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Cosmic Science

Muon mystery, MindPong and a lost city revealed

Egyptian archaeologists unearth a 3,000-year-old lost city, magnetic readings from muons could lead to new physics, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink venture has monkeys playing video games with neural impulses. Get the details on the Web:

‘Lost Golden City’ found in Luxor

Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, announced today that the long-lost ruins of a 3,000-year-old city have been found in Luxor. The sprawling settlement dates to the reign of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says it continued to be used by Tutankhamun and his successor, King Ay.

The city was at one time called “The Rise of Aten,” reflecting the religious shift brought about by Akhenaten. Today it’s being called the “Lost Golden City.” During the past seven months of excavation, several neighborhoods have been uncovered, but the administrative and residential district hasn’t yet been brought forth from the sands. “The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archaeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun,” said Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Previously: ‘Lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities

Muon anomaly sparks deep questions

Anomalous results from a Fermilab experiment have added to the suspicion that scientists have finally found a flaw in one of their most successful theories, the Standard Model of particle physics. The anomalies have to do with the strength of the magnetic field for a weightier cousin of the electron, known as the muon. Data from Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment supported previous findings from Brookhaven National Laboratory that the muon’s magnetism is ever-so-slightly stronger than predicted by the Standard Model — just 2.5 parts per billion stronger.

If the results hold up, physicists might have to consider far-out explanations — for example, the existence of scads of particles that haven’t yet been detected, or a totally new take on the foundations of physics. But the findings will require further confirmation. Grand discoveries, like 2012’s detection of the Higgs boson, typically have to be confirmed to a confidence level of 5-sigma. Now the muon findings have hit 4.2-sigma — which doubters would say is still substandard.

Previously: Could the God Equation be our ultimate salvation?

Elon Musk touts mind control

Neuralink, the brain-implant venture funded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is showing off an AI system that lets a macaque monkey play a game of Pong with its mind alone. Researchers monitored the monkey’s neural impulses as it operated a joystick to play the game, and then correlated the firing patterns of the neurons with the gameplay. Eventually, the brain-monitoring system eliminated the need for the monkey to use the joystick at all.

In a Twitter exchange, Musk said human trials of the mind-reading system would begin, “hopefully, later this year.” He said Neuralink’s first brain-implant product would enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs. “Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again,” Musk tweeted.

Previously: ‘Three Little Pigs’ demonstrate Neuralink’s brain implant

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Fiction Science Club

Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

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GeekWire

SpaceX expands its footprint in the Seattle area

SpaceX is leasing a 124,907-square-foot building complex that’s under construction in Redmond Ridge Business Park, east of Seattle, according to the latest industrial real estate market report from Kidder Mathews. Kidder Mathews, which listed the property for lease, says construction is slated for completion this fall.

The construction site, which takes in the business park’s Buildings 4 and 5 and offers up to 300 extra parking places nearby, is just a block away from SpaceX’s existing facilities at Redmond Ridge. Those facilities serve as the headquarters for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite development and manufacturing operation.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to provide global broadband internet access via a network of thousands of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. More than 1,400 satellites already have been launched — including 60 that were sent into orbit today — and Starlink has been gradually expanding its “Better Than Nothing” beta offering.

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Fiction Science Club

Could the God Theory be our ultimate salvation?

In retrospect, it seemed almost sacrilegious.

There we were — on Good Friday, the day that ushers in Christianity’s holiest weekend — talking with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku about the possibility that humanity’s salvation will come from a scientific gospel that’s yet to be written.

A gospel that Kaku calls the God Equation.

The way he sees it, our far-flung descendants will be able to take advantage of the God Equation to leave our tired old universe behind.

“One day, stars will blink out. It’ll get super cold. We’ll all freeze to death as it becomes near absolute zero. Well, that’s trillions of years from now. And I think at that point, we’re so advanced, we’ll harness the Planck energy — the energy at which universes can be created — and we’ll create a bubble of our own,” he explained.

“We’ll leave our universe and go to a younger universe where we can mess that universe up as well,” he said.

You could argue that’s the “new heaven and new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation. Is that sacrilegious? You’ll have to decide for yourselves after listening to the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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GeekWire

Robot charging system wins Europe’s seal of approval

Two of the wireless charging systems made by Seattle-based WiBotic have won safety approvals in Europe, marking what the startup’s CEO calls a major milestone.

The chargers and transmitters now have CE Mark approval, which means they meet the safety, health and environmental protection requirements for the European Economic Area. What’s more, the systems have been found to comply with the International Electrotechnical Commission’s directives for the European Union and Canada’s CSA Group standards organization.

