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News from the Physical Sciences

fragile X protein bound to ribosomeDiscovery could lead to novel therapies for Fragile X syndrome

Scientists studying the most common form of inherited mental disability—a genetic disease called “Fragile X syndrome”—have uncovered new details about the cellular processes responsible for the condition that could lead to the development of therapies to restore some of the capabilities lost in affected individuals.

In a paper to be published in Molecular Cell, a group led by Simpson Joseph, professor of chemistry and biochemistry shows how the fragile X mental retardation protein, which is in short supply in individuals with Fragile X, affects the protein-making structures of cells in the brain to cause the disease. Read more.

Kiran KedlayaMathematician awarded Guggenheim Fellowship

Professor Kiran Kedlaya has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, to further his work in number theory, one of the most classical branches of mathematics.

The award will support a project that explores computational aspects of the Langlands program, a grand unifying framework - akin to the Standard Model in particle physics - that incorporates much of the progress in number theory as in the late 20th century, The Langlands program is not always completely precise in its predictions, however. To address that shortcoming, Kedlaya will be leading a research program to develop new computational infrastructure for making and testing precise predictions in the context of the Langlands program at ICERM in fall 2015. One guiding example will be the relationship between elliptic curves and modular forms which went into the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem in the 1990s, Kedlaya says.

Some of Kedlaya's earlier research was on the topic of counting solutions of certain polynomial equations, in a setting relevant to cryptographic systems based on elliptic curves. This project uses some of those ideas again, but for a new purpose, he says. "Some of the insight gained by interacting with computer scientists is thus being plowed back into pure mathematics!"

polarization patterns in CMBProbing aerosols one by one

Aerosols are the wild cards of climate models. They reflect sunlight back into space, absorb radiation and seed clouds. Climate scientists think that aerosols have a net cooling effect, but uncertainties in their estimates are so large no one really knows for sure. Scientists with the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate & the Environment, directed by atmospheric chemist Kimberly Prather, study the composition of individual aerosol particles so that they may be incorporated effectively in climate models. Read more in Chemical and Engineering News.

New study maps how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics

A new map drawn by a team of biophysicists could point the way to better antibiotics. Rather than chart Earth’s geography, the scientists mapped how fast bacteria with different genetic mutations reproduce and how they respond to varying doses of a drug.

Such a map could help drugmakers develop treatments that block bacteria’s ability to evolve antibiotic resistance, said Terence Hwa, a biological physicist at the University of California, San Diego and a member of the research team. “If you’re going to attack somebody you want to have a map so you can plan out routes of attack.” Read more.

polarization patterns in CMBCosmologists report evidence for cosmic inflation

Cosmologists have detected curling patterns in the faint glow of the universe's oldest light that appear to be traces left by cosmic inflation, an exponential expansion of the universe thought to have occurred fractions of a second after the Big Bang.

Read more.

Mark ThiemensMark Thiemens named Einstein Professor by Chinese Academy of Sciences

Mark Thiemens, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry was awarded an Albert Einstein Professorship by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The award, one of the academy's highest, is given to researchers working at the very frontiers of science. 

Other recipients this year include Professors Martin Karplus, Robert Grubbs, and K.C. Nicolau. 

Einstein Professors give lectures and meet with scientists in several cities with the goal of strengthening ties with Chinese scientists and enhancing the training of future generations of scientists in China.

Dust in a storm approaching California February 24, 2014. Image NASA Earth Observing SystemDistant dust storms matter to California rainfall

Atmospheric chemists are trying to understand why some storms unload lots of rain and snow in California and others don’t. They’re finding it could be linked to dust storms thousands of miles away.

Read more at KQED or listen (below).

Dust within a storm approaching California in February. Image: NASA Earth Observing System.

New magnetic material could boost electronics

Physicists have discovered a highly sensitive magnetic material that could transform computer hard drives and energy storage devices. The metal bilayer needs only a small shift in temperature to dramatically alter its magnetism - a tremendously useful property in electronic engineering.

"No other material known to man can do this. It's a huge effect. And we can engineer it," Ivan Schuller, professor of physics, told BBC News. Read more.

Polarbear telescopePrecision cosmology

Like an enormous backlight, remnant radiation from the Big Bang shines through the whole universe.

This ancient light, the cosmic microwave background, has cooled and stretched since then.

Darcy Barron, a graduate student in physics who works on POLARBEAR, tells ABC Radio why they go to such extremes to measure these faint signals. Listen.

Polaritons ripple across crystalCrystals ripple in response to light

Light can trigger coordinated, wavelike motions of atoms in atom-thin layers of crystal, scientists have shown. The waves, called phonon polaritons, are far shorter than light waves and can be "tuned" to particular frequencies and amplitudes by varying the number of layers of crystal.

These properties - observed in this class of material for the first time - open the possibility of using polaritons to convey information in tight spaces, create images at far finer resolution than is possible with light, and manage the flow of heat in nanoscale devices. Read more.

instruments sampling the air off Scripps pierSurface of sea a sink for nitrogen oxides

The surface of the sea takes up nitrogen oxides that build up in polluted air at night, new measurements on the coast of southern California have shown. The ocean removes about 15 percent of these chemicals overnight along the coast, atmospheric chemists report the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The sea has a salty, rich, organic surface with the potential for a variety of chemical reactions,” says Tim Betram, an assistant professor of chemistry who led the project. It’s part of his group’s mission, to “embrace the complexity to study real systems in their native states and the coupling of the natural world with our influence,” he adds. Read more.

Arthur M. WolfeIn memorium: Arthur M. Wolfe 1939-2014

An astrophysicist who for a decade directed the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the UC San Diego and achieved widespread recognition for his discoveries about star formation and the early universe, Wolfe died February 17 following a battle with cancer. He was 74.

Trained as a theoretical physicist, Wolfe made fundamental contributions in two different fields. In theoretical general relativity, he and Rainer Kurt Sachs first showed how density fluctuations in an expanding universe affect the thermal radiation left by the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background radiation. Later, Wolfe moved into observational astronomy and was one of the key leaders in using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, pioneering the use of quasar spectra to study concentrations of neutral hydrogen gas in “Damped Lyman-Alpha Systems.” Read more about Wolfe's life and work on the campus news page.

clouds circling a black holeClouds circle supermassive black holes

Astronomers see huge clouds of gas orbiting supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. Once thought to be a relatively uniform, fog-like ring, the accreting matter instead forms clumps dense enough to intermittently dim the intense radiation blazing forth as these enormous objects condense and consume matter. Evidence for the clouds comes from records collected over 16 years by NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a satellite equipped with instruments that measured variations in X-ray sources. Read more

array of cytochrome proteins and zinc ionsProtein array guides nanocrystal growth

Two years ago, chemistry professor Akif Tezcan and coworkers showed that a cytochrome protein could self-assemble into one- and two-dimensional arrays, coordinated by zinc ions. Now Tezcan's research team has used this metal-linked protein array as a template for nanofabrication. 

In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they show that the protein within this metal-based array is much more stable to heat and organic solvents than the native protein and that its light-driven chemical activity can be used to control the growth of inorganic nanocrystals. Stable arrays of other proteins and enzymes with different functions could also potentially be used to fabricate materials on a nanoscale.

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News Archive

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