The Superconducting Supercollider was set to be the largest particle accelerator in the world, by a long shot. In fact, it would still to this day be the biggest and most powerful. But history had other plans.
This is the story of America’s supercollider – the biggest failure in science history.
The Philadelphia Experiment is the story of a military exercise gone horribly wrong. In October of 1943, the USS Eldridge supposedly was teleported from the shipyards of Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, with some disastrous results.
Much of the mythology of the story comes from a man who went by the name of Carlos Allende, but was he a credible witness? Did the US Navy have a secret program in place in WWII? And is teleportation possible?
Science is a force for good in our world, improving lives of people all across Earth in immeasurable ways. But it is also a very powerful tool that can become dangerous in some situations.
Especially when it gets entangled in politics. At other times, science’s inherent ambition to push boundaries of what is known can also lead to some heart-stopping moments.
The following list is in no way exhaustive but gives us a place to start when thinking about the serious responsibility that comes with the march of science.
1. Project MKUltra
The infamous project MKUltra was CIA’s attempt at mastering mind control. The program started in the 1950s and lasted seemingly until 1966.
Under MKUltra, often-unwilling subjects were given drugs, especially hallucinogenics like LSD.
The people tested were also put through sleep and sensory deprivation, hypnosis, sexual abuse, and other kinds of psychological torture, while some tests proved lethal.
The supposed goal of the project was some combination of chemical weapons research and effort to create mind-controlling drugs to combat the Soviets.
2. Weaponizing the Plague
The last time plague roamed around, it killed around half of Europe’s population, reducing the amount of people in the world by nearly a 100 million during the 13th and 14th century.
In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union’s biological warfare research program figured out how to use the plague as a weapon, to be launched at enemies in missile warheads.
What could go wrong? Besides the plague, defectors revealed that the Soviet bio-weapons program also had hundreds of tons of anthrax and tons of smallpox.
3. The Large Hadron Supercollider
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, built to study particle physics, is the world’s largest machine and single most sophisticated scientific instrument.
Because of this and the cutting-edge research its involved in, the LHC has prompted more than its share of fears from the general public. It has been blamed for causing earthquakes and pulling asteroids towards Earth.
4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
A government-funded “study” from 1932-1972 denied treatment for syphilis to 399 African American patients in rural Alabama, even as penicillin was found to be effective against the disease in 1947.
The patients were actually not told they had syphilis, with doctors blaming their “bad blood” instead and given placebos.
The goal of the experiment, carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service, was to study the natural progress of syphilis if left untreated. 28 of the people in the study died directly from syphilis while 100 died from related complications.
5. Kola Superdeep Borehole
A Soviet experiment, started in 1970, sought to drill as deeply as possible into the crust of the planet. By 1994, they bore a 12-km-deep hole into the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s far northwest.
The record dig provided much scientific data, like the finding of ancient microscopic plankton fossils from 24 species.
While nothing negative happened, there were concerns at the time that drilling so deep towards the center of Earth might produce unexpected seismic effects. Like cracking the planet open.
Eight-year-old Brisbane boy Griffin Chong and 10-year-old Austin McConville from Melbourne are topping the scoreboard.
The pair are keen players on an online app that aims to make science fun while adding to a national database of Australian species.
It is one of a rising number of online projects and websites that are making science more accessible.
“You get to learn more animals and birds and insects,” Austin said.
The keen animal spotters take and upload photos and then identify their finds and those made by others.
They also compete with other players, many of them adults. Out of 5,000 players, Griffin is rated sixth at identifying species and Austin is the number one bird identifier.
“I just see the scientific name lots and then one day I just remember it,” Griffin said.
Jacki Liddle said her son Griffin had had an interest in science and animals from an early age.
“He’s just got that time and enthusiasm that kids can have,” she said.
Kids are “sponges for information”
Austin’s father Andrew McConville said his son was a third-generation bird-watcher, but while animal spotting had long been a family activity for them, he had been impressed by the contribution children could make to science through the new platforms.
“They’re naturally curious and just sponges for information,” he said.
Paul Flemons, who heads digital collections and citizen science for the Australian Museum, said there had always been interest in citizen science.
He said leaps in technology and apps and platforms like e-Bird, iNaturalist, Australasian Fishes and DigiVol were making it easy for people to get involved, especially kids.
