To shrink error rates in quantum computers, sometimes more is better. More qubits, that is.
The quantum bits, or qubits, that make up a quantum computer are prone to mistakes that could render a calculation useless if not corrected. To reduce that error rate, scientists aim to build a computer that can correct its own errors. Such a machine would combine the powers of multiple fallible qubits into one improved qubit, called a “logical qubit,” that can be used to make calculations (SN: 6/22/20).
Scientists now have demonstrated a key milestone in quantum error correction. Scaling up the number of qubits in a logical qubit can make it less error-prone, researchers at Google report February 22 in Nature. Future quantum computers could solve problems impossible for even the most powerful traditional computers (SN: 6/29/17). To build those mighty quantum machines, researchers agree that they’ll need to use error correction to dramatically shrink error rates. While scientists have previously demonstrated that they can detect and correct simple errors in small-scale quantum computers, error correction is still in its early stages (SN: 10/4/21).
The new advance doesn’t mean researchers are ready to build a fully error-corrected quantum computer, “however, it does demonstrate that it is indeed possible, that error correction fundamentally works,” physicist Julian Kelly of Google Quantum AI said in a news briefing February 21. Logical qubits store information redundantly in multiple physical qubits. That redundancy allows a quantum computer to check if any mistakes have cropped up and fix them on the fly. Ideally, the larger the logical qubit, the smaller the error rate should be. But if the original qubits are too faulty, adding in more of them will cause more problems than it solves.
Using Google’s Sycamore quantum chip, the researchers studied two different sizes of logical qubits, one consisting of 17 qubits and the other of 49 qubits. After making steady improvements to the performance of the original physical qubits that make up the device, the researchers tallied up the errors that still slipped through. The larger logical qubit had a lower error rate, about 2.9 percent per round of error correction, compared to the smaller logical qubit’s rate of about 3.0 percent, the researchers found. That small improvement suggests scientists are finally tiptoeing into the regime where error correction can begin to squelch errors by scaling up. “It’s a major goal to achieve,” says physicist Andreas Wallraff of ETH Zurich, who was not involved with the research.
However, the result is only on the cusp of showing that error correction improves as scientists scale up. A computer simulation of the quantum computer’s performance suggests that, if the logical qubit’s size were increased even more, its error rate would actually get worse. Additional improvement to the original faulty qubits will be needed to enable scientists to really capitalize on the benefits of error correction.
Still, milestones in quantum computation are so difficult to achieve that they’re treated like pole jumping, Wallraff says. You just aim to barely clear the bar.
Fungi may help some tree-killer beetles turn a tree’s natural defense system against itself.
The Eurasian spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) has massacred millions of conifers in forests across Europe. Now, research suggests that fungi associated with these bark beetles are key players in the insect’s hostile takeovers. These fungi warp the chemical defenses of host trees to create an aroma that attracts beetles to burrow, researchers report February 21 in PLOS Biology.
This fungi-made perfume might explain why bark beetles tend to swarm the same tree. As climate change makes Europe’s forests more vulnerable to insect invasions, understanding this relationship could help scientists develop new countermeasures to ward off beetle attacks. Bark beetles are a type of insect found around the world that feed and breed inside trees (SN: 12/17/10). In recent years, several bark beetle species have aggressively attacked forests from North America to Australia, leaving ominous strands of dead trees in their wake.
But trees aren’t defenseless. Conifers — which include pine and fir trees — are veritable chemical weapons factories. The evergreen smell of Christmas trees and alpine forests comes from airborne varieties of these chemicals. But while they may smell delightful, these chemicals’ main purpose is to trap and poison invaders.
Or at least, that’s what they’re meant to do.
“Conifers are full of resin and other stuff that should do horrible things to insects,” says Jonathan Gershenzon, a chemical ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. “But bark beetles don’t seem to mind at all.”
This ability of bark beetles to overcome the powerful defense system of conifers has led some scientists to wonder if fungi might be helping. Fungi break down compounds in their environment for food and protection (SN: 11/30/21). And some type of fungi — including some species in the genus Grosmannia — are always found in association with Eurasian spruce bark beetles. Gershenzon and his colleagues compared the chemicals released by spruce bark infested with Grosmannia and other fungi to the chemical profile of uninfected trees. The presence of the fungi fundamentally changed the chemical profile of spruce trees, the team found. More than half the airborne chemicals — made by fungi breaking down monoterpenes and other chemicals that are likely part of the tree defense system — were unique to infected trees after 12 days.
This is surprising because researchers had previously assumed that invading fungi hardly changed the chemical profile of trees, says Jonathan Cale, a fungal ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada, who was not involved with the research. Later experiments revealed that bark beetles can detect many of these fungi-made chemicals. The team tested this by attaching tiny electrodes on bark beetles’ heads and detecting electrical activity when the chemicals wafted passed their antennae. What’s more, the smell of these chemicals combined with beetle pheromones led the insects to burrow at higher rates than the smell of pheromones alone.
