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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 55 posts for the selected month (November 2014).

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November 21, 2014 11:35 AM

New solar panel system promises to be cheaper, easier to install

MIT Technology Review: Because of the complex hardware, permitting, and technical expertise required, rooftop solar panel systems have been prohibitively expensive to install. But a new, simplified system designed by the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems may change all that; it has flexible panels with an adhesive backing and an innovative power distribution arrangement. The lighter design should allow homeowners to install the panels themselves by simply gluing them to the roof and hooking them up via a series of quick-connect cables. The power will be controlled and distributed via packet energy transfer (PET), an innovative electrical system being developed by the Rhode Island startup company VoltServer. The system is being marketed as much safer than conventional power delivery because its software performs safety checks and can cut off or reroute the power instantly if it senses a problem. The system is currently in the beta testing phase.

November 20, 2014 3:25 PM

Two new particles discovered at LHCb

CBC News: Researchers analyzing data collected by CERN's LHCb experiment have found two new particles, Xi_b'- and Xi_b*-. Both particles are baryons, meaning they are each made up of three quarks, just like protons and neutrons. The new particles are six times heavier than a proton because they each contain the extremely heavy bottom quark. The existence of the particles did not come as a surprise as they had been predicted by two researchers in Canada: Randy Lewis of York University in Toronto and Richard Woloshyn of the TRIUMF particle-physics lab in Vancouver. The two particles join the very long list of baryons and are the third and fourth particles discovered at the LHC: The Higgs boson was identified last year, and another baryon, the Xi_b*0, in 2012.

November 20, 2014 1:36 PM

Potential supernova may actually be a black hole

Space.com: A bright object called SDSS1133, located just outside a dwarf galaxy known as Markarian 177, has long been thought to be a supernova. However, Michael Koss of the Swiss National Science Foundation has discovered that images of the object show that it has remained bright for more than 60 years, much longer than any known supernova. Recent observations have also revealed that SDSS1133 is getting brighter. Because supernovas tend to explode in a bright flash and then fade over time, Koss and his colleagues propose that SDSS1133 may actually be a black hole. It could have been created when two galaxies collided and their central black holes merged. To determine whether SDSS1133 is indeed a black hole, the researchers are looking for the presence of a specific form of carbon in the surrounding material.

November 20, 2014 1:30 PM

3D printing used to construct smart contact lens

New Scientist: Researchers are finding that 3D printing may be more versatile than previously thought. Michael McAlpine of Princeton University and his colleagues have succeeded in 3D printing contact lenses that contain quantum-dot LEDs. To do so, they had to integrate five different types of materials and print them onto a curvilinear surface. The finished lens is a transparent polymer that contains the nanoscale LEDs along with silver nanoparticle wiring and organic polymers that form electrical circuits. The US Air Force is funding the project, which could have many uses, including the display of in-flight data and, if sensors were incorporated into the design, the monitoring of pilot health and fatigue. More testing is needed to make sure that the materials used—such as the cadmium selenide in the LEDs—will have no adverse effects on the wearer.

November 20, 2014 11:10 AM

Private Moon mission seeks Kickstarter funding

Nature: A UK consortium is setting its sights on launching a $1 billion mission within the next 10 years to explore the Moon's south pole. Called Lunar Mission One, it would land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, drill a 5-cm-diameter borehole to a depth of 20–100 m, and analyze the rock samples it collects. For funding, the project's developers have turned to Kickstarter, through which they hope to raise an initial $1 million by 17 December. In an effort to attract prospective sponsors, they are promising space for digital photos, personal messages, and so forth to be placed in a time capsule that will be buried on the Moon. Although skeptics doubt that enough people will be interested to raise the $1 billion total that will be needed for launch, Lunar Missions founder David Iron says there’s “no harm in finding out.”

