Friday, July 26, 2019

What happens when a deadly disease is eradicated? Scientists sequence and destroy

Rinderpest killed more than 90% of cattle in Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. Image from Nature.

Scientists who work with the deadly livestock virus rinderpest — only the second disease ever wiped out, after smallpox — achieved a milestone last month when they destroyed a huge proportion of the world’s last remaining virus samples.

“The world is not out of the woods,” says Paul Fenimore, a theoretical biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who has modelled the potential progress of epidemics resulting from a rinderpest release. International efforts to consolidate and eliminate stocks have already greatly reduced the risk that rinderpest could return, says Fenimore. But the chance of an accidental release, although low, exists as long as lab stocks remain, he says. (Full Story)

Quantum Darwinism, an idea to explain objective reality, passes first tests

Wojciech Zurek, LANL photo.

Surprisingly, although decoherence is a straightforward consequence of quantum mechanics, it was only identified in the 1970s, by the late German physicist Heinz-Dieter Zeh. The Polish-American physicist Wojciech Zurek further developed the idea in the early 1980s and made it better known, and there is now good experimental support for it.

But to explain the emergence of objective, classical reality, it’s not enough to say that decoherence washes away quantum behavior and thereby makes it appear classical to an observer. Somehow, it’s possible for multiple observers to agree about the properties of quantum systems. Zurek, who works at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, argues that two things must therefore be true. (Full Story)

3 rovers will head to Mars in 2020

Engineers at JPL install legs and wheels on the Mars 2020 rover.  NASA image.

China’s rover will be its second attempt to reach Mars, after a joint effort with Russia crashed in 2012 before leaving Earth’s orbit. HX-1 will reportedly carry a mast-mounted laser-induced breakdown spectrometer similar to the ChemCam on Curiosity and the SuperCam on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The Chinese have done “a fair amount to imitate the ChemCam on Curiosity, same as we’re doing, so it will be fun to compare,” says Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the SuperCam team leader.

“The fact there are three rovers headed to Mars is amazing,” Wiens says. “The success of any of those three is not assured. It’s still very much a risky business. But I can imagine the scientific conferences that would come from having three rovers in three different parts of the world.” (Full Story)

Inside the Government’s ‘Quantum Computing Summer School’

Illustration from Vice.

The hot core of Los Alamos' mission is nuclear security. And if quantum computers can successfully simulate atoms and particles, scientists can understand how the nuclear material inside existing bombs is behaving, what will happen as it sits inert, and what would happen if someone pressed the big red button. Since we’re not supposed to just blow up bombs in the desert anymore to understand them, scientists could simulate nuclear blasts (and the sitting-still bombs) on quantum computers.

While we have a good sense of what they can do, if you ask a quantum computer person how the computers work, you likely won’t get a satisfying answer. That’s partly because it’s complicated. But it’s also because quantum mechanics has no practical bearing on our interactions with the world. (Full Story)

Understanding quantum cryptography


Illustration from AltCoin.

The key is encrypted into a series of photons that get passed between two parties trying to share secret information. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle dictates that an adversary can’t look at these photons without changing or destroying them.

“In this case, it doesn’t matter what technology the adversary has, they’ll never be able to break the laws of physics,” said physicist Richard Hughes of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who works on quantum cryptography.

Any encryption method will only be as secure as the humans running it, added Hughes. Whenever someone claims that a particular technology “is fundamentally unbreakable, people will say that’s snake oil,” he said. (Full Story)

Algal biofuels face diverse pathogens

Healthy vs. unhealthy algae ponds, University of Arizona image.

DNA analysis of a predatory bacterium has revealed a much higher level of genetic diversity than previously thought, posing a threat to the algae biofuel industry.

Biologists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico sequenced strains of the Vampirovibrio chlorellavorus bacterium, which can destroy algae cells and render algae ineffective for biofuel production.

Blake Hovde, Los Alamos National Laboratory biologist, said: "DNA sequences show what are likely different species, suggesting a much larger diversity in this family than we originally assumed. (Full Story)

Physicist and neuroscientist Garrett Kenyon says there’s no Artificial Intelligence

Garrett Kenyon answers questions following his talk on artificial intelligence, LA Reporter photo.

Kenyon is a physicist and neuroscientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Information Sciences Division who specializes in neurally-inspired computing.

“The topic is so interesting. What is AI? What does it mean for our society? I’ve been in this field for more than 30 years now and I bring a different perspective to the topic. It will be somewhat shocking to some people because I bring a somewhat different opinion of where we’re at,” he said.

“AI doesn’t exist,” Kenyon told the Los Alamos Reporter prior to his talk. “It’s kind of a myth. It’s this word everyone uses. It’s utterly abused.” (Full Story)

Machine-learning competition boosts earthquake prediction capabilities

Earthquake prediction could improve earthquake hazard assessments, image from HPCwire.

