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 27 posts for the selected month (October 2015).
October 9, 2015 2:30 PM

Project creates computer simulation of rat brain cortex

Nature: An ambitious project to create a synthetic brain has been undertaken by Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and his colleagues. The Blue Brain Project, which was launched in 2005, seeks to study brain architecture and function through the use of highly complex computer simulations. In a paper published in the journal Cell, the researchers say they have reached their first milestone: the digital reconstruction of a rat’s primary somatosensory cortex. Although the computer model only represents a simplified version of one fragment of a rat’s brain, Markram claims it provides a way to manipulate the brain’s cortical circuitry that can’t be done using real subjects. The project has been criticized because of the large amount of computing time required compared with the results achieved.
October 9, 2015 1:59 PM

House science committee continues to target NSF grant process

Science: On Thursday, the House of Representatives' science committee approved legislation that would increase the committee's oversight of the NSF grant approval process. The bill is a shortened version of a bill that passed the full House in May but has not been taken up by the Senate. Both bills require NSF to explain why all approved grants are "in the national interest." According to committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), he has reviewed several past grants that don't meet that definition. The support for the bills has been mostly partisan, with many Democrats believing that Smith just wants to suppress certain types of research. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) thinks that the bill "substitutes the political process for the scientific process."

October 9, 2015 1:22 PM

California joins states that ban products containing plastic microbeads

New York Times: On Thursday, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans plastic microbeads in consumer products. Microbeads are often included as exfoliants in face and body cleansers. However, when washed down sinks and showers, the beads pollute water supplies and can harm wildlife. Several other states have passed similar legislation, but California's law goes the furthest by also banning biodegradable alternatives.

October 9, 2015 11:50 AM

Curiosity rover data indicate that large lakes once existed on Mars

Los Angeles Times: Between 3.2 billion and 3.8 billion years ago, Mars had lakes of liquid water on its surface, according to a study published in Science. John Grotzinger of Caltech and his colleagues base their finding on pictures taken by the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012. The researchers say the texture and distribution of sedimentary rock strata in Mars’s Gale Crater resemble those of river deltas on Earth, which are formed by the deposition of sediment by streams as they run into lakes. In fact, they say, Gale Crater probably held a series of lakes, lasting anywhere from thousands to millions of years. Whether Mars’s water cycle lasted long enough for any life-forms to develop remains to be discovered.
October 8, 2015 1:30 PM

Climate change spurs global coral bleaching

Nature: One indication of stress on the ocean’s coral reefs is a phenomenon known as coral bleaching, in which the algae-like organisms inhabiting the coral’s structure get expelled and the coral loses its color. To date, coral bleaching has occurred on a global scale three times. The most recent was announced earlier today by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA says the current bleaching event has been brought on by warmer waters due to climate change and the strengthening El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. Although coral reefs can recover from mild bleaching, severe or long-term bleaching can kill the coral, destroying marine-life habitats and reducing protection from storms along shorelines. The current event, which began in 2014, could extend into 2016 and affect more than one-third of the world’s coral reefs, according to NOAA.
October 8, 2015 11:45 AM

Earth's inner core may have begun forming earlier than thought

BBC: Earth's magnetic field is driven by the motion of the molten iron in the outer core, and that motion is itself partly driven by the solidification of the inner core. When that solidification began is an important ingredient for accurate models of Earth's internal behavior and geological history. To determine that information, researchers study the magnetism of ancient rocks, which was set when those rocks formed, but can become jumbled or lost over time. Now Andy Biggin of the University of Liverpool in the UK and his colleagues have reevaluated all the data collected by other researchers and determined which measurements were most reliable. Their analysis of the data that weren't eliminated suggests that the inner core began solidifying 1.3 billion years ago.
October 8, 2015 11:25 AM

New pocket-sized camera features DSLR capability

MIT Technology Review: A startup company is developing a new type of camera that resembles a largish smartphone but will have the picture-taking power of a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex). Light, based in Palo Alto, California, calls its device a multi-aperture computational camera. Whereas a conventional camera uses a single lens to focus light onto a sensor, the L16 uses a folded optics system with multiple apertures and sensors to capture the image data, then computational algorithms to combine the information into a single photo of up to 52 megapixels. The pocket-sized device has a touch screen and features some internal editing software and Wi-Fi capability. Because the L16’s form is radically different from other cameras, it may take a while for it to catch on with camera enthusiasts, says company cofounder and CEO Dave Grannan.
October 8, 2015 11:15 AM

