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white pill #29 // buried relics of theia, off-world mammalian reproduction, synthesizing hydrocarbons from thin air, airships, and notes on hbo's scavenger's reign
Readers, happy to be back in your inbox with the 29th issue of the White Pill, the hard tech, space, energy, engineering newsletter GOAT. This week’s email is a banger. It features a recently proposed, shocking new theory about the Earth’s mantle by seismologists, several developments in the technology, engineering, and computing section that will convince you that the future really is starting to look like the future, a mini-review of the amazing new HBO sci-fi series Scavenger’s Reign, and more.
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Ok, let’s get to it.
Giant Impact Hypothesis update. Theia is a hypothetical planet-sized body believed to have existed in our early solar system, similar in size to Mars or Earth. Around 4.5 billion years ago, it’s hypothesized to have collided with Earth, with the resulting debris forming the basis for our moon (this account of the moon’s formation is known as the Giant Impact Hypothesis, and it’s currently the leading explanation for the Moon's origin). The collision was so massive and energetic that Theia ceased to exist afterward: some of it was integrated into the Earth, and some of it contributed to the debris field that eventually coalesced and became the moon. We believe this because, among other things, the moon and Earth have very similar isotopic ratios (roughly, for example, they share the same proportion of certain ‘types’ of silicon) which suggests they were formed from the same source material. If the theory is correct, the impact was probably very good for humans because it was instrumental for the development of life: it played a role in determining the Earth's composition, magnetic field, and other essential factors. And the moon, as a result of this impact, affects Earth's tides, stabilizes its axial tilt, and has other significant effects on our planet's climate and habitability.
Now, in the deepest part of the Earth’s mantle (called the basal mantle), about 1,800 miles (2,900 km) down, it’s long been established that there are two enormous blobs of stuff that are different than everything else down there. Spanning hundreds of miles in height and broad geographic distances, one is beneath Africa and the other is somewhere under the Pacific Ocean. We know about these blobs, which are called large low velocity provinces (LLVPs), because seismic waves generated by earthquakes move through them more slowly than they do the surrounding mantle material. A group of seismologists recently ran a lot of computer simulations on these LLVPs, and had no choice but to form a fairly spectacular conclusion: they are “buried relics of Theia mantle material (TMM) that [were] preserved in proto-Earth’s mantle after the Moon-forming giant impact.” In other words, the two continent-sized blobs are fragments of Theia, inside our planet!! From the paper’s abstract:
Our canonical giant-impact simulations show that a fraction of Theia’s mantle could have been delivered to proto-Earth’s solid lower mantle. We find that TMM is intrinsically 2.0–3.5% denser than proto-Earth’s mantle based on models of Theia’s mantle and the observed higher FeO [iron oxide] content of the Moon. Our mantle convection models show that dense TMM blobs with a size of tens of kilometres after the impact can later sink and accumulate into LLVP-like thermochemical piles atop Earth’s core and survive to the present day. The LLVPs may, thus, be a natural consequence of the Moon-forming giant impact.
A couple upcoming missions to look forward to. The first is Rocket Lab’s planned launch of a probe to Venus late next year (likely 2025). It’s the first in a series of proposed missions to look for signs of life in Venus’s atmosphere. A probe will drop toward the planet’s surface to detect any organic compounds that might be present. (SpaceNews). The second is NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Launching in 2027, the Roman telescope will monitor hundreds of millions of stars, looking for microlensing events, where a planet or other object passes in front of a background star. Because anything with mass warps spacetime, the light from the background star will change slightly as something passes in front. The mission is expected to find the most distant known exoplanets to date, and could find “worlds that weigh in at as little as a few times the mass of the moon,” as well as brown dwarfs, neutron stars, and stellar-mass black holes. It will also be used to find thousands of Kuiper Belt objects in our own Solar System. (Phys.org)
We already know there’s a lot of ice on Mars, including subsurface ice — but refining and expanding that map will be extremely helpful for future explorers and settlers. NASA’s SWIM (Subsurface Water Ice Mapping) project just released its fourth set of updated maps, “the most detailed since the project began in 2017.” (NASA)
A promising sign for future human reproduction off world: mouse embryos were grown for four days on the ISS. When returned to Earth for study, it was determined that the microgravity “had no significant effect on the blastocyst formation and initial differentiation of mammalian embryos.” However, the embryo survival rate was lower than those grown on Earth. (Space.com)
The International Space Station is getting a laser. Just for communication, but still. Its intent is demonstrating the benefits of laser communication in low Earth orbit, allowing much faster transmission of data, and speeding up research. (NASA)
The FAA completed its safety review of SpaceX’s Starship this week, meaning it’s one step closer to a second launch. Read up on the significance of Starship in the second issue of the White Pill. (Bloomberg)
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Technology, Engineering, Computing
A company called New Computer has released their first product, Dot, on a waitlist. It appears to be quite a smart, somewhat agent-like AI personal assistant; it definitely looks like the future. You need to watch the demo to fully get the meaning here. (@newcomputer)
Muon imaging can let us see inside everything from the Great Pyramid of Giza, to volcanoes and nuclear reactors. The problem is it’s very slow. A new project at Lawrence Livermore National Labs—they’re responsible for the recent net energy gain experiments in fusion—is working with DARPA to generate a lot of muons using their powerful lasers. (LLNL)
We’ve all heard how strong spider silk is, but the teeth of limpets — small mollusks that cling to rocks and eat algae — are even stronger, able to withstand about five gigapascals of pressure before they break (context: this is equivalent to about 50,000 times atmospheric pressure at sea level…so, insanely strong). They’re made from chitin (common in crustaceans and many other animals), combined with nanocrystals of a type of iron oxide. Researchers have now managed to create these limpet teeth artificially, and are trying to scale up production. If successful, the applications are numerous, everything from body armor to incredibly tough alternatives to plastic. (MIT Technology Review)
Elon says his AI company xAI will release “its first AI to a select group” today. “In some important respects, it is the best that currently exists.” Elon has previously said that his AI will be “maximally truth seeking”; xAI’s website says its goal is to understand the true nature of the universe.” (@elonmusk)
A helium filled airship built by former Google founder Sergey Brin’s LTA Research has received FAA approval for launch. Pathfinder 1 clocks in at 400 feet (124 meters) long, and has potential for humanitarian aid and cargo transport, not to mention some pretty cool rides! (@Andercot)
Valar Atomics wants to synthesize hydrocarbons from the hydrogen and carbon in the atmosphere, using remotely placed fission to power the extraction process. From founder Isaiah Taylor: “Hydrocarbons are not going anywhere. Instead, I believe they are going to *come from* somewhere else.” Read his thread about his new business.
