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News Picks

Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.

There are 72 posts for the selected month (July 2015).
July 28, 2015 12:50 PM

Hillary Clinton comes out strong on green energy

New York Times: Climate change may be one of the major issues in the 2016 presidential campaign. According to a recent poll by the New York Times, two-thirds of Americans favor political candidates who propose to take action on global warming. One presidential hopeful to take up the challenge is Hillary Clinton, who on Monday announced an ambitious goal to produce 33% of the US’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027. She has called for the installation of a half-billion solar panels by 2020 and for the generation of enough carbon-free energy to power every US home within a decade. Despite her strong support for green energy, however, some environmentalists say she must also develop a strong stance against fossil-fuel projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, on which she has so far refused to express an opinion, citing her role in evaluating the project when she was secretary of state.
July 28, 2015 11:35 AM

Turning cells into tiny lasers for medical diagnostics

Nature: Biological cells have been turned into microlasers by injecting them with droplets of oil or fat mixed with a fluorescent dye. The droplets, which act as the gain medium, can then be activated by short pulses of light. Matjaž Humar and Seok Hyun Yun of Harvard Medical School are developing the technique to be used in the diagnosis and treatment of tumors and other medical conditions. Although luminescent probes have already been used with much success, the intracellular microlasers have a narrower emission spectrum, which allows for the tracking of thousands of cells simultaneously. The researchers have even experimented with using fluorescent polystyrene beads of different diameters to tag individual cells.
July 27, 2015 2:13 PM

Massive black hole found during study of archival data

Scientific Computing: A black hole 100 million solar masses in size has been spotted in the process of devouring a star. While examining spectra of objects taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Andrea Merloni of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and his colleagues found an unusual change between 1998 and 2005 in the spectrum of one galaxy located some 3.5 billion light-years away. Further confirmation of the high-energy emission came when the team discovered that both the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which had taken pictures of the region at about the same time, had also seen the massive flare. An analysis of the data from the three archival sources confirmed that the flare fit the model of a star being pulled into a massive black hole.

July 27, 2015 1:03 PM

First data from new LHC run are presented in Vienna

Guardian: Researchers from CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are presenting their latest results at the European Physical Society's Conference on High Energy Physics in Vienna. The ATLAS team confirmed an unexpected finding from the CMS team during the previous LHC run—that regardless of the incident collision angle of the particles, there is an increased probability they are being emitted at a similar azimuthal angle. That behavior is expected in heavy particle collisions but not in proton–proton collisions. From the new run, ATLAS also released the first measurement of the jets of hadrons produced from the collision of quarks and gluons. The measurement, which is in line with the measurements taken during the previous run, reveals that the higher collision energy is producing noticeably more frequent jets.

July 27, 2015 11:45 AM

Brain revealed through photoacoustic imaging

NPR: A new technique that combines “the speed and precision of light with the penetrating ability of sound” has been used to create high-speed, detailed three-dimensional images of a living mouse brain, writes Jon Hamilton for NPR. Developed by Lihong Wang of Washington University in St Louis, photoacoustic imaging uses a laser to send light pulses through the mouse’s skull and into its brain, where they bounce around and cause the molecules to vibrate. The vibrations emit distinctive sound waves, which can be used to monitor brain activity and study individual brain cells. The technique could one day be applied to other areas of the body to look for anomalies such as tumors in the breast, skin, and even individual blood cells.
July 27, 2015 11:40 AM

"Bubble" greenhouse proposed for remote, arid regions

SciDev.Net: A sealed greenhouse that uses evaporation and condensation to desalinate saltwater for irrigation is being developed by researchers in Australia. In the design the evaporation equipment is located outside the greenhouse structure. Air is bubbled through water-filled columns to increase the air–water interface and encourage evaporation. Although the novel humidification–dehumidification process requires more energy than other desalination methods, such as solar-powered reverse osmosis, its simplicity and small scale could make it useful in isolated areas where local people with little training could set it up and run it. In addition, such a sealed structure would provide a cool, humid environment, which promotes plant growth, and would protect crops from insects and disease.
July 24, 2015 12:10 PM

Mammoth DNA suggests climate change was primary driver in extinction

Science: Mammoths and many other large mammals suffered a massive population decline between 30 000 and 20 000 years ago that eventually led to their extinction. Human expansion, and the hunting associated with it, is widely considered to be a major factor in that decline, but a new study of DNA collected from mammoth fossils suggests that the populations were shrinking well before human expansion was significant. Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in Australia and his colleagues established a connection between the diversity of DNA found at specific sites and the size of the species population. Creating a timeline of temperature changes from sediment cores, they found that drops in DNA diversity, and therefore overall population size, were tied to periods of significant short-term warming.

