For Stephan Borrmann, a day of high altitude detective work begins early. He wakes at about 05:30am in a hotel in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. After a quick breakfast, he and his team are driven to the city’s airport. Their job is to prepare a converted Russian espionage plane so that it can investigate one of the biggest mysteries of the atmosphere.
A slow drive in the dead of night through the forests of northwestern Costa Rica helped home in on the target. Dr Mirjam Knörnschild and her team had equipment with a microphone hooked to the top of their car to take recordings of bats.
Above the Atlantic Ocean, puffy white clouds scud across the sky buffeted by invisible trade winds. They are not ‘particularly big, impressive or extended’, says Dr Sandrine Bony, a climatologist and research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. ‘But they are the most ubiquitous clouds on Earth.’
They might be beautiful at times, but clouds are still one of the biggest sources of uncertainty in understanding how the climate will change due to global warming, explains Professor Pier Siebesma, an atmospheric physicist at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands.
Picture this: You’ve experienced no physical sensation beyond your wrists for years, then a doctor drapes a thin, flexible membrane over your hand and, like magic, you can feel the trickle of water through your fingers again.
Bats are in the limelight these days because they are rumoured to be the source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the coronavirus pandemic. But that is just part of their story. Bats turn out to be miraculous creatures. Their ability to age without decrepitude or cancer, as well as fight off a multitude of infections, are giving us clues about how to do the same for ourselves.
Thanks to rapid computing developments in the last decade and the miniaturisation of electronic components, people can, for example, track their movements and monitor their health in real time by wearing tiny computers. Researchers are now looking at how best to power these devices by turning to the user’s own body heat and working with garments, polka dots and know-how from the textile industry.
Imagine lying on a green hill watching the clouds go by on a beautiful day. The clouds you’re probably thinking of are cumulous clouds, the ones that resemble fluffy balls of cotton wool. They seem innocent enough. But they can grow into the more formidable cumulonimbus, the storm cloud. These are the monsters that produce thunder and lightning. They are powerful, destructive and intensely mysterious. They may also be getting a lot more common, which makes understanding their workings – and their effects on the human world, including how we construct buildings or power lines – more important than ever.
Electronics made from carbon rather than silicon could lead to a new generation of medical devices, sensors and perhaps even robots, according to Professor Andreas Hirsch, chair of organic chemistry at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany.
Car manufacturers are rolling out higher levels of automation but public acceptance is lagging behind.
Topography can reveal asteroid types – crucial to know for mining or deflecting Earth-bound rocks.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.