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Submission + - Lasers aren't making a 3-day trip to Mars anytime soon (

TheAlexKnapp writes: Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel notes that despite the internet love for Phillip Lubin's concept to propel spaceships to Mars via lasers, the engineering needed to make the scheme work is staggering. For example, he notes:

The laser sail concept might be great for getting tiny, tiny masses up to large speeds, but a full-scale model that achieves the desired gigaWatt power range requires a laser array that’s approximately 100 square kilometers in area, or about as large as Washington, D.C.

Submission + - 21st Century Archaeology Is Something Out Of Sci-Fi (

TheAlexKnapp writes: "Using drones, satellites, big data sets, and 3D, archaeologists are finding, recording, and saving antiquities around the world," writes Archaeologist Kristina Killgrove, who explores three different news stories this week showing how modern technology is changing how we understand and interact with the past.

Submission + - Global warming points to a troubled future for birds and other wildlife (

TheAlexKnapp writes: A recent study shows that increases in global temperatures are causing eggs to hatch earlier, which adds one more threatening stressor to birds, particularly in semi-arid and desert regions. One researcher notes that global warming "could play havoc with the family dynamic of these birds, creating situations where a single nest contains chicks of different ages, and even causing some embryos to die if the temperatures remain too hot for a long period."

Submission + - Editing Genes In Human Embryos Doesn't Mean Designer Babies

TheAlexKnapp writes: Dr. Kathy Niakan, who's leading the scientific team that just got the go-ahead to edit genes in human embryos, explains to Forbes contributor JV Chamary why their work won't lead to designer babies. The genes they're looking at, she says, are unique to the human embryo and the work's purpose is to understand early development. "We can use this new method that’s extremely precise and efficient to ask questions about early development that has profound importance for stem cell biology, and for our understanding of why some embryos fail to thrive."

Submission + - Why it's a good idea to be skeptical about claims of a planet beyond Pluto (

TheAlexKnapp writes: There's good reasons to be excited about the prospect of a planet beyond Pluto in our own solar system. But there's plenty of good reasons to be skeptical about the claim. As Ethan Siegel notes, there are not only alternative explanations for the findings, there's also some key evidence that should be observable if there's a ninth planet — and that evidence hasn't been observed.

Submission + - Rodent neural activity has a geometric structure (

TheAlexKnapp writes: In a recent paper, a team used techniques from computational topology to look at the neural activity in the rat hippocampus as it solved a maze. Mathematician Kevin Knudson explains the findings:

This is the first time geometric structure has been found intrinsically in neural data. Certainly such a structure is to be expected since the rat’s place cells keep track of the geometry of the environment, but this result is confirmation that it can be detected using only the pattern of correlations among the neurons. And it suggests that such geometric structure is a property of the underlying place cell network and not a result of the spatial structure of the input cells.

Submission + - 3d printed parts are toxic to zebrafish - which could also mean toxic for humans

TheAlexKnapp writes: Carmen Drahl tells the tale of a grad student whose zebrafish mysteriously died. Her investigation turned up the culprit — the 3d-printed tools she was using to study the fish. Further study showed that 3d-printed materials are toxic to zebrafish. This is worrisome because zebrafish are often used as a preliminary proxy to determine if materials are toxic for humans. Further study is likely needed to assess any possibly risks to human health.

Submission + - That 'unbreakable' glass that's 'as strong as steel' really isn't either

TheAlexKnapp writes: A number of stories about a new paper in Scientific Reports claim that it describes an "unbreakable" glass that's as "strong as steel." In a report about the paper for Forbes, Carmen Drahl notes that these claims are exaggerated. But that doesn't mean that the researchers haven't produced a promising material:

According to their calculations, this glass performed about as well as a heavy duty commercial glass. What this report describes isn’t some miracle material, but a well-above-average performing glass that seems promising on a tiny scale.

Submission + - Why gravity is the ultimate space telescope (

TheAlexKnapp writes: Ethan Siegel has written a nice overview of gravitational lensing, and how taking advantage of it has enabled to study parts of the universe that otherwise would've require the construction of massive telescopes.