The study suggests that these fungi-made chemicals can help beetles tell where to feed and breed, possibly by advertising that the fungi has taken down some of the tree’s defenses. The attractive nature of the chemicals could also explain the beetle’s swarming behavior, which drives the death of healthy adult trees.
But while the fungi aroma might doom trees, it could also lead to the beetles’ demise. Beetle traps in Europe currently use only beetle pheromones to attract their victims. Combining pheromones with fungi-derived chemicals might be the secret to entice more beetles into traps, making them more effective.
The results present “an exciting direction for developing new tools to manage destructive bark beetle outbreaks” for other beetle species as well, Cale says. In North America, mild winters and drought have put conifer forests at greater risk from mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus pendersoae) attacks. Finding and using fungi-derived chemicals might be one way to fend off the worst of the bark beetle invasions in years to come.
When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who garnered international praise for how she handled the pandemic in her country, recently announced her intention to resign, here’s how she summed up her surprise decision: “I know what the job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”
Social scientists and journalists worldwide largely interpreted Ardern’s words in her January 19 speech as a reference to burnout. “She’s talking about an empty tank,” says Christina Maslach, a psychological researcher who has been interviewing and observing workers struggling with workplace-related distress for decades. In almost 50 years of interviews, says Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, “that phrase [has come] up again and again and again.”
Numerous studies and media reports suggest that burnout, already high before the pandemic, has since skyrocketed worldwide, particularly among workers in certain professions, such as health care, teaching and service. The pandemic makes clear that the jobs needed for a healthy, functioning society are burning people out, Maslach says.
But disagreement over how to define and measure burnout is pervasive, with some researchers even questioning if the syndrome is simply depression by another name. Such controversy has made it difficult to estimate the prevalence of burnout or identify how to best help those who are suffering.
Here are some key questions researchers are asking to get a handle on the problem.
When did today’s understanding of burnout emerge? Some researchers argue that burnout is a strictly modern-day phenomenon, brought on by overwork and hustle culture. But others contend that burnout is merely the latest iteration of a long line of exhaustion disorders, starting with the Ancient Greek concept of acedia. This condition, wrote 5th century monk and theologian John Cassian, is marked by “bodily listlessness and yawning hunger.”
The more contemporary notion of burnout originated in the 1970s. Herbert Freudenberger, the consulting psychologist for volunteers working with drug addicts at St. Mark’s Free Clinic in New York City, used the term to describe the volunteers’ gradual loss of motivation, emotional depletion and reduced commitment to the cause. Roughly simultaneously, Maslach was interviewing social service workers in California and began observing similar characteristics. That prompted Maslach and her then–graduate student, Susan Jackson, now at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., to develop the first tool to measure burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The duo defined burnout as comprising of three components: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy, or persistent feelings of low personal accomplishment.
Respondents rated statements on a scale from 0 (“never”) to 6 (“daily”). Sample statements read: “I feel emotionally drained from my work” for exhaustion; “I doubt the significance of my work” for cynicism; and “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job” for inefficacy. High scores for exhaustion and cynicism, and low scores for inefficacy, indicated that a person was struggling with burnout.
Maslach’s scale turned burnout into a legitimate area of inquiry, says Renzo Bianchi, an occupational health psychologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. “Before [the Maslach Burnout Inventory], burnout was pop psychology.”
What is the best way to define burnout? Maslach’s inventory remains the most widely used tool to study burnout. But many criticize that definition of the syndrome (SN: 10/26/22).
Conceptualizing burnout as a combination of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy is “arbitrary,” wrote organizational psychologists Wilmar Schaufeli and Dirk Enzmann in their 1998 book, The Burnout Companion to Study and Practice: A Critical Analysis. “What would have happened if other items had been included? Most likely, other dimensions would have appeared.”
Moreover, those three components and what’s causing them are themselves poorly defined, says work and organizational psychologist Evangelia Demerouti of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. For instance, numerous nonwork factors can trigger exhaustion, such as health problems and caregiving responsibilities.
Disagreements over what constitutes burnout, and how to measure the phenomenon, has led to a chaotic body of literature. A key point of contention is how to use Maslach’s inventory. Maslach never designated a cutoff point at which a worker tips from not burnt out to burnt out. Rather the inventory was designed as a tool to help researchers identify patterns of burnout within a given work environment or profession.
But in practice, Maslach has little control over how researchers use the inventory. A review of 182 studies on physician burnout in 45 countries reported in September 2018 in JAMA is illustrative. Almost 86 percent of studies in that review used a version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. But roughly a quarter of those studies used unofficial versions of Maslach’s scale, such as halving the number of statements or measuring exhaustion only. Those versions are clinically invalid, Maslach contends.
Moreover, most researchers using the inventory, or a modified version, did designate cutoff scores, though teams’ definitions for high, medium and low burnout showed little agreement. Consequently, estimates for the prevalence of physician burnout varied from 0 to 80.5 percent — figures that are impossible to interpret, the researchers note.
