H.R. 3699 Threatens Free Publications

On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter imagines the fallout of HR 3699, a bill that would eliminate the requirement for free public access to NIH-funded research papers. Porter writes, “The reasoning behind this requirement is that taxpayers funded everything about the research except for the final publication, and so they have already paid for access.” In small schools and community colleges without costly journal subscriptions, passage of this bill would effectively remove contemporary scientific literature from the classroom. Porter continues, “working in science, and learning about science, requires looking at papers from multiple journals and multiple years from those journals.” With many journals priced more than $200 a year, and single articles more than $30, open access becomes invaluable when “students might need to look at ten papers to complete an assignment.” Mark Hoofnagle also covers the news on Denialism Blog, asking “what did it take to make Carolyn Maloney back the publishers over the public and advance this bill? About $9000 in donations from publishers (Issa only needed about $2000). It’s pathetic how cheap it is to get a member of congress to vote for an industry over the public.” In her original post, Sandra Porter concludes “In an era where the economic benefits of educating students in science are well-known, the idea of crippling science education by cutting off access to the primary literature is puzzling.” We can think of a few less generous adjectives.


Endless Questions?

What’s better than an answer to a question? More questions, perhaps? ScienceBloggers have been very quizzical the last few days, beginning with Jason Rosenhouse on EvolutionBlog. After co-authoring Taking Sudoku Seriously with Laura Taalman, Rosenhouse wondered if 17 is really the minimum number of clues needed to solve a Sudoku puzzle. Although no one has ever generated a workable 16-clue puzzle, proof has been out of reach—until now?

On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel considers the possibilities when a supernova remnant has nothing to show at its center. It could be the result of two colliding stars, exploding with nary a trace—or it could be that the former star accreted mass from a companion too small and dim to be seen.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dolittle gets intimate with blue-footed boobies on Life Lines, writing “repeated mating comes with diminished foot color and attractiveness as the males get older.” What’s a sapped old seabird to do? And Mark Hoofnagle gets serious on denialism blog, asking “How do you want to die?” Maximal intervention, which can involve “placing central lines, keeping him on a ventilator, catheterizing the bladder, placing rectal tubes, total parenteral nutrition, and pursuing aggressive therapies” may not always be the best choice for end-of-life care. Hoofnagle writes, “Doctors typically forgo extreme measures in the face of terminal diagnoses, and often reject the type of care we routinely provide to our patients. […] It used to be the doctor wouldn’t ofter the choice if he or she felt it was futile, now patients are given choices, endless choices.” Sometimes a simple answer is in order.

Science for the Future

On the USA Science and Engineering Festival blog, founder Larry Bock addresses the “declining number of young Americans entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).” The Festival expo will take place April 28th and 29th, aiming to “inspire the next generation of science and technology innovators through exciting unforgettable ways.” Bock says that waning student interest in STEM subjects is not “a problem for our schools to tackle alone. It will take all of us—from involved parents and teachers to employers, government entities, STEM professionals and civic and community organizations—to help inspire the next generation of innovators.” So read about the expo’s star-studded itinerary, and bring a kid to Washington DC or one of the satellite events around the country. Meanwhile, Ethan Siegel bemoans the prospects for budding astronomers in light of the National Science Foundation’s 2012 budget. In 2011, funding for astronomy was “about equal to the least valuable team in the NBA,” and in this new year threatens to shrink to zero.

Four First Glimpses

When the stars align, the results can be nothing short of spectacular. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel shows us an “Einstein ring” photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. This celestial halo surrounds a massive red galaxy, and is in fact light from a much more distant galaxy focused by gravity. Ethan explains, “gravity will bend spacetime, forcing light into a curved path. If a very distant galaxy is properly lined-up with us and a less distant—but very massive—galaxy, its light will not only be bent into a ring if the alignment is perfect, but its light will be greatly magnified, making a dim galaxy appear very bright.” The newly-imaged LRG 3-757 “makes about 80% of a full ring: a cosmic horseshoe.” A never-before-seen galaxy is also visible on Greg Laden’s Blog: GN-108036. Greg says this galaxy produces stars “at the rate of about 100 per year. In contract, the Mikly Way (our galaxy), even though it is 100 times bigger in mass than GN-108036, produces about 30 new stars per year.” Amazingly, we are seeing this galaxy as it existed only 750 million years after the big bang. Greg also has the first low-altitude images of the massive asteroid Vesta, taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. And on Starts With a Bang, Ethan covers Kepler’s discovery of the first exoplanet smaller than Earth, whose very hot year is shorter than a week.

