December 2014: This Physicist Has A Groundbreaking Idea About Why Life Exists

Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning, and a colossal stroke of luck.

But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat.

Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

To read the entire Business Insider article click here.
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December 2014: Study of massive preprint archive hints at the geography of plagiarism

New analyses of the hundreds of thousands of technical manuscripts submitted to arXiv, the repository of digital preprint articles, are offering some intriguing insights into the consequences—and geography—of scientific plagiarism. It appears that copying text from other papers is more common in some nations than others, but the outcome is generally the same for authors who copy extensively: Their papers don’t get cited much.

Since its founding in 1991, arXiv has become the world’s largest venue for sharing findings in physics, math, and other mathematical fields. It publishes hundreds of papers daily and is fast approaching its millionth submission. Anyone can send in a paper, and submissions don’t get full peer review. However, the papers do go through a quality-control process. The final check is a computer program that compares the paper’s text with the text of every other paper already published on arXiv. The goal is to flag papers that have a high likelihood of having plagiarized published work.

“Text overlap” is the technical term, and sometimes it turns out to be innocent. For example, a review article might quote generously from a paper the author cites, or the author might recycle and slightly update sentences from their own previous work. The arXiv plagiarism detector gives such papers a pass. “It’s a fairly sophisticated machine learning logistic classifier,” says arXiv founder Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Cornell University. “It has special ways of detecting block quotes, italicized text, text in quotation marks, as well statements of mathematical theorems, to avoid false positives.”

To read the entire Science article, click here.

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December 2014: Scientific papers take a step outside Nature’s paywall

One of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, has embraced the share button to liberalize access to research papers that previously were available only to those who paid.

The journal’s publisher, Macmillan Science and Education, announced Tuesday that subscribers now can share specific papers from Nature and 14 other journals at the company’s website. Subscribers to Nature and 49 other journals may share articles with others using technology from ReadCube, but those others can’t copy, print or download the papers unless they pay.

It’s an important shift for a community that has struggled to balance the restrictions of the publishing business with a centuries-old scientific culture based on information sharing. It’s the Internet, of course, that’s forcing the issue for publishers.

Scientific journals play a crucial role in disseminating information in the research world, letting scientists keep abreast of developments in their fields. But the expense of journal subscriptions limits who can see those papers. As a result, many researchers have turned to Internet sites like Arxiv, the Public Library of Science (PLOS), PubMed Central (PMC) and, which grant free access to papers.

Mamillan evidently is feeling the pressure.

“Nature was established in 1869 to help scientists share, and to bring science to the public. In today’s global, Internet-enabled world, we think we can meet the needs of science and society better,” said Steven Inchcoombe, chief executive of Nature Publishing Group, in a statement. “We know researchers are already sharing content, but not always optimally. We’re committed to adapting to meet the needs of the community.”

As the music and movie industries have shown, it’s been tough to bottle up information once it’s in digital form. And researchers, sometimes funded by governments for the public good, are often more keen to share their findings than Sony is to have its latest movies leak, for example.

Journals play an important role besides just publishing papers, though. They also organize and oversee the peer-review process under which researchers scrutinize papers to make sure they’re up to snuff. Journals serve another editorial role, too, by selecting papers based on quality and importance. It’s not easy to get a paper published in Nature, but a paper published there can carry more weight than one just shared online.

It’s a role that continues to be important. Even Paul Ginsparg, a Cornell University physicist who founded the LANL Preprint Archive in 1991, which later grew into Cornell’s Arxiv, sees journals as important. Arxiv publishes preprints — the versions of papers that haven’t necessarily passed the peer-review process.

To see the entire CNET article click here.



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November 2014: The November Revolution

On November 11, 1974, members of the Cornell high-energy physics group could have spent the lulls during their lunch meeting chatting about the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation or the upcoming Big Red hockey season.

But on that particular Monday, the most sensational topic was physics-related. One of the researchers in the audience stood up to report that two labs on opposite sides of the country were about to announce the same thing: the discovery of a new particle that heralded the birth of the Standard Model of particle physics.

“Nobody at the meeting knew what the hell it was,” says physicist Kenneth Lane of Boston University, a former postdoctoral researcher at Cornell. Lane, among others, would spend the next few years describing the theory and consequences of this new particle.

