From rocket flight to egg white

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Mark Henderson reports on recent breakthroughs, great and small

The quiet London suburb of Pinner might lack the glamour of Cape Canaveral, but that did not stop a group of British enthusiasts from proving that you do not have to be a rocket scientist to launch a missile into the upper atmosphere.

The team, who call themselves MARS, recently shattered the European record for an amateur rocket flight by firing their 3.6m device, built in a garden shed in Pinner, to a height of almost seven miles (about 11km).

The rocket, named Phoebos, is a "boosted dart" design built in two stages. The first stage, an aluminium tube carrying the motor and fuel, flies at a top speed of 1,350 miles per hour to a height of 914m. Thrust comes from a 23kg solid fuel cell, in which ammonium perchlorate oxidises a mixture of powdered aluminium and rubber.

When the first stage burns out, it falls to Earth by parachute and releases a thinner, lighter dart, made of fibreglass coated with Kevlar, a high-tensile-strength synthetic fibre. This dart is unpowered, but already has so much momentum that it can coast to about 11km.

Phoebos cost pound;4,000 to build, and was launched in the Nevada desert in the US. Amateur rocketry, however, can be a simple and inexpensive way to learn about physics and chemistry. The cheapest kits, which can be launched without a licence, start at about pound;10, and there are more than 20 clubs organising launches across the country.

UK Rocketry Association: national body, with listings for clubs across the country www.ukra.org.ukindex.html MARS: the record-breaking team www.mars.org.uk ALMOST every European man is descended from one of only 10 ancient lineages, according to a new analysis of the evidence in our genes. The family groups, to which about 95 per cent of European men belong, migrated to the continent from the East in three waves, researchers say. The most senior of the families, to which 50 per cent of men are related, moved here some 40,000 years ago.

The researchers at the University of Pavia, Italy, led by Dr Ornella Semino, made the discovery by studying the Y chromosome. As the Y chromosome is only present in men, and is passed down from father to son, variations in the DNA it contains can be used to trace paternal ancestry: men who have similar variations had a common male ancestor.

When DNA samples from more than 1,000 men from 25 communities across the continent were analysed, all but 5 per cent could be matched to one of the 10 known ineages. About 80 per cent have genes that date back to hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic age, who arrived between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, while 20 per cent fall into the gene pool brought into the continent Neolithic times, after the Ice Age.

Full report published at www.sciencemag.org STAYING up all night to revise for an exam is a waste of time: not only will you be tired and crabby the next morning, but you will not have learned anything. A study by Professor Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School has found that the human brain appears to need good quality sleep after learning new information if it is to remember it properly.

Volunteers were asked to practise a new computer game; half the group then slept normally that night, while the other half were deliberately kept awake. Both groups then slept normally for two nights, so that fatigue did not compromise the experiment. When they played the computer game again, the ones who had slept improved their performance, while the ones who had stayed up did not. Professor Stickgold believes that the brain uses sleep to "fix" in the memory new information learned during the day.

Another recent study found that birds practise their songs in their dreams: when zebra finches fall asleep, the neurons in their brains "fire" in the same way as when they are singing.

Nature Neuroscience, where the Stickgold article is published: www.neurosci.nature.com Science, where the birds article is published: www.sciencemag.com When you drop an egg into boiling water to make breakfast, or add milk to your cup before the tea, science is probably the last thing on your mind. But a French chemist has just opened the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of "molecular gastronomy".

Dr This, a cook, aims to improve recipes by studying the physical and chemical processes that take place in the kitchen. "Science knows more about the temperature inside a star than the temperature inside a souffle," he says. Already, he has made some startling discoveries. To boil the perfect egg, he says, forget about the egg timer. Water temperature is the key. The white coagulates at 62oC, and the yolk at 68oC, so by cooking for longer at a temperature in between, the white will harden while the yolk stays runny.

He has also proved that drinking tea with milk poured in first is best. The cold milk counteracts the bitterness of tannin.

Expect to hear more!

Mark Henderson is science correspondent at 'The Times'


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