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  • richardmitnick 3:19 pm on February 13, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Caltech, Iron,   

    From Caltech: “How Iron Feels the Heat” 

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    Caltech

    02/13/2015
    Jessica Stoller-Conrad

    1

    As you heat up a piece of iron, the arrangement of the iron atoms changes several times before melting. This unusual behavior is one reason why steel, in which iron plays a starring role, is so sturdy and ubiquitous in everything from teapots to skyscrapers. But the details of just how and why iron takes on so many different forms have remained a mystery. Recent work at Caltech in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, however, provides evidence for how iron’s magnetism plays a role in this curious property—an understanding that could help researchers develop better and stronger steel.

    “Humans have been working with regular old iron for thousands of years, but this is a piece about its thermodynamics that no one has ever really understood,” says Brent Fultz, the Barbara and Stanley R. Rawn, Jr., Professor of Materials Science and Applied Physics.

    The laws of thermodynamics govern the natural behavior of materials, such as the temperature at which water boils and the timing of chemical reactions. These same principles also determine how atoms in solids are arranged, and in the case of iron, nature changes its mind several times at high temperatures. At room temperature, the iron atoms are in an unusual loosely packed open arrangement; as iron is heated past 912 degrees Celsius, the atoms become more closely packed before loosening again at 1,394 degrees Celsius and ultimately melting at 1,538 degrees Celsius.

    Iron is magnetic at room temperature, and previous work predicted that iron’s magnetism favors its open structure at low temperatures, but at 770 degrees Celsius iron loses its magnetism. However, iron maintains its open structure for more than a hundred degrees beyond this magnetic transition. This led the researchers to believe that there must be something else contributing to iron’s unusual thermodynamic properties.

    For this missing link, graduate student Lisa Mauger and her colleagues needed to turn up the heat. Solids store heat as small atomic vibrations—vibrations that create disorder, or entropy. At high temperatures, entropy dominates thermodynamics, and atomic vibrations are the largest source of entropy in iron. By studying how these vibrations change as the temperature goes up and magnetism is lost, the researchers hoped to learn more about what is driving these structural rearrangements.

    To do this, the team took its samples of iron to the High Pressure Collaborative Access Team beamline of the Advanced Photon Source [APS] at Argonne National Laboratory [ANL] in Argonne, Illinois. This synchrotron facility produces intense flashes of x-rays that can be tuned to detect the quantum particles of atomic vibration—called phonon excitations—in iron.

    ANL APS
    ANL APS interior
    APS at ANL

    When coupling these vibrational measurements with previously known data about the magnetic behavior of iron at these temperatures, the researchers found that iron’s vibrational entropy was much larger than originally suspected. In fact, the excess was similar to the entropy contribution from magnetism—suggesting that magnetism and atomic vibrations interact synergistically at moderate temperatures. This excess entropy increases the stability of the iron’s open structure even as the sample is heated past the magnetic transition.

    The technique allowed the researchers to conclude, experimentally and for the first time, that magnons—the quantum particles of electron spin (magnetism)—and phonons interact to increase iron’s stability at high temperatures.

    Because the Caltech group’s measurements matched up with the theoretical calculations that were simultaneously being developed by collaborators in the laboratory of Jörg Neugebauer at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung GmbH (MPIE), Mauger’s results also contributed to the validation of a new computational model.

    “It has long been speculated that the structural stability of iron is strongly related to an inherent coupling between magnetism and atomic motion,” says Fritz Körmann, postdoctoral fellow at MPIE and the first author on the computational paper. “Actually finding this coupling, and that the data of our experimental colleagues and our own computational results are in such an excellent agreement, was indeed an exciting moment.”

    “Only by combining methods and expertise from various scientific fields such as quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and thermodynamics, and by using incredibly powerful supercomputers, it became possible to describe the complex dynamic phenomena taking place inside one of the technologically most used structural materials,” says Neugebauer. “The newly gained insight of how thermodynamic stability is realized in iron will help to make the design of new steels more systematic.”

    For thousands of years, metallurgists have been working to make stronger steels in much the same way that you’d try to develop a recipe for the world’s best cookie: guess and check. Steel begins with a base of standard ingredients—iron and carbon—much like a basic cookie batter begins with flour and butter. And just as you’d customize a cookie recipe by varying the amounts of other ingredients like spices and nuts, the properties of steel can be tuned by adding varying amounts of other elements, such as chromium and nickel.

    With a better computational model for the thermodynamics of iron at different temperatures—one that takes into account the effects of both magnetism and atomic vibrations—metallurgists will now be able to more accurately predict the thermodynamic properties of iron alloys as they alter their recipes.

    The experimental work was published in a paper titled Nonharmonic Phonons in α-Iron at High Temperatures,” in the journal Physical Review B. In addition to Fultz and first author Mauger, other Caltech coauthors include Jorge Alberto Muñoz (PhD ’13) and graduate student Sally June Tracy. The computational paper, Temperature Dependent Magnon-Phonon Coupling in bcc Fe from Theory and Experiment, was coauthored by Fultz and Mauger, led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute, and published in the journal Physical Review Letters. Fultz’s and Mauger’s work was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

    See the full article here.

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    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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  • richardmitnick 4:09 pm on February 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Caltech: “Caltech biochemist sheds light on structure of key cellular ‘gatekeeper'” 

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    Caltech

    02/12/2015
    Jon Nalick

    1

    Facing a challenge akin to solving a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle while blindfolded—and without touching the pieces—many structural biochemists thought it would be impossible to determine the atomic structure of a massive cellular machine called the nuclear pore complex (NPC), which is vital for cell survival.

    But after 10 years of attacking the problem, a team led by André Hoelz, assistant professor of chemistry, recently solved almost a third of the puzzle. The approach his team developed to do so also promises to speed completion of the remainder.

    In an article published online February 12 by Science Express, Hoelz and his colleagues describe the structure of a significant portion of the NPC, which is made up of many copies of about 34 different proteins, perhaps 1,000 proteins in all and a total of 10 million atoms. In eukaryotic cells (those with a membrane-bound nucleus), the NPC forms a transport channel in the nuclear membrane. The NPC serves as a gatekeeper, essentially deciding which proteins and other molecules are permitted to pass into and out of the nucleus. The survival of cells is dependent upon the accuracy of these decisions.

    Understanding the structure of the NPC could lead to new classes of cancer drugs as well as antiviral medicines. “The NPC is a huge target of viruses,” Hoelz says. Indeed, pathogens such as HIV and Ebola subvert the NPC as a way to take control of cells, rendering them incapable of functioning normally. Figuring out just how the NPC works might enable the design of new drugs to block such intruders.

    “This is an incredibly important structure to study,” he says, “but because it is so large and complex, people thought it was crazy to work on it. But 10 years ago, we hypothesized that we could solve the atomic structure with a divide-and-conquer approach—basically breaking the task into manageable parts—and we’ve shown that for a major section of the NPC, this actually worked.”

