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white pill #19 // interview with augustus doricko of rainmaker technology corp, robots on a moon mission, a fifth fundamental force (?), smart pills, bronze age feasts, and more
Good morning reader, we have a killer White Pill for you today. Another lead story this week: an interview with Augustus Doricko of geoengineering startup Rainmaker Technology Corporation. Then: glaciers on Mars and missing clouds on Neptune, among other items, in our section on space. After that, check out this week’s White Pill Investment Index, where we highlight companies doing cool sh*t that recently got funded. In Energy, Engineering, Computing, and Science, a super quiet flying car concept, hints of a fifth fundamental force, the first demonstration of quantum superchemistry, and a few more things. Some super promising developments in this issue’s medicine section, and to close we have the fun stuff, as always.
Oh, almost forgot — the White Pill has a X/Twitter account now, follow it for snackable science, energy, engineering, and space in your feed, and RT if you are so inclined.
Have a great weekend.
“We're at a fork in the road now where there are two paths forward, right? There is the certain path. Which is this gradual decline. The gradual depopulation of the American West, destruction of our agricultural base, quality of life going down for those who remain in the American West. And it's not going to be uniform, the way our quality of life degrades if water becomes less accessible. It's going to be the same as it always is whenever the economy worsens, or resources become more scarce. The wealthy won’t be subject to it. They’ll still have private jets, they’ll still have grandfathered water rights. It's the normal people that will be forced to take on low-flow toilets and two-minute showers. And I don't want that. I also don't want all the people that have multi-generational farms — or that make a living in farming, or just want the option to be able to farm — to lose out on that option. I am anti-degrowth, maximally, for, at the very least, economic reasons.
“But then, the theological motivation beyond this. God gives man dominion over the earth, the sea, the sky. And more or less, mankind has done OK taking dominion over the land so far, right? We've populated most of the earth. But then when you look at the skies… plane travel is terrible. We're rarely ever up there. We don't control the weather. We are still subject to tsunamis.
“It is, I think, in man's nature to take dominion over creation and order it in a way that is generative and good. And so when you look at the fact that we don't have enough precipitation, and we have these huge precipitation events and hurricanes that destroy our towns, and we just lay down and take it, that seems anti-human, and perhaps against the will of God, right? Like it is this destructive force that needs to be dealt with in the same way that we build erosion barriers for folks that live on coasts. Or the levies in Louisiana to hold the ocean back. It is that same sort of endeavor that I think is for the sake of mankind and perhaps even our creator that motivates me to work on this problem.”
I’m talking with Augustus Doricko over Zoom about making it rain, or cloud seeding, which Rainmaker Technology Corporation, his recently announced startup that aims to control the weather, will be attempting to do. “Our forests are burning up. Our rivers are dry. Deserts are swallowing our farms. Hurricanes barrage our coasts with worsening frequency and severity. I’m starting Rainmaker Technology Corporation to control the weather and fix all of this,” he wrote in the announcement.
Sketched broadly, making it rain is straightforward: you introduce silver iodide to a cumulus cloud. Supercooled water droplets in the uppermost portion of the cloud will freeze to the silver iodide, get heavier, begin to fall — ‘catching’ more supercooled water droplets as it goes down — and then the droplets will melt and fall as rain onto the ground below.
You can get silver iodide into a cloud from the ground by setting off flares that, when burned, release it in fine particles, and if conditions are right, updrafts and prevailing winds will carry the particles 10,000 to 20,000 feet up, where they will ‘catch’ the supercooled water droplets. You can do the same thing, but proximally closer to the cloud, by attaching silver iodide flares to the underside and tips of a plane’s wings and setting those off at altitude. Alternatively, if you could get your hands on one, you could use an artillery weapon such as a Howitzer to shoot a projectile that releases silver iodide once it reaches the upper portion of your target cloud; modern day Howitzers can lob shells almost 25 miles and hit apogees of over 30,000 feet, so this really would not be an issue, capability wise.
The main issue here is precision, Augustus tells me, which puts a cap on how effective we can be at making it rain. We know where clouds are, he says, but our spatiotemporal resolution capabilities don’t extend to being able to predict exactly where they’re going to go, and as importantly, where the highest density of supercool water droplets is in the cloud. So we don’t know precisely where to put the silver iodide. Crucially, because the density of supercooled water droplets in clouds changes over time, per a few conditions, we also don’t know precisely when to send the silver iodide. And even if we did know precisely where and when to seed clouds, the most common delivery methods aren’t precise enough. Ground-based seeding is subject to dispersion by wind shear. And planes are too slow; obviously, they don’t simply appear in the air at the exact location you want them, right when you want them there — the pilot has to be ready, the flares have to be attached to the wings, the plane needs tower clearance before it can take off, and then it has to spend time traveling to the cloud. All of these contingencies make plane delivery imprecise.
