Science/Tech briefs

Gold Medal Science
A physics professor from the University of Toronto has been awarded the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). W. Richard Peltier, director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, received the award for his work on Earth system science, a field that unites several sciences in an attempt to understand the Earth as a system of complex interactions.

Peltier’s research into global warming grew out of his work on modelling the effect of melting glaciers on the sea level. He developed models showing climate evolution over the past 750 million years and projecting future change.

The Herzberg award is named for chemist Gerhard Herzberg, a Nobel winner who did much of his work in Canada. Winners receive up to $1 million to use for research. Past recipients of the gold medal include Nobel winner John C. Polanyi, also from the University of Toronto.

To DRM or not to DRM
A proposal co-authored by representatives from Microsoft, Google and Netflix would add support for Digital Rights Management (DRM) into the specification for HTML5, the next generation of the markup language used to make web pages. Ian Hickson, editor of the specification and also a Google employee, called the proposal “unethical.”

One of the big draws of HTML5 is the ability to embed streaming videos directly into an HTML document without the need for external plugins like Flash, the technology used by YouTube and others. But companies have been reluctant to take advantage of this feature because it does not have an easy mechanism allowing for copy protection.

The proposed changes would incorporate copy protection into the HTML standard, allowing video providers to check if a user is authorized to view the video before showing it. Some web standards experts including Hickson and HTML5 Working Group co-chair Maciej Stachowiak have questioned the feasibility and ethics of including DRM in an open standard like HTML.

“DRM takes away users’ rights,” said Hickson, listing a number of actions, such as taking an excerpt from a video for the purpose of commentary, that are not illegal but are prevented by DRM.

The World Wide Web Consortium’s HTML Working Group is considering the proposal.

Arctic research gets the cold shoulder from funders
The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut, will shut down year-round operations on April 30 due to lack of funding. Its equipment will be removed and the building will only remain available for short-term projects.

The PEARL station is one of the closest laboratories in the world to the North Pole. Last winter, it contributed data to a report showing one of the largest holes in the ozone layer ever detected over the Arctic. “Shutting it down causes a big gap in the measurements,” said Jim Drummond, PEARL’s principal investigator, in an interview with the CBC.

The scientists who run the lab are taking measurements during the summer, but closing the lab during the winter means it can no longer contribute this kind of data to international collaborations.

A new laboratory is being set up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. But it will not open for several more years and is located 1,300 km south of PEARL. Drummond says that it will not make up for the loss of PEARL.

Calling all space cowboys
Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company, which calls itself the world’s “first commercial spaceline,” plans to make its first test flight outside Earth’s atmosphere this year. Depending on how test flights go, passenger service could begin in 2013 or 2014.

SpaceShipTwo, Virgin’s latest commercial spaceship design, will hold six passengers and two pilots. The spaceship is released in the air from VirginMothership Eve, a large aircraft that looks like two airplanes attached at the tips of their wings. Flights will reach an altitude of 109 km, and passengers will have a few minutes to float in zero gravity and see Earth against the blackness of space.

Tickets cost $200,000. Around 430 people have already signed up.