Science

Lining up: water molecules within a carbon nanotube The optical properties of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) change when the tiny structures are filled with water. That is the conclusion of scientists in Belgium and the US, who attribute the change to a “quasi-phase transition” that occurs in the water – although the exact nature of the transition is unknown. The research points to a new technique for studying confined water molecules – which is crucial to various branches of science, but it is surprisingly difficult to do. The study could lead to better ways of delivering drugs in the body and even boost our understanding of quantum mechanics. SWCNTs are hollow hair-like structures with walls that are one atom thick. Normally they are closed at both ends, but sometimes the ends can be open and Sofie Cambré of the University of Antwerp in Belgium and colleagues have previously shown that open SWCNTs rapidly fill with …

For astronomers seeking Earth twins around other stars, the exoplanet GJ 1132 b probably isn’t an identical sibling—but it may be the closest cousin yet found. It weighs in at just over one Earth mass, but circles its star in a warm orbit that could make it more like Venus than our own world. Moreover, its diameter is nearly 50 percent larger than that of Earth, suggesting it possesses a thick atmosphere. Now, after taking the closest-ever look at GJ 1132 b, a European collaboration has confirmed the presence of its atmosphere and found hints it might contain water and methane. The results are currently under review for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. As mere discoveries of exoplanets become routine, efforts to learn more about them—their compositions, climates and histories—are moving to the fore, with studies of their atmospheres occupying center stage. Although astronomers detected the first exoplanet atmosphere more than 15 years ago, they …

Polar bears are facing trouble inside and out. The animals are losing habitat as global warming melts sea ice. Now a study shows bears’ bodies hold toxic chemicals originally made in distant factories, substances that threaten adult bears’ health at a level 100 times greater than the acceptable threshold of risk for humans. For cubs, the risk is more than 1,000 times that threshold. These risks have remained high, particularly in cubs, despite restrictions or bans on many of these chemicals more than a decade ago. Whereas the restrictions have reduced overall pollutant levels in cubs, the pace of reduction is being slowed by more recently produced chemicals that are not yet banned, says the study, which was published online in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry on January 5. “There is definitely a cause for concern,” says Melissa McKinney, a polar bear researcher at the University of Connecticut who was not involved in the study. She …

Behind bars: fraudulent physicist begins 18 month jail sentence A former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist has been sentenced by a court in California to 18 months in prison for submitting false data and reports with the “purpose of defrauding a government agency”. Sean Darin Kinion, 44, who earned his physics PhD from the University of California, Davis, pleaded guilty in June to mail fraud and acknowledged that he was involved in “a scheme to defraud the government out of money intended to fund research”. In addition to his prison term, which will begin on 26 January, Kinion will have to pay $3,317,893 in compensation to the US government. He will also undergo supervision for three years following his release from prison. According to Lawrence Livermore spokesperson Lynda Seaver, the lab began to see “red flags” in Kinion’s work in late summer 2012 and, after initially putting him on leave, lab administrators sacked the physicist in …

Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R), started his confirmation hearing Tuesday by aligning himself with one of the giants of American conservation. “Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” Zinke said, adding that Roosevelt “had it right” when he protected millions of acres of federal lands and created the U.S. Forest Service. With a right-wing movement to wrestle control of public lands from the federal government gaining momentum, Zinke’s rhetoric offered conservationists some measure of comfort. The question now, many say, is whether Zinke will walk—not just talk—like Roosevelt, balancing conservation and development on public lands. “While he continues to paint himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt, his very short voting record shows him repeatedly siding with industry,” says the Sierra Club’s Matthew Kirby, who works on western public lands issues. According to the League of Conservation Voters, only 3 percent of Zinke’s votes in Congress …

In September Pres. Donald Trump announced during his election campaign that he would guarantee six weeks of paid maternity leave for working mothers—the first time a Republican presidential candidate has made such a promise. But even if he keeps his word, such a policy may not help many new moms, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Jay Zagorsky, an economist and research scientist at The Ohio State University, analyzed data from an employment survey given to 60,000 U.S. adults each month to find out how maternity leave trends have changed over time. What he found was surprising: Even though five states—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington, along with New York (whose new legislation goes into effect next January)—have passed laws requiring paid family leave since 2002, the overall percentage of American women taking maternity leave has not budged since 1994. Among new mothers, “there’s no trend upward …

Supercavity: illustration of a BIC laser based on a 10 × 10 array A new type of compact and highly efficient laser that is compatible with optical telecommunications has been created by Boubacar Kanté and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, in the US. The tuneable device, which uses a wave phenomenon first proposed more than 80 years ago, can output light with a range of different beam profiles. According to Kanté, the laser could someday be used in a wide range of applications including spectroscopy and optical trapping. The wave phenomenon exploited by the device was first suggested in 1929 by John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner, who calculated that certain quantum systems can have bound states above the continuum threshold. The discovery of these “bound states in the continuum”, or BICs, was surprising because this threshold is normally the energy required to break apart a quantum system – ionizing an atom, for example. …

Star-shaped cells called astrocytes—often characterized as “helper” cells—may contribute to damage caused by brain injury and disease by turning toxic and destroying neurons, according to study results published Wednesday in Nature. Astrocytes are one of the three types of glial, or non-neuronal, cells, the most abundant kind found in the brain. They are widely regarded as support cells that nourish neurons and pack the spaces between them, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they play other important roles in normal, healthy brain function. They can synthesize neurotransmitters to send signals among glial cells, and form networks that regulate neuronal activity. Astrocytes can also react to brain injury and disease in various ways. Following nerve damage, for example, they form scar tissue that can aid in the regeneration of severed fibers. But they are also implicated in a wide variety of neurological and psychiatric diseases. The new findings show that under certain conditions astrocytes can …

A White House panel that questions vaccine safety and attacks immunization standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control—a possibility raised last week in meetings with incoming president Donald Trump—could actually lead to increased disease outbreaks. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who suggests inoculations are linked to autism, met last week with Trump to discuss a panel to examine what Kennedy called “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Although the autism–vaccine claim has been studied and debunked, the president-elect has also suggested a connection. His team later hedged about the panel, saying that nothing had been decided. (Kennedy’s office declined an interview request.) Nevertheless, public health experts and autism advocates are deeply worried that an effort with presidential backing could undermine public confidence in vaccines and trigger epidemics of all-but-eradicated diseases. “We have dozens of studies examining autism and vaccines, and they don’t show a link,” says Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science …

A White House panel that questions vaccine safety and attacks immunization standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control—a possibility raised last week in meetings with incoming president Donald Trump—could actually lead to increased disease outbreaks. Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who suggests inoculations are linked to autism, met last week with Trump to discuss a panel to examine what Kennedy called “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Although the autism–vaccine claim has been studied and debunked, the president-elect has also suggested a connection. His team later hedged about the panel, saying that nothing had been decided. (Kennedy’s office declined an interview request.) Nevertheless, public health experts and autism advocates are deeply worried that an effort with presidential backing could undermine public confidence in vaccines and trigger epidemics of all-but-eradicated diseases. “We have dozens of studies examining autism and vaccines, and they don’t show a link,” says Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science …

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