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The White Pill: F*** Pancreatic Cancer
white pill #5 // pancreatic cancer takes multiple Ls, there have been some huge cosmic explosions recently, why you need to be seafloodmaxxing, and more
Hello anon, it’s your regularly scheduled time to take the White Pill. By law we are required to inform you that taking the White Pill may result in excellent vibes, mind-bending visions, positive feelings about the future, and temporarily forgetting that Twitter exists. So step out of the PvP WWW for 20 minutes to enjoy our digest of evocative links in space, energy, medicine, and tech. No lead story this week, but a ton of good space stuff. Also say hi to lead editors Brandon and Nick in the comments.
First, some excellent news
AI showing potential to predict pancreatic cancer. Roughly 95% of people who get diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eventually die from it; every year it kills upwards of 45,000 Americans. One of the reasons it’s so deadly? Patients with early stage pancreatic cancer often show no symptoms, so it’s typically not detected until relatively late, when it’s much harder to treat. It now appears, however, this dismal status quo could change, thanks to a research group led by computational biologist Chris Sander. Using a deep learning algorithm, the group was able to identify patients at high risk of pancreatic cancer based on pre-existing clinical records. Widespread use of this tool by general practitioners would increase the chances of early diagnosis, and thus could reduce pancreatic cancer’s presently astronomical mortality rate. Excellent news. (Nature Medicine)
Cancer researchers have successfully tested a unique cancer vaccine on pancreatic cancer. The team created personalized vaccines based on the unique genetic makeup of patients' tumors, using mRNA technology similar to BioNTech’s COVID vaccine. Despite being early days and the study being quite small, this marks the first significant success of an mRNA vaccine in treating pancreatic cancer, making it a promising milestone in the quest for effective cancer vaccines. Excellent news. (New York Times)
First RSV vaccine approved. The FDA approved its first vaccine for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which kills up to 10,000 elderly Americans every year. The newly greenlit vaccine belongs to pharmaceutical giant GSK, which already has over a million doses at the ready and will start shipping them before this winter’s uptick in RSV infections. Additionally, Pfizer is awaiting approval for a different RSV vaccine that can be used to treat both the elderly and pregnant women, as newborns are also a high-risk group for the virus. On that same note, Sanofi and AstraZeneca are awaiting approval for a monoclonal antibody treatment designed to confer vaccine-like protection on newborns. If all goes as planned, rolling out these drugs will prevent thousands of elderly Americans from dying each year, and may indirectly save the lives of many newborns by easing the load on pediatric ICUs. Excellent news. (WaPo)
Space and astronomy
New biggest cosmic explosion detected. Eight billion light years away, there’s a fireball that’s 100 times the size of our solar system and two trillion times brighter than our sun. Ongoing for three years now, this unimaginably awesome explosion — probably created by a supermassive black hole consuming a “massive dump of material” that had previously been in orbit around it — has been ongoing for three months. Note: the picture above is not this explosion. (Insider)
Jupiter-sized planet swallowed by dying star. For nearly two millennia after the death of Aristotle, educated men of the Western world believed the heavens were changeless and eternal. Then Tycho Brahe discovered a new star with a piece of string. Or, so we thought — until we realized he’d actually witnessed the death, not birth, of a star. We have since learned that when stars die, they grow 100 times brighter (hence Brahe’s “new star”) and 1,000,000 times bigger, the latter of which we always knew had to mean nearby planets were swallowed up by the supernova. But it wasn’t until 451 years after Brahe witnessed his civilization-altering supernova that we were able to actually watch a planet be engulfed by one. Then, on May 3, 2023, scientists from Harvard, MIT, and CalTech told the world they’d seen exactly this: a “a hot, Jupiter-sized world that spiraled close, then was pulled into the dying star’s atmosphere, and, finally, into its core,” about 12,000 light-years away. A postdoc involved with the study said this:
If some other civilization was observing us from 10,000 light-years away while the sun was engulfing the Earth, they would see the sun suddenly brighten as it ejects some material, then form dust around it, before settling back to what it was.