July 24, 2015 11:34 AM

Chiral silicon could be used in light-based computing

Science: Some schemes for photonic computing use light's polarization to store and transfer data. But if the data are to be transferred to a regular computer, a silicon-based means of measuring spin is needed, which so far has proved elusive to realize. Now Ritesh Agarwal of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have discovered that by altering the structure of a silicon crystal, the material is no longer indistinguishable from its mirror image. That property allows silicon to be used to detect both polarization and electron spin because of the way light and electrons interact with the crystal. The availability of silicon detectors will significantly increase the rate at which photonic computing can transmit data.

July 23, 2015 3:15 PM

Berkeley passes controversial cell-phone radiation ordinance

New York Times: The city of Berkeley, California, has passed a measure requiring cell-phone retailers to warn customers that prolonged use of the devices may be hazardous to their health. According to the Right to Know ordinance, people who regularly carry cell phones in a pocket or bra “may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure” to radio frequency radiation. However, the claim has not been substantiated by any scientific study. Furthermore, no adverse effects associated with low levels of radiation have been seen over the past 50 years and there has not been any noticeable increase in brain cancers, according to Jerrold Bushberg, a medical physicist and a professor of radiology and radiation oncology at the University of California, Davis, and a representative of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine. Regardless, proponents maintain that if there’s any possibility of risk, no matter how slight, the public should be made aware. The cell-phone industry has challenged the ordinance, and a federal hearing has been set for 6 August.
July 23, 2015 2:12 PM

UK continues to develop its human spaceflight research

Nature: In December, Tim Peake will become the first astronaut to visit the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the UK's space program. The milestone will mark a major step for the UK Space Agency, which was established in 2010, and exemplifies the country's interest in participating in human spaceflight. A long-time contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA), the UK has participated primarily on telescope and robotic probe projects. However, in 2012 the country began expanding its involvement in human spaceflight by investing €20 million ($22 million) in the ISS and another €16 million in the ESA's European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences, which studies the effects of spaceflight on humans onboard the ISS.

July 23, 2015 12:40 PM

Slips in ITER schedule mean China's fusion project may finish first

New Scientist: ITER, the international prototype fusion energy reactor being built in France, has seen costs triple to $20 billion and has experienced construction delays that have pushed back completion to 2019. Designed to be the world's largest fusion facility, ITER is expected to be the first to produce more energy than was put into it. However, the delays may prevent it from achieving self-sustaining fusion reactions until the 2030s. That means that China, which is also participating in ITER, will likely finish construction on its own fusion project in time to reach that threshold first. The China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor is still in the design stage, but the country is heavily investing in the project and is likely learning quite a lot from its participation in ITER.

July 23, 2015 11:55 AM

Foldable bridge created for use in emergencies

BBC: A new bridge design is being developed for use during natural disasters and other emergencies when local infrastructure has been damaged or is otherwise unusable. Called Mobile Bridge version 4.0, the scissors-like device can fold up compactly for transport and be readily expanded as needed. It’s the brainchild of Ichiro Ario of Hiroshima University and his colleagues, who recently tested a prototype at the Hongo River in Fukuyama, Japan. It can be fully deployed in just one hour and requires only a few people to set it up. The researchers say it is “the world’s fastest, largest, strongest, and lightest expanding temporary bridge.”
July 22, 2015 2:40 PM

Lizard’s skin channels water to mouth

BBC: Certain lizards living in arid regions have been shown to collect water via a sophisticated capillary system running between their scales. Researchers studying the Texas horned lizard discovered that the interlinked capillary channels, which are partially enclosed by the lizard's overlapping scales, are wider in the direction of the tail and grow narrower in the direction of the mouth. Water entering the system is squeezed forward because of the channels' shape and width. Now Philipp Comanns of Aachen University and his colleagues have created a laboratory prototype of the "passive, directional liquid transport" by laser etching channels into a glass-like plastic and leaving raised “scales” in between. Such a capillary system could have practical applications in distilleries, heat exchangers, and small medical devices.
July 22, 2015 11:40 AM

Explosion at NIST similar to a meth lab blast

Washington Post: Over the weekend, an explosion at NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland, injured a security officer. Local firefighters and police responded, and the injured officer was treated and released from the hospital. On Tuesday, Captain Paul Starks, a local police spokesperson, indicated the chemicals from the explosion were consistent with those used for manufacturing methamphetamine. However, Starks did not indicate whether any equipment used in meth labs was found or whether NIST normally stores the chemicals used on site.
July 22, 2015 11:30 AM

HP plans to power data centers with renewable energy

New York Times: On Tuesday, Hewlett-Packard became the latest technology giant to announce a plan to purchase power from renewable energy sources to supply major facilities. HP plans to buy 112 MW from a wind farm in Texas to supply its data centers in the state. Gabi Zedlmayer, HP's chief progress officer, said that the deal allows the company to reach its goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2010 levels by 2020. SunEdison, the company that is providing the energy, will use the deal with HP to begin construction on another wind farm that will provide 300 MW when it is completed.

