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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 30 posts for the selected month (February 2016).

February 10, 2016 3:25 PM

Pedestrian-spotting software for driverless cars improves in speed and accuracy

IEEE Spectrum: To avoid accidents, driverless cars must quickly detect pedestrians and other objects in the roadway. Current systems rely on radar, lidar, and other sensors, but they are expensive and complex. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, are working on a video-based system that would be cheaper, faster, and more accurate. To analyze the video images, the researchers have combined two computer algorithms. A cascade detection algorithm allows the computer to break an image down into a series of smaller windows and discard those that don’t contain a person or person-like object. A deep-learning algorithm then performs the more difficult task of distinguishing between people and other objects. Although the new algorithm works only in binary mode, the researchers hope to extend it to detect multiple objects simultaneously.
February 10, 2016 2:36 PM

How long does it take to publish a research paper?

Nature: The experience many researchers have when trying to publish their research results can be stressful, and for some journals the length of the peer-review process seems to be growing substantially. Daniel Himmelstein of the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed submission and acceptance dates for all papers indexed in the PubMed database and found that the median time between submission and acceptance has been roughly 100 days for the past 30 years. In Himmelstein's data it appears that the longer delays are more common for the journals authors most desired to be published in and in popular open-access journals. Nature's turnaround time has increased from 85 days to 150 days over the last decade, and PLoS ONE's has gone from 37 to 125 days in about the same period. In some fields the delay is less; in physics, for example, the publication of preprints of articles is thought to help increase final print publishing turnaround times. In the biological sciences a group of researchers and publishers is meeting to discuss whether the disciplines should adopt a preprint model for articles.

February 10, 2016 2:19 PM

Obama's 2017 science budget favors nondefense basic research and mandatory spending

Science: The Obama administration yesterday released its 2017 budget requests, which included a $152 billion request for all federal R&D, up 4% from 2016. The increase would come through mandatory spending, which will require Congress to dedicate specific revenue streams for each program. This is in contrast to discretionary spending, which goes through the usual appropriations process. In the past, Congress has favored discretionary funding because it gives them more control over spending. Within the budget, NSF, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and NIST—the three largest basic research agencies—would receive a combined $14.6 billion in funding, about 7% more than in 2016. NASA's budget would remain flat at $5.6 billion and the Department of Defense's basic science spending would be cut 9% to $2.115 billion.

February 10, 2016 2:10 PM

Supreme Court puts hold on Obama administration's Clean Power Plan

BBC: On 9 February in a 5–4 vote, the US Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration to not take any further steps to carry out the Clean Power Plan that was established in August 2015 until the legal challenges to the plan have been heard. The plan was designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions nationwide by 32% by 2030 and to promote a shift to renewable energy sources. Each state would be assigned a target reduction goal and then would be given leeway to determine how best to reach that goal. However, the plan was challenged in the courts by a coalition of 27 states, utilities, and coal miners as a violation of states' rights. The challenge, which included an attempt to stop progress with the plan while the other legal issues were settled, was initially rejected by a US appellate court in January/ After that rejection, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

February 9, 2016 4:48 PM

Particulate pollution from the 1970s continues to increase chance of early death

New Scientist: In the 1970s, particulate pollution in England and Wales was five times worse than it is currently. A new study has found that because of those higher levels and despite how much time has passed, exposure to that pollution carries the same risk of death as exposure to current levels of pollution. Anna Hansell of Imperial College London and her colleagues tracked 368 000 people living in England and Wales between 1971 and 2001 and recorded smoke particle levels and sulfur dioxide levels in the air where they lived. They found that a person who had lived in a more highly polluted area in 1971 had a 14% higher chance of dying between 2002 and 2009 than someone who had lived in a less polluted area.

