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 56 posts for the selected month (October 2014).

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October 20, 2014 4:00 PM

US–Iran nuclear deal may bypass Congress

New York Times: As the US negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program, President Obama may end up striking a temporary deal without the approval of Congress. According to the Treasury Department, the president has the authority to suspend many of the US sanctions against Iran without waiting for a congressional vote. However, such a suspension would only be temporary, as only Congress has the power to permanently terminate them. The sanctions have proven to be a valuable bargaining point with Iran. Hence proponents emphasize that lifting any sanctions must be a gradual process, with Iran allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify step by step that the necessary benchmarks have been met. It is hoped that some agreement can be reached so that Iran does not revert to covert means of obtaining nuclear technology.

October 20, 2014 2:40 PM

Graphene-like material has piezoelectric properties

Ars Technica: Piezoelectric materials develop an electric field when they are stretched or compressed. Practical piezoelectrics tend to be bulk crystals or crystalline thin films, but piezoelectricity has been predicted in crystals just one atom thick. Now, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), which is not piezoelectric in bulk, has been shown to be piezoelectric under certain interesting conditions. The material is strongly piezoelectric when it is just one atom thick, but the effect is eliminated when a second layer is added. With a third layer, it is piezoelectric again, but less so than before. Experimentation revealed that the material is piezoelectric only when there is an odd number of layers, and that its strength decreases as the number of layers increases. Computational modeling suggests that the layers have random orientations, causing them to cancel each other out. Further testing also showed that the more single-layer flakes that are arranged in series, the higher the produced voltage. That means that MoS2 could potentially be used for powering nanoelectronics and wearable technologies.

October 20, 2014 11:25 AM

Unusual x-ray signal could be sign of axions, a potential form of dark matter

Nature: Axions are hypothetical, uncharged, extremely light particles that were originally proposed to explain the absence of CP violation in the strong nuclear force. The particles were later adopted by theorists as a potential form of dark matter, and now, they may have been detected. George Fraser of the University of Leicester, UK, and his colleagues analyzed 12 years of x-ray data collected by the European Space Agency’s X-Ray Multi Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) as it orbited Earth. They found an unexplained surplus of x rays as the satellite passed between Earth and the Sun. After ruling out all known possible causes, Fraser’s team proposes that the surplus could be caused by axions from the Sun being transformed into x-ray photons by Earth’s magnetic field. They have also found tentative evidence of the same signal in data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, but several more years of data are needed to confirm the signal. Even if the signal holds up, the cause could lie in the physics of the Sun's x-ray emitting corona rather than in the transformation of axions into x rays.

October 20, 2014 10:20 AM

Tunisian sunshine may one day power homes in the UK

BBC: A large-scale solar export project is in the works that would transport energy from Tunisia to the UK. The TuNur project, a partnership between a group of Tunisian investors and UK-based Nur Energie, would consist of concentrated solar power plants located in the Tunisian desert and a 2-GW high-voltage direct-current cable to transport the energy to Italy. From there it could be sold to customers in the UK and, perhaps, various other European countries. The developers claim the electricity supplies will be secure, deliverable on demand, and cheaper than home-based sources, such as offshore wind. The project is one of several being proposed by renewable energy developers that are based outside the UK.

October 17, 2014 2:50 PM

Seven Chinese scientists charged with corruption

Nature: The Chinese government has charged seven leading scientists with misusing millions of dollars in government research grants. The charges are based on an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) of more than a dozen large engineering and applied research projects, which together receive $8 billion a year in funding. Among the allegations are the appropriation of research funds for personal use and the forging of receipts and invoices. And the problem may be even more widespread. According to a report released by the NAO last year, it's possible that up to half of all research funds have been misused. At least one science policy expert says that it points up the lack of guidelines and oversight mechanisms concerning the allocation of research grants in China.