What’s more, across all the studies, the JAMA team identified 142 definitions of burnout. And among the subset of studies not using a version of the inventory, the researchers identified 11 unique methods for measuring burnout.
Those many concerns are prompting some researchers to call for a return to the drawing board on how to define and measure burnout. That process should start with qualitative interviews to see how people struggling at work speak about their own experiences, Demerouti says. “We don’t [have] a good conceptualization and diagnosis of burnout.… We need to start from scratch.”
Do researchers agree on any features of burnout? Surprisingly, yes. Researchers concur that exhaustion is a core feature of the syndrome, wrote Bianchi and his team in March 2021 in Clinical Psychological Science.
Research in the past two decades is also converging on the idea that burnout appears to involve changes to cognition, such as problems with memory and concentration. Those cognitive problems can take the form of people becoming forgetful — missing a recurring meeting or struggling to perform routine tasks, for instance, says Charlie Renaud, an occupational health psychologist at the University of Rennes in France. Such struggles can carry over into people’s personal lives, causing leisure activities, such as reading and watching movies, to become laborious.
As these findings mount, some researchers have begun to incorporate questions on cognitive changes into their burnout scales, Renaud says. Is burnout a form of depression? At first glance, the two concepts appear contradictory. Depression is typically seen as stemming from within the individual and burnout as stemming from societal forces, chiefly the workplace (SN: 2/12/23). But some researchers have begun to question if burnout exists as a standalone diagnosis. The concepts are not mutually exclusive, research shows. Chronic stress in one’s environment can trigger depression and certain temperaments can make one more prone to burnout.
For instance, scoring high for the personality trait neuroticism — characterized by irritability and a tendency to worry — better predicted a person’s likelihood of experiencing burnout than certain work-related factors, such as poor supervisor support and lack of rapport with colleagues, Bianchi and his team reported in 2018 in Psychiatry Research.
Moreover, exhaustion occurred together with depression more frequently than with either cynicism or inefficacy, Bianchi and his team reported in the 2021 paper. If burnout is characterized by a suite of symptoms, then exhaustion and depression appear a more promising combination than the Maslach trifecta, the team reported.
“The real problem is that we want to believe that burnout is not a depressive condition, [or] as severe as a depressive condition,” Bianchi says. But that, he adds, simply isn’t true.
Should people be able to get a diagnosis of “burnout”? Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. “Burnout was never, ever thought of as a clinical diagnosis,” Maslach says.
Bianchi and his team disagree. The researchers have developed their own scale, the Occupational Depression Inventory, which assesses nine core symptoms associated with major depression, including cognitive impairment and suicidal thinking, through the lens of work. For instance, instead of rating a statement like “I feel like a failure,” participants rate the statement, “My experience at work made me feel like a failure.”
If burnout is a form of depression, then it can be treated as such, Bianchi says. And, unlike burnout, treatments for depression, such as therapy and, in severe cases, medication, are already established. “Hopefully the interventions, the treatments, the forms of support that exist for depressed people can then be applied for occupational depression,” he says.
But treating the individual, while often a necessary first step, does nothing to alleviate the work-related stress that triggered the crisis, says occupational health psychologist Kirsi Ahola of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki. “[Imagine] the person is on sick leave, for example, for a few weeks and recuperates and rests … and he comes back to the exactly same situation where the demands are too high and no support and whatever. Then he or she starts burning out again.” That cycle is difficult to break.
Burnout is not included in the American Psychiatric Association’s current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The World Health Organization adopted Maslach’s conceptualization of burnout when they outlined the syndrome in their 2019 International Classification of Diseases. Burnout constitutes “an occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition, the agency noted.
With the evidence so murky, is there any help for people struggling at work? Most researchers agree that interventions must target work-related distress at all levels, from the individual to the workplace to governing bodies.
Interventions at the individual level include therapy, exercise, developing hobbies outside of work and crafting one’s job to better fit one’s goals (SN: 1/10/23). Additionally, cognitive training programs that help restore memory, attention and other cognitive deficits have shown promise in alleviating the cognitive problems associated with burnout, Renaud and University of Rennes developmental psychologist Agnès Lacroix reported January 2 in the International Journal of Stress Management.
At the workplace level, simple fixes, such as fewer video meetings and reducing distractions during the workday, can alleviate distress (SN: 4/7/21). It’s time to chip away at all the little changes that have increased people’s workload over time, Maslach says. “Everybody adds stuff to people’s work. They never subtract.”
Ultimately, though, it may take systemic changes, such as more stringent labor laws, to combat burnout in countries like the United States, where sick leave is seldom guaranteed and few rules protect employees from overwork and job insecurity.
But even without regulations forcing employers’ hands, governments and companies that prioritize healthy workplaces have a competitive advantage. “When people are feeling well and cope well and have energy, they are also better workers,” Ahola says.
Scientists have identified the stem cells behind the liver’s legendary ability to replenish its tissue.
