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Alt-week 02.08.14: ancient aliens, power-generating spores and the 'pruney finger' mystery solved

James Trew, @itstrew
February 8, 2014
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Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

A new theory is forcing us to reconsider one of life's big questions -- are we alone? Perhaps, it's more appropriate to ask are we alone right now? If that's too big of a question to consider on the weekend, what about the slightly more evanescent "why do my fingers go wrinkly in the bath?" Whichever one you're asking, you're in the right place. This is alt-week.

If we threw you the words "latex" and "bacteria," you'd be forgiven for assuming we were just about to embark on a cautionary wardobe-related tale. As it happens, it's something a lot less... unpleasant than that. When scientists observed the humble Bacillus spore's reaction to water -- it shrinks when dry, expands when wet -- they realized this movement could be harnessed to generate power. In comes the latex, a strip of which was covered in the spores, and promptly made wet, then dry, then wet again -- and so on. As hoped, this caused the strip to curl up and then re-straighten in response to the change in humidity -- enough movement to be considered for generating electricity. It's estimated that this movement produces an energy density of more than 10 MJ m−3, two orders of magnitude higher than current synthetic water-responsive materials. It's also suggested that mutations in the spores could be used to double the energy output, and that their self-assembling nature makes them ideal for practical application (layering on silicon etc).

Imagine this, you turn up to a house, and there is debris scattered everywhere, but no one's around. All the potential signs of life are there: a few jackets strewn on the bed upstairs, the toilet seat is up, and a few empty beer cans rest beside the bin. Well, according to a new theory, that scenario could be a metaphor for life in the universe, with Earth being the late arrival at the metaphorical party. We're all familiar with the term "Goldilocks zone" that indicates a planet's likelihood of life-supporting conditions. Harvard astrophysicist Abraham Loeb is suggesting that exoplanets that orbit way outside of this area could have supported life much earlier in the universe's history, thanks to heat provided by "relic radiation" after the big bang. If true, life could have been around as soon as 15 million years after the now famous event (it's estimated that life only started on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago, a difference of over 9 billion years). The trick is deciding whether planets for life to, well, live on could have existed then. Conventional wisdom says that the required heavy elements weren't around yet, but Loeb suggests that "islands" of dense matter could have existed, along with short-lived stars that might have started the heavy-element forming process. Loeb believes that proof of his theory might not even be (relatively) that far away. If we can find any planets in our own galaxy that orbit stars with low levels of heavy elements, it would validate his basic principles.

Alien life, however, is a mere curiosity compared to the baffling conundrum that is bathing-induced "pruney fingers." Fortunately, the scientific community has given this big issue the attention it deserves too, with new research finally shedding light on the phenomena's origins. There are a couple of things going on, it seems. Firstly, there's the variable permeability of the skin which allows it to soak up water when we're in the bath, doing the dishes or going for a swim etc. It's the second part that's a little more tricky. Scientists in Germany created a geometric model that imitates the filaments in the skin, even while they're holding water. The last part of the puzzle is figuring out how everything returns to normal (i.e. why you don't have wrinkly fingers to this day). The answer is to do with tension in the system (in our case, the skin), that ultimately pulls back, reversing the process. While it may sound like an unusual thing to explore, the work could lead to new treatments for dermatitis and better skin grafts, as well as more durable synthetic materials that incorporate the same mechanism.

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 credits: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech, Xi Chen/Columbia University]

In this article: alt week, alt-week, altweek
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