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 (November 2015).
November 25, 2015 12:27 PM

Magnetic protein may be key to animal navigation

Ars Technica: A wide range of animals use Earth's magnetic fields to migrate every year, but the mechanism by which they detect those fields has been unclear. Now Chinese researchers have identified a protein in the Drosophila fruit-fly genome that binds to iron, which can detect polarity. Called  the Drosophila magnetoreceptor protein, dMagR is found inside cells that have light-sensing proteins called cryptochromes, used by birds to identify magnetic field lines. The resulting complex is capable of detecting the polarity, intensity, and inclination of Earth's magnetic field and has an inherent magnetic moment. The researchers also found the same complex in humans as well as in other animals, such as pigeons and mole rats.

November 24, 2015 3:21 PM

Blue Origin successfully launches suborbital rocket and returns it to launch site

Ars Technica: This morning, Blue Origin announced that yesterday it launched its New Shepard rocket to an altitude of 100.5 km and returned it safely to the launch site. It is the first rocket to achieve this task. The ability to reuse hardware could cut the costs of access to space or high-altitude flight substantially. Space X has been working on a similar technique for the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, but has had only limited success. Blue Origin's New Shepard combines a booster with a pressurized crew capsule, and its video of the launch suggests that the company intends to use New Shepard for space tourism: Passengers riding in the crew capsule would be lifted into space for a brief period of weightlessness, then the capsule would deploy a parachute before returning to Earth.

November 24, 2015 2:43 PM

NASA genetically engineers bacteria that can create foldable plastic

New Scientist: Maximizing the amount of material that can be included in space launch cargos is a significant task—boxes and other items have already been converted into flat sheets that take up less space in the cargo and can be assembled in orbit. Lynn Rothschild of NASA's Ames Research Center and her colleagues have now gone one step further by taking the plastic sheets out of the equation entirely. They genetically engineered Escherichia coli bacteria to produce polystyrene and P(3HB) plastics. After the plastic is processed into sheets, a black marker is used to draw lines on them; when the sheets are placed under IR light, the dark areas contract and the sheets fold along the lines. The team also experimented with attaching Bacillus spores to cellulose strips that are strategically placed on the plastic. The spores expand and contract based on changes in humidity, causing the plastic to bend. Further work is needed to make the process practical. Intentionally sending E. coli bacteria to space is risky, however, because they could contaminate the food supplies.

November 24, 2015 2:35 PM

China to build world’s largest animal-cloning factory

Guardian: To feed the Chinese population’s growing appetite for meat, an animal-cloning facility is being built that will be the largest in the world. Although its main focus will be the cloning of cattle, the facility may be used to clone other animals, such as champion racehorses, sniffer dogs for use in law enforcement and search and rescue teams, and critically endangered species to save them from extinction. Although both the US and the UK have approved the production of food from cloned animals, a number of ethical, religious, and food safety concerns continue to be raised. The ¥200 million ($31 million) facility is to begin operations in 2016.
November 24, 2015 12:45 PM

DNA from Neolithic farmers shows influence of agriculture on evolution

New York Times: Until now archaeologists have depended on skeletons and artifacts, such as pots and swords, to study ancient humans. From those remains, researchers have been able to trace the evolution of humans from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Now, with the advent of DNA sampling, much more information is being gleaned. In a study published in Nature, David Reich of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues discuss their analysis of the genomes of 230 people who lived in Europe and Turkey between 6500 and 300 BC. The researchers found that the introduction of agriculture not only influenced where humans lived and what they ate but also affected their DNA, as evidenced by changes in height, skin color, digestion, and immune system. As more genome samples are collected from ancient humans on other continents, the researchers hope to one day be able to track human evolution across the globe.
November 24, 2015 8:45 AM

Italian scientists acquitted in L’Aquila earthquake case

Science: The six scientists on trial for manslaughter after the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, have now been acquitted by the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome. The legal proceedings, involving investigations, trials, and appeals, have lasted some five years. The case centered on charges that the scientists, as part of a panel of earthquake experts, failed to adequately warn residents of the danger posed by a series of small tremors that had preceded the magnitude 6.3 quake, which ended up killing more than 300 people. However, the conviction of a seventh defendant, Bernardo De Bernardinis, has been upheld. It was alleged that comments made by De Bernardinis, who was deputy head of Italy’s civil protection department at that time and also served on the advisory panel, persuaded residents that it was safe to remain indoors during the quake.
November 23, 2015 12:55 PM

