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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.

September 15, 2014 4:23 PM

Construction begins on climate observation tower in Amazon basin

BBC: In the middle of the Amazon jungle, about 160 km (100 mi) from Manaus, Brazil, construction has begun on a 325-m tower for observing the behavior of the atmosphere high above the forest canopy. The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory is a joint Brazilian and German project that will partner with a similar tower already built in the Siberian tundra and with a network of smaller towers throughout the Amazon region. The tower will be equipped with sensors to track particulate concentrations and to observe the interactions and movements of different air masses above the forest. Because the Amazon jungle is a very sensitive ecosystem, tracking climate changes and carbon dioxide concentrations there may provide further clues into understanding Earth's climate.

September 15, 2014 4:00 PM

Device uses magnetic nanoparticles to fight infections

Nature: The primary purpose of the spleen is to act as a blood filter. Now, Donald Ingber of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues have created an artificial "biospleen" that uses magnetic nanoparticles to filter pathogens from blood. Ingber's team coated magnetic nanobeads with a modified version of mannose-binding lectin, a protein that binds to the sugars on the outside of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and their toxic byproducts. The researchers fed blood into the device in which the nanoparticles were present and then used a magnet to pull the particles out of the blood along with any pathogens that had become attached; then the filtered blood was fed back into the patient. The device was tested on rats that were infected with either Escherichia coli or Staphylococcus aureus. Use of the biospleen filter increased the survival rate from 14% to 89%. Analysis of the blood after it was filtered showed that more than 90% of the bacteria had been removed. Ingber believes the device could be useful for stabilizing patients so that the immune system can eliminate the remaining traces of the infections and for fighting viral infections such as Ebola and HIV.

September 15, 2014 1:21 PM

ESA chooses landing site on comet for Rosetta mission

New Scientist: The European Space Agency (ESA) has selected a landing spot for Rosetta's Philae lander near the head of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The chosen spot, designated J, was one of five candidate sites and was selected because it was the "smoothest" option. Even with that description, photographs from Rosetta reveal that the area has scattered boulders and cliffs that could make the landing difficult. A public campaign will be held to select an official name for the landing site before Philae is released in mid-November. The lander will take panoramic pictures, perform analyses of gas and dust at the surface, and drill into the surface to attempt to reveal the nature of internal cometary material.

September 15, 2014 11:13 AM

Shining new light on 500-year-old map

Wired: The 1491 Martellus map, now housed at Yale University, may have been used by Christopher Columbus when he planned his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. Although the 1.2-by-2.0-meter map has survived for five centuries, its paint and text have faded. Now researchers are using advanced multispectral imaging to reveal text in places where it is not visible to the naked eye. Because of uneven erosion and fading pigments, however, each section of the map requires a different wavelength of light. Using 12 different types of LED illumination ranging from UV to IR, the team has photographed the map in 55 overlapping tiles. Through extensive image processing and analysis, they hope to extract all the readable text by next year and make the images available on Yale’s Beinecke Digital Library website.

September 12, 2014 1:15 PM

Nanoscale lattice structures create lightest and strongest materials

MIT Technology Review: Ceramics have now been used to create new nanoscale lattices that result in extremely light materials that are very strong but also return to shape after they are compressed. Julia Greer of Caltech and her colleagues had previously achieved that result with metals, but ceramics had been harder to manipulate on the nanoscale. The researchers developed the new ceramic material by using a technique called two-photon interference lithography to "print" nanoscale polymer cylinders into a lattice configuration. Then they coated the structure with a ceramic and etched away the base polymer, leaving a network of ceramic tubes. The researchers also showed how the thickness of the tube walls determines how the material fails under compression. When the walls are just 10 nm thick, the tubes collapse instead of fracturing under pressure, then they return to shape when the pressure is removed. The high surface area and low weight make them materials of interest for electronics and batteries.

September 12, 2014 11:29 AM

Construction of Advanced LIGO reaches milestone early

BBC: The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) attempted to detect gravitational waves by looking for variations in long beams of laser light. Gravitational waves are predicted to be caused by the rotation of binary neutron star or black hole systems as the extreme masses create ripples in spacetime. The original LIGO project, which ran from 2001 to 2010, saw no sign of gravitational waves. For the past four years, the facility has been undergoing upgrades to increase its sensitivity by a factor of 10. That will allow the observatory to look for gravitational waves that originate within 200 Mpc (600 million light-years) of Earth. The facility achieved "full lock"—it turned on and maintained operation for 10 minutes—in June, a year before originally scheduled to do so. While not yet fully upgraded, the observatory is already 30% more sensitive than it was on its original run. Because of the success with the upgrades, project leader Andreas Freise of the University of Birmingham in the UK expects the facility to begin observations next summer.

September 12, 2014 11:22 AM

Two years of travel brings Curiosity to its target

New York Times: NASA's Martian rover Curiosity has reached its destination—the base of Mount Sharp—two years after it landed. The roughly 5-km-high mountain is the site of the rover's primary science mission. As Curiosity climbs Mount Sharp, it will examine the geological structures and collect information about Mars's history. The two-year trip was longer than originally planned because of side trips and the difficulty of navigation. During the recent review of NASA's planetary missions, Curiosity was criticized for not delivering results proportional to its $2.5 billion cost. But despite being evaluated as the least worthwhile of the planetary missions, the rover was given a two-year project extension.

