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 31 posts for the selected month (October 2015).
October 12, 2015 2:05 PM

UK charity funds competition in cancer research

Science: Cancer Research UK is offering grants to the collaborative research teams that submit the best proposals for solving one of seven grand challenges in cancer. The charity says it expects to pay out £100 million ($150 million) over the next five years, with each winning team receiving up to £20 million ($30 million). Among the challenges are better cancer diagnosis, development of a cancer-preventing vaccine, and improved mapping of tumors at the molecular and cellular levels. The teams can be international, but at least 25% of the grant money must be spent in the UK. The deadline for the first round of proposals is February 2016.
October 12, 2015 1:20 PM

Horn of Africa growing drier because of global warming

Nature: The Horn of Africa is experiencing a period of reduced rainfall, most likely linked to anthropogenic climate change. That finding was made by Jessica Tierney of the University of Arizona in Tucson and her colleagues, who collected deep-sea sediment cores drilled from the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea. The researchers used the cores to reconstruct past climate change, because instrumental records for the region are lacking and natural indicators such as lake basins and trees are scarce. From plant material and fossilized microorganisms trapped in the sediment cores, the researchers were able to deduce past aridity and ocean temperatures. Although the region has experienced bouts of drought before, the steadily increasing dryness through the 20th century is unusual, says Tierney. Their finding contradicts earlier studies that associated the drying trend with the natural variability of ocean surface temperatures.
October 12, 2015 12:02 PM

Industrial-scale carbon-capture test facility begins operations

MIT Technology Review: On 9 October in Squamish, British Columbia, a company called Carbon Engineering opened a facility to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral fuel. Currently, the facility uses already-existing technologies to extract CO2 gas from the air at the rate of about one ton per day. In about one year, an electrolyzer will be added to split water to obtain hydrogen that will then be combined with the CO2 to make hydrocarbon fuels. David Keith of Harvard University, who is also the founder of Carbon Engineering, says the process will not likely have a significant impact on the level of CO2 present in the atmosphere, so the facility shouldn't be viewed as a solution for reducing greenhouse gas levels. The primary use of the facility will be producing vehicle fuel that isn't sourced from petroleum oil.

October 12, 2015 11:06 AM

NASA offers startup companies patents with no upfront licensing costs

Ars Technica: On 7 October, NASA announced a program that would make more than 1200 of the agency's patents available to startup companies for licensing with no upfront fees. The program, dubbed Startup NASA, is the agency's newest attempt to share its research with the public. In the past the agency has auctioned licenses and sold exclusive licensing rights. This time around, the licenses are freely available for three years to startups that intend to commercialize the technology. However, the licenses aren't exclusive; if a company successfully brings a product to market, it will pay standard net royalties.

October 9, 2015 2:30 PM

Project creates computer simulation of rat brain cortex

Nature: An ambitious project to create a synthetic brain has been undertaken by Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and his colleagues. The Blue Brain Project, which was launched in 2005, seeks to study brain architecture and function through the use of highly complex computer simulations. In a paper published in the journal Cell, the researchers say they have reached their first milestone: the digital reconstruction of a rat’s primary somatosensory cortex. Although the computer model only represents a simplified version of one fragment of a rat’s brain, Markram claims it provides a way to manipulate the brain’s cortical circuitry that can’t be done using real subjects. The project has been criticized because of the large amount of computing time required compared with the results achieved.
October 9, 2015 1:59 PM

House science committee continues to target NSF grant process

Science: On Thursday, the House of Representatives' science committee approved legislation that would increase the committee's oversight of the NSF grant approval process. The bill is a shortened version of a bill that passed the full House in May but has not been taken up by the Senate. Both bills require NSF to explain why all approved grants are "in the national interest." According to committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), he has reviewed several past grants that don't meet that definition. The support for the bills has been mostly partisan, with many Democrats believing that Smith just wants to suppress certain types of research. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) thinks that the bill "substitutes the political process for the scientific process."

October 9, 2015 1:22 PM

California joins states that ban products containing plastic microbeads

New York Times: On Thursday, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans plastic microbeads in consumer products. Microbeads are often included as exfoliants in face and body cleansers. However, when washed down sinks and showers, the beads pollute water supplies and can harm wildlife. Several other states have passed similar legislation, but California's law goes the furthest by also banning biodegradable alternatives.

