Archive for the ‘Princeton University’ Category

Since the 1930s scientists have been searching for particles that are simultaneously matter and antimatter. Now physicists have found strong evidence for one such entity inside a superconducting material. The discovery could represent the first so-called Majorana particle, and may help researchers encode information for quantum computers.

Physicists think that every particle of matter has an antimatter counterpart with equal mass but opposite charge. When matter meets its antimatter equivalent, the two annihilate one another. But some particles might be their own antimatter partners, according to a 1937 prediction by Italian physicist Ettore Majorana. For the first time researchers say they have imaged one of these Majorana particles, and report their findings in the October 3 Science.

The new Majorana particle showed up inside a superconductor, a material in which the free movement of electrons allows electricity to flow without resistance. The research team, led by Ali Yazdani of Princeton University, placed a long chain of iron atoms, which are magnetic, on top of a superconductor made of lead. Normally, magnetism disrupts superconductors, which depend on a lack of magnetic fields for their electrons to flow unimpeded. But in this case the magnetic chain turned into a special type of superconductor in which electrons next to one another in the chain coordinated their spins to simultaneously satisfy the requirements of magnetism and superconductivity. Each of these pairs can be thought of as an electron and an antielectron, with a negative and a positive charge, respectively. That arrangement, however, leaves one electron at each end of the chain without a neighbor to pair with, causing them to take on the properties of both electrons and antielectrons—in other words, Majorana particles.

As opposed to particles found in a vacuum, unattached to other matter, these Majoranas are what’s called “emergent particles.” They emerge from the collective properties of the surrounding matter and could not exist outside the superconductor.

The new study shows a convincing signature of Majorana particles, says Leo Kouwenhoven of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who was not involved in the research but previously found signs of Majorana particles in a different superconductor arrangement. “But to really speak of full proof, unambiguous evidence, I think you have to do a DNA test.” Such a test, he says, must show the particles do not obey the normal laws of the two known classes of particles in nature—fermions (protons, electrons and most other particles we are familiar with) and bosons (photons and other force-carrying particles, including the Higgs boson). “The great thing about Majoranas is that they are potentially a new class of particle,” Kouwenhoven adds. “If you find a new class of particles, that really would add a new chapter to physics.”

Physicist Jason Alicea of California Institute of Technology, who also did not participate in the research, said the study offers “compelling evidence” for Majorana particles but that “we should keep in mind possible alternative explanations—even if there are no immediately obvious candidates.” He praised the experimental setup for its apparent ability to easily produce the elusive Majoranas. “One of the great virtues of their platform relative to earlier works is that it allowed the researchers to apply a new type of microscope to probe the detailed anatomy of the physics.”

The discovery could have implications for searches for free Majorana particles outside of superconducting materials. Many physicists suspect neutrinos—very lightweight particles with the strange ability to alter their identities, or flavors—are Majorana particles, and experiments are ongoing to investigate whether this is the case. Now that we know Majorana particles can exist inside superconductors, it might not be surprising to find them in nature, Yazdani says. “Once you find the concept to be correct, it’s very likely that it shows up in another layer of physics. That’s what’s exciting.”

The finding could also be useful for constructing quantum computers that harness the laws of quantum mechanics to make calculations many times faster than conventional computers. One of the main issues in building a quantum computer is the susceptibility of quantum properties such as entanglement (a connection between two particles such that an action on one affects the other) to collapse due to outside interference. A particle chain with Majoranas capping each end would be somewhat immune to this danger, because damage would have to be done to both ends simultaneously to destroy any information encoded there. “You could build a quantum bit based on these Majoranas,” Yazdani says. ”The idea is that such a bit would be much more robust to the environment than the types of bits people have tried to make so far.”


Recently the mainstream has come to embrace the fact that the job market for Ph.D. biomedical researchers is overcrowded. According to a new report from a working group of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), the job market looks very different for physician-scientists. In fact, “[t]here may not be enough [physician-scientists] to replace those preparing to retire,” Jocelyn Kaiser reports in a ScienceInsider.

The working group analyzed data on “M.D.-Ph.D.s, M.D.s, nurses, and other researchers with clinical training” collected from an American Medical Association (AMA) survey, finding—in stark contrast to trends in the number of biomedical Ph.D. graduates—that “[t]he number of physicians conducting research has declined 5.5% since 2003 to about 13,700 in 2012.” The working group also analyzed data from NIH and AMA and found that many NIH-funded principal investigators (PIs) are in their 60s and 70s, and that the number of PIs under 60 is declining.