September 12, 2014 10:34 AM

Two solar flares shoot plasma toward Earth

Los Angeles Times: On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, a pair of solar flares sent coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—highly energetic waves of plasma—toward Earth. The CMEs will hit Earth today and tomorrow, with the most visible effect being an increase in aurora activity. Some communications and GPS satellites may also be affected, not by the radiation itself but by the effect the radiation has on Earth's upper atmosphere, which will make it more difficult for signals to pass from the satellites to the planet. For people using GPS for general navigation purposes, the disruption won't be noticeable. Only those who need extreme precision in their measurements will be aware of the flare activity.

September 11, 2014 4:45 PM

Earth’s ozone hole is healing

BBC: The ozone hole over Antarctica has stopped growing and the ozone layer is thickening, according to a new study by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. Furthermore, the ozone layer is expected to return to 1980 levels by midcentury. Scientists credit the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which called for phasing out manmade chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigerators and spray cans. The ozone layer protects Earth from the Sun’s UV radiation, which can damage wildlife, agriculture, and peoples’ skin, eyes, and immune systems. The news comes in the wake of the announcement that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached a historic high. However, reducing manmade CO2 may prove to be much more difficult because of ongoing deforestation and because the gas is integral to so many human activities that currently require the burning of fossil fuels.

September 11, 2014 2:00 PM

Japan certifies two nuclear reactors for restart

New York Times: Japan's new nuclear agency has certified two reactors at the Sendai power plant on the southern island of Kyushu as safe to restart. They are the first nuclear reactors to receive certification since the earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. The Nuclear Regulation Authority was established in 2012 to oversee nuclear safety in the country and has been performing inspections and reviews of Japan's 48 operable reactors, which were all closed following the disaster. Before the two newly certified reactors can be restarted, the Kyushu Electric Power Company must perform additional inspections and receive approval from local authorities. Recent polls in the country have revealed that the population is still skeptical about the safety of nuclear plants.

September 11, 2014 12:41 PM

Thermodynamics beats single-electron Maxwell demon

Ars Technica: James Clerk Maxwell proposed a thought experiment in which a demon controlled a hatch between adjacent chambers filled with gas. The demon opened the hatch only to allow molecules moving above a certain velocity through, which would make one room warmer and the other cooler. That outcome paradoxically contravenes the laws of thermodynamics. Leo Szilard extended the idea by proposing two pistons, one on either end of a single chamber with a single gas molecule between them; the demon would put a wall between the pistons so that the molecule drove the piston on that side of the wall before the wall was removed and the process repeated. This Szilard engine is useful for relating thermodynamic energy and information. A team of researchers has now created the first functioning Szilard engine using quantum mechanics instead of classical thermodynamics. Szilard's gas molecule is replaced by an electron, and the wall is replaced by an energy barrier through which the electron can tunnel. The demon was a pair of sensors, one on either side of the barrier, which detected whether the electron was present and applied a voltage to the barrier trapping the electron on one side. It turned out that the energy used to trap the electron matched the energy lost in the heat bath in which the system sits, as predicted by thermodynamics.

September 11, 2014 12:40 PM

Independent report: DOE labs need to create local connections

Science: The Brookings Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a joint report  saying that the Department of Energy's  17 national science laboratories need to adapt to modern economic and global security issues. The authors say that the goals of the labs are fine but that they should shift their focus to developing regional connections to further strengthen the nation's energy industries. The report lists 15 recommendations, including giving lab directors more control to build local economic partnerships, creating off-campus labs to attract local businesses, and providing research assistance to small- and medium-sized companies. Several other outside reviews of DOE policies and structure have been performed, and department secretary Ernest Moniz and Congress have both established their own reviews of the agency's functioning.

September 10, 2014 4:12 PM

Meteorite provides clues to history of Martian atmosphere and surface water

Ars Technica: The material that makes up meteorite Northwest Africa (NWA) 7533 comes from Martian rock that formed 4.43 billion years ago, soon after the planet itself. The meteorite contains grains of zircon, which crystallize from lava as it cools and can be used for geological dating based on the ratio of oxygen isotopes present. If the zircon crystals deform under stress, they can exchange oxygen atoms with their environment, which changes the isotope ratio. An analysis of the zircons in NWA 7533 revealed that the rock absorbed outside oxygen between 1.7 billion and 1.4 billion years ago, likely due to an asteroid impact on Mars. But the lack of further evidence of oxygen exposure suggests that the primary Martian atmosphere existed for less than 120 million years, before the zircon crystals formed. And the impact that altered the isotope ratio must have occurred after Mars had already lost most, if not all, of its surface liquid water.

