Physics Today Daily Edition
BBC: A new robot design uses a trial-and-error algorithm to diagnose problems and find a way for the robot to keep operating. The algorithm was modeled on the behavior of injured animals, which have been known to adapt to a wide variety of injuries. Unlike current robot designs, which rely on a limited number of fixes preprogrammed into their system, the new design can handle unforeseen problems by allowing robots "to creatively discover compensatory behaviors,” say the researchers in their paper published on the arXiv website. Their prototype robot was successful in learning to adjust after having one of its six legs broken, and it did so in just two minutes. Such a self-learning robot could be useful in situations where humans can’t go, such as certain space missions, search and rescue operations, and disaster response.
Nature: A set of equations devised to explain the motion of fluids continue to confound mathematicians. First proposed in the 19th century by a French engineer and an Irish mathematician–physicist, the Navier–Stokes equations have been used to model the weather, ocean currents, and air flow around airplane wings. Despite the equations' evident success in describing turbulent systems, no one has proven that solutions in three dimensions can always be found and are always finite. Because of their importance, the Navier–Stokes equations were established as one of the seven Millennium Prize Problems in 2000 by the Clay Mathematics Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although two mathematicians—Penny Smith of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and Mukhtarbay Otelbaev of the Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan—have each claimed to have cracked the problem, both proofs have been found to contain errors. Only one of the Millennium Prize problems has been solved so far: the Poincaré conjecture by Grigory Perelman in 2002.
Washington Post: Video footage of a potato-chip bag, the surface of a liquid in a glass, or the leaves of a potted plant can reveal what is being said by people speaking nearby. As people talk, the sound waves strike objects in the vicinity and cause them to vibrate. Researchers at MIT have been working to capture those tiny vibrations on film and, through the use of an algorithm, convert them to an audio signal. Interestingly, an ordinary digital camera can be used because of a design quirk called rolling shutter, which captures scenes by recording visual information one row of photodetectors at a time and assembling the rows into a single image, rather than taking a snapshot of the entire scene at once. “It kind of turns a two-dimensional low-speed camera into a one-dimensional high-speed camera,” says Abe Davis, coauthor of the group’s paper, which will be presented at this year’s Siggraph computer graphics conference.
Washington Post: The evolution of any system, whether it is biological, physical, or conceptual, involves a series of discoveries or innovations, each building on the ones that preceded it. To explain the phenomenon, Steven Strogatz of Cornell University and colleagues cite Pólya’s urn, in which a certain number of white and black balls are placed. When one ball is drawn out, its color is noted; then it is replaced and another ball of the same color is added to the urn. Thus as one color is selected, the odds increase that it will be picked again. That self-reinforcing property, called “the adjacent possible,” can be seen in everything from the evolution of feathers and flight in birds to the selection of songs in online music catalogs. The researchers discuss the “dynamics of correlated novelties” in greater depth in their recent study published in Scientific Reports.
MIT Technology Review: Researchers at IBM are fine-tuning the Watson supercomputer to be able to listen in on business meetings and weigh in on decisions. According to IBM, Watson is a next-generation artificially intelligent machine that can understand human speech, make decisions based on available data, and learn as it goes. Watson has already demonstrated its cognitive technology when it successfully competed in 2012 against two human players on the TV show Jeopardy! In a recent demonstration, IBM researchers tested Watson’s business acumen by enlisting its help in creating a short list of companies to acquire. Watson helped winnow down the list through its analysis of both written information and the researchers’ verbal discussion. Watson could also serve a number of other functions, including monitoring people’s contributions to the discussion and fact-checking assertions.
Guardian: In April both the Guardian and the Washington-based Climate Investigations Center independently surveyed the world’s top 25 public relations firms regarding their views on global warming. Ten of them said they would not represent clients who deny anthropogenic climate change. Among those companies are WPP, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Weber Shandwick, Text100, and Finn Partners. Because PR firms are responsible for spreading information and trying to influence public opinion, they have played a key role in the climate change debate. However, many of the firms appear to prefer to remain neutral on such issues, as evidenced by the fact that a majority did not respond to the surveys, regardless of whether or not they had taken on clients promoting action on climate change.
