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  • richardmitnick 5:05 am on March 20, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Lake Toba volcano history, NYT   

    From NYT: “After a Volcano’s Ancient Supereruption, Humanity May Have Thrived” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    MARCH 12, 2018

    Mount Sinabung erupts — Lake Toba Supervolcano now steaming +emitting foul odors of gas. June 8, 2015 Michael Janitch.

    Major volcanoes of Indonesia, with eruptions since 1900 C.E. Lyn Topinka, USGS; base map from CIA, 1997; volcanoes from Simkin and Siebert, 1994


    Lake Toba in Indonesia is serene today, but 74,000 years ago it was the site of the most powerful volcanic eruption to take place on Earth in the past two million years. Credit Lana Priatna/SOPA Images/LightRocket, via Getty Images.

    Supervolcanoes have the power to cough up enough ash to coat entire continents. They emit waves of hot gas, rocks and ash that flow down their slopes at speeds so great they strip away vegetation and kill anyone in their path. And they carve vast depressions in the planet, leaving permanent scars.

    And yet, they might not be as apocalyptic as previously thought. About 74,000 years ago, a supervolcano at the site of present-day Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra rocked our world. But while it was the largest volcanic eruption of the last two million years, a new study published Monday in Nature suggests that humans not only survived the event — they thrived.

    The study counters previous hypotheses, which suggested that the behemoth was so disastrous it caused the human species to teeter on the brink of extinction.

    Archaeological excavations at a site on South Africa’s southern coast, where evidence of the Toba event was uncovered alongside ancient bones, stone tools and evidence of human fires. Credit Curtis W. Marean/Arizona State University.

    It’s easy to see how that idea came about. The Toba supereruption expelled roughly 10,000 times more rock and ash than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. So much ejecta would have darkened skies worldwide, causing scientists to speculate that it might have plunged the Earth into a volcanic winter whose chill could be felt far from Indonesia. Climate models suggest that temperatures may have plummeted by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. And in such a cold world, plants may have ceased growing, glaciers may have advanced, sea-levels may have dropped and rainfall may have slowed.

    Then in 1998, Stanley Ambrose, an anthropologist, linked the proposed disaster to genetic evidence that suggested a population bottleneck had occurred around the same time. He was certain that the Toba supereruption had caused the human population to decline to some 10,000 people — a close call for our ancestors.

    “These were dramatic theories,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who was not involved in the study. “They were very popular — both in the scientific world, but also in the public imagination.”

    The latest study, however, suggests that those theories are incorrect, Dr. Petraglia said. “We’re not seeing all the drama.”

    More than 5,500 miles from the site of the Toba supereruption in Southeast Asia, Curtis Marean, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, and his colleagues discovered signs of its debris at two archaeological sites on South Africa’s southern coast. The appearance of microscopic glass shards once ejected by the Toba event amid layers of ancient bones, complex stone tools and evidence of human fires allowed the team to directly observe the volcano’s impact on the human population for the first time.

    The results surprised Dr. Marean. Should Dr. Ambrose’s theory be correct, there would be fewer signs of human occupation in the layer of soil above the one with the signs of the Toba supereruption. Dr. Marean’s team saw the opposite: After the catastrophic event, there were more signs of human occupation. Not only did humans appear to adapt to the trauma caused by the event, they thrived, said Eugene Smith, an author of the study and a retired geologist.

    That doesn’t mean Toba’s volcanic winter never occurred. Dr. Marean speculates that an ensuing global chill may have driven these prehistoric humans to the coast where they were able to survive.

    But not all experts agree with that interpretation.

    Although Dr. Petraglia praised Dr. Marean’s work, he said it did not buttress the case for a global climate catastrophe following the Toba eruption. He pointed to a study published this year [Journal of Human Evolution] of a similar ash layer within Lake Malawi in East Africa. There, scientists found no signs that the lake’s temperature dropped significantly after the event — suggesting that there was no volcanic winter, and further challenging the idea of a human population decline resulting from the Toba eruption.

    And he’s not alone.

    “I personally lean toward the idea that Toba just didn’t have sufficient impact to have a significant impact on Homo sapiens in East Africa, period,” says Thomas Johnson, a retired paleoclimatologist at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who was not involved in the study. “The large majority of the information that keeps coming out keeps putting nails in the Toba coffin.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 10:26 am on February 21, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astronomers’ Dark Energy Hopes Fade to Gray, , , , , , NYT   

    From NYT: “Astronomers’ Dark Energy Hopes Fade to Gray” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    FEB. 19, 2018
    Dennis Overbye

    A remnant from a Type 1A supernova observed in the Milky Way, one of the cosmic markers of how fast the universe is expanding. Observing exploding stars helped astronomers first discover the existence of dark energy nearly 20 years ago. Credit Chandra X-ray Observatory/NASA

    NASA/Chandra Telescope

    A star-crossed mission nearly 20 years in the making that was intended to seek an answer to the most burning, baffling question in astronomy — and perhaps elucidate the fate of the universe — is in danger of being canceled.

    The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, was being designed to investigate the mysterious force dubbed dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe and search out planets around other stars.


    In 2010, a blue-ribbon panel from the National Academy of Sciences charged with charting the future of space-based astronomy gave the mission the highest priority for the next decade. Under the plan, it could have launched in mid-2020s with a price tag of $3.2 billion.american

    But it was zeroed out in the NASA budget proposed by President Trump last week.

    In a statement accompanying the budget, Robert M. Lightfoot Jr., the agency’s acting administrator, called the deletion “one hard decision,” citing the need to divert resources to “other agency priorities.” NASA is shifting its focus back to the moon.

    Nobody is under any illusion that a president’s budget proposal is the last word on anything. Congress, which usually listens to the academy’s recommendations, will have the last word in a dance that many NASA missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have participated in. As the old saying among space scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of many missions, goes: “It’s not a real mission until it is canceled.”

    Robert Lightfoot Jr., the acting administrator of NASA, giving a state of the agency speech on Feb. 12 at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Credit Bill Ingalls/(NASA, via Associated Press

    The proposed cancellation drew an outcry from astronomers, who warned that stepping back from the mission would be stepping back from the kind of science that made America great and would endanger future projects that, like this one, require international help. It drew comparisons to the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider that ended American supremacy in particle physics.

    Superconducting Super Collider map, in the vicinity of Waxahachie, Texas.

    American astronomical Society

    Rick Fienberg
    AAS Press Officer
    +1 202-328-2010 x116

    Joel Parriott
    AAS Deputy Executive Officer & Director of Public Policy
    +1 202-328-2010 x120

    Sharing alarm voiced by other scientists, leaders of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) are expressing grave concern over the administration’s proposed cuts to NASA’s astrophysics budget and the abrupt cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). “We cannot accept termination of WFIRST, which was the highest-priority space-astronomy mission in the most recent decadal survey,” says AAS President-Elect Megan Donahue (Michigan State University). “And the proposed 10% reduction in NASA’s astrophysics budget, amounting to nearly $1 billion over the next five years, will cripple US astronomy.”

    WFIRST, the successor to the 28-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, is the top-ranked large space-astronomy mission of New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the National Academies’ Astro2010 decadal survey, and is an essential component of a balanced space astrophysics portfolio. Cutting NASA’s astrophysics budget and canceling WFIRST would leave our nation without a large space telescope to succeed Hubble and Webb. Yet just last year another National Academies report, Powering Science: NASA’s Large Strategic Missions, found that “large strategic missions are critical for balance and form the backbone of the disciplines” of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which includes astrophysics. The same report further recommended that “NASA should continue to plan for large strategic missions as a primary component for all science disciplines as part of a balanced program that also includes smaller missions.”

