SciDevNet: Egypt’s new constitution calls for support of science, but some science supporters worry that it fails to link science to development, that it depicts science as a luxury, and that it calls unwisely for science’s “Arabization.” The constitution guarantees “freedom of scientific and literary research,” requires that the “autonomy of universities, scientific and linguistic academies, and research centers . . . be safeguarded,” and mandates that the state “provide them with a sufficient percentage of the national revenue.” However, it also requires the state to “foster the Arabization of education, science and knowledge.” Ehab Abdul Rahman, director of the Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center at the American University in Cairo, warns that Arabization “would isolate Egypt from global scientific progress.” Cairo University medical professor Omaima Kamel is a member of both the Constituent Assembly and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. She approves of translating research and scientific knowledge into Arabic, but opposed the explicit Arabization provision.
Ars Technica: A week before Superstorm Sandy struck the coast of New Jersey, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) predicted the storm would indeed make landfall, whereas the US National Weather Service (NWS) had the storm veering off into the Atlantic Ocean. The NWS model fell into line with the ECMWF model three days later and enabled the NWS to issue timely, life-saving warnings. Still, the apparent shortcoming of the NWS model has highlighted a gap in investment between the US and Europe, writes Scott Johnson for Ars Technica. Not only does the ECMWF model run on a faster supercomputer than the NWS model does, but the European model has finer spatial and temporal resolution. Both advantages enhance accuracy. Comparisons aside, the ECMWF and NWS models rely on data gathered by Earth-observing satellites. If that fleet is not replenished, the accuracy of weather prediction will suffer. Indeed, after Sandy had dissipated, the ECMWF reran its model with data available five days before the storm’s landfall but omitted data from NASA’s polar-orbiting satellites. Without those data, the ECMWF model failed to predict Sandy’s destructive path.
Euronews: The record for the world’s lightest material has been claimed by a new material called aerographite. Fabricated by Matthias Mecklenburg of Hamburg University of Technology and his colleagues, aerographite consists of interwoven threads of carbon nanotubes, each about 15 nm in diameter. With a density of just 0.2 mg/cm2, the mesh-like material is so light that the slightest movement in the lab stirs up currents that can blow it away. Mecklenberg envisions using aerographite for applications, such as filtration and catalysis, for which both lightness and a large surface area are needed.
Science: Four groups have recently demonstrated the feasibility of a new form of quantum computation known as photonic boson sampling. The technique entails sending photons through a network of criss-crossing channels and observing which of several exits they emerge from. Thanks to the photons’ quantum mechanical interactions and to the network’s topology, the number of photons recorded at each exit correspond, together, to a matrix function known as the permanent. By using three input channels, the four groups determined the permanents of 3 × 3 matrices. That’s hardly a feat of computational power, but if the technique could be scaled up to 25 × 25 and bigger matrices, it could be used to determine permanents faster than a classical computer could. The four groups that demonstrated photonic boson sampling are those of Andrew White at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, Ian Walmsley of the University of Oxford in the UK, Philip Walther of the University of Vienna, Austria, and Roberto Osellame of the Polytechnic University of Milan, Italy.
BBC: The isolation and initial study of graphene occurred at Manchester University in the UK. Now the British government is increasing its investment in research on the novel material. A previous investment of £12 million ($19.3 million) and almost £10 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will be divided among the following universities: the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, Durham University, the University of Manchester, the University of Exeter, and Royal Holloway. Along with their industrial partners, the universities will also contribute another £14 million. All the selected universities have existing research projects to examine and take advantage of graphene’s unique properties. Chancellor George Osbourne, who announced the investment, says the funds are to help transfer technology from laboratories to factories.
Nature: A new examination of satellite data has revealed that a 2005 drought in the Amazon basin was so severe that damage to the canopy remained four years later. Earlier studies using reflected solar radiation to determine the “greenness” of the basin provided contradictory results because clouds and aerosols could influence the data. Sassan Saatchi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California used microwave satellite imagery of the area to measure the canopy’s structure instead of its greenness. Where the canopy was full, the images were smooth; where it was damaged, the images were rough. Saatchi found that more than 70 million hectares of rainforest were affected by the drought. By the time the satellite failed in 2009, much of that area had not returned to pre-drought conditions. Saatchi hopes to use a new satellite to examine the damage from another drought that occurred in 2010. He believes that if droughts become more frequent in the Amazon, it will be important to understand how the area continues to respond to the damage.
Ars Technica: A jury has awarded Carnegie Mellon University $1.17 billion in damages in the university’s patent infringement lawsuit against Marvell Superconductor. If the jury’s decision is not overturned or the penalty reduced, it will be the largest patent infringement fine ever, and will cost Marvell more than one year’s profits. At the heart of the lawsuit are two patents for reducing the noise that occurs when computers read hard disks. Carnegie Mellon alleged that Marvell sold 2.34 billion computer chips that violated the patents, while Marvell claimed it had patent rights that predated the university’s. The lawsuit itself highlights a growing trend of universities filing lawsuits over the patents they own. Because universities don’t produce any products from their patents, they have the benefit of not being targets of countersuits. However, large decisions and settlements such as this one are not yet common, and most universities end up spending more on their patents than they gain via litigation.
Discovery News: The average yearly air temperature over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has risen 2.4 °C since 1958. Derived from 50 years of temperature data collected from Byrd Station in the middle of the ice sheet, the increase is twice what current climate models predicted and triple the rate of most of the rest of the planet. Because most of the additional warming occurs during the summer, when temperatures are already at their highest, the risk that the ice shelves will destabilize is heightened. David Bromwich of the Ohio State University, who led the research, says that the shelves currently hold a large portion of Antarctica’s ice back from the oceans. If the ice shelves destabilize, the ensuing melting could make an even larger contribution to sea-level rise than currently predicted.
Ars Technica: The brain’s neurons encode information in the patterns and timing of spikes of activity. That encoding is hard to model using electronic hardware because most electronics use binary (“0″ and “1″) switches. However, researchers at HP labs have combined memristors and capacitors in a way that allows for the creation of spiking output patterns. Memristors are devices made of materials that behave as insulators until they are heated, at which point they act as conductors. The researchers at HP paired a memristor and a capacitor in a parallel circuit and applied a current. As the voltage heated it, the memristor behaved as a resistor until it reached a critical temperature; then it became a conductor. That switching allowed for full release of the energy stored in the capacitor and thus mimicked the spiking behavior of neurons. The system, which the researchers termed a neuristor, is a very simplified model of neuron behavior and produces a much more regular spiking pattern than a real neuron does. They believe that using a different memristor and a more complicated circuit could allow them to more closely reproduce neuron behavior on a computer chip.
New York Times: Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but a global shortage is disrupting a wide range of industries—including the balloon industry. The shortage is a result of a combination of factors. The decrease in natural gas prices has reduced gas refinery companies’ desire to try to profit from capturing helium, a byproduct of gas extraction. Other suppliers are having production problems with existing plants and with the construction of new ones. And finally, the US government, which keeps a reserve that provides 30% of the world’s helium, raised prices significantly in October. These factors have combined to create a shortage that industry analysts say is the worst ever in scale and duration. Some balloon companies have resorted to mixing helium and air, and others have simply been unable to meet customer requests. Medical imaging companies that use helium to cool magnets have also felt the impact of low supplies and higher costs. There is some concern for future availability in the helium industry as well. In 1996 the US government agreed to completely privatize its helium reserves by 2015.