From Science Magazine: “Australia plans to tackle foreign influence at nation’s universities”

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From Science Magazine

Aug. 28, 2019
Dennis Normile

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A supporter of the Hong Kong, China, pro-democracy protests stands next to a “Lennon Wall” at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Several such walls have been vandalized recently.
PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP/Getty Images

In response to growing concerns in Australia about foreign influence at universities, cyberspying, and a perceived erosion of freedom of speech on campuses, the country’s education minister today announced that a new task force will develop “best-practice guidelines for dealing with foreign interference.”

The decision grew out of recent meetings between university and government representatives, Minister for Education Dan Tehan said in a speech at the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra this afternoon. “Everybody wants a considered, methodical approach to deal with this issue,” he said, “one that strikes a balance between our national interest and giving universities the freedom to pursue research and collaboration. We must get the balance right.”

Tehan did not mention China, according to a ministry transcript of the news conference. But it is clear the country is the primary concern. “There’ve been a series of miniscandals throughout the tertiary education sector that show there is a big problem of foreign interference in universities coming from China, and the government has now realized that the universities themselves are not going to act,” says Clive Hamilton, an ethicist at Charles Sturt University in Canberra who has been outspoken in warning about threats to Australia’s universities.

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Chinese influence is a sensitive issue, however. On Monday, before the guideline plans had been announced, Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney in Australia, said on a radio program that the debate over Chinese connections has become “slightly hysterical.”

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The University Foreign Interference Taskforce will draw half of its participants from the nation’s universities; Department of Education officials and government security experts will make up the other half. The task force will have four working groups focusing on cybersecurity, intellectual property, foreign collaborations, and communications to raise awareness of security issues. It will aim to produce guidelines by November.

The recent incidents include a massive breach of Australia National University’s computer systems, revealed in June, that netted the hackers—suspected of being based in China—personal details on up to 200,000 students and staff dating back 19 years.

There have also been allegations of universities unwittingly working with entities connected to China’s military. On Monday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report claiming that artificial intelligence software being used to surveil the minority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang region “may have benefited from connections with Australian universities and Australian government funding.”

A 20 August report by sociologist Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney also warned that Australia’s universities have become overly reliant on international—and particularly Chinese—student fees. At the seven top universities, tuition fees paid by Chinese students account for 13% to 23% of total revenues, which puts the institutions in a precarious financial position, Babones writes in a report published by the Center for Independent Studies, a Sydney-based think tank. The report notes that 11% of all university students in Australia hail from China, versus 2% in the United States and 6% in the United Kingdom. The more than 150,000 Chinese students in Australian higher educational institutions account for 38% of international enrollees.

That large Chinese presence raises other concerns as well. In recent months, so-called Lennon Walls, where people could post notes of encouragement to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, China, have been repeatedly vandalized. On several occasions, scuffles broke out between pro–Hong Kong demonstrators and those supporting mainland China. Punches were thrown during a confrontation on the campus of University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, Australia.

“What the recent demonstrations on university campuses over Hong Kong show is that universities remain firmly committed to freedom of expression,” UQ Chancellor Peter Varghese wrote in a statement responding to the public clamor over such incidents. “Restricting that freedom through intimidation and disruption is unacceptable, as is threatening the families of those who participated.”

Against that background, Hamilton says, “The government gives every impression that this is going to be a thorough-going review leading to major changes.”

See the full article here .


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From Science Magazine: “Space telescope would turn Earth into a giant magnifying lens”

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From Science Magazine

Aug. 6, 2019
Daniel Clery

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A space telescope beyond the moon could use Earth’s atmosphere as a lens to magnify the light of distant objects by 22,500 times.
James Tuttle Keane/California Institute of Technology

When it is finished sometime next decade, Europe’s Extremely Large Telescope will be the largest in the world, with a mirror nearly 40 meters across.

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

But one astronomer has proposed an even more powerful space telescope—one with the equivalent of a 150-meter mirror—that would use Earth’s atmosphere itself as a natural lens to gather and focus light. Astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University has worked out that a 1-meter space telescope, positioned beyond the moon, could use the focusing power of the ring of atmosphere seen around the edge of the planet to amplify the brightness of dim objects by tens of thousands of times.

