Faster-Than-Light Results Debunked by Computer Glitch? Hold On, Not So Fast!

The neutrino story is still not an open and shut case. You’ve probably read about the supposed computer glitch by now. If you haven’t, we have it right here. However, as more details pour in, more surprises tumble out! It turns out that there wasn’t just one computer error, there were, in fact, two!! And this complicates matters

Twin Glitches

Error #1

New York Times reports that one source of error is the GPS measurement system, or more precisely, the optical cable connecting the GPS receiver to the detector. This is a five mile long cable and the faulty wiring could’ve easily put the measurements back by 60 nanoseconds, which was the exact amount of time by which the neutrinos beat the speed of light. This is the story we reported earlier.

Error #2

However, it seems that there was yet another unaccounted systematic error! There is a piece of equipment that marks the exact time for the GPS measurements, taking into account all sorts of relativistic corrections.

However, this would speed up the neutrinos even more, making the case for the violation of relativity even stronger.

The first error has been corrected, but the second error is yet to be taken care of.

Add and subtract the errors? No? What’s wrong?

As any student of physics would know, errors like these cannot simply be added or subtracted. For extreme precision experiments, like the OPERA  experiment, one cannot tweak the experimental data in order to do take into account all technical glitches. The only way to resolve this would be to fix the systematics and run the experiment again!

The experiment would definitely need an independent test to be refuted, now more than ever, since these unexpected question marks have been put up against it.

Discovered: Solid Buckyballs In Space!

They were popularized by being compared to nanoscale footballs, made up of a large number of carbon atoms. However, no one thought that they were as ubiquitous as the latest Spitzer results suggest them to be. They are called Buckminsterfullerene, or more commonly, buckyballs, after the architect, Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic designs resemble these natural structures.

A C-60 buckminsterfullerene

Spitzer discovers buckyballs

Enter Spitzer, the premier infrared satellite in the world right now. It roams around in space in an orbit around the Earth, since the atmosphere would block most of the infrared radiation. It has recently caught buckyballs around the double star system XX Ophiuchi. What’s more, the buckyballs are in solid form, and this can be easily figured out since the diffuse gaseous form gives a different absorptions spectrum compared to the solid one.

This is the first detection of solid buckyballs in space. Incidentally, the relatively wide presence of buckyballs in space was established by Spitzer itself in 2010.

Buckyballs are quite useful here on earth. They are extremely resistant to heat, pressure and chemical action. They have been thought to be shrink wraps, with the buckyballs acting as ‘cages’. Furthermore, their high tensile strength can be utilized in things like armour.

Buckyballs in space. An artist's impression (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)

More carbon, better it is!

Buckyballs being found in outer space means that there is much more carbon in space than previously thought. Scientist think that this allotrope of carbon might indicate that more common allotropes like graphite might be present.

Mike Werner, NASA’s Spitzer telescope project scientist currently at JPL, Pasadena, California, says:

This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed. They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.

The story appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Just before you leave us to do more mundane terrestrial stuff here’s a nice video, courtesy

Permian Era Forest Preserved in Pompeii-like Ash Found in China

Imagine being able to go back in time nearly 300 million years and see the flora and fauna that has long since been extinct. Then imagine being able to freeze that moment in time like a snapshot. For professor Hermann W. Pfefferkorn, of the University of Pennsylvania, that experience became a reality. Pfefferkorn and a team of Chinese scientists found a nearly complete Permian era forest frozen in volcanic ash near a mining site in Wuda, China.

Hermann Pfefferkorn
Professor Hermann Pfefferkorn of Penn (Photo courtesy Penn News)

According to Penn News, Pfefferkorn is quoted saying, “It’s marvelously preserved…We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That’s really exciting.” The Wuda site is near a large coal mining operation. This provided a very unique opportunity for them to study this ancient forest on a large scale. They were able to study nearly 1000 square meters. This gave them an unprecedented look at the flora from that time. Pictured below, you can see a well preserved branch from trees classified as a Noeggerathiales. These trees were small spore-bearing trees that are long since extinct.

Noeggerathiales an extinct tree (Courtesy of

The ancient tropical forest dates back nearly 300 million years ago to what is called the Permian era. It sat on a peat bed which eventually became a layer of coal due to many years of pressure. Reminiscent of Pompeii, this forest was beautifully preserved in a bed of volcanic ash. The scientists examined and mapped out this preserved forest and were able to reconstruct how it must have looked millions of years ago. They worked with an artist to reconstruct this vast tropical forest. You can see one of the renderings pictured below.

