Scientific discoveries this week: 9/30/13

Vienna, Austria
A new class of thermoelectric material may allow for more efficient conversion of industrial waste heat into electrical energy. Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology created a new clathrate—a type of lattice that traps atoms and molecules in “cages”—that holds cerium atoms in a structure made of barium, silicon, and gold. When one side of the material is heated, electrons in the cerium atoms move toward the cooler side, creating a voltage between the two sides. The team behind this discovery will attempt to duplicate this effect using more economically viable elements to improve the material’s marketability.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America
Light saber-like lasers might not be exclusive to science fiction after all. A group of researchers at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms has published the results of a study showcasing a new form of matter, called “photonic molecules,” in which photons begin to interact with each other and act as though they have mass. In this state, achieved by streaming a weak laser into a rubidium-filled vacuum, photons stay linked together, but deflect each other when they come into contact. According to Mikhail Lukin, the leader of the study, “It’s not an inapt analogy to compare this to light sabers. […] The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.”

Greenbelt, Maryland, United States of America
Data from the Curiosity rover revealed that Martian topsoil contains approximately two percent water by weight. By observing the gases released after boiling dirt samples, Curiosity found that, in addition to carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds, the soil contains significant quantities of heavy water, rich in the hydrogen isotope deuterium. Similar water is present in Mars’ atmosphere, which suggests that the soil has absorbed it and that the atmosphere and surface of the planet interact frequently.

Beijing, China
A 419-million-year-old fish fossil may give greater insight into how the human face evolved. Entelognathus primordialis, a newly discovered armored fish, possesses a jaw structure resembling that of modern vertebrates and differs significantly from those of related fish. It uses the same three-bone system present in current chewing vertebrates in place of the collection of small bones found in bony fishes. In a commentary on the discovery, Dr. Matt Friedman of the University of Oxford stated that it “suggests a real antiquity to some of the most prominent features of our own bony faces.” This may allow researchers to trace defining characteristics of humans and other vertebrates much further down their lineage than previously believed.

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