Telegraph: The world’s most powerful laser is slated to be built by 13 European Union member countries as part of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) project. “This laser will be 200 times more powerful than the most powerful lasers that currently exist,” said John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK. With an estimated cost of about $1.5 billion, the ELI ultra-high field laser is scheduled to be completed by the end of the decade, although where it is to be built is undecided. The laser will consist of 10 beams that produce 200 petawatts of power, “equivalent to the power received by the Earth from the sun focused onto a speck smaller than a tip of a pin,” writes Richard Gray for the Telegraph. Scientists plan to use the laser to study the mysterious particles in the vacuum of space and to produce laser-based treatments for cancer and medical diagnostics.
Boston Globe: A Boston University physicist, H. Eugene Stanley, has spent the past 20 years in a field he calls “econophysics”: using physics tools to analyze the economy. In a paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he and his colleagues address the problem of credit ratings and propose a better model for predicting fluctuations, writes Carolyn Johnson for the Boston Globe. “Many economists will tell you that the chances of something really big and bad happening are really, really small,” said Stanley in Science News. He contends, though, that catastrophic events—such as Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy in 2008—aren’t exceptional but inevitable. Stanley is working to produce a mathematical law to better calculate overall risk so that investors and regulators can prepare for those rare devastating events that can leave the entire economic system vulnerable.
New Scientist: Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas are working on a hydrogen fuel cell that uses aluminum as a catalyst. Although fuel cells are a potentially highly efficient power source for cars, their cost has proven prohibitive because they require expensive noble metals such as platinum for a catalyst. Now Irinder Chopra and coworkers have found that if aluminum is treated with a tiny bit of titanium and exposed to molecular hydrogen at 90 kelvin, the H2 will break up and bind to the metal. When the metal is heated the hydrogen is released and forms H2 again. The team’s results were published in Nature Materials.
New York Times: Environmentalists aren’t the only ones who are concerned about Shell Oil’s proposed drilling of exploratory wells off the Arctic coast of Alaska. The US Coast Guard is also assessing the situation. Besides the carbon dioxide emissions and potential spills, Coast Guard officials anticipate that emergencies could arise, such as a vessel becoming stranded and its crew needing to be airlifted to safety. The Arctic Circle has a harsh climate, with often-severe weather conditions—ice, darkness, and brutal storms—that could hinder a rescue operation. Currently the closest Coast Guard base is in Kodiak, Alaska, at least a 3- to 4-hour flight from the proposed drilling site. Adam Shaw, the chief of prevention for the Coast Guard in Alaska, is looking into leasing an airplane hangar in Barrow, which is closer to where Shell would be drilling. “Hopefully nothing happens,” he said. “If something does, hopefully Shell takes care of it. But if it doesn’t, we’ve got to jump in there.”
Daily Mail: One doesn’t usually associate farming with the Arctic Circle, but Nordic countries are beginning to vie for a particular type of farm—computer server farms. Facebook, which now has more users outside the US than inside, recently started scouting European locations that could serve as data traffic nodes. The more data centers a company has the better. Not only do they serve as backup in case of a failure, such as the recent three-day collapse of BlackBerry’s service, but they also provide faster connections for the users nearby. Facebook said it chose Lulea, Sweden, for its first data center outside the US partly because of the location’s cold climate, which is crucial for keeping racks of high-performance computers cool. For about eight months of the year, the plant will be able to cool itself naturally by just using the icy outside air. In 2009 another internet giant, Google, turned a paper mill in Finland into a data center.
Talking Points Memo: Tuesday Google published a new Google Earth map of the geothermal resources in the continental US. In keeping with the drive to make the US more energy efficient and energy independent, Google reports that the technical potential of geothermal in the US is nearly 3 million megawatts, or 10 times the capacity of all the installed coal power plants in the country today, writes Carl Franzen for TPM’s Idea Lab. “Our study assumes that we tap only a small fraction of the available stored heat in the Earth’s crust, and our capabilities to capture that heat are expected to grow substantially as we improve upon the energy conversion and exploitation factors through technological advances and improved techniques,” said David Blackwell of Southern Methodist University, whose geothermal laboratory collected the data for the new map. However, a viable geothermal demonstration project is estimated to be 10–15 years away.
Nature: With the use of lasers, hackers have now found a way to fake the quantum property of entanglement at the heart of cryptographic systems, reports Nature‘s Zeeya Merali. Entanglement here refers to the relationship between two photons that are connected in such a way that measuring the polarization state of one instantaneously modifies the polarization state of its partner. Each of the two entangled photons is assigned to an entity, say Alice and Bob. Any attempt by a third party to eavesdrop by intercepting either Alice’s or Bob’s photon will destroy the entanglement. To check the entanglement is secure a technique called the Bell test is used..
Christian Kurtsiefer of the National University of Singapore and colleagues, however, discovered one can cheat the Bell test by blinding Bob’s detectors with a laser beam and intercepting its photons. While blinded, the detector can be tricked into registering the correct value whenever the hacker fires an additional laser pulse at it.
The theoretical version of the Bell test would pick up on this deception, but in the real world, the equipment compensates for inperfections and hence treats the signal as valid.
Guardian: Thousands of books were lost, burned, or scattered during the upheaval of Europe’s Dark Ages. Among those missing books were treatises by some of the earliest mathematicians, such as Archimedes. But some of the material is now being rediscovered with the use of modern technology.
Centuries ago parchment was expensive, so scribes would frequently reuse pieces by scratching out the old text and replacing it with new. It was discovered years ago that a 13th century Byzantine prayer book was actually composed of several earlier, overwritten manuscripts—one of which contained several treatises by Archimedes that were copied in 10th century Constantinople. As Physics Today reported 10 years ago, by illuminating the manuscript with specific wavelengths of light and by applying intensive data analysis to the scattered images, the original wording can be recovered.
Besides Archimedes’ treatises, the prayer book also contained speeches by the classical Athenian orator Hyperides and a lost commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.
The so-called Archimedes Palimpsest is on display through 1 January 2012 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and next week Cambridge University Press is publishing a two-volume book on the subject.
Science: A new program will fund revolutionary science by do-it-yourself scientists and those with startup companies that aren’t far enough along to attract venture capital, writes Jocelyn Kaiser for Science. Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal and investor in Facebook, originated the concept for Breakout Labs, which is offering grants to independent researchers working on radical ideas. The foundation hopes to make 10 to 20 awards in the first year, ranging from $50 000 to $350 000, and scientists in any discipline can apply. In return, the grantees must publish in open-access journals and help support more projects, either by sharing a portion of future royalties with Breakout Labs or by assigning intellectual property to the program. How long Breakout Labs will run depends on the quality of the proposals it attracts, said program founder and executive director Lindy Fishburne.
New York Times: In addition to solar panels and wind turbines, China is setting its sights on becoming a force in yet another budding environment-related industry: desalinating seawater, writes Michael Wines for the New York Times. Its $4 billion Beijiang Power and Desalination Plant is a state-of-the-art, state-owned facility located southeast of Beijing. Although it’s a money-losing proposition—the desalted water costs twice as much to produce as it sells for—China hopes to use the plant to strengthen its expertise in desalination, learn how to trim production costs, and ease the chronic water shortage in nearby Tianjin. Despite extensive recycling and conservation programs, many parts of China are experiencing water shortages. And according to the Asia Water Project, a business information organization, by 2030 China’s demand for fresh water is expected to grow 63%—more than anywhere else in the world.