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The White Pill: Moon Memo
white pill #7 // melting moon dust, saturn space snakes, a new vertical farm project, and the hands of celebrated gougers
It’s the seventh edition of The White Pill, our weekly round up of inspiring news from tech, medicine, space, energy, and engineering.
A ton of space news in this issue: we discuss a robotic snake that will explore geysers on a Saturnian moon, a LOT of Earth-moon news (planning for dust-free areas of operation, moon roads, melted regolith, lunar bricks, 3D printed habitats… i.e., your standard lunar fare), and the six super sci-fi projects NASA just granted funding to (one of them is described as developing “nearly silent electroaerodynamic thrusters for vertical takeoff and landing aircraft”).
Also included in this issue: details on some interesting engineering projects, such as a city-block-size vertical farming operation in Compton; news in medicine, like the fact that dementia may be caused by a virus, and as always, Fun Stuff at the end. Also: don’t miss the White Pill Investment Index (see last week’s here), where we track the big deals and interesting projects that got funded this week.
But first, some excellent news…
Man “unparalyzed” with brain and spine implants. Paralyzed from the waist down by a motorcycle accident in his late twenties, Gert-Jan Oksam had tried unsuccessfully for years to recover his ability to walk. Then a team of Swiss scientists used AI-powered implants to translate his thoughts into spinal stimulations, re-establishing his capacity for voluntary movement. He’s now able to walk up stairs, get in and out of his car without help, and stand at a bar for a drink with friends. How many parents of kids with mobility issues will have a realistic chance to walk their children to the park and push them on the swings after this tech hits the market? Excellent news. (NYT)
Researchers use AI to discover potent, superbug-killing antibiotic. Over a million people die every year from infectious diseases caused by agents resistant to normal antibiotics. Acinetobacter baumannii is a particularly notorious superbug (one of three the WHO has categorized as a “critical” threat), often exhibits resistance to essentially every extant antibiotic. A Canadian research team recently used AI to determine the common chemical traits between known antibiotics, and then to whittle down a list of nearly 7,000 potential antibiotics with unknown effects. On that shortlist was a drug called abaucin, which effectively treated mouse wounds infected with A. baumannii. “The next step is to perfect the drug in the laboratory and then perform clinical trials.” Excellent news. (BBC)
Strong evidence the shingles vaccine offers protection from dementia. Researchers recently began to speculate that dementia is caused, in some cases, by viruses such as the herpesvirus that causes chickenpox and shingles. Now, thanks to a strict age limit enforced in Wales for recipients of the shingles vaccine starting in 2013, a team at Stanford has found compelling causal evidence that vaccinated individuals are 20% less likely to develop dementia than unvaccinated individuals. Further, the protective effects of the shingles vaccine were strong for women, but not for men. The team believes this is due to sex differences in the causal pathways underlying Alzheimer’s development — in other words, they stipulate that shingles is a primary driver of Alzheimer’s in women, but not for men. This finding is being hailed as a major advancement toward a world of “precision medicine,” in which, e.g., preventative dementia treatment is tailored to the specific individual, not to the disease in general. Excellent news. (Twitter)
Robotic snakes to explore Saturnian lunar geysers. Conditions around the ‘ocean-ice geysers’ of Saturn’s moon Enceladus could possibly support life, so researchers at JPL developed a snake-like robot called EELS (Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor) to explore the fractures the geysers create in the layer of ice that covers the moon’s ocean. It’s 13 feet long and 220 pounds, and it’s equipped with navigation algorithms that help it automatically determine where to go and how to get there. It’ll be fully developed by the end of 2024, then will take 12 years to reach the surface of Enceladus. Video here. Pic related. (Freethink)
Saturn’s ice rings have a short half life. Saturn is much older than its rings, and will long outlive them. According to a recent study, its iconic ice rings formed “only” a few hundred million years ago, and will disappear in a few hundred million more. Saturn, on the other hand, is 4.5 billion years old, and will likely exist for another 5 billion. May humanity outlive them all. (CNN)
Alien-hunting observatory on the dark side of the moon. A team of scientists convened last week in Sydney, Australia to start planning for the establishment of a lunar SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) station. Stationed on the dark side of the moon, the radio telescope would be able to detect electromagnetic transmissions blocked by Earth’s atmosphere and interfered with by satellites and the like. (Supercluster)
Companies debut plans for building lunar infrastructure. Twenty-first century pioneers descended on Washington DC last week for a space exploration summit, at which several companies unveiled detailed plans for building roads, launch pads, and buildings on our moon. ICON, for instance, showed off 3D-printing and additive manufacturing technologies it hopes to one day use to build pressurized lunar residences fit for human inhabitants. Astroport, an XArc subsidiary, presented “Lunatron,” which is designed to turn moondust into bricks for building launchpads that would turn the Moon into a pitstop for deep space exploration. (Motherboard)
Blue Origin to develop lunar lander for NASA’s 2029 Artemis V mission to the moon. Per the press release: “For the Artemis V mission, NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) rocket will launch four astronauts to lunar orbit aboard the Orion spacecraft. Once Orion docks with Gateway, two astronauts will transfer to Blue Origin’s human landing system for about a weeklong trip to the Moon’s South Pole region where they will conduct science and exploration activities.” The mission is part of a broader effort to establish recurring human lunar landings and expand NASA’s Moon to Mars space strategy for deep space exploration. (NASA)
Are black holes actually cosmological deformations caused by dynamics from extra dimensions? The very concept of a black hole is invalid according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which makes no allowance for the “point of infinite density” currently posited to lie at its center. String theory, on the other hand, does allow for black holes — but also allows for other mathematical constructs that can account for the same observed phenomenon we typically chalk up to black holes. Researchers at Johns Hopkins recently proposed one such construct: topological stars, or solitons, which are not points of infinite density but rather cosmological deformations caused by dynamics from extra dimensions. Observed from an immense distance, solitons and blackholes would look nearly identical. Up close, however, we could tell them apart, as solitons’ light can theoretically escape a soliton but not a black hole. Guess we’ll just have to get up close. (Motherboard)
NASA grant winners. NASA will grant up to $600,000 over the course of two years to six early-stage technology concepts.
