Tagged: WIRED Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • richardmitnick 9:11 am on September 28, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "A Wheel Made of ‘Odd Matter’ Spontaneously Rolls Uphill", , Biorobotics, Physicists have solved a key problem of robotic locomotion by revising the usual rules of interaction between simple component parts., , , WIRED   

    From “Quanta Magazine” Via “WIRED“: “A Wheel Made of ‘Odd Matter’ Spontaneously Rolls Uphill” 

    From “Quanta Magazine”



    Ben Brubaker

    Physicists have solved a key problem of robotic locomotion by revising the usual rules of interaction between simple component parts.

    In cycling through a sequence of shapes, an odd wheel propels itself up steep and bumpy terrain.Illustration: Samuel Velasco/Quanta Magazine

    In a physics lab in Amsterdam, there’s a wheel that can spontaneously roll uphill by wiggling.

    This “odd wheel” looks simple: just six small motors linked together by plastic arms and rubber bands to form a ring about 6 inches in diameter. When the motors are powered on, it starts writhing, executing complicated squashing and stretching motions and occasionally flinging itself into the air, all the while slowly making its way up a bumpy foam ramp.

    “I find it very playful,” said Ricard Alert, a biophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, who was not involved in making the wheel. “I liked it a lot.”

    The odd wheel’s unorthodox mode of travel exemplifies a recent trend: Physicists are finding ways to get useful collective behavior to spontaneously emerge in robots assembled from simple parts that obey simple rules. “I’ve been calling it robophysics,” said Daniel Goldman, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

    The problem of locomotion—one of the most elementary behaviors of living things—has long preoccupied biologists and engineers alike. When animals encounter obstacles and rugged terrain, we instinctively take these challenges in stride, but how we do this is not so simple. Engineers have struggled to build robots that won’t collapse or lurch forward when navigating real-world environments, and they can’t possibly program a robot to anticipate all the challenges it might encounter.

    The odd wheel, developed by the physicists Corentin Coulais of the University of Amsterdam and Vincenzo Vitelli of the University of Chicago and collaborators and described in a recent preprint, embodies a very different approach to locomotion. The wheel’s uphill movement emerges from simple oscillatory motion in each of its component parts. Although these parts know nothing about the environment, the wheel as a whole automatically adjusts its wiggling motion to compensate for uneven terrain.

    Energy generated during each cyclical oscillation of the odd wheel allows it to push off against the ground and roll upward and over obstacles. (Another version of the wheel with only six motors was studied in a recent paper.)Video: Corentin Coulais.

    The physicists also created an “odd ball” that always bounces to one side and an “odd wall” that controls where it absorbs energy from an impact. The objects all stem from the same equation describing an asymmetric relationship between stretching and squashing motions that the researchers identified two years ago.

    “These are indeed behaviors you would not expect,” said Auke Ijspeert, a bioroboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. Coulais and Vitelli declined to comment while their latest paper is under peer review.

    In addition to guiding the design of more robust robots, the new research may prompt insights into the physics of living systems and inspire the development of novel materials.

    Odd Matter

    The odd wheel grew out of Coulais and Vitelli’s past work on the physics of “active matter”—an umbrella term for systems whose constituent parts consume energy from the environment, such as swarms of bacteria, flocks of birds and certain artificial materials. The energy supply engenders rich behavior, but it also leads to instabilities that make active matter difficult to control.

    Physicists have historically focused on systems that conserve energy, which must obey principles of reciprocity: If there’s a way for such a system to gain energy by moving from A to B, any process that takes the system from B back to A must cost an equal amount of energy. But with a constant influx of energy from within, this constraint no longer applies.

    In a 2020 paper in Nature Physics [below], Vitelli and several collaborators began to investigate active solids with nonreciprocal mechanical properties. They developed a theoretical framework in which nonreciprocity manifested in the relationships between different kinds of stretching and squashing motions. “That to me was just a beautiful mathematical framework,” said Nikta Fakhri, a biophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Suppose you squash one side of a solid, causing it to bulge outward in a perpendicular direction. You can also stretch and squash it along an axis rotated by 45 degrees, distorting it into a diamond shape. In an ordinary, passive solid, these two modes are independent; deforming the solid in one direction does not deform it along either diagonal.

    In an active solid, the researchers showed that the two modes can instead have a nonreciprocal coupling: Squashing the solid in one direction will also squash it along the axis rotated by 45 degrees, but squashing along this diagonal will stretch it, not squash it, along the original axis. Mathematically, the number describing the coupling between these two modes is positive going one way and negative going the other way. Because of the sign difference, the physicists call the phenomenon “odd elasticity.”

    In an odd elastic solid, undoing a deformation isn’t as simple as reversing the stretching and squashing motions that produced it; instead, the cycle of deformations that returns the solid to its starting configuration can leave it with some excess energy. This has striking consequences, such as enabling uphill locomotion of the odd wheel.

    Meanwhile Coulais, an experimentalist, was studying [Nature Communications (below] nonreciprocity in robotic active matter consisting of a chain of simple modules, each outfitted with a motor, sensor and microcontroller. With these sensing and control capabilities, Coulais could use feedback loops to program each module to respond nonreciprocally to the movements of its neighbors.

    Fig. 1
    Asymmetric and unidirectionally amplified waves in a nonreciprocal mass-and-spring model. a Schematic representation of the nonreciprocal mass-and-spring model. b Magnitude of the solutions of Eq. (1) in the frequency domain exp(i(ωt−q±x)) vs. spatial coordinate, for three different frequencies. c Green’s function of Eq. (1) vs. time and spatial coordinate. In (b) and (c), ε = 0.9 and c = 0.5

    Fig. 2
    Robotic metamaterial with nonreciprocal interactions. a Robotic metamaterial made of 10 unit cells mechanically connected by soft elastic beams (i). Scale bar: 2 cm. (bc) Closeup b and sketch c on two unit cells. Each unit cell is a minimal robot with a unique rotational degree of freedom that comprises an angular sensor (ii), a coreless DC motor (iii), and a microcontroller (iv). Each unit cell communicates with its right neighbor via electric wires (v). These components allow to program a control loop characterized by the feedback parameter α (see main text for definition). d Rescaled torsional stiffnesses CL→R/C (red) and CR→L/C (blue) as a function of the feedback parameter

    More instructive images are available in the science paper.

    The two physicists, former colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands, then teamed up to develop robotic active matter that would embody the mathematics of odd elasticity.

    Uncommon Oscillations

    Ordinary elasticity—the springiness of matter—is a bulk property that emerges from springlike interactions between matter’s microscopic constituents. Coulais and Vitelli sought to put an odd twist on the elastic interactions between robotic modules.

    In their new design, each module consisted of a motor controlling the rotation of two plastic arms, with rubber bands supplying springiness by pulling back on the arms. The researchers started with a pair of modules sharing an arm. Sensors and controllers on the modules implemented a nonreciprocal feedback loop: A clockwise turn of the first one’s motor would generate a clockwise torque on the second one’s motor, but a clockwise rotation of the second motor would induce a counterclockwise torque on the first.

    This arrangement is inherently unstable. Left undisturbed, the modules will sit still forever, but even the slightest nudge will give rise to an unending tug of war: Whichever way a motor turns, its interaction with the other motor pushes it back in the opposite direction. If the coupling between the modules is strong enough, the arms will start oscillating back and forth with increasing amplitude.

    On a 2D plot with axes representing the two motor angles, these growing oscillations will appear as an outward spiral, gaining energy on each cycle like a runner descending an Escher staircase and picking up speed with each lap. But the motors can only put out so much torque, and energy is lost to friction, so the amplitude of the oscillations eventually tops out. On the 2D plot of motor angles, the spiraling trajectory converges to a circle, then keeps retracing its path exactly. Physicists call this self-sustained, constant-amplitude oscillation a limit cycle.

    The modules’ limit-cycle oscillations represent a victory of stable, regular motion over the chaos that so often plagues complex systems. Consider the chaotic “double pendulum,” which consists of one pendulum hanging from another: Small changes in its initial conditions soon lead to totally different trajectories through space. Limit cycles are the opposite phenomenon: Different initial conditions ultimately yield the same trajectory. In the case of Coulais and Vitelli’s odd modules, regardless of which arm was initially nudged and in which direction, the system eventually exhibits the same steady-state oscillations.

    This key feature makes limit-cycle oscillations more special than, say, the familiar cyclical motion of a (single) pendulum. On a 2D plot of a pendulum’s position and velocity, its oscillations appear as orbits around a closed loop, but if you start the pendulum swinging at different speeds, it’ll trace a larger or smaller circle. Limit-cycle oscillations are much more robust: Many trajectories that start out different converge on exactly the same orbit, and if the system is nudged away from this orbit, it’ll get pulled back in.

    These limit-cycle oscillations offered the researchers a way to tame the unruly dynamics of active matter and put it to work.

    Behind the Wheel

    Now that Coulais and Vitelli had engineered the building blocks of odd matter, it was time to assemble them. Many modules connected in the right way would resemble the odd elastic solid Vitelli had initially envisioned. What would happen if these modules were linked together with shared arms to form a wheel?

    When the team supplied power to the motors, the loop began to oscillate, interweaving stretching and squashing with similar motions angled at 45 degrees. It switched back and forth between the two modes of self-deformation in Vitelli’s theory of odd elasticity. The limit-cycle oscillations of adjacent motors generated a limit cycle in the collective motion of the wheel as a whole. The oddness of the motors’ coupling singled out a direction for the wheel’s locomotion, much as an Escher staircase breaks the symmetry between clockwise and counterclockwise laps—it’s all downhill one way and all uphill the other way. The energy generated during each limit cycle allowed the wheel to push off against the ground and roll upward.

    Odd interactions between adjacent robotic modules can also be utilized to construct an odd wall.Courtesy of Corentin Coulais.

    It’s hard to pin down why the wheel’s uphill locomotion is so robust, precisely because its limit cycle is an emergent phenomenon, not seen when you scrutinize any individual module. Nick Gravish, a roboticist at the University of California-San Diego, suspects that the limit-cycle oscillations of each pair of motors greatly restrict the possible collective motions of the wheel. He noted that the emergence of collective motion from low-level oscillations has parallels in biology: “Animals are lots of interconnected oscillatory components that have to work together.”

    Coulais and Vitelli also explored the effects of odd couplings on collisions. They showed that an odd ball—a projectile assembled from odd modules—would always bounce off in a specific direction when launched without any spin, while an odd wall could control the direction in which it absorbed energy from a projectile. These functions could prove useful in the design of new active materials, said Denis Bartolo, a physicist at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, adding that “the next huge step to be made would be to find a way to self-assemble these machines.”


    Before the recent experiments, it wasn’t obvious that odd interactions would give rise to locomotion. Each motor responds only to its neighbors, and yet the wheel moves forward. This absence of top-down control is especially intriguing to biologists seeking to understand how swarms cooperate without designated leaders, and how primitive animals without nervous systems seek out food.

    The emergent locomotion of the odd wheel is appealing to researchers largely because the wheel’s building blocks are so simple. “You can just be lost in the complexity of living systems,” said Alert. He pointed to a famous quote from Richard Feynman: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

    Coulais and Vitelli developed their odd modules without mimicking any specific living system, so it’s an open question whether biology has made use of the same emergent dynamics. M. Cristina Marchetti, a theoretical physicist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, called the result “very interesting,” and said the next step to understanding its possible role in biology is to see how well the behavior persists in a noisy environment like that of a living cell.

    But whereas evolution often finds good solutions to problems, it can miss opportunities. The odd wheel might be a true novelty. Bartolo notes that, in the design of robots, machines and materials, bioinspiration has its limits: “If you tried to make a plane using beating wings, you would still be walking or swimming from Normandy to New York.”

