Gizmocrazed – Future Technology News Artificial Intelligence, Medical Breakthroughs, Virtual Reality Sun, 18 Mar 2018 05:32:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sorry Microsoft, but this isn't the way to get people to use your Edge browser Sun, 18 Mar 2018 05:31:51 +0000 Sorry Microsoft, but this isn't the way to get people to use your Edge browser
Microsoft Edge is the default browser on Windows 10, but you can always change it.

Image: miles goscha/mashable

D’oh! What are you doing Microsoft?

Do you really think it’s a good idea to only let users open links from within Windows 10’s default Mail app in the Edge browser? Go ahead and slap your face a few more times and maybe splash a glass of cold water on it to wake yourself up.

In this latest episode of “Who the heck thought this was a good idea?,” Microsoft is reportedly punching itself in the face again.

According to PC World, the newest closed beta version of Windows 10 Build 17623, a version of the operating system due to be released this fall, forces all links from within the Mail app to only open up in Microsoft’s Edge browser. 

That’s right, even if you have your default web browser set to something else like Chrome or Firefox, links clicked within Mail will only open up in Edge. 

Fortunately, the Outlook app is spared from any such foolish change.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this change is bad if it’s not reversed by the time the next version of Windows 10 releases later this year.

Locking users into a specific browser is not what Windows is supposed to be about — which is flexibility and customization. Hell, Apple doesn’t even do that on the Mac, where you can click any link from the Mail app and it’ll open up in whatever default browser you have set.

We get that Edge has like next to no market share — according to NetMarketShare, it’s sitting at about 4 percent global market share compared to Chrome which has about 60 percent — but there has to be other ways to get people to use the browser. 

Make it faster. Make it more secure. Make it better at supporting extensions. But don’t try to trick people into using it. That’s just sneaky and wrong. Microsoft, you’re better than this.

Https%3a%2f%2fblueprint api uploaders%2fdistribution thumb%2fimage%2f85167%2f23c02f6f 33e5 488f 8d9b f4e9e5c701e9

Late-blooming startups can still thrive Sun, 18 Mar 2018 05:31:19 +0000 Late-blooming startups can still thrive

It seems like startup news is full of overnight success stories and sudden failures, like the scooter rental company that went from zero to a $300 million valuation in months or the blood-testing unicorn that went from billions to nearly naught.

But what about those other companies that mature more gradually? Is there such a thing as slow and successful in startup-land?

To contemplate that question, Crunchbase News set out to assemble a data set of top late-blooming startups. We looked at companies that were founded in or before 2010 that raised large amounts of capital after 2015, and we also looked at companies founded a least five years ago that raised large early-stage funds in the last year. (For more details on the rules we used to select the companies, check “Data Methods” at the end of the post.)

The exercise was a counterpoint to a data set we did a couple of weeks ago, looking at characteristics of the fastest growing startups by capital raised. For that list, we found plenty of similarities between members, including a preponderance of companies in a few hot sectors, many famous founders and a lot of cancer drug developers.

For the late bloomers, however, patterns were harder to pinpoint. The breakdown wasn’t too different from venture-backed companies overall. Slower-growing companies could come from major venture hubs as well as cities with smaller startup ecosystems. They could be in biotech, medical devices, mobile gaming or even meditation.

What we did find, however, was an interesting and inspiring collection of stories for those of us who’ve been toiling away at something for a long time, with hopes still of striking it big.

Pivots and patience

Even youthful startups have been known to make a major pivot or two. So it’s not surprising to see a lot of pivots among late bloomers that have had more time to tinker with their business models.

One that fits this mold is Headspace, provider of a popular meditation app. The company, founded in 2010 by a British-born Buddhist monk with a degree in circus arts, started as a meditation-focused events startup. But it turned out people wanted to build on their learning on their own time, so Headspace put together some online lessons. Today, Santa Monica-based Headspace has millions of users and has raised $75 million in venture funding.

For late bloomers, the pivot can mean going from a model with limited scalability to one that can attract a much wider audience. That’s the case with Headspace, which would have been limited in its events business to those who could physically show up. Its online model, with instant, global reach, turns the business into something venture investors can line up behind.

Sometimes your sector becomes hip

They say if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style. That mantra usually works as an excuse for hoarding ’80s clothes in the attic. But it also can apply to entrepreneurial companies, which may have launched years before their industry evolved into something venture investors were competing to back.

Take Vacasa, the vacation rental management provider. The company has been around since 2009, but it began raising VC just a couple of years ago amid a broad expansion of its staff and property portfolio. The Portland-based company has raised more than $140 million to date, all of it after 2016, and most in a $103 million October round led by technology growth investor Riverwood Capital.