Los Angeles Times: As Comet Siding Spring, or C/2013 A1, goes hurtling past Mars in October, scientists are worried about the safety of spacecraft flying in its vicinity. The comet itself poses no threat; rather, the danger lies in the comet’s tail, which is made up of a stream of tiny dust particles zipping along at more than 55 km/s, like tiny cannonballs or bullets. To protect the three spacecraft orbiting Mars—the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Odyssey, and MAVEN—engineers are adjusting the crafts’ speed so that they will end up on the opposite side of Mars as the comet passes. By using Mars as a shield, the spacecraft should be able to avoid contact with the bulk of the comet’s dust particles.
Ars Technica: A new algorithm can predict the voting behavior of the US Supreme Court with roughly 70% accuracy, according to a study published on the Social Science Research Network. “Our model has proven consistently accurate at predicting six decades of behavior of thirty Justices appointed by thirteen Presidents,” says one of the developers, Josh Blackman, on his blog. The algorithm uses the extremely randomized trees method to weight some 90 variables, including decisions in individual cases and background information on the justices and the court. The algorithm will be tested against humans in an upcoming tournament, in which it will be pitted against the players of Blackman’s FantasySCOTUS.
New York Times: Tesla Motors and Panasonic are collaborating on a factory to be built in the US to produce lithium ion batteries for Tesla’s all-electric vehicles. The battery is what makes an all-electric vehicle so much more expensive than a gas-powered one, so the collaboration is designed to cut costs by streamlining the manufacturing process and through economies of scale. "Not only does the Gigafactory enable capacity needed for the Model 3 [car] but it sets the path for a dramatic reduction in the cost of energy storage across a broad range of applications,” said J. B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, in a press release. The site of the Gigafactory has not yet been decided.
New Scientist: Because current iron supplements can cause constipation and diarrhea, researchers have been working on a synthetic alternative. The researchers developed five synthetic formulations of iron nanoparticles to which they attached organic acids to make the product more closely resemble ferritin, the natural dietary iron found in meat and leafy green vegetables. They then tested the nano-iron in mice before trying it out on premenopausal women, a group that often suffers from anemia. Although the formulation that worked best was just 80% as effective as standard supplements, it had none of the side effects. More testing will be required before the product is ready for mass marketing.
Ars Technica: Over the past century, seawater levels around the continental US and Hawaii have been steadily rising, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In its recent report, NOAA notes that among the consequences of sea-level rise is the ever-increasing number of minor coastal flooding events during high tide. Such "nuisance" flooding can cause a number of longer-term problems, including road closures and infrastructure deterioration. Sea-level rise has been attributed to global warming, which melts land-based ice and heats up the oceans, causing them to expand. Because sea-level rise has been slow, it is easy to ignore. Nuisance floods, however, are a better indicator that the climate is changing: Over the past 50 years, the number of nuisance floods in Annapolis, Maryland, has risen by 925%, and in San Francisco by 370%. Further troubling news is the fact that nuisance floods are going to continue to increase in frequency even if the rate of sea-level rise were to remain stable.
Sydney Morning Herald: To address the severe underrepresentation of women in science, the Australian Academy of Science has established the Science in Australia Gender Equity Forum. SAGE seeks to devise strategies to increase the number of women in scientific fields, especially at the senior level. One of its models is the UK’s Athena SWAN program, which requires participating research organizations to collect data on women’s progress, identify problems, and devise plans for improvement. The program presents gold, silver, and bronze awards to those universities and departments that show improvements in their employment practices. Because such improvements often involve creating more flexible working environments, supporting different models of success, and encouraging a better work–life balance, proponents claim the changes benefit everyone.