Christian Science Monitor: On Thursday the US Senate unanimously confirmed nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz as the head of the Department of Energy. Moniz was serving as director of the Energy Initiative at MIT and on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He had previously served in the Clinton administration as an undersecretary at DOE. His experience in government counters some of the criticism leveled at outgoing secretary Steven Chu. In his confirmation hearing, Moniz indicated his support for Obama’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy independence and said that R&D is key for developing a clean-energy industry. However, he has received some criticism from environmentalists for his support of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and natural gas.
Science: Soon after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Ryugo Hayano of the University of Tokyo began to use his Twitter account to share information from one of the radiation monitors at the plant. He also became aware of the public’s concerns over radionuclide levels in food and the government’s apparent failure to share information regarding the issue. Beginning in January 2012, he began testing school lunches for radiocaesium, the most common radionuclide near Fukushima. However, he found no evidence of dangerous levels of radioactivity in the food. He also assisted in full-body scans of local residents and helped determine that the local hospital’s scanner was not shielded from environmental radiation. Shielded full-body scanners found no evidence of radiocaesium in any of the 10 000 children scanned. And the four adults who had significant levels had eaten food that had bypassed the mandatory testing in markets. The government has welcomed Hayano’s findings, but he is still critical of their haphazard testing and information sharing.
Nature: On 30 January 2011, Omid Kokabee was arrested at the airport in Tehran, Iran, as he was about to leave the country after a visit. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail on 13 May 2012 for “cooperating with a hostile government.” Kokabee, who is an Iranian citizen, was a graduate student in laser physics at the University of Texas at Austin. Ever since his arrest, a number of international science and research organizations have called for Kokabee to be released or for him to be given a fair trial. In two letters—one open and one private—provided to Nature, Kokabee claims that since he began his graduate work in 2005, he has been repeatedly approached with job and research opportunities through the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. In the private letter he further states that at least one of those jobs was focused on laser-based isotope separation. Although isotope separation has medical and energy applications, it is also used in the development of nuclear weapons.
BBC: In March 1953, Francis Crick wrote a letter to his 12-year-old son Michael describing the research that he had been working on with James Watson and the nature of their discovery. The seven-page letter, written more than a month before their paper describing the physical structure of DNA was published, also includes a sketch of the molecule. Crick’s family put the letter, Crick’s Nobel medal, and other items up for auction in honor of the 60th anniversary of the discovery; 20% of the profits will go to the Francis Crick Institute in London. The letter was expected by Christie’s auction house to sell for $1 million, but it set the record for a letter sold at auction at $5.3 million, to an anonymous buyer. The Nobel medal, which Crick received in 1962 along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, is now expected to sell for just $500 000 but, like the letter, it could fetch a significantly higher price.
BBC: In just one week, 21 000 people donated almost $900 000 as part of a crowd-sourced fundraiser to purchase Nikola Tesla’s laboratory in Shoreham, New York. Sponsored by the nonprofit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe and by Matthew Inman, creator of the website The Oatmeal, the fundraising initiative will be supplemented by matching funds from the State of New York to reach the $1.6 million sale price for the property. The Tesla Science Center hopes to convert the lab into a museum dedicated to the inventor. However, there is another potential buyer, who wants to turn it into a retail business. Tesla was a Serbian immigrant best known for promoting alternating current instead of the direct current favored by Thomas Edison. Despite his technological achievements, Tesla went bankrupt, and his Shoreham lab was sold in 1917. When he died in 1943, he was still deeply in debt.
BBC: Martin Fleischmann, a British electrochemist who claimed to have achieved nuclear fusion at relatively low temperatures, passed away on 3 August. In 1989, Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, a fellow electrochemist, gained notoriety for their controversial announcement of having discovered a potentially limitless and inexpensive source of power. Although hundreds of scientists tried to replicate the findings, none succeeded. The ensuing controversy led to accusations of sloppy, fraudulent work. Nevertheless, the pair continued their experiments into the 1990s in an attempt to validate their earlier results.
Science: As NASA gears up for next week’s landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, Science magazine interviews John Grunsfeld, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. A former astronaut, Grunsfeld took on the post in January. Despite the bad press NASA has received in recent years because of the canceling of the space shuttle program, the budget woes of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the decision to pull out of the European-led ExoMars program, Grunsfeld remains optimistic about the future of US space exploration. He says the JWST is back on track, and he’s currently soliciting ideas for a future Mars program that would fly in 2018.
New York Times: Nine physicists, the first recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, have each been awarded $3 million. Each prize recognizes an idea that “expands our understanding of at least what is possible” but does not require that the idea be proven true, says Yuri Milner, who established the prize. Milner is a former physics graduate student who made billions investing in technology stocks. This year’s prizes were awarded for work in string theory, cosmic inflation, and quantum computing, and the recipients were chosen by Milner himself. However, the prizes in future years will be chosen by a committee of the past recipients and will also include a smaller prize for promising young researchers.
Guardian: A physicist at the University of Cambridge has taken on a second role as a fellow at the UK’s Science Museum. Because of the public’s growing interest in particle physics, the museum had begun looking for “a switched-on scientist with a flair for communication.” In his new role, Harry Cliff is working on several interactive exhibits. One that focuses on the Higgs boson opened last week, and another scheduled to open next year will center on the Large Hadron Collider. “It’s unusual to find a role that lets you combine active research with creative science communication. It’s a bit of a juggling act at times, but I’m really enjoying the challenge,” Cliff told the Guardian.
Chronicle of Higher Education: Although Bill Gates never finished college, he apparently values higher education. One of the goals of his philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is to expand educational opportunities in the US, particularly at the university level. In the Q&A, Gates advocates fundamental reforms such as improving teaching methods and fixing inefficiencies in the current education model rather than simply investing in more gadgets and technology. In that respect, he allies himself with many of those in the teaching profession, as discussed in the 27 June News Pick on math education in secondary schools.