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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 66 posts for the selected month (February 2015).
February 26, 2015 4:52 PM

New data confirm greenhouse effect is gaining strength

Ars Technica: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising and are indeed contributing to Earth’s greenhouse effect, according to a new study. US researchers have made the most accurate measurements yet of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Looking straight up at the sky, they measured the IR light spectrum, from which they could determine the amounts of various molecules present, including water vapor, CO2, ozone, and methane. They found that between 2000 and 2010, the amount of CO2 rose by 22 parts per million. A greenhouse gas, CO2 absorbs thermal radiation from the planet’s surface and reradiates it back toward Earth, which can cause a rise in atmospheric temperatures. However, because of the complications posed by clouds and other weather phenomena, the effects of rising CO2 levels are not yet completely understood.

February 26, 2015 3:27 PM

New titanium manufacturing process is cheaper, more energy efficient

Technology Review: To lighten aircraft and automobiles, and therefore increase their fuel efficiency, manufacturers have been using more titanium, a low-density, high-strength metal that is extremely resistant to corrosion. But making titanium involves a multistep process that requires very high temperatures. Now SRI International has developed a way to produce titanium powder, which requires fewer steps and less energy. It uses plasma arcs to cause molecules of hydrogen and titanium chloride to react and form titanium vapor, which then forms a powder as it solidifies. The powder can then be pressed into whatever shape is needed, thus reducing the amount of machining required. SRI is currently refining the process before it attempts to scale up production.

February 26, 2015 1:00 PM

Computer learns to play classic video games

BBC: A computer program developed by Google DeepMind has learned how to play 49 classic Atari video games. In about half the games, it was able to match the abilities of a professional human player. What makes this achievement significant is that the program was not specifically designed to play the games. Instead, it was given only the basic information needed to play them: the raw pixels on the screen and the goal of getting a high score. From that information the program could be presented with any of the games and, in the course of a few hours, learn to play the game with varying levels of success.

February 26, 2015 12:59 PM

Surprisingly large quasar dates from very early universe

Los Angeles Times: An object spotted by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey appears to be a black hole 12 billion solar masses in size. Its redshift suggests it formed when the universe was only 875 million years old. Of the known black holes formed in the universe's first billion years, it is by far the most massive and luminous. This black hole is also a quasar and is pulling in so much of the surrounding material that massive amounts of radiative energy are being released. And that's what makes it unusual. Normally, the pressure from that radiation is expected to gradually slow the rate at which material falls into a black hole. The finding that the black hole reached such a great size in such a short period of time challenges current understanding. Further observations of this black hole could provide more clues into black hole formation and evolution. As the light it emits passes through the material in the intergalactic medium,  which was much denser 13 billion years ago, that light could also provide information about the growth of the universe itself.

February 25, 2015 1:00 PM

Renewable energy likely to surpass nuclear's contribution to UK power supply

New Scientist: In 1995, when the last nuclear reactor was built in the UK, nuclear power accounted for more than 25% of the nation's energy production. Now that the government has heavily invested in the addition of renewable energy production, nuclear power produces only 19%. Between 2010 and 2013, renewable energy's contribution increased more than twofold, from 6.8% to 14.9%. Wind turbines have been the main source of that growth. The government has invested £14.5 billion ($22.5 billion) in wind energy since 2010. Onshore and offshore turbines now contribute more than half of the country's renewable energy production. A plan for the world's largest offshore turbine farm was approved last week, and the 400-turbine project is expected to increase offshore production by two-thirds of its current level.
February 25, 2015 12:30 PM

Eyelashes serve as windbreak to shield eye

New York Times: Once thought to protect the eye by catching dust particles or triggering blinking, eyelashes actually serve to divert airflow away from the eye’s surface. David Hu of Georgia Tech and colleagues measured the lashes of various mammals and found that most lashes tend to be about one-third the eye width. That appears to be the optimal length to channel air away from the ocular surface, which helps to reduce evaporation and the deposition of dust, according to their study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. To test lashes’ ability as a windbreak, the researchers created an artificial eye and placed it in a wind tunnel. They found that the lashes’ aerodynamic benefits decrease with increasing length—longer lashes can actually channel airflow toward the eye’s surface. The principles involved could be used to help reduce dust on sensitive sensors or solar panels.
February 25, 2015 12:21 PM

Record sea-level rise along northeast coast of North America

BBC: Tidal measurements from 2009 and 2010 reveal that sea levels along the Atlantic coastline north of New York City rose by 128 mm over that two-year period. A team of researchers from the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration split the Atlantic coastline into three regions, with the other two regions stretching from New York City to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and from Cape Hatteras southward. They say the increase in level seen north of New York City was higher than any recorded in the past 100 years and is "a 1-in-850 year event." The rise is likely tied to major storms that lifted tides and had a lasting effect on local sea levels.