Space launch company plans to carry more CubeSats into orbit

Florida Today: With space launch costs on the rise, CubeSats—tiny satellites just 10 cm3 in size—offer scientists, government agencies, and private companies a more affordable means of sending projects into space. However, because CubeSats need to hitch rides on larger craft, those who use them are dependent on others’ schedules and itineraries. Now United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has announced that it is adding to its Atlas V rockets a new carrier that could hold up to 24 CubeSats. “We are going to more than double the entire worldwide capacity for a CubeSat to get to space,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno.
November 23, 2015 12:15 PM

Brazilian dam disaster study serves as example of crowdfunding's success

SciDev.Net: Not only is crowdfunding a growing trend, but it is increasingly being used to fund science projects, especially in developing countries. A recent example is the crowdfunding campaign launched in Brazil to pay for an independent environmental report on one of the country’s biggest ever environmental disasters: the collapse of two mining dams, which released a flood of toxic waste that killed at least 11 people and left another 750 homeless. The response to fund the report has been overwhelming; to date it has exceeded its target amount by 44%. Another crowdfunding success story is that of Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, whose recent campaign allowed her to keep her laboratory open at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and retain her 14-person research team. Researchers say that besides providing much-needed monetary support, crowdfunding also allows the general public to express its interest in a given project and pushes scientists to learn how to communicate and engage with the public.
November 23, 2015 11:45 AM

US receives first-ever report card on climate change disaster preparedness

BBC: Global warming is causing a growing number of weather-related problems, such as extreme heat events, wildfires, and flooding. Now Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that reports on climate science, has ranked the US on how prepared each state is to deal with five potential threats linked to climate change. According to its report, States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card, California faces some of the most severe climate threats but is one of the best prepared. However, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, and Texas are threatened with extreme heat, among other problems, but are woefully underprepared. Critics point out that the report looks only at states as a whole and that even states with a poor overall grade may have individual cities or regions that have been making strides in addressing the risks they face.
November 20, 2015 3:25 PM

Lava's magnetic polarity sheds light on origins of giant undersea volcano

Nature: Tamu Massif, in the Pacific Ocean some 1600 km east of Japan, is the largest known volcano on Earth: It rises to 4 km in height, and its base sits 6 km beneath the ocean surface. To try to understand how such a massive structure formed, William Sager of the University of Houston and colleagues used the research vessel Falkor to measure the alternating magnetic polarity of Earth’s magnetic field as recorded in the volcano’s cooled lava. Stripes of magnetic material on either side of Tamu Massif, combined with the lack of magnetic polarity found in the main part of the mountain, indicate that the volcano may have been formed through a complex process involving both plate tectonics and mantle plumes of hot rock that erupted from deep within Earth.
November 20, 2015 1:05 PM

Star cluster in Milky Way may have come from a different galaxy

New Scientist: Much younger and more distant than any other globular star cluster in the Milky Way, the Crater cluster was discovered two years ago by researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope. At just 7.5 billion years old, the cluster is thought to have been plucked from the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a nearby galaxy some 200 000 light-years from Earth, because the SMC’s other globular clusters are of a similar age. Further evidence is the cluster’s location, speed, and chemical composition, which are similar to those of other clusters in the SMC.
November 20, 2015 11:50 AM

Spacecraft to detect Earth's plant fluorescence from orbit

BBC: Part of the European Space Agency’s Earth Explorer series of satellites, the Flex (Fluorescence Explorer) will use a novel sensor to detect the faint fluorescence emitted by plants as they convert sunlight into chemical energy during photosynthesis. Flex will orbit Earth in tandem with another satellite, which has optical and thermal sensors. From those data, researchers will be able to better monitor plant health and detect problems before plants begin to brown, wilt, or show other visible signs of stress. The researchers also plan to study the movement of carbon between plants and the atmosphere and how photosynthesis affects the carbon cycle. The information they gather on plant health could prove important for feeding Earth’s ever-increasing population.
November 20, 2015 11:25 AM

Pill developed to monitor patients’ vital signs

NPR: Single-use capsules filled with microelectronics were first developed in the 1980s when a thermometer pill was used to monitor astronauts’ body temperature while they were encased in a spacesuit. Now scientists are testing a similar device that can perform three functions at once. Albert Swiston of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and his colleagues have developed an ingestible, ultraminiature capsule that contains a microphone, thermometer, and battery. Once swallowed, the capsule travels through a patient’s digestive system, monitoring body temperature and heart and respiratory rates. The researchers say their device is designed for use by the military to monitor soldiers working in extreme climates, such as those of Iraq and Afghanistan, where high temperatures have been known to cause liver damage, kidney failure, and death. In addition, the pill could have other uses, such as in athletes and in patients with burns or suspected heart conditions.
November 19, 2015 2:00 PM

