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‘Broccoli gas’ could point to extraterrestrial life, rollercoasters trigger iPhone car crash app

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Alternative source: if you don’t like broccoli, an algal mat will also emit methyl bromide. (Courtesy: CA Water Quality Monitoring Council)

The discovery of life on another planet or moon would have a profound effect on how we see our place in the cosmos. Such discoveries could be forthcoming because astrobiologists are looking for signs of life in the ice-covered moons of Saturn and Jupiter; and also on the growing number of exoplanets that have been discovered orbiting stars other than the Sun.

One way to search for evidence of life is to determine the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere. This can be done by observing star light that has passed through its atmosphere and looking for absorption lines associated with specific chemicals. Not only is this difficult to do, but it is not clear which chemicals we should be looking for. Methane, for example, is associated with life here on Earth but can also be produced by non-biological processes.

Now, Michaela Leung at the University of California, Riverside and colleagues in the US have done research that suggests that gases emitted by broccoli and other plants could be useful targets in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Extraterrestrial detox

Plants emit these gases in a process called methylation, whereby toxic compounds are turned into gases so that they can float away from the plant. One of these gases is methyl bromide, which Leung and colleagues believe would make a particularly good target. One reason, according to the team, is that the compound is expected to have a relatively short lifetime in an extraterrestrial atmosphere. This means that methyl bromide would have to be continuously produced – presumably by life. Also, the presence of methyl bromide is more likely to signify life than other compounds such as methane – although the team cautions that the compound could also be created by non-biological processes.

You can read more about the research in The Astrophysical Journal.

Recently, Physics World’s industry columnist James McKenzie sang the praises of the new iPhone 14. He is particularly pleased that the device can operate as a satellite phone without the need for an unwieldly antenna. But it turns out the latest smartphone has a new feature that may not be as welcome – at least for people who enjoy a trip to an amusement park.

Which way is up?

Most smartphones contain an accelerometer, which is mostly used to tell which way is up when you change the orientation of your phone. However, there are more sophisticated ways of using the accelerometer on your phone and, not surprisingly, there are apps for that.

Indeed, the new iPhone and some Apple watches have an app that will call the emergency services and your loved ones when your device is subjected to the sort of violent acceleration that would occur in a serious car accident. The alert goes out if the victim does not respond to an automated call.

The problem is that people riding on rollercoasters are triggering calls and they are missing the automated calls – presumably because of all the noise in the general vicinity of a roller coaster.

Warning from Dollywood

According to the BBC, six emergency calls have been put through on behalf of people on rides at the Kings Island amusement park in the US. What is more, Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood is warning visitors that their phones might make bogus calls to emergency services. And it is not just rollercoasters that are the problem, the relatives of a motorcyclist received crash alerts when he dropped his phone while travelling at high speed. He was unable to respond because the phone was damaged in the fall.

As well as using the accelerometer, the smartphone also looks for a change in air pressure (yes, your phone measures air pressure) that results from the deployment of an airbag and loud noises – but it seems that their algorithm may need a tweak or two.

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