CloudCraze, which was acquired by Salesforce earlier this week, also took a long time to take venture funding. The Chicago-based provider of business-to-business e-commerce software launched in 2009, but closed its first VC round in 2015, according to Crunchbase records. Prior to the acquisition, the company raised about $30 million, with most of that coming in just a year ago.

Meanwhile, some late bloomers have always been fashionable, just not necessarily as VC-funded companies. Untuckit, a clothing retailer that specializes in button-down shirts that look good untucked, had been building up its business since 2011, but closed its first venture round, a Series A led by VC firm Kleiner Perkins, last June.

Slow-growing venture-backed startups are still not that common

So yes, there is still capital available for those who wait. However, the truth of the matter is most companies that raise substantial sums of venture capital secure their initial seed rounds within a couple years of founding. Companies that chug along for five-plus years without a round and then scale up are comparatively rare.

That said, our data set, which looks at venture and seed funding, does not come close to capturing the full ecosystem of slow-growing startups. For one, many successful bootstrapped companies could raise venture funding but choose not to. And those who do eventually decide to take investment may look at other sources, like private equity, bank financing or even an IPO.

Additionally, the landscape is full of slow-growing startups that do make it, just not in a venture home run exit kind of way. Many stay local, thriving in the places they know best.

On the flip side, companies that wait a long time to take VC funding have also produced some really big exits.

Take Atlassian, the provider of workplace collaboration tools. Founded in 2002, the Australian company waited eight years to take its first VC financing, despite plentiful offers. It went public two years ago, and currently has a market valuation of nearly $14 billion.

The moral: Those who take it slow can still finish ahead.

Data methods

We primarily looked at companies founded in 2010 or earlier in the U.S. and Canada that raised a seed, Series A or Series B round sometime after the beginning of last year, and included some that first raised rounds in 2015 or later and went on to substantial fundraises. We also looked at companies founded in 2012 or earlier that raised a seed or Series A round after the beginning of last year and have raised $30 million or more to date. The list was culled further from there.

These Conservationists Are Desperate to Defrost Snake Sperm Sun, 18 Mar 2018 02:53:31 +0000 These Conservationists Are Desperate to Defrost Snake Sperm

It’s hard to pick which species to save in Brazil right now. Yellow fever is tearing through primate populations, wiping out squirrel and howler monkeys. Poachers are nabbing giant anteaters for meat and blue macaws to sell as exotic pets. But conservation biologist Rogério Zacariotti wants to save a venomous yellow viper—the golden lancehead.

But the snake isn’t making it easy for him. Zacariotti wants to preserve the lancehead by using artificial insemination—which, in his case, involves catching a live, venomous snake, restraining it in a plastic tube, massaging the sperm toward its exit, and using a needle to remove it for future implantation. It’s been a successful assisted reproductive technique for endangered animals and, of course, humans: The first human pregnancy via frozen semen was in 1953. But more than 60 years later, scientists still haven’t succeeded with the snake version.

Scientists have been able to successfully create snakelets by inserting fresh sperm into a female snake since 1970. But there has to be a quick turnaround between the removal of the ejaculate and the insemination—which doesn’t leave much time to, say, ship the sperm to a partner that it definitely isn’t related to. Brother, sister, or cousin pairs can lead to heritable diseases and other problems with genetic diversity. So conservationists have to freeze sperm to transport it. And no snake has ever given birth to offspring from defrosted sperm.

Rogerio Zacariotti

Which is where Zacariotti comes in. As a graduate student, he moved to California to collaborate with Barbara Durrant, who studies reproduction at the San Diego Zoo. When Durrant and Zacariotti first checked the scientific literature on how to freeze snake semen, they found just about nothing. See, it’s relatively easy to freeze and store mammal sperm, including the human stuff. Not so with snake sperm. Its tails are long and pointed at the end, which makes it more vulnerable to damage from ice crystals.

So Durrant and Zacariotti got to work gathering roadside rattlesnakes. Since both rattlers and golden lanceheads are in the viper family, the team hoped they would have similar sperm. Using the aforementioned ventral massage, they extracted samples from the live snakes. And then they tried to freeze it, starting with borrowed techniques from bird sperm cryopreservation. Bird and snake sperm, you see, have a similar shape, which meant the chemical mediums for freezing one might work on the other.

But the sample sizes were so small that they could only test a few chemicals on each sample. There was too much variability to nail down a standard, successful protocol for sperm freezing. Zacariotti, Durrant, and two other scientists published their research in 2011 with the title “117 Cryopreservation of Snake Semen: Are We Frozen In Time?”

Yet their work wasn’t done. There are more than 200 species of endangered snakes around the world, and herpetologists expect to add to that number as they discover new species (snakes hide well, so they’re hard to find and study). So after Zacariotti finished his graduate work and returned to Brazil, Durrant decided to turn her attention to pythons.