    To map the structure of the NPC, Hoelz relied primarily on X-ray crystallography, which involves shining X-rays on a crystallized sample and using detectors to analyze the pattern of rays reflected off the atoms in the crystal.

    It is particularly challenging to obtain X-ray diffraction images of the intact NPC for several reasons, including that the NPC is both enormous (about 30 times larger than the ribosome, a large cellular component whose structure wasn’t solved until the year 2000) and complex (with as many as 1,000 individual pieces, each composed of several smaller sections). In addition, the NPC is flexible, with many moving parts, making it difficult to capture in individual snapshots at the atomic level, as X-ray crystallography aims to do. Finally, despite being enormous compared to other cellular components, the NPC is still vanishingly small (only 120 nanometers wide, or about 1/900th the thickness of a dollar bill), and its highly flexible nature prohibits structure determination with current X-ray crystallography methods.

    To overcome those obstacles, Hoelz and his team chose to determine the structure of the coat nucleoporin complex (CNC)—one of the two main complexes that make up the NPC—rather than tackling the whole structure at once (in total the NPC is composed of six subcomplexes, two major ones and four smaller ones, see illustration). He enlisted the support of study coauthor Anthony Kossiakoff of the University of Chicago, who helped to develop the engineered antibodies needed to essentially “superglue” the samples into place to form an ordered crystalline lattice so they could be properly imaged. The X-ray diffraction data used for structure determination was collected at the General Medical Sciences and National Cancer Institutes Structural Biology Beamline at the Argonne National Laboratory.

    With the help of Caltech’s Molecular Observatory—a facility, developed with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, that includes a completely automated X-ray beamline at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory that can be controlled remotely from Caltech—Hoelz’s team refined the antibody adhesives required to generate the best crystalline samples. This process alone took two years to get exactly right.

    Hoelz and his team were able to determine the precise size, shape, and the position of all atoms of the CNC, and also its location within the entire NPC.

    The CNC is not the first component of the NPC to be fully characterized, but it is by far the largest. Hoelz says that once the other major component—known as the adaptor–channel nucleoporin complex—and the four smaller subcomplexes are mapped, the NPC’s structure will be fully understood.

    The CNC that Hoelz and his team evaluated comes from baker’s yeast—a commonly used research organism—but the CNC structure is the right size and shape to dock with the NPC of a human cell. “It fits inside like a hand in a glove,” Hoelz says. “That’s significant because it is a very strong indication that the architecture of the NPC in both are probably the same and that the machinery is so important that evolution has not changed it in a billion years.”

    Being able to successfully determine the structure of the CNC makes mapping the remainder of the NPC an easier proposition. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest. Knowing you can do it lowers the bar, so you know you can now climb K2 and all these other mountains,” says Hoelz, who is convinced that the entire NPC will be characterized soon. “It will happen. I don’t know if it will be in five or 10 or 20 years, but I’m sure it will happen in my lifetime. We will have an atomic model of the entire nuclear pore.”

    Still, he adds, “My dream actually goes much farther. I don’t really want to have a static image of the pore. What I really would like—and this is where people look at me with a bit of a smile on their face, like they’re laughing a little bit—is to get an image of how the pore is moving, how the machine actually works. The pore is not a static hole, it can open up like the iris of a camera to let something through that’s much bigger. How does it do it?”

    To understand that machine in motion, he adds, “you don’t just need one snapshot, you need multiple snapshots. But once you have one, you can infer the other ones much quicker, so that’s the ultimate goal. That’s the dream.”

    Along with Hoelz, additional Caltech authors on the paper, Architecture of the Nuclear Pore Complex Coat, include postdoctoral scholars Tobias Stuwe and Ana R. Correia, and graduate student Daniel H. Lin. Coauthors from the University of Chicago Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology include Anthony Kossiakoff, Marcin Paduch and Vincent Lu. The work was supported by Caltech startup funds, the Albert Wyrick V Scholar Award of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, the 54th Mallinckrodt Scholar Award of the Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. Foundation, and a Kimmel Scholar Award of the Sidney Kimmel Foundation for Cancer Research.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Stem Education Coalition

    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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  • richardmitnick 4:15 pm on January 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Caltech: “Size Matters: The Importance of Building Small Things” 

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    Caltech

    01/21/2015
    Watson Lecture Preview

    Strong materials, such as concrete, are usually heavy, and lightweight materials, such as rubber (for latex gloves) and paper, are usually weak and susceptible to tearing and damage. Julia R. Greer, professor of materials science and mechanics in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science, is helping to break that linkage.

    Q: What do you do?

    A: I’m a materials scientist, and I work with materials whose dimensions are at the nanoscale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about one-hundred-thousandth the diameter of a hair. At those dimensions, ordinary materials such as metals, ceramics, and glasses take on properties quite unlike their bulk-scale counterparts. Many materials become 10 or more times stronger. Some become damage-tolerant. Glass shatters very easily in our world, for example, but at the nanoscale, some glasses become deformable and less breakable. We’re trying to harness these so-called size effects to create “meta-materials” that display these properties at scales we can see.

    We can fabricate essentially any structure we like with the help of a special instrument that is like a tabletop microprinter, but uses laser pulses to “write” a three-dimensional structure into a tiny droplet of a polymer. The laser “sets” the polymer into our three-dimensional design, creating a minuscule plastic scaffold. We rinse away the unset polymer and put our scaffold in another machine that essentially wraps it in a very thin, nanometers-thick ribbon of the stuff we’re actually interested in—a metal, a semiconductor, or a biocompatible material. Then we get rid of the plastic, leaving just the interwoven hollow tubular structure. The final structure is hollow, and it weighs nothing. It’s 99.9 percent air.

    We can even make structures nested within other structures. We recently started making hierarchical nanotrusses—trusses built from smaller trusses, like a fractal.

    1
    A fractal nanotruss made in Greer’s lab.
    Credit: Lucas Meza, Greer lab/Caltech

    Q: How big can you make these things, and where might that lead us?

    A: Right now, most of them are about 100 by 100 by 100 microns cubed. A micron is a millionth of a meter, so that is very small. And the unit cells, the individual building blocks, are very, very small—a few microns each. I recently asked my graduate students to create a demo big enough to be visible, so I could show it at seminars. They wrote me an object about 6 millimeters by 6 millimeters by about 100 microns tall. It took them about a week just to write the polymer, never mind the ribbon deposition and all the other steps.

    The demo piece looks like a little white square from the top, until you hold it up to the light. Then a rainbow of colors play across its surface, and it looks like a fine opal. That’s because the nanolattices and the opals are both photonic crystals, which means that their unit cells are the right size to interact with light. Synthetic three-dimensional photonic crystals are relatively hard to make, but they could be extremely useful as high-speed switches for fiber-optic networks.

    Our goal is to figure out a way to mass produce nanostructures that are big enough to see. The possibilities are endless. You could make a soft contact lens that can’t be torn, for example. Or a very lightweight, very safe biocompatible material that could go into someone’s body as a scaffold on which to grow cells. Or you could use semiconductors to build 3-D logic circuits. We’re working with Assistant Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science Andrei Faraon [BS ’04] to try to figure out how to simultaneously write a whole bunch of things that are all 1 centimeter by 1 centimeter.

