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 60 posts for the selected month (October 2014).

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October 21, 2014 2:00 PM

Italian scientists appeal conviction concerning 2009 earthquake

Nature: An appeal is in progress for the six Italian seismologists and one government official who were implicated in the deaths of 29 people during the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. In 2012 the seven were convicted of failing in their duty to evaluate and communicate the risk of a large earthquake to the general public. Sentenced to six years in prison and permanently banned from public service, the men maintain their innocence. They deny having made any reassuring statements, point out that their meeting to discuss the issue had been private, and instead blame the media for the subsequent misunderstanding. The prosecution maintains that the accused did not sufficiently highlight the probability of a strong earthquake and did nothing to contradict what was reported. The appeal, which began 10 October, is expected to be concluded by early November.

October 21, 2014 1:53 PM

Optical tractor beam pushes and pulls objects at greatest distance yet

Guardian: A hollow laser has been developed that performs like a tractor beam to push and pull objects over relatively large distances. The objects it moves are only 0.2 mm in diameter, but it can move them up to 20 cm—more than 100 times as far as any previous tractor beam. Created by Wieslaw Krolikowski of the Australian National University and his colleagues, the hollow laser acts like a tube and surrounds the object, and the light heats the object's surface. When air particles hit the heated areas, they are accelerated away, which causes the object to move in the opposite direction. The researchers believe that the effect could be extended over distances of meters, but their lab was not large enough to test the theory.

October 21, 2014 12:15 PM

Possible El Niño builds off the coast of Australia

Sydney Morning Herald: Weather bureaus around the world are keeping a close eye on conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, where it looks like an El Niño event may be imminent. Sea-surface temperatures around Australia have been warming since March, and the last two weeks have seen a marked rise. In addition, the continent has been experiencing warmer and drier conditions than usual. All are signs of an impending El Niño, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts one will begin in the next one to two months. El Niño events in the Pacific have global repercussions, and combined with global warming in general, even a weak El Niño this year could make 2014 the hottest year since record keeping began in 1880.

October 21, 2014 11:46 AM

Power companies seek to extend life of nuclear reactors to 80 years

New York Times: Getting permission to build new nuclear reactors is difficult, and building them is extremely expensive. To help fill the gap before new reactors are operational, power companies have sought and been granted extensions for their existing reactors. Most were originally built in the 1980s, with a predicted economic lifespan of 40 years. To date, more than 70 reactors have been granted 20-year extended licenses by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, three power companies are requesting extensions of yet another 20 years for some of their reactors. Although concerns have been expressed about the possible long-term effects of radiation on the metal and concrete in the reactors and their cooling systems, both NRC staff and industry experts agree that with proper monitoring, the extended operations should be safe. The question now is what that proper monitoring would entail.

October 20, 2014 4:00 PM

US–Iran nuclear deal may bypass Congress

New York Times: As the US negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program, President Obama may end up striking a temporary deal without the approval of Congress. According to the Treasury Department, the president has the authority to suspend many of the US sanctions against Iran without waiting for a congressional vote. However, such a suspension would only be temporary, as only Congress has the power to permanently terminate them. The sanctions have proven to be a valuable bargaining point with Iran. Hence proponents emphasize that lifting any sanctions must be a gradual process, with Iran allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify step by step that the necessary benchmarks have been met. It is hoped that some agreement can be reached so that Iran does not revert to covert means of obtaining nuclear technology.

October 20, 2014 2:40 PM

Graphene-like material has piezoelectric properties

Ars Technica: Piezoelectric materials develop an electric field when they are stretched or compressed. Practical piezoelectrics tend to be bulk crystals or crystalline thin films, but piezoelectricity has been predicted in crystals just one atom thick. Now, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), which is not piezoelectric in bulk, has been shown to be piezoelectric under certain interesting conditions. The material is strongly piezoelectric when it is just one atom thick, but the effect is eliminated when a second layer is added. With a third layer, it is piezoelectric again, but less so than before. Experimentation revealed that the material is piezoelectric only when there is an odd number of layers, and that its strength decreases as the number of layers increases. Computational modeling suggests that the layers have random orientations, causing them to cancel each other out. Further testing also showed that the more single-layer flakes that are arranged in series, the higher the produced voltage. That means that MoS2 could potentially be used for powering nanoelectronics and wearable technologies.

October 20, 2014 11:25 AM

Unusual x-ray signal could be sign of axions, a potential form of dark matter

Nature: Axions are hypothetical, uncharged, extremely light particles that were originally proposed to explain the absence of CP violation in the strong nuclear force. The particles were later adopted by theorists as a potential form of dark matter, and now, they may have been detected. George Fraser of the University of Leicester, UK, and his colleagues analyzed 12 years of x-ray data collected by the European Space Agency’s X-Ray Multi Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) as it orbited Earth. They found an unexplained surplus of x rays as the satellite passed between Earth and the Sun. After ruling out all known possible causes, Fraser’s team proposes that the surplus could be caused by axions from the Sun being transformed into x-ray photons by Earth’s magnetic field. They have also found tentative evidence of the same signal in data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, but several more years of data are needed to confirm the signal. Even if the signal holds up, the cause could lie in the physics of the Sun's x-ray emitting corona rather than in the transformation of axions into x rays.