November 19, 2014 1:40 PM

New laser technique allows analysis of smaller geological samples

Ars Technica: Analyzing sediment and ice cores has usually required removing chunks of material and taking them to a laboratory for study. One form of chemical analysis involves lipid molecules, which aren’t easy to measure with the necessary precision. Now a group of researchers led by Lars Wörmer of the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at the University of Bremen in Germany has developed a method using lasers that can get much more detailed results from much smaller samples of material. When aimed at a sample, the laser stirs up microscopic clouds of molecules that can then be analyzed by a mass spectrometer. In a side-by-side comparison with traditional techniques, the laser method not only showed comparable results but also detected more detail, such as the fact that sea surface temperatures appear to vary more in the short term than was previously believed. Next the researchers hope to turn their laser technology onto other organic molecules in sediment in order to learn even more about past climates and ecosystems.

November 19, 2014 11:51 AM

Philae returns its first data from the surface of a comet

BBC: Despite its bumpy landing on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's Philae lander was still able to perform its primary scientific missions. One of its instruments sampled and analyzed the comet's atmosphere and detected the presence of organic molecules. The team monitoring that instrument has not revealed any details about what compounds were found or in what concentrations. A second instrument suggests that the comet is covered by a layer of dust 10- to 20-cm thick with frozen water underneath. Because of the extreme conditions at which it froze, the ice appears to have a tensile strength similar to that of sandstone. A drill that was supposed to obtain a soil sample and deliver it to an analyzer appears to have failed to do so. Also, an x-ray spectrometer designed to image the comet's surface appears to have failed to take clear pictures, probably due to the fact that the lander ended up lying on its side.

November 19, 2014 10:45 AM

Mystery Russian spacecraft is making unusual maneuvers

New Scientist: A rocket launched 23 May from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia released four spacecraft. Three of those craft are believed to be military communications satellites. The fourth is something of a mystery. Instead of settling into a stable orbit like the other spacecraft, it has been changing course repeatedly and on 28 October approached the rocket that put it into orbit. Those sorts of maneuvers are mostly associated with two types of spacecraft: satellite repair robots and antisatellite weapons (ASATs). Russia officially stopped developing ASATs in the 1980s, but in 2010 Russian space commander Oleg Ostapenko said that the country had begun work on the technology again in response to rising tensions between Russia and Western nations.
November 19, 2014 10:30 AM

Gecko-inspired adhesive allows human to scale wall

MIT Technology Review: Geckos are known for their ability to adhere to and climb vertical surfaces, including sheer ones like glass. They can do so because of the stickiness of their feet, which is due to the weak electrical attraction called van der Waals forces between the surface and the hair-like setae on gecko footpads. Now researchers led by Mark Cutkosky of Stanford University have developed a human climbing system based on the structure of gecko toes. They attached tiles of an adhesive polymer material called PDMS to a flat, hexagonal, hand-sized gripper backed with a spring to distribute the user's weight across the pad. The system allowed a 70-kg graduate student using two of the grippers to scale a vertical glass wall. So far, however, the climbing system has been tested only on very smooth, clean, flat surfaces. If it is to be put to practical use, such as by construction workers for manipulating huge solar panels or by the military for maneuvering in difficult terrain, it will need to be tested under less ideal conditions, such as on wet or dusty surfaces or in zero gravity.

November 18, 2014 1:55 PM

India may pose biggest challenge to curbing global climate change

New York Times: To power its burgeoning economy, India has been pushing to harvest its vast stores of domestic coal. The country has the fifth-largest coal reserves in the world and very little oil or natural gas. However, the coal is twice as polluting as that from Western nations because of its high ash content, and 90% of it comes from strip mines, which are laying waste to the land, water, and air. As a result, smog levels in India have become worse than China’s. Yet the country’s power minister, Piyush Goyal, has pledged to double the use of domestic coal by 2019. Nevertheless, one promising alternative is being pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is working to take advantage of another of India’s natural resources: sunlight. Modi is currently pushing for arrays of solar power stations, one of which has already been built by Welspun Energy and is the largest so far in Asia. Whether solar power will keep India from pushing the world past the brink of irreversible climate change remains to be seen.