The atmosphere is too variable for a Terrascope, as Kipping calls it, to produce beautiful images to rival those from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it could discover much fainter objects than is now possible, including small exoplanets or Earth-threatening asteroids. Kipping acknowledges that more work is needed to prove the idea, but the necessary technology already exists. “None of this is reinventing the wheel, it just needs to be pushed a bit harder,” he says.

Astronomers who read the paper Kipping posted last week on arXiv were both delighted and cautious. Matt Kenworthy, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, says he was “blown away by how much work and thought he had put into it” but wants more evidence that it will work. “I’d want to sit down and do a more realistic model,” he says. Bruce Macintosh of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, adds: “It’s an interesting thought experiment, but there are a lot of details to think through.”

Kipping is well known for leading searches for moons in other planetary systems and he revealed a strong contender for the first exomoon last year. He says the germ of the Terrascope idea came 13 years ago when he was studying a rare atmospheric phenomenon called the green flash, which appears just as the sun sets below the horizon, when refraction and scattering in the atmosphere work together to momentarily select green from the sun’s light. He realized that, from the right vantage in space, you might see an entire green ring, when the sun passed behind Earth and its light was refracted by the ring of air around the planet’s circumference.

Kipping was also inspired by the idea that the sun itself could be used as a lens, with its gravity focusing light toward a space-based detector. Such a solar lens would magnify light 1 million billion times, potentially bringing the surfaces of exoplanets into view. The idea led to the Fast Outgoing Cyclopean Astronomical Lens mission, proposed to the European Space Agency in 1993. But it never gained traction because the detector would have to be positioned 550 times the Earth-sun distance out in space, nearly 20 times farther away than Neptune—a distance that would require a century for a spacecraft to reach.

But Terrascope could be much closer to home, Kipping says. He calculated that surface-skimming light from an object directly behind Earth is deflected to a focus 85% of the distance out to the moon. Light reaching that focal point is likely to encounter clouds and a lot of turbulence as it passes through the lower atmosphere. But move the detector 1.5 million kilometers away, to a focus four times farther than the moon, and it would sample light that has passed through the much calmer and cloud-free stratosphere at an altitude of 13.7 kilometers.

A 1-meter telescope at that distance, observing for a whole night, would see an object boosted to 22,500 times its original brightness, he calculates—the equivalent of using a 150-meter telescope. The Terrascope’s powerful amplification means it would excel in detecting very faint objects or discerning very slight changes in brightness, Kipping says, enabling it to scan the sky for very small and dim asteroids or measure the tiny dips in brightness as small exoplanets pass in front of bright stars.

To avoid being dazzled by the bright disk of Earth, the telescope would need a mask, known as a coronagraph, to block it out. Kipping also says he has yet to consider the impact of “airglow,” a dim light emitted in the upper atmosphere by luminescence and other processes. But he notes that the glow could conceivably be removed with filters or digitally, taking advantage of the fact that it is steady while objects of interest are constantly changing. The Terrascope concept could be tested, he says, with a cheap toaster-size CubeSat mission.

Kenworthy says the atmosphere’s variability might seriously degrade Terrascope’s image quality. To assess the impact, he says, “The next step would be ray tracing with a realistic Earth atmosphere model,” he says. Ideally, the giant lens should focus light to a spot. “In reality, you’ll probably get a pattern of blobs.”

Macintosh agrees. “Earth’s atmosphere is a pretty nonideal lens so it produces very blurry images,” he says. But it may find a role studying brightness changes in very faint objects, exploiting its role as a huge magnifying “light bucket.”

If nothing else, Kipping has got astronomers talking about the idea. “I wouldn’t launch a satellite on this paper alone,” Kenworthy says. “But it’s an excellent first step.”

See the full article here .


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From Science Magazine: “Trump officials deleting mentions of ‘climate change’ from U.S. Geological Survey press releases”

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From Science Magazine

Jul. 8, 2019
Scott Waldman

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Under Director James Reilly, the U.S. Geological Survey has drawn criticism for deemphasizing concerns about climate change. NASA

A March news release from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) touted a new study that could be useful for infrastructure planning along the California coastline.