February 25, 2015 10:50 AM

Foam on latte inhibits sloshing

Los Angeles Times: Black coffee carried in a cup is more likely to slosh over the edge than is a foamy latte. To look at the physics involved, Alban Sauret of the French National Center for Scientific Research and his colleagues filled a small rectangular container with water, glycerol, and Dawn dishwashing liquid. They built up several layers of bubbles by using a needle and a syringe pump. When the container was either jolted or set in a gentle, rocking motion, the researchers observed that the foam on top of the liquid “increases the damping coefficient and reduces the amplitude of the free-surface oscillations,” according to their paper published in the journal Physics of Fluids. The findings could have many large-scale, industrial applications, such as improving the transportation of oil and gas in tanker ships. The researchers note that their findings also apply to beer—a very foamy beer, like Guinness, is much less sloshy.
February 24, 2015 2:26 PM

Delayed pay rise prompts hunger strike by Indian PhD students

Nature: In October 2014, following widespread student protests over low pay and delayed payouts, the Indian government announced an increase in the wages that fellowships pay to the country's PhD students. Some of the government agencies, such as the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology, have already implemented the new wage system. Others have not. At least two, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission, have announced that they would implement the changes but have not yet done so, nor have they provided timetables for the changes. The delays and lack of information from the funding agencies have driven thousands of graduate students to launch a hunger strike. On 20 February, about 150 student protesters who went to an office of the human resource development ministry in New Delhi were taken to a police station, which further increased tensions between the students and the government.

February 24, 2015 2:10 PM

US must increase its energy funding, says innovation council

New York Times: The American Energy Innovation Council is urging the US government to triple its current level of funding for energy research. In the council’s recent report, some of the country’s top business leaders, among them Bill Gates of Microsoft and Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, say that without dramatically increasing federal funding for technology innovation, the US risks falling behind in the energy race. The US must make more of an effort to both improve existing technologies and create new technologies to provide affordable and sustainable energy to its citizens while limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Safer nuclear reactors, cheaper carbon-capture methods, and better batteries are among the objectives mentioned. Although the report cites some progress on the recommendations the council made five years ago, much more needs to be done. Council members say the upcoming 2016 presidential race may provide some impetus to take up their ambitious recommendations.

February 24, 2015 11:50 AM

Tracking people via their cell phone battery usage

BBC: Most people know that their phone can be tracked through its GPS, cellular, or Wi-Fi connectivity. That’s why phone applications require the user’s permission to access those services. However, no permission is needed to read the phone’s power consumption, and that information, according to a new study, can also be used to infer a user’s location. The amount of power a phone uses depends on how far it is from a cell phone tower and how many obstacles, such as trees or buildings, are in between. Although phones run many applications simultaneously that also drain the battery, that noise is not correlated with the phone’s location and can be ruled out by a machine learning algorithm. The researchers say that if one knows the general area in which a given user moves, the application can learn information about the user’s location in just a few minutes.
February 24, 2015 11:10 AM

Dragonflies have extraordinary color vision

New Scientist: Dragonflies apparently surpass all other known animal species in the ability to see color. Whereas the vision of most mammals, birds, and insects is di-, tri,- or tetrachromatic—humans, for example, see colors as a combination of red, green, and blue—dragonflies can detect as many as 30 different vision pigments. Ryo Futahashi of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, and colleagues have also found that the number of opsins, or light-sensitive proteins, can vary over the course of an individual dragonfly’s development, from larva to adult. The extra opsins may also allow dragonflies to see UV and polarized light.
February 23, 2015 4:20 PM

Winds generated by black holes limit galaxy formation

BBC: Supermassive black holes generate high-velocity winds that blow outward in every direction, according to a new study published in Science. Using two telescopes—NASA’s Nustar, which detects high-energy x rays, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton, which detects lower-energy x rays—Emanuele Nardini of Keel University in the UK and colleagues were able to deduce the speed, shape, and size of the winds by looking at the way iron atoms were scattered. Because the winds eject a considerable amount of material from the host galaxy, fewer stars are able to form from the material that's left.
February 23, 2015 2:15 PM

