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Updated: 1 hour 48 min ago

Rwanda rebuilds its weather forecasting system after devastating civil war

1 June 2016
NPR: Detailed seasonal forecasts are critical for farmers in Rwanda, a hilly country where the weather varies by altitude. However, Rwanda's weather-tracking system was completely destroyed during the bloody civil war and genocide that erupted in 1994. The weather system had consisted of about 100 volunteers who recorded temperature and rainfall data from instruments at small outdoor observation stations. Over the 100-day conflict, many of the stations were destroyed and the volunteers who staffed them were killed. It took some 15 years to recruit new volunteers and reassemble the weather network. Then, to fill in the 15-year data gap, climate scientist Tufa Dinku of Columbia University created a substitute data record by estimating rainfall and temperature through the use of satellite imagery and computer models. The result is a weather-forecasting setup that may one day rival those of the rest of the world.

New number generator is more truly random

31 May 2016
Science News: Although physical phenomena such as coin tosses and dice rolls can generate random numbers, those methods are too slow for modern applications in such areas as statistics and cryptography. For those purposes, computational algorithms can create number sequences with random properties, but the numbers are not truly random because eventually the sequence will start repeating. Now a randomness extractor has been created that combines two independent sources of random numbers and discards any data that may be correlated or biased. The result is a more resilient system, even when very weak sources are used. The extractor should prove ideal for encrypting sensitive information and foiling would-be hackers.

Bumblebee hairs can sense floral electric fields

31 May 2016
Guardian: Besides using sight and smell to distinguish among flowers, bumblebees have the ability to detect the weak electrical fields produced by the plants. According to a new study, flying insects, such as bees, accumulate a tiny positive electric charge as they flit around, while flowers produce a weak negative charge. The difference in electric potential facilitates pollen transfer. To find out how bees' bodies respond to such an applied electric field, the researchers experimented with both live and dead bees. They found that although both the bees' antennae and body hairs were deflected by the electrical field, the body hairs were significantly more sensitive, reacting much faster and deflecting much farther. The researchers say that because many other insects have similar body hairs, they may also be sensitive to such small electric fields.

Press trumpets cell-phone cancer study

31 May 2016
Vox: A recent study linking cell-phone use to cancer set off alarms at several major news reporting agencies. Undertaken by the US National Toxicology Program, the study found that two types of cancerous tumor developed in rats exposed over a two-year period to the RF radiation emitted by cell phones. But several outside scientific experts, including one who deemed the study “interesting and well-designed,” and journalists such as Brad Plumer of Vox have urged the public to take a deep breath before buying into the hype the study has provoked. Plumer notes that it was just a single study, it was done on rats rather than on humans, and the rats were exposed to cell-phone radiation for far longer periods of time than any human would be. Moreover, cell phones have been in use for several decades already, yet cancer rates have not gone up. Plumer urges the press and the public to remain skeptical of any new study and to not jump to conclusions until more research has been done.

<em>Rosetta</em> spacecraft finds prebiotic chemicals on comet

31 May 2016
New Scientist: The simplest amino acid, glycine, has been found in the dust of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Discovered by the Rosetta spacecraft, which has been orbiting the comet since 2014, the amino acid represents proof that comets delivered to Earth at least some of the ingredients for life. Furthermore, glycine was not the only prebiotic chemical the spacecraft found in the gas cloud surrounding the comet: Also detected were alcohols, sugars, oxygen compounds, and the scent of phosphorus, which is necessary for cellular processes. The prebiotic molecules probably form on comets when stellar radiation heats simpler chemicals; once formed, the molecules then get trapped in the comet’s icy surface. Rosetta continues to look for further evidence of life-forming ingredients, such as nucleotides.

Freeing Omid

27 May 2016
Extra Dimensions: Omid Kokabee, the physicist imprisoned in Iran, finally received some good news. Let’s keep sharing his story to help secure his release.

Obama becomes first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima

27 May 2016

The Guardian: On 26 May, President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, Japan. Obama attended a ceremony at the bombing memorial, where he gave a speech about continuing efforts for nuclear disarmament and  nonproliferation. "Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us," he said. "The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well." Obama also met survivors of the attack, which killed 140 000 people.

Annual census shows US nuclear disarmament has slowed

27 May 2016

New York Times: Earlier this month, the US Department of Defense released its annual census of the nation's nuclear arsenal through the end of the 2015 fiscal year. At that point, the US possessed 4571 warheads, down 109 from the previous year and down 702 since 2008, the last year of President George W. Bush's term in office. The disarming of 109 warheads was the lowest annual rate of disarmament during President Obama's tenure, and the total reduction since 2008 accounted for just 13.3% of the stockpile, the smallest reduction by any administration since the end of the Cold War. According to Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, the slower rate of disarmament is the result of various factors. Congress has opposed much of Obama's disarmament efforts, and Russia has rejected additional cuts beyond those agreed to in the 2010 New Start treaty. There is also a potential effect from the three-decade arsenal modernization effort that Obama initiated at an estimated cost of $1 trillion.

Congressional report calls for NASA to develop plan for interstellar mission

26 May 2016

Science: On Monday, the US House of Representatives appropriations committee presented its first draft of the 2017 budget. Accompanying the budget was a report from the committee subpanel that oversees NASA. In the report, the subpanel calls for NASA to produce a technology assessment and conceptual road map within a year for an interstellar probe capable of reaching 10% of the speed of light. The report comes in the wake of the Breakthrough Starshot project, which proposes to use concentrated laser light to send tiny probes to other stars. The report does not say where funding for the NASA project will come from.

