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This week The Alchemist takes in the beauty of a polar, downtown Burbank, crystallizes thoughts on organic materials, solves the chicken and egg paradox with a crack, and scales the heights with gecko-like adhesive composites. There is insulation on the cards for the next-generation of electronics and finally a major funding initiative for metamaterials in the UK.

Isotope analysis by researchers at Yale University, Connecticut, suggests that modern Antarctica was at one time in its history as hot as beautiful downtown Burbank. Parts of ancient Antarctica were as warm as today’s California coast, and polar regions of the southern Pacific Ocean registered 21st-century Florida heat, according to Hagit Affek and colleagues writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team focused on carbon dioxide concentrations, which were high during the Eocene epoch, 40-50 million years ago. Quantifying past temperatures helps us understand the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases, and especially the amplification of global warming in polar regions, Affek explains.

For the first time, researchers have used high-speed X-ray cameras to capture the details revealed by a bright, synchrotron X-ray beam to give them a movie of what occurs when an organic molecule crystallizes. Stanford University's Zhenan Bao and her team dissolved organic molecules and deposited the solution on to a flat surface, they were able to control the solvent evaporation process and observe crystallization by working with Aram Amassian of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

In terms of evolution, the egg came first, produced by the most recent immediate ancestor of the chicken that was itself not a chicken. Now, DNA analysis of bones of chickens that lived a mere 200 to 2300 years ago in Europe, shows that domestic chickens, Gallus gallus domesticus, may have looked very different from the barnyard roosters and hens we see on farms around the world today. The results suggest that some of the traits we associate with modern domestic chickens - including their yellowish skin - only became widespread in the last 500 years, much more recently than previously thought. It's a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective, explains Greger Larson of Durham University, UK. The study is part of a larger field of research that aims to understand when, where and how humans turned wild plants and animals into the crops, pets and livestock we now know.

A universal adhesive as sticky as a gecko foot has been developed by a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Al Crosby and colleagues have made a gecko-like reusable adhesive device. Rather than mimicking the tiny hairs that provide a massive electrostatic surface area that give geckos their remarkable ability to cling to almost any surface, Geckskin uses draping adhesion which derives from the gecko's integrated anatomical skin-tendon-bone system. In Geckskin, the researchers emulated this property by combining soft elastomers and ultra-stiff fabrics such as glass or carbon fiber fabrics. They can tune the relative stiffness of the composite for a range of applications.

Alexander Shestopalov and colleagues at the University of Rochester, New York, have demonstrated that it is possible to direct a charge from one molecule to another even when working with electronic circuits that are just one or two molecules thick. Shestopalov worked with an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) powered by a simple micro-circuit in which was connected a one-molecule thin sheet of organic material between positive and negative electrodes. An inert layer on the electrode acted like the plastic insulation on electric wiring, this means that the properties of the device are determined entirely by the top layer because there is no direct reaction with the electrode.

The UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the major science public funding body, is to pump £2.5 million (more than $4.2 million) into research into metamaterials over the next five years at laboratories based at Imperial College London, the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University. Metamaterials have unusual properties not observed in natural materials, for example they can have a negative refractive index. Universities and Science Minister David Willetts is quoted as saying that, Advanced materials is one of the eight great technologies of the future with the potential to propel UK growth. This investment will help us to develop further applications for metamaterials and reap the benefits of advanced materials for the wider UK economy.