Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Light


A central aim of the “lighting revolution” (the transition to solid-state lighting technology) is decreased energy consumption. This could be undermined by a rebound effect of increased use in response to lowered cost of light. We use the first-ever calibrated satellite radiometer designed for night lights to show that from 2012 to 2016, Earth’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by 2.2% per year, with a total radiance growth of 1.8% per year. Continuously lit areas brightened at a rate of 2.2% per year. Large differences in national growth rates were observed, with lighting remaining stable or decreasing in only a few countries. These data are not consistent with global scale energy reductions but rather indicate increased light pollution, with corresponding negative consequences for flora, fauna, and human well-being.

Concepts: Light, Sun, Mass, Probability theory, Lighting, Light pollution, Order theory, Energy conservation


Spatial resolution, spectral contrast and occlusion are three major bottlenecks for non-invasive inspection of complex samples with current imaging technologies. We exploit the sub-picosecond time resolution along with spectral resolution provided by terahertz time-domain spectroscopy to computationally extract occluding content from layers whose thicknesses are wavelength comparable. The method uses the statistics of the reflected terahertz electric field at subwavelength gaps to lock into each layer position and then uses a time-gated spectral kurtosis to tune to highest spectral contrast of the content on that specific layer. To demonstrate, occluding textual content was successfully extracted from a packed stack of paper pages down to nine pages without human supervision. The method provides over an order of magnitude enhancement in the signal contrast and can impact inspection of structural defects in wooden objects, plastic components, composites, drugs and especially cultural artefacts with subwavelength or wavelength comparable layers.

Concepts: Diffraction, Optics, Fundamental physics concepts, Light, Layer, Wavelength, Telescope, OSI model


Bacterial phototaxis was first recognized over a century ago, but the method by which such small cells can sense the direction of illumination has remained puzzling. The unicellular cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 moves with Type IV pili and measures light intensity and color with a range of photoreceptors. Here, we show that individual Synechocystis cells do not respond to a spatiotemporal gradient in light intensity, but rather they directly and accurately sense the position of a light source. We show that directional light sensing is possible because Synechocystis cells act as spherical microlenses, allowing the cell to see a light source and move towards it. A high-resolution image of the light source is focused on the edge of the cell opposite to the source, triggering movement away from the focused spot. Spherical cyanobacteria are probably the world’s smallest and oldest example of a camera eye.

Concepts: DNA, Cyanobacteria, Archaea, Bacteria, Organism, Light, Synechocystis, Pilus


Countershading was one of the first proposed mechanisms of camouflage [1, 2]. A dark dorsum and light ventrum counteract the gradient created by illumination from above, obliterating cues to 3D shape [3-6]. Because the optimal countershading varies strongly with light environment [7-9], pigmentation patterns give clues to an animal’s habitat. Indeed, comparative evidence from ungulates [9] shows that interspecific variation in countershading matches predictions: in open habitats, where direct overhead sunshine dominates, a sharp dark-light color transition high up the body is evident; in closed habitats (e.g., under forest canopy), diffuse illumination dominates and a smoother dorsoventral gradation is found. We can apply this approach to extinct animals in which the preservation of fossil melanin allows reconstruction of coloration [10-15]. Here we present a study of an exceptionally well-preserved specimen of Psittacosaurus sp. from the Chinese Jehol biota [16, 17]. This Psittacosaurus was countershaded [16] with a light underbelly and tail, whereas the chest was more pigmented. Other patterns resemble disruptive camouflage, whereas the chin and jugal bosses on the face appear dark. We projected the color patterns onto an anatomically accurate life-size model in order to assess their function experimentally. The patterns are compared to the predicted optimal countershading from the measured radiance patterns generated on an identical uniform gray model in direct versus diffuse illumination. These studies suggest that Psittacosaurus sp. inhabited a closed habitat such as a forest with a relatively dense canopy. VIDEO ABSTRACT.

Concepts: Habitat, Light, Sunlight, Color, Lighting, Pigment, Paleontology, Dinosaur


Mobile phone microscopes are a natural platform for point-of-care imaging, but current solutions require an externally powered illumination source, thereby adding bulk and cost. We present a mobile phone microscope that uses the internal flash or sunlight as the illumination source, thereby reducing complexity whilst maintaining functionality and performance. The microscope is capable of both brightfield and darkfield imaging modes, enabling microscopic visualisation of samples ranging from plant to mammalian cells. We describe the microscope design principles, assembly process, and demonstrate its imaging capabilities through the visualisation of unlabelled cell nuclei to observing the motility of cattle sperm and zooplankton.

