Recent Interesting Science Articles (October 2016)

A little early this month due to some kinks in my posting schedule but as I have a full roster of these articles already, so why not.

  • Let’s start with this discovery of a new plant species in Japan. Named Gastrodia kuroshimensis, this highly unusual plant does not use photosynthesis at all. Instead it gets all of its nutrition from the fungi that it hosts. At the same time, it produces flowers but they never bloom. Instead through a process called cleistogamy, the flowers self-fertilize within the closed buds. Perhaps the most surprising bit about this announcement is that such a strange plant can still be discovered for the first time in an area of a developed country that has already been thoroughly investigated, reminding us that new scientific findings can pop up in the most unexpected of places.
  • Next is an article in a field that isn’t often featured here: chemistry! It’s about scientists discovering a new process that turns carbon dioxide into ethanol in a single step. There isn’t a lot of detail about it except that the reaction takes place in some fancifully engineered nano-structures but the claim is that the process takes little energy, low enough that it occurs at room temperature. Needless to say, if this checks out and can be scaled up, the impact would be immense as we would be turning a common pollutant into a source of energy.
  • These days I often browse FiveThirtyEight for its politics coverage, but here’s a science article on the site. It talks about a statistical analysis of breast cancer data and finds that regular mammograms appears to be of little effectiveness. The study found that as mammograms became more frequent, the rate of finding small tumors increased, which is to be expected. However the incidence of larger tumors decreased by a much smaller amount, suggesting that finding tumors early does little to prevent them from growing. Most importantly the incidence of metastatic cancer was flat, meaning that early screening didn’t seem to reduce it at all. In the meantime, mortality rates from breast cancer has indeed fallen but this seems attributable to better treatment and not early screening. This result falls in line with a recent change in thinking that early screening for cancer mainly finds small tumors that would have disappeared on their own anyway and don’t need to be treated.
  • Finally here’s an article from The Economist about sexual cannibalism in spiders. Most of us already know about how female black widows eats their male partners after eating, but how many of you know about the dark fishing spider, who males spontaneously die after mating and so ensure that they will be eaten? Even more strangely, the offspring of females who ate their male partners in this way were larger and more numerous even than those from females who were given a cricket of comparable size to eat rather than their male partners. This suggests that there is something especially nutritious in the bodies of the male spiders that helps the offspring and that this is the result of evolution.

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