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 16 posts for the selected month (September 2015).
September 4, 2015 2:13 PM

Self-healing polymer quickly repairs holes

Huffington Post: A new material has the ability to nearly instantly fill the holes made when it is suddenly punctured. Created by Timothy Scott of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the material is made of a liquid resin sandwiched between two polymer sheets. When the sheets are punctured, the resin flows into the gap and hardens as it reacts with oxygen in the air. Although this isn't the first self-healing material, it is the quickest to repair itself. Such a self-repairing material would be extremely useful for spacecraft, which risk catastrophe when punctured by micrometeorites or space debris.

September 4, 2015 1:45 PM

Construction of UK’s Hinkley Point nuclear plant is delayed

BBC: Funding problems are delaying construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset, UK. Originally scheduled to open in 2023, Hinkley is the UK’s first new nuclear plant in decades. Because of air-quality legislation that requires the UK’s old coal-burning power plants be shut down over the next eight years, the delay could result in an energy shortage. A recent study has found that nuclear power is more expensive in the UK than anywhere else in the world, in part because of its private ownership. State-run nuclear plants can take advantage of lower or even nonexistent interest rates, which can significantly reduce construction costs. Despite the problems with Hinkley, other nuclear projects are in the works and may be completed first.
September 4, 2015 12:50 PM

Climate change is forcing marine animals to shift habitat

New York Times: Because of global warming, marine species are moving away from the equator and toward the poles, and at a rate 10 times as fast as land species. To project how ocean animals’ habitat ranges are changing, an international team of researchers has been recording the warmest and coldest temperatures that some 13 000 species of fish, invertebrates, and other marine organisms can tolerate. They then used computer modeling to determine how the oceans’ ecosystems may get reshuffled over the coming decades as ocean waters warm. Such projections are complicated by the fact that temperature is not the only constraint; habitat requirements and competition among species also factor in. Any changes in marine biodiversity could have severe implications for human populations that rely on seafood as a major source of nutrition.
September 4, 2015 12:46 PM

LHC duplicates unusual B-meson decay rate seen at SLAC and KEK

Nature: An analysis of data collected from the LHCb experiment at CERN has revealed a potential discrepancy in the decay rate of B mesons. According to the standard model, the particles should decay evenly into muons and tau leptons, but the data suggest that the decay favors taus. Although the LHCb signal is only 2.1 sigma, the experiment is the third to have seen the unusual decay pattern with a 2-sigma signal. In 2012, SLAC's BaBar experiment reported the uneven decay, and in May of this year the Belle experiment at KEK, Japan's organization for high-energy accelerator research, did as well. Last year the LHCb saw a similar uneven decay of a different B meson, which favored electrons. If the signals prove to be real, they could challenge the standard model.

September 3, 2015 2:55 PM

ISS dark-matter detector may have another failing cooling pump

Nature: When it was mounted to the International Space Station in 2011, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) was expected to last three years, during which time it would search for evidence of dark matter in cosmic rays. The experiment is currently in its fourth year of operation, with nine more planned for its extended mission. However, last year one of its four cooling pumps failed, and another is beginning to show signs of trouble. The pumps work to keep the system cold while the AMS is exposed to sunlight, and only one pump is run at a time. According to Samuel Ting of MIT and head of the AMS science group at CERN, despite the troubles, the AMS is expected to operate for the full extended mission. If necessary, an updated operating program can be uploaded that adjusts the way the functioning pumps work, which could extend their lifetimes. Thermal blankets could also be installed around the pumps to help reduce their loads and control temperatures. Mark Sistilli, the AMS program manager at NASA, says that it could take 6 to 12 months to decide on a solution.