At least that’s how President Donald Trump’s administration conveyed it.

The news release hardly stood out. It focused on the methodology of the study rather than its major findings, which showed that climate change could have a withering effect on California’s economy by inundating real estate over the next few decades.

An earlier draft of the news release, written by researchers, was sanitized by Trump administration officials, who removed references to the dire effects of climate change after delaying its release for several months, according to three federal officials who saw it. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, would face more than $100 billion in damages related to climate change and sea-level rise by the end of the century. It found that three to seven times more people and businesses than previously believed would be exposed to severe flooding.

“We show that for California, USA, the world’s fifth largest economy, over $150 billion of property equating to more than 6% of the state’s GDP and 600,000 people could be impacted by dynamic flooding by 2100,” the researchers wrote in the study.

The release fits a pattern of downplaying climate research at USGS and in other agencies within the administration. While USGS does not appear to be halting the pursuit of science, it has publicly communicated an incomplete account of the peer-reviewed research or omitted it under President Trump.

“It’s been made clear to us that we’re not supposed to use climate change in press releases anymore. They will not be authorized,” one federal researcher said, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal.

In the Obama administration, press releases related to climate change were typically approved within days, researchers said. Now, they can take more than six months and go through the offices of political appointees, where they are often altered, several researchers told E&E News.

In the case of the California coastline study, the press release went through the office of James Reilly, the director of USGS, a former astronaut who is attempting to minimize the consideration of climate change in agency decisions. Reilly is preparing a directive for agency scientists to use climate models that predict changes through 2040, when the effect of emissions is expected to be less severe. The New York Times first reported on the directive.

At his 2018 confirmation hearing, Reilly promised to protect the agency’s scientific integrity.

“If someone were to come to me and say, ‘I want you to change this because it’s the politically right thing to do,’ I would politely decline,” Reilly told lawmakers. “I’m fully committed to scientific integrity.”

A spokeswoman for USGS said the agency has no formal policy to avoid references to climate change.

“There is no policy nor directive in place that directs us to avoid mentioning climate change in our communication materials,” said Karen Armstrong, the spokeswoman.

“Scientists at USGS regularly develop new methods and tools to supply timely, relevant and useful information about our planet and its processes, and we are committed to promoting the science they develop and making it broadly available,” she added.

The agency’s press release about the California coastline study was significantly altered to mask the potential impact of rising temperatures on the state’s economy. Instead, it described the methodology of the study and how it relied on “state-of-the-art computer models” and various sea-level rise predictions.

“USGS scientists and collaborators used state-of-the-art computer models to determine the coastal flooding and erosion that could result from a range of peer-reviewed, published 21st-century sea level rise and storm scenarios,” the final press release said. “The authors then translated those hazards into a range of projected economic and social exposure data to show the lives and dollars that could be at risk from climate change in California during the 21st century.”

The USGS release didn’t include the dollar figures outlined in the study.

An earlier draft of the press release, which was put online by the environmental group Point Blue Conservation Science, a participant in the study, compared the possible effect on Californians to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The release had stark recommendations for coastal planners and emphasized that by the end of the century, a typical winter storm could threaten $100 billion in coastal real estate annually.

“According to the study, even modest sea level rise projections of ten inches (25 centimeters) by 2040 could flood more than 150,000 residents and affect more than $30 billion in property value when combined with an extreme 100-year storm along California’s coast,” the draft stated. “Societal exposure that included storms was up to seven times greater than with sea level rise alone.”

The agency has omitted climate change from other press releases.

A release in 2017 that publicized a study on how polar bears were expending more energy due to a loss of sea ice did not mention climate change. It noted that a “moving treadmill of sea ice” in the warming Arctic forced polar bears to hunt for more seals and placed pressure on their population in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, without stating that climate change is a key driver of sea ice conditions.

Another USGS release, on shifting farming regions due to climate change, mentioned “future high-temperature extremes” and “future climate conditions” but not climate change. The first sentence of the study that it was intended to promote mentions climate change. It was published in Scientific Reports.