The data have fueled concern for the future of the physician-scientist population. The need for younger physician-scientists is getting more attention because “we’re worried that they’re [physician-scientists are] going to dry up and this is going to be a serious problem,” said working group co-chair David Ginsburg of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in a call with reporters, as quoted by Kaiser.

Kaiser notes that some of the working group’s recommendations for fixing these problems echo those of the 2012 Biomedical Workforce Working Group of the ACD, led by Princeton University molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman: Enrich training programs, and give more weight to proposals from young researchers. “It also recommends creating a category for physician-scientists within the so-called kangaroo, or K99/R00, awards—two-stage awards that include a training grant and research support,” Kaiser writes.

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

povertyResearch based at Princeton University found that poverty and all its related concerns require so much mental energy that the poor have less remaining brainpower to devote to other areas of life. Experiments showed that the impact of financial concerns on the cognitive function of low-income individuals was similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep. To gauge the influence of poverty in natural contexts, the researchers tested 464 sugarcane farmers in India who rely on the annual harvest for at least 60 percent of their income. Each farmer performed better on common fluid-intelligence and cognition tests post-harvest compared to pre-harvest.

Poverty and all its related concerns require so much mental energy that the poor have less remaining brainpower to devote to other areas of life, according to research based at Princeton University. As a result, people of limited means are more likely to make mistakes and bad decisions that may be amplified by — and perpetuate — their financial woes.

Published in the journal Science, the study presents a unique perspective regarding the causes of persistent poverty. The researchers suggest that being poor may keep a person from concentrating on the very avenues that would lead them out of poverty. A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that pressing financial concerns had an immediate impact on the ability of low-income individuals to perform on common cognitive and logic tests. On average, a person preoccupied with money problems exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep.

But when their concerns were benign, low-income individuals performed competently, at a similar level to people who were well off, said corresponding author Jiaying Zhao, who conducted the study as a doctoral student in the lab of co-author Eldar Shafir, Princeton’s William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs. Zhao and Shafir worked with Anandi Mani, an associate professor of economics at the University of Warwick in Britain, and Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard University economics professor.

“These pressures create a salient concern in the mind and draw mental resources to the problem itself. That means we are unable to focus on other things in life that need our attention,” said Zhao, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

“Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success,” she said. “We’re arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty.”

The mental tax that poverty can put on the brain is distinct from stress, Shafir explained. Stress is a person’s response to various outside pressures that — according to studies of arousal and performance — can actually enhance a person’s functioning, he said. In the Science study, Shafir and his colleagues instead describe an immediate rather than chronic preoccupation with limited resources that can be a detriment to unrelated yet still important tasks.

“Stress itself doesn’t predict that people can’t perform well — they may do better up to a point,” Shafir said. “A person in poverty might be at the high part of the performance curve when it comes to a specific task and, in fact, we show that they do well on the problem at hand. But they don’t have leftover bandwidth to devote to other tasks. The poor are often highly effective at focusing on and dealing with pressing problems. It’s the other tasks where they perform poorly.”

The fallout of neglecting other areas of life may loom larger for a person just scraping by, Shafir said. Late fees tacked on to a forgotten rent payment, a job lost because of poor time-management — these make a tight money situation worse. And as people get poorer, they tend to make difficult and often costly decisions that further perpetuate their hardship, Shafir said. He and Mullainathan were co-authors on a 2012 Science paper that reported a higher likelihood of poor people to engage in behaviors that reinforce the conditions of poverty, such as excessive borrowing.

“They can make the same mistakes, but the outcomes of errors are more dear,” Shafir said. “So, if you live in poverty, you’re more error prone and errors cost you more dearly — it’s hard to find a way out.”

The first set of experiments took place in a New Jersey mall between 2010 and 2011 with roughly 400 subjects chosen at random. Their median annual income was around $70,000 and the lowest income was around $20,000. The researchers created scenarios wherein subjects had to ponder how they would solve financial problems, for example, whether they would handle a sudden car repair by paying in full, borrowing money or putting the repairs off. Participants were assigned either an “easy” or “hard” scenario in which the cost was low or high — such as $150 or $1,500 for the car repair. While participants pondered these scenarios, they performed common fluid-intelligence and cognition tests.

Subjects were divided into a “poor” group and a “rich” group based on their income. The study showed that when the scenarios were easy — the financial problems not too severe — the poor and rich performed equally well on the cognitive tests. But when they thought about the hard scenarios, people at the lower end of the income scale performed significantly worse on both cognitive tests, while the rich participants were unfazed.

