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Here’s what happens when 2 proton beams collide at nearly the speed of light

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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the largest machine humans have ever built — specializes in hurling protons at each other at nearly the speed of light. It was powered up on April 5 after two years of upgrades.

The new and improved version of the LHC will be creating energy collisions with stronger than any that have ever been achieved on Earth before. It does this by generating beams of protons— the positively charged particles in an atom — and hurling them around a 17-mile loop to reach nearly the speed of light. 

When protons barrel into each other in head-on collisions, they explode into hot clouds full of exotic subatomic particles:

particle collision

Here's how physicists make these incredible collisions happen:

The first step is to turn hydrogen into protons. Hydrogen is a special element because its atoms only contain two particles: an elecron and a proton. Other elements have atoms with multiples of each and also have neutral particles called neutrons. So it's simpler to isolate protons this way: Just use an electric field to pull electrons off hydrogen atoms, leaving lone protons. 

A beam of isolated protons is then sent speeding clockwise around the giant 17-mile-long tunnel of the LHC, while a second beam of protons is sent counterclockwise.

The LHC has a series of accelerator tubes that rev up the proton beams' speed until they're traveling just a fraction of a second under the speed of light. Supercooled magnets line the tunnel and act like a steering wheel to keep the beams on track.

zooming around lhc

Each proton beam holds 2,000 to 3,000 bunches of protons, and just one bunch is made of about 100 billion protons. Before the beams collide, all those protons are squeezed into a stream that's less than the width of a hair.

"The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) apart with such precision that they meet halfway," CERN writes in its description of the LHC.

When the beams do collide, their combined energy is enough to melt 1,100 pounds of copper.

The LHC will create roughly 600 million collisions per second when it revs up to full power a few months from now. 

The collisions happen at four points along the 17-mile-long ring. A particle detector is waiting at each point to measure all the subatomic particles that erupt from the collisions. Scientists think this second run of the LHC will reveal a whole suite of new particles that could completely change what we know about physics.

Here's an animation of two beams colliding inside the LHC's ATLAS detector:

particle collision two

The tunnels of the LHC that the protons flow through have vacuum-like conditions similar to that of empty outer space. When two beams collide, all that energy packed into such a small vacuum of space explodes and creates mass in the form of subatomic particles (think of Einstein's famous equation: energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared).

The particles that spawn from these collisions only exist for a fraction of a second, but that's enough time for the particle detectors to do their jobs — to measure the position, speed, charge, mass, and energy of all the subatomic particles that are created.

Higgs Boson

The collisions are so high energy that most of the particles that erupt into existence leave a path of light behind them so it's possible to determine their position. Most detectors also have a powerful magnet that causes the particles to travel in a curved path based on their electric charge. Physicists can also calculate the mass and energy of the particles based on this curved path.

Put it all together and particle detectors can recreate what the collisions look like instantly after they happen. Images like the one above of the Higgs boson are actually just computer recreations of the paths that the particles take during their very brief existence.

That's where we get incredible images like this one from some of the first collisions inside the LHC's ALICE particle detector:

particle collisionAnd this one from the LHC's CMS particle detector that shows over 100 subatomic particles that erupted from a proton-proton collision:

particle collisions

And the iconic Higgs boson:

Higgs Boson

The LHC will be operating at almost twice the power that it was when it uncovered the Higgs boson, so it's very possible that this second run will reveal never-before-seen particles. 

SEE ALSO: The world's most powerful particle accelerator just started running again — here's what it may find

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Scientists have just created the best map yet of one of the most mysterious substances in the cosmos

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Astronomers have created the largest map yet of the mysterious, invisible substance called dark matter that makes up nearly a quarter of the universe.

Dark Matter Map

The map is a result from the Dark Energy Survey (DES) study that astronomers hope will reveal more about the role that dark matter plays in the formation of new galaxies.

To create the map to the right, astronomers used one of the world's most powerful digital cameras perched on a mountain top in Chile (far away from any Earth-based interference) and scanned about two million galaxies. Dark matter is invisible but scientists can still "see" it and create maps like this by observing how its gravitational force bends light around galaxies.

This map is the largest contiguous picture of dark matter that we have, but it still only represents about 3% of the sky.

Visible matter, the parts of the cosmos that we can actually see, seems to only make up about 5% of the whole universe. So there's a lot more mass to every galaxy than meets the eye. Some of that extra mass seems to be tied up in dark matter.

You can tell from the map that more galaxies are clustered around areas that have a high concentration of dark matter. This backs up the theory that galaxies tend to form in areas where there is more dark matter, and therefore a stronger gravitational force.

In the map below, which has been adorned with cutouts of the regions spotlighted, you can see that areas with high concentrations of dark matter (the top two red spots) seem to have more galaxies, and the areas where the concentration of dark matter is lower (the bottom blue spot) resembles a cosmic void.

dark matter map with cutoutsWhile these maps only show a small section of the sky, studying the distribution of dark matter will reveal more about another mysterious force in the cosmos: dark energy. Dark energy is the force that astronomers believe is causing the universe to expand at a pace that keeps on accelerating.

DES will also keep an eye on how many galaxies we can see around us. Monitoring how this number changes over time will reveal more about how dark energy is fueling the expansion of the universe.

Researchers are planning on releasing bigger and better maps as they collect more data.

SEE ALSO: Scientists announce the strongest evidence yet that dark matter is lurking in our galaxy — and maybe even our solar system

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The truth about the mysterious center of the universe

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universe, starsBI Answers: Where is the center of the universe?

Type "Where is the center of the universe?" into Google and you'll be surprised to learn that it's actually an art gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

Of course, cosmologists who study the nature of the universe in which we live would disagree, but the real answer to this question has not been certain for very long. In fact, it's changed many times over the centuries.

Our ancient ancestors believed Earth was the center of the universe until the 16th century when mathematician and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus pointed out that the Earth revolved around the sun. That made the sun the new center.

As astronomers continued to explore the night sky, however, they discovered that there is more to the universe than just the sun and planets in our tiny solar system.

Expanding the universe

It was not until the 20th century that humankind began to develop a real sense of just how grand and vast our universe truly is.

Between 1914 and 1919, American astronomer Harlow Shapley mapped distant stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way to discover that Earth — and the rest of the solar system — is not at the center of the galaxy. In fact, we're not even close: the sun is just one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and it rests at an unimportant, obscure corner in one of the galaxy's spiral arms, 10,000 light years from the galactic center.

Below is a look at some of the nearby stars to our solar system as well as where we are in the galaxy:

where we are in galaxyFor a long time, astronomers thought that the Milky Way galaxy was all that existed in the universe. After all, it's about 100,000 light years across— over 50,000 times larger than our solar system.

But soon after Shapley discovered that we were not at the center of our galaxy, American astronomer Edwin Hubble rocked the scientific community even further. Hubble showed that our galaxy isn't even all that special — in fact, numerous other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way that are billions of light years away.

Hubble's monumental discovery expanded the known universe from thousands of light years to billions of light years. Then in 1929, he made another ground-breaking find: not only was the universe incredibly large, but it's also growing larger by the second.

These two monumental findings came with a tiny problem: They made it far more difficult to pinpoint the universe's center.

State of the universe

balloonHow do you find the center of an ever-expanding space? The answer depends on whether the universe is infinite or finite. Astronomers are still divided on this question.

If the universe is infinite, then you can say that each person is at the center of their own observable universe.

Think about it this way: There's an infinite amount of space to your right and left and above and below you. You see all of the stars and galaxies in your observable universe expanding away from you, which makes it appear as if you're at the center of it all. The same is true for the person standing next to you.

But in truth there is no center of the universe in this scenario: There's only the perception of being at the center due to the nature of the infinite space expanding around you.

If the universe is finite, however, then it's harder to imagine where the center might be. Picture a balloon expanding. The material the balloon is made of is finite, just like the space in the universe.

Now imagine that all the stars and galaxies rest on the surface of that expanding balloon. In theory, if you traveled the entire circumference of the universe, you would end up exactly where you started. And, you'd never really cross a central point on your expedition.

In this scenario, there is, again, no real center of the universe.

In the end, after centuries of research, it turns out that Earth is not the center of the universe. Nor is the sun, the solar system, or even the Milky Way galaxy.

As far as we know, there simply is no center of the universe — and that's a conclusion that's taken great, innovative minds to discover and accept.

This post is part of a continuing series that answers all of your questions related to science. Have your own question? Email science@businessinsider.com with the subject line "Q&A"; tweet your question to @BI_Science; or post to our Facebook page.

CHECK OUT: More BI Answers

SEE ALSO: Where do insects go in the winter?