February 9, 2016 4:00 PM

Mini ice age may have contributed to sixth-century famine, plague, and fall of empires

New Scientist: In AD 536, 540, and 547, huge volcanic eruptions sent into the sky massive amounts of particulate matter that blocked the Sun’s rays and caused an extended cold period that lasted until about AD 660. Now Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research and his colleagues have used tree-ring data to link that little ice age to significant human social, cultural, and political events, including the rise and fall of certain civilizations, pandemics, and human migration. The reason, they say, is that such abrupt climatic changes can put stress on societies in numerous ways, including by shortening the growing season and causing famine and disease. But although the so-called Late Antique Little Ice Age may have caused problems for some people, others would have fared better, the researchers say. For example, on the Arabian peninsula, the climate may have become less dry, which would have provided the area's nomadic people with increased vegetation and better nutrition for their eventual expansion into Europe.
February 9, 2016 3:34 PM

UN panel releases draft of rule limiting aircraft emissions

Nature: On 8 February the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) released a draft of what may be the first global standard for greenhouse gas emissions for aircraft. The plan, which wouldn't take full effect until 2028, could decrease fuel consumption for new aircraft at cruising speed by 4% from current levels. However, many environmental groups believe the plan will not have a significant effect on global emissions because it does not call for any changes to currently operating aircraft and does not push for large enough changes on new aircraft. In addition, any decrease in emissions does not compensate for the predicted expansion of air travel. An analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research group, suggests that manufacturers could cost-efficiently reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new aircraft by 25% in 2024 and by 40% in 2034. It is likely that the US, the European Union, and some other countries will independently adopt their own, more stringent standards.

February 8, 2016 2:09 PM

Hubble determines source of cloud of gas approaching Milky Way

Ars Technica: The Smith Cloud contains enough gas to form an estimated 2 million stars, which is exactly what is expected to occur when the cloud collides with the Milky Way 30 million years from now. Its speed of nearly 1 million km per hour has stretched the cloud into a shape 11 000 light-years long and 2500 light-years across. If visible to the naked eye, the cloud would appear to be 30 times the size of the full moon. And now the Hubble Space Telescope has been used to determine that the cloud actually originated in the Milky Way itself. UV spectroscopy of light from distant galaxies revealed a significant amount of sulfur and other heavy elements in the cloud that suggest that it originated from a region of our galaxy 45 000 light years from the galactic core. Based on its speed and trajectory, it appears that the cloud was ejected 70 million years ago. But what ejected it and answers to other questions, such as how it maintained so much mass instead of drifting apart, are still unknown.

February 8, 2016 1:13 PM

SpaceX to increase rocket production and launches

Space News: On 3 February SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell spoke at the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference and announced that the company would be increasing production rates and launches of its Falcon 9 rockets. Currently the company produces six to eight rocket cores each year, and Shotwell indicated that it planned to have an output of 30 per year by the end of 2-16. To do that, SpaceX is moving from producing three Falcon 9 first stage rockets at a time to producing nine at a time and will also be increasing its production of the Merlin engines that power its rockets. Shotwell also revealed that the company had finished renovations of Launch Complex 39A, where it will launch crewed Falcon 9 rockets and the Falcon Heavy, a larger rocket expected to debut later this year.

February 8, 2016 12:38 PM

Widespread protest erupts over Australian climate research budget cuts

The Guardian: Australia's government announced plans to cut the budget of and restructure the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Outreach Organisation (CSIRO) that would eliminate 350 jobs at the agency and overwhelmingly affect the agency's climate research capabilities. In response to the plan, more than 600 climate researchers from around the world have signed a letter arguing that the cuts would be severely damaging to Australia's research abilities and would hinder the country's ability to meet the emissions targets it agreed to at the Paris climate conference late last year. In Australia at a joint meeting of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanic Society and the Australian Research Council's center of excellence for climate research more than 200 researchers gathered for a protest of the proposed plan.

February 8, 2016 12:36 PM

Indian Point groundwater radiation levels prompt NRC inspection

New York Times: On Saturday, New York's governor Andrew Cuomo announced that groundwater radiation levels at the Indian Point nuclear reactor site had experienced a significant rise in three of the site's monitoring wells. Cuomo reported that one of the wells saw an increase of 65 000%. In response to the elevated levels, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is sending a radiation-protection specialist to the plant to inspect the facility. Entergy Corporation issued a statement that the increased radiation, which was caused by a leak of tritium-contaminated water, did not pose a health risk to the public, and a spokesman for the NRC confirmed that the danger is minimal. However, Cuomo said that he had instructed the state's Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health to participate in the investigation because Indian Point is located in a heavily populated area and is just 45 miles from Manhattan.