    Science papers:
    Nature Physics
    Nature Communications

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 8:21 am on September 28, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The Secret Microscope That Sparked a Scientific Revolution", A lens 10 times more powerful than anything built before it- a design which wouldn’t be bested for another 150 years., , “Letter 18”: Van Leeuwenhoek (lay-u-when-hoke) had looked everywhere and found what he called animalcules (Latin for “little animals”) in everything., , Despite the prodigious genius of Galileo and Hooke neither produced lenses with anything close to the magnifying power of Van Leeuwenhoek’s., Germ theory, How a Dutch fabric seller became the first person ever to see a microorganism., How did he do it? How did a shopkeeper build a microscopic lens that surpassed the world’s greatest by an order of magnitude?, , , Microorganisms are the second most abundant life-forms on Earth., Neutron tomography, Only one lens survives today that produces the 270X magnification Van Leeuwenhoek used to make his greatest discovery., Two of the types that Van Leeuwenhoek identified-protozoa and bacteria-responsible for more than half the deaths of every human who has ever lived., Van Leeuwenhoek became the first person to ever see a microorganism., Van Leeuwenhoek crafted more than 500 microscopes but only 11 of his instruments survive today., Van Leeuwenhoek had no idea about the pivotal role his little animals played., Van Leeuwenhoek zealously guarded how he made his revolutionary lens., WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “The Secret Microscope That Sparked a Scientific Revolution” 

    From “WIRED“

    Cody Cassidy

    Illustration: Ariel Davis.

    How a Dutch fabric seller made the most powerful magnifying lens of his time—and of the next 150 years—and became the first person ever to see a microorganism.

    “On September 7, 1674, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, a fabric seller living just south of The Hague, Netherlands, burst forth from scientific obscurity with a letter to London’s Royal Society detailing an astonishing discovery. While he was examining algae from a nearby lake through his homemade microscope, a creature “with green and very glittering little scales,” which he estimated to be a thousand times smaller than a mite, had darted across his vision.

    Two years later, on October 9, 1676, he followed up with another report so extraordinary that microbiologists today refer to it simply as “Letter 18”: Van Leeuwenhoek (lay-u-when-hoke) had looked everywhere and found what he called animalcules (Latin for “little animals”) in everything.

    He found them in the bellies of other animals, his food, his own mouth, and other people’s mouths. When he noticed a set of remarkably rancid teeth, he asked the owner for a sample of his plaque, put it beneath his lens, and witnessed “an inconceivably great number of little animalcules” moving “so nimbly among one another, that the whole stuff seemed alive.” After a particularly uncomfortable evening, which he blamed on a fatty meal of hot smoked beef, he examined his own stool beneath his lens and saw animalcules that were “somewhat longer than broad, and their belly, which was flat-like, furnished with sundry little paws”—a clear description of what we now know as the parasite giardia.

    With his observations of these fast, fat, and sundry-pawed creatures, Van Leeuwenhoek became the first person to ever see a microorganism—a discovery of almost incalculable significance to human health and our understanding of life on this planet.

    Microorganisms are the second most abundant life-forms on Earth. Two of the types that Van Leeuwenhoek identified—protozoa and bacteria—are by some estimates responsible for more than half the deaths of every human who has ever lived, and yet until he observed them their existence had hardly been seriously postulated, much less proven. Of course, he had no idea about the pivotal role his little animals played, but his revelation provided the foundation for germ theory—the greatest leap forward in the history of medicine. Even more surprising, this monumental discovery was not made by one of the 17th century’s great scientific minds such as Galileo or Isaac Newton. Instead, a secretive, obsessive, self-taught Dutchman of little renown did it by handcrafting a lens 10 times more powerful than anything built before it. His design wouldn’t be bested for another 150 years.

    Yet even as scientists steadily unlocked the secrets of Van Leeuwenhoek’s microworld over the past 350 years, one great mystery eluded them: How the hell did he do it? How did a shopkeeper working during his off hours build a microscopic lens that surpassed the world’s greatest by an order of magnitude?

    While Leeuwenhoek shared nearly everything he saw through his microscope in exactingly detailed letters, he zealously guarded how he made his revolutionary lens. When asked, he declined or obfuscated. Even as his discoveries made him so famous that the King of England requested to see his animalcules and Peter the Great stopped in Delft to see his lenses, the Dutchman never revealed his secrets.

    Van Leeuwenhoek crafted more than 500 microscopes but only 11 of his instruments survive today—and only one that produces the 270X magnification he used to make his greatest discovery. Because that lens remains sandwiched between brass plates, determining its mode of manufacture would require disassembling the microscope—an affront tantamount to scraping paint off the Mona Lisa to determine the sequence of Leonardo’s brush strokes.

    Most of Van Leeuwenhoek’s contemporaries believed he had invented a new glassblowing technique. Clifford Dobell, who wrote the brilliant 1960 biography Antony Van Leeuwenhoek and His Little Animals, postulated that he created his best lenses by simply grinding and polishing them better than anyone else. But in three centuries of speculation, no one could say for sure.

    Tiemen Cocquyt’s interest in Van Leeuwenhoek’s secrets began in the late 2000s, soon after first seeing one of his microscopes, which was then locked away in the basement of the University Museum Utrecht. “How could this toy open up the microworld?” Cocquyt remembers thinking.

    Cocquyt is a curator in the National Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, Netherlands, which houses an array of early optical instruments, including several of the microscopes. He has spent much of his career investigating the origins of Europe’s 17th-century optical revolution, when visual instruments suddenly leaped from simple magnifiers to the great telescopes of Galileo and Christiaan Huygens. (That revolution was inadvertently sparked, Cocquyt says, by Italian advances in making ultra-clear glass.)

    Over Zoom, Cocquyt shows me a replica of a Van Leeuwenhoek microscope, and it does look like a toy—a doll’s hand mirror, to be exact. It’s barely 3 inches tall, with a thin handle leading to a square brass plate. The lens sits beneath a pinhole in the plate’s center, and on the back side a pin for holding samples is connected to a set of screws for focal adjustment.

    When Cocquyt first examined the exposed glass of the lens, he believed its smooth surface indicated it could only have been created by heat. Thus, like many of Van Leeuwenhoek’s contemporaries, he suspected the Dutchman had invented a new glassblowing technique. But without looking inside, he could only speculate.

    The definitive answer, he hoped, might be found with the help of a nuclear reactor.

    At its simplest, a magnifying lens is nothing more than a curved piece of transparent material—usually glass. As light passes through that angled glass, it decelerates, and its path is redirected, or refracted. Depending on its design, a lens can manipulate light in any number of ways, but magnifying lenses like Van Leeuwenhoek’s are spherical—technically called bi-convex—and refract light into a single focal point. “In essence, it serves as a light funnel,” says Steve Ruzin, curator of the Golub Collection of antique microscopes at The University of California-Berkeley. Place your eye at the narrow end of the funnel, and an enormous amount of light arriving from the lens’s focal point crams through your pupil.

    This has two effects. First, the more light your eye receives from an object, the more detail it can perceive. Second, by funneling all the light hitting the lens through the width of your pupil, the image consumes your entire field of view. An object that once projected onto your retina as an undetectable speck now appears in Imax.

    Of course, not all spherical lenses magnify equally. A big lens with a gentle curve refracts the light traveling through it only slightly, and thus barely enlarges the image. A small lens with a sharp curve refracts the light more, enlarging the image a great deal. Moderately powered spherical lenses of the 17th century were about the size of a pea. Van Leeuwenhoek’s greatest lenses were smaller than a sixth that size. At that diameter, construction becomes exceptionally difficult. Even the smallest manufacturing defect—a bubble, scuff, or scratch—could project an enormously disfiguring visual aberration. Larger, less powerful lenses are far more forgiving. They are simple enough to create that they’ve been found among remnants of the oldest civilizations. The earliest-known handcrafted lens is a piece of ground rock crystal capable of 3X magnification that archeologists discovered in a nearly 3,000-year-old Assyrian palace. But because glass occurs naturally, its magnifying power has probably been independently discovered and harnessed many times throughout history.

    Nevertheless, lenses never exceeded much beyond the power of typical modern reading glasses until the early 1590s, when a Dutch lens maker named Hans Janssen built a microscope capable of 9X magnification. Janssen’s contraption inspired many copycats, one of which intrigued Galileo, who modified one of his own telescopes to produce a microscope that one witness claimed could show “flies which appear large as a lamb.”

    In 1665—only a few years before Van Leeuwenhoek peered through his first lens—microscopes emerged into the public consciousness when the polymath Robert Hooke published his surprise bestseller Micrographia. The book included Hooke’s observations, interpretations, illustrations, and even simple instructions on how anyone could make their own lenses: Hold a thin hair of glass over a flame until a bead forms, ‘which will hang at the end of the thread,’ writes Hooke. Snap off the bead, and the result is a spherical magnifier.

    But despite the prodigious genius of Galileo and Hooke neither produced lenses with anything close to the magnifying power of Van Leeuwenhoek’s. “Leeuwenhoek took an opportunity that lay somehow undeveloped in the 1660s and pushed it into the best result that was possible,” Cocquyt says.

    He did so by first eschewing Hooke’s and Galileo’s preference for using multiple lenses arranged in sequence. This design is common in modern microscopes—it’s a bit like projecting an image into another projector—but achieving that magnifying effect without producing huge distortions requires extreme precision. Until that challenge was solved in the early 19th century, single-lens microscopes like Van Leeuwenhoek’s could achieve far superior results.

    Hooke was aware of this shortcoming in his design, yet he still preferred multiple lenses, thanks in part to their ease of use. High-powered lenses have such an extremely short focal point that with just one, the viewer has to place their eye incredibly close to the lens, making blinking difficult. Hooke wrote that he found single-lens microscopes “offensive to my eye.” Ruzin told me that looking through one of Van Leeuwenhoek’s surviving devices is “terribly uncomfortable.”

    Van Leeuwenhoek’s design may have been torture to use, but it was also brilliant—and that brilliance extended beyond his super-powered lenses. Because his device was handheld, he could backlight his sample by holding it up against sunlight or a flame, while his contemporaries’ desk-bound microscopes could only be lit from above. Top-down lighting works well for opaque objects, such as a bee’s stinger, but not for pond water and other translucent samples, where it’s far easier to see microorganisms. To observe these liquids, Van Leeuwenhoek filled a small glass capsule, glued it to the microscope’s pin, and held the instrument up to light.

    “It almost seems as if Van Leeuwenhoek knew that a new microworld was to unfold,” Cocquyt told me. One of his scientific rivals, Johannes Hudde, later said, “isn’t it surprising that we never had the creativity to use these ball lenses to observe little things against the daylight, and that an uneducated and ignorant man such as Van Leeuwenhoek had to be the one to teach this to us.”

    Van Leeuwenhoek was the fifth son of a basket maker, born in the Delft—a small port city in South Holland known for its picturesque waterways, pottery, and beer. At 16 he departed for an apprenticeship as a dry goods seller in Amsterdam, but six years later he returned home, married the daughter of a well-regarded local brewer, and purchased his own fabric shop.

    He spent his twenties growing a successful business but suffered immense personal tragedy. Of the five children he and his wife Barbara had in their 12 years of marriage, four died in infancy; Barbara would soon follow. Few biographical details have survived from his first decade back in Delft, but he held a number of odd jobs in addition to running his draper shop, including working as chief custodian of the local courthouse. A stint as town surveyor offers one clue to Van Leeuwenhoek’s budding scientific potential: proof he had learned geometry.

    His obsession with magnifying lenses began sometime in his mid-thirties. How he came upon it isn’t known. His writings never touch on its origins. Perhaps, as many have speculated, he started using lenses to inspect the quality of his cloth. Or maybe he got caught up in the public mania for microscopes following the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. Van Leeuwenhoek never mentions the book in any of his letters, but the timing aligns, and he clearly read it: Some of his experiments replicate Hooke’s too closely to be a coincidence. But regardless of how Van Leeuwenhoek got into microscopy, by 1668 he had begun pursuing it with an unusual tenacity. While traveling in England that year, he saw the white cliffs of Dover and felt compelled to examine their chalky slopes beneath his lens: “I observed that chalk consisteth of very small transparent particles; and these transparent particles lying one upon another, is, methinks now, the reason why chalk is white.”

