10 things we’ve learned this month

1. Volcano creates new island

New volcanic island

A plume of smoke rises from a new island in the Red Sea

Volcanic activity in the Red Sea led to the formation of an entirely new island on 19 December 2011. Currently unnamed, the island was the remains of a lava fountain from an underground volcano that reached heights of 30 metres (90 feet). The eruption, off the west coast of Yemen along the Zubair Group of islands, was observed by nearby fisherman. Later analysis confirmed a presence of sulphur dioxide, a clear indication that a volcanic eruption was responsible for creating a new island where previously there had been uninterrupted water.

2. One billion apps downloaded

For the first time ever, the one billion mark has been reached in app downloads in one week. The landmark was achieved in December of 2011, with new gadget owners flocking to online apps stores to beef up their latest devices. In total 1.2 billion apps were downloaded in the final week of December around the world, according to analytics firm Flurry. The US was responsible for nearly half with 509 million downloads, followed by China with 99 million downloads and the UK with 89 million.

3. Apes gamble just like us

Proving that humans aren’t the only animals willing to take a risk, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics found that apes gamble in a similar way to us. When given a choice between a safe bet of a small piece of banana or a larger piece hidden beneath one of a number of cups, the apes chose the riskier option the majority of the time in the hope of winning the greater reward. An increase in cups made the apes more cautious as they realised that their odds of winning were diminishing.

4. LHC finds new particle

Amid the furore that was caused by a possible sighting of the Higgs boson it went largely unnoticed that elsewhere at the Large Hadron Collider, where many different experiments are carried out, an entirely new particle was discovered. Dubbed Chi_b (3P), the particle is composed of a quark and anti-quark and should help scientists understand the force that holds these two sub-atomic particles together, known as the strong nuclear force. This force also holds together protons and neutrons with atoms but, until now, it has proven hard to determine the exact nature of it. Scientists hope the discovery of Chi_b (3P) will lead to a greater understanding of sub-atomic physics and ultimately help in the search for new particles such as the Higgs boson.

5. NASA plans to harpoon comets

NASA's comet harpoon in action

NASA plans to use a harpoon to retrieve surface samples from a comet. Image credit: NASA/Chris Meaney/Walt Feimer

Retrieving samples from a comet is a tricky business, but NASA hopes to bring the first material from a comet’s surface back to Earth by using a revolutionary new harpoon method. Instead of landing on the celestial bodies, a spacecraft would fire a harpoon that could penetrate the surface of the content and collect underground samples, before being winched back to the spacecraft in orbit above the comet. The revolutionary technology is being used on the ESA’s Rosetta mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, scheduled to arrive in October 2014, but unlike NASA’s proposal the ESA mission will not be able to bring samples back to Earth.

6. Elephants have six toes

In a remarkable discovery that has eluded scientists for centuries, it was recently revealed that elephants have a hidden sixth toe in each of their feet. The additional digit, thought to have evolved over 40 million years ago based on fossilised evidence, is believed to help elephants support their huge weight. Since the first elephant was dissected in 1706, the additional structure was regarded as merely a useless piece of cartilage, but its purpose now appears to have been determined.

7. Hackers plan new Internet to beat SOPA

In an attempt to combat the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently being considered in the USA, which has been widely derided by companies such as Facebook and Google for threatening to create a censored Internet akin to that in China, hackers have proposed a plan to independently launch space satellites into Earth orbit and run their own Internet separate from the World Wide Web. Outlined at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin in late 2011, the proposal would develop a grid of ground stations to communicate with the satellites to create an uncensorable new Internet.

8. Slow and steady does win the race

A recent study at Ohio State University, USA, has suggested that the increased decision making time often apparent in elderly people helps ensure accuracy over speed. While people of a younger generation can be quick to jump to an occasionally irrational conclusion, the more aged among us deliberate slightly longer in order to ensure that their response to a given situation is the correct one. This goes against the theory that people take longer with their decisions as they get older due to their brains slowing down.

9. The Mars rovers are eight years old

On 3 January 2004, NASA’s golf-cart-sized Mars rover Spirit landed on the Red Planet and, three weeks later on 25 January, it was joined by its sister Opportunity. This year the rovers enter their eighth year on Mars and, although only Opportunity is still active, the feat is a technological marvel nonetheless. Initially expected to last just 90 days in their search for past or present water on Mars, the rovers have exceeded all expectations, covering a combined distance of 26.15 miles (42.08 km). In August of this year NASA’s next Martian rover Curiosity is scheduled to touch down, with a possibility that it could last up to ten years or more thanks to its radioactive power source as opposed to the solar panels that power Opportunity, which is constantly under threat of failure due to dust and wind damage, a fate which befell its compatriot Spirit in March 2010.

10. Birds can count

Researchers at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, have announced that pigeons appear to possess the ability to count, a skill previously thought to be held only by primates. Publishing their results in the journal Science, the scientists trained pigeons to peck a touch screen a certain number of times depending on how many objects appeared on screen, with a reward granted for a correct response. When the numbers were increased, the pigeons subsequently increased their pecks corresponding to the number of objects on screen, performing the task as well as monkeys can.