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Science News

Light journeys unimpeded along material’s surface

Exotic etched glass could improve optics-based communications
Surprising Control over Photoelectrons from a Topological InsulatorBy Andrew Grant

Throw some electrons onto the surface of a topological insulator and they seemingly become invincible, effortlessly bypassing obstructions along their route. Now researchers have crafted a structure that empowers particles of light to do the same thing. The first demonstration of a topological insulator for photons, reported April 10 in Nature, could lead to improved optical transmissions that are crucial for global communication.

“I think it’s wonderful,” says Michal Lipson, a physicist at Cornell University who was not involved with the study. “The light goes right around any obstacles, which is pretty remarkable.”

Topological insulators have been a burgeoning area of condensed-matter physics since they were proposed in 2005 (SN: 5/22/10, p. 22). Typical materials are either conductors or insulators, but topological insulators such as bismuth telluride are exotic hybrids: They block electric current yet allow electrons to flow along their surfaces.

What’s more, these surface electrons can move unimpeded through bumps and grooves that would normally block their path. That useful property makes topological insulators intriguing candidates for future electronics.


Getting to Know Your Inner Charlatan

Image: AARON GOODMANBy Sandra Upson

I slunk into my social studies classroom with my head down. Graded homework assignments sat on the corner of my teacher's desk. As my fellow seventh grade students chatted before class began, I casually slid my late homework into the middle of the pile. When our teacher later distributed the papers, he would see mine was not graded, assume he'd missed it, and I'd be off scot-free. Indeed, my ploy worked like a charm.

Decades later I still reflect on that episode with a twinge of guilt. Understanding the reasons behind our dishonest behavior and how to curb our nature are the subject of microbiologists Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall's cover story, “Why We Cheat,” on page 30. One impetus they identified is fear—specifically, a dread of failure.

Extreme fear can override other moral intuitions, too. In a war zone, for example, a soldier's intense emotions may trigger a so-called predator mode. A combatant in this state of mind is less likely to view bloodshed as reprehensible or to experience psychological trauma as a result of battle. On page 46, “An Appetite for Aggression” describes some surprising findings—and their implications.



Technology News

Obama seeks R&D funding boost in tough times

Proposed FY 2014 budget lifts nondefense spending 9 percent
Where Does the Money Go?By Puneet Kollipara

President Barack Obama has drawn a line in the sand in his ongoing fight with budget-cutting lawmakers when it comes to future federal funding for research and development. He’s calling for reversing recent spending cuts to most sectors of R&D spending and adding new funds for many areas next year — despite tough fiscal times.

The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts in October, would boost federal dollars for civilian R&D by 9 percent compared with 2012, before accounting for inflation. Defense R&D would take a 6 percent cut, mostly in development and applied research. R&D funding overall would rise about 1 percent, from $140.9 billion in 2012 to $142.8 billion in 2014. That’s actually a modest decrease after adjusting for the estimated 4 percent inflation over the period.

The Obama budget uses 2012 rather than 2013 as the baseline for comparison for procedural reasons. So the plan does not factor in the sequester — Washington-speak for a series of recent automatic spending cuts that reduce research funding by about 8 percent between now and 2017. That means Obama’s proposed R&D funding increases could be considered even bigger, because they assume the sequester cuts will be reversed.


How Out-of-Office Replies Can Put Workers at Risk

Dek: Chain of command and other personal or company information in these greetings can be useful to people performing social-engineering attacks. It's best to simply write that you'll be "unavailable"
Image: Flickr/mandolin davisBy Linda Rosencrance and TechNewsDaily

Ah, the innocuous out-of-office notification message. Who in the corporate world hasn't used it at one time or another?

Sure, the out-of-office function built into Microsoft Outlook and similar email software is great for letting colleagues, customers, vendors and even friends and acquaintances know that you're lying on a beach in Hawaii, sipping a Mai-Tai or two — and that you won't be able to respond.

Since you can't, or don't want to, respond while you're on vacation or away for some other reason, you include a way for people to contact you in an emergency.

You also include the name and contact information of your boss or co-worker. You'll probably also tell people how long you'll be away and when you'll be back in the office.

