Quantum effect evident in space near neutron star

A prediction made 80 years ago regarding a quantum distortion effect might be finding its first evidence in observations of empty space near a neutron star.

Phys.Org explains that a quantum effect called vacuum birefringence may have been observed near a neutron star called RX J1856.5-3754.  Scientists observed the light coming from the highly magnetized star using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).  The polarization of the light as it passed through empty space near the star suggest that vacuum birefringence is at play.

The star in question lies about 400 light-years from Earth, making it one of the closest neutron stars to our solar system.  Neutron stars are extremely dense and have very strong magnetic fields which can be billions of times stronger than the Sun’s magnetic field.  The fields are sufficiently strong to affect the empty space surrounding them.

The vacuum of space, as surrounds RX J1856.5-3754, is generally considered empty, such that light can travel unchanged through the vacuum.  Quantum electrodynamic (QED) theories hold that this empty space actually contains virtual particles that constantly flash in and out of existence.  A strong magnetic field, such as that of a neutron star, is thought to be able to interact with the quantum particles and thus affect the polarization of any light passing through the area.

“According to QED, a highly magnetized vacuum behaves as a prism for the propagation of light, an effect known as vacuum birefringence,” Roberto Mignani of INAF Milan said.

Scientists have not yet successfully demonstrated this quantum effect in lab experiments.

“This effect can be detected only in the presence of enormously strong magnetic fields, such as those around neutron stars. This shows, once more, that neutron stars are invaluable laboratories in which to study the fundamental laws of nature,” Roberto Turolla of the University of Padua said.

The researchers found evidence of linear polarization of the star’s light, hinting that the quantum effect is taking place near RX J1856.5-3754.

“The high linear polarization that we measured with the VLT can’t be easily explained by our models unless the vacuum birefringence effects predicted by QED are included,” Mignani said.  “Polarization measurements with the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope, could play a crucial role in testing QED predictions of vacuum birefringence effects around many more neutron stars.”

The study will appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

PHYS Physics Science

Large Hadron Collider detects rare particle decays

CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva has been back to smashing protons at high speeds since the completion of its two-year refit for greater power potential. CERN scientists recently reported evidence of particle decays that had been predicted but had never been detected.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the decay pattern observed “could help researchers test the limits of the standard model of particle physics and probe unexplained cosmic phenomena, including the existence of dark matter and the dearth of antimatter in the universe.”

“From the scientific standpoint, this is big, heady stuff. All the puzzles of physics could fall into place or they could just remain mysteries based on what we learn from these decays,” LHC researcher Joel Butler of Fermilab said. “This is kind of a fantastic time in physics, where many mysteries might get resolved.”

While the standard model of particle physics aligns well with previously detected particles like the Higgs boson, it does not adequately explain the nature and behavior of dark matter, dark energy or antimatter. Dark matter is not directly detectable and is thought to account for much of the mass and therefore gravitational influence in the universe. Dark energy is believed to be the force behind the universe’s increasing rate of expansion. Antimatter is thought to have been created alongside matter, but according to traditional models, matter and antimatter should have destroyed one another by now.

The type of particles involved in the groundbreaking decay observations are known as neutral B mesons, which decay quickly into other particles. Mesons are made up of quarks, of which there are six known types. The research team looked at data collected by the LHC concerning the decay rates of two types of B meson, one of which performed at a rate similar to what the standard model predicts, and one of which decayed at a rate almost four times higher than predicted.

Butler noted that the discrepancy could possibly be attributed to the small sample size of data regarding the oddly performing B meson. “If that holds up, it will be very interesting, but for right now, it’s best explained as a statistical fluke. It’s got our attention, let’s put it that way,” Butler said.

The team will be collecting more data to explore which particle behaviors remain in keeping with the standard model and which particle decays either support or rule out theories within supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is a model of particle physics which assumes that each particle has a more massive “superparticle” twin, which would decay quickly into more stable and less massive particles. Under the auspices of supersymmetry, the lightest and most stable of these particles could be the elusive form of dark matter.

The results were published in the journal Nature.

PHYS Physics

Large Hadron Collider restarts after two-year refit

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has started up again after a two-year rebuild. The particle smasher will be operating at higher power levels than before, and researchers are hoping that the increase in particle speeds will reveal more about the nature of our universe.

