Bright minds, antineutrinos and more reader feedback

Humanizing science

The feature “Bright Young Minds,” which profiled 10 promising scientists doing high-caliber research, earned mostly praise and a few criticisms (SN: 10/3/15, p. 20).

Some readers thought the feature inspired hope and optimism. “In this world wracked with geopolitical turmoil and seemingly intractable social and scientific problems, this list is reassuring and thought-provoking,” Bruce Eby wrote in an e-mail. “Hooray for your ‘experiment’ in publishing short bios of promising young scientists,” agreed Don Scott in an e-mail. “Associating science with the people behind it makes the scientific enterprise human.”

Other readers noted what wasn’t there: some of the scientific disciplines usually covered by Science News. Jim Carlton e-mailed to say he was struck by “the extraordinary restriction of the [list] to synthetic and cell biology, biotech, organic chemistry, neuroscience and physics,” resulting in the lack of young notables in fields such as astronomy, climate change, psychology and other sciences. “One might not even know that the oceans existed by your selection,” he wrote.

Editor in chief Eva Emerson agrees the list was limited in scope. It was based on the opinions of Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine, chemistry and physics — not an exhaustive list of all scientific fields. “It is an experiment, and something we’re still tweaking,” she says. “We would love to hear from readers more about what they would like to see in next year’s list.”

Antineutrino atlas

Hundreds of trillions of antineutrinosharmless, subatomic particles born from radioactive decay — zoom away from Earth each second. A new map flags which areas of the planet emit an abundance of these particles, marking antineutrino hot spots in red, Meghan Rosen wrote in “Map captures sources of Earth’s antineutrino glow” (SN: 10/3/15, p. 32).

Online readers wondered why areas known to be mountainous or to have nuclear reactors didn’t show up as dark red on the map. “If mountains have more radioactive stuff, why don’t the Rockies and Andes show it?” Tom Carberry asked. Japan doesn’t seem to have any red dots, either, he noted, despite having more than 40 nuclear reactors in operation.

Rosen points readers to an online version of the map that lets users zoom in on different locations across the globe. At higher resolution, mountainous regions do actually show up as red smudges, and dark red dots speckle Japan, too, she notes. The dark red swath blanketing the Himalayas is so widespread because that part of Earth’s crust is extremely dense, says particle physicist Shawn Usman. Because radioactive elements decay within the crust, “you get a lot more radioactive elements in those mountains,” he says.

Martian dust storms

The violent storm that strands a fictional character on Mars was one of the few unbelievable aspects of the new film, The Martian, wrote Tina Hesman Saey in “The Martian is entertaining science fiction rooted in fact” (SN: 10/3/15, p. 28).

Kurt Sroka recalled seeing a huge Martian storm more than a decade ago. “Most of the details of the Martian landscape were all but obliterated from telescopic view for a significant period of time,” he wrote in an e-mail. “What wind speed occurred on Mars then in order to cause a dust storm of that magnitude, and was it only dust with no blowing sand involved?”

Typical surface wind speed on Mars is about 60 miles per hour, but as Saey notes, Mars’ atmospheric pressure is a scant fraction of Earth’s, meaning that Mars winds don’t pack much of a punch.

When dust storms do occur on the Red Planet, the sediment blowing around is typically very fine. As a result, dustups resemble wildfire smoke more than a desert sandstorm here on Earth. Those particles can take a long time to settle, sometimes resulting in weeks-long obscured views of Mars’ surface.

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