Pythons solved one of the problems with the viper study: volume. The snakes are everywhere. Florida is overrun with Burmese pythons that irresponsible pet owners have released into the everglades, and scientists and civilians alike capture the snakes for study and sport. So Durrant reached out to Mike Rochford, an invasive species coordinator at Fort Lauderdale, to see if he had any extra python sperm he was willing to send over. Turns out, he did. He mailed Durrant entire vas deferentia, the ducts that hold the sperm, from dead snakes. The bigger samples gave Durrant the computational power she needed to finally find the a combination of cryoprotectants that doesn’t kill the sperm.

Durrant couldn’t just stick the once-frozen sperm into a fertile snake to see what led to snakelets. She needed a quicker and more precise measure of viability, so she broke the sperm’s health down into three parts: initial motility score (how fast the guys were swimming), plasma membrane integrity (how solid they were), and acrosomal integrity (how good the head of the sperm in particular was looking). A mixture of 4 percent dimethyl sulfoxide and 6 percent glycerol or 4 percent of both chemicals best preserved the sperm. She published an abstract in December 2017 and hopes to publish a full paper describing her techniques later this year.

“This study represents the first comparative, comprehensive attempt to develop a sperm cryopreservation protocol for any snake species,” Durrant writes in her abstract. She says that the project still needs a lot of work, but she wants to make sure other groups don’t face the same dearth of information that she did. “What they’ve done is a very first step in research—it’s just the very beginning,” says Terrence Tiersch, professor at the Louisiana State University school of natural resources and aquatic cryopreservation researcher. “It’s looking like we can freeze the sperm and it won’t be completely killed in the process. Therefore, it’s worth continuing to study.”

In the field of herpetology, that’s not always a given. Durrant, Zacariotti, and their colleagues are used to defending their less-than-charismatic subjects to the general public, as well as grant committees. Snakes can be medicinally useful, Zacariotti argues, pointing to certain high blood pressure medications made from their venom. And “in Brazil, they are working on an analgesic from the rattlesnake protein that is stronger than morphine and is not addictive,” he says. Durrant says she hopes to apply the techniques they learn in the lab to other species of snakes and reptiles.

But they also have personal motivations. “My goal is to make sure my children see the golden lancehead,” says Zacariotti. He is still working on snake conservation, though he has diversified the species he studies in order to increase the chances he will get funding from the Brazilian government’s dwindling research fund. And he still nurtures a colony of about 75 golden lanceheads. Not only does keeping the snakes alive and reproducing take effort—if he wants to have hope of returning them to the wild, they need to be able to hunt native lizards, which aren’t in a great place themselves, numbers-wise. Keeping entire ecosystems alive in a lab is no easy task.

Reproduction Is Wild in the Anthropocene

  • Last year, New York City debuted a new form of birth control that causes rats to go into a permanent menopause. Read more here.

  • Biologists can’t make a shark pee on a stick. They have to use other techniques to check if the sharp-toothed fish are pregnant.

  • Breeders can now hack horse DNA to create winners.

How Wikipedia Chose the Image for the ‘Human’ Entry Sat, 17 Mar 2018 14:53:30 +0000 How Wikipedia Chose the Image for the ‘Human’ Entry

In 1972, Carl Sagan was preparing to send humans into space. The Pioneer missions were unmanned, sure—but NASA had asked Sagan to design a depiction of Earth’s inhabitants for the trip, just in case the spacecraft ran across some aliens. He designed two nude figures with the help of his wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, and his friend Frank Drake. Linda drew the woman to have Asian features, and the man African, according to Carl’s memoirs—though both ended up looking suspiciously European, with haircuts characteristic of the 1970s. Not unlike Sagan himself.


The Sagans were encountering an old problem. Any time the brains behind an encyclopedia (or a SETI mission) need to represent humanity, they have to somehow encompass the whole of the species in a single form—a type specimen, as biologists would call it.

Which is why the editors of the “human” entry on Wikipedia were having such a hard time in 2003. The crowdsourced encyclopedia, in theory, offers a solution to the problem of representation; no single writer has control over the way in which a subject is presented. But still: They had to choose a single image to lead the entry. And whatever photo they went with would inevitably leave out most of the diversity and cultural nuance that makes humanity beautiful and interesting.

At first, they chose the Pioneer plaque, which stayed in its privileged position for about five years. But the editors weren’t satisfied. Hundreds of pages of discussion reveal a group of people desperately trying to understand their own ignorance, and make amends for the known unknowns.

Which is how, after years of debate, a group of editors decided to replace Sagan’s example. For 10 years now, a couple in Thailand have represented us all, collectively. They stand in vivid green grass, against a backdrop of rolling hills. He wears a red hat and a furrowed brow; she, a gentle smile and a white band across her hair. They are our digital type specimens.

Back in 2003, the plaque made perfect sense: If it was good enough for aliens, it was good enough for humans browsing the web.

