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‘Cosmic inflation’ scientists among Kavli Prize winners

The 2014 Kavli Prize laureates were announced on May 29. Among the winners are the three scientists who advanced the theory of cosmic inflation. Alan H. Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrei D. Linde of Stanford University, and Alexei A. Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, will share the prize in Astrophysics. Their theory of cosmic inflation proposes that the nascent universe underwent a brief interval of extremely rapid expansion following.

In addition to the prize in Astrophysics, Kavli Prizes were also awarded in the fields of Nanoscience and Neuroscience. The Nanoscience prize went to scientists who independently demonstrated that viewing nano-scale objects is not limited by the finite wavelength of visible light, approximately 200 nanometers. However, the Nanoscience prizewinners showed that light actually can interact with objects tinier than its wavelength.

The prize in Neuroscience will be shared by three scientists who have discovered the specialized regions of the human brain that play a crucial role in memory and other higher cognitive functions. They have also shed light on how specialized nerve cells carry out different tasks in the brain.

The Kavli Prizes were announced by Nils Chr. Stenseth, President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters; the news was transmitted live to New York, where it formed a portion of the opening of the World Science Festival. Each of the three fields represented in the prizes is awarded a cash amount of $1 million. The actual award ceremony will take place in Oslo on September 9. The nine laureates will each receive a medal from King Herald of Norway.

The Kavli Prize is a collaboration among the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and the Kavli Foundation, based in the United States. The prizes were started by the eponymous founder of the Kavli Foundation, Fred Kavli. The winners are selected every two years by a committee in each of the three fields, consisting of scientists recommended by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society.

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Search for aliens needs funding, says top SETI researcher

Dan Werthimer, Director of the SETI Research Center at Berkeley recently traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology. Although he offered optimistic nuggets, such as the high probability that microbial life is widespread in our galaxy and the new technologies available for scanning the skies for signals from advanced alien beings, he had to warn of SETI’s dire funding situation.

“There are maybe two dozen full-time SETI researchers in the world, and we’re all operating on shoestrings,” he said in a UC Berkeley Cal Alumni Association article. “We don’t need a zillion dollars for this work. Our research is quite inexpensive, but we do need some money. More to the point, we need reliable funding. The fluctuations in funding have been more problematic than the amount of money. For example, sometimes we get money from NASA and sometimes we don’t. That makes it difficult to plan experiments.”

Werthimer lauded the progress made in the field of detection of alien signals, noting that, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was possible to monitor only around a hundred radio channels simultaneously, but now up to five billion can be monitored at the same time.

Werthimer did speculate on the difficulties faced by SETI’s mission. He noted that highly advanced alien civilizations might have phased out the heavy use of electromagnetic signals, such as radio, in favor of communications via lasers, artificial x-ray or gamma-ray bursts, or even neutrinos or gravitational waves. Earth itself has started down this road, with the far greater use of fiber optic and copper cables for transmitting.

Werthimer described SETI’s new approach of attempting to eavesdrop on alien conversations. The idea is that, if an advanced civilization has begun colonizing surrounding planets, we might be able to detect communications between them when they are simultaneously aligned with Earth and each other. According to Werthimer, this manner of alignment is not an uncommon occurrence, and SETI is now keeping its eyes on around a hundred star systems.

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NSA insists Snowden never talked about surveillance concerns

The NSA and Edward Snowden are once again at odds. Snowden maintained in a recent interview with NBC’s Brian Williams that he expressed concern to the National Security Agency about the agency’s vast surveillance program. The NSA disagrees, saying Snowden never said anything about those concerns.

The former contractor said that he e-mailed the NSA’s legal office in April 2013 and wrote about his concerns with the agency’s far-reaching data collection and phone surveillance. He said he openly questioned the agency’s legal training programs.

“I have raised the complaints not just officially in writing through email to these offices and these individuals but to my supervisors, to my colleagues, in more than one office,” said Snowden. “Many, many of these individuals were shocked by these programs,” added Snowden. He also said many advised him to keep quiet about his concerns, warning him, “If you say something about this, they’re going to destroy you.”

Snowden told journalists later in 2013 about the NSA’s bulk data collection and surveillance programs. His revelations set off a firestorm of controversy, with some calling him a brave whistleblower and others branding him a traitor.

Snowden released over 1 million classified documents and leaked many to the media outside the U.S. including the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. The documents exposed highly classified eavesdropping programs, including the telephone calls of many Americans.

The NSA vehemently denies Snowden’s allegations. The “e-mail did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed,” the NSA said in a statement.

“There are numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations. We have searched for additional indications of outreach from him in those areas and to date have not discovered any engagements related to his claims,” the statement concluded.

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Saturn’s moon Titan provides key to understanding alien atmospheres

The atmospheres of exoplanets remain mysterious, even as many more worlds outside our solar system are discovered every year. However, there are ways to peer into exoplanet atmospheres and determine their composition, structure, and temperature. When an exoplanet travels across the face of its host star, a tiny fraction of the star’s light is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere. Light spectra collected by telescopes on Earth reveal the ways in which that light was modified as it passed through the planet’s atmosphere before reaching Earth.

