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Physics Today’s online staff summarize the most important and interesting news about science from the world's top media outlets.

September 18, 2014 1:10 PM

One-dimensional crystal formed inside carbon nanotube

Ars Technica: The discovery of graphene, a sheet of carbon just one atom thick, opened the door to research into two-dimensional materials. And now, the first one-dimensional material—essentially a line of single atoms—has been created. Normally, atoms don't tend to arrange themselves single file because they need more than two points of contact to be stable. A group of researchers overcame that by condensing vaporized cesium iodide inside a double-walled carbon nanotube. The internal diameter of the tube was between 3.4 Å, the diameter of the atoms, and 8 Å, the amount of space needed for the atoms to arrange themselves in pairs. The resulting structure is more tightly packed than normal CsI crystals and interacts with the carbon atoms in the tube in a way that makes the line not truly one-dimensional. However, the researchers have duplicated the result with several other crystals and intend to study the properties of the new structures.
September 18, 2014 1:00 PM

Motorized harness designed to enhance walking ability

MIT Technology Review: A device that looks like a climbing safety harness may one day help stroke victims to walk and soldiers to carry heavy loads over long distances. The harness, which is made of spandex and nylon, is connected to cables that run down the wearer’s legs. Small battery-powered motors pull the cables to help the heel come up or the leg go forward. To be as efficient as possible, the device has been designed to conform to the natural movements of a person’s muscles. And it is lightweight and flexible enough to be worn under one’s clothes. “Energy storage is still a challenge,” however, says Conor Walsh of Harvard University. He hopes that advances in battery technology will allow the device to become even lighter and more efficient.

September 18, 2014 12:24 PM

Mergers appear to yield disk-shaped galaxies, contrary to expectation

New Scientist: Galaxies frequently collide and merge. Simulations of the collisions suggest that the outcome should be elliptical galaxies. However, most visible galaxies are disk shaped, either lenticular or spiral. Now, observations by Junko Ueda of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and her colleagues show that galaxy collisions may indeed produce disk-shaped galaxies. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope, they measured the movement of carbon monoxide gas in 37 merging galaxies. Of those, 30 showed signs of rotation around a central axis, which suggests they will eventually become disk shaped when the mergers are complete.

September 18, 2014 11:10 AM

Sahara may be twice as old as previously thought

Nature: Based on geological evidence, the Sahara desert in northern Africa has been thought to be between 2 million and 3 million years old. However, studies of dune deposits in northern Chad and of dust and pollen in sediments from sea floors off northern Africa now indicate that the region may have experienced extended dry spells as long as 7 million to 8 million years ago. What could have caused that aridification is the subject of a recent study published in Nature. Zhongshi Zhang of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Norway and colleagues have ruled out major mountain-forming episodes, changes in Earth’s orbit, and excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide. Instead, climate simulations indicate that the African summer monsoon, which brought moisture from the tropical Atlantic to northern Africa, was weakened by the shrinking of the ancient Tethys Sea. Critics say the theory remains speculative because too little is known about the ancient geology of the region.

September 17, 2014 4:18 PM

Chin strap could be used to charge small devices

BBC: A chin strap made from a piezoelectric material generates electricity as wearers move their jaws. Designed by Aidin Delnavaz and Jeremie Voix of the École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal, Canada, the proof-of-concept device can produce 18 µW of power after just 60 seconds of chewing. They say that to actually be useful, however, it will need to generate 20 times as much electricity, which could be achieved by simply increasing the amount of piezoelectric material in the strap. A 20-layer strap just 6 mm thick should be able to power an intelligent hearing protector, such as sound-canceling headphones that are used for communications in heavy industry or the military. It could also be used to power cochlear implants or other similar small electronics, but probably not anything as large as a smart phone.

September 17, 2014 12:59 PM

NASA will not meet goal of finding 90% of near-Earth asteroids

Guardian: One of the goals Congress assigned NASA is to identify by 2020 at least 90% of the asteroids larger than 140 m in diameter that pass within 45 million km of Earth's orbit. A report by NASA's inspector general says that the agency will not meet that goal despite a 10-fold increase in funding over the last five years. So far, the report states, the agency has found just 10% of the asteroids believed to meet the given criteria. According to the report, the likely failure is due to understaffing and poor organization of detection efforts. The one major upside of the report is that 95% of the asteroids larger than 1 km have been found. Asteroids of that size could cause significant global destruction.

September 17, 2014 12:45 PM

Fracking not to blame for water contamination

New Scientist: Although drinking-water wells near several hydraulic fracturing sites in Pennsylvania and Texas are increasingly becoming contaminated with hydrocarbons, the source is most likely leaky pipelines and boreholes, rather than the fracking process itself. Because fracking involves fracturing shale rock by pumping chemicals into the ground, it was feared that those chemicals, which can be toxic, or the natural gas that gets released might make its way into local water supplies. However, after studying the contaminants, Thomas Darrah of the Ohio State University and colleagues say they appear to be noble gases that have leaked as they were being piped to the surface. If so, improving the integrity of the equipment and better environmental monitoring could take care of the problem.

