This scratchy hiss is the closest thing yet to caterpillar vocalization

Tap — gently — the plump rear of a young Nessus sphinx hawk moth, and you may hear the closest sound yet discovered to a caterpillar voice.

Caterpillars don’t breathe through their mouths. Yet a Nessus sphinx hawk moth, if disturbed, will emit from its open mouth a sustained hiss followed by a string of scratchy burplike sounds. “Hard to describe,” says animal behaviorist Jayne Yack of Carleton University in Ottawa, who urges people just to listen to it for themselves.
This newfound noise from young Amphion floridensis may startle birds or other would-be predators not expecting something as generally quiet as most caterpillars to erupt in sound.

The discovery marks the fourth sound-producing mechanism in caterpillars that Yack and colleagues have found. Some caterpillars use their spiracles, respiratory pores along the flanks, to toot sounds. Caterpillars take in oxygen and release waste carbon dioxide through these pores. These gases, which don’t depend on the caterpillar version of blood to travel throughout the body, move through a branching air duct system of increasingly tiny pipes. Two other kinds of caterpillar noises involve mouthparts rubbing against each other. But none of those noisemakers are involved here, researchers report online February 26 in Journal of Experimental Biology.

Instead, the new anatomical studies and computer modeling suggest that these caterpillars speak by pulling air in through their mouths and into their guts and then releasing it. The rush of air inward could create the first hissing part, and outrushes could make the string of scratchy burps. There’s no sign of a special sound-making flap in the gut, but air whooshing through a constriction could make noisy turbulence. That could give a caterpillar voice its own version of teakettle squeals. In miniature, of course.

By 2100, damaged corals may let waves twice as tall as today’s reach coasts

A complex coral reef full of nooks and crannies is a coastline’s best defense against large ocean waves. But coral die-offs over the next century could allow taller waves to penetrate the corals’ defenses, simulations suggest. A new study finds that at some Pacific Island sites, waves reaching the shore could be more than twice as high as today’s by 2100.

The rough, complex structures of coral reefs dissipate wave energy through friction, calming waves before they reach the shore. As corals die due to warming oceans (SN: 2/3/18, p. 16), the overall complexity of the reef also diminishes, leaving a coast potentially more exposed. At the same time, rising sea levels due to climate change increasingly threaten low-lying coastal communities with inundation and beach erosion — and stressed corals may not be able to grow vertically fast enough to match the pace of sea level rise. That could also make them a less effective barrier.

Researchers compared simulations of current and future sea level and reef conditions at four sites with differing wave energy near the French Polynesian islands of Moorea and Tahiti. The team then simulated the height of a wave after it has passed the reef, known as the back-reef wave height, under several scenarios. The most likely scenario studied was based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections of sea level height by 2100 and corresponding changes in reef structure.

Under those conditions, the average back-reef wave heights at the four sites would be 2.4 times as high in 2100 as today, the team reports February 28 in Science Advances. That change would be largely due to the decrease in coral reef complexity rather than rising sea levels, the simulations suggest. Coastal communities around the world will likely see similar wave height increases, dependent on local reef structures and extent of sea level rise. The finding, the researchers say, shows that conserving reefs is crucial to protecting coastal communities in a changing climate.

Forget Pi Day. We should be celebrating Tau Day

As a physics reporter and lover of mathematics, I won’t be celebrating Pi Day this year. That’s because pi is wrong.

I don’t mean that the value is incorrect. Pi, known by the symbol π, is the number you get when you divide a circle’s circumference by its diameter: 3.14159… and so on without end. But, as some mathematicians have argued, the mathematical constant was poorly chosen, and students worldwide continue to suffer as a result.

A longtime fixture of high school math classes, pi has inspired books, art (SN Online: 5/4/06) and enthusiasts who memorize it to tens of thousands of decimal places (SN: 4/7/12, p. 12). But some contend that replacing pi with a different mathematical constant could make trigonometry and other math subjects easier to learn. These critics — including myself — advocate for an arguably more elegant number equal to 2π: 6.28318…. Sometimes known as tau, or the symbol τ, the quantity is equal to a circle’s circumference divided by its radius, not its diameter.

