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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 66 posts for the selected month (December 2014).

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December 24, 2014 2:00 PM

Scientists object to proposed changes to Dutch funding agency

Science: The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research may undergo a major reorganization next year. The proposed government reforms were prompted by the organization’s complex structure: It comprises nine science divisions, each with a separate budget and leadership; eight semi-independent institutes; and a relatively weak central governing board. To simplify the structure, government advisers have proposed dissolving the science divisions and configuring a more powerful executive board to make decisions regarding programming and budget allocations. The country’s scientists have objected to the government’s attempt to streamline the agency, claiming it would put too much power in the hands of nonscientists and favor applied over basic research. The issue is to be taken up by the Dutch House of Representatives in January.
December 24, 2014 1:45 PM

Gaia space telescope suffers excessive light problem

New Scientist: Launched one year ago, the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft has already experienced several problems, including excessive light entering the telescope. The reason is stray fibers around the edge of the Sun shield, which scatter the Sun’s rays into the shadow region behind the shield. Although the problem is not expected to worsen over time, it does affect Gaia’s ability to detect the galaxy’s fainter objects. Astronomers remain optimistic concerning Gaia’s mission, however. "We have already collected more spectra of stars than have ever been detected on the ground since we started doing astronomy,” says Anthony Brown at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.
December 24, 2014 11:55 AM

Singapore begins to introduce driverless cars

MIT Technology Review: In 2015 Singapore will try out a system of driverless cars in one of its neighborhoods. It is not the first time the city has tested autonomous vehicles—driverless golf carts, buggies, and a bus have all operated in various parts of the city over the past several years. Singapore has been an early adopter of the new technology because of the city's high population density and congested roadways. The government hopes that such a system will encourage the use of public transit by operating as a taxi service that takes people to public transportation stops. Autonomous vehicles could also render traffic lights and parking lots obsolete. Certain challenges must be overcome, however, before the system can be widely adopted. Those include improving current maps because driverless cars need three-dimensional maps that are accurate to within 20 centimeters, according to Nhai Cao, a senior global product line manager at TomTom, a navigation vendor.
December 24, 2014 11:30 AM

Fossil remains suggest color vision in ancient fish species

Los Angeles Times: The fossil of a fish has been found that was so well buried in sediment that even soft tissue from the eyes was preserved. Uncovered in the Hamilton Quarry in Kansas, the fish—a member of the species Acanthodes bridgei—was about 10 cm in length and lived about 300 million years ago. At that time, the quarry would have been a shallow lagoon. Fossils found there have been well preserved not only because they were buried quickly in sediment but also because prior to burial, bacterial activity resulted in the fish's eyes being covered by a thin film of phosphate. According to the paper published in Nature Communications, researchers say this is the first ever study of mineralized rods and cones in a fossil eye and their results suggest the fish likely had color vision.
December 23, 2014 3:37 PM

UK Home Secretary proposes foreign students leave UK immediately upon graduating

BBC: The UK's scientific community is up in arms over an immigration proposal presented by Home Secretary Theresa May. Currently, foreign students who graduate from UK universities can remain in the UK for up to four months while they look for employment. In comparison, countries such as Australia, Canada, and the US allow foreign graduates to stay for up to 12 months after completion of their studies. May's proposal would eliminate the UK's current four-month period, forcing graduates to immediately return to their home countries even if they are pursuing jobs in the UK. Many groups and scientists have questioned the proposal, which comes a week after the government released its Science and Innovation Strategy, in which it sets a goal of becoming "the best place in the world to do science." Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering says that sending foreign graduates home would significantly hinder the UK's ability to recruit international talent.

December 23, 2014 2:35 PM

Pacific trade winds can affect global temperature

Ars Technica: Despite the dearth of instrumental data until recent decades, Diane Thompson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and her colleagues have been able to reconstruct climate variability in the Pacific Ocean through the study of the concentric rings of coral’s calcium carbonate exoskeleton. According to their study published in Nature Geoscience, when ocean sediment gets stirred up, manganese can get incorporated into the coral. Such stirring up primarily occurs when easterly trade winds are at their weakest and the wind blows from the west. By measuring the ratio of manganese to carbonate, the researchers were able to determine which way the wind was blowing and when. According to their findings, the period 1910 to 1940 saw weak trade winds, whereas the period 1940 to 1970 experienced stronger trade winds. Yet the early part of the century also experienced a period of rapid global warming, despite the fact that most of the world had not industrialized, and the period 1940–70 saw a slowdown in global temperature rise despite the increase in industrial production. The researchers conclude that Pacific trade winds "significantly influence the rate of surface air temperature change."
December 23, 2014 1:49 PM