October 9, 2015 11:50 AM

Curiosity rover data indicate that large lakes once existed on Mars

Los Angeles Times: Between 3.2 billion and 3.8 billion years ago, Mars had lakes of liquid water on its surface, according to a study published in Science. John Grotzinger of Caltech and his colleagues base their finding on pictures taken by the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012. The researchers say the texture and distribution of sedimentary rock strata in Mars’s Gale Crater resemble those of river deltas on Earth, which are formed by the deposition of sediment by streams as they run into lakes. In fact, they say, Gale Crater probably held a series of lakes, lasting anywhere from thousands to millions of years. Whether Mars’s water cycle lasted long enough for any life-forms to develop remains to be discovered.
October 8, 2015 1:30 PM

Climate change spurs global coral bleaching

Nature: One indication of stress on the ocean’s coral reefs is a phenomenon known as coral bleaching, in which the algae-like organisms inhabiting the coral’s structure get expelled and the coral loses its color. To date, coral bleaching has occurred on a global scale three times. The most recent was announced earlier today by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA says the current bleaching event has been brought on by warmer waters due to climate change and the strengthening El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. Although coral reefs can recover from mild bleaching, severe or long-term bleaching can kill the coral, destroying marine-life habitats and reducing protection from storms along shorelines. The current event, which began in 2014, could extend into 2016 and affect more than one-third of the world’s coral reefs, according to NOAA.
October 8, 2015 11:45 AM

Earth's inner core may have begun forming earlier than thought

BBC: Earth's magnetic field is driven by the motion of the molten iron in the outer core, and that motion is itself partly driven by the solidification of the inner core. When that solidification began is an important ingredient for accurate models of Earth's internal behavior and geological history. To determine that information, researchers study the magnetism of ancient rocks, which was set when those rocks formed, but can become jumbled or lost over time. Now Andy Biggin of the University of Liverpool in the UK and his colleagues have reevaluated all the data collected by other researchers and determined which measurements were most reliable. Their analysis of the data that weren't eliminated suggests that the inner core began solidifying 1.3 billion years ago.
October 8, 2015 11:25 AM

New pocket-sized camera features DSLR capability

MIT Technology Review: A startup company is developing a new type of camera that resembles a largish smartphone but will have the picture-taking power of a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex). Light, based in Palo Alto, California, calls its device a multi-aperture computational camera. Whereas a conventional camera uses a single lens to focus light onto a sensor, the L16 uses a folded optics system with multiple apertures and sensors to capture the image data, then computational algorithms to combine the information into a single photo of up to 52 megapixels. The pocket-sized device has a touch screen and features some internal editing software and Wi-Fi capability. Because the L16’s form is radically different from other cameras, it may take a while for it to catch on with camera enthusiasts, says company cofounder and CEO Dave Grannan.
October 8, 2015 11:15 AM

Examination of exosolar debris disk reveals unusual features

Ars Technica: The variable star AU Microscopii was discovered in the 1980s, and the Hubble Space Telescope later revealed that it was orbited by a disk of debris thought to be the remains of planetary material. The Hubble images revealed variations in the light passing through the debris, which suggested clumps of material that could be planets. Now, a team of researchers led by Anthony Boccaletti of the Paris Observatory used the new SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope to study the disk more closely. The SPHERE images revealed even more clumps both closer and farther away from the star than were initially spotted. A reanalysis of the Hubble data revealed that the clumps have moved over the past few years at speeds reaching 4–10 km/s, with the outermost clumps moving fastest. The two farthest clumps appear to have speeds greater than AU Microscopii's escape velocity. However, the fact that none of the other material in the disk is moving outward rules out the possibility that the clumps are driven by a stellar wind, and none of the other possible explanations have strong supporting evidence either.
October 7, 2015 3:58 PM

Volcanic eruptions can significantly alter river flow rates

New Scientist: Volcanoes can release large amounts of aerosol particles into the stratosphere. That can significantly alter rainfall, but the extent and impact of the change is still unclear. To get a better picture of the effects, Carly Iles and Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh in the UK looked at historical flow volumes for 50 major rivers around the world. They found that for two years after major eruptions, rivers experienced significant changes in flow rate. In wet, tropical areas such as the Amazon, Nile, and Congo, river flow rates decreased by up to 10% of their average flow. In drier, subtropical regions, the river flows increased by as much as 25%. This difference emphasizes the potent effects of volcanic aerosols: By blocking sunlight, they allow less heat to reach the atmosphere, which alters circulation patterns and the distribution of rainfall.

October 7, 2015 12:38 PM

Israeli team pursuing Lunar X Prize is first to sign launch contract

BBC: SpaceIL, the Israeli team competing for Google's Lunar X Prize, is the first group in the competition to file a verified launch contract with the X Prize organization. The group has reserved a space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in 2017. The Lunar X Prize, established in 2007, offers  a $20 million award to the spaceflight team that can build a probe able to land on the Moon, travel at least 500 m, and return high-resolution images and video to Earth. Originally, the deadline for claiming the prize was the end of 2012, but it was extended to 2015. Earlier this year the foundation said it would extend the deadline to the end of 2017 if one of the competing teams filed a verified launch contract. Now that SpaceIL has done so, the other teams have until the end of 2016 to file their own launch contracts.

