Category Archives: Scientists

The seven most extreme planets ever discovered

Christian Schroeder, University of Stirling

Scientists recently discovered the hottest planet ever found – with a surface temperature greater than some stars. As the hunt for planets outside our own solar system continues, we have discovered many other worlds with extreme features. And the ongoing exploration of our own solar system has revealed some pretty weird contenders, too. Here are seven of the most extreme.

The hottest

How hot a planet gets depends primarily on how close it is to its host star – and on how hot that star burns. In our own solar system, Mercury is the closest planet to the sun at a mean distance of 57,910,000km. Temperatures on its dayside reach about 430°C, while the sun itself has a surface temperature of 5,500°C.

But stars more massive than the sun burn hotter. The star HD 195689 – also known as KELT-9 – is 2.5 times more massive than the sun and has a surface temperature of almost 10,000°C. Its planet, KELT-9b, is much closer to its host star than Mercury is to the sun.

Though we cannot measure the exact distance from afar, it circles its host star every 1.5 days (Mercury’s orbit takes 88 days). This results in a whopping 4300°C – which is hotter than many of the stars with a lower mass than our sun. The rocky planet Mercury would be a molten droplet of lava at this temperature. KELT-9b, however, is a Jupiter-type gas giant. It is shrivelling away as the molecules in its atmosphere are breaking down to their constituent atoms – and burning off.

The coldest

At a temperature of just 50 degrees above absolute zero – -223°C – OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb snatches the title of the coldest planet. At about 5.5 times the Earth’s mass it is likely to be a rocky planet too. Though not too distant from its host star at an orbit that would put it somewhere between Mars and Jupiter in our solar system, its host star is a low mass, cool star known as a red dwarf.

Freezing but Earth-like: ESO OGLE BLG Lb.
ESO, CC BY-SA

The planet is popularly referred to as Hoth in reference to an icy planet in the Star Wars franchise. Contrary to its fictional counterpart, however, it won’t be able to sustain much of an atmosphere (nor life, for that matter). This because most of its gases will be frozen solid – adding to the snow on the surface.

The biggest

If a planet can be as hot as a star, what then makes the difference between stars and planets? Stars are so much more massive than planets that they are ignited by fusion processes as a result of the huge gravitational forces in their cores. Common stars like our sun burn by fusing hydrogen into helium. But there is a form of star called a brown dwarf, which are big enough to start some fusion processes but not large enough to sustain them. Planet DENIS-P J082303.1-491201 b with the equally unpronounceable alias 2MASS J08230313-4912012 b has 28.5 times the mass of Jupiter – making it the most massive planet listed in NASA’s exoplanet archive. It is so massive that it is debated whether it still is a planet (it would be a Jupiter-class gas giant) or whether it should actually be classified as a brown dwarf star. Ironically, its host star is a confirmed brown dwarf itself.

The smallest

Just slightly larger than our moon and smaller than Mercury, Kepler-37b is the smallest exoplanet yet discovered. A rocky world, it is closer to its host star than Mercury is to the sun. That means the planet is too hot to support liquid water and hence life on its surface.

The oldest

PSR B1620-26 b, at 12.7 billion years, is the oldest known planet. A gas giant 2.5 times the mass of Jupiter it has been seemingly around forever. Our universe at 13.8 billion years is only a billion years older.

Artist’s impression of the biggest planet known.
NASA and G. Bacon (STScI)

PSR B1620-26 b has two host stars rotating around each other – and it has outseen the lives of both. These are a neutron star and a white dwarf, which are what is left when a star has burned all its fuel and exploded in a supernova. However, as it formed so early in the universe’s history, it probably doesn’t have enough of the heavy elements such as carbon and oxygen (which formed later) needed for life to evolve.

The youngest

The planetary system V830 Tauri is only 2m years old. The host star has the same mass as our sun but twice the radius, which means it has not fully contracted into its final shape yet. The planet – a gas giant with three quarters the mass of Jupiter – is likewise probably still growing. That means it is acquiring more mass by frequently colliding with other planetary bodies like asteroids in its path – making it an unsafe place to be.

