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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 39 posts for the selected month (July 2016).

July 22, 2016 3:42 PM

China ramps up space missions

Science: China's space program has set an ambitious schedule as it tries to be seen as an equal partner to NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The schedule includes launching more than four missions over the next 13 months. Moreover, the country's lunar exploration program hopes to launch a sample return mission next year, and its first-ever landing on the far side of the moon is planned for 2018.  Beginning in 2020 China will launch four science missions and the nation's first Mars probe. Unlike NASA or ESA, the Chinese space program doesn't receive annual funding but instead gets one lump sum every five years. That arrangement doesn't adjust for inflation or allow for last-minute plan changes. In addition, the country's different space agencies are competing for scarce resources and missions. The solution, say Chinese space administrators is to merge agencies into one.

July 21, 2016 3:30 PM

Most comprehensive map of human brain reveals 97 new regions

New York Times: After more than a century of study, the most detailed map of the human brain to date has been created, revealing almost 100 previously unknown regions. To create the map, Matthew Glasser of the Washington University School of Medicine and colleagues spent the past three years analyzing data collected by the Human Connectome Project. They combined high-resolution images of multiple aspects of the brain, including structure, function, and connectivity, which were captured as the subjects participated in various activities or simply rested. With the use of artificial-intelligence software, the researchers were able to identify not only 83 known regions in the brain but another 97 that were previously unknown or forgotten. The new, state-of-the-art map is expected to help not only brain surgeons in the operating room but also researchers to better understand brain development, aging, and brain-related disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
July 21, 2016 11:20 AM

Dark matter remains to be seen Despite its recent 20-month run, the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment has yet to detect a dark-matter signal. LUX is just one of several experiments currently seeking signs of the weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) that make up some 85% of the mass of the universe. Located at the Sanford Underground Laboratory in South Dakota, LUX features a large tank of liquid xenon, whose high density makes it more likely to interact with WIMPs. Although LUX has so far failed to detect the elusive particles, the data it gathered can still be used to improve the design of future, more sensitive experiments. LUX itself is soon to be replaced with the LUX-Zeplin detector, which will be 70 times as sensitive.
July 20, 2016 3:40 PM

Facebook developing high-speed laser-based Wi-Fi

PC World: Although wireless networks provide internet connectivity without the need to run physical cables, the systems can be slow, and they rely on available radio spectra. To overcome those problems, researchers at Facebook have been working on a system that uses lasers to transmit data. Because laser beams dissipate as they travel, however, a very large detector is required to collect the signal. Facebook has developed a cheap, large detector through the use of plastic optical fibers doped with organic dye molecules. Its 126 cm2 detector is thousands of times larger than earlier designs. Facebook’s prototype device has achieved 2.1 Gbps, and the company hopes to speed it up even more by switching to UV light. Such a system could be used to transmit high-definition video to mobile devices and provide low-cost communications in remote areas.
July 20, 2016 2:40 PM

The physics of the bicycle

Nature: Although bicycle design has remained relatively unchanged since the early 20th century, cycling’s recent resurgence in popularity has prompted several innovations in materials and technology. One example is the inflatable frame developed by the Ford Motor Co so the bike can be easily transported in a car or bus. Another is the redesign of a recumbent bike—the rider lies chest down—to improve its aerodynamics. Also being considered is rear-wheel steering, which would improve efficiency by allowing the chain to be shorter. To better understand the physics involved in bike design, Nature’s Brendan Borrell looks at a brief history of bicycles and the physical and mathematical forces that keep them upright and propel them forward. Borrell also mentions the “father of modern bicycle theory,” David Jones, whose article exploring bicycle stability appeared in the April 1970 issue of Physics Today.
July 20, 2016 12:45 PM

Joint US–Russian space base near the Moon proposed to replace ISS

Popular Mechanics: With the International Space Station slated to cease operations in 2024, engineers in the US and Russia have been discussing a cooperative venture to build a new space base near the Moon. Not only would the base allow for deeper exploration of Earth’s nearest satellite, it could also serve as a jumping-off point for venturing further into space. And such a project would be mutually beneficial: Russia has proven its proficiency in building space modules to house astronauts, and the US could provide the transportation as it is already developing the Space Launch System to replace the space shuttle. The project was one of many topics discussed at the recent ISS R&D Conference held in San Diego, California.
July 19, 2016 3:10 PM

