PhysOrg: Lloyd Smith, an associate professor at Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, recently investigated three questions of relevance to major league baseball: Can a baseball be hit farther with a corked bat? Is there evidence that the baseball is livelier today than in earlier years? Can storing baseballs in a temperature- or humidity-controlled environment significantly affect home-run production? Smith, working with colleagues from the University of Illinois and Kettering University, tested all three premises at his Sports Science Laboratory on the Pullman campus. “I’ve got the cool machine that can do the tests,” said Smith. He has published descriptions of his experiments and their results in his article “Corked Bats, Juiced Balls, and Humidors: The Physics of Cheating in Baseball” in this month’s American Journal of Physics.
PC Magazine: Earlier this month Nevada passed a bill that will require its Department of Motor Vehicles to draw up rules for autonomous vehicles, which the state defines as motor vehicles that use artificial intelligence, sensors, and GPS coordinates to drive themselves without the active intervention of a human operator. Google, which has been test-driving the cars since 2010, lobbied for the legislation, claiming that the autonomous technology would be safer than human drivers, offer more fuel-efficient cars, and promote economic development. The new law does not mean that the cars will be instantly “street legal.” Rather, it charges the DMV to adopt regulations authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles, requirements for such vehicles to be operated on a state highway, and insurance standards for testing and operating the cars.
BBC: Unexplained “filaments” of radio-wave emission close to our galaxy’s center may hold proof of the existence of dark matter, writes Jason Palmer for the BBC. First discovered in the 1980s, the filaments are known to be regions of high magnetic fields, and they emit high-frequency radio waves. Now Dan Hooper at Fermilab and colleagues have posted a paper on the arXiv e-print server suggesting that the filaments’ emission arises from dark-matter particles crashing into each other. And the electrons created in those crashes could be responsible for the synchrotron radiation detected here on Earth. The researchers claim that the theory can explain many of the different features that are observed in the filaments’ emission, such as the brightness of the filaments closer to the galactic center compared with those farther away—there’s more dark matter closer to the galactic center. Nevertheless, several other ideas that do not invoke dark matter could account for the filaments; more observations using more radio telescopes are needed.
Nature: In 2001 the Japanese government launched an ambitious plan to build a world-class international research institute and graduate university in science and technology on Okinawa, one of the most southerly and remote islands in Japan. The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), which has no departments and no professorial hierarchy, promises scientists the freedom to pursue their own research. Since OIST is required to find 50% of its faculty and students from outside Japan, the institute’s new president Jonathan Dorfan, former director of Stanford University’s SLAC, has launched the biggest recruiting drive to date: Over three weeks in December 2010, 27 potential recruits visited the institute, 26 were offered positions, and 20 have accepted—11 of them physicists. Dorfan hopes that OIST will earn university accreditation this fall and can start accepting graduate students for 2012. In addition to attracting scientists, the institute has proven to appeal to other scientific professionals, such as Neil Calder, senior adviser in communication at OIST, who has written for Physics Today about the nature of science communication.
New Scientist: Atomic clocks, the most accurate clocks to date, use the visible light or microwave signals that atoms predictably emit when one of their electrons drops from a high-energy state to a lower-energy state. The signals are so regular that atomic clocks are used to define the length of a second. In principle, the radiation emitted when an atomic nucleus changes from a high-energy state to a lower-energy state could also form the basis of a clock. Most such changes in nuclei yield gamma rays or high-energy x rays, but thorium-229 nuclei are predicted to absorb and emit UV light. The narrowness of the UV transition, which separates two low-lying states, implies even greater accuracy than that of the best atomic clocks. But before anyone can exploit that property, it’s necessary to cool and trap thorium-229 ions—which is what Alex Kuzmich of the Georgia Institute of Technology and colleagues have now accomplished. Nuclear clocks could be used to test whether the strength of the fundamental forces of nature changes over time; if a nuclear clock were paired with an atomic clock, a change in the strength of the strong nuclear force relative to the strength of the electromagnetic force would be revealed as the time kept by the two clocks diverged. Having trapped thorium-229 ions, Kuzmich and his colleagues are pursuing the next step toward making a nuclear clock: finding the UV transition’s precise frequency.
