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Updated: 4 hours 51 min ago

US must increase its energy funding, says innovation council

24 February 2015

New York Times: The American Energy Innovation Council is urging the US government to triple its current level of funding for energy research. In the council’s recent report, some of the country’s top business leaders, among them Bill Gates of Microsoft and Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, say that without dramatically increasing federal funding for technology innovation, the US risks falling behind in the energy race. The US must make more of an effort to both improve existing technologies and create new technologies to provide affordable and sustainable energy to its citizens while limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Safer nuclear reactors, cheaper carbon-capture methods, and better batteries are among the objectives mentioned. Although the report cites some progress on the recommendations the council made five years ago, much more needs to be done. Council members say the upcoming 2016 presidential race may provide some impetus to take up their ambitious recommendations.

Tracking people via their cell phone battery usage

24 February 2015
BBC: Most people know that their phone can be tracked through its GPS, cellular, or Wi-Fi connectivity. That’s why phone applications require the user’s permission to access those services. However, no permission is needed to read the phone’s power consumption, and that information, according to a new study, can also be used to infer a user’s location. The amount of power a phone uses depends on how far it is from a cell phone tower and how many obstacles, such as trees or buildings, are in between. Although phones run many applications simultaneously that also drain the battery, that noise is not correlated with the phone’s location and can be ruled out by a machine learning algorithm. The researchers say that if one knows the general area in which a given user moves, the application can learn information about the user’s location in just a few minutes.

Dragonflies have extraordinary color vision

24 February 2015
New Scientist: Dragonflies apparently surpass all other known animal species in the ability to see color. Whereas the vision of most mammals, birds, and insects is di-, tri,- or tetrachromatic—humans, for example, see colors as a combination of red, green, and blue—dragonflies can detect as many as 30 different vision pigments. Ryo Futahashi of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, and colleagues have also found that the number of opsins, or light-sensitive proteins, can vary over the course of an individual dragonfly’s development, from larva to adult. The extra opsins may also allow dragonflies to see UV and polarized light.

Winds generated by black holes limit galaxy formation

23 February 2015
BBC: Supermassive black holes generate high-velocity winds that blow outward in every direction, according to a new study published in Science. Using two telescopes—NASA’s Nustar, which detects high-energy x rays, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton, which detects lower-energy x rays—Emanuele Nardini of Keel University in the UK and colleagues were able to deduce the speed, shape, and size of the winds by looking at the way iron atoms were scattered. Because the winds eject a considerable amount of material from the host galaxy, fewer stars are able to form from the material that's left.

<em>Wall Street Journal</em>: Taxpayers grossly oversubsidize Elon Musk’s electric cars

23 February 2015
The WSJ’s opinion editors examine the numbers for Tesla Motors—and blow a whistle.

Galactic dark matter may trigger extinctions on Earth

23 February 2015
Science: Mass extinctions tend to occur on Earth about every 30 million years. They appear to result either from impacts by extraterrestrial objects or from geological events such as volcanic eruptions. Both types of catastrophes may be caused by dark matter, proposes Michael Rampino, whose research has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Rampino notes that as the Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, it oscillates vertically with a similar periodicity through the galactic plane. Not only might the presence of dark matter in that plane disrupt the orbits of comets and asteroids, causing them to impact Earth, but dark matter particles might also get trapped by Earth’s gravity and sucked into the planet’s core, where they could fuel geological upheavals. Although what dark matter is remains unknown, its gravitational effect on visible matter indicates that there’s a lot of it.

Samuel J. Bame, Jr.

23 February 2015

A newly found pair of stars is destined to merge and may go supernova

23 February 2015
An analysis of their orbits and masses indicates that the two stars are the first observed example of their kind.

Climate skeptic under investigation for allegedly failing to disclose funding sources

23 February 2015
Nature: Solar physicist Willie Soon of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is under investigation for a potential conflict of interest concerning his stance on climate change and the source of his funding. Soon has published numerous papers that contradict the findings of mainstream climate science. Since 2001 he has received more than $1.5 million from private groups that include at least one energy company and a conservative foundation. However, according to documents recently obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, Soon may not have reported his funding sources as required by the journals that published his research. The investigation was prompted by Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

Replacing spark plugs with laser ignition in combustion engines

23 February 2015
New Scientist: Conventional combustion engines use spark plugs to ignite a fuel–air mix, which drives a series of pistons. Because spark plugs ignite the fuel at just one end of the combustion chamber and each combustion cycle happens very quickly, not all of the fuel mixture gets burned. To improve combustion efficiency, Princeton Optronics has replaced the spark plugs with lasers, which can ignite the fuel in the middle of the chamber, can be tuned more precisely than spark plugs, and can fire multiple times during a single cycle. Those properties allow more of the fuel to burn off. Although laser ignition is not a new idea, only now have lasers become small enough and efficient enough to be practical for this application. Princeton Optronics presented its prototype at the ARPA–E energy innovation summit.

