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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 17 posts for the selected month (November 2016).

November 11, 2016 1:49 PM

One final News Pick

On 6 April 2006 Physics Today posted its first News Pick, which highlighted a Los Angeles Times story about President George W. Bush's proposal to modernize US nuclear labs and factories. Now, more than a decade and 10 000 posts later, we are ending News Picks as part of the transition to our new website. Debuting soon, the new site will feature increased coverage of important research and policy developments relating to the physical sciences. We welcome your feedback on what you thought of News Picks and what other kinds of coverage you'd like to see on Physics Today Online. You can contact us here

November 11, 2016 1:48 PM

NASA quietly considers alternatives to Orion spacecraft

Ars Technica: A recent NASA document hints that the agency is frustrated with the progress of Orion, the crew-carrying spacecraft under development with primary contractor Lockheed Martin. In September NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) to extend the contract for Orion capsules beyond Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed flight, which is scheduled for the early 2020s. The RFI also appears to open the door for a competitor to step in, either to replace Orion with another capsule or to take over construction of future capsules. NASA may have chosen that approach because of dissatisfaction over the delays and cost increases for Orion. Only one uncrewed launch has taken place—in 2014, the original target year for the first crewed launch. At the very least, the RFI appears designed to force Lockheed Martin to lower its bid for building future Orion capsules. The timing of the RFI also suggests that NASA wants more options going forward because the new presidential administration might have different priorities.

November 10, 2016 4:06 PM

Z machine transitions to fusion tests with deuterium–tritium mix

Science: Located at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Z machine is an experimental fusion reactor that eschews the toroidal containment walls of tokamak reactors. The system compresses a pencil eraser–sized fuel container with a blast of electricity to initiate the fusion reaction. Until August, tests with the Z machine had used pure deuterium as the fuel. But since then researchers have been adding tritium to the mix, and over the next five years they will ramp up the proportions to reach a 50–50 blend. That balance produces 60 to 90 times as many neutrons as the deuterium-only fuel and more than four times as much energy. The hope is that the machine can exceed the fusion power record of 16 MW set by the Joint European Torus tokamak in 1997. Using tritium is difficult because it is expensive, mildly radioactive, and combines with water to become significantly more hazardous. But the researchers at Sandia believe that moving forward with the substance is necessary to achieve viable fusion systems.

November 10, 2016 3:56 PM

Reasons for polling failures in US election are unclear

Nature: Before the US presidential election, the majority of major national polls suggested that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency by a 3–4% margin in the popular vote. Poll aggregators, which apply algorithms to national and state polling numbers to attempt to paint a clearer picture of the outcome, predicted a 71% or better chance of a Clinton victory. Obviously, that did not happen. Clinton ended up, as of 10 November, with a popular vote lead of only around 0.2%, and she lost to Donald Trump in several states she was expected to win. Claudia Deane of Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, says the surprising thing is that so many polls with such a wide range of methodologies all erred in the same direction. Some potential factors contributing to the widespread polling failure include poor assessments of likely voters, people misrepresenting their voting intentions, and poor coverage of certain segments of the voting population. Some of those problems are likely rooted in the shift away from landlines to cell phones, as many people do not respond to unknown phone numbers. Meanwhile, online pollsters often have difficulty obtaining a statistically useful distribution of respondents.

November 8, 2016 12:36 PM

Supersolids produced within Bose–Einstein condensates

Science News: Two teams of researchers have announced the creation of supersolids—matter that has a crystalline structure like a solid but can flow without friction like a superfluid. Both teams, one at MIT and the other at ETH Zürich, used the same general technique to produce the supersolids within Bose–Einstein condensates (BECs). Because a BEC is already a superfluid, the teams sought to create regular density variations within the material so it would also behave like a solid. Using lasers to push some of the atoms in the BEC, the MIT group created an interference pattern that resulted in alternating high- and low-density regions in the material. The ETH Zürich group created a similar regular pattern by placing a BEC inside two optical cavities in which light repeatedly bounces back and forth between sets of mirrors. Verification of either team's result would be the first confirmed identification of a supersolid.

