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Updated: 1 day 22 hours ago

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.

Quantum and classical processes combine to solve mazes

9 February 2015

MIT Technology Review: In cells, energy is rapidly transported through large, complex protein matrices with almost no energy loss. Filippo Caruso of the University of Florence in Italy and his colleagues have shown that the mechanism involved in energy transfer across these maze-like proteins likely combines quantum and classical effects. By themselves, both quantum and classical solutions to finding paths through mazes suffer from loss of energy. Caruso's team combined the simultaneous evaluation of multiple paths of the quantum process with the random jumps of the classical. The resulting hybrid process outperformed both individual ones. The researchers created various mazes from waveguides spaced at different distances from each other. When the waveguides were close together, light took full advantage of quantum effects; when further apart, classical noise disrupted the system. Thus the researchers were able to measure for the best mixing of quantum and classical properties. Their system still doesn't compare with the efficiency of the energy transfer in proteins, but it does provide some potential insight into the process.

Forest fires rerelease radiation from Chernobyl disaster

9 February 2015
New Scientist: Smoke from forest fires in Ukraine and Belarus has been spreading radioactive contaminants left over from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Following the reactor explosion in 1986, the surrounding area was evacuated and dense forest has since grown up. Radioactive cesium and other elements that settled in the soil are now being released into the air via smoke from the fires. According to a study by Nikolaos Evangeliou of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and colleagues, global warming is exacerbating the problem. Increasing droughts are causing the number and intensity of the fires to increase. In addition, the radiation appears to be slowing the decomposition of the leaves littering the forest floor, which only serves to further fuel the fires. The lack of forest maintenance—for example, removal of dead trees and the clearing of roads—and the dearth of firefighting equipment and personnel are worsening the situation. The study’s findings could also be important for other areas that have suffered a nuclear disaster, such as Fukushima, Japan.

Brookhaven's new synchrotron is turned on

9 February 2015

Science: Last week US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz officially dedicated the $912 million successor to Brookhaven National Laboratory's National Synchrotron Light Source. Known as NSLS-II, the new facility will use a variety of wavelengths of light to study materials at a resolution nearing 10 nm and will reach intensities 10 000 times brighter than its predecessor. Currently only 7 of the 70 planned beamlines are operational; 25 more will be added over the next five years.

Val Logsdon Fitch

9 February 2015

Op-ed sees 2015 as possibly "the year we confirm both the virtues and the limits of general relativity"

6 February 2015
In the International New York Times, Philip Ball tells the world about coming tests of "probably the most beautiful of all existing theories."

Earth's ocean crust thickened during glacial periods

6 February 2015
Nature: During periods of extreme glaciation, so much water is sequestered in ice caps and glaciers that Earth's sea level drops by 100 meters. The corresponding reduction in over-pressure exerted by seawater on the crust below is significant enough that it facilitates the production of ocean crust. That's the conclusion reached by Richard Katz of Oxford University and his colleagues. The researchers investigated two areas of a mid-oceanic ridge, where new crust is created when magma wells up from the mantle below. The areas feature sequences of parallel hills whose separations imply that they formed at the maxima of the glacial cycles known as Milankovitch cycles. How exactly water pressure influences upwelling is unclear.

From planes to trains

6 February 2015
After World War II, Japan's best aeronautical engineers found work designing high-speed trains.

Andrew D. Hibbs

6 February 2015

Dark energy could influence individual galaxies

6 February 2015
New Scientist: To account for the observation that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, cosmologists have evoked a mysterious force called dark energy. Dark energy's influence is evident on cosmological scales, but could it also play out on galactic scales? Stephen Hsu of Michigan State University in East Lansing set out to answer that question—and discovered that the answer could be yes. For a large galaxy like the Milky Way, dark energy starts to outweigh gravity at distances beyond about 1.6 million light-years. At such a distance, dark energy would not be expected to shape the galaxy itself, but it could repel other, smaller galaxies, thereby explaining why the Milky Way has fewer satellite galaxies than theorists expect.

First stars not as old as we thought

6 February 2015
New Scientist: The first stars developed in the early universe about 150 million years later than previously estimated, according to a new analysis of data collected from Planck. The space-based telescope surveyed the cosmic microwave background from 2009 through 2012. Before the first stars formed, normal matter in the universe consisted of opaque clouds. Only when the starlight ionized those atoms did the universe become transparent. This latest analysis also confirmed Planck's previous measurements of the amount of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy in the universe and continued to rule out the possibility of a ghostly particle called a sterile neutrino. The remaining mystery that Planck hasn't confirmed is the existence of primordial gravitational waves.

Smart electric grid could anticipate outages

6 February 2015
New York Times: New smart meters and sensors being installed by utility companies across the US may pinpoint outages almost in real time, even before customers call the electric company to complain. Most disruptions occur not along the main grid supply lines, nor at individual homes, but on the regional networks. A failure in one area will ripple through and can take multiple states out, at a cost of as much as $200 billion a year in lost economic activity, according to Edward H. Kennedy, CEO of Tollgrade, which supplies such equipment to utilities. The new sensors, about the size of a shoe box, send a detailed status message when the power goes down and can even predict when a failure might occur. The advance warning allows power companies to carry out some preemptive work to reduce the risk of an outage.

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