As reported by BBC News, particle beams have now whizzed around the LHC’s parallel pipes in both directions “at a whisker below the speed of light.”

Having experienced a brief glitch after the refit was complete, the LHC “is in great shape,” Frédérick Bordry of CERN said. “But the most important step is still to come when we increase the energy of the beams to new record levels.”

In the coming months, CERN scientists will ramp up the speed and begin particle collision experiments. The next round of particle collisions will occur with nearly twice the energy achieved during the LHC’s first run of experiments, and will create temperatures as high as existed right after the Big Bang.

The new energy level of 13 trillion electronvolts will allow for more in-depth particle collision results than previously possible. Researchers are hoping to make inroads into the realm of “new physics,” a level of understanding that reaches beyond the Standard Model of particle physics.

“Of course in every particle physics experiment we’ve ever done, we’ve been wanting to make a big, unknown discovery,” Tara Shears of the University of Liverpool said. “But now it’s become particularly pressing, because with Run One and the discovery of the Higgs, we’ve discovered everything that our existing theory predicts.”

The “Higgs” is the Higgs boson, the last of the 5 “force carrier” particles described by the Standard Model to be discovered. The LHC detected the Higgs boson in 2012, and it is hoped that this next round of tests may reveal more types of Higgs bosons.

The Standard Model explains how the building blocks of matter interact as affected by the fundamental forces. There are, however, properties of the universe that are not adequately explained by the Standard Model. Theoretical physicists have proposed explanations for these properties, but none of these have been substantiated by direct detection.

Among these proposals are the existence of dark energy, meant to explain why the universe is accelerating in its expansion, and dark matter, meant to account for how matter stays in place and why galaxies spin faster than the Standard Model would predict. The theory of supersymmetry is another proposal meant to explain the behavior of quantum particles, and an explanation for the nature of gravity is absent from the Standard Model.

Researchers hope that the newly refitted collider will shed new light on the unanswered questions in particle physics by revealing new particles or showing evidence of dark matter or even other dimensions.

NWT_Environment PHYS

China’s quantum satellite sends ‘unhackable’ signal

Scientists operating China’s new quantum satellite have successfully transferred information through space using quantum entanglement.

Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon by which subatomic particles can be linked to one another across any distance.  When the properties of one entangled particle are measured, the properties of its partner react by matching up, even if the particles are miles apart.  Albert Einstein dubbed this phenomenon “spooky action at a distance.”

Sci-Tech Today reports that China’s spacecraft, called Micius, beamed entangled particles of light to ground stations located over 700 miles apart from one another.  The experiment shattered the existing record of 65 miles for transmitting entangled photos.

Pairs of entangled photons were created onboard Micius then sent separately 1,240 miles to the receiving stations.

“These types of experiments are not easy to do, even within the controlled confines of a laboratory environment,” Martin Stevens, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado said.  “Doing them between two remote ground locations and a satellite flying overhead at a speed of thousands of kilometers per hour is mind-bogglingly difficult.”

Stevens set the previous distance record for entangled particles in 2015 with a 65-mile-long optical fiber.  The signal tends to diminish when sent by wire, whereas a signal traveling through space can go much further without losing strength.

Physicists hope that entangled particles could be used to send encrypted information which, due to the nature of “spooky action,” would be impossible to intercept and decode.  The success of Micius marks another step on the road to developing a global quantum internet.

“Many people thought it was a crazy idea, because it was very challenging,” research leader Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei in China said.  “If a future quantum network is established, the security is ensured by the laws of physics, which are unconditionally secure.  It will be beneficial for all human beings.”

The research was published in the online journal, Science.

Business NONE TECH TECH_Technology

Uber will buy up to 24,000 Volvos for its self-driving vehicle fleet

Uber’s driverless-car ambitions got a boost from Volvo with a recently announced deal in which Volvo will sell Uber up to 24,000 of its XC90 SUVs for Uber to convert into a fleet of self-driving cars. Volvo will also collaborate with Uber on developing workable self-driving vehicle systems that will enable the cars to navigate themselves.

Uber is already testing self-driving XC90s on public roadways in Arizona, California, and Pennsylvania. The test cars move and steer themselves but have human drivers on board to troubleshoot the software and intervene if the car system malfunctions.

“Our goal was from day one to make investments into a vehicle that could be manufactured at scale,” Jeff Miller, Uber’s head of automotive alliances, said.

