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 19 posts for the selected month (October 2015).
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.
October 5, 2015 1:30 PM

Groups of bike racers move like birds and fish

New Scientist: Human bicyclists in mass-start races, such as the Tour de France, tend to move as a cohesive unit, alternately clumping together and stretching out single file, much like flocks of birds or schools of fish. New research shows that the behavior is due more to certain physical principles than to individual wills. A former competitive cyclist named Hugh Trenchard studied videos of cycling races that took place in velodromes and collected statistics on cyclists’ speed and physical attributes. He found that the riders tend to group together, and the shape of the resulting peloton depends on the speed of the front rider, with the rest keeping pace by drafting, or riding directly behind another cyclist in order to take advantage of the reduced drag. Drafting helps slower riders stay with the rest of the group but makes it harder for them to pass the rider ahead. The speed of the entire group is limited by the individual cyclists’ inherent maximum abilities. The seemingly cooperative behavior that arises occurs regardless of team strategies or rider fatigue, says Trenchard.
October 5, 2015 12:40 PM

Ancient submarine landslide may have caused giant tsunami

Science: From rock deposits on an island off the west coast of Africa, researchers have found evidence of a possible megatsunami that may have been triggered by the collapsing rim of a powerful oceanic volcano some 73 000 years ago. Telltale signs of the volcanic eruption—scarring on the rim of the caldera and some 160 km3 of rock deposited on the sea floor—were found some time ago on Fogo, an island in the Cape Verde archipelago. Now, on the nearby island of Santiago, researchers have found 49 massive boulders that appear to have come from Fogo at about the same time as the ancient landslide occurred. Because some of the rocks weigh more than 700 tons and are located high up on two separate plateaus, the researchers conclude that the only way the rocks could have gotten there is by being pushed by a massive tsunami, more than 270 m high. Such an event today, were it to occur near a large city, could be devastating and should be taken into account in disaster mitigation plans, they say.
October 5, 2015 10:30 AM

Despite extensive ice melt elsewhere, East Antarctica ice sheet is growing

Nature: Whereas glaciers in much of Antarctica are melting at unprecedented rates, those in the eastern part of the continent have actually been growing fairly steadily, according to a recent study to be published in the Journal of Glaciology. To track the height of Antarctica’s ice-sheet surface over the past two decades, Jay Zwally of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and colleagues used data from the European Space Agency’s European remote sensing radar satellite and NASA’s ICESat satellite. Since 1992, when measurements began, they found that East Antarctica’s ice sheet has been increasing in size by about a centimeter each year. Although the ice growth is seemingly minimal, it is counterbalancing the ice losses elsewhere on the continent, the researchers say. Nevertheless, Antarctica’s glacial ice mass is complex, and the findings should in no way lessen concerns over global warming, says Zwally.
October 2, 2015 3:30 PM

Elusive vacuum fluctuations may have been measured for the first time

Science: A research team reports the first direct observation of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, or the temporary appearance of energetic particles in a point in space. Claudius Riek, Alfred Leitenstorfer, and colleagues at the University of Konstanz in Germany studied the phenomenon by looking for the subtle influences that are exerted on a transparent crystal by the fluctuating electric field produced by the birth and death of virtual photons. The researchers shot a “probe” pulse of light through the crystal and then measured the pulse’s polarization as it exited the other side. Over repeated trials, the polarization varied slightly, which, they claim, indicated the influence of vacuum fluctuations. Some scientists have questioned the results, however, saying some other source, such as thermal fluctuations, could be causing the variations in the crystal’s optical properties.
October 2, 2015 3:20 PM

India commits to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions

New York Times: As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change prepares to meet in Paris in December, India has announced its plan to lower its emissions and increase its production of solar, water, and wind power. India is the third largest carbon polluter in the world and the last of the world’s major economies to submit a climate-change plan. Despite having become one of the fastest-growing economies over the past couple of decades, India is still battling wide-scale poverty and relies heavily on cheap, coal-fired electricity to spur economic growth. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says his people recognize that climate change is a priority and a global responsibility.
October 2, 2015 12:25 PM