But on February 23, 2004, the Wikipedia editor Mishac pointed out that the drawing portrayed “caucasians:” “Just based on the guy’s hair it is evident that the people in the drawing are most definately [sic] not of sub-saharan, aboriginal australian, or east asian origin.” No one responded to Mishac, but the editor brought up an important point for the first time. About half of the world’s population is Asian. Less than a billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people are European or of European ancestry. It was simple math: The top image of Wikipedia’s human page represented a minority view of modern humanity.

By fall 2004, an earnest dialogue about objectivity emerged. Not only did the editors hope to look at humans as if they were a different species, they aimed to represent a temporal average. Things got esoteric fast. Editors Tom and Rednblu argued that the people in the image should wear clothes, as our wardrobe is a crucial part of how human evolution bypassed some of the selection factors that shaped other species. The editor dab disagreed, saying that humans have been “tribal hunters” for most of history, and did not necessarily need to be clothed. Paradoxically, perhaps facetiously, dab then nominated Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales as a candidate for the top image (among other, more generic, suggestions). Wales consistently wears clothes in pictures and during public appearances.

Other suggestions: John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Albert Einstein. Plenty of celebrities, basically—which is more historically astute than you might think. Disciples of Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy, did the same thing. All Linnaeus left in place of a human description was a Latin phrase that meant “Man, know thyself.” But in 1959, William Stearn, a British botanist, named Linnaeus as the example for the human species. He wrote that, “Since for nomenclatorial purposes the specimen most carefully studied and recorded by the author is to be accepted as the type [specimen], clearly Linnaeus himself, who was much addicted to autobiography, must stand as the type of his Homo sapiens!” But since Linnaeus’ body was never exhumed from its resting place in Sweden, his posthumous status as the human type specimen is more of a formality than a practicality.

If the taxonomic community has kept Carl Linnaeus as the honorary representation of human beings, then Jimmy Wales, perhaps, makes sense for Wikipedia. Wales’ photos would have helped the editors work around the challenges of copyright and photo quality that crop up on Wikipedia, too. But that argument wasn’t good enough for the nerds who control the web’s favorite encyclopedia. So in the fall of 2004, the crew went with the photo below of two girls in the United States.

Gordon Parks/Library of Congress

It was far from perfect. Editors objected that the photo, taken by American photographer Gordon Parks as part of a government project in 1943, was too US-centric. It didn’t reflect racial realities in the states, they said. And the sepia film obscured the subjects’ skin tones.

So between 2004 and 2008, Wikipedia editors were stuck in a tug of war between these two imperfect representations. Wikipedia’s open-edit policy led to some awkward user interfaces, as editors swapped and added pictures. Sometimes the Pioneer plaque again prevailed; at others, both images appeared together on the page.

Editors kept bringing up the basic anatomical problems with the Pioneer image. The woman in the picture lacked external genitalia. The drawing was not in color. It didn’t show children or older adults. More photos were put up for consideration, including a tastefully nude family with one child and one pregnant woman. Some Wikipedians thought they could bypass the controversy altogether by just putting a picture of a hand or cartoon faces. The arguments grew so heated that an editor consulted Wales himself, who wrote, “Having reviewed the issue only briefly, I have nothing helpful to add to the content discussion, which appears to be proceeding nicely and in accordance with best practices.”

Wales is the only source for this story who grew more impatient with the benefit of hindsight. When asked about the top image debate for this story, he wrote, “I’m not sure why this is interesting or in any way controversial. They are humans. You want to have a variety of pictures, and the article does. One of them has to be the first one on the page, and this one is. So what?”

Years had passed, but the editors remained stubbornly committed to their question. And after several years and many pages worth of arguments, they finally came to a consensus.

In 2007, a user who goes by Silence found a photo on the “Couples” page of Wikipedia and added it to the suggestions. It was a photo of a man and a woman from the Akha community in Thailand. A German photographer called Manuel Jobi, with the username Weltenbummler84, took the photo and added it to German Wikipedia in December 2006. In 2007, Jobi added it to the Wikimedia commons.

Silence, who (appropriately) did not comment for this story, writes in an FAQ that he picked this picture in particular because it was near the top of the page for alphabetical reasons—“Akha” starts with the letter “A.” No one changed it back, perhaps because they did not want to refute each of the exhaustive arguments penned by Silence and other editors. And so the power of arbitrary selection allowed the group to finally reach a consensus after years of debate. “In that long discussion, I think it’s quite easy to get wedded to your point of view,” says the editor Cedders. “And in the end, we just selected a random image.”

Just as the image on the plaque would tell aliens a lot about humans as a whole—we stand upright and have fingers—this image tells the rest of the world a lot about the Akha, a community of about 700,000 people who live in the areas surrounding the Mekong River. Micah Morton, an anthropologist who has lived with and writes about Akha traditions, was able to confirm that the couple in the photograph were Akha based on the woman’s shoulder bag. He says the sheath at her side holds a machete that the pair probably used to cut down the banana tree stalk that the man is carrying over his shoulder. They presumably returned home, cut the leaf into tiny pieces, and added it to pig feed.