JPL will use the funds to develop “next-generation dynamically tunable quantum radar technology to improve remote sensing studies of Earth and other worlds”
At MIT, they’ll work on “nearly silent electroaerodynamic thrusters for vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that could be used to transport cargo and eventually passengers over short distances in urban areas”
At USCB, the grant will fund a “rapid response capability to mitigate a disastrous impact from an asteroid or comet by pulverizing the object into pieces small enough to burn up in Earth's atmosphere”
Melting the moon. “The first step toward 3D printing on the moon will involve using lasers or microwaves to melt regolith,” which is the layer of loose, fragmented material that covers the solid bedrock on the Moon's surface. This solution has been recently proposed by NASA’s Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technology team (MMPACT) for long-term off-earth habitable structures. (Wired)
Also check out a video of Raptor, the rocket engine that powers SpaceX’s Starship, test firing into a water-cooled steel plate. (Twitter)
From Cape Canaveral to low earth orbit in 16 hours, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, dubbed Freedom, helped private company Axiom Space send four astronauts to the ISS on Sunday. In a first, the capsule’s Falcon 9 booster also landed back on land, as opposed to on a ship in the ocean. (CNBC)
Speaking of Saturnian lunar ice geysers, Enceladus is home to an Old Faithful on steroids. Earlier this month, scientists announced the James Webb Space Telescope captured as-yet-to-be-released images of an enormous geyser blasting a vapor plume many times the moon’s diameter into space. (Live Science)
Earth has 1,500 volcanoes on its surface. A new map shows that Venus, which is smaller than Earth, has 85,000. (Guardian)
Earth may only have 1,500 surface volcanoes, but it has many more hiding on the ocean floor (only a quarter of which has been mapped). In 2011, a census counted 24,000 undersea volcanoes; a recent radar data dump added a staggering 19,000 to the tally. (Science)
The gravitational wave observatory LIGO is back in action and better than ever. Newly equipped with a “quantum squeezing” system, LIGO is 30% more sensitive to gravitational waves. (Interesting Engineering)
FDA approves Neuralink brain implant for first round of human clinical trials. The company hopes the implant will one day help paralyzed people regain the ability to walk, in addition to alleviating a host of neurological disorders. (Reuters)
Genetically modified stem cells with anti-cancer, anti-aging properties. A recent study from Taipei Medical University shows mice with a mutated form of the KLF1 amino acid have elevated cancer immunity and longer lifespans. Cancer-killing cells like T-cells and NK cells are 2-7 times as potent, and processes associated with aging — such as fibrosis — are slowed significantly, resulting in 20 percent longer lifespans. The researchers demonstrated the ability to instill these anti-cancer and anti-aging properties into non-mutant mice by way of a single, partial stem cell transplant. (EuroNews)
Genetically engineered hypoallergenic eggs. Millions of American children are allergic to eggs, which, in addition to eliminating a solid source of nutrients, renders them more likely to react negatively to flu vaccines, as they’re usually grown in eggs. The protein that most often induces allergic reactions is ovomucoid, and Japanese researchers recently created a breed of chickens that lay ovomucoid-free eggs. Using a gene-editing technology called TALEN, they silenced the ovomucoid gene in chicken embryos, and as adults, those chickens laid eggs free of both the allergen and unintended abnormalities. (Freethink)
Solar powered airships. Researchers recently drew up plans for an airship roughly the same size and shape as the Hindenburg, but carrying a 10-ton battery and enmeshed in a 7-ton skin of solar cells. Fully charged before takeoff, it would be capable of transatlantic travel. The main downside is time, as flights between New York and London would take 2-3 days — fine for freight transport, but less so for passenger travel. Then again, legroom would be no issue on such a massive vessel, which theoretically has space for private sleeping quarters and a dining hall. (Anthropocene)
Pentagon-funded “Project Pele” primed to revolutionize nuclear power industry. BWX Technologies is leveraging Pentagon funding to develop a new generation of nuclear reactors that, at less than 1% the size of a conventional reactor, can fit into a run-of-the-mill shipping container and be delivered via semi-truck. Contrary to their conventional counterparts, which are cooled with water, BWX’s are high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. To mitigate the risk of meltdown, the system runs on uranium encased in silicon carbide, one of the most durable substances known to man. Each reactor generates 1 to 5 MW of power, and their mobility makes them well-suited to supply power to, e.g., disaster-stricken areas. Because BWX is working with the military instead of the DOE, it’s subject to a streamlined approval process that could allow its reactors to start generating electricity by 2025. (Bloomberg)
