News Picks


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

July 29, 2014 2:30 PM

Earth fossils may exist on Moon

New Scientist: One way for material to spread from one celestial body to another is via meteorites. Whether fossils of once-living organisms could survive a ride on a meteor is the subject of a recent study by Mark Burchell of the University of Kent in the UK and colleagues. To find out, they powdered rock containing fossils, mixed the powder with water, froze the mixture, and fired it into a bag of water. The process was designed to simulate the launch of a meteorite and its impact on the surface of another body. The researchers found that little of the fossil material survived. But the fact that something could be recovered from such events leads the researchers to believe that there could be terrestrial fossil fragments on the Moon. If so, it’s one more reason for space programs to consider another Moon mission.

July 29, 2014 1:15 PM

Next-generation memory chip packs in the data

MIT Technology Review: As demand for data storage grows for increasingly small devices such as smartphones, companies have been working on a new type of memory chip that can store much more data in a much smaller space. Resistive random access memory (RRAM) stores bits of information using resistance in a transistor. It shows promise of being much denser and faster than flash memory, which stores bits using electrical charge. Now a group of researchers at Rice University has developed a way to make RRAM that avoids the high temperatures and voltages required by previous efforts. Their chip is made by inserting a layer of porous silicon oxide between two thin layers of metal. When a voltage is applied, a conduction path forms through the silicon. The presence or absence of such paths can be used to represent the 0s and 1s of binary digital data. To rewrite the bits, they apply another electrical pulse. Once perfected, RRAM could store one terabyte of data on a device the size of a postage stamp.

July 29, 2014 9:00 AM

Drought in western US leads to groundwater depletion

Nature: Because of a 14-year drought, demand for water by communities in the Colorado River Basin may soon exceed supply. To keep reservoirs filled and crops irrigated, people have been pulling water in unprecedented amounts from reserves underground. According to data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission, which can measure the mass of water over the entire region, some 50 trillion liters of groundwater has disappeared. “It was way more than we ever thought,” says Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a coauthor of a study published in Geophysical Research Letters. The research team is now working to produce higher-resolution data to help better manage local water supplies.

July 28, 2014 2:30 PM

Ancient rock yields clues to early oxygen “oases” on Earth

New Scientist: Early Earth had no oxygen. However, at one point, oxygen-rich pockets of seawater may have started to form due to bacteria living in shallow, nutrient-rich marine areas. The oxygen then reacted with dissolved iron to form rock, which sank to the ocean’s bottom. The removal of the iron from the seawater allowed calcium carbonate to build up and form limestone. That geologic progression can be seen in rock samples from Steep Rock Lake in Ontario, Canada. They contain a mixture of iron minerals and limestone and layers of microbes, which are some 2.8 billion years old. Although such oxygen oases persisted for only about 5 million years, they forced early life forms to adapt to the chemically reactive gas before it would eventually spread around the world. Thus that period was a critical moment in the evolution of life on Earth, according to Robert Riding of the University of Tennessee and colleagues, whose study was published in the journal Precambrian Research.

July 28, 2014 12:30 PM

Starling flocks’ smooth flight paths likened to fluid flow

Science: The collective motion of a flock of starlings in flight has now been studied in depth, thanks to high-speed cameras, tracking software, and mathematical modeling. Watching video of flocks of the birds flying around a train station, researchers were able to pinpoint which individuals decided to turn and then watch the way directional change swept through the rest of the flock. The researchers found that decisions to change direction travel through a flock at a constant speed, which allows the birds to turn in near unison. It is to the birds’ advantage, the researchers say, to fly in alignment because it allows them to maneuver more rapidly and better elude predators. The starlings’ flight has been likened to the flow of superfluid helium, and similar physics and mathematical principles may pertain to other types of groups, such as schools of fish or clusters of moving cells.

July 28, 2014 11:30 AM

Dinosaurs' extinction more complicated than mere asteroid impact

BBC: The extinction of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago may have been caused by more than an asteroid impact. Other contributing factors, such as rising temperatures and sea levels and increased volcanic activity, may have made certain species more susceptible to extinction when the asteroid struck, according to a recent study by a group of 11 dinosaur experts from the UK, the US, and Canada. They say that although the dinosaurs showed no sign of long-term decline despite the presence of those environmental pressures, the timing of the asteroid strike made it particularly devastating. In fact, one of the experts, Steve Brusatte of Edinburgh University, says that had the asteroid hit Earth a few million years earlier or later, dinosaurs might still exist today.

July 28, 2014 11:15 AM

Distant gas giant planets appear drier than expected

Nature: In their study of three exoplanets some 60–870 light-years from Earth, researchers say the planets appear to be much drier than expected. They belong to a group of planets called “hot Jupiters,” which typically form in water-rich areas of solar systems. But based on Hubble Space Telescope observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets HD 189733b, HD 209458b and WASP-12b, the researchers say all three are drier than Jupiter itself. Information about the exoplanets’ atmospheres was gleaned from observations of the spectrum of IR light created as each planet crossed in front of its sun. Other researchers disagree with the findings, however. They say high-altitude clouds could have affected the results by obscuring the view. The issue may not be resolved until higher-resolution data are available from the James Webb Space Telescope or other next-generation equipment.