For many generations the Akha grew rice, which each member of the community is supposed to offer up to their ancestors 12 times a year. But now many Akha grow more lucrative crops like coffee, tea, and rubber. Most young people attend compulsory national public schools, and have moved to towns and cities. Perhaps the combination of tradition and flux means that this picture meets the “represents humans over a long period of time” requirement, making them especially appropriate candidates to grace the top of the Wikipedia page dedicated to humans.

Neither the photographer nor the subjects agreed to provide our digital type specimens. Just as a shriveled northeastern leopard frog at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology represents its whole species, so this couple stands for all of us.

Onlookers could easily villainize the Wikipedia editors for the biases they publically grappled with. The theoretical benefits of crowd-editing are, after all, highly theoretical; editors are predominantly male and tech-savvy, which might have contributed to the initial popularity of the Pioneer plaque. “In reading through the comments, I think I was too attached to the iconography associated with that great technical achievement of humans,” says David Mertz, an editor who argued in favor of the Sagans’ designs in 2008. “Maybe that is a little too culturally specific in retrospect.”

But the editors’ unpaid dedication to introspection over many years is admirable. The challenges of taxonomy are not dead. Future scientists will have to teach computers, not aliens, to recognize the human image. Right now, software engineers program artificial intelligence to recognize people by feeding them millions of pictures of faces. But whose faces?

Computer scientists run into the same questions about gender, race, and culture that the Wikipedia editors encountered. Being able to use more than one photo expands the conversation, but does not necessarily make it easier.

Humans of the Web

  • Claire L. Evans wrote a book about the women who created the Internet as we know it.

  • Emojis represent our feelings on a small scale, and they leave people out. Read about how Tinder tried to create an emoji for interracial couples here.

  • A robot is definitely not a human. Only humans can consent to sex. So what are the ethics of robot sex?

Facebook suspends Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica Sat, 17 Mar 2018 05:31:41 +0000 Facebook suspends Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica
Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica.

Image: PA Images via Getty Images

A data analytics firm linked to both Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum has been banned by Facebook.

Cambridge Analytica, the British firm that claimed it helped Trump get elected, has been suspended from Facebook, the company revealed. 

At issue is Cambridge Analytica’s use of user data obtained by a third-party developer, a University of Cambridge professor named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan. Kogan, according to Facebook, obtained information on 270,000 Facebook users via his app, which he touted as a research experiment. 

But though the app itself was apparently in line with Facebook’s developer policies, what Kogan did with the data he collected wasn’t. According to Facebook’s deputy general counsel Paul Grewal, Kogan then gave the data he acquired via his app to Cambridge Analytica and another third-party company.

Facebook’s policies prohibit developers from turning user data over to third parties. Grewal says the company found out about Kogan’s actions in 2015 and removed his app and “demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed.”

Everyone involved claimed they had destroyed the data, but Facebook now says they have reason to believe not all the data was actually destroyed. And they’ve banned Kogan and Cambridge Analytica while they investigate.

It’s not clear if the ban is meant to be temporary or permanent, but it’s an unprecedented move for Facebook to publicly announce such a suspension. While suspended, Cambridge Analytica and Kogan are prohibited from buying ads or run the Facebook pages of their clients.

“We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information. We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens. We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any unlawful behavior,” Grewal wrote in a statement

Tinder owner Match is suing Bumble over patents Sat, 17 Mar 2018 05:31:01 +0000 Tinder owner Match is suing Bumble over patents

Drama is heating up between the dating apps.

Tinder, which is owned by Match Group, is suing rival Bumble, alleging patent infringement and misuse of intellectual property.

The suit alleges that Bumble “copied Tinder’s world-changing, card-swipe-based, mutual opt-in premise.”

It’s complicated because Bumble was founded by CEO Whitney Wolfe, who was also a co-founder at Tinder. She wound up suing Tinder for sexual harassment. 

Yet Match hasn’t let the history stop it from trying to buy hotter-than-hot Bumble anyway. As Axios’s Dan Primack pointed out, this lawsuit may actually try to force the hand for a deal. Bumble is majority-owned by Badoo, a dating company based in London and Moscow.

(It wouldn’t be the first time a dating site sued another and then bought it. JDate did this with JSwipe.)

Match provided the following statement:

Match Group has invested significant resources and creative expertise in the development of our industry-leading suite of products. We are committed to protecting the intellectual property and proprietary data that defines our business. Accordingly, we are prepared when necessary to enforce our patents and other intellectual property rights against any operator in the dating space who infringes upon those rights.

