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Top stories: A real-time pollution model, a weird quantum distortion in space, and how to reactivate latent memories

Watch air pollution flow across the planet in real time

Each year, China’s toxic air contributes to the premature deaths of some 1.6 million people. Concerned about how such pollution was affecting his family, Beijing-based data scientist Yann Boquillod founded AirVisual Earth, an online air pollution map that uses data from satellites and more than 8000 monitoring stations to display global air pollution in real time. Users can zoom in, tilt, and spin the globe for better viewing. The air pollution visualization was crafted “so people really understand how bad it is,” says Boquillod, who hopes an informed citizenry will pressure governments and communities to clear the air.

Are the best students really that advanced?

The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a quadrennial international assessment of how well students perform in mathematics and science, was released this week. Made up of scores from 550,000 fourth and eighth graders from more than 40 countries, the assessment shows a handful of East Asian countries scored among the highest, whereas U.S. students wound up in the middle of the pack. For the first time, the assessment also tracked the progress of the same cohort of students by administering a third test in their last year of school. In the nine countries that agreed to participate in that third test, students taking the most challenging math and science courses in their senior year were found to have performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school.

Astronomers spot signs of weird quantum distortion in space

A simple observation of an extremely dim star may point to, literally, the biggest manifestation of weird quantum phenomena yet. Light from a lonely neutron star 400 light-years away is polarized, just like light reflecting off a pond, a team of astronomers reports. This suggests that, as predicted, the neutron star's ultraintense magnetic field is distorting empty space through a quantum mechanical effect involving ghostly “virtual” particles lurking in the vacuum—the sort of thing usually seen only on the atomic scale. Such particles could eventually enable astrophysicists to infer properties such as a neutron star’s size and the strength of its gravity at its surface.

How to fly a pipe

A team of aerodynamicists has stumbled across a way in which the downward force from air flowing past an odd-shaped object can suddenly turn into a hefty upward lift. Combining the classic but usually disparate physics of airplane wings and golf balls, the surprising reversal might serve to make a new type of mechanical switch that would flip off or on depending on how fast fluid flows past it. Such switches might control and stabilize crafts both in air and sea in a completely mechanical way, without the need for electrical sensors and powered control systems.

Newly discovered state of memory could help explain learning and brain disorders

A research team has shown this week that memories can be resurrected from “limbo”—where they’re neither in immediate consciousness nor in long-term memory. Their observations point to a new form of working memory, “prioritized long-term memory,” which exists without elevated neural activity. Consistent with other recent work, the study suggests that information can somehow be held among the synapses that connect neurons, even after conventional working memory has faded. This new memory state could have a range of practical implications, from helping college students learn more efficiently to assisting people with memory-related neurological conditions such as amnesia, epilepsy, and schizophrenia.

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