Although the first gravitational lens wasn’t discovered for some 40 years after it was first theorized, it’s now the most prolific tool for weighing distant (foreground) galaxies, and discovering ultra-distant (background) galaxies. Although this isn’t a technique we have precision control over — the Universe puts the lenses and the lensed objects where they are, and all we can do is watch — there’s a spectacular amount of material that’s out there

Submission + - An experiment could determine whether gravity is quantized (

TheAlexKnapp writes: Physicist Brian Koberlein explains an experimental proposal by Großardt et al, which would attempt to determine whether gravity is quantized. "Their idea," explains Koberlein, "is to take a charged disk of osmium with a mass of about a billionth of a gram and suspend it an electric field. This is small enough that its energy levels in the electric field would take on quantum behavior when cooled to temperatures a fraction of a Kelvin above absolute zero, but its also massive enough that its gravitational pull would affect the quantum behavior."

The two primary approaches to a quantum gravity, the "perturbative approach" and "the semi-classical method," predict different results from this type of interaction. So the results of the experiment, could, in principle, elucidate the right approach for developing future theories of quantum gravity.

Submission + - Brewing an ancient beer provides archaeologists info about migration (

TheAlexKnapp writes: Different groundwater supplies in different geographic regions often have different oxygen isotope ratios. Archaeologists have been using this fact to help track migration patterns in ancient cultures by examining oxygen isotope ratios found in human bones. But there may be a catch to this — namely, humans don't only drink water. They often drank alcohol instead. Anthropology students at Wagner college brewed chicha de maíz, an ancient Peruivan corn beer, and discovered that its oxygen isotope ratios are different from the water it was brewed with. Since ancient Peruvians drank a LOT of chicha, archaeologists need to properly consider this consumption when they're trying to reconstruct migrations..

Submission + - The ethical issues surrounding OSU's lab-grown brains (

TheAlexKnapp writes: Last month, researchers at Ohio State University announced they'd created a "a nearly complete human brain in a dish that equals the brain maturity of a 5-week-old fetus." In the press release, the University hailed this as an "ethical" way to test drugs for neurological disorders. Philosopher Janet Stemwedel, who notes that she works in "the field where we’ve been thinking about brains in vats for a very long time" highlights some of the ethical issues around this new technology. "We should acknowledge," she says. "that the ethical use of lab-grown human brains is nothing like a no-brainer."

Submission + - Chemical evidence shows the Nazis weren't at all close to having the bomb (

TheAlexKnapp writes: The Nazis winning World War II by getting the bomb first is a staple of alt-history and it's the reason why James T. Kirk lost the love of his life, Edith Keeler. Einstein also noted possible German efforts to build one in his letter to FDR urging the U.S. develop an atomic weapon. But it turns out there really wasn't a race to build a bomb at all. Materials from Germany's atomic weapons program have been studied by an international team of researchers, who determined that Germany never achieved a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction — something that Fermi and his colleagues had accomplished in 1942 — which was a key step to actually building an atomic weapon. This chemical evidence supports other historical accounts that the German atomic program never achieved this result.

Submission + - Why The Black Hole Information Paradox Is Such A Problem (

TheAlexKnapp writes: Really nice explanation of the Information Paradox for those who are unfamiliar with it. Lays out the basic gist — that right now if you take two black holes, one made from the collapse of one type of star, and the second from the collapse of a different type, you can't tell which is which. Rightly points out that Hawking's big announcement was really just a small step heading towards a possible solution, and highlights that the paradox highlights the incompleteness of our understanding of some types of Physics.

Comment The Author speaks (and cringes a bit) (Score 5, Informative) 133

All - author of the piece speaking here. Yes, I'm aware of the D-Wave controversies, and talked with Scott Aaronson in a later piece at the time of the announcement. I'm cringing a little bit as I re-read this post because I know a heck of a lot more about quantum computing now than I did then. My take on D-Wave's computer now is that it's probably not a 'true' quantum computer in the sense that it involves any quantum speedup or entanglement. That said, I think that their annealing process is interesting in and of itself. I see their quantum computing tag as being akin to calling something '4G' in the wireless world. For those more interested in quantum computing, I updated the post to include some of the Q&A's I did about D-Wave at the time, as well as some of the quantum computing research I've covered since then, including some conversations with quantum computing researchers.

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