Reconstruction of Permian Era Forest (Courtesy of

This is certainly a significant find. It’s the first such finding in Asia and the first peat forest of its kind to be found anywhere from this period. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early edition. You can also see the fantastic images of the preserved flora in the “Supporting Information” supplement here.

BREAKING NEWS: Simple Computer Glitch To Blame For Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Results

The supposedly greatest anomaly ever detected in physics, capable of undoing a hundred years of physics, may turn out to be a mere computer glitch. There are rumours that the anomaly may be due to a faulty connection between a GPS unit and a computer receiving signals from it.

We had reported the faster-than-light neutrino results in great detail in several posts earlier. The physics group at Gran Sasso laboratory, near CERN, had detected that neutrinos arrives 60 nanoseconds before they are expected to, if they travelled at light speed. This means that they travelled faster than light, violating the cosmic speed limit imposed by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, by a factor of full one-ten thousandth, which is a huge number when it comes to Lorentz violations.

The rumour is that sources inside Gran Sasso say that when a connection between a GPS receiver and the optic fibre was adjusted, the time of flight comes out exactly 60 seconds longer than measured, exactly cancelling the seen anomaly.

New data from independent experiments is still needed to confirm the non-violation of the cosmic speed limit. If this rumour is true, it is face-saving time for the Gran Sasso scientists.

Fund Crunch Forces Fermilab To Scavenge The Tevatron

Shortage of funds has hit the scientific laboratories badly. This is quite evident from the attitude Fermilab has towards the deceased Tevatron. Fermilab is planning to recycle many parts of the once-biggest particle  collider for other experiments. It’s to save cost, they clarify.

The CDF detector in Tevatron is now being raided for valuable, and not-so-valuable, parts.

Parts, parts…

Of course, there is nothing wrong in that – in fact, this is a good practice. However, given the amount of history the Tevatron has, many people are frowning. The ex-spokesperson for the CDF detector at Tevatron, Rob Roser says:

Some parts are worth pennies, but in this budgetary climate, even pennies are worth saving

The Tevatron was the biggest beast in the particle physics world till the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) came onto the scene. It has fulfilled all of the expectations and has done more. It discovered the top quark, accurately measured the mass of the W and Z bosons and was instrumental in the Higgs search, especially in the low mass range. The Tevatron probed the Higgs decaying to two photon channel and, now it seems that this is the most promising channel.

However, now the collider parts are being utilized for some other experiments. Demands are being met for photomultiplier tubes (PMT’s). These are used to catch light as particles deposit energy while travelling through the detector material.

Tevatron after death: Just some squiggly lines on the ground?

Looking into the Future

There are other things planned in the near future. Fermilab is all set for lepton colliders, which will collide particles like electrons and positrons, or muons-antimuons. The muons can change to electrons and this process will be studied in greater detail by the new lepton collider. This process should answer certain questions about the electroweak force and put strong bounds on the different constants in the electroweak theory, especially the magnetic moment of the muon. This is the so-called ‘g-2’ (g minus two) experiment. The muonic magnetic moment, supposed to be just 2, is actually a bit more. The difference between the electronic and muonic magnetic moments is due to the difference in masses. The electron to muon process should involve hadronic processes as well and this new experiment could yield very strong bounds on these hadronic processes. The hadronic processes from leptonic processes can indicate supersymmetry and, thus, can tell tales about Physics beyond the Standard Model.

There are also many long baseline Neutrino experiments planned. Fermilab’s own MINOS experiment has to be upgraded and the data made more precise.

Even in death, the Tevatron is fuelling research, this time donating parts of itself for future experiments. Scavenging may be a strong term to use for Fermilab and what it is doing to the Tevatron, but there is no doubt that the desecration of the giant will disappoint a few.

Reference and more info from:

Giant Radio Telescope Update: Square Kilometer Array Faces Location Quandary

The giant has no place to go, as of now! Or maybe, just one place too many. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the biggest array of ground based radio telescopes, is now hanging in the balance searching for a site. The two contenders are Australia and South Africa.

An artist's impression of the SKA. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

About the SKA

The SKA costs a whopping 1.5 billion euros. The mammoth array is set have a collecting are of 1 square kilometer and be sensitive over a very wide range of frequencies. The radius of the array will be at least 3000 km from the central core (a few telescopes clustered at the center) and the total data uplink-downlink will dwarf even the total global Internet data transfer, when it will actively observe! This means that the computers handling the data will have to be state-of-the-art as well as the means to transfer data. It will look into the Universe, as it was about 300,000 years after the Big Bang till the time when it became transparent, i.e. the reionization era.

The core array of the SKA. It is set to have three different sub-arrays having antenna probing different frequency regimes within the radio. (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

Construction of the array is set to begin in 2016 and end in 2019. It will see first light sometime in 2020.

