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The White Pill: The Glint Of Alien Cities
white pill #11 // new moon gizmos, the robotic pill delivering osteoporosis drugs, an impressive development in quantum computing, the fastest milky way star ever, and more
Reader it’s been almost three months of weekly White Pills, where we send out a newsletter full of current developments in space, science, tech, and medicine that captivated our imaginations and inspired us to keep building (the Pirate Wires subscriber list). In news that will shock no one, and in keeping with long-established tradition, this eleventh issue of the White Pill is just banger after banger: inflatable lunar radio telescopes, a star going 5 million miles per hour, self-improving robotic agents, an enormous Department of Energy investment in domestic EV battery production, a parasite that triples the lifespans of ants, planet-sized plasma volcanoes on the surface of the sun, and a new theory that says maybe the universe expanding is actually just a mirage, among other items. Enjoy it!
First, some excellent news
FDA approves new combination therapy for prostate cancer. Earlier this month researchers reported the results of a phase 3 clinical trial testing the use of talazoparib in combination with enzalutamide as a treatment for advanced prostate cancer. The trial involved more than 800 participants, and the 399 receiving the novel drug combination were 55 percent less likely to show worsening cancer than those receiving a placebo. Patients with a specific mutation were 80 percent less likely to show worsening cancer. Less than three weeks after the results were published, the FDA greenlit the drug combination for use in the US. Excellent news. (Prostate Cancer Foundation) (FDA) (The Lancet)
Lighting up the dark side of the moon with robotic reflectors. The plan: a sturdy base with a 20-meter long pole jutting up, at the top of which are two ten-meter wide reflectors that move robotically to continuously capture the Sun’s rays. The bottom reflector beams sunlight to the top one, which beams it to a solar panel set up in the lunar shadows, where it powers a light source. (Maxar)
Inflatable lunar radio telescope. The ESA is working on a cool lunar infrastructure concept it compares to an enormous inflatable mattress. The gist: 3D print an array of radio telescopes on a sprawling slab of kapton — a flexible film used in circuitry — that can be folded for easy transport to the moon’s surface, and then inflated to form a 200-meter by 200-meter superstructure united by a single antenna. On the far side of the moon, the system could do some serious work observing signals we can’t detect on Earth. (space.com)
Geminids meteoroids likely created by violent event. One of the brightest, most active meteor showers visible from Earth is caused by a debris stream trailing an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. A new paper suggests the Geminids meteoroids are the product of a violent event on 3200 Phaethon, such as a gaseous explosion or a collision with another object. (Eurekalert) (The Planetary Science Journal)
Fastest Milky Way star ever. Our solar system is traveling through space at around 450,000 mph; scientists just found the fastest-moving star ever recorded, which is moving at roughly 5,000,000 mph — faster, in fact, than our “galactic escape velocity,” which means before long it’ll hurtle into intergalactic space. (space.com) (arXiv)
Maybe the universe isn’t actually expanding? A new theory by Lucas Lombriser, theoretical physics professor at the University of Geneva, reinterprets the cause of redshift — a phenomenon central to the belief that the universe is expanding, in which light's wavelength is stretched “towards the redder end of the spectrum as the object emitting it moves away from us” — to argue that the expansion of the universe is a mirage. The theory also does away with dark energy. Read a thorough explainer on the paper here.
