings.

Both the place cells and the grid cells are used in human brains too, and their work is essential for us to be able to travel, even from one room to another, without getting lost.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to… Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano for the invention of blue LEDs.

At first sight, it looks like they gave these men a Nobel Prize for inventing a bulb, but it is much more complex than that. First of all, let’s explain what an LED is and how it works. An LED stands for Light-Emitting Diode and it is used to produce light. It works by having thin sheets of material over each other, some of which contain a lot of electrons whereas other don’t and so have positive ‘holes’. When an electron collides with this hole, it emits a photon; a particle of light.

blue led

Making blue light is much harder than it may seem!

Red and green LEDs have been around for a long time, but only blue light could be transform into white light. The problem is that blue light has a higher energy and therefore very few materials can emit this wavelength. So when Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura discovered gallium nitride, it was a real miracle. This material is special because apart from having electron-rich areas, it can also produce a layer of itself which lacks electrons, so that together, they can react and produce blue light.

This apparently simple mechanism has had unimaginable consequences, which is the main reason why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award them the prize. Blue LEDs gave us the opportunity to make white light by coating the bulb with a substance called phosphor. Thanks to this combination, we now use blue LEDs everywhere, from our TV screens to the lightning in the streets. The advantage it has over the normal, incandescent bulbs is that it can last 100 times longer, and is extremely more efficient. In fact, it is said that if all light bulbs were switched to these energy saving ones we could half the electricity usage by lightning in the whole world.

Happy Selfie, Curiosity!

The iconic robot has joined the trend and taking this peculiar image of itself to celebrate his first Martian year in the red planet. He arrived there the 5th of August of 2012, but since a year in Mars takes longer to happen than in Earth, only now has Curiosity reached this milestone. It has been plenty of time for the machine to surprise scientists everywhere with its discoveries, which we will recount in its honour.

Curiosity Selfie

The acclaimed robot takes the first selfie on Mars

On the 27th of September, it was announced the Rover had discovered an ancient riverbed. Of course, there was no water in it, so how did they know it was a river bed? This conclusion was reached because the robot found small, rounded boulders, instead of the sharp ones with jagged edges that usually occur, and the most common explanation for rocks being smooth and curved is due to flowing water transporting them for long distances and eroding them. However, doubt lies as to whether it was actually water flowing, and not some other liquid or maybe even a gas like CO2, but since there are hydrated minerals in Mars, it is most likely water was the liquid. But even if it was an actual river, it doesn’t immediately mean life on Mars exited, because there were no traces of carbon in the area so it is impossible to say if there had actually been living organisms in the area.

September was a busy month, since at that time Curiosity also shone more light into the methane mystery in Mars. In past studies, some scientists had concluded there was a high abundance of methane in Mars, and since methane is mostly produced by living beings, such as cows and rice, some though this was proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. But after 8 months of analysing the atmosphere, the rover concluded there was little to none methane there. In fact, it estimated there was only 1 part per billion of methane in Mars. However, it is arguable that some methane is trapped in the planet, so Curiosity will be doing more detailed investigations in the future.

Those are the main ventures pursued by Curiosity, and it has plenty of time to investigate further, since the original 2-year-mission was prolonged indefinitely. For now, please join me on wishing the rover a late Happy Birthday!


(By the way, this is my 50th post in Science for Scientists after 2 and a half years of blogging. It was about time, right?)

2013 Review Part 2

In the previous article we saw how scientists from all around the world had managed to print a gun, create a fake burger and allow a human and a rat to communicate only using their minds! We also saw how two excelling scientists were honoured with the most prestigious scientific award, the Nobel Prize, for their theory of how particles gain their mass. Last but not least, we reviewed the meteor that hit Russia and fascinated observers and astronomers alike.

But 2013 was a very busy year, and there are still things that have to be remembered. For example:

6. Life Can Be So Hard


Lake Vostok in Antarctica

Humanity has not yet found a planet with living organisms in it, because conditions can be very harsh and inhospitable, unlike in our planet. Or maybe not.  I’m talking about Lake Vostok, in Antartica, where this body of water rests under 500 metres of ice, under extreme temperatures and pressure, and where no sunlight can reach. Immediately, you’d think there can be no life here, but a team of Russian scientists proved last year that there may be, when they drilled through all the ice and extracted a sample of water that contained pieces of DNA.

If life is definitely found, it will most probably be single-celled organisms, not macro-organisms such as fish or sharks, although if there’s anything we’ve learned from this adventure is that life can be found in the most unprecedented places, not matter what form it takes.

7. The Memory of the Smell of Fear


Memories travel generations in rats

A study carried out last year showed that memories can be transmitted from one generation to the next, and not by talking about it. The case was that a group of rats were subjected to the smell of cherry blossom, and after this, gave them an electric shock, so every time they smelled this, they would become wary and tense. Then, these rats were reproduced, and, surprisingly, the children also became alert when detecting the smell.

