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The University of Basel has dozens of ancient papyrus texts in its collection, but one has been known for centuries as the Basel Papyrus. The two-thousand-year-old work has been in the university’s collection since the 1500s, when it was acquired from a lawyer and art collector named Basilius Amerbach. And throughout those 500 years, no one could decipher it.
The writing on the Basel Papyrus looked like the ancient Greek script commonly used during the waning days of the Roman Empire, around the 3rd century CE, but the letters were reversed, like writing held up to a mirror.
“A few individual letters were readable before, but no sense could be established,” Sabine Huebner, professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, told Ars. “There were several theories circulating [about] why the papyrus was written in mirror script: to hide a secret message? As a joke? A medieval forgery?” Generations of archivists have puzzled over the mystery since the papyrus arrived in the University’s collection, but until recently, they’d all been stumped.
Chemistry is a sort of applied physics, with the behavior of electrons and their orbitals dictating a set of rules for which reactions can take place and what products will remain stable. At a very rough level, the basics of these rules are simple enough that experienced chemists can keep them all in their brain and intuit how to fit together pieces in a way that ultimately produces the starting material they want. Unfortunately, there are some parts of the chemical landscape that we don't have much experience with, and strange things sometimes happen when intuition meets a reaction flask. This is why some critical drugs still have to be purified from biological sources.
It's possible to get more precise than intuition, but that generally requires full quantum-level simulations run on a cluster, and even these don't always capture some of the quirks that come about because of things like choice of solvents and reaction temperatures or the presence of minor contaminants.
But improvements in AI have led to a number of impressive demonstrations of its use in chemistry. And it's easy to see why this works; AIs can figure out their own rules, without the same constraints traditionally imparted by a chemistry education. Now, a team at Glasgow University has paired a machine-learning system with a robot that can run and analyze its own chemical reaction. The result is a system that can figure out every reaction that's possible from a given set of starting materials.
When you install rooftop solar panels, the electricity you create cuts into the amount of electricity the utility must provide to meet your needs. Add up the reduced demand of all the homes with solar panels, and you've got a pretty sizable amount of electricity that's no longer needed.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) quantified that reduced demand and found that solar panels installed between 2013 and 2015 in California saved utilities from having to purchase between $650 million and $730 million dollars' worth of electricity. Those avoided purchases create slack in demand, pushing wholesale prices lower.
Lower wholesale prices "should ultimately reduce consumers’ costs through lower retail rates," the researchers write (although whether and how those savings get passed on to retail customers is not discussed in the paper).
Blue Origin live video
With its ninth flight test, the New Shepard launch system put on quite a show on Wednesday morning. Flying from West Texas, the rocket and spacecraft ascended toward space before separating after about 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Then, three minutes into the flight, the spacecraft's escape motor fired to pull the spacecraft rapidly upward and away from the booster.
This dramatic test pushed the spacecraft higher into space than it had ever been before, reaching an altitude of 119km. Engineers at Blue Origin wanted to see whether the capsule's reaction control system (RCS) thrusters could stabilize the spacecraft in the space environment, and from all appearances the RCS system did just this. After about 11 minutes of flight, the spacecraft returned to Earth. The rocket, too, made a safe return to Earth.
Today we present the second installment of my interview with medical geneticist Robert Green, about the promise and pitfalls that could lie in reading out your full genome. Part one ran yesterday—so if you missed it, click right here. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
In this installment, we discuss why some medical researchers view personal genetic information as a literal toxin. This isn’t strictly out of paternalism (although there are elements of that). A tiny fraction of people might indeed make discoveries that are both horrible and unactionable. A larger fraction could suffer anguish from the sheer ambiguity of what’s divulged. After carefully studying both the psychology and consequences of these situations, Robert is fully convinced that personal genetic information should be made available to any adult who seeks it, after being soundly apprised of the ramifications.
We next discuss rare genetic diseases, and how incongruously common they are. Robert’s groundbreaking research recently revealed that as many as a fifth of us are recessive carriers of some exotic genetic horror or another. Which brings us to the important notion of partial “penetrance,” or diseases that can be slightly (and often mysteriously) manifest in a recessive carrier. High school biology trains us to think of recessive/dominant and afflicted/unafflicted in very binary terms. In reality, there are many gradations between the poles.
As it continues to progress toward human flights, Blue Origin will perform another potentially dangerous, uncrewed test today of its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft. Although it has not yet provided details, the company says it will fly "a high altitude escape motor test—pushing the rocket to its limits." The test is scheduled to begin at 10 am EDT (14:00 UTC) at the company's West Texas launch site.
