Share this article

print logo

Science: Cosmic rays may help measure thunderstorms; brain study offers clues on how to treat tinnitus

Cosmic rays may help measure thunderstorms

Scientists measure electric fields in thunderclouds with instruments aboard airplanes and weather balloons, but during violent conditions these methods can be difficult, even dangerous.

Now researchers may have found a better way to measure these electrical fields: the cosmic rays that originate from exploding stars.

When cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they create a shower of high-energy particles. Researchers in the Netherlands measured the radio emissions generated by these showers and found that they varied markedly during fair weather and thunderstorms. The differences may provide an effective way to estimate the electric field in a thunderhead.

Monitoring a cloud’s electric field is important because it helps define the power of a thunderstorm, said Heino Falcke, an astrophysicist at Radboud University and one of the study’s authors.

“Only if the electric field is strong enough, you have enough power to get lightning going,” he said. “This is like measuring the horsepower of a car, or the tension of the bow of an archer.”

Falcke and his colleagues took their measurements using the LOFAR radio telescope in the Netherlands and published their findings in the journal Physical Review Letters. It’s possible that the cosmic rays themselves are somehow involved in causing lightning, Falcke noted.

Brain study offers clues on how to treat tinnitus

Chronic tinnitus is a condition with which a person constantly hears a sound, often a ringing, that isn’t really there. At best, it is irritating; at worst, it can disrupt the sufferer’s life.

Although tinnitus has been well studied, little is known about the brain’s involvement. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers reported that they were able to record the brain activity of a patient with tinnitus.

The study was possible only because a 50-year-old patient with severe epilepsy had come to the University of Iowa for treatment. After the patient’s skull was opened and electrodes were implanted in his brain, Dr. Phillip Gander, a neuroscientist, and his colleagues took the opportunity to record his brain activity.

The researchers were able to temporarily suppress the patient’s tinnitus by having him listen to white noise. When the patient experienced the ringing, the researchers found, almost all of his auditory cortex became active, as did other seemingly unrelated parts of the brain.

The activity “spanned hearing areas of the brain, memory areas of the brain and other sort of sound perception areas,” Gander said.

– New York Times