Excerpts from science, technology, environment and health reports from around the web.

Smartphone microscope can detect a single virus, nanoparticles

Your smartphone now can see what the naked eye cannot: A single virus and bits of material less than one-thousandth of the width of a human hair.

Aydogan Ozcan, a prof. of electrical engineering and bioengineering at the Univ. of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and his team have created a portable smartphone attachment that can be used to perform sophisticated field testing to detect viruses and bacteria without the need for bulky and expensive microscopes and lab equipment. The device weighs less than half a pound.

Dogs interact with robots that act human

It’s official: the robotics industry is going to the dogs. Or at least, it should if engineers want to know how to design machines that can interact with humans.

In a recent issue of the journal Animal Cognition, Gabriella Lakatos of the Hungarian Academy of Science and Eötvös Loránd University led a study that looked at what dogs do around robots. She and her team thought that dogs might react better — that is, more socially — to robots that give social “cues.” It may sound odd to study how a robot interacts with dogs. But the researchers note such experiments might provide insight into the underlying mechanisms of how both dogs and people see machines.

Cryptographers have an ethics problem

According to secret documents leaked by a former contractor, Edward Snowden, the NSA has been gathering records of the communications of all Americans and has also defeated widely used encryption protocols so it can read them.

If, as some charge, the NSA has broken laws and violated the U.S. constitution, then it has committed criminal acts far worse than trampling on a voluntary code of conduct. Alternatively, if you think the NSA’s snooping is justified to defend the country, then who cares about a pious-sounding ethics statement anyway?

U.N. experts find convincing evidence of large-scale sarin attack in Syria

A team of U.N. inspectors has found “clear and convincing evidence” that a chemical weapons attack using the nerve agent sarin killed a large number of civilians near Damascus on 21 August. Although the team’s report does not discuss who was responsible for the attack, it includes information on the rockets used to deliver the sarin that some countries say implicates the Syrian government.

Intel’s anthropologist Genevieve Bell questions the Smart Watch

As director of Intel’s interaction and experience research group, anthropologist Genevieve Bell helps the company understand how the chips and other products developed in its labs might fit into the world of humans. Her team of social scientists, designers, and engineers interview and observe people in countries around the globe to understand how they use and think about technology.

That work has recently included investigating how people think and feel about technology worn on the body, or wearable computing. Bell is wary of the early examples of wearable computers being readied by companies such as Google, Samsung, and others. She says they won't be popular until it becomes clear how their technical features can enhance people’s lives.

Initial focus of research in Brain Project is chosen

In the first hint of how the Brain Initiative announced by President Obama in April could take shape, an advisory group on Monday recommended that the main target of research by the National Institutes of Health should be systems and circuits involving thousands to millions of brain cells — not the entire brain or individual cells and molecules.

The National Institutes of Health working group was meant to focus specifically on how the federal agency should spend its $40 million brain initiative budget in 2014. However, Dr. Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who was not a member of the group, said that the recommendations, which he agreed with, were so ambitious that it “could be a charter for neuroscience for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Your fridge is accelerating climate change—but it doesn't have to

The outward statecraft of the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, was dominated by disagreements over Syria. But behind the scenes, leaders were busy agreeing on something they rarely find common ground on: climate change. Thirty-five nations and the European Union decided to curb hydrofluorocarbons, a set of powerful heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, air conditioning, heat pumps, and insulation. This follows a deal earlier this year between China and the United States, in which President Obama and President Xi agreed to limit these greenhouse gases.

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This Week in ScienceAugust 21, 2013