February 5, 2016 4:00 PM

Carbon storage from reforestation may be offset by shift in tree type

Nature: From 1750 to 1850, nearly 200 000 km2 of forest were cut down in Europe. In the 160 years since, forests have reclaimed an area more than twice as large and now cover 10% more land than they did in 1750. However, the amount of carbon stored in those forests is 3.1 billion tons lower than what was stored in 1750. According to Kim Naudts of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and her colleagues, it appears that the difference is likely due to the shift from deciduous trees to conifers in an area covering 633 000 km2. Naudt's team says that the shift was caused by timber harvesting and replanting, which favors conifers because of their fast rate of growth.

February 5, 2016 3:00 PM

Former project manager provides inside view of innovative US defense research agency

Science: Founded in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has earned a reputation for its unique approach to research and out-of-the-box thinking. “The public gives DARPA $3 billion a year, in round numbers, and every decade out pops an Internet, or synthetic biology, or carbon nanotubes, or another significant technology,” says Zach Lemnios, the Pentagon's chief technology officer during the first Obama administration. The key to DARPA’s success, according to people who have worked for or with the agency, is its group of some 100 program managers, who decide which projects DARPA will address. In this Science article, Jeffrey Mervis talks to one of those former managers, mathematician Benjamin Mann, about what led him to join DARPA and his experience with and unique insights into the agency.
February 5, 2016 2:40 PM

Smart contact lenses being developed for medical and recreational use

Daily Mail: Instead of toting around bulky devices to monitor health and wellness, browse the internet, or watch videos, people may one day be able to just pop in contact lenses. A number of projects are in the works, among them one by researchers at the University of South Australia who have been developing a prototype that integrates a biocompatible, conducting polymer within a hydrogel. The researchers have succeeded in containing the electrical current within the hydrogel, which is essential to prevent the current from coming into contact with the wearer’s eye. A lens made from such a material could act as a simple sensor, such as for detecting blood glucose, or as a full-blown electronic display. Other potential uses for smart lenses include gathering data about the wearer’s environment, such as the presence of allergens like grass or tree pollen, and reading QR codes or barcodes.
February 5, 2016 2:16 PM

Experts tell Congress that NASA's plan to reach Mars is in trouble

Ars Technica: For the past five years, NASA has stated that one of its primary goals is crewed missions to Mars. On Wednesday, a House space subcommittee heard comments from three outside experts about NASA's plans. John Sommerer, who was the chair of a National Research Council panel that reviewed NASA's human spaceflight programs in a 2014 report, indicated that to meet the agency's goals would require roughly $500 billion over the next 20 to 40 years. In contrast, NASA director Charles Bolden and other agency officials have said that they are comfortable with the agency's current budget for human exploration, plus increases for inflation, which only totals to $180 billion over 20 years. However, that amount would not allow for continued support of the International Space Station. Tom Young, former director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, agreed with Sommerer that NASA does not have a clearly defined plan for reaching Mars. Young and Sommerer said that NASA would need to either receive a significant budget boost or narrow its focus and shift funds away from other programs.

February 4, 2016 3:41 PM

Researchers use visible light pulses to catch electrons in the act of emitting photons

New Scientist: In 2008, Eleftherios Goulielmakis of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and his colleagues created the shortest ever pulses of light, with a duration of just 80 attoseconds (10−18 s). However, they used extreme UV (EUV) light, which is so energetic that it can strip electrons away from an atom entirely, rendering it useless for measuring the responses of electrons to outside stimuli. Now, Goulielmakis's team has created the shortest ever pulses of visible light, with a duration of 380 attoseconds. Visible light does not strip electrons from around an atom; rather, it excites them just enough that they emit their own photons. The attosecond flashes were created by merging light pulses that were the same wavelength but slightly out of phase. Their interference cancels out all but small parts of the pulses. The 380-attosecond pulse was short enough to act like a camera flash, which allowed the researchers to catch the emission of UV photons from electrons orbiting krypton atoms. That emission took place just 115 attoseconds after the electrons were excited. It is the first time that researchers have been able to both excite an electron to emit a photon and directly measure the time it takes.

