Sesame particle accelerator project brings Middle East together

The Guardian reports: In the sleepy hillside town in al-Balqa, not far from the Jordan Valley, a grand project is taking shape. The Middle East’s new particle accelerator – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – is being built.

In a region racked by violence, extremism and the disintegration of nation states, Sesame feels a world apart; the meditative peace of the surrounding countryside belying the advanced stages of construction inside the site, which is due to be formally inaugurated next spring, with the first experiments taking place as early as this autumn.

It’s a miracle it got off the ground in the first place. Sesame’s members are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Bahrain. Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats.

Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” [Continue reading…]

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Forget software — now hackers are exploiting physics

Andy Greenberg reports: Practically every word we use to describe a computer is a metaphor. “File,” “window,” even “memory” all stand in for collections of ones and zeros that are themselves representations of an impossibly complex maze of wires, transistors and the electrons moving through them. But when hackers go beyond those abstractions of computer systems and attack their actual underlying physics, the metaphors break.

Over the last year and a half, security researchers have been doing exactly that: honing hacking techniques that break through the metaphor to the actual machine, exploiting the unexpected behavior not of operating systems or applications, but of computing hardware itself—in some cases targeting the actual electricity that comprises bits of data in computer memory. And at the Usenix security conference earlier this month, two teams of researchers presented attacks they developed that bring that new kind of hack closer to becoming a practical threat.

Both of those new attacks use a technique Google researchers first demonstrated last March called “Rowhammer.” The trick works by running a program on the target computer, which repeatedly overwrites a certain row of transistors in its DRAM flash memory, “hammering” it until a rare glitch occurs: Electric charge leaks from the hammered row of transistors into an adjacent row. The leaked charge then causes a certain bit in that adjacent row of the computer’s memory to flip from one to zero or vice versa. That bit flip gives you access to a privileged level of the computer’s operating system.

It’s messy. And mind-bending. And it works. [Continue reading…]

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Forget ideology, liberal democracy’s newest threats come from technology and bioscience

John Naughton writes: The BBC Reith Lectures in 1967 were given by Edmund Leach, a Cambridge social anthropologist. “Men have become like gods,” Leach began. “Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid.”

That was nearly half a century ago, and yet Leach’s opening lines could easily apply to today. He was speaking before the internet had been built and long before the human genome had been decoded, and so his claim about men becoming “like gods” seems relatively modest compared with the capabilities that molecular biology and computing have subsequently bestowed upon us. Our science-based culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, exploring, developing and growing. But in recent times it seems to have also become plagued with existential angst as the implications of human ingenuity begin to be (dimly) glimpsed.

The title that Leach chose for his Reith Lecture – A Runaway World – captures our zeitgeist too. At any rate, we are also increasingly fretful about a world that seems to be running out of control, largely (but not solely) because of information technology and what the life sciences are making possible. But we seek consolation in the thought that “it was always thus”: people felt alarmed about steam in George Eliot’s time and got worked up about electricity, the telegraph and the telephone as they arrived on the scene. The reassuring implication is that we weathered those technological storms, and so we will weather this one too. Humankind will muddle through.

But in the last five years or so even that cautious, pragmatic optimism has begun to erode. There are several reasons for this loss of confidence. One is the sheer vertiginous pace of technological change. Another is that the new forces at loose in our society – particularly information technology and the life sciences – are potentially more far-reaching in their implications than steam or electricity ever were. And, thirdly, we have begun to see startling advances in these fields that have forced us to recalibrate our expectations.[Continue reading…]

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Potentially habitable planet discovered right next door

Scientific American reports: It was just over 20 years ago — a blink of a cosmic eye — that astronomers found the first planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. All these new worlds were gas-shrouded giants like Jupiter or Saturn and utterly inhospitable to life as we know it — but for years each discovery was dutifully reported as front-page news, while scientists and the public alike dreamed of a day when we would find a habitable world. An Earth-like place with plentiful surface water, neither frozen nor vaporized but in the liquid state so essential to life. Back then the safe bet was to guess that the discovery of such a planet would only come after many decades, and that when a promising new world’s misty shores materialized on the other side of our telescopes, it would prove too faraway and faint to study in any detail.