    Q: How did you get into this line of work? What got you started?

    A: When I first got to Caltech, I was working on metallic nanopillars. That was my bread and butter. Nanopillars are about 50 nanometers to 1 micron in diameter, and about three times taller than their width. They were what we used to demonstrate, for example, that smaller becomes stronger—the pillars were stronger than the bulk metal by an order of magnitude, which is nothing to laugh at.

    Nanopillars are awesome, but you can’t build anything out of them. And so I always wondered if I could use something like them as nano-LEGOs and construct larger objects, like a nano-Eiffel Tower. The question I asked myself was if each individual component had that very, very high strength, would the whole structure be incredibly strong? That was always in the back of my mind. Then I met some people at DARPA (Defense Advanced at HRL (formerly Hughes Research Laboratories) who were interested in some similar questions, specifically about using architecture in material design. My HRL colleagues were making microscale structures called micro-trusses, so we started a very successful DARPA-funded collaboration to make even smaller trusses with unit cells in the micron range. These structures were still far too big for my purposes, but they brought this work closer to reality.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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  • richardmitnick 6:47 pm on January 8, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From Caltech: “Unusual Light Signal Yields Clues About Elusive Black Hole Merger” 

    Caltech Logo
    Caltech

    01/07/2015
    Ker Than

    The central regions of many glittering galaxies, our own Milky Way included, harbor cores of impenetrable darkness—black holes with masses equivalent to millions, or even billions, of suns. What is more, these supermassive black holes and their host galaxies appear to develop together, or “co-evolve.” Theory predicts that as galaxies collide and merge, growing ever more massive, so too do their dark hearts.

    bh
    Simulation of gravitational lensing by a black hole, which distorts the image of a galaxy in the background


    ESOCast
    Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have discovered a gas cloud with several times the mass of the Earth accelerating towards the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. This is the first time ever that the approach of such a doomed cloud to a supermassive black hole has been observed. This ESOcast explains the new results and includes spectacular simulations of how the cloud will break up over the next few years.
    Credit: ESO.

    ESO VLT Interferometer
    ESO VLT Interior
    ESO/VLT

    Black holes by themselves are impossible to see, but their gravity can pull in surrounding gas to form a swirling band of material called an accretion disk. The spinning particles are accelerated to tremendous speeds and release vast amounts of energy in the form of heat and powerful X-rays and gamma rays. When this process happens to a supermassive black hole, the result is a quasar—an extremely luminous object that outshines all of the stars in its host galaxy and that is visible from across the universe. “Quasars are valuable probes of the evolution of galaxies and their central black holes,” says George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy and director of the Center for Data-Driven Discovery at Caltech.

    In the January 7 issue of the journal Nature, Djorgovski and his collaborators report on an unusual repeating light signal from a distant quasar that they say is most likely the result of two supermassive black holes in the final phases of a merger—something that is predicted from theory but which has never been observed before. The discovery could help shed light on a long-standing conundrum in astrophysics called the “final parsec problem,” which refers to the failure of theoretical models to predict what the final stages of a black hole merger look like or even how long the process might take. “The end stages of the merger of these supermassive black hole systems are very poorly understood,” says the study’s first author, Matthew Graham, a senior computational scientist at Caltech. “The discovery of a system that seems to be at this late stage of its evolution means we now have an observational handle on what is going on.”

    Djorgovski and his team discovered the unusual light signal emanating from quasar PG 1302-102 after analyzing results from the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey (CRTS), which uses three ground telescopes in the United States and Australia to continuously monitor some 500 million celestial light sources strewn across about 80 percent of the night sky. “There has never been a data set on quasar variability that approaches this scope before,” says Djorgovski, who directs the CRTS. “In the past, scientists who study the variability of quasars might only be able to follow some tens, or at most hundreds, of objects with a limited number of measurements. In this case, we looked at a quarter million quasars and were able to gather a few hundred data points for each one.”

    “Until now, the only known examples of supermassive black holes on their way to a merger have been separated by tens or hundreds of thousands of light years,” says study coauthor Daniel Stern, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “At such vast distances, it would take many millions, or even billions, of years for a collision and merger to occur. In contrast, the black holes in PG 1302-102 are, at most, a few hundredths of a light year apart and could merge in about a million years or less.”

    Djorgovski and his team did not set out to find a black hole merger. Rather, they initially embarked on a systematic study of quasar brightness variability in the hopes of finding new clues about their physics. But after screening the data using a pattern-seeking algorithm that Graham developed, the team found 20 quasars that seemed to be emitting periodic optical signals. This was surprising, because the light curves of most quasars are chaotic—a reflection of the random nature by which material from the accretion disk spirals into a black hole. “You just don’t expect to see a periodic signal from a quasar,” Graham says. “When you do, it stands out.”

    Of the 20 periodic quasars that CRTS identified, PG 1302-102 was the best example. It had a strong, clean signal that appeared to repeat every five years or so. “It has a really nice smooth up-and-down signal, similar to a sine wave, and that just hasn’t been seen before in a quasar,” Graham says.

    The team was cautious about jumping to conclusions. “We approached it with skepticism but excitement as well,” says study coauthor Eilat Glikman, an assistant professor of physics at Middlebury College in Vermont. After all, it was possible that the periodicity the scientists were seeing was just a temporary ordered blip in an otherwise chaotic signal. To help rule out this possibility, the scientists pulled in data about the quasar from previous surveys to include in their analysis. After factoring in the historical observations (the scientists had nearly 20 years’ worth of data about quasar PG 1302-102), the repeating signal was, encouragingly, still there.

    The team’s confidence increased further after Glikman analyzed the quasar’s light spectrum. The black holes that scientists believe are powering quasars do not emit light, but the gases swirling around them in the accretion disks are traveling so quickly that they become heated into glowing plasma. “When you look at the emission lines in a spectrum from an object, what you’re really seeing is information about speed—whether something is moving toward you or away from you and how fast. It’s the Doppler effect,” Glikman says. “With quasars, you typically have one emission line, and that line is a symmetric curve. But with this quasar, it was necessary to add a second emission line with a slightly different speed than the first one in order to fit the data. That suggests something else, such as a second black hole, is perturbing this system.”

    Avi Loeb, who chairs the astronomy department at Harvard University, agreed with the team’s assessment that a “tight” supermassive black hole binary is the most likely explanation for the periodic signal they are seeing. “The evidence suggests that the emission originates from a very compact region around the black hole and that the speed of the emitting material in that region is at least a tenth of the speed of light,” says Loeb, who did not participate in the research. “A secondary black hole would be the simplest way to induce a periodic variation in the emission from that region, because a less dense object, such as a star cluster, would be disrupted by the strong gravity of the primary black hole.”