Examination of exosolar debris disk reveals unusual features

Ars Technica: The variable star AU Microscopii was discovered in the 1980s, and the Hubble Space Telescope later revealed that it was orbited by a disk of debris thought to be the remains of planetary material. The Hubble images revealed variations in the light passing through the debris, which suggested clumps of material that could be planets. Now, a team of researchers led by Anthony Boccaletti of the Paris Observatory used the new SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope to study the disk more closely. The SPHERE images revealed even more clumps both closer and farther away from the star than were initially spotted. A reanalysis of the Hubble data revealed that the clumps have moved over the past few years at speeds reaching 4–10 km/s, with the outermost clumps moving fastest. The two farthest clumps appear to have speeds greater than AU Microscopii's escape velocity. However, the fact that none of the other material in the disk is moving outward rules out the possibility that the clumps are driven by a stellar wind, and none of the other possible explanations have strong supporting evidence either.
October 7, 2015 3:58 PM

Volcanic eruptions can significantly alter river flow rates

New Scientist: Volcanoes can release large amounts of aerosol particles into the stratosphere. That can significantly alter rainfall, but the extent and impact of the change is still unclear. To get a better picture of the effects, Carly Iles and Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh in the UK looked at historical flow volumes for 50 major rivers around the world. They found that for two years after major eruptions, rivers experienced significant changes in flow rate. In wet, tropical areas such as the Amazon, Nile, and Congo, river flow rates decreased by up to 10% of their average flow. In drier, subtropical regions, the river flows increased by as much as 25%. This difference emphasizes the potent effects of volcanic aerosols: By blocking sunlight, they allow less heat to reach the atmosphere, which alters circulation patterns and the distribution of rainfall.

October 7, 2015 12:38 PM

Israeli team pursuing Lunar X Prize is first to sign launch contract

BBC: SpaceIL, the Israeli team competing for Google's Lunar X Prize, is the first group in the competition to file a verified launch contract with the X Prize organization. The group has reserved a space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in 2017. The Lunar X Prize, established in 2007, offers  a $20 million award to the spaceflight team that can build a probe able to land on the Moon, travel at least 500 m, and return high-resolution images and video to Earth. Originally, the deadline for claiming the prize was the end of 2012, but it was extended to 2015. Earlier this year the foundation said it would extend the deadline to the end of 2017 if one of the competing teams filed a verified launch contract. Now that SpaceIL has done so, the other teams have until the end of 2016 to file their own launch contracts.

October 7, 2015 12:20 PM

IPCC names South Korea’s Hoesung Lee as new chair

Science: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations organization that assesses climate science, has elected a new chair: Hoesung Lee of South Korea. He succeeds Rajendra Pachauri of India, who resigned in February. Lee, an expert on climate economics and sustainable development, is a professor at Korea University in Seoul. Lee says his vision for the IPCC is to expand its focus on developing countries, especially regarding the regional impacts of climate change, and to encourage increased involvement of experts from those countries.
October 7, 2015 12:10 PM

Proposed mini particle accelerator at CERN is approved for funding

Nature: Because particle accelerators are growing ever larger and more expensive, several research groups have been experimenting with a potentially smaller design, called a plasma wakefield accelerator. Conventional colliders use electric fields to accelerate charged particles down metal-walled tunnels. But when the electric field gets too strong, longer tunnels are required to avoid sparking. Now CERN, home to the world’s largest and most powerful accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, has received funding approval for what could perhaps be one of the smallest. The Advanced Wakefield Experiment, or AWAKE, will send a pulse of protons through a plasma of ionized gas, which causes the positively and negatively charged particles to oscillate and create waves of alternating charge. Particles injected into the resulting electric field ride the waves and accelerate. Such a design could achieve accelerations 1000 times greater than conventional machines over the same distance.
October 6, 2015 1:10 PM

Quantum computation successful in silicon for the first time

New Scientist: Quantum computing makes use of qubits, which can take the values 0, 1, or combinations thereof. However, all the qubits that have ever been used in calculations have been supercooled superconductors. Now, Andrew Dzurak of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues have created qubits from a pair of silicon transistors. Their arrangement is essentially a basic logic gate: The device examines the spin of one electron and then either flips the spin of a second electron or leaves it alone based on the direction of spin of the first. By combining those gates, the logic system can perform complex calculations. Dzurak and his team say they have a design for a chip containing millions of the qubits. However, the silicon-based qubits are still outperformed by their superconductor counterparts.
October 6, 2015 12:50 PM

US House Republicans launch investigation of climate action group

Science: House Republicans led by Lamar Smith (R-TX) have announced their intention to launch an investigation into a nonprofit climate advocacy group called the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES). The organization recently sent a letter to President Obama requesting a criminal investigation of corporations that question the science of climate change. The writers likened industry attempts to deny global warming to the tobacco industry’s cover-up of the detrimental health effects of smoking. The letter sparked much attention, from both sides of the issue. Now Smith, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has sent a letter to IGES's president Jagadish Shukla, citing allegations that IGES may have been “participating in partisan political activity” while being “almost fully funded by taxpayer money.” He requests that Shukla “preserve all e-mail, electronic documents, and data” that IGES has created since 2009, although what, exactly, the committee will be investigating has not yet been made clear.
October 6, 2015 11:35 AM

