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Updated: 1 week 10 hours ago

Controversy arises over recipient of Chinese science prize

13 February 2015

Nature: China's National Natural Science Award is so highly prized by Chinese government officials that they don't award it in years when they don't think a suitable recipient is available. Now, the computer scientist that received the award in January has been accused of copying open-source software and claiming it as original work. Zhang Yaoxue of Tsinghua University was awarded the prize for a computer program that allows access to multiple operating systems on a remote computer. But Chinese social media users soon pointed out that Zhang's work appeared to be heavily based on an open-source program available on the software sharing site GitHub. The author of that program, Iordan Iordanov, a Bulgarian-born Canadian, had posted his software under a license allowing anyone to use the program as long as they did not claim copyright. The Chinese government has acknowledged the allegations, but has not said whether they will have any effect on Zhang's award.

US likely to experience 20-year or longer droughts

13 February 2015

BBC: A new analysis of climate models by Ben Cook of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and his colleagues suggests that the US is likely to experience droughts on a scale unseen in nearly 1000 years. Cook's team combined reconstructions of past climate conditions and compared the data with 17 future climate models. According to their analysis, after 2050 the central and southwestern parts of the US will probably shift to conditions that will make them susceptible to decade-long droughts. The researchers also found that if current climate change rates are unchanged, there's an 85% chance that a 35-year-long drought will occur in those regions.

Computer program can authenticate Jackson Pollock paintings

13 February 2015
Ars Technica: American painter Jackson Pollock is well known for his revolutionary “drip” painting technique. Although to the untrained eye his works may look like random explosions of paint on canvas, a computer algorithm shows that his paintings have a distinctive and identifiable style. Lior Shamir of Lawrence Technological University has scanned various Pollock paintings and extracted from each 4024 “numerical image content descriptors,” including fractals, Zernike polynomials, Haralick textures, and Chebyshev statistics. A computer algorithm uses those descriptors to detect details and patterns unique to the artist in question. According to Shamir, whose study has been published in the International Journal of Arts and Technology, the computer program was able to differentiate between an original Pollock and a fake 93% of the time. Shamir’s source code is publicly available, and he says the software can be used to identify works of other artists.

Physics style

13 February 2015
An online collection of photos aims to dispel the prejudice that the physics community consists wholly of scruffy white men.

Court ruling: Journalists must not treat a scientist as “unavoidable road kill on the highway of public controversy”

13 February 2015
Canadian press reports success for climate researcher Andrew Weaver's libel suit—which calls to mind that of US climatologist Michael Mann.

Language used in UK research case studies reveals how words affect assessment scores

12 February 2015

Nature: Every few years the Higher Education Funding Council for England assesses the value of the research performed by the UK’s universities. The 2014 audit required that universities explain the impact of their research efforts through case studies that would account for 20% of their grade; the council received nearly 7000 of them. At the request of Nature, Paul Ginsparg of Cornell University performed a statistical analysis of the words used and found some predictable results, such as the frequent use of "research" and "impact." Other words used often were "development," "policy," and "health." Ginsparg noted a correlation between high assessment scores and the frequent use of words such as "million," "market," "government," "major," and "global." He also found a similar correlation between low scores and the repeated use of words such as "conference," "university," "academic," and "project." That could suggest that language used to show the research’s economic impact was more appealing to the graders.

New reactor design could make nuclear power cheaper, safer

12 February 2015
MIT Technology Review: A startup company, Transatomic Power, is developing a nuclear reactor that instead of using water as a coolant will use a new type of molten salt that will allow the reactor to burn its nuclear waste. Because the molten salt evaporates at a much higher temperature than water, it should also continue to cool the reactor even if the pumps fail, as happened at Fukushima in 2011. Additionally, the reactor will use zirconium hydride rather than graphite to keep the reactions going, since zirconium hydride is more resistant to radiation damage. The company says the reactor, which is based on a design developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s, will be more compact and cheaper to build than current models. Transatomic is currently testing the design and hopes to have a demonstration model built by 2020.

Images reveal the formation of a multistar system

12 February 2015

Ars Technica: Many of the stars in the Milky Way coexist in binary, trinary, or larger systems. Despite the number of such systems, not much is known about their formation. New images of a star-forming area in the Perseus region have revealed the presence of a 0.1-solar-mass protostar surrounded by three other clusters of material, referred to as condensations, that are all likely to become protostars in the next 40 000 years. The condensations are connected to each other and to the protostar by filaments of gas that stretch across distances of up to 10 000 AU. Observations of the system revealed that the protostar and the condensations were barely moving relative to each other, which indicates that the regions are all gravitationally bound to each other. Whether the arrangement will actually evolve into a four-star system is not clear, but its existence supports the theory that gravitationally entangled stars can form from the same cloud of gas, rather than forming separately and only becoming entangled when they cross paths.

Carbon released from deep ocean led to end of Ice Age

12 February 2015
BBC: By studying the calcium carbonate shells left by marine organisms that lived thousands of years ago, researchers have been able to determine the acidity of the world’s oceans and, in turn, how much carbon dioxide they contained. They found that near the end of the last Ice Age, a reservoir of CO2 deep in the Southern Ocean was released into the atmosphere, which caused global temperatures to rise. Because Earth’s oceans currently absorb about 30% of anthropogenic fossil-fuel emissions, researchers say it’s important to understand the oceans’ role in the carbon cycle and how global warming could affect their ability to act as carbon sinks.