Storing data in atoms

Nature: Chlorine atoms have been used to create a tiny 1-kilobyte rewritable storage device. Sander Otte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and his colleagues arranged the chlorine atoms into square grids on a copper surface. By including vacant spaces in between the Cl atoms, the researchers show how the atoms can be moved around using a scanning tunneling microscope and a sharp needle. The resulting patterns of atoms and vacancies can then be used to encode information in binary form. Such a system, if scaled up, could store hundreds of terabytes of data in a device the size of a grain of salt. Besides data storage, the technology could have other applications, such as the design of new materials.
July 19, 2016 1:30 PM

Rebooted Kepler spacecraft finds more than 100 exoplanets

Christian Science Monitor: Despite the failure of two of its reaction wheels in 2013, the Kepler spacecraft has managed to continue its hunt for exoplanets as part of a new, modified mission, called K2. Using Kepler’s remaining capability, researchers have already discovered 197 new planet candidates, of which 104 have been validated, 30 have been determined to be false positives, and the other 63 require further research. Four of the newly validated exoplanets could be similar to Earth. Based on the spacecraft's success so far, the researchers predict that over the course of K2's planned four-year mission, some 500 to 1000 new exoplanets may be discovered.
July 19, 2016 12:35 PM

Brexit prompts UK science academies to urge government to prioritize research

BBC: The 23 June vote by the UK to leave the European Union (EU) has prompted the presidents of seven science academies to ask the UK government to ensure that the country retains its position as a world leader in science and technology. In a joint statement, they say that “the UK’s outstanding research and innovation base is central to our economic, social and cultural well-being.” They focus on several priorities in four areas: people, collaboration, resources, and regulation. Among their requests are that researchers continue to be allowed to travel freely between the UK and EU countries, that international research collaborations continue to be encouraged and supported, that research funding issues be addressed to avoid any potential shortages during and after the transition, and that the UK remain compliant with EU rules and regulations.
July 18, 2016 2:00 PM

Fighting cancer by starving it

Economist: Because cancer cells need nutrients to grow, Valter Longo of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and colleagues have been trying to see whether they can fight cancer by starving it. Working with mice injected with breast-cancer cells, the researchers developed a special diet that is low in calories, proteins, and sugars. To avoid starving the animals completely and to encourage the action of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, the researchers added vitamin D, zinc, and fatty acids. They found that tumor growth was greatly reduced in the group of mice that were periodically forced to fast on the special diet, compared with those that were consistently fed standard rodent chow. In addition, tumor development was reduced even further among the fasting mice when a dose of the anticancer drug doxorubicin was added.
July 18, 2016 10:45 AM

SpaceX ISS resupply launch returns booster to Cape Canaveral

NPR: Earlier today SpaceX launched its next resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Not only did its Falcon 9 rocket successfully take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, but the rocket's first-stage booster was returned intact to Earth and thus demonstrated the rocket’s potential reusability. As part of its two-ton cargo of supplies and gear, the Dragon spacecraft is also transporting an international docking adapter (IDA), or docking port. Once installed, the IDA will allow new spacecraft, including SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner, to dock at the station.
July 15, 2016 11:25 AM

Radioecologist studies effect of metal contamination on coral reefs

IAEA: Coral reefs are important both ecologically and economically to coastal communities around the world. However, recent massive coral bleaching events have presented graphic evidence of the great stress that the reefs are experiencing because of climate change and pollution. One major source of pollution has been runoff from nickel mining in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. At the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium held 19–24 June in Hawaii, Marc Metian of the IAEA Environment Laboratories discussed the use of radiotracers to track how metals are absorbed and expelled by corals and other marine organisms. The goal is to gain a better understanding of how reefs are affected by metal accumulation when combined with rising temperatures and higher ocean acidity.
July 14, 2016 1:49 PM

US PhD production is flooding the market for professorships

New York Times: Tenure-track professorships are one of the most desirable jobs for PhD holders in the sciences. However, in many disciplines people earning PhDs significantly outnumber the available positions. In popular fields like biomedicine, less than one position is available for every six PhD recipients, and across all science and engineering degrees fewer than 50% on average enter academic positions related to their degrees. Many entering academia in non-tenure-track positions end up in low-paying narrowly focused jobs and then leave the field after four to six years. Richard Larson of MIT and his colleagues have calculated replacement rates—how many PhDs professors each trained during their career—for tenure-track positions across several science fields. The highest rate they found was 19.0 PhDs trained per tenure-track professor for environmental engineering; biological and medical sciences were at 6.3. Larson's work suggests that this measurement could be used to help PhD students decide whether to enter academia, industry, or another career field.