The new Xc90s will go a step further and incorporate automated braking and steering systems that may enable them to complete test drives without any human on board. The deal is reportedly worth around $1.4 billion and will take place in a series of car purchases throughout 2019 and 2021.

The actual number of cars Uber will buy can change, depending on Uber’s needs, an Uber spokesman said. The spokesman added that the deal allows Uber to buy cars from other car makers besides Volvo if it chooses.

Volvo and Uber have been cooperating on self-driving car development for almost three years. The two companies pooled together $300 million in 2016 for researching self-driving cars’ steering, brake features, sensors, and other components.

A 24,000-car sale would be the biggest company-to-company transaction in the history of self-driving cars if it goes through, however. It would also be a major business shift for Uber, which built its brand on human-driven ridesharing services.

Business NATURE NONE TECH TECH_Technology

Hackers hit millions of Pornhub users with “malvertising” attack

Millions of visitors to adult-video site Pornhub unwittingly downloaded malware onto their PCs in the past year, information-security firm Proofpoint reported Tuesday. The firm said that the malware disguised itself as harmless software updates and duped the users into downloading it.

Proofpoint linked the attack to a group known as KovCoreG, which had set out to infect users’ computers with Kovter, a fraudulent ad malware that hackers use to generate money through clicks on fake online ads. The malware redirected Pornhub visitors to a page that claimed to offer software updates for their Web browser or their Adobe Flash plugin. If the users clicked the links and downloaded them, the malware took over their computers and used them to click on masses of fake ads to generate money for the hackers.

By the time that security experts had uncovered Kovter, it had been active for more than a year, Proofpoint said. Pornhub has shut the malware down on its site but that the malware has migrated to other sites and remains capable of infecting.

“Malvertising” attacks such as this are an increasingly frequent threat on the Internet, warned Javvad Malik, an AlienVault security advocate. He told the Guardian that it is not easy for legitimate ad networks and app stores to screen out every fake ad or plugin from the real ones.

“There are insufficient controls to place an advert with an ad network, making it far easier to get a malicious app accepted by an official app store. This has led to an upturn in the number of reputable organisations distributing malvertising,” Malik said.

Business NONE SCI Science

Global crop surpluses threaten farmers’ incomes

World grain supplies have been running a massive surplus for four years straight, according to USDA data, and agriculture experts worry that the glut will drive down prices will hit the world’s farmers hard. Driven in part by high-tech farming innovations and crop breeding, farm production is soaring and end-of-season grain supplies are on track to total 638 million tons in 2016-2017, a historic record, the USDA reported.
“It’s somewhat the seed companies’ fault—they keep breeding better and better seeds every year,” said Jonas Oxgaard, an analyst with investment-management firm Bernstein.
Agro-business companies such as Monsanto use genetic modification to create faster-growing crops and crops that can withstand diseases, resist pests, and grow in historically cold or otherwise inhospitable climates. Monsanto spokespersons said that corn planters in relatively chilly western Canada could multiply to 10 million acres by 2025, which would raise the world corn supply by 1.1 billion bushels, or 3% of current production.
As farms’ crop output rises, however, the revenues the farmers earn for their crops falls. U.S. net farm incomes will total $63.4 billion this year, about half of their 2013 total, according to the USDA.
Even the agro-business giants feel the pinch. Monsanto’s 2016 profits were its lowest in six years. It agreed to merge last year with Bayer AG to soften the blow.
And the Saskatchewan-based Potash Corp., the world’s largest fertilizer company, shed more than 400 jobs last year and saw its U.S.-listed shares plummet by almost half since 2015. The company ended up merging with rival Agrium Inc. Oxgaard expects many more industry consolidations to take place as individual growers and suppliers struggle to not fall behind.

NONE SCI Science

Having your dog in your room, but not in your bed, could lead to better sleep

A new Mayo Clinic study shows that having your dog sleep in your room — but not in your bed — could lead to a better night’s rest.

The American Veterinary Association reports that more than 40 million American households have dogs. Among those homes, 63 percent consider their dogs as a part of their family. However, despite that bond, many people are still not sure if they should let their canine companion sleep in their bedroom at night.

