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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 57 posts for the selected month (September 2016).

September 29, 2016 12:39 PM

Atmospheric carbon levels have likely passed 400 ppm threshold permanently

Climate Central: Throughout the month of September, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels failed to drop below 400 ppm, a significant milestone for Earth’s climate. Although CO2 levels normally fluctuate throughout the year, September is usually the month when they’re at their lowest. Therefore, it is unlikely that CO2 levels will ever drop below 400 ppm again, according to Gavin Schmidt, NASA’s chief climate scientist. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have been rapidly increasing since the Industrial Revolution, and it was only a matter of time before the 400 ppm threshold would be reached. And as carbon levels have risen, so have global temperatures. In fact, 2016 may turn out to be the hottest year on record. Although world leaders are working to reduce carbon emissions following last year’s Paris climate agreement, it may already be too late for some parts of the world that are prone to heat waves, droughts, and flooding.
September 28, 2016 1:35 PM

UN deal will require airlines to start offsetting carbon emissions

Nature: During its meeting over the next two weeks, the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization will be considering ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. Although aviation accounts for just 2% of global carbon emissions, international aviation emissions are expected to rise by 300–400% over the next 25 years. More-efficient aircraft and advanced biofuels could cut emissions substantially. To close the gap and ensure carbon-neutral growth, carbon offsets have been proposed. So far, at least 58 countries, accounting for more than 80% of international aviation emissions, have agreed to voluntarily invest in offsets beginning in 2021. By 2027 the requirement would become mandatory.
September 28, 2016 12:11 PM

North Korea’s rocket testing provokes fears of military use

New York Times: Last week’s test by North Korea of a rocket engine is provoking concern in the US. Although North Korean officials have stated that the rocket is to be used in the development of the country’s space program, US intelligence agencies say it could also have military applications. That possibility is strengthened by the fact that North Korea may be working with Iran on the rocket’s development. According to the US Treasury Department, Iranian missile technicians are known to have “traveled to North Korea to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government.” Whether for space or military purposes, the most important aspect of the rocket is that its design appears not to be based on old Soviet technology but rather to have been developed by the North Koreans themselves.
September 28, 2016 11:08 AM

New material shape-shifts at predetermined time

BBC: Shape-shifting materials typically require an external trigger to initiate the shape change. Now Sergei Sheiko of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues have developed a polymer in which the transformation occurs at a predetermined time with no outside stimuli necessary. The researchers created a polymer with two types of chemical bonds: permanent and dynamic. The permanent bonds define the material's final shape; the dynamic bonds control how quickly the material can reach that shape, depending on the strength and concentration of the bonds. The timing precision is limited to a scale of minutes to hours, but that may be sufficient for the material to be used for applications such as drug delivery.

September 27, 2016 2:43 PM

Hubble data suggest plumes of water vapor erupt from Europa’s surface

Scientific American: Ultraviolet shadows soaring over the southern edge of Europa and backlit against Jupiter’s bright clouds have been spotted by astronomers studying Hubble Space Telescope images captured between 2013 and 2015. William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute and colleagues say those shadows most likely indicate the presence of plumes of water vapor, which may be spewing up from a subsurface ocean potentially 10 times as deep as and three times more voluminous than Earth’s ocean. The findings back up a 2012 sighting in the same area, of a UV emission thought to represent hydrogen and oxygen particles. To get a better look at Europa, two missions, one by NASA and another by the European Space Agency, are planned for the early 2020s.
September 27, 2016 11:36 AM

Projection of 7 °C increase rejected by climate scientists

National Geographic: A study in Nature that presents the most complete reconstruction so far of 2 million years of global sea-surface temperatures has been both praised and panned by scientists not involved in the work. The scientists say the reconstructed data will play an important role in establishing a clear understanding of Earth's climate history. But it's the conclusion that the paper's author draws—that even if all further greenhouse gas emissions were capped, global temperatures could still rise by up to 7 °C—that has received harsh criticism. The author, Carolyn Snyder, who is now at the US Environmental Protection Agency, says that the prediction was not the primary goal of the work; she was just examining what the relationship between sea-surface temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels might mean in the future. But other scientists argue that she has incorrectly extrapolated the future relationship by basing it on past climate changes that were caused by factors other than greenhouse gases.

