Material World - 23/08/2012
Quentin Cooper puts the peregrine among the pigeons and asks whether age-related hearing loss means birds with high song are missed off the all-important British bird surveys.
As public interest in the red planet reaches a peak and NASA's Rover Curiosity begins tentatively to roll across the Martian surface, their next lander - called InSight - is announced to some fanfare. Based on an older, simpler, static probe, InSight will look for "Marsquakes" and teach us about the deep seismic structure of Mars. But as the former head of Science and Robotic Missions at the European Space Agency, now President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Prof David Southwood tells Quentin, there is some disappointment for planetary scientists, and fears that with budgetary cuts jeopardising many planned missions, Curiosity could be the last hurrah for this golden age of Martian exploration.
A global challenge to invent a new toilet that doesn't need water, electricity or a septic system, doesn't pollute and costs less than five cents a day is being worked on by scientists around the world. Professor Sohail Khan from Loughborough University is one of the winners of the "Reinvent the Toilet" competition run by the Gates Foundation. His team's design is based on hydrothermal carbonisation - a sort of pressure cooker which converts waste into something that looks and smells like coffee.
When a bomb explodes in a warzone, it produces a blast wave and then a thermal heat wave that can reach temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists in the USA have developed a camouflage make-up designed to protect exposed skin for 15 seconds - and in some cases up to a minute - from this intense heat. Professor Robert Lochhead and a team at the University of Southern Mississippi were commissioned by the Department of Defence to develop the make-up. It protects soldiers from the searing heat of roadside Improvised Explosive Devices as well as providing traditional camouflage. Field trials are now underway. The team used silicones, which absorb radiation at wavelengths outside the intense heat spectrum, instead of the traditional hydrocarbon ingredients used in cosmetics.
Age-related hearing loss is inevitable and irreversible, but now British birdwatchers are worried it could be affecting their ability to record and survey, accurately, bird species with higher-pitched song. Eminent birder, Richard Porter, put the peregrine among the pigeons when he admitted his inability to hear certain species' birdsong in an article in British Birds magazine. At the RSPB's annual British Bird Fair, he tells Quentin that he's concerned that higher range hearing loss could be distorting the all-important surveys of British birds. Acknowledging the possibility of an "age hearing" effect on the data, Andy Clements, Director of the British Trust for Ornithology, outlines new research, planned for the Autumn, to measure volunteers' hearing abilities and cross reference this with known bird populations.