November 18, 2014 1:36 PM

GPS satellites could provide clues for dark-matter detection

New Scientist: The network of GPS satellites is nearly 50 000 km in diameter, and each satellite is equipped with a very precise clock. Along with Earth and the rest of the solar system, the GPS network travels through the galaxy at nearly 300 km/s. Andrei Derevianko of the University of Nevada, Reno, and Maxim Pospelov of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, argue that this combination of factors makes the network a potentially useful tool for detecting a version of dark matter that may not consist of particles. They propose that dark matter could instead take the form of bends or cracks in the quantum fields that fill the universe. As the solar system passes through one of those cracks, it is possible that the GPS network would detect a variation in the satellites' clocks. The effect would appear as a wave that spreads across the network at the rate of the solar system's movement. Derevianko is now examining 15 years' worth of GPS data to look for such a signal. If his initial search is unsuccessful, he plans to use a network of ground-based atomic clocks currently being built in Europe, which will be even more sensitive than the satellites' clocks.

November 18, 2014 11:35 AM

Europe to provide Orion's first service module

BBC: Orion is NASA's next-generation manned space capsule that is currently under development. NASA has now signed an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus, which will work together to create a propulsion and service module for Orion's first full test flight, scheduled for 2017. The module will be developed by Airbus with €390 million ($490 million) in funding from the ESA. NASA will receive the module for free as the ESA's payment in kind for costs the ESA will incur at the International Space Station (ISS) between 2018 and 2020. The service module design was heavily influenced by the ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned craft currently being used for cargo deliveries to the ISS.

November 18, 2014 11:15 AM

New software can identify not just people in a photo but also what they’re doing

Sydney Morning Herald: Two different groups of researchers have written computer algorithms that can not only pick out individual objects in an image but also describe the entire scene. Both groups, one at Google and the other at Stanford University, were inspired by the neural networks found in the brain. They incorporated two types of networks: one that recognizes images and one that focuses on human language. The researchers trained the artificial-intelligence software by exposing it to images that had descriptive sentences written by humans. Once it learned to pick out patterns in the pictures and descriptions, the researchers tried it out on unfamiliar images. A few of the sentences the software generated included "man in black shirt is playing guitar" and "girl in pink dress is jumping in air." Although still nowhere as accurate as humans, the new system is much more advanced than previous designs. Possible uses include sifting through the billions of images and video online to better catalog and describe them, helping people who are visually impaired to navigate on their own, and monitoring public spaces for illegal activity and alerting the police.

November 17, 2014 2:47 PM

Parallel radio and laser signal may be alternative to fiber for data transmission

MIT Technology Review: A series of boxes spaced 10 km apart, each of which pairs an IR laser with a directional millimeter-wave radio transmitter, may soon provide wireless internet access. Developed by a company called AOptix, the paired signals each transmit the same data at 2 GB/s, which provides redundancy in case conditions prevent one signal from reaching the next box. Chandra Pusarla, the company's senior vice president of products and technology, says the redundancy guarantees the system will experience only five minutes or less of downtime per year. It is currently undergoing tests by three US wireless carriers and is already being used in Mexico and Nigeria. The technology is useful both in urban environments, where upgrading copper wiring to fiber optics can be costly, and in rural environments, which lack any fiber-optic infrastructure.

November 17, 2014 1:32 PM

DNA used for synthetic biology data storage

Nature: Synthetic biology creates cells that perform logic operations through gene expression. To truly function as computers, those cells need a way to store and access data, but most attempts to achieve that goal have been limited. Now, MIT's Timothy Lu and Fahim Farzadfard have developed a way to use DNA for data storage that can take multiple inputs simultaneously and also keep a record of the accumulation of data over time. The technique, which they call Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events (SCRIBE), uses a cellular structure known as a retron, which produces single-strand DNA. Lu and Farzadfard created a culture of Escherichia coli in which the retrons responded to the presence of a certain chemical by making the bacteria resistant to antibiotics. The amount of chemical introduced altered the proportion of the bacteria that became resistant. Used that way, the distributed system can store information in a range instead of in a binary state. Lu and Farzadfard also showed that the process is reversible, can be triggered by light, and can "record" the influence of multiple triggers.