    “The AAS has long supported community-based priority setting as a fundamental component in the effective funding, management, and oversight of the federal research enterprise,” says AAS Executive Officer Kevin B. Marvel. “This process has been tremendously successful and has led to US preeminence in space science through missions that are now household names, like Hubble.” Marvel continues, “Not only is WFIRST a top decadal-survey priority in astronomy and astrophysics, but the mission has also undergone rigorous community, agency, and Congressional assessment and oversight and meets the high expectations of an astrophysics flagship.”

    Indeed, after Astro2010, scientific and technological advancements enabled an enhanced WFIRST that would be 100 times more powerful than Hubble. Follow-on National Academies’ reports in 2013 and 2016 reaffirmed the significant scientific merit of the enhanced WFIRST mission, and their recommendations for careful monitoring of potential cost and schedule drivers led to NASA’s commissioning of the WFIRST Independent External Technical / Management / Budget Review (WIETR) last fall.

    Neither the commissioning of the WIETR nor the content of its findings are an indication that WFIRST is experiencing or will experience the cost overruns that the Webb telescope experienced. In fact, the opposite is true. As Thomas Young, former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and former president and chief operating officer of Martin Marietta Corp., testified to the House Science Subcommittee on Space in December 2017, that WFIRST has undergone extensive scrutiny is “no cause for panic. What is transpiring is a perfectly healthy process to assure that the scope, cost, and risk are appropriately defined.”

    NASA’s SMD Associate Administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen, fully agreed with the WIETR recommendations to match mission cost with appropriate resources as part of a balanced astrophysics portfolio. After undergoing a redesign over the last several months, WFIRST would once again fit both within the February 2016 budget approved by NASA at the onset of its mission formulation phase and within the notional five-year budget profile the administration requested for NASA astrophysics in its FY 2018 budget less than one year ago. Put another way, the lifecycle cost for WFIRST is the same now as it was two years ago and has been described as both reasonable and credible by numerous review panels.

    Marvel worries that the administration’s proposal to scale back federal investment in the nation’s exploration of the universe and terminate WFIRST risks undermining future decadal surveys and other community-based priority-setting processes. “These efforts to achieve community consensus on research priorities are vital to ensuring the maximum return on public and private investments in the astronomical sciences,” Marvel says. “The cancellation of WFIRST would set a dangerous precedent and severely weaken a decadal-survey process that has established collective scientific priorities for a world-leading program for a half century. Such a move would also sacrifice US leadership in space-based dark energy, exoplanet, and survey astrophysics. We cannot allow such drastic damage to the field of astronomy, the impacts of which would be felt for more than a generation.”

    The AAS will defend the important role of the decadal surveys in helping set federal spending priorities, to explain the scientific promise of the top-ranked WFIRST mission, and to share our excitement for the field of astrophysics, which has never been more ripe for discovery from the search for life elsewhere in the universe to understanding where we came from and where we’re going. “We look forward to working with Congress to restore funding for WFIRST and for NASA astrophysics overall,” Donahue concludes.

    David Spergel, former chairman of the academy’s Space Study Board, noted that in planning their own programs, other countries depended on the United States to follow the advice of the National Academy.

    “A handful of people within the bureaucracy” and outside of NASA, he went on, “have overturned decades of community-driven processes and tried to set the direction for space astronomy.”

    Astronomers have hungered for a space mission to investigate dark energy ever since 1998, when observations of the exploding stars known as supernovae indicated that the expansion of the universe was speeding up, the distant galaxies were shooting away faster and faster from us as cosmic time went on. It is as if, when you dropped your car keys, they shot up to the ceiling.

    The discovery won three American astronomers the Nobel Prize. The fate of the universe, as well as the nature of physics, scientists say, depends on the nature of this dark energy.

    Physicists have one ready-made explanation for this behavior, but it is a cure that many of them think is worse than the disease: a fudge factor invented by Einstein in 1917 called the cosmological constant. He suggested, and quantum theory has subsequently confirmed, that empty space could exert a repulsive force, an anti-gravity, blowing things apart.

    If so, as the universe grows, it will expand faster and faster and run away from itself. Eventually other galaxies would be flying away so fast that we couldn’t see them. The universe would become dark and cold. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State once described this as “the worst possible universe.”

    If on the other hand, some previously unsuspected force field is tinkering with the galaxies and space-time, the effect could shut off or even reverse over the eons.

    Or maybe we just don’t understand gravity.

    Dark energy, said Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is the most mysterious fact in all of physical science, the fact with the greatest potential to rock the foundations.”

    The astronomers who made this discovery were using the exploding stars known as Type 1a supernovae as cosmic distance markers to track the expansion rate of the universe.

    Since then, other tools have emerged by which astronomers can also gauge dark energy by how it retards the growth of galaxies and other structures in the universe.

    Way back in 1999, Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, one of dark energy’s discoverers, proposed a space mission known as SNAP (Supernova Acceleration Probe) to do just that.

    In 2008, NASA and the Energy Department budgeted $600 million, not including launching costs, for a mission and the call went out for proposals. But NASA and the Energy Department found it hard to collaborate and a working group of dark-energy scientists could not come up with a design that would fit in the budget.

    In 2010, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences cobbled together several competing proposals that would do the trick. Paul Schechter, an M.I.T. astronomer involved in the work called it Wfirst, for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The acronym had a double meaning: “W” is the name for a crucial parameter that measures the virulence of dark energy. But the telescope would also search for exoplanets — planets beyond our solar system.

    In its report, “New Worlds, New Horizons,” the committee gave this mission the highest priority in space science for the next decade.

    But NASA would have no money to start on this project until it finished building the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the vaunted Hubble Space Telescope. Shortly after the academy’s deliberations, the space agency admitted that the Webb project had been mismanaged. The telescope, which had been set for a 2014 launching, would require at least another $1.6 billion and several more years to finish. The Webb will search out the first stars and galaxies to have formed in the universe, but is not designed for dark energy. It is now on course to be launched next year.

    WFIRST would have to wait.

    To take up the slack until 2025 — or whenever the American mission can finally fly — the space agency bought a share in a European dark-energy mission known as Euclid, now scheduled to launch in 2021. But Euclid is not as comprehensive as Wfirst would be; it will not use supernovas, for example.

    ESA/NASA Euclid spacecraft

    The story took another dramatic twist in June 2012, capturing headlines when the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites, offered NASA a leftover telescope, essentially a close relative of the Hubble, that had been designed to look down instead of up.

    It had a wide field of view, which could enable inspecting large areas of the heavens for supernovae.

    Its primary mirror — like the Hubble 94 inches in diameter — is twice as big as the one that was being contemplated for Wfirst, giving it four times the light-gathering power and a deep reach into the cosmos.

    The gift would save them the cost of fashioning a whole new telescope, but it was not without strings. As several astronomers pointed out, using a bigger telescope would mean a bigger, more expensive camera and more complicated back-end optics would have to be built. Nevertheless, the Academy bought into the idea.

    Lately another controversial element has been added to the mission, a coronagraph, which could be used to block the light from a star so that faint planets near them can be discerned.

    Last summer an independent review panel appointed by NASA and led by Fiona Harrison, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, endorsed the mission’s basic science goals and methodology while cautioning against mission creep that could cause its costs to balloon.

    The ball is now in Congress’s court.

    Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, said, “While one never wants to hear that someone important has recommended cancellation of your favorite project, I believe that like last year, Congress will be doing the budget writing. I hope and believe that Congress will be wiser.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 5:20 pm on January 2, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NYT, , , Scientists Are Designing Artisanal Proteins for Your Body,   

    From NYT: “Scientists Are Designing Artisanal Proteins for Your Body” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 26, 2017

    John Hersey

    The human body makes tens of thousands of cellular proteins, each for a particular
    task. Now researchers have learned to create custom versions not found in nature.

    Our bodies make roughly 20,000 different kinds of proteins, from the collagen in our skin to the hemoglobin in our blood. Some take the shape of molecular sheets. Others are sculpted into fibers, boxes, tunnels, even scissors.

    A protein’s particular shape enables it to do a particular job, whether ferrying oxygen through the body or helping to digest food.

    Scientists have studied proteins for nearly two centuries, and over that time they’ve worked out how cells create them from simple building blocks. They have long dreamed of assembling those elements into new proteins not found in nature.

    But they’ve been stumped by one great mystery: how the building blocks in a protein take their final shape. David Baker, 55, the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, has been investigating that enigma for a quarter-century.

    Now, it looks as if he and his colleagues have cracked it. Thanks in part to crowdsourced computers and smartphones belonging to over a million volunteers, the scientists have figured out how to choose the building blocks required to create a protein that will take on the shape they want.

    In a series of papers published this year, Dr. Baker and his colleagues unveiled the results of this work. They have produced thousands of different kinds of proteins, which assume the shape the scientists had predicted. Often those proteins are profoundly different from any found in nature.

    This expertise has led to a profound scientific advance: cellular proteins designed by man, not by nature. “We can now build proteins from scratch from first principles to do what we want,” said Dr. Baker.

    Dr. David Baker in his lab at the University of Washington, where scientists are learning how to create cellular proteins to perform a variety of tasks. Credit Evan McGlinn for The New York Times.

    Scientists soon will be able to construct precise molecular tools for a vast range of tasks, he predicts. Already, his team has built proteins for purposes ranging from fighting flu viruses to breaking down gluten in food to detecting trace amounts of opioid drugs.

    William DeGrado, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said the recent studies by Dr. Baker and his colleagues represent a milestone in this line of scientific inquiry. “In the 1980s, we dreamed about having such impressive outcomes,” he said.

    Every protein in nature is encoded by a gene. With that stretch of DNA as its guide, a cell assembles a corresponding protein from building blocks known as amino acids.

    Selecting from twenty or so different types, the cell builds a chain of amino acids. That chain may stretch dozens, hundreds or even thousands of units long. Once the cell finishes, the chain folds on itself, typically in just a few hundredths of a second.

    Proteins fold because each amino acid has an electric charge. Parts of the protein chain are attracted to one another while other parts are repelled. Some bonds between the amino acids will yield easily under these forces; rigid bonds will resist.

    The combination of all these atomic forces makes each protein a staggering molecular puzzle. When Dr. Baker attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, no one knew how to look at a chain of amino acids and predict the shape into which it would fold. Protein scientists referred to the enigma simply as “the folding problem.”

    The folding problem left scientists in the Stone Age when it came to manipulating these important biological elements. They could only use proteins that they happened to find in nature, like early humans finding sharp rocks to cut meat from bones.

    We’ve used proteins for thousands of years. Early cheese makers, for example, made milk curdle by adding a piece of calf stomach to it. The protein chymosin, produced in the stomach, turned liquid milk into a semisolid form.

    Today scientists are still looking for ways to harness proteins. Some researchers are studying proteins in abalone shells in hopes of creating stronger body armor, for instance. Others are investigating spider silk for making parachute cords. Researchers also are experimenting with modest changes to natural proteins to see if tweaks let them do new things.

    To Dr. Baker and many other protein scientists, however, this sort tinkering has been deeply unsatisfying. The proteins found in nature represent only a minuscule fraction of the “protein universe” — all the proteins that could possibly be made with varying combinations of amino acids.

    “When people want a new protein, they look around in nature for things that already exist,” Dr. Baker said. “There’s no design involved.”

    Crowdsourced Discovery

    Dr. Baker has an elfin face, a cheerful demeanor, hair that can verge on chaotic, and a penchant for wearing T-shirts to scientific presentations. But his appearance belies a relentless drive.

    After graduating from Berkeley and joining the University of Washington, Dr. Baker joined the effort to solve the folding problem. He and his colleagues took advantage of the fact that natural proteins are somewhat similar to one another.

    New proteins do not just pop into existence; they all evolve from ancestral proteins. Whenever scientists figured out the shape of a particular protein, they were able to make informed guesses about the shapes of related ones.

    Scientists also relied on the fact that many proteins are made of similar parts. One common feature is a spiral stretch of amino acids called an alpha helix. Researchers learned how to recognize the series of amino acids that fold into these spirals.

    John Hersey

    In the late 1990s, the team at the University of Washington turned to software for individual studies of complex proteins. The lab decided to create a common language for all this code, so that researchers could access the collective knowledge about proteins.

    In 1998, they launched a platform called Rosetta, which scientists use to build virtual chains of amino acids and then compute the most likely form they will fold into.

    A community of protein scientists, known as the Rosetta Commons, grew around the platform. For the past twenty years, they’ve been improving the software on a daily basis and using it to better understand the shape of proteins — and how those shapes enable them to work.

    In 2005, Dr. Baker launched a program called Rosetta@home, which recruited volunteers to donate processing time on their home computers and, eventually, Android phones. Over the past 12 years, 1,266,542 people have joined the Rosetta@home community.

    My BOINC

    I have 1,005,660 BOINC credits for Rosetta from my days as a BOINC cruncher.

    Rosetta@home project, a project running on BOINC software from UC Berkeley

    Step by step, Rosetta grew more powerful and more sophisticated, and the scientists were able to use the crowdsourced processing power to simulate folding proteins in greater detail. Their predictions grew startlingly more accurate.

    The researchers went beyond proteins that already exist to proteins with unnatural sequences. To see what these unnatural proteins looked like in real life, the scientists synthesized genes for them and plugged them into yeast cells, which then manufactured the lab’s creations.

    “There are subtleties going on in naturally occurring proteins that we still don’t understand,” Dr. Baker said. “But we’ve mostly solved the folding problem.”

    Proteins and Pandemics

    These advances gave Dr. Baker’s team the confidence to take on an even bigger challenge: They began to design proteins from scratch for particular jobs. The researchers would start with a task they wanted a protein to do, and then figure out the string of amino acids that would fold the right way to get the job done.

    In one of their experiments, they teamed up with Ian Wilson, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute, to devise a protein to fight the flu.

    Dr. Wilson has been searching ways to neutralize the infection, and his lab had identified one particularly promising target: a pocket on the surface of the virus. If scientists could make a protein that fit snugly in that pocket, it might prevent the virus from slipping into cells.

    Dr. Baker’s team used Rosetta to design such a protein, narrowing their search to several thousand of chains of amino acids that might do the job. They simulated the folding of each one, looking for the combinations that might fit into the viral niche.

    The researchers then used engineered yeast to turn the semifinalists into real proteins. They turned the proteins loose on the flu viruses. Some grabbed onto the viruses better than others, and the researchers refined their molecular creations until they ended up with one they named HB1.6928.2.3.

    To see how effective HB1.6928.2.3 was at stopping flu infections, they ran experiments on mice. They sprayed the protein into the noses of mice and then injected them with a heavy doses of influenza, which normally would be fatal.

    But the protein provided 100 percent protection from death. It remains to be seen if HB1.6928.2.3 can prove its worth in human trials.

