BRITTANY STEFF | Science Writer

The sands of Mars are green as well as red, rover Perseverance discovers

The accepted view of Mars is red rocks and craters as far as the eye can see. That’s much what scientists expected when they landed the rover Perseverance in the Jezero Crater, a spot chosen partly for the crater’s history as a lake and as part of a rich river system, back when Mars had liquid water, air and a magnetic field. What the rover found once on the ground was startling: Rather than the expected sedimentary rocks – washed in by rivers and accumulated on the lake bottom – many of the rocks are volcanic in nature. Specifically, they are composed of large grains of olivine, the muddier less-gemlike version of peridot that tints so many of Hawai'i’s beaches dark green.

Breaking in a new planet

The harder you hit something – a ball, a walnut, a geode – the more likely it is to break open. Or, if not break open, at least lose a little bit of its structural integrity, the way baseball players pummel new gloves to make them softer and more flexible. Cracks, massive or tiny, form and bear a silent, permanent witness to the impact. Studying how those impacts affect planetary bodies, asteroids, moons and other rocks in space helps planetary scientists understand extraplanetary geology, especially where to look for precious matter including water, ice and even, potentially, microbial life.

Lasers, landscape and lost magnetic fields

Some of the newest and most exciting discoveries from Mars will be brought to you by the letter L. Roger Wiens, professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences in the College of Science at Purdue University and an expert in Mars robotics technology, led the team that built SuperCam, one of Mars rover Perseverance’s most innovative and effective tools. Recently, SuperCam used its laser to etch the first letter – L – on the Martian surface to learn more about Mars’ lost magnetic field.

Purdue astronomer speechless in the face of new images from space telescope

Star birth, star death, exoplanets, galaxies and a window that looks back to the universe 13.1 billion years ago: That’s what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) delivered when it released its first handful of scientific images on July 12. As he has from the beginning, astronomer Danny Milisavljevic watched with fellow astronomers, witnessing the universe unfold before his eyes. “These images were incredible,” Milisavljevic said. “JWST just launched a new era of space exploration. The images pushed the envelope of my understanding – of my ability to even explain what I was seeing. These images reveal all sorts of structures that we have never seen before and led me to ask all sorts of questions that I had never even thought to ask.”

Fossils in the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ may be more than a million years older than previously thought

The earth doesn’t give up its secrets easily – not even in the “Cradle of Humankind” in South Africa, where a wealth of fossils relating to human evolution have been found. For decades, scientists have studied these fossils of early human ancestors and their long-lost relatives. Now, a dating method developed by a Purdue University geologist just pushed the age of some of these fossils found at the site of Sterkfontein Caves back more than a million years. This would make them older than Dinkinesh, also called Lucy, the world’s most famous Australopithecus fossil.

What the nose doesn’t know helps wildlife: Using olfactory cues to protect vulnerable species

Animals – both herbivores and predators – follow their noses for a broad range of food sources. The principle applies to hunters trying to ferret out easy prey or grazers searching for the richest plants. Now, behavioral ecologists have discovered a way to harness animals’ olfactory ability to protect vulnerable plants and endangered animals.

Undergraduate students conduct hands-on research: Soil-dwelling bacteriophages may hold the future of medicine, honor President Daniels

At Purdue University, undergraduates get to get their hands dirty in the lab. Metaphorically, of course – their hands and labs are clean, but their understanding of the in-depth complexities of the research process as an organic and opportunistic process is richly rooted in lived experience. Even during the pandemic, students and their professors adapted to ensure that students continued to get hands-on practice, discovering new, potentially therapeutic viruses.

Physicists discover method for emulating nonlinear quantum electrodynamics in a laboratory setting

On the big screen, in video games and in our imaginations, lightsabers flare and catch when they clash together.That clashing, or interference, happens only in fiction – and in places with enormous magnetic and electric fields, which happens in nature only near massive objects such as neutron stars. Physicists have discovered that it is possible to produce this effect in the laboratory using a class of novel materials

Purdue scientist helps guide the eyes of soon-to-launch Webb Space Telescope, successor to Hubble

The sight of the stars the first time he peered into a telescope floored Danny Milisavljevic. There, right before his eyes, was an entire universe full of planets and details, unexplored and unexpected. Now an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Purdue University’s College of Science, Milisavljevic is helping bring details from the world’s newest and most powerful telescope: the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which allowed humans to see farther into space and deeper into time.

Training computers to tease out the subtext behind the text

It is hard enough for humans to interpret the deeper meaning and context of social media and news articles. Asking computers to do it is a nearly impossible task. Even C-3PO, fluent in over 6 million forms of communication, misses the subtext much of the time. Natural language processing, the subfield of artificial intelligence connecting computers with human languages, uses statistical methods to analyze language, often without incorporating the real-world context needed for understanding the shifts and currents of human society. To do that, you have to translate online communication, and the context from which it emerges, into something the computers can parse and reason over.

Researchers study the link between vitamin D and inflammation

An active metabolite of vitamin D—(not the over-the-counter version) — is involved in shutting down inflammation, which could potentially be beneficial in patients with severe COVID-19. Previous studies have shown vitamin D’s ability to reduce the inflammation caused by T cells — inflamed cells in the lung characteristic of the most severe and dangerous cases of COVID-19. But as important as understanding that a drug works is understanding the how and the why. This is both to maximize benefit and minimize harm (such as preventing people from eating livestock dewormer or injecting household cleaners into their veins) as well as to pave the way for future treatments.
Load More Articles

Spe·cies rich·ness  (noun)

  1. A technical term from the field of ecology. The number of different species present in an ecological community, landscape, or region.
  2. More philosophically, a lovely and poetic phrase that conveys the value and wonder inherent in the range of species on the planet and in all the amazing detail of the living world.
  3. A freelance science writer's call sign (see above).

I am a science writer, editor, blogger, and creative communicator who is passionate about innovative, informative and inspiring storytelling. Email me