Predicting pentagonal graphene

12 February 2015
Calculations indicate that the carbon sheets are semiconducting and fairly robust.

High-speed cameras reveal secrets of popcorn's pop

11 February 2015

The Guardian: Researchers led by Emmanuel Virot of CNRS in Paris believe that they have an explanation for the popping sounds of popcorn. They combined high-speed cameras and audio recordings of popping kernels to show that the pop is not from the cracking of the kernel shells. Instead, the shape of the kernel serves as an acoustic resonator and causes the release of pressurized vapors to create the audible pop. A similar effect causes the pop of champagne corks. The team also found that the kernels pop when the vapor reaches 180 °C and that the "jump" of the pop occurs when starch in the kernel expands into the fluffy leaves that give popped corn its appearance.

European Space Agency launches mini-spaceplane

11 February 2015

BBC: Earlier today, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) atop a Vega rocket from French Guiana. The IXV will reach an altitude of 450 km before descending. The primary mission is a test of re-entry control systems on the wedge-shaped vehicle. The ESA has limited experience with returning vehicles to Earth and hopes to incorporate the knowledge gained from the launch into future craft.

Current geoengineering schemes likely ineffective

11 February 2015

Nature: A report by the US National Research Council (NRC) says that none of the plans put forward to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide through geoengineering are likely to be effective. The report provides an official stance for the government regarding a field that the NRC calls "climate intervention" because other names imply a level of knowledge and ability that does not exist. Several proposed plans to change the atmosphere's reflectivity to directly alter Earth's climate were rejected as too risky; information about the full effects of such plans is lacking. In contrast, plans for carbon capture and storage were considered not particularly risky. However, the report considers the technology to be too new, expensive, inefficient, and damaging to the environment in other ways to be truly effective at reducing CO2 levels significantly in the near term.

Australian government signals push for national focus on science

11 February 2015

Sydney Morning Herald: Karen Andrews, parliamentary secretary to the minister for industry and science, has called for a national focus on STEM education. She said the government would be considering a range of proposals in the quest to establish a national strategy for advancing scientific innovation. Australia's current economy is heavily dependent on mining and industries that will likely shrink significantly in the next 40 years. Andrews says a shift to a science- and technology-oriented economy could strengthen the country going forward.

Comsol application builder and application server: A review

11 February 2015
A powerful numerical analysis tool now comes with the ability to create apps.

The changing political climate for US science

10 February 2015
Disunity and dysfunction in Washington should not dissuade physicists from making the case for robust federal funding of science.

Andean ice core reveals air pollution before Industrial Revolution

10 February 2015

Science: The Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru serves as a record of the tropical region's wet and dry seasons, which can be easily traced in the alternating layers of clean and dusty snow compacted in the glacier. A study of ice cores by Paolo Gabrielli of the Ohio State University and his colleagues has also revealed details about air pollution in the region over time. Around 1400 CE, the Incas began mining and smelting silver, which released lead and other materials into the atmosphere. Gabrielli's team found that, between 1450 and 1900, levels of lead in the ice cores doubled  and concentrations of antimony increased 3.5 times. The researchers believe the largest contributor was the Potosí silver mine operated by the Spanish, who came to South America in the 16th century. Air pollution decreased slightly during the 1800s, perhaps due to the South American wars of independence and the economic downturns that accompanied them. However, pollution levels increased drastically between 1900 and 1989 as mining expanded to copper and molybdenum and the number of automobiles multiplied. In that period, silver levels in the ice cores tripled, copper and lead levels doubled, and molybdenum levels increased more than twofold.

Smart insulin automatically controls glucose levels

10 February 2015
Guardian: Diabetes patients wrestle daily with monitoring their blood sugar levels and determining when to inject insulin and how much. Now researchers have developed an insulin derivative that binds to a protein in blood and automatically activates when blood sugar levels reach a certain threshold. Injected into diabetic mice just once a day, the glucose-responsive insulin kept their blood sugar levels as stable as those in healthy mice. The researchers hope to test the new compound, called Ins-PBA-F, in human patients within two to five years.

Toronto newspaper found guilty of libeling climate scientist

10 February 2015

Ars Technica: In Canadian law, libel is defined as the publication of statements that are factually inaccurate and that damage "the plaintiff's reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person." A Canadian court has held that several pieces published by Toronto's National Post libeled climate scientist Andrew Weaver. The judge found that the paper misrepresented Weaver's statements and activities regarding climate change. As punishment, the Post will have to remove all the offending posts from its website and pay a fine of C$50 000 ($39 500). The paper avoided further penalty by removing the libelous reader comments.

Earth's center may be more complex than thought

10 February 2015
BBC: Earth’s inner core may have its own core, according to a new study published in Nature Geoscience. Xiaodong Song of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues used the seismic waves generated by earthquakes to look deep into Earth’s center. They found that the inner core, a Moon-sized sphere located some 5000 km below the surface, appears to have two distinct regions. They made that determination based on the orientation of iron crystals in relation to the polar axis: The crystals in the inner inner core are oriented east–west, while those in the outer inner core are oriented north–south. According to the researchers, that difference in alignment suggests something happened in Earth’s past to cause the inner core to rotate.

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