February 4, 2016 3:25 PM

Researchers work to improve fuel cells for cars

IEEE Spectrum: Several research groups are experimenting with different materials and methods for converting solar energy to hydrogen fuel. One team at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working on improving the efficiency of its photoelectrochemical cell (PEC) by mixing different materials, one to absorb sunlight and the other to conduct electricity. The Berkeley researchers have found some success by coating the titanium dioxide nanowires in the photoanode with bismuth vanadate but are continuing to experiment to find a combination that works even better. A group at Duke University is trying to come up with a fuel, such as methanol or ethanol, that is easier to use, transport, and store than hydrogen, which they could then convert to hydrogen right at the fuel cell. And researchers at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore are working to improve the semiconductor photoelectrode in a PEC through the manufacture of artificial opals, which are natural photonic crystals, to capture a wider sample of the solar spectrum.
February 4, 2016 3:10 PM

University learning assistant program strives to improve STEM teaching

NPR: The University of Colorado Boulder has launched a program that hires and trains undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies to provide academic support to their fellow students. One of the leading proponents is Steven Pollock, who 15 years ago switched his research specialty at Boulder from nuclear physics to the teaching of physics. Pollock says one of the purposes of the Learning Assistant Program is to improve the quality of undergraduate science education, which has traditionally relied on passive, lecture-based teaching methods. Instead, the program pushes for more research-driven teaching techniques as well as small discussion groups, labs, and demonstrations that are facilitated by the learning assistants. A further goal is to recruit future K–12 STEM teachers from the pool of assistants. Results so far have proven positive, and other colleges and universities have joined the Learning Assistant Alliance.
February 4, 2016 11:54 AM

Study shows that characteristic surface wrinkles of the human brain are due to physical forces

Guardian: Forty years ago a theory was proposed that the wrinkles on the outer layer, or cortex, of the human brain formed during fetal development because of differential growth rates and the constraints of the size and shape of the skull. A team led by Tuomos Tallinen of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, has tested the theory for the first time. The researchers used a 3D printed model of a 22-week-old fetal brain before any wrinkling had occurred. The model was made of a soft polymer core coated with an absorbent elastomer gel that represented the cortex. When placed in a solvent, the elastomer swelled and buckled because of its attachment to the core, which restrains the expansion. The result was short furrows that elongated and then formed into the characteristic junctions and bends seen in real brains. When Tallinen and his team members modelled the process mathematically and compared the model with images of different stages of fetal brain development, they saw a distinct similarity. Although the process doesn't match the volume or surface-area increases seen in real brains and doesn't account for the external limitations imposed by the skull, it does provide potential insight into the mechanics of brain growth.

February 3, 2016 1:42 PM

Light from black hole jets appears to be from circularly moving electrons

BBC: The supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy Pictor A produces two jets of extremely bright x rays that extend three times the width of the Milky Way. The jets were originally revealed by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, but what made them so bright could not be determined because the pictures of the galaxy were not of high-enough resolution. Now Martin Hardcastle of the University of Hertfordshire, UK, and his colleagues have combined 15 years of x-ray data from Chandra with radio images created by the Australia Telescope Compact Array. The resulting images, whose resolution is five or six times better than that of the best previous images of Pictor A, reveal new details and allow a better examination of the physics at play in the jets. Based on the images, Hardcastle's team believes that the light being emitted from the jets is caused by electrons that are being accelerated in very tight circles similar to the way they are in synchrotrons on Earth. However, what is causing the electrons to be reaccelerated along the full length of the jets isn't clear.

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