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Here’s why we should be really excited about quantum computers

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dwave quantum computer

Even if the word "quantum" doesn't immediately scare you away, a quantum computer still sounds like a wacky concept grounded in science fiction, not reality.

But recent breakthroughs in the field suggest these crazy fast computers might be coming sooner than we think.

And we have a lot of reasons to be excited about their arrival.

Ray Johnson, a board member at the startup quantum computing company QxBranch, one of many companies working to move quantum computing from the lab into the real world, explained some of those reasons to Business Insider.

The lure of quantum computers is their ability to solve nearly unsolvable problems — problems so complicated they would take today's computers decades to solve. In theory, a quantum computer would be able to solve those problems before you finish your morning coffee.

"Unsolvable" problems

Regular computers that we use every day use "bits" that store information as a 1 or a 0 — and a string of ones and zeroes represents a specific number or letter.

On the flip side, quantum computers take advantage of a really weird phenomenon in physics where tiny particles can exist in multiple places at once. Instead of using bits that only have two "settings," they use something called quantum bits, or "qubits," which have an extra setting — they can exist as a 1, or a 0, or both at the same time.

So a regular computer made of two bits can encode information in only one of four possible combinations: 00, 01, 10, 11. A quantum computer can hold all four of those combinations at once. This lets them handle exponentially more information than regular computers.

Another way to think about the difference between regular and quantum computers is to think about a version of the famous "traveling salesman" problem in mathematics. In the problem, you are a salesman planning a road trip and you want to figure out which route through 10 different cities will be the cheapest (gas-wise) and fastest.

A regular computer would have to calculate the length of all those routes separately and then compare the results to find the winner. A quantum computer could figure out the length of all the routes at the same time because qubits can process lots of information all at once — getting to the answer much faster.

Quantum differences

There are a few hurdles before we start seeing quantum computers everywhere.

Currently, these computers have to be kept in a supercold environment and even the slightest disturbance is enough to make their delicate state collapse. However, in a major breakthrough in March, Google figured out a way to make quantum computers more stable which has some scientists saying we could be halfway to fully-functioning quantum computers. Google, along with NASA and IBM, is hard at work to make this happen.

quantum computing chipAnd when they're finally here, quantum computers have the potential to revolutionize entire industries.

Johnson, who is also former CTO of Lockheed Martin, explained that the computers we have right now are really good at doing things that humans are bad at. For example, humans can't remember 10 million numbers, put them in a spreadsheet, and then quickly perform calculations with those numbers. We leave that to regular computers.

A quantum computer would not be able to do this any faster than a regular computer. There's no better or faster way to add up a set of numbers.

Where quantum computers really have the potential to shine is bridging the gap between what computers do well and what humans do well, Johnson said.

Humans are really good at wading through complex settings and picking things out from those settings — like finding Waldo in the crowd of "Where's Waldo?" Our brains do this naturally and with a lot less effort than a computer could. Quantum computers, however, could be programmed to act more like human brains.

That's because, like humans, quantum computers can learn from experience. For example, if a quantum computer is running a program that keeps messing up on a certain task, a quantum computer could actually tweak the code of that program itself and stop the mistakes from happening in the future.

This concept is called machine learning — it's similar to how your email service can learn which messages to put in your spam folder and which ones to allow through to your inbox, but much more sophisticated.

The machine learning of quantum computers could help us do a lot of things much faster and much more efficiently.

Quantum applications

For example, quantum computers could streamline our aerospace and military and defense systems. With all the satellites we have now, we are constantly collecting tons of images and video. And all that data is far too much for anyone to sort through it all, so a lot of it gets discarded and never looked at, Johnson said. Especially because today's computers aren't great at quickly recognizing and picking things out from huge data sets.

A quantum computer could sort through that giant mountain of data much faster and point humans to which images and videos we should take a closer look at and which ones we can just toss aside.

This same capability of quantum computers could also lead to safer vehicles. Quantum computing could help make a semi-automated car (not quite as exciting as NASA's driverless cars) that could do things like help alert us when a ball rolls into the street and we need to brake.

This is just barely scratching the surface of how quantum computers could change industries.

Johnson thinks we'll see more small breakthroughs in the next couple years, and significant, game-changing breakthroughs in five years.

A quantum computer in every home is still a long way off. But the key to making that happen will be creating an easy-to-use interface that makes it possible for everyone — rather than just computer scientists in a lab — to use a quantum computer. That's what QxBranch will be working on.

Industry and commercial applications for quantum computing, on the other hand, don't seem that far away.

SEE ALSO: Quantum computing is about to be the biggest breakthrough of the century

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7 awesome ways quantum computers will change the world

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quantum computer, qubit

Superfast computers built on the bizarre principles of quantum physics are coming, and when they finally get here, they're going to change everything.

Eric Ladizinsky, cofounder of the quantum computing company D-Wave, gave a great explanation of the difference between a regular computer and a quantum computer during a talk at the WIRED 2014 conference in London.

Imagine you only have five minutes to find an "X" written on a page of a book in the Library of Congress (which has 50 million books). It would be impossible. But if you were in 50 million parallel realities, and in each reality you could look through the pages of a different book, in one of those realities you would find the "X."

In this scenario a regular computer is you running around like a crazy person trying to look through as many books as possible in five minutes. A quantum computer is you split into 50 million yous, casually flipping through one book in each reality.

If this still sounds like magic or witchcraft, you're not alone. Physicist Richard Feynman once famously said: "If you think you understand quantum physics, you don't understand quantum physics."

The bottom line is that regular computers have to solve one problem at a time in sequence, but quantum computers can solve multiple problems at the same time. That kind of speed as the potential to revolutionize entire industries.

And it's not just their speed. Quantum computers can solve the kind of complex problems that regular computers are really bad at solving. They're more human-like in their problem solving approach, and that will make them better able to complement human tasks.

We definitely still have more tech issues to work out before we have fully-functioning quantum computers, but here are some of the most exciting future applications of quantum computing:

1. Really accurate weather forecasting

Even with cutting edge instruments that analyze temperature and pressure, there's too many possible ways a given weather pattern can manifest itself, and current weather forecasting is an educated guess at best, Ray Johnson, a board member at the startup quantum computing company QxBranch, told Business Insider.

Quantum computing could analyze all that data at once and give us a better idea of when and where bad weather will strike. We'd have advanced notice of major storms like hurricanes and the extra prep time could help save lives.

hurricanes perfect storms satelliteDirector of engineering at Google, Hartmut Neven, also noted wrote that quantum computers could help build better climate models that could give us more insight into how humans are influencing the environment. These models are what we build our estimates of future warming on, and help us determine what steps need to be taken now to prevent disasters. Knowing more about how our climate scenario will play out can only help us in the long run.

2. More efficient drug discovery

dna moleculeDeveloping a new drug is a complicated process.

Chemists have to test tons of different molecular combinations to find one that actually has properties that are effective against a disease. This process can take years and cost millions of dollars. Chemists bring tons of these combinations to later-stage trials and many of them still end up failing.

A quantum computer would be able to map out trillions of molecular combinations and quickly identify the ones that would most likely work, significantly cutting down the cost and the time of drug development.

Quantum computing could also sequence and analyze a person's genes much faster than the methods we have now, and that could also help make personalized drugs and healthcare more available to the masses.

Right now, many drugs don't make it to market because, for example, a small subset of people react particularly badly to it. So we usually kill that drug even though it might be helpful for some people. With personalized gene analysis and better drug knowledge we could predict these bad interactions.

3. No more traffic nightmares

gridlock new york traffic jam bus carsQuantum computing could streamline both air traffic and ground-based traffic control because they're so good at quickly calculating the optimal route.

If you're planning a road trip with 10 different stops, a regular computer would have to individually calculate the length of all the possible routes you could take and then figure out the best one. A quantum computer could calculate the length of all the routes at the same time and arrive at the optimal route much faster — these are the exact kinds of calculations needed for directing airplanes or analyzing traffic.

Sophisticated analysis of air traffic patterns using a quantum computer would mean more efficient flight scheduling and would cut down on travel time since we could better avoid bottle-necking in airport take offs and landings.

The same technique could be applied to highways and complicated city grids to avoid congestion.

4. Beefing up military and defense

Satellites are constantly collecting tons of images and video. There's far more data than anyone could ever search through, so a lot of it just gets tossed aside, Johnson said. We might miss crucial intelligence in some of that discarded data.

A quantum computer would sort through that mountain of data much faster than a regular computer or a human could, and it could point us to which images and videos we should take a closer look at and which ones we can just ignore and throw out.