The worst weather

Because exoplanets are too far away for us to be able to observe any weather patterns we have to turn our eyes back to our solar system. If you have seen the giant swirling hurricanes photographed by the Juno spacecraft flying over Jupiter’s poles, the largest planet in our solar system is certainly a good contender. However, the title goes to Venus. A planet the same size of Earth, it is shrouded in clouds of sulfuric acid.

The ConversationThe atmosphere moves around the planet much faster than the planet rotates, with winds reaching hurricane speeds of 360km/h. Double-eyed cyclones are sustained above each pole. Its atmosphere is almost 100 times denser than Earth’s and made up of over 95% carbon dioxide. The resulting greenhouse effect creates hellish temperatures of at least 462°C on the surface, which is actually hotter than Mercury. Though bone-dry and hostile to life, the heat may explain why Venus has fewer volcanoes than Earth.

Christian Schroeder, Lecturer in Environmental Science and Planetary Exploration, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mission to the sun will protect us from devastating solar storms and help us travel deeper into space

David Jess, Queen’s University Belfast

From prayer and sacrifice to sunbathing, humans have worshipped the sun since time immemorial. And it’s no wonder. At around 150m km away, it is close enough to provide the light, heat and energy to sustain the entire human race. But despite the fact that our parent star has been studied extensively with modern telescopes – both from home and in space – there’s a lot we don’t know about it.

This is why NASA has recently announced plans to launch a revolutionary probe, set to lift-off in 2018, that will literally touch it. Initially dubbed the Solar Probe Plus mission, the spacecraft has now been renamed the Parker Solar Probe. This is to honour physicist Eugene Parker who carried out important work on the solar wind – a stream of charged particles from the sun.

Helios 2 mission.
NASA

There have been many missions to investigate the sun. In 1976, the Helios 2 spacecraft came as close as 43m km from the sun’s atmosphere. But the $1.5 billion Parker probe will travel to just 6m km above the solar surface – some nine times closer than any spacecraft has ever gone before. This will open a new era of understanding as, for the first time, sensors will be able to detect and analyse phenomena as they occur in the sun.

While the cruising altitude of the mission may sound like a safe distance at millions of kilometres, the sun’s immense energy will relentlessly bombard the payload with heat. An 11.5cm thick carbon composite shroud, similar to what modern Formula 1 race cars employ in their high-performance braking systems, will shield the sensitive equipment. This will be crucial as temperatures will soar beyond 1,400°C.

At these extreme temperatures, the solar arrays that power the spacecraft will retract. This manoeuvre will allow the instruments and power sources to remain close to room temperature in the shadow of the carbon composite shield. Just as well, as the spacecraft will experience radiation 475 times more intense than Earth orbit.

Any errors in the planned spacecraft trajectories could result in the probe sinking deeper into the sun’s atmosphere, which is several million degrees hot. This could ultimately destroy the spacecraft.

Solar science

So what can we learn from this risky mission? The dynamic activity brought about by supercharged particles and radiation being released from the sun – encountering the Earth as they pass through the inner solar system – is called space weather. The consequences of space weather can be catastrophic, including the loss of satellite communications, changes to the orbits of spacecraft around Earth and damaging surges throughout global power grids. Most important is the risk to astronauts exposed to the powerful ionising radiation.

The devastating cost of such fierce electromagnetic storms has been estimated at $2 trillion, resulting in space weather being formally listed in the UK’s National Risk Registry.

Parker probe.
NASA

The new solar probe will revolutionise our understanding of what conditions are necessary in the sun’s atmosphere to generate severe bouts of space weather by making direct measurements of the magnetic fields, plasma densities and atmosphere temperatures for the first time. In a similar way to how an elastic band can snap following excessive stretching, it is believed that the continual twisting and churning of the magnetic field lines that permeate the solar atmosphere may give rise to particle acceleration and radiation bombardment. Once the magnetic fields break, we can experience severe space weather.

