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white pill #9 // awesome lung cancer treatment results, the asteroid flying by earth next week, new drop of incredibly detailed images of the sun, utility-scale space farms, etc
Readers, can you believe it’s the ninth issue of the White Pill, where we round up all the most fascinating, evocative, inspiring developments in space, tech, medicine, engineering, and big ideas?
Nick and I had a good time putting this one together. Our excellent news this week is about something very promising that happened when a Yale-led research team tried a new therapeutic approach to lung cancer. In space news, we have an incredibly interesting new study connecting frequency of supernovae to the origin of life on Earth, a new theory about the interstellar comet ‘Oumuamua, a stunning image of Saturn ring ice towers, super detailed new pics of the Sun’s surface, and more.
After this week’s White Pill Investment Index, where we track funding going to companies doing interesting, forward-thinking things, we discuss a telomere-related advance in aging science and a potential link between schizophrenia and lupus, among other things, in our section on medicine. After that, in our energy and engineering section, we go over a new electric RV on the market, new tech that could enable solar space farms, a $46m DOE grant, and a gene drive for stray cats.
And as always, some fun stuff at the end.
First, some most excellent news…
New therapy approach cuts late stage lung cancer mortality in half, IN PEOPLE (NOT MICE). 1.8 million people died of lung cancer last year. The survival rate for late-stage lung cancer patients is low, even with cutting-edge treatment methods. But that could be primed to change. A new study led by researchers at Yale University shows that, after surgical removal of lung tumors from late-stage cancer patients, daily treatment with the drug osimertinib reduces overall risk of death by 51 percent. And the effects are lasting: “After five years, 88% of patients who took the daily pill after the removal of their tumor were still alive, compared with 78% of patients treated with a placebo.” Excellent news. (The Guardian)
Supernovae “set essential conditions for life on Earth.” “A measure of the concentration of nutrients in the ocean over the last 500 million years correlates reasonably with the variations in supernovae frequency,” argues a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters. “A high number of supernovae leads to a cold climate with a significant temperature difference between the equator and polar regions. This results in strong winds and ocean mixing, vital for delivering nutrients to biological systems. High nutrient concentration leads to a larger bioproductivity and a more extensive burial of organic matter in sediments. A warm climate has weaker winds and less mixing of the oceans, diminished supply of nutrients, lower bioproductivity, and less burial of organic matter.” I believe this buffs the Rare Earth Hypothesis — thoughts? (phys.org) (ht The Orbital Index)
New tool for combating damage to astronaut vision on long-duration space flights. Researchers at the University of Western Australia have developed a method for measuring brain fluid pressure that could help prevent “Space Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome,” or retina damage sustained by humans in microgravity due to increased cerebrospinal fluid pressure. Previously measurable only through invasive methods, the researchers have developed a special eye camera that detects tiny pulsations generated by retinal veins, and can thereby gauge brain fluid pressure. (UWA) (ht The Orbital Index)
New hypothesis for interstellar ‘Oumuamua. Astronomers have been fairly perplexed by ‘Oumuamua, the first known comet to enter our solar system from beyond it, and accelerating away from the Sun, when gravitational forces alone predicted otherwise. Now, scientists from UC Berkeley and Cornell have proposed a viable mathematical model that accounts for its mysterious orbit, which had previously prompted speculation the comet was an alien spacecraft: because ‘Oumuamua is extremely small for a comet, it’s orbital trajectory can be altered by the hydrogen gas spewing from its surface as its ice is melted by the Sun’s rays. (UCB) (ht The Orbital Index)
