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 83 posts for the selected month (October 2014).

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October 29, 2014 2:34 PM

Icelandic eruption is releasing unusual amounts of sulfur dioxide

Nature: On 29 August, the Icelandic volcano Bárðarbunga began erupting in a steady flow of lava that has not stopped. It has produced more lava than any Icelandic eruption since 1947, but the amount of sulfur dioxide it has released is far beyond any predictions. Nearly 35 000 tons of SO2 is being released daily, twice as much as produced by all European industries combined. The high levels have caused breathing problems for nearby residents and have elevated pollution readings all the way into central Europe. The Icelandic Meteorological Office is attempting to track and provide warnings about the gas cloud's movement. However, the volcano's remote location and the onset of winter are making it hard to closely monitor the eruption. The timing of the eruption was good because it began in the middle of FUTUREVOLC, an ongoing study of vulcanism and the movement of magma.

October 29, 2014 2:20 PM

Asteroid could experience avalanches when it passes Earth

Science: In 2029, a football-field-sized asteroid known as Apophis is going to pass within 35 000 km of Earth. Our planet is not in any danger, but simulations run by Derek Richardson of the University of Maryland, College Park, and his colleagues suggest that Apophis could experience avalanches, albeit very small ones. Pictures of another asteroid believed to be similar to Apophis indicate that instead being solid rock, the two asteroids are clumps of debris loosely held together by gravity. In Richardson's simulation, the tidal force of Earth's gravity caused small, slow-moving avalanches of the lighter pieces of debris on the asteroid's surface. Although astronomers will not be able to see the avalanches directly, IR pictures of the surface could reveal areas that have been uncovered as the surface shifts.

October 29, 2014 1:45 PM

Saturn’s moon Enceladus may have snow cone at its center

New Scientist: Astronomers continue to be surprised by Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Most of the planets and moons studied so far consist of a core of dense material covered by a large mantle and an outer crust. Based on computer modeling, however, Enceladus’s core can’t be stiff and rocky and also produce the huge watery plumes that have been observed shooting into space as the moon orbits Saturn. In order to generate the heat necessary to melt the icy crust and shoot the jets, the moon’s core may be more like a rubble pile with empty spaces filled with ice or water, similar to a snow cone. The finding has implications for the search for extraterrestrial life because such hydrothermal systems are important to the formation of biological organisms.

October 29, 2014 10:45 AM

Google X lab developing cancer-detecting pill

Globe and Mail: People may one day pop a pill filled with magnetized nanoparticles that will circulate through the body looking for signs of cancer. That is one of many projects being developed by Google X, a facility dedicated to exploring innovative technologies, such as the self-driving car. The cancer-detecting nanoparticles would be coated with antibodies that bind with abnormal cells. A device worn by the patient would then recall the nanoparticles and download the data they’ve gathered. Such technology could monitor an individual’s health 24/7, deliver medicine to localized areas, and detect other problems as well, such as arterial plaques. So far, the project is only in the exploratory phase.

October 28, 2014 4:25 PM

Quantum internet may entail shipping qubits across oceans

MIT Technology Review: A quantum version of the internet is being envisioned to securely transmit information. Because such a network would use entangled photons to transfer data, it would avoid the potential interference or hijacking of information that can occur during transmission through optical fibers or other conventional media. However, quantum networks will still encounter some of the same logistical problems, such as how to relay information across the oceans. Whereas quantum repeaters can extend the range of entanglement, they have been shown to work only over short distances and may prove too delicate to withstand the hostile conditions at the bottom of the sea. Now Simon Devitt from Ochanomizu University in Japan and colleagues have proposed that the quantum bits of information, or qubits, be transported across the water via container ship. Unlike conventional photons, the qubits would carry entanglement rather than actual information. Once they were in position, communication between them would be even faster than traditional repeater networks.

October 28, 2014 3:05 PM

Fermi provides another potential signal of galactic dark matter

New Scientist: Two previous detections of gamma rays from the center of the Milky Way have been cited as evidence of the annihilation of dark-matter particles. Now astronomers have spotted a third gamma-ray source that matches the predictions of dark-matter annihilation as well. Kevork Abazajian of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues predicted that starlight passing through the center of the Milky Way would scatter in a particular way off electrons produced by the annihilations.  They found evidence of just such a signal in data collected by the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and all-sky starlight surveys. However, proving that the electrons that cause the scattering came from dark-matter annihilation is a more difficult task.

October 28, 2014 11:45 AM

IR telescope captures first-ever images of nova explosion

Guardian: For the first time, astronomers have captured images of a nova, a nuclear explosion on a white dwarf star. Nova Delphini 2013 was first detected last year by the CHARA Array IR telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles. Such explosions are believed to occur in binary star systems, when a white dwarf is able to accrete enough hydrogen from its companion star that it ignites and starts nuclear fusion. Within hours of the explosion, astronomers were able to point the array telescopes toward the nova to take interferometric measurements of its size and expansion rate. From that data, they have determined that the nova is about 14 800 light-years from the Sun, which means the explosion occurred some 15 000 years ago. When last measured 43 days after the explosion, the nova had expanded nearly 20-fold.