I have, um, tested out both Tinder and Bumble and they are similar. Both let you swipe on nearby users with limited information like photos, age, school and employer. And users can only chat if both opt-in.

However, Tinder has developed more of the reputation as a “hookup” app and Bumble doesn’t seem to have quite the same image, largely because it requires women to initiate the conversation, thus setting the tone.

As TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez pointed out recently, “according to App Annie, Tinder is more than 10x bigger in terms of monthly users and 7x bigger in terms of downloads in the last 12 months, versus Bumble.”

We’ve reached out to Bumble for comment.

The First Black Hole Close-Up Sat, 17 Mar 2018 05:29:57 +0000 The First Black Hole Close-Up

Astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet didn’t have a supercomputer when he showed the world what a black hole looks like. He just had an IBM 7040 and a bunch of punch cards. He knew from theory that black holes do not emit light. But the material that swirls around them — dust and gas stripped from stars — shines all the way to its inanimate death. Light from that material, Luminet thought, would trace the black hole’s shape, including warps in space-time from its extreme gravity.

When the fridge-sized IBM spit out results in the late ’70s, Luminet used ink and pen to plot out an image by hand. He saw the black hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which nothing can escape; and an accretion disk, the gathering of matter siphoned from nearby stars. Although the black hole had just one disk, gravity had morphed its appearance, like a fun house mirror, into two perpendicular disks. They appeared brighter closer to the black hole, and more luminous on one side than the other.

The Controversial Link Between Epic Storms and a Warming Arctic Sat, 17 Mar 2018 02:53:42 +0000 The Controversial Link Between Epic Storms and a Warming Arctic

It’s that time of the year again, when massive winter storms lash the eastern United States and your uncle posts on Facebook about how it proves climate change is a hoax. After all, why would you still need a good coat on a warming planet?

The fallacy is, of course, that weather is not the same as climate—though the two are intertwined in sometimes surprising ways. And one controversial theory argues that weirdly enough, it’s a warming arctic that’s causing extreme winter weather in the eastern US. A new study out today in Nature Communications purports to bolster that argument, but the idea has sharply divided climate scientists. Arguing aside, though, the debate might be great for public understanding of climate change.

The researchers monitored temperatures in the arctic and compared them to what’s known as the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index, which takes into account temperature and snowfall. Based on data from 12 cities, they found that when the arctic is warm, severe winter weather is two to four times more likely than when the arctic is cold.

That’s a bit odd, given that climate researchers have traditionally looked toward the tropics as a driver of global weather. “I think that’s kind of this engrained dogma in the field,” says MIT climatologist Judah Cohen, lead author of the paper. “There’s this maybe built in bias or prejudice that’s skeptical of the role of the arctic, and I think that’s played a big part in the controversy.”

Now, this was an observational analysis, because it’s not like the researchers could tweak temperatures in the arctic and see how that affected weather in the US. So while they could show a correlation between activities in the two regions, they couldn’t definitively demonstrate that a warming arctic is causing changes in weather down south. They admitted as much in the paper, but to help strengthen their argument, the researchers worked out a “lag correlation”: They looked at peaks in arctic temperatures and found that these anticipated severe weather by five days, which would suggest a link.

But not so fast, says climate scientist James Screen of the University of Exeter. In some of those locations, there doesn’t appear to be any lag, and in others the indication seems to be weak. “It’s better than nothing, I guess, but it doesn’t convince me,” Screen says.

Again, just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean they’re playing off each other. “It could be that the arctic circulation and the US circulation are changing simultaneously, and there’s just a bit of a lag between the changes in the circulation and this weather index,” Screen adds. “I would say it’s suggestive, but it doesn’t totally convince me.”

But say a warming arctic is responsible for wacky winter weather in the United States. What could be driving it? One theory points to the jet stream. The arctic is of course cold, and the lands to the south of it are less so. “That temperature difference between the cold arctic and the area farther south is one of the sources of energy that drives the winds of the jet stream,” says Rutgers University climatologist Jennifer Francis, a co-author on the paper.

The problem is, the arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, known as arctic amplification. The contrast between cold air and warmer air, then, is getting less extreme, which would decrease the energy of the jet stream. “What we see typically when the jet stream is slow is that it tends to take these bigger meanders north and south,” says Francis. “When it does that, say it dips way south over Florida, for example, then it allows the cold air from the arctic to plunge much farther south.”

But what if it’s actually the other way around? What if the eastern US is actually influencing the arctic? “You can’t even say which is the cause of which,” says climate scientist Ted Shepherd of the University of Reading. “Is it the warm causing the cold or is it the cold causing the warm? They’re just two sides to the same coin.”

To answer that question, climate scientists would need to simulate massively complex processes. Researchers can do this long-term to parse various happenings with the climate, or on a smaller scale with weather, like TV forecasters have been doing all these years. But you can’t run a weather model for very long—it’s just too computationally expensive.

