Vol. 1 / No. 30 — Matter From Light, Google’s Quantum Playground, and Saying Goodbye to HAARP

Move over, makerbot? Coming soon, matter from light.
Move over, Makerbot? Coming soon, matter from light.

Matter From Light

When Physicists Gregory Breit and John Wheeler detailed what came to be called the Breit-Wheeler process in 1934 — a process for creating electrons and positrons from photons — they knew the math was right. Proving it in a laboratory, however, was impossible: gamma ray sources, necessary for the process, were too hard to come by. But in 1997, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center managed to do just that, creating the first matter — that is, particles with mass — from energy — that is, photons, particles without mass. This week, another physicist, Oliver Pike, detailed a much more straightforward and simple way of doing the same. The upshot is that whereas the SLAC experiment could only produce electrons and positrons in the same chamber (leading to their near-instantaneous recombination and annihilation), this new method allows for the newly created electrons and positrons to be separated and magnetically contained. What’s more, with higher energy lasers, it’s even possible that the experiment could produce even more massive particles, like protons. Does this mean we’re one step closer to holodecks and replicators? Not really. But it could streamline some kinds of particle experiments and even, in the future, allow for better quantum computing. Dr. Pike has yet to find a home for the experiment — there are perhaps a dozen places worldwide with the equipment necessary — but when he does I’m sure we’ll cover it again.

Quantum Playground

This week everyone’s favourite megacorporation Google opened a free-to-access sandbox to play in for aspiring quantum computer programmers. It can simulate a quantum computer with up to 22 Qbits, and even has its own coding language, called Qscript. If I had even the least bit of programming savvy, I’d be there trying it out right now: why aren’t you?

In other computing news, scientists at Peking University (Beijing Daxue – 北京大学) this week revealed the creation of an 8-bit BUS consisting of 46 transistors made directly on top of six individual carbon nanotubes (CNTs), the smallest transistor array ever created. It furthers the advancement of the use of CNTs in computing by modularizing the construction process, making it a substantial improvement in previous designs, which were limited to single CNTs. Check out the article at Phys.org for more details.

And speaking of carbon, a new form of graphene-like material has been created that will allow for its use in transistors where previously impossible. To serve as a semiconductor, scientists needed to introduce something called a “band gap,” meaning that the material sometimes conducts and sometimes does not. This week scientists at the University of Liverpool created a new material called ‘triazine-based graphitic carbon nitride’ (TGCN) which allows for single-atom-thick arrays that still include an electronic band gap. This is another major step forward in the advancement of graphene in computing.

Google HAARP, Photo: Flikr User Open Your I's, BY SA 2.0
Google HAARP, Photo: Flikr User Open Your I’s, BY SA 2.0

Goodbye HAARP

Tinfoil hat wearers everywhere will be sad to hear that everyone’s favourite military weather-controlling deathray is being shut down. Mark Strauss at io9 is reporting this week that the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Project is being mothballed thanks to funding issues. But have no fear, as David Walker, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, is in the record as saying “we’re moving on to other ways of managing the ionosphere.” Maybe that’s what went up in NROL-33.

The Variable Kilogram

Those of us raised with the metric system like to mock those who use miles and fahrenheit and gallons and pounds — and for good reason. The metric system is vastly superior, with Celsius being guided by the freezing (0°C) and boiling (100°C) points of water, a meter being related specifically to the speed of light in a vacuum, and a gram being originally derived from the weight of a cubic centimetre of water. But it’s not perfect. At a certain point in history the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (yes, that’s a real thing) decided that a kilogram was precisely the weight of a specific lump of platinum and iridium kept in a vault in France. Dubbed “Le Grande K” (you can’t make this stuff up), they periodically take the perfect kilogram out and compare it with other, supposedly perfect kilograms. Except here’s the problem (aside from the fact that it’s a completely arbitrary standard of measurement, I mean): it’s getting lighter, at least, compared to its clones. And nobody’s really certain why, though there are some theories. Check out the full story at mental floss this week. In the meantime, check out this handy guide to learning metric from Randall Munroe over at XKCD.


This week Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp. filed a 76-page document with the FAA detailing the next step for the rocketry company’s Dragon capsule: dry landings. The DargonFly RLV (reusable launch vehicle) would be equipped with eight SuperDraco thrusters allowing it to return to Earth for a soft landing sans splashdown. Plans are underway for a series of escalating tests to develop the landing technology. Meanwhile enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the May 29th unveiling of the flight hardware for the DragonRider — the crew transport capsule designed around the current Dragon cargo capsule, which just completed its fourth round-trip resupply mission to the ISS last week.

And speaking of SpaceX deliveries, thanks to the little capsule that could, the astronauts aboard the ISS may soon be eating fresh vegetables grown right on the station. A new plant growth system known as “veggie” and designed by the Orbital Technologies Corp. has just been installed on the ISS. Step one? Lettuce.

In Reserve No Longer

A recent announcement by federal energy authorities in the US has reduced the estimation of the size of the recoverable Monterey Shale oil deposits by a whopping 96%. To put that in perspective, the Monterey Shale was thought to make up fully two-thirds of the US’s shale oil deposits, so a reduction of this size is hard to understate. It’s not that the oil isn’t there — it’s just that the amount thought to be recoverable by “fracking” has been almost entirely eliminated, returning the shale oil in the deposit to the category of “unrecoverable.” Louis Sahagun at the LA Times has more.

Where To Next?

That’s the question NASA’s New Horizons probe is asking, and it’s not certain there’ll be an answer in time. The original plan for the mission was, once the probe had visited Pluto, to redirect toward a Kuyper Belt Object and study it — except now they’re not sure they can find one to send it to. The reason it was left so late was due to limits in the predictability of which objects would be in range at such a distant date. But now that they’re only a few months out from being forced to decide, scientists are having trouble finding a decent candidate in range. Alexandra Witze over at Nature magazine has more on the story.

Meanwhile, Wired is reporting that a group of citizen scientists have been given the go-ahead by NASA to try to commandeer an old probe and to try to return it to its old mission. Check out the full story by Adam Mann.

The Best of the Rest

There was so much more to see this week! NASA released a free book for download about communicating with aliens; an Egyptian teen has asked for asylum following a science fair in the US; an 8-year-old beat some creationists to make her state’s official fossil the mammoth; scientists have determined that the Chelyabinsk meteor hit something big a long time before it hit Russia; DARPA’s working on using the Oculus Rift to fight cyberwars; a doctor is fighting cervical cancer in Haiti on the cheap; and Wired found a flashlight that’s so bright it can cook an egg.

Finally, I leave you this week with a video explaining one of NASA’s latest tests — an inflatable drag shield and huge parachute they’re testing way above Hawaii this summer to improve future missions to Mars. Check it out!

Have a great week.