September 17, 2014 10:45 AM

Boeing, SpaceX win bid to shuttle astronauts to space station

New York Times: Yesterday NASA announced that it is awarding contracts to two private companies, Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), to shuttle US astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the US has been relying on Russia to carry US astronauts back and forth. Increasing political tensions between the two countries, however, have forced the US to seek an alternative. Over the next three years, teams for Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsules will work to have them certified by NASA and make a test flight to the space station. Once certified, they are each guaranteed at least two missions. The decision marks the first step toward the privatization of human spaceflight. Boeing is already planning to coordinate with NASA to allow a paying tourist to occupy one of the seats on its shuttle, and both Boeing and SpaceX are working with another company that plans to launch private space stations into orbit.

September 16, 2014 4:25 PM

Investigation launched to review Los Alamos scientist’s firing

Science: Last month a political scientist was fired from Los Alamos National Laboratory after he published a paper critiquing the US nuclear weapons policy. Although told he was being laid off for budgetary reasons, James Doyle claimed his dismissal was retaliatory and petitioned the Department of Energy. Now the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Frank Klotz, has requested that DOE inspector general Gregory Friedman review Doyle’s case to determine whether his termination “resulted, in whole or in part, from the publication in question or the views expressed in it.” The move has been lauded as a positive step toward ascertaining whether the independence and intellectual integrity of government employees are being adequately protected.

September 16, 2014 1:23 PM

University of California plans fund for student and faculty startups

Wall Street Journal: On Monday, the University of California posted a plan that will be presented to the system's Board of Regents on Wednesday. The plan calls for the establishment of an independent $250 million venture capital fund to support startups based on student and faculty research. Although other universities have similar funds, the University of California's will be one of the largest and is backed by the system's $9 billion endowment. Concerns have already been raised, however, that the fund might unfairly favor certain areas of research or those that appear the most likely to be profitable.

September 16, 2014 12:57 PM

Network analysis reveals difference in soccer styles

MIT Technology Review: Spanish soccer team FC Barcelona is renowned for its implementation of a style of soccer known as tiki-taka, which is characterized by short passes and control of possession. Laszlo Gyarmati of the Qatar Computing Research Institute and his colleagues have now used network theory to analyze the style of play of FC Barcelona and the rest of the top-tier teams in England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Using data collected during the 2012–13 season, they determined how often each team used one of the five possible three-pass combinations (denoted by ABAB, for two players passing back and forth; ABCA, ABAC, and ABCB for three players; and ABCD for four players). Gyarmati’s analysis revealed that Barcelona used significantly fewer ABCD and ABCA patterns and significantly more ABAB and ABCB patterns than the average of the teams in the Spanish league as well as of the teams in Europe.

September 16, 2014 11:40 AM

Texas proposes controversial school textbook changes

Guardian: Public schools in Texas may receive new social studies textbooks that are deliberately misleading regarding climate change, according to a recent report by the National Center for Science Education. Among the NCSE’s concerns are that the proposed texts cast doubt on whether Earth is undergoing climate change, question whether the current warming is due to human causes, and include misinformation and scientific inaccuracies—for example, claiming that the ozone hole was caused by fossil-fuel emissions. The NCSE report also takes issue with the fact that the texts promote the views of the Heartland Institute, an ultraconservative US public policy think tank, over those of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a world-renowned scientific international body. The proposed textbooks are up for a public hearing before the Texas State Board of Education. If approved, they could be in schools for at least a decade.

September 15, 2014 4:23 PM

Construction begins on climate observation tower in Amazon basin

BBC: In the middle of the Amazon jungle, about 160 km (100 mi) from Manaus, Brazil, construction has begun on a 325-m tower for observing the behavior of the atmosphere high above the forest canopy. The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory is a joint Brazilian and German project that will partner with a similar tower already built in the Siberian tundra and with a network of smaller towers throughout the Amazon region. The tower will be equipped with sensors to track particulate concentrations and to observe the interactions and movements of different air masses above the forest. Because the Amazon jungle is a very sensitive ecosystem, tracking climate changes and carbon dioxide concentrations there may provide further clues into understanding Earth's climate.