October 28, 2014 10:42 AM

UK's Met Office plans upgrade for weather-forecasting supercomputer

BBC: The UK's Met Office has confirmed that it will build a £97 million ($156 million) supercomputer to replace the one it currently uses for weather and climate modeling. The computing facility's location will be split between the Met Office's headquarters and a new facility, both in Exeter. The first computations will take place in September 2015. The Cray XC40 will have a processor speed of 16 petaflops (16 × 1015 calculations per second), 13 times faster than the current machine, and will have 17 petabytes of storage. That will allow for faster and more accurate weather forecasts as well as better and longer-scale climate models. Because of the UK's location and geography, weather forecasting is more difficult than in many other places. The Met Office estimates that improved forecasts could provide £2 billion in economic benefits.

October 27, 2014 2:45 PM

Steady decline in US carbon emissions stalled by cold winter

Ars Technica: According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), total US emissions of carbon dioxide rose in 2013 compared with the previous year. The rise constitutes an upward blip in a downward trend that began nine years ago. Increased economic activity was not responsible for the rise, says the EIA. Although US GDP per capita rose by 1.5% from 2012 to 2013, the gain was partly offset by increased energy efficiency. Rather, the boost in emissions resulted primarily from the unusually low temperatures of last winter, which led to increased burning of fuel oil. Another contributor was a rise in the price of natural gas, which prompted electric utilities to save money by burning more coal.

October 27, 2014 2:30 PM

Faster ferroelectric switching

MIT Technology Review: Ferroelectric materials can be made to reverse the direction of their polarization by applying an electric field. Once changed, the direction of the polarization persists, a property that has been exploited to store data. But until now, the speed at which the change occurs has been too low to rival the switching speeds attained by silicon-based transistors. A collaboration led by Lane Martin of the University of California, Berkeley, and Andrew Rappe of the University of Pennsylvania has developed a ferroelectric material, lead zirconate titanate (PbZr0.2Ti0.8O3), that can switch much faster than standard ferroelectrics. The key to the gain in speed lies in growing crystals of the material at a particular orientation, which creates two so-called side states of polarization in addition to the regular two states. The faster-switching side states can be manipulated by applying an electric field in a particular direction.

October 27, 2014 2:15 PM

Creationists to convene at major research university

Science: Creation Summit, a nonprofit Christian group that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, will hold its Origins Summit on 1 November at Michigan State University. The conference venue was booked through a campus student group. Among the sessions listed in the summit's program are ones devoted to why the Big Bang is fake, how evolutionary theory shaped Adolf Hitler's worldview, and why natural selection is not evolution. Michigan State is the academic home of several prominent evolutionary biologists, including Robert Pennock, whose testimony played a role in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a 2005 case that led to a ban on teaching intelligent design in public schools. Citing the right to free speech, university authorities have said they do not intend to interfere with the summit.

October 27, 2014 2:00 PM

Asteroid miners set to launch private space telescope

New Scientist: Today, if all goes to plan, a cookie-jar-sized space telescope called Arkyd 3 will hitch a ride to space on Orbital Sciences' next commercial mission to resupply the International Space Station. Built by Planetary Resources, the telescope is a test bed for technology for identifying asteroids whose metal content could be profitably mined. Ultimately, Planetary Resources, which is backed by movie director James Cameron, X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, plans to launch 10 space telescopes.

October 24, 2014 1:04 PM

EU commits to stringent reductions in carbon emissions

BBC: At a meeting yesterday in Brussels, the leaders of the countries that constitute the European Union committed themselves to reducing the EU's total emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030 to levels that are 40% lower than they were in 1990. Although the target is ambitious, it represents a compromise between environmental groups, which had pushed for greater reductions, and the leaders of the countries, such as Poland, that obtain a large fraction of their electrical energy from coal-fired plants. The EU is already on course to cut its CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.

October 24, 2014 1:03 PM

Algorithm runs faster on quantum computer

New Scientist: Twenty years ago Daniel Simon devised a simple period-finding problem that a quantum computer could conceivably solve exponentially faster than a classical computer. Now Mark Tame of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, and his collaborators have built an elementary, photon-based quantum computer that not only solves Simon's problem but also reaches a solution faster when run in quantum mode than in classical mode. Although Simon's problem is too simple to be useful, its design inspired other, potentially more useful algorithms.

October 24, 2014 1:02 PM

Archival data constrain properties of hypothetical dark-matter particles

Science: An experiment that ran at SLAC from 1980 to 1982 shot a beam of electrons at an aluminum target in hope of detecting evidence of axions, hypothetical particles devised to explain the absence of CP violation in the strong nuclear force. No axions were seen, and the negative result was duly written up. Decades later Rouven Essig of Stony Brook University in New York realized that the old experiment, known as E137, could also shed light on another hypothetical particle, the dark-matter candidate known as the χ. If χ particles behave as originally conceived, they would have caused a signal in E137 that the experimenters would have seen, but didn't. Essig and his collaborators' reinterpretation of the old experiment doesn't rule out χ particles, but it does constrain their properties.