    In addition to providing an unprecedented glimpse into the final stages of a black hole merger, the discovery is also a testament to the power of “big data” science, where the challenge lies not only in collecting high-quality information but also devising ways to mine it for useful information. “We’re basically moving from having a few pictures of the whole sky or repeated observations of tiny patches of the sky to having a movie of the entire sky all the time,” says Sterl Phinney, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, who was also not involved in the study. “Many of the objects in the movie will not be doing anything very exciting, but there will also be a lot of interesting ones that we missed before.”

    It is still unclear what physical mechanism is responsible for the quasar’s repeating light signal. One possibility, Graham says, is that the quasar is funneling material from its accretion disk into luminous twin plasma jets that are rotating like beams from a lighthouse. “If the glowing jets are sweeping around in a regular fashion, then we would only see them when they’re pointed directly at us. The end result is a regularly repeating signal,” Graham says.

    Another possibility is that the accretion disk that encircles both black holes is distorted. “If one region is thicker than the rest, then as the warped section travels around the accretion disk, it could be blocking light from the quasar at regular intervals. This would explain the periodicity of the signal that we’re seeing,” Graham says. Yet another possibility is that something is happening to the accretion disk that is causing it to dump material onto the black holes in a regular fashion, resulting in periodic bursts of energy.

    “Even though there are a number of viable physical mechanisms behind the periodicity we’re seeing—either the precessing jet, warped accretion disk or periodic dumping—these are all still fundamentally caused by a close binary system,” Graham says.

    Along with Djorgovski, Graham, Stern, and Glikman, additional authors on the paper, A possible close supermassive black hole binary in a quasar with optical periodicity, include Andrew Drake, a computational scientist and co-principal investigator of the CRTS sky survey at Caltech; Ashish Mahabal, a staff scientist in computational astronomy at Caltech; Ciro Donalek, a computational staff scientist at Caltech; Steve Larson, a senior staff scientist at the University of Arizona; and Eric Christensen, an associate staff scientist at the University of Arizona. Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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  • richardmitnick 3:27 pm on December 5, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From Caltech: “Einstein Online: An Interview with Diana Kormos-Buchwald” 

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    Caltech

    12/05/2014
    Kimm Fesenmaier

    The Einstein Papers Project, housed at Caltech since 2000, has worked in collaboration with Princeton University Press, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the digital publishing platform Tizra to produce a digital edition of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. This new edition presents the world-renowned physicist’s annotated writings and correspondence through 1923 on a free and publicly accessible website.

    ae

    Upon its launch today, the digital papers will contain all 13 published volumes of The Collected Papers, in Einstein’s original German and translated into English, along with an index volume. Additional volumes will be added to the site about 18 months after each new volume is published. The 14th print volume, covering the period from April 1923 through May 1925 and including Einstein’s trip to South America, is scheduled for publication in February 2015.

    We recently sat down with Diana Kormos-Buchwald, professor of history at Caltech and director and general editor of the Einstein Papers Project, to talk about the project’s new digital endeavor.

    The digital edition makes it so that anyone with access to the Internet can read Einstein’s papers and correspondence from the first 44 years of his life for free. Why have you and your colleagues undertaken this massive project?

    The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein is a unique project in and of itself. Einstein is the most revolutionary and famous scientist of the 20th century, and there is no similar integrated project that compiles and annotates a scientist’s writings and correspondence. These scholarly volumes are addressed, in a way, to a specialist audience—the historian of science, the philosopher of science, the physicist who wants to read Einstein in his own words.

    But Einstein is and always has been of great interest to the general public as well. His is the most recognized face on the Internet in all cultures. People are attracted to him because of his creativity, maybe because of his image as an unconventional scientist.

    So we are now making available these volumes that have explanations and footnotes in English, introductions in English, bibliographies, plus full translations, along with the ability to see some of the original manuscripts in high-definition scans through links to the Einstein Archives Online, another project that we launched a few years ago in collaboration with the Hebrew University’s Einstein Archives. We are presenting all of this in an integrated platform in which the user can search for words and phrases in both English and German.

    Biographers and historians need to focus their attention and highlight a selection of documents. But we can present everything—his scientific papers, his letters to his children, his travel diaries, his impressions of foreign lands and cultures, etc.

    I think it’s a great achievement that we were able to put these volumes up without putting them behind a pay wall. The Press has done a wonderful job. Each volume is equivalent to something like 100 scientific papers, plus the translations. And we’re making them free and open. This is a joint effort, and it furthers what I think of as an authoritative way of doing digital humanities.

    What do you hope readers will take away from reading Einstein’s papers?

    What I would hope the reader would find is how extraordinarily hard working Einstein was. Things didn’t happen with flashes of insight. In the famous year 1905, when he publishes his papers on the special theory of relativity, quantum theory, Brownian motion, and E = mc2, he also publishes 20 reviews of other people’s work.

    We’re putting up 5,000 documents. Einstein is known for 5 or 10, maybe 15 major papers; the 5,000 documents provide a context for those well-known papers. He was an extremely productive scientist who wrote two to three pieces per month for the rest of his career, between 1905 and the late 1930s. We have 1,000 writings, many of them unpublished. So the beauty of these volumes is also that they include drafts and writings on a variety of topics that were never published during his lifetime.

    Also, Einstein was interested in a lot of fields of science. He started with great interest in physical chemistry and mastered that literature. And he continued through his entire career to be interested in applied physics, theoretical physics, experimental physics, chemistry, biochemistry. He has exchanges with doctors about physiology. So while Einstein is not a Renaissance figure the way let’s say [Hermann von] Helmholtz was—he is a specialized physicist—nevertheless, he is very curious.

    We also hope to demolish some outstanding myths: Einstein was not the isolated theoretician working by himself in an attic with pen and paper. He was a modern, professional scientist, who earned his living through his work as a scientist and as a professor. He was not wealthy. He was the exemplar of the transformation, if you want, in academia at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, when science expanded a lot in universities. And the correspondence shows he has this ever-growing circle of friends and colleagues in science and engineering, and young people whom he shepherds and advises.

    How long have you been working on this digital project with Princeton University Press, Tizra, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem?

    We have been planning this for several years. We wanted to present an accurate rendering of our volumes, which are highly specialized. And we wanted to make these volumes searchable—not only the scholarly annotations but also the scans, facsimiles, and reproductions.

    Einstein famously spent several winter terms here at Caltech in the early 1930s, but the published volumes of The Collected Papers only cover his life through 1923. Are there items referencing Caltech in those volumes that we can look for in the digital edition?

    Yes, Einstein visited Caltech in 1931, ’32, and ’33, but his correspondence with scientists at Caltech goes back much further. For example, in 1913, Einstein wrote a letter to George Ellery Hale asking whether the deflection of sunlight in the sun’s gravitational field could be observed in the daytime. Hale wrote back saying no, we cannot see that.

    He also had contacts with Robert A. Millikan quite early on. In 1922, Millikan officially informed Einstein that the National Academy of Sciences had elected him as a foreign associate. They also discuss scientific work quite a bit, and Millikan and Einstein both serve on the Intellectual Committee for International Cooperation of the League of Nations.