July 22, 2015 11:00 AM

Dawn observes haze on Ceres

Nature: A mysterious haze has been detected hovering over the Occator crater on the dwarf planet Ceres. The observation was made by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which in March detected bright spots peppering Ceres’s surface. Occator has one large bright spot at its center and several smaller ones scattered nearby. Mission scientists have proposed that the bright spots are composed of some highly reflective material, such as ice or salt; the presence of the haze seems to point to sublimating ice. It is hoped that as Dawn’s IR spectrometer continues to map Ceres’s surface, it will eventually be able to determine definitively what it is.
July 21, 2015 3:30 PM

Climate change may be accelerating more rapidly than predicted

Washington Post: A new study by climatologist James Hansen predicts that global warming will have more severe effects more quickly than previously thought. Along with 16 other researchers, Hansen says there is an “amplifying feedback” in relation to polar ice loss: As ice melts in Antarctica and Greenland, large volumes of cold, fresh water get dumped into the oceans, which slows down circulation patterns and causes a larger temperature contrast between the tropics and the poles. Increased ice melt from warm water trapped beneath the polar regions and more powerful storms created by the ever-increasing temperature differential will lead to greater sea-level rise and more catastrophic weather events than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2013 climate assessment. That report had assumed a more linear process. The Washington Post article features feedback on the controversial study from a number of top climate researchers.
July 21, 2015 2:00 PM

Study looks at problems experienced in robotic surgery

MIT Technology Review: According to a recent study, most of the robotic surgical procedures performed over the past 14 years have gone smoothly. However, a significant number have suffered some sort of adverse event, even if it did not result in the injury or death of the patient. Jai Raman at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and his colleagues analyzed data on robotic procedures recorded in the Manufacturer and User Facility Device Experience, or MAUDE, database kept by the US Food and Drug Administration. They found that of the more than 1 million robotic procedures carried out in the US between 2000 and 2013, 144 people died. However, procedure complications and prolonged operating times were caused by device malfunctions, which included equipment sparking and burning patients, pieces breaking off and falling into the patient’s body, equipment moving uncontrollably, and video feed being lost. Although no comparison was made with procedures that don’t use robotic techniques, the researchers say there is room for improvement in robotic equipment design and in the way accidents are reported and investigated.
July 21, 2015 11:45 AM

SpaceX isolates possible cause of Falcon 9 rocket explosion

New York Times: On 28 June a Falcon 9 rocket taking supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) exploded about 139 seconds after liftoff. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the explosion was likely caused by the failure of a metal strut holding down a helium bottle in the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank. Although the metal struts had been certified to withstand up to 10 000 pounds of force, the one in question appears to have failed at just 2000 pounds. SpaceX has announced it will cease to use those particular struts and will perform additional hardware quality checks. A week after the SpaceX rocket failed, a Russian resupply ship succeeded in reaching the three astronauts on board the ISS. Before the 28 June launch failure, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 had successfully completed 18 missions.
July 21, 2015 10:50 AM

Burning of fossil fuels may adversely affect radiocarbon dating

BBC: Not only are fossil-fuel emissions affecting Earth’s climate, but now it has been shown that they may diminish the effectiveness of an important technique for determining the age of objects—radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon, or carbon-14, is created in the atmosphere when cosmic rays interact with atmospheric nitrogen. It is then absorbed by plants via photosynthesis and by animals that eat the plants. When the plant or animal dies, it stops absorbing 14C and the remaining 14C begins to decay. That decay rate can be used to calculate the organism’s age. Radiocarbon dating was developed in the late 1940s and has been used for various purposes, including the dating of ancient artifacts. With so much nonradioactive carbon being pumped into the atmosphere, however, the ratio of radioactive to nonradioactive carbon is becoming diluted, which makes objects appear to be older than they really are. That artificial aging of the atmosphere, which is worsening as fossil-fuel emissions increase, could have implications for a range of fields, including Earth science, archaeology, forgery detection, isotope forensics, and physiology, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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