    By 1673, though still operating in complete obscurity, he was already making the world’s most powerful lenses. His obscurity might very well have continued, and the momentous discovery of microorganisms might well have served only to satisfy this curious individual’s psychological compulsion, were it not for a Delft physician named Renier de Graaf.

    De Graaf had come to some renown through his experiments using dyes to determine organ function, and in 1673 he introduced Van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society with a note calling him a “most ingenious person … who has devised microscopes which far surpass those which we have hitherto seen.” Following that preamble, Van Leeuwenhoek described the body parts of a louse in his precise-yet-meandering writing style that is, as one biographer notes, “distinguished with a certain business formality, but an almost total lack of coherence.” Over the next year, he sent five more letters to the Royal Society conveying interesting but not particularly controversial observations about the globules in milk and the structure of his fingernails. Then, on September 7, 1674, he sent the letter reporting his shocking discovery: Within an otherwise unremarkable drop of pond water he had seen “glittering” creatures a thousand times smaller than any animal he had previously observed.

    The Society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg, replied to Van Leeuwenhoek with understandable restraint: “This phenomenon, and some of the following ones seeming to be very extraordinary, the author hath been desired to acquaint us with his method of observing, that others may confirm such observations as these.” Van Leeuwenhoek quickly responded, providing eyewitness accounts of a few local dignitaries who had looked through his lenses—but refused to disclose the secrets of his techniques. “My method for seeing the very smallest animalcules and minute eels, I do not impart to others; nor how to see very many animalcules at one time. That I keep for myself alone,” he wrote. Even when Hooke himself, who learned to speak Dutch just so he could communicate with Van Leeuwenhoek without translation, specifically asked how he made his observations, the stubborn scientist refused for reasons that were, as Hooke later wrote, “best known to himself.”

    Three years later, after a few failed attempts by others, Hooke finally managed to re-create Van Leeuwenhoek’s experiment well enough to prove his observations at a gathering of the Royal Society. The confirmation made the Dutch draper famous, but despite repeated inquiry he took his secrets to the grave.

    In 2018, Cocquyt and his team of researchers set out to reveal them without taking Van Leeuwenhoek’s 350-year-old microscope apart. That’s where the nuclear reactor comes in.

    Neutron tomography is a scanning technique that is as remarkable as it is completely insane. It involves blasting neutrons generated by atomic collisions through a large-caliber barrel—which sticks out of a reactor’s nuclear chamber like the devil’s cannon—and into whatever object needs scanning. Neutrons, beyond irradiating everything they hit, pass right through metals but slam into most low-mass elements, including those in glass. Sensors behind the object detect the neutrons, producing an image that reveals their inner structure. Recent scans have led to the discovery of a dinosaur inside another dinosaur’s belly and the remnants of ice in martian meteorites.

    A nuclear reactor in Van Leeuwenhoek’s hometown of Delft had recently installed a neutron tomography instrument, and Cocquyt used it to examine the Dutchman’s lenses in their birthplace. He first placed a replica microscope in front of the neutron scanner—a test to ensure he didn’t render a priceless piece of scientific history radioactive for 1,000 years. When he next scanned the inventor’s less-powerful microscopes, the images clearly showed the glass to have hard edges and a slight lentil shape. “Exactly what you would expect for a ground lens,” Cocquyt says.

    But on his most powerful lens, neutron tomography revealed that Van Leeuwenhoek used another technique entirely. It was almost perfectly spherical and completely smooth, without the sharp rim inevitably created by a traditional grinding cup. Even more tellingly, the lens retained the faint remnants of a snapped stem, concealed by the brass plates since the day Van Leeuwenhoek had placed it there.

    The stem is a smoking gun. It’s the unavoidable result of forming a lens by melting a thread of glass until a bead forms on its end and then snapping it off. In other words, to make his greatest lens, Van Leeuwenhoek copied Hooke’s simple recipe from the book that likely inspired him. Cocquyt believes this may explain why he was so circumspect when Hooke asked about his methods; he wanted to avoid giving credit to Hooke himself.

    Published in Science Advances [below] last year, Cocquyt’s discovery that Van Leeuwenhoek used a well-known technique reveals a deeper truth about the state of microscopy in the 17th century. It suggests that for all the crafting genius required to make his tiny, super-powered lens, Van Leeuwenhoek’s greatest insight may have been that there was something new to see by making one.

    Fig. 1 The two original Van Leeuwenhoek microscopes that were studied with neutron tomography.
    The lens sits mounted between the brass plates, at the position of the specimen pin. (A) A medium-powered (×118) instrument (Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, Leiden, inventory number V7017). Note that there is a redundant drill hole in the upper left corner of the instrument, not to be confused with its lens aperture, which is directly behind the pin. This microscope is numbered #1 by Van Zuylen. Photo credit: Tom Haartsen Fotografie, Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. (B) The instrument with the highest magnification among the preserved ones (×266) (Utrecht University Museum, inventory number UM-1). This microscope is numbered #3 by Van Zuylen. Photo credit: Utrecht University Museum.

    Fig. 4 Orthogonal cross sections of computed tomography of the Van Leeuwenhoek microscopes from Leiden and Utrecht.
    (A) The cross sections of the lentil-shaped lens of the medium-powered microscope (V7017). (B) The circular cross section of the high-powered microscope (UM-1). The XZ projection shows that this ball-shaped lens has a tiny glass stem connected to it.

    [More instructive images are available in the science paper.]

    This seems intuitive and incredibly obvious to a modern reader. What kind of scientist wouldn’t want to see in greater detail? But before Van Leeuwenhoek, most microscopists used their lenses to reveal greater detail about the visible world—things they could already see to some degree with the naked eye. Their drawings of bee stingers and ant legs do not lose their resemblance to the creatures readers were familiar with. Had they used Van Leeuwenhoek’s high-powered lenses, their depictions would not have been recognizable to anyone.

    Leeuwenhoek had no inkling that minuscule, alien-like creatures awaited him, but his obsession with the microworld drove him to leave the visible world behind and discover a vast new microbial one living under—and inside—our noses.”

    Science paper:
    Science Advances

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 7:56 am on September 18, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The Vast Wasteland of Internet Television", , Facebook/Meta, , Instagram, LinkedIn, Media, TikTok, Twitter, WIRED, YouTube   

    From “WIRED“: “The Vast Wasteland of Internet Television” 

    From “WIRED“

    Virginia Heffernan

    When TV came online in the aughts, it was exciting. Then Facebook took over.

    “In September 2005, a fun film editor named Robert Ryang took The Shining and cut together a new trailer for it, making the axe-driven horror flick seem like a sweetheart family movie. YouTube hadn’t broken out of beta yet, so Ryang posted his humor gem to a private quarter of his employer’s website and gave some friends a dotmov link. One of them posted the link to his blog, and Ryang was an overnight sensation.

    The New York Times took notice, observing with awe: “His secret site got 12,000 hits.” Ryang also achieved the highest goal of 20th-century humankind: He started getting calls from Hollywood. HELLO, IT’S HOLLYWOOD.

    I was a TV critic in those days, and when I first saw Ryang’s masterwork—buffering, buffering—I wasn’t sure if I was eligible to review it. Was this digital item a show, a movie, an ad, maybe a web page? While I mulled the question, I created a folder called “Internet Television.”

    Months went by, and YouTube officially launched. Could it be? The near-erotic fantasy of “convergence”—the moment when the internet and television finally fused in a kind of mundane Singularity—had arrived. In June 2006, I wrote on my own blog that people finally seemed “ready to accept video on computers.” Four months later, Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion. The original World Wide Web, a static, low-bandwidth, verbal system of hyperlinks, was over.

    Since then, “internet television,” a phrase I tried in vain to make happen, has pitched its tent everywhere. Video defined so-called Web 2.0, the only internet many of us have ever known. And it now accounts for some 82 percent of online traffic. It’s not just YouTube, Instagram, and Snap; even verbal apps, where the stock-in-trade is still words—from quips (Twitter) to marketing palaver (LinkedIn)—are ablaze with video.

    But one app has never quite managed moving pictures: Facebook. The company acquired Instagram in 2012, the same year it went public, and it seemed to believe that its image-and-video bases were covered.

    From the start, Facebook had differentiated itself from MySpace and then Tumblr—emo, image-heavy sites that could tilt into porn—by catering to the lower-bandwidth, more earnest consumers of words. Its users were heavily incentivized to keep things clean and disclose real names, real bios, real birthplaces, real jobs.

    Facebook’s bedrock commitment to text helped it spread its monster empire to populations underserved by broadband. (People without big data plans still have trouble seeing pictures on Facebook’s mobile app.) The app’s texty interface also sealed its rep as a site for plain facts and grandma-friendly content.

    These rule-the-world strategies had a devastating, if unintended, consequence: They left a population of hundreds of millions, and ultimately 2.9 billion, vulnerable to deceit. People whose first and main contact with the internet was Facebook were just not ready when the platform got seized with especially consequential disinformation in 2015. They were easily tricked. They’d come to accept what they saw there as facts—as empirical as a name and number in an employee directory, or a college … facebook.

    The same users were also sitting ducks for editing mischief when Facebook did start pushing video with Facebook Watch and other streaming products and partnerships. (If I’d first seen Ryang’s trailer posted by an aunt on Facebook, I swear I might have taken it straight, decided I’d always misunderstood The Shining, and teared up at “Solsbury Hill.”)

    Then there are the geezers. In the US, the average age of a Facebook user is 40.5. Among American youngs, Facebook seems as Garrison Keillor did to MTV fans in the ’80s—squarer than square.

    All of this—the disinfo, the graying, the squareness—has made what’s now Meta increasingly nervous about its flagship app. In 2020, Instagram mugged TikTok of its looping video for Reels, which Meta now hellishly promotes. In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be inching away from social media altogether, toward, of all things, virtual reality. In an internal memo from April of this year, leaked to The Verge, Meta announced plans to radically renovate Facebook’s interface. As of July 21, feeds course not with homespun updates by friends or “friends” but viral videos by celebrities and the influenceriat.

    Then, just six days after those UI changes dropped, the Grim Reaper came for Meta. For the first time since the company went public in 2012, its obscene growth stopped dead. And in the third quarter its revenue could be as much as $4.5 billion less than analysts had predicted. That’s nearly three times what the company paid for Instagram.

    The new coke overhaul of Facebook, from social media to looping video and VR, has been a bust so far. Perhaps the full-court video press was just late. Perhaps TikTokking out and sidelining family-vacation updates and requests to the “hive mind” for autumn decor inspo came off like a betrayal to Facebook’s fortysomething base.

    But in retrospect maybe all of this was foretold. Social media, helmed by Facebook, first presented itself as a new wave of populist content, eccentric infotainment made by regular Jaydens and workaday Ashlees. It was democratic media, without high barriers to entry, steep production costs, an impenetrable star system, or commercials. Kids short on cash or access could find their voices, find their tribes (oh, that decade and its tribes), and connect.

    But look at that: Social media is now shot through with sketches and music videos made by rich personal brands and consumed by a passive audience that gets iron-skilleted with ads. The convergence I once cheered on has reinvented a medium that reminds me of something from my youth. It’s almost like network TV. Like the idiot box. Like a “vast wasteland,” as the FCC chair called American television, in 1961.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 7:30 am on September 18, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "When the Big One Hits Portland Cargo Bikers Will Save You", , , , , , The Pacific Northwest is due for a massive quake. I trained to help rescue efforts in the aftermath—by racing around the city on an electric kid hauler., WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “When the Big One Hits Portland Cargo Bikers Will Save You” 

    From “WIRED“

    Sep 13, 2022
    Adrienne So

    The Pacific Northwest is due for a massive quake. I trained to help rescue efforts in the aftermath—by racing around the city on an electric kid hauler.