Three teams who applied novel machine learning methods to successfully predict the timing of earthquakes from historic seismic data are splitting $50,000 in prize money from an open, online Kaggle competition hosted by Los Alamos National Laboratory and its partners.

“Crowdsourcing for new approaches in earthquake forecasting helps us leverage a wide range of expertise in addressing one of the most important problems in Earth science, because of the devastating consequences of large quakes,” said Bertrand Rouet-Leduc, a Los Alamos researcher who prepared the data for the competition. (Full Story)

Melting ice may change shape of Arctic river deltas

Kolyma Delta, Russia. Landsat natural color satellite image. USGS image.

“Your channels tend to stay in one place when you have really thick ice or when you have permafrost that’s really hard to erode,” said Rebecca Lauzon, environmental educator at the Rochester Museum and Science Center’s Cumming Nature Center in New York and the lead author of the new study.

Lauzon, who was working an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the time of the research, and her co-authors, created two versions of a model: One to predict the effects that ice thickness might have on Arctic river deltas and another to predict the effects of permafrost strength. (Full Story)

Los Alamos National Laboratory Summer Science Camp empowers New Mexican young women

Laboratory researcher Adrianna Reyes-Newell, right, shows students how laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy works. LANL photo.

The third annual Los Alamos National Laboratory Summer Physics Camp for Young Women recently concluded in Pojoaque, giving the 22 students from Northern New Mexico communities a grounding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, introducing them to role models, and showcasing the wide range of STEM opportunities available at the Laboratory.

“The free camp aims at empowering local young women to explore a future in STEM by showcasing topics through demonstrations and hands-on experiments and lectures,” said Anna Llobet, camp organizer and Laboratory researcher. (Full Story)

Also from the Daily Post this week:

LANL Employees Donate $372,491 For Scholarships

During the recent Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund (LAESF) campaign, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) employees pledged $372,491 to support scholarships for Northern New Mexico students.

The annual drive encourages Laboratory employees, retirees and subcontract personnel to donate to funds that award scholarships to qualified students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, or professional certification in any area of study or in pursuit of a trade. (Full Story)

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Friday, July 19, 2019

 Did life sign the guest book on Mars?

Petroglyphs in Monument Valley, from SciAm.

It turns out that the dark, hard varnish coating cliff faces and rocks throughout the American Southwest and elsewhere—often as a canvas for ancient carved petroglyphs—has a lot to say about life on Earth.

Several minerals make up varnish: manganese oxides, iron oxides, and (mostly) clays. Manganese oxides require oxygen to form.

The case for manganese got a lot stronger when the ChemCam instrument, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory and currently operating on the Curiosity rover on Mars, identified veins of manganese oxides and what looks like manganese-rich coatings on Martian rocks. The presence of manganese oxides suggests Mars once had an oxygen-rich atmosphere. (Full story) 

A gathering of nuclear detectives

A multidisciplinary group of scientists swing into action whenever a radioactive object turns up in an unexpected location. During these so-called “interdictions”, nuclear forensic scientists work to identify what the object is, where it came from, who it belongs to and whether there might be more of it. 

Behind that relatively straightforward premise, however, the science can be rather complicated. The photo above comes from a talk by Jacquelyn Dorhout, a post-doctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the photo are 22 vials of a powdery substance. Despite their visual differences, every one of those vials contains the same chemical: ammonium diuranate (ADU), popularly known as yellowcake. ADU is present at many stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, and Dorhout and her colleagues found that its colour and texture variations are due to differing amounts of ammonium nitrate. In principle, Dorhout says, these differences could reveal forensically useful information about a sample’s history. “We want to be able to go back and say, ‘Where did this come from?’,” she explains. (Full story)

Quest for elusive HIV vaccine is poised for major test

HIV attacking T Cell.

Johnson & Johnson is preparing to test an experimental HIV vaccine in the U.S. and Europe in a move toward developing the first immunization against the deadly disease after decades of frustration.    

Dan Barouch, of Harvard Medical School and Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, designed an optimized set of “mosaic” proteins to go in the vaccine that would raise immune defenses against a wide variety of strains.

The vaccine uses a cold virus that’s altered to make the proteins that raise immunity. Study participants get six shots in four sessions. (Full story)


Report: US nuclear lab gives New Mexico economy $3B boost

Responsible for infusing about $3 billion a year into New Mexico's economy, Los Alamos National Laboratory is being held up by lab officials, politicians and others as an example of the kind of high-tech economic drivers the state needs more of.

The lab on Thursday released the findings of an economic impact report prepared by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Los Alamos Lab Director Thom Mason said the report underlines the lab's role as a major employer that has created good paying, high-tech jobs. He also pointed to the resulting ripple effect.