This is the ninth test of the reusable New Shepard system, and the third in which it has included commercial payloads on it short suborbital flights. This time, the company is also flying a suite of materials from Blue Origin employees as a part of its internal “Fly My Stuff” program. (It's unclear at this point exactly how "abort test" and "payload" fit together in the same mission—presumably the high altitude abort will be followed by the New Shepard spacecraft pressing to orbit, but we're not exactly sure. Blue Origin will have more details about exactly what's going on when its webcast starts.)
This is not the first high-energy test of New Shepard. In October, 2016, the company conducted a lower altitude in-flight escape test when engineers intentionally triggered the spacecraft's launch abort system at about 45 seconds after launch, and an altitude of 16,000 feet. Such systems are designed to fire quickly and separate the crew capsule from the booster during an emergency.
Due largely to overuse, we're at risk of seeing many of our antibiotics lose effectiveness, leaving us without a defense against a number of potentially fatal infections. People are taking a variety of approaches to dealing with this, like looking for combinations of drugs that remain effective, developing entirely new drugs, and trying to reform how we dispense these critical drugs. (Although the latter may be an impossible dream).
There's another option that was under consideration even before antibiotic resistance had hit crisis levels: use something that makes killing bacteria part of its life cycle. Like other cells, bacteria often find themselves victims of viral infections, dying as new viruses burst out to infect their neighbors. If this happens out in regular ecosystems, people reasoned that maybe bacteria-killing viruses would also work in a pneumonic lung. But those maybes had always been accompanied by a long list of reasons why a virus wouldn't work. Now, a group of researchers has tested it on mice with pneumonia, and none of those reasons seems to be an issue.Meet the phages
Viruses that specialize in infecting bacteria are often called bacteriophages, or simply phages. We've known of some of them from shortly after we started studying bacteria, since their spontaneous infections would leave open holes of what would otherwise be an even lawn of bacteria. We've studied a number of them in detail, and some of the proteins they encode have become key tools in our genetic-engineering efforts. And they're not simply oddities that strike when bacteria are forced to live in artificial lab conditions. Surveys of DNA obtained in environments from the deep ocean to the subways show that, wherever you find bacteria, you also find viruses that prey on them.
On the slopes of northern Ecuador's Quijo Valley, perpetual clouds shroud the canopy of a seemingly pristine tropical forest. But the beauty of the cloud forest hides a violent, tragic history. A new study of sediments from the valley's Lake Huila reveals centuries of indigenous agriculture that came to an abrupt end in warfare and fire around 1588.Population collapse
From about 1400 to 1532, the Quijos Valley marked the eastern frontier of the Incan Empire. Although they were subjects of the empire, the people of the Quijos Valley maintained a distinct cultural identity from the Incas, and historical and archaeological records show that the valley was a conduit for trade between Incan territory and the peoples of the Amazon Basin.
The first Europeans to set foot in the Quijos Valley were Spanish expeditions in 1538 and 1541, who arrived in search of gold and cinnamon. They estimated that about 35,000 indigenous people lived in the region. By 1577, about 11,400 people had clustered around the Spanish town of Baeza, which the colonizers built in 1559 alongside the indigenous community of Hatunquijos. But by 1600, three out of four of these people were dead.
Popular urgent care centers may be the biggest—and most overlooked—culprits in the dangerous overuse of antibiotics in clinics, according to a new analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Based on insurance claims from patients with employee-sponsored coverage, researchers estimated that about 46 percent of patients who visited urgent care centers in 2014 for conditions that cannot be treated with antibiotics—such as a common cold that’s caused by a virus—left with useless antibiotic prescriptions that target bacterial infections. That rate of inappropriate antibiotic use is almost double the rate the researchers saw in emergency departments (25 percent) and almost triple the rate seen in traditional medical offices (17 percent).
The authors of the analysis—a team of researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Utah, and the Pew Charitable Trusts—concluded that interventions for urgent care centers are “urgently needed.”
This week we’re serializing yet another episode of the After On Podcast here on Ars. The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy. You can access the excerpts on Ars via an embedded audio player or by reading accompanying transcripts (both of which are below).
My guest this week is medical geneticist Robert Green, and our topic is the promise and peril that could come from reading your full genome. The cost of full-genome sequencing is falling so quickly and the actionable insights it can reveal are growing fast enough that this data will eventually be as widely collected as cholesterol levels (perhaps within a decade or so).
This will divulge the precise contents of your 20,000-ish genes to you and your doctor. Since some human genes literally have thousands of known mutations, that’s a lot of data—and on the day you first receive it, we still won't know how to interpret the crushing majority of it.
