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Updated: 39 min 57 sec ago

Canadian Perimeter Institute funding confirmed by Prime Minister Trudeau

18 April 2016

CBC News: On 15 April, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau affirmed the country's 2016 budget allocation of Can$50 million over the next five years for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. An independent think tank established by entrepreneur Mike Lazaridis in 1999, the Perimeter Institute provides not just high-level theoretical research but also educational outreach and a popular series of lectures on physics. The Canadian government began including funding for the institute in its budget several years ago to help promote that research and education. While answering questions from the press, Trudeau impressed and surprised both the media and the researchers in attendance with his ability to give a clear explanation of the significance of the institute's research into quantum computing.

This is your brain on physics

18 April 2016
Functional MRI reveals how the human brain repurposes itself to learn abstract physics concepts.

William Gray

18 April 2016

ESA receives go-ahead to build gravitational-wave observatory

18 April 2016
BBC: In the wake of the first detection of a gravitational wave last year by the ground-based LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), the European Space Agency (ESA) has been granted permission to proceed with its €1 billion proposal to build a space-based observatory to seek the elusive signals. The project was given the green light by a panel of experts who had assessed it. In their report, they even suggested accelerating the project so that it could launch as soon as 2029 instead of the proposed 2034.

Nuclear weapon modernization increases tensions among nuclear powers

18 April 2016

New York Times: China, Russia, and the US are all actively working to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons that are smaller and more precise than previous devices. And because of each country's modernization efforts, no progress has been made on new arms-control treaties. In the US, the next generation of weapons is intended to reinforce nuclear deterrence by replacing older weapons with updated versions. That program, estimated to cost $1 trillion over 30 years, is prompting China and Russia to not just modernize weapons but also develop new types of warfare. For example, Russian news reports say that the country's navy is developing a drone that can spread radioactive contamination over a wide area. Independent analysts worry that Russia would be willing to violate the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty as part of its development process. And China is developing a hypersonic missile similar to one that the US has tested unsuccessfully. Analysts are particularly worried that all those efforts may increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons are used in a local conflict and that they weaken the concept of mutual assured destruction that has served to deter the use of nuclear weapons since the 1950s.

SpaceX hauls dirt as first step in building its Boca Chica launch site

18 April 2016
Valley Morning Star: In preparation for the construction of a launch site at Boca Chica Beach in Texas, private aerospace company SpaceX began last year to truck in some 310 000 cubic yards of soil. The soil is needed to raise and stabilize the area so that it will support heavy hangars, a launch pad, and rockets. Although the process, called soil surcharging, is more cost-effective than placing steel beams or pouring concrete pillars, it does take longer, so SpaceX has bumped back its first projected launch from the site to 2018.

Daniel A.S. D'Ippolito

15 April 2016

David A. Liberman

15 April 2016

Zika virus confirmed as causing brain defects at birth

15 April 2016
Los Angeles Times: This week the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the mosquito-borne Zika virus is responsible for the massive outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil. According to a detailed study published in the British Medical Journal, virtually all the infants involved in the study, who were born to mothers infected with the Zika virus, showed signs of some form of brain damage. The hallmarks of Zika damage include an abnormally small head, the absence of folds on the surface of the cerebral cortex, and the presence of calcifications, or damaging lesions, in the frontal lobes. Those abnormalities can cause developmental problems and may also affect vision and hearing. Although not all infants born to infected mothers will be affected, their risk is much greater. Therefore, pregnant women who live or travel in areas where Zika is prevalent are being urged to take precautions, including to protect themselves from being bitten by mosquitoes.

NASA studies supersonic shock waves using schlieren imagery and the Sun

15 April 2016
ABC News: As part of NASA's effort to develop a quiet supersonic passenger jet, the agency is studying the flow phenomena of supersonic shock waves. To do that with a full-scale plane, they're turning to schlieren imagery and the Sun. Schlieren photography uses backlighting to track the movement of fluids of different densities and is widely used in aeronautics to understand the flow of air around objects. The agency recently released several images it has taken of a supersonic US Air Force T-38 as it passes in front of the Sun.

Astronomer crowdfunds telescope to solve 40-year-old radio wave mystery

15 April 2016
Guardian: On 15 August 1977, a powerful blast of radio waves lasting 72 seconds was detected coming from a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii by astronomer Jerry Ehman of the Ohio State University. Long thought to indicate the existence of an extraterrestrial intelligence, the so-called Wow! signal has not been observed since. Now Antonio Paris of St. Petersburg College in Florida may have a more mundane explanation. Paris found that two comets—266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs—were both near Chi Sagittarii the day the Wow! signal was detected. Comets are surrounded by clouds of hydrogen gas and can emit radio frequencies similar to those detected by Ehman. To test his hypothesis, Paris hopes to observe the next passage of the two comets past Chi Sagittarii in 2017 and 2018 and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $13 000 needed to buy a radio telescope to do so.

