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# News Picks

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Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.

July 23, 2014 10:35 AM

### Bubble wrap used as tiny test tubes

NPR: Scientists at Harvard University have found a cheap alternative to glass test tubes: the plastic packaging material known as bubble wrap. George Whitesides, who led the study, says he got the idea while traveling to different labs around the world. Scientists in developing countries struggle to obtain even the simplest pieces of equipment, such as test tubes. Bubble wrap, however, is everywhere, and it is often found in labs because it’s used for shipping equipment. While experimenting with bubble wrap, Whitesides and colleagues injected samples of blood and chemicals into the individual bubbles with a syringe and sealed the hole with nail polish. They found that not only do the bubbles work well to store liquid samples but they are also sterile. Although Whitesides recognizes that bubble wrap has its drawbacks—the bubbles pop easily and are sensitive to light—he hopes the idea will serve to inspire people to find innovative uses for other inexpensive, everyday materials.

July 22, 2014 2:35 PM

### US Senate bill more supportive of science than House bill

Science: On Friday the US Senate released its working draft of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014. Among its provisions, the bill recommends increasing the funding of NSF over the next five years, supports NSF’s continued management of its research grants, and emphasizes the importance of the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. In contrast, the House bill would only fund NSF over the next year and would cut funding for the social sciences. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) believes the Senate bill is better because it relies on scientists, rather than politicians, to allocate science funding. The process of reconciling the two bills is expected to be a lengthy one and may well extend into next year.

July 22, 2014 1:33 PM

### Despite predictions, gas cloud doesn’t collide with black hole

Nature: In 2012, Stefan Gillessen of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and his colleagues spotted a gas cloud approaching Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It appeared that part of the cloud would get pulled off and hit the accretion disk that swirls around the black hole. The resulting collision would have created a large explosion of radiation. But that didn't happen. As Gillessen's team continued observing, they also looked at older data and found a second cloud of gas following the same path. They believe that means that the two clouds are actually part of a larger stream of gas, possibly pulled from a star that passed near Sagittarius A* within the last 100 to 200 years. Another group of researchers suggests that a star is hidden within the gas cloud and that the star's gravitation is what kept the cloud from fragmenting and falling into the black hole.

July 22, 2014 1:00 PM

### New handheld devices provide haptic feedback

MIT Technology Review: Japanese researchers have been developing two different handheld devices that provide tactile data to the user. Both the Buru-Navi and Traxion systems use asymmetrical vibration to give the user the sensation of being pushed or pulled in a certain direction. In addition to being used in numerous applications such as navigation and gaming, the technology could help visually impaired people move around independently. Both devices will be demonstrated at the upcoming SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Vancouver, Canada.

July 22, 2014 11:28 AM

### Gaia spacecraft encounters micrometeoroid cloud

New Scientist: The European Space Agency's Gaia was launched in December 2013 to Earth's Lagrangian point 2 to create a highly accurate map of 1 billion stars in the Milky Way. Gaia's accuracy is the result of its location combined with a sunshield and extremely sensitive monitoring of its rotation. That sensitivity has revealed that the satellite is being hit by more than 500 micrometeoroids per day, whereas the team monitoring Gaia had expected an impact rate of 1–10 per day. Where the cloud of dust originated is not known, but its presence is important for future missions to L2, such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. The Gaia mission has been plagued by several other difficulties that have delayed the release of data for more than 9 months.

July 21, 2014 3:02 PM

### Pressure and stress create sandstone arches

Nature: Sandstone arches have long been thought to be formed by erosion. Now Jiri Bruthans of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and his colleagues suggest that the structures form instead as the result of the pressure exerted by the rock's own weight. Prompted by observations of the creation of arches at a sandstone quarry, Bruthans's team sandwiched cubes of sandstone between pressure plates and then artificially weathered the rock. They found that as erosion removed material, which was initially relatively loose, the parts that suffered less erosion had to bear more of the weight and therefore suffered higher stress. In those areas, the grains locked together and became much more resistant to erosion. The result was the formation of arches and other similar structures.