    “It would be nice to have a front-line drug if a new pandemic was about to happen,” Dr. Wilson said.

    In Dr. Baker’s office are models of complex proteins. The human body makes roughly 20,000, each suited to a different task. Credit Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

    HB1.6928.2.3 is just one of a number of proteins that Dr. Baker and his colleagues have designed and tested. They’ve also made a molecule that blocks the toxin that causes botulism, and one that can detect tiny amounts of the opioid fentanyl. Yet another protein may help people who can’t tolerate gluten by cutting apart gluten molecules in food.

    Last week, Dr. Baker’s team presented one of its most ambitious projects: a protein shell that can carry genes.

    The researchers designed proteins that assemble themselves like Legos, snapping together into a hollow sphere. In the process, they can also enclose genes and can carry that cargo safely for hours in the bloodstream of mice.

    These shells bear some striking resemblances to viruses, although they lack the molecular wherewithal to invade cells. “We sometimes call them not-a-viruses,” Dr. Baker said.

    A number of researchers are experimenting with viruses as a means for delivering genes through the body. These genes can reverse hereditary disorders; in other experiments, they show promise as a way to reprogram immune cells to fight cancer.

    But as the product of billions of years of evolution, viruses often don’t perform well as gene mules. “If we build a delivery system from the ground up, it should work better,” Dr. Baker said.

    Gary Nabel, chief scientific officer at Sanofi, said that the new research may lead to the invention of molecules we can’t yet imagine. “It’s a new territory, because you’re not modeling existing proteins,” he said.

    For now, Dr. Baker and his colleagues can only make short-chained proteins. That’s due in part to the cost involved in making pieces of DNA to encode proteins.

    But that technology is improving so quickly that the team is now testing longer, bigger proteins that might do more complex jobs — among them fighting cancer.

    In cancer immunotherapy, the immune system recognizes cancer cells by the distinctive proteins on their surface. The immune system relies on antibodies that can recognize only a single protein.

    Dr. Baker wants to design proteins that trigger a response only after they lock onto several kinds of proteins on the surface of cancer cells at once. He suspects these molecules will be better able to recognize cancer cells while leaving healthy ones alone.

    Essentially, he said, “we’re designing molecules that can do simple logic calculations.” Indeed, he hopes eventually to make molecular machines.

    Our cells generate fuel with one such engine, a gigantic protein called ATP synthase, which acts like a kind of molecular waterwheel. As positively charged protons pour through a ring of amino acids, it spins a hundred times a second. ATP synthase harnesses that energy to build a fuel molecule called ATP.

    It should be possible to build other such complex molecular machines as scientists learn more about how big proteins take shape, Dr. Baker said.

    “There’s a lot of things that nature has come up with just by randomly bumbling around,” he said. “As we understand more and more of the basic principles, we ought to be able to do far better.”

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  • richardmitnick 12:49 pm on January 2, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A.C. motors, , D.C. electrical systems, Nikola Tesla, NYT, Tesla the Car Is a Household Name. Long Ago- So Was Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison   

    From NYT: “Tesla the Car Is a Household Name. Long Ago, So Was Nikola Tesla.” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 30, 2017

    The inventor Nikola Tesla around 1896. Tesla died a poor man in 1943 at age 86, but thanks to Elon Musk and his electric car company, “now he’s getting his due,” a biographer said. Credit Roger-Viollet/Getty Images

    A Tesla is an electric car. Just about everybody knows that.

    But it is less widely known that the car was named for Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer who was once renowned as the prototype of a genius inventor.

    While Tesla’s star began to fade long ago, Elon Musk, who named both his car and his company after him, has contributed to something of a Nikola Tesla revival.

    In the age of Edison, Westinghouse, Marconi and J. P. Morgan, Tesla was a giant of innovation because of his contributions in the fields of electricity, radio and robotics.

    “It’s a sociological fact that Elon Musk took the Tesla name and launched Nikola Tesla into the stratosphere,” says Marc Seifer, the author of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. “Tesla’s risen to the surface again, and now he’s getting his due.”

    Tesla was on the cover of Time magazine in 1931 but died a poor man in 1943 after years devoted to projects that did not receive adequate financing.

    Time Magazine

    Yet his most significant inventions resonate today.

    The A.C. Motor

    In 1884, Tesla came to New York to work for Thomas Edison with the hope that Edison would help finance and develop a Tesla invention, an alternating-current motor and electrical system.

    But Edison was instead investing in highly inefficient direct-current (D.C.) systems, and he had Tesla re-engineer a D.C. power plant on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. The men soon parted company over a financial dispute.

    A discharge of several million volts at Tesla’s Colorado Springs laboratory, around 1900. Credit Yugoslav Press and Cultural Center

    But George Westinghouse provided funding for Tesla’s A.C. induction motors and devices, which soon came to dominate manufacturing and urban life. Unlike the D.C. motors of the time, Tesla’s motors didn’t create sparks or require expensive permanent magnets to operate. Instead, they used a rotating magnetic field that used power more efficiently in a basic design that is still the core of most electric motors.

    In 1896, Tesla designed the power generating system at Niagara Falls, a big advance for his A.C. system. Entire cities eventually ran on A.C. power, after Westinghouse won a battle against Edison, the leading D.C. proponent. Their conflict is the subject of The Current War, a coming movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison.

    Wireless Transmissions

    Tesla developed radio technology and tested it from 1892 through 1894. He called radio an “oscillator” through which electricity is converted into high-frequency radio waves, enabling energy, sound and other transmissions over great distances.

    He envisioned a system that could transmit not only radio but also electricity across the globe. After successful experiments in Colorado Springs in 1899, Tesla began building what he called a global “World System” near Shoreham on Long Island, hoping to power vehicles, boats and aircraft wirelessly. Ultimately, he expected that anything that needed electricity would get it from the air much as we receive transmitted data, sound and images on smartphones. But he ran out of money, and J. P. Morgan Jr., who had provided financing, turned off the spigot.

    Although the main Tesla lab building on Long Island is being restored by a nonprofit foundation — the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe — the World System broadcast tower he built there was torn down for scrap to pay his hotel bill at the Waldorf Astoria in 1917.

    The Wardenclyffe foundation is raising money for the restoration of the complex — named a world historical site by the American Physical Society — and has been aided by a crowdfunding campaign and $1 million from Mr. Musk.

    Tesla’s ambitions outstripped his financing. He didn’t focus on radio as a stand-alone technology. Instead, he conceived of entire systems, even if they were decades ahead of the time and not financially feasible.

    “He proved that you could send power a short distance,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Center. “But sending power a long distance is still proving to be a hurdle. It would be monumental if it could be done.”

    Tesla’s laboratory building on the Wardenclyffe site in Shoreham, Long Island, as it appeared in 2009. Credit Maxine Hicks for The New York Times

    In 1943, several months after Tesla’s death, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a long-running dispute over radio patents. But the victory was largely symbolic and was, in any case, too late to help Tesla.

    Robotic Drones

    Another Tesla invention combined radio with a remote-control device. We’d now call it a robotic drone.

    Shortly after filing a patent application in 1897 for radio circuitry, Tesla built and demonstrated a wireless, robotic boat at the old Madison Square Garden in 1898 and, again, in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater the next year. These were the first public demonstrations of a remote-controlled drone.

    An innovation in the boat’s circuitry — his “logic gate” — became an essential steppingstone to semiconductors.

