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 79 posts for the selected month (March 2015).
March 31, 2015 1:48 PM

Arizona court rejects lawsuit concerning access to climate researcher emails

Ars Technica: An Arizona court has rejected a lawsuit by the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, which sought to gain access to faculty emails at Arizona state universities. After examining sample emails, the court determined that the state's university system had correctly responded to the institute's open-records request. The institute had requested emails from a variety of university faculty members, including two climate researchers: Jonathan Overpeck and Malcolm Hughes. The university system's Board of Regents rejected the request because the emails were private, contained student information, and discussed ongoing research. The institute also lost a similar case in Virginia, which included the emails of climate researcher Michael Mann. The case marks the second time a court has ruled that materials detailing ongoing research projects are not subject to open-records requests.

March 31, 2015 12:54 PM

Mercury’s dark surface may be due to cometary dust

Los Angeles Times: Mercury and the Moon are often compared because they are about the same size and both lack atmospheres. But Mercury is covered in dark material that makes it only one-third as reflective as the Moon. Most airless planetary bodies as dark as Mercury have a high iron content, but Messenger measured the planet’s surface as being just 2% iron. Now, Megan Bruck Syal of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and her colleagues believe they’ve found the explanation. They realized that the planet’s dark appearance could be caused by the presence of carbon-rich cometary dust, and their calculations of potential dust impacts revealed that the dust would stay on Mercury’s surface. They also determined that, because the concentration of cometary dust in the solar system is much greater closer to the Sun, Mercury gets hit by 50 times as much dust as the Moon, which explains why Mercury is so much darker. Finally, they found that firing cometary dust-like material at material similar to that found on Mercury’s surface did produce a dark layer on the surface material.

March 31, 2015 12:20 PM

Ants in space adapt to get around

BBC: Ants work collectively to explore their environment and look for food. But they have no central control directing their movements. To see how ants would function in microgravity, researchers sent eight colonies of 80 common pavement ants to the International Space Station. The ants were confined to small transparent plastic boxes in which a barrier could be removed to allow the ants to spread out and explore a larger area. The microgravity conditions appeared to interfere with the ants’ ability to cling to surfaces, which resulted in their exploring the area less thoroughly and using less direct paths. However, they still managed to show a remarkable ability to not only walk on surfaces but also regain their footing after being sent tumbling through the air, according to the researchers, whose paper appears in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. The group’s findings could have many applications, particularly in robotic search and rescue operations.
March 30, 2015 3:00 PM

New UK policy regarding the media raises concerns for scientists

Science: A recent change to the UK civil service code has upset members of the country's scientific community, who say it could hinder their communications with the press. According to the new policy, all contact with the media must be approved in advance by the minister of the agency in question. Several of the country’s journalistic and public relations organizations have asked the government to reconsider the change. In an open letter, representatives of the Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers, and Stempra, an organization of science communication professionals, say the new code “will have a negative impact on the public understanding of science and the quality of the public discourse on some of the most important and contentious issues of our times.” The prime minister's official spokesman has countered that the amendment “merely clarifies rules on official contact that were already in place.”
March 30, 2015 2:35 PM

Atlantic Ocean circulation shows “exceptional” slowdown

Ars Technica: Ocean water varies in salinity and temperature due to many processes, including evaporation, precipitation, freshwater inflow from rivers, and sea-ice melting. Warmer, saltier water mixes with cooler, less salty water because of currents induced by waves, wind, and tides. One such major current, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), appears to have slowed down markedly in the latter part of the 20th century, according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change. Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and colleagues studied the instrumental temperature record from the past 100 years and temperature reconstructions for the past 1000 years. They say that over the 20th century, the AMOC showed a marked slowdown of about 14%, with a particularly low point lasting from the 1970s to the mid 1990s, perhaps because of the melting Greenland ice sheet. Because climate models have not indicated any weakening of the AMOC in the 20th century, it’s possible they are underestimating climate change developments, according to the researchers.
March 30, 2015 12:43 PM

Alpha Centauri may have two Earth-like planets

New Scientist: In 2012 researchers announced that they may have found a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B. The finding was based on slight wobbles observed in the star's motion and suggested the planet orbited the star every three days. A subsequent set of observations in 2013 and 2014 by Brice-Oliver Demory of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues, who used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for a dimming of the star's light, revealed a single transit of Alpha Centauri B. However, the duration of the transit was longer than had been predicted for the planet. Demory's team ruled out other phenomena to explain the transit, which suggests the existence of a second planet in orbit around Alpha Centauri B. Confirming the second planet won't be easy because it would require 20 consecutive days of observations with Hubble. Given the many demands for time on the telescope, approval for such a long observation is unlikely.