“We can’t really run a weather model on climate time scales, so there are some approaches to try to embed a weather model within a climate model,” says Shepherd. The work isn’t definitive, though. “In the absence of that, we’re stuck with climate models that don’t really simulate the weather regimes very well,” he says.

But with every study, climate scientists are better understanding how a warming planet may lead to profound and sometimes counterintuitive changes. Which is why your uncle might be confused. “I think one of the silver linings on this bad news cloud is that the bizarre weather that we’ve been having has really gotten the public’s attention,” says Francis. “We’ve been able to tell a real story, a science story, about why people are experiencing this bizarre weather now and connecting it to climate change.”

Shepherd may not agree with the conclusions of this new study, but he sees a similar bigger picture in climate influencing weather. “It’s a great story actually in a way,” he says, “because you can be very honest about it and raise a lot of the open questions and people might actually find it fascinating … I would hope.”

Scientists disagreeing over the link between the arctic and extreme weather in the US doesn’t mean scientists disagree about the existence of climate change. They don’t. Researchers arguing about this complex problem is science doing what it does best: ferreting out the truth by way of disagreement, ideally not of the icy variety. Never hurts to bring a coat, though, just in case.

More Climate science

  • Study by study, the particulars of climate change get a lot clearer. One key metric in particular may now be a lot less uncertain.

  • If you think parsing global climate change is hard, try modeling what it would be like to engineer the planet to stop warming without killing a bunch of species.

  • Ideally, though, we could just cut emissions. Enter the carbon tax and the colleges that are championing it.

The next frontier for robotics? Jazz marimba Fri, 16 Mar 2018 18:38:09 +0000 The next frontier for robotics? Jazz marimba

Watch out all you well-paid, fat-and-sassy jazz marimba players: Shimon, the marimba playing robot, is after your jobs. Shimon is the brainchild of the Robotic Musicianship Group at Georgia Tech and I’ve been following his career for a few years now. In this video, taken at the Ferst Center Presents as part of Atlanta Science Festival, Shimon and a band led by Zachary Robert Kondak jam out to Kondak’s latest rock opera. That’s Richard Savery on the sax.

Watch it. It’s wild.

The truly amazing part of the show has to be drummer Jason Barnes’ mechanical arm that he uses to play beats live in time with Shimon’s tapping. It’s a melding of man and machine that is truly awe-inspiring.

So you’ve had it good so far, all you jazz vibraphonists. Now that robots are gunning for your jobs the jig might be up.

To Understand the Universe, Physicists Are Building Their Own Fri, 16 Mar 2018 14:53:20 +0000 To Understand the Universe, Physicists Are Building Their Own

Silke Weinfurtner is trying to build the universe from scratch. In a physics lab at the University of Nottingham—close to the Sherwood forest of legendary English outlaw Robin Hood—she and her colleagues will work with a huge superconducting coil magnet, 1 meter across. Inside, there’s a small pool of liquid, whose gentle ripples stand to mimic the matter fluctuations that gave rise to the structures we observe in the cosmos.

Weinfurtner isn’t an evil genius hell-bent on creating a world of her own to rule. She just wants to understand the origins of the one we already have.

The Big Bang is by far the most popular model of our universe’s beginnings, but even its fans disagree about how it happened. The theory depends on the existence of a hypothetical quantum field that stretched the universe ultra-rapidly and uniformly in all directions, expanding it by a huge factor in a fraction of a second: a process dubbed inflation. But that inflation or the field responsible for it—the inflaton—is impossible to prove directly. Which is why Weinfurtner wants to mimic it in a lab.

If the Big Bang theory is right, the baby universe would have been created with tiny ripples—so-called ‘quantum fluctuations’—which got stretched during inflation and turned into matter and radiation, or light. These fluctuations are thought to have eventually magnified to cosmic size, seeding galaxies, stars, and planets. And it’s these tiny ripples that Weinfurtner wants to model with that massive superconducting magnet. Inside, she’ll put a circular tank, some 6 centimeters in diameter, filled with layered water and butanol (the liquids have different densities, so they don’t mix).

Then, her group of researchers will kick in the artificial gravity distortions. “The strength of the magnetic field varies with its position,” says Richard Hill, one of the paper’s co-authors. “By moving the pool to different regions of the field, the effective gravitational force can be increased or decreased,” he says, “and can even be turned upside-down.”

By varying gravity, the team hopes to create ripples—but unlike those on a pond, the distortions will appear between the two liquids. “By carefully adjusting the speed of the ripples we can model an inflating universe,” says another team member, Anastasios Avgoustidis. In cosmic inflation, space rapidly expands while the ripples of matter propagate at a constant speed—and in the experiment, the speed of the ripples rapidly decreases as the liquid’s volume remains constant. “The equations describing the propagation of ripples in these two scenarios are identical,” Avgoustidis says.