Volcano triggered by asteroid impact may have contributed to dinosaur extinction

Washington Post: One explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs has been the catastrophic effects of a giant asteroid impact, evidenced by the Chicxulub crater on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. However, some scientists have proposed instead the massive volcanism occurring in India around the same time. According to a recent study published in Science, both theories may be true. Paul Renne of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues say the asteroid impact could have triggered earthquakes all over the world, which would have led to extensive fracturing of Earth’s crust. That in turn could have boosted the rate of lava flows in India’s Deccan Traps and released more disruptive gases and ash into the atmosphere. Such atmospheric pollutants would have had severe effects on Earth’s climate and could have led to the demise of many species.
October 2, 2015 10:50 AM

Brazil’s science programs suffering in current economic depression

Nature: Despite having had one of the fastest growing economies for at least a decade, Brazil is now experiencing a severe economic slump. Since 2014, scientific research programs, fellowships, and grants have been cut, and many that had been awarded funding have yet to receive the money. Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), which saw its budget double between 2005 and 2010, received a 25% cut earlier this year, and the budget proposal for 2016 requests 24% less than that. Although Brazil’s science and technology minister, Aldo Rebelo, has asked for a loan of $2 billion from the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC, “many fear that the worst is yet to come,” writes Elizabeth Gibney for Nature.
October 1, 2015 3:30 PM

NASA narrows search for next Discovery-class mission

Nature: Founded in 1992, NASA’s Discovery Program funds a series of lower-cost missions to explore the solar system. The most recent call for proposals yielded 27, which as of yesterday got shortened to 5. Those selected will each receive $3 million to further develop their proposals over the next year before the final decision is made in 2016. Two of the missions would target Venus: one involves a radar orbiter to map the planet’s surface, and the other, an atmospheric probe. The other three proposals are for a telescope to hunt for dangerous near-Earth objects, a probe to study the metal-rich asteroid Psyche, and a spacecraft to tour four Trojan asteroids that orbit near Jupiter. Because the proposals were so good, NASA says it may decide to fund two missions.
October 1, 2015 2:45 PM

Fake academic journal business is booming, says study

Science: The rise in fee-based open-access publishing has led to an ever-increasing number of so-called predatory publishers, known for their questionable marketing and peer-review practices. According to a recent study, as of September 2014, there were at least 1030 such publishers putting out a total of 11 873 journals. From a random sampling of those journals, the researchers estimate that as many as 420 000 articles got published in 2014, earning the publishers some $75 million. Because most of the publishers and article authors were found to be based in developing Asian countries, such as India, the researchers conclude that the problems caused by predatory publishers are limited and regional. The influence of major research funders and policymakers in developed countries should provide more opportunities for authors in developing ones to publish in higher-quality journals, which will eventually drive predatory publishers out of business.
October 1, 2015 11:09 AM

Controversial Dutch study shows women continue to face gender bias in academia

Ars Technica: According to a study commissioned by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, women have a lower chance of winning early career grants than men. Romy van der Lee and Naomi Ellemers of Leiden University analyzed 2823 grant applications from young researchers over the period 2010–12. They found that the success rate for women was 14.9% while that for men was 17.7%. The researchers say the women received less favorable evaluations and lower ratings in the “quality of researcher” category than the men. In addition, they say, the documents provided during the grant application process contained gender-exclusive language that favored male applicants. However, the study has been criticized, most notably by statistician Casper Albers of the University of Groningen, who wrote a blog post detailing what he sees as some of its problems. He says the study researchers have fallen victim to a classical statistical trap, called Simpson’s paradox, and their conclusions don’t hold up when the data are broken down by discipline or when one looks at a wider time frame. One of his contentions is that because more women tended to apply in fields that had the lowest success rates, such as medical and social sciences, it only appears that women overall were less successful.
October 1, 2015 12:00 AM

Obama’s fracking rules blocked by Wyoming federal court

New York Times: The Obama administration’s first major effort to set national standards for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been blocked by a federal judge. Because of a surge in fracking operations in the US, the Bureau of Land Management was tasked with drafting rules regarding one aspect of the process, drilling safety. Although the regulations would have applied to oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands, the judge ruled that they would infringe on states’ rights. Not surprisingly, the decision has pleased industry groups and displeased environmental ones.
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