DARPA funds computer chip that introduces small errors in its calculations

15 April 2016

MIT Technology Review: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wanted to find a way to improve results from computer software when the input data is noisy. To do that DARPA worked with Joseph Bates of Singular Computing to develop a computer chip designed to produce close-but-incorrect answers to mathematical calculations: When asked to add 1 and 1, it came up with answers like 2.01 or 1.98. Bates tested the chip for a variety of functions and found that it performed very well on tasks such as high-resolution radar imaging, extracting 3D information from stereo photos, and deep learning. In a test of software that tracks objects in a video, the chip was 100 times as fast as a conventional chip and used less than 2% as much power.

Coverage of Nuclear Security Summit presents confusing message

14 April 2016
The recent summit centered on securing nuclear materials and preventing nuclear terrorism. But the message to the public focused on fear.

Foam mitigates key obstacle in quest for laser fusion

14 April 2016
A thin layer of wispy foam reduces the impact of Rayleigh–Taylor instabilities and thus enables more even implosions.

Largest US coal company files for bankruptcy

14 April 2016
NPR: On 13 April, Peabody Energy—the largest coal-mining company in the US—filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Peabody follows in the footsteps of the second-largest company, Arch Coal, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and three other major coal companies that went bankrupt the year before. Peabody cited a slump in the coal industry as the reason for its difficulties. One of the world’s largest markets for coal, China, has been experiencing an economic downturn over the past several years. In addition, coal faces increasing competition in the US as shale-gas production and solar and wind projects ramp up. Peabody’s filing should allow the company to restructure its debt load and effect other changes in order to continue operating.

Synthetic neural bypass returns muscle control to paralyzed hands

14 April 2016

IEEE Spectrum: Ian Burkhart broke his neck in 2010, which resulted in his becoming paralyzed from the fifth cervical vertebrae down. That meant he was only able to move his head, neck, and upper arms. Now, Chad Bouton of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York City and his colleagues have developed a neural implant that connects to an electronic sleeve on Burkhart's forearm and restores his control over one of his hands. The implant is an array of 96 electrodes that monitors electrical activity in the brain's motor cortex at a rate of 30 000 times per second. Burkhart had to train multiple times per week for 15 weeks so that the system could learn which signals corresponded with certain intended motions. Once the neuro-electrical signals were mapped to movements, the implant sent electrical pulses to the sleeve on Burkhart's forearm. The sleeve contained 130 noninvasive electrodes that stimulated the muscles necessary to move the fingers, hand, and wrist. When outfitted with the system, Burkhart was able to perform actions such as swiping a credit card and using the game controller to play Guitar Hero. Currently the system requires running a cable from the implant to the sleeve, but the researchers hope to be able to create a wireless communication system.

Computer game tests human understanding of quantum physics

14 April 2016
Nature: Creating video games to fold proteins, map quantum circuits, and solve other puzzles in science is becoming a popular area of research. Now Jacob Sherson of Aarhus University, Denmark, and his colleagues have created a game called Quantum Moves that addresses a key question in quantum computing: How quickly can a laser move an atom between containment wells without altering the atom's quantum state? Players are tasked with moving a sloshing liquid between two wells by moving the wells toward each other. The catch is that the liquid doesn't behave like a liquid; instead, the liquid is controlled by the laws of quantum mechanics, which allow it to do such things as tunnel between the wells. Sherson's team can then compare the movements of the player-controlled wells to real-world attempts at moving atoms between containment wells. After analyzing the gameplay of about 300 people, the researchers found that more than half of the human solutions beat the computer algorithms that are normally used for solving the problem.

Starshot spacecraft could explore solar system first

14 April 2016 On 12 April theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner announced Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million initiative to develop an ultralight spacecraft that could travel one-fifth the speed of light. Although the ultimate goal is to travel beyond our solar system to look for signs of life, the first trips will probably be to destinations much closer to home. Members of the Starshot scientific advisory team cited targets such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, both of which have liquid oceans beneath their icy surfaces.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking reveal program to develop interstellar probes

14 April 2016

The Atlantic: On Wednesday Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, joined by Stephen Hawking, announced the newest of Milner's Breakthrough Initiatives: Starshot, a $100 million research program to build spacecraft capable of traveling to Alpha Centauri in 20 years. For comparison's sake, the current fastest-moving spacecraft is NASA's New Horizons, which would take tens of thousands of years to reach Alpha Centauri. And at just 4.4 light-years away, Alpha Centauri is the star system closest to Earth. The program involves deploying an array of lightweight disks fitted with photon thrusters for navigation, a power source, cameras, and a communication system. Propulsion would come from a ground-based laser shining onto one side of the disk, providing pulses of energy to accelerate each probe away from Earth. Milner thinks the technology for interstellar travel can be developed within his lifetime.

Three baseball myths debunked by physics

13 April 2016
In the inaugural post of his Extra Dimensions blog, online editor Andrew Grant explores the physics underlying America’s pastime.