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GeekWire

New centers will enlist software engineers for science

The University of Washington and three other universities have kicked off an effort to beef up the software engineering resources available to researchers, backed by a $40 million commitment from Schmidt Futures.

The philanthropic organization founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, announced the establishment of the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software this week. The institute’s four inaugural centers will be housed at UW, the University of Cambridge, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

Each of the centers will be awarded $2 million a year for the next five years to bring on software engineers and computational scientists who can help address the increasingly complex, data-centric challenges that face researchers today.

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Cosmic Books

Winter’s tales for science (and sci-fi) fans

Wintry weather and a COVID pandemic may have a chilling effect on travel itineraries at the start of 2022, but there are still opportunities to explore scientific frontiers from the comfort of a reading chair.

Here are seven books from the past year that should satisfy your scientific curiosity — or your yen for a sci-fi escape from the cold realities we’re facing this winter. We’re also including a few bonus picks, plus links to other best-book lists.

Because most of these books have been out for months, they qualify as this month’s selections for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available to check out at your local library or secondhand book shop. 2022 marks the 20th anniversary for the CLUB Club, and for Cosmic Log.

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GeekWire

How experts turned down the noise at the Space Needle

Back in 2017, architects laid out their dream design for the Space Needle’s $100 million renovation project, featuring a sleek, modernistic interior, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, glass benches and a glass floor that would make a complete turn around the needle’s axis every 45 minutes.

But for Daniel Bruck, the president of Seattle-based BRC Acoustics & Audiovisual Design, there was a chance that the dream could turn into a noisy nightmare.

“That was a very interesting challenge for us,” he said today at a news conference during the Acoustical Society of America’s Seattle meeting.

Out went the sound-deadening carpet and plush furniture in the restaurant of the 605-foot-tall Seattle landmark — a holdover from the 1962 World’s Fair attended by millions of visitors, including Elvis Presley. In came sound-reflecting floors, ceilings and walls that had the potential to raise the decibel level to rockabilly proportions.

And as if that wasn’t enough cause for worry, the steel-on-steel gearwork that set the floor revolving could have introduced a whole new source of mechanical noise.

Bruck acknowledged that the renovated space has a “clean and elegant” look. “But from an acoustical standpoint, it didn’t give us a whole lot to work with,” he said.

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GeekWire

OceanGate’s sub is coming home after Titanic trips

After making a series of successful dives to the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic this summer, OceanGate’s flagship submersible is returning to its homeport in Everett, Wash., where it’ll be spruced up for another round of Titanic trips.

OceanGate Expeditions officially announced that its 2022 Titanic Survey Expedition will run from next May through June, with fresh opportunities for mission specialists to take part in the adventure. (Because OceanGate’s customers contribute to operations at sea, the company doesn’t call them “tourists,” even though they’re paying OceanGate a fee of $250,000.)

The five-person Titan submersible’s dives to the Titanic, more than two miles below the sea surface, are aimed at documenting the condition of the wreck on an annual basis. This summer’s dives confirmed previous findings that the world’s most famous shipwreck is rapidly deteriorating — 109 years after the luxury liner struck an iceberg and sank, causing more than 1,500 deaths.

“Mission specialists helped our crew gather and review terabytes of the highest-resolution still images and video of Titanic and the debris field ever collected,” OceanGate Expeditions’ president, Stockton Rush, said today in a news release.

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GeekWire

TerraPower picks Wyoming site for its first nuclear plant

TerraPower, the nuclear power venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has chosen a soon-to-be-retired coal-fired power plant in Wyoming as its preferred location for a next-generation demonstration reactor.

After an evaluation process that included meetings with community members, the Bellevue, Wash.-based venture selected Kemmerer, Wyo., for the site of its Natrium reactor, which will make use of technology from TerraPower and GE-Hitachi.

The project is one of two projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy with an initial funding round totaling $160 million. The other project is planned by Maryland-based X-energy, with Washington state’s Hanford nuclear reservation selected as the preferred location. The Department of Energy plans to invest a total of $3.2 billion over a seven-year period to turn the concepts into reality by 2028, with matching funds provided by industry partners.

TerraPower had previously signaled that it planned to build the demonstration reactor at one of PacifiCorp’s four retiring coal-fired plants in Wyoming, but today’s announcement revealed the precise location.