Is dark matter made of axions? New analysis of galaxy clustering data shows the universe may be less “clumpy” than previously thought, meaning “dark matter” is more evenly distributed than posited by models that assume dark matter is made of “weak interacting massive particles.” Further, the less clumpy universe is consistent with a different conception of dark matter that holds it’s composed of “axions,” which are hypothetical, wave-like elemental particles that can have wavelengths longer than entire galaxies. (UToronto) (Journal of Cosmology and Applics)
JWST can detect biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres, maybe. We typically discover exoplanets by observing the light of their parent stars; if at regular intervals we detect uniform drops in brightness, we can infer the drops are caused by an orbiting planet passing between us and the star. For gas giant exoplanets, enough light passes through their massive atmospheres during these intervals that we can determine their atmospheric composition by measuring light refraction. But the atmospheres of habitable exoplanets are too small for that, meaning we can’t detect chemical signs of life in their atmospheres — or so we thought. In a new paper, researchers posit that the James Webb Space Telescope is capable of detecting the signatures of ten organically produced molecules on Earth-like planets closely orbiting red dwarf stars. (phys.org) (arXiv)
Modern telescopes could detect the glint of alien cities. A new paper argues that existing exobiology observation tools are sufficient to detect extraterrestrial infrastructure, such as a city or vast solar array on an exoplanet, by observing specular reflection. (phys.org) (arXiv)
NASA announces new partnerships with private space companies. It will be providing expertise on a range of projects, including a SpaceX effort to develop methane-oxygen propulsion technologies for deep space exploration. (Space News)
→ And more:
I don’t understand anything he says, but this Russian cosmonaut’s ‘night time’ tour of the ISS is super cozy
Please enjoy this 2012 video of planet-sized plasma tornadoes on the surface of the sun
Excellent new Mercury pic above, captured by the BepiColumbo orbiter, a collaborative project between Europe and Japan (Mashable)
Webb Telescope to get exoplanet-hunting cubesat sidekick (University of Colorado)
The world’s third-highest-capacity launch vehicle Delta IV Heavy, part of the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV family of rockets, blasted off early Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral, carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office; fun video here (launch starts after the 23-minute mark)
SpaceX has “initiated communications” between it’s nextgen satellites, Starlink V2 Minis, and “licensed earth stations,” the company told the FCC in a filing on Tuesday (PCMag)
Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flight set for next week. (NBC)
The White Pill Investment Index: June 24
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.
Mining with AI — Kobold, a company that uses machine learning for mineral exploration, raises a $195m Series B Prime from Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, and others.
AI video — Captions, a company that uses AI for its video creation and editing product, raises a $25m Series B in a deal led by Kleiner Perkins, with a16z, Sequoia and others participating.
Spaceraft platforms — Apex Space, which makes satellite buses for space organizations, raises a $16m Series A in a deal led by a16z.
AI avatars — Synthesia, a company that produces strikingly realistic AI avatars, raises a $90m Series C in a deal led by Accel.
Lidar satellites — Nuview, “a startup that wants to map the entire landmass of Earth on an annual basis using space-based light detection,” is currently raising a Series A, $12m of which has been secured, in a deal lead by MaC Venture Capital, with Leonardo DiCaprio investing, among others.
“Robotic pill” delivers osteoporosis drug. If you hate needles and you have osteoporosis, you’re in luck. Rani Therapeutics has developed a swallowable “robotic pill” that carries a microsyringe through the stomach and into the intestine, where a self-inflating balloon injects the drug into the pain-receptor-free intestinal wall. Then, the microsyringe dissolves and passes through the digestive tract. (Eurekalert)
New longevity hack: viral diversity in the gut microbiome. A new study shows people who live deep into old age have an unusual variety of bacteria-infecting viruses in their guts. The next step is to figure out if we can use these viruses to engineer gut microbiomes for the purpose of extending lifespans. (Freethink) (Nature)
Cryogenically preserved organ transplant breakthrough. Scientists froze a rat kidney, thawed it, transplanted it into a living rat, and the rat survived. It’s a first-ever proof-of-concept for a life-sustaining organ in mammals. I’d tell you more myself, but the prose in this article is unbelievable by pop-sci standards: “The rat kidney was peculiarly beautiful — an edgeless viscera about the size of a quarter, gemstone-like and gleaming as if encased in pure glass.” Go read it. (Stat News)
A parasite that triples ant lifespans. Why would an ant with a tapeworm infection live longer than an uninfected ant? Answer: the tapeworm needs it to. German entomologists recently found evidence the tapeworms secrete lifespan-enhancing antioxidants and proteins that keep the host ants looking appetizing for longer in the eyes of woodpecker predators. (Science Alert) (bioRxiv)
