Alt-week 11.03.12: zombie animals, martian methane and self healing buildings

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Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

After a week where large numbers of people found themselves at the mercy of mother nature, many will be reminded just how vulnerable we really can be at times. That said, science still provides us with a pretty big stick to whack many other problems with. After the break we look at how crumbling buildings could soon be self-healing, why some UK-based scientists think they are one step closer to answering the "is light made of waves or particles" quandary, and NASA reveals its latest results in the hunt for martian methane. Oh, and there's some zombie animals too. This is alt-week.

Zombies. One of the mainstays of horror movies, but largely just a creation of the overactive imagination, right? Right? Wrong. In fact, zombie-like behaviour isn't unheard of in the natural world, it just has less of the brain eating, and limping marches toward locked-down shopping malls. Scientific American whipped up a short video that looks at real life zombies in nature. Mainly these revolve around parasitic creatures manipulating their host for their own survival, such as the mutant fungus that infects ants, leads them to fertile ground, before killing them from the inside and sprouting roots to infect others. Nasty. Worst of all? Turns out we humans might not be immune either, with up to 22 percent of Americans potentially infected by the protozoa Toxoplasma gondii. A parasite that is potentially causes people to be more sociable and less cautious. If that's the case, zombies are more common than we first thought, and can be found in bars across the land most evenings, with a prevalence on weekends.

Quantum physics, the merest utterance of the words is often enough to conjure up images of blackboards chalked with squiggly equations, and scientists rolling out the gag about how if you understand it, then you don't understand it. One of the better known corners of this puzzling area of science is the Double-slit, or Young's experiment -- a demonstration that matter can display properties of both waves and particles. Up until now, however, experiments have only ever shown the matter as one or the other, never both states simultaneously. Some new research from a team at Bristol University, UK, has resulted in new measurement apparatus that spotted matter in both states at the same time. The team observed strong "nonlocality" (another tricky concept of quantum mechanics), which Dr Alberto Peruzzo -- Research Fellow at the Centre for Quantum Photonics -- claims "represents a strong refutation of models in which the photon is either a wave or a particle." The process uses a quantum photonic chip, something developed by the Bristolian team themselves. While this experiment might go some way to answering the question of whether light is wave- or particle-based (or, it seems, potentially both), it could also benefit quantum computing in general.

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It might sound like the start to a terrible joke, but what happens when a microbiologist and a concrete technologist get together? The answer is a special mix of the popular building material, that might be able to "heal" itself. The idea is the result of a collaboration between the two aforementioned professionals at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands. Spores of a special bacteria that produce limestone are added into the concrete mix, along with the nutrients they need to feed on. The clever part being what's missing: water. Without this, the spores remain dormant. When concrete cracks, it's the penetration of water that causes a lot of the damage. With this new material, however, H2O is like the egg in a cake mix. The addition of which brings the bacteria to life, causing them to create limestone, thus healing, or at least extending the service life of the building. Under lab conditions, cracks as wide as 0.5mm have been successfully healed. The material has been under development for some time, but now is just about to undergo outdoor testing under different conditions, before hopefully being commercialized in the next few years.

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Normally, when there's an outbreak of methane, you'll find people moving swiftly away from it. Not if you're one of the Curiosity rover scientists. The presence of the gas is considered a good potential indicator to the existence of life (the vast majority on Earth coming from biological sources). One of Curiosity's tasks is to search for methane using a laser spectrometer to analyse the air, and look for the relevant chemical signatures, the outcome of which has been hotly anticipated. Unfortunately, so far, the results aren't promising, with Christopher Webster of NASA apparently reporting -- with a level of 95 percent confidence -- that levels of the gas are somewhere between zero and five parts per billion. Despite this, the quest will go on with NASA assuring that, even though nothing conclusive has been found at this time, that could still change. Until stronger indications of the gas show up though, we're not holding our breath.

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Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credit: Wikipedia, NASA, Delft Technical University]

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