Last year, 50,000 people took part in a national online project called Wildlife Spotter, launched by the ABC and one-quarter of them were children.
“They’re great platforms for kids to become part of the citizen science community and people feel like they’re making a difference,” he said.
Australian National University evolution ecologist Professor Craig Moritz said there were other benefits too.
“One of the really cool things about citizen science is it actually gets kids out in the real world getting interested in out biodiversity, that’s a huge plus,” he said.
“The other side of it is generating information that can then be interpreted to understand how that biodiversity is changing.”
And possibly a whole new variety of researchers.
“Right now I would like to be an ornithologist,” Austin said.
“Scientist!” Griffin Chong added of his future plans.
Hide your lettuce and lock up the carrots: Stealth rabbits are on the prowl. Researchers have woven a cloak that makes a bunny almost invisible to infrared cameras, thanks to fibers that mimic the structure of polar bear hairs.
The hairs of a polar bear have a hollow core, which reflects back IR emissions from the animal’s body. This structure helps prevent heat loss and keeps the bears warm in their Arctic environments.
But the hairs have an added advantage: They can conceal the bears from thermal imaging cameras used in many night-vision devices.
Textiles that can mimic polar bear hair’s IR-reflecting abilities might be useful in stealth applications, such as concealing soldiers.
Previous attempts to make synthetic versions of the hairs have produced fibers that are too weak to be practically useful.
A team from Zhejiang University has now used a freeze-spinning method to make fibers that are porous, strong, and highly thermally insulating.
They consist of fibroin, a protein found in silk, along with a small amount of the polysaccharide chitosan.
The researchers slowly squeezed a viscous, watery mixture of these materials through a cold copper ring, forming a frozen fiber that contained flat ice crystals.
Freeze-drying the fibers removed the ice by sublimation to produce strong fibers about 200 µm wide with up to 87% porosity.
After varying conditions such as the viscosity of the mixture and the temperature of the ring, they found that running the process at -100 °C produced pores about 30 µm across, which offered the best balance between strength and thermal insulation.
“I was surprised to see the thermal conductivity of the biomimetic fiber was even lower than polar bear hair,” says Hao Bai, who led the team.
It’s not the first time that this ice-templating method has been used to make porous fibers, says Sylvain Deville, research director of the Ceramic Synthesis and Functionalization Laboratory, who uses the method in his own research.
But, he says, the team demonstrated good control of the fiber structures.
To demonstrate the thermal stealth potential of the fibers, the researchers wove them into a textile to make a little cape for a live lab rabbit.
The critter’s body heat was all but invisible by thermal imaging, whether the background temperature was 40 °C, 15 °C or -10 °C.
As an encore, the Zhejiang team produced an electrically-conductive textile by adding carbon nanotubes to the mixture of fiber precursors.
Applying a voltage of 5 V raised the conductive fabric’s temperature from 24 °C to 36 °C in less than one minute—not useful for stealth, but potentially helpful for keeping winter clothing cozy.
“It’s interesting that they’re able to introduce different materials, so they can combine different functionalities,” Deville says.
Bai has patented the freeze-spinning technique, and hopes to develop the fiber into a commercial product. However, Deville notes that the freeze-spinning process is currently quite slow.
“I suspect they will never be able to go very fast, so they may not be able to use it for large-scale applications.”.
Scientists have created a “strange” new form of water that behaves like a cross between a liquid and a solid.
The substance, known as “superionic water ice”, is thought to be a key component in the structure of distant planets in our solar system.
Researchers had predicted the existence of such a substance as far back as 1988, and while numerical simulations appeared to prove its existence, these are the first experiments to confirm those findings.
“These are very challenging experiments, so it was really exciting to see that we could learn so much from the data,” said Dr Marius Millot, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who led the study.
“Especially since we spent about two years making the measurements and two more years developing the methods to analyse the data.”
The scientists used a technique called “laser-driven shock compression” to not only confirm the existence of the substance, but also verify predictions about the composition of planets like Neptune and Uranus.
“Our work provides experimental evidence for superionic ice and shows that these predictions were not due to artefacts in the simulations, but actually captured the extraordinary behaviour of water at those conditions,” said Dr Millot.
While normal ice consists of water molecules linked up to form a solid, superionic water ice is made up of ions – atoms that carry positive or negative charges.
Specifically, its structure consists of hydrogen ions flowing through a solid crystal made from oxygen ions.