Unfortunately, we presently have no direct method of sampling the sun’s magnetic fields. Scientists are attempting to uncover new techniques that will allow the twists, strengths and directions of the sun’s powerful fields to be determined, but so far they can’t provide an accurate enough understanding. This is where the Parker probe will provide a new age of understanding, since it will be able to sample the sun’s powerful magnetic fields while there.

Round-the-clock observations and direct measurements of the atmospheric conditions responsible for increased levels of space weather are paramount in order to provide crucial warning of imminent solar threats. An instrument suite on-board the probe, the FIELDS suite, will provide such unprecedented information. Scientists can then feed this into intensive computer models, ultimately allowing space, aviation, power and telecommunication authorities to be alerted when potentially devastating space weather is imminent.

Of course, understanding the origins of space weather also has implications for other important areas of astrophysical research. It will allow space agencies to better protect astronauts during future manned missions to Mars, where the thinner Martian atmosphere offers little protection to incoming solar radiation.

The ConversationAlso, by being able to accurately model the effects of the streaming solar wind, future spacecraft will be able to effectively use solar sails to help them reach further into the depths of the solar system, perhaps eventually opening up the possibility of truly interstellar travel.

David Jess, Lecturer and STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Could cold spot in the sky be a bruise from a collision with a parallel universe?

Ivan Baldry, Liverpool John Moores University

Scientists have long tried to explain the origin of a mysterious, large and anomalously cold region of the sky. In 2015, they came close to figuring it out as a study showed it to be a “supervoid” in which the density of galaxies is much lower than it is in the rest of the universe. However, other studies haven’t managed to replicate the result.

Now new research led by Durham University, submitted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, suggests the supervoid theory doesn’t hold up. Intriguingly, that leaves open a pretty wild possibility – the cold spot might be the evidence of a collision with a parallel universe. But before you get too excited, let’s look at how likely that would actually be.

The cold spot can be seen in maps of the “cosmic microwave background” (CMB), which is the radiation left over from the birth of the universe. The CMB is like a photograph of what the universe looked like when it was 380,000 years old and had a temperature of 3,000 degrees Kelvin. What we find is that it is very smooth with temperature deviations of less than one part in 10,000. These deviations can be explained pretty well by our models of how the hot universe evolved up to an age of 380,000 years.

CMB as observed by Planck.
ESA and the Planck Collaboration, CC BY-SA

However the cold spot is harder to work out. It is an area of the sky about five degrees across that is colder by one part in 18,000. This is readily expected for some areas covering about one degree – but not five. The CMB should look much smoother on such large scales.

The power of galaxy data

So what caused it? There are two main possibilities. One is that it could be caused by a supervoid that the light has travelled through. But it could also be a genuine cold region from the early universe. The authors of the new research tried to find out by comparing new data on galaxies around the cold spot with data from a different region of the sky. The new data was obtained by the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the other by the GAMA survey.

The GAMA survey, and other surveys like it, take the “spectra” of thousands of galaxies. Spectra are images of light captured from a galaxy and spread out according to its wavelengths. This provides a pattern of lines emitted by the different elements in the galaxy. The further away the galaxy is, the more the expansion of the universe shifts these lines to appear at longer wavelengths than they would appear on Earth. The size of this so-called “redshift” therefore gives the distance to the galaxy. Spectra coupled with positions on the sky can give us 3D maps of galaxy distributions.

But the researchers concluded that there simply isn’t a large enough void of galaxies to explain the cold spot – there was nothing too special about the galaxy distribution in front of the cold spot compared to elsewhere.

So if the cold spot is not caused by a supervoid, it must be that there was a genuinely large cold region that the CMB light came from. But what could that be? One of the more exotic explanations is that there was a collision between universes in a very early phase.

Controversial interpretation

The idea that we live in a “multiverse” made up of an infinite number of parallel universes has long been considered a possibility. But physicists still disagree about whether it could represent a physical reality or whether it’s just a mathematical quirk. It is a consequence of important theories like quantum mechanics, string theory and inflation.