July 21, 2014 2:00 PM

BBC: A breakthrough has occurred in the negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1 nations (the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) concerning Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. Iran has converted all of its 20% enriched uranium—the level needed to make nuclear weapons—into more harmless forms that can be used for other purposes, such as in nuclear power stations and medical facilities. In exchange, some $2.8 billion in frozen Iranian funds will be unblocked. Although just three weeks ago no resolution appeared to be in sight, the latest development shows, according to some correspondents, that Iran’s leaders are serious in continuing the negotiations, which are set to resume in September. July 21, 2014 11:47 AM ### Construction begins on world's largest carbon-capture plant Ars Technica: The W. A. Parish Generating Station in Thompsons, Texas, is a combination coal and natural gas power plant. Last week, construction began there of a carbon-capture facility funded by the US Department of Energy. The plant's emissions will be bubbled through an amine solution to separate out the carbon dioxide. The gas will then be pressurized and piped to the nearby West Ranch oil field, where it will be injected into the ground to help extract oil that would be otherwise difficult to obtain. The CO2 will remain sequestered in the ground. The project was originally planned to trap only a small portion of the emissions from the plant—those from the equivalent of 60 MW production out of the 3500 MW total. However, it was determined that the amount of CO2 captured would be too little to extract the oil, so the trapping was expanded to catch the emissions from the generation of 240 MW. That will make it the largest carbon-capture facility in the world. July 21, 2014 11:20 AM ### Sunspots disappear despite solar max Los Angeles Times: Astronomers have noted a curious absence of sunspots despite the fact that the Sun is at solar maximum—the period when the Sun’s magnetic fields are at their most intense. Areas where the magnetic fields are most concentrated are somewhat cooler than the surrounding surface and so appear to viewers on Earth as dark spots. As energy builds up in those areas, its release can cause solar flares and coronal mass ejections. But scientists say that temporary quiet interludes are not unusual even during periods of high solar activity. "You just can't predict the Sun," says solar physicist Tony Phillips. July 18, 2014 10:40 AM ### Reprogramming of heart cells could make pacemakers obsolete Los Angeles Times: The heart beats because of pacemaker cells, which emit rhythmical electrical pulses. The cells are located in just one small part of the heart, the sinoatrial node. If the heart gets damaged and the electrical signals from the pacemaker cells can’t get through to the rest of the heart, the heartbeat can become slow and irregular or stop altogether. Despite the availability of artificial pacemakers, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles are working on a biological solution. They have found a way to transform regular heart cells into pacemaker cells by injecting them with a virus laced with the gene TBX18. Although they have successfully tested the therapy in pigs that suffered complete heart block, further research is needed to understand the long-term consequences before it can be applied to humans. July 18, 2014 9:55 AM ### Ancient Amazon River reversed course due to soil erosion Science: Millions of years ago, the Amazon River reversed course and has been flowing eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean ever since. A previous study had suggested that the reversal was driven by a changing topography due to the movement of hot mantle material from Earth’s interior to its surface. Now Victor Sacek of the University of São Paulo in Brazil says it is more likely that erosion and sedimentation were the driving forces. More than 10 million years ago, rainfall across what is now the Amazon basin drained westward into lakes that formed along the eastern edge of the Andes, on the west coast of South America, and flowed north into the Caribbean Sea. To try to figure out what made the water flow reverse direction, Sacek ran computer models simulating the evolution of the South American terrain. He determined that sediment eroding off the Andes gradually filled in the lakes and built the landscape up such that it created a downhill slope extending from the Andes to the Atlantic. Neverthess, Sacek does not entirely rule out deep geologic processes; even though their overall effects are probably modest, he says, he plans to include them in future versions of his simulation to try to achieve a more accurate picture of how the landscape evolved. July 17, 2014 3:12 PM ### Diamond compressed to pressure of Saturn's center BBC: Ray Smith of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and his colleagues used the National Ignition Facility (NIF) to subject a 1-mm diamond to the pressures believed to exist in Saturn's core. Planets the size of Saturn and Neptune are commonly found in exoplanet surveys, so better understanding of how matter exists within those worlds is important in understanding how they form. Smith's team achieved those pressures by focusing 176 of NIF's lasers on the target diamond. By carefully tuning the intensity of the lasers, the researchers were able to keep the temperature within the range that gas giants are known to experience. As the pressure increased, the team monitored the stress, density, and sound of the crystal. It is expected that diamond may undergo some phase changes at those pressures, but they were not detected. However, the rest of the measured characteristics matched predictions. July 17, 2014 12:30 PM ### Australia eliminates carbon pollution tax Australian Broadcasting Corp: The Australian Senate voted 39-32 to scrap the country's tax on carbon dioxide pollution. Prime Minister Tony Abbott had led the effort to remove the tax by arguing that it would save the average household several hundred dollars per year. After two earlier attempts to eliminate the tax failed, he was able reach a majority with the assistance of several small parties in Parliament. One of those groups, the Palmer United Party, agreed to support the vote provided that Abbott's coalition then enact an emissions trading program. Whether that will happen is unclear, but opposition parties, including the Greens, say they will increase their efforts to promote policies that address climate change. July 16, 2014 1:50 PM ### Double-blind peer review gains ground Nature: In scientific publishing, authors are rarely told who will be reviewing their submissions, but reviewers almost invariably know whose work they are evaluating. To avoid possible bias, some publishers are considering double-blind peer review, in which neither author nor reviewer knows the identity of the other. A study has shown that otherwise identical CVs get ranked higher when they have male names on them than when they have female names. That and other biases may be preventing the advancement of women and minorities, since one's publication record significantly affects advancement in scientific fields. Among the publishers experimenting with double-blind peer review is the Nature Publishing Group, which owns Nature. July 16, 2014 1:37 PM ### Molecular clocks may provide deeper insights than atomic clocks New Scientist: Stephan Schiller of the University of Düsseldorf in Germany and his colleagues believe a molecular hydrogen clock might be better than an atomic clock for measuring the mass ratio of protons and electrons. They calculated that the two atoms of H2 would provide a combination of frequencies whose average would allow for greater measurement precision. That increased precision could reveal whether hydrogen’s proton–electron mass ratio changes as the universe expands. If so, that would challenge the long-held belief that the value is a fundamental constant. However, there are still significant difficulties in creating a molecular hydrogen clock that must be dealt with before such measurements can be made. Schiller’s proposal appears in Physical Review Letters July 16, 2014 1:35 PM ### Canadian plan to bury nuclear waste near Great Lakes meets opposition Globe and Mail: A retired nuclear scientist and consultant, Frank Greening, has criticized a plan put forth by Canada’s Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to bury some 200 000 cubic meters of nuclear waste deep beneath the Bruce Power Plant near Lake Huron. Greening argues that among other things, OPG underestimated the radioactivity of some of the waste, has not considered all the potential impacts of any catastrophic events, and did not perform a thorough review of its plan. Local residents are also opposed; they cite possible contamination of the Great Lakes. However, the nuclear waste is already at the site and is currently stored above ground. Because of the pressing need to find a permanent solution, a federal review panel has scheduled more hearings, during which OPG plans to address those issues. The hearings are to take place this fall. July 16, 2014 11:27 AM ### Global electricity use of networked devices is growing rapidly MIT Technology Review: According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the electricity demand of networked devices, such as computers, tablets, and smartphones, was 420 TWhr in 2008 and 616 TWhr in 2013. The agency predicts that by 2025, networked devices will require 1140 TWhr and account for 6% of the world's total electricity use. Up to 80% of that total will be used simply to maintain network connections, when the devices are otherwise unused. The IEA estimates that minimizing electricity consumption when devices are in standby mode could reduce electricity use by 600 TWhr per year by 2020. July 15, 2014 12:52 PM ### UK to announce shortlist of sites for commercial spaceport Guardian: The British government will choose one of eight sites as the location for the nation's first commercial spaceport. A few days prior to stepping down as science minister on 14 July, David Willetts said that the government had already established a regulatory system for space launches. That would allow companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR to launch space tourism flights from the spaceport, which the government hopes to have operational by 2018. The list of locations under consideration has not been made public, but sites in northern Scotland, near the cities of Bristol and Norfolk, and on the Outer Hebrides islands have previously been discussed as likely candidates. The creation of the spaceport is part of the UK's recent efforts to grow its space industry to be worth £40 billion ($68.6 billion) and employ 100 000 people by 2030.