“We also recently completed FCC approval in the U.S., so our systems are compliant with reputable regulatory agencies within many countries around the world,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters said today in a news release. “This, in turn, opens several exciting partnership and deployment opportunities for us across Europe, Canada and beyond.”

WiBotic, which was spun out from the University of Washington in 2015, has developed battery charging systems that can power up autonomous drones as well as robots on land or sea wirelessly, without human intervention. The company’s power management software, known as Commander, can work with the hardware to optimize battery use for an entire fleet of robots.

There’s even a project aimed at charging up future robots on the moon.

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GeekWire

After sky show, SpaceX picks up its rocket droppings

The atmospheric re-entry and breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket upper stage created a fiery display in the skies above the Pacific Northwest a week ago, but not all of those shooting stars burned up on the way down.

At least one big piece of the rocket — a roughly 5-foot-long composite-overwrapped pressure vessel — fell onto private property in southwest Grant County in Central Washington, the county sheriff’s office reported today in a tweet.

Kyle Foreman, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told GeekWire that the property owner left a message reporting the debris last weekend. Based on the reports about March 25’s meteor show, SpaceX’s rocket re-entry loomed as the likeliest cause for the commotion.

“The sheriff’s office checked it out on Monday, and SpaceX staff came over on Tuesday and retrieved it,” Foreman said.

He was unaware of any other reports of fallen rocket debris — and in its tweet, the sheriff’s office made clear that it considered the case closed. “Media and treasure hunters: we are not disclosing specifics,” it said. “The property owner simply wants to be left alone.”

Categories
Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.

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GeekWire

Bill Gates gives a fresh boost to clean energy

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting his money as well as his mouth behind the push for new energy technologies.

First, about the money: Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures is doubling down on its investment in ZeroAvia, a startup that’s working on a hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrain for aircraft capable of flying more than 50 passengers.

Back in December, Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a Series A funding round that raised $21.4 million for the U.S.-British company, with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund joining in the round. This week, ZeroAvia said Gates’ energy innovation fund is participating in a follow-up investment round amounting to another $24.3 million.

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GeekWire

OceanGate picks its support ship for Titanic dives

Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate Expeditions has taken one more giant leap toward sending its submersible to the world’s most famous shipwreck, with the selection of the expedition’s support vessel.

The Canadian-owned, 93.6-meter (307-foot) Horizon Arctic will serve as the seagoing base of operations for the Titan submersible’s trips to the Titanic wreck site in the North Atlantic, starting in June.

“For this expedition, in one of the world’s harshest marine environments, we have selected a superior vessel, with outstanding features such as low-emissions hybrid propulsion, full redundancies and the highest standard of accommodations for our crew and mission specialists,” Stockton Rush, OceanGate Expeditions’ president, said today in a news release.

“Our focus has been on identifying a vessel and crew uniquely qualified in deep subsea operations with a commitment to putting safety first,” Rush said. “We have found that in the crew of the Horizon Arctic.”

Sean Leet, CEO of Horizon Maritime, said he was looking forward to conducting the operation from the company’s home port in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Categories
Fiction Science Club

Why the natural world will never be the same

This is a bad time for Mother Nature — but it’s no use trying to turn the clock back. Instead, why not turn the clock forward?

That’s what Nathaniel Rich prescribes for what’s ailing the environment in “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.” And he lays out the symptoms to support his diagnosis.

One set of symptoms is the global prevalence of pollutants, including a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS. Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS, which is used in nonstick cookware as well as water-repellant and stain-resistant products. An infamous case of PFAS water contamination and its health effects in West Virginia became the focus of a story that Rich wrote for The New York Times, and that story inspired a 2019 movie titled “Dark Waters.”

The opening chapter of “Second Nature” revisits the “Dark Waters” saga, but Rich goes on to document other ways in which human influences are reshaping nature, through pollution and climate change as well as genetic engineering and land development. The impacts can take the form of disappearing glaciers on Mount Rainier — or disintegrating sea stars in Pacific coastal waters, including Puget Sound.

“It’s not that intervention in the natural world is new,” Rich said. “We’ve been doing that from the get-go. What’s new is that we are, I think, finally coming to terms as a society and individually with the incredible depth and scope of the intervention, to the point that … there’s really nothing natural that can be found in the natural world, by any conventional definition of the term.”

Rich is due to discuss what ails the global environment, and the strategies that researchers and conservationists are developing to address those ailments, during a live-streamed Town Hall Seattle presentation next week. To set the stage, Rich explores the theme of “Second Nature” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the intersection of science fact and fiction.