Regular computers aren't very good at this "Where's Waldo?" kind of recognition, but, like humans, quantum computers are really good at picking out specific details from a messy background.

5. Secure, encrypted communication

We use encryption all the time whether we realize it or not. We rely on it when we sign into an email account or use our credit card to buy something online.

It's possible to make encryption even more secure by using the same weird quantum mechanics property that makes a quantum computer work.

This ultra-secure communication is called quantum key distribution and it allows someone to send a message to someone else that only they can read by using a key to decipher it. If a third party intercepts the key then, thanks to the weird magic of quantum mechanics, it becomes useless and no one can read the message. A preliminary version of this kind of communication technology is used by a few places in Europe, but it's still largely unavailable in the US.

edward snowdenBut while the same principle of quantum computing could make communication more secure, quantum computers could make it much much easier to break the encrypted messages that we have now. Some of Edward Snowden's leaked documents from the NSA describe the agency's plan to develop quantum computers to do just that.

If a hacker (or nosy government) ever got their hands on a working quantum computer, more old-school encrypted data from places like banks and governments could be in serious danger.

6. Accelerating space exploration

Astronomers have discovered nearly 2,000 confirmed planets outside our solar system using the Kepler space telescope.

The Kepler search involves peering at these distant so-called exoplanets and waiting for them to pass in front of their host star. When that happens, the exoplanets cast a shadow that astronomers can then analyze and make predictions about whether their atmosphere is suitable for life or not.

exoplanetsA quantum computer could tackle more data in any given telescope view, spot more exoplanets, and help quickly identify which ones have the most potential to harbor life. It could even uncover exoplanets that Kepler missed during its first run through older images.

7. Machine learning and automation

It sounds super creepy, but like humans, quantum computers can learn from experience. They can self correct. For example, a quantum computer could actually modify the code of a program that keeps messing up.

This concept is called machine learning — it's similar to how your Facebook news feed changes based on which posts you "like," but much more sophisticated.

The machine learning of quantum computers could help us do a lot of things much faster and much more efficiently, and continued improvement of the function of quantum computers by quantum computers could lead to things like semi-automatic vehicles and other advanced forms of artificial intelligence.

All of these applications are exciting, but we've got a ways to go before they're available. Still, some of the major players working on quantum computers include Google and NASA, and when big companies like these get involved with new cutting edge technology like this, we usually don't have to wait that long for big breakthroughs.

Johnson thinks we are on the cusp of big discoveries that will open up these applications, but they're really just the beginning.

"I think it's going to have many many applications that we can't even think of today," Johnson said.

SEE ALSO: Google just hit a milestone in the development of quantum computers

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The world's brightest scientific minds posed for this 1927 photo after historic debates about quantum mechanics

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Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein

"Einstein, stop telling God what to do," physicist Niels Bohr once told Albert Einstein, who in a room full of the world's most notable scientific minds argued "God does not play dice." 

In 1927, Einstein and Bohr were two of the 29 scientists (more than half of whom were, or would later become Nobel Prize recipients) in attendance at the Fifth Solvay Institut International de Physique in Brussels to discuss the foundations of the newly formed quantum theory. 

During the conference, Einstein lead a series of 'thought experiments' in which he tried to prove that the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (and hence quantum mechanics itself) was just plain wrong," according to Jonathan Dowling, Co-Director of the Horace Hearne Institute for Theoretical Physics.

"Each sleepless night, Bohr would worry and fume and ruminate about Einstein's attack, and then he would respond the next day with a keen rebuttal, showing where Einstein has missed something, and salvage Heisenberg's  principle. This debate went on for days at that Solvay conference and continued on 3 years later at the next conference," Dowling writes in his book, Schrödinger's Killer App: Race to Build the World's First Quantum Computer.

Bohr's counterattack involved using Einstein's own theory of relativity against him  — and it reportedly won the argument. Eight years later, Einstein still struggled to prove that the theory was incorrect, instead describing it as "incomplete."

Here's the full group of brilliant minds:

Solvay conference

Front row: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, C.T.R Wilson, Owen Richardson.

Middle row: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr.

Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, JE Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Brillouin.

Curie, the only woman in attendance, was also the only one among them to win a Nobel Prize in two separate disciplines: chemistry and physics.

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The US built a secret replica of Iran's nuclear facilities deep in Tennessee's forest to help gain an edge in negotiations

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Oak Ridge lab

The US government built "a secret replica of Iran’s nuclear facilities"deep in the forests of Tennessee to gain an edge in its negotiations with Iran, reports The New York Times.

This "Manhattan Project in reverse" is situated on the grounds of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It uses placeholder centrifuges meant to represent Iranian equipment — an assembly that including centrifuges once belonging to Libya's disbanded nuclear program.

Scientists there are dedicating themselves to figuring out technical formulas that could stop Iran from developing a weapon.

It's possible that the Times article is based on administration-authorized leaks of classified information — Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, is quoted in the article, as are a range of named and anonymous scientists from US government laboratories.

But it's thin on the details of how the replica facilities were used to reach the one-year breakout determination. 

Scientists apparently proposed redesigns, centrifuge cascade configurations, limits on types of centrifuges, and other fixes that they believed would keep Iranian breakout at under a year. Eventually, they reached an equation that the Iranians could accept.

The Obama administration has premised its arguments for a nuclear deal with Iran on the claim that for a period of 10 years, limits imposed on the Islamic Republic would make it nearly impossible for the country to build a single nuclear weapon in less than a year without the international community learning about it and formulating a response.

AP650786621162

The Times doesn't go into much detail as to what those fixes actually consist of, but reports that government scientists reached a high level of confidence that their formula could keep Iran at a one-year breakout.

For instance: "The question was whether a proposed design of Natanz [Iran's only uranium enrichment facility for the first 15 years of an envisioned nuclear deal] that allowed more than 6,000 centrifuges to spin would still accomplish the administration’s goal of keeping Iran at least a year away from acquiring enough enriched uranium to make a bomb," the Times article states. "The answer was yes."

Some outside experts aren't so sure.

In a report issued on April 11th and authored by a group of scientists that included physicist and former International Atomic Energy Agency expert David Albright, the Institute for Science and International Security noticed a curious aspect to the administration's breakout estimates: they didn't seem to take into account Iran's supply of 20% enriched uranium, fissile material has undergone around 90% of the revolutions needed to reach weapons-grade.

Iran oxidized half of its 20% stock (and down-blended the other half to a lower level of enrichment) under the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action signed between Iran and a group of 6 countries led by the US.

As the ISIS report explains, in leaving the oxidized 20% stocks out of its breakout estimate, the administration seems to believe that reconverting that 20% to a state where it can be further enriched and weaponized would be such a time-consuming, intensive, and obvious process that Iran's 20% stocks simple don't need to be factored into weaponization scenarios.

The ISIS report is skeptical. It says Iran could render its 20% stocks usable in just a few months and that it's hugely relevant to any breakout scenario.

"The near 20 percent LEU stock, unless largely eliminated or rendered unusable in a breakout, could be an important reserve in reducing the time to produce the first significant quantity of weapon-grade uranium (WGU) and rapidly producing a second significant quantity of WGU," the report states.

kerry zarif

According the series of fact sheets released after the Lausanne, Switzerland nuclear talks concluded, Iran would be allowed to keep a stockpile of 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67% under a final deal. Even a small amount of uranium at 20% enrichment would far surpass this stockpile in weaponization potential: "a rule of thumb is that 50 kilograms of near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride (or about 33 kilograms uranium mass) is equivalent in terms of shortening breakout time to 500 kilograms of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride," the report says. 

And Iran has plenty of convertible 20% on hand — around 228 kilograms of uranium mass of near-20%, which would come out to 337 kilograms of near-20% if it were "converted back to hexaflouride form."

Much of the 20% is "in forms where the LEU could be recovered in a straightforward manner." But the report found no proof that the 20% had been included in the administration's breakout estimate, and concluded that "the US evaluation requires greater scrutiny."

That isn't the only ambiguity surrounding the administration's breakout claims.

As Bloomberg reported on April 21, the administration only declassified its actual breakout estimate — which states that Iran is currently between 2 and 3 months away from building a single nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so — on April 1st, the day before the series of announcements that marked the conclusion of the Lausanne, Switzerland round of nuclear negotiations. Ali Khadery, a former advisor to US Central Command and the US official who spent the longest time in Iraq during the American military campaign in that country, suggested on Twitter that an approximate 2-3 month breakout estimate dated from as early as 2009.

The New York Times article gives an idea of the scientific infrastructure the US is using to evaluate its breakout claims. It's now know that there are scientists using a mock-up of Iranian nuclear facilities to produce conditions for reaching a one-year breakout time.