    Einstein was instrumental in recommending several prominent scientists for recruitment very early in the founding of the Institute. The volumes also show correspondence between Einstein, Millikan, and Richard Tolman, professor of physical chemistry and mathematical physics, who was one of the earliest relativists.

    Einstein knows, right at the beginning, in the early 1920s, that Caltech is going to be an exciting place.

    Was Einstein unusual in the size of his correspondence?

    Yes, his correspondence is very large for a scientist. It amounts to about 30,000 items to and from Einstein. It’s of the size of Napoleon’s papers—orders of magnitude larger than any other modern scientist.

    This amount of correspondence testifies to Einstein’s centrality in the scientific life of Europe in the 1920s. He does become a nexus, at least in physics. And he is flooded by requests—everything from requests from indigent students up to requests from very famous people that he should endorse this or that appeal, contribute to this or that volume, or participate in this or that conference. He gets to be in great demand.

    He also gets a lot of inquiries from the general public about general relativity.

    Does he answer them?

    Yes, he tries to respond to every letter he gets. He was extremely disciplined. He spent quite a lot of time answering correspondence.

    Have any of your team’s discoveries been particularly exciting for you?

    I was excited when, a few years ago, we discovered some new letters from Croatia—from a Croatian physicist dating back to early in Einstein’s career. These were letters dating to 1911 and ’12, before Einstein finished general relativity. I’m always very pleased when we find material prior to 1915 or ’16 because Einstein’s path from special relativity to general relativity is one of the most exciting intellectual journeys. Whenever we uncover new material from that decade, it is quite significant, because we have so little material for the young Einstein compared to the older Einstein. Later, his correspondence grows exponentially.

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    From Caltech: “New Technique Could Harvest More of the Sun’s Energy” 

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    Caltech

    11/26/2014
    Jessica Stoller-Conrad

    As solar panels become less expensive and capable of generating more power, solar energy is becoming a more commercially viable alternative source of electricity. However, the photovoltaic cells now used to turn sunlight into electricity can only absorb and use a small fraction of that light, and that means a significant amount of solar energy goes untapped.

    A new technology created by researchers from Caltech, and described in a paper published online in the October 30 issue of Science Express, represents a first step toward harnessing that lost energy.

    m
    An ultra-sensitive needle measures the voltage that is generated while the nanospheres are illuminated.
    Credit: AMOLF/Tremani – Figure: Artist impression of the plasmo-electric effect.

    Sunlight is composed of many wavelengths of light. In a traditional solar panel, silicon atoms are struck by sunlight and the atoms’ outermost electrons absorb energy from some of these wavelengths of sunlight, causing the electrons to get excited. Once the excited electrons absorb enough energy to jump free from the silicon atoms, they can flow independently through the material to produce electricity. This is called the photovoltaic effect—a phenomenon that takes place in a solar panel’s photovoltaic cells.

    Although silicon-based photovoltaic cells can absorb light wavelengths that fall in the visible spectrum—light that is visible to the human eye—longer wavelengths such as infrared light pass through the silicon. These wavelengths of light pass right through the silicon and never get converted to electricity—and in the case of infrared, they are normally lost as unwanted heat.

    “The silicon absorbs only a certain fraction of the spectrum, and it’s transparent to the rest. If I put a photovoltaic module on my roof, the silicon absorbs that portion of the spectrum, and some of that light gets converted into power. But the rest of it ends up just heating up my roof,” says Harry A. Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science; director, Resnick Sustainability Institute, who led the study.

    Now, Atwater and his colleagues have found a way to absorb and make use of these infrared waves with a structure composed not of silicon, but entirely of metal.

    The new technique they’ve developed is based on a phenomenon observed in metallic structures known as plasmon resonance. Plasmons are coordinated waves, or ripples, of electrons that exist on the surfaces of metals at the point where the metal meets the air.

    While the plasmon resonances of metals are predetermined in nature, Atwater and his colleagues found that those resonances are capable of being tuned to other wavelengths when the metals are made into tiny nanostructures in the lab.

    “Normally in a metal like silver or copper or gold, the density of electrons in that metal is fixed; it’s just a property of the material,” Atwater says. “But in the lab, I can add electrons to the atoms of metal nanostructures and charge them up. And when I do that, the resonance frequency will change.”

    “We’ve demonstrated that these resonantly excited metal surfaces can produce a potential”—an effect very similar to rubbing a glass rod with a piece of fur: you deposit electrons on the glass rod. “You charge it up, or build up an electrostatic charge that can be discharged as a mild shock,” he says. “So similarly, exciting these metal nanostructures near their resonance charges up those metal structures, producing an electrostatic potential that you can measure.”

    This electrostatic potential is a first step in the creation of electricity, Atwater says. “If we can develop a way to produce a steady-state current, this could potentially be a power source. He envisions a solar cell using the plasmoelectric effect someday being used in tandem with photovoltaic cells to harness both visible and infrared light for the creation of electricity.

    Although such solar cells are still on the horizon, the new technique could even now be incorporated into new types of sensors that detect light based on the electrostatic potential.

    “Like all such inventions or discoveries, the path of this technology is unpredictable,” Atwater says. “But any time you can demonstrate a new effect to create a sensor for light, that finding has almost always yielded some kind of new product.”

    This work was published in a paper titled, Plasmoelectric Potentials in Metal Nanostructures. Other coauthors include first author Matthew T. Sheldon, a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech; Ana M. Brown, an applied physics graduate student at Caltech; and Jorik van de Groep and Albert Polman from the FOM Institute AMOLF in Amsterdam. The study was funded by the Department of Energy, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

    See the full article here.

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    From Caltech: “Caltech Geologists Discover Ancient Buried Canyon in South Tibet” 

    Caltech Logo
    Caltech

    11/20/2014
    Kimm Fesenmaier

    A team of researchers from Caltech and the China Earthquake Administration has discovered an ancient, deep canyon buried along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in south Tibet, north of the eastern end of the Himalayas. The geologists say that the ancient canyon—thousands of feet deep in places—effectively rules out a popular model used to explain how the massive and picturesque gorges of the Himalayas became so steep, so fast.

    h
    The general location of the Himalayan range

    v
    This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge—the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. Credit: Ping Wang

    r
    The wide valley floor of the Nyang River, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Here, the valley floor of the paleocanyon lies at a depth of about 800 meters below the present-day river.
    Credit: Ping Wang

    g
    This Google Earth image looks down the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley towards the Namche Barwa (right) and Gyala Peri massifs (left). The confluence with the Nyang River (joining from the right) is shown in the foreground. Here, the valley floor is about 4 kilometers wide and the paleocanyon lies about 800-900 meters below the present-day river.
    Credit: Map data: Google, Mapabc.com, DigitalGlobe, and Cnes/Spot Image

    “I was extremely surprised when my colleagues, Jing Liu-Zeng and Dirk Scherler, showed me the evidence for this canyon in southern Tibet,” says Jean-Philippe Avouac, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech. “When I first saw the data, I said, ‘Wow!’ It was amazing to see that the river once cut quite deeply into the Tibetan Plateau because it does not today. That was a big discovery, in my opinion.”