Unlike conventional ice, the superionic variety requires incredibly high temperatures to form, as well as high pressures.
The research team achieved this by crushing ice between two diamonds, before firing a laser at it to further increase the pressure and heat.
At nearly 5,000C and two times atmospheric pressure, the scientists saw evidence a superionic water ice had formed and then melted. In total, the whole experiment only took between 10 and 20 nanoseconds.
The next step, according to the scientists, is to determine the structure of the oxygen crystals found in superionic water ice.
Though superionic water ice is not found anywhere on Earth, it may be present in large quantities inside Uranus and Neptune, where the high temperatures and pressures are similar to those created by Dr Millot and his team in their experiments.
Some scientists have suggested the presence of this matter inside these distant planets may explain their unusual magnetic fields.
“Magnetic fields provide crucial information about the interiors and evolution of planets, so it is gratifying that our experiments can test – and in fact, support – the thin-dynamo idea that had been proposed for explaining the truly strange magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune,” said Professor Raymond Jeanloz, a co-author of the paper based at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s also mind-boggling that frozen water ice is present at thousands of degrees inside these planets, but that’s what the experiments show.”
The video above shows a brown needle that looks like it’s trying to bury itself among some ice-cubes. It is, in fact, the snout of a mosquito, searching for blood vessels in the flesh of a mouse.
This footage was captured by Valerie Choumet and colleagues from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who watched through a microscope as malarial mosquitoes bit a flap of skin on an anaesthetised mouse.
The resulting videos provide an unprecedented look at exactly what happens when a mosquito bites a host and drinks its blood.
For a start, look how flexible the mouthparts are! The tip can almost bend at right angles, and probes between the mouse’s cells in a truly sinister way.
This allows the mosquito to search a large area without having to withdraw its mouthparts and start over.
From afar, a mosquito’s snout might look like a single tube, but it’s actually a complicated set of tools, encased in a sheath called the labium.
You can’t see the labrum at all in the videos; it buckles when the insect bites, allowing the six mouthparts within to slide into the mouse’s skin.
Four of these—a pair of mandibles and a pair of maxillae—are thin filaments that help to pierce the skin. You can see them flaring out to the side in the video.
The maxillae end in toothed blades, which grip flesh as they plunge into the host. The mosquito can then push against these to drive the other mouthparts deeper.
The large central needle in the video is actually two parallel tubes—the hypopharynx, which sends saliva down, and the labrum, which pumps blood back up.
When a mosquito finds a host, these mouthparts probe around for a blood vessel. They often take several attempts, and a couple of minutes, to find one.
And unexpectedly, around half of the ones that Choumet tested failed to do so. While they could all bite, it seemed that many suck at sucking.
The video below shows what happens when a mosquito finally finds and pierces a blood vessel.
On average, they drink for around 4 minutes and at higher magnifications, Choumet could actually see red blood cells rushing up their mouthparts.
They suck so hard that the blood vessels start to collapse. Some of them rupture, spilling blood into the surrounding spaces.
When that happens, the mosquito sometimes goes in for seconds, drinking directly from the blood pool that it had created.
When the mosquitoes were infected with the Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria, they spent more time probing around for blood vessels.
It’s not clear why—the parasites could be controlling the insect’s nervous system or changing the activity of genes in its mouthparts.
Either way, the infected mosquitoes give up much less readily in their search for blood, which presumably increases the odds that the parasites will enter a new host.
Many hours after a bite, Choumet’s team found Plasmodium in the rodents’ skin, huddled in areas that were also rife with the mosquito’s saliva.
The team also tested “immunised” mice, which were loaded with antibodies that recognise a mosquito’s saliva.
“Some people, especially in Africa and Asia, are bitten several times every day, so we wanted to know if mosquitoes behaved differently when they bit animals that were immunised against their saliva,” says Choumet.
Beyond the stunning videos, these discoveries are unlikely to lead to new ways of preventing or treating malaria by themselves.
However, they do tell us a lot more about the event that kicks off every single malaria case—a mosquito bite. It’s a resource that other researchers will undoubtedly use.
“I have submitted a grant application to investigate aspects of the interactions between mosquitoes, hosts and parasites,” says Logan.
“The techniques and discoveries from this paper are very exciting to me, and will be of value to future activities of my own research group.”