Ant Traffic Flow, Natural Reactors, David Quammen. August 17, 2018, Part 2 | WBEZ
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Science Friday

Ant Traffic Flow, Natural Reactors, David Quammen. August 17, 2018, Part 2

Worker ants keep the nest alive. They look for food, take care of the eggs, and dig all the tunnels. Fire ant colonies, for example, have hundreds of thousands of worker ants. You’d think traffic jams happen all the time. But they don’t! The majority of the ants aren’t working, according to a study published in Science this week from the Georgia Institute of Technology. They remain idle to stay out of the way, leaving only 30% of the ants to dig a new hole. The researchers also believe the dynamic between idle and active ants could be applied to teaching small robots to dig together at an earthquake site or find shelter underground during a natural disaster.

Long before humans enriched uranium to create nuclear fission, the Earth was doing it on its own. Two billion years ago, some natural deposits of uranium contained enough Uranium-235 to undergo spontaneous fission reactions. Those deposits are no longer undergoing fission. But, new research of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor in Gabon has found something curious. Not all the cesium (a toxic waste product of fission reactions both natural and man-made) was released into the environment. Rather, some remained bound in the reactor, with the help of other molecules. How could this finding help lead to safer nuclear waste storage?

In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, science writer David Quammen tells the tale of the microbiologist Carl Woese, who discovered in 1977 that a certain methane-belching microbe was not a bacterium, but instead belonged to another, altogether new branch of the evolutionary tree, the Archaea. The news shook up scientists’ understanding of the tree of life, Quammen writes—and our human place in it.

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