Quantum mechanics oddly states that any particle can exist in “superposition” – which means it can be in many different states simultaneously (such as locations). This sounds bizarre but it has been observed in laboratories. For example, electrons can travel through two slits at the same time – when we are not watching. But the minute we observe each slit to catch this behaviour, the particle chooses just one. That is why, in the famous “Shroedinger’s cat” thought experiment, an animal can be alive and dead at the same time.

But how can we live with such strange implications? One way to interpret it is to choose to accept that all possibilities are true, but that they exist in different universes.

Miaowtiverse.
Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr, CC BY-SA

So, if there is mathematical backing for the existence of parallel universes, is it so crazy to think that the cold spot is an imprint of a colliding universe? Actually, it is extremely unlikely.

There is no particular reason why we should just now be seeing the imprint of a colliding universe. From what we know about how the universe formed so far, it seems likely that it is much larger than what we can observe. So even if there are parallel universes and we had collided with one of them – unlikely in itself – the chances that we’d be able to see it in the part of the universe that we happen to be able to observe on the sky are staggeringly small.

The paper also notes that a cold region of this size could occur by chance within our standard model of cosmology – with a 1%-2% likelihood. While that does make it unlikely, too, it is based on a model that has been well tested so we cannot rule it out just yet. Another potential explanation is in the natural fluctuations in mass density which give rise to the CMB temperature fluctuations. We know these exist on all scales but they tend to get smaller toward large scales, which means they may not be able to create a cold region as big as the cold spot. But this may simply mean that we have to rethink how such fluctuations are created.

The ConversationIt seems that the cold spot in the sky will continue to be a mystery for some time. Although many of the explanations out there seem unlikely, we don’t necessarily have to dismiss them as pure fantasy. And even if it takes time to find out, we should still revel in how far cosmology has come in the last 20 years. There’s now a detailed theory explaining, for the most part, the glorious temperature maps of the CMB and the cosmic web of galaxies which span across billions of light years.

Ivan Baldry, Professor of Astrophysics, Liverpool John Moores University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The first results from the Juno mission are in – and they already challenge our understanding of Jupiter

Leigh Fletcher, University of Leicester

Ten months after its nerve-wracking arrival at Jupiter, NASA’s Juno mission has started to deliver – forcing scientists to reevaluate what they thought they knew about the giant planet. The first findings from Juno, published in Science, indicate that many aspects of Jupiter have defied expectation – including the strength of its magnetic field, the shape of its core, the distribution of ammonia gas and the weather at its poles. It certainly makes this an exciting time to be a Jupiter scientist. The Conversation

Juno arrived at Jupiter in July 2016, and began a long, looping first orbit that took it far out from the planet before zipping back in for its first scientific close-up (perijove) on August 27. It is this fleeting meeting that the new studies are based on. Today, despite initial problems with Juno’s engine and spacecraft software, the mission has settled into a regular pattern of close perijoves every 53.5 days – the sixth such flyby happened on May 19, the seventh will be on July 11.

Mysteries in the deep

Jupiter seen by Juno.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset

One of Juno’s key strengths is its ability to peer through the overlying shroud of clouds to study the gases below, such as the cloud-forming substance ammonia. Flows of ammonia help form Jupiter’s distinctive features. The gas was expected to be well mixed, or drenched, below the topmost clouds. That idea has been turned on its head – the ammonia concentration is much less than expected.

Intriguingly, much of the ammonia is concentrated into an equatorial plume, rising from the depths of Jupiter to the cloud-tops due to some powerful up-welling force. Scientists are likening this to Earth’s Hadley cell, with plumes dredging ammonia up from hundreds of kilometres below.

We’ve known that ammonia is enhanced at Jupiter’s equator for some time, but we never knew how deep this column went. However, it’s important to remember that this is only one location on Jupiter, and that Earth-based infrared observations suggest that the plume may not be this strong elsewhere around Jupiter’s equator, but could be patchy. Only with more perijove passes will we begin to understand the strange dynamics of Jupiter’s tropics.