The methods they're actually using for reaching those conclusions, and the relationship between the administration's public breakout claims and Iran's actual timetable under a final deal,  both remain as vague as ever.

SEE ALSO: The congressional fight over an Iran deal isn't over yet

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Scientists just created the most accurate atomic clock ever

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atomic clock

An atomic clock that sets the time by the teensy oscillations of strontium atoms has gotten so precise and stable that it will neither gain nor lose a second for the next 15 billion years.

The strontium clock, which is about three times as precise as the previous record holder, now has the power to reveal tiny shifts in time predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity, which states that time ticks faster at different elevations on Earth.

That precision could help scientists create ultradetailed maps of the shape of the Earth.

"Our performance means that we can measure the gravitational shift when you raise the clock just 2 centimeters [0.79 inches] on the Earth's surface," study co-author Jun Ye, a physicist at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a statement.

The team also improved how closely the ticks matched one another, a metric called its stability, by almost 50 percent. 

Insane precision

Atomic clocks typically work by measuring the vibrational frequency of atoms, such as strontium or cesium, as the atoms jump between different energy levels.

Every atom naturally oscillates at very high frequencies billions or trillions of times per second. Counting these regular beats provides a highly precise measure of time. Currently, a cesium clock at NIST defines the second, where 1 second is 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the cesium atom.

In the new clock, thousands of strontium atoms at extremely cold temperatures are essentially pinned into a narrow column by intense laser light. To measure time, the clock hits those atoms with just the right frequency of red laser light to make the atoms jump energy levels. The previous version of the clock used a similar technique.

nist atomic clock

On this occasion, however, the researchers improved the design by eliminating measurement errors related to an external source of electromagnetic radiation known as blackbody radiation, which is given off by opaque objects held at constant temperatures.

The team placed radiation shields around the device, as well as platinum thermometers inside the clock's vacuum tube, to better account for the extra heat. The researchers also improved their calculations of how much radiation would be generated.

The new clock can also be operated at room temperature, as opposed to the cryogenic temperatures used in past versions.

"This is actually one of the strongest points of our approach, in that we can operate the clock in a simple and normal configuration while keeping the blackbody radiation shift uncertainty at a minimum." Ye said. (Blackbody radiation can affect the atom's energy level, which then affects the tick rate.)

The new record holder won't lose a second over the current age of the universe. But strontium atoms beat at 430 trillion times per second, so theoretically, at least, there's room for more improvement.

Relativistic measurements

The new clock is so precise that it can detect relativity in action at incredibly small scales. In a concept known as gravitational time dilation, time passes more quickly in weaker gravitational fields, so the higher the altitude on Earth, the lower the gravity is there — and the faster time is passing. The current clock is so sensitive that it could detect these effects with elevation changes as little as that caused by putting a small book under the clock.

If the clock can improve further, that would enable more detailed measurements of the Earth's shape. Currently, instruments like tidal gauges and gravimeters perform this task.

The findings were published April 21 in the journal Nature Communications.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter and Google+.Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook& Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Here’s the physics behind why the Apple Watch's pricier sapphire glass displays are actually harder to read outside

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The Apple Watch's full-color touchscreen display might look flawless indoors, but it has one big problem:

The screen display looks kind of terrible outside.

The problem is the glare. When you're standing out in the sunlight or under really powerful ambient light, the screen can looked washed out and is really hard to read.

And people aren't too happy about it:

The glare problem comes from one of the product's biggest selling points: its sapphire scratch-proof screen. The sapphire material reflects a lot of light and creates a pretty bad glare in bright environments:

In fact, the sapphire glass in the Apple Watch (which will cost you $549 - $1,099) and Apple Watch Edition (which will cost you $10,000 to $17,000) reflects twice as much ambient light as the less scratch-resistant glass, used on the Apple Watch Sport ($349 to $399) according to an analysis by DisplayMate.

The Apple Watch Sport uses Ion-X glass for its screen instead of sapphire like the more expensive models. The sapphire glass has a glare-heavy 8.2% reflectance, according to DisplayMate. Just like an iPhone 6 screen, the Sport model only has about a 4.6% reflectance — much closer to regular window glass.

Here's a quick explanation for why sapphire produces such a bad glare:

Every material has a property called "refractive index" that has to do with how much light travels through it, and how much gets reflected off it, according to Charles Black, a physicist who works at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials.

Air has a refractive index of about 1 (the lowest number possible), regular glass is 1.5, and sapphire is 1.77. (There's no official upper bound for refractive index, but a lot of common materials are somewhere between 1 and 2). When light travels from something with a low refractive index to a high refractive index, you get a nasty glare — so it's the difference in index that matters. But most things we look at are either moving from air into a material, so we compare to a refractive index of 1. The bigger the difference in refractive index, the worse the glare off the surface of the material is.

So since sapphire's refractive index is so much higher than air's, a lot of the light that passes through the air and hits the watch can't pass through the screen. Instead, it reflects off the screen into your eyes, creating glare.

apple watch glare

The seemingly-obvious fix here would be applying an anti-reflective coating to the watch screen. Anti-reflective coating has a lower refractive index than the material it is put on, so it reduces how much light is reflected.

An anti-glare coating on the watch would pretty much defeat the purpose of using scratch-resistant sapphire, Black said. The coating would scratch, come off, and look bad.

So, could you put the coating inside the sapphire? That wouldn't help the glare, Black said, since the glare comes from light that doesn't make it into the glass.

To reduce glare, "you need to put the anti-glare coating on the surface you are trying to prevent light from bouncing off of," Black said. "The reflections that bother us are coming from light is shining down on the watch and bouncing off the front surface, so that's the one you need to coat."

Black says the only possible fix would be changing the physical structure of sapphire to make it more antireflective. The big problem with that is the glass's structure is what makes it scratch resistant, so changing the strucutre could have unintended consequences on the material's hardness.

"Structuring the material in a new way may also make it easier to scratch," Black said.

So for now it seems like if you spend a lot of time outdoors, the Apple Watch Sport might be the better investment. Even if that model is easier to scratch.

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IBM just brought us a step closer to quantum computers

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IBM quantum computing

One of the biggest things holding us back from developing superfast quantum computers is that they're incredibly fragile. The slightest disturbance can cause an error.

Now scientists at IBM have figured out a way to detect both types of errors quantum computers can make, and they've created a new prototype design that they say can be easily scaled up to make bigger computers, according to research published April 29 in Nature Communications.

This step forward is a big deal because quantum computing technology has the potential to revolutionize industries.

The big advantage of quantum computers is that they can handle way more information than regular computers and handle it faster. Someday quantum computers could solve a problem in a few minutes that would take a regular computer years solve.

Regular computers are so much slower because the bits they use can only represent information as a 0 or a 1. Quantum computers use qubits that can represent information as a 0, 1, or both at the same time — which is written as 0+1. The problem with qubits though is they sometimes flip without warning. They can suddenly flip from 0 to a 1 (that's called a bit flip), or they can flip from 0+1 to 0-1 (that's called a phase flip). The flipping creates all kinds of errors in a quantum computer.

In their latest study, IBM claims they have figured out a way to detect both types of flips. The company built a four-qubit lattice where two of the qubits act like sentries and monitor the other two qubits for errors. The lattice sits on top of a silicon chip that's about one-quarter of an inch wide:

qubit prototype, quantum computer, IBMGoogle worked out a way to detect bit flips earlier this year with a line of nine linked qubits. But IBM's square-shaped prototype can look for both types of errors at the same time, Jerry Chow, Manager of Experimental Quantum Computing at IBM, told Business Insider.

Detecting both types of flips is critical if we ever want working, error-free quantum computers.

IBM's new design is also scalable. The only problem is working out how to manufacture silicon chips full of qubits on a mass scale, Chow said. That's going to require a lot more material science study.

Once we figure that out though, IBM scientists say there shouldn't be a problem using the same kind of error spotting technique in larger lattices.

This kind of tech has the potential to change entire industries in the future, but for now we should focus on figuring out what we can do with small quantum computers, Chow said.

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Here’s why some physicists think we could be living in a hologram universe

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nebulae

Ready your brain. The universe might be two-dimensional, except we perceive it as three-dimensional, according to the Physical Review Letters.

In this thought experiment, the flat surface of the universe contains all the information we need to sense three dimensions—much like a hologram.

This amazing idea is known as the ‘holographic principle’ and arises from string theory. String theory says that the gravity in the universe is made up of thin, vibrating strings called gravitons.