The two rivals

The Australian side is promising the core of the array in the west of the continent and the outer arms and outstations stretching across the sea to New Zealand. The South African contingency plans its core in the Karoo region, North Cape, in the northern part of the country, and the outer arms are going to stretch to eight neighbouring countries!

The requirements for selecting a site for a radio telescope include arid conditions, radio-quiet regions and low human activity.

The site will be finalized by the end of this year and only then will the SKA construction start off!

Created: A One-Atom Transistor!

Scientists have hit a new low when it comes to size! The newest size of a transistor is just one atomic radius and it is made of phosphorus. A group of physicists from the University of New South Wales and Purdue University have created a transistor out of a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon crystal. Moore’s law has been broken, once and for all!

An STM image of the phosphorus atom placed on a Silicon substrate. The surrounding electrodes are the drain and source (see next image). (Courtesy: Arstechnica)

Quantum Mechanics and Choices!

What more, the transistor, instead of relying on the binary electronic states of ‘on’ and ‘off’ can rely on a superposition of quantum states, using so-called qubits. Qubits don’t represent just one of the two positions, but a multitude of all the possibilities, as prescribed by quantum mechanics.

Qubits will help realize the making of quantum computers, and of this, scientists are sure! The computers will be extremely small (for obvious reasons), very fast (information relay over tiny scales and the huge number of qubit states to utilize), energy efficient (no heat dissipation) and be able to solve a huge number of problems within a fraction of a second.

Moore’s Law

Even Moore’s law is happily in trouble! Moore’s law states that every eighteen months, the density of transistors on a chip doubles! Moore’s law has been scaled down to the scale of one atom! It is safe to say that it cannot go down any further.

The colour gradient image of the potential across the neighbourhood of the single phosphorus atom. The G, S and D refer to the gate, source and drain. So-called Field Effect Transistor (FET's) are supposed to regulate the passage of current from the source to the drain, using the voltages applied at the gates (Courtesy: Nature article)

Andreas Heinrich, a physicist at IBM, says the following about this work:

This is at least a 10-year effort to make very tiny electrical wires and combine them with the placement of a phosphorus atom exactly where they want them.

The deposition of the single atom at a precise position was done using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The STM was used to ‘cut’ the ‘groove’ into the silicon. Phosphine gas was then used to deposit one atom of phosphorus. It was then covered with a few layers of silicon.

The work appears in an issue in Nature Nanotechnology (link).

Dreams of using a device to relocate just one atom of a substance on a substrate are finally coming true! One of the principal dreamers was Richard Feynman. He would be proud!

Implementing these gated devices as an array of switches to make a working circuit is the present challenge. The Next is already here!

Will Your Next Hamburger be Grown in a Tube?

Scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting recently took on the challenge of solving the world’s food problems. Dr. Mark Post, professor at Maastricht University, proposed a rather bizarre way to grow meat in the future. The world’s first hamburger developed from cow stem cells is expected to come this fall. The meat will be grown in a test tube. It makes you wonder if Anthony Bourdain would even be brave enough to eat it.

Test Tube Meat
Courtesy Mark Post via

The hamburger is being developed with from an anonymous donor who gave Dr. Post 250,000 Euros to get the job done. Pictured above, you can see a strip of muscle tissue developed from cow stem cells at the lab. It will take many of these strips to produce an actual hamburger.

So why the interest in a new meat substitute. Scientists note the inefficiencies surrounding meat production as it is done today. The environmental impact is also a huge concern. Large meat farming operations produce a lot of green house gases and other environmental issues. There is also a noted risk to humans as there has been a rise of E. Coli outbreaks recently.

Another scientist, Patrick Brown of Stanford University, proposed a meat substitute derived from plant material. Brown sounded very confident that his product could win over the meat and potatoes crowd. This seems to be a more viable alternative as Post’s stem cell approach is a very expensive and time consuming process.

Probably most surprising to me was to hear about the meat industry’s interest in this research. Big names like Tyson Foods have expressed interest in the synthetic meat. It will be interesting to see what the food of the future looks like and how this type of research will change things for us. I have to admit my own skepticism, mostly out of concern for eating synthetic proteins and what unforeseen problems may occur from eating synthetic meat. However, the possibility that we could produce more food with less energy sounds very promising. I think I’ll go get a hamburger now before they become a thing of the past. ;)

Magic Bullet ‘DNA Robot’ Programmed To Specifically Attack Cancer Cells

The ‘magic bullet’ has been on the minds of medical researchers for a long time. The only problem is that no such thing exists right now, but medical research has been looking at every possible pathway to get a hint of creating such a thing. Now, a “DNA robot” has been made that specifically targets cancer cells. This has been done using a technique called ‘DNA origami’!