Stem cells not only bolster their own numbers but also become other kinds of cells through a process called differentiation, thereby keeping an organ populated as mature cells die off. The stem cells underpinning this process in the liver had never been identified.
To trace the lineage of liver cells, scientists used a telltale marker — the cells’ response to signals delivered by a known stem-cell regulator called Wnt. In mice, a gene called Axin2 became more active when Wnt was present. Using a fluorescent tag to track cells with these Wnt-responsive genes, the scientists were drawn to a cluster of cells around the central vein in the liver. A population of cells there behaved like stem cells. Specifically, the Axin2-producing cells self-renewed, a cardinal characteristic of a stem cell. They also looked like stem cells, with two copies of each chromosome rather than a multiple chromosome arrangement that mature liver cells often have, the scientists report August 5 in Nature.
In August 2021 on a lonely crater floor, the newest Mars rover dug into one of its first rocks.
The percussive drill attached to the arm of the Perseverance rover scraped the dust and top several millimeters off a rocky outcrop in a 5-centimeter-wide circle. From just above, one of the rover’s cameras captured what looked like broken shards wedged against one another. The presence of interlocking crystal textures became obvious. Those textures were not what most of the scientists who had spent years preparing for the mission expected. Then the scientists watched on a video conference as the rover’s two spectrometers revealed the chemistry of those meshed textures. The visible shapes along with the chemical compositions showed that this rock, dubbed Rochette, was volcanic in origin. It was not made up of the layers of clay and silt that would be found at a former lake bed.
Nicknamed Percy, the rover arrived at the Jezero crater two years ago, on February 18, 2021, with its sidekick helicopter, Ingenuity. The most complex spacecraft to explore the Martian surface, Percy builds on the work of the Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012, the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Sojourner rover and other landers.
But Perseverance’s main purpose is different. While the earlier rovers focused on Martian geology and understanding the planet’s environment, Percy is looking for signs of past life. Jezero was picked for the Mars 2020 mission because it appears from orbit to be a former lake environment where microbes could have thrived, and its large delta would likely preserve any signs of them. Drilling, scraping and collecting pieces of the Red Planet, the rover is using its seven science instruments to analyze the bits for any hint of ancient life. It’s also collecting samples to return to Earth. Since landing, “we’ve been able to start putting together the story of what has happened in Jezero, and it’s pretty complex,” says Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who helps plan Percy’s day-to-day and long-term operations.
Volcanic rock is just one of the surprises the rover has uncovered. Hundreds of researchers scouring the data Perseverance has sent back so far now have some clues to how the crater has evolved over time. This basin has witnessed flowing lava, at least one lake that lasted perhaps tens of thousands of years, running rivers that created a mud-and-sand delta and heavy flooding that brought rocks from faraway locales.
Jezero has a more dynamic past than scientists had anticipated. That volatility has slowed the search for sedimentary rocks, but it has also pointed to new alcoves where ancient life could have taken hold.
Perseverance has turned up carbon-bearing materials — the basis of life on Earth — in every sample it has abraded, Horgan says. “We’re seeing that everywhere.” And the rover still has much more to explore. Perseverance finds unexpected rocks Jezero is a shallow impact crater about 45 kilometers in diameter just north of the planet’s equator. The crater formed sometime between 3.7 billion and 4.1 billion years ago, in the solar system’s first billion years. It sits in an older and much larger impact basin known as Isidis. At Jezero’s western curve, an etched ancient riverbed gives way to a dried-out, fan-shaped delta on the crater floor.
That delta “is like this flashing signpost beautifully visible from orbit that tells us there was a standing body of water here,” says astrobiologist Ken Williford of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle.
Perseverance landed on the crater floor about two kilometers from the front of the delta. Scientists thought they’d find compacted layers of soil and sand there, at the base of what they dubbed Lake Jezero. But the landscape immediately looked different than expected, says planetary geologist Kathryn Stack Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Stack Morgan is deputy project scientist for Perseverance. For the first several months after the landing, the Mars 2020 mission team tested the rover’s movements and instruments, slowly, carefully. But from the first real science drilling near the landing location, researchers back on Earth realized what they had found. The texture of the rock, Stack Morgan says, was “a textbook igneous volcanic rock texture.” It looked like volcanic lava flows.
Over the next six months, several more rocks on the crater floor revealed igneous texture. Some of the most exciting rocks, including Rochette, showed olivine crystals throughout. “The crystal fabric was obviously cooled from a melt, not transported grains,” as would be the case if it were a sedimentary sample, says Abigail Allwood of the Jet Propulsion Lab. She leads the rover’s PIXL instrument, which uses an X-ray beam to identify each sample’s composition.
