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Alt-week 7.20.13: 5D super-memory cards, space snow and the tar drops!


Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

You know, we're done with the whole three dimension thing. It's waaaay to restrictive. That's why we're adding not one, but two more to the list this week. Now we've got a little more breathing space, we can consider some of science's bigger questions, like how comets might form, and how long until the results of an 85-year old experiment might finally be caught on film. This is alt-week.

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A couple of years ago we heard about a curious method of storing data that uses "monolithic glass space-variant polarization converters," with wild promises of storing our media in five dimensions. Now it's a reality. Or rather, the concept has been successfully demonstrated with real data. Living up to stereotype, the scientists at the University of Southampton saved a PDF file inside the glass. And yes, all five of the promised dimensions were used, which include the usual three, plus axis orientation and "birefringence" -- a quality of refracted light. Thanks to how the data is stored, the glass "disc" used has a potential capacity of 360 TB, can withstand temperatures of 1,000 degrees Centigrade, and, unlike magnetic or flash media, won't deteriorate with age. The "Superman memory crystal" -- as it's dubbed -- isn't commercially available just yet, but that team are seeking industry partners to help expedite that process.

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You'd be forgiven for thinking that snow is primarily a concern of those in colder climates. Well, if you're an astronomer, it's something likely of interest to you, too. Albeit for very different reasons. It turns out that the cold stuff might be useful in helping understand how planets in young systems form. Likewise, it's not just water that makes snow, other gases -- such as methane and carbon dioxide -- do too, when conditions are right. Recently, scientists have worked out when (i.e. how far from the star) the carbon monoxide (CO) starts to freeze and become snow, by observing this exact phenomenon in a distant solar system. The CO snow line was observed to start at about the same distance as Neptune is from our sun. This discovery could help scientists understand how and when smaller bodies of ice -- like comets -- form, and in turn (as CO carries molecules essential for life), how Earth-like planets could get seeded.

You may have heard of the pitch-tar experiment before. It's notable for a few reasons, the main one being that it's one of the longest running experiment of all time. That particular title goes to the version at the University of Queensland, Australia, which was set up in 1927. The premise is simple, to demonstrate that something that might appear to be solid, is in fact, moving like a liquid. The trouble is, it moves so slow, that capturing the eventual drip of tar falling has so far proved elusive, with the last one in 2000 (they take between seven and 13 years to drop) frustratingly being missed. Finally, however, the event has been captured on film -- but at a similar experiment taking place in Trinity College, Dublin, since 1944. They say all good things come to those who wait, and we have to admit, even just watching the fleeting event delivers an unusual sense of satisfaction. So, with the Australian one surely due to drop "anytime" soon, perhaps now is the time to start watching the live feed?

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.

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