Augustus wants tackle cloud seeding by way of the precision problem. He did, initially, try to buy a Howitzer for the project, but ran into permitting issues.
“We’re using drones for delivery of the nucleation agent [silver iodide is a nucleation agent, for example]. Drones are great because they're reusable, really low OpEx, have low latency, and are really, really precise.” Rainmaker’s drones, currently about six feet in diameter, are wrapped in heating coils that will allow them to fly to altitude and not simply fall out of the sky due to icing up in the cloud’s below freezing temperatures.
And the drones should be able to target the rain precisely. “There are a lot of startups doing spectacularly precise weather prediction and forecasting,” Augustus says. “But none of them are taking weather modification into account. So what we're building, potentially in collaboration with some of these weather forecasting startups, is software that is specific to weather modification — real time ingestion of data that is then fed into our models with which we can predict exactly how much precipitation we'll get from every event, where that precipitation will go, and where the rest of the water vapor in the cloud will go after the fact.
“And dumping jewelry into the atmosphere to make it rain is not optimal, if there are alternative compounds that you can use,” he says. He’s talking about using silver iodide as a nucleation agent. “We have some irons in the fire that I think will prove to be a third as effective on a per kilogram basis of silver, but 50 times cheaper.”
Hubris, which Augustus’ project will almost certainly be accused of — especially if it’s successful — is not necessarily bad. In controlling the weather, there’s a lot to gain. What if Rainmaker could alleviate droughts by ensuring that water-stressed regions receive consistent rainfall? What if the company could derisk areas prone to forest fires by preventing prolonged dry periods in those areas? What if Rainmaker could transform deserts into cultivable lands by providing them with consistent rain?
We should more often celebrate tremendous acts of will over nature, and successes that arise from first-principle thinking. Rainmaker has big ideas, and I think they’ll have to go to war to pull them off. But I’m in their corner, and I hope you are, too.
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Robots on a moon mission. In last week’s White Pill, I interviewed planetary scientist and NASA SwampWorks co-founder Phil Metzger about kickstarting the space economy by mining lunar regolith (moon dirt) to create rocket propellent, which could be shipped up to earth orbit to service moon missions and orbital craft that need to refuel for station keeping (maneuvers to stay in orbit). Pretty much the only realistic way to do this, Phil told me, is with autonomous robots that are occasionally maintained by human crews. Earlier this month, NASA announced Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration, or CADRE, that will send three autonomous robots to the moon. “Each about the size of a carry-on suitcase,” they’ll “be lowered onto the Reiner Gamma region of the Moon via tethers… [They’ll] drive to find a sunbathing spot, where they’ll open their solar panels and charge up. Then they’ll spend about 14 Earth days — the daylight hours of a single lunar day — conducting experiments designed to test their capabilities.” While mining regolith doesn’t seem to be on the docket for this specific mission, developing autonomous capabilities in unstructured environments like the lunar surface is going to be a crucial ingredient to setting up and running operations among the stars. (Freethink)
Glaciers on Mars. Absolutely striking images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show patterns in the planet’s geography that sure look a lot like glacial footprints. In the White Pill two weeks ago, I included an item about recent research suggesting Olympus Mons was an island, and the images here are yet more evidence that Mars was a totally different place about 4 billion years ago, “with a denser atmosphere, warmer temperatures, and [water that flowed]. Evidence of this past is [also] preserved in countless surface features, ranging from river channels and alluvial deposits to lakebeds.” These particular images show a glacial valley “5 km (3 mi) across [with] linear ridges along the surface, [and] exposed rocky debris.” I personally can’t get enough of news like this — super interesting! (phys.org)
Where did Neptune’s clouds go? The solar cycle is the apparent culprit for Neptune being almost devoid of clouds for the first time in “nearly three decades of observation.” “Our findings support the theory that the sun's UV rays, when strong enough, may be triggering a photochemical reaction that produces Neptune's clouds,” said UC Berkeley astronomy professor Imke de Pater, who is senior author of the study. Neptune, 2.5 billion miles away from us, is already known for its crazy atmospheric conditions: it has the strongest winds in the solar system, reaching speeds of up to 1,300 mph / 2,100 km per hour (btw 2015’s Hurricane Patricia — which holds the record for strongest sustained winds ever recorded in a hurricane — had winds of up to ‘only’ 215 mph / 345 km per hr); its deep blue atmosphere consists mainly of hydrogen, helium, and methane, with methane giving it its vibrant color. (phys.org)
The Deniliquin structure. There’s new research that suggests the largest known asteroid impact site is a 323 mile (520km) wide crater ‘underneath’ Australia (for context, the width of Germany from the westernmost point to the easternmost point is roughly 357 miles). Co-author UNSW Sydney adjunct professor Andrew Glikson says the impact, which possibly occurred around 440 million years ago, may have triggered the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event — one of the five major extinction events in Earth's history — that wiped out 85 percent of all marine species (since it’s 440 million years ago, we’re talking brachiopods, bryozoans, trilobites, graptolites). At the time, ‘Australia’ was what is known as Gondwana, a supercontinent that existed from the Late Precambrian to Jurassic periods. Land-based life was still in its early stages of evolution, and the terrestrial ecosystems were not as diverse or complex as the marine environments — but you still had early plants, fungi, and maybe arthropods on land back then. (The Conversation)