Scientists want to improve public outreach, but are cautious about doing so

20 February 2015

Nature: The results of a Pew Research Center poll of 4000 scientists were shared at last week's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Of the respondents, 87% said scientists should be active in public discussions about science and technology. About 79% said they did not trust the media to distinguish between good and bad science. A small majority, 52%, believe science is often oversimplified in the media. Regarding career advancement, 43% thought that coverage in the news media was important, but just 22% felt that the use of social media was. Only 12% of respondents were following experts in their fields on Twitter or Facebook. The survey indicated that more women than men are active in outreach efforts, and that most of those participating in outreach are younger than 50, which signals a growing trend of increased involvement by underrepresented groups.

Nanoscale thin films of silicon can serve as lenses

20 February 2015

MIT Technology Review: Most optical materials bend different wavelengths of light to different degrees. To obtain a clear image, multiple lenses are needed to focus all the light on the same spot. Multiple lenses can make cameras bulky, which poses a problem for small electronic devices. Federico Capasso of Harvard University has now demonstrated the ability of carefully structured thin films of materials such as silicon to bend red, green, and blue wavelengths of light at the same angle. Those three colors are necessary to provide full-color images. The nanostructured material could allow for a significant reduction in the number and size of lenses needed for portable or wearable electronics.

US to crack down on imports of air-polluting machinery

20 February 2015
Los Angeles Times: Because of the amount of equipment being imported to the US that does not meet federal air-quality standards, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it will increase the number of inspections at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are among the busiest in the country. The announcement follows an extended examination of those ports in 2014 by the EPA and US Customs and Border Protection. Between June and September, inspectors examined 62 shipments and found 730 pieces of equipment that failed to meet the standards spelled out by the Clean Air Act. All the shipments came from Asia, and most came from China. Until now, customs officials say, only a small percentage of shipping containers had been opened and inspected.

Intelligence agencies hack SIM cards, threaten phone security

20 February 2015
Ars Technica: In April 2010 two major surveillance agencies, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters, hacked into and stole encryption keys from the world’s largest manufacturer of SIM cards, according to confidential documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Based in the Netherlands but with a global reach, Gemalto supplies some 2 billion SIM cards per year to such major wireless network providers as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint. With the stolen keys, the agencies can secretly monitor mobile communications all over the world. The theft of the database of keys “is pretty much game over for cellular encryption,” says Matthew Green of the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute.

Scholarly publishing and mobile phones

20 February 2015
The characteristics of mobile phones that make them so useful remain largely unexploited by academic publishers.

Do all possible Republican presidential candidates really deny evolution?

20 February 2015
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker kicks off a media discussion by telling a reporter “I’m going to punt” on that science question.

Young scientists more likely to create and adopt innovative ideas

19 February 2015

Nature: That young scientists are generally considered to be at the forefront of new ideas in their fields is a widely held belief throughout the sciences. Now, Mikko Packalen of the University of Waterloo in Canada and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University and their colleagues have found proof to back that up. They wrote a computer program to look for the most commonly used 1-, 2-, and 3-word phrases in the titles and abstracts in the MEDLINE database of biomedical research. To determine which articles were the most innovative, they looked at when the terms first appeared. By calculating the ages of the contributing authors, the researchers found that scientists are  significantly more likely to cite innovative ideas in the first 10–15 years of their career than they are later in life. They also found that the most innovative papers had an early-career first author and a mid-career last author. The numbers might shift somewhat depending on the particular field of study, or if the full text of the articles were analyzed.

Alien star passed within a light-year of Sun just 70 000 years ago

19 February 2015
BBC: The closest known flyby of our solar system by another star occurred a mere 70 000 years ago when a dim red dwarf passed within 0.8 light-year of the Sun. Discovered in 2013, Scholz’s star attracted the attention of Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester and colleagues because of its proximity to Earth and its relatively slow movement across the sky. In their paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers say that although the star probably passed through the outer Oort cloud, it does not appear to have perturbed the orbit of any of the trillions of comets found there. The researchers estimate that a star probably passes through the Oort cloud every 100 000 years or so, yet for one to come as close as Scholz’s star is much rarer; it occurs just once every 9 million years.

New model predicts altitude at which meteors will explode

19 February 2015

New Scientist: Meteors pass through Earth's sky every day, but determining which will hit the ground is not easy. Now, Manuel Moreno-Ibàñez of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain and his colleagues have developed a model that predicts which meteors will explode and which will land. Their model relies on two parameters: the drag and the heating the meteor experiences because of friction in the atmosphere. To test the model, the researchers used trajectory and height data from the Meteorite Observation and Recovery Project. The model also predicts how much energy meteorites will have at impact and where they will strike. Although not useful as any sort of early warning system, it will help scientists locate meteorites after impact for further study.

Ernest Sternglass

19 February 2015

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