New commercial-scale indoor vertical farm. Vertical farming company Plenty officially unveiled a "commercial-scale vertical farm [that] will grow up to 4.5m pounds of produce annually to supply partners including Bristol Farms, Walmart and Whole Foods Market" in Compton, CA last week. For context, GPT and Bard say a conventionally-farmed LA city block could deliver between 100,000 and 600,000 pounds of leafy greens per year (and my back of the napkin math, based on skimming search results, does puts the figure somewhere in the lower bounds of the AI estimate — but if someone wants to nerd out on the math in the comments, by all means feel free to correct). I’d love to read an explainer on the farm’s electricity budget, and (assumedly) how sheer produce volume makes up for the cost of energy that would otherwise be free. (abc7.com)
Oklo announces sites for two nuclear power plants in southern Ohio. Oklo has signed a deal with the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative to develop two new nuclear power plants in the region. The plants are projected to generate 30 MW of clean electric power. (Oklo)
Energy ‘from thin air.’ New research published in the journal Advanced Materials describes how “nearly any material can be turned into a device that continuously harvests electricity from humidity in the air. The secret lies in being able to pepper the material with nanopores less than 100 nanometers in diameter.” If this technique could be applied to materials whose generation isn’t energy intensive, perhaps these UMass engineers are onto something here. (umass.edu)
White Pill Investment Index: Week of May 26
The White Pill Investment Index is a new feature of the White Pill that will track investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For previous May deals, check out the last issue of the White Pill.
This week in deals
AI medicine — Hippocratic AI secures $50m in Seed-1 and -2 funding from General Catalyst, Andreessen, and others; the company plans to develop a LLM for healthcare that it hopes will “dramatically improve healthcare accessibility and health outcomes, enabling patients to get healthcare at home and improv[ing] their health without any hassle.”
Other notable investments
Water — Cleantech water technology company Gradiant raises $225m in Series D, led by BoltRock Holdings and Centaurus Capital.
AI kitchen — developer of a robotic kitchen assistant powered by AI “designed to empower chefs to make food consistently and perfectly” Miso Robotics raises $15m in Series A.
Medicine — Biotech company Ensoma, which is developing genomic medicine and “pioneering a next-generation in vivo approach for treatment,” raises $135m in Series B in a deal led by 5AM Ventures and Arix Bioscience.
Curing blindness — Ray Therapeutics, a company dedicated to curing blindness, raises $100m in Series A in a deal led by Novo Holdings.
Holographic surgery — Medical augmented reality company MediView, whose products allow “healthcare providers to optimally examine a patient using a hologram instead of a conventional 2D display screen,” among other sci-fi stuff, raises $15m from GE Healthcare and other investors.
Illness detection — Canary Speech, which is developing tech to recognize signs of respiratory illness, dementia, and other ailments by listening to a patient’s speech, raises just under $2m.
Recycling people — Human composting company (alternative to burial or cremation) Return Home raises almost $2m.
Robots — Humanoid robot developer Figure raises $70m in Series A from Parkway Venture Capital and other investors. The company’s robots are “designed to address drastic labor shortages, and reduce the number of workers in unsafe jobs.”
Satellites — On demand satellite photography service SkyFi raises $7m of seed funding in a deal led by Balerion Space Ventures and Skylar Capital Management.
The hands of celebrated gougers is a great name for a band, but also it’s a real illustration in a book about early American rough-and-tumble fighting, wherein the ultimate goal was to gouge your opponent’s eye out. Thread here.
If you ever wanted to know what medieval toilets looked like, this tweet is for you.
This video is certainly not real and I would suggest that instead of warning against speeding it actually warns against driving your car into giant suspended spiky balls, but regardless the physics are mesmerizing and fun to watch.
Generative AI reconstructs video based on brain activity data. Using only fMRI data and Stable Diffusion’s text-to-video tool, researchers were able to generate video that correlates reasonably well with the actual visual stimuli the subject was seeing. Click the links, watch the video. (Motherboard) (Twitter)
You must not forget to touch grass this weekend.
-Brandon Gorrell and Nick Russo