    Tesla’s tub-shaped, radio-controlled craft heralded the birth of what he called a “teleautomaton”; later, the world would settle on the word robot. We can see his influence in devices ranging from “smart” speakers like Amazon’s Echo to missile-firing drone aircraft.

    Tesla proposed the development of torpedoes well before World War I. These weapons eventually emerged in another form — launched from submarines.

    Tesla failed to fully collaborate with well-capitalized industrial entities after World War I. His supreme abilities to conceptualize and create entire systems weren’t enough for business success. He didn’t manage to build successful alliances with those who could finance, build and scale up his creations.

    Tesla’s achievements were awesome but incomplete. He created the A.C. energy system and the basics of radio communication and robotics but wasn’t able to bring them all to fruition. His life shows that even for a brilliant inventor, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires a broad spectrum of talents and skills. And lots of capital.

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  • richardmitnick 1:37 pm on December 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Breakthrough Star Shot, , , For astronomers the biggest problem with E.T. is not the occasional claim of a mysterious light in the sky but the fact that we are not constantly overwhelmed with them, How dare we think that the physics we have today is all that there is, NYT, Scientists are also trained to look at nature with ruthless rigor and skepticism, Scientists are not the killjoys in all this., , U.F.O.'s   

    From NYT: “U.F.O.s: Is This All There Is?” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 29, 2017
    Dennis Overbye

    A U.F.O. in New Mexico in 1957. For astronomers, the biggest problem with alien visitation is not the occasional claim of mysterious light in the sky, but the fact that we’re not constantly overwhelmed with them. Credit Bettmann, via Getty Images

    Hey, Mr. Spaceman,

    Won’t you please take me along?

    I won’t do anything wrong.

    Hey, Mr. Spaceman,

    Won’t you please take me along for a ride?

    So sang the Byrds in 1966, after strange radio bursts from distant galaxies called quasars had excited people about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence.

    I recalled those words recently when reading the account of a pair of Navy pilots who were outmaneuvered and outrun by a U.F.O. off the coast of San Diego back in 2004. Cmdr. David Fravor said later that he had no idea what he had seen.

    “But,” he added, “I want to fly one.”

    His story was part of a bundle of material released recently about a supersecret $22 million Pentagon project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, aimed at investigating U.F.O.s. The project was officially killed in 2012, but now it’s being resurrected as a nonprofit organization.

    Disgruntled that the government wasn’t taking the possibility of alien visitors seriously, a group of former defense officials, aerospace engineers and other space fans have set up their own group, To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science. One of its founders is Tom DeLonge, a former punk musician, record producer and entrepreneur, who is also the head of the group’s entertainment division.

    For a minimum of $200, you can join and help finance their research into how U.F.O.s do whatever it is they do, as well as telepathy and “a point-to-point transportation craft that will erase the current travel limits of distance and time” by using a drive that “alters the space-time metric” — that is, a warp drive going faster than the speed of light, Einstein’s old cosmic speed limit.

    “We believe there are transformative discoveries within our reach that will revolutionize the human experience, but they can only be accomplished through the unrestricted support of breakthrough research, discovery and innovation,” says the group’s website.

    A U.F.O. spotted by Navy pilots near San Diego in 2004. Credit Department of Defense

    I’m not holding my breath waiting for progress on telepathy or warp drive, but I agree with at least one thing that one official with the group said. That was Steve Justice, a former engineer at Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works, where advanced aircraft like the SR-71 high-altitude super-fast spy plane were designed.

    “How dare we think that the physics we have today is all that there is,” he said in an interview published recently in HuffPost.

    I could hardly agree more, having spent my professional life in the company of physicists and astronomers trying to poke out of the cocoon of present knowledge into the unknown, to overturn Einstein and what passes for contemporary science. Lately, they haven’t gotten anywhere.

    The last time physicists had to deal with faster-than-light travel was six years ago, when a group of Italy-based physicists announced that they had seen the subatomic particles known as neutrinos going faster than light. It turned out they had wired up their equipment wrong.

    So far Einstein is still the champ. But surely there is so much more to learn. A lot of surprises lie ahead, but many of the most popular ideas on how to transcend Einstein and his peers are on the verge of being ruled out. Transforming science is harder than it looks.

    While there is a lot we don’t know, there is also a lot we do know. We know how to turn on our computers and let gadgets in our pocket navigate the world. We know that when physical objects zig and zag through a medium like air, as U.F.O.s are said to do, they produce turbulence and shock waves. NASA engineers predicted to the minute when the Cassini spacecraft would dwindle to a wisp of smoke in Saturn’s atmosphere last fall.

    In moments like this, I take comfort in what the great Russian physicist and cosmologist Yakov Zeldovich, one of the fathers of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, once told me. “What science has already taken, it will not give back,” he said.

    Scientists are not the killjoys in all this.

    In the astronomical world, the border between science fact and science fiction can be very permeable, perhaps because many scientists grew up reading science fiction. And astronomers forever have their noses pressed up against the window of the unknown. They want to believe more than anybody, and I count myself among them.

    Since the asteroid named Oumuamua was first noticed flying through our solar system in October, researchers have been monitoring for alien signals, so far to no avail. Credit M. Kornmesser/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    But they are also trained to look at nature with ruthless rigor and skepticism. For astronomers, the biggest problem with E.T. is not the occasional claim of a mysterious light in the sky, but the fact that we are not constantly overwhelmed with them.

    Half a century ago, the legendary physicist Enrico Fermi concluded from a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation that even without warp drive, a single civilization could visit and colonize all the planets in the galaxy in a fraction of the 10-billion-year age of the Milky Way.

    “Where are they?” he asked.

    Proponents of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, have been debating ever since. One answer I like is the “zoo hypothesis,” according to which we have been placed off-limits, a cosmic wildlife refuge.

    Another answer came from Jill Tarter, formerly the director of research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “We haven’t looked hard enough,” she said when I asked her recently.

    If there was an iPhone sitting under a rock on the Moon or Mars, for example, we would not have found it yet. Our own latest ideas for interstellar exploration involve launching probes the size of postage stamps to Alpha Centauri.

    In the next generation, they might be the size of mosquitoes. By contrast, the dreams of some U.F.O. enthusiasts are stuck in 1950s technology.

    Still, we keep trying.

    Last fall when a strange object — an interstellar asteroid now named Oumuamua — was found cruising through the solar system, astronomers’ thoughts raced to the Arthur C. Clarke novel Rendezvous With Rama, in which the object was an alien spaceship. Two groups have been monitoring Oumuamua for alien radio signals, so far to no avail.

    Meanwhile, some astronomers have speculated that the erratic dimming of a star known as “Boyajian’s star” or “Tabby’s star,” after the astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, could be caused by some gigantic construction project orbiting the star. So far that has not worked out, but none of the other explanations — dust or a fleet of comets — have, either.

    A pair of Harvard astronomers suggested last spring that mysterious sporadic flashes of energy known as fast radio bursts coming from far far away are alien transmitters powering interstellar spacecraft carrying light sails. “Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence,” the astronomer Avi Loeb said in a news release from Harvard. “Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.”

    U.F.O. investigations are nothing new. The most famous was the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, which ran from 1952 to 1970 and examined more than 12,000 sightings.

    Most U.F.O. sightings turn out to be swamp gas and other atmospheric anomalies, Venus, weird reflections or just plain hoaxes. But there is a stubborn residue, a few percent that resist easy explication, including now Commander Fravor’s story. But that’s a far cry from proving they are alien or interstellar.

    I don’t know what to think about these stories, often told by sober, respected and professional observers — police officers, pilots, military officials — in indelible detail. I always wish I could have been there to see it for myself.