We’ve never been able to see this deep before, so even the first observations from Juno’s microwave instrument provide a treasure trove of new insights. These show that the banded structure that we see at the surface is really just the tip of the iceberg – Jupiter exhibits banding all the way down to 350km. This is much deeper than what we’ve generally thought of as Jupiter’s “weather layer” in the upper few tens of kilometres. What’s more, that structure isn’t the same all the way down – it varies with depth, indicating a large, complex circulation pattern.

Gravity and magnetic fields

The surprises didn’t stop here. Juno can probe even deeper into the planet by monitoring small tweaks to the spacecraft’s orbit by the gravity field of Jupiter’s interior. Ultimately, these will be used to assess Jupiter’s core, although that cannot be done from a single perijove pass. Most scientists believe that the planet has a dense core made up of around ten Earth masses of heavy elements and occupying a small fraction of the radius. But the new measurements are inconsistent with any previous model – possibly hinting at a “fluffy” core dispersed out to half of Jupiter’s radius.

Indeed, Jupiter’s interior appears to be anything but uniform. We have to remember that scientists have spent years developing models of the interior of Jupiter based on sparse data taken from great distances – Juno is now testing these models to the extreme because it is flying so close.

Infrared image showing Jupiter’s aurora (blue) and internal glow (red).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Jupiter has the most intense planetary magnetic field in the solar system, causing a pile-up where the solar wind is slowed down (known as the bow shock). Juno first passed through this region and into the Jovian magnetosphere on June 24. At its closest approach, the strength of Jupiter’s magnetic field was twice as strong as any model had predicted and much more irregular.

That’s important, because it suggests that the magnetic field could be generated at shallower depths than expected, above the “metallic hydrogen” layer that is thought to exist at very high pressures. If proven, this has substantial implications for studies of magnetic fields at all of the giant planets. Perhaps the Cassini mission will be able to confirm whether this is the case as it makes its final measurements of Saturn’s magnetic field before it crashes into the planet in September.

Chaos at the poles

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see Jupiter through a telescope, you’ll be familiar with the organised, striped structure of whiter zones and dark brown belts. These colourful bands are bordered by powerful jet streams whizzing east and west around the planet. On Saturn, this organised, banded structure persists all the way to the poles, with one jet showing a strange hexagonal wave pattern encircling a hurricane-like polar cyclone. But Jupiter’s poles are different. Gone is the organised structure of jets. There’s no evidence for hexagons or anything like it. And instead of one cyclone, we see multitudes, surrounded by a whole host of chaotic and turbulent features.

Jupiter’s poles.
J.E.P. Connerney et al., Science (2017)]

With the ability to see structures as small as 50km, Juno’s camera has revealed numerous bright cyclones of a variety of appearances – some appear sharp, some have clear spirals, some are fluffy and diffuse, and the largest is some 1400km across. That’s about the same distance between London and Majorca. These bright storms sit on top of dark clouds, giving the appearance of “floating” on a dark sea, and it will be some time before we understand the lifetimes and motions of these storms.

You might imagine that, faced with throwing out models that have taken careers to develop, scientists might be a little glum. But the exact opposite is true. A mission like Juno, accessing regions that no robotic spacecraft has ever probed before, is designed to test the models to the extreme. If they break, then the search to find the missing pieces of the puzzle will provide deeper insights into the physics of the Jovian system. All these surprises have come from just the first perijove encounter, and I’m sure there are plenty more revelations to come.

Leigh Fletcher, Royal Society Research Fellow, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientists are accidentally helping poachers drive rare species to extinction

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

If you open Google and start typing “Chinese cave gecko”, the text will auto-populate to “Chinese cave gecko for sale” – just US$150, with delivery. This extremely rare species is just one of an increasingly large number of animals being pushed to extinction in the wild by animal trafficking. The Conversation

What’s shocking is that the illegal trade in Chinese cave geckoes began so soon after they were first scientifically described in the early 2000s.