Some of the USGS studies point to national security repercussions. One study released last year found that a military installation in the Pacific Ocean that would play a role in a possible nuclear strike by North Korea could become uninhabitable in less than two decades due to climate change. The study, which was ordered by the Department of Defense, was released by USGS without a press release.

USGS conducts important climate research and manages the Landsat satellite system that has tracked human-caused global changes for almost 50 years. Government researchers study sea-level rise and glacial melt and manage regional climate adaptation centers housed at universities from Hawaii to Massachusetts.

Allowing valuable information to fall through the cracks is a waste of taxpayer dollars and could prevent science from being included in policy decisions, said Joel Clement, a former climate staffer for the Department of the Interior, USGS’s parent agency. Clement, who is now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said the promotion of studies is an important way to get information into the hands of planners, homeowners, and policymakers. He said Interior appears to be suppressing climate science.

“It’s an insult to the science, of course, but it’s also an insult to the people who need this information and whose livelihoods and in some cases their lives depend on this,” Clement said. “What’s shocking about it is that this has been taken to a new level, where information that is essential to economic and health and safety—essentially American well-being—is essentially being shelved and being hidden.”

In the last year of the Obama administration, USGS distributed at least 13 press releases that focused on climate change and highlighted it in the headline, according to an E&E News review. Since then — from 2017 through the first six months of 2019 — none has mentioned climate change in the headline of the press release, according to the list of state and national releases posted on the USGS website. Some briefly mentioned climate change in the body of the release, while others did not refer to it at all.

Other studies have been quietly buried on the agency’s webpages.

That subtle form of suppression fits a pattern elsewhere in the federal government.

Politico recently reported that officials at the Department of Agriculture buried dozens of studies related to climate change. In one case, agency officials tried to prevent outside groups from disseminating a climate-related study. The research looked at how rice provides less nutrition in a carbon-rich environment. That could have global consequences because hundreds of millions of people have rice-based diets around the world.

The Interior Department has been accused of deleting climate change references from previous press releases. In 2017, The Washington Post reported that the agency deleted a line mentioning climate change in a press release about a study on flood risks to coastal communities. That line was: “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, is under investigation for his ties to the energy industry while serving in government. A separate investigation is exploring whether he sought to block an Interior Department study on the dangers that a pesticide posed to endangered species.

There is no evidence that Trump political appointees at the agency have blocked climate studies from taking place, but the censoring of press releases has affected the work of researchers worried about their jobs, according to another federal researcher.

“We are pretty cognizant of political pressures, and with these press releases people are definitely biting their nails over ‘how should we word this’ and if there are proposals within USGS, should we use climate change or not,” the researcher said. “It’s a lot of stuff that definitely filters down, and it affects the reality of people on the ground doing the work when you’re not sure of how I should present this. It’s definitely a huge waste of time.”

See the full article here .


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From Science Magazine: “As countries battle for control of North Pole, science is the ultimate winner”

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From Science Magazine

Jun. 20, 2019
Richard Kemeny

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Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard ships worked together to map the Arctic sea floor for continental shelf claims. DVIDSHUB/FLICKR/CC BY 2.0

A competition for the North Pole heated up last month, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on 23 May, joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science, whatever the outcome for individual countries. The race to obtain control over parts of the sea floor has “dramatically changed our understanding of the oceans,” says marine geophysicist Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits.

Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. The data come from sonar, which reveals seafloor topography, and seismic profiling, which uses low-frequency booms to probe the sediment. Canada’s bid also enlisted ships to conduct high-resolution gravimetry—measurements of gravity anomalies that reveal seafloor structure. Elevated gravity readings are found over higher-density mantle rocks found in oceanic crust, and lower readings over lighter, continental structures. And the bid used analyses of 800 kilograms of rock samples dredged up from the sea floor, whose composition can distinguish continental from ocean crust.