March 30, 2015 11:48 AM

First commercially available graphene light bulb

BBC: Graphene, the single-atom-thick arrangement of carbon atoms with a wide range of curious properties, was first isolated at the University of Manchester in the UK in 2004. Now, researchers from the university have contributed to the design of the first commercial consumer product to use graphene: a light bulb with a graphene-coated filament. The increased conductivity of the graphene reduces the bulb's energy use by 10% and lengthens the bulb's lifetime. The bulbs are expected to be available for sale later this year for under £15 ($22), which is less expensive than current LED bulbs.

March 27, 2015 1:53 PM

Publisher creates software to detect bogus research papers

Science: Springer, one of the world's largest publishers of scientific journals, and the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France, are set to release an open-source piece of software called SciDetect. The software aims to automatically detect papers that are superficially legitimate but are in fact deliberate hoaxes. The need for SciDetect arose, in part, because of another piece of software, SCIgen, that automatically generates such bogus papers. Devised in 2005 by three computer science students from MIT, SCIgen strings together jargon in grammatically correct yet meaningless sentences. The software also generates plots and references. The trio wrote the software to expose the lack of peer-review at certain conferences, but after its release, SCIgen-authored papers ended up in journals, embarrassing Springer and other publishers.
March 27, 2015 12:09 PM

China's reduction in coal power is having significant effect

New York Times: Coal still supplies two-thirds of China's power generation, but with the nation's economy growing at the slowest rate in 25 years and a mandated shift to nuclear and renewable sources, coal imports and utilization have dropped significantly over the last year. In 2014 the use of fossil fuels to generate power was at a record low of 53.7%, down from 57.3% in 2013. That reduction led to a drop of 18 million tons or 1.3% in the amount of coal used and to a 11% reduction in coal imports by the world's largest coal consumer. The trend is expected to continue through 2015. As a result, the cost of coal from Australia, one of China's primary sources, fell 30% last year to under $60 per ton this month, the lowest since May 2007.

March 27, 2015 12:08 PM

Dark matter even less affected by galactic collisions

BBC: Observations of 72 galactic collisions have revealed to a higher level of detail than ever before that dark matter is unaffected by any force other than gravity. Richard Massey of Durham University in the UK and his colleagues used Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory to observe the collisions in both visible and x-ray light. The x-ray images revealed the movement of the clouds of plasma that reside inside and around galaxies whereas the visible images showed the movements of the stars. The combined images allowed the researchers to measure the gravitational lensing effect of the dark matter. The observations revealed that the dark matter exhibited no sign of non-gravitational interactions with itself or other matter to a much higher level of precision than previous observations.

March 27, 2015 11:47 AM

Restricting global warming to 2°C could still bring harm

New Scientist: At the climate talks that took place in Copenhagen in 2009, the world's leaders agreed to work toward limiting the globally average amount of warming to 2°C with respect to 1990. But in a new paper published in Climate Change Responses, geographer Petra Tschaker of the Pennsylvania State University advocates a target of 1.5°C. Tschaker contends that the lower target will significantly reduce the impact of climate change, especially on poor and vulnerable communities, such as the Sami people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia's Kola Peninsula.
March 26, 2015 3:10 PM

Saturnian day measured using gravitational field

Los Angeles Times: In the early 1980s the Voyager spacecraft measured the length of Saturn's day to be 10.6 hours based on the planet's magnetic field. But when Cassini reached the planet in 2004, it obtained a different result. Subsequent measurements revealed that the planet's magnetic field, unlike Earth's, is aligned with the axis of rotation; it cannot, therefore, be used for an accurate measurement. Other techniques that attempted to use the planet's wind patterns proved even less accurate. Ravit Helled of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues have now used Saturn's gravitational field to measure the length of the day, which they found to be 6 minutes shorter than the original Voyager measurement. The technique uses the periodic changes in pull that Cassini feels as Saturn rotates as well as measurements of the planet's oblateness. The researchers confirmed the accuracy of the technique by testing it against Jupiter, whose day has a well-known length.

March 26, 2015 2:51 PM

Water squished between graphene sheets forms "square ice"

Nature: The oxygen atom in a water molecule is tightly bound to the two hydrogen atoms, but it also experiences a slight connection with the hydrogen in neighboring molecules. Because of this, as water freezes, the molecules arrange themselves into three dimensional tetrahedral shapes. Now, Andre Geim of the University of Manchester, UK and his colleagues have discovered that water pressed between sheets of graphene freezes into an ice in which the molecules form two-dimensional layers of square shapes. The structure could be the 18th different type of water ice discovered. Geim's team calculated that the pressure exerted on the water by the graphene sheets exceeds 10 000 atm or 1 gigapascal.