October 24, 2014 1:01 PM

Aleutian tsunami likely swamped Hawaii centuries ago

Ars Technica: Tsunamis occur when an earthquake causes a section of an undersea fault to slip. The sudden displacement of crust launches a wave perpendicular to the fault. Knowing the positions of the faults that encircle the Pacific Ocean, Rhett Butler of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and his colleagues modeled the propagation of tsunamis from the northern Pacific. Their goal: to determine the origin of a huge tsunami that deposited debris in a sinkhole on the Hawaiian island of Kauai centuries ago. To fill the sinkhole, which lies 100 m from the shore, the tsunami must have topped 7 m. According to the simulations that Butler and his colleagues performed, the earthquake that caused the tsunami must have had a magnitude of at least 9. Crucially, the earthquake must have originated in the eastern Aleutian Islands. Tsunamis launched from other locations miss Hawaii.

October 23, 2014 2:51 PM

Study compares true economic costs of power sources

MIT Technology Review: The European Union commissioned Ecofys, a sustainable energy consultancy, to prepare an economic cost evaluation of different energy sources in the EU. Instead of using standard metrics, the company considered "true economic costs." Those include the cost of the source's contribution to climate change, pollution, and resource depletion and the costs of creating and operating the plants and related technologies. They also excluded the effect of subsidies, which decrease the apparent cost of relevant energies. The study revealed that while traditional fossil fuels are significantly more expensive than alternative energy sources, solar energy is notably more expensive than wind or hydroelectric. The primary cause for the difference is that most solar panels are built in China, where electricity is carbon-intensive and pollution is a significant problem. Solar panels also contribute more significantly to the depletion of resources than wind and hydroelectric plants.

October 23, 2014 1:24 PM

Archival research papers are increasingly free to read

Nature: A study commissioned by the European Union's executive branch has determined that 54% of all research papers published worldwide between 2007 and 2012 are freely accessible online. The fraction has been steadily increasing. In 1996, the start of the study period, only 28% of papers were free to read. The upward trend reflects the growing use of embargoes that liberate papers from access controls after a year or more. Also contributing to the trend is researchers' practice of posting freely accessible copies of their papers on their websites. Although the fraction of papers published in open-access journals continues to increase, those papers amounted to only 13% of the freely accessible total in 2012.

October 23, 2014 11:14 AM

Some superbright x-ray sources may be unusual pulsars

Ars Technica: Since their discovery in the 1970s, ultraluminous x-ray sources (ULXs) continue to puzzle astronomers. At first they were thought to be stellar-sized black holes, but their luminosity exceeded a theoretical limit based on their masses. Recent observations have suggested that they are intermediate-sized black holes, with masses on the order of 100 to 100 000 times that of the Sun. But an unexpected finding about a known ULX in the M82 galaxy may complicate that possibility. Deepto Chakrabarty of MIT and his colleagues were using NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array to watch the galaxy for a new supernova when they noticed that the brightness of ULX X-2 was pulsing, something that black holes don't do. Using the Chandra X-Ray Telescope, the researchers confirmed that it was in fact X-2 that was pulsing. That makes it possible that X-2 and other ULXs are pulsars—bright, rapidly rotating neutron stars—and not black holes. However, X-2 is significantly brighter than any other known pulsars. The same limit to black hole luminosity applies to pulsars, and X-2 exceeded the limit by a factor of 100. Chakrabarty recalculated X-2's mass using the version of the brightness limit that accounts for a pulsar's magnetic field and found that while the ULX's mass had increased, it was still two to three times brighter than it should be. To further confuse the situation, X-2 has a sibling, ULX X-1, that shows no sign of being a pulsar.

October 22, 2014 2:26 PM

Blood–brain barrier breached to treat cancer

New Scientist: Thanks to the close packing of the cells that line the blood vessels in our brains, only the smallest molecules can pass from the circulatory system into the central nervous system. Bacteria and viruses are too large to pass through the blood–brain barrier (BBB), but so too are antibiotics and drugs that treat cancer. Six years ago researchers from Harvard University and the University of Toronto used ultrasound to breach the BBB in lab rabbits by inducing microbubbles in the blood to vibrate and push apart the barrier's cells. Now a team from a Paris-based medical startup called CarThera has demonstrated a way of implementing that approach in human subjects. Rather than direct the ultrasound through the skull, as was done in the case of the rabbits, the researchers surgically implant an ultrasound transducer. The four patients in the ongoing trial all suffer from recurrent gliobastoma. After their tumors had been surgically removed, the transducers were installed through the same hole in the skull. Once a month the transducers are switched on while the patients receive normal chemotherapy. The success of the therapy in preventing the cancer's recurrence is likely to be known in a few months' time.

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