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You think your neighbors can drive energy conservation

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 16:57

Enlarge (credit: Midwest Energy News / Flickr)

You probably think of someone who exemplifies the “keeping up with the Joneses” mindset as behaving in an obnoxious way. You may roll your eyes at a neighbor preening their immaculate clone-army-of-grass-blades lawn, but you probably still feel a tug that keeps you within the bounds of what our community considers normal. That apparently includes conserving energy.

In a new study, a team led by Columbia Business School’s Jon Jachimowicz and the University of Exeter’s Oliver Hauser set out to better understand why efforts to encourage reduced energy use get different results in different places. And they found evidence that community attitudes may make a bigger difference than personal ones.

Think of your neighbors

The researchers worked with data from a company called Opower, which shows utility customers how their energy use compares to others in their area. Opower randomly selects its participants and keeps a control group of customers for comparison.

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Ice volcanoes have likely been erupting for billions of years on Ceres

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 09:55

Enlarge / Ahuna Mons, a likely cryovolcano. (credit: Dawn Mission, NASA, JPL-Caltech, UCLA, MPS/DLR/IDA)

All of the bodies in our Solar System started out hot, with energy built up by their gravitational collapse and subsequent bombardment. Radioactivity then contributed further heating. For a planet like Earth, that has kept the interior hot enough to sustain plate tectonics. Smaller bodies like Mars and the Moon, however, have cooled and gone geologically silent. That set the expectations for the dwarf planets, where were thought to be cold and dead.

Pluto, however, turned out to be anything but. It turns out that water and nitrogen ices need far less energy input to participate in active geology, and radioactive decay and sporadic collisions seem to be enough to sustain it. Which brings us to Ceres, a dwarf planet that's the largest body in the asteroid belt. The Dawn spacecraft identified an unusual peak called Ahuna Mons that some have suggested is a cryovolcano, erupting viscous water ice. But why would Ceres only have enough energy to support a single volcano?

A new paper suggests it doesn't. Instead, there may be more than two dozen cryovolcanoes on Ceres' surface. We just haven't spotted them because geology on the dwarf planet didn't stop when the cryovolcanoes stopped erupting.

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The math of why it’s so hard to build a spherical Death Star in space

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 06:30

Enlarge / Geometry puts some real design constraints on Darth Vader's desire for a spherical Death Star. (credit: Ben Orlin)

Opting to build the Death Star in the shape of a sphere may not have been classic Star Wars villain Darth Vader's wisest move, according to math teacher Ben Orlin. He investigates this burning question, and so much more, in his fabulous new book, Math With Bad Drawings, after Orlin's blog of the same name.

Orlin started using his crude drawings as a teaching tool. He drew a figure of a dog one day on his chalkboard to illustrate a math problem, and it was so bad the class broke out in laughter. "To see the alleged expert reveal himself as the worst in the room at something—anything—can humanize him and, perhaps, by extension, the subject," he writes. When he started his blog, he knew that pictures would be crucial to helping readers visualize the mathematical abstractions. Since he had no particular artistic talent, he opted to just cop to it upfront. And thus, the Math With Bad Drawings blog was born.

The book is a more polished, extensive discussion of the concepts that pepper Orlin's blog, featuring his trademark caustic wit, a refreshingly breezy conversational tone, and of course, lots and lots of very bad drawings. It's a great, entertaining read for neophytes and math fans alike, because Orlin excels at finding novel ways to connect the math to real-world problems—or in the case of the Death Star, to problems in fictional worlds.

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NASA isn’t going to pay for the BFR, so Musk charts a new course

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 06:20

Enlarge / Elon Musk speaks as Yusaku Maezawa, founder and president of Start Today Co., looks on at an event at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on Monday, (credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On a Monday night filled with emotion as much as engineering, one of the most poignant moments came toward the end the program at SpaceX's rocket factory in California. The company's founder, Elon Musk, choked up as he described the financial contribution from a Japanese businessman, Yusaku Maezawa, to his Big Falcon Rocket project.