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Fiction Science Club

Sci-fi icon dives into climate crisis — and the metaverse

This whole metaverse thing hasn’t turned out exactly the way Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson thought it would when he came up with the idea 30 years ago.

Back then, Stephenson was getting ready to write his breakout science-fiction novel, “Snow Crash.” He was musing about how expensive it was to buy the equipment for a computer art project he was working on, as opposed to how inexpensive it was to buy a television set and watch state-of-the-art programming.

What would it take to make computer equipment as cheap as a TV set? “The answer, of course, is that lots of people watch TV,” Stephenson told me in an interview for the Fiction Science podcast that also touched on his new science-fiction thriller about climate change, “Termination Shock.”

During our chat, Stephenson noted that TV sets were once expensive lab curiosities, but became cheaper when programs like “I Love Lucy” created a huge market. Could that happen for computer graphics? Remember, this was at a time when the World Wide Web wasn’t much more than a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.

Thus was the metaverse born, as a plot device for “Snow Crash” in 1992. Stephenson’s characters could turn to an entire world created from 3-D computer graphics, offering programming as popular as 1990s-era television.

Fast forward to today, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are touting the metaverse as the next frontier for online interaction through computer-generated avatars.

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Cosmic Tech

Fusion research gets a $500M boost at Helion

Helion is revving up its quest to commercialize nuclear fusion power with a $500 million funding round led by tech investor Sam Altman.

Altman, who’s the CEO of OpenAI and the former president of the Y Combinator startup accelerator, will help raise another $1.7 billion if Helion reaches key milestones on the way to producing a net electricity gain by 2024.

Fusion power takes advantage of the nuclear chain reaction that takes place in the sun, unleashing massive amounts of energy in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. The process is more energetic and potentially less polluting than the more familiar type of nuclear power, produced in fission reactors.

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Fiction Science Club

Scientist takes a trip to the frontiers of consciousness

Could magic mushrooms hold the key that unlocks the secrets of consciousness?

Well, maybe not the only key. But Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch says that hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient found in special types of mushrooms, can contribute to clinical research into the roots of depression, ecstasy and what lies beneath our sense of self.

“What they can teach us about consciousness is that the self is just one aspect of consciousness,” Koch says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You’re still highly conscious, and very often this is associated with states of ecstasy, or states of fear or terror, or a combination of ecstasy and terror. … What’s remarkable is that in all of these states, the self is gone, and very often the external world is gone, yet you’re highly conscious.”

The quest to understand consciousness through detailed analysis of the brain’s structure and function, scientific studies of religious and traditional practices — and yes, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs — is the focus of a 102-minute documentary film titled “Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness.”

“Aware” has been on the film-festival circuit for weeks, and an online showing will be the centerpiece of a live-streaming event set for Nov. 10. The documentary will also air on PBS stations next April as part of public TV’s Independent Lens series.

Koch, who’s the chief scientist of the Seattle-based Allen Institute’s MindScope brain-mapping program, is one of the stars of the show.

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GeekWire

Amazon partners with UCLA on AI science hub

Amazon and UCLA are launching a research hub that will draw upon industry and academic research to address the social issues raised by the rapid rise of artificial intelligence.

The Science Hub for Humanity and Artificial Intelligence will be based at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering in Los Angeles, with Amazon providing $1 million in funding for the initial year of the partnership. The two parties may renew the agreement for up to four additional years.

In a news release, UCLA said faculty from across its campus will collaborate with Amazon’s AI specialists to identify and solve research challenges in the field of artificial intelligence, with particular attention to issues such as algorithmic bias, fairness, accountability and responsible AI. The collaboration will support doctoral fellowships and research projects as well as community outreach programs.

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GeekWire

Scientists trace the origin of tusks to Triassic creatures

Dental exams conducted on fossils from more than 200 million years ago suggest that the earliest true tusks were sported by breeds of weird-looking creatures known as dicynodonts.

The evidence, laid out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could shed light on how species ranging from elephants and walruses to warthogs and rabbit-like hyraxes came to have tusks.

“Tusks have evolved a number of times, which makes you wonder how — and why?” study co-author Christian Sidor, a biology professor at the University of Washington and a curator at UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, said in a news release. “We now have good data on the anatomical changes that needed to happen for dicynodonts to evolve tusks. For other groups, like warthogs or walruses, the jury is still out.”