This idea is not new. In 2001, mathematician Bob Palais of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City published an article in the Mathematical Intelligencer titled “ π is wrong!” The topic gained more attention in 2010 with The Tau Manifesto, posted online by author and educator Michael Hartl. But the debate tends to reignite every year on March 14, which is celebrated as Pi Day for its digits: 3/14.
The simplest way to see the failure of pi is to consider angles, which in mathematics are typically measured in radians. Pi is the number of radians in half a circle, not a whole circle. That makes things confusing: For example, the angle at the tip of a slice of pizza — an eighth of a pie — isn’t π/8, but π/4. In contrast, using tau, the pizza-slice angle is simply τ/8. Put another way, tau is the number of radians in a full circle.

That factor of two is a big deal. Trigonometry — the study of the angles and lines found in shapes such as triangles — can be a confusing whirlwind for students, full of blindly plugging numbers into calculators. That’s especially true when it comes to sine and cosine, two important functions in trigonometry. Many trigonometry problems involve calculating the sine or cosine of an angle. When graphed, the two functions look like a series of wiggles, shaped a bit like an “S” on its side, that repeat the same values every 2π. That means pi covers only half of an S. Tau, on the other hand, covers the full wiggle, a more intuitive measure.

Pi has become so embedded in mathematics that it could be hard to excise. A more practical approach may be to introduce tau as a teaching tool alongside pi, rather than a replacement. Education is where tau’s impact is most likely to be felt: Professional scientists and mathematicians can comfortably handle the factors of two that crop up with pi in equations.

You might argue that multiplying by two isn’t that hard, even for students. But it isn’t the arithmetic that concerns me. Trigonometry is notorious for creating a divide between the math-fluent and math-phobic. But helping more people understand and enjoy mathematics isn’t some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Everyone is capable of doing math. We just need to work smarter, and speak more clearly, to help those who struggle.

So here’s to June 28 — Tau Day.

The great Pacific garbage patch may be 16 times as massive as we thought

We’re going to need a bigger trash can.

A pooling of plastic waste floating in the ocean between California and Hawaii contains at least 79,000 tons of material spread over 1.6 million square kilometers, researchers report March 22 in Scientific Reports. That’s the equivalent to the mass of more than 6,500 school buses. Known as the great Pacific garbage patch, the hoard is four to 16 times as heavy as past estimates.

About 1.8 trillion plastic pieces make up the garbage patch, the scientists estimate. Particles smaller than half a centimeter, called microplastics, account for 94 percent of the pieces, but only 8 percent of the overall mass. In contrast, large (5 to 50 centimeters) and extra-large (bigger than 50 centimeters) pieces made up 25 percent and 53 percent of the estimated patch mass.
Much of the plastic in the patch comes from humans’ ocean activities, such as fishing and shipping, the researchers found. Almost half of the total mass, for example, is from discarded fishing nets. A lot of that litter contains especially durable plastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, which are designed to survive in marine environments.
To get the new size and mass estimates, Laurent Lebreton of the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit foundation in Delft, the Netherlands, and his colleagues trawled samples from the ocean surface, took aerial images and simulated particle pathways based on plastic sources and ocean circulation.
Aerial images provided more accurate tallies and measurements of the larger plastic pieces, the researchers write. That could account for the increase in mass over past estimates, which relied on trawling data and images taken from boats, in addition to computer simulations. Another possible explanation: The patch grew — perhaps driven by an influx of debris from the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan and washed trash out to sea (SN: 10/28/17, p. 32).

Parents’ presence promotes a child’s pluck

BOSTON — The bond between parent and child is powerful enough to override fear. New research shows that if a parent sits with a young child during a potentially scary situation, the child isn’t as afraid of it later.