"I’ll tell you, it’s done a lot to restore my faith in humanity," Musk said, seated in front of the end of a Falcon 9 rocket and its nine engines. "That somebody is willing to do this, take their money and help fund this new project that’s risky, might not succeed, it’s dangerous. He’s like donating seats. These are great things."

The headline news out of Monday's event was that Maezawa has bought all of the seats on the first human flight of SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and upper stage spaceship (BFS)—a sortie around the Moon as early as 2023. Although neither Musk nor Maezawa would specify how much it had cost, Musk said "This is a non-trivial amount that will have a material impact on the BFR program."

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Musical instrument goes flat in presence of adulterated medicine

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 14:10

Enlarge / A mbira—the researchers removed all the tines and placed a single loop of metallic tubing in their place. (credit: Joanna Bourne)

Even without the rise of online pharmacies, there have been multiple food and medicine adulteration cases, some due to carelessness, some due to greed. One unfortunate part of the story is that most cases of adulteration are pretty clumsy, and lives could have been saved if we had simple and widely available tests for contaminants.

That is precisely what a team of engineers has recently tried to achieve. They have taken some pretty old ideas and rejigged them to create a rather innovative testing system that can detect adulteration in liquid medicines and maybe even food.

Sounding off

The challenge with making a generic test for contamination is that all sorts of things can end up in food and medicine. The key to this new idea is that you don’t necessarily need to know what has been added, only that it is different from the standard formulation. In almost all cases, changing the formulation changes the density of a liquid. So a sensitive mass sensor should be able to detect medicines that have not been produced properly.

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Study: people tend to cluster into four distinct personality “types”

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 11:00

Enlarge / Average, Reserved, Role Model, and Self-centered: not everyone falls into these four categories, but you might. (credit: Northwestern University)

People love taking online quizzes; just ask Buzzfeed and Facebook. A new study has sifted through some of the largest online data sets of personality quizzes and identified four distinct "types" therein. The new methodology used for this study—described in detail in a new paper in Nature Human Behavior—is rigorous and replicable, which could help move personality typing analysis out of the dubious self-help section in your local bookstore and into serious scientific journals.

Frankly, personality "type" is not the ideal nomenclature here; personality "clusters" might be more accurate. Paper co-author William Revelle (Northwestern University) bristles a bit at the very notion of distinct personality types, like those espoused by the hugely popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Revelle is an adamant "anti-fan" of the Myers-Briggs, and he is not alone. Most scientists who study personality prefer to think of it as a set of continuous dimensions, in which people shift where they fall on the spectrum of various traits as they mature.

What's new here is the identification of four dominant clusters in the overall distribution of traits. Revelle prefers to think of them as "lumps in the batter" and suggests that a good analogy would be how people tend to concentrate in cities in the United States.

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The Delta II rocket came, it saw, and for a time it conquered

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 08:49

United Launch Alliance

On Saturday morning, the most successful rocket the United States has ever developed flew its final mission. During the pre-dawn hours, United Launch Alliance's Delta II rocket lifted NASA's ice-monitoring mission ICESat-2 into space. It was a bittersweet moment, as the Delta II's retirement marks both a step into the future of US rocketry, while representing a definitive break with the past—and the very origins of US spaceflight.

"Historic day," the chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance, Tory Bruno, said on Twitter. "Retired the shark, Delta II and the mighty Thor." The "shark" was a reference to the shark teeth painted on the payload fairing of GPS launches, an homage to the "Flying Tigers," American volunteer pilots who helped defend China from Japan in 1941 and 1942.

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US Congress passes bill to help advanced nuclear power

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 17:00

Enlarge / Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Station, Unit 1 (credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Though economics might not favor nuclear power in the US, policy makers do.

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan bill that originated in the Senate called the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (S. 97), which will allow the private sector to partner with US National Laboratories to vet advanced nuclear technologies. The bill also directs the Department of Energy (DOE) to lay the ground work for establishing "a versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source."

The Senate also introduced a second bill called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 3422) last Thursday, which would direct the DOE actually establish that fast neutron reactor. That bill also directs the DOE to "make available high-assay, low-enriched uranium" for research purposes. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act has not yet made it past a Senate vote.

