Best of Last Week – A novel phase of matter, carcinogenic meat and how the brain erases unimportant stuff

November 2, 2015 by Bob Yirka
Caltech physicists uncover novel phase of matter
Artist's rendition of spatially segregated domains of multipolar order in the Sr2IrO4 crystal. The orientation of the multipolar order in each domain is depicted by the multi-lobed object. Credit: Liuyan Zhao

(—It was an interesting week for physics, as one team in the U.S. uncovered a novel phase of matter—it was characterized by an unusual ordering of electrons and wasn't based on any theoretical predictions. Another team at Purdue University observed a phase transition that was thought impossible—electrons transitioning from a topologically ordered phase to one with broken symmetry under certain conditions. And in a bit of applied physics, a collaborative effort in Britain has led to the invention of a sonic tractor beam—they used it to lift and move objects.

In news from space, a team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in the U.S. announced that they had solved the mysteries of Voyager 1's journey into interstellar space—specifically, why it observed a magnetic field that was inconsistent with other spacecraft observations. Also, the team studying data received from the Rosetta probe sent to study the comet 67P reported that it had found molecular oxygen—a major surprise.

In global warming news, a team of marine and environmental researchers from several organizations in the U.S. reported on the results of a study they conducted that suggests that warming waters are a major factor in the collapse of New England cod in the Gulf of Maine. And a study by NASA showed that mass gains of Antarctic Ice Sheet are greater than losses—the amount of snowfall is more than making up for losses due to melting glaciers.

In other news, a report by a UN agency made headlines around the world when it announced the results of reviewing approximately 800 studies that together showed that sausages and ham cause cancer and that red meat 'probably' does too. More optimistically, a team working at the University of Cambridge announced that their new design points a path to the 'ultimate' battery—a lithium-oxygen battery that testing has shown is more than 90 percent efficient—it can also be charged/recharged over 2,000 times.

And finally, if you have ever suspected that your brain sometimes gets rid of stuff you don't need, you may be right, as a team at Lund University in Sweden has found that sometimes the brain forgets in order to conserve energy—their study showed that the brain sometimes simply erases something that has been learned, which is been deemed unnecessary, in order to make the best use of energy.

© 2015

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