This week, the European and Chinese space agencies held a workshop in Amsterdam to discuss cooperation between Europe and China on lunar science missions. The meeting comes as Europe seems increasingly content to work with China on spaceflight programs.
Although the meeting is not being streamed online, space systems designer and lunar exploration enthusiast Angeliki Kapoglou has been providing some coverage of the meeting via Twitter. Among the most interesting things she has shared are slides from a presentation by Pei Zhaoyu, who is deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration.
Very very interesting statement by CNSA’s Pei Zhaoyu. “NASA will focus on building the LOPG. CNSA will build the lunar scientific research station on the surface” Moreover, according to Pei the LOPG has low economic effectiveness. #MoonVillage #ESA_ISRU pic.twitter.com/Tbg9SQ4LhZ
— Angeliki (@Capoglou) July 16, 2018
Overall, Pei does not appear to be a fan of NASA's plan to build a deep space gateway, formally known as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, at a near-rectilinear halo orbit. Whereas NASA will focus its activities on this gateway away from the Moon, Pei said China will focus on a "lunar scientific research station."
News reports in January that President Donald Trump passed a widely used test that screens for mild cognitive impairment flung the little-known clinical tool into public focus. Google searches for the test—the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA)—spiked as dozens of media reports shared parts or all of the test and political commentators batted it around.
The president’s supporters proudly played up the test, boasting of Trump’s perfect 30-out-of-30 score and using it to laugh down those who questioned Trump’s mental state. Others snickered over the test’s seemingly straightforward components, such as asking test takers to correctly draw times on a clock and identify animals.
But the laugh may be on all of us, according to a research letter published Monday, July 16 in JAMA Neurology.
D-Wave's hardware has always occupied a unique space on the computing landscape. It's a general-purpose computer that relies on quantum mechanical effects to perform calculations. And, while other quantum-computer makers have struggled to put more than a few dozen qubits together, D-Wave's systems have already scaled to more than 2,000 addressable bits. But the D-Wave systems don't perform calculations in the same way and, despite all those bits, haven't clearly demonstrated performance that can outpace even traditional computing hardware.
But D-Wave has come out with a research paper in Science that suggests that the system can do interesting things even in its current state. The company's researchers have set it loose modeling a quantum system that closely resembles the bits used in the hardware itself, allowing them to examine quantum phase transitions. While this still isn't cutting-edge performance, it does allow researchers full control over the physical parameters of a relevant quantum system as it undergoes phase changes.Spins and spin glass
D-Wave's systems can be thought of as a large collection of magnets, each of which can flip orientations. These aren't qubits in the same way that the components of IBM or Intel's quantum processors are, but they do rely on quantum behavior for performing calculations. On their own, there's nothing that favors one orientation over another. But put a second magnet nearby and the two influence each other; now, if one flips its orientation, it changes the energy content of the system. D-Wave's current system scales this up to 2,048 individual magnets, along with associated control hardware that determines which of these magnets is connected and how strong that connection is.
NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has done many great things in its decade-plus of service—but initially, it rolled 600 feet past one of the initiative’s biggest discoveries: the Block Island meteorite. Measuring about 67 centimeters across, the meteorite was a telltale sign that Mars' atmosphere had once been much thicker, thick enough to slow down the rock flying at a staggering 2km/s so that it did not disintegrate on impact. A thicker atmosphere could mean a more gentle climate, possibly capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, maybe even life.
Yet, we only know about the Block Island meteorite because someone on the Opportunity science team manually spotted an unusual shape in low-resolution thumbnails of the images and decided it was worth backtracking for several days to examine it further. Instead of this machine purposefully heading toward the rock right from the get-go, the team barely saw perhaps its biggest triumph in the rear view mirror. "It was almost a miss," says Mark Woods, head of autonomy and robotics at SciSys, a company specializing in IT solutions for space exploration that works for the European Space Agency (ESA), among others.
Opportunity, of course, made this near-miss maneuver all the way back in July 2009. If NASA were to attempt a similar initiative in a far-flung corner of the galaxy today—as the space organization plans to in 2020 with the Mars 2020 rover (the ESA has similar ambitions with its ExoMars rover that year)—modern scientists have one particularly noteworthy advantage that has developed since.
The United Kingdom has entered the race to develop low-cost, high-volume rockets for small satellites. Orbex, a British-based company with subsidiaries and production facilities in Denmark and Germany, announced Monday that it has raised $40 million from public and private sources to develop what it is calling the "Prime" launch vehicle.
