Ultima Thule is a Red Snowman in Space

MU69_image_v1 copy

From NASA.gov:  The first color image of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles (137,000 kilometers) at 4:08 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, highlights its reddish surface. At left is an enhanced color image taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), produced by combining the near infrared, red and blue channels. The center image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has a higher spatial resolution than MVIC by approximately a factor of five. At right, the color has been overlaid onto the LORRI image to show the color uniformity of the Ultima and Thule lobes. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

At a distance of 4 billion miles from Earth, the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule is the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.  Nasa’s New Horizons probe took 9 years to reach Pluto, and then 3 more years to arrive at Ultima Thule.  Higher resolution images are being beamed to Earth, but with only a 15 W transmitter and a 6 hour travel time for radio signals it will take days or possibly weeks for the next few images to arrive.  In fact, it will require two years to fully transfer all the data from the Ultima Thule flyby.

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Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Can Now Chase You Up the Stairs

Read more at Popular Mechanics.


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Spiders can fly hundreds of miles using electrical gradients

Spider on tip toe.

Distinctive “tip toe” behavior of a spider about to launch

It’s long been known that spiders spiders can “balloon” themselves up into the air using extruded silk strands, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles. Recent work by Erica Morley and Daniel Robert at the University of Bristol demonstrates that the strands aren’t merely caught by the breeze.  The silk threads are negatively charged (like the earth), and are drawn up the positively charged electrical gradient in the atmosphere.  The result is an electrostatic elevator for the spiders.  No wind required (though a little breeze does help move the spider to a new location).

See Ed Yong’s excellent blog post at the Atlantic for more details, or check out the original paper by Morley and Robert at Current Biology.

Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballooning_(spider).

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A glimpse into how they made the newest exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, “Unseen Oceans.”

This burger bot makes your lunch with no human help.




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Charon 40 Years Ago and Today

Charon, the moon of Pluto

Upper right: The first image of Charon (as a small bump on Pluto), taken 40 years ago. Main image: Charon as seen from NASA’s New Horizons space craft.

Pluto’s moon Charon (technically a binary partner) was first discovered 40 years ago, on June 22, 1978, by U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer James Christy.  Like Pluto, it was known only as a blurry smudge until the New Horizons flyby in 2015.  Charon was then revealed to be an intriguing world of its own, with mountains, canyons, and signs of the one-time existence of an underground ocean.  Even more striking is the spray of reddish material located at the north pole, thought to be colored hydrocarbon deposits created by chemical reactions of outgassed methane catalyzed by UV light from the sun.

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In the long run the winning company in any industry will be the best software company

The recent blowout financial results from the FANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) reminded me of Marc Andreessen’s bold prediction about software companies.  Seems more and more relevant with every passing quarter:

1) Every product or service that can become software will become software.

2) Therefore, every company that makes those products or services has to, and will, become a software company.

3) Therefore, in any industry in the long run the winning company will be the best software company.

You can substitute “data analytics” for “software” and pretty much get a similar conclusion, even if the physical product itself is not software.

Marc Cuban, for what it’s worth, thinks artificial intelligence “will change everything” and the FANG stocks are ready to “crush it” on AI.  Buckle up.

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Most visitors to a place are those who live nearby, and those who visit rarely.

Think about that for a moment.  Certainly fits with what most city downtowns are like — swarms of both tourists (rare visitors) and the people who work (or live) there.  Empirically the number of visitors scales inversely as the square of both the distance traveled and the frequency of visitation.  But geography is two-dimensional while time is one-dimensional, and the world is a big place with lots of people who travel.  So you end up with a lot of people from far away who don’t visit that often, and the folks who live there.  But not many people from middle distances, who visit often.

To learn more about the math and data behind that statement, read the blog post by Robin Hanson about Geoffrey West’s new book, Scale:  The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (link from Robin Hanson’s post).

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Stanford researchers develop a new type of soft, growing robot.

The basic idea behind this robot is straightforward. It’s a tube of soft material folded inside itself, like an inside-out sock, that grows in one direction when the material at the front of the tube everts, as the tube becomes right-side-out.

The growth of the tip is under remote control, allowing the robot to maneuver itself around obstacles.  A remote camera can be carried along by the tip as well, allowing for navigation, as well as observation of the local environment.

In other demonstrations, the robot lifted a 100-kilogram crate, grew under a door gap that was 10 percent of its diameter and spiraled on itself to form a free-standing structure that then sent out a radio signal. The robot also maneuvered through the space above a dropped ceiling, which showed how it was able to navigate unknown obstacles as a robot like this might have to do in walls, under roads or inside pipes. Further, it pulled a cable through its body while growing above the dropped ceiling, offering a new method for routing wires in tight spaces.

Read more at Stanford News.

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World’s first cable-free elevator travels horizontally and vertically, driven by maglev technology.  Link here.


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Boston Leads the List of Top 25 U.S. Cities for NIH Funding


Not surprisingly, the biotech hubs cluster at the top.  Boston leads at $1.9B, New York $1.4B, Seattle, Philadelphia and Baltimore all coming in around $900M each.

Somewhat surprising is how high Boston ranks relative to San Francisco ($680M). Consolidating San Francisco, Stanford, and Berkeley vs. Boston and Cambridge (U.S.) doesn’t change the ranking much.

Boston does have the highest concentration of research universities and hospitals in the country.  By itself, the five-block square Longwood medical area (Harvard Med, Harvard Public Health, Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s, Beth Israel Deaconess, Dana Farber, etc.) totals over $1 billion, which would make it the third highest “city” on the list.

Data source:  U.S.  National Institutes of Health, FY 2016 funding.

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