Evidently the safe bet was wrong. On Wednesday astronomers made the kind of announcement that can only occur once in human history: the discovery of the nearest potentially habitable world beyond our solar system. This world may be rocky like ours and whirls in a temperate orbit around the Sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri just over four light-years away. Their findings are reported in a study in the journal Nature.

Although technically still considered a “candidate” planet awaiting verification, most astronomers consulted for this story believe the world to be there. Scarcely more than the planet’s orbital period and approximate mass are known, but that is enough to send shivers down spines. Proxima Centauri shines with only about a thousandth of our Sun’s luminosity, meaning any life-friendly planets must huddle close. The newfound world, christened “Proxima b” by scientists, resides in an 11.2-day orbit where water — and thus the kind of life we understand — could conceivably exist. And it is likely to be little more than one-third heavier than Earth, suggesting it offers a solid surface upon which seas and oceans could pool. In a feat of discovery that could reshape the history of science and human dreams of interstellar futures, our species has uncovered a potentially habitable planet right next door. [Continue reading…]

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China launches quantum satellite for ‘hack-proof’ communications

The Guardian reports: China says it has launched the world’s first quantum satellite, a project Beijing hopes will enable it to build a coveted “hack-proof” communications system with potentially significant military and commercial applications.

Xinhua, Beijing’s official news service, said Micius, a 600kg satellite that is nicknamed after an ancient Chinese philosopher, “roared into the dark sky” over the Gobi desert at 1.40am local time on Tuesday, carried by a Long March-2D rocket.

“The satellite’s two-year mission will be to develop ‘hack-proof’ quantum communications, allowing users to send messages securely and at speeds faster than light,” Xinhua reported.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, or Quess, satellite programme is part of an ambitious space programme that has accelerated since Xi Jinping became Communist party chief in late 2012.

“There’s been a race to produce a quantum satellite, and it is very likely that China is going to win that race,” Nicolas Gisin, a professor and quantum physicist at the University of Geneva, told the Wall Street Journal. “It shows again China’s ability to commit to large and ambitious projects and to realise them.”

The satellite will be tasked with sending secure messages between Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a sprawling region of deserts and snow-capped mountains in China’s extreme west.

Highly complex attempts to build such a “hack-proof” communications network are based on the scientific principle of entanglement. [Continue reading…]

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Ancient Venus may have been much like Earth

The Washington Post reports: For a 2-billion-year-long span, ending about 715 million years ago, Venus was likely a much more pleasant spot that it is today. To observe Venus now is to witness a dry and toxic hellscape, where the planet heats up to a scorching 864 degrees Fahrenheit. A super-strong electric wind is believed to suck the smallest traces of water into space. With apologies to Ian Malcolm, life as we know it could not find a way.

But travel back in time a few billion years or so. Ancient Venus, according to a new computer model from NASA, would have been prime solar system real estate, to the point it may have been downright habitable.

That life would find Venus amenable hinges on two main factors. Venus would have needed much balmier temperatures, and it also would have needed a liquid ocean — which is a significant if, although elemental traces such as deuterium indicate water existed on Venus at one point. As Colin Wilson, an Oxford University planetary physicist, told Time in 2010, “everything points to there being large amounts of water in the past.”

Venusian temperatures, too, appear to have been far cooler when the solar system was younger. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a report published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, calculated that the average surface temperature 2.9 billion years ago was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperature would have made Venus, surprisingly for a planet closer to the Sun, a bit chillier than Earth was at the time. [Continue reading…]

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How a solo voyage around the world led to a vision for a sustainable global economy

 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design — a circular economy.

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Discerning order in randomness

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Kevin Hartnett writes: Standard geometric objects can be described by simple rules — every straight line, for example, is just y = ax + b — and they stand in neat relation to each other: Connect two points to make a line, connect four line segments to make a square, connect six squares to make a cube.

These are not the kinds of objects that concern Scott Sheffield. Sheffield, a professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studies shapes that are constructed by random processes. No two of them are ever exactly alike. Consider the most familiar random shape, the random walk, which shows up everywhere from the movement of financial asset prices to the path of particles in quantum physics. These walks are described as random because no knowledge of the path up to a given point can allow you to predict where it will go next.