    “The Rose Festival is Portland, Oregon’s biggest event of the year. There’s a waterfront carnival, a flower show, car races, and footraces. The marquee event is the Grand Floral Parade, a mile-long flower flotilla that stretches from one end of downtown to the other. And yet somehow—I blame Covid—I’d completely forgotten about it while racing across the city. I come to a dead stop on my electric cargo bike and shout “Oh my God!” in front of a large float with dancers in big flowered dresses blasting Latin music. People carrying lawn chairs and coolers stream around me. A cop looks on sympathetically.

    I’m dirty, tired, and frazzled. Mud crusts my shins, my wet hiking boots, and my stretchy cycling outfit. Lashed on to my bike’s rear rack is an orange 5-gallon bucket along with a pannier containing rocks, a compass, a whistle, a grease pencil, and my rain jacket—which I don’t need, because I’m already drenched from exertion and anxiety. I’m in the final stretch of the Disaster Relief Trials, a 30-mile bike race wrapped in an apocalyptic post-earthquake scenario, and after hours of riding I’m stuck at a standstill. Everything’s OK, though—or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. In a race like this, having things not go to plan is just part of the exercise.

    The race is designed to simulate the conditions after a major disaster, and because this is Portland, that disaster will probably be the Big One: the magnitude 9.0-or-so earthquake that has a one-in-three chance of leveling the Pacific Northwest in the next half-century. I’ve lived in Portland for 15 years, long enough to know that most people prep for the quake to some degree. There are only around 12,000 first responders in the entire state of Oregon, but Portland alone is home to 650,000 residents. In other words, the first person to realize you’re trapped in the upper story of your rickety wood-framed house probably won’t be the professionally trained EMT who answers a 911 call. It will be your neighbor poking her head out of the window and grabbing a ladder out of the garage.

    I never doubted my own ability to be that neighborhood hero. I did things like run 20 miles and scale rock cliffs for fun. For years, my own garage has been lined with milk crates full of backpacking and camping equipment, the same portable stoves and water bottles that the Oregon Office of Emergency Management recommends having on hand if you want to survive for two weeks off the grid. My husband lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sitting on the beach for weeks, eating FEMA-distributed MREs. I figured that the weeks post-Big One would look similar, assuming we wouldn’t get crushed by the many teetering book piles around our house.

    But then we had a kid, and after her first birthday we enrolled her in daycare. As I flipped through the parent handbook, skimming the guidelines on nut-free snacks and religious holidays, my eye stopped on page 19: emergency supplies. The instructions told me to pack boxed drinks, diapers, an emergency blanket, a jar of high-protein food, and a plastic poncho, all of which the school would store in a watertight container. The final item was a photograph of our family. “Add an encouraging note!” the handbook suggested.

    I gamely found a blank card in my filing cabinet, printed out a picture, and started writing. “Hi baby!” I began, then stopped. What do you say to your toddler in the aftermath of a catastrophe? My daughter’s teachers were going to hand her a photo and a juice box, in the middle of a city in ruins, and tell her everything was going to be OK? Yeah, no. I would inflate a dinghy with my own lungs, I would paddle through flames, I would cross miles of smoking rubble to get to her.

    Slowly, I started to make a plan. First, my husband and I had another baby, a son. We moved to a new house within walking distance of our kids’ school. I bought a 50-gallon water barrel. I pinged our neighborhood group chat to keep tabs on who had an emergency generator and vegetable garden. Then my husband—himself a bit of a catastrophist—started to fret that I wasn’t fast enough on my human-powered bike and trailer to pull our two toddlers out of harm’s way. So I bought an electric cargo bike, a cheery yellow Tern GSD S00 that my daughter, then 5, named Popsicle.

    I learned about the Disaster Relief Trials from a friend earlier this year. The race is designed to mimic four days of chaos after catastrophe hits. It has the format of an alleycat, a type of unsanctioned street race that bike messengers ride in, with checkpoints all over the city and a laminated map on which race volunteers mark off tasks after they are completed. In the DRT, each of the tasks takes the form of obstacles that people volunteering relief in a disaster might encounter: rough terrain to traverse, rubble to clear, messages to deliver, water to carry. As in a real disaster, we won’t know what the route is or what we need to do until we’re handed our maps an hour before the start.

    After the Big One, bridges will collapse. Debris, damaged roads, and a lack of fuel will make it impossible for emergency vehicles to pass. A bike, though, can go almost anywhere. In the decade since it was founded, the DRT has evolved from an event run mostly by pedal punks to a training exercise for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Neighborhood emergency response teams work the race to serve their volunteer hours. As I read the website, I realized that I’d been preparing for this for years. I had a bike; I was ready. I signed up. It was only after a half-dozen people pointed out that I’d be carrying my own body weight in gear that I started to wonder whether I really could be the hero I thought I was.


    Mike Cobb, the founder of the Disaster Relief Trials, is a former bike mechanic. He got the idea for the race after watching footage of the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. Bikes, he thought, could help solve a major transportation problem. After I signed up, I emailed Cobb with the frank admission that I had no idea how to load clunky gear onto my bike. He told me to meet him the following Tuesday in Cully Park, where the race starts and ends, at what he calls his weekly coffee klatch.

    When I showed up on Popsicle, Cobb and some former participants were standing around the picnic tables. He offered me a hot coffee and an assortment of about 12 alternative milks. Cobb has unruly dark hair, a grizzled beard, and is lean in a sinewy, rubber-bandy biker way. His sense of humor, I soon learn, is bone-dry. He refers to me, his face completely deadpan, as “the embedded reporter.”

    A bike is a highly personal piece of equipment, and Popsicle is the perfect commuter ebike for a mom with two kids. Other than my husband, I can’t imagine a better companion for the apocalypse. It’s a pedal-assist bike, sans throttle. Its wheels are small and its center of gravity is low, which means I can carry a lot of weight without tipping over. Its also compact—the same length as a road bike—so I can lift it over and around barriers. I’m not worried about it falling on me while we struggle through rough terrain, or about it failing to climb big hills, especially after I add a second battery.

    I love Popsicle, but as I was seeing it through Cobb’s eyes I suddenly became aware of its shortcomings. It’s low to the ground, so it doesn’t get much clearance, and it’s heavy. Under Cobb’s tutelage, I gingerly wrapped cam buckle straps around a bucket and cinched it to Popsicle’s rack. Cobb lent me a kitchen mat as a secure cushion for a splintery shipping pallet that I balanced on the bike’s deck. Finally, I fixed everything in place with small, stretchy straps. As I pulled the straps tight, Popsicle almost fell over. I felt a little overwhelmed. I am just over five feet tall, and the bike and gear together amounted to more than 100 pounds. It occurred to me that I was more accustomed to hauling kid backpacks and groceries.

    I wondered aloud whether I should switch to a pedal bike and trailer. Cobb did not disagree; clearly, my wobbly performance did not inspire confidence. When I finally worked up the courage to swing my leg over the bike for a test ride, Cobb retreated to a safe distance and shouted, “It will feel weird until you hit 8 miles per hour!”

    I’d been wrong to doubt Popsicle, though. When I downshifted and put my foot on the pedal, power surged through the bike. Within a few pedal strokes, I was going fast enough to feel stable.

    Every rider who completes the DRT’s full circuit gets a fun sticker that tells their neighborhood emergency team that they’ve gotten some emergency training. My next step was to see whether my own NET would find my skills useful. I looked this up the same way I do everything else—by posting to the local moms’ Facebook group and saying “Hello! Is anyone here in the NET!”

    I love my neighborhood. Enthusiasm for my neighborhood makes up about 80 percent of my personality. It’s a quiet collection of wood-framed buildings originally built by workers at the nearby docks and manufacturing plants. The writers, musicians, pensioners, stay-at-home moms, bartenders, and pizza chefs who live here now haven’t yet been priced out. Our lawns may be a little rocky and weedy, but they’re lived-in—full of wild roses, clotheslines, toys, and strange statues. My grocery store, dive bar, coffee shop, post office, and pet store are all within a mile of my house.

    My neighborhood is also uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes. We’re tucked into a narrow peninsula between two rivers, surrounded by trees, shipping yards, and an Amazon fulfillment center. A deep gully known as The Cut chops us off from the rest of the city. There are several bridges that span it, but in an earthquake those bridges will either fall down or become impassable, and we’ll be isolated. When a major earthquake hits, the park next to our community center will serve as our official gathering spot; you’re supposed to come there to ask the NET for help, or offer it. We’ll have to coordinate with each other to figure out how to get people and supplies back and forth around The Cut.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 9:13 am on September 11, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Would You Ditch All This Chaos for a Country in the Cloud?" A Very Long Read About Balaji Srinivasan, , Balaji Srinivasan—technologist and investor and prophet and troll—says let the old world sink. Find your tribe and build your bespoke society or get left behind., WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “Would You Ditch All This Chaos for a Country in the Cloud?” A Very Long Read About Balaji Srinivasan 

    From “WIRED“

    Anthony Lydgate

    Illustrations: Eddie Guy.

    Balaji Srinivasan—technologist, investor, prophet, troll—says let the old world sink. Find your tribe and build your bespoke society, or get left behind.

    “You, the protagonist, are on a small fishing schooner off the coast of Norway. This is an Edgar Allan Poe story, so things aren’t going well. Your ship is trapped in a mile-wide whirlpool that grinds whales into pesto. Your younger brother just drowned in a perfunctory half-sentence. Your elder brother is clinging to a ringbolt near the bow. You’re astern, hanging on to a lashed-down empty water cask. The ship rides the maelstrom like it’s in the Indy 500, keel centripetally pinned to the black lane of water. Up to one side is the whirl’s edge, open sky, a brilliant moon. Down to the other is a rainbow, which smiles across the roiling mist of the abyss.

    Fear has driven your brother mad. You, however, take this chance to reflect on the romantic hopelessness of your situation. Turning and turning in the narrowing gyre, you begin to feel that you could get excited about dying this way, about being consumed by this great vortex of violent energy. It’s pretty fucking tremendous, right? Aren’t you and your brother lucky, in a way, to be finding out what’s down there?

    But the run-me-over moment passes. You start contemplating the other debris that got sucked into the vortex along with your ship—home furnishings, construction materials, the snapped-off trunks of trees. Some stuff plunges quickly down into the funnel. Some stuff holds its place. Smallish cylindrical things, you notice, hardly descend at all. And look, here you are atop one of Poe’s favorite cylindrical literary devices, a cask.

    You signal your brother to join you, waving an arm as if to semaphore: Hop on! I found us a ride! He refuses to let go of the ringbolt. Grief-stricken but stoic, you lash yourself to the cask and wait for your moment. When it comes, you cut loose into the unknown alone.

    You watch the ship spiral down and disappear below you. The maelstrom subsides. Hair gone prematurely white, you live to tell your tale to a reporter.

    Marshall McLuhan, the adopted seer of Silicon Valley—and at one time WIRED’s official patron saint—loved this story of Poe’s. Employed as a professor of English in Canada, he understood his job as awakening the masses to the “vortices of energy” exerted by different communication technologies (TV and film, radio, the printed word) and helping people “program a strategy of evasion and survival.” He preached that participants in “the electric age” must be like Poe’s fisherman. “Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom,” McLuhan once told a roomful of students. They had two choices: Learn to make the leap, or die paralyzed by the whirl.

    It’s a shame that Saint Marshall didn’t live to tweet. What would he have said as he watched the electric age become the networked age, the age of a dirt-cheap, globe-spanning communication technology riding around in people’s pockets? What patterns would he have spotted as the great human network—with its political enmities, racial hatreds, economic uncertainties, climate fears, wars, pandemics—drove the walls of the maelstrom higher? What buoyant objects might he have pointed out on deck? When would he have said to jump?

    The story you’re reading now is not about McLuhan or his obsession with vortices. This story is mostly about Balaji Srinivasan, a technologist and investor in his early forties, who does tweet, prodigiously.