July 14, 2016 1:48 PM

Reaction Engines achieves funding goal, plans rocket–jet engine hybrid demo for 2020

Ars Technica: On Tuesday, UK-based Reaction Engines signed a £10 million contract with the European Space Agency for the development of their Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE). That agreement fulfilled a funding requirement for an additional £50 million from the UK Space Agency. Reaction Engines says that the new funding comes on top of an earlier £20.6 million from BAE Systems and allows the company to develop a ground-based demonstration SABRE engine by 2020. SABRE is a hybrid rocket–jet engine that functions as a jet at low altitudes and as a rocket at high altitudes. The company says the design is possible because of its pre-cooling heat exchanger, which can cool incoming air from 1000 °C to –150 °C in 1 ms (and prevent freezing by injecting methanol into the cooling system). In theory, the engine would be able to power a spaceplane from a horizontal take off all the way to low Earth orbit. This single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch system would be a potentially significant alternative to traditional rockets.

July 13, 2016 11:25 AM

Dwarf planet discovered in the Kuiper belt

Science News: The number of dwarf planets orbiting the Sun just increased by one. Called 2015 RR245, it was first observed in February as a slow-moving dot of light beyond Neptune in images captured last September by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Researchers with the Outer Solar System Origins Survey have determined that it is probably about 700 km in size and travels a highly elliptical orbit—one of the largest orbits of any of the known dwarf planets. Planets that travel so far from the Sun can be interesting to study because of their exotic geology and frozen landscapes and because they can provide details of the early conditions of the solar system. Just five dwarf planets have been officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union, but the actual number of dwarf planets in the solar system may exceed 10 000.
July 12, 2016 3:30 PM

Cosmic radiation presents significant obstacle to future Mars mission

Washington Post: Unlike Earth, which is protected from space radiation by its magnetic field, Mars is constantly bombarded by charged particles and gamma rays. In planning a future mission to Mars with a human crew aboard, NASA has been monitoring those radiation levels with the Curiosity rover, launched in 2011. While it traveled to Mars, Curiosity's radiation assessment detector began gathering readings on radiation levels inside the spacecraft, and it has been monitoring radiation on the planet’s surface since it landed in August 2012. Despite significant differences between predictions of Mars’s radiation levels and actual measurements, scientists remain optimistic that a way will be found to minimize astronauts’ exposure to an acceptable level.
July 12, 2016 12:05 PM

Climate change may be affecting Earth’s cloud cover

NPR: Since at least the 1980s, clouds in the midlatitudes have been retreating toward the poles, according to a new study in Nature. Two driving forces have been identified: increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and the cooling effect of two volcanic eruptions. Joel Norris of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues, who based their findings on satellite cloud data gathered over the past several decades, say the changes match those predicted by most climate models of global warming. However, other climate researchers say that because clouds are an extremely complex weather phenomenon, much more data, gathered over much longer time periods, will be needed to completely understand them and their effects on Earth's climate.
July 11, 2016 2:05 PM

Solar Impulse 2 nears end of around-the-world journey

BBC: After traveling more than a year and making some 15 stops, the solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse 2 is about to complete its circumnavigation of the globe. The stops allow André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, the two men piloting the single-seat craft, to take turns flying. On 11 July Borschberg took off from Seville, Spain, to make the plane’s penultimate flight to Cairo, Egypt. Piccard will fly the final leg, returning Solar Impulse to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where it originally took off in March 2015. The trip has taken longer than planned because during the plane’s record-setting flight over the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Hawaii in June 2015, the plane’s batteries overheated and needed to be repaired.
July 11, 2016 10:30 AM

Pokémon Go draws computer gamers outdoors

New Scientist: Since 6 July an uncommon number of people have been rushing to spend time outdoors. The reason: the release of Pokémon Go, a free augmented-reality game played on mobile devices. Players walk around the real world in order to hunt virtual Pokémon, which are fictional creatures that can be captured, trained to battle, or traded. Even though the game itself is fairly benign, a few problems have already been reported: injuries to players who got so wrapped up in the game that they didn’t pay attention to where they were going and at least one instance of armed robbers targeting a known Pokémon location. But it is unclear whether the game’s designer, Niantic, a former Google subsidiary, has any larger plan for the game, such as using its data to improve location services.
July 8, 2016 1:37 PM

Launch-ready interplanetary CubeSats just need a lift

Nature: CubeSats, 10-cm-sided spacecraft often built with off-the-shelf parts, are widely used in low Earth orbit (LEO) for a variety of tasks. Although several CubeSats have been designed for interplanetary missions, however, they are still sitting on Earth, waiting for a ride into space. Generally, the spacecraft piggyback on rockets as secondary or even tertiary payloads. Whereas LEO launches are relatively common, launches into higher orbits or out of Earth orbit are far less frequent. Now NASA and the European Space Agency are planning to include CubeSats on several long-range missions, including technology tests and small probes to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and Jupiter's moon Europa.

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