These strings make up the holograms of events that happen in 3D space within a flat cosmos. They contain the information that a 3D object would have, for example its volume. So if you want to know what's happening inside a ball, you can find out everything you need to know just by looking at the surface.

This mind-twisting notion arose back in 1997 when physicist Juan Maldacena"proposed the idea that there is a correspondence between gravitational theories in curved anti-de-sitter spaces on the one hand and quantum field theories in spaces with one fewer dimension on the other,"saysDaniel Grumiller from the Technology University of Vienna.

An anti-de-Sitter space is a universe where the fabric of space-time has negative curvature, which is often described as being shaped like a horse's saddle. The holographic principle holds in this negative anti-de-Sitter space; it can be described in two dimensions but can be visualized in three. In negative space, you could potentially throw an object in front of you and it will eventually land behind you due to the negative curvature of space-time.

curved space time

However, anti-de-Sitter space has no relation to our universe: The universe we live in is flatand shows some positive curvature properties at astronomical distances. More recently, the holographic principle has been tested mathematically in our own space-time, and so far the numbers seem to match up to reality.

The theory tested was ‘quantum entanglement.’ If two particles are entangled, it means that their properties depend on one another in a certain way and therefore can only be described as a unit. One depends on the other and they cannot be described individually. Even if you physically separate the two particles and fling them to opposite ends of the universe, they still remain entangled and their properties remain dependent on each other (for example their spin).

The physical quantity for the amount that two particles are entangled is called the ‘entropy of entanglement’ and this value was the same in both spaces. This result is significant: In order for an up-and-coming theory to gain traction and validity, it has to hold out when the physical constants and properties of the universe are tested.

Of course, this is currently only a thought experiment on paper. More calculations and tests need to be done to make grand conclusions about the universe being a hologram, but this initial correlation is very exciting and opens up a new realm of thought and imagination.

Whether you decide to embrace the idea that the universe has one less dimension than instinct tells us or not, it certainly draws attention to the importance of blue skies research. This astounding theory was originally only a thought experiment applied to a hypothetical universe. Now, it is possibly changing the way we perceive our own world.

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A NASA balloon recorded creepy ‘X-files’ sounds coming from the edge of space

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NASA high altitude balloon

Eerie sounds from the edge of space were recorded for the first time in 50 years aboard a NASA student balloon experiment.

Infrasound microphones captured the mysterious hisses and whistles 22 miles (36 kilometers) above the Earth's surface last year. Daniel Bowman, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, designed and built the equipment.

The instruments eavesdropped on atmospheric infrasound, or sound waves at frequencies below 20 hertz. Infrasound is below human hearing range, but speeding up the recordings makes them audible.

"It sounds kind of like 'The X-Files,'" Bowman told Live Science. 

The infrasound sensors were dangling from a helium balloon that flew above New Mexico and Arizona on Aug. 9, 2014. The experiment was one of 10 payloads flown last year on the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP).

The high-altitude balloon flight is an annual project conducted by NASA and the Louisiana Space Consortium that is meant to spark student interest in space research. Since 2006, HASP has launched more than 70 experiments designed by college students across the United States.

During the 9-hour flight, the balloon and its payloads floated some 450 miles (725 km) and reached a height of more than 123,000 feet (37,500 meters). This is a region of near space — above where airplanes fly, but below the boundary marking the top of the stratosphere, 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth's surface.

No infrasound experiment has ever reached such high altitudes, Bowman said. (Interest in atmospheric infrasound peaked in the 1960s as a way to detect nuclear explosions, but then died off as scientists switched to ground-based sensors.)

As the HASP balloon drifted over New Mexico, the infrasound sensors picked up a knotty mix of signals that the scientists are working to interpret, Bowman reported April 23 at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Pasadena, California. The researchers had never "heard" many of the stratospheric signals.

Here are some of their guesses so far: There were signals from a wind farm under the balloon's flight path, crashing ocean waves, wind turbulence, gravity waves, clear air turbulence, and vibrations caused by the balloon cable.

The scientists have another payload planned for the 2015 HASP balloon launch, which could help reveal more about strange infrasound sources.

"I was surprised by the sheer complexity of the signal," Bowman said. "I expected to see a few little stripes."

spectogram

Bowman, who has been building and launching his own high-altitude balloons since high school, hopes that his experiment will revive interest in atmospheric infrasound. "There haven't been acoustic recordings in the stratosphere for 50 years. Surely, if we place instruments up there, we will find things we haven't seen before," he said.

Infrasound carries for long distances. (Think of how the deep rumble of faraway thunder travels farther than a high-pitched lightning crack.) Storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, avalanches and meteors all produce infrasonic sound waves. There's even potential for monitoring clear air turbulence or wake vortices from jets, Bowman said. With his faculty adviser, Jonathan Lees, Bowman hopes to record infrasound above an erupting volcano.

Scientists have even proposed sending infrasound sensors to Mars and Venus, where the microphones could detect unusual weather or earthquakes.

Some natural infrasound signals may be clearest in the atmosphere, noted Omar Marcillo, a geophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who was not involved in the study. The atmosphere refracts some sound waves away from the ground, so some infrasound signals may never reach the ground. In the sky, there is also less interference from human noise.

"I think this work has opened new ground for more research," Marcillo said. "It's very important for the entire [infrasound] community."

Follow Becky Oskin @beckyoskin. Follow Live Science @livescienceFacebook & Google+Originally published on Live Science.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Watch lightning get trapped in this tiny glass box forever

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Up to 24,000 people around the world die every year from lightning-related incidents, so you might think this natural phenomenon is something to be feared and avoided. That's not always the case, however. For example, check this out:

lightningThis is an example of what is called a Lichtenberg figure, which occurs when an electrical charge — like a bolt of lightning — strikes a type of material and gets trapped.

The material can be made of any type of insulating substance — like glass, acrylic, or even human flesh. By nature, insulators are poor conductors of electricity, so how do you get them to host such a powerful electric charge like lightning? The simple yet counterintuitive answer is that you transform them from a poor conductor into a good one.

To understand how this works, think about how a lightning bolt forms in the sky:

You need two oppositely charged ends, like a negatively charged cloud and the positively charged ground. When the charges grow strong enough they generate a powerful discharge in a brilliant display of white, heated gas. 

In the example above, someone has placed an insulating material (most likely glass or acrylic) under a device called a cathode ray tube, which produces a powerful beam of negatively charged electrons traveling at 99% the speed of light.

In order to get the electrons to discharge inside of the glass or acrylic, you must first insert charged particles into the material through a process called irradiation.

Then, that sets up the same conditions that lead to a lightning strike: When the electrons from the cathode ray meet the charged portions of the insulating material, those portions instantly become electrically conductive and you get a miniature, but powerful, lightning strike. 

Check out the full video on YouTube below:

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Here's why we can't travel faster than the speed of light yet

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star trek enterprise warp drive

Long before the Empire struck back, before the United Federation of Planets federated, Isaac Asimov created Foundation, the epic tale of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire. Asimov’s Empire comprised 25 million planets, knit together by sleek spaceships hurtling through the galaxy.

And how did these spaceships cross the vast gulf between the stars? By jumping through hyperspace, of course, as Asimov himself explains in Foundation:

Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light… and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.

What the heck is Asimov talking about? Did he know something about a secret theory of faster-than-light travel? Hardly. Asimov was participating in a grand science fiction tradition: when confronted with an immovable obstacle to your story, make something up.

You can’t beat the speed of light

The problem is that as far as we know, faster-than-light travel is impossible, making galactic empires, federations, confederacies and any other cross-galaxy civilizations impossible. But that’s so inconvenient. To evade the cosmic speed limit science fiction has created “warp-drives,” “hyperspace,” “subspace,” and other tricks that have become so ingrained, fans of science fiction don’t give them a second thought.

Everyone knows what the Enterprise is doing when it does this:

Or when the Millennium Falcon does this:

Or when the Jupiter 2… actually the Robinson family tried to get to Alpha Centauri without any special effects.

No wonder they got lost in space.

Light sets the cosmic speed limit

Why can’t we really exceed the speed of light? After all, people used to talk about a “sound barrier” up until the barrier was broken. But the speed of light is a much tougher barrier to crack. When scientists developed the theory of light back in the 19th century, it came with a special puzzle: their theory seemed to show that every observer should measure the same speed for light, about 186,000 miles per second. But that means if you try to chase a beam of light, no matter how fast you move, the light beam will still fly away from you at 186,000 miles per second. And what’s even more bizarre is that if you are moving at 99% of the speed of light, and your friend is standing still, both of you will see the light moving away at exactly the same speed.