Mission scientists now think the crater floor is filled with igneous rocks from two separate events — both after the crater was created, so more recently than the 3.7 billion to 4.1 billion years ago time frame. In one, magma from deep within the planet pushed toward the surface, cooled and solidified, and was later exposed by erosion. In the other, smaller lava flows streamed at the surface. Sometime after these events, water flowed from the nearby highlands into the crater to form a lake tens of meters deep and lasting tens of thousands of years at least, according to some team members. Percy’s instruments have revealed the ways that water altered the igneous rocks: For example, scientists have found sulfates and other minerals that require water to form, and they’ve seen empty pits within the rocks’ cracks, where water would have washed away material. As that water flowed down the rivers into the lake, it deposited silt and mud, forming the delta. Flooding delivered 1.5-meter-wide boulders from that distant terrain. All of these events preceded the drying of the lake, which might have happened about 3 billion years ago.
Core samples, which Perseverance is collecting and storing on board for eventual return to Earth, could provide dates for when the igneous rocks formed, as well as when the Martian surface became parched. During the time between, Lake Jezero and other wet environments may have been stable enough for microbial life to start and survive.
“Nailing down the geologic time scale is of critical importance for us understanding Mars as a habitable world,” Stack Morgan says. “And we can’t do that without samples to date.”
About a year after landing on Mars, Perseverance rolled several kilometers across the crater floor to the delta front — where it encountered a very different geology.
The delta might hold signs of ancient life Deltas mark standing, lasting bodies of water — stable locales that could support life. Plus, as a delta grows over time, it traps and preserves organic matter.
Sand and silt deposited where a river hits a lake get layered into sedimentary material, building up a fan-shaped delta. “If you have any biological material that is trapped between that sediment, it gets buried very quickly,” says Mars geologist Eva Scheller of MIT, a researcher with the Percy team. “It creates this environment that is very, very good for preserving the organic matter.”
While exploring the delta front between April 2022 and December 2022, Perseverance found some of the sedimentary rocks it was after. Several of the rover’s instruments zoomed in on the textures and shapes of the rocks, while other instruments collected detailed spectral information, revealing the elements present in those rocks. By combining the data, researchers can piece together what the rocks are made of and what processes might have changed them over the eons. It’s this chemistry that could reveal signs of ancient Martian life — biosignatures. Scientists are still in the early stages of these analyses.
There won’t be one clear-cut sign of life, Allwood says. Instead, the rover would more likely reveal “an assemblage of characteristics,” with evidence slowly building that life once existed there.
Chemical characteristics suggestive of life are most likely to hide in sedimentary rocks, like those Perseverance has studied at the delta front. Especially interesting are rocks with extremely fine-grained mud. Such mud sediments, Horgan says, are where — in deltas on Earth, at least — organic matter is concentrated. So far, though, the rover hasn’t found those muddy materials.
But the sedimentary rocks studied have revealed carbonates, sulfates and unexpected salts — all materials indicating interaction with water and important for life as we know it. Percy has found carbon-based matter in every rock it has abraded, Horgan says.
“We’ve had some really interesting results that we’re pretty excited to share with the community,” Horgan says about the exploration of the delta front. Some of those details may be revealed in March at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Perseverance leaves samples for a future mission As of early February, Perseverance has collected 18 samples, including bits of Mars debris and cores from rocks, and stored them on board in sealed capsules for eventual return to Earth. The samples come from the crater floor, delta front rocks and even the thin Martian atmosphere.
In the final weeks of 2022 and the first weeks of 2023, the rover dropped — or rather, carefully set down — half of the collected samples, as well as a tube that would reveal whether samples contained any earthly contaminants. These captured pieces of Mars are now sitting at the front of the delta, at a predetermined spot called the Three Forks region. If Perseverance isn’t functioning well enough to hand over its onboard samples when a future sample-return spacecraft arrives, that mission will collect these samples from the drop site to bring back to Earth.
Researchers are currently working on designs for a joint Mars mission between NASA and the European Space Agency that could retrieve the samples. Launching in the late 2020s, it would land near the Perseverance rover. Percy would transfer the samples to a small rocket to be launched from Mars and returned to Earth in the 2030s. Lab tests could then confirm what Perseverance is already uncovering and discover much more.
Meanwhile, Percy is climbing up the delta to explore its top, where muddy sedimentary rocks may still be found. The next target is the edge of the once-lake, where shallow water long ago stood. This is the site Williford is most excited about. Much of what we know about the history of how life has evolved on Earth comes from environments with shallow water, he says. “That’s where really rich, underwater ecosystems start to form,” he says. “There’s so much going on there chemically.”
Inspired by how ants move through narrow spaces by shortening their legs, scientists have built a robot that draws in its limbs to navigate constricted passages.
The robot was able to hunch down and walk quickly through passages that were narrower and shorter than itself, researchers report January 20 in Advanced Intelligent Systems. It could also climb over steps and move on grass, loose rock, mulch and crushed granite.