November 8, 2016 11:39 AM

Mars One space colony project goes public to raise funding

Ars Technica: Although a private venture to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars already has a cadre of astronauts, the Netherlands-based Mars One lacks the necessary funding to accomplish its dream. To try to raise the roughly $6 billion needed to create a Mars colony, Mars One has now merged with Switzerland-based InFin Innovative Finance AG. The merger will allow the new entity, Mars One Ventures AG, to be listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, where investors can buy shares. Once the funding hurdle has been cleared, however, a number of other challenges loom, such as developing the technology to send crews to Mars and establish a sustainable habitat. Moreover, ethical and legal issues could come into play because of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which requires nongovernmental entities to be authorized and supervised by at least one of the state parties to the treaty.
November 7, 2016 4:50 PM

Moon’s tilt may be remnant of giant impact billions of years ago

New York Times: Of all the rocky planets in our solar system, Earth is the only one with a large moon. Although most researchers agree that Earth’s moon probably formed when a Mars-sized object called Theia collided with Earth, modeling has failed to completely explain the Earth–Moon relationship as it exists today. Sarah Stewart of the University of California, Davis, and Matija Cuk of the SETI Institute say that by altering the impactor’s energy and momentum, they have come up with a sequence that better explains the current dynamics and compositions of Earth and the Moon. Further, the researchers' model also offers an explanation as to why the Moon’s orbit has a five-degree tilt relative to those of the planets and other objects in the solar system. Stewart and Cuk propose that when Theia struck Earth, it knocked Earth over on its side at an angle of 60–80 degrees. Over the next 4 billion years, Earth straightened up, but the Moon is still shifting.

November 7, 2016 12:01 PM

Nature poll finds many researchers consider quitting

Nature: Several thousand Nature readers responded to poll questions accompanying a piece about the frustrations that face young researchers, such as the growing pressures to publish, get funding, and find permanent positions. The poll found that 65% of nearly 9000 responding researchers had considered quitting research and that 15% had actually done so. More than a quarter of respondents said the challenges they face resulted in the publication of a paper they weren't proud of, and 16% said they had cut corners in their research for the same reason. Nearly 40% of the respondents worked more than 60 hours per week. The poll also revealed that 44% of researchers consider "the fight for funding" to be the biggest challenge facing early-career scientists. "Lack of work–life balance" and "progression judged too heavily on publication record" tied for the second most common response.

November 4, 2016 3:34 PM

Paris climate agreement goes into effect

BBC: First negotiated almost a year ago at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, the Paris climate agreement enters into effect today. One of the goals of the agreement is to hold the increase in global average temperature to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. However, a new UN review says the pledges made by the governments that have ratified the agreement aren't enough to reach that goal. Global temperatures could rise some 2.9–3.4 °C by the end of the century, the report says. Almost 200 countries are to meet next week in Marrakech, Morocco, at the next climate change conference to discuss more ambitious carbon-capping goals.
November 4, 2016 11:53 AM

Germany unveils first hydrogen-powered train

CNN: In December 2017, a hydrogen-powered train will begin transporting passengers along a 96 km route in northern Germany. The train is produced by the French company Alstom. Four German states have signed an agreement with the company to purchase up to 60 additional trains if the initial train, called the Coradia iLint, is successful. The train was unveiled by Alstom earlier this year as a replacement for diesel trains that run along nonelectric rail lines throughout Europe. The two-car train, which carries up to 300 passengers, runs silently and is powered by batteries that are charged from the combination of hydrogen, which is stored in fuel cells, and oxygen, which is obtained from the air around the train. Its tank holds 94 kg of hydrogen, enough to power the train over 800 km, or for about a day. The train is much slower than many of Europe's high-speed electric trains but is intended as a replacement for the shorter and slower sections of the European rail network.

November 3, 2016 1:04 PM

Electronic ion pump transmits signals nearly as quickly as neurons do

IEEE Spectrum: Neurons use a chemical signaling process that is exceptionally quick, which allows neurotransmitters to be passed between cells in as little as 10 ms. Now, Daniel Simon of Linköping University in Sweden and his colleagues have created an organic electronic ion pump that uses electric fields to move charged particles across a thin film almost as quickly as neuron transmissions. The pump is 2.5 cm long and was created using photolithography to layer metal and polymer channels onto glass. Electrical currents push charged particle neurotransmitters along six paths. Flipping a switch applies a second electric field to a specific path, which causes the charged particles to shoot through an outlet and on to their destination. In tests with acetylcholine, the scientists were able to get the neurotransmitter to its destination in less than 50 ms.

