Quantum of solitude

Our best theory of reality says things only become real when we look at them. Understanding how the universe came to be requires a better explanation

nsc_20160716-800x1052WHERE, when you aren’t looking at it, is a subatomic particle? A quantum physicist would probably answer: sort of all over the place. An unobserved particle is a wisp of reality, a shimmer of existence – there isn’t a good metaphor for it, because it is vague both by definition and by nature. Until you do have a peek. Then it becomes a particle proper, it can be put into words, it is a thing with a place.

That picture seems utterly absurd. Yet many, many experiments exploring the microscopic realm over the best part of a century have reinforced the conclusion that when we’re not paying attention, the world is fuzzy and undecided. Only by looking at things, observing them, measuring them, do we make them recognisably “real”.

Einstein was unimpressed, pointedly asking whether the moon is not there if no one is looking at it. But then Einstein was always raising pesky objections to quantum theory. For many physicists since it has been a case of swallowing any philosophical qualms. The maths works, there’s no real alternative, so get on with it. Shut up and calculate.

Except that, just maybe, there is now an alternative. A new twist on standard quantum theory promises not only to rid reality of its observer problem, but also to answer a host of unresolved issues in cosmology, from the workings of black holes to the nature of dark energy to why time flows in only one direction. “It has the potential of providing a very plausible way out of the problems at stake,” says quantum physicist Angelo Bassi at the University of Trieste in Italy. Is it for real? […]

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Can late-imperialist China give climate lessons?

Published in ERW, 10 Aug 2016

Lessons could be learnt from the way that the Chinese economy responded to climate changes in the 17th to 19th centuries, according to a statistical study by researchers in China and Switzerland.

The team found that when China was ruled by its final imperial dynasty, a general cooling of the climate induced long-term fluctuations in the economy. It also discovered that the population acted primarily as consumers rather than producers, leaving it all the more vulnerable to these economic fluctuations.

“To improve current plans of adaptation or mitigation, we need to know about these past interactions between climate change and human societies,” said Qing Pei of the Education University of Hong Kong. “Economy is usually the pillar of a society. Therefore, lessons on climate change and the economy could be [beneficial in understanding] the future of human beings when facing unprecedented global warming.” […]

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Nitrogen fertilizer risks cellulosic biofuel advantage

Published in ERW, 9 Aug 2016

The application of surplus nitrogen fertilizer to cellulosic biofuels can reduce the climate benefit of the crop nearly two-fold, according to a study by US scientists.

The study, which focused on the biofuel crop switchgrass, has shown that increasing application of nitrogen fertilizer leads to an exponential rise in nitrogen leaching and in the emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Beyond a small level of fertilizer application, however, the benefit to the crop itself was minimal.

“We are not saying ‘Do not fertilize’,” said Philip Robertson of Michigan State University, US. “If the crop is responsive to nitrogen fertilizer, then it makes good sense to fertilize at rates that result in greater crop growth – but no more than that.” […]

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Gold could have come from colliding stars

Published in Horizon, 4 Aug 2016

If you are wearing a gold ring on your finger, it may well have started life in the collision of two neutron stars – small celestial objects that are formed when massive stars collapse.

That is the conclusion of physicist Dr Andreas Bauswein at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and colleagues, who have been studying the ramifications of such colossal events in computer simulations.

‘The formation of heavy elements is a major topic in stellar astrophysics,’ said Dr Bauswein. ‘We want to understand where and how elements like gold and uranium were produced.’ […]

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Boron carbide bests graphite for proton therapy

Published in MPW, 3 Aug 2016

Scientists in Switzerland have found that boron carbide transmits nearly one-third more protons in the right direction than graphite when used as a degrader for proton therapy. The result suggests that boron carbide could reduce treatment times, with particular benefits for those undergoing eye treatments (Phys. Med. Biol. 61 N337).

Proton therapy is similar to conventional radiotherapy in that it is used to destroy tumours, but in principle has a finite range that spares surrounding healthy tissue. A cyclotron can be used to generate the protons, but these protons will always have the same initial energy and, if left unchecked, can pass through the body having little effect at all. For that reason the beamline’s operators must insert a degrader in the path of the protons; in general, the thicker the degrader, the less the protons’ penetration depth in the body. […]

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Inland water carbon dioxide emissions ‘underestimated’

Published in ERW, 2 August 2016

Estimates of CO2 emissions from inland waters could be underestimated, according to scientists who continuously studied the emissions from a US reservoir.

2 than previously thought, suggests that scientists had previously overlooked rises in emissions at night and from extratropical cyclones.

“The current CO2 emission rates from the global inland waters in the literature may be largely underestimated,” said Heping Liu of Washington State University, US. “Multiple year measurements are really needed to look at how much inter-annual variability in the climate or weather changes the emission rates.” […]

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Is savanna in east Australia controlling world carbon uptake?

Published in ERW, 19 Jul 2016

Much of the variability of the global carbon cycle can be attributed to the changing carbon uptake of savanna vegetation in east Australia, according to scientists in Australia and Sweden.

The researchers believe that the country’s disproportionate effect on carbon-cycle variability is due to the amount of moisture available to the semi-arid region – a factor that depends on the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

However, the scientists also found that the extreme carbon uptake seen in Australia in 2011, which contributed significantly to a particularly high global uptake, was less localized to the east. […]

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Wave erosion compounds damage of rising seas

Published in ERW, 18 Jul 2016

The damage of rising sea levels in the Solomon Islands over the past half century has been exacerbated by exposure to strong waves. That’s according to researchers in Australia who performed the first analysis of changing coastlines on reef islands within the Solomon Islands.

“The islands that were studied did not just ‘drown’ as might be anticipated from sea-level rise, but markedly changed their shape, and in many cases their location, indicating the significance of processes such as wave exposure,” said Colin Woodroffe of the University of Wollongong.

The fate of small, remote islands is of particular concern to those studying the effects of climate change, as rising seas can shrink the land that inhabitants have to live on. As the islands get more crowded, coastlines can be eroded further. […]

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Trial subjects aware of geoengineering donate more to climate-change mitigation

Published in ERW, 13 Jul 2016

People spend more money on climate-change mitigation if they have been given impartial information about geoengineering the climate with aerosol particles, scientists in Germany have found.

The team gave 650 people 10 euros to donate to climate-change mitigation projects if they wished; those who had been told that aerosol injection could partly address the climate-change problem donated more. This suggests, contrary to predictions, that giving people information about aerosol injection – a controversial method of geoengineering the climate – does not necessarily affect their commitment to mitigation.

“This is the first indication that people will not easily accept aerosol injection as a quick fix, be drawn into conclusions and reduce their mitigation efforts, which is often suggested,” said Christine Merk of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. “People still prefer mitigation, especially when they are presented with aerosol injection as an alternative way of addressing climate change.” […]

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Brussels to Tokyo in two hours

Published in Horizon, 22 Jun 2016

A typical flight from Brussels to Tokyo takes over 11 hours – but imagine if that time was shaved to just two and a quarter.

That is the sort of possibility offered by hypersonic jets, which travel at many times the speed of sound – and which researchers in Europe are trying to make a reality.

‘Getting in a couple of hours to the other side of the world is quite impressive and nearly unimaginable,’ said aerospace engineer Dr Johan Steelant of the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. ‘I’m still amazed that classical aeroplanes weighing 500 tonnes are able to hang in the air travelling at 800 to 900 kilometres per hour – but just imagine if we could crank this speed up to seven to eight times faster.’ […]

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