    Then I wonder how much good it would do to see it anyway.

    Recently I ran into my friend Mark Mitton, a professional magician, in a restaurant. He came over to the table and started doing tricks. At one point he fanned the card deck, asked my daughter to pick one, and then asked her to shuffle the deck, which she did expertly.

    Mr. Mitton grabbed the deck and sprayed the cards in the air. There was my daughter’s card stuck to a mirror about five feet away. How did it get there? Not by any new physics. Seeing didn’t really help.

    As modern psychology and neuroscience have established, the senses are an unreliable portal to reality, whatever that is.

    Something might be happening, but we don’t know what it is. E.T., if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting to take my ride.

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  • richardmitnick 10:37 am on December 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , CDC, NYT, Uproar Over Purported Ban at C.D.C. of Words Like ‘Fetus’   

    From NYT: “Uproar Over Purported Ban at C.D.C. of Words Like ‘Fetus’” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    DEC. 16, 2017

    Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly were barred from using several words or phrases, causing upset among some staff and outside groups. Credit John Amis/European Pressphoto Agency.

    The Department of Health and Human Services tried to play down on Saturday a report that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been barred from using seven words or phrases, including “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender” and “vulnerable,” in agency budget documents.

    “The assertion that H.H.S. has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process,” an agency spokesman, Matt Lloyd, said in an email. “H.H.S. will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. H.H.S. also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.”

    Mr. Lloyd did not respond to other questions about the news report, which was published late Friday by The Washington Post. The article said that C.D.C. policy analysts were told of the forbidden words and phrases at a meeting on Thursday with senior officials who oversee the agency’s budget. Other words included “entitlement,” “diversity” and “evidence-based.”

    In some cases, The Post reported, alternative phrases were suggested. Instead of “science-based,” or “evidence-based,” The Post reported, “the suggested phrase is ‘C.D.C. bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.’’’

    The news set off an uproar among advocacy groups and some Democratic officials, who denounced any efforts to muzzle federal agencies or censor their language.

    The Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.

    A former federal official, who asked not to be named, called the move unprecedented.

    “It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian, but they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the C.D.C. does,” the former official said. “They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what C.D.C. can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.”

    A former C.D.C. official, who asked not to be identified, said that some staff members were upset because the purported ban suggested that their work was being politicized.

    “I don’t know exactly who said what in the meeting, but I have to assume this came from H.H.S. people, because they’re the ones who have to make the budget,” the former official said. “I’ve also heard that some of the words might have been a little misconstrued. “‘Science-based’ and ‘evidence-based’ might not have been considered as unusable as the others.”

    Some people also said that some effort to tone down language might make sense when appealing for funding from Republican conservatives in Congress.

    The C.D.C. budget documents are circulated to other agencies and Congress and submitted to the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration. The budget office did not respond to a request for comment.

    There seemed to be confusion around the public health agencies about whether the ban originated at the agency’s parent department, Health and Human Services, or inside the C.D.C. itself; and whether such a ban would apply beyond budget documents. The Food and Drug Administration was quick to note that it had gotten no such instruction. An agency spokeswoman, Jennifer Rodriguez, said, “We haven’t received, nor implemented, any directives with respect to the language used at F.D.A. to describe our policy or budget issues.” The National Institutes of Health referred inquiries to Health and Human Services.

    Since the Trump administration has taken office, officials at the country’s premier disease-fighting agency have privately complained that it has come under various pressures, most involving Mr. Trump’s “America First” stance and his dislike of foreign aid rather than basic science itself.

    Although Mr. Trump’s first “skinny budget” proposed deep cuts in medical work done overseas, it is not clear that he is going to get his way. Many legislators have recognized the value of detecting and fighting outbreaks abroad before they reach American shores, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which was created by President George W. Bush, is a favorite with Christian conservatives in Congress. Many of the hospitals helped in Africa were founded by Christian missionaries. As a former Indiana representative, Vice President Pence was among the agency’s strongest backers.

    Even during the Obama administration, C.D.C. officials were required to clear most statements through Health and Human Services.

    Under Thomas E. Price, Mr. Trump’s first secretary of Health and Human Services, the department seemed preoccupied with killing the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Price resigned in September after he was criticized for his expensive air travel. During his early tenure, the C.D.C. was run by an acting director, Dr. Anne Shuchat, who had been deputy to the former director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden.

    Since Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald was appointed director in July, the agency has kept a relatively low profile. In previous years, for example, Dr. Frieden would typically have held by now a news conference about the coming flu season and might have, for instance, publicly addressed other issues like the dangers of water contamination in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, human infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria on pet-store puppies and Mexican papayas, or even the risk of Madagascar’s plague outbreak spreading.

    Critics were quick to denounce the C.D.C. for its action. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former Surgeon General, expressed concern.

    “Whether this is a directive from above is not clear,’’ he said. “But for C.D.C. or any agency to be censored or passively made to feel they have to self-censor to avoid retribution — that’s dangerous and not acceptable. The purpose of science is to search for truth, and when science is censored the truth is censored.”

    Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, based at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he believed scientists at C.D.C. will need assurance that they can continue their work without political interference.

    “I don’t know if it will ever be clear who said what in this particular case,” Mr. Halpern said. “The fact that the agency began controlling what scientists can say to reporters a few months ago doesn’t suggest they want to be open and honest with the public.”

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  • richardmitnick 4:58 pm on November 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NYT, Quantum Circuits Company, , , , Robert Schoelkopf is at the forefront of a worldwide effort to build the world’s first quantum computer,   

    From NYT: “Yale Professors Race Google and IBM to the First Quantum Computer” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    NOV. 13, 2017

    Prof. Robert Schoelkopf inside a lab at Yale University. Quantum Circuits, the start-up he has created with two of his fellow professors, is located just down the road. Credit Roger Kisby for The New York Times

    Robert Schoelkopf is at the forefront of a worldwide effort to build the world’s first quantum computer. Such a machine, if it can be built, would use the seemingly magical principles of quantum mechanics to solve problems today’s computers never could.

    Three giants of the tech world — Google, IBM, and Intel — are using a method pioneered by Mr. Schoelkopf, a Yale University professor, and a handful of other physicists as they race to build a machine that could significantly accelerate everything from drug discovery to artificial intelligence. So does a Silicon Valley start-up called Rigetti Computing. And though it has remained under the radar until now, those four quantum projects have another notable competitor: Robert Schoelkopf.

    After their research helped fuel the work of so many others, Mr. Schoelkopf and two other Yale professors have started their own quantum computing company, Quantum Circuits.

    Based just down the road from Yale in New Haven, Conn., and backed by $18 million in funding from the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital and others, the start-up is another sign that quantum computing — for decades a distant dream of the world’s computer scientists — is edging closer to reality.

    “In the last few years, it has become apparent to us and others around the world that we know enough about this that we can build a working system,” Mr. Schoelkopf said. “This is a technology that we can begin to commercialize.”

    Quantum computing systems are difficult to understand because they do not behave like the everyday world we live in. But this counterintuitive behavior is what allows them to perform calculations at rate that would not be possible on a typical computer.

    Today’s computers store information as “bits,” with each transistor holding either a 1 or a 0. But thanks to something called the superposition principle — behavior exhibited by subatomic particles like electrons and photons, the fundamental particles of light — a quantum bit, or “qubit,” can store a 1 and a 0 at the same time. This means two qubits can hold four values at once. As you expand the number of qubits, the machine becomes exponentially more powerful.