Journal rejection doesn't imply lack of article importance

Science: A review of articles rejected from three top-tier medical journals—Annals of Internal Medicine, the BMJ, and the Lancet—reveals that some of the rejects that were published elsewhere have been cited more times than any of the accepted articles. Kyle Siler of the University of Toronto in Canada and his colleagues reviewed the histories of 1008 articles submitted to the three journals. They found that 722 were "desk rejected" before the peer-review stage, and of the ones that made it to peer review, only 62 were accepted. Of the total 946 articles that were rejected, 757 were eventually published in other journals. Siler's team found that on average the 62 articles published in the top-tier publications were more frequently cited than the 757 published elsewhere. They also found that the articles that made it to peer review before being rejected were more highly cited than those that were rejected early on. However, the 14 most cited articles overall were among those that had been rejected by the three top-tier journals, and all but two before the peer-review stage. The study's authors suggest several possible reasons for this: Articles about unconventional research may be more prone to rejection by the top-tier journals, highly technical articles tend to be cited less often even if their scientific value is greater than that of a less technical article, and a high citation count is not necessarily a sign of an article's importance.

December 23, 2014 12:15 PM

Experimental battery could increase electric-car driving range

MIT Technology Review: A California start-up company is developing a lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles that could double their driving range. The company, Seeo, has replaced the liquid electrolyte used in most batteries with a solid one composed of pure lithium. Unlike liquid electrolytes, the company’s DryLyte solid polymer electrolyte is nonflammable and nonvolatile, and the pure lithium allows for higher energy density. However, solid electrolytes don’t conduct electricity as well as liquids, and pure lithium tends to sprout metal filaments, called dendrites, that cause short circuits. To overcome those difficulties, the company has incorporated two polymer layers into its battery design. The result is a lithium-ion battery that is not only safer and higher energy but also lighter and more reliable than conventional ones, according to the company. Seeo is currently testing its prototype for another key design element: how many times it can be recharged.
December 22, 2014 3:35 PM

Plastic lens implant improves vision in aging adults

Telegraph: A new lens has been developed to correct for many types of vision problems, such as astigmatism, far- and near-sightedness, and cataracts. Abbott Medical Optics, a global medical supply company based in Santa Ana, California, has developed its TECNIS Symfony artificial intraocular lens (IOL) to replace the eye’s natural lens. The new IOL design allows more light to pass through than previous IOLs and features tiny concentric circular grooves, which extend the range of vision by affecting the way the light is bent. Clinical trials have proven successful in aging adults whose vision had gradually deteriorated due to cataracts and other age-related problems.
December 22, 2014 2:50 PM

Nanoscopic Christmas tree lit by a laser pulse

MIT Technology Review: To celebrate the holiday season, a group of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden simulated the outcome of shining a high-intensity laser pulse on a gold nanoscopic Christmas tree decorated with glass balls and a glass star. As the tree absorbed and reflected the light pulse, electric field gradients along its edges caused both the tree and its decorations to glow. The glow emanates from the wave-like plasmons created as the light interacts with free electrons inside the metal. Plasmons could potentially serve several useful purposes, such as for high-speed data transmission in computer chips and high-resolution lithography.
December 22, 2014 2:00 PM

Space station’s 3D printer fabricates socket wrench

BBC: The 3D printer shipped to the International Space Station in September has already been put to good use: When astronaut Barry Wilmore needed a ratcheting socket wrench, the digital design for one was emailed to him so he could print it out and get to work. The total time required to design, transmit, and print the wrench was less than a week—much shorter than the months required to send one via supply ship. The Zero-G printer, which was built by California-based Made in Space, uses the additive manufacturing process to create objects layer by layer from a given material. The company is now experimenting with a variety of raw materials, including one similar to lunar soil.
December 22, 2014 1:50 PM

Probing the mysterious Fermi bubbles that emanate from our galaxy

Science: Since 2010 scientists have known that material is outgassing from the core of the Milky Way, forming two giant lobes of plasma above and below the galactic plane. However, the cause of the so-called Fermi bubbles remains unknown. Now researchers report in Astrophysical Journal Letters that they have measured the speed of the outflowing gas via UV absorption-line spectroscopy from the Hubble Space Telescope. Light from a distant quasar shining through the base of the northern Fermi bubble is absorbed by carbon and silicon atoms, whose motion causes a Doppler shift. From the size of the shift the researchers have determined that the speed of the outflow is 900–1000 km/s and that it started about 2.5 million to 4.0 million years ago. Although the researchers remain in the dark as to how the bubbles formed, further data gathered through the use of some 20 additional quasars that lie behind other parts of the Fermi bubbles may provide additional clues.
December 19, 2014 3:30 PM

Geysers on Europa called into question

New Scientist: Despite the detection by the Hubble Space Telescope last year of 200-km-high water jets erupting from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, no evidence of such a geyser has been seen since. Donald Shemansky, of the University of Southern California, reported the finding at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco on 18 December. Furthermore, data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which flew by Jupiter in 2001, have failed to confirm the existence of the watery plumes. Either a mistake was made or the phenomenon is very rare, says Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
December 19, 2014 3:10 PM