It isn’t often that a discovery comes along that forces everyone to reevaluate the way the world works. It’s even rarer for two groups to make such a discovery at the same time, using different methods.

One announcement would come from a research group led by MIT physicist Sam Ting at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The other was to come from a team headed by physicist Burton Richter at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, then called the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, in California. Word traveled fast.

“We started getting all sorts of inquiries and congratulations before we even finished writing the paper,” Richter says. “Somebody told a friend, and then a friend told another friend.”

Ting called the new particle the J particle. Richter called it psi. It became known as J/psi, the discovery that sparked the November Revolution.

To find the full Symmetry Magazine article, click here.

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November 2014: Longtime Cornell Physicist receives Wilson Prize

Hasan Padamsee, a Cornell physics researcher for more than 30 years, has received the Robert R. Wilson Prize for oustanding achievement in accelerator science.

Padamsee, now at Fermilab, came to Cornell in 1973 as a research associate and retired as an adjunct professor in 2009. He taught “Physics of the Heavens and the Earth” during spring semesters. He remained a part-time researcher and lecturer in physics until this year.

Cornell’s Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory is named for the same Wilson, who helped design Cornell’s electron storage ring, and was known for his work in the Manhattan Project and as first director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. (Cornell Chronicle, 11/12/14).

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November 2014: Grad students help envision black holes for sci-fi ‘Interstellar’

The sci-fi thriller “Interstellar“ received critical praise and big box office last weekend.

Similar in premise to many other science fiction films, something sets “Interstellar” apart: Many of the images are – for the most part – scientifically accurate, based on lensing calculations that show what black holes or wormholes look like.

Three graduate students – Andy Bohn, François Hébert and William Throwe – are doing related research at Cornell. Just last week, the students published their research about binary black holes on ArXiv, an online repository for scientific papers founded by Cornell physicist Paul Ginsparg. The paper, “What Would a Binary Black Hole Merger Look Like?” immediately garnered the attention of publications such as Nature.

In the plot of “Interstellar,”Earth is dying; to save the human race, astronauts and scientists search for a new planet via a wormhole, essentially a shortcut through space.

To find the full Cornell Chronicle article, click here.

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November 2014: Physicists crank up current in new type of accelerator

A kilometers-long particle accelerator may epitomize big science, but a team of physicists has taken a key step toward doing the same job with a much smaller machine. The team has amped up the current in an experimental type of accelerator—known as a plasma wakefield accelerator—and shown that it can efficiently produce an intense beam of electrons accelerated to a precisely defined energy. Many challenges remain, but some physicists hope that someday such a scheme might be used to make much smaller particle colliders.

“It’s certainly an important step,” says Gerald Dugan, an accelerator physicist and professor emeritus at Cornell University who was not involved in the work. “At the same time there’s a long way to go” to developing a practical technology.

Particle accelerators are essential tools for many types of science. Physicists use them in atom smashers—such as the 27-kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Materials scientists and structural biologists study samples using x-rays radiated by the beams in electron accelerators. Accelerators typically measure hundreds or thousands of meters in length and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

To find the full Science magazine article, click here.


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November 2014: When to Fold ‘Em

Better living through origami

For the most part, professor Itai Cohen’s physics lab in the basement of Clark Hall looks like any other. The tables are covered in computers, calculators, and. . . intricately folded sheets of paper? Cohen’s team has been studying ways to apply the Japanese art of origami to manipulate the physical properties of materials—work that has potential applications in robotics, medicine, engineering, and more.

The fold that Cohen’s lab has been working with is called the miura-ori. Invented by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura in the mid-Nineties, it comprises a grid of alternating mountains and valleys that can be collapsed into a small, compact shape with a single motion, like an accordion. The lab’s research—spearheaded by former grad student Jesse Silverberg, PhD ’14—centers around the idea that the miura-ori is a “metamaterial,” which means that its mechanical properties derive not from the composition of the material but from the arrangement of the fold. “We can add ‘defects’ to the fold pattern, where we take a valley and turn it into a mountain,” Cohen explains. “By pushing one of the vertices through to the other side, the whole paper becomes much stiffer. So we can put these defects in different spots to ‘program’ the stiffness of the paper.”

To find the full Cornell Alumni Magazine article click here.


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