October 20, 2014 10:20 AM

Tunisian sunshine may one day power homes in the UK

BBC: A large-scale solar export project is in the works that would transport energy from Tunisia to the UK. The TuNur project, a partnership between a group of Tunisian investors and UK-based Nur Energie, would consist of concentrated solar power plants located in the Tunisian desert and a 2-GW high-voltage direct-current cable to transport the energy to Italy. From there it could be sold to customers in the UK and, perhaps, various other European countries. The developers claim the electricity supplies will be secure, deliverable on demand, and cheaper than home-based sources, such as offshore wind. The project is one of several being proposed by renewable energy developers that are based outside the UK.

October 17, 2014 2:50 PM

Seven Chinese scientists charged with corruption

Nature: The Chinese government has charged seven leading scientists with misusing millions of dollars in government research grants. The charges are based on an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) of more than a dozen large engineering and applied research projects, which together receive $8 billion a year in funding. Among the allegations are the appropriation of research funds for personal use and the forging of receipts and invoices. And the problem may be even more widespread. According to a report released by the NAO last year, it's possible that up to half of all research funds have been misused. At least one science policy expert says that it points up the lack of guidelines and oversight mechanisms concerning the allocation of research grants in China.

October 17, 2014 12:58 PM

Yet another Saturnian moon may be hiding liquid

New Scientist: Titan has ethane and methane rivers and lakes. Enceladus has eruptions of water at its southern pole. Now it appears that Mimas may have a subsurface liquid layer. The moon was considered unlikely to have any liquids because it isn't geologically active and has a nonmolten core. Nevertheless, Radwan Tajeddine of Cornell University and his colleagues believe otherwise. Examining pictures of the moon taken by Cassini, they observed an irregularity in the rotation of the moon's surface, which could be explained by the presence of a layer of liquid lying beneath it. The more likely explanation for the wobble, however, may be the possibility that Mimas's silicate core is not spherical, as it is unlikely that a subsurface water layer could remain liquid for so long without any core heating. Another Cassini flyby could provide evidence for either option. If the core is irregularly shaped, it would have an uneven gravitational effect on the spacecraft.

October 17, 2014 11:50 AM

NRC deems Yucca Mountain safe for nuclear waste storage

New York Times: The long-contested Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, located in Nevada, may be allowed to move forward in light of the recent release of a long-delayed report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which says the site should be secure for at least a million years. First proposed in 1986 as one of five candidate sites, Yucca Mountain was designated the prime site by Congress a year later. However, over the past several decades, protests by environmentalists and Nevada residents, combined with numerous technical problems, have delayed its opening. Political wrangling has also played a part: While Republicans have worked hard to promote the site, the election in 2008 of President Obama, who vowed to kill the project, has proved a major setback. Meanwhile, the indecision is costing taxpayers money because the Department of Energy has been held liable by the courts for billions of dollars of damages for failure to fulfill its contract for storing the nuclear waste.

October 17, 2014 11:44 AM

Pattern of US tornado activity has changed over last 45 years

Science: For decades, the US has averaged nearly 500 tornados per year. However, a pair of recent studies has revealed that whereas the average number of days with at least one damaging tornado was higher in the 1970s, there are now more days during which multiple tornados occur. Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, and his colleagues performed one study, and James Elsner of Florida State University in Tallahassee and his colleagues performed the other. Both groups used data from NOAA's National Weather Service, which began tracking tornados in 1953 and recording their scale in the 1970s. The researchers had to discard the F0 rating because of the inconsistency in the reporting of minor tornados, but the remaining data set was found to be relatively unbiased. Although the change in tornado patterns may be tied to changing climate patterns, the actual connections are still not clear. Moisture, land temperatures, and differences between polar and midlatitude temperatures are all root causes of tornado formation, but exactly how they interact and affect each other is unknown.

October 16, 2014 2:40 PM

DNA used to create molds for metal nanostructures

Ars Technica: Creating specific shapes from nanoparticles can be difficult, but a new technique to create molds from DNA may provide a way to scale up the production of nanomaterial structures. In DNA, the patterns of the base pairs determine the shape that the molecule folds into. Computational modeling allowed researchers to create self-assembling DNA molecules that fold into 3D structures. Those structures then serve as molds for nanometals. A tube and two lids were made out of DNA. Then a gold nanoparticle was attached to the inside of the tube, which was sealed with the lids. Placed in a solution with dissolved gold atoms, the nanoparticle grows until it fills the tube. Then, silver nitrate and ascorbic acid were added to the solution, which caused the silver to bind to the gold inside the mold. The result was three silver cuboids. Further work created complex structures including a sandwich of silver trapped between two quantum dots, which could couple with electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths larger than the structure.

