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 73 posts for the selected month (November 2015).
November 30, 2015 3:08 PM

Cosmic microwave background radiation can be used to generate large random numbers

New Scientist: One of the primary methods used to encrypt information involves the generation of large, nonreproducible random numbers that serve as the key. Because purely numerical algorithms can be reproduced, physical processes are often used as the basis for the keys. Now Jeffrey Lee and Gerald Cleaver of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, have shown that the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation left over from the Big Bang can be one of those processes. The reason the CMB works as a random-number generator is that measurements made by one observer of the strength of the signal from a specific area of the sky can never be duplicated exactly by another observer, even when made in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. Several measurements can then be combined to generate a large random number. Because of the expense and logistics involved in operating a radio telescope, however, only governments or large organizations would have the necessary resources to use cosmology as an encryption method.

November 30, 2015 1:37 PM

LHC pauses proton collisions to focus on heavy nuclei

Ars Technica: As is becoming tradition at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at this time of year, the proton–proton collisions that were used to find the Higgs particle have been put on hiatus so heavy-ion collisions can be studied. On 25 November, the LHC began firing lead nuclei against each other and immediately achieved record levels of collision energy. The resulting quark–gluon plasma provides glimpses into the nature of the strong force, which binds quarks into hadrons and governs hadron interactions. In previous years when the LHC has switched to heavy-ion collisions, the data have served to verify work previously done at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. This year's collisions will extend that work and perhaps reveal more evidence about recently discovered pentaquarks or other theoretical and unexpected particles.

November 30, 2015 1:30 PM

Bill Gates launches clean energy fund at Paris climate conference

Wall Street Journal: Today at the opening day of the 2015 Paris climate change conference, US technology magnate Bill Gates announced a multibillion-dollar initiative to fund cooperative R&D in clean energy among both developed and developing countries. The goal is to get all nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing their use of oil, coal, and gas and shifting to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. India, which is the third-largest fossil-fuel polluter in the world, has been pushing for developed countries to help pay for such a transition. Besides spending $1 billion of his own money, Gates says billions more will come from other individuals and organizations. According to ClimateWire, the fund is being called “the single biggest cooperative research and development partnership in history.”
November 30, 2015 12:50 PM

China cracking down on fraud in academic publishing

Science: The China Association for Science and Technology, which has been investigating dozens of scientists caught in peer-review scams, is now demanding that offenders return their research funding. The problem first surfaced in 2012, and since then scores of authors around the world have had their papers retracted by international journals. The scandal has been particularly prevalent in China, where considerable pressure is exerted on researchers to get papers published in order to further their careers. Some publishers have noted that much of the blame for the fraudulent peer reviews falls on so-called paper brokers, which are commonly used by Chinese researchers for their language editing services but which also help authors secure peer reviews. Many such brokers have been implicated in scams, including purchasing authorship of accepted papers and ghostwriting papers. Six editing companies have now formed the Alliance for Scientific Editing in China to establish stricter ethics policies, and journals are being encouraged to investigate authors more closely.
November 25, 2015 1:25 PM

Progress made in lithium–air battery development

Ecologist: To power electric cars, researchers have been working to improve lithium–ion batteries, which could be one-fifth as heavy and cost one-fifth as much as current lithium batteries and could attain an energy density comparable to that of gasoline. Now a research group at Cambridge University has announced a breakthrough in battery design that overcomes some of the obstacles encountered in earlier versions. By using a reduced graphene oxide electrode, adding lithium iodide, and changing the chemical makeup of the electrolyte, Clare Grey and colleagues say they have reduced the voltage gap between charge and discharge and thus made the battery more efficient. However, some challenges remain, and the researchers expect that it will be another decade before a practical lithium–air battery is ready for commercial use.
November 25, 2015 1:20 PM

Dark matter may be forming hairs around planets

The Independent: Although dark matter can't be seen, its existence is inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter. According to models created by Gary Prézeau of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his colleagues, unlike regular matter, dark matter can pass through planets, and as it does, it gets squeezed into networks of "ultradense filaments." Those filaments are hair-like, with densely concentrated roots and thinner ends that extend away from the planets. Prézeau says that modeling the dark matter could provide clues about where to look for it. To maximize the chance of detecting it, he proposes sending probes into orbit around other, more massive planets, such as Jupiter, where the network of such dark-matter hairs is likely to be denser.

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 25, 2015 12:00 AM

Past five years were the hottest ever, says climate report

Guardian: Not only has the period 2011–15 seen the highest global average temperatures ever recorded, it has also been the warmest on record for every individual continent except Africa, according to a recent World Meteorological Organization (WMO) climate report. And 2015 is set to be the hottest single year ever. The reason is twofold: human-caused global warming and a strong El Niño. Besides more heat waves, climate change is expected to bring increased risk of other extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, tornadoes, tropical storms, and even extreme cold and snow in certain areas. The WMO report says that the most significant event during the 2011–15 time frame in humanitarian terms was the 2011–12 famine in the Horn of Africa, which was caused by drought and killed more than 250 000 people. The report comes less than a week before the start of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, which begins on 30 November.
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.
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