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See Science Fair even if you’ve never entered one in your life

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 10:00

Enlarge (credit: Rich Bowen / Flickr)

Science documentaries face a real challenge when it comes to drawing in an audience that isn't already committed to caring about science. Finding new ways to say "You should really go see this, it's not just about science" is often a struggle.

Science Fair is a rare entry in the category because its human elements are so obvious. Teamwork, competition, obstacles to be overcome, and the ultimate high-stakes denouement. Humanity's at the forefront so often that it's easy to forget that the film is about science. In fact, all of the basic human issues nearly obscure what the movie's really about: teenagers on the edge of adulthood struggling through a world that often doesn't know what to do with them, yet they find their people—the kindred spirits they can finally feel at home with.

The movie is funny, emotional, and touching, with a universal theme that just happens to have science as a background. And it's really, really good.

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Quantum entanglement used to steer measurement results

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge / There are no entangled photons in this picture. (credit: Douglas Muth / Flickr)

It has been a while since I wrote about some really fundamental quantum physics. I feel that you, my dear reader, have not suffered enough during that drought. So, quantum physics it is. Even better, we are going to talk about entanglement and the strange case of one-way EPR steering. One-way EPR steering is an idea that has moved from a purely theoretical suggestion to something that might actually work in practice.

Let’s do some physics

The concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics expresses the idea that seemingly separate quantum particles can have correlations that are larger than would be possible in a purely classical world. When combined with superposition, in which particles have an indeterminate mix of two properties, it becomes pretty mind blowing.

Since the research in question used photons, let’s use photons for our examples. Imagine that I have a device that produces pairs of photons that are entangled in their polarization state. (Polarization describes the orientation of the photon’s electric field.) The polarization could involve oscillating in parallel with the lab table, or it could be oscillating vertically. But, whatever polarization one photon has, the entangled one has the opposite. As soon as I measure one, I know the other. So far, so not special.

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Here are the subjects our reporters enjoy covering the least

Sat, 09/15/2018 - 09:30

Enlarge (credit: Aurich / Getty)

You might think being a science writer is a dream job, one that means spending all day learning new things about a seemingly endless sweep of interesting fields. And, to an extent, you'd be right. But in other ways, it's also a place where dreams go to die. Things you think should be fascinating—things that, in some cases, you've dreamed about knowing more about for much of your life—turn out to be staggeringly dull.

So, forgive your science-writing staff if they finish a week wanting to stab the first scientists they see—even (or perhaps especially) if that's themselves. To keep the violence to a minimum, we're taking the opportunity to vent a bit about the fields we thought we loved, but have turned out to disappoint us.

Writers' names have been removed from their contributions to protect the not-entirely-innocent. We're sure you'll figure it out anyway.

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R.I.P. Walter Mischel, father of the infamous Marshmallow Test

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 19:15

Enlarge / Finding a distraction is key for young children trying to resist the marshmallow. (credit: Igniter Media)

The psychologist who famously demonstrated the importance of being able to delay gratification to achieving later success in life died on September 12 in New York City. Walter Mischel, emeritus professor of psychology at Columbia University and self-proclaimed "Marshmallow Man," was 88.

Per Columbia University's announcement:

"Professor Mischel is revered for his work in self-regulation. He is the author of the popular book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. In it, he describes his groundbreaking studies of young children in the 1960s and 1970s, during which they were given the choice between receiving one immediate treat and receiving two treats 15 minutes later. The tactics used by the youngsters to distract themselves had implications for delayed gratification in adults. For example, when faced with the urge to smoke or a choice between arguing versus compromise, Mischel recommended keeping a goal in mind and focusing on the consequences of losing self-control."

Mischel's landmark behavioral study involved 600 kids between the ages of four and six, all culled from Stanford University's Bing Nursery School. He would give each child a marshmallow and gave them the option of eating it immediately if they chose. But if they could wait 15 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow as a reward. Then Mischel would leave the room and a hidden video camera would tape what happened next.

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Top cancer expert forgot to mention $3.5M industry ties—he just resigned

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 13:28

Enlarge / Sign with logo on the facade of the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center in Manhattan, New York City, New York, among the top cancer hospitals in the world. (credit: Getty | Smith Collection)

Dr. José Baselga, a prominent cancer expert and chief medical officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, has resigned amid revelations that he repeatedly failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from healthcare companies to prestigious medical journals in which he published high-profile research articles.