Such generality and adaptability are the main challenges of legged robot locomotion, says robotics engineer Feifei Qian, who was not involved in the study. Some robots have specialized limbs to move over a particular terrain, but they cannot squeeze into small spaces (SN: 1/16/19). “A design that can adapt to a variety of environments with varying scales or stiffness is a lot more challenging, as trade-offs between the different environments need to be considered,” says Qian, of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
For inspiration, researchers in the new study turned to ants. “Insects are really a neat inspiration for designing robot systems that have minimal actuation but can perform a multitude of locomotion behaviors,” says Nick Gravish, a roboticist at the University of California, San Diego (SN: 8/16/18). Ants adapt their posture to crawl through tiny spaces. And they aren’t perturbed by uneven terrain or small obstacles. For example, their legs collapse a bit when they hit an object, Gravish says, and the ants continue to move forward quickly.
Gravish and colleagues built a short, stocky robot — about 30 centimeters wide and 20 centimeters long — with four wavy, telescoping limbs. Each limb consists of six nested concentric tubes that can draw into each other. What’s more, the limbs do not need to be actively powered or adjusted to change their overall length. Instead, springs that connect the leg segments automatically allow the legs to contract when the robot navigates a narrow space and stretch back out in an open space. The goal was to build mechanically intelligent structures rather than algorithmically intelligent robots.
“It’s likely faster than active control, [which] requires the robot to first sense the contact with the environment, compute the suitable action and then send the command to its motors,” Qian says, about these legs. Removing the sensing and computing components can also make the robots small, cheap and less power hungry.
The robot could modify its body width and height to achieve a larger range of body sizes than other similar robots. The leg segments contracted into themselves to let the robot wiggle through small tunnels and sprawled out when under low ceilings. This adaptability let the robot squeeze into spaces as small as 72 percent its full width and 68 percent its full height. Next, the researchers plan to actively control the stiffness of the springs that connect the leg segments to tune the motion to terrain type without consuming too much power. “That way, you can keep your leg long when you are moving on open ground or over tall objects, but then collapse down to the smallest possible shape in confined spaces,” Gravish says. Such small-scale, minimal robots are easy to produce and can be quickly tweaked to explore complex environments. However, despite being able to walk across different terrains, these robots are, for now, too fragile for search-and-rescue, exploration or biological monitoring, Gravish says.
The new robot takes a step closer to those goals, but getting there will take more than just robotics, Qian says. “To actually achieve these applications would require an integration of design, control, sensing, planning and hardware advancement.”
But that’s not Gravish’s interest. Instead, he wants to connect these experiments back to what was observed in the ants originally and use the robots to ask more questions about the rules of locomotion in nature (SN: 1/16/20).
“I really would like to understand how small insects are able to move so rapidly across certain unpredictable terrain,” he says. “What is special about their limbs that enables them to move so quickly?”
The dwarf planet Quaoar has a ring that is too big for its metaphorical fingers. While all other rings in the solar system lie within or near a mathematically determined distance of their parent bodies, Quaoar’s ring is much farther out.
“For Quaoar, for the ring to be outside this limit is very, very strange,” says astronomer Bruno Morgado of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The finding may force a rethink of the rules governing planetary rings, Morgado and colleagues say in a study published February 8 in Nature. Quaoar is an icy body about half the size of Pluto that’s located in the Kuiper Belt at the solar system’s edge (SN: 8/23/22). At such a great distance from Earth, it’s hard to get a clear picture of the world.
So Morgado and colleagues watched Quaoar block the light from a distant star, a phenomenon called a stellar occultation. The timing of the star winking in and out of view can reveal details about Quaoar, like its size and whether it has an atmosphere.
The researchers took data from occultations from 2018 to 2020, observed from all over the world, including Namibia, Australia and Grenada, as well as space. There was no sign that Quaoar had an atmosphere. But surprisingly, there was a ring. The finding makes Quaoar just the third dwarf planet or asteroid in the solar system known to have a ring, after the asteroid Chariklo and the dwarf planet Haumea (SN: 3/26/14; SN: 10/11/17).
Even more surprisingly, “the ring is not where we expect,” Morgado says. Known rings around other objects lie within or near what’s called the Roche limit, an invisible line where the gravitational force of the main body peters out. Inside the limit, that force can rip a moon to shreds, turning it into a ring. Outside, the gravity between smaller particles is stronger than that from the main body, and rings will coalesce into one or several moons.
“We always think of [the Roche limit] as straightforward,” Morgado says. “One side is a moon forming, the other side is a ring stable. And now this limit is not a limit.”
For Quaoar’s far-out ring, there are a few possible explanations, Morgado says. Maybe the observers caught the ring at just the right moment, right before it turns into a moon. But that lucky timing seems unlikely, he notes.
Maybe Quaoar’s known moon, Weywot, or some other unseen moon contributes gravity that holds the ring stable somehow. Or maybe the ring’s particles are colliding in such a way that they avoid sticking together and clumping into moons.
The particles would have to be particularly bouncy for that to work, “like a ring of those bouncy balls from toy stores,” says planetary scientist David Jewitt of UCLA, who was not involved in the new work.
The observation is solid, says Jewitt, who helped discover the first objects in the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s. But there’s no way to know yet which of the explanations is correct, if any, in part because there are no theoretical predictions for such far-out rings to compare with Quaoar’s situation.