Many scientists back then didn’t really believe this odd prediction, and the American physicist Albert Michelson (along with his collaborator Edward Morley) set out to measure how the speed of light would change due to the motion of the earth through space. But their famous Michelson-Morley experiment found no change at all. The speed of light seemed to be the same regardless of whether they measured it in the same direction the earth was moving, or in some other direction – a rare example of a non-discovery that turned out to be more important than a discovery!

Enter Einstein and relativity

Instead of trying to explain away this bizarreness, Albert Einstein embraced it. He built an entire theory, called special relativity, around the idea that the speed of light is the same for everyone who measures it, no matter how fast they are moving in relation to the light. In order to accommodate this behavior for light, Einstein’s theory predicted that time and space would have to stretch or contract as someone traveled with increasing speed. And out of special relativity popped a cosmic speed limit: nothing could ever exceed the speed of light.

Relativity is a cornerstone of all of modern physics, and we have no reason to doubt it – no one has ever observed an object moving faster than light. There’s actually a minor clarification necessary here: Einstein’s speed limit is the speed of light in a vacuum. Light slows down when it moves through a material like water or glass, and then it’s perfectly possible to exceed this reduced speed of light – up to its speed in a vacuum, of course. Anything moving faster than light in water or glass produces the luminous equivalent of a sonic boom, called ?erenkov radiation. It’s what gives underwater nuclear reactors their attractive blue glow.

But about that warp drive…

Of all of the attempts to wiggle out of Einstein’s speed limit, probably the most plausible is theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre’s “warp drive”. Alcubierre’s proposal doesn’t violate the cosmic speed limit – it goes around it. Try filling a greasy frying pan with water and then put a drop of soap into the pan. The grease will fly away to the sides of the pan.

warp drive science

Alcubierre’s warp drive does the same thing with space itself. Alcubierre showed that by a suitable distribution of matter, you can shrink space in front of your spaceship and stretch it behind the spaceship, creating a small bubble around the ship that moves as fast as you like. Because space is contracting in front of the ship, the ship wouldn’t officially be moving faster than the speed of light. In fact, the ship would actually be at rest relative to the warp bubble, and the people inside the ship wouldn’t even feel any acceleration. Talk about a smooth ride!

There’s just one tiny problem…. Alcubierre’s space warp can only be generated by violating something called the “weak energy condition.” Scientists can’t prove that the weak energy condition is always true, but any violation would produce a lot of strange things, like negative energy densities, and possible wormholes or time machines. Cool – sign me up for that! But we’ve never seen any actual violations of the weak energy condition. So the Alcubierre warp drive occupies a kind of physics twilight zone – not absolutely ruled out, but not very plausible, either.

So how will humanity ever reach the stars? The door marked “faster-than-light travel” has been slammed in our face and welded shut. We’ll have to sneak in some other way. Get to work!

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Scientists just discovered a new state of matter that could revolutionize how we use energy

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plasma

You're familiar with the three most-common states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. But there are at least 15 other states, and a team of scientists recently reported a new phase that could be a game changer for the way we use and produce energy.

Most of the time, we can easily distinguish between a solid, liquid, and gas simply by using our eyes. But material scientists who study these three states as well as the more bizarre examples — like plasmas, colloids, and Bose-Einstein condensates— take a deeper look at the properties of each phase, such as density, chemical composition, and conductivity.

When an international team of physicists, chemists, and material scientists tested the phase properties of a new type of material that they had created in the lab, they discovered something they had never seen before: A substance that exhibited the properties of an insulator, superconductor, metal, and magnet all in one. They published their results in the journal Science Advances on April 17.

They did it by taking a crystalline arrangement of carbon-60 molecules — or buckyballs — and inserting, or doping, the substance with atoms of rubidium, a type of alkali metal. The scientists could then control the distance and pressure between the buckyballs by manipulating the rubidium atoms to tune the substance's phases — sort of like how you can change a solid into a liquid by dislodging the atoms from their rigid structure.

While they were tweaking the pressure between the buckyballs, the team came across a phase shift that transformed the material from an insulator into a conductor — a process called the Jahn-Teller effect that was first predicted in 1937. Appropriately, the team is calling this novel material a Jahn-Teller metal.

Power LinesTheir work will need to be reproduced by other teams in other labs across the globe to confirm their discovery. But if it's supported by subsequent studies, their finding could revolutionize the way we use and produce energy.

A game changer

That's because these Jahn-Teller metals could usher in a new type of superconductor that scientists and engineers have been chasing after for decades.

A superconductor is like a conductor in that it efficiently transports an electric charge. But conducting materials, like copper and aluminum, have some resistance to the flow of electrons. This resistance costs energy, which in-turn hinders efficiency and costs money.

For example, in the process of transmitting electricity from the power plant to your home, approximately 6% of electricity is lost due to resistance.

superconductorWhat makes superconductors so super is that they have absolutely zero resistance to the flow of electrons, which could, in theory, create incredibly efficient electrical devices.

But there's a major catch: Dozens of materials exist that have superconducting ability, but you have to chill them down to excruciatingly cold temperatures — below -162 degrees Fahrenheit — to tease it out.

Why these materials only adopt superconductivity capabilities at such low-temperatures is a complete mystery. One thing, however, is certain: The amount of energy it takes to chill them costs more than the energy we're currently losing over less-efficient conductors, making them completely impractical for industrial use at the moment.

That's where Jahn-Teller metals could play an important role. The team's discovery is the first time anyone has ever witnessed the Jahn-Teller effect — the change from an insulator to a conductor — in action. By studying how this process works, scientists can better understand the effect and apply it to possibly produce higher-temperature superconductors that don't need to be chilled to such low temperatures.

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A physicist's brush with death led to an unexpected discovery about lightning

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lightning

A team of high-flying scientists think they have discovered that pockets of antimatter exist within lightning storms.

Like most heavily dramatized scientific discoveries, there was a violent storm outside, and Joseph Dwyer's airplane was heading towards what he thought were radio signals coming from the coast of Georgia.

"Instead, it was a line of thunderstorms—and we were flying right through it," Dwyer, an atmospheric physicist from the University of New Hampshire (UNH), says. The plane was tossed around by the storm and then suddenly plunged downwards. "I really thought I was going to die."

In 2009, the flight had set out to search for gamma rays—extremely high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. During the tempest, the detector picked up three gamma radiation peaks that had an energy of 511 kiloelectronvolts. This is the signature energy of a positron and an electron annihilating to produce pure energy in the form of gamma rays.

Somehow, Dwyer's plane had detected signals that come from positrons: the antimatter versions of the electron. The positron has the same mass as the electron, but it has the opposite electric charge. It would seem, then, that the airplane had flown through a small cloud of antimatter.

"This was so strange that we sat on this observation for several years," Dwyer told Nature. The findings were finally presented at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in 2014.

Antimatter is very rare; it is destroyed when it comes into contact with ordinary matter, so it is not often that we detect it on Earth. Astronomers see it aplenty: belched out of black holes and spewed from space in cosmic rays. So it is understandable why the discovery that antimatter exists within comparatively mundane lighting storms on Earth seemed so peculiar to the scientists.

LightningIt is not completely understood what the mechanism responsible for these antiparticles is. One explanation is that electrons are spat out of the storm cloud at close to the speed of light. This high-energy electron can spit out two gamma rays in order to lose some energy.

If these subsequent gamma rays hit an atomic nucleus, they turn from two energy waves into one matter and one antimatter particle—an electron and a positron. This process is quite long-winded and requires a lot of energy. 

Chile lightning volcano dormant near Argentina evacuation

There were a few gamma rays detected with enough energy to create positrons and electrons, but not enough for this theory to be compelling.

Another possibility is that the positrons fall to Earth carried by cosmic rays. The drizzle of positrons collide with the Earth's atmosphere and release high-energy gamma rays that are then somehow directed towards thunderstorms and the team's airplane. This suggestion is also unsatisfying since the positron drizzle would be accompanied by a cocktail of other radiation that the team just didn't see.

Dwyer is eager to find more positron readings within lighting storms. However, popping into the heart of the nearest thunderstorm to measure matter/antimatter particle emissions is not advisable. But that won't stop Dwyer; he plans on sending some little, inflatable minions into thunderstorms to do the brunt work on his behalf.

He will attach detectors to balloons and release them into thunderstorms to see what they can detect—much less dangerous than risking human lives.

READ MORE: Scientists just discovered a new state of matter that could revolutionize how we use energy

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Scientists just recreated the universe 1 second after the Big Bang

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black holeOne of the all-time great mysteries in physics is why our universe contains more matter than antimatter, which is the equivalent of matter but with the opposite charge.