September 10, 2014 3:30 PM

Only a weak El Niño predicted this year

New York Times: Despite earlier predictions, it now looks unlikely that a strong El Niño will develop this year. According to the latest report from the Climate Prediction Center, part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, most models predict a weak El Niño developing anywhere from September through November and continuing into early 2015. Because of the severe drought in California, which has received just one-fifth the usual rainfall so far this year, it had been hoped that a strong El Niño would bring some much-needed rain to the area. However, even a weak El Niño makes it less likely that there will be a La Niña event—which would have the opposite effect of an El Niño and bring continued drought to California.

September 10, 2014 3:29 PM

Chinese reservoir filling and earthquake could be connected

Nature: After a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in China killed more than 600 people on 3 August, questions were raised about a possible connection between the earthquake and the filling of two new reservoirs created by the building of dams on the Yangtze River. Now, Fan Xiao of the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources in Chengdu has released an analysis that appears to confirm that suspicion. Using seismic data from 2010 to 2014, Fan noted an increase in seismic activity beginning in late 2012, which corresponds with the filling of the two reservoirs. However, the analysis is based on crude seismic data, the only public information available, so the connection is tentative at best. Fan had previously raised the possibility of a similar connection between reservoir filling and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed more than 70 000. Whether the quakes were caused by the dams remains uncertain, but with continuing construction of new dams along the length of the Yangtze, Fan says it may be wise to add extra reinforcement to prepare them for a potential increase in seismic activity.

September 10, 2014 11:04 AM

NSF researcher loses job over questions about 1980s activism

Science: In August 2013 Valerie Barr, a computer science professor at Union College in Schenectady, New York, was hired by NSF as a program director in its division of undergraduate education. After she began working there, she was subject to a standard background check, performed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), to evaluate "suitability." In the initial interview, she replied no when asked whether she had been involved with any groups that had committed violence against the government. The OPM investigators claim she misrepresented her past because 30 years ago she had been involved with two nonviolent groups—the Women’s Committee Against Genocide and the New Movement in Solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence—that were connected with the May 19 Communist Organization, which had carried out several violent acts in the early 1980s. Subsequent interviews reaffirmed the OPM investigators' belief that she had misrepresented her past, but Barr says she was cooperative and told the truth. On 25 July 2014, as a result of the OPM deeming Barr "unsuitable," NSF told her it was canceling her three-year contract. Barr has written to NSF director Frances Córdova and her congressional representatives asking them to evaluate the OPM review process.

September 9, 2014 3:00 PM

First US advanced biofuel plant opens

Ars Technica: One of the biggest criticisms of traditional biofuels is that they are made from the edible parts of corn and other plants. Now, the first commercial US plant that can convert cellulose, a nonedible sugar polymer, into ethanol has opened in Iowa. Instead of processing sugars directly, the plant extracts them from the cellulose and then proceeds with the sugar-to-ethanol conversion. The new plant, operated by the US-based biofuel company POET and the Netherlands' Royal DSM, has a maximum processing capacity of more than 750 tons of corn waste per day, and two other plants are expected to open soon. Together, they will produce more than 75 million gallons of ethanol each year. However, that is far below the government's earlier prediction of 1 billion gallons produced per year by 2013.

September 9, 2014 2:11 PM

NASA reapproves all its planetary science missions

New York Times: Last week it was revealed that the most recent review of NASA’s planetary science missions would recommend continuing support for the Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But the fate of the agency’s other five missions was uncertain. Now that the results of the review, conducted by outside experts, have officially been released, it appears that all seven of the agency’s missions have been given support for continuation. The other five include Cassini, Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance OrbiterMars Odyssey, and an instrument onboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. However, the actual continuation of the projects will depend on the budget determined by Congress. Curiosity has finished its original two-year mission, so funding for the rover now must come from the extended mission budget, which is not likely to increase to account for the additional cost. Cassini was the only project given a rating of “excellent” and a three-year extension, after which it will run out of fuel and is set to crash into Saturn.

September 9, 2014 12:35 PM

Atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches historic high

Washington Post: In 2013 atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached an unprecedented high of nearly 400 parts per million. Although CO2 levels have been rising steadily since the onset of the Industrial Revolution and accelerated further in the 1990s, last year’s level was the highest in at least 800 000 years. That information comes from the annual report of the World Meteorological Organization, the meteorological advisory body of the United Nations. Half the pollution generated by humans has historically been absorbed by Earth’s oceans and plant life, but the environment cannot continue to absorb at that level. The report precedes the UN Climate Summit scheduled for 23 September in New York, during which world leaders will discuss plans to reduce emissions, expand renewable energy sources, and work toward a global legal agreement by 2015.

September 9, 2014 11:20 AM

Smartphone app can diagnose Parkinson’s

BBC: Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, is one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases. Yet it remains difficult to diagnose in its early stages. Now researchers led by Max Little of Aston University in the UK have developed a smartphone app that uses the phone’s microphone and accelerometer to monitor the user for characteristic symptoms, such as the “freezing of gait” and certain voice changes. With the use of software, the researchers can also perform more complex analyses of behavior, including how often the user leaves the house and how much he or she interacts with others, all of which can be early signs of the disease. Little plans to continue refining the technology through extensive clinical trials and hopes to extend it to other disorders.

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