No big deal, right?

Wrong. You never know who's going to see that information, according to security experts.



Environmental News

Wild Weather Can Send Greenhouse Gases Spiraling

Researchers are getting to grips with the effects of heat, drought and storms on carbon release
A storm in southern France in 2009 left splintered trees and a weakened carbon sink.By Quirin Schiermeier and Nature magazine

Climate change has a disconcerting tendency to amplify itself through feedback effects. Melting sea ice exposes dark water, allowing the ocean to soak up more heat. Arctic warming speeds the release of carbon dioxide from permafrost. And, as researchers discussed at a meeting last week in Seefeld, Austria, climate extremes — heatwaves, droughts and storms — can hamper plant growth, weakening a major buffer against the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere.

“Heatwaves and droughts will very likely become more frequent in a warmer climate, and ecosystems will somehow respond,” says Philippe Ciais, a carbon-cycle researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. “More storms will add an extra dimension to the problem.”

The meeting was organized by the CARBO-Extreme project, a €3.3-million (US$4.5-million) collaboration of 27 groups from 12 countries, funded by the European Union. Attendees showed off an array of tools for uncovering how extreme events affect terrestrial carbon cycles, including numerical models, CO2 flux measurements and field experiments. The challenge now, says Ciais, is to predict how the frequency of climate extremes will change, and to model the intricate physiological responses — some of which are poorly understood — of plants and ecosystems.


Organic Pollutants Now Accumulating in Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau

The accumulation of DDT in the Himalayas exceeds levels found in the Arctic
Atmospheric pollution from cities such as Kathmandu drifts up to the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, where persistent chemicals can accumulate.By Jane Qiu and Nature magazine

Toxic chemicals are accumulating in the ecosystems of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, researchers warn in the first comprehensive study to assess levels of certain organic pollutants in that part of the world.

“The rigor and quality of the work are impressive,” says Surendra Singh, an ecologist at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun. “It’s the first study to quantify the accumulation of [persistent organic pollutants] in ecosystems in the region.”

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are carbon-based compounds that are resistant to break-down. Some originate from the burning of fuel or the processing of electronic waste, and others are widely used as pesticides or herbicides or in the manufacture of solvents, plastics and pharmaceuticals. Some POPs, such as the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and the herbicide Agent Orange, can cause diseases such as cancers, neurological disorders, reproductive dysfunction and birth defects.



Medical News

Mental puzzles underlie music’s delight

Brain activity reflects how much people enjoy a particular new tune
Listening to new music sparks activity in brain regions that analyze sound (green), recognize patterns (blue), process emotions (red), and determine rewards (rainbow, at bottom). Activity in the nucleus accumbens (rainbow) could predict how much money people were willing to spend on a new song. This person (brain image shown) wanted to pay the maximum amount — $2 — for a song.By Meghan Rosen

Whether you’re rocking out to Britney Spears or soaking up Beethoven’s classics, you may be enjoying music because it stimulates a guessing game in your brain.

This mental puzzling explains why humans like music, a new study suggests. By looking at activity in just one part of the brain, researchers could predict roughly how much volunteers dug a new song.

When people hear a new tune they like, a clump of neurons deep within their brains bursts into excited activity, researchers report April 12 in Science. The blueberry-sized cluster of cells, called the nucleus accumbens, helps make predictions and sits smack-dab in the “reward center” of the brain — the part that floods with feel-good chemicals when people eat chocolate or have sex.

The berry-sized bit acts with three other regions in the brain to judge new jams, MRI scans showed. One region looks for patterns, another compares new songs to sounds heard before, and the third checks for emotional ties.


News in Brief: Malaria drug made by baker's yeast

Fermentation process could become important new production method for artemisinin
Beta Glucan, WGP BetaglucanBy Nathan Seppa

Using genetically engineered baker’s yeast, researchers have come up with a shortcut to making artemisinin, a frontline drug against malaria. Christopher Paddon of Amyris Inc. of Emeryville, Calif., and his colleagues describe their process April 10 in Nature.  