The study is in line with research suggesting that during particular stages of development, a strong connection with a caregiver tamps down activity in the amygdala, the brain structure that helps process fear and spurs the fight-or-flight response.
“Fight or flight is pointless if you are tiny,” said developmental neuroscientist Nim Tottenham of Columbia University, who presented the work March 26 at a Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting. For young kids, the bond with a caregiver not only helps ensure survival but also makes kids feel safe, enabling them to approach the world with confidence, Tottenham said. “Attachment is a strategy that has worked very well; it trumps everything.”

Kids from ages 3 to 5 were shown two shapes — a green triangle and a blue square. Just the square was accompanied by a loud, fingers-on-the-chalkboard kind of noise. Some kids had a parent sitting next to them while they saw the shapes; others sat with a researcher. After the parents left, kids chose which door to go through to get a present: one with the scary blue square on it, the other with the innocuous green triangle.

Kids paired with the experimenter avoided the door with the blue square. But kids who had sat next to a parent showed a slight preference for that door, even though they knew they would collect the same present from behind either door.

How physicists will remember Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, a black hole whisperer who divined the secrets of the universe’s most inscrutable objects, left a legacy of cosmological puzzles sparked by his work, and inspired a generation of scientists who grew up reading his books.

Upon Hawking’s death on March 14 at age 76, his most famous discovery — that black holes aren’t entirely black, but emit faint radiation — was still fueling debate.

Hawking “really, really cared about the truth, and trying to find it,” says physicist Andrew Strominger of Harvard University, who collaborated with the famed scientist. Hawking “was deeply committed, his whole life, to this quest of understanding more about the physical universe around us.”

After earning his Ph.D. in 1965 at the University of Cambridge, Hawking continued studying cosmology there for the rest of his life. Due to a degenerative illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Hawking gradually lost control of his body, requiring a wheelchair and eventually a voice synthesizer to speak. Yet his desire to uncover nature’s secrets remained boundless.
In one of the most significant realizations of his career, Hawking reported in 1974 that black holes emit a faint glow of particles. This effect arises from quantum mechanics, which states that a sea of transient particles and antiparticles pervades all of space. These “virtual” particles usually annihilate in an instant, but if one of those particles is lost inside a black hole’s boundary, or event horizon, its partner can escape, producing what’s now known as Hawking radiation (SN: 5/31/14, p. 16).

As a result, black holes can gradually evaporate and disappear. This led to a still unresolved paradox: Throw an encyclopedia into a black hole and the information will eventually be lost. But according to quantum mechanics, information can never be destroyed.

Many solutions have been proposed for this problem, but none has stuck. In 2016, Hawking and colleagues proposed a path toward a solution: Black holes might have “soft hair,” low-energy particles that would retain information about what fell inside (SN: 2/06/16, p. 16). Hawking’s collaborators, including Strominger, are still working on the research. Standing at the interface between two seemingly incompatible theories — quantum mechanics, which describes the very small, and the general theory of relativity, which describes gravity — the quandary and its resolution may eventually help reveal a unified theory of quantum gravity.

Hawking made many other contributions, including studies of spacetime curvature during the Big Bang and the possibility that mini black holes might have formed in the universe’s infancy. Despite their groundbreaking nature, Hawking’s ideas remained largely theoretical, says Harvard theoretical astrophysicist Avi Loeb. Hawking radiation, for example, has never been directly detected. “That’s, unfortunately, why he didn’t get the Nobel Prize,” Loeb says.
Yet Hawking achieved a level of fame uncommon among scientists. He excelled at making abstruse science digestible to the public. With his books, most notably the best-selling A Brief History of Time, first published in 1988, Hawking inspired countless future scientists and science lovers (including the author of this article). Theoretical cosmologist Katie Mack of North Carolina State University in Raleigh first opened the book when she was about 10 years old. “I found it so fascinating at the time,” she says. “I found out that Stephen Hawking was called a cosmologist and so I said I wanted to be a cosmologist.” Hawking similarly motivated dozens of her colleagues, Mack says.