    Todd Holmdahl, who oversees the quantum project at Microsoft, said he envisioned a quantum computer as something that could instantly find its way through a maze. “A typical computer will try one path and get blocked and then try another and another and another,” he said. “A quantum computer can try all paths at the same time.”

    The trouble is that storing information in a quantum system for more than a short amount of time is very difficult, and this short “coherence time” leads to errors in calculations. But over the past two decades, Mr. Schoelkopf and other physicists have worked to solve this problem using what are called superconducting circuits. They have built qubits from materials that exhibit quantum properties when cooled to extremely low temperatures.

    With this technique, they have shown that, every three years or so, they can improve coherence times by a factor of 10. This is known as Schoelkopf’s Law, a playful ode to Moore’s Law, the rule that says the number of transistors on computer chips will double every two years.

    Professor Schoelkopf, left, and Prof. Michel Devoret working on a device that can reach extremely low temperatures to allow a quantum computing device to function. Credit Roger Kisby for The New York Times

    “Schoelkopf’s Law started as a joke, but now we use it in many of our research papers,” said Isaac Chuang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “No one expected this would be possible, but the improvement has been exponential.”

    These superconducting circuits have become the primary area of quantum computing research across the industry. One of Mr. Schoelkopf’s former students now leads the quantum computing program at IBM. The founder of Rigetti Computing studied with Michel Devoret, one of the other Yale professors behind Quantum Circuits.

    In recent months, after grabbing a team of top researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Google indicated it is on the verge of using this method to build a machine that can achieve “quantum supremacy” — when a quantum machine performs a task that would be impossible on your laptop or any other machine that obeys the laws of classical physics.

    There are other areas of research that show promise. Microsoft, for example, is betting on particles known as anyons. But superconducting circuits appear likely to be the first systems that will bear real fruit.

    The belief is that quantum machines will eventually analyze the interactions between physical molecules with a precision that is not possible today, something that could radically accelerate the development of new medications. Google and others also believe that these systems can significantly accelerate machine learning, the field of teaching computers to learn tasks on their own by analyzing data or experiments with certain behavior.

    A quantum computer could also be able to break the encryption algorithms that guard the world’s most sensitive corporate and government data. With so much at stake, it is no surprise that so many companies are betting on this technology, including start-ups like Quantum Circuits.

    The deck is stacked against the smaller players, because the big-name companies have so much more money to throw at the problem. But start-ups have their own advantages, even in such a complex and expensive area of research.

    “Small teams of exceptional people can do exceptional things,” said Bill Coughran, who helped oversee the creation of Google’s vast internet infrastructure and is now investing in Mr. Schoelkopf’s company as a partner at Sequoia. “I have yet to see large teams inside big companies doing anything tremendously innovative.”

    Though Quantum Circuits is using the same quantum method as its bigger competitors, Mr. Schoelkopf argued that his company has an edge because it is tackling the problem differently. Rather than building one large quantum machine, it is constructing a series of tiny machines that can be networked together. He said this will make it easier to correct errors in quantum calculations — one of the main difficulties in building one of these complex machines.

    But each of the big companies insist that they hold an advantage — and each is loudly trumpeting its progress, even if a working machine is still years away.

    Mr. Coughran said that he and Sequoia envision Quantum Circuits evolving into a company that can deliver quantum computing to any business or researcher that needs it. Another investor, Canaan’s Brendan Dickinson, said that if a company like this develops a viable quantum machine, it will become a prime acquisition target.

    “The promise of a large quantum computer is incredibly powerful,” Mr. Dickinson said. “It will solve problems we can’t even imagine right now.”

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  • richardmitnick 3:30 pm on November 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: And yet there is also reason for optimism. The report documents how global carbon emissions may be leveling out despite continued global economic growth, , Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume I, , Mauna Loa Observatory, NYT, Recent observations and investment in modeling and research have only strengthened the quality and amount of evidence collected, The Climate Risks We Face, To stabilize global temperature net carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced to zero   

    From NYT : “The Climate Risks We Face” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    Radley Horton at Columbia University

    Katharine Hayhoe at Texas Tech University
    Robert Kopp at Rutgers University

    Sarah Doherty at the University of Washington.

    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Since the dawn of the industrial age, humans have been pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil and gas. Researchers at the Mauna Loa Observatory, perched on the side of a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, have measured atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas since 1958.

    Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, run by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Author University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

    That first year, carbon dioxide averaged 316 parts per million. In May, it reached 410 p.p.m. — an amount never before experienced in the history of our species. This atmospheric carbon dioxide — as well as other heat-trapping gases and other air pollutants emitted by humans — is affecting our planet profoundly.

    We helped write the Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I, released on Friday by the United States Global Change Research Program. This comprehensive report — the most up-to-date climate science report in the world — is an outstanding example of federal science in action, and is especially noteworthy given the current political climate.

    The majority of the report’s 51 authors were drawn from federal agencies, like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy. Much of the foundational data and modeling that underpin the report rely on government investments in observational data and high-performance computing. The report was strengthened by an extensive review process involving the public, the National Academy of Sciences, and all relevant federal agencies, spanning two administrations.

    The report concludes that “global climate continues to change rapidly compared to the pace of the natural variations in climate that have occurred throughout Earth’s history.” It finds that “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The bottom line is that this report confirms and strengthens what the vast majority of climate scientists have known for decades: that climate is changing and humans are primarily responsible.

    Recent observations and investment in modeling and research have only strengthened the quality and amount of evidence collected. As the report documents, each of the last three years has successively been the warmest on record based on observational data going back to the late 19th century, and 16 of the last 17 years have been among the 17 warmest years on record globally. Global sea level has risen by about 7 to 8 inches since 1900, with nearly half this rise occurring since 1993. A substantial component of this rise, which is accelerating the increased frequency of disruptive “nuisance” flooding in dozens of coastal American cities, is because of human activity. At the same time, the area of ocean covered by Arctic sea ice in September (the typical annual minimum) has decreased by about 50 percent, while its volume has decreased even more dramatically as the remaining ice thins.

    The report also highlights growing reasons for concern. For example, ocean acidification, which occurs when atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, is taking place at what is thought to be the fastest rate in at least 66 million years. Coupled with reductions in oxygen content in near-coastal American waters, this poses a significant threat to coastal fisheries and ecosystems. Much of the western United States is facing a growing threat of more severe drought and larger wildfires as higher temperatures, reduced snow pack and earlier spring snow melt reduce water availability during the warm season.

    To stabilize global temperature, net carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced to zero. The window of time is rapidly closing to reduce emissions and limit warming to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the goal set in the Paris climate accord. The further we push the climate system beyond historical conditions, the greater the risks of potentially unforeseen and even catastrophic changes to the climate — so every reduction in emissions helps.

    While climate models incorporate many important processes, they cannot include all aspects of the climate system and all of the possible interactions within that system. Vicious cycles between these climate components may push the Earth into states much different from the past: for example, one with a much smaller West Antarctic Ice Sheet and much higher sea level, or one without coral reefs and with greatly reduced marine biodiversity. Surprises can also come from compound extreme events like droughts, floods, heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires that may occur in multiple places at the same time, or sequentially in one place. What is clear is that, even though we cannot quantify all of the possible changes to every element of the climate system, the risks to things we care about — from the health of our children, to the future economic viability of our low-lying coastal cities and infrastructure — are real and growing.

    And yet, there is also reason for optimism. The report documents how global carbon emissions may be leveling out, despite continued global economic growth. News reports in just this past year show how the cost of clean energy sources such as wind and solar have decreased dramatically both here and in emerging economies such as China, India and even the Middle East, sending powerful signals to long-term investors and businesses about which way things are trending. And more and more businesses, whether by choice or in response to investor demand, are asking: What risks do we face, if we do not plan for a changing climate?