Chernobyl area experiencing rebirth as wildlife returns

BBC: Since the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, a 30-km area around the nuclear plant, called the exclusion zone, has remained relatively uninhabited by humans. Despite the radioactive contamination, the area has reverted to forest and become overrun with wildlife. Using aerial surveys and winter tracking studies, Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth and his colleagues counted the large mammals now roaming the area. They say that the populations of roe deer, elk, and wild boar are similar to those in uncontaminated nature reserves. Wolves are doing particularly well, probably because of the lack of hunting in the area. Smith and his group add that more research needs to be done to look at a wider variety of animal life, including smaller mammals, birds, and insects.
October 5, 2015 3:50 PM

Report warns of cyberattack risk at nuclear power plants

BBC: As nuclear power plants rely more on digital systems and software, they are becoming more vulnerable to attack by hackers, says a new report by Chatham House, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in London. The group, which studied nuclear plants around the world over an 18-month period, found that although nuclear plants have been slow to implement external IT networks, a growing number are adding some level of internet connectivity, such as VPN. And even those facilities that remain isolated from the public internet can still be easily breached “with nothing more than a flash drive.” To counter a potential cyberattack, the group recommends raising awareness among facility operators of the danger, educating nuclear plant personnel about key cybersecurity procedures, and developing and encouraging the universal adoption of guidelines, rules, and regulatory standards. The report says that besides the obvious threat posed by cyberterrorism, even a small-scale incident could have a negative effect on public opinion concerning the nuclear industry and its future.
October 5, 2015 1:30 PM

Groups of bike racers move like birds and fish

New Scientist: Human bicyclists in mass-start races, such as the Tour de France, tend to move as a cohesive unit, alternately clumping together and stretching out single file, much like flocks of birds or schools of fish. New research shows that the behavior is due more to certain physical principles than to individual wills. A former competitive cyclist named Hugh Trenchard studied videos of cycling races that took place in velodromes and collected statistics on cyclists’ speed and physical attributes. He found that the riders tend to group together, and the shape of the resulting peloton depends on the speed of the front rider, with the rest keeping pace by drafting, or riding directly behind another cyclist in order to take advantage of the reduced drag. Drafting helps slower riders stay with the rest of the group but makes it harder for them to pass the rider ahead. The speed of the entire group is limited by the individual cyclists’ inherent maximum abilities. The seemingly cooperative behavior that arises occurs regardless of team strategies or rider fatigue, says Trenchard.
October 5, 2015 12:40 PM

Ancient submarine landslide may have caused giant tsunami

Science: From rock deposits on an island off the west coast of Africa, researchers have found evidence of a possible megatsunami that may have been triggered by the collapsing rim of a powerful oceanic volcano some 73 000 years ago. Telltale signs of the volcanic eruption—scarring on the rim of the caldera and some 160 km3 of rock deposited on the sea floor—were found some time ago on Fogo, an island in the Cape Verde archipelago. Now, on the nearby island of Santiago, researchers have found 49 massive boulders that appear to have come from Fogo at about the same time as the ancient landslide occurred. Because some of the rocks weigh more than 700 tons and are located high up on two separate plateaus, the researchers conclude that the only way the rocks could have gotten there is by being pushed by a massive tsunami, more than 270 m high. Such an event today, were it to occur near a large city, could be devastating and should be taken into account in disaster mitigation plans, they say.
October 5, 2015 10:30 AM

Despite extensive ice melt elsewhere, East Antarctica ice sheet is growing

Nature: Whereas glaciers in much of Antarctica are melting at unprecedented rates, those in the eastern part of the continent have actually been growing fairly steadily, according to a recent study to be published in the Journal of Glaciology. To track the height of Antarctica’s ice-sheet surface over the past two decades, Jay Zwally of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and colleagues used data from the European Space Agency’s European remote sensing radar satellite and NASA’s ICESat satellite. Since 1992, when measurements began, they found that East Antarctica’s ice sheet has been increasing in size by about a centimeter each year. Although the ice growth is seemingly minimal, it is counterbalancing the ice losses elsewhere on the continent, the researchers say. Nevertheless, Antarctica’s glacial ice mass is complex, and the findings should in no way lessen concerns over global warming, says Zwally.
October 2, 2015 3:30 PM

Elusive vacuum fluctuations may have been measured for the first time

Science: A research team reports the first direct observation of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, or the temporary appearance of energetic particles in a point in space. Claudius Riek, Alfred Leitenstorfer, and colleagues at the University of Konstanz in Germany studied the phenomenon by looking for the subtle influences that are exerted on a transparent crystal by the fluctuating electric field produced by the birth and death of virtual photons. The researchers shot a “probe” pulse of light through the crystal and then measured the pulse’s polarization as it exited the other side. Over repeated trials, the polarization varied slightly, which, they claim, indicated the influence of vacuum fluctuations. Some scientists have questioned the results, however, saying some other source, such as thermal fluctuations, could be causing the variations in the crystal’s optical properties.
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