October 7, 2015 12:20 PM

IPCC names South Korea’s Hoesung Lee as new chair

Science: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations organization that assesses climate science, has elected a new chair: Hoesung Lee of South Korea. He succeeds Rajendra Pachauri of India, who resigned in February. Lee, an expert on climate economics and sustainable development, is a professor at Korea University in Seoul. Lee says his vision for the IPCC is to expand its focus on developing countries, especially regarding the regional impacts of climate change, and to encourage increased involvement of experts from those countries.
October 7, 2015 12:10 PM

Proposed mini particle accelerator at CERN is approved for funding

Nature: Because particle accelerators are growing ever larger and more expensive, several research groups have been experimenting with a potentially smaller design, called a plasma wakefield accelerator. Conventional colliders use electric fields to accelerate charged particles down metal-walled tunnels. But when the electric field gets too strong, longer tunnels are required to avoid sparking. Now CERN, home to the world’s largest and most powerful accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, has received funding approval for what could perhaps be one of the smallest. The Advanced Wakefield Experiment, or AWAKE, will send a pulse of protons through a plasma of ionized gas, which causes the positively and negatively charged particles to oscillate and create waves of alternating charge. Particles injected into the resulting electric field ride the waves and accelerate. Such a design could achieve accelerations 1000 times greater than conventional machines over the same distance.
October 6, 2015 1:10 PM

Quantum computation successful in silicon for the first time

New Scientist: Quantum computing makes use of qubits, which can take the values 0, 1, or combinations thereof. However, all the qubits that have ever been used in calculations have been supercooled superconductors. Now, Andrew Dzurak of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues have created qubits from a pair of silicon transistors. Their arrangement is essentially a basic logic gate: The device examines the spin of one electron and then either flips the spin of a second electron or leaves it alone based on the direction of spin of the first. By combining those gates, the logic system can perform complex calculations. Dzurak and his team say they have a design for a chip containing millions of the qubits. However, the silicon-based qubits are still outperformed by their superconductor counterparts.
October 6, 2015 12:50 PM

US House Republicans launch investigation of climate action group

Science: House Republicans led by Lamar Smith (R-TX) have announced their intention to launch an investigation into a nonprofit climate advocacy group called the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES). The organization recently sent a letter to President Obama requesting a criminal investigation of corporations that question the science of climate change. The writers likened industry attempts to deny global warming to the tobacco industry’s cover-up of the detrimental health effects of smoking. The letter sparked much attention, from both sides of the issue. Now Smith, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has sent a letter to IGES's president Jagadish Shukla, citing allegations that IGES may have been “participating in partisan political activity” while being “almost fully funded by taxpayer money.” He requests that Shukla “preserve all e-mail, electronic documents, and data” that IGES has created since 2009, although what, exactly, the committee will be investigating has not yet been made clear.
October 6, 2015 11:35 AM

Chernobyl area experiencing rebirth as wildlife returns

BBC: Since the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, a 30-km area around the nuclear plant, called the exclusion zone, has remained relatively uninhabited by humans. Despite the radioactive contamination, the area has reverted to forest and become overrun with wildlife. Using aerial surveys and winter tracking studies, Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth and his colleagues counted the large mammals now roaming the area. They say that the populations of roe deer, elk, and wild boar are similar to those in uncontaminated nature reserves. Wolves are doing particularly well, probably because of the lack of hunting in the area. Smith and his group add that more research needs to be done to look at a wider variety of animal life, including smaller mammals, birds, and insects.
October 5, 2015 3:50 PM

Report warns of cyberattack risk at nuclear power plants

BBC: As nuclear power plants rely more on digital systems and software, they are becoming more vulnerable to attack by hackers, says a new report by Chatham House, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in London. The group, which studied nuclear plants around the world over an 18-month period, found that although nuclear plants have been slow to implement external IT networks, a growing number are adding some level of internet connectivity, such as VPN. And even those facilities that remain isolated from the public internet can still be easily breached “with nothing more than a flash drive.” To counter a potential cyberattack, the group recommends raising awareness among facility operators of the danger, educating nuclear plant personnel about key cybersecurity procedures, and developing and encouraging the universal adoption of guidelines, rules, and regulatory standards. The report says that besides the obvious threat posed by cyberterrorism, even a small-scale incident could have a negative effect on public opinion concerning the nuclear industry and its future.
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Scitation: News Picks - Blog