According to a NASA statement, a team of researchers led by Tyler Robinson, a postdoctoral fellow at Ames Research Center, has used Saturn’s moon Titan as a proxy for developing a novel way to examine exoplanet atmospheres.

“It turns out there’s a lot you can learn from looking at a sunset,” Robinson said.

While observing Titan, NASA’s Cassini probe, in orbit of Saturn, has studied phenomena known as solar occultations. During these events, Titan obscures the Sun in a manner remarkably similar to the transit of an exoplanet across its own host star; this similarity makes Titan a suitable proxy for studying how starlight is affected by an object’s hazy atmosphere. Many bodies in our solar system, such as Titan, have clouds and high-altitude hazes, and it is likely that many exoplanets share this characteristic. These hazes warp light from the parent star in complex ways, making it extremely difficult to parse out the actual spectrum that could reveal the nature of the planet’s atmosphere.

Robinson and team used four observations of Titan captured by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer between 2006 and 2011. They discovered that high-altitude hazes might impose limits on what spectra can indicate about exoplanet atmospheres during a transit; useful observations might be possible of only the planet’s upper atmosphere. For example, Titan’s upper atmosphere is between 90 and 190 miles above its surface, above the densest clouds and haze.

The study also found that Titan’s hazes have a more drastic effect light of shorter wavelengths, towards the blue end of the spectrum. Previously, exoplanet models have assumed that atmospheric haze would influence all parts of the light spectrum in similar manners. The results allow the affects of Titan’s haze to be compared to observations and models of exoplanets.

The new findings were published in the May 26 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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CNN runs story that huge asteroid will collide with Earth, then removes it

CNN attracted some unwanted attention on May 26 with a story headlined “Giant asteroid possibly on collision course with Earth”. The story was posted by user Marcus 575 on CNN’s iReport site, on which users may post news that is later verified by CNN.

According to CNET, the story alleged that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had observed an asteroid 10 miles in diameter was headed for Earth. The story went on to claim that the asteroid had been discovered 51 million miles away by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). The article even included a likely impact date of March 35, 2041, which no doubt aroused at least some readers’ suspicion.

CNN iReport has taken the article down, citing the fact that “it was flagged by the community and found to be in violation of the iReport Community Guidelines and Terms of Use”. The retraction also states that NASA has confirmed by email that the story was groundless and that a JPL spokeswoman said that the biggest asteroid detected by NEOWISE is 3 kilometers wide and is not a menace to Earth.

The NEOWISE mission commenced in 2010 to locate and characterize near-Earth objects (NEOs), which pass within 28 million miles of Earth’s orbit. In 2010, NEOWISE observed around 158,000 asteroids out of approximately 600,000 known objects. The mission also found 21 comets, more than 34,000 asteroids in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and 135 NEOs.

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Three years after arrest, LulzSec hacker faces sentencing

Hector Xavier Monsegur, a former hacker with the group, LulzSec, will be sentenced this week in New York federal court. He will be sentenced three years after his arrest for hacking into government and business websites.

When Mosegur, or Sabu, as he was known online, was active with LulzSec, he hacked into numerous prominent websites, including senate.gov and an FBI website in Atlanta. The U.S. government said he caused over $2 million in damages. After Monsegur’s arrest, he became a very valuable informant. Prosecutors say that he has saved the government millions of dollars in preventing cyber attacks.

He helped the FBI crack down on other computer hacking groups like Anonymous, Internet Feds, and his own former group, LulzSec. Monsegur also helped to bring down Jeremy Hammond, who was considered the world’s top cybercriminal. Monsegur could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. He may get a reduced sentence for his cyber attacks if prosecutors succeed in lowering his sentence as they have recommended in court documents.

“The FBI used this information, wherever feasible, to prevent or mitigate harm that otherwise would have occurred,” said the prosecutors in their documents. “The FBI estimates that it was able to disrupt or prevent at least 300 separate computer hacks in this fashion. Although difficult to quantify, it is likely that Monsegur’s actions prevented at least millions of dollars in loss to these victims.”

Some of the most important hacks he prevented was a potential attack on the US electrical grid. Through his communication with hackers, Monsegur found it was a hoax, which saved the government time and money.

Prosecutors’s praise of Mosegur’s help as “extraordinarily valuable and productive”, but he has been an enemy of the hacking world since he became an informant. Monsegur has had to move after being harassed by hackers online and his children were threatened.

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InterContinental Hotels spurns $10.1 billion offer from unknown U.S. bidder

InterContinental Hotels (ICH), the world’s largest hotelier, has rejected a $10.1 billion offer from an unknown U.S. bidder. The company’s board reportedly met a few weeks ago and decided the offer was too low, Sky News reports.

ICH is known for some major brands, including Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. In total, the company runs 4,700 hotels, according to Reuters. That number alone accounts for about five percent of all the world’s hotel rooms.