Skyscraper-sized asteroid will pass by Earth next week. An asteroid roughly the size of the Empire State Building will fly by Earth at over 77,000 km/hr next week — at a distance of around 19 million miles, or about eight times the distance from here to the moon, so no need to worry. (Tech Spot)
Study suggests Milky Way hosts hundreds of millions of habitable planets. By re-analyzing data from NASA’s Kepler mission and supplementing it with new info from the ESA’s Gaia satellite, University of Florida astronomers have shown that a third of all exoplanets orbiting M dwarf stars could theoretically support liquid water, and, along with it, life. Based on known quantities of M dwarfs in the Milky Way, we’re talking hundreds of millions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone. (Live Science)
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft back on track to explore metal-rich asteroid. After Psyche’s expected launch date last fall was pushed back due to a software-related setback, an independent review board has given it the green light to blast off in October 2023. The spacecraft will travel 280 million miles over six years before entering the orbit of a metal-rich asteroid — theorized to be the core of a planet that broke up before fully coalescing — and gathering data for 26 months. (CNN)
Is red supergiant Betelgeuse about to explode? It’s 42 percent brighter than normal, and a new study shows it could become the Milky Way’s next supernova within “tens of years.” (Universe Today) (ht The Orbital Index)
Lunar cold traps: landing near dark polar craters causes ice contamination. Landing space crafts on the moon near “cold traps,” or dark polar craters, causes rocket exhaust to freeze into the crater, which presents a problem for astronomers looking to study natural ice on the moon. Or, so say scientists who are using computational simulations of moon landings near the lunar poles to plan for unintended side effects of lunar mining. Their advice? “We recommend that most braking be performed while the braking engine is pointed over the horizon… This will ensure that most exhaust leaves the lunar environment.” (Twitter)
Analysis of photos captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft resurfaced on Twitter this week reveals ice towers rising up 2.5 km above the plane of Saturn’s rings; it’s from 2009, but the pic is too cool not to include (Twitter)
This primer (published Feb 2023) on measuring distances between celestial bodies is super fun and very mind-bending
A “potential source of gravitational waves that has never been investigated before” could be the debris around dying stars, which may cause spacetime ripples to shake; trippy simulation here
The White Pill Investment Index: June 9
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For last week’s deals, check out the previous edition of the White Pill.
Hypersonic flight — Venus Aerospace, a company developing technology for hypersonic consumer travel, raises a nearly $16m Series A4 and A5 from Countdown Capital and others. “No one has ever built an engine that makes one-hour global transport cost-effective,” reads the company’s website.
Metal without mining — Magrathea Metals raises a $10m seed in a deal led by VoLo Earth Ventures and Capricorn Investment Group; the company is developing tech to use brine to make magnesium, the lightest structural metal, enabling vehicle manufacturers to scale their use of it without resorting to open pit mining.
Micro-small modular reactors — Nano Nuclear Energy raises a $4m seed to develop really small SMRs.
Mech technology — Contoro, a company that’s working on human-operated robotic ‘arms’ that can be operated remotely, intended for manual labor, raises $6m.
Mushroom materials — Ecovative, a company developing mycelium-based packaging and material substrates, raises a $15m Series E in a deal led by Viking Global Investors.
Quantum computing — Haiqu, a company designing quantum software for quantum computers, raises a $4m pre-seed in a deal led by Toyota Ventures and MaC Venture Capital.
More hypersonic flight — New Frontier Aerospace, whose mission is to “deliver cargo and passengers anywhere on Earth in two hours or less — in a renewably fueled, carbon neutral aircraft," raises $1.5m in grant funding from NASA, National Security Innovation Capital.
Drone workforce — Birdstop, developer of drones used to monitor remote company assets (e.g. power, water infrastructure), raises just over $2m.
Study suggests schizophrenia might be caused by brain-attacking autoimmune diseases. A former high school valedictorian suddenly succumbs to severe schizophrenia; she’s catatonic, untethered from reality, trapped in a permanent state of audio and visual hallucination for two decades, during which no amount of antipsychotics or electroconvulsive therapy seems to help. Then scientists realize she has lupus, a brain-attacking autoimmune disease; a few months of targeted treatment later, and she’s sane again. A true story of a miraculous recovery that provides hope for the hundreds of other patients around the world suffering from severe psychiatric conditions stemming from underlying autoimmune disorders. (WaPo)
Anti-aging breakthrough: preserving immune function by extending T-cell lifespan. At the end of every chromosome is a repeating sequence of DNA called a telomere that serves as an “aging clock” — every time a cell replicates, telomeres get shorter; past a certain shortness, a cell is no longer able to replicate. When immune cells lose the ability to replicate, existing cells eventually lose their potency, and the human immune system declines. Recently, a team of researchers from University College London showed that T-cell telomeres can be lengthened with antigen-presenting cells delivered via vaccine, thus suggesting a simple method for preserving immune function in elderly humans. (The Debrief)
Teledermatology: diagnosing skin cancer with a smartphone camera lens. The UK’s National Health Service is set to roll out a new smartphone camera lens that can take high-resolution images of moles and skin lesions to aid with cancer diagnosis. Using the device is projected to double the number of assessments doctors can make in a day, thus increasing the likelihood of early diagnosis. (Sky News)
Robot chef learns how to cook meals by watching recipe videos. With the help of neural networks, engineers have designed a robot that can watch recipe videos free of transition effects and sudden cuts, use them to determine the ingredients and steps required for preparation, and then execute them. Within a few years, the team expects to extend the capability to the rapid-cut video format common on platforms like YouTube. (TechSpot)
Delightful AI-generated baseball video doesn’t stop getting weirder
I continue to maintain that Photoshop’s new generative AI fill is good due to watching this video
No more FernGully leftism. It’s time to gene drive the Floridian Burmese python off the face of the planet. A brand new banger from Solana: nature isn’t perfect just the way it is, most animals on the planet actually don’t matter, and the only possible moral use of natural resources must be in service of the only moral creatures on this planet, which is to say us (well, most of us). We aren’t rabbits, we’re men. Our purpose is not to live a quiet life and disappear. Our purpose is dominion over the natural world. Read it at once!
Stray cat gene drive. Researchers from the Cincinnati Zoo administered a single gene therapy shot that induced the production of an egg-follicle-disrupting hormone in a small test group of female cats, none of whom conceived for a period of two years afterwards. Existing methods of stray animal population control are cumbersome and costly, so a single-dose silver bullet would be a major improvement. (NYT)
DOE announces $46m in funding for nuclear fusion startups. Big picture goal: enable a pilot demonstration of scaled fusion power generation in less than a decade. The announcement comes after a major breakthrough in December, when scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — for the first time ever — achieved a fusion reaction that yielded a net energy gain. The roadmap for each of the funding recipients is to replicate that historic achievement, construct commercial-scale reactors, and establish viable fuel supply chains. (The Verge)
Electric RVs coming. Starting at $125,000, the Lightship L1 Electric RV trailer has a “battery system [that can] provide a week of off-grid power without charging... The trailer also benefits from an ecosystem of all-electric appliances, connected features, and modern amenities.” The Lightship L1 propels itself, so it doesn’t use battery life or MPG of the vehicle towing it; they just recently announced that they’ve signed a lease agreement on a 32,000 square foot facility in Colorado. (insideevs.com)
Next-gen “2D” solar panels pave way for utility scale space farms. University of Pennsylvania researchers have developed solar panels only a few atoms thick — a thousand times thinner than a human hair, and therefore extremely lightweight. Despite their thinness, each panel generates a comparable amount of electricity to conventional solar arrays, which means more energy per weight, in turn rendering utility-scale space farms far more feasible. (Yahoo)
A Norwegian adventure cruise company recently unveiled plans for a fully electric cruise ship powered by giant, retractable sails covered with solar panels (CNN)
Apple’s ObjectCapture looks quite impressive
And some fun stuff
By most quality of life measures, human equality is rising worldwide. The Cato Institute has released a new index of global equality that takes stock of both economic prosperity and QoL metrics like lifespan, access to information, and political freedom. Across all but two of the metrics studied, their index shows global inequality has fallen significantly since 1990. (Cato)
If you’re on desktop, turn your sound on and visit the family of the third president of Nintendo’s website
Watch an electrical transmission line close its circuit breakers (it’s cooler than it sounds) (@BrianRoemmele)
TIL about the Shanghai Pepe shop (@echetus)
Take a casual ride around 1940s New York City (@BrianRoemmele)
Riker: “Permission to touch grass, sir?”
Picard: “Make it so.”
-Brandon Gorrell and Nick Russo