September 3, 2015 1:52 PM

Next-generation planet-hunting telescopes may see comet impacts

New Scientist: Most current telescopes are not able to directly see an extrasolar planet. But according to Laura Flagg of Northern Arizona University, the next generation may be able to detect one by the brief period of brightness caused by a comet crashing into it. Flagg analyzed the impact of Shoemaker–Levy 9 when it collided with Jupiter in 1994 and found only a small change in the visible light emitted. In the near-IR, however, the brightness would have increased significantly. Flagg believes that the impact raised a cloud of dust that blocked the planet's methane, which typically absorbs starlight.

September 3, 2015 1:50 PM

Robot designed to eradicate coral-killing starfish

BBC: The crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) has become known as the scourge of the Great Barrier Reef because it preys on the reef’s living coral and is responsible for 40% of the reef's total decline in coral cover. Although human divers have been working to eradicate it, there are not enough of them to control the growing COTS population. Now Matthew Dunbabin of the Queensland University of Technology has developed a robot to do the job. Equipped with stereoscopic cameras, thrusters, sensors, and GPS, the so-called COTSbot swims within a meter of the sea floor, uses its state-of-the-art computer vision to seek out the starfish, and injects them with a fatal dose of bile salts. Although the robot is not as adept at the task as a human, it can work day and night and in all weather conditions. The COTSbot is being tested in the field to evaluate its detection system. Over the next five months, it will slowly be allowed to function more autonomously until it is deemed ready for full deployment.
September 3, 2015 12:05 PM

New wireless communication technique uses magnetic signals

MIT Technology Review: As people accumulate more wearable electronics, such as smart watches and fitness trackers, good communication among the devices will be needed. Current wireless systems use Bluetooth, which transmits information via radio waves. However, Bluetooth requires a lot of power because the human body tends to absorb the radio signals. Magnetic fields, however, can pass right through biological tissue. Now Patrick Mercier of the University of California, San Diego, and coworkers are developing a prototype device that transmits data through the human body using magnetic fields. Because magnetic fields follow a circular path, the device consists of PVC-insulated copper wires that wrap around a person's head, arms, and legs. Although the technology is still in development, the researchers say that it could one day be integrated into a device that encircles a body part, such as a watch, headband, or belt.
September 2, 2015 3:23 PM

Model predicts level of surveillance needed for early invasive-disease detection

BBC: The early detection of invasive diseases is important in protecting crops, but crop surveillance is expensive. Now Stephen Parnell of the University of Salford, UK, and his colleagues have developed a model to determine the minimum amount of surveillance needed to detect invasive diseases before they reach epidemic levels. The model is based on current surveillance efforts and their ability to detect diseases and at what level of incidence. By defining the maximum level of incidence a disease should be allowed to reach before it is detected, the model can tell what level of surveillance is needed.

September 2, 2015 2:00 PM

New journal to publish on all aspects of the research cycle

Science: To generate interest and funding early in the research process, a new journal has been launched called Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO). The open-access journal is published by Pensoft, an independent academic publishing company that already hosts several other open-access journals. Its founding editor, Ross Mounce, says he seeks to publish articles on all aspects of the research cycle, including project proposals, methods, and workflow, to encourage scientists to provide feedback to and collaborate with other researchers. However, he has been criticized for some of his policies, such as making peer review optional and charging publishing fees. Whether RIO will be successful may depend on the willingness of researchers to publish their ideas early on and risk the possibility that someone else will then develop them first and receive the credit.
September 2, 2015 1:43 PM

Earth-based and New Horizons measurements of Pluto's atmospheric pressure conflict

Nature: According to measurements taken from Earth, Pluto's atmosphere has been getting denser since 1988. But measurements taken by New Horizons as it flew by the dwarf planet in July show the opposite. A group of researchers led by Eliot Young of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, say that on 29 June, just a few weeks before New Horizons's arrival, Pluto's atmospheric pressure was 0.022 Pa. New Horizons measured a pressure of just 0.005 Pa. The discrepancy could be due to the indirect measurement method used by the researchers, who based their finding on the fading of a star's light as Pluto passed in front of it. Furthermore, the Earth-based calculation determines the pressure at an altitude of 50–75 km, whereas New Horizons calculated the pressure at Pluto's surface. It does so by measuring the deflection of radio waves sent from Earth as they pass through Pluto's atmosphere. To try to reconcile the two different measurements, the researchers plan to compare them with existing and new models of Pluto's atmosphere.