Although the mechanism is not yet understood, it may have something to do with changes in the DNA (like switching on and off certain genes) due to chemicals being released in your body.

This phenomenon can happen with other events, not just smell, but others are more difficult to track, since there are a lot of genes involved. Smell, specifically cherry blossom, is easier because there are specific receptors that react to this smell, which scientists already know about, so changes in these can be seen easily enough. Also, its not only the fact that the offspring must remember the smell, but also the feeling that comes with it, fear.

8. The Oldest DNA

In a cave 30 metres below ground, a paradise for archaeologists lies. There, the oldest genome ever discovered has been processed, yielding incredible results.


Denisovian Hominid

This fantastic place is the Atapuerca cave, found in Spain (my home country), and has always been considered a gold mine for anthropologists. It continues to meet its expectatives, as in a shaft, they found the remains of 28 hominids, of which a thigh bone was extracted. Although extracting a good sample of DNA from such an old sample, especially in a warm climate, is very improbable, scientists tried anyway, and thank God they did. The genome found is 400,000 years old, twice the age of our current species. The surprising thing about his genome is not only its antiquity, but also that it shows the bones found in the shaft known as ‘the pit of bones’ is not Neanderthal, but of a different species of humans called Denisovan, of which very little is known. But with this discovery, maybe we will find out all we need to know about them, and complete the puzzle of our many ancestors.

9. The Most Crowded Trench 


Mariana’s Trench, the deepest point on Earth

Director James Cameron, known for movies such as Titanic, Avatar or The Terminator, will be remembered by the scientific community for more than his movies.

Last March, he organised the Challenger Deep expedition, which travelled 11000 metres underwater to the lowest point of Earth, the Mariana’s Trench. He stayed there for about an hour, collecting samples and recording everything he saw.

Although the area was not teeming with macro-organisms, unfortunately for Cameron, samples from the submarine show there were unusually high levels of bacteria in the water. For every cubic centimetre, there were 10 million bacteria, a surprise for scientists because the amount of organisms down there was higher than in shallower areas, where conditions are less hostile. A possible explanation is that trenches are extremely good at collecting ‘food’ (organic matter from creatures above), so bacteria would have enough material to survive, even though the pressure and temperatures are not too comfortable.

 10. Blob of Pitch Falls

Pitch, a substance that makes up petroleum, is also one of the most viscous substance known to man, and its qualities can be quite interesting.

Decades back, someone in Trinity College Dublin set up an experiment that consisted in adding a measure of heated pitch to a glass funnel, and then let gravity do its job. The original version of this experiment, however, was done in University of Queensland, Australia, by Thomas Parnell, whose objective was to show and measure how viscous this liquid really was, though he died before it could actually happen.


The Pitch Experiment

But it was in Dublin where the magic really happened. After years of the pitch standing abandoned in an old shelf, scientist Shane Bergin found it, and after figuring out what it was, set up a web cam and connected it to the Internet so everyone was able to observe the liquid, in case a drop fell. And that is precisely what happened, the 11th of July, after years and years of patience. Although the real purpose has been completed, the web cam is still connected, and it is expected that in the next decade, another drop falls, so be attentive.

2013 Review Part 1

It’s the end of the year, a time to look back at the past 365 days and think of what we’ve done that’s worth remembering. But don’t worry; you don’t have to do any work: I’ve already done it for you!

Here’s a list of what are, in my opinion, the most important events this 2013, in no particular order:

1. A Massive Nobel Prize

higgs and englert

Peter Higgs and François Englert

The most important scientific breakthrough last year was undoubtedly the discovery of a Higgs-like particle at CERN. But this year, a definite Higgs Boson was found, therefore confirming Peter Higgs and his colleagues François Englert and Robert Brout’s prediction. Two latter scientists managed to describe how the Higgs field would work, but the namesake of the particle was the one that actually predicted it’s existence.

Due to their success, the Nobel committee decided to award them the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physics, almost 50 years after their theory was created.

The CERN was also mentioned, since its hard work was essential for the theory to be proven right, and more specifically the ATLAS and CMS experiments which carried out all the necessary work.

Unfortunately, Robert Brout was not awarded the Nobel Prize, since it cannot be given posthumously.

2. The Chelyabinsk Meteor

Chelyabinsk Meteor

Trace left behind by the Chelyabinsk meteor

The year started with the collision of this meteor with our planet, on a Russian city. The incident was recorded by many, and was instantly everywhere in the news, causing a frenzy of curiosity and fear. It caused damage to hundreds of buildings, but human lives were spared. But a question remained: Whether more meteors will follow, and if so, what could be don to protect ourselves. Fortunately, it stopped there, and although this was a very interesting year in terms of astronomy, this was the closest it got to us.