To tackle this question, our international team of researchers have managed to create a plasma of equal amounts of matter and antimatter– a condition we think made up the early universe.

Matter as we know it appears in four different states: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, which is a really hot gas where the atoms have been stripped of their electrons.

However, there is also a fifth, exotic state: a matter-antimatter plasma, in which there is complete symmetry between negative particles (electrons) and positive particles (positrons).

This peculiar state of matter is believed to be present in the atmosphere of extreme astrophysical objects, such as black holes and pulsars. It is also thought to have been the fundamental constituent of the universe in its infancy, in particular during the Leptonic era, starting approximately one second after the Big Bang.

A fraction of a second of life

One of the problems with creating matter and antimatter particles together is that they strongly dislike each other – disappearing in a burst of light whenever they meet. However, this doesn’t happen straight away, and it is possible to study the behaviour of the plasma for the fraction of a second in which it is alive.

Understanding how matter behaves in this exotic state is crucial if we want to understand how our universe has evolved and, in particular, why the universe as we know it is made up mainly of matter. This is a puzzling feature, as the theory of relativistic quantum mechanics suggests we should have equal amounts of the two. In fact, no current model of physics can explain the discrepancy.

Despite its fundamental importance for our understanding of the universe, an electron-positron plasma had never been produced before in the laboratory, not even in huge particle accelerators such as CERN. Our international team, involving physicists from the UK, Germany, Portugal, and Italy, finally managed to crack the nut by completely changing the way we look at these objects.

Thinking small

Pulsar_encased_in_supernova_bubbleInstead of focusing our attention on immense particle accelerators, we turned to the ultra-intense lasers available at the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, UK.

We used an ultra-high vacuum chamber with an air pressure corresponding to a hundredth of a millionth of our atmosphere to shoot an ultra-short and intense laser pulse (hundred billions of billions more intense that sunlight on the Earth surface) onto a nitrogen gas. This stripped off the gas’ electrons and accelerated them to a speed extremely close to that of light.

The beam then collided with a block of lead, which slowed them down again. As they slowed down they emitted particles of light, photons, which created pairs of electrons and their anti-particle, the positron, when they collided with nuclei of the lead sample. A chain-reaction of this process gave rise to the plasma.

However, this experimental achievement was not without effort. The laser beam had to be guided and controlled with micrometer precision, and the detectors had to be finely calibrated and shielded – resulting in frequent long nights in the laboratory.

But it was well worth it as the development means an exciting branch of physics is opening up. Apart from investigating the important matter-antimatter asymmetry, by looking at how these plasmas interact with ultra powerful laser beams, we can also study how this plasma propagates in vacuum and in a low-density medium. This would be effectively recreating conditions similar to the generation of gamma-ray bursts, some of the most luminous events ever recorded in our universe.

The Conversation

Gianluca Sarri is Lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen's University Belfast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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13 ways wonder material graphene is going to vastly improve a bunch of things you use all the time

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We are on the brink of a revolution that will completely change the way we use every-day products like cars, clothes, light bulbs, and even water.

Leading the way is a fascinating material called graphene.

Graphene is a thin sheet of carbon atoms — the same element in diamonds and coal — and was the first two-dimensional substance ever created, meaning it's one-atom thick, or about one million times thinner than a human hair.

Despite its miniscule size, graphene has a grand portfolio of wondrous properties. For instance, it's 1,000 times stronger than steel, yet 1,000 times lighter than paper. And it's significantly more electrically conductive than silicon, the substance we use in computer circuits.

Since graphene was first discovered in 2004, hundreds of researchers around the world have begun studying its qualities, which have the potential to revolutionize the world.

Faster, cheaper computers

When graphene's electrical conductivity was first discovered, there were hopeful whispers that graphene could replace silicon chips in today's computers — a change that could usher in a new era of cheaper, faster, super-efficient electronics.

But more than 10 years later, we're still using silicon-based chips because scientists have yet to find a way to control the electrical current across a graphene chip — a crucial feature in running computers' integrated circuits.

In January of last year, researchers at IBM announced a major breakthrough in this field: They designed and built an integrated circuit made of graphene (pictured above). For the first time, the machine performed comparable to silicon technology, IBM reported in a press release. Shortly after this first announcement, IBM announced that they were pledging another $3 billion to continue researching ways to make faster, cheaper computer chips with graphene and other materials.



Longer-lasting light bulbs

In March of this year, scientists at the University of Manchester and a company called Graphene Lighting announced that they had designed a graphene light bulb. The scientists took a regular light-emitting diode, or LED, and painted a layer of graphene over it.

Because graphene is great at conducting electricity, the scientists report that the bulb could be 10% more efficient and last longer than LEDs currently on the market. These graphene bulbs should be available for purchase in the next few months.



Better oil spill mops

This April, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported that they had developed a revolutionary way to manufacture graphene through 3D printing. What you see on your right is a 3D-printed graphene aero-gel sitting atop a dime for scale.

Aero-gels are made of mostly air, which makes them highly absorbent. Therefore they could be used as a quick new way of cleaning up oil spills. In 2013, Chinese material scientists said that they had produced a graphene aero-gel that could absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil. Not only that, the same aero-gel could be used, squeezed dry, and reused numerous times.



See the rest of the story at Business Insider

A part of physics Einstein didn't believe in is now being used to explain one of his craziest ideas about black holes

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One hundred years after Albert Einstein developed his general theory of relativity, physicists are still stuck with perhaps the biggest incompatibility problem in the universe.

The smoothly warped space-time landscape that Einstein described is like a painting by Salvador Dalí — seamless, unbroken, geometric. But the quantum particles that occupy this space are more like something from Georges Seurat: pointillist, discrete, described by probabilities.

At their core, the two descriptions contradict each other. Yet a bold new strain of thinking suggests that quantum correlations between specks of impressionist paint actually create not just Dalí’s landscape, but the canvases that both sit on, as well as the three-dimensional space around them. And Einstein, as he so often does, sits right in the center of it all, still turning things upside-down from beyond the grave.

Like initials carved in a tree, ER = EPR, as the new idea is known, is a shorthand that joins two ideas proposed by Einstein in 1935. One involved the paradox implied by what he called “spooky action at a distance” between quantum particles (the EPR paradox, named for its authors, Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen). The other showed how two black holes could be connected through far reaches of space through “wormholes” (ER, for Einstein-Rosen bridges). At the time that Einstein put forth these ideas — and for most of the eight decades since — they were thought to be entirely unrelated.

When Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen published their seminal paper pointing out puzzling features of what we now call entanglement, The New York Times treated it as front-page news.

wormhole interstellarBut if ER = EPR is correct, the ideas aren’t disconnected — they’re two manifestations of the same thing. And this underlying connectedness would form the foundation of all space-time. Quantum entanglement — the action at a distance that so troubled Einstein — could be creating the “spatial connectivity” that “sews space together,” according to Leonard Susskind, a physicist at Stanford University and one of the idea’s main architects. Without these connections, all of space would “atomize,” according to Juan Maldacena, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., who developed the idea together with Susskind. “In other words, the solid and reliable structure of space-time is due to the ghostly features of entanglement,” he said. What’s more, ER = EPR has the potential to address how gravity fits together with quantum mechanics.

Not everyone’s buying it, of course (nor should they; the idea is in “its infancy,” said Susskind). Joe Polchinski, a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose own stunning paradox about firewalls in the throats of black holes triggered the latest advances, is cautious, but intrigued. “I don’t know where it’s going,” he said, “but it’s a fun time right now.”

The Black Hole Wars

The road that led to ER = EPR is a Möbius strip of tangled twists and turns that folds back on itself, like a drawing by M.C. Escher.

A fair place to start might be quantum entanglement. If two quantum particles are entangled, they become, in effect, two parts of a single unit. What happens to one entangled particle happens to the other, no matter how far apart they are.

Maldacena sometimes uses a pair of gloves as an analogy: If you come upon the right-handed glove, you instantaneously know the other is left-handed. There’s nothing spooky about that. But in the quantum version, both gloves are actually left- and right-handed (and everything in between) up until the moment you observe them. Spookier still, the left-handed glove doesn’t become left until you observe the right-handed one — at which moment both instantly gain a definite handedness.

Entanglement played a key role in Stephen Hawking’s 1974 discovery that black holes could evaporate. This, too, involved entangled pairs of particles. Throughout space, short-lived “virtual” particles of matter and anti-matter continually pop into and out of existence. Hawking realized that if one particle fell into a black hole and the other escaped, the hole would emit radiation, glowing like a dying ember. Given enough time, the hole would evaporate into nothing, raising the question of what happened to the information content of the stuff that fell into it.