Beyond the one-dimensional random walk, there are many other kinds of random shapes. There are varieties of random paths, random two-dimensional surfaces, random growth models that approximate, for example, the way a lichen spreads on a rock. All of these shapes emerge naturally in the physical world, yet until recently they’ve existed beyond the boundaries of rigorous mathematical thought. Given a large collection of random paths or random two-dimensional shapes, mathematicians would have been at a loss to say much about what these random objects shared in common.

Yet in work over the past few years, Sheffield and his frequent collaborator, Jason Miller, a professor at the University of Cambridge, have shown that these random shapes can be categorized into various classes, that these classes have distinct properties of their own, and that some kinds of random objects have surprisingly clear connections with other kinds of random objects. Their work forms the beginning of a unified theory of geometric randomness. [Continue reading…]

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Are ‘New Atheists’ undermining the atheist cause?

 

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A society staring at machines

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age. [Continue reading…]

It perhaps also indicates being at less risk of stumbling off a cliff.

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Learning from nature: Record-efficiency turbine farms are being inspired by sealife

Alex Riley writes: As they drove on featureless dirt roads on the first Tuesday of 2010, John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, and his then-student Robert Whittlesey, were inspecting a remote area of land that they hoped to purchase to test new concepts in wind power. They named their site FLOWE for Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy. Situated between gentle knolls covered in sere vegetation, the four-acre parcel in Antelope Valley, California, was once destined to become a mall, but those plans fell through. The land was cheap. And, more importantly, it was windy.

Estimated at 250 trillion Watts, the amount of wind on Earth has the potential to provide more than 20 times our current global energy consumption. Yet, only four countries — Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Denmark — generate more than 10 percent of their electricity this way. The United States, one of the largest, wealthiest, and windiest of countries, comes in at about 4 percent. There are reasons for that. Wind farm expansion brings with it huge engineering costs, unsightly countryside, loud noises, disruption to military radar, and death of wildlife. Recent estimates blamed turbines for killing 600,000 bats and up to 440,000 birds a year. On June 19, 2014, the American Bird Conservancy filed a lawsuit against the federal government asking it to curtail the impact of wind farms on the dwindling eagle populations. And while standalone horizontal-axis turbines harvest wind energy well, in a group they’re highly profligate. As their propeller-like blades spin, the turbines facing into the wind disrupt free-flowing air, creating a wake of slow-moving, infertile air behind them. [Continue reading…]

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The growing risk of a war in space

Geoff Manaugh writes: In Ghost Fleet, a 2015 novel by security theorists Peter Singer and August Cole, the next world war begins in space.

Aboard an apparently civilian space station called the Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” Chinese astronauts—taikonauts—maneuver a chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) into place. They aim their clandestine electromagnetic weapon at its first target, a U.S. Air Force communications satellite that helps to coordinate forces in the Pacific theater far below. The laser “fired a burst of energy that, if it were visible light instead of infrared, would have been a hundred thousand times brighter than the sun.” The beam melts through the external hull of the U.S. satellite and shuts down its sensitive inner circuitry.

From there, the taikonauts work their way through a long checklist of strategic U.S. space assets, disabling the nation’s military capabilities from above. It is a Pearl Harbor above the atmosphere, an invisible first strike.

“The emptiness of outer space might be the last place you’d expect militaries to vie over contested territory,” Lee Billings has written, “except that outer space isn’t so empty anymore.” It is not only science fiction, in other words, to suggest that the future of war could be offworld. The high ground of the global battlefield is no longer defined merely by a topographical advantage, but by strategic orbitals and potential weapons stationed in the skies above distant continents.

When China shot down one of its own weather satellites in January 2007, the event was, among other things, a clear demonstration to the United States that China could wage war beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. In the decade since, both China and the United States have continued to pursue space-based armaments and defensive systems. A November 2015 “Report to Congress,” for example, filed by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (PDF), specifically singles out China’s “Counterspace Program” as a subject of needed study. China’s astral arsenal, the report explains, most likely includes “direct-ascent” missiles, directed-energy weapons, and also what are known as “co-orbital antisatellite systems.” [Continue reading…]

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