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Extremophiles: Life on the Edge

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The possibility of life on Mars and other planets and moons has been debated for as long as we have known about those planets. Now that water has been found on the Mars, that possibility is more believable than ever. Sure, conditions are fierce on Mars, but research here on planet Earth reveals that life forms can be tough. In fact, wherever it was once thought that no life could exist, more and more organisms are being found that not only live, but thrive and evolve.

Hot Springs

The boiling waters of Yellowstone National Park and other extreme thermal environments have species of thermophiles, or organisms that thrive in temperatures that would kill most living things. These thermophiles have specialized enzymes that keep their DNA from unraveling the way other life forms would. Chemicals from various thermophile species are used for a range of biochemical applications, such as DNA fingerprinting technology. Image by Flickr user v1ctory_1s_m1ne.

The Dead Sea

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The Dead Sea has such a high saline content that pillars of salt form on its banks. Yet Halobacterium salinarum lives in its waters. Halobacterium is one of the most ancient of microbes, and depends more on light for survival than on oxygen. It adjusts its own needs according to the available light and oxygen. Image by Flickr user CharlesFred.

Toxic Sludge

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A copper mine in Montana was abandoned in 1983. As water filled the remaining hole known as the Berkeley Pit, minerals and metals leeched out and made it extremely acidic and poisonous. No fish or plants survived in the toxic water. It was thought to be completely dead until 1995 when a scientist recovered a slime that contained Euglena mutabilis, This protozoan manipulated its immediate environment to make it more livable! Researchers eventually found over 160 different species of microorganisms in the polluted water, some of which are being studied for use in cancer treatment. There is hope that Euglena mutabilis will eventually clean up the toxic water. Image by Linda Amaral Zettler and David Patterson.

Beneath the Great Lakes

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Sinkholes deep beneath the Great Lakes have a very different chemical makeup from the water above. These pockets are filled with salt, acid, and sulfur, but have purple cyanobacteria that use sulfur instead of oxygen for photosynthesis. Other species that live too deep for sunlight to penetrate live on sulfur without photosynthesis.

Sea Floor Volcanos

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In the depths of the Pacific ocean, volcanic vents support life too far down to take advantage of any sunlight at all. Tubeworms and giant clams thrive in volcanic environments by feeding on smaller species that survive only on chemicals without the advantage of photosynthesis. Image credit: NOAA.

High-altitude Volcanos

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The Socompa volcano is 20,000 feet high in the Andes mountains. Conditions there include little oxygen, lack of water, ultraviolet radiation, and methane. But scientists have found moss, algae, and over a hundred species of bacteria living in the shadow of Socompa. The area has been compared to Mars in its ability to sustain life.

In the Clouds

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Bacteria even live in the clouds! These microbes act as particles that ice form around and fall as snow or rain. They are called biological ice nucleators. Nucleators are found in plants and soil and are thought to ride on pollen as it is blown into the atmosphere. The part of the bacterial life cycle spent on vegetation may sustain an ice nucleator during its ride in the clouds, and the cloud seeding may be a mechanism for spreading it to distant parts of the earth.

Space

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No look at extremophiles would be complete without tardigrades, or water bears. These tiny animals are found in various extreme conditions on earth. They can survive hot and cold temperatures, radiation, lack of food and water, and even in a vacuum. The European Space Agency sent tardigrades into orbit in 2008, where they were exposed to cosmic radiation, solar radiation, and vacuum pressure. The space tardigrades were in a dormant state during the flight, which means their metabolism was slowed down considerably -a method they use to weather extreme conditions on earth. After returning from their adventure, they lived and even reproduced! Image by Flickr user Goldstein lab - tardigrades.

Beneath Antarctica?

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Two miles beneath the ice of Vostok Research Station in Antarctica, a huge freshwater lake has been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. The water is below freezing temperature, but stays liquid because of the pressure from the ice above. Researchers have not yet broken through to the water, but samples of ice just above the lake reveal the presence of microbe fossils. The lake is saturated with oxygen due to the temperature and pressure, and has been compared with the environments of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. There are plans to send down a probe called a cryobot, but extreme care will be taken to preserve the pristine conditions of the isolated lake.

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Words
15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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