    Srinivasan has worn many identities in public—biomedical entrepreneur, Stanford professor, venture capitalist, crypto exec, potential head of Donald Trump’s Food and Drug Administration, Covid sage, gadfly up the nose of The New York Times. But I’d say his true calling is that of an ideological cooper. He develops flotation devices for escaping the maelstrom. In this too he is prodigious. When he first appeared on The Tim Ferriss Show, a podcast hosted by the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, he spotted patterns and prophesied the future almost uninterrupted for nearly four hours. This is typical, a former coworker of his told me; it’s called “getting Balaji’d.” Earlier this year, Srinivasan synthesized his thoughts into a book called The Network State, which is meant to provide some of the equipment and coaching you need to cut loose from this doomed schooner.

    The Network State: How To Start a New Country

    Balaji Srinivasan: “We want to be able to peacefully start a new state for the same reason we want a bare plot of earth, a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup.” Photograph: Steve Jennings/Getty Images.

    Of course, Srinivasan isn’t the only one in this business. You, the consumer, have an Ikean abundance of casks to choose from these days. And like a lot of people, you may be questioning whether the traditional manufacturers (media corporations, major political parties, institutions generally) are really putting out the most watertight stuff. Maybe you’ve furtively checked out a few competing models over the years. Could this reclaimed-wood Occupy cask be your ride out? Or this splintery democratic-socialist one? Or this polyethylene drum that says TRUMP in gilt letters on the side? Should you consider the communal living cask, the digital nomadism cask, the prepper cask? Is a Bitcoin key more buoyant than a bank account?

    At first glance, Srinivasan’s barrel may not stand out from the pile on deck. It seems to be made of a fairly typical techno-libertarian composite material—some mix of disdain for institutions, fear of wokeism, zeal for engineering, and lots of “personal runway” (i.e., enough money to buy an actual runway).

    But look closer. Like a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle, the cask is covered with curious utterings. Transcendence requires self-defense … The more mobile we are, the more cheaply we can change our law … A fractal polity is nuke-resistant … As you trace the words with your fingers, you begin to understand why Srinivasan is known—among his nearly 700,000 Twitter followers, among founders and VCs from Singapore to Sand Hill Road, among the kings and queens of crypto—as something of a mystic.

    But what kind of reality is this cask made for? Where McLuhan looked out from the deck of the schooner and saw a “huge, overwhelming, destructive” spiral, Srinivasan sees something far more tidy—a corkscrew. “I have this concept that all progress actually happens on the z-axis,” he has said. (That’s the imaginary axis that comes out at you from the page of the math textbook.) What does he mean? That what feels to many people like the punishing cyclicality of capitalist technological life—industries disrupted, lives upended, societies undermined—is just a series of twists toward a grand goal. Humanity makes headway by going in circles. Srinivasan calls this his “helical theory of history.”

    To puny mortal brains, the grand helical motion is visible as “unbundling and bundling” or “decentralization and centralization.” Srinivasan likes to quote a dotcom executive who said this is the only way to make money: Either you take something whole, dismantle it, and sell the parts, or you take some parts, put them together, and sell a whole. Srinivasan sometimes cites the example of the CD, which got unbundled into the MP3, which got rebundled into the Spotify playlist. “That’s the cycle that happens in computing,” he says. “That happens in history. It happens in technology. And I think it’s also happening here with nations and with states and so on.”

    Yes, my fellow cask shoppers, the nation-state is unbundling. The weary giants of flesh and steel came down with what Srinivasan calls “civilizational diabetes,” and Covid has delivered the coup de grâce. The end won’t be pretty, he predicts. The gerontocracy will hoard power. The dreams of the masses for a happier, safer future will be frustrated. Crises will go unsolved. Potential will curdle into despair. But in the face of it all, Srinivasan tells Ferriss, he is here to teach us how to be “square-jawed Chads.” (We’ll get to who “we” are later.) He’s here to work toward “the great acceleration as opposed to the great stagnation.” He’s here to deliver a message to all followers of Saint Marshall: The time to jump is now.

    What awaits us beyond the maelstrom, far along the z-axis, at the corkscrew’s end? Government by the internet, for the internet, and of the internet—a new birth of freedom in the cloud. Srinivasan’s book, published on the anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence, is a how-to guide for building startups, where the thing being started up is a new society. His own cloud country, if he were to found one (which may be more of a “when”), would be based on three ideals: “infinite frontier, immutable money, eternal life.” He has called this his “bumper sticker that expands into a PhD thesis.” It’s also his Twitter bio.

    Is this the cask for you? Perhaps not. Maybe you’d sooner go down with the ship. But some of the squarest-jawed Chads on deck say the cask has qualities worth considering. And if you’ve paid any attention to Srinivasan during the last few gut-wrenching turns around the vortex, you have to admit: The guy careens, but he sure doesn’t sink; if anything he’s been ascending. So hop on for a turn. See what you like about this cask and what you hate. Maybe you can jot down some ideas for building your own one day.

    Before we get to the lab-grown meat of this thing, a disclaimer: You’re best off not trusting a word I write about Srinivasan. The one time I spoke with him, in a refereed conversation he insisted take place on Clubhouse, he compared my profession to that of the East German secret police.

    I am what Srinivasan calls a “corporate journalist.” I am an editor at WIRED, which is owned by a media company called Condé Nast, which is owned by a media company called Advance Publications, which is hereditarily owned by the Newhouse family (may they live forever and ever, amen). Srinivasan believes that media companies have “set out to compete with tech companies,” jealous that their (our) old-guard influence is waning at a time when Silicon Valley is attracting “all these users” and “all this money.” And because Srinivasan has founded and funded a number of tech companies, much of what a journalist writes about him—or anyone in the industry—should be understood as emerging from a sense of “wounded amour propre.”

    How do a bunch of beta English majors expect to win a fair fight with Silicon Valley alphas? We don’t, of course. So we sit up here on the parapets of the First Amendment, this château we inherited along with every other goddamn thing, and take potshots at the hardworking civilization-builders down below. As Srinivasan has said, “Necessity is the mother of defamation.”

    Srinivasan seems to respect our craft in the same way an exorcist respects Satan’s. We are quite good at what he calls surveillance journalism. We know how to “befriend and betray” our subjects, he says, how to sweet-talk them into embarrassing sound bites. We use the word “subjects” because we consider them—as we consider you—to be beneath us. And what do we do, finally, when we have gathered enough kompromat on you? We deploy it like malicious code. We “install software into the brains of your social network and make them turn on you,” Srinivasan says. Which is why it’s important to find out which periodicals your friends care about.

    Reader, the Subject is right about us. We will stop at nothing. We’ll spam your acquaintances with interview requests. When almost none of them respond, and most of the ones who do say no, and most of the ones who say yes don’t want to be quoted by name, we’ll turn the weapons of Big Tech on itself. We’ll have an AI transcribe days’ worth of your podcast interviews. We’ll learn enough Python, kind of, to scrape your tweets, though we won’t be able to figure out what to do with the resulting JSON file, and our wounded amour propre will prevent us from asking for help. We’ll search doggedly through your old Hacker News comments. We’ll take up residence in the Internet Archive. We’ll mercilessly consider comments you’ve made in their historical and social context. We’ll come into possession of some emails you wrote and waffle over whether to quote from them, not wishing to be the subject (there’s that word again!) of a retaliatory lawsuit.

    Point is, don’t trust me. Don’t trust any of the dozen other Newhouse flacks who worked on this surveillance file. We’re the Stasi, and we monetize the lives of others.

    Let’s begin the operation.

    It is a Saturday morning in October 2013. A crowd is gathering at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California. They’re here to attend a lecture series and networking event called Startup School, put on every year by the VC firm Y Combinator. For a technologist of a certain age, the venue is akin to Mount Sinai: From the stage here in 1984, Steve Jobs handed down the original Macintosh.

    Of the people on today’s list of speakers, Srinivasan has one of the lower-wattage names. Jack Dorsey, the Twitter cofounder, is here. He’ll talk about how to build a product that “strikes a chord with everyone on the planet,” which he’ll illustrate by standing at the podium in a half-zipped track jacket for two and a half minutes while the audience listens to a French jazz tune called “Anguish.” Paul Graham, a cofounder of Y Combinator, will interview Mark Zuckerberg onstage, and when Zuck describes Facebook’s drive to connect the whole world “because it’s the right thing to do,” Graham will say, “so it’s a movement.””

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 8:26 pm on September 5, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Voyager 1 and 2 - Humanity’s Interstellar Envoys - Soldier On at 45", , , , , The two probes made flybys of Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s. Today they’re still doing science way out beyond our solar system., WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “Voyager 1 and 2 – Humanity’s Interstellar Envoys – Soldier On at 45” 

    From “WIRED“

    Ramin Skibba

    The two probes made flybys of Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s. Today they’re still doing science way out beyond our solar system.

    Photograph: NASA.

    Today is the 45th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1, one of humanity’s iconic twin emissaries to the cosmos. (Its sibling, Voyager 2, launched a couple of weeks earlier.)

    Now in the dark, far reaches of interstellar space—more than 10 billion miles from home, where our sun looks like any other bright star—the pair are still doing science. They carry with them the Golden Records, bearing the sounds and symbols of Earth, should some extraterrestrial ever rendezvous with one of the spacecraft and become curious about its distant sender.

    “I’ve been following the arc of Voyager over my career,” says Linda Spilker, Voyager’s deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who started at the agency in 1977, the year the probes launched. “I’m amazed at how long both of these spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, have been able to keep going and return unique science about new places that no spacecraft has visited before. And now they’ve become interstellar travelers. How cool is that?”

    The two car-sized probes, each with a 12-foot antenna mounted on top, had one primary task: to visit the gas giants in our own solar system. After their launches, the Voyagers’ paths diverged, but they both took advantage of a rare planetary lineup, snapping groundbreaking photos as they flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune and revealed tantalizing details about the planets’ moons. By the end of 1989, they’d completed that mission. In 1990, Voyager 1 capped it by turning around and taking a poignant image of our own world, which astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan dubbed the Pale Blue Dot.

    “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, has lived out their lives,” Sagan wrote. The image of the Earth from a cosmic perspective—a mere “mote of dust suspended in a moonbeam,” as he put it—became nearly as memorable as the Earthrise photo taken by an Apollo 8 astronaut showing the planet as seen from the moon.

    Earthrise photo taken by an Apollo 8 astronaut showing the planet as seen from the moon. Credit: NASA.

    The two probes, which run on nuclear-powered systems called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), kept flying. Our solar system has no clear boundary, but in the 2000s they crossed the “termination shock,” where solar wind particles abruptly slow below the speed of sound due to pressure from the gas and magnetic fields in interstellar space. Then in the 2010s, they breached the heliopause, the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar wind.

    With four instruments operating on Voyager 1 and five aboard Voyager 2, they now have a new job: measuring the magnetic field strength, the density of the plasma, and the energy and direction of charged particles in the environment they’re traveling through. “The purpose of the interstellar mission is to measure the sun’s effects as we go further and further from Earth. We’re trying to find out how the sun’s heliosphere interacts with interstellar space,” says Suzanne Dodd, project manager of the Voyager interstellar mission at JPL. Voyager 1 is currently 14.6 billion miles from home, and Voyager 2 is 12.1 billion miles away, but for perspective, the nearest star is some 25 trillion miles away. (NASA maintains a tracker of their journeys.) It’s a remarkable coda for their mission, decades after the probes completed their main goals.

    But they’ve always had a secondary task: conveying a message to any aliens from beyond the solar system who might one day peek inside a craft. Each one carries a Golden Record [above], which looks like vinyl but is made of metal. A team of scientists and artists, including Sagan and Frank Drake, who died last Friday, packed music, nature sounds, messages, photos, and more on each record—and they included players and instructions, should anyone find them.

    Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

    Carl Sagan NASA/JPL

    The ambitious project seeks to tell a story about humanity, what humans aspire to, and our world. It includes the music of Bach and Chuck Berry, and images of families, homes, and scientific advances. “The purpose of the record was to try to answer questions that we would have,” says Jon Lomberg, a scientific artist and the designer for the Golden Records team. “What were the beings like who sent it? What do they look like? What do they act like? What was their world like? So it’s really a self-portrait.”

    Unlike the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, the records are not designed to be a prelude to first contact.
    SETI Institute

    About The SETI Institute

    The SETI Institute is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit scientific research institute headquartered in Mountain View, California. We are a key research contractor to National Aeronautics and Space Agency and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and we collaborate with industry partners throughout Silicon Valley and beyond.

    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, Altitude 986 m (3,235 ft), the origins of the Institute’s search.

    Laser SETI

    There is also an installation at Robert Ferguson Observatory, Sonoma, CA aimed West for full coverage [no image available].

    Also in the hunt, but not a part of the SETI Institute
    SETI@home, a BOINC [Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing] project originated in the Space Science Lab at UC Berkeley.

    BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience. BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

    In fact, the Golden Records might be found millions of years from now, perhaps when human civilizations no longer exist. “It’s more like finding a fossil,” says Lomberg. “You can’t talk to the dinosaurs. This is a relic—our obituary in a way, the memento that we were once here.”

    The Voyager probes were preceded by the Pioneer missions, which carried small metal plaques with symbolic messages.

    (The pair of Pioneers left the solar system in the 1980s and ’90s, but they’re no longer functioning.) But no space mission since has incorporated a similar record of humanity—though NASA’s New Horizons, for example, which flew by Pluto in 2015, offered another chance.

    That was a missed opportunity, Lomberg says, although it might still be possible to send a digital message to the spacecraft’s computer. That would be durable, but it would not last as long as the Golden Records.

    The Voyagers have had a tangible influence on space exploration ever since. Their success inspired NASA and other agencies to revisit the outer planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn, and their myriad moons. These subsequent missions include Galileo, Juno, Cassini, and the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander, plus new probes in the works, such as the Europa Clipper, Dragonfly, ESA’s JUICE, and potential voyages to Uranus and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

    The Voyagers influenced pop culture too. The first Star Trek movie in 1979 included an alien spacecraft called “V’ger,” which was actually an altered fictional “Voyager 6.” Voyager and the Golden Records have turned up in TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The West Wing, and—of course—The X-Files. The composer Dario Marianelli even wrote a Voyager-inspired violin concerto.

    The pair of spacecraft have lasted far longer than anyone imagined—and, Dodd says, the instruments are working and the data is still great. But they’re showing signs of age. In May, she and her team encountered a glitch in Voyager 1’s telemetry data, which would normally provide information to scientists back home about what the probe’s instruments are doing and whether they’re working properly. The data had been coming back garbled. Addressing the issue was complicated by the vast distance involved, since messages to and from Voyager 1 now take nearly 22 hours.

    Then last week, the team figured out what was wrong. Apparently, the attitude control system had suddenly started sending the telemetry data through the wrong computer, which was no longer working properly. They resolved the problem by routing the data back to the correct computer. “The spacecraft is healthy, it’s happy. It’s returning science data just beautifully,” Spilker says.

    Even if Dodd, Spilker, and their colleagues can keep resolving these kinds of technical issues, however, the spacecraft have a more enduring problem: their power supplies. Their RTG systems provide power by converting heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 into electricity. But after 45 years, the fuel is now generating 4 watts less per year. Dodd and her team have turned off any systems and instruments not involved in the interstellar mission—and in 2019, they started turning off heaters in some of the instruments that are still running. That added a couple of years to the spacecrafts’ lifespans.

    Nevertheless, the Voyager probes might only have a few years, or perhaps a decade, left in them. Eventually, their dwindling power won’t be sufficient to run their instruments. “At that point, the Voyagers will become our silent ambassadors,” Spilker says.

    As they hurtle at 35,000 miles per hour into the unknown with their powered-down machines, they will still carry humanity’s message in a bottle. “The Golden Record, a piece of human civilization, a piece of technology with a 1970s stamp on it—that is going to persevere. It’s not degrading. It’s going to last for billions of years. It’s going to outlast the planet that it came from. That’s mind-blowing kind of stuff,” says Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University and the author of a book on the Voyager mission’s 40th anniversary.

    Bell speculates that it might not be aliens, but our own descendants, who ultimately spot the far-flung spacecraft. “My prediction is that the message really is going to be for us. We’re going to be the ones who go find it—in the far future, when it becomes easy to travel and be tourists and see the Voyagers,” he says. “We’ll be thinking: Wasn’t that one of the most amazing things we did as a species in the 20th century?”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 8:14 am on August 14, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The Double Life of an American Lake Monster", , Can biologists suppress—and save—the species?, In Europe they’re an endangered cultural treasure., In the Great Lakes sea lampreys are a scourge., , Sea lampreys, WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “The Double Life of an American Lake Monster” 

    From “WIRED“

    Marion Renault
    Michael Tessler

    In the Great Lakes sea lampreys are a scourge. In Europe they’re an endangered cultural treasure. Can biologists suppress—and save—the species?


    As the sun tucked itself beneath the horizon, all was still on Michigan’s White River. Kandace Griffin, a fisheries and wildlife doctoral student at Michigan State University, sat on her gently bobbing research boat, listening to the evening chorus of frog croaks and red-winged blackbird songs. Every so often, a series of sharp taps emitted from a small speaker broke through the natural sounds, signaling that a sea lamprey—part of an experimental group she’d tagged earlier—was weaving through the depths below.

    Griffin is part of a decades-long effort between the US and Canadian governments, researchers, and fisheries to control populations of the sea lamprey, an invasive species in the Great Lakes region. While the Great Lakes are home to four species of native lamprey, the sea lamprey slithered in from the Atlantic Ocean more than a hundred years ago, and promptly began annihilating native fish populations.

    Earlier that morning, at a Great Lakes Fishery Commission lab, Griffin had pulled nine sea lampreys from a large aquarium where, suckered onto the tank walls, they unknowingly awaited surgery. The lampreys took some expertise to handle—once out of the water, they lashed chaotically until anesthetic relaxed them into “wet noodles”—but Griffin had practiced her operations on more docile subjects first. “I did a lot of banana surgeries,” she said with a smile, as she masterfully implanted the sea lampreys with Tic Tac-sized acoustic telemetry trackers and quickly closed up the sutures.

    Sea lamprey mouths with rings of teeth are clearly visible when they are suctioning onto tanks at Hammond Bay Biological Station, Michigan. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    For most people, the sight of a sea lamprey can be queasy-making. The animal’s yellow-brown, mottled skin and its snaking swimming style makes it look like an eel, with one dramatic difference: It is vampiric. Its fearsome, jawless mouth—a suction cup with rings of pointed teeth and a toothy tongue in the center—resembles something out of a schlocky horror movie. This mouth latches, leech-like, onto unsuspecting fish and slurps up their blood, causing severe wounds or death.

    The Tic Tac-sized acoustic telemetry tracker that will be surgically implanted into a sea lamprey. This allows researchers to follow the movements of the sea lamprey used for experiments in the White River, Michigan. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    By the mid-20th century, the sea lampreys’ gruesome diets had made them regional villains. “Probably the most bloodthirsty of all the fish found in the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic coast is a round-mouthed creature that looks like a two-foot piece of garden hose which was left out in the yard all winter,” a Michigan newspaper noted in 1955. This revilement has endured. In the 2014 sci-fi horror film Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys, a lakeside town in Michigan is plagued by human-hungry lampreys that burst from cadaver chests, kill the coroner, enter the municipal water system, and murder the mayor as he sits on the toilet. The end of the movie gestures to the sea lampreys’ pernicious ability to survive: When the town recovers from the massacre, one lingering lamprey attacks a cleanup crew member.

    The lampreys’ insidious image has been used against them. “Nobody likes sea lampreys,” Marc Gaden, deputy executive secretary for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, says. “They don’t look like bunnies or puppies. You don’t have to make a case for getting rid of them.”

    A sea lamprey undergoing surgery at a Great Lakes Fishery lab. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    Michigan State University has several labs dedicated to the study and control of lampreys, which make for idiosyncratic subjects. Lamprey skeletons are constructed of cartilage rather than bone, and they can regenerate fully functional spinal cords even after they’ve been sliced in half. They possess an incredible olfactory power, capable of detecting scents at extremely low concentrations—the equivalent of being able to locate a few grains of salt in an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to Anne Scott, an MSU professor. Native populations live in salt water, then swim to inland tributaries to breed and die, like a parasitic salmon. Lamprey species have lived on Earth for hundreds of millions of years; they predate dinosaurs and have survived at least four mass extinctions.

    These unique adaptive talents have earned the sea lamprey a grudging admiration from the conservationists tasked with wiping them out. “There’s no denying the destruction that an invasive species can cause the environment,” Griffin says. “​​But you have to have respect for an animal that has persisted for so long.”

    Sometime in the 19th century, Petromyzon marinus first wriggled its way from the North Atlantic into Lake Ontario. On its southeastern edge, Niagara Falls’ rushing 3,100-foot span provided a natural barrier that blocked the species from further westward expansion, but the deepening of the man-made Welland Canal offered an alternative access route. Once in the larger Great Lakes, sea lampreys encountered a buffet of trout, sturgeon, whitefish, walleye, catfish, and other native aquatic species. The lampreys proceeded to latch onto, bore into, and suck out the blood and bodily fluids of millions of fish—wounding and killing multitudes. There were few, if any, predators to discourage their spread.

    As the problem worsened, humans began to feel their presence. By the mid-1940s, approximately four in five commercially caught fish in the northern parts of Lakes Huron and Michigan were too wounded by lampreys to sell. In Michigan’s section of Lake Michigan alone, lake trout catches totaled 6.5 million pounds in 1944, but less than five years later, only 11,000 pounds were caught in the entirety of the lake. Hit hard by the lampreys, as well as by overfishing and pollution, regional fisheries lost tens of millions of dollars each year through the 1960s. In 1949, commercial fishers testified to Congress that their industry was “doomed.” Fishers and residents alike recoiled at the blood-slurping parasite. “People thought they were like horrible creatures from the bottom of the earth,” a woman whose family owned a sport-fishing resort near Duluth recounted in Great Lakes Sea Lamprey: The 70 Year War on a Biological Invader.

    In the early days of the invasion, wildlife managers and local residents fought the sea lamprey with everything they could think of. From dip nets to spears, few weapons went untested. Conservationists built basic metal barriers to block migrating adults from reaching their spawning grounds and zapped larvae with newly invented electrofishing gear. At one dam, operators built a booby trap out of a metal ramp that guided lampreys over the dam’s edge and into a bucket of oil. A conservation officer named Marvin Norton led pitchfork-armed sporting clubs on excursions to hunt and spear the lampreys. Each effort failed. “I suspect that the lamprey will be with us like fleas on a dog from now on,” said Gerald Cooper of the Michigan Department of Conservation in 1954.

    At what is currently the US Geological Survey’s Hammond Bay Biological Station, scientists toiled to find a chemical solution. In 1956, they finally lucked out with the 5,209th formula they tested: 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol, or TFM. To the researchers’ excitement, TFM could annihilate lamprey larvae while sparing most native biota. Two years later, this novel lampricide was pumped into Michigan’s Mosquito River.

    Within 20 years, TFM proved a formidable weapon. It was especially effective when coupled with the abundant dams in the region, which blocked off more than half of the sea lampreys’ potential spawning habitat. By 1978 the number of spawning sea lampreys in Lake Superior had dropped 92 percent. In the Great Lakes overall, the lamprey population has plummeted from 2 million at its peak in the 1950s to a few hundred thousand today.