Taurine helps reverse aging in mice and monkeys. Taurine — a naturally occurring, non-toxic amino sulfonic acid — was recently shown to keep middle-aged mice and monkeys healthier for longer, including maintaining high energy levels, bone density, and muscle strength. (Freethink) (Science)
Artificial Intelligence, Computing
Self-improving robotic agent. In an exciting new advance toward a world of general purpose robots, DeepMind has developed a new AI-based robotic agent that can learn to perform an array of tasks based on a relatively small sample of demonstrations, and then self-generate training data to enhance its own performance. (DeepMind) (arXiv)
LLM-mediated chemical synthesis. Researchers at the University of Rochester were recently able to synthesize a host of chemicals, including a novel (!) dye, starting with a two-sentence natural language prompt. The prompt was fed to ChemCrow, an LLM-based chemistry assistant designed to autonomously plan organic syntheses and assist with drug discovery. ChemCrow’s plans were given as instructions to a robotic synthesis device that was able to execute the AI-generated scheme. Notably, the researchers also equipped ChemCrow with guardrails to prevent its misuse to create, e.g., explosive materials. (Twitter) (arXiv)
Quantum computing has entered the “era of utility.” When Google announced it had achieved “quantum supremacy” in 2019, it meant its quantum computer had solved a problem in a few minutes that a conventional computer would still be working on today. Sounds exciting, but experts yawned, because the problem it solved was irrelevant to any real world application. Earlier this month, however, IBM upped the bar, getting a 127-qubit device to calculate the behavior of quantum-scale magnets in a magnetic field. It’s a calculation relevant to modern physics, and it’s too complex for even the world’s most sophisticated conventional supercomputers — but it took IBM’s device less than 1/1000th of a second. (NYT) (Nature)
DOE makes $9.2B investment in domestic EV battery production. The conditional loan commitment was made to a joint venture, called BlueOval, between Ford and South Korean battery maker SK. BlueOval plans to build three lithium ion battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky. (Canary Media)
Toyota teases solid-state battery durability breakthrough. By 2028, Toyota plans to make available a new line of EVs with solid state batteries that last for nearly 750 miles on a single charge; Tesla vehicles, for reference, have ranges of only 270-410 miles. Solid state batteries have long been touted as longer-range alternatives to lithium ion batteries, but they’ve historically been too brittle to endure a commercially feasible number of recharges. Now, however, Toyota claims it’s made a technological breakthrough that helps overcome those durability issues. (Reuters)
Genetically modified rice exhibits enhanced resistance to fungal disease. Rice blast fungus wipes out an amount of the world’s rice crop every year that would feed roughly 60 million people, or most of Thailand. But a June study describes a new, genetically modified rice strain with improved resistance to rice blast and relatively high crop yields if infected by rice blast. The next step is to recreate this success in commonly grown rice strains to prove commercial viability. (Eurekalert) (Nature)
Great read: Pirate Wires contributor Diana Fleischman co-authored a defense of polygenic screening, which essentially allows couples using IVF to make a more informed decision about which embryo to choose, but is under attack for being “eugenics.” Read it on Aporia.
12,000 year-old bird-bone flutes. Archeologists recently unearthed seven flutes in Northern Israel that were carved out of bird bones around 10,000 B.C. by the Natufians, who are one of the last known hunter-gatherer tribes to inhabit the region. “The flutes actually make the sounds of other birds of prey that were hunted at the site.” (Eurekalert) (Scientific Reports)
Ascension Island: terraformed volcano. Ascension Island is the tip of an undersea volcano that emerged as a distinct landmass in the southern Atlantic around a million years ago; until the mid-1800s, it was a barren wasteland of hot, dry volcanic rock. Then the British introduced plantlife, and by the 21st century, a full-fledged tropical forest ecosystem had emerged — a completely different landscape, borne of human intervention. It’s a real-world case study in terraforming; check out a great thread over on Twitter for more.
Fascinating: “Archaeologists have found a 4,000-year-old religious sanctuary on an industrial site” in the Netherlands with a burial mound serving as a solar calendar and the remains of over 60 men, women and children (phys.org)
All Earth’s water and air. If this is all it takes, terraforming Mars should be easy… right?
Extraordinary, shiny 3,300-year-old sword discovered in Germany (Guardian)
Important question: Could we reconstruct an image of what someone’s looking at, simply by what we see in the reflection of their eyes? (@sterlingcrispin)
Leaving you with some 1980s NASA art by Nixon Galloway, Pat Rawlings, Dennis Davidson, and Karen Chandler, courtesy of @HumanoidHistory (great follow, btw).
-Brandon Gorrell and Nick Russo
P.S. Touch some grass this weekend!!