India’s lunar-bound Chandrayaan-3 craft successfully separated from its propulsion module on Thursday, and is now flying on its own in preparation for landing on the surface which is slated for August 23 (space.com)
Intuitive Machines, a company working on a “lunar program which will provide lunar surface access, lunar orbit delivery, and communications at lunar distance,” has completed its moon lander and is says it could be ready for liftoff as early as November 15 — if the craft makes a successful moon landing, Intuitive would be the first private company in history to do so (space.com)
The next Starship could launch as early as August 31, lfg guys (Fox Weather)
This video of the NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle’s motor could “be the first to shoot a vehicle off another planet (for a Mars Sample Return)”
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For last week’s deals, check out last week’s White Pill. Deals are sourced from Pitchbook.
AI bot marketplace — 11x, a startup building a marketplace to build and sell automated digital workers (they’re starting with Alice the Sales Associate) raises $2m in seed funding from Project A Ventures and others
OpenAI competitor — Anthropic, the AI development company started by former OpenAI employees, raises $100m in venture funding from SK Telecom
AI legal assistant — Casetext, a company developing an AI “CoCounsel” that can help with document review, legal research, memo and deposition prep, and contract analysis is acquired by Thomson Reuters in a $650m deal
Sub-orbital spaceplanes — Space Walker, a Tokyo-based company developing reusable space shuttle-like vehicles to be used for both satellite launches and space tourism, raises a $5m Series A led by Realize Group
OpenAI’s first public acquisition — Global Illumination, a startup best known for their Biomes Minecraft “clone”, is acquired by OpenAI for an undisclosed sum, with OpenAI announcing that the incoming team would work on “core products”
Blended wing technology — JetZero, a company pushing past the efficiency limits of tube-and-wing aircraft to make a bird-like “blended wing” aircraft, will receive a $235m investment from the U.S. Air Force
If Apple developed an epi pen — Alerje, a startup developing a phone case that houses an epinephrine auto-injector complete with first responder alerting, raises $1.93m in funding from Chloe Capital and other undisclosed investors
Energy, Engineering, Computing, and Science
The fifth fundamental force? Muons, a heavier version of electrons, are wobbling more than current theories about the nature of the universe says they should, and it’s possible that this extra wobbling is from an undiscovered fifth force of nature. (A fundamental force — also known as a fundamental interaction — is a basic mechanism by which particles interact and affect one another, the primary means by which all physical phenomena in the universe are governed. There are four recognized fundamental forces: gravitational, electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear.) More precise measurements are being worked on, and like good scientists, vigorous attempts are being made to disprove the tentative results. But if they hold up, discovering a new fundamental force of nature would revolutionize our understanding of the universe, potentially leading to significant revisions in theoretical physics, paving the way for novel technologies, providing insights into unexplained astronomical phenomena, and/ or inspiring shifts in economic sectors as new industries emerge to harness the newfound knowledge. Again I say lfg. (Live Science)
Flying cars in our future. A company called Applied eVTOL unveiled its design for an ultra-quiet personal VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle that would have a top speed of “160 mph (258 kph) but [generate] less than 55 decibels of noise at 50 feet (15 meters) up, which is somewhere between the volume of a steady rainfall (50 dB) and normal human conversation (60 dB).” The (proposed) vehicle is the size of a Tesla, with enough room for two people and their luggage. (space.com)
Quantum superchemistry unlocked. In normal chemistry, reactions occur between individual atoms and molecules. But in quantum “superchemistry” the reactants are in the same quantum state, and react collectively, with potential for greatly speeding up useful chemical reactions. This effect has long been theorized, but now it’s been observed for the first time by a University of Chicago team. “The experiments are part of the field of ultracold chemistry, which aims to gain incredibly detailed control over chemical reactions by taking advantage of the quantum interactions that occur in these cold states. Ultracold particles could be used as qubits, or the quantum bits that carry information in quantum computing, for example.” Fyi, quantum computing holds the promise of completing computations that would take a conventional computer millions of years, running super advanced simulations and models, all sorts of infinity and beyond stuff. (Live Science)
Making music from thoughts. University of California Berkeley scientists ‘recorded’ Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” from peoples’ brainwaves who were undergoing surgery. AI ‘decoded’ the electrical signals it received from the electrodes placed on the surfaces of their brains as the song played in the background (kind of a weird choice for a surgery soundtrack if you ask me, but I guess that’s besides the point). A mature version of this technology would allow mute people to ‘speak’ by thinking, a crazy interesting version would create “thought workers” who “sync with a computer to type text from their minds,” for example. (This approach to translating thoughts into sound is different from the one I included in the late July White Pill, which generates text output from fMRI scans and uses the output to create music.) Listen to a sample of the brain/AI-version of the Pink Floyd song on Fortune — it’s weird but cool.