    An electrified fish barrier that prevents sea lampreys from migrating upstream to their breeding ground in the Ocqueoc River, Michigan. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    The population continues to be kept within limits by this double-punch of dams and lampricides. But these techniques are increasingly at risk of failure. One potential threat to containment is that the dams that corral lampreys into a manageable area are falling into disrepair. This isn’t unique to the Great Lakes—most of the country’s approximately 90,000 dams are more than half a century old. In 2020, heavy rains in Michigan caused dam breakages, leading to the evacuation of 11,000 residents and $245 million in damages. Due to cost as well as ecological damage, it’s unlikely that the US will continue to invest in this aging infrastructure; instead, as dams crumble, they tend to be removed altogether.

    Lampricides are not a perfect conservation tool, either. They may not even be sustainable. At a cost of $3 million a year, the method isn’t cheap, and there are only two suppliers of TFM in the world, making stores uniquely vulnerable. As with most pesticides, there is a risk that the lamprey could evolve resistance. More immediately, though, lampricides are harmful to some animals, including juvenile lake sturgeon, as well as the Great Lakes’ four native lamprey species, which lack the ability to detoxify the chemical. “It really is a phenomenally good tool,” Gaden says. “But if there is an alternative to a pesticide, we’d like to use it.”

    A sea lamprey chemosterilant injector in Hammond Bay Biological Station, Michigan. Releasing sterilized male sea lamprey can help reduce successful reproduction in the wild. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    Many conservationists, including Griffin, see complete eradication as an ideal but unreachable goal. So far this year, lampricides have helped eliminate more than 5 million sea lampreys from the Great Lakes, according to a count on the Great Lakes Fishery Commission website. But a single gravid female can contain up to 120,000 eggs, of which several thousand offspring typically survive to adulthood. Such high fecundity means that control measures with even a 98 percent success rate leave enough lampreys to reestablish a robust new generation. Every year, then, humans wage the same war. “They’re wily. They’re slippery,” Gaden says. “They’ll find a way.”

    Lampreys overcoming human hurdles, however, is exactly what a different group of scientists across the ocean are hoping for.

    In Western Europe, the sea lamprey has none of the easy abundance of its cousins in the Great Lakes. Instead, the species is in distress; it is listed as anything from near threatened to critically endangered, having been hammered by poor water quality, damming, rising temperatures, habitat loss, and likely overconsumption. For lamprey populations in Spain and Portugal, just 20 percent of historically suitable habitat remains. “They are animals that are in danger,” says Philippe Janvier, an emeritus paleontologist with the Museum National de l’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. “Maybe soon we’ll just have the fossils.”

    In Portugal, Spain, and France, sea lampreys, far from being reviled, are a cultural treasure. To ancient European elites, sea lamprey was a delicacy, with a scallop-like texture and an earthy taste. Julius Caesar rewarded his men with lampreys at banquets to celebrate victories. In ancient Rome they were a symbol of ostentation that could fetch 20 gold coins for 100 fish. Legend has it that in 1135, King Henry I lethally overdosed from a “surfeit of lampreys.” The festive tradition of eating lamprey has continued until today, though it is hampered by the lampreys’ vanishing numbers; Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee earlier this year was the first to not serve lamprey pie. For her 2012 Diamond Jubilee, lampreys were already scarce enough in Europe that the queen’s were sourced from the Great Lakes. (The high mercury levels of the US fish prevent their import to Europe for broader consumption.)

    Pedro Almeida, a lamprey conservationist at the Universidade de Évora in Portugal, is looking for tools to grow lamprey populations rather than suppress them. Ironically, the eradication work of researchers across the pond helps his mission. Each group of researchers endeavors to know lamprey biology more precisely in order to control, or to grow, their respective populations in the Great Lakes and in Western Europe. “We need to look at conservation and control as two sides of the same coin,” says Margaret Docker, a lamprey biologist at the University of Manitoba.

    Knowing the intimate workings of lampreys helps researchers develop tools to exploit their biology. A lot of lamprey research, for instance, is dedicated to their show-stealing sniffers, which follow minuscule quantities of pheromones to spawning waters. (“They’re pretty much one big nostril,” Docker says.) Scott and another lamprey specialist at MSU are trying to make a key sex pheromone undetectable to the lampreys in an effort to disrupt their reproduction.

    Kandace Griffin and Taylor Whipple acclimating sea lamprey in blue coolers before releasing them in the White River, Michigan, for a study. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    Griffin’s experiment in the White River, also targeting the lamprey’s nose, tested a chemical barrier called “alarm cue”—a milky extract of dead lampreys that live lampreys avoid—to manipulate the lampreys’ movements. In lab settings, the extract makes lampreys thrash and even leap into the air to flee. By pumping the alarm cue into the river, Griffin hopes to be able to direct lampreys away from spawning habitats, coerce them into narrow stretches of river, or push them into traps.

    Researchers are also trying to manipulate the lamprey’s infamous mouth. Other MSU researchers working at the Hammond Bay Biological Station are testing a gridwork of copper wires that, when a lamprey latches on, maps its mouth shape and suctioning patterns. Using machine-learning algorithms based on those patterns, scientists hope to create a device that can identify lampreys by their suckers. They envision a selective fish passage that recognizes and then blocks, traps, or kills lampreys while allowing all other fish to be shuttled upstream—perhaps with a modified version of the evocatively named salmon cannon.

    Down the line, gene editing could open a new avenue for messing with lampreys’ sex lives. CRISPR-Cas9, for example, could genetically sterilize males or cheaply boost the number of lampreys of either sex, making the population too lopsided for effective mating. This technology has promise, though there are a few hurdles. To properly assess the potential impact of genetic alterations, researchers will need access to a reliable supply of lamprey embryos—which, being small and fragile, are costly to collect from local rivers. In order to deploy high-tech genomic weaponry, scientists will first have to accomplish something that no one has yet been able to do: complete the animal’s complex and migration-driven life cycle in the lab.

    Like many invasive species, Petromyzon marinus has challenged human biologists to match its inventiveness, its resourcefulness, its will to find a way.

    An experimental copper wire gridwork that detects suctioning sea lampreys. Coupled with machine-learning algorithms, it can tell sea lampreys apart from other suckering fishes. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    In Michigan’s Ocqueoc River, Nick Johnson, Hammond Bay’s acting director, stood thigh-deep in the clear water and pointed to the pebble- and mussel-shell-littered bottom. At first it was not obvious what he was gesturing toward, but after a moment a pair of lampreys, engaged in an intimate act, came into view.

    Johnson reached his hand down and picked up the mottled golden-brown female, plump with tiny sesame-seed-like eggs. Surprisingly, she didn’t retreat; breeding marks the final chapter in a lamprey’s life cycle, so she had lost either the instinct or the energy to flee. Johnson gently pushed her underbelly, easily exposing her brood.

    There was a magic in witnessing this lamprey, a graceful and well-adapted animal, completing her years on earth with one last act. The species has wreaked economic and ecological havoc in the Great Lakes for decades, but up close, tending to their nests, the interlocked lampreys looked gentle and serene.

    Earlier that day, in the nearby Pigeon River, Johnson had demonstrated how the lamprey’s notorious blood-lusting mouth might be less villainous than we imagine. He reached into a trap in the rippling waters and pulled a large lamprey out, then placed it on his bare hand. The fish latched on with a suction, not a bite, its toothy mouth pulling with a force roughly equivalent to a vacuum cleaner. Some people have likened the prickly feeling on the skin to getting a tattoo; others, including one of the authors of this story, received a mark like a braces-lined hickey.

    A sea lamprey suctioned onto, but not biting, Nick Johnson’s hand. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    Like this, in its preferred riverine breeding habitat, it is harder to see the species as entirely bad. Where humans encounter an animal shapes our relationship to it. This conundrum is not limited to the sea lamprey. A variety of organisms—from sheep to pythons, carnivorous plants and parakeets—exist as both invaders and imperiled, cast in human eyes as villains or victims, depending on who you’re talking to and where you are in the world.

    Climate change will undoubtedly confound efforts to conserve or conquer the sea lamprey. In the Great Lakes, some evidence suggests that warmer waters will speed up lamprey life cycles, making the use of lampricide more frequent and more costly. Lampreys might become bigger, capable of laying more eggs. Extreme storms could increase dam failures, opening up new habitats. And rising temperatures might encourage pesticide resistance while coaxing the species northward, into Lake Superior, which has thus far avoided an all-out infestation.

    (R) A breeding female sea lamprey with her eggs gently coaxed out in Ocqueoc River, Michigan. Females release up to 120,000 eggs. (L) A migrating sea lamprey in Pigeon River, Michigan. Gloves make it possible to handle these slippery fish. Photograph: Michael Tessler.

    In southwestern Europe, climate change may have the opposite effect. Warming is expected to increase the occurrence of 100-year droughts that could dry out critical lamprey spawning runs. The supply of fish that feed juvenile lampreys could dwindle. Lampreys may already be abandoning the Iberian peninsula for warming Scandinavian and Icelandic watersheds.

    Ultimately, humans on both sides of the Atlantic will continue their push and pull with the sea lampreys. “There’s no unaltered square inch on the planet,” Michael Wagner, a fish ecologist at MSU, says. “Maintenance is what we’re in for the rest of our lives.”

    John Hume, one of the researchers in Michigan, accepts this paradox more easily than others. In Scotland, Hume’s home country, sea lampreys are the rarest of all native lamprey species, having been spotted in just a few dozen rivers. Though his current work largely aims to eradicate them from the Great Lakes, Hume enjoys every aspect of the lamprey. They are fascinating models of ancient evolution; they are formidable invaders; they are culinary treats. Wherever in the world he happens to be, looking at a lamprey recalls to him the childlike wonder he felt while flipping over rocks and logs to discover what’s hidden underneath. “When I see a lamprey in the river,” Hume says, “it just feels right.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 10:08 pm on August 8, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "What Could Keep Climate Change From Becoming Catastrophic?", , , , WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “What Could Keep Climate Change From Becoming Catastrophic?” 

    From “WIRED“

    Gideon Lichfield

    Illustration: Elena Lacey; Alamy.

    Swinging for the Climate Fences

    People who call themselves climate optimists tend to say things like: Yes, it’s really bad, but humans have been pretty good at warding off really bad things. The Malthusian trap, the ozone hole, acid rain. Of course, “We did it before so we’ll do it again” may not be the logic you want to rely on when the fate of billions of people is in the balance. And switching the entire global economy away from fossil fuels is arguably a tad trickier than those other problems. (Though who could have guessed at the time?)

    At WIRED we look pretty frequently at some of the more out-there technological solutions, and the story is usually something like: “This is promising, but there are some nasty trade-offs.” A great example that we wrote about in-depth last December and again last month is carbon capture and storage (CCS): chemically scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the air and locking it underground. Many experts agree this is probably a necessary supplement to pumping out less carbon in the first place. But the technology is expensive, hard to scale, and—the bit that really rankles—is turning into a gold rush for the very same companies that drill and burn fossil fuels. Well, that’s capitalism for you.

    Or take a slightly older CCS technology: trees. Planting more of them would definitely help, but it takes new trees decades or centuries to get as good at absorbing carbon as the rapidly disappearing old-growth forests. You might be able to genetically modify trees and other plants to suck up carbon faster, but spreading GM trees all over the world without knowing the long-term effects makes people (rightly) nervous. On the other hand, breeding more carbon-hungry trees the non-GM way might take too long.

    Then there are biofuels. But switching over has knock-on effects, like requiring more fertilizer to grow biofuel crops, which also produces emissions. Or low-carbon beef—but it’s still much higher-carbon than other meat, so marketing it as low-carbon could paradoxically encourage people to eat more of it and produce higher net emissions. Or growing special crops to burn as fuel while capturing and storing the emissions from that; but then again, you need more fertilizer and farming infrastructure.