Review recommends new oversight body for UK’s research councils

BBC: The president of UK’s Royal Society, Paul Nurse, has proposed the creation of a new independent agency to oversee the country’s seven separate research councils. Since 2002 that function has been performed by Research Councils UK. The new, super research council, to be called Research UK, would be granted greater powers and be overseen by an independent board that would serve as an interface between the research community and a committee of ministers. Nurse claims that the reorganization will benefit scientists and the government by giving science a more prominent role and allowing government officials and researchers to meet and discuss funding directly.
November 19, 2015 1:50 PM

Multiple planets forming in distant solar system observed for the first time

Washington Post: Two protoplanets, and possibly a third, have been observed in the process of forming some 450 light-years from Earth around a star called LkCa 15. Planets are believed to form from the disk of gas and other material left over after the star is created. Although such planet-type objects would be hard to see because of the star’s brightness, the scientists trained their high-powered telescopes on the signature red glow of hydrogen gas as it is emitted by the star and falls toward the accreting protoplanets. The technique could be used to find more protoplanets and shed light on planetary formation.
November 19, 2015 1:43 PM

ITER project will take six years longer than expected

Science: This week, at a meeting of the governing council of the multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project, which is under construction in France, new estimates were presented that suggest the project will cost $13 billion and won't begin operations until the late 2020s. That moves the go-live date at least six years later than previously projected, and about a decade later than initially projected. The council also asked that the seven international partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US—all provide additional funding for the project. However, after the council meeting concluded today, the delegates said that they would all be conducting their own reviews of the new schedule and funding requests before any long-term decision is made. The council did approve the proposed construction schedule for the next two years.

November 19, 2015 1:31 PM

Rep. Lamar Smith says his interest in climate study was prompted by whistleblowers

Ars Technica: In a letter sent to US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, claims that a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate study was rushed to publication despite the concerns of several NOAA scientists. Last month, Smith subpoenaed internal communications from NOAA regarding the study, about which he has said that "NOAA employees altered temperature data to get politically correct results and then widely publicized their conclusions as refuting the nearly two-decade pause in climate change we have experienced." In his letter to Pritzker, Smith says the information on which he based his subpoena was provided by whistleblowers. In response to the letter, NOAA says that the study was published in Science after the normal peer-review process and that NOAA has provided all the data, which were already publicly available and should be sufficient to verify the findings.

November 18, 2015 2:35 PM

Senate votes against Obama’s climate change regulations

New York Times: In anticipation of the upcoming United Nations summit in Paris, US President Obama proposed several new climate change regulations, including a call for cutting heat-trapping carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and a halt to the building of new coal plants. However, Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky is one of the largest coal-producing states, passed a resolution against the regulations; they voiced objections to Obama’s “war on coal” because of the number of Americans who depend on coal mining for their livelihood. The House is expected to pass a companion resolution by December, which would force Obama to veto.
November 18, 2015 2:30 PM

UK to stop burning coal by 2025

BBC: In a speech delivered earlier today, UK energy secretary Amber Rudd said that by 2023 the UK will start cutting back on the burning of coal to generate electricity, and it will close all its coal-burning facilities by 2025. She pointed out that a higher proportion of the UK’s electricity came from coal in 2014 than in 1999 and that, because coal is such a polluting, carbon-intensive fuel, the nation must start building a new energy infrastructure, including nuclear, gas, and offshore wind projects. The speech comes just before the United Nations summit on climate change to be held in Paris starting 30 November. Although the coal announcement pleased environmentalists, they objected to the new emphasis on gas and said renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are the cleanest and, in the long run, cheapest forms of energy.
November 18, 2015 1:02 PM

LISA Pathfinder launch scheduled for 2 December

Nature: The Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA) is a proposed European Space Agency mission designed to detect gravitational waves. To determine if the mission is technically feasible as designed, on 2 December the agency is launching LISA Pathfinder, as a proof of concept. On board LISA Pathfinder will be two 2-kg cubes of gold and platinum that will be completely isolated from everything except the force of gravity. Instrumentation on the satellite will measure the cubes' relative motions with what is hoped to be picometer accuracy. If successful, LISA Pathfinder will open the door for the full-scale eLISA mission in which two cubes would be similarly isolated but aboard two separate craft 5 million km apart.

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Scitation: News Picks - Blog