Concepts: Cell nucleus, Cell, Optics, Light, Microscope, Mobile phone, Optical microscope


A glowing ribbon of purple light running east-west in the night sky has recently been observed by citizen scientists. This narrow, subauroral, visible structure, distinct from the traditional auroral oval, was largely undocumented in the scientific literature and little was known about its formation. Amateur photo sequences showed colors distinctly different from common types of aurora and occasionally indicated magnetic field-aligned substructures. Observations from the Swarm satellite as it crossed the arc have revealed an unusual level of electron temperature enhancement and density depletion, along with a strong westward ion flow, indicating that a pronounced subauroral ion drift (SAID) is associated with this structure. These early results suggest the arc is an optical manifestation of SAID, presenting new opportunities for investigation of the dynamic SAID signatures from the ground. On the basis of the measured ion properties and original citizen science name, we propose to identify this arc as a Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE).

Concepts: Scientific method, Electron, Light, Temperature, Science, Observation, Book of Optics, Plasma


Fluorescence using ultraviolet (UV) light has seen increased use as a tool in paleontology over the last decade. Laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) is a next generation technique that is emerging as a way to fluoresce paleontological specimens that remain dark under typical UV. A laser’s ability to concentrate very high flux rates both at the macroscopic and microscopic levels results in specimens fluorescing in ways a standard UV bulb cannot induce. Presented here are five paleontological case histories that illustrate the technique across a broad range of specimens and scales. Novel uses such as back-lighting opaque specimens to reveal detail and detection of specimens completely obscured by matrix are highlighted in these examples. The recent cost reductions in medium-power short wavelength lasers and use of standard photographic filters has now made this technique widely accessible to researchers. This technology has the potential to automate multiple aspects of paleontology, including preparation and sorting of microfossils. This represents a highly cost-effective way to address paleontology’s preparatory bottleneck.

Concepts: Fluorescence, Ultraviolet, Biology, Light, Electromagnetic radiation, Laser, Fluorescent lamp, Black light


Synesthesia is a phenomenon where a stimulus produces consistent extraordinary subjective experiences. A relatively common type of synesthesia involves perception of color when viewing letters (e.g. the letter ‘a’ always appears as light blue). In this study, we examine whether traits typically regarded as markers of synesthesia can be acquired by simply reading in color.

Concepts: Light, Color, Green, Blue, Purple, Qualia, Synesthesia, Azure


Alteration of leaf surface phenotypes due to virus infection has the potential to affect the likelihood of colonisation by insect vectors, or to affect their feeding activities. The aim of this study was to investigate whether viruses that rely on insects for their transmission, and which can be sensitive to the polarization of light, affect the percentage polarization of light reflected from leaves. We also set out to discover whether a correlation exists between the expression of ECERIFERUM (CER) genes involved in cuticular wax synthesis and the polarization of the light reflected from the leaf surfaces. It was found that the aphid-vectored viruses Potato virus Y and Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) caused significant reductions in the percentage polarization of light reflected from the abaxial surfaces of leaves of Nicotiana tabacum, whereas the non-insect-vectored viruses Tobacco mosaic virus and Pepino mosaic virus did not induce this effect. In Arabidopsis thaliana, there was little difference in the impacts of CMV and the non-insect-vectored Turnip vein clearing virus on polarization reflection, with both viruses increasing the percentage polarization of light reflected from the abaxial surfaces of leaves. There was a trend towards increased accumulation of CER6 transcripts in N. tabacum and A. thaliana when infected with aphid-vectored viruses. No significant effect of infection on trichome densities was found in A. thaliana, suggesting that alterations to the formation of cuticular waxes may be the more likely phenotypic change on the leaf surface contributing to the changes in polarization reflection. The possible impacts and adaptive significance of these effects with regard to viral transmission by insects are discussed.

Concepts: Gene, Evolution, Virus, Genome, Light, Arabidopsis thaliana, Arabidopsis, Viruses


In a dark time, the eye begins to see. - Theodore Roethke The clouds were heavier, the air thicker. The wind picked up. The news that the subways would be shut down at 7 p.m. spread quickly by word of mouth. The streets in our Greenwich Village neighborhood were filled with people carrying food and water to their apartments. From my home, I could see the lights of LaGuardia and Kennedy airports and the imposing red-brick power station with its four smokestacks on 14th Street and the East River. We spent the weekend filling our bathtub with water and all . . .

Concepts: Light, New York City, Manhattan, Greenwich Village, 14th Street, Barbra Streisand, Lower Manhattan, The Bitter End