The studies don’t come cheap; Canada’s 17 Arctic expeditions alone cost more than CA$117 million. But the work by the three countries vying for the Arctic—and that of dozens of others elsewhere in the world—has been a bonanza for oceanography. In the Arctic alone, the mapping has revealed several sunken mountains, previously missed or undetected by older sonar methods. Hundreds of pockmarks found on the Chukchi Cap, a submarine plateau extending out from Alaska, suggest that bursts of previously frozen methane have erupted from the seabed, a phenomenon that could accelerate climate change. And gaps discovered across submarine ridges allow currents to flow from basin to basin, with “important ramifications on the distribution of heat in the Arctic and on overall modeling of climate and ice melting,” Mayer says.

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Who owns the North Pole? Countries can clain the sea floor beyond the 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) ex-clusive economic zone (EEZ) if data show it to be an extension of the continental shelf (below). Russia Denmark and Canada have submitted overlapping claims in the Artic Ocean.

CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.

The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive. (U.S. scientists should finish mapping in the Arctic in about 2 years, says Mayer, who is involved in that effort, but as one of the few countries that hasn’t ratified the Law of the Sea convention, the United States can’t file an official submission.)

Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin,” Dick says (see map, above) where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up.

It will take years, perhaps decades, for CLCS to rule on the overlapping Arctic claims. Whoever wins the scientific contest still faces a diplomatic struggle.

Denmark, Russia, and Canada have expressed their desire to settle the situation peacefully. “Russia actually has played nice on this and stopped at the North Pole,” rather than extending its claim along the length of the ridge, says Philip Steinberg, a political geographer at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Denmark had no such qualms and put in a claim up to the edge of Russia’s EEZ, “even though there’s no way in hell they’ll get that,” when it comes to the diplomatic discussions, Steinberg says.

One solution would be to use the equidistance principle, by drawing a median line between the coastlines, as has been done when proposed marine territories overlapped in the past; doing so would mean the North Pole falls to Denmark. There’s also a proposal to make the pole international, like Antarctica, as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”

See the full article here .


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From Science Magazine: “Hong Kong researchers forge ties with mainland China even as protesters fight for autonomy”

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From Science Magazine

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Two million people, one-quarter of Hong Kong, China’s residents, joined protests against an extradition bill. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

June 18, 2019
Dennis Normile

After a series of massive protests by Hong Kong’s residents, including many academics, the leaders of the semiautonomous Chinese city last week shelved controversial legislation that would have allowed people there to be extradited to mainland China. But even as that battle to preserve independence continues, Hong Kong’s researchers are forging closer ties with the mainland.

Those links will be strengthened this year, with several new cross-border funding programs set to make their first awards. And although many researchers welcome the new opportunities for funding and collaboration, some worry they could give Beijing greater influence over Hong Kong’s research agenda.

The tension arises from Hong Kong’s special political status. In 1997, China regained control of the former U.K colony under a “one country, two systems” policy that gives Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents a greater say in their economic and political affairs. Academic efforts have thrived under the arrangement. The city now hosts nearly 30,000 researchers, creating a per capita ratio triple that found on China’s mainland, according to United Nations statistics. Hong Kong’s research spending has risen from just 0.4% of its gross domestic product in 1998 to 0.8% in 2017. Several of the city’s universities are among the top 50 in the world, according to this year’s Times Higher Education rankings.

Research ties with mainland China have grown since the handover. In 1998, 16.5% of all scientific papers produced in Hong Kong involved collaborations with the mainland; by 2017, the share had jumped to 53.2%, information scientists Ma Qian and Li Wenlan of Tianjin University in China reported in September 2018 in Scientometrics.

Funding ties are also deepening. Hong Kong researchers have long been able to win grants from the Chinese government, but the money had to be spent within the mainland. Last year, however, the government dropped that requirement at the request of prominent Hong Kong scientists. In the first grants under the new policy, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in May 2018 awarded 22 million Chinese yuan ($3.2 million) to 22 Hong Kong research groups.

Two new cross-border programs will announce their first grants later this year. One is backed by MOST and Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Bureau, and the other by Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council and China’s National Natural Science Foundation. The latter will focus on six research areas, including medicine and materials science.