October 17, 2014 12:58 PM

Yet another Saturnian moon may be hiding liquid

New Scientist: Titan has ethane and methane rivers and lakes. Enceladus has eruptions of water at its southern pole. Now it appears that Mimas may have a subsurface liquid layer. The moon was considered unlikely to have any liquids because it isn't geologically active and has a nonmolten core. Nevertheless, Radwan Tajeddine of Cornell University and his colleagues believe otherwise. Examining pictures of the moon taken by Cassini, they observed an irregularity in the rotation of the moon's surface, which could be explained by the presence of a layer of liquid lying beneath it. The more likely explanation for the wobble, however, may be the possibility that Mimas's silicate core is not spherical, as it is unlikely that a subsurface water layer could remain liquid for so long without any core heating. Another Cassini flyby could provide evidence for either option. If the core is irregularly shaped, it would have an uneven gravitational effect on the spacecraft.

October 17, 2014 11:50 AM

NRC deems Yucca Mountain safe for nuclear waste storage

New York Times: The long-contested Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, located in Nevada, may be allowed to move forward in light of the recent release of a long-delayed report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which says the site should be secure for at least a million years. First proposed in 1986 as one of five candidate sites, Yucca Mountain was designated the prime site by Congress a year later. However, over the past several decades, protests by environmentalists and Nevada residents, combined with numerous technical problems, have delayed its opening. Political wrangling has also played a part: While Republicans have worked hard to promote the site, the election in 2008 of President Obama, who vowed to kill the project, has proved a major setback. Meanwhile, the indecision is costing taxpayers money because the Department of Energy has been held liable by the courts for billions of dollars of damages for failure to fulfill its contract for storing the nuclear waste.

October 17, 2014 11:44 AM

Pattern of US tornado activity has changed over last 45 years

Science: For decades, the US has averaged nearly 500 tornados per year. However, a pair of recent studies has revealed that whereas the average number of days with at least one damaging tornado was higher in the 1970s, there are now more days during which multiple tornados occur. Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, and his colleagues performed one study, and James Elsner of Florida State University in Tallahassee and his colleagues performed the other. Both groups used data from NOAA's National Weather Service, which began tracking tornados in 1953 and recording their scale in the 1970s. The researchers had to discard the F0 rating because of the inconsistency in the reporting of minor tornados, but the remaining data set was found to be relatively unbiased. Although the change in tornado patterns may be tied to changing climate patterns, the actual connections are still not clear. Moisture, land temperatures, and differences between polar and midlatitude temperatures are all root causes of tornado formation, but exactly how they interact and affect each other is unknown.

October 16, 2014 2:40 PM

DNA used to create molds for metal nanostructures

Ars Technica: Creating specific shapes from nanoparticles can be difficult, but a new technique to create molds from DNA may provide a way to scale up the production of nanomaterial structures. In DNA, the patterns of the base pairs determine the shape that the molecule folds into. Computational modeling allowed researchers to create self-assembling DNA molecules that fold into 3D structures. Those structures then serve as molds for nanometals. A tube and two lids were made out of DNA. Then a gold nanoparticle was attached to the inside of the tube, which was sealed with the lids. Placed in a solution with dissolved gold atoms, the nanoparticle grows until it fills the tube. Then, silver nitrate and ascorbic acid were added to the solution, which caused the silver to bind to the gold inside the mold. The result was three silver cuboids. Further work created complex structures including a sandwich of silver trapped between two quantum dots, which could couple with electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths larger than the structure.

October 16, 2014 2:10 PM

Breaking ocean waves can heat up the water

Nature: The Sun had been thought to be the primary warming influence on the water in shallow coastal areas, from coral reefs to Arctic shorelines to popular beaches. However, using data gathered from buoys and sensors, Gregory Sinnett and Falk Feddersen of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, have found that ocean waves contain more heat than they expected. Although the Sun is responsible for a lot of it—particularly in places like southern California, where Scripps is located—breaking waves generate a surprising amount of heat, which results from the energy created by the forces of friction. Even in predominantly cloudy areas like the Pacific Northwest, considerable heat can still be imparted to the water by the stronger wave action. The unexpected heat source, some researchers suggest, may be exacerbating the coastal erosion that is occurring in Arctic Alaska, where loss of sea ice and more open water have led to more wave action.