Baselga’s lack of disclosure came to light in a joint investigation by the New York Times and ProPublica, which was published by the Times on September 8.

As the investigation noted, Baselga had relationships with at least a dozen companies, including board memberships and advisory roles at corporations such as Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Some of those positions required him to assume fiduciary responsibilities to protect those companies’ interests, the Times notes. In presentations and conferences in 2017 and 2018, for instance, Baselga appeared to put an overly positive spin on results of clinical trials sponsored by Roche—without noting in those instances his ties to the company.

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Using Medieval DNA to track the barbarian spread into Italy

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 13:24

Longobard grave goods and skeleton. (credit: Institute for Advanced Study)

The genetics of Europe are a bit strange. Just within historic times, it's seen waves of migrations, invasions, and the rise and fall of empires—all of which should have mixed its populations up thoroughly. Yet, if you look at the modern populations, there's little sign of all this upheaval and some indications that many of the populations have been in place since agriculture spread across the continent.

This was rarely more obvious than during the contraction and collapse of the Roman Empire. Various Germanic tribes from north-eastern Europe poured into Roman territory in the west only to be followed by the force they were fleeing, the Huns. Before it was over, one of the groups ended up founding a kingdom in North Africa that extended throughout much of the Mediterranean, while another ended up controlling much of Italy.

It's that last group, the Longobards (often shorted as "Lombards"), that's the focus of a new paper. We know very little of them or any of the other barbarian tribes that roared through Western Europe other than roughly contemporary descriptions of where they came from. But a study of the DNA left behind in the cemeteries of the Longobards provides some indication of their origins and how they interacted with the Europeans they encountered.

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Early cheese making may have helped lactose-intolerant farmers spread

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 11:24

Enlarge / The archaeological site of Pokrovnik during excavation with the modern village of Dalmatia, Croatia, in the background. (credit: Andrew M.T. Moore)

If you needed another reason not to lick the artifacts on your next trip to the museum, archaeologists have you covered; they’ve found chemical traces of 7,000-year-old cheese still stuck on ceramic containers from two Neolithic farming villages in Croatia.

This find is nothing like the 3,200-year-old chunk of cheese recently found in an Egyptian tomb; after 7,000 years, all that’s left is a microscopic residue on the inner surface of pottery fragments, once used by the farmers who settled just east of the Adriatic Sea to raise crops, cattle, goats, and sheep. But that faint residue of long-gone cheese is older than the Egyptian cheese by about 4,000 years, and archaeologists say it’s the earliest direct evidence of cheese production ever found.

“The cheese would likely have been a firm, softer cheese, something like what we today have as a farmer's cheese or Feta,” Pennsylvania State University archaeologist Sarah McClure told Ars Technica.

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Free wheeling water droplets plot their own path off a hot plate

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Here are the two best things about fluid dynamics: scaling laws and cool videos. A group of researchers has been studying the behavior of water on a hot plate. You are probably all familiar with the effect: you drop some water on a hot plate, the water hisses a bit, and the drop races crazily over the surface. This is called the Leidenfrost effect.

(Its name has nothing to do with frost; rather, the person who first described it was named Johann Gottlob Leidenfrost.)

The drop’s motion was assumed to come predominantly from the shape of the hot plate’s surface. The plate is almost never completely level and typically not very flat, so the drops just follow the local slope. A trace of the drop, presumably, would map out the local contours of the plate. However, this turns out to be wrong. Droplets of water on a hot plate are self propelling and choose their own destination.  

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Rocket Report: Japanese spaceplane, GEO downturn, Block 5 results good

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 07:00

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson/SpaceX)

Welcome to Edition 1.17 of the Rocket Report! This week, we discuss a lot of new launch contracts, a Japanese plan to build a suborbital spaceplane, and Chinese plans to develop a potentially recoverable payload fairing. Also, check the launch schedule. Three launches in three days!