It’s not an isolated case; poachers are trawling scientific papers for information on the location and habits of new, rare species.

As we argue in an essay published today in Science, scientists may have to rethink how much information we publicly publish. Ironically, the principles of open access and transparency have led to the creation of detailed online databases that pose a very real threat to endangered species.

We have personally experienced this, in our research on the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard, a startling creature that resembles a snake. Biologists working in New South Wales are required to provide location data on all species they discover during scientific surveys to an online wildlife atlas.

But after we published our data, the landowners with whom we worked began to find trespassers on their properties. The interlopers had scoured online wildlife atlases. As well as putting animals at risk, this undermines vital long-term relationships between researchers and landowners.

The endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella).
Author provided

The illegal trade in wildlife has exploded online. Several recently described species have been devastated by poaching almost immediately after appearing in the scientific literature. Particularly at risk are animals with small geographic ranges and specialised habitats, which can be most easily pinpointed.

Poaching isn’t the only problem that is exacerbated by unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species. Overzealous wildlife enthusiasts are increasingly scanning scientific papers, government and NGO reports, and wildlife atlases to track down unusual species to photograph or handle.

This can seriously disturb the animals, destroy specialised microhabitats, and spread disease. A striking example is the recent outbreak in Europe of a amphibian chytrid fungus, which essentially “eats” the skin of salamanders.

This pathogen was introduced from Asia through wildlife trade, and has already driven some fire salamander populations to extinction.

Fire salamanders have been devastated by diseases introduced through the wildlife trade.
Erwin Gruber

Rethinking unrestricted access

In an era when poachers can arm themselves with the latest scientific data, we must urgently rethink whether it is appropriate to put detailed location and habitat information into the public domain.

We argue that before publishing, scientists must ask themselves: will this information aid or harm conservation efforts? Is this species particularly vulnerable to disruption? Is it slow-growing and long-lived? Is it likely to be poached?

Fortunately, this calculus will only be relevant in a few cases. Researchers might feel an intellectual passion for the least lovable subjects, but when it comes to poaching, it is generally only charismatic and attractive animals that have broad commercial appeal.

But in high-risk cases, where economically valuable species lack adequate protection, scientists need to consider censoring themselves to avoid unintentionally contributing to species declines.

Restricting information on rare and endangered species has trade-offs, and might inhibit some conservation efforts. Yet, much useful information can still be openly published without including specific details that could help the nefarious (or misguided) to find a vulnerable species.

There are signs people are beginning to recognise this problem and adapt to it. For example, new species descriptions are now being published without location data or habitat descriptions.

Biologists can take a lesson from other fields such as palaeontology, where important fossil sites are often kept secret to avoid illegal collection. Similar practices are also common in archaeology.

Restricting the open publication of scientifically and socially important information brings its own challenges, and we don’t have all the answers. For example, the dilemma of organising secure databases to collate data on a global scale remains unresolved.

For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.

Biologists have a centuries-old tradition of publishing information on rare and endangered species. For much of this history it was an innocuous practice, but as the world changes, scientists must rethink old norms.

Benjamin Scheele, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

African scientists are punching above their weight and changing the world

John Butler-Adam, University of Pretoria

Over the past five years, Africa’s contributions to the world’s research –- that is, new knowledge –- have varied from a low of 0.7% to the present and highest level of 1.1%. The Conversation

There are many reasons for Africa’s small contribution to world research. One of them, sadly, is that at least some of this new knowledge is produced by African scientists working beyond their own countries and continent. Many have chosen to leave because they feel the facilities and funding opportunities are better than those “at home”.

It’s also important to point out that the sum of knowledge generated each year, including Africa’s contribution to it, is measured using research articles published by scientists and scholars in scientifically recognised journals. This means some of the actual work that’s being done isn’t getting the attention or credit it deserves, yet. The journal system is not a perfect way of assessing scientific productivity. For now, though, it’s a means that can be applied fairly to document peer reviewed research from around the world.