October 16, 2014 1:40 PM

Portable MRI device developed for International Space Station

New Scientist: To help monitor the health of the International Space Station's crew, researchers have developed a device that will allow the astronauts to check their bone and muscle mass while on board. Because of the large and powerful magnets required to scan the entire human body, conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines can weigh more than a ton. Now Gordon Sarty at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and colleagues have shrunk the size of the magnets to create a magnetic field across just a small area of the body, such as the wrist. They presented their device, called TRASE (transmit array spatial encoding), on 3 October at the International Astronautical Congress held in Toronto.

October 16, 2014 12:15 PM

US fusion plan under fire from research community

Science: In September, the Department of Energy's Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) outlined a 10-year plan for fusion research in the US. The plan called for immediately shutting down one and later maybe a second of the three current midsize fusion projects to allow for the construction of new facilities and the alteration or upgrading of projects at other existing facilities. Most significantly, it changed nothing in regard to the US's contribution to ITER. Most of the criticisms the report has received have been about the process behind the drafting of the document. The short time that was allotted for the creation of the report meant that the panel, which included no researchers from major fusion projects, had very little time to collect input from the fusion research community. The amount of time given to the community to then review the document was very short, which led to a delay in the committee's vote on the report. And for the FESAC vote, 14 of the 23 members recused themselves because they were connected to either a major fusion lab or another lab that would benefit from the proposals in the report.

October 15, 2014 3:37 PM

Australian student plans to build world's fastest glider

Sydney Morning Herald: Three years ago Jason Brand used a weather balloon to loft a toy chicken 33 km above New South Wales, Australia. Now, at the age of 12, he is designing a remote-controlled glider that he believes could break the sound barrier. As with the chicken, he plans to use a balloon to lift the 9-kg, 2.5-m craft before releasing it. Unlike the chicken, he'll be in control of the glider and its descent via remote; he'll be able to see the glider with a pair of virtual-reality goggles linked to a camera in the glider's nose. With his father's help, he is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $80 000 they estimate it will cost to obtain the necessary equipment. In Jason's free time, he is also a student representative on a team competing for a Google Lunar XPrize to land a robot on the Moon.

October 15, 2014 3:21 PM

Italy to require advanced biofuels in all vehicles

BBC: A ministerial report has revealed that Italy will soon require a portion of all gasoline and diesel to contain advanced biofuels, which are made from waste material. Using advanced biofuels instead of traditional biofuels will reduce the amount of farmland being devoted to growing nonfood crops. Italy will require 0.6% of all fuel to be advanced biofuels by 2018, with an increase to 1% by 2022. That will make Italy the first European nation to have such a requirement. The European Union had attempted to set a similar goal for all member countries, but the final version was nonbinding. Last year the world's first plant that makes biofuel from straw opened near Turin, Italy, and there are plans to open three more similar plants in the southern part of the country.

October 15, 2014 12:39 PM

Shape-shifting carbon-fiber materials could be used in aircraft

MIT Technology Review: Materials that alter their shape in response to changes in electrical charge, temperature, or air pressure have been in use for decades. But they have not been widely employed in airplanes because of the extreme stresses they would be exposed to. Now Skylar Tibbets of MIT and his colleagues have partnered with Airbus to develop shape-shifting carbon-fiber composites that can be used in aircraft. The researchers are using unusual carbon-fiber materials—they are not rigid like normal carbon-fiber ones—from a startup named Carbitex. They use a 3D printer to add layers of shape-changing polymers to the carbon-fiber sheets. The resulting carbon-fiber composites can change shape in response to specific stimuli. The first application for the materials will likely be on air intake valves, which change size as a plane changes altitude, but they could potentially replace hydraulic actuators and hinges.