Hawking remained active in research even in the last months of his life. A paper on which he is a coauthor, which was updated in the weeks before his death, considered the physics of multiverses, the possibility that a slew of other universes exist in addition to our own.

A funeral was held for Hawking on March 31. Later this year, his ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey in London, where they will rest alongside the remains of other famous British scientists, including Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

How ravens caused a LIGO data glitch

While the data was amassing, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of something gently rapping, rapping at LIGO’s door.

The source of a mysterious glitch in data from a gravitational wave detector has been unmasked: rap-tap-tapping ravens with a thirst for shaved ice. At the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, in the desert of Hanford, Wash., scientists noticed a signal that didn’t look like gravitational waves, physicist Beverly Berger said on April 16 at a meeting of the American Physical Society.

A microphone sensor that monitors LIGO’s surroundings caught the sounds of pecking birds on tape in July 2017, Berger, of the LIGO Laboratory at Caltech, said. So the crew went out to the end of one of the detector’s 4-kilometer-long arms to check for evidence of the ebony birds at the scene.

Sure enough, frost covering a pipe connected to the cooling system was covered in telltale peck marks from the thirsty birds. One raven, presumably seeking relief from the desert heat, was caught in the act. Altering the setup to prevent ice buildup now keeps the ravens from tapping, evermore.

NASA’s TESS spacecraft launches to begin its exoplanet search

After a two-day delay, the planet-hunting TESS telescope successfully launched into a clear blue sky at Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 6:51 p.m. EDT on April 18.

TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is headed to an orbit between the Earth and the moon, a journey that will take about two months. In its first two years, the telescope will seek planets orbiting 200,000 nearby, bright stars, and identify the best planets for further study. TESS’ cameras will survey 85 percent of the sky by splitting it up into 26 zones and focusing on each zone for 27 days apiece.

TESS launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A previous launch attempt on April 16 was scrubbed so that SpaceX could run more tests on the rocket’s guidance, navigation and control system. SpaceX recovered the rocket’s first stage booster on an autonomous drone ship and hopes to reuse the rocket on a future launch.

Spooky quantum entanglement goes big in new experiments

Quantum entanglement has left the realm of the utterly minuscule, and crossed over to the just plain small. Two teams of researchers report that they have generated ethereal quantum linkages, or entanglement, between pairs of jiggling objects visible with a magnifying glass or even the naked eye — if you have keen vision.

Physicist Mika Sillanpää and colleagues entangled the motion of two vibrating aluminum sheets, each 15 micrometers in diameter — a few times the thickness of spider silk. And physicist Sungkun Hong and colleagues performed a similar feat with 15-micrometer-long beams made of silicon, which expand and contract in width in a section of the beam. Both teams report their results in the April 26 Nature.
“It’s a first demonstration of entanglement over these artificial mechanical systems,” says Hong, of the University of Vienna. Previously, scientists had entangled vibrations in two diamonds that were macroscopic, meaning they were visible (or nearly visible) to the naked eye. But this is the first time entanglement has been seen in macroscopic structures constructed by humans, which can be designed to meet particular technological requirements.

Entanglement is a strange feature of quantum mechanics, through which two objects’ properties become intertwined. Measuring the properties of one object immediately reveals the state of the other, even though the duo may be separated by a large distance (SN: 8/5/17, p. 14).

Quantum mechanics’ weird rules typically apply to small fry — atoms, electrons and other tiny particles — and not to larger things such as cats, chairs or buildings. But that division leads to a confounding puzzle. “Atoms behave like atoms, and cats behave like cats, and so where is that transition in between?” says physicist Ben Sussman of the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, who was not involved in the research.