November 17, 2014 12:35 PM

Brain tumors treated with alternating electric fields

New York Times: An electrical device that attaches to the scalp has been shown to slow the growth of brain tumors. Produced by Novocure, a company in the UK, the device consists of four pads that are glued to a patient’s shaved scalp and connected by wires to an operating system and power supply. The system delivers low-intensity, alternating electric fields, called tumor-treating fields, that disrupt cell division. The device is being tested on people with glioblastoma, the most aggressive and malignant type of brain tumor. Early results show that the device extended patients’ lives by three months, and some have survived more than two years. The company next plans to test the device on other types of cancer.

November 17, 2014 11:40 AM

Ancient Utah landslide provides insights into catastrophic collapse

Ars Technica: At 90 km long and 40 km wide, the Markagunt gravity slide in southwest Utah is a manifestation of the largest known landslide on Earth. During the event, which happened about 21 million to 22 million years ago, rocks up to 2.5 km2 and 200 m thick were sent sprawling some 30 km or more. Because the debris field is so large, geologists had thought that it represented a series of individual landslides. In a recent paper published in Geology, however, a group of researchers propose that it was the result of a single, catastrophic event. Over time, they say, volcanic eruptions may have built up a thick wedge of material on top of the clay-rich sedimentary soil, which is structurally weaker. Pressure from the underlying magma then pushed the surface upward, which in turn put stress on the rocks and created faults and fractures. A violent eruption or earthquake could have then set the whole thing in motion. The researchers say the site could provide insights into the potential hazards of such catastrophic collapse.

November 14, 2014 3:55 PM

Census Bureau’s proposed trimming of survey questions upsets researchers

Science: Since 2005 the US Census Bureau has been conducting an annual 72-question survey to collect housing and demographic information from some 3.5 million people. The survey supplements the decennial census required by the US Constitution. Some members of Congress, however, have objected on the grounds that it poses an unnecessary burden on the public and that the government has no business asking some of the questions. This year the Census Bureau conducted an extensive review of each survey question to determine two criteria: whether a law required the collection of that information and how much time it takes the respondents to answer. As a result, seven questions may get dropped. Social science researchers are unhappy with the proposal to drop question 12, which asks survey takers to identify their college major. The researchers say the information is essential for science and technology policy planning. Next follows a 60-day comment period, during which the statistical community hopes to persuade the Obama administration to reverse the decision.

November 14, 2014 3:42 PM

Unexpected storms spotted on Uranus

Los Angeles Times: Astronomers believe that Uranus does not have a warm core and that heating from the Sun drives the formation of the planet's storms. Therefore, storm activity on the planet should peak during equinoxes. But recent observations have revealed a spate of storms at a rate much higher than during the most recent equinox, seven years ago. In August, Imke de Pater of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues, with the help of amateur astronomers and time on the Hubble Space Telescope, spotted eight storms at various altitudes. One of those storms was the brightest ever at the 2.2-µm wavelength. That height puts the storm just below Uranus's tropopause. The researchers are uncertain what could have been driving the storms, but they know that whatever the cause, it will require revising theories about Uranus.

November 14, 2014 12:59 PM

Systemic problems found in DOD nuclear weapons programs

New York Times: Two independent studies ordered by the Pentagon have revealed wide-ranging problems with the management of the US Air Force's and US Navy's nuclear weapons, facilities, and ships. The probes were initiated following the uncovering of academic cheating and several incidents of misbehavior by senior officers. The problems include blast doors that failed to seal and the fact that only a single wrench existed for attaching nuclear warheads to missiles. That one wrench was being shipped via FedEx between the facilities that manage the warhead stockpiles. The emergency repairs and equipment replacements are expected to add several billions of dollars to the Department of Defense's expenses over the next five years. The two studies' investigators—senior Pentagon officers conducted one study, and two retired officers ran the other—visited all the military's nuclear installations and interviewed nearly 1500 personnel. Both investigations found that the problems were rooted in staffing shortages, long-standing cultures of micromanagement that ignored larger issues, personnel management practices that degraded morale and favored test scores over effectiveness, and the age of many of the systems.

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