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Japanese company working on suborbital spaceplane. Move over Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, because the Japanese startup PD AeroSpace says that it is developing a spaceplane that will be able to fly tourists to suborbital altitude by 2023. The spaceplane will use both an air-breathing jet engine mode as well as a rocket mode to generate thrust, Universe Today reports.

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SpaceX says its BFR will fly someone around the Moon. We have questions.

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 22:54

Enlarge / Concept illustration of the Big Falcon Spaceship flying around the Moon. (credit: SpaceX)

On Thursday evening, without any advance notice, SpaceX tweeted that is had signed the world’s "first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle." Moreover, the company promised to reveal "who's flying and why" on Monday, September 17. The announcement will take place at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

There were only two other clues—tweets from Musk himself. Was the rendering of the Big Falcon Spaceship in SpaceX's tweet new? Yes, Musk said. And was he the passenger? In response to this, the founder of SpaceX simply tweeted a Japanese flag emoji. This would seem to be strong clue that the passenger is from Japan. Or maybe Musk was enjoying the epic Seven Samurai movie at that moment.

By announcing this on Thursday, and waiting four days to provide more details, the company has set off a big guessing game as to who will fly. Of course that is an interesting question, but we have many other questions that we'd like to see answered before that. We've included some of those questions below, along with some wild and (slightly) informed guesses.

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Here are your 2018 Ig Nobel Prize winners

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 19:00

Enlarge / A "Moment of Science" from the 2017 Ig Nobel ceremony featured a demonstration of wave phenomena. (credit: Alexey Eliseev/Improbable Research)

Ever wondered why so many people don't read instruction manuals, or how how many calories are in the human body? Or whether stabbing a voodoo doll representing your horrible boss with pins could help reduce workplace tension? The winners of this year's Ig Nobel Prizes have got you covered. These and other unusual research topics were honored tonight in a ceremony at Harvard University's Sanders Theater.

Established in 1991, the Ig Nobels are a good-natured parody of the Nobel Prizes, honoring "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." The prizes have always been perceived as a celebration of scientific silliness, an impression strengthened by the unapologetically campy awards ceremony. The festivities feature mini-operas, scientific demos, and the 24/7 lectures, whereby experts must explain their work twice: once in 24 seconds, and the second in just seven words. Acceptance speeches are limited to 60 seconds, strictly enforced by an eight-year-old girl nicknamed "Miss Sweetie-Poo," who will interrupt those who exceed the time limit by repeating, "Please stop. I'm bored." Until they stop.

It's all in good dorky fun. But there's also a serious side to the Ig Nobels. The research being honored might seem ridiculous at first glance, but that doesn't mean it is devoid of scientific merit. Take the 2006 Ig Nobel for physics, awarded to French researchers for investigating why dry spaghetti often breaks into more than two pieces when it is bent. That work led to a new bendy paintbrush in Adobe Illustrator 5. More importantly, studying how cracks form and spread in various kinds of materials is critical to detecting imminent failure in, say, bridge spans or human bones. Just last month MIT physicists published a follow-up paper. But more people are likely to read about breaking spaghetti than peruse an academic paper entitled "Controlling fracture cascades through twisting and quenching."

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Trump’s solar tariff isn’t hurting the industry as much as everyone expected

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 18:00

Enlarge / Solar panels, Ferrisburgh, Vermont, June 15, 2016. (credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) published a quarterly report that offered surprising results. Despite a 30-percent tariff on solar cells and modules imported to the US, solar installations only fell by about nine percent, year over year.

At the same time, during the first half of 2018, utilities signed more than 8.5 gigawatts' worth of procurement deals for projects that will be completed before 2020. The effect is that US solar installment growth in 2018 and 2019 will likely remain flat year over year compared to 2017. That's better than most analysts expected.

There are a few reasons that President Trump's tariffs haven't had as much of an effect as they could have. According to Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA's president and CEO, "the solar industry is simply too strong to be kept down." That's perhaps an overly rosy way of looking at it. The report itself notes that a lot of this growth comes from the fact that the US offers a 30-percent investment tax credit on solar installations that are completed before 2020. Tariffs or no, companies wanting to build panels stand to save a significant amount of money if they start building before the end of 2019 and snag that tax credit.

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