    Geologists like Avouac and his colleagues, who are interested in tectonics—the study of the earth’s surface and the way it changes—can use tools such as GPS and seismology to study crustal deformation that is taking place today. But if they are interested in studying changes that occurred millions of years ago, such tools are not useful because the activity has already happened. In those cases, rivers become a main source of information because they leave behind geomorphic signatures that geologists can interrogate to learn about the way those rivers once interacted with the land—helping them to pin down when the land changed and by how much, for example.

    t
    World plate tectonics

    “In tectonics, we are always trying to use rivers to say something about uplift,” Avouac says. “In this case, we used a paleocanyon that was carved by a river. It’s a nice example where by recovering the geometry of the bottom of the canyon, we were able to say how much the range has moved up and when it started moving.”

    The team reports its findings in the current issue of Science.

    Last year, civil engineers from the China Earthquake Administration collected cores by drilling into the valley floor at five locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Shortly after, former Caltech graduate student Jing Liu-Zeng, who now works for that administration, returned to Caltech as a visiting associate and shared the core data with Avouac and Dirk Scherler, then a postdoc in Avouac’s group. Scherler had previously worked in the far western Himalayas, where the Indus River has cut deeply into the Tibetan Plateau, and immediately recognized that the new data suggested the presence of a paleocanyon.

    Liu-Zeng and Scherler analyzed the core data and found that at several locations there were sedimentary conglomerates, rounded gravel and larger rocks cemented together, that are associated with flowing rivers, until a depth of 800 meters or so, at which point the record clearly indicated bedrock. This suggested that the river once carved deeply into the plateau.

    To establish when the river switched from incising bedrock to depositing sediments, they measured two isotopes, beryllium-10 and aluminum-26, in the lowest sediment layer. The isotopes are produced when rocks and sediment are exposed to cosmic rays at the surface and decay at different rates once buried, and so allowed the geologists to determine that the paleocanyon started to fill with sediment about 2.5 million years ago.

    The researchers’ reconstruction of the former valley floor showed that the slope of the river once increased gradually from the Gangetic Plain to the Tibetan Plateau, with no sudden changes, or knickpoints. Today, the river, like most others in the area, has a steep knickpoint where it meets the Himalayas, at a place known as the Namche Barwa massif. There, the uplift of the mountains is extremely rapid (on the order of 1 centimeter per year, whereas in other areas 5 millimeters per year is more typical) and the river drops by 2 kilometers in elevation as it flows through the famous Tsangpo Gorge, known by some as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon because it is so deep and long.

    Combining the depth and age of the paleocanyon with the geometry of the valley, the geologists surmised that the river existed in this location prior to about 3 million years ago, but at that time, it was not affected by the Himalayas. However, as the Indian and Eurasian plates continued to collide and the mountain range pushed northward, it began impinging on the river. Suddenly, about 2.5 million years ago, a rapidly uplifting section of the mountain range got in the river’s way, damming it, and the canyon subsequently filled with sediment.

    “This is the time when the Namche Barwa massif started to rise, and the gorge developed,” says Scherler, one of two lead authors on the paper and now at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany.

    That picture of the river and the Tibetan Plateau, which involves the river incising deeply into the plateau millions of years ago, differs quite a bit from the typically accepted geologic vision. Typically, geologists believe that when rivers start to incise into a plateau, they eat at the edges, slowly making their way into the plateau over time. However, the rivers flowing across the Himalayas all have strong knickpoints and have not incised much at all into the Tibetan Plateau. Therefore, the thought has been that the rapid uplift of the Himalayas has pushed the rivers back, effectively pinning them, so that they have not been able to make their way into the plateau. But that explanation does not work with the newly discovered paleocanyon.

    The team’s new hypothesis also rules out a model that has been around for about 15 years, called tectonic aneurysm, which suggests that the rapid uplift seen at the Namche Barwa massif was triggered by intense river incision. In tectonic aneurysm, a river cuts down through the earth’s crust so fast that it causes the crust to heat up, making a nearby mountain range weaker and facilitating uplift.

    The model is popular among geologists, and indeed Avouac himself published a modeling paper in 1996 that showed the viability of the mechanism. “But now we have discovered that the river was able to cut into the plateau way before the uplift happened,” Avouac says, “and this shows that the tectonic aneurysm model was actually not at work here. The rapid uplift is not a response to river incision.”

    The other lead author on the paper, Tectonic control of Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge revealed by a buried canyon in Southern Tibet, is Ping Wang of the State Key Laboratory of Earthquake Dynamics, in Beijing, China. Additional authors include Jürgen Mey, of the University of Potsdam, in Germany; and Yunda Zhang and Dingguo Shi of the Chengdu Engineering Corporation, in China. The work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the State Key Laboratory for Earthquake Dynamics, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

    See the full article here.

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    From livescience: “Robot Gliders See How Antarctic Ice Melts From Below” 

    Livescience

    November 10, 2014
    Becky Oskin

    Scientists suspect Antarctica’s shrinking glaciers are melting from the bottom up, and a fleet of robot ocean gliders may help explain why.

    Beneath the icy Weddell Sea in West Antarctica, the gliders discovered turbulent warm currents near ice shelves, the huge floating platforms where continental glaciers extend icy tongues into the sea. The swirling eddies carry pulses of warm water to the shallow depths underneath the ice, scientists report today (Nov. 10) in the journal Nature Geoscience.

    boat
    The research ship James Clark Ross in the Weddell Sea, January 2012.
    Credit: Andrew Thompson/Caltech

    “What we’re looking at is delivery of heat right up to the ice shelf, where the ocean touches up against the ice,” said lead study author Andrew Thompson, a physical oceanographer at Caltech. “It’s almost like a blob of warm water, a little ocean storm.” [Album: Stunning Photos of Antarctic Ice]

    Previous work already pointed to warm water — rather than hotter air temperatures — as the reason for Antarctica’s retreating ice shelves. (The disappearing ice is part of the continental ice sheet, not the sea ice that freezes and melts each year.) But to confirm these suspicions, the researchers needed to get under the ice to see how the process works.

    In 2012, Thompson and colleagues from the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom, used remotely operated gliders to probe the ocean conditions near ice shelves in the Weddell Sea. The gliders rise and sink without propellers, relying instead on a battery-driven pump that changes their buoyancy via a fluid-filled bladder. Every few hours, the six-foot-long (1.8 meters) glider surfaces and uploads its data via a satellite phone network. The gliders collected temperature and salinity data for two months, exploring the upper 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) of the ocean.