That’s par for the course when it comes to the Kuiper Belt. “Everything in the Kuiper Belt, basically, has been discovered, not predicted,” Jewitt says. “It’s the opposite of the classical model of science where people predict things and then confirm or reject them. People discover stuff by surprise, and everyone scrambles to explain it.”
More observations of Quaoar, or more discoveries of seemingly misplaced rings elsewhere in the solar system, could help reveal what’s going on.
“I have no doubt that in the near future a lot of people will start working with Quaoar to try to get this answer,” Morgado says.
Scientists have finally figured out how those arches, loops and whorls formed on your fingertips.
While in the womb, fingerprint-defining ridges expand outward in waves starting from three different points on each fingertip. The raised skin arises in a striped pattern thanks to interactions between three molecules that follow what’s known as a Turing pattern, researchers report February 9 in Cell. How those ridges spread from their starting sites — and merge — determines the overarching fingerprint shape. Fingerprints are unique and last for a lifetime. They’ve been used to identify individuals since the 1800s. Several theories have been put forth to explain how fingerprints form, including spontaneous skin folding, molecular signaling and the idea that ridge pattern may follow blood vessel arrangements.
Scientists knew that the ridges that characterize fingerprints begin to form as downward growths into the skin, like trenches. Over the few weeks that follow, the quickly multiplying cells in the trenches start growing upward, resulting in thickened bands of skin.
Since budding fingerprint ridges and developing hair follicles have similar downward structures, researchers in the new study compared cells from the two locations. The team found that both sites share some types of signaling molecules — messengers that transfer information between cells — including three known as WNT, EDAR and BMP. Further experiments revealed that WNT tells cells to multiply, forming ridges in the skin, and to produce EDAR, which in turn further boosts WNT activity. BMP thwarts these actions.
To examine how these signaling molecules might interact to form patterns, the team adjusted the molecules’ levels in mice. Mice don’t have fingerprints, but their toes have striped ridges in the skin comparable to human prints. “We turn a dial — or molecule — up and down, and we see the way the pattern changes,” says developmental biologist Denis Headon of the University of Edinburgh.
Increasing EDAR resulted in thicker, more spaced-out ridges, while decreasing it led to spots rather than stripes. The opposite occurred with BMP, since it hinders EDAR production.
That switch between stripes and spots is a signature change seen in systems governed by Turing reaction-diffusion, Headon says. This mathematical theory, proposed in the 1950s by British mathematician Alan Turing, describes how chemicals interact and spread to create patterns seen in nature (SN: 7/2/10). Though, when tested, it explains only some patterns (SN: 1/21/14).
Mouse digits, however, are too tiny to give rise to the elaborate shapes seen in human fingerprints. So, the researchers used computer models to simulate a Turing pattern spreading from the three previously known ridge initiation sites on the fingertip: the center of the finger pad, under the nail and at the joint’s crease nearest the fingertip. By altering the relative timing, location and angle of these starting points, the team could create each of the three most common fingerprint patterns — arches, loops and whorls — and even rarer ones. Arches, for instance, can form when finger pad ridges get a slow start, allowing ridges originating from the crease and under the nail to occupy more space.
“It’s a very well-done study,” says developmental and stem cell biologist Sarah Millar, director of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Controlled competition between molecules also determines hair follicle distribution, says Millar, who was not involved in the work. The new study, she says, “shows that the formation of fingerprints follows along some basic themes that have already been worked out for other types of patterns that we see in the skin.”
Millar notes that people with gene mutations that affect WNT and EDAR have skin abnormalities. “The idea that those molecules might be involved in fingerprint formation was floating around,” she says.
Overall, Headon says, the team aims to aid formation of skin structures, like sweat glands, when they’re not developing properly in the womb, and maybe even after birth.
“What we want to do, in broader terms, is understand how the skin matures.”
Among some killer whale moms, lifelong feeding for adult sons but not daughters could be a long-term investment play. The delayed payoff? Greater grandmotherly glory.
Females in a quirky population of killer whales off the Pacific Coast of North America let their grown mama’s boys share fish that mom catches. Biologists have known that this pampering continues throughout a son’s life, which can last decades. Grown daughters, often feeding their own offspring, however, don’t get such a bonus. Scrutinizing decades of data has now revealed what moms sacrifice to lavish a lifetime of food on a son, researchers report February 8 in Current Biology. A mother’s yearly chance of successfully weaning a calf drops by about half after she has a son, says behavioral ecologist Michael Weiss of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash.
For the moms, “it’s a huge, huge cost that they’re taking on,” Weiss says. It “emphasizes kind of the uniqueness and the intensity of this mother-son bond in killer whales.” For creatures that bear their young in a series, he says, this finding is “our first kind of direct evidence of any animal showing lifetime parental investment.”
These killer whales off the coast of Washington State and British Columbia, in “the southern resident” population of Orcinus orca, don’t migrate. Instead they specialize in feeding year-round on the region’s fish, such as big chinook salmon.
When moms catch a fish, “they do this huge head jerk, and one half of the fish stays in the mouth and the other half kind of trails behind them as they swim on,” Weiss says. A son swimming with her can then grab that other half. “It’s not the son coming up and grabbing the fish out of her mouth,” he says.
The son’s company looks consensual to Weiss. Mothers and sons “spend a lot of time kind of floating at the surface together … just kind of enjoying each other’s company.” Whale watchers need to take care reading interpretations into behavior, he says, but his “intuition from watching them is more about the mom wanting to provide for the son.”
Weiss doesn’t think the decline in new births after producing a son comes from any lack of opportunity to mate. “These whales are really social,” he says. “They’re usually in quite large groups, and usually with at least one sexually mature male around.” When watching them from drones, “we see that social behavior in these whales often involves a lot of sexual behavior,” he says. Nevertheless, all those halved fishes may not give a mom enough nutrition for the demands of whale pregnancy.
Mom’s grandchild tally however can make up for her own limited reproduction as she coddles her sons, the whale records show. Sons don’t have to parent. They just deliver sperm to the right address. Plus, the longer males live, the better, Weiss says. For a few years, genetics suggested that the two oldest males in the southern resident population were siring more than half the new calves. Female killer whales, however, face more constraints. Killer whale pregnancies last some 18 months. So a Casanova whale’s sister gets preoccupied for a long time producing just one wrinkly not-so-little darling and then nurturing it to independence.
Female killer whales do have a chance to help later generations survive, because the species is among the few nonhuman mammals that experience menopause (SN: 3/5/15; SN: 8/19/13). (Females can stop reproducing in their 30s or 40s, but can live into their 80s).
Whether moms in other killer whale populations also routinely and consequentially serve dinner for grown sons isn’t an easy question to answer. Weiss wonders whether the same male whales in another place, perhaps with more abundant fish, would still reduce their mothers’ success at later births.
No other killer whale population’s records can match the depth of the ones Weiss used, says cetacean biologist Eve Jourdain of the University of Oslo. Her research focuses on killer whales around Norway that follow the seasonal movements of herring and other food bonanzas.
Jourdain doesn’t recall moms flinging fish, but she watches the whales herding local herring into big fish balls of swimming dinner. Which they share. So there may be other kinds of food-based bonding yet to be analyzed.
If you’re a museum aficionado itching for a new place to explore, 2023 has you covered. New science museums and exhibitions are opening, and some zoos are expanding. This sampling of destinations to check out in the new year or beyond has something for everyone, whether you’re a wildlife lover, space nerd or history buff.
Grand Egyptian Museum Outside Cairo Opens: To be announced
2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb (SN: 11/19/22, p. 14). Now, thousands of artifacts from the tomb — along with tens of thousands of other archaeological finds from ancient Egypt — will go on display when this museum, located within view of the Pyramids of Giza, opens. More than a decade in the making, it will be one of the largest archaeological museums in the world. Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation American Museum of Natural History New York City Opens: February 17
This multistory building will add tons of new exhibit space to the more than 150-year-old museum. Visitors can explore an insectarium that includes one of the world’s largest displays of live leaf-cutting ants and come face-to-face with dozens of butterfly species in a vivarium. Meanwhile, the interconnectedness of life will be on display in the immersive, 360-degree “Invisible Worlds” exhibition. Galápagos Islands Houston Zoo Opens: April 2023
If you can’t travel to the Galápagos Islands, a trip to Texas might be the next best thing. Giant tortoises, iguanas, penguins, sea lions, sharks and other creatures will inhabit this new exhibition that will re-create the land and marine ecosystems of the archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin.
Kansas City Zoo Aquarium Opens: September 2023
The 34 exhibits of this new aquarium will allow visitors to glimpse a wide variety of ocean locales without having to leave the Midwest. Underwater residents will include sea urchins and sea anemones in a warm intertidal zone, fish swimming in a coral reef, comb jellies floating in the open ocean and sea otters playing along a rocky shore. SPACE Franklin Institute Philadelphia Opens: Fall 2023
To design this new two-story gallery dedicated to the future of space exploration, exhibit planners met with local students and teachers to find out what they wanted to learn. The result is an experience that, among other things, will showcase the current and future technologies needed to live and work in space as well as the many career paths into the aerospace industry. Bird House Smithsonian’s National Zoo Washington, D.C. Opens: To be announced
With a focus on bird migration and conservation in the Americas, the zoo’s new bird house will feature three aviaries: The first will show how the Delaware Bay is a key refueling spot for migratory shorebirds, the second will demonstrate how seasonal wetlands in the Midwest serve waterfowl and the third will illustrate how a tropical coffee farm can provide respite for songbirds in winter. Robot & AI Museum Seoul, South Korea Opens: To be announced
Though details are still scant, this museum dedicated to furthering public knowledge of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning is expected to open later this year.