3. The Most Expensive Burger Is Fake

fake meat

Meat made in the lab

Sponsored by Google co-founder, a group of scientists extracted stem cells from some cows and after growing them in a medium, processed them so they became biologically identical to a normal burger. Then, in a crowded event in London, a chef cooked the burger and served it, and was tasted by several people. Many said it tasted just like a real burger, though a bit stringy.

This method could be very useful for several reasons. Apart from being more ethical, it could reduce the cost of providing meat to an ever-growing society, with an insatiable appetite for this product. At the current rate, it would become very hard to feed all humanity, and would produce a lot of greenhouse gases. With this method, meat producing would be much more eco-friendlier and even healthier.

4. How To Talk With Rats

human rat telepathy

Humans can communicate with rats

Everyone has seen a science fiction movie where someone is able to communicate with someone else only using their minds, and although the concept was brilliant, dismissed it, thinking it was impossible. Well, no offense, but you are wrong. This April, scientists in Harvard Medical School were able to make a human move a rat’s tail with their brains.

The way it works is a human and a rat are connected together through a computer. The human is made to wear an electrode cap, which measures their brain activity, whilst the rat was connected to a device that made the neurons transmit a signal through the motor’s cortex when another signal, coming from the computer, was detected. When all of this was ready, the rat was anaesthetized (to reduce interfering), and the human was told to look at a strobe light that blinked periodically, so the scientists could look for a pattern in their brain waves. But when the test subject was asked to look at the rat, the disruption in the brain waves caused an electric signal that travelled all the way through the computer, to the rat, where it reached the motor cortex and made it’s tail move. Although there are a few limitations to the way in which it could apply to the common telepathy, it’s a great way to start!

5. Print a Gun

This year has seen a lot of improvements in the 3D printing industry, one of them being the printing of a gun that could fire up to 50 shots without breaking. This achievement was accomplished by the company Solid Concepts in USA, whose gun is also capable of being very precise at long distances.

print gun

This is not really how you print a gun

There has been a debate over the last few months in this country on the availability of gun blueprints on the Internet, where everyone could access them and therefore be able to print a gun using only their desktop printers. But this model can only be printed on a specialised, industrial printer, and has a very high cost, so not many people will be able to make themselves this weapon.

Stay tuned for next week’s second part of this recap for the year’s most interesting scientific discoveries.

India’s Space Adventure

Throughout history, human beings have been investing their time and effort in satisfying on of the India Launchmost basic instincts: curiosity. It started by investigating unknown lands, sailing through the sea to sea what they could find, and eventually, the ultimate barrier, space.

Now, India launched its first mission to Mars last Tuesday 5th of November, with the objective of studying its landscape, the atmosphere and search for methane. It was a relatively cheap mission, only 75 million dollars, compared to other adventures organised by the USA, It was carried out thanks to the efforts of 1000 scientists, who worked for this project for more than 15 months.

Right now, the rocket is orbiting the Earth, were it will stay until the 1st of December. Then, its journey of 300 days to our neighbouring planet will begin. On the 24th of September of next year, we will find out whether it will fail or it will accomplish the mission. Hopefully it’s the former.

The Mangalyaan rocket is the first aircraft sent by the Asian country to the red planet. It has very high stakes on it, as if it were to be successful, it would make India the 4th country to reach the surface of this nearby planet. The other countries were USA, Russia and the EU.

It would also position India as the lead country in Asia to achieve this, because although both China and Japan have previously tried the same mission, they both ultimately failed.

India has a very modest past in its spatial history. It has sent a few satellites designed by other countries up to our atmosphere and a lunar probe in 2008, but other than that it has been fairly quiet.

Future plans from this country include a very ambitious manned flight to outer space in 2016. These are probably the first steps of a growing giant, and for sure they will launch many more rockets and aircrafts to discover what space has to offer.

Olympic Games: Space 2014

The Olympic Games have always been about uniting all of the world’s countries in their passion for sport. Well, the committee seems to have taken it one step further and is now not content with only the world, but is trying to include space!

In the mission carried out this Thursday 7th November at 4 a.m., astronauts from the Baikonur Cosmodrome started their voyage to the ISS (International Space Station) where the torch for the Winter Olympics in Sochi 2014 will remain fo a few days as a symbol of the world’s ability to work together. By the time you’ve read this article, it will be back in the Earth, ready for the Winter Olympics t start.

The torch that will travel to space is said to be exactly the same as the one that will be used next year in said games, but unfortunately won’t be set on fire due to security restrictions.

The team sent on this spatial mission is a great example of what they are trying to convey, since it consists of Mijaíl Tiurin (Russia), Rick Mastracchio (USA) and Koichi Wakata (Japan), a team made up of countries from all around the world.

All of them have expressed their interests in the Games and have expressed their views that their project is very similar to the Olympics themselves, since both aim at working as hard as you can to reach a goal. It is also a great opportunity to link two very important human achievements that have helped unite the world over the years.

Even though the astronauts will be in space at the time of the Games, they’ll have the necessary equipment in the ISS to be able to watch them perfectly well.