Friday, March 9, 2012

Bird flu debate continues

On March 6, four papers were published in the open access journal mBio offering a range of perspectives on whether the strains of H5N1 bird flu that are transmissible in ferrets should be published and studied.

“It would be beneficial to err on the side of caution,” argues Lisa Murillo of Los Alamos National Laboratory in a letter to the editors. Murillo argues that, it is better to be safe than sorry and not publish the results (full story).

Saturn’s frigid moon holds wisps of oxygen

There’s oxygen around Dione, a research team led by scientists at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory announced on Friday. The presence of molecular oxygen around Dione creates an intriguing possibility for organic compounds — the building blocks of life — to exist on other outer planet moons.

One of Saturn’s 62 known moons, Dione (pronounced DEE-oh-nee) is 698 miles (1,123 km) in diameter. It orbits Saturn at about the same distance that our Moon orbits Earth (full story).

The news was covered widely around the world, including in this article, among many others:

Saturn's icy moon Dione has oxygen atmosphere

May potentially be created by solar photons, high-energy particles or geologic processes

A NASA spacecraft circling Saturn has discovered a wispy oxygen atmosphere on the ringed planet's icy moon Dione, but you wouldn't want to live there. For one thing, you wouldn't be able to breathe — Dione's atmosphere is 5 trillion times less dense than the air at Earth's surface, scientists say.

Dione's atmosphere was detected by NASA's Cassini Spacecraft, which spotted an ultra-thin layer of oxygen ions so sparse that it is equivalent to conditions 300 miles (480 kilometers) above Earth. On Dione, there is just one oxygen ion one for every 0.67 cubic inches (or one ion for every 11 cubic centimeters) of space, but it's still enough to qualify (full story).

Historic, unique Manhattan Project footage from Los Alamos

In 1943, the top scientists from the United States and other nations gathered in Los Alamos, NM for the Manhattan Project. Among them was physicist Hugh Bradner. With informal permission from the U.S. Army, he shot a collection of home movies of life in a place that officially didn't exist, and of people working on a project that ultimately changed history. His footage represents the only look at life in the Los Alamos area during that time (watch the YouTube video or read the full story).

1953: The year that revolutionized life, death, and the digital bit

While the computer was still under construction, a small team from Los Alamos, led by Nicholas Metropolis and Stanley Frankel, quietly took up residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

The new machine was christened MANIAC (Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer) and put to its first test, during the summer of 1951, with a thermonuclear calculation that ran for sixty days nonstop (full story).

Book also reviewed this week by . . .

Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson – review
An unusual, wonderful, even visionary account of the early years of computers

The Nucleus of the Digital Age

In pursuit of hydrogen bombs, a math genius and a brilliant tinkerer in Princeton developed the modern computer

The mathematician John von Neumann, born Neumann Janos in Budapest in 1903, was incomparably intelligent, so bright that, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner would say, "only he was fully awake." One night in early 1945, von Neumann woke up and told his wife, Klari, that "what we are creating now is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left. Yet it would be impossible not to see it through." Von Neumann was creating one of the first computers, in order to build nuclear weapons. But, Klari said, it was the computers that scared him the most.

Von Neumann had come to New Jersey from Hungary in 1931, toward the beginning of the great scientific exodus from Europe. A decade and a half later, with the U.S. military frantically studying whether a hydrogen bomb thousands of times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima was possible, von Neumann got funding to build a computer—the first that could store its program in memory (full story).

Laser fusion nears crucial milestone

Would success mean that the US Department of Energy will be ready to develop NIF into an economically viable energy source? And if so, is NIF’s laser-based approach the best one? An interim report released on 7 March by a US National Academies panel concludes that it is still too early to tell.

Glen Wurden, a plasma physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, agrees, saying that scientists working on inertial confinement should be wary of putting all their eggs in the laser basket (full story).

Strange effects: the mystifying history of neutrino experiments

More often than not, neutrino experiments throughout history have turned up perplexing results. While most of these experiments didn’t get the high-profile attention that disputing Einstein provides, they've challenged scientists and helped them learn ever more about the natural world.

In this gallery, we take a look at some of the strangest historical neutrino results and the findings that still have scientists scratching their heads.

In 1993, scientists constructed the Liquid Scintillator Neutron Detector (LSND) experiment at Los Alamos National Lab. Their aim was to figure out if neutrinos can oscillate from one type to another. (Results from the Homestake and proton decay experiments weren't yet conclusive.)

LSND remains famous among scientists because it saw a small excess of electron antineutrinos appear seemingly from nowhere. The best explanation for this odd anomaly required completely new physics (full story).

To subscribe to Los Alamos Report, please send an email and include the words "subscribe losalamosreport" in the body of your email message; to unscubscribe, include "unsubscribe losalamosreport".

Please visit us at

And don't forget to follow us on YouTube, Twitter and Flickr!