In this issue

Issue 58

Trees, water, and salt - a fine balance
A major study has clarified the links between land-clearing and rising salt.
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Pulsars test Einstein
With the aid of modern astronomy we can now see far out into the cosmos, where some unusual objects make our planet, or even our entire solar system seem very humdrum and plain. Observations of some distant stars are providing a check on relativity.
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How plants alter the air's carbon dioxide
The most careful analysis of air pumped into sampling flasks at 'baseline monitoring' stations around the world has shown a curious anomaly. One particular isotope of oxygen in carbon dioxide - oxygen-18 - is slightly less abundant in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern.
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Fill 'er up ... on shale oil?
Synfuels have become unfashionable. A decade ago, scientists were enthusiastically predicting we would be running our vehicles on synthetic liquid fuels made from coal, oil shale, natural gas, and biomass. Today, with low prices for abundant crude, those predictions have faded into the background. But Australia is already suffering a decline in its self-sufficiency in crude oil. Australia has abundant deposits of coal, oil shale, and natural gas. Alternative native liquid fuels could meet all our needs if the cost could be reduced.
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The antibody handshake
New details of the way antibodies latch on to antigens of a virus have recently emerged, giving an important new insight into how the immune system works.
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Cheaper, quicker sewage treatment
Magnetite can clarify raw sewage in about 20 minutes, some 20 times quicker than the conventional technique. A sludge about 40 times more concentrated than raw sewage remains, and this can be speedily digested at elevated temperature in a compact anaerobic digester. The magnetite can be magnetically separated and re-used.
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Building a better life in mining towns
As mining companies set up townships in some of the most remote areas of the county, increasing numbers of people are leaving the suburban sprawl to live in isolated areas. A sociological survey was carried out in mining towns with the aim of helping companies and local councils to provide a better life-style. The survey also has implications for the welfare of people in different isolated, single-enterprise settlements, such as oil rigs or Antarctic bases.
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Termites on the telephone
To understand fully some of the relations between termites and other components of the ecosystem, we need to know more about termites under field conditions. To do this, we require information on the 'microclimate' within which these small labourers live, because temperature, humidity, and the like can all affect levels of activity and types of behaviour. Thus, more effective pest control can result if we monitor the conditions in houses with termite problems. A data-logging system has been devised that can transmit information via telephone lines and a modem into a laboratory computer.
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The dome leaks - but it's safe
The futuristic copper-clad dome of the Australian Academy of Science, has been a prominent Canberra landmark since 1958. It is an architectural tour de force, but from an engineering view it does have problems. The cladding leaks, and it is poorly insulated. Recently, a big question mark was raised about the dome's structural integrity. Temperature and water content of the layers of the dome were monitored over 33 weeks. Although 20 nights were recorded when the temperature of the outside copper fell below zero, the temperature measured in the concrete, fortunately, never fell below freezing. So the potentially dangerous freeze-thaw cycle has not occurred.
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