Discovered: Curiosity will have to dig deeper to find signs of Martian life; how our unstable universe could be replaced; new scorpion found near Tucson; our ape ancestors got drunk, too.
Digging for Martians. Research on Earth and on Mars suggests that the red planet could be covered in chemicals similar to those found in household bleach products. That would mean that any traces of carbon-based life rest far below the surface. In a new study on a meteorite that originated on Mars and landed in Antarctica 12,000 years ago, Tufts University's Sam Kounaves and his colleagues found evidence of nitrate and chloride, suggesting that chemicals that can break down organic compounds may be present on the Earth's surface. But if there are fossils of carbon-based life on Mars, they're probably deposited underground. "Assuming they somehow got there from an earlier epoch, they would have a greater chance of surviving," Kounaves says. So astronomers will be watching the drilling mission of NASA's Curiosity rover closely, even though it can only dig 2.5 inches deep. [New Scientist]
How the universe might replace itself through its own instability. The more we learn about the recently-detected Higgs boson, the particle thought to explain why there is mass in the universe, the weirder the story gets. Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider — the Geneva lab that pinpointed the Higgs — are now theorizing what the boson means for theories about the end of the universe. Physicist Joseph Lykken spells out the universe's fate:
If you use all the physics we know now, and you do this straightforward calculation - it's bad news. What happens is you get just a quantum fluctuation that makes a tiny bubble of the vacuum the Universe really wants to be in. And because it's a lower-energy state, this bubble will then expand, basically at the speed of light, and sweep everything before it.
Put in plain English, Lykken is saying that the universe's inherent instability could end up causing a destructive moment in which the cosmos sort of turns inside out, replacing itself with an entirely new universe. But don't worry. Such a catastrophic event won't happen for a long, long time — billions of years is the current estimate. And our solar system will be long dead by then. [BBC News]
Ancient primates also enjoyed alcohol. Humans aren't the only species clever enough to find out that ethanol gives drinkers a pleasant buzz. Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and his colleagues have found evidence that today's humans, chimps, and gorillas all descend from an ape who walked the Earth 10 million years ago and possessed a taste for — as well as the ability to metabolize — alcohol. Benner was able to determine this by looking at the enzymes of extinct primates, connecting their genetic code with modern humans. [Science News]
Inset image: Richard F. Ayrey
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