These concerns aside there is, I’m happy to report, much to celebrate about research in Africa. For starters, the world’s largest collection of peer-reviewed, African-published journals, is growing all the time. African Journals Online currently carries 521 titles across a range of subjects and disciplines.

Women researchers are also well represented, though there’s still work to be done: three out of 10 sub-Saharan researchers are women.

The continent’s researchers are working on challenges as varied as astrophysics, malaria, HIV/AIDS and agricultural productivity. They are making significant advances in these and many other critical areas. The projects I talk about here are just a few examples of the remarkable work Africa’s scientists are doing on and for the continent.

A range of research

Africa is establishing itself as global player in astronomical research. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is the largest single optical telescope of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. Work undertaken at this facility, in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, has resulted in the publication of close to 200 research papers.

The telescope has support from and working relationships with universities in 10 countries. Its recent work helped a team of South African and international collaborators to uncover a previously unknown major supercluster in the constellation Vela.

SALT has two siblings: MeerKAT, which is already producing results, and the Square Kilometre Array, which is still being developed.

In a very different sphere, Professors Salim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim have won African and international awards for their groundbreaking and lifesaving work in the area of HIV/AIDS. Professor Glenda Gray, the CEO of South Africa’s Medical Research Council, has been honoured by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. She, too, is a pioneer in HIV/AIDS research.

In Kenya, dedicated research institutes are tackling agricultural challenges in areas like crop production and livestock health. This not only boosts Africa’s research output, but contributes greatly to rural development on the continent.

Elsewhere, Nigeria has established a number of research institutes that focus on a range of agricultural challenges. Research is also being undertaken in the important area of oceanography.

Although it operates from the University of Cape Town, the African Climate and Development Initiative has been working as a partner in Mozambique. There it’s addressing the critical – and interrelated – challenges of climate change and adaptation responses for horticulture, cassava and the red meat value chain. This is important work in one of Africa’s poorest countries, which is battling drought and hunger.

And then there’s also research “out of Africa”. This involves discoveries about the human past and the origins of homo sapiens. Historically, this sort of research was often undertaken by people who didn’t come from Africa. More and more, though, African scholars have come to the fore. The scientists who discovered a new human ancestor and mapped a cave system that’s serving up amazing fossil evidence are following in giant footsteps: those of Robert Broom, Raymond Dart and Phillip Tobias.

Research that matters

What does all of this tell us about research in Africa? Perhaps three ideas are worth considering.

First, while Africa and its universities, institutes and scientists need to make far greater contributions to world knowledge, high quality and important research is happening. Its overall contribution might be small, but smart people are undertaking smart and important work.

Secondly, the range of research being undertaken is remarkable in view of the size of Africa’s overall contribution: from galaxies to viruses; from agriculture to malaria; and from drought to oceanography.

And thirdly it is notable, and of great significance, that irrespective of the disciplines involved, the research is tackling both international concerns and those specific to the African continent and its people’s needs.

Yes, 1.1% is a small figure. What’s actually happening, on the other hand, adds up to a pretty impressive score card.

John Butler-Adam, Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal of Science and Consultant, Vice Principal for Research and Graduate Education, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Seven myths about scientists debunked

Jeffrey Craig, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Marguerite Evans-Galea, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

As scientific researchers, we are often surprised by some of the assumptions made about us by those outside our profession. So we put together a list of common myths we and our colleagues have heard anecdotally regarding scientific researchers.

Myth 1: Researchers are paid by their research institutes

A research-focused academic will be provided with excellent colleagues, space, core technical support and often some money for lab maintenance. But not always a salary. Tenure is rare and is more likely to occur in universities but usually with teaching commitments.

The requirement for most researchers is to attract their own salary and research funding from outside their institute. This is typically in the form of competitive government grants, philanthropy and/or industry collaborations.

Scientific researchers are finding it harder to fund themselves due to reduced competitive grant funding. Luckily, some research organisations have a “safety net”, offering subsidies for limited amounts of time to top-performing researchers who have not funded their own salaries.