Last year the team reported that they could ferment the bioengineered yeast to make amorphadiene, a precursor of artemisinic acid. In the new study, they improve the yield of the precursor and then spell out a process for converting artemisinic acid to artemisinin itself. The researchers say the overall strategy could streamline artemisinin manufacturing.

Artemisinin, which the sweet wormwood plant produces in its leaves, is an ancient malaria remedy. In recent years, artemisinin-based drugs have become mainstays against the parasite when combined with another drug (SN: 6/16/2007, p. 381). Current artemisinin production requires growing the plants for months, removing and drying the leaves and extracting the artemisinin. But a combination of problems that include fluctuations in raw material prices and too few manufacturers has led to supply uncertainties and price volatility, according to a 2012 report in Malaria Journal.



Space News

North Korea Rocket Rundown: How Far Can They Fly?

Sohae Launch Facility, North Korea, Nov. 26, 2012: This satellite image of the Sohae Launch Facility on Nov. 26, 2012 shows a marked increase in activity at North Korea's Sohae (West Sea) Satellite Launch Station. This activity is consistent with launch preparations as witnessed prior to the failed April 13, 2012 launch of the Unha 3 (i.e., Universe or Galaxy 3) space launch vehicle (SLV) carrying the Kwangmyongsong 3 (i.e., Bright Lodestar 3). Given the observed level of activity noted of a new tent, trucks, people and portable fuel/oxidizer tanks, should North Korea desire, it could possibly conduct its fifth satellite launch event during the next three weeks (e.g., by mid-December 2012).by Mike Wall, SPACE.com Senior Writer

North Korea apparently moved a medium-range missile into firing position Thursday (April 11), further ramping up a campaign of threats against South Korea, the United States and their allies.

Angered by economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations after a nuclear-weapons test in February, Pyongyang has been doing much saber-rattling lately. The regime has threatened to turn major American cities into "seas of fire" and announced last week that it had authorized a potential nuclear strike against the United States.

While North Korea's missile program is shrouded in secrecy, analysts doubt that Pyongyang can fully back up such tough talk. Here's a brief rundown of the Hermit Kingdom's stable of potentially dangerous rockets and missiles, based on the best guesses and estimates of Western experts.


'Ring Rain' Quenches Saturn's Atmosphere

Saturn's ringsby Ian O'Neill

Saturn’s rings rain charged water particles down onto the gas giant’s atmosphere, causing measurable changes in the planet’s ionosphere. This intriguing conclusion comes from astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii that observed dark bands forming in Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

“Saturn is the first planet to show significant interaction between its atmosphere and ring system,” said James O’Donoghue, postgraduate researcher at the University of Leicester and lead author of a paper to appear this week in the journal Nature. “The main effect of ring rain is that it acts to ‘quench’ the ionosphere of Saturn, severely reducing the electron densities in regions in which it falls.”

Although highly charged ice particles are known to be transported from Saturn’s rings to the planet below via its powerful magnetosphere, this is the first time that global changes to the composition and temperature of the Saturnian ionosphere have been realized.

Like Earth, Saturn’s ionosphere is composed of highly charged particles. The solar wind continually slams into this region, igniting space weather phenomena such as aurorae.



Odd News

Man Wiggles Rat's Tail Using Only His Thoughts

Researchers connected the brains of a human and a rat so that the volunteer could use just his thoughts to wiggle the rodent's tail, shown here.Charles Choi, LiveScience Contributor

By linking the brains of a human and a rat, scientists have now helped a man wiggle a rodent's tail using only the man's thoughts.

These new findings are the first case of a brain-to-brain interface between species, and the first example of a noninvasive brain-to-brain interface, researchers added.

In February, scientists revealed they linked together the brains of two rats. This first known instance of a brain-to-brain interface apparently helped the rodents share data to accomplish certain tasks, even across intercontinental distances. However, this advance depended on microscopic electrodes implanted in the rats' heads.

In the latest example of a mind-meld, researchers employed noninvasive techniques to link the brains of a human and a rat. The man had electrodes stuck onto his scalp that picked up brain-wave activity. The rat was placed in a machine that focused ultrasound pulses through its skull to its brain, and was anesthetized so that it would not wriggle its head during the experiment.

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