    When the gliders hit an eddy, the sleek yellow robots were often caught up in the powerful vortices. “You could almost know by where it came up that it had hit this anomalous region,” Thompson told Live Science. “The glider would go down and end up in a quite different place.”

    shelf
    An illustration showing how warm ocean currents circulate beneath Antarctica’s floating ice shelves. The continental shelf and slope are brown and the glacier is white.
    Credit: Andrew Thompson/Caltech and Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marketing & Communications

    The findings are the first to explain how warm water rises from deeper levels to reach the floating ice shelves. The results suggest the stormlike currents bring up pulses of warm water, which flow under the ice at irregular intervals. Now, researchers need to find out what happens when this heat reaches the grounding line, the spot where glaciers transfer their weight from the continent to the ocean. This is where most of the melting takes place, Thompson said.

    “What we’re seeing from the gliders is that it’s not a steady circulation in and out,” Thompson said. “This is really the first step of understanding of what heat goes in, and how efficient that heat is in melting the ice shelves.”

    Alternating layers of cold and warm water surround Antarctica, and it only takes a few degrees of difference to dissolve a glacier. The warmer water is typically in the middle layer of the ocean. It arrives from the north, delivered on a giant current called the global conveyor belt. Colder water lies on the surface, often formed when cold wind blows over the ocean and sea ice freezes up. Dense, cold water is also on the ocean bottom.

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    From Caltech: “Heat Transfer Sets the Noise Floor for Ultrasensitive Electronics” 

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    Caltech

    11/10/2014
    Ker Than

    A team of engineers and scientists has identified a source of electronic noise that could affect the functioning of instruments operating at very low temperatures, such as devices used in radio telescopes and advanced physics experiments.

    The findings, detailed in the November 10 issue of the journal Nature Materials, could have implications for the future design of transistors and other electronic components.

    The electronic noise the team identified is related to the temperature of the electrons in a given device, which in turn is governed by heat transfer due to packets of vibrational energy, called phonons, that are present in all crystals. “A phonon is similar to a photon, which is a discrete packet of light,” says Austin Minnich, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and applied physics in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science and corresponding author of the new paper. “In many crystals, from ordinary table salt to the indium phosphide crystals used to make transistors, heat is carried mostly by phonons.”

    ph
    Cross-sectional image of ultra-low noise InP transistor. Electrons, accelerated in the high mobility channel under the 100-nanometer gate, collide and dissipate heat that fundamentally limits the noise performance of the transistor.
    Credit: Illustration courtesy of Lisa Kinnerud and Moa Carlsson, Krantz NanoArt/Chalmers University

    Phonons are important for electronics because they help carry away the thermal energy that is injected into devices in the form of electrons. How swiftly and efficiently phonons ferry away heat is partly dependent on the temperature at which the device is operated: at high temperatures, phonons collide with one another and with imperfections in the crystal in a phenomenon called scattering, and this creates phonon traffic jams that result in a temperature rise.

    One way that engineers have traditionally reduced phonon scattering is to use high-quality materials that contain as few defects as possible. “The fewer defects you have, the fewer ‘road blocks’ there are for the moving phonons,” Minnich says.

    A more common solution, however, is to operate electronics in extremely cold conditions because scattering drops off dramatically when the temperature dips below about 50 kelvins, or about –370 degrees Fahrenheit. “As a result, the main strategy for reducing noise is to operate the devices at colder and colder temperatures,” Minnich says.

    But the new findings by Minnich’s team suggest that while this strategy is effective, another phonon transfer mechanism comes into play at extremely low temperatures and severely restricts the heat transfer away from a device.

    Using a combination of computer simulations and real-world experiments, Minnich and his team showed that at around 20 kelvins, or –424 degrees Fahrenheit, the high-energy phonons that are most efficient at transporting heat away quickly are unlikely to be present in a crystal. “At 20 kelvins, many phonon modes become deactivated, and the crystal has only low-energy phonons that don’t have enough energy to carry away the heat,” Minnich says. “As a result, the transistor heats up until the temperature has increased enough that high-energy phonons become available again.”

    As an analogy, Minnich says to imagine an object that is heated until it is white hot. “When something is white hot, the full spectrum of photons, from red to blue, contribute to the heat transfer, and we know from everyday experience that something white hot is extremely hot,” he says. “When something is not as hot it glows red, and in this case heat is only carried by red photons with low energy. The physics for phonons is exactly the same—even the equations are the same.”

    The electronic noise that the team identified has been known about for many years, but until now it was not thought to play an important role at low temperatures. That discovery happened because of a chance encounter between Minnich and Joel Schleeh, a postdoctoral scholar from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and first author of the new study, who was at Caltech visiting the lab of Sander Weinreb, a senior faculty associate in electrical engineering.

    Schleeh had noticed that the noise he was measuring in an amplifier was higher than what theory predicted. Schleeh mentioned the problem to Weinreb, and Weinreb recommended he connect with Minnich, whose lab studies heat transfer by phonons. “At another university, I don’t think I would have had this chance,” Minnich says. “Neither of us would have had the chance to interact like we did here. Caltech is a small campus, so when you talk to someone, almost by definition they’re outside of your field.”

    The pair’s findings could have implications for numerous fields of science that rely on superchilled instruments to make sensitive measurements. “In radio astronomy, you’re trying to detect very weak electromagnetic waves from space, so you need the lowest noise possible,” Minnich says.

    Electronic noise poses a similar problem for quantum-physics experiments. “Here at Caltech, we have physicists trying to observe certain quantum-physics effects. The signal that they’re looking for is very tiny, and it’s essential to use the lowest-noise electronics possible,” Minnich says.

    The news is not all gloomy, however, because the team’s findings also suggest that it may be possible to develop engineering strategies to make phonon heat transfer more efficient at low temperatures. For example, one possibility might be to change the design of transistors so that phonon generation takes place over a broader volume. “If you can make the phonon generation more spread out, then in principle you could reduce the temperature rise that occurs,” Minnich says.

    “We don’t know what the precise strategy will be yet, but now we know the direction we should be going. That’s an improvement.”

    In addition to Minnich and Schleeh, the other coauthors of the paper, Phonon blackbody radiation limit for heat dissipation in electronics, are Javier Mateos and Ignacio Iñiguez-de-la-Torre of the Universidad de Salamanca in Salamanca, Spain; Niklas Wadefalk of the Low Noise Factory AB in Mölndal, Sweden; and Per A. Nilsson and Jan Grahn of Chalmers University of Technology. Minnich’s work on the project at Caltech was funded by a Caltech start-up fund and by the National Science Foundation.

    See the full article here.