Myth 2: Researchers are paid to publish in journals

Surprisingly, unlike contributors to off-the-shelf journals and magazines, researchers have to pay the journals to publish their papers after they have been accepted for publication.

This is because, unlike mainstream publications, scientific journals generally do not receive money from advertisers. Costs can range up to A$2,000 per article, and up to US$5,700 (A$7,359) for “open access” journals, which do not charge a subscription fee. With most researchers publishing between five and ten papers a year, this can quickly add up.

Myth 3: Researchers are paid for working long hours

Scientific researchers are typically paid for between 37 and 39 hours per week.

However, due to a combination of healthy obsession, the increasing cost of experiments and the pressure to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of funds, many put in up to twice these hours, often working evenings and weekends.

In contrast to those in the legal and accounting professions, for example, no overtime is paid to scientific researchers.

Myth 4: Worthy research always gets funded

In 1937, the success rate for medical research grants was 49%, with a total of 63 applications made.

Through to 2000, success rates hovered around 30%, meaning one in three grants were funded. This sustained research careers and allowed growth in the research workforce. Today, around 7,000 PhD students graduate each year, with more than half in science, technology, engineering and maths.

In 2014, however, the success rate for most Australian government funded research grants hit a 30-year low of 15%, with another drop predicted for 2015. With 4,800 grant applications every year, there is a lot of excellent research – and researchers – missing out.

This issue was highlighted recently by four Australian Nobel Laureates. Unfunded research is often terminated, leading to a loss of valuable resources, such as specialised disease models and highly skilled research staff.

Myth 5: Researchers can claim costs of journal subscriptions and society memberships

Subscribing to leading journals is essential for staying up to date with discoveries in one’s research area research as soon as they are published. A typical subscription will be a few hundred dollars each year.

Although many journals are available free via university libraries, many make their articles available only to personal subscribers in the first year after they’re published.

It is also important that researchers keep in contact with colleagues via societies, and a researcher will often hold two to five different memberships. Generally, grant funding bodies do not allow budgets to include such items, and most research institutes will not provide funding either.

The best a typical researcher can do is to claim part of these expenses back as a tax deduction.

Myth 6: Researchers are trained to write and to manage budgets

In general, there are no compulsory courses in science communication, grant writing or budget management. These are usually picked up from mentors and from trial and error.

Progressive research institutes and university departments may offer some training in these areas, but again, this is not systematic.

Myth 7: Researchers have a career for life

Gone are the days of “once a researcher, always a researcher”. This is partly due to the “casualisation” of Australia’s research workforce and higher education sector, but also the high turnover of research personnel.

Most researchers sign a 12 month contract – sometimes less. Senior investigators with Fellowships may receive a contract for the duration of their fellowship, but few, if any, are considered “permanent employees”.

This is not unique to scientific research, but this short-term, high-risk career path has serious consequences for all researchers, particularly women in science.

Young investigators are being encouraged to consider careers beyond research and some of our best and brightest are choosing to stay abroad.

The truth

It’s also a myth that all scientists wear white coats and work in labs.
woodleywonderworks/Flickr, CC BY

Scientists are passionate about their research and readily do overtime and work pro bono (minus the executive assistant and company car), all while seeking funds for their salary, and for those in their team.

This is after more than a decade of higher education enabling the researcher to become an international specialist in their field. A huge investment for the individual, the government and society. Few researchers complain though because of the joys of research, the thrill of discovery and the desire to help others.

We hope this has helped shed some light on the life of a scientific researcher, and dispelled a few myths that are floating around about how and why we do what we do.

Scientists want you to “get” what we do. After all, our science impacts you too, and much of it is funded through your tax dollars. Increased investment in Australian science, together with diversified training of the research workforce, will secure the future of Australian research and researchers – and every Australian.

Jeffrey Craig, Principal Research Fellow, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Marguerite Evans-Galea, Research Scientist, Genetic Health Research, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.