The new research hopes to help with that dilemma by showing that people sleep better with their dogs in the same room as them. Scientists reached this conclusion by analyzing 40 dog owners who did not suffer from any sleep disorders over a five month period. They put accelerometers on both the owners and their dogs to monitor their sleep patterns during that time and then determined the results.

This revealed that people tend to sleep with a greater sense of comfort and security when their dogs are in the same room as them.

“The relationship between people and their pets has changed over time, which is likely why many people, in fact, do sleep with their pets in the bedroom,” said study co-author Dr. Lois Krahn, a sleep medicine specialist at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus, according to International Business Times. “Today, many pet owners are away from their pets for much of the day, so they want to maximize their time with them when they are home. Having them in the bedroom at night is an easy way to do that.”

However, the study results differed depending on whether the dog slept on the floor or on the bed. In fact, owners who let their dogs onto their bed typically had a lower sleep quality than normal.

“My main recommendation is for people to take a look at their setup and carefully consider whether it is truly working or not, and not allow loyalty to their pet to blind them to consequences that aren’t desirable to their sleep,” added Krahn, according to TIME.

Though the team believes in their research, they do note that the study had a limited sample size and that none of the dogs examined were under six months old. As a result, further trials are needed before a strong link can be proven between pets and a good night’s rest.

The new research is published in the September issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.


Starshades could enable direct imaging of exoplanets

As a means of enabling direct imaging of exoplanets, scientists are exploring the use of starshades, spacecraft that would block the light of a star, creating an artificial eclipse and allowing a second spacecraft equipped with a telescope to directly observe orbiting planets.

A majority of the 3,500 exoplanets discovered have only been indirectly observed. Potential Earth-like planets in stars’ habitable zones cannot be directly detected because of the glare of their host stars, which can be up to 10 billion times brighter than the planets themselves.

In order to successfully image an Earth-sized planet, a starshade would have to have a diameter of tens of meters placed several Earth diameters apart from the telescope. Both would have to be deployed beyond Earth’s orbit.

“With indirect measurements, you can detect objects near a star and figure out their orbit period and distance from the star,” explained Simone D’Amico of Stanford University, who serves as director of the university’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory.

“This is all important, but with direct observation, you could characterize the chemical composition of the planet and potentially observe signs of biological activity–life.”

To illustrate the benefit of this technology, D’Amico, and colleague Bruce MacIntosh has created a smaller version of these objects, hoping to showcase them to scientists in a low-cost flight demonstration.

They labeled the system, which includes a three-meter-diameter starshade and a 10-cm-diameter telescope, both of which sit on separate 10-kg tiny satellites, as mDOT, which stands for miniaturized distributed occulter/telescope.

The starshade will be folded at launch, then open up while in Earth orbit. Both it and the telescope will be placed in high-Earth orbit separated by less than 1,000 km.

Although the test starshade will not be powerful enough to directly image Earth-like exoplanets, it may be capable of observing planets the size of Jupiter.

Still in development, the test system would cost several million dollars, in contrast to several billion for the actual spacecraft.

MDOt is one of the several projects that involve multiple spacecraft flying in formation now under development at the Space Rendezvous Laboratory.

Business NONE

“Diaper banks” form to help growing numbers of financially struggling new parents

Most working adults cut back on work hours—at least temporarily—when they have children. But many modest-income adults who are barely making ends meet have found that reducing work hours leaves them with too little income to provide for themselves or their new children. For these cash-strapped parents, a growing array of “diaper banks” have opened their doors with vital baby-care goods to help get them through the lean times.

A newborn baby can go through 3,000 diapers in his or her first year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This adds up to a hefty shopping expense when the mother or father is struggling just to make rent each month, as indicated by a 2013 study that found that 27% of parents reported worrying that they could not afford enough diapers for their children. Of this percentage, 10% asked friends for help and 8% sometimes delayed changing their babies’ wet diapers.

A Tucson, Arizona, nonprofits consultant started organizing “diaper drives” in the 1990s to donate diapers to families in need. In 2000, the city opened the Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona, the first diaper bank in the nation. More than 300 have opened nationwide in the 17 years since, and last year they distributed a combined 50 million diapers to more than 200,000 children.

Diaper bank leaders said that the need is too great for them to meet alone, however. Joanne Goldblum, director of the National Diaper Bank Network, called on public officials to support more aid programs for the nation’s struggling families.
“The truth is we do not have a social safety net to speak of for many, many Americans,” she said.