Record-setting superconductor characterized

26 May 2016
Diffraction measurements have confirmed the predicted identity of the sulfur hydride’s superconducting phase.

European Extremely Large Telescope gets $450 million contract

26 May 2016

Ars Technica: At 39 m in diameter, the planned European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) would dwarf all other telescopes, current and in the works. The European Southern Observatory, a partnership of European nations with Chile and Brazil, has now signed a contract for $450 million that it says will keep the EELT on schedule to begin operations in 2024. Like the 24.5-m Giant Magellan Telescope that is under construction, the EELT will be built on a mountaintop in Chile. Its final cost is expected to exceed $1 billion.

Physicist imprisoned in Iran is granted medical furlough after surgery

25 May 2016
Omid Kokabee has suffered from kidney cancer and other ailments since his 2011 detainment.

Obama sets up science advisory campaign for children

25 May 2016

USA Today: On 19 May, during a presentation to award the National Medals of Science and Technology, President Obama announced that he was establishing a campaign for children to submit ideas about the future of science, discovery, and exploration in the US. The White House has set up a page on its website with a form for idea submissions. The campaign was prompted at the White House Science Fair in April, when nine-year-old Jacob Leggette asked Obama if he had any advisers who were kids.

Record supernova may not actually be a supernova

25 May 2016

Science News: Last year astronomers observed a burst of light—tagged ASASSN-15lh—from 3 billion light-years away that they reported as the brightest supernova ever seen. With a peak luminosity of around 550 billion times that of the Sun, the supernova was twice as bright as the previous record holder. Now Peter Brown of Texas A&M University in College Station and his colleagues say that ASASSN-15lh might not be a supernova. About 80 days after ASASSN-15lh peaked in brightness and began fading away, Brown's team saw it get brighter again. After another 80 days, the object was emitting as much UV light as some supernovae. An increase in brightness of supernova remnants can be caused by various known mechanisms, but none of the spectral absorption lines characteristic of those explanations have been found. Instead, Brown's team suggests that ASASSN-15lh is actually a star being swallowed by the supermassive black hole at the center of the source galaxy. The flash was emitted from near the galaxy's center, and the increase in brightness could stem from a second piece of the star falling into the black hole.

Western US wildfires in an increasingly warming climate

25 May 2016
Higher temperatures and severe droughts will likely lead to more wildfire activity in the most vulnerable section of the country.

Preference for coal likely explains China's wind energy shortfall

24 May 2016

IEEE Spectrum: In 2015 China invested $102.9 billion in wind and solar power and ended the year with almost twice the installed wind capacity as the US. However, China generated less wind energy for the year than the US did. Michael McEvoy of Harvard University and Xi Lu of Tsinghua University and their colleagues suggest that the gap in production is roughly equally distributed between delays in connecting wind farms to the larger grid, low-quality equipment, and intentional favoring of coal power over wind by grid operators. The researchers offer the caveat that their data are from 2012. Both grid connection and wind farm technology have improved since then, which suggests that the favoring of coal plants is the primary cause of last year's production shortfall.

House's budget refocuses NASA funding on crewed lunar missions

24 May 2016

Ars Technica: A draft of the US House of Representatives' fiscal year 2017 budget released on 23 May alters NASA's direct-to-Mars plan by replacing visits to asteroids with expeditions to the Moon. The revised plan includes the development of habitation modules, prospecting techniques, and landing and ascent vehicles. The budget, which will be formally presented on 24 May, has to pass through the Appropriations Committee and the full House. If passed, the budget would have to be reconciled with the Senate's budget, which does not explicitly call for lunar landings. NASA's Journey to Mars program, developed following a 2010 speech by President Obama in which he called for crewed missions to Mars, has faced criticisms ranging from lack of realistic plans to an unwillingness by NASA to formalize a budget.

Solar flares could have aided development of life on Earth

24 May 2016

Science News: Astronomers study young Sun-like stars to learn what our solar system might have been like early in Earth's existence. According to Vladimir Airapetian of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues, those stars are significantly more active than the present Sun. The researchers estimate that 4 billion years ago Earth could have been struck by large solar flares at least once per day. If that's true, then the radiation could have triggered chemical reactions that produced nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and hydrogen cyanide, a building block of DNA. That could help explain the development of life on Earth, the earliest traces of which are around 4 billion years old. At that time, the Sun had 70–75% of its current brightness, so the presence of greenhouse gases was necessary to keep temperatures on Earth above freezing.

First UK fracking well approved since ban was lifted in 2012

24 May 2016

BBC: On Monday, the North Yorkshire County Council approved a bid by Third Energy to establish a shale-gas fracking facility. The decision followed two days of hearings, with input from local homeowners, farmers, and Third Energy employees. The council decided to follow a planning committee's recommendation for approval despite just 36 favorable public comments out of the 4420 submitted. Fracking was banned throughout the UK in 2011 following tests that revealed the potential for earthquakes. Two other projects proposed since the reversal of the ban in 2012 have not received approval. The Third Energy project would use an existing 3000-meter-deep well that was drilled in 2013. The site would be fitted with seismic monitors that would automatically halt work in the event of a magnitude 0.5 quake.