Galactic dark matter may trigger extinctions on Earth

Science: Mass extinctions tend to occur on Earth about every 30 million years. They appear to result either from impacts by extraterrestrial objects or from geological events such as volcanic eruptions. Both types of catastrophes may be caused by dark matter, proposes Michael Rampino, whose research has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Rampino notes that as the Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, it oscillates vertically with a similar periodicity through the galactic plane. Not only might the presence of dark matter in that plane disrupt the orbits of comets and asteroids, causing them to impact Earth, but dark matter particles might also get trapped by Earth’s gravity and sucked into the planet’s core, where they could fuel geological upheavals. Although what dark matter is remains unknown, its gravitational effect on visible matter indicates that there’s a lot of it.
February 23, 2015 12:20 PM

Climate skeptic under investigation for allegedly failing to disclose funding sources

Nature: Solar physicist Willie Soon of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is under investigation for a potential conflict of interest concerning his stance on climate change and the source of his funding. Soon has published numerous papers that contradict the findings of mainstream climate science. Since 2001 he has received more than $1.5 million from private groups that include at least one energy company and a conservative foundation. However, according to documents recently obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, Soon may not have reported his funding sources as required by the journals that published his research. The investigation was prompted by Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center in Alexandria, Virginia.
February 23, 2015 10:15 AM

Replacing spark plugs with laser ignition in combustion engines

New Scientist: Conventional combustion engines use spark plugs to ignite a fuel–air mix, which drives a series of pistons. Because spark plugs ignite the fuel at just one end of the combustion chamber and each combustion cycle happens very quickly, not all of the fuel mixture gets burned. To improve combustion efficiency, Princeton Optronics has replaced the spark plugs with lasers, which can ignite the fuel in the middle of the chamber, can be tuned more precisely than spark plugs, and can fire multiple times during a single cycle. Those properties allow more of the fuel to burn off. Although laser ignition is not a new idea, only now have lasers become small enough and efficient enough to be practical for this application. Princeton Optronics presented its prototype at the ARPA–E energy innovation summit.
February 20, 2015 2:28 PM

Scientists want to improve public outreach, but are cautious about doing so

Nature: The results of a Pew Research Center poll of 4000 scientists were shared at last week's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Of the respondents, 87% said scientists should be active in public discussions about science and technology. About 79% said they did not trust the media to distinguish between good and bad science. A small majority, 52%, believe science is often oversimplified in the media. Regarding career advancement, 43% thought that coverage in the news media was important, but just 22% felt that the use of social media was. Only 12% of respondents were following experts in their fields on Twitter or Facebook. The survey indicated that more women than men are active in outreach efforts, and that most of those participating in outreach are younger than 50, which signals a growing trend of increased involvement by underrepresented groups.

February 20, 2015 12:20 PM

Nanoscale thin films of silicon can serve as lenses

MIT Technology Review: Most optical materials bend different wavelengths of light to different degrees. To obtain a clear image, multiple lenses are needed to focus all the light on the same spot. Multiple lenses can make cameras bulky, which poses a problem for small electronic devices. Federico Capasso of Harvard University has now demonstrated the ability of carefully structured thin films of materials such as silicon to bend red, green, and blue wavelengths of light at the same angle. Those three colors are necessary to provide full-color images. The nanostructured material could allow for a significant reduction in the number and size of lenses needed for portable or wearable electronics.

February 20, 2015 12:20 PM

US to crack down on imports of air-polluting machinery

Los Angeles Times: Because of the amount of equipment being imported to the US that does not meet federal air-quality standards, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it will increase the number of inspections at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are among the busiest in the country. The announcement follows an extended examination of those ports in 2014 by the EPA and US Customs and Border Protection. Between June and September, inspectors examined 62 shipments and found 730 pieces of equipment that failed to meet the standards spelled out by the Clean Air Act. All the shipments came from Asia, and most came from China. Until now, customs officials say, only a small percentage of shipping containers had been opened and inspected.
February 20, 2015 12:10 PM

Intelligence agencies hack SIM cards, threaten phone security

Ars Technica: In April 2010 two major surveillance agencies, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters, hacked into and stole encryption keys from the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards, according to confidential documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Based in the Netherlands but with a global reach, Gemalto supplies some 2 billion SIM cards per year to such major wireless network providers as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint. With the stolen keys, the agencies can secretly monitor mobile communications all over the world. The theft of the database of keys “is pretty much game over for cellular encryption,” says Matthew Green of the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute.
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