"Part of being a good neighbor is bolstering the economic well-being of the communities where we live and operate," he said. (Full story)

Also reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Journal

Also from the Associated Press this week:

New Mexico launches STEM challenge

Lab Director Thom Mason, LANL photo.
How will you use science and technology to help with national security? Los Alamos National Laboratory came up with the question and will be partnering with teachers and businesses as the students use what they learn in the classroom next semester to formulate their answers.

Laboratory Director Thom Mason said Friday that the challenge resonates with Los Alamos because applying science, engineering and technology to make the world safer is something its scientists and researchers do every day. While the question being asked of the students might sound simple, Mason said it’s anything but.

“This is hands-on, it’s a contact sport,” he said, implying that the competition could be fierce. (Full story)

Los Alamos scientists school Wikipedia about women in science

Ten Los Alamos women scientist biographies will go live on Wikipedia soon, ranging from physicists to chemists and explosives technicians, and the team hopes to coordinate another activity like this in the future to highlight remarkable Los Alamos female scientists and their extraordinary achievements.

Los Alamos is the first national lab that the Wiki Education Foundation representatives have visited as part of an initiative to activate scientists and scholars in a movement to ensure the public has access to reliable information, properly cited to academic sources. Other sites enlisted so far have been colleges and universities. (Full story)

Two LANL scientists win Presidential Early Career Awards

 Abigail Hunter (left) and Shea Mosby, LANL photos.

Abigail Hunter, of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Computational Physics Division, and Shea Mosby, of the Laboratory’s Physics Division, have received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

“Abigail has become a technical thought leader within the Laboratory’s weapons program and our materials modeling community, as well as an internationally recognized expert in materials science and the physics of solid-state materials,” said Mark Schraad, Computational Physics Division leader.

“Shea is a deep-thinking early career scientist who has contributed to many of the nuclear reaction measurements done at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center. He is currently developing a novel concept to measure nuclear reactions in radioactive isotopes,” said David Meyerhofer, Physics Division leader. (Full story)

Also from the Reporter this week:

LANL Director talks to RCLC about jobs, infrastructure, safety, external partnerships

Thom Mason addresses Regional Coalition of LANL
Communities board members. LA Reporter photo        

“We’re starting to chart our path forward and this takes several forms. We’ve been thinking about what our Laboratory agenda is, what are the priorities that we’re trying to accomplish,” said LANL Director Dr. Thom Mason.  "More relevant probably for the broader community and this group is how we as an institution intersect with the surrounding communities. We are part of a really tremendous ecosystem of communities and people who support all we have done.” (Full story)

LANL hosts community conversation on needs of area nonprofits

Panel discussion includes Thom Mason, left. Daily Post photo.           

Los Alamos National Laboratory hosted a Community Conversation Thursday morning at UNM-Los Alamos. The Conversation focused on the challenges facing nonprofit staff and board members in the search for organizational excellence.

Laboratory Director Thom Mason spoke on how nonprofits can connect with their organizations to seek, not only funding, but volunteers. Mason said LANL is 'gerrymandering' its giving to concentrate on seven New Mexico Counties, including Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe. (Full story)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Observations: It takes a village to declassify an error bar

This meteor is likely from a comet, but other meteors may come from beyond the solar system. Photo from SciAm

Alan Hurd from the National Security Education Center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory with Matt Heavner, the data science program manager for global security, intelligence and emerging threats at Los Alamos, devised a plan to ask the relevant federal authorities for the declassification of the measurement error on the 2014 meteor and possibly the entire CNEOS catalog.

The plan devised by Alan and Matt worked perfectly. In a matter of days, Matt met with officials at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House and subsequently spoke with the person who analyzed the 2014 meteor data. (Full Story)

Using algae to try and solve the plastic problem

Cyanobacteria, with different nutrients in different amounts have distinct color changes. LANL photo.

Imagine our world without plastics — they are everywhere, from construction and electronics to transportation and packaging. Overall strength and durability make plastic so useful, but they also make plastic a leading contributor to pollution.       

Rather than use petroleum to manufacture synthetic plastics, Los Alamos is looking to an alternative, environmentally friendly resource — algae. Already a viable alternative energy resource for fuel, algae may also prove useful as a base material to create biology-based polymers. (Full Story)

Magnetic materials help explain how Arctic ice melts

The discovery of an unlikely relationship between melting sea ice and magnets could help scientists produce better models of the global climate. Wired photo.

“These are big global models,” says Elizabeth Hunke, lead developer for the Los Alamos Sea Ice Model. “We use grids that are more than a kilometer on a side. And these melt ponds are much smaller than those grid cells, so we need some way to describe what fraction of the grid cell is covered by melt ponds.” Golden’s model, she says, “provides a statistical way to do it that represents the essential dynamics.” (Full Story)

Satellite imagery a potent new data source for supply chain management

Satellite imagery data represents another data set that may have the potential to improve company’s supply chains.   

