Physics Today Daily Edition
New York Times: From 2006 through 2009, Syria suffered its most extreme drought in modern times. According to a new computer-modeling study by Colin Kelley of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the drought's unusual severity was most likely due to the effects of climate change. Whether the drought contributed to the outbreak in 2011 of Syria's continuing civil war is controversial. Crop failures prompted up to 1.5 million people to move from rural areas to Syria's towns and cities, intensifying social tensions. However, the initial protests that sparked the war were largely for political, not economic, reforms.
Wall Street Journal: On 1 March Ikea announced a new line of furniture that features Qi-standard wireless charging stations. Wireless charging uses induction to provide energy to smartphones and other electronics that have the capability enabled. The furniture will be available in stores in Europe and the US on 15 April. The wireless charging marketplace is hotly contested with three different standards competing for global dominance. The Qi standard that Ikea chose is run by the Wireless Power Consortium and is supported by phone makers such as Samsung, HTC, and Microsoft. The Power Matters Alliance (PMA) standard is most common in the US and has recently partnered with Starbucks. The third standard is the Alliance For Wireless Power (A4WP).
Nature: India's 2015–16 budget, announced last Friday, disappointed many of the country's scientists because it did not include an overall boost in science funding. Although India's principal science funding agency, the Ministry of Science and Technology, received an 8% budget increase, other agencies had their budgets cut, among them the Ministry for Earth Sciences, whose allocation fell by 4.6%. Despite the flat science budget, India will expand its Indian Institutes of Technology system. Two new IIT centers now have funding.
New Scientist: The Casimir effect arises when metal plates held parallel and extremely close together in a vacuum attract each other. It happens because the metal sheets damp quantum fluctuations between the plates but not outside them. Because the effect is generic to quantum fields, it could have counterparts in other forces. In a new paper, James Quach of the University of Tokyo proposes that detecting a gravitational Casimir effect would constitute evidence of gravity's quantum nature. Confining quantum fluctuations in a gravitational field could be done, says Quach, by using plates made from supercooled superconductors.
New Scientist: Great white sharks favor dawn and dusk for their attacks. Suspecting that the Sun's low position on the horizon might be behind that preference, Charlie Huveneers of Flinders University in Australia and his colleagues conducted an experiment at sea. They lured great white sharks to their boat using fish oil and minced fish. They then tossed chunks of tuna into the water and observed how the sharks attacked their "prey" at different times of day. When they attacked at dawn and dusk, the sharks invariably approached the tuna chunks with the Sun behind them. Huveneers speculates that the sharks use the Sun's glare to hide their attacks.
BBC: A £1 billion ($1.54 billion) plan to build a tidal-lagoon-driven power plant has won the approval of UK energy secretary Ed Davey, although the government is still in negotiations with the company behind the proposal. Tidal Lagoon Power wants to build an artificial lagoon off the coast of Swansea and use giant turbines embedded in seawalls to capture energy from the tides. It also proposes to expand to six more sites throughout the UK and says the combined plants could produce 8% of the country's energy at a cost of £30 billion. The initial cost of the electricity generated by the Swansea plant would be £168 per kilowatt hour but would drop to £90 when a second plant opened. That reduced cost would be in the same range as the predicted cost for the power from a planned nuclear plant, but the lagoon plant would also have a longer lifetime and be safer than the nuclear one. The plan, however, is facing some environmental challenges because of the impact the seawalls could have on local shorelines and wildlife.
Nature: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, just months after releasing its fifth climate assessment, is already organizing for the next edition of the report. At a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of February, the group approved roughly the same framework used to guide the fifth report. The mostly minor changes are primarily focused on obtaining wider input and more effective sharing of the study results. The panel wants to increase the representation of scientists from the developing world, particularly by using more non-English scientific literature. It also wants to include more science communicators in the process to better reach the nonscientific public. To assist in that, the panel intends to open some of its closed-door meetings to researchers. The panel is also trying to find a new chairperson following the resignation of Rajendra Pachauri, who stepped down in response to allegations he sexually harassed a colleague at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India.