Astronomy: On 23 June NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observed Pluto’s passage in front of a distant star. Planetery occultations—when a star is hidden by a planet that passes between it and the observer—that involve Pluto allow astronomers to study the dwarf planet’s atmospheric pressure, density, and temperature profiles. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft carrying a 100-inch telescope; it operates in the stratosphere and is thus able to make observations unhindered by the water vapor in Earth’s lower atmosphere. The mobile observatory flew from its base in southern California to intersect Pluto’s shadow as it traveled across the Pacific Ocean and was able to place itself to maximum advantage, in the center of the planetary shadow.
New York Times: The Skilled Veteran Corps has been both lionized as a group of self-sacrificing patriots and derided as a would-be suicide corps, writes Ken Belson for the New York Times. The man who founded it, however, has neither extreme in mind; he simply thinks that it would be a good idea for retired engineers and other specialists with applicable skills to assist with the cleanup efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Yasuteru Yamada, a 72-year-old retired engineer, founded the group in early April with Nobuhiro Shiotani, a childhood friend and fellow engineer. Yamada, via his blog, called on people over age 60 who had the necessary physical strength and relevant skills to volunteer. About 400 people have volunteered thus far and donations are at about 4.3 million yen ($54 000). The Japanese government is beginning to accept the idea, after some initial skepticism; Yamada and Shiotani say that dealing with officials at Tokyo Electric Power may be the most difficult part of their job. Tepco has said that it is highly appreciative of the offer of help and that it is still assessing what the volunteers are capable of doing and ways to ensure their safety.
BBC: Precise prediction of catastrophic climate events remains impossible for even the best computer models, according to Paul Valdes of Bristol University in the UK. Models have not been able to “predict” at least four major transformations in the past: the rapidly rising temperatures of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, the drying trend over North Africa, the serial weakening or shutting down of the Gulf Stream, and the sharp warmings recorded in Greenland ice cores. “State-of-the-art climate models are largely untested against actual occurrences of abrupt change,” writes Valdes in a commentary published in Nature Geoscience. “It is a huge leap of faith to assume that simulations of the coming century with these models will provide reliable warning of sudden, catastrophic events.” Valdes believes that Earth’s climate is sensitive to small changes and suspects computer models are underestimating climate change.
New York Times: A new reality-based cooking show, Stoveman, which airs today on Vimeo, documents the efforts of two men who travel to developing countries to provide the residents with rocket stoves. The show is part of the Paradigm Project, a “low profit” business that depends on revenue earned from the sale of carbon credits; with Stoveman, credits are generated because the highly efficient wood-burning stoves get more cooking power with less combustion and heat-trapping pollution. In the first episode of the new series, principals Greg Spencer and Austin Mann experience the challenges facing wood-collecting women of the nomadic Gabbra culture of northern Kenya.
Nature: Genetic diseases such as hemophilia may one day be treated through a gene-editing process. Katherine High, a hemophilia researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, teamed up with researchers at Sangamo BioSciences in Richmond, California, who are experts on enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs). They treated hemophilia in mice that were engineered to carry the faulty human gene; the researchers used ZFNs as molecular scissors to cleave the genome at the F9 gene—where people with hemophilia B have multiple mutations—and insert a healthy gene. After treatment, the animals’ blood clotted in 44 seconds, compared with more than a minute for mice with hemophilia. “In theory, almost all genetic diseases could be amenable to this type of treatment,” said Mark Kay, a gene-therapy researcher at Stanford University. Much more work must be done, however; many questions remain about how to get the right amount of DNA to the right cells and how to guarantee the ZFNs cut the right bit of DNA. High and colleagues’ work was published yesterday in Nature.