July 25, 2014 1:25 PM

New aircraft is cross between airplane and helicopter

Daily Mail: A new type of flying vehicle has been developed by Elytron Aircraft. The new craft combines the vertical take-off and landing capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and efficiency of a fixed-wing airplane. The design features three sets of wings: one pair of rotary wings, called “proprotors,” positioned between two pairs of fixed wings—one forward and one aft—joined with winglets. The new aircraft is more fuel-efficient and has greater range than rotary-wing craft but can take off and land without a long runway. Hence, the company says, it could be used in various capacities, including “emergency medical services, search and rescue, air taxi, and oil exploration.” A two-seater demonstration model will be on display next week at EAA Airventure Oshkosh.

July 25, 2014 12:10 PM

Perishable food spawns development of innovative plastics

NPR: Plastic food packaging involves more science and innovation than one might think. Lighter than glass, more durable than paper, and relatively cheap to produce, the plastic used in the food industry is actually an amalgam of several different types. Take a bag of potato chips: The bag may have as many as three layers—an exterior layer of polypropylene, which serves as a moisture barrier; an inner layer of thin aluminum coating, which strengthens the bag; and a layer of another plastic called polyethylene sandwiched in between. Besides the potato chips, the bags may also get a shot of nitrogen gas before they are sealed, which helps prevent the chips from getting crushed. The type of packaging used depends on the type of food inside, since some materials can cause chemical reactions and affect the product's flavor. Because all the nifty packaging creates a lot of extra waste, however, researchers are now working to create new plastics that are also environmentally friendly.

July 25, 2014 11:25 AM

Film animation taps into scientific expertise

Los Angeles Times: Physicists, engineers, and other scientists are discovering an alternative to the more traditional career paths in aerospace and academia: the movie industry. One physicist who has made the switch is Ron Henderson, a former Caltech faculty member who specializes in fluid dynamics. Henderson now works for DreamWorks Studios, where he devises complex algorithms to simulate natural phenomena, such as water and fire, for animated films. He has even won an award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his development of a fluid-simulation system called Flux. He says that besides the potential to make more money, the film business offers the challenge of finding solutions to technical problems and the opportunity to work as part of a team with people from many different backgrounds. One of Henderson’s most recent projects was to create computer-animated simulations of bubble-like spheres for tiny aliens to live in for a short, animated film titled Home.

July 24, 2014 1:55 PM

NASA calls for instrument designs for Europa mission

Science: NASA has invited submissions for instrument designs to be included on the proposed Clipper mission to Europa. The agency will choose 15 to 20 of the submissions, each of which will receive $1.25 million for further development. Of those, eight finalists will be chosen for inclusion in the final satellite construction. NASA is targeting a launch in the mid 2020s. Whether the project receives funding from Congress is still an open question. NASA estimates that Clipper will require $2 billion to $3 billion.

July 24, 2014 1:22 PM

Fracking technology helps geothermal industry grow

New York Times: In 2011, less than 1% of the world's total electricity came from geothermal plants. In 2013, geothermal energy production grew to nearly 5% and is poised to grow further, especially in Indonesia, Africa, and parts of Central and South America. Currently the largest producer of geothermal energy is the US, followed by the Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico. The growth of geothermal energy has been slow because of high upfront costs and the difficulty in identifying where to drill. Whereas most of a plant's cost (50–60%) is incurred in drilling the wells, about 10–30% of the test wells are not usable. The recent growth of the industry has been aided by the spread of hydraulic fracturing. The development of fracking as a viable method for oil and gas extraction has advanced drilling technology that can also be applied to geothermal wells.

July 24, 2014 1:10 PM

Scientists and politicians at odds over sustainable development goals

SciDev.Net: The most recent version of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lays out 169 targets spread across 17 goals. The report is the result of 13 working group meetings over some 16 months. However, scientists say many of the scientifically quantified targets of earlier versions have been removed. Two of the targets that pertain to climate change—zero biodiversity loss and a two-degree Celsius limit for temperature rise—and that appeared in earlier versions are essential, according to Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden. “What politicians need to recognise is that if you lock yourself to these two targets, the methods to achieve these force you to address most other environmental challenges,” he said. Among those who disagree is Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director of the UN initiative Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He says that although such targets should be considered, the most important thing is to trim the overall document down to a manageable list of goals and targets. The report is scheduled to be reviewed by the UN General Assembly in September.