September 2, 2015 11:00 AM

Plate tectonics may have triggered evolution of life on Earth

New Scientist: The breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea some 125 million years ago may have provided the environment necessary to generate life deep in Earth’s oceans. Frieder Klein of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his colleagues examined rock samples collected from beneath the sea floor off Portugal and found that they contain a sizable percentage of organic material—about 0.5% by weight—as well as amino acids, proteins, and fatty lipids. The researchers say that hydrogen- and methane-rich hydrothermal fluids were abundant in Earth’s mantle, and as Pangaea broke apart, ocean water seeped into the rock’s fissures and cavities. Oxygen, sulphates, bicarbonates, and other materials in the seawater reacted with the mantle material to fuel the growth of microbial communities. Moreover, conditions similar to those that created the microbes found by the researchers may have also spawned the first life on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. And those same conditions may exist elsewhere in the solar system, says Klein.
September 1, 2015 2:10 PM

Modern storm-risk assessment must look beyond historical record

Science: Parts of the world that have experienced extreme storms in the past are generally better prepared for such disasters in the future. But just because a region hasn’t had a bad storm doesn’t mean it never will. A new risk-assessment tool looks beyond the historical record and takes into account other factors, such as the physics of storms and the shape of an area’s sea floor and coastline. As evidenced by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which struck New Orleans and the US East Coast, respectively, it is storm surge that can wreak the most destruction. To predict the likelihood of storm surge, researchers used a two-part model that simulated storms all over the world over tens of thousands of years and then statistically analyzed all the data. They found that some areas historically lacking severe storms actually have a potentially large risk of one, a risk that will likely increase due to climate change and rising sea levels.
September 1, 2015 1:45 PM

Majority of Europe's electronic waste is improperly handled

New Scientist: According to a new report from the United Nations University and INTERPOL, in 2012 only 35% of Europe's electronic waste was properly disposed of. Of the remainder, 1.3 million tons were stolen, including functional computer components and precious metals worth some €1.7 billion ($1.9 billion). Another 4.7 million tons were improperly disposed of or illegally traded. Improper disposal of electronics poses a threat to the environment and to public health because of the variety of toxic materials—such as lead, cadmium, and mercury—they contain.

September 1, 2015 1:44 PM

Binary stars can perturb planetary orbits

Ars Technica: Some exoplanetary systems consist of planets orbiting stars that have distant binary companions. According to new simulations of such systems, if a planet's orbital precession around its star falls into resonance with the orbital period of the binary, the resulting gravitational forces could lead to drastic changes in the planet's orbit. In particular, the planet's orbit could become highly elliptical or be forced into a different plane from that of the other planets in the system. In extreme cases, the planet could be ejected from the system or forced to collide with another planet or with one of the stars.

September 1, 2015 10:45 AM

Open-source motion-detection software encourages innovation

Nature: To track and study how animals move, a plethora of motion-tracking tools have sprung up that are based on motion-capture imaging technology. They are being used in various ways, such as to determine how ancient fossilized creatures may have moved or to detect aberrant movements that might indicate a neurological disorder, like Parkinson’s disease. One tool, called XROMM (x-ray reconstruction of moving morphology), uses x rays to image bones and joints moving inside live animals. Another, called MouseWalker, uses a high-speed video camera to detect the scattering of light as a mouse’s paws make contact with a transparent surface surrounded by LED lights. Both are among a growing number of software tools that have been made open source and thus freely available. The hope is that researchers will take the tools and go on to modify and redistribute them and further expand their applications.
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Scitation: News Picks - Blog