Vol. 1 / No. 37 — Retractions, “Rays,” and Fast Radio Bursts

Back to the drawing board? Photo: Flickr user rosmary, CC BY 2.0
Back to the drawing board? Photo: Flickr user rosmary, CC BY 2.0

How Science Works

After some high-profile retractions (or near retractions), like the gravity wave announcement, the stem cell announcement, and the disappearance of Gliese 581g, Science Friday did an interview this week with Ivan Oransky, cofounder of the Retraction Watch blog. It seems like there have been a lot of scientific discoveries that have been shown to be wrong lately, but Oransky argues that it’s just proof that science is working the way it should:

“science is a process, and I think that often we lose sight of that and I have to blame it [on] us as journalists… we like to write about things as if they were finite, because it’s an easier story and it’ll sell better.”

If you haven’t heard of Retraction Watch, give it a look. It’s science keeping itself honest.

Cosmic Rays

A bit of a scientific misnomer, cosmic rays are actually fairly rare high-energy particles (unlike high-energy bursts with no mass, such as gamma ray bursts or x-ray bursts) that rain down on Earth, and as of now the sources of the highest-energy of these bursts are still unknown. But a recent study out of the Telescope Array, located in Utah, seems at first blush to have found a good place to start looking. Over the course of a year, the detectors in the desert recorded the showers of lower-energy particles triggered by the high-energy strikes on the atmosphere, and seem to have found a part of the sky where a lot of them come from. The sigma values of the experiment aren’t great — there’s still a 1 in 2700 chance that the same level of localization could be produced randomly — but with the planned expansion to the array perhaps they’ll be able to make the data more concrete. Check out the article at news.sciencemag.org for more details.

Fast Radio Bursts

Scientists at the Arecibo Observatory have confirmed the existence of one of the more recent mysterious extra-terrestrial phenomena: fast radio bursts (or Lorimer bursts). Until now, these bright extremely brief radio bursts had only been seen by one other telescope, the Parkes Observatory in Australia. The latest data confirm that the peculiar signals definitely aren’t caused locally, and do indeed originate from deep space. That is, unfortunately, about all we know about them yet. They’re relatively infrequent — across the whole sky only averaging seven per minute, and lasting only a few milliseconds each — so catching them is a bit of a challenge. The latest one was seen in the constellation Auriga. Check out the article at the Max Planck Institute for more details.

Uncertainty About Heisenberg?

There’s an old joke about a police officer pulling over a quantum physicist. “Do you know how fast you were going?” asks the officer. “No,” replies the physicist, “but I know exactly where I am.” It’s a joke based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which basically says that you can either know the location of a particle in a wave, or the frequency of the wave, but not both. It usually includes a dictum that says the very act of measuring one affects the other, and it’s this part of the principle that’s been further refined. The basic idea, explained at From Quarks to Quasars very well, is that scientists at the University of Toronto have found out that by taking a number of very small measurements of a quantum system, you can disturb it less than if you took one big measurement — meaning we can know more about a quantum system than we thought we could. Check out the brief explainer at From Quarks to Quasars, or check out the article in full at Physical Review Letters. (And for a great ELI5 on the Uncertainty Principle itself, check out this reddit thread).

Gay Parenting Not A Problem

While the opponents of gay marriage often decry the unions on the basis that children require both a male and female role model at home, a new study suggests that, if anything, same-sex unions may be slightly healthier for the children than so-called “traditional” ones. The team of scientists at the University of Melbourne studied around 500 children of same-sex parents around Australia, and found little to no difference from the general population, save for a 6% improvement on “general health and family cohesion” which they suggest may be the result of more equitable distribution of household work between same-sex parents — the theory being that gender-based inequalities in that area wouldn’t be a problem. Some have criticized the study for being too small to come to any sweeping conclusions, but it does add to a growing body of evidence that any concerns about the raising of children by same-sex parents are largely unfounded. Check out the article in the Washington Post, or check out the paper itself in BMC Public Health.

On A Roll

If you’ve been following the trends in computer and television screen developments, you’ll know that curved and flexible screens are all the rage. This year’s CES had a host of curved and bendy displays on offer. But recent news out of LG suggests that those are just the beginning, this week revealing two new OLED screens: one that’s transparent, and another that can be literally rolled up. Check out the article at Phys.org, or check out the press release from LGDNewsroom.com.

Tesla News

There’s three pieces of news related to Nicola Tesla this week, so here they are in no particular order: first, phys.org is reporting that the next generation of wireless charging technology (i.e. WiTricity) is coming to a range of consumer electronics in the near term, courtesy of WiTricity Corp. get ready for your desk to charge your laptop, I suppose. Second, Telsa Motors founder (and all around interesting guy) Elon Musk has donated a million dollars to the Tesla Science Center, a planned museum to be built at Wardenclyffe, New York on the 15-acre site of Tesla’s laboratory there. And finally, what mention of Tesla would be complete without mentioning the two Russian scientists with an indiegogo campaign to rebuild Tesla’s “Planetary Energy Transmitter” originally built at Wardenclyffe. They’re at roughly $38,000 of their $800,000 goal if you want to help out. Caveat emptor, of course.

The Best of the Rest

It’s time for that part of the post! Other things seen this week included: a behind-the-scenes at Yngli, a Chinese solar power company sponsoring the World Cup; the completion of NASA’s NEN (Near Earth Network) for communicating with local satellites and craft; “rocket science cookware” that heats your food faster with science; a copper-wire speed record that can compete with fiber; a 685-metre chimneystack to harvest the power of the sun; and the depressing report that the so-called “Mississippi baby” does, in fact, have measurable levels of HIV.

So before I go, here’s an old-ish video of a guy melting rock with a solar furnace, just to cheer everyone up. Have a great week.