Revamped Kepler spacecraft finds another exoplanet

Ars Technica: Since its launch by NASA in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has found more than 4000 planet candidates. Although crippled in 2013 by the failure of two of its four reaction wheels, Kepler has been returned to active duty by NASA scientists, who found a way to use the craft’s solar panels to point it in the right direction. Now Kepler has been able to continue its original mission of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. Although the new data are not as precise, Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and colleagues were able to spot yet another planet, HIP 116454b, which is 2.5 times the diameter of Earth and orbits a star that is smaller and cooler than the Sun.
December 19, 2014 3:00 PM

NASA satellite begins to map CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere

Nature: Earlier this year NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 to monitor carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere. Although a design flaw was detected soon after launch, the problem was quickly rectified, and the satellite is now returning data on the sources and sinks of CO2. The data will allow researchers to better understand the effects of both human activities and natural systems. Through the burning of forests and fossil fuels, humans are sending some 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, as evidenced by the high concentrations of the gas that have been detected over Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, Europe, and North America. About half remains in the atmosphere and half is absorbed by the oceans and land-based vegetation. How long the pollution will continue to be absorbed by those systems is one of the questions the satellite mission was designed to answer.
December 19, 2014 12:10 PM

Birds evacuate nesting area ahead of tornado

BBC: In May 2013 Henry Streby of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues tagged 20 golden-winged warblers in order to monitor their seasonal 5000-km migration between Colombia and the US. The birds had just completed their journey to the Appalachian Mountains in April 2014 when their geolocators showed them taking flight once more on 26 April—one day before a series of tornadoes struck the central and southern parts of the US. Over the next five-day period, they flew a total of some 1500 km to the Gulf of Mexico and back. The researchers propose that the unexpected journey was made to avoid the severe weather, which the birds were able to anticipate because of their ability to hear the deep rumble tornadoes emit in the infrasound range. Sound in that range can travel thousands of kilometers, but it is below what humans can hear. In their paper published in Current Biology, the researchers conclude that as global warming causes ever more severe weather events, such behavioral responses of animals could be well worth studying.
December 18, 2014 2:40 PM

Water discovered deep in Earth’s crust may harbor life

BBC: Some of the oldest water on Earth has been discovered about 2.4 km below Earth’s surface, in a deep mine in Canada. Thought to be between 1 billion and 2.5 billion years old, the water appears to be reacting with the surrounding rock to produce hydrogen, a potential food source for living organisms. Not only was the age of the water surprising but also the fact that there is so much of it—more than all the world’s rivers, swamps, and lakes combined, according to a study published in Nature. As a result, global hydrogen production in the continental crust may be much higher than previously estimated. "It gives us a quantum change in our understanding of how much of the Earth's crust might indeed be habitable and have enough energy to sustain subsurface life,” said Barbara Sherwood Lollar of the University of Toronto in Canada, one of the authors of the study.
December 18, 2014 2:15 PM

Mangrove forests may help protect against tsunamis

New Scientist: Following the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, several studies examined satellite data to determine the ability of mangrove forests to protect communities from the destructive effects of such seismic sea waves. One study found an 8% reduction in fatalities in villages protected by mangrove forests. Another found that a 100-m-wide band of dense mangrove growth could reduce the strength of a tsunami by up to 90%. In the years since the tsunami, several groups have worked to restore and expand mangrove forests along shorelines of countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The most successful appears to be the Green Coast project run by Oxfam Novib and Wetlands International. The organizations planted mangroves in the Indonesian province of Aceh and provided loans to residents to establish new businesses in their villages. The villages were left in charge of maintaining the new mangrove trees. If 75% of the trees were still growing after 2 years, the loan debts were written off. Almost 2 million trees were planted near 70 villages, and five years after the end of the project most of the businesses are still operating.

December 18, 2014 1:15 PM

US–Cuba accord holds promise for science

Science: Yesterday President Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro reached a landmark agreement to restore diplomatic relations between their two countries. For the past half-century, the US has imposed economic sanctions and a trade embargo on Cuba to punish the communist regime set up by Fidel Castro. The recent accord bodes well for the scientific community, according to Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The new policy could boost collaboration between scientists in the two countries, allow US groups to organize workshops and meetings in Cuba, and support the export of scientific equipment to Cuba to pursue certain areas of research, such as the study of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the agreement is expected to meet with opposition in the US Congress.
December 18, 2014 1:12 PM

Airline pilot UV radiation exposure measured

Telegraph: A study earlier this year revealed a higher rate of skin cancer in pilots than in the general population. A new study by Martina Sanlorenzo of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues shows that every 56 minutes that airline pilots spend at a normal cruising altitude of 30 000 ft (9144 m) exposes them to as much UV radiation as a 20-minute session in an average tanning bed. They measured UV-A exposure at ground level and in cockpits during flights to Los Vegas, Nevada, in April 2014. For every 2952 ft (900 m) of altitude gained above sea level, the radiation exposure increased by 15%. At the typical cruising altitude for commercial aircraft, UV levels were more than twice those on the ground.

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