In response to which a Futurism author wrote: “While this isn't exactly a rosy outlook, it's good to know where we're headed in a few billion years, right?” Fortunately, we’re here to swat away the blackpill bullshit. When Earth is swallowed by the Sun, the civilization watching the supernova suddenly brighten from 10,000 miles away will be humanity, and our distant descendants will weep with awe and gratitude for the death of the planet where it all began. (Futurism)
New habitable-zone Earth-likes spotted. Astronomers have spotted two planets slightly larger than Earth orbiting a red dwarf star at a distance enabling the presence of liquid water. Red dwarfs are cooler than the Sun, but periodically emit violent discharges of UV/X-ray radiation capable of annihilating the atmospheres of nearby planets. Thus, further study is needed to determine whether these two planets are truly habitable. If so, our next challenge would be figuring out how to traverse the 137 light years separating our solar system from theirs. (Space.com)
We’re about to start manufacturing drugs in outer space. In a few weeks, Varda Space Industries will launch a “manufacturing satellite,” or “space factory,” into orbit. A partnership with Rocket Labs USA, the plan is for a “Rocket Lab-designed and built Photon spacecraft” to provide “power, communications, propulsion, and attitude control to Varda’s 120kg capsule that will produce pharmaceutical products in microgravity and return them to Earth.” Varda’s manufacturing focus is small molecule therapeutics — such as Ritonavir, an active ingredient in COVID and HIV medications — which “can have higher efficacy when produced in microgravity.” (Twitter) (Press Release)
NASA’s Perseverance Rover’s recent images suggest signs of a previously unseen deep, fast-moving river on Mars (see above), part of a waterway network flowing into the Jezero Crater, its exploration site for over two years. (NASA)
An international team of astronomers just announced their discovery of 62 new moons orbiting Saturn? Putting the total number of Saturns moons over 100? Come again? (UBC Science)
Wednesday’s launch of 51 Starlink satellites mark SpaceX’s 200th straight successful Falcon family rocket mission. (Spaceflight Now)
Also, just a reminder that Olympus Mons is the tallest mountain in the solar system (h/t @MAstronomers). Standing tall at 13.6 miles up, its peak sits at nearly three times the height of Mount Everest, it has a diameter of 370 miles (roughly equivalent to the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco), and if it were placed in the US, it would cover the entire state of Arizona. If a passenger plane wanted to fly over it, it would have to fly higher than the International Space Station’s orbit around earth. Behold —
Back on Earth…
We need to be seafloodmaxxing. What if we could: create a new Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the Sahara Desert — spawning a massive, vibrant ecosystem and bolstering regional food security? It’s called seaflooding, and the Sahara Desert isn’t the only place it’s feasible. Buckle up for a mind-bending read. (@tomaspueyo)
Researchers discover new microbes that can degrade plastic at low temperatures. Most studies on biodegradable plastics report microbial degradation at temperatures above 20℃, which is a problem, as the result is energy-intensive (and thus costly) industrial recycling. New research has revealed 19 microbial strains, isolated from alpine and arctic soils, capable of degrading several types of plastic at only 15 ℃.(Twitter)
UFO hunting with open-source AI. Recent Pentagon declassifications notwithstanding, people with an ardent interest in the mysteries of our skies are more or less lacking institutional support. But civilian UFO aficionados may be about to score a W: “a team of developers has decided to take matters into their own hands with an open source citizen science project called Sky360, which aims to blanket the earth in affordable monitoring stations to watch the skies 24/7, and even plans to use AI and machine learning to spot anomalous behavior.” Sky360 is aiming to release the first iteration of its open-source software in June. (Vice)
“Major paradigm shift” coming to particle beam accelerators. Particle beam accelerators like CERN have been instrumental in advancing our understanding of physics. The discovery of fundamental particles, the validation of the Standard Model of particle physics, the recreation of big bang conditions — particle accelerators can claim a fair amount of responsibility for these groundbreaking developments, and more. Recently, scientists at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the University of Chicago have developed an algorithm that can more accurately predict the behavior of particle beams as they zip through an accelerator at nearly light speed. Using machine learning, this new method constructs a detailed picture of the beam's position, distribution, and speed with just ten data points, a significant improvement over older techniques which might need 10,000 data points for the same level of detail. This breakthrough will enable more precise experiments in fields studying everything from innovative materials to the behavior of molecules on an atomic scale, pushing the frontiers of knowledge at particle accelerators worldwide. (The Debrief)
Supercomputers decode the mysterious motions of Earth’s mantle. Every American kid has had their imagination seized by the idea of going out back to the back yard and digging a hole to China. Most of us were probably lucky to make it more than a few feet. Had we kept going for 1,800 miles, we’d have had to watch out for “broad mantle upwellings,” or giant pillars of heat that surge up from the mantle toward Earth’s surface. Geophysicists have long been interested in these plumes of hot goopy rock because they’re thought to cause eruptions of kimberlite, which often contain diamonds. For decades, the consensus has been these upwellings drive kimberlite eruptions, but until Monday, no one had a viable explanation for how heat was transferred from the mantle to the crust. Now, with the help of supercomputers, an Australian research team has been able to provide exactly that, developing mathematical models that account for most known kimberlite eruptions over the last 200 million years. (phys.org)
Scientists have discovered “mysterious infrasound signals” in the stratosphere. Infrasound refers to sound waves that are below the frequency range of human hearing. Weirdly, “the source of these [sounds] is completely unknown.” (CNN)
55% of Americans support nuclear power, which is the highest level since 2012. Pirate Wires faithfuls will need no reminder of nuclear’s myriad benefits, but for any newcomers in the crowd: decarbonization and power grid stability, American energy independence, and widespread support among Republicans. Absolute no brainer. (Grist)
Watch this time-lapse of “Europe’s largest 3D-printed building” emerging. The Heidelberg building will be over 150 long, 30 feet high, and almost 30 feet tall. Instead of a full crew, only two workers need to oversee its construction. Once completed it will house computer servers. Here’s the video.