The DNA robot. The wrapping is done with the payload inside. Then it is released when the target appears. Taken from the paper by Shawn et. al. (Courtesy: Science)

A great merger!

It’s a merger between digital logic, nanobots and biological molecular pathways. DNA can be folded into very specific shapes, using a technique called ‘DNA Origami’, the name obviously being inspired by the paper art. Then, specific drugs molecules can be ‘loaded’ onto these DNA robots and sealed with molecules called ‘aptamers’. Aptamers are molecules, made up of a small number of amino acids, which are the building blocks of large protein molecules. These aptamers can recognize the molecular signature of the delivery site and then can unlock the ‘robot’, allowing it to discharge its payload at the site (picture above). This very specific delivery system is the prized mechanism in cancer research at this moment. Generally, cancer drugs (whenever available) do a lot of harm to the healthy cells as well.

The work, led by Shawn Douglas of Wyss Institute, Harvard University, has been published in Science. He goes on to say the following to BBC News:

We’ve been working on figuring out how to build different shapes using DNA over the past several years, and other researchers have used antibodies as therapeutics, in order to manipulate cell signalling, and yet others have demonstrated that aptamers can be used to target cancer cell types. The novel part is really integrating all those different pieces and putting them together in a single device that works.

Why DNA? And what’s next?

But, why DNA for the building block for the robot? Simple. DNA is found in all cells and the body recognizes its own DNA. Thus, making the robots using DNA will eliminate any chances of toxicity or of non-recognition by the healthy cells of the body.

So what’s next? As always in science, and more so in medical science, the next step is optimization! A huge number of tests have to be performed in order to gauge the efficacy of this new technique.

Cancer research is surely at the brink of a big discovery.  There have been frequent knocks on the closed doors, and sometimes, like this present case, a punch through. It’ll be interesting to predict when that door will finally fall!

Discovered: An Exotic Form of Matter – Hypernucleus!

Exotic is the word! Italian physicists have discovered traces of rare nuclei containing an exotic form of matter – hyperons. They have just discovered a hydrogen nucleus with 6 nucleons, which includes 4 neutrons, 1 proton (and thus hydrogen) and one uncharged hyperon called lambda!!

The exotic side of the Universe

Hyperons are particles, which are made up of quarks, just like protons. But, unlike protons, they are short-lived, much heavier and contain the so-called strange quark. They are thus called strange baryons! If a nucleus contains such hyperons, the nucleus is called ‘hypernucleus’.

The Italian scientists have found a hypernucleus called ‘hydrogen six Lambda’ (6ΛH, Λ=Greek letter, Lambda), which means that it is a hydrogen nucleus (i.e. has 1 proton), with six nucleons altogether (i.e. 5 particles other than the proton) and that one of them is the Lambda baryon. This says that the other four particles are all neutrons. The 6ΛH was predicted in 1963, but only now have physicists at Instituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare-Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati (INFN-LNF) working on this experiment called FINUDA found a signature of it. The finding is due to appear in an issue of the Physical Review Letters (PRL).

The hyperon makes it possible to detect this hydrogen nucleus having as many as 4 neutrons. Hydrogen five (5H), i.e. without the Lambda, exists for just 10-22 s, which is too short to measure leave alone trap and study the nucleus. The presence of the strange particle boosts the lifetime by a factor of a trillion, taking it to 0.1 nanosecond, which is long enough for physicists to measure and study. Note that this timescale is still way too small for daily life!

Producing the hyperhydrogen

The hyperhydrogen is produced in an indirect way. The FUNIDA collider collides electron-positron beams. This gives rise to a phi-meson (with a small probability). This phi-meson can decay into two other mesons – the K meson and the anti-K meson. When the anti K-meson (which contains a strange quark) interacts with a lithium nucleus, it can produce a 6ΛH and pi-plus meson. When physicists detect the pi-plus meson, they know that a 6ΛH has been created.

Producing hyperhydrogen (Courtesy: FUNIDA experiment collboration)

FUNIDA experiments have also been able to produce 4ΛH, having 2 neutrons. They are produced more readily than 6ΛH and can be studied with greater ease as they exist for a longer time than the 6ΛH.

Clues into strangeness

Physicists are hoping that such studies will yield valuable clues into the nature of strange forms of matter. Another interesting challenge will be to synthesize nuclei having two strange particles, rather than just one! Producing helium or lithium nuclei with strange particle is also on the cards.

If you have a technical bent of mind, here is the link to the PRL paper: (If you’re not affiliated to an institute having a PRL account, you’ll have to buy the paper to read it.)