October 16, 2014 2:10 PM

Breaking ocean waves can heat up the water

Nature: The Sun had been thought to be the primary warming influence on the water in shallow coastal areas, from coral reefs to Arctic shorelines to popular beaches. However, using data gathered from buoys and sensors, Gregory Sinnett and Falk Feddersen of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, have found that ocean waves contain more heat than they expected. Although the Sun is responsible for a lot of it—particularly in places like southern California, where Scripps is located—breaking waves generate a surprising amount of heat, which results from the energy created by the forces of friction. Even in predominantly cloudy areas like the Pacific Northwest, considerable heat can still be imparted to the water by the stronger wave action. The unexpected heat source, some researchers suggest, may be exacerbating the coastal erosion that is occurring in Arctic Alaska, where loss of sea ice and more open water have led to more wave action.

October 16, 2014 1:40 PM

Portable MRI device developed for International Space Station

New Scientist: To help monitor the health of the International Space Station's crew, researchers have developed a device that will allow the astronauts to check their bone and muscle mass while on board. Because of the large and powerful magnets required to scan the entire human body, conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines can weigh more than a ton. Now Gordon Sarty at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and colleagues have shrunk the size of the magnets to create a magnetic field across just a small area of the body, such as the wrist. They presented their device, called TRASE (transmit array spatial encoding), on 3 October at the International Astronautical Congress held in Toronto.

October 16, 2014 12:15 PM

US fusion plan under fire from research community

Science: In September, the Department of Energy's Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) outlined a 10-year plan for fusion research in the US. The plan called for immediately shutting down one and later maybe a second of the three current midsize fusion projects to allow for the construction of new facilities and the alteration or upgrading of projects at other existing facilities. Most significantly, it changed nothing in regard to the US's contribution to ITER. Most of the criticisms the report has received have been about the process behind the drafting of the document. The short time that was allotted for the creation of the report meant that the panel, which included no researchers from major fusion projects, had very little time to collect input from the fusion research community. The amount of time given to the community to then review the document was very short, which led to a delay in the committee's vote on the report. And for the FESAC vote, 14 of the 23 members recused themselves because they were connected to either a major fusion lab or another lab that would benefit from the proposals in the report.

October 15, 2014 3:37 PM

Australian student plans to build world's fastest glider

Sydney Morning Herald: Three years ago Jason Brand used a weather balloon to loft a toy chicken 33 km above New South Wales, Australia. Now, at the age of 12, he is designing a remote-controlled glider that he believes could break the sound barrier. As with the chicken, he plans to use a balloon to lift the 9-kg, 2.5-m craft before releasing it. Unlike the chicken, he'll be in control of the glider and its descent via remote; he'll be able to see the glider with a pair of virtual-reality goggles linked to a camera in the glider's nose. With his father's help, he is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $80 000 they estimate it will cost to obtain the necessary equipment. In Jason's free time, he is also a student representative on a team competing for a Google Lunar XPrize to land a robot on the Moon.

October 15, 2014 3:21 PM

Italy to require advanced biofuels in all vehicles

BBC: A ministerial report has revealed that Italy will soon require a portion of all gasoline and diesel to contain advanced biofuels, which are made from waste material. Using advanced biofuels instead of traditional biofuels will reduce the amount of farmland being devoted to growing nonfood crops. Italy will require 0.6% of all fuel to be advanced biofuels by 2018, with an increase to 1% by 2022. That will make Italy the first European nation to have such a requirement. The European Union had attempted to set a similar goal for all member countries, but the final version was nonbinding. Last year the world's first plant that makes biofuel from straw opened near Turin, Italy, and there are plans to open three more similar plants in the southern part of the country.

October 15, 2014 12:39 PM

Shape-shifting carbon-fiber materials could be used in aircraft

MIT Technology Review: Materials that alter their shape in response to changes in electrical charge, temperature, or air pressure have been in use for decades. But they have not been widely employed in airplanes because of the extreme stresses they would be exposed to. Now Skylar Tibbets of MIT and his colleagues have partnered with Airbus to develop shape-shifting carbon-fiber composites that can be used in aircraft. The researchers are using unusual carbon-fiber materials—they are not rigid like normal carbon-fiber ones—from a startup named Carbitex. They use a 3D printer to add layers of shape-changing polymers to the carbon-fiber sheets. The resulting carbon-fiber composites can change shape in response to specific stimuli. The first application for the materials will likely be on air intake valves, which change size as a plane changes altitude, but they could potentially replace hydraulic actuators and hinges.

October 15, 2014 12:29 PM

MAVEN images reveal solar wind stripping away Martian atmosphere

Nature: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft entered Martian orbit in September and began taking pictures of the planet using a UV spectrograph. Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado Boulder and his team have released the first of those images, which reveal that the solar wind is stripping hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms from Mars's atmosphere. The carbon and oxygen atoms stay relatively close to the planet, but the hydrogen atoms, being much lighter, are sprayed into space. The images provide some direct evidence about the process that has slowly eroded the Martian atmosphere over billions of years. 

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