AI and robotics
AI-led advances in vaccine efficacy. A paper published in Nature in early May describes an AI “tool that optimizes the gene sequences found in mRNA vaccines” which “yielded vaccines that, when evaluated in mice, triggered antibody responses up to 128 times greater than those mounted after immunization with more conventional, codon-optimized vaccines.” What's more, it “also helped to extend the shelf stability of vaccine designs up to sixfold,” which, if in production, would eliminate the need for cold-chain equipment to deliver vaccines — basically just making vaccine logistics much easier. (Nature)
Robot maids. UK-based startup Prosper is developing a new robot that can perform routine household tasks like washing dishes. Its name is “Alfie,” and while it’s not market-ready, newly released time-lapse footage is pretty impressive. This kind of tech could be a big help for elderly and disabled people who don’t have family to look after them and can’t afford to hire a human caretaker. Also: “imagine this thing planting trees 24/7.” Watch the video here.
Grimes AI bangers. The lead story of a previous issue of the White Pill detailed Grimes’ plans to license her AI-generated voice to anyone, in exchange for a 50/50 rev share of any royalties generated. It’s been about two weeks since her announcement, and the songs have started rolling in. Frankly, we’ve got some bangers on our hands here — check out our roundup of the tracks here, and check out Solana’s interview with her here.
AI improving AI. OpenAI published a paper that describes GPT-4 providing explanations for neurons in GPT-2. Though OpenAI is careful to point out that its explanations are imperfect, they demonstrate an important step toward understanding more precisely how LLMs work. (@nickcammarata) (Bonus: Eliezer actually likes it?)
Ok, this AI video roundup is cool. My favorites are the AI-generated news b-roll, the creepy Cronenberg inspired ‘fever dream’, and the Mars Mining Machines. (@NathanLands)
AI Chrome extensions are starting to take off — from research assistance to Siri on steroids, today’s LLM-powered browser extensions offer a glimpse into what intelligence will look like as a commodity. Useful roundup here.
3,500 years ago, when ancient Greeks talked about celery, it sounded kind of like when we talk about celery. Linear B is an ancient script used by the Mycenaean Greeks around 1450–1200 BC, primarily employed for record-keeping in palace economies. It’s actually the earliest known form of written Greek that we’ve discovered. The term "se-ri-no" (𐀮𐀪𐀜) is the Linear B representation of the word we know in modern English as "selinon." In Classical Greek, the word is "σέλινον." This term is generally understood to refer to the plant we call celery or parsley. In French, the word for celery is céleri, in Italian, sedano. I know, many such examples. But etymology is cool. (@word_family_fri)
This c. 1968 illustration is of “lunar pogo stick for astronauts” was “designed at Stanford University [to] take advantage of the moon’s weak gravity to hop across the rugged moonscape in 50-foot jumps. Gyroscopes [would] keep the astronaut upright. Compressed gas in globes [would] fuel the piston bouncing mechanism at about 10 miles to the gallon. Other globes contain rocket fuel for jet steering to landings.” (@HumanoidHistory)
Above: Early 80s Blade Runner concept art by Syd Mead. “Ridley wanted sort of a crummy, macho bachelor's pad, but it had to look strange, with devices that you don't have any idea what they do.” (@HumanoidHistory)
Below, a few more from Mead. If you’re into it, buy The Movie Art of Syd Mead for your coffee table.
Don’t forget to touch grass this weekend.
-Brandon Gorrell + Nick Russo