    All humans share this planet. We depend on it for the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the natural resources it provides and the places where we live. For that reason, all Americans need to understand the risks we face, and the impact our choices will have on our future.

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  • richardmitnick 11:46 am on October 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NYT   

    From NYT: “How Dennis Overbye Makes Space-Time Relatable” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    OCT. 17, 2017

    Dennis Overbye, a Times science reporter, inside the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. No image credit.

    Dennis Overbye, The New York Times’s cosmic affairs correspondent, has never owned a telescope. They were of little use in the cloudy environs of Mercer Island, Wash., where he grew up.

    Instead, his interest in science began, as it did for many who came of age immersed in the starward ambitions of the space age, with science fiction. There were the paperbacks by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein — “that whole crew who had imagined the future of the human race as I saw it now being played out by Sputnik and Apollo,” Mr. Overbye said.

    In the nearly 20 years he has worked for The Times, Mr. Overbye has similarly tried to nourish the imaginations of others. “My job as I see it is to relate people to the universe they live in,” he said. “It’s kind of everybody’s business what the universe is and what it means to be here.”

    He has covered the discovery of planets beyond our sun; the detection of fundamental particles and the gravitational waves created by colliding black holes; and dark energy, the mysterious and inscrutable substance that makes up 70 percent of the universe and may very well determine its destiny. Earlier this week, Mr. Overbye wrote about the first collision of neutron stars ever observed. “I don’t look at page views,” he said. “Very little of what I write about moves the markets.”

    Still, Mr. Overbye’s stories often live where the earthly meets the cosmic. His first book, “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos,” recounts the birth of cosmology through the personal dramas of its founders and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991. And in 2014, he was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on the race to discover the Higgs boson, which focused on the lives of just a handful of the thousands of scientists swept up in the search for “the God particle.”

    Once Mr. Overbye identifies a story, he said, the work is in putting it in terms people can understand. “Metaphors are very important to the way I write,” he said. The results are vivid descriptions that surpass mere translation. Einstein’s epiphany that space-time is distorted by gravity, for instance, renders the universe as “the ultimate sagging mattress,” and elementary particles derive mass from the Higgs boson “the way politicians draw succor from cheers and handshakes at the rope line.”

    “I once compared the Milky Way galaxy to a piñata that the Kepler spacecraft had whacked and hundreds or thousands of new planets had fallen out,” Mr. Overbye said.

    Sometimes the effect can be rhapsodic. Astronomers on Monday announced the first detection of a kilonova, the collision of hyperdense dead stars thought to be responsible for creating many of the heavier elements in the universe, including gold, silver, platinum and uranium. As Mr. Overbye describes it: “All the atoms in your wedding band, in the pharaoh’s treasures and the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and still threaten us all, so the story goes, have been formed in cosmic gong shows that reverberated across the heavens.”

    Yet although it may seem that scientists are observing novel celestial events all the time, the pace of paradigm-shifting discoveries in cosmology has begun to slow; these days experimental results rarely shake theory off its foundations. (In June, Mr. Overbye reported on the existential crisis facing scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs boson was detected five years ago, now that one of particle physics’s biggest mysteries has essentially been licked.)

    “Huge discoveries are not moving the field,” said Jim Glanz, an investigative reporter at The Times who started on the Science desk under Mr. Overbye. As a result, Mr. Glanz described this moment in science journalism as a doldrums, which might tempt many to overstate the incremental or obscure. But not Mr. Overbye. “Dennis doesn’t like to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Mr. Glanz said. “He’s writing ‘War and Peace.’ The disappointments have to be as dramatized as breakthroughs.”

    It is a reality in which Mr. Overbye feels perfectly comfortable. In fact, he prefers to think of himself as “an evangelist of Cosmic Ignorance” — that we haven’t even learned the right questions to ask yet. As he put it in the preface to “Lonely Hearts”: “Science, inching along by trial-and-error and by doubt, is a graveyard of final answers.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:36 am on October 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NYT, ,   

    From NYT: “A Surprise From the Supervolcano Under Yellowstone” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    OCT. 10, 2017

    The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, a large hot spring known for its vibrant coloration. Beneath the park is a powerful supervolcano which drives the spring and other geological activity. Credit Marie-Louise Mandl/EyeEm, via Getty Images.

    Beneath Yellowstone National Park lies a supervolcano, a behemoth far more powerful than your average volcano. It has the ability to expel more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of rock and ash at once — 2,500 times more material than erupted from Mount St. Helens in 1980, which killed 57 people. That could blanket most of the United States in a thick layer of ash and even plunge the Earth into a volcanic winter.

    Yellowstone’s last supereruption occurred 631,000 years ago. And it’s not the planet’s only buried supervolcano. Scientists suspect that a supereruption scars the planet every 100,000 years, causing many to ask when we can next expect such an explosive planet-changing event.

    To answer that question, scientists are seeking lessons from Yellowstone’s past. And the results have been surprising. They show that the forces that drive these rare and violent events can move much more rapidly than volcanologists previously anticipated.

    The early evidence, presented at a recent volcanology conference, shows that Yellowstone’s most recent supereruption was sparked when new magma moved into the system only decades before the eruption. Previous estimates assumed that the geological process that led to the event took millenniums to occur.

    To reach that conclusion, Hannah Shamloo, a graduate student at Arizona State University, and her colleagues spent weeks at Yellowstone’s Lava Creek Tuff — a fossilized ash deposit from its last supereruption. There, they hauled rocks under the heat of the sun to gather samples, occasionally suspending their work when a bison or a bear roamed nearby.

    Ms. Shamloo later analyzed trace crystals in the volcanic leftovers, allowing her to pin down changes before the supervolcano’s eruption. Each crystal once resided within the vast, seething ocean of magma deep underground. As the crystals grew outward, layer upon layer, they recorded changes in temperature, pressure and water content beneath the volcano, much like a set of tree rings.

    “We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption,” said Christy Till, a geologist at Arizona State, and Ms. Shamloo’s dissertation adviser. Instead, the outer rims of the crystals revealed a clear uptick in temperature and a change in composition that occurred on a rapid time scale. That could mean the supereruption transpired only decades after an injection of fresh magma beneath the volcano.

    The time scale is the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. It’s even shorter than a previous study that found that another ancient supervolcano beneath California’s Long Valley caldera awoke hundreds of years before its eruption. As such, scientists are just now starting to realize that the conditions that lead to supereruptions might emerge within a human lifetime.

    “It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” said Ms. Shamloo, though she warned that there’s more work to do before scientists can verify a precise time scale.

    Kari Cooper, a geochemist at the University of California, Davis who was not involved in the research, said Ms. Shamloo and Dr. Till’s research offered more insights into the time frames of supereruptions, although she is not yet convinced that scientists can pin down the precise trigger of the last Yellowstone event. Geologists must now figure out what kick-starts the rapid movements leading up to supereruptions.

    “It’s one thing to think about this slow gradual buildup — it’s another thing to think about how you mobilize 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma in a decade,” she said.

    As the research advances, scientists hope they will be able to spot future supereruptions in the making. The odds of Yellowstone, or any other supervolcano, erupting anytime soon are small. But understanding the largest eruptions can only help scientists better understand, and therefore forecast, the entire spectrum of volcanic eruptions — something that Dr. Cooper thinks will be possible in a matter of decades.

    See the full article here .

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