Descartes Labs, headquartered in Santa Fe, was launched as a spin-out from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2015. The underlying technology uses computer vision, machine learning, and cloud-based infrastructure to teach computers better interpret satellite imagery.

Initially, the technology was applied to develop an agricultural model to analyze corn production in the United States. (Full Story)

UNM partners with LANL to pursue research, funding opportunities

UNM and Los Alamos National Lab have teamed up to share their expertise. A new joint faculty agreement allows UNM faculty to work on projects at the lab, and gives LANL scientists the chance to teach courses at the university.

The two will also combine forces to pursue research and funding opportunities. Administrators say the unprecedented access offers big benefits on both sides, and ultimately has the potential to raise the quality of the scientific workforce in New Mexico. (Full Story)

ChemCam engineering operations team throws pajama pizza party

What do you do when the Martian day starts late and you need to keep an eye on the Curiosity rover? You throw a pajama pizza party, of course! The Engineering Operations Team for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s ChemCam instrument donned PJs and slippers to keep things interesting while they worked a late shift. “Planning a day’s activities for ChemCam takes a full day on Earth,” said Lisa Danielson, the team leader. “It’s important to keep everyone energized and involved, and pizza and pajamas are a good way to do it.” (Full Story)
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Friday, July 5, 2019

SuperCam and robot arm installed on 2020 Mars rover

Engineers attach the Mars 2020 rover’s main robot arm
in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
 Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After installing the wheels and suspension that will enable the Mars 2020 rover to move about the surface of the red planet, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have installed the SuperCam instrument and the rover’s 2.1-metre (7-foot)-long robot arm. Launch remains targeted for July 2020.

The multi-purpose SuperCam, developed by the French space agency CNES and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, is has been dubbed the Swiss army knife of instruments” aboard the rover. (Full story)

Neural nets to simulate molecular motion cast

New work from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Florida is showing that artificial neural nets can be trained to encode quantum mechanical laws to describe the motions of molecules, supercharging simulations potentially across a broad range of fields.

"This means we can now model materials and molecular dynamics billions of times faster compared to conventional quantum methods, while retaining the same level of accuracy," said Justin Smith, Los Alamos physicist and Metropolis Fellow in the laboratory's Theoretical Division.

Understanding how molecules move is critical to tapping their potential value for drug development, protein simulations and reactive chemistry, for example, and both quantum mechanics and experimental (empirical) methods feed into the simulations. (Full story)

Celebrate the Promise of Planetary Defense This Asteroid Day

An artist's depiction of an asteroid. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The quest to protect Earth from threatening asteroids is about to get a boost, as "an absolute flood of new observations" comes from a new telescope designed to scan the sky, says Ed Lu, co-founder of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to planetary defense.

Small asteroids pose a threat too, just on a more local scale, said Mark Boslough — who was the first U.S. scientist to visit Chelyabinsk after a six-story object exploded over the Russian town in 2013. Even objects in the 130-foot (40 meters) size range can pose a threat to cities, he said.

Boslough — a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory — said these smaller objects perhaps shouldn't be cataloged, because there are so many of them. Instead, he recommends developing surveys that would note any that are imminently hurtling toward Earth. Then disaster planners could evacuate cities that might be under threat of the object, just like we do today for incoming hurricanes. (Full story)

BYU helping NASA prep for human mission to Mars

Researchers at Brigham Young University are helping with a NASA-sponsored project measuring the electrical charge and size of dust particles on Mars.

But BYU isn't the only university in the West conducting research into Mars for possible human exploration.

The University of New Mexico and Los Alamos National Laboratory are partnering on a research project studying interactions of boron and ribose in groundwater on Mars. Ribose is a sugar and a key ingredient of RNA, the nucleic acid present in all modern life, related to the more complex DNA. (Full story)

If You Solve This Math Problem, You Could Steal All the Bitcoin in the World

Courtesy photo.

You may have heard of the famous P versus NP problem. If you can prove or disprove its cryptically short equation, you’d be a million dollars richer—and maybe even billions of dollars richer, depending on your scruples. 

Theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson spoke about P versus NP problems last week at Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of the Quantum Computing Summer School. (Full story)

Science Café: NOVA What’s the Universe Made Of?

Come to the July New Mexico PBS Science Café and watch a segment of NOVA Wonders: What’s the Universe Made Of? Join a panel discussion with experts that will discuss recent discoveries and how they hope to push our understanding of the universe even further.

Speakers include:
• Galen Gisler, Ph.D., who spent 25 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory working on a variety of topics in astrophysics and space science
• Peter Polko is a postdoc in astrophysics at Los Alamos National Laboratory working on black hole discs and jets