Hand-held electricity. “A team of mechanical engineers from Chung-Ang University, Massachusetts General Hospital, LS Materials and Yonsei University has found that a hand-held cylinder containing crumpled aluminum foil balls is capable of producing enough electricity when shaken to light a small LED grid.” I am not sure why I would ever need such a ball shaking tube LED lighter, but I like it, good job team. Video below. (TechXplore)
Worth watching this sublime video of a TRIGA test reactor pulse — a rapid, controlled release of energy that results in a brief, intense burst of neutron radiation
“Explosive hydroforming is a manufacturing process that uses controlled explosions in water to shape metal into desired forms.” Watch it in action.
Progress understanding Alzheimer’s. Faculty at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine have a new study in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that, “for the first time, demonstrates deficits in important dietary antioxidants in Alzheimer’s brains,” said researcher C. Kathleen Dorey. “[We] believe eating carotenoid-rich diets will help keep brains in top condition at all ages.” For reference, a carotenoid-rich diet would include foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, kale, bell peppers, cantaloupes, mangoes, and salmon. (MedicalXpress)
Smart pills. Researchers at MIT and Boston University developed blueberry-sized smart pills that can be ingested and then detect — and report on, in real time — “key biological molecules that could be indicative of a problem.” “Designed to detect…important signals… associated with bowel diseases,” the smart pill transmits a wireless signal from inside the body to a smart phone or computer as it makes its way through the gut. It’s already been successfully tested in pigs; it “may represent a game changer in the management of IBDs in terms of early diagnosis, interception of disease flare ups, and optimization of a therapeutic plan.” (MedicalXpress)
Promising signs for a multiple sclerosis (MS) vaccine. Researchers at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia have had success with an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) vaccine in mice. EBV is thought to cause multiple sclerosis (MS), so researchers are hopeful that their work could ultimately produce a vaccine that’s effective against both EBV and MS. (Freethink)
A gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease could have a broader use, causing a 90 percent drop in drinking amongst chronic heavy (animal) alcohol users (SciTechDaily)
The preliminary results of a large trial of the weight loss drug semaglutide (brand name Wegovy) showed that it decreases the risk of heart attacks and stroke by 20 percent (!!) in obese or overweight people, compared to placebo. Half of over 17,500 people were given the semaglutide in the study. 👏 (Freethink)
Galería del Sílex. Early humans used the Galería del Sílex cave (current day Spain) for thousands of years — “[the] cave contains 53 panels of engravings and red and black cave paintings, thousands of human and animal remains, dozens of fire hearth remnants, and fragments of ceramic vessels” — but then at the end of the Bronze Age (~5,000 years ago), the cave entranced collapsed, preserving all the people-stuff inside. Suffice to say, the spot is simply insane; to date, researchers have uncovered (basically quoting the phys.org piece here) —
2,700 human remains
strategically located torches
more than 6,000 ceramic fragments (a minimum of 336 vessels)
tools, flint, a polished axe
341 animal remains (primarily rabbits)
Anyways, researchers just found another body, this one of a 13-year-old girl, who most likely predates all the Bronze Age artifacts by about 1,000 years. Researchers came to this conclusion because of the proximate presence of intentionally placed (as in a funerary custom) Neolithic ceramics near the girl. (phys.org)
What did Bronze Age people eat? A new study in iScience that analyzed proteins on an ancient metal cauldron that dates back to the Bronze Age revealed that people were cooking deer, sheep, goats, and members of the cow family.” Yum. Shevan Wilkin of the University of Zurich said, “This is the first evidence we have of preserved proteins of a feast—it's a big cauldron. They were obviously making large meals, not just for individual families.” (phys.org)
Touch grass this weekend and stay safe out there.