Analysts say the company is attractive to U.S. suitors because it would allow them to move their tax domicile to Britain, potentially saving billions of dollars as a result, The Guardian reports. These so-called “tax inversion deals” are becoming increasingly popular as companies follow the approach that Pfizer took with AstraZeneca.

More offers for ICH are expected to come in the future. While the identity of the current bidder is unknown, one possible bidder is said to be Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the owner of the Le Meridian. Starwood Hotels & Resorts has a market value of just under $15 billion.

Under its current chairman, Patrick Cescau, Intercontinental has been shifting its model towards managing hotels, instead of outright owning them. The new strategy has pleased investors, as profits from the sale of unwanted hotels are often returned directly to shareholders.

The company already announced earlier this month that $750 million would be returned to shareholders. Last year, the company’s profits were up over ten percent from the year before, coming in around $820 million.

The InterContinental in Paris is allegedly next on the chopping block.

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Living large: Best companies for pay and benefits revealed

In a report released by Glassdoor, Google ranked above all other large American companies for employee pay and benefits. Twelve technology companies altogether came in among the top 25.

The perks at Google, in addition to a hefty $128,000 average base salary, are fairly impressive. One employee reported receiving a dish with porcini-encrusted grass-fed beef and parmesan-creamed onions.  The company also ranked very highly in the work/life balance category, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Other companies on the list were not to be outdone.

According to Forbes, Facebook, which came in third in the rankings, is known for supplying its employees with free bicycles to get around its enormous Menlo Park, CA campus. Costco, the only non-tech company in the top five, offers full insurance benefits even to its part-time workers.

The rankings are unique in that they are not dependent on the participation of any companies. Instead, Glassdoor asks employees that use their site to rank companies where they have worked. The review has space for 17 separate categories, each of which is ranked by the employee on a 1-5 star scale.  Companies were only included in the rankings if at least 25 employees submitted a review. As a result, many smaller companies were not included.

While the rankings hype up workplace benefits, Glassdoor staffers admit that salary is still the most important factor for the vast majority of job seekers.

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WTO rules in favor of U.S. on Chinese tariff violation: Is a trade war coming?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a statement on May 23 ruling in favor of the U.S. in a 2012 complaint filed against the Chinese government over improperly imposing tariffs on imported vehicles.

The WTO, a Geneva, Switzerland-based arbiter, reported that China added duties on a host of U.S.-based manufactured vehicles – including  ones from General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC – in 2011 after the U.S. government bailed out the automakers during the global financial crisis. They eliminated them in December. Ford Motor Co., which didn’t receive U.S. assistance in the bailout, didn’t export vehicles to China during the investigation period and wasn’t subject to the tariffs.

China imposed duties, as high as 21.5 percent, on U.S.-made cars and sport-utility vehicles in December 2011, claiming the goods benefited from government subsidies and were sold in China for market below value, known as being “dumped.”

“This is a significant victory,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said May 23 at a press conference in Washington. “It’s time for China to change the practices that have led the United States and our trading partners to bring these kinds of cases.”

According to a news report by Bloomberg, the Chinese Embassy in Washington in a statement claimed victory on some technical aspects of the case. “We noticed that the panel report rejected part of the United States’ argument that China failed to define the domestic industry,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman, stated in an e-mail. He said China had a “reservation” with other elements of the ruling.

In September 2012 the U.S. filed a separate WTO case against China alleging the Beijing government subsidized its own auto and auto-parts makers in violation of global trade rules. That case is still under review, according to the U.S. trade office.

Also, this week the U.S. dramatically escalated the trade battle with China, accusing five military leaders of stealing corporate secrets. The indictments follow complaints over issues such as tires, chicken parts, clean-energy products and credit-card payment services.

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Decision to release 'pillowcase rapist' slammed by California politician, officials

Much to the chagrin of local officials and residents, serial rapist Christopher Evans Hubbart, nicknamed the “pillowcase rapist,” will be released on July 7, 2014. On Friday, Santa Clara County Judge Gilbert Brown officially approved Hubbart’s release to a home in Palmdale, California.

Hubbart admitted to raping about 40 women between 1971 and 1982, but authorities believe there could be as many as 100 victims. After several stints in prison, Hubbart was transferred to a state mental hospital in 1996.

“The court has made a horrendous error in judgment in deciding to place this parolee into Lake Los Angeles,” said state assemblyman Steve Fox (D-Palmdale) in a statement. “This is an unfair decision that flies in the face of the traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. We are being dumped on.”

Fox wasn’t the only public official to express outrage over Hubbart’s release.

“I am extremely disappointed with the court’s decision,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey at a news conference. “We will do everything within our authority to protect the residents of Los Angeles County from this dangerous predator.”

Hubbart will have to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and will be chaperoned in public for the first six months after his release.

Do you agree with Fox and Lacey or should sexual predators be allowed to re-enter society if deemed fit for release by doctors at a state mental hospital? Share your thoughts in the comments section.