Monday, 25 April 2011

Can bacteria transmit radio waves?


This week arXiv published a controversial abstract positing possible evidence for electromagnetic emissions from bacterial organisms.

Whilst seemingly outlandish, this isn't a new area research. Bacterial radio waves were theorised in 2009 by French virologist Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2008 for the discovery of HIV.

Montagnier's highly controversial theory suggests that solutions containing the DNA of pathogenic bacteria and viruses, including HIV, could emit low frequency radio waves that induced surrounding water molecules to become arranged into nanostructures. These water molecules, he posited, could also emit radio waves. His research is summarised in this presentation paper.

But as Physics arXiv Blog at Technology Review points out, there are few more divisive figures than Montagnier, and his claims are flatly rejected by most mainstream biologists. PZ Myers memorably condemned the research as, "an awful paper that I would have shredded in a sea of red ink if it had come to me".

So what's new about the current arXiv report, and who would stick their neck out and be associated with furthering a theory that was met with such universal bile? Allan Windom is a theorist at Northeastern University in Boston who specialises in quantum field theory at the interface between high energy theory and condensed matter theory. Along with J. Swain, Y. Srivastava, and S. Sivasubramanian, he believes he may have solved one of the most controversial problems with Montagnier's theory, ie, there is no known mechanism by which bacteria can generate radio waves.

arXiv summarise their abstract (linked to below), as follows:

"Many types of bacterial DNA take the form of circular loops. So they've modelled the behaviour of free electrons moving around such a small loop, pointing out that, as quantum objects, the electrons can take certain energy levels. [They] calculate that the transition frequencies between these energy levels correspond to radio signals broadcast at 0.5, 1 and 1.5 kilohertz. And they point out that exactly this kind of signal has been measured in E Coli bacteria. [...] It is well known that bacterial and other types of cells use electromagnetic waves at higher frequencies to communicate as well as to send and store energy. If cells can also generate radio waves, there's no reason to think they wouldn't exploit this avenue too."

This is undoubtedly going to create a stir in the biological physics community, so stay tuned for more.


Friday, 22 April 2011

Electron beams link Saturn with Enceladus


More exceptionally exciting new research results from NASA's highly productive Cassini mission are being published in Nature this week.

A team of researchers, lead by University College London (UCL), have revealed that Enceladus, one of Saturn's diminutive moons, is linked to Saturn by powerful electrical currents - beams of electrons that flow back and forth between the planet and moon. The UCL announcement elucidates further:

"Since Cassini's arrival at Saturn in 2004 it has passed 500km-wide Enceladus 14 times, gradually discovering more of its secrets on each visit. Research has found that jets of gas and icy grains emanate from the south pole of Enceladus, which become electrically charged and form an ionosphere. The motion of Enceladus and its ionosphere through the magnetic bubble that surrounds Saturn acts like a dynamo, setting up the newly-discovered current system."

Scientists already knew that the giant planet Jupiter is linked to three of its moons by charged current systems set up by the satellites orbiting inside its giant magnetic bubble, the magnetosphere, and that these current systems form glowing spots in the planet's upper atmosphere. The latest discovery at Enceladus shows that similar processes take place at the Saturnian system too.

The detection of the beams was made by the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer's electron spectrometer, the design and building of which was led at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory. UCL co-authors of the Nature paper, Dr Geraint Jones and Professor Andrew Coates, are delighted with this new finding.

Dr Jones said: "Onboard Cassini, only Cassini Plasma Spectrometer's electron spectrometer has the capability of directly detecting the electron beams at the energies they're seen; this finding marks a great leap forward in our understanding of what exactly is going on at mysterious Enceladus."

Professor Coates, added: "This now looks like a universal process - Jupiter's moon Io is the most volcanic object in the solar system, and produces a bright spot in Jupiter's aurora. Now, we see the same thing at Saturn - the variable and majestic water-rich Enceladus plumes, probably driven by cryovolcanism, cause electron beams which create a significant spot in Saturn's aurora too."


Monday, 4 April 2011

Jodrell Bank selected for Square Kilometre Array


Major news from the world of radio astronomy this week, as Jodrell Bank was chosen as the headquarters for the planning and construction of the long-awaited Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

Set to be one of the great scientific endeavours of the 21st Century, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope. Jodrell Bank beat off fierce competition from sites in Holland and Germany to be selected as the project headquarters. The SKA itself will be located in either Australia and New Zealand or Southern Africa.

The SKA will investigate fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe, including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how galaxies have evolved since then, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the eminent radio astronomer who discovered pulsars at Jodrell Bank in 1967 had this to say:
"The power of this new telescope project is going to surpass anything we've seen before, enabling us to see many more radio-emitting stars and galaxies and pulling the curtains wide open on parts of the great beyond that radio astronomers like me have only ever dreamt of exploring."

Steve Rawlings of Oxford University hopes it might explain dark energy:
"The Square Kilometre Array is a time machine. As you look out to greater distances you're seeing the universe as it was when it was younger, and so you can map out the expansion of the universe. Dark energy seems to accelerate that expansion and so we will be able to map out dark energy and perhaps discover what it is."

Rather than being a huge single radio dish, it will be made up of thousands of smaller ones, which are distributed across vast geographical areas. A large array is needed because the wavelength of radio waves is far greater than that of visible light. "In order to get the same level of detail as a good optical telescope you'd need something 100km across. Clearly you can't build a single telescope a 100km across, but what you can do is build a network of telescopes and link those telescopes together." Simon Garrington, of Jodrell Bank explains.

Set to cost an estimated 1.5 billion Euros, this huge endeavour involves more than 70 institutes in 20 countries. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity of the best current-day telescopes.