Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.
Nature: A deal between Germany's ruling political parties would provide €5 billion ($5.4 billion) to extend the nation's Excellence Initiative until 2028. Currently set to expire in 2017, the initiative provides funding to the nation's top-performing universities and early-career researchers. Since 2006, the initiative has created 20 000 new science jobs. The details of the funding have not been finalized, but are expected to be released in January after a review of the performance of the initiative so far.
MIT Technology Review: Normal fermentation processes rely on microorganisms, which produce enzymes that convert sugars into usable products, among them hydrogen gas for fuel cells. Now, Percival Zhang of Virginia Tech and his colleagues have developed a hydrogen creation technique that uses enzymes alone. In the group's experiments, the technique produced three times as much hydrogen as did conventional fermentation. Their demonstration used just a 2-ml reactor vessel, but the process appears to be nearly as fast and energy efficient as current, microorganism-based ones. To scale their process up for commercialization, the researchers must find a way to reduce the cost of the enzymes used.
BBC: The European Space Agency's Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) mapped Earth's gravitational field from 2009 to 2013. Now that map is being used to look for clues about the internal structure of Earth's crust. Subtle variations in gravitation can be evaluated to find the borders between rock formations and areas where the crust is thinnest, both of which are potential locations for geothermal activity. Such data have been used by geothermal prospectors before, but never at a global scale nor with the resolution that GOCE has provided.
Science: There are currently five widely accepted major extinction events. New evidence collected by David Bond of the University of Hull in the UK and his colleagues suggests a sixth event may be added to that list. Occurring 260 million years ago, the extinction marks the end of the Capitanian age. Initial evidence for the extinction event was found in China in the early 1990s. Fossils of foraminifera and brachiopods were found in rocks formed in an ancient tropical sea. But, according to the rock record, they suddenly disappeared. A similar extinction of brachiopods has now been found by Bond's team in rocks on an island in Norway. The researchers connected the two events by comparing isotope levels, which showed similar variations. The finding suggests that global-scale changes occurred in ocean chemistry. However, because the dating of the event in Norway has not yet been verified, that extinction could have been a separate, regional event.
BBC: The existence of dark matter has been established through observations of the effect its mass has on normal matter and on light via gravitational lensing. However, observations of dark matter have not provided any other clues about how it interacts with normal matter or itself other than through gravitation. Now, Richard Massey of Durham University in the UK and his colleagues say they may have found evidence of dark matter interacting with itself. They used gravitational lensing to examine a four-galaxy collision in the Abell 3827 cluster 1.4 billion light-years away. It appears that the dark matter surrounding one of the galaxies is lagging behind the rest of the matter in that galaxy. Massey's group has studied other galactic collisions and not seen such a phenomenon. They admit that they have not ruled out all possible known astrophysical sources for the new discrepancy, and they intend to create models of the system to do so.
Los Angeles Times: The general theory for the formation of Earth is that it is a conglomeration of rocky objects like those currently in the asteroid belt. By itself, that theory doesn't explain why there are enough radioactive elements in Earth's core to provide the energy for driving the planet's magnetic field. Those elements like to bond with oxides, and the combined molecules would be light enough to move out of Earth's core. Now, Bernard Wood and Anke Wohlers of the University of Oxford in the UK propose an answer. They modeled a high-pressure environment where radioactive elements were mixed with oxygen-lacking sulfur compounds. The radioactive elements strongly bonded with the sulfur-rich metals and created compounds heavy enough to stay in the core. However, Earth is rich in oxides and poor in sulfides. To have had enough sulfides to establish a magnetic field, early Earth would have to have been impacted by a body rich in sulfides, much like Mercury, but with the mass of Mars. That same impact may have also given birth to the Moon.
New Scientist: United Launch Alliance (ULA) is the partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that is currently responsible for all Atlas and Delta rocket launches. On Monday, the partnership announced that its next generation of rockets, called Vulcan, will be reusable, similar to competitor SpaceX's Falcon 9. Vulcan's first launch is scheduled for 2019, at a cost of just $100 million. In comparison, the companies' current rockets cost an average of $225 million per launch. To reduce ULA's dependence on Russian RD-180 engines, Vulcan's engines will be produced by either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne. Instead of attempting to land its used booster engines on an ocean barge as SpaceX has done, ULA says that its engines will deploy parachutes and then be caught by helicopters.
Nature: Dark matter, the material that makes up the majority of the mass of the universe, has been mapped in small regions around galaxies many times. Now, Chihway Chang of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and his colleagues have mapped dark matter in an area of the southern sky that is roughly equal to the angular area of 700 Suns. As part of the Dark Energy Survey (DES), Chang's team used the 570-megapixel camera of the Victor M. Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile to map the way that dark matter bends galactic light. The variations in the light from the most distant objects revealed the presence of dark matter in the intervening spaces. The resulting map of dark matter compares favorably with other maps of the universe's underlying structure. This is the first data presented from DES and constitutes only 3% of the area that the survey is planned to cover by the time it is complete in 2018.
Science: Patent trolls are companies that buy up the rights to a variety of patents and then pursue lawsuits against other companies over potential infringements of the patents. A bill introduced in the US House of Representatives in February is intended to make it more difficult for such companies to profit. Many companies in the electronics and high-tech industries support the bill. Universities, however, are grouping together to oppose it out of fear that it may hinder their ability to defend their own patent rights. American universities often gain patents based on the work of the professors and researchers they employ. Instead of then producing those inventions, the universities license the patent rights and often file lawsuits over infringements. Several university groups and a technology industry group have exchanged public letters calling for changes in stances or alternatives to the bill under discussion. However, the bill appears to have strong support in both the House and Senate.
Nature: Cargo containers that enter a country's ports are inspected for a variety of illegal goods, including nuclear materials. However, it is relatively easy to shield nuclear materials from detectors that are passively looking for emitted radiation. An active option for penetrating shielding uses gamma rays to create images of the materials inside containers. The screening technique exploits the fact that high-Z elements absorb high-energy gamma rays more readily than low-Z elements do. Using a broad-spectrum source to generate the gamma rays would require levels of radiation that are dangerous to the people in the area, including port employees, stowaways, and human trafficking victims hidden inside cargo containers. Now Areg Danagoulian of MIT and his colleagues have developed a variant of this technique that reduces the danger by using just two gamma-ray wavelengths, 4.4 MeV and 15.1 MeV. The two wavelengths have been shown to clearly distinguish between types of metals based on their elemental weights. This means that uranium or plutonium, which are both much heavier than most nonnuclear metals, would appear as distinct from lead or iron. So far, Danagoulian's team has demonstrated the technique's capabilities only with nonnuclear materials.