September 15, 2014 4:00 PM

Device uses magnetic nanoparticles to fight infections

Nature: The primary purpose of the spleen is to act as a blood filter. Now, Donald Ingber of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues have created an artificial "biospleen" that uses magnetic nanoparticles to filter pathogens from blood. Ingber's team coated magnetic nanobeads with a modified version of mannose-binding lectin, a protein that binds to the sugars on the outside of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and their toxic byproducts. The researchers fed blood into the device in which the nanoparticles were present and then used a magnet to pull the particles out of the blood along with any pathogens that had become attached; then the filtered blood was fed back into the patient. The device was tested on rats that were infected with either Escherichia coli or Staphylococcus aureus. Use of the biospleen filter increased the survival rate from 14% to 89%. Analysis of the blood after it was filtered showed that more than 90% of the bacteria had been removed. Ingber believes the device could be useful for stabilizing patients so that the immune system can eliminate the remaining traces of the infections and for fighting viral infections such as Ebola and HIV.

September 15, 2014 1:21 PM

ESA chooses landing site on comet for Rosetta mission

New Scientist: The European Space Agency (ESA) has selected a landing spot for Rosetta's Philae lander near the head of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The chosen spot, designated J, was one of five candidate sites and was selected because it was the "smoothest" option. Even with that description, photographs from Rosetta reveal that the area has scattered boulders and cliffs that could make the landing difficult. A public campaign will be held to select an official name for the landing site before Philae is released in mid-November. The lander will take panoramic pictures, perform analyses of gas and dust at the surface, and drill into the surface to attempt to reveal the nature of internal cometary material.

September 15, 2014 11:13 AM

Shining new light on 500-year-old map

Wired: The 1491 Martellus map, now housed at Yale University, may have been used by Christopher Columbus when he planned his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. Although the 1.2-by-2.0-meter map has survived for five centuries, its paint and text have faded. Now researchers are using advanced multispectral imaging to reveal text in places where it is not visible to the naked eye. Because of uneven erosion and fading pigments, however, each section of the map requires a different wavelength of light. Using 12 different types of LED illumination ranging from UV to IR, the team has photographed the map in 55 overlapping tiles. Through extensive image processing and analysis, they hope to extract all the readable text by next year and make the images available on Yale’s Beinecke Digital Library website.

September 12, 2014 1:15 PM

Nanoscale lattice structures create lightest and strongest materials

MIT Technology Review: Ceramics have now been used to create new nanoscale lattices that result in extremely light materials that are very strong but also return to shape after they are compressed. Julia Greer of Caltech and her colleagues had previously achieved that result with metals, but ceramics had been harder to manipulate on the nanoscale. The researchers developed the new ceramic material by using a technique called two-photon interference lithography to "print" nanoscale polymer cylinders into a lattice configuration. Then they coated the structure with a ceramic and etched away the base polymer, leaving a network of ceramic tubes. The researchers also showed how the thickness of the tube walls determines how the material fails under compression. When the walls are just 10 nm thick, the tubes collapse instead of fracturing under pressure, then they return to shape when the pressure is removed. The high surface area and low weight make them materials of interest for electronics and batteries.

September 12, 2014 11:29 AM

Construction of Advanced LIGO reaches milestone early

BBC: The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) attempted to detect gravitational waves by looking for variations in long beams of laser light. Gravitational waves are predicted to be caused by the rotation of binary neutron star or black hole systems as the extreme masses create ripples in spacetime. The original LIGO project, which ran from 2001 to 2010, saw no sign of gravitational waves. For the past four years, the facility has been undergoing upgrades to increase its sensitivity by a factor of 10. That will allow the observatory to look for gravitational waves that originate within 200 Mpc (600 million light-years) of Earth. The facility achieved "full lock"—it turned on and maintained operation for 10 minutes—in June, a year before originally scheduled to do so. While not yet fully upgraded, the observatory is already 30% more sensitive than it was on its original run. Because of the success with the upgrades, project leader Andreas Freise of the University of Birmingham in the UK expects the facility to begin observations next summer.

September 12, 2014 11:22 AM

Two years of travel brings Curiosity to its target

New York Times: NASA's Martian rover Curiosity has reached its destination—the base of Mount Sharp—two years after it landed. The roughly 5-km-high mountain is the site of the rover's primary science mission. As Curiosity climbs Mount Sharp, it will examine the geological structures and collect information about Mars's history. The two-year trip was longer than originally planned because of side trips and the difficulty of navigation. During the recent review of NASA's planetary missions, Curiosity was criticized for not delivering results proportional to its $2.5 billion cost. But despite being evaluated as the least worthwhile of the planetary missions, the rover was given a two-year project extension.

September 12, 2014 10:34 AM

Two solar flares shoot plasma toward Earth

Los Angeles Times: On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, a pair of solar flares sent coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—highly energetic waves of plasma—toward Earth. The CMEs will hit Earth today and tomorrow, with the most visible effect being an increase in aurora activity. Some communications and GPS satellites may also be affected, not by the radiation itself but by the effect the radiation has on Earth's upper atmosphere, which will make it more difficult for signals to pass from the satellites to the planet. For people using GPS for general navigation purposes, the disruption won't be noticeable. Only those who need extreme precision in their measurements will be aware of the flare activity.

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