Oct 212012
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During our chemical education in school, most of us heard of noble gases just as elements that are completely unreactive. Furthermore they are quite scarce, thus, there is no need for further mentioning them. They cannot be of much use anyway.

In fact, most of us use noble gases in our everyday life, e.g. they are essential in fluorescent lamps. And the heavier noble gases could even be brought to reaction by chemists. Still the chemistry of those elements is not of much interest outside the scientific community. But it was found out that one of those gases – xenon – shows a decreasing concentration in the earth’s atmosphere.

Detektor.fm asked Andreas Neidlinger, Editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions “How did all the xenon vanish?”.

Listen to the podcast here.

For further information, please refer to:

May 092012
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Every morning it’s the same: A few drops of coffee end up on your table. And once they dry, they form ring-shaped stains. But why? This problem is related to the question how to build tomorrow’s communication systems.

Some of you might remember your grandma’s coffee pot, which had a sponge attached to the spout. This was done to avoid coffee stains. These stains – black on the outside, white on the inside and always round in shape – are also interesting for science, especially for nanotechnology.

Physicists might use the coffee stains as a model to design better communication systems in the future. This is why the question of the month reads:

“Why does coffee always form ring-shaped stains and not a chaotic splash?”

Detektor.fm asked Leonie Anna Mueck, Editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions.

Listen to the podcast here.

Read more about self-assembly in colloidal dispersions here: A. Marin et al. “Order-to-disorder transition in ring-shaped colloidal stains”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 107, 085502 (2011)

Feb 092012
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This is not an unusual situation: You just took a painkiller against the first indications of an evolving cold and before dozing away you bothered to read the patient information sheet – and a few hours later your head is about to explode, you feel dizzy and dumb, exactly as was mentioned among the possible side effects.

In most cases this is not just coincidence but the so-called nocebo effect, which can be considered the “evil twin” of the placebo effect.

The nocebo effect makes us sick instead of miraculously healing our illness. Because just as a patient can feel better after taking a placebo, the awareness of possible side effects alone can have a negative effect on a patient’s health. What is this nocebo effect all about?

This is the question of the month and will be answered by Tobias Boll, editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions.

Listen to the podcast on detektor.fm here

Dec 082011
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Is Green Chemistry more than a marketing term? Probably so. Green Chemistry may lead to a renunciation of the traditional production processes in chemical industry. But what is behind this concept?

Christmas time is cookie time. Of course, cookies should taste of vanilla. There are two possibilities for this purpose: The use of natural vanilla, which is very expensive, or the use of artificial vanilla, which is manufactured from crude oil by chemical industry. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a method to produce vanilla in an eco-friendly, but simple way?

This is an example for what green chemistry is supposed to accomplish. It deals with the question how modern chemical production processes can be designed sustainably.

The unsolved question of the month is: How can this be achieved? What has already been attempted?

Detektor.fm asked Thomas Jagau, editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions, for an answer.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Nov 122011
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Darwin’s theory says: Only the fittest survives. But why some species live in a communities, in which reproduction is a privilege of only a few members, can seemingly not be explained by the theory of evolution.

A prominent example for division of labour are the honey bees. In their colony, the work is minutely divided. Nutrition is procured by the group and the offspring is jointly nursed. But parenthood is the privilege of the queen bee, all other females are infertile.

The technical term for this behaviour is eusociality. Somehow the renouncement of reproduction makes sense in terms of evolution for certain communities and certain species.

We would like to know, why this is the case and thus ask the question of the month: “How is the theory of evolution compatible with eusociality?”

Detektor.fm asked Thomas Jagau, editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions, for an answer.

You can listen to the podcast here.

Nov 122011
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For a long time their was no satisfactory explanation to why fireflies glow. A new model from quantum mechanics could solve this problem – and casually save us from loads of labwork.

The warm season is slowly ceasing and thus we also have to bid farewell to the fireflies. When they swirl around and glow on a lukewarm summer evening, everybody is fascinated.