Even as Hong Kong has strengthened scientific ties with the mainland, questions about the durability of the city’s special status have grown. The current protests began soon after the extradition bill was unveiled in April. Opponents said it would enable mainland authorities to seize political opponents on flimsy charges. And more than 1700 academics from around the world voiced support for their Hong Kong colleagues by signing an online petition warning that the bill was “jeopardizing the rule of law and human rights in Hong Kong.” On 15 June, Hong Kong officials “indefinitely” postponed action on the bill.

The bill was “definitely a concern for academics,” because it could have had “a chilling effect on people working on so-called ‘sensitive’ topics,” says philosopher Timothy O’Leary of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who taught at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 17 years. Some scientists also worried the law would hamper recruitment efforts.

Authorities on both sides argue cross-border collaborations advance science and help Hong Kong become an innovation hub. But such schemes are also “a very useful mechanism” for integrating Hong Kong into China, notes one senior Hong Kong scientist, who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s sensitivity. Even so, he says it would be a leap from tighter integration “to Hong Kong institutions losing their autonomy.”

Other researchers are even more sanguine. HKU microbiologist Yuen Kwok-Yung doubts “such additional funding will erode academic freedom in [Hong Kong] as long as … the independent judiciary and free press are still being protected.” And O’Leary says the recent protests show that Hongkongers “will not easily acquiesce to an encroachment on their civil liberties.” But he urges the city’s universities to follow the protesters’ lead “and continue to insist on the nonnegotiable importance of academic freedom.”

See the full article here .


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From Science Magazine: “Exotic particles called pentaquarks may be less weird than previously thought”

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From Science Magazine

Jun. 5, 2019
Adrian Cho

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The Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment has discovered three new pentaquarks. Peter Ginter/CERN

Four years ago, when experimenters spotted pentaquarks—exotic, short-lived particles made of five quarks—some physicists thought they had glimpsed the strong nuclear force, which binds the atomic nucleus, engaging in a bizarre new trick. New observations have now expanded the zoo of pentaquarks, but suggest a tamer explanation for their structure. The findings, from the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb), a particle detector fed by the LHC at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, suggest pentaquarks are not bags of five quarks binding in a new way, but are more like conventional atomic nuclei.

“I’m really excited that the new data send such a clear message,” says Tomasz Skwarnicki, an LHCb physicist at Syracuse University in New York who led the study. But, he notes, “It may not be the message some people had hoped for.”

Pentaquarks are heavier cousins of protons and neutrons, which are also made of quarks. In ordinary matter, quarks come in two types, up and down. Atom smashers can blast four heavier types of quarks into brief existence: charm, strange, top, and bottom. Quarks cling to one another through the strong force so mightily they cannot be isolated. Instead, they are almost always found in groups of three in particles known as baryons—including the proton and neutron—or in pairs called mesons, which consist of a quark and an antimatter quark.

But for decades, some theorists have hypothesized the existence of larger bundles of quarks. In recent years, experimenters have found evidence for four-quark particles, or tetraquarks. Then, in 2015, LHCb reported signs of two pentaquarks.

Some theorists argue that the new particles are bags of four and five quarks, bound together through the exchange of quantum particles called gluons, adding a new wrinkle to the often intractable theory of the strong force. Others argue they’re more like an atomic nucleus. In this “molecular” picture a pentaquark is a three-quark baryon stuck to a two-quark meson the same way that protons and neutrons bind in a nucleus—by exchanging short-lived pi mesons.

LHCb’s new pentaquarks, reported today in Physical Review Letters (PRL), bolster the molecular picture. In 2015, LHCb researchers reported a pentaquark with a mass of 4450 megaelectron volts (MeV), 4.74 times the mass of the proton. With nine times more data, they now find in that mass range two nearly overlapping but separate pentaquarks with masses of 4440 MeV and 4457 MeV. They also find a lighter pentaquark at 4312 MeV. Each contains the same set of quarks: charm, anticharm, two ups, and a down. (Previous hints of a pentaquark at 4380 MeV have faded.)

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Pentaquark depiction

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New Large Hadron Collider data reveal that exotic quark quintets, discovered in 2016, are composites of quark-antiquark mesons and three-quark baryons.

