Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.
Ars Technica: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising and are indeed contributing to Earth’s greenhouse effect, according to a new study. US researchers have made the most accurate measurements yet of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Looking straight up at the sky, they measured the IR light spectrum, from which they could determine the amounts of various molecules present, including water vapor, CO2, ozone, and methane. They found that between 2000 and 2010, the amount of CO2 rose by 22 parts per million. A greenhouse gas, CO2 absorbs thermal radiation from the planet’s surface and reradiates it back toward Earth, which can cause a rise in atmospheric temperatures. However, because of the complications posed by clouds and other weather phenomena, the effects of rising CO2 levels are not yet completely understood.
Technology Review: To lighten aircraft and automobiles, and therefore increase their fuel efficiency, manufacturers have been using more titanium, a low-density, high-strength metal that is extremely resistant to corrosion. But making titanium involves a multistep process that requires very high temperatures. Now SRI International has developed a way to produce titanium powder, which requires fewer steps and less energy. It uses plasma arcs to cause molecules of hydrogen and titanium chloride to react and form titanium vapor, which then forms a powder as it solidifies. The powder can then be pressed into whatever shape is needed, thus reducing the amount of machining required. SRI is currently refining the process before it attempts to scale up production.
BBC: A computer program developed by Google DeepMind has learned how to play 49 classic Atari video games. In about half the games, it was able to match the abilities of a professional human player. What makes this achievement significant is that the program was not specifically designed to play the games. Instead, it was given only the basic information needed to play them: the raw pixels on the screen and the goal of getting a high score. From that information the program could be presented with any of the games and, in the course of a few hours, learn to play the game with varying levels of success.
Los Angeles Times: An object spotted by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey appears to be a black hole 12 billion solar masses in size. Its redshift suggests it formed when the universe was only 875 million years old. Of the known black holes formed in the universe's first billion years, it is by far the most massive and luminous. This black hole is also a quasar and is pulling in so much of the surrounding material that massive amounts of radiative energy are being released. And that's what makes it unusual. Normally, the pressure from that radiation is expected to gradually slow the rate at which material falls into a black hole. The finding that the black hole reached such a great size in such a short period of time challenges current understanding. Further observations of this black hole could provide more clues into black hole formation and evolution. As the light it emits passes through the material in the intergalactic medium, which was much denser 13 billion years ago, that light could also provide information about the growth of the universe itself.
BBC: Tidal measurements from 2009 and 2010 reveal that sea levels along the Atlantic coastline north of New York City rose by 128 mm over that two-year period. A team of researchers from the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration split the Atlantic coastline into three regions, with the other two regions stretching from New York City to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and from Cape Hatteras southward. They say the increase in level seen north of New York City was higher than any recorded in the past 100 years and is "a 1-in-850 year event." The rise is likely tied to major storms that lifted tides and had a lasting effect on local sea levels.
Nature: In October 2014, following widespread student protests over low pay and delayed payouts, the Indian government announced an increase in the wages that fellowships pay to the country's PhD students. Some of the government agencies, such as the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology, have already implemented the new wage system. Others have not. At least two, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission, have announced that they would implement the changes but have not yet done so, nor have they provided timetables for the changes. The delays and lack of information from the funding agencies have driven thousands of graduate students to launch a hunger strike. On 20 February, about 150 student protesters who went to an office of the human resource development ministry in New Delhi were taken to a police station, which further increased tensions between the students and the government.
New York Times: The American Energy Innovation Council is urging the US government to triple its current level of funding for energy research. In the council’s recent report, some of the country’s top business leaders, among them Bill Gates of Microsoft and Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, say that without dramatically increasing federal funding for technology innovation, the US risks falling behind in the energy race. The US must make more of an effort to both improve existing technologies and create new technologies to provide affordable and sustainable energy to its citizens while limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Safer nuclear reactors, cheaper carbon-capture methods, and better batteries are among the objectives mentioned. Although the report cites some progress on the recommendations the council made five years ago, much more needs to be done. Council members say the upcoming 2016 presidential race may provide some impetus to take up their ambitious recommendations.
Nature: The results of a Pew Research Center poll of 4000 scientists were shared at last week's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Of the respondents, 87% said scientists should be active in public discussions about science and technology. About 79% said they did not trust the media to distinguish between good and bad science. A small majority, 52%, believe science is often oversimplified in the media. Regarding career advancement, 43% thought that coverage in the news media was important, but just 22% felt that the use of social media was. Only 12% of respondents were following experts in their fields on Twitter or Facebook. The survey indicated that more women than men are active in outreach efforts, and that most of those participating in outreach are younger than 50, which signals a growing trend of increased involvement by underrepresented groups.
MIT Technology Review: Most optical materials bend different wavelengths of light to different degrees. To obtain a clear image, multiple lenses are needed to focus all the light on the same spot. Multiple lenses can make cameras bulky, which poses a problem for small electronic devices. Federico Capasso of Harvard University has now demonstrated the ability of carefully structured thin films of materials such as silicon to bend red, green, and blue wavelengths of light at the same angle. Those three colors are necessary to provide full-color images. The nanostructured material could allow for a significant reduction in the number and size of lenses needed for portable or wearable electronics.