Meanwhile it is more or less clear, why they show this behaviour – and as with a lot of strange phenomena it has to do with reproduction. The fireflies want to attract potential partners. But how exactly they glow has not been answered by physics and chemistry yet. But now a new method could bring light into this darkness.

Within the firefly moving electrons cause the lightwaves to be emitted. But thereby a so called “quantum mechanical many-body problem” is encountered. The cause is that the particles are not independent from each other in their arrangement.  If one particle changes its position, all other particles adjust accordingly. It is very difficult to calculate these processes, physicists usually approximate them by averaging. Usually the electrons are then described as being too close to each other – and thus the movement of one electron does not depend on the movement of another electron in the correct way.

Loren Greenman and David Maziotti have not come up with a new model to describe the electrons’ movement. Since it is more exact than older models it could soon provide a tool for solving chemical problems with the computer instead with expensive and laborious experiments in the lab.

Fireflies and quantum mechanics – what does the behaviour of electrons have to do with a light phenomenon on summer evenings? This is detekor.fm‘s Question of the Month. Detektor.fm posed this question to Leonie Mueck, editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions.

Listen to the podcast here.

Sep 072011
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Image by Arz

We are surrounded by colours. You only have to peek outside the window and to see a red tiled roof, the yellow sun, the green grass, or the blue sky. But although our way of naming colours seems unshakable: the grass is not green in all languages and the sea is not always depicted as blue.

There are languages, Japanese for example, that traditionall do not distinguish between blue and green, or Welsh, whose speakers use the same word for the colour of the see, of grass, and of silver. The opposite phenomenon is also known. Spanish strictly distinhuishes between “celeste” (light blue) and “azul” (dark blue)

Listening to languages around the world quickly shows you that names for colours vary dramatically. But also the number of base colours that have a distinct name, red or yellow for example, differs among the languages. We wanted to know why and thus ask the open question of the month: “Why do some languages not distinguish between blue and green?”

The woman, who can give at least a few answers to this question, is Leonie Anna Mueck. She is a Ph. D. student and co-founder of the Journal of Unsolved Questions.

Listen to the podcast (in German):

Warum unterscheiden manche Sprachen nicht zwischen gruen und blau?

Read more in “Through the language glass” by Guy Deutscher (ISBN 9780434016907)

Aug 012011
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Why does one bee become queen and the other a female worker – although they are genetically identical? A new discipline in science has first answers to this questions: Epigenetics.

There is no escape from our genes. They determine who becomes tall and who stays small, who is healthy and who falls sick – and they contain the answers to heal cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes etc. This was the leading opinion in science in the year 2000 when the human genome project was completed. Ever since we know the blueprint of homo sapiens – which was a great disillusionment: It is not nearly as complex as expected. The human genome is only double the size of a pin worm.

But man is far more complex than a pin worm. Soon it became obvious that genes are not everything. There must be a second level above them and this is how the scientific discipline of epigenetics was born. Its findings have challenged the perspective of genetics, because it is not  correct that only the DNA determines complexion and development. Why does one bee become queen and another a worker although they share exactly the same genome? Nutrition and therefore the environment is to blame.

detektor.fm interviewed Leonie Anna Mueck, member of the JUnQ editorial board, about this Open Question of the Month.

Listen to the podcast here (in German): Epigenetik – Was bestimmen die Gene und was die Umwelt? on http://detektor.fm

Picture: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b2/Adult_queen_bee.jpg
Photo: Pollinator
Lizenz: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported

Jul 312011
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Since July 2011, JUnQ is collaborating with the German-speaking broadcasting station detektor.fm.  We produce the “Question of the Month”, a monthly podcast about an unsolved question in science, together. It can either be obtained here or at http://detektor.fm.

Detector.fm is commited to ambicious, independent, and profound journalism as well as good new music. For more information, visit their website http://detektor.fm.

Interview with JUnQ on detektor.fm (in German): Das Journal der ungeloesten Fragen – Warum Scheitern wertvoll ist