September 26, 2016 1:26 PM

Obama outlines plan to address the threat of climate change to national security

Climate Central: As droughts, floods, and other severe weather events increase due to climate change, so, too, will instances of civil unrest, forced mass migrations, and other problems. A recent example is the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, which have been connected to the worst drought in Syria’s history. To address the potential threat posed by the effects of climate change to the US's 7600 military installations around the world, President Obama has issued a memorandum outlining a timeline for federal departments and agencies to study climate change data, determine the greatest risks, and develop steps to mitigate problems. He has asked them to create an action plan in 90 days and to implement it in 150 days.
September 26, 2016 11:24 AM

SpaceX traces Falcon 9 explosion to helium tank breach

SpaceNews: Since the explosion on 1 September of its Falcon 9 rocket during a static test firing, SpaceX has been working with government and industry experts to determine the cause. According to a preliminary investigation of the debris and engineering, video, and audio data, a large breach took place in the cryogenic helium system of the second-stage liquid oxygen tank. What caused the breach is still unknown. Although Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral suffered some damage, several pieces of ground equipment were spared, including the Falcon Support Building, the liquid oxygen tanks and plumbing, and the kerosene fuel system. The 1 September explosion was the second time that SpaceX has lost a Falcon 9 rocket; the first incident occurred in June 2015 during the launch of a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station.
September 23, 2016 3:43 PM

Winners of this year's MacArthur fellowships announced

New York Times: On 22 September the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the winners of its 2016 fellowship awards. Twenty-three people, among them writers, artists, scientists, and nonprofit leaders, are each to receive a grant of $625 000 distributed over five years. This year the youngest fellow is 31-year-old playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and the oldest is 67-year-old artist Joyce Scott. Some are already well known, such as Claudia Rankine, whose book Citizen (2014) has won numerous awards. The scientist awardees are computer scientists Subhash Khot and Bill Thies, bioengineers Rebecca Richard-Kortum and Manu Prakash, geobiologist Victoria Orphan, synthetic chemist Jin-Quan Yu, and microbiologist Dianne Newman.
September 23, 2016 3:34 PM

New bill would require universities receiving federal funding to report professors’ sexual harassment

BuzzFeed: To retain their federal grant money, universities may soon have to report sexual harassment allegations made against their professors. California representative Jackie Speier (D) has introduced a bill in the US House to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 by requiring institutions of higher education to “notify certain Federal agencies when principal investigators at such institutions engage in discrimination on the basis of sex, and for other purposes.” Speier proposed the bill after several high-profile researchers, who had been awarded millions in research money, continued to work at their universities despite having a history of sexually harassing students and lab employees. The aim is to make universities accountable for any discriminatory and abusive behavior committed by their employees.
September 23, 2016 1:25 PM

ALMA reveals trove of galaxies in Hubble Ultra Deep Field

New Scientist: Several international teams of astronomers have now used the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to study the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) images captured in 2003–4 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Because of ALMA’s ability to see a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum than Hubble, it has not only revealed a new population of galaxies never before seen but also enabled the study of astronomical phenomena such as gas clouds and warm dust. Among the researchers’ findings is that the rate of star formation in a young galaxy is related to its total stellar mass. The scientists also found that star-forming gases increase in abundance the further back in time they look. The results will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Astrophysical Journal. More observations of the HUDF by ALMA are planned.
September 23, 2016 1:00 PM

China’s space lab may not burn up completely when it falls to Earth in 2017

BBC: Now that the mission of Tiangong 1 has been completed, China says it expects its first space station to reenter and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere sometime next year. However, Jonathan McDowell of Harvard University says it’s possible that some pieces, such as the rocket engines, are so dense that they will not burn up completely and could strike Earth’s surface. China's deputy director of the manned space engineering office, Wu Ping, has said that if some pieces fail to burn up, they are unlikely to cause significant damage. They will mostly likely land in the ocean or in an uninhabited area. The announcement regarding Tiangong 1 follows several months of speculation that China has lost control of the space station and doesn’t know for sure when or where it will come down.
September 22, 2016 3:18 PM

Landmark Paris climate agreement poised to take effect by end of 2016

Time: Now that 60 countries—including the world’s two largest carbon emitters, the US and China—have joined the Paris climate agreement, one of the two conditions needed for ratification has been met. The agreement calls for a minimum of 55 countries. The 60 countries account for almost 48% of global emissions, still shy of the 55% needed to satisfy the second condition. However, because of the number of countries that have committed to joining in 2016, its passage is virtually guaranteed, said United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon at a 21 September meeting in New York. The speed with which the agreement has been accepted “is testament to the urgency of the crisis we all face,” he said in a statement.
September 22, 2016 12:17 PM

Income inequality is growing among scientists, study says

Nature: Over the past several decades, the salary gap has been expanding between top-tier scientists and those in the middle and lower tiers worldwide, according to a recent survey by Nature. In fact, the gap is wider in academia than in either industry or government. Besides complaining about low salaries, many respondents also noted a lack of career-advancement opportunities and raises. Contributing to the problem is the practice of competing for grants, which rewards a very few with a lot of money. Another factor is the growing number of non-tenure-track faculty, who are traditionally paid less than their tenure-track colleagues. Dissatisfaction appeared to be highest among scientists in Europe.
September 21, 2016 4:43 PM