That’s important: If the resulting fluctuations look as if they might trigger structures like those found in today’s universe, then we may have had a glimpse of how inflation worked.

This isn’t the first time Weinfurtner—or anyone else—has tried to mimic cosmic phenomena on a tiny scale. Around the world, astrophysicists can be found in labs, developing ever more sophisticated set-ups using sound waves that travel just like light waves in strong gravitational fields, or magnets to trigger perturbations in fluids and gases.

Last June, Weinfurtner used a large water tank with a sink in the middle to mimic another difficult-to-observe phenomenon: the superradiance of a black hole. And it was William Unruh, a physicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (and Weinfurtner’s advisor a decade ago), who pioneered the idea of simulating gravity in a lab in 1981. After all, “we cannot rerun the universe—and cannot live long enough to see the results of the experiment if we could,” says Unruh.

Analog gravity experiments have gotten more sophisticated since Unruh’s first experiment, which used a fluid simulation of gravity to show that the event horizon of a real black hole does to light what a sonic black hole does to sound. In other words: What we can measure and express in the lab can be used to explore properties of astrophysical black holes. It even works for the famous Hawking radiation, the prediction that black holes radiate heat and at some point will totally evaporate. A few years ago, Jeff Steinhauer of the Technion in Haifa, Israel, discovered the radiation’s sonic analog.

Simulations are being used to study other aspects of inflation, too. A few years ago, a team led by Christoph Westbrook of CNRS (The French National Center for Scientific Research) in Paris studied the production of quantum particles by ‘wiggling’ a ring Bose Einstein condensate—a state of matter in which the atoms have been cooled to near absolute zero, making them behave as a single quantum object. During inflation, the temperature of the universe dropped drastically, before starting to rise again when the inflation ceased with the process called ‘reheating’—leading to the ordinary Big Bang expansion.

Another experiment last October, led by physicist Stephen Eckel at the Joint Quantum Institute at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and University of Maryland, also used a Bose Einstein condensate to observe the stretching of sound waves—analogous to the stretching, or redshifting, of light that happens as the universe expands. The team also observed an effect similar to the reheating process.

Weinfurtner says that her ‘novel’ setup can work without a Bose Einstein condensate. That means that the system will be too hot to observe quantum fluctuations directly, says Unruh. But the authors argue that it will be possible to observe the fluctuations via the thermal noise in their system—an analog of quantum noise.

Their approach, say the authors, will allow them to mimic a long expansion phase, achieving—using the technical language—‘many e-folds,’ a parameter that measures the duration of inflation. Researchers believe that inflation increased the size of the universe by more than a factor of 10^26—or more than 60 e-folds—in just a fraction of a second. The new experiment, if successful, would simulate inflation for much longer period than previous lab set-ups, or have “many more e-folds than any other, enough to put the results beyond doubt,” says Ian Moss of the University of Newcastle. “You need some time to elapse for the system to forget its initial conditions and settle down to the state governed by inflationary fluctuations,” he says.

“It is possible that they will uncover new physics that help to inform future cosmological models,” says Eckel. “Or, on the reverse, help to test some aspect of future cosmological models.”

Not everyone is convinced that simulating our universe’s first moments in the lab will help cosmology, though. Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland thinks that such experiments are “not so much verifying something we are uncertain about, but rather implementing and observing it in a lab.” Why mimic the universe in the lab? “It’s fun. And it may suggest new phenomena we didn’t think of in cosmology,” he says.

Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, is not as optimistic. He says that Weinfurtner’s proposed analogy of creating ripples between two fluids in a tank will not extend to the “fundamental physical nature” of quantum fluctuations—because the experiment simply reproduces the equations physicists already use to describe inflation. If these equations are missing a fundamental ingredient, the experiment will not reveal it. “While analog laboratory experiments could incorporate quantum mechanical effects, they do not involve the interplay of quantum mechanics with gravity in the way that black holes and inflation do,” he says.

Weinfurtner’s experiment is tailored to reproduce our existing notion of inflation, Loeb adds – but it’s not meant to test it at a fundamental level. “The only way to get a discrepancy between the experiment and our notion of inflation is if we did the math wrong for one of these systems. Otherwise, we will learn nothing new,” he says.

The real test of inflation would be, Loeb says, the production of the substance that propelled it—the inflaton—in the lab. But this would require reaching energies up to a trillion times larger than those achieved in our most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider—and such a test seems unlikely in the near future.

“Just mimicking the equations of an analogous system is a metaphor to the real system, not an actual test of its fundamental properties,” says Loeb. It’s like “smelling food instead of eating the actual food,” he adds, only “the latter has the real value.”

That’s true, but sometimes the smells from a kitchen can tell you a lot about what was served for dinner.

Galactic Investigators