Science: A team led by Randall Hulet of Rice University in Houston, Texas, has trapped a collection of 100 000 to 250 000 lithium-6 ions in an optical lattice and, using lasers, caused the ions to settle into an antiferromagnetic state—that is, a pattern in which neighboring spins alternate between up and down. The feat is significant because high-temperature superconductivity emerges from a antiferromagnetic state. What's more, Hulet's lattice is a physical embodiment of the Fermi–Hubbard model, a physically simple yet mathematically intractable description of electron–electron interactions. With further experimental advances, Hulet and his team could prove (or disprove) whether the model is sufficient to capture the physics of high-temperature superconductivity.
Washington Post: Last summer a series of unusual craters—the first more than 30 m across—were found in Siberia. Researchers explained that warming temperatures in the region had caused the layer of permafrost to melt and release bubbles of trapped methane gas. Since then, seven more craters have been found, some of which have become lakes and one of which is surrounded by a collection of mini-craters. Beyond the danger of the methane explosions themselves, the phenomenon is a threat to the region's natural gas fields, which are a major part of the Russian economy. So far, the explosions have not injured anyone, but at least one of them has resulted in a fireball, and there is evidence that methane continues to leak from one of the craters. As Siberia continues to warm—2012 and 2013 were both 5° warmer than the historical average—the threat of these explosions is likely to increase.
The Guardian: NASA's Dawn spacecraft is traveling toward Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, and is taking pictures of the dwarf planet as it approaches. Some of those recent images have revealed unexpectedly bright reflections from the surface. The brightest spot is reflecting about 40% of the light hitting it. Ice is known to account for roughly one quarter of Ceres's mass, so it is likely that the reflection is caused by patches of exposed ice. Normally the ice is contained below the surface, so its exposure was probably the result of the impact of other asteroids. As Dawn approaches Ceres and the resolution of its photographs improves, if ice is the cause of the reflection, the amount of light being reflected should increase to nearly 100%.
Nature: The tsunami that struck the coast of northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011 inundated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and led to the biggest release of radioactive material into the environment since Chernobyl. In the wake of the disaster, the Japanese government established an extensive and continuing monitoring campaign to track levels of radiation in the nation's food supply. Stefan Merz of the Vienna University of Technology in Austria and his colleagues have analyzed the almost 900 000 food samples in the campaign database. In 2011, the year of the disaster, Merz's team found that 3.3% of food from the region around the power plant had above-limit contamination. By 2014 the percentage had fallen to 0.6%. Food in the rest of Japan was also contaminated: 0.9% in 2011; 0.2% in 2014.
BBC: A computer program developed by Google DeepMind has learned how to play 49 classic Atari video games. In about half the games, it was able to match the abilities of a professional human player. What makes this achievement significant is that the program was not specifically designed to play the games. Instead, it was given only the basic information needed to play them: the raw pixels on the screen and the goal of getting a high score. From that information the program could be presented with any of the games and, in the course of a few hours, learn to play the game with varying levels of success.
Los Angeles Times: An object spotted by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey appears to be a black hole 12 billion solar masses in size. Its redshift suggests it formed when the universe was only 875 million years old. Of the known black holes formed in the universe's first billion years, it is by far the most massive and luminous. This black hole is also a quasar and is pulling in so much of the surrounding material that massive amounts of radiative energy are being released. And that's what makes it unusual. Normally, the pressure from that radiation is expected to gradually slow the rate at which material falls into a black hole. The finding that the black hole reached such a great size in such a short period of time challenges current understanding. Further observations of this black hole could provide more clues into black hole formation and evolution. As the light it emits passes through the material in the intergalactic medium, which was much denser 13 billion years ago, that light could also provide information about the growth of the universe itself.