Black HoleBut the rules of quantum mechanics forbid the complete destruction of information. (Hopelessly scrambling information is another story, which is why documents can be burned and hard drives smashed. There’s nothing in the laws of physics that prevents the information lost in a book’s smoke and ashes from being reconstructed, at least in principle.) So the question became: Would the information that originally went into the black hole just get scrambled? Or would it be truly lost? The arguments set off what Susskind called the “black hole wars,” which have generated enough stories to fill many books. (Susskind’s was subtitled “My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics.”)

Eventually Susskind — in a discovery that shocked even him — realized (with Gerard ’t Hooft) that all the information that fell down the hole was actually trapped on the black hole’s two-dimensional event horizon, the surface that marks the point of no return. The horizon encoded everything inside, like a hologram. It was as if the bits needed to re-create your house and everything in it could fit on the walls. The information wasn’t lost — it was scrambled and stored out of reach.

Susskind continued to work on the idea with Maldacena, whom Susskind calls “the master,” and others. Holography began to be used not just to understand black holes, but any region of space that can be described by its boundary. Over the past decade or so, the seemingly crazy idea that space is a kind of hologram has become rather humdrum, a tool of modern physics used in everything from cosmology to condensed matter. “One of the things that happen to scientific ideas is they often go from wild conjecture to reasonable conjecture to working tools,” Susskind said. “It’s gotten routine.”

Holography was concerned with what happens on boundaries, including black hole horizons. That left open the question of what goes on in the interiors, said Susskind, and answers to that “were all over the map.” After all, since no information could ever escape from inside a black hole’s horizon, the laws of physics prevented scientists from ever directly testing what was going on inside.

Then in 2012 Polchinski, along with Ahmed Almheiri, Donald Marolf andJames Sully, all of them at the time at Santa Barbara, came up with an insight so startling it basically said to physicists: Hold everything. We know nothing.

The so-called AMPS paper (after its authors’ initials) presented a doozy of an entanglement paradox — one so stark it implied that black holes might not, in effect, even have insides, for a “firewall” just inside the horizon would fry anyone or anything attempting to find out its secrets.

Scaling the Firewall

Here’s the heart of their argument: If a black hole’s event horizon is a smooth, seemingly ordinary place, as relativity predicts (the authors call this the “no drama” condition), the particles coming out of the black hole must be entangled with particles falling into the black hole. Yet for information not to be lost, the particles coming out of the black hole must also be entangled with particles that left long ago and are now scattered about in a fog of Hawking radiation. That’s one too many kinds of entanglements, the AMPS authors realized. One of them would have to go.

The reason is that maximum entanglements have to be monogamous, existing between just two particles. Two maximum entanglements at once — quantum polygamy — simply cannot happen, which suggests that the smooth, continuous space-time inside the throats of black holes can’t exist. A break in the entanglement at the horizon would imply a discontinuity in space, a pileup of energy: the “firewall.”

The AMPS paper became a “real trigger,” said Stephen Shenker, a physicist at Stanford, and “cast in sharp relief” just how much was not understood. Of course, physicists love such paradoxes, because they’re fertile ground for discovery.

Both Susskind and Maldacena got on it immediately. They’d been thinking about entanglement and wormholes, and both were inspired by the work of Mark Van Raamsdonk, a physicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who had conducted a pivotal thought experiment suggesting that entanglement and space-time are intimately related.

“Then one day,” said Susskind, “Juan sent me a very cryptic message that contained the equation ER = EPR. I instantly saw what he was getting at, and from there we went back and forth expanding the idea.”

Their investigations, which they presented in a 2013 paper, “Cool Horizons for Entangled Black Holes,” argued for a kind of entanglement they said the AMPS authors had overlooked — the one that “hooks space together,” according to Susskind. AMPS assumed that the parts of space inside and outside of the event horizon were independent. But Susskind and Maldacena suggest that, in fact, particles on either side of the border could be connected by a wormhole. The ER = EPR entanglement could “kind of get around the apparent paradox,” said Van Raamsdonk. The paper contained a graphic that some refer to half-jokingly as the “octopus picture” — with multiple wormholes leading from the inside of a black hole to Hawking radiation on the outside.

In other words, there was no need for an entanglement that would create a kink in the smooth surface of the black hole’s throat. The particles still inside the hole would be directly connected to particles that left long ago. No need to pass through the horizon, no need to pass Go. The particles on the inside and the far-out ones could be considered one and the same, Maldacena explained — like me, myself and I. The complex “octopus” wormhole would link the interior of the black hole directly to particles in the long-departed cloud of Hawking radiation.

Holes in the Wormhole

No one is sure yet whether ER = EPR will solve the firewall problem. John Preskill, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, reminded readers ofQuantum Frontiers, the blog for Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, that sometimes physicists rely on their “sense of smell” to sniff out which theories have promise. “At first whiff,” he wrote, “ER = EPR may smell fresh and sweet, but it will have to ripen on the shelf for a while.”

Whatever happens, the correspondence between entangled quantum particles and the geometry of smoothly warped space-time is a “big new insight,” said Shenker. It’s allowed him and his collaborator Douglas Stanford, a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study, to tackle complex problems in quantum chaos through what Shenker calls “simple geometry that even I can understand.”

To be sure, ER = EPR does not yet apply to just any kind of space, or any kind of entanglement. It takes a special type of entanglement and a special type of wormhole. “Lenny and Juan are completely aware of this,” said Marolf, who recently co-authored a paper describing wormholes with more than two ends. ER = EPR works in very specific situations, he said, but AMPS argues that the firewall presents a much broader challenge.

Like Polchinski and others, Marolf worries that ER = EPR modifies standard quantum mechanics. “A lot of people are really interested in the ER = EPR conjecture,” said Marolf. “But there’s a sense that no one but Lenny and Juan really understand what it is.” Still, “it’s an interesting time to be in the field.”

Clarification on April 27, 2015: The article has been altered to clarify that only maximally entangled particles have to have monogamous entanglements.

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Here’s what scientists really wanted to call the world’s most famous particle

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If you're talking to a physicist about the Higgs boson, whatever you do, do not call it by its media-hyped nickname the "God Particle."

You're almost guaranteed to elicit a wince, a grimace, or in the very least a flash of mild annoyance.

The phrase "God Particle" was plastered across the front pages of news outlets everywhere when the discovery of the particle was announced in 2012. "God Particle discovered" is a much sexier headline than "Higgs boson discovered," but most physicists hate the term.

It was not the intended nickname for the famous particle, according to a panel of physicists who discussed the Higgs boson on April 29 as part of the Scientific Controversies lecture series.

The story goes that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman referred to the Higgs as the "Goddamn Particle."The nickname was meant to poke fun at how difficult it was to detect the particle. It took nearly half a century and a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator to do it.

"The Goddamn Particle" was suppose to be the title of Lederman's book that came out in the 1990s and was wildly popular for a book about physics. However, his publishers weren't exactly on board with that phrasing, so the title was changed to "The God Particle."

Unfortunately the publisher's version of the nickname stuck, and physicists are not happy about it.

"I am not particularly religious, but I find the term an 'in your face' affront to those who [are]," Vivek Sharma, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego, told Live Science back when the Higgs was discovered.

In addition to the irrelevant tie to religion, the nickname doesn't do anything to help explain what the Higgs boson actually does. The particle is associated with the Higgs field that physicists think permeates all of space-time and helps give other particles their mass. You don't really get that from "God Particle." You do, however, get a hilarious joke about Catholic Mass and mass from the Higgs boson that Neil deGrasse Tyson told us— which is about as close to religion as the particle gets.

Higgs BosonYes, the Higgs boson is a big deal and it's an integral part of the standard model of particle physics. Comparing it to a god is going a bit overboard though. For starters, it's not really the Higgs boson itself that's granting mass to particles. The Higgs boson is an excitation of the Higgs field the helps other particles pass through it. And other types of energy interactions help create the mass that makes up you and me.

Some physicists think there could be several different types of Higgs bosons and this is just the first one we've detected.

So maybe we should lowercase the "God" in "God Particle?" Or better yet just call it the "The Totally Secular Particle." Or just the "Masson," since it's a boson that helps give other particles get their mass. Other bosons have names that follow this kind of naming model. For example, light particles are also bosons and they're called "photons"— a combination of the words "boson" and "photo" (meaning light).

Really most physicsts would tell you that the particle's actual name is perfect. It tells you that the particle is a boson and it honors Peter Higgs, the physicist who predicted its existence back in the 1960s.

Still, we agree that the "Goddamn Particle" would've been way better than "God Particle."

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