The lightest pentaquark has a mass just below the sum of a particular baryon and meson that together contain the correct quark ingredients. The heavier pentaquarks have masses just below the sum of the same baryon and a related meson with extra internal energy. That suggests each pentaquark is just a baryon bound to a meson, with a tiny bit of mass taken up in binding energy. “This is a no-brainer explanation,” says Marek Karliner, a theorist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The molecular picture also helps explain why the pentaquarks, although fleeting, appear to be more stable than expected, Karliner says. That’s because packaging the charm quark in the baryon and anticharm quark in the meson separates them, keeping them from annihilating each other.

Other theorists rushed to a similar conclusion when LHCb researchers discussed their results at a conference in La Thuile, Italy, in March. For example, within a day, Li-Sheng Geng, a theorist at Beihang University in Beijing, and colleagues posted a paper, in press at PRL, that uses the molecular picture to predict the existence of four more pentaquarks that should be within LHCb’s reach.

But the bag-of-quarks picture is not dead. Pentaquarks should occasionally form when protons are bombarded with gamma ray photons, as physicists at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, are trying to do. But they have yet to spot any pentaquarks. That undermines the molecular picture because it predicts higher rates for such photoproduction than the bag-of-quarks model does, says Ahmed Ali, a theorist at DESY, the German accelerator laboratory in Hamburg. “They are already almost excluding the molecular interpretation,” he says. Others say it’s too early to draw such conclusions.

The structure of pentaquarks isn’t necessarily an either/or proposition, notes Feng-Kun Guo, a theorist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Quantum mechanics allows a tiny object to be both a particle and a wave, or to be in two places at once. Similarly, a pentaquark could have both structures simultaneously. “It’s just a question of which one is dominant,” Guo says.

Regardless of the binding mechanism, the new pentaquarks are exciting because they suggest the existence of a whole new family of such particles, Karliner says. “It’s like a whole new periodic table.”

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From Science Magazine: “Telescope designed to study mysterious dark energy keeps Russia’s space science hopes alive”

AAAS
From Science Magazine

Jun. 10, 2019
Daniel Clery

1
A German survey instrument on Spektr-RG with seven x-ray telescopes has heightened sensitivity.
© P. Friedrich/Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics

Russia’s beleaguered space science program is hoping for a rare triumph this month. Spektr-RG, an x-ray satellite to be launched on 21 June from Kazakhstan, aims to map all of the estimated 100,000 galaxy clusters that can be seen across the universe. Containing as many as 1000 galaxies and the mass of 1 million billion suns, the clusters are the largest structures bound by gravity in the universe. Surveying them should shed light on the evolution of the universe and the nature of the dark energy that is accelerating its expansion.

First proposed more than 30 years ago as part of a Soviet plan for a series of ambitious “great observatories” along the lines of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Spektr-RG fell victim to cost cutting in cash-strapped, post-Soviet Russia. But roughly €500 million satellite, which will carry German and Russian x-ray telescopes, was reborn early last decade with a new mission: not just to scan the sky for interesting x-ray sources, such as supermassive black holes gorging on infalling material, but to map enough galaxy clusters to find out what makes the universe tick. The new goal meant further delays. “There have been many ups and downs,” says Peter Predehl, leader of the team at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, that built one of the satellite’s two telescopes. “Whenever we thought we were out of the woods, a new one came along.”

Spektr-RG was born in the late 1980s. Glasnost was encouraging Soviet researchers to collaborate with Western colleagues, and studies of SN 1987A, the nearest supernova in modern times, had demonstrated the power of x-rays for tracing such violent events. Rashid Sunyaev of Moscow’s Space Research Institute (IKI) proposed an x-ray observatory to orbit above Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks x-rays. The 6-ton mission soon bristled with five telescopes and involved 20 institutes in 12 countries including the United States. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Roscosmos struggled to keep its Mir space station aloft and contribute to the growing International Space Station (ISS). “They told us the spacecraft was too large for Russia, too ambitious,” says Sunyaev, now at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching. “It just died.”