    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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    From Caltech: “Unexpected Findings Change the Picture of Sulfur on the Early Earth” 

    Caltech Logo
    Caltech

    11/07/2014
    Kimm Fesenmaier

    Scientists believe that until about 2.4 billion years ago there was little oxygen in the atmosphere—an idea that has important implications for the evolution of life on Earth. Evidence in support of this hypothesis comes from studies of sulfur isotopes preserved in the rock record. But the sulfur isotope story has been uncertain because of the lack of key information that has now been provided by a new analytical technique developed by a team of Caltech geologists and geochemists. The story that new information reveals, however, is not what most scientists had expected.

    slope
    2.5 billion-year-old sedimentary strata exposed in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Credit: Jess Adkins/Caltech

    more
    Reef mounds formed of radiating calcium carbonate crystal fans on the Archean seafloor. Credit: Jess Adkins/Caltech

    and
    Cross-section view of calcium carbonate crystal fans that grew on the seafloor circa 2.6 billion years ago. Credit: Jess Adkins/Caltech

    “Our new technique is 1,000 times more sensitive for making sulfur isotope measurements,” says Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at Caltech. “We used it to make measurements of sulfate groups dissolved in carbonate minerals deposited in the ocean more than 2.4 billion years ago, and those measurements show that we have been thinking about this part of the sulfur cycle and sulfur isotopes incorrectly.”

    The team describes their results in the November 7 issue of the journal Science. The lead author on the paper is Guillaume Paris, an assistant research scientist at Caltech.

    Nearly 15 years ago, a team of geochemists led by researchers at UC San Diego discovered there was something peculiar about the sulfur isotope content of rocks from the Archean era, an interval that lasted from 3.8 billion to about 2.4 billion years ago. In those ancient rocks, the geologists were analyzing the abundances of stable isotopes of sulfur.

    When sulfur is involved in a reaction—such as microbial sulfate reduction, a way for microbes to eat organic compounds in the absence of oxygen—its isotopes are usually fractionated, or separated, from one another in proportion to their differences in mass. That is, 34S gets fractionated from 32S about twice as much as 33S gets fractionated from 32S. This process is called mass-dependent fractionation, and, scientists have found that it dominates in virtually all sulfur processes operating on Earth’s surface for the last 2.4 billion years.

    However, in older rocks from the Archean era (i.e., older than 2.4 billion years), the relative abundances of sulfur isotopes do not follow the same mass-related pattern, but instead show relative enrichments or deficiencies of 33S relative to 34S. They are said to be the product of mass-independent fractionation (MIF).

    The widely accepted explanation for the occurrence of MIF is as follows. Billions of years ago, volcanism was extremely active on Earth, and all those volcanoes spewed sulfur dioxide high into the atmosphere. At that time, oxygen existed at very low levels in the atmosphere, and therefore ozone, which is produced when ultraviolet radiation strikes oxygen, was also lacking. Today, ozone prevents ultraviolet light from reaching sulfur dioxide with the energy needed to fractionate sulfur, but on the early Earth, that was not the case, and MIF is the result. Researchers have been able to reproduce this effect in the lab by shining lasers onto sulfur dioxide and producing MIF.

    Geologists have also measured the sulfur isotopic composition of sedimentary rocks dating to the Archean era, and found that sulfides—sulfur-bearing compounds such as pyrite (FeS2)—include more 33S than would be expected based on normal mass-dependent processes. But if those minerals are enriched in 33S, other minerals must be correspondingly lacking in the isotope. According to the leading hypothesis, those 33S-deficient minerals should be sulfates—oxidized sulfur-bearing compounds—that were deposited in the Archean ocean.

    “That idea was put forward on the basis of experiment. To test the hypothesis, you’d need to check the isotope ratios in sulfate salts (minerals such as gypsum), but those don’t really exist in the Archean rock record since there was very little oxygen around,” explains Woody Fischer, professor of geobiology at Caltech and a coauthor on the new paper. “But there are trace amounts of sulfate that got trapped in carbonate minerals in seawater.”

    However, because those sulfates are present in such small amounts, no one has been able to measure well their isotopic composition. But using a device known as a multicollector inductively-coupled mass spectrometer to precisely measure multiple sulfur isotopes, Adkins and his colleague Alex Sessions, a professor of geobiology, developed a method that is sensitive enough to measure the isotopic composition of about 10 nanomoles of sulfate in just a few tens of milligrams of carbonate material.

    The authors used the method to measure the sulfate content of carbonates from an ancient carbonate platform preserved in present-day South Africa, an ancient version of the depositional environments found in the Bahamas today. Analyzing the samples, which spanned 70 million years and a variety of marine environments, the researchers found exactly the opposite of what had been predicted: the sulfates were actually enriched by 33S rather than lacking in it.

    “Now, finally, we’re looking at this sulfur cycle and the sulfur isotopes correctly,” Adkins says.

    What does this mean for the atmospheric conditions of the early Earth? “Our findings underscore that the oxygen concentrations in the early atmosphere could have been incredibly low,” Fischer says.

    Knowledge of sulfate isotopes changes how we understand the role of biology in the sulfur cycle, he adds. Indeed, the fact that the sulfates from this time period have the same isotopic composition as sulfide minerals suggests that the sulfides may be the product of microbial processes that reduced seawater sulfate to sulfide (which later precipitated in sediments in the form of pyrite). Previously, scientists thought that all of the isotope fractionation could be explained by inorganic processes alone.

    In a second paper also in the November 7 issue of Science, Paris, Adkins, Sessions, and colleagues from a number of institutions around the world report on related work in which they measured the sulfates in Indonesia’s Lake Matano, a low-sulfate analog of the Archean ocean.

    At about 100 meters depth, the bacterial communities in Lake Matano begin consuming sulfate rather than oxygen, as do most microbial communities, yielding sulfide. The researchers measured the sulfur isotopes within the sulfates and sulfides in the lake water and sediments and found that despite the low concentrations of sulfate, a lot of mass-dependent fractionation was taking place. The researchers used the data to build a model of the lake’s sulfur cycle that could produce the measured fractionation, and when they applied their model to constrain the range of concentrations of sulfate in the Archean ocean, they found that the concentration was likely less than 2.5 micromolar, 10,000 times lower than the modern ocean.

    “At such low concentration, all the isotopic variability starts to fit,” says Adkins. “With these two papers, we were able to come at the same problem in two ways—by measuring the rocks dating from the Archean and by looking at a model system today that doesn’t have much sulfate—and they point toward the same answer: the sulfate concentration was very low in the Archean ocean.”

    Samuel M. Webb of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource is also an author on the paper, “Neoarchean carbonate-associated sulfate records positive Δ33S anomalies.” The work was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, the Henry and Camille Dreyfus Foundation’s Postdoctoral Program in Environmental Chemistry, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

    Paris is also a co-lead author on the second paper, Sulfate was a trace constituent of Archean seawater. Additional authors on that paper are Sean Crowe and CarriAyne Jones of the University of British Columbia and the University of Southern Denmark; Sergei Katsev of the University of Minnesota Duluth; Sang-Tae Kim of McMaster University; Aubrey Zerkle of the University of St. Andrews; Sulung Nomosatryo of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences; David Fowle of the University of Kansas; James Farquhar of the University of Maryland, College Park; and Donald Canfield of the University of Southern Denmark. Funding was provided by an Agouron Institute Geobiology Fellowship and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship, as well as by the Danish National Research Foundation and the European Research Council.

    See the full article here.

    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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