The company intends to launch Prime from a new spaceport—also just announced—that will be located in northern Scotland. This facility would be the first commercial vertical launch site in the United Kingdom, and represents a significant investment in rocket infrastructure by the British government after decades of dormancy.
Over the last few years, the failed biomedical startup Theranos has become synonymous with some of the worst aspects of Silicon Valley. Through a combination of hubris, mendacity, and paranoid secrecy, the company fooled investors and the press into thinking it had created a nearly magical medical tricorder, earning a "unicorn" valuation of $9 billion before the whole endeavor was revealed to be smoke and mirrors.
Much ink has been spilled documenting Theranos' rise and then fall—but the most important work has arguably been that of Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou. And Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, his recent book on the subject, is as good a retelling of that tale as any we could hope for. So good, in fact, that I devoured it in a single sitting.The man who made it happen
More than anyone else, Carreyrou deserves credit for pulling the wool from so many credulous eyes regarding Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Outlets like Fortune and Wired were writing hagiographic puff pieces about this precocious college dropout and her plan to save the world; Carreyrou was pointing out inconvenient facts, like the company's inability to accurately conduct most of the hundreds of blood tests it claimed to have revolutionized. He credits pathologist Adam Clapper—who wrote the now-defunct Pathology Blawg—for tipping him off that something wasn't entirely right.
Tearing down walls and cubicles in offices may actually build up more barriers to productivity and collaboration, according to a new study.
Employees at two Fortune 500 multinational companies saw face-to-face interaction time drop by about 70 percent, the use of email increase between 22 percent and 56 percent, and productivity slip after their traditional office spaces were converted to open floor plans—that is, ones without walls or cubicles that ostensibly create barriers to interaction. The findings, published recently in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, suggest that removing physical dividers may, in fact, make it harder for employers to foster collaboration and collective intelligence among their employees.
Many companies have waged a so-called “war on walls” to try to create such vibrant workspaces, the authors Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard wrote. But, “what they often get—as captured by a steady stream of news articles professing the death of the open office—is an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”
Today, we present the third and final installment of my interview British astronomer Stephen Webb on the subject of Fermi’s paradox. Please check out parts one and two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
We open by talking about some of the amazing instruments and projects that are coming online in the coming decade—both to extend the search for extraterrestrial life and to advance the much broader field of astrophysics. There’s some profoundly exciting gear on the horizon, which will do business under such wild and whimsical names as “The Extremely Large Telescope.”
We then talk about some of the signals this new apparatus might detect, which could be highly suggestive of life. Either oxygen or methane in a distant planet’s atmosphere would be electrifying, but not entirely definitive proof. Both of them together put the matter beyond a reasonable doubt (although there would still be many doubters, to be sure).
In his final days, the Iceman ate a hearty mountaineer’s diet of red deer, wild goat, and whole grain einkorn wheat—but he may also have accidentally eaten toxic ferns.
Even after being chewed up, swallowed, partially digested in Ötzi’s stomach, and then frozen in a glacier for 5,300 years, some bits of Ötzi’s last meal are still recognizable, at least under a microscope. Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies and his colleagues saw compact bits of fatty tissue and bundles of muscle fibers, mixed with pollen from a genus of wheat called einkorn, which grows wild in the region but also includes some of the earliest domesticated wheat species. Mixed in with the partly-digested food bits, however, were spores from a fern called bracken, which is toxic to humans and other animals if not properly prepared.Red meat and healthy whole grains
Chemically, the remnants of Ötzi’s partially digested meal contained a compound called phytanic acid, which is a hallmark of fat or dairy products from ruminants like cattle, deer, and goats. There were also minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, and zinc, all of which are found in red meat and dairy products. And among the 167 different animal and plant proteins in the samples, Maixner and his colleagues found six that are specific to structures in the long contracting threads in ibex skeletal muscles—leg of wild goat, perhaps. Another protein in the mix is found only in deer muscles.
Welcome to Edition 1.08 of the Rocket Report! This week there is no shortage of news about SpaceX, as well as the race to become the first nation (or company) to build the first super-booster since the Saturn V rocket. Also, a company plans to launch 300km north of the Arctic Circle.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below. Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Virgin Galactic signs deal to launch from Italy. Virgin Galactic and a pair of Italian companies have signed a framework agreement aimed at bringing Virgin Galactic's suborbital space tourism launcher to a future spaceport in Italy. The spaceplane would be based at Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, which Italian public-private partners aim to turn into a spaceport. The spaceport could become active as early as 2020, GeekWire reports.