To better gauge the influence of poverty in natural contexts, between 2010 and 2011 the researchers also tested 464 sugarcane farmers in India who rely on the annual harvest for at least 60 percent of their income. Because sugarcane harvests occur once a year, these are farmers who find themselves rich after harvest and poor before it. Each farmer was given the same tests before and after the harvest, and performed better on both tests post-harvest compared to pre-harvest.

The cognitive effect of poverty the researchers found relates to the more general influence of “scarcity” on cognition, which is the larger focus of Shafir’s research group. Scarcity in this case relates to any deficit — be it in money, time, social ties or even calories — that people experience in trying to meet their needs. Scarcity consumes “mental bandwidth” that would otherwise go to other concerns in life, Zhao said.

“These findings fit in with our story of how scarcity captures attention. It consumes your mental bandwidth,” Zhao said. “Just asking a poor person to think about hypothetical financial problems reduces mental bandwidth. This is an acute, immediate impact, and has implications for scarcity of resources of any kind.”

“We documented similar effects among people who are not otherwise poor, but on whom we imposed scarce resources,” Shafir added. “It’s not about being a poor person — it’s about living in poverty.”

Many types of scarcity are temporary and often discretionary, said Shafir, who is co-author with Mullainathan of the book, “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” to be published in September. For instance, a person pressed for time can reschedule appointments, cancel something or even decide to take on less.

“When you’re poor you can’t say, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m not going to be poor anymore.’ Or, ‘Forget it, I just won’t give my kids dinner, or pay rent this month.’ Poverty imposes a much stronger load that’s not optional and in very many cases is long lasting,” Shafir said. “It’s not a choice you’re making — you’re just reduced to few options. This is not something you see with many other types of scarcity.”

The researchers suggest that services for the poor should accommodate the dominance that poverty has on a person’s time and thinking. Such steps would include simpler aid forms and more guidance in receiving assistance, or training and educational programs structured to be more forgiving of unexpected absences, so that a person who has stumbled can more easily try again.

“You want to design a context that is more scarcity proof,” said Shafir, noting that better-off people have access to regular support in their daily lives, be it a computer reminder, a personal assistant, a housecleaner or a babysitter.

“There’s very little you can do with time to get more money, but a lot you can do with money to get more time,” Shafir said. “The poor, who our research suggests are bound to make more mistakes and pay more dearly for errors, inhabit contexts often not designed to help.”

The paper, “Poverty impedes cognitive function,” was published Aug. 30 by Science. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation (award number SES-0933497), the International Finance Corporation and the IFMR Trust in India.


A new study reveals the contribution of a little known Austrian physicist, Friedrich Hasenöhrl, to uncovering a precursor to Einstein famous equation.

Two American physicists outline the role played by Austrian physicist Friedrich Hasenöhrl in establishing the proportionality between the energy (E) of a quantity of matter with its mass (m) in a cavity filled with radiation. In a paper in the European Physical Journal H, Stephen Boughn from Haverford College in Pensylvannia and Tony Rothman from Princeton University in New Jersey argue how Hasenöhrl’s work, for which he now receives little credit, may have contributed to the famous equation E=mc2.

According to science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, the nature of scientific progress occurs through paradigm shifts, which depend on the cultural and historical circumstances of groups of scientists. Concurring with this idea, the authors believe the notion that mass and energy should be related did not originate solely with Hasenöhrl. Nor did it suddenly emerge in 1905, when Einstein published his paper, as popular mythology would have it.

Given the lack of recognition for Hasenöhrl’s contribution, the authors examined the Austrian physicist’s original work on blackbody radiation in a cavity with perfectly reflective walls. This study seeks to identify the blackbody’s mass changes when the cavity is moving relative to the observer.

They then explored the reason why the Austrian physicist arrived at an energy/mass correlation with the wrong factor, namely at the equation: E = (3/8) mc2. Hasenöhrl’s error, they believe, stems from failing to account for the mass lost by the blackbody while radiating.

Before Hasenöhrl focused on cavity radiation, other physicists, including French mathematician Henri Poincaré and German physicist Max Abraham, showed the existence of an inertial mass associated with electromagnetic energy. In 1905, Einstein gave the correct relationship between inertial mass and electromagnetic energy, E=mc2. Nevertheless, it was not until 1911 that German physicist Max von Laue generalised it to include all forms of energy.