Podcast: Synestia, a New Type of Planetary Object

In this month’s Three-Minute Egghead, Sarah Stewart and Simon Lock talk about synestias. A synestia is a new type of planetary object, they proposed, formed when a giant collision between planet-size objects creates a mass of hot, vaporized rock spinning with high angular momentum. Synestias could be an important stage in planet formation, and we might be able to find them in other solar systems.


More information

News release: Synestia, A New Type of Planetary Object

New Theory Explains How the Moon Got There

Simon Lock’s Synestia Page

Refining the Ocean’s Thermometer

By Becky Oskin

Chronicling Earth’s past temperature swings is a basic part of understanding climate change. One of the best records of past ocean temperatures can be found in the shells of marine creatures called foraminifera.

The foraminiferan Neogloboquadrina dutertrei forms a record of ocean conditions as it builds its shell. Photo by J. Fehrenbacher

Known as “forams” for short, these single-celled plankton build microscopic calcite shells. When forams die, their shells fall to the ocean floor and accumulate in sediments that provide a record of past climate. The surface-feeding plankton are natural thermometers because the chemical makeup of foram shells is linked to the environmental conditions they grow in. For example, the levels of magnesium in foram shells reflect the seawater temperature in which they lived.

Clues to Life on Mars in a Polluted California Mine

By Becky Oskin

To find evidence of life on Mars, scientists from UC Davis and the U.S. Geological Survey are chasing clues in Mars-like environments on Earth.

Pollution at the disused Iron Mountain mine near Redding, Calif. turns the soil red and makes the environment Mars-like. Amy Williams, Towson University

The environment at the Iron Mountain mine near Redding, Calif. is similar to Mars. Amy Williams, Towson University

The researchers hope to find rock patterns and textures that are uniquely linked to microscopic life such as bacteria and algae. “It’s challenging to prove that a mineral was made by a living organism,” said lead study author Amy Williams, an assistant professor at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. Williams led the research as a graduate student at UC Davis. Finding similar textures in Mars rocks could bolster confidence that microscopic shapes in Red Planet rocks were formed by living creatures.

NSF Grant Funds Math For National Security

Applying mathematics to detect chemical weapons, hidden explosives or other threats is the goal of an ongoing project at the UC Davis Department of Mathematics, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

Resolving blurred image with math

Blind deconvolution is a mathematical method to clarify a blurred image without knowledge of the original image, or how it was blurred. Top, original image; bottom, blurred image after blind deconvolution (Original image by Steve Byland).

Threat detection involves math at a range of levels, said Professor Thomas Strohmer, who leads the project. It can include quickly processing large amounts of data, coordinating multiple sensors, or extracting clarity from background noise.

New Twist on Sofa Problem That Stumped Mathematicians and Furniture Movers

Hobby 3-D Printing Leads to New Insights into Moving Sofa Problem

By Becky Oskin

Most of us have struggled with the mathematical puzzle known as the “moving sofa problem.” It poses a deceptively simple question: What is the largest sofa that can pivot around an L-shaped hallway corner?

A mover will tell you to just stand the sofa on end. But imagine the sofa is impossible to lift, squish or tilt. Although it still seems easy to solve, the moving sofa problem has stymied math sleuths for more than 50 years. That’s because the challenge for mathematicians is both finding the largest sofa and proving it to be the largest. Without a proof, it’s always possible someone will come along with a better solution.

UC Davis Scientists Boost Production in Green Cell Factories

By Becky Oskin

Cyanobacteria, one of Earth’s oldest life forms, offer a promising new source of petroleum-free fuels and chemicals. However, economies of scale currently make it challenging for these tiny creatures to compete with fossil fuels. Now, scientists at UC Davis are closer to meeting these challenges with a new advance that improves the production and growth rate of cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria culture

UC Davis chemist Shota Atsumi is engineering these cyanobacteria to produce biofuels. (Photo by T.J. Ushing)

Visiting scholar Masahiro Kanno, graduate student Austin Carroll and chemistry professor Shota Atsumi introduced new genetic pathways into cyanobacteria that could help make microbe-based chemical production systems smaller and easier to operate.

New Types of Structures for Cage-Like Clathrates

Compounds Could Be Basis For Devices That Turn Waste Heat Into Electricity

Cage-like compounds called clathrates could be used for harvesting waste heat and turning it into electricity. UC Davis chemists just discovered a whole new class of clathrates, potentially opening new ways to make and apply these materials.

Journal cover image

UC Davis chemists discovered a new class of clathrates that break the four-bond rule. The discovery was featured on the cover of the journal Angewandte Chemie (Wiley)

SNO+ Neutrino Detector Gets Ready For Run


SNO+ neutrino detector being filled with ultrapure water. The detector will search for neutrinos from distant supernovae and nuclear reactors. Credit: SNO+ Collaboration


Not a still from a science fiction movie, but the SNO+ neutrino detector being filled with very pure water prior to starting operations. Located over a mile underground in a mine in Ontario, Canada, the SNO+ detector consists of an acrylic sphere 12 meters in diameter filled with 800 tonnes of scintillation fluid, floating in a bath of ultrapure water surrounded by 10,000 photomultiplier tubes that will detect flashes of light from passing neutrinos.

Three Minute Egghead: Finding the Furthest, Faintest Galaxy

In the latest episode of the Three Minute Egghead podcast, UC Davis astronomer Marusa Bradac explains why she’s looking towards the beginning of time to find the furthest, faintest object in the universe, and how a gigantic lens in the sky can help.

Read the news release about this story here.

For more Three Minute Egghead podcasts, see our Soundcloud playlist here.

Physics Nobel for topological phase transitions

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics will be shared by David Thouless, F. Duncan Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz for their work on peculiar states of matter under extreme conditions. The three used advanced mathematics — specifically topology, the study of shapes — to build theoretical models of matter. Their work has practical implications for understanding superconductors, superfluids and thin magnetic films, and ultimately for new types of devices and technologies.

“This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states,” according to the Nobel Prize citation.