Now, scientists are extending the dividing line to larger and larger objects. “One of our motivations is to keep on testing how far we can push quantum mechanics,” says Sillanpää, of Aalto University in Finland. “There might be some fundamental limit for how big objects can be” and still be quantum.
In Sillanpää’s experiment, two tiny aluminum sheets — consisting of about a trillion atoms and just barely visible with the naked eye — vibrate like drumheads and interact with microwaves bouncing back and forth in a cavity. Those microwaves play the role of drum major, causing the two drumheads to sync up their motions. In many previous demonstrations of entanglement, the delicate quantum link is transient. But this one was long-lived, persisting as long as half an hour in experiments, Sillanpää says, and, in theory, even longer. “Our entanglement lasts forever, basically.”
Taking a different tactic, Hong and colleagues demonstrated entanglement with two silicon beams, big enough to be seen with a magnifying glass. Within a region of each beam, in a 1-micrometer-long section composed of about 10 billion atoms, the structure expanded and contracted — as if taking deep breaths in and out — in response to being hit with light. Instead of microwaves, Hong and colleagues’ work used infrared light of the wavelength typically transmitted in telecommunications networks made of optical fibers, which means it could be incorporated into a future quantum internet. “From a technology standpoint, that really is crucial,” says physicist John Teufel of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., who was not involved with the work.

Scientists could use such vibrating structures within a quantum network to convert quantum information from one type to another, transitioning from particles of light to vibrations, for example. Once constructed, a quantum internet could allow quantum computers to communicate and provide unhackable communication across the globe (SN: 10/15/16, p. 13).

The ability to entangle these specially designed structures moves scientists a step closer to that vision. “You can really start to think about building real devices with these things,” Sussman says.

New ideas about how stars die help solve a decades-old mystery

New insights into how stars like the sun die might help explain why astronomers find bright planetary nebulae where they’re least expected. Simulations of how these stellar remnants form suggest that smaller stars have cores that heat up fast enough to produce bright nebulae upon their demise, researchers report online May 7 in Nature Astronomy.

A planetary nebula is what’s left over when a sunlike star sheds its outer envelope of gas. Radiation from the stellar core, now exposed, sets the expanding shell of gas aglow, creating the kind of candy-colored clouds seen in spectacular Hubble Space Telescope images, like that of the Cat’s Eye Nebula and the butterfly-shaped NGC 6302 (SN Online: 9/5/13).
Astronomers had thought a star’s mass dictated what sort of nebula it produced, with more massive stars creating the brightest nebulae and stars with lower masses, like the sun, making nebulae too faint to see from another galaxy.

But that idea didn’t match observations: The brightest planetary nebulae in older elliptical galaxies — thought to be home to only low-mass stars — are just as luminous as those in younger, spiral galaxies, where massive stars abound. The puzzle vexed astronomers for decades.

Now, astrophysicist Albert Zijlstra at the University of Manchester in England, and colleagues have simulated planetary nebulae formation based on a new theory of stellar evolution. This theory says that after smaller stars shed their outer envelopes, their bare cores heat up more quickly than previously thought. That allows the cinderlike stellar core to pump more energetic radiation into the surrounding nebula before the gas expands too far out into space, ultimately making for a brighter nebula, explains Christophe Morisset, an astronomer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City not involved in the work.

Simulations showed that stars ranging from 1.1 to three times the mass of the sun produce nebulae with similar brightness. That result could explain why nebulae found in galaxies with stars that are 7 billion years old can be just as bright as those found in galaxies chock-full of 1-billion-year-old stars.
This finding marks “an important step forward” in understanding the universe’s population of planetary nebulae, says Penn State astronomer Robin Ciardullo, who was not involved in the work.

But some mystery still remains: For the most ancient elliptical galaxies with very small stars over 7 billion years old, the simulations didn’t produce planetary nebulae bright enough to match what astronomers see in the sky. So there’s still “a little ways to go” before astronomers can explain why bright nebulae are so ubiquitous, he says.