Coaxing the Higgs out of Hiding

The Higgs Boson, an elementary particle thought to give mass to all other particles, remains an elusive final piece of the Standard Model of physics. On The Weizmann Wave, Professor Eilam Gross writes “many scientists believe that the Standard Model will stand or fall on the discovery of Higgs boson particles or proof that they don’t exist.” Titanic efforts at the Large Hadron Collider over the last year have been geared toward observing the Higgs, but despite suggestive data released on Tuesday, the indisputable remains out of reach. Kostas Nikolopoulos writes on Brookhaven Bits & Bytes that the LHC will restart in spring 2012 and “should be able to double the available dataset in time for the summer conferences.” Until then, evidence for a Higgs particle at a mass of 126 GeV could be considered a statistical fluke. Ethan Siegel provides detailed insight into the science on Starts With a Bang, considering the theoretical consequences of not finding the Higgs, or finding it at different masses. A Higgs would be hard to create, and quickly decay into less exotic particles, blending into the elementary soup created by the proton collisions. And due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, “a very short-lived particle actually picks up an intrinsic uncertainty in its mass.” So while the early data is compelling, Ethan concludes “it takes a 99.99995% certainty in order to call something a discovery these days.”

Too Green to Be True

Renewable energy sources could allow for a prudent decrease in CO2 emissions while still powering a populous, electrified global economy. On The Pump Handle, Mark Pendergrast examines the proverbial canary in the coal mine, Japan. Wary of imported fossil fuels and burned by nuclear disaster, Japan is looking toward solar, geothermal, wind, water, and biomass-powered alternative energy sources. Wind, for example, could provide 10% of Japan’s energy needs, but with blade-busting typhoons and fierce winter lightning storms, turbines must be more robust and adaptable than ever. Mark writes, “wind power could literally begin to replace nuclear power plants, which are all located by the ocean with a good infrastructure in place to deliver power to the grid.” Mark takes an in-depth look at all of Japan’s wide-ranging energy efforts, and has also published a new book on the subject. Meanwhile, Ethan Siegel considers the latest claim of cold fusion on Starts With a Bang! He explains that atomic nuclei are quantum mechanical objects whose wavefunctions can overlap, meaning they “can tunnel into that energetically favorable state, and fusion can occur!” This improbable event befalls 1038 protons every second in the Sun, but has never been observed at cold temperatures. And while Ethan says it’s theoretically possible, the recent claims of Andrea Rossi shouldn’t raise your hopes.

Burning the Midday Oil

Not one to let physical and economic reality get in the way of a good one-liner, Newt Gingrich recently remarked that the United States could “open up enough oil fields in the next year that the price of oil worldwide would collapse.” But as Sharon Astyk reports on Casaubon’s Book, it can take years to develop such resources. And, as demonstrated by the hurdles that have tripped up the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, getting far-flung crude to the right refineries can be a logistical nightmare. Sharon says that most of the interred oil “won’t be economically viable to extract or move,” and would probably end up in China anyway. Meanwhile, on Class M, new research shows “that the global climate may not be as sensitive to rising atmospheric CO2 levels as everyone has assumed.” In fact, the median rate of temperature increase may be about 20% less. James Hrynyshyn writes, “the lower estimate implies we have one or two more decades than previously thought to play with before hitting the 2 °C mark, which is where most estimates say the bad stuff kicks in.” Also on Class M, James reports that Canada will withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, which despite increased emissions from the U.S. “will meet its modest goals.”