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A Room with the Lowest Magnetic Field in the Solar System

Some experiments, especially in fundamental physics, require the complete absence of magnetic fields. The only places you would find such a spot would be either in intergalactic space or inside a superconductor. Now an international team of researchers claim to have created such a space with a magnetic field that is the weakest in the solar system.

In the Journal of Applied Physics of 14 May the researchers report that by building a box consisting of metal shields arranged in a "Russian nesting doll" structure, they have been able to attenuate changes in the ambient magnetic field caused by man, such as passing cars, or of natural origin, such as solar flares, by a million fold, a factor they have increased to seven million since the acceptance of their paper. In practical terms, the shielded box can reduce magnetic disturbances from passing cars to below one pico Tesla. In comparison, the magnetic field of the Earth averages 48 microtesla at the surface.

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3-D Print and Rubik's Cube-ify Almost Anything

A Rubik’s Cube is a 3-D puzzle designed to be enjoyed for 15 minutes, loathed 30 more minutes, and then placed in a drawer and forgotten. This is because the utility of a solved Rubik’s Cube is less than the utility of an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, so there is simply no motivation to solve it. 

But imagine if you could turn any object whatsoever into a puzzle that needs to be solved before you can use it. That would be fun, right? Sure it would, if by “fun” you mean “the worst.” So let’s do it!

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Poker Pros School Computer on No-Limit Texas Hold'em

A supercomputer-powered artificial intelligence that had previously beat all other computer rivals at playing no-limit Texas hold’em fell short of victory when it challenged four of the world’s best human poker players. The unprecedented showdown took place during a two-week competition lasting from April 24 to May 8.

But computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have already started poring through the competition’s results for lessons on how to improve their poker-playing AI. One of them believes that the computer program could eventually beat the best human players sometime within the next five years.

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Poker Pros Battle Artificial Intelligence to a Statistical Draw

Humans can breathe easier for now after four of the world’s best poker players held their own against the best artificial intelligence in no-limit Texas hold’em. The poker pros played a combined total of 80,000 hands with the computer program, named Claudico, during an intense two-week competition.

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Organic Electronics Deliver Pain-Canceling Molecules

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Researchers invented an implanted bioelectronic device that delivers therapeutic drugs to rats’ spinal cords with unprecedented precision, reducing pain without side effects, according to a study published today in Science Advances. The researchers say that by delivering lower doses of pain medication in a more targeted way, side effects that often accompany traditional administration of pain medications can be avoided.

“To the best or our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of drug delivery with a bioelectronic device in such a selective way,” says Daniel T. Simon, an assistant professor at Linköping University in Sweden, and a researcher on the project. “There has been electrophoretic delivery of drugs done. But there hasn’t been this type of precision and local delivery,” he says.

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Gallium Nitride Power Transistors Priced Cheaper Than Silicon

Last week, El Segundo, Calif.-based Efficient Power Conversion, announced that it’s offering two types of power transistors made from gallium nitride that it has priced cheaper than their silicon counterparts.

“This is the first time that something has really been higher performance and lower cost than silicon,” CEO Alex Lidow says. “Gallium nitride has taken the torch and is now running with it.”

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Intel Offers Internet Smarts for Dumb Vending Machines

Most vending machines seem stubbornly stuck in the 20th century. Intel sees an opportunity to change that sad state of affairs by transforming vending machines into Internet-connected devices. Such a solution could enable intelligent vending machines to continuously update their advertising displays and send wireless alerts requesting a refill when they run low on Coca-Cola or potato chips.

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Cheap Centimeter-Precision GPS For Cars, Drones, Virtual Reality

The GPS navigation system in your mobile phone can get you to the airport or the closest coffee shop. But it can’t pinpoint your exact location on a city sidewalk; that location can be off by 10 meters.

Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin have now made a small, cheap GPS system for mobile devices that gives centimeter-precision positioning accuracy. Such centimeter precision could let drones deliver packages to your porch, autonomous vehicles navigate safely, and be used in precision farming. It could also allow for some neat virtual reality tricks and games if coupled with a smartphone camera, says Todd Humphreys, an aerospace engineering researcher at UT Austin. “People could have an engaging mind-blowing experience with physically immersive virtual reality,” he says.

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Computer Battles Top Human Poker Players

Computers have yet to fully master the popular version of poker known as no-limit Texas Hold ’em. That’s why humans still stand a chance in the world’s first serious tournament between some of the best professional poker players and a computer program developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Humans have the edge so far, but the competition remains tight going into the second and final week.

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Microwave Ovens Posing as Astronomical Objects

Once, during a visit to the Dutch Radio Telescope in Westerbork, the Netherlands, an astronomer told me that they had to shut down the recording of data because a Citroën Deux Cheveaux was standing, with its engine idling, on a small road nearby. The ignition system of the 2CV was pretty primitive; the spark plugs in its two-cylinder engine fired simultaneously, producing a lot of RF noise. Interference from terrestrial sources is a well understood problem for radio telescopes. The announcement of the discovery of pulsars in 1967 was made after all manmade RF signals, such as those emitted by satellites, were ruled out. Because of how vulnerable their tools are to interference, radio astronomers now staunchly defend the frequency bands allocated to them.

In 2007, astronomers at the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia reported in Science the discovery of a new object in space that caused a single, very intense gigahertz radio burst that lasted only a few milliseconds. The burst, first detected in August 2001, was recognized by scientists during the analysis of archived records. Although the pulse was very short, the higher frequencies arrived first, followed by lower frequencies, indicating that its origin had to be far outside of our Milky Way Galaxy. The astronomers, realizing that this event, called a fast radio burst (FRB), was extraordinary, set out to look for similar events, both in archived records and during new observations.  Astronomers identified about 40 FRBs with the Parkes Radio Telescope alone, and other radio astronomers reported similar events. 

However, about 25 FRBs detected mainly by the Parkes Radio Telescope and a few other observatories presented signatures that were very different.  Although they covered a wide frequency range just like the other FRBs, the frequency-time structures of many of these events defied any physical model, and they did not show differences in the arrival times between the higher frequencies and the lower frequencies of the burst.  Also, the location of these FRBs was difficult to pinpoint; the radiation seemed to come from all directions. The Parkes astronomers, mystified, dubbed these "abnormal" FRBs "perythons" after a mythical figure invented by the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. The perythons’ signatures caused astronomers to doubt the extragalactic origin of FRBs [PDF] althogether.  They might originate on or nearby Earth, the scientists began to believe, and some astronomers even suggested that these strange bursts might be produced by extraterrestrial civilizations.

Photo: Getty Images

Not long after focusing their attention on the perythons, the Parkes astronomers noticed that these FRBs seemed to take off during weekends. In 2014, they installed a radio frequency interference monitor at the observatory and decided that the culprits were probably some microwave ovens inside the observatory building. Tests with these microwave ovens yielded nothing—they emitted no radio pulses while they were running. The astronomers were flummoxed—that is, until one of the testers, during a third attempt, opened the door of a microwave oven before the magnetron was shut off by the timer. They found that although the door shuts the magnetron off, a whiff of gigahertz radiation could escape. Some of the microwaves were nearly three decades old, and the aged magnetrons were prone to sparking during start up and shut down. The researchers wrote in an arXiv paper that this discovery clears up the confusion. Because the perythons are not actually FRBs, but impostors, the previously-identified signatures, the astronomers concluded, are indeed the result of extragalactic events. How the real FRBs are produced still remains a mystery.  


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