July 15, 2014 12:50 PM

### Global warming is affecting Australian wine industry

New York Times: As climate change brings higher temperatures and less rainfall to Australia, the country’s winemaking industry is being forced to adapt. Whereas some vintners have moved farther south to Tasmania, those who have chosen to remain are making changes, such as growing grape varieties that are more resistant to drought and modifying irrigation techniques to conserve water. In addition, Australian vintners are having to adjust their harvesting schedule as rising temperatures cause the fruit to ripen more quickly. To help find ways to deal with the country’s decreasing natural rainfall, the Australian government is conducting its own drought project, in which tarpaulins are put over rows of vines to test the effectiveness of drip irrigation, which wets only the plant’s roots and is intended to supplement natural rainfall.

July 15, 2014 12:45 PM

### Boron equivalent of buckyballs made for first time

New Scientist: In 1985, 60-atom hollow spheres of carbon called buckyballs were created. Boron, which is adjacent to carbon on the periodic table, was considered likely to make similar structures, but it has taken nearly 30 years for someone to do so. Now, Lai-Sheng Wang of Brown University in Rhode Island and his colleagues have created a 40-atom structure from boron that duplicates the hollow cage-like shape of buckyballs. The one major difference is that whereas buckyballs are made of pentagons and hexagons, borospheres are made of triangles, hexagons, and heptagons and thus have a less spherical shape. Wang's team created the molecules by vaporizing boron with a laser and then cooling the cloud with liquid helium. They created spectra of the resulting structures and compared them with simulations to determine what shapes were created.

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