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. Deals are sourced using a combination of Pitchbook and reach outs to each company.
Airship for transporting hydrogen — H2 Clipper, a company developing a long-haul hydrogen transport dirigible (they claim it’ll fly 6,000 miles with an airspeed of 150+ mph), raises a $4.76 million Seed from undisclosed investors
Mini semi-autonomous delivery cars — Faction, a company developing small driverless electric vehicles (they’re roughly the size of a Smart Car, and they’re monitored remotely), raises a $6.23 million Series 2 Seed led by TDK Ventures
AI transcription for the doctor’s office — Abridge, a company developing a tool that “converts a patient-clinician conversation into a structured clinical note draft in real-time” (they say it gives doctors back 2-3 hours in the day), raises a $30 million Series B led by Spark Capital
A webcam that’s…awesome — Opal, a company developing a 4k webcam that offers intelligent noise cancellation and other enhancements (they’re working on other devices too), raises a $17 million Series A led by Founders Fund.
Plastic from algae — Algenesis, a company developing polyurethane foam made from algae (they run their own shoe brand which uses this foam), raises a $5 million Seed led by First Bight Ventures and Circulate Capital
Roof-mounted wind turbines — Wind My Roof, a Paris-based startup building low-profile, roof-mounted wind turbines, raises $2 million in venture funding from VINCI Energies, Antoine Fuentes and EIT InnoEnergy
Wind measurement using lasers — Metro Weather, a Kyoto-based company developing sensors that can detect wind speed and direction at any point in space that’s within 10 miles of the unit (it uses infrared lasers to measure wind speed with a resolution of 0.1 m/s), raises an $8 million Series A led by Global Brain
Robotic chef — GoodBytz, a Hamburg-based startup developing a modular “robotic kitchen” that can use its 72 ingredients to serve 3,000 dishes per day, raises a $12.69 million Series A led by Oyster Bay and Block Group
Parachutes for drones — ParaZero, a company that sells parachutes for drones that can deploy automatically (this allows drone operators to receive approval to fly over crowds, for instance), is in talks to receive $5.1 million of development capital from undisclosed investors
Wearable for lung health — Samay, a company developing a wearable patch that records the patient’s breathing sounds and uses AI to detect issues such as trapped air and fluid buildup, raises $4 million in venture funding
Mosquitoes carrying the bacteria Wolbachia, which prevents them from transmitting viruses were released in Columbia from 2015-2020. Results now show that dengue fever (a mosquito-borne illness), dropped by 94-97% in three large cities where populations of the modified bugs established themselves. (Nature) Now, perhaps we should just gene drive the little guys out of existence? Read Solana’s Dominion:
It’s estimated that approximately 50,550 individuals in the United States will die from pancreatic cancer this year, and now we know a little bit more about the disease. Researchers at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Medicine found a direct link between high insulin levels and the deadly cancer; specifically, that “excessive insulin levels overstimulate pancreatic acinar cells, which produce digestive juices. This overstimulation leads to inflammation that converts these cells into precancerous cells.” The team’s findings “may pave the way for new cancer-prevention strategies and even therapeutic approaches that target insulin receptors in acinar cells.” (MedicalXpress)
Hearing bad grammar slightly freaks people out, activating their fight-or-flight responses, a new study in the Journal of Neurolinguistics found. The writeup of this study doesn’t come out and say it, but it’s interesting to consider some of the evolutionary reasons that may explain this effect. I’ll leave you to it.
Finally, the fun stuff
Light Scavenger’s Reign spoilers ahead
Scavenger’s Reign. After troubled engineer Kamen alters deep space freighter Demeter’s course for opaque reasons, the ship literally flies too close to the local sun and is hit by a solar flare, causing all sorts of pandemonium aboard and forcing crew who are not hibernating to abandon ship in escape pods, all of which land on a nearby exoplanet. The first season of HBO’s Scavenger’s Reign opens a few months (I presume) after the solar flare; survivors are familiar enough with conditions on the planet that they know how to avoid danger, but each is still moored in a daily struggle for survival.
Scavenger’s Reign’s technicolor world is relentlessly, defiantly, totally alive and full of beautiful, shocking dangers. After two of the show’s multiple protagonists succeed in restarting Demeter and summoning it to the planet’s surface, the story follows each of the survivors on their epic, trippy journeys toward Demeter’s crash-landing. Clearly influenced by Fantastic Planet and Akira, among other canonical sci-fi/ fantasy art, I give you my strongest recommendation to watch this amazing series. I’m six episodes in, please no spoilers in the comments.
Touch grass this weekend.