July 24, 2014 12:15 PM

Ship strikes deplete blue whale population

Science: Blue whales—the largest animals known to have existed on Earth ever—were hunted almost to extinction in the 20th century. Although a 1966 ban on whaling helped many whale species rebound, the number of blue whales has not increased as much as expected. According to a study published this week in the journal PLOS One, a contributing factor may be collisions with ships. The researchers tagged and tracked blue whales off the coast of California. They found that a significant number of them were being struck and killed by ships traveling between the busy ports of San Francisco and Los Angeles. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be reviewing the situation to find a solution, which could include speed restrictions on vessels or alterations to the commercial shipping lanes, especially during the summer at the height of the whales’ feeding season.

July 23, 2014 4:40 PM

Antarctic sea ice expanding despite global warming

Science: The observation that Antarctic sea ice appears to be expanding seems to run counter to the fact that Earth’s climate is growing warmer. To find out why, Ian Eisenman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, and colleagues decided to look more closely at the data behind the 2007 and 2013 reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In comparing them, the researchers found that the data had been recalibrated several times to ensure continuity from one satellite to the next over time and that discrepancies existed between the two different versions of the algorithm used to process the data. While it does indeed appear that Antarctic sea ice is expanding overall, the expansion varies regionally and seasonally, and in some places the ice is actually retreating. It is that complex spatial pattern that researchers seek to understand, and more thorough satellite data calibration methods may be needed to do so.

July 23, 2014 3:05 PM

Light polarization helps bats navigate

Los Angeles Times: Although bats rely largely on echolocation for finding their way around, it only works over relatively short distances. For longer flights, bats have been known to use other cues, such as visible light and Earth’s magnetic field. Now researchers have found that bats also use polarized light—sunlight that has been scattered and refracted as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere yet is invisible to humans. To test that theory, Stefan Greif of the Sensory Ecology Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and colleagues put adult female greater mouse-eared bats in special boxes with windows. By covering the windows with filters, they were able to manipulate the sky’s natural polarization patterns. They found that the bats that experienced the light manipulation flew off in directions 90 degrees to those of the control group. The researchers have determined that polarization does not give direction but rather helps the bats calibrate their internal magnetic compass. Finding out how the bats perceive polarized light is the scientists' next task.

July 23, 2014 3:00 PM

Is another manned mission to the Moon in sight?

Space.com: Whereas the Cold War motivated the US to put a man on the Moon, it has been more than four decades since any other similar manned missions have been undertaken. While the US has been considering missions to other destinations, including Mars and an asteroid, countries such as China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia have been revisiting the idea of exploring the Moon. Now some scientists in the US are also pushing for the Moon because of its proximity to Earth. At just three days’ travel, they say, the Moon is the most viable location for a semipermanent research base and space colonization efforts, since it would be much easier to restock supplies and mount potential rescue operations. In addition, because of the rising costs involved, future missions will probably require international cooperation, and the Moon offers the best prospects for that.

July 23, 2014 10:35 AM

Bubble wrap used as tiny test tubes

NPR: Scientists at Harvard University have found a cheap alternative to glass test tubes: the plastic packaging material known as bubble wrap. George Whitesides, who led the study, says he got the idea while traveling to different labs around the world. Scientists in developing countries struggle to obtain even the simplest pieces of equipment, such as test tubes. Bubble wrap, however, is everywhere, and it is often found in labs because it’s used for shipping equipment. While experimenting with bubble wrap, Whitesides and colleagues injected samples of blood and chemicals into the individual bubbles with a syringe and sealed the hole with nail polish. They found that not only do the bubbles work well to store liquid samples but they are also sterile. Although Whitesides recognizes that bubble wrap has its drawbacks—the bubbles pop easily and are sensitive to light—he hopes the idea will serve to inspire people to find innovative uses for other inexpensive, everyday materials.

July 22, 2014 2:35 PM

US Senate bill more supportive of science than House bill

Science: On Friday the US Senate released its working draft of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014. Among its provisions, the bill recommends increasing the funding of NSF over the next five years, supports NSF’s continued management of its research grants, and emphasizes the importance of the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. In contrast, the House bill would only fund NSF over the next year and would cut funding for the social sciences. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) believes the Senate bill is better because it relies on scientists, rather than politicians, to allocate science funding. The process of reconciling the two bills is expected to be a lengthy one and may well extend into next year.

July 22, 2014 1:33 PM

Despite predictions, gas cloud doesn’t collide with black hole

Nature: In 2012, Stefan Gillessen of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and his colleagues spotted a gas cloud approaching Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It appeared that part of the cloud would get pulled off and hit the accretion disk that swirls around the black hole. The resulting collision would have created a large explosion of radiation. But that didn't happen. As Gillessen's team continued observing, they also looked at older data and found a second cloud of gas following the same path. They believe that means that the two clouds are actually part of a larger stream of gas, possibly pulled from a star that passed near Sagittarius A* within the last 100 to 200 years. Another group of researchers suggests that a star is hidden within the gas cloud and that the star's gravitation is what kept the cloud from fragmenting and falling into the black hole.

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