Science

How to build cheaper smart weapons

A million dollars up in smoke ON APRIL 7th a salvo of missiles fired by American warships in the Mediterranean scored direct hits on several Syrian aircraft shelters from hundreds of miles away, demonstrating once more the effectiveness of precision, or “smart”, weapons. At $1.3m apiece such missiles are usually reserved for important targets like parked aircraft. They are too ...

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Airports switch to “virtual” control towers

THE 67-metre-tall control tower that opened at San Francisco International Airport in October is a stylish structure that cost $120m. It is supposed to resemble a beacon of the sort used in ancient times to guide ships safely to harbour. Those in the know might be forgiven for wondering if the new control tower is less a beacon than a ...

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Using light to fingerprint paper

A PIECE of paper is a complicated product. Trees are felled, stripped of their bark, chipped, mashed, and then mixed with water and churned into pulp. That pulp is washed and refined, before being beaten to a finer slush. Laid out flat, drained of water, then squeezed between large rollers, the slush at last becomes one large, long sheet of ...

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Gravity-wave detectors offer a new way to look at the universe

ONE of the biggest bits of science news in 2016 was the announcement, in February, that gravitational waves had been detected for the first time. A prediction of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, theorists had long suspected that such waves—rippling distortions in the fabric of space itself—were real. But no one had seen one. They were eventually revealed by ...

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Cricket’s batsmen get the high-tech treatment

Activate the bat signal THE signature sound of cricket is the thwack of a willow bat hitting a leather ball. At the ICC Champions Trophy Tournament, though, which started in England and Wales on June 1st, the bats were emitting more than those soothing reverberations. They have been fitted with sensors that enable them to fire off wireless reports that ...

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Peer review is a thankless job. One firm wants to change that

Publish on a six AS SCULPTURES go, it is certainly eye-catching. On May 26th a small crowd gathered outside Moscow’s Higher School of Economics to watch the unveiling of a 1.5-tonne stone cube shaped like a six-sided die. Its five visible sides are carved with phrases such as “Minor Changes”, “Revise and Resubmit” and “Accept”. Called the “Monument to the ...

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A new antibiotic for drug-resistant tuberculosis

TUBERCULOSIS has plagued humanity for thousands of years. The discovery in the 19th century of its cause, a bacterium (pictured above) called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and the consequent development of better hygiene, helped bring that plague under control. Then, in the mid-20th century, what many hoped would be the final nail in its coffin appeared: antibiotic drugs. Unfortunately, TB is back. ...

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If you are a politician, changing your convictions could cost you

CYNICS may regard the phrase “political morality” as an oxymoron. Nevertheless, many politicians insist that their stated beliefs have a moral basis rather than a merely pragmatic one. And personal convictions aside, moralising has many benefits: past research suggests that leaders who make moral arguments are seen as having better characters, and that they are better at persuading waverers to ...

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How to get rid of weeds by crossing them with GM crops

Shattered INTRODUCING genes for herbicide resistance into a crop permits it to be sprayed with weedkiller that really does then kill nothing but weeds. But that works only until the weeds themselves develop resistance to the poison. One way this can happen is through crossbreeding with the crop originally protected—a risk if weed and crop are closely related. That is ...

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Whence new plagues?

MOST new human viral infections come from other animals. Ebola fever, SARS and AIDS all started in this way. Animals are also the sources of influenza epidemics. Keeping an eye on birds and beasts, the viruses they carry, and which of those viruses are found in people is thus a prudent thing to do. And that is the self-appointed task ...

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Planets come in different species

THE starting-point of science is collecting: animals, plants, minerals, elements, even stars. Then, once a collection is large enough, patterns begin to emerge. Animals and plants fall into phylogenetic trees, minerals into crystal groups, elements into the periodic table, stars into the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Those patterns both require and suggest explanation. Thus, the theory of evolution, the science of crystallography, ...

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The oldest Homo sapiens yet

A three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle HOW old is Homo sapiens? Comparing the genomes of modern humans with those from fossils of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) suggests that the lines leading to these two species split from one another more than 500,000 years ago. But that does not answer the question of when they achieved their distinctive forms. Fossils recognisable as Neanderthals go ...

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Helping blind people navigate

Belted up FOR centuries, canes have served blind and partially sighted people well by giving them a means to negotiate the world around them. The only serious upgrade they have undergone dates back to 1921, when a Briton called James Biggs, who had recently lost his sight, painted his own cane white in order to make it easily visible and ...

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Time may be fuzzy. If so, the idea of causality may be in trouble

THE thing about Gedankenexperimente—or thought experiments, for those who find Albert Einstein’s native tongue too twisting—is that you never know where they might lead. For Einstein, they led to the theory of relativity. For James Clerk Maxwell, they conjured an imaginary demon who could violate the second law of thermodynamics. For Erwin Schrödinger, they created an existentially confused cat that ...

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How to keep tabs on Atlantic hurricanes

IN SEPTEMBER 1961 a small hurricane called Esther swirled into being above the warm waters of the mid-Atlantic. It bore down on America’s east coast, executed a graceful clockwise loop-the-loop off the shores of New York, then gusted up through Maine and into Quebec as little more than a squall. Esther’s place in history was not assured through its destructive ...

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