November 3, 2016 12:27 PM

Plants’ fiber-optic-like stem conducts light from leaves to roots

New Scientist: Plants harvest light by means of photoreceptors in their leaves, flowers, stems, and even roots. But how light reaches the receptors buried underground in a plant’s roots was not known. Now Hyo-Jun Lee of Seoul National University in South Korea and his colleagues have determined that light striking plants from above is directly transmitted to their roots via their stems, which act like fiber-optic cables. The researchers attached a light source to the stems of a small flowering plant in the mustard family, Arabidopsis thaliana, and placed an underground detector at the roots. Not only did the researchers confirm the direct transmission of light, but they also discovered that the system favors the transmission of red light over blue or green. The reason, the scientists say, is that red light’s longer wavelengths allow it to travel farther. Moreover, the lower intensity of red light prevents it from benefiting other creatures or bacteria living in the soil.
November 2, 2016 12:16 PM

Japan and India set to sign nuclear energy pact

Asahi Shimbun: Japan and India have been negotiating a deal whereby Japan will export its nuclear energy technology to India provided India refrains from nuclear weapons testing. Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, supports the peaceful use of nuclear power. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe has asked for additional nonproliferation guarantees from India, which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has a nuclear weapons program. Although the two countries had reached a basic agreement last December, they have been working on finalizing the wording to indicate that Japan can opt out in the event of an Indian nuclear test. The nuclear energy pact is slated to be signed later this month when India’s prime minister Narendra Modi visits Japan.
November 2, 2016 12:08 PM

NASA requests proposals from private companies for lunar experiments

Ars Technica: On 1 November NASA released a request for information (RFI) for a "Small Lunar Surface Payload" program. The RFI asks companies to propose small payloads of scientific experiments that could be delivered to the Moon between 2017 and 2020. The experiments should address what the agency considers to be "strategic knowledge gaps," such as the availability of water resources and the effect of the lunar environment on human life. NASA hopes to partner those small payloads with low-cost private rocket launches.

November 1, 2016 1:46 PM

Climate change could lengthen North American winters

Washington Post: One of the most notable effects of rising global temperatures has been the loss of Arctic ice. A new study suggests that ice loss is causing the polar vortex to shift, which could lead to longer winters in North America. Over the past three decades of warming, the vortex has weakened and moved toward Europe and Asia during February. A weakening vortex is more likely to fracture and allow extremely cold air to flow south from the Arctic, as happened several times over the past two winters. The vortex's shift in position during mid to late winter means that the fractures are more likely to continue into early spring, the researchers say, and pour cold Arctic air across North America.

November 1, 2016 1:05 PM

Oil drilling may have induced earthquakes in California a century ago

NPR: Although Southern California has long been known as a natural earthquake hazard, some of the biggest quakes that occurred in the early 20th century may actually have been caused by oil and gas production, according to a new study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. To study quakes that occurred during the California oil boom of the 1920s and 1930s, before the advent of modern seismological data collection methods, Susan Hough and Morgan Page of the US Geological Survey used old scientific surveys, instrument data, and newspaper articles. The researchers were able to link several damaging earthquakes during the period 1915–32 with drilling operations around Los Angeles. However, the researchers say their findings are of historical importance only, because the industry practices in use at the time are no longer employed.
November 1, 2016 11:31 AM

NSF may close Green Bank Observatory

Charleston Gazette–Mail: The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia is home to the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope as well as three smaller radio telescopes and a radio burst spectrometer. However, Green Bank was recently dropped from the National Radio Astronomy system, and NSF has cut its funding. On 19 October, NSF filed notice that it is evaluating what to do with the facility. The possibilities include continuing operation of the observatory with mixed NSF and secondary funding, continuing operation with NSF funding only, converting the site into a technology and education park, mothballing the facility for potential future use, or dismantling it.

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