March 26, 2015 2:29 PM

NASA's asteroid redirect mission is redirected

Science: NASA announced yesterday that it would change the scope of its robotic mission to redirect an asteroid. Rather than bag a small asteroid in its entirety, a spacecraft would land on the surface of a larger asteroid and snatch a boulder. The mission, which is penciled in for a 2020 launch and is expected to cost $1.25 billion, has two main goals. The first is to test the feasibility of redirecting an Earth-threatening asteroid using the spacecraft's own gravity. The second goal is to test technologies for a manned mission to Mars by bringing the boulder closer to Earth and having astronauts visit it using NASA's new Orion spacecraft.
March 26, 2015 11:55 AM

Episcopal bishop: Denying climate change is immoral

Guardian: In an interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper, the head of the US Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, asserted that denying climate change was immoral. She based her pronouncement on two lines of reasoning. First, to deny climate change is to fail to use God's gift of knowledge. Second, climate change is likely to most severely effect poor people who live in the developing world. In warning against climate change, Schori joins Pope Francis, who raised the issue last December at a meeting of the United Nations.
March 25, 2015 11:37 AM

DOE adjusts its plans for nuclear waste storage

Nature: On 24 March Department of Energy (DOE) secretary Ernest Moniz announced that the agency was looking for a variety of temporary localized sites for nuclear waste storage. The agency will also continue its search for a permanent, geologically stable location for long-term storage of nuclear weapons waste. Moniz says that the key to the localized sites is that the agency will be seeking consent-based locations instead of attempting to force storage sites into areas where the local population does not want them. The DOE's new plan, with President Barack Obama's approval, also frees commercial and military waste to be stored in separate locations. Thanks to the policy change, waste repositories will no longer have to be equipped to store waste that has different requirements and risks. The DOE's 2016 budget proposal includes funding for an experimental borehole for long-term storage. The agency also plans to begin evaluating potential storage sites for commercial waste, but construction of such facilities would require approval from Congress.

March 25, 2015 11:32 AM

Curiosity detects nitric oxide on Mars

BBC: NASA's Curiosity rover has detected nitric oxide (NO) in a sample that it extracted from a site in Gale Crater. The gas was released as the rover's mobile lab pulverized and heated the sample for chemical analysis. If, as the Curiosity team suspects, the nitrogen was originally in the form of nitrates before the sample was heated, the finding could have implications for the presence of life. Nitrogen is the fourth most common element in terrestrial life. Despite its high atmospheric abundance, most terrestrial species require nitrogen to be transformed first into nitrates, a task performed on Earth by soil microbes.
March 25, 2015 11:28 AM

Secret Science Reform bill passes US House

New Scientist: Sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AK), the Secret Science Reform Act would, in the words of its summary, "prohibit the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating a covered action unless all scientific and technical information relied on to support such action is specifically identified and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results." Last week, the House of Representatives passed the bill, whose supporters claim it would make the regulation of oil and gas extraction more open to the public. The bill's detractors, however, claim it would make protecting the environment more difficult.
March 25, 2015 11:11 AM

Electrical short delays LHC restart

Science: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN was planned to begin circulating beams of particles the entire way around the accelerator's 27-km circumference this week. However, an electrical short discovered over the weekend has delayed the full restart while the short is repaired. That task could take as little as a few days or as long as several weeks. Shorts are not uncommon as the LHC is slowly ramped up, but the time it takes to repair them can be significantly increased if supercooled electronics first have to be warmed up. The scientists working at the accelerator plan to use x-ray imaging to examine the area to determine if they can remove the metallic source of the short by melting it or blowing it away with helium.

March 24, 2015 2:25 PM

Sound lab used to simulate and promote Heathrow expansion

Guardian: The prospect of a third runway at the UK’s busy Heathrow Airport has many local residents upset because of the potential for even more noise. To help mitigate people’s fears, Arup SoundLab in central London has simulated what the proposed expanded airport would sound like. In the lab, technicians can re-create different scenarios that include various combinations of aircraft, times of day, and distances from the airport. Because older, noisier planes are being phased out and newer, quieter planes are being introduced, the lab is also set up to compare current and future sound scenarios. Heathrow officials suggest that the new runway, which will require steeper landing approaches and keep planes flying higher for longer, may even provide some respite from the noise.
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