Science: In Brief

Gavin Kenny

Science Editor

Is post-publication peer-reviewing the way forward for science?

Traditionally, scientific research undergoes the straightforward process of peer-review prior to publication. Here, scientists submit their work to a journal’s editor who passes the material on to a number of the researchers’ peers. These people then decide whether the science is valid and thus, whether the work should be published or not. Recently, however, this peer-review process has been coming under pressure as its failings garner more and more publicity. Specifically, a growing number of people are pushing for a systematic means for post-publication commenting. While blogs and rising social media platforms like twitter offer a space for critical review of scientific publications, they are far from ideal and comments and reviews are not easily available to the next person to come across the published paper. With this in mind, PubMed – a widely used database of medicine-related publications – launched one of the first centralised forums where researchers can write comments on scientific papers as well as read what others have to say. The cover article of the 19th October 2013 issue of the Economist provides a relevant reflection: “Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself.”

First ever piece of a comet found on Earth

A team of researchers claim to have discovered the very first piece of a comet ever found on the Earth’s surface. Unlike meteorites, which are chunks of rock that flew through Space before striking the Earth, comets are composed mostly of ice, frozen compounds such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as some rock and dust material – basically, imagine a dirty snowball. Also unlike meteorites – which, although rare, are periodically discovered on the Earth’s surface – never before has a confirmed piece of comet been found. The lead author of the paper published this month in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Jan Kramers of the University of Johannesburg, described the moment they eliminated all other options, and came to the realisation of what the unusual small black stone named “Hypatia” must be, as “scientific euphoria”. The team propose that a comet, from which this piece of debris is derived, exploded above southwest Egypt 28.5 million years ago and produced the enigmatic “Libyan Desert Glass” – a huge field of peculiar glass stones even admired by the Ancient Egyptians and incorporated into the treasures of Tutankhamun (see image of pectoral featuring yellow scarab carved from Libyan Desert Glass).

India’s martian explorer facing problems

India has become the latest nation to launch an unmanned space exploration mission to Mars but is quickly learning why over half of the forty or so attempted missions to the Red Planet have ended in failure. The Mars Orbiter Mission, known informally as Mangalyaan (Mars-craft), was successfully launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the subcontinent’s east coast earlier this month. However, Mangalyaan was less than a week into its 10-month journey before hitting its first snag as it attempted to raise its orbit around Earth. If the Indian Space Research Organisation can successfully guide its craft to Mars and join the US, Russia and Europe as the few to reach the current vogue planet it will surely propel the nation’s space program beyond region rival China. One of the principal aims of the mission is to study methane in the Martian atmosphere and whether this could have a biological source.