Readers discuss a subglacial cavern, how language shapes the brain and more

Hello darkness, my old friend

A subglacial river has carved out a cavern hundreds of meters beneath the Kamb Ice Stream, a West Antarctic glacier. Inside the dark, water-filled “cathedral,” scientists found signs of life, Douglas Fox reported in “Journey under the ice” (SN: 4/22/23, p. 18).

Reader Bob Masta asked how much sunlight filters down through the ice above the cavern.

“Essentially no light gets through that thickness of ice. These are truly dark environments,” Fox says. “The ice is basically opaque, crammed with bubbles and inclusions. So it scatters light until, after a certain depth, there’s nothing left.” This darkness is consistent with observations of other subglacial environments, Fox says, such as those beneath the Thwaites ice shelf and the Whillans Ice Stream.

Let’s talk language

MRI scans of nearly 100 native speakers of either Arabic or German revealed differences in how the language circuits of the brain are connected, Elise Cutts reported in “Native language shapes the brain” (SN: 4/22/23, p. 8).

Several readers wondered what the finding might mean for people who grew up speaking more than one language.

They may have an advantage in learning new languages, says cognitive neuroscientist Angela Friederici of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. With brain connections influenced by more than one language, the brains of multilingual people would likely have “more structures to cope with the different languages, thereby even providing a good basis to learn additional languages,” she says.

Listen closely

Tomato and tobacco plants emit high-frequency sounds when they’re thirsty. The finding could one day help farmers detect crops that need watering, Meghan Rosen reported in “Parched plants make ultrasonic clicks” (SN: 4/22/23, p. 13).

Reader Roger Pyle shared memories of growing up in rural Pennsylvania and hearing “sounds of corn growing” after a rain. “We used to have a truck patch of about an acre where we raised sweet corn, beans, strawberries, etc.,” Pyle wrote. “My bedroom window faced the field where we grew the crops. The window was open most of the time in the summer as we had no air conditioning. After a dry period, when it rained overnight (and sometimes after an afternoon thunderstorm), it would get very still, and I could hear … sounds coming from the cornfield. Whether it was the sound of the rain soaking into the soil or water dripping off leaves of the corn, I don’t know for sure.” Although at a frequency too high for humans to hear, “the clicking noises of thirsty plants acknowledging a welcome drink” perhaps were among the sounds of the field, Pyle mused.

Unsung characters

Barred from ocean expeditions because she was a woman, geologist and cartographer Marie Tharp devoted her energy to making maps of the seafloor. Her groundbreaking work offered visual support for the idea of continental drift, Betsy Mason reported in “Marie Tharp brought us the ocean floor” (SN: 4/22/23, p. 24).

Reader Charlotte Howell was thrilled to read about Tharp. “I worked very briefly at Lamont-Doherty [Earth O­bservatory] in a support role back in 1978 and knew several of the scientists continuing to collect and interpret data on the seafloor spreading at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Though I am not a scientist, my father had a Ph.D. in chemistry and spent most of his career as a researcher…. He introduced me to the fascinating worlds of chemistry, geology, scientific thought and process,” Howell wrote.

“Over the years, I’ve read several biographies of women scientists,” including of Marie Curie, who pioneered research on radioactivity, and Rosalind Franklin, who contributed to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, Howell wrote. “I look forward to any articles on women scientists you include in upcoming issues of Science News.”