Resurrection began in 2003 with plans for a smaller mission with a U.K.-built all-sky x-ray monitor and MPE’s x-ray survey telescope, called ROSITA—which had been destined for the ISS but was grounded by the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The new impetus was cosmology. Studies of distant supernovae in the 1990s had revealed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Researchers wanted to know more about dark energy, the mysterious force that was causing it, and whether it varied in space or over time. Galaxy clusters are among the best indicators, says x-ray astronomer Andrew Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA) in Cambridge, U.K. “Clusters are the most massive objects in the universe, the pinnacle of galaxy formation, and are very sensitive to cosmological models.”

Laniakea supercluster. From Nature The Laniakea supercluster of galaxies R. Brent Tully, Hélène Courtois, Yehuda Hoffman & Daniel Pomarède at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v513/n7516/full/nature13674.html. Milky Way is the red dot.

They are best seen in x-rays because the gaps between galaxies are filled with gas that is heated to millions of degrees as the galaxies jostle together to form a cluster. By mapping the clusters, says Esra Bulbul of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who recently joined the MPE team, Spektr-RG “will study the evolution of the structure of the universe.”

The challenge was to boost the capabilities of the existing ROSITA telescope, which could only garner up to 10,000 galaxy clusters. Discussions led to a €90 million “extended” eROSITA, paid for by MPE and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. It is an array of seven identical telescopes with five times the effective collecting area of the original instrument. Russia and Germany signed an agreement in 2007 with launch penciled in for 2012.

eRosita DLR MPG

But mission development was not smooth. The U.K. instrument failed to win funding and was replaced with a Russian telescope, called ART-XC, which will complement eROSITA by detecting scarcer high energy x-rays.

ART-XC Russian telescope

Though harder to collect, the higher energy photons are particularly useful for seeing the supermassive black holes at galactic centers, because they pierce the clouds of gas and dust that shroud them.

Making the mirrors for eROSITA also proved much harder than expected. Because x-rays would penetrate a traditional flat telescope mirror, focusing them requires cylindrical mirrors that gather x-ray photons in glancing, low-angle reflections off inner surfaces. Each of eROSITA’s seven scopes contains 54 gold-plated cylindrical mirrors, nested inside one another, that must be shaped precisely to bring the photons to a focus. Making them proved so difficult that the MPE team had to fire its main contractor part way through. “It almost killed us,” Predehl says.

A decision to site the telescope at a quiet, gravitationally balanced point beyond the moon, outside the shelter of Earth’s magnetic field, meant electronics had to be hardened against solar radiation. Incompatibility between the German and Russian electronics delayed the launch, as did problems with the spacecraft’s communications system and a change in launch rocket.

Now that Spektr-RG is finally ready, expectations are high. “It’s going to be revolutionary in terms of numbers,” says IoA astronomer George Lansbury, taking x-ray studies into “the big data regime.”

It may also be a rare high point for Russia’s great observatories program. Previously, only one has made it into orbit: 2011’s Spektr-R, a radio astronomy mission that fell short of expectations and could not be revived after malfunctioning earlier this year.

Astronomers may face a long wait for Spektr-RG’s successors: the ultraviolet telescope Spektr-UV and Spektr-M, a millimeter-wave radio telescope. Spektr-UV has survived moments of near-death, most recently in 2014 when Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula caused major Ukrainian partners to withdraw. The mission is now slated for a 2025 launch, but, Sunyaev says, some collaborators, including a German team supplying a spectrograph, have dropped out. Spektr-M, which would come next, is not yet fully funded, he says. And in the meantime, rival telescopes launched by other countries may scoop up the science the Russian missions aim to do.

“Russia is doing as much as possible with the budget available,” says Spektr-RG chief Mikhail Pavlinsky of IKI. He notes that Roscosmos’s lean budget, worth $20.5 billion over 10 years, faces multiple demands. Russia is building the landing system for the European ExoMars rover, due to launch next year, and like other countries it hopes to return to the moon with the Luna 25 lander in 2021. For Russia’s astrophysicists, Pavlinksy says, “It means slow progress.”

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