October 15, 2014 12:29 PM

MAVEN images reveal solar wind stripping away Martian atmosphere

Nature: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft entered Martian orbit in September and began taking pictures of the planet using a UV spectrograph. Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado Boulder and his team have released the first of those images, which reveal that the solar wind is stripping hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms from Mars's atmosphere. The carbon and oxygen atoms stay relatively close to the planet, but the hydrogen atoms, being much lighter, are sprayed into space. The images provide some direct evidence about the process that has slowly eroded the Martian atmosphere over billions of years. 

October 14, 2014 2:00 PM

Study of CO2 absorption by leaves suggests models overestimate atmospheric levels

BBC: One of the variables that climate models include is a measure of how much atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants. According to a new study of the absorption process by Lianhong Gu of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and his colleagues, the amount plants absorbed between 1901 and 2010 was actually 16% higher than most models had estimated. To reach that conclusion, Gu's team studied mesophyll diffusion—the way that CO2 spreads within leaves. Their analysis of several climate models has also led them to believe that the amount of atmospheric CO2 has been overestimated by 17%. They say their finding regarding plants' CO2 absorption would account for that discrepancy. Although the researchers' work may lead to an adjustment of climate models, it is unlikely to alter the general implications of increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 on climate change.

October 14, 2014 1:55 PM

Recent global sea-level rise is unprecedented, says study

Guardian: Over the past century, global sea levels have risen drastically. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that rise stands in stark contrast with most of the current interglacial period, which extends back some 6000 years. Over most of that time, sea levels have not changed by more than 20 cm. Since the start of the 20th century, however, they have already risen by that much and show no sign of stopping. The researchers attribute the rise in sea levels to global warming brought on by ever-increasing anthropogenic carbon emissions. They based their study on remnants of tree roots and sea mollusks found in sea-floor sediments, which indicate which areas were covered by water and when. That evidence has shed light on some 35 000 years of the geologic record. Because of Earth’s slow dynamic response, the researchers predict that sea levels will continue to rise for the next several centuries, even if Earth’s governments manage to keep carbon emissions at present-day levels.

October 14, 2014 1:02 PM

Galaxy leaking high energy radiation may provide clues to reionization epoch

Los Angeles Times: The reionization epoch is the stage in the formation of the universe when the hydrogen atoms filling space were ionized and the universe became transparent to low-energy light. To achieve that ionization, highly energetic radiation was necessary, but where it came from is uncertain. One possibility is that early galaxies released large amounts of radiation in the extreme UV or higher—a range known as Lyman continuum radiation. However, galaxies trap most of the radiation in that range, with only a very few leaking as much 2% of the extremely high-energy radiation they produce. To initiate the reionization process, it is estimated that the early galaxies would have needed to release at least 20% of their extreme radiation. Now, researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found a galaxy that is leaking 21% of the radiation it produces in the Lyman continuum radiation. The galaxy, J0921+4509, is producing new stars at a massive rate of 50 solar masses per year, an order of magnitude greater than that of the Milky Way. It is possible that this rate of star creation is related to the amount of radiation escaping.

October 14, 2014 11:40 AM

App could turn smartphones into vast cosmic-ray detector

Ars Technica: Cosmic rays are constantly bombarding Earth. Trying to detect them to study their origins has proven to be a challenge because as they strike Earth’s atmosphere, they break up into showers of secondary particles. Even the largest detectors can only capture a few traces of the high-energy photons and other particles that manage to reach Earth’s surface. Now researchers at the University of California's Davis and Irvine campuses have proposed a novel design for a vast detector array that takes advantage of the global proliferation of smartphones. Their CRAYFIS (cosmic rays found in smartphones) app would make use of the digital sensors in the phones’ high-resolution cameras to watch for the high-energy particles—but only when the phone is inactive and plugged in for charging. Anyone interested can sign on for the beta testing of either the Android or iOS version.

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