    Overall, we’re not lacking in ingenuity. The technologies exist, including some that aren’t as controversial as the ones above. If properly applied, they could keep the world under 2 degrees of warming. What’s missing? Mainly financing, and the political will to get countries to stick to their promises. The climate bill that passed in the US Senate on Sunday is a promising start.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 1:56 pm on August 3, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "A Minimalist Approach to the Hunt for Dark Matter", , In a new experiment researchers looked for tiny flickers in the fundamental constants of nature., , The team searches for fluctuations in fundamental constants to look for dark matter., WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “A Minimalist Approach to the Hunt for Dark Matter” 

    From “WIRED“

    Sophia Chen

    In a new experiment researchers looked for tiny flickers in the fundamental constants of nature.

    Photograph: MirageC/Getty Images.

    Nothing is certain in life except death, taxes, and—a physicist might add—the values of the fundamental constants. These are quantities, such as the speed of light or the mass of the electron, which physicists have determined do not change over time throughout the universe.

    Or do they?

    Physicist Dionysios Antypas and his team have set up a green laser to beam through a small glass container of iodine gas at a laboratory at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany. By carefully studying the interaction of the light with the iodine, Antypas looks for hints that certain fundamental constants are changing, ever so slightly, over time.

    “We call them ‘constants’—in quotation marks,” says Antypas.

    Crudely, you can think of the iodine molecule as two atoms attached by a spring. By shining light on the atoms at exactly the right frequency or color, the two atoms absorb the light to vibrate back and forth. Antypas tunes the laser’s color to find this frequency, which depends on several fundamental constants: the mass of the iodine atoms’ nuclei, the mass of the electron, and the strength of the interaction between electric charges and the electromagnetic field, known as the fine structure constant. By measuring properties of the light that the molecules absorb, Antypas can determine whether fundamental constants change.

    To be sure, Antypas’ team has not detected fundamental constants changing. But in a paper published in Physical Review Letters [below] this July, they report just how much several constants do not change. Working with another team at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, they find that if the mass of the electron did change, it fluctuated by less than 1 part in 100 trillion, and the mass of the iodine atom’s nucleus by less than 1 in 10 trillion. In addition, any fluctuations in fine structure constant are below 1 part in 100 trillion, says Antypas.

    The team searches for fluctuations in fundamental constants to look for dark matter, a mysterious substance that physicists estimate makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe. In 1933, the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky observed galaxies that appeared to be spinning faster than their visible matter would allow.

    Fritz Zwicky.

    Coma cluster via NASA/ESA Hubble, the original example of Dark Matter discovered during observations by Fritz Zwicky and confirmed 30 years later by Vera Rubin.

    At those speeds, gravity dictates that the galaxies should fall apart, like pancake batter whipping off a hand mixer. He hypothesized that the galaxies were held together with a type of invisible material, now called dark matter.

    Since then, researchers have made many more observations supporting the existence of dark matter. “We actually know the dark matter density [near Earth] within a factor of three, from its gravitational effect,” says Julia Gehrlein of Brookhaven National Laboratory, who was not involved with the experiment. “We just don’t know what dark matter is made of.”

    Physics theory predicts that certain hypothesized types of dark matter interact with electrons and other particles to cause some fundamental constants to fluctuate over time. But because the team did not find any fluctuations, they can rule out dark matter particles with particular properties of a certain mass. Their results are consistent with the findings of other experiments, says Gehrlein.

    Like all other dark matter experiments so far, Antypas’ search hasn’t found anything. However, their absence of a discovery does help constrain the properties of dark matter, as the experiment shows what dark matter is not. In addition, the team’s approach is distinctive compared to better-known dark matter experiments, which search for particles known as WIMPs (that’s weakly-interacting massive particles). Those experiments commonly involve collaborations of 100 scientists or more, and the detectors have dramatic engineering requirements. For example, the LZ detector in South Dakota contains 7 tons of liquid xenon, a rare element found in the atmosphere at less than 1 part per 10 million.

    LBNL LZ Dark Matter Experiment xenon detector at Sanford Underground Research Facility Credit: Matt Kapust.

    To shield the detectors from unwanted radiation, physicists station them in laboratories deep inside mountains or underground in former mines.

    In contrast, Antypas’ entire experiment fits on a tabletop, and his collaboration consisted of 11 scientists. Looking for dark matter was actually a side project for his lab. They usually use the equipment to study the weak nuclear force in atoms, which is responsible for radioactive decay. “This was a quick and interesting thing for us to do,” says Antypas. “We use these methods for other applications.” Compared to WIMP detectors, the tabletop experiments are simple and cost-effective, says Gehrlein.

    Over the past decade or so, these tabletop approaches have become increasingly popular for dark matter searches, says Zurek. Physicists, who first developed super-precise tools and lasers for studying and controlling single atoms and molecules, looked for more ways to use their new machines. “More people moved into the field, not as their primary discipline, but as a way of finding new creative applications for their measurements,” says Zurek. “They can repurpose their experiments to look for dark matter.”

    In one notable example, physicists recast atomic clocks to look for dark matter instead of for timekeeping. These precise machines, which do not lose or gain a second over millions of years, rely on the energy levels of atoms, which are determined from interactions between their nuclei and electrons that depend on the fundamental constants. Similar to Antypas’ experiment, these researchers looked for dark matter by measuring the atoms’ energy levels precisely, to search for changes in the values of fundamental constants. (They didn’t find any.)

    But these relatively minimalist experiments won’t replace more conventional dark matter experiments, as the two kinds are sensitive to different hypothetical types—and masses—of dark matter. Theorists have hypothesized a variety of dark matter particles whose masses range more than 75 orders of magnitude, says Gehrlein. At the lightest, the particles could be more than a quadrillion times lighter than even the ultralight dark matter Antypas is looking for. The heaviest dark matter candidates are actually astrophysical objects as large as black holes.

    Unfortunately for physicists, their experiments have not offered any hints that make one mass range more likely than others. “This tells us we have to look everywhere,” says Gehrlein. With so few leads, dark matter hunters need all the reinforcements they can get.

    Science paper:
    Physical Review Letters

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 11:01 am on July 31, 2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Hypergraphs Reveal a Solution to a 50-Year-Old Problem", , In 1973 Paul Erdős asked if it was possible to assemble sets of “triples”—three points on a graph—so that they abide by two seemingly incompatible rules., , WIRED   

    From “WIRED“: “Hypergraphs Reveal a Solution to a 50-Year-Old Problem” 

    From “WIRED“

    Jul 31, 2022
    Leila Sloman

    In 1973 Paul Erdős asked if it was possible to assemble sets of “triples”—three points on a graph—so that they abide by two seemingly incompatible rules.

    Hypergraphs show one possible solution to the so-called schoolgirl problem. Illustration: Samuel Velasco/Quanta Magazine.

    In 1850, Thomas Penyngton Kirkman, a mathematician when he wasn’t fulfilling his main responsibility as a vicar in the Church of England, described his “schoolgirl problem”: “Fifteen young ladies in a school walk out three abreast for seven days in succession: it is required to arrange them daily, so that no two shall walk twice abreast.”

    To a modern mathematician, this kind of problem is best imagined as a hypergraph—a set of nodes collected in groups of three or more. The 15 schoolgirls are nodes, and each group of “three abreast” can be thought of as a triangle, with three lines, or edges, connecting three nodes.

    Kirkman’s problem essentially asks whether there’s an arrangement of these triangles that connects all the schoolgirls to one another, but with the added restriction that no two triangles share an edge. Edge-sharing would imply that two schoolgirls have to walk together more than once. This restriction means each girl walks with two new friends every day for a week, so that every possible pair gets together exactly once.

    This problem and others like it have beguiled mathematicians for the nearly two centuries since Kirkman posed his question. In 1973, the legendary mathematician Paul Erdős posed a similar one. He asked whether it’s possible to build a hypergraph with two seemingly incompatible properties. First, every pair of nodes must be connected by exactly one triangle, as with the schoolgirls. This property makes the graph dense with triangles. The second requirement forces the triangles to be spread out in a very precise way. (Specifically, it requires that for any small group of triangles, there are at least three more nodes than there are triangles.) “You have this slightly contradictory behavior where you have a dense overall object that has no dense parts,” said David Conlon, a mathematician at the California Institute of Technology.

    This January, in an intricate 50-page proof [below], four mathematicians proved that it’s always possible to build such a hypergraph as long as you have enough nodes. “The amount of technicality that they went through just to get this was amazing,” said Allan Lo, a mathematician at the University of Birmingham. Conlon concurred: “It’s a really impressive piece of work.”

    The research team built a system that satisfied Erdős’ devilish requirements by starting with a random process for choosing triangles and engineering it with extreme care to suit their needs. “The number of difficult modifications that go into the proof is actually kind of staggering,” said Conlon.

    Their strategy was to carefully build the hypergraph out of individual triangles. For example, imagine our 15 schoolgirls. Draw a line between each pair.

    All possible connections between 15 nodes. Illustration: Merrill Sherman/Quanta Magazine.

    The goal here is to trace out triangles on top of these lines such that the triangles satisfy two requirements: First, no two triangles share an edge. (Systems that fulfill this requirement are called Steiner triple systems.) And second, ensure that every small subset of triangles utilizes a sufficiently large number of nodes.

    The way the researchers did this is perhaps best understood with an analogy.

    Say that instead of making triangles out of edges, you’re building houses out of Lego bricks. The first few buildings you make are extravagant, with structural reinforcements and elaborate ornamentation. Once you’re done with these, set them aside. They’ll serve as an “absorber”—a kind of structured stockpile.

    Now start making buildings out of your remaining bricks, proceeding without much planning. When your supply of Legos dwindles, you may find yourself with some stray bricks, or homes that are structurally unsound. But since the absorber buildings are so overdone and reinforced, you can pluck some bricks out here and there and use them without courting catastrophe.

    In the case of the Steiner triple system, you’re trying to create triangles. Your absorber, in this case, is a carefully chosen collection of edges. If you find yourself unable to sort the rest of the system into triangles, you can use some of the edges that lead into the absorber. Then, when you’re done doing that, you break down the absorber itself into triangles.

    Absorption doesn’t always work. But mathematicians have tinkered with the process, finding new ways to weasel around obstacles. For example, a powerful variant called iterative absorption divides the edges into a nested sequence of sets, so that each one acts as an absorber for the next biggest.

    “Over the last decade or so there’s been massive improvements,” said Conlon. “It’s something of an art form, but they’ve really carried it up to the level of high art at this point.”

    Erdős’ problem was tricky even with iterative absorption. “It became pretty clear pretty quickly why this problem had not been solved,” said Mehtaab Sawhney, one of the four researchers who solved it, along with Ashwin Sah, who like Sawhney is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Michael Simkin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center of Mathematical Sciences and Applications at Harvard University; and Matthew Kwan, a mathematician at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria. “There were pretty interesting, pretty difficult technical tasks.”

    For example, in other applications of iterative absorption, once you finish covering a set—either with triangles for Steiner triple systems, or with other structures for other problems—you can consider it dealt with and forget about it. Erdős’ conditions, however, prevented the four mathematicians from doing that. A problematic cluster of triangles could easily involve nodes from multiple absorber sets.

    “A triangle you chose 500 steps ago, you need to somehow remember how to think about that,” said Sawhney.

    What the four eventually figured out was that if they chose their triangles carefully, they could circumvent the need to keep track of every little thing. “What it’s better to do is to think about any small set of 100 triangles and guarantee that set of triangles is chosen with the correct probability,” said Sawhney.

    The authors of the new paper [below] are optimistic that their technique can be extended beyond this one problem. They have already applied their strategy to a problem about Latin squares, which are like a simplification of a sudoku puzzle.

    Beyond that, there are several questions that may eventually yield to absorption methods, said Kwan. “There’s so many problems in combinatorics, especially in design theory, where random processes are a really powerful tool.” One such problem, the Ryser-Brualdi-Stein conjecture, is also about Latin squares and has awaited a solution since the 1960s.

    Though absorption may need further development before it can fell that problem, it has come a long way since its inception, said Maya Stein, the deputy director of the Center for Mathematical Modeling at the University of Chile. “That’s something that’s really great to see, how these methods evolve.”

    Science paper:
    An intricate 50-page proof

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
%d bloggers like this: