(Awesome image from wearscience.com)
2011 Nobel Prize in Physics
Contrary to popular opinion, scientific breakthroughs are rarely the result of a brilliant person waking up one day with an ephiphany. Generally speaking, a big scientific breakthrough is the result of discrete groups of mere relatively-smart people, working in cooperation or isolation, conducting observations or experiments that add incrementally to humanity’s knowledge.
Singling out individuals to praise has its benefits (it makes things easier on ignorant aerospace journalists for one) but it’s worth noting that however brilliant and creative the awardees themselves may be, they’re at the pinnacle of a very large human pyramid.
With that, congratulations to Drs. Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Working in two teams, with time on some serious telescopes (including the Hubble Space Telescope), they discovered that light from a certain Type 1A supernova (a type known for its dependable characteristics) had greater redshift than expected. Which means that the supernova is moving away from Earth faster than expected. The expansion of the universe was supposed to be slowing down due to gravitational attraction, not speeding up. It was a surprising finding, because it meant there had to be some force overcoming gravitational pull. This gave rise to a weird theory: dark energy, the idea that there is a form of previously undetected energy. Since then, scientists have found all sorts of indirect evidence for dark energy.
From urine to rocket fuel
From the journal Nature comes an article about anammox bacteria, which feed on ammonia (NH3) and excrete nitrogen (N2). The bacteria was discovered in a sewer in the 1990s, but has since become a common addition to sewage facilities as a waste purification method.
To turn ammonia into nitrogen, the bacteria must initiate several successive chemical reactions. One of these intermediate steps results in the creation of hydrazine (N2H4), a chemical that wasn’t previously known to occur in nature. Amongst other things, hydrazine is used as an in-space monopropellant for spacecraft. The thrusters that spacecraft use to move around in space? Largely hydrazine.
The new paper explores just how anammox bacteria are able to make hydrazine. Since chemistry is to me largely indistinguishable from witchcraft, here’s what Jyllian Kemsley of Chemical & Engineering News had to say:
“Kartal and colleagues found that K. stuttgartiensis first uses a reductase enzyme to convert NO2– to NO. Then a three-protein hydrazine synthase complex combines NO and NH4+ to form N2H4. Finally, a hydrazine dehydrogenase enzyme converts N2H4 to N2. The electrons for the first two steps of the process come from the final oxidation of N2H4 to N2.”
The hydrazine is of course produced in very small amounts, and at this stage it doesn’t seem practical to harvest it, which would require somehow stopping subsequent reactions (and a whole lot of money). But hey, pretty cool, huh?