US improves solar-storm predictions

Nature: Because of the damage solar storms can inflict on electrical power grids, a new prediction model has been developed that pinpoints which areas on Earth will most likely be affected by a given storm. Until now, solar storms could be predicted with some confidence, but which regions would be affected could not. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has upped its game by combining three models—one of Earth’s entire magnetosphere, one of its inner magnetosphere, and another for the upper atmosphere’s electrical activity—into a more sophisticated prediction system that draws data from a satellite located some 1.6 million km away. The new system can alert utility operators to impending storms about 20–60 minutes in advance.
September 21, 2016 1:54 PM

Forensics techniques found not to be as accurate as thought

Ars Technica: Because of problems with forensics practices raised in a 2009 report from the National Research Council, President Obama asked the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to investigate the validity of forensic evidence. Among the techniques examined were hair, DNA, fingerprint, firearm marking, footwear, and bite-mark analyses. According to the PCAST report, which has just been released, all those techniques have problems. The least reliable is bite-mark analysis because the technique cannot reliably establish the source of a bite or determine whether it was inflicted by a human. DNA analysis, although found to be scientifically sound, can be prone to human error in its application. PCAST recommends that most of the techniques be put on a more firm scientific foundation, that better proficiency testing be devised for practitioners, and that more objective identification methods be developed.
September 21, 2016 12:22 PM

Solving Antarctic fossil mystery reinforces climate change concerns

Washington Post: How fossilized marine diatoms ended up on top of a mountain range in Antarctica has long puzzled scientists. The fossils date from the Pliocene era, about 2 million to 5 million years ago. When the fossils were first discovered in 1984, two theories were proposed. The so-called dynamicists said that the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) raised ocean levels and that isostatic uplift caused new landmasses to rise; the combination caused the diatoms to be transported from the seafloor to the mountaintops. The stabilists countered that the ice sheet did not change; instead, powerful winds blew the diatoms from the ocean into the mountains. According to a new study by Reed Scherer of Northern Illinois University and his colleagues, what actually happened was a combination of both: The EAIS did retreat, but not as far as previously thought, and winds carried the diatoms the rest of the way. Besides solving the diatom mystery, the study also points up the vulnerability of the EAIS to global warming and raises concerns as current atmospheric carbon levels approach those of the Pliocene.
September 20, 2016 11:39 AM

Disappearing star might be first known failed supernova

Science News: In 2009, a star 19 million light-years away increased in brightness over the span of several months, eventually reaching a luminosity 1 million times that of the Sun. The star appeared to be going supernova. But instead of progressing to a tremendous explosion, the star suddenly disappeared. Thinking that the star had perhaps been hidden by a cloud of dust, Scott Adams of Caltech and his colleagues used the Hubble Space Telescope to examine the region of sky. Where the star had been, they found a faint IR signature, which they believe is evidence of material falling into a black hole that formed via the star's collapse. If the interpretation is correct, then this is the first star known to have become a black hole without first going supernova. Such a process has been described in theories that say some stars are so massive that the supernova process cannot overcome the stars' own gravity. If the star did become a black hole, the debris falling in is likely emitting x rays. Adams's team is awaiting observations from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

September 20, 2016 11:10 AM

New record set for quantum teleportation

New Scientist: Two research teams have separately demonstrated the transfer of quantum information over several kilometers of fiber-optic cables. Both setups involved three hypothetical participants: two who want to securely share information via quantum-entangled particles, and a third who serves as an intermediary by intercepting and measuring the particles such that their quantum states get swapped and the information they carry is transferred. By varying the position of the participant who entangles the particles, the two research teams achieved slightly different results. Wolfgang Tittel of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and his colleagues sent quantum information over a distance of 6.2 km, while Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology of China and his colleagues were able to extend the distance, to 12.5 km. The next step is to scale up such systems so they could provide secure communications over arbitrarily long distances.
September 19, 2016 3:48 PM

Canada to charge provinces for carbon emissions

Reuters: On 18 September Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna announced that the government would put a price on carbon emissions from any of the country's provinces that do not adequately regulate emissions themselves. The policy will go into effect in October, McKenna said. She did not provide details about how the price would be set, what efforts the provinces are expected to make, or how the government would enforce the payments or penalties. She also did not address whether the current government would be altering the previous government's pledge to cut emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, a target that is likely unreachable without significant efforts by both the national and provincial governments.

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