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The White Pill: Science Victory Edition
white pill #2 // crazy big advance in mri tech, new james webb content, a grab bag of astronomy links, and starship
Welcome back to The White Pill, a Pirate Wires weekly digest of inspiring, fascinating, and evocative developments in tech, engineering, physics, astronomy, space, and medicine. First, a brief, lead story. Then, a storm of links. Brandon Gorrell is the editor on this one, so say hello and share your own links in the comments below.
First, some excellent news
A massive advance in MRI imaging technology, four decades in the making, enabled researchers at Duke to generate scans of mice brains at a ‘resolution’ 64 million times ‘higher’ than clinical MRIs in use today, with the ability to measure as few as five microns (for scale, a red blood cell is six to eight microns). Though the technology is not yet ready for clinical use, the “hope is that… we can better understand mouse models of human diseases, such as Huntington's disease, Alzheimer’s, and others. And that should lead to a better understanding of how similar things function or go awry in people.” (Duke Today)
Fusion energy: we are go for launch. On April 14, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that by unanimous vote, it will not be regulating fusion energy like it does fission. This is “a key decision for the US that gives the regulatory certainty needed to accelerate fusion” research and development, and enables “developers and investors… to accelerate their efforts and bring fusion energy to market.” (Fusion Industry Association)
New progress in longevity science “opens up a really fundamental new area of understanding how and why we age.” A recently published study in Nature demonstrated how a molecular process known as “transcription” speeding up as you get older is a key component of aging, and detailed how the paper’s researchers intervened to slow it down. This boosted the life spans of worms and fruit flies in the study. (@is_OwenLewis)
The lead story: Science Victory
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is a turn-based strategy video game in which you compete against other players to build the most advanced civilization in the fewest number of turns. The game’s base scenario starts you in 4000 B.C., at the dawn of agriculture, and while you busy your warriors with exploring the map, making contact with friendly tribes, and clearing out barbarian encampments, you’re also researching primitive technology such as pottery, animal husbandry, and mining. And as your society progresses — if it doesn’t get taken out in its infancy by barbarians, or later, nuked off the face of the planet by Ghandi— the technology you choose to research matters. For example, if you want to build airports in your cities to increase tourism, you will have had to have already researched industrialization, and before that mass production, and before that mathematics, and before that currency, and before that writing, etc.
There are several ways to win in Civ VI, and probably the most popular one is to pursue the science victory scenario. Three conditions must be met for that: launch a satellite, land a human on the moon, and establish a colony on Mars. Of course, you will have had to already researched something like 50 technologies to meet each of these conditions, as well as marshaled the resources of entire cities to be solely focused on scientific research, instituted government policies that subsidize technological development and produce Great Scientists, and established research partnerships with allied civilizations, all the while ensuring you don’t piss off a hostile country enough that they try to invade you, and if they do, defending against that.
On April 20, America got quite a bit closer to winning our civilization’s science victory when SpaceX successfully launched Starship, an enormous, fully reusable, multi-stage spacecraft and launch vehicle that can carry 100 astronauts and 100 to 150 tons of payload into orbit — and eventually to Mars itself.
From an engineering perspective, the significance of getting Starship off the ground is hard to overstate. Starship not only launched with 33 engines (the most engines of any rocket, ever), but it did so strapped to Super Heavy, Starship’s 226-foot booster, which had also never flown with the Starship vehicle before Thursday. In fact, there has never been a launch of anything so heavy, and so powerful in terms of thrust, in human history.
More significant, perhaps, are the near-term opportunities that will open up when SpaceX perfects Starship and its launch process. Because Super Heavy is rapidly reusable, the volume of stuff we can send to space will be factors more than ever before, and the cost of carrying payload to orbit will be far less prohibitive than it is today. And because Starship is so big, the size of stuff we send to space will no longer be so restrictive. So, for example, thousands of satellites can be launched into orbit, continuously, enabling a huge number of new satellite-based applications: hyper-localized weather forecasting, earthquake prediction, better-than-GPS location and navigation data, video communication from anywhere on earth, even air traffic control from space. Constructing massive space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope will be easier and cheaper. The outer planets like Neptune and Pluto will become more accessible to our probes. Space tourism will become an industry; space hotels will actually be a thing. And, like, instead of watching rockets launch from a TV in their classroom, your kids will be sending science experiments up on those rockets, then watching them launch from a TV in their classroom.
There’s also Mars. In 5 billion years, our sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel and begin to fuse helium, causing it to expand and increase in luminosity. This process will transform it into a red giant, which likely engulf our planet and destroy all life here. And of course, before that, there are all sorts of existential risks. Nuclear war could be triggered by escalating geopolitical tensions or misunderstandings. A meteorite impact could release an immense amount of energy, triggering global fires, tsunamis, and a nuclear winter effect from dust and debris blocking sunlight, leading to plummeting temperatures and the collapse of ecosystems. Similarly, a catastrophic caldera explosion, such as the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, could inject massive amounts of volcanic ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, causing a dramatic cooling effect and severely disrupting agriculture and food supplies. But with Starship, now we have the beginnings of a backup plan. Elon estimates that it’ll take a million tons of payload on the surface of Mars to establish a self-sustaining colony there. If he can achieve his goal of 10 Starships launching three times a day, he can deliver a million tons of payload to orbit in a year.
We’re one step closer now. Let’s go see what this universe is all about.
Space, astronomy, etc.
Physics-defying luminosity. In a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal, astronomers observed an object — M82 X-2 — ten million times brighter than the sun. This defies the Eddington limit, which is the maximum luminosity a star can achieve, determined by the balance between its gravitational force and the outward radiation pressure, beyond which the star would lose mass due to the excessive radiation force. From Futurism: “the ludicrously strong magnetic field of [M82 X-2’s] neutron star could be distorting the shape of nearby atoms, allowing them to slip through the otherwise overwhelming push by the star's radiating photons and come crashing into its surface.” (Futurism)
Exoplanet detection just got more efficient. In a new study published in Science, researchers describe a novel way of discovering and directly imaging exoplanets. “I think this opens up a new era in trying to study planets by imaging,” lead author Thayne Currie told Inverse. His paper also details a new exoplanet discovery: HIP 99770 b, containing carbon and water, and 15 times bigger than Jupiter, it orbits a star 13 times as bright as our sun from 125 light years away.
Thank you, Airbus, very cool! Airbus released a concept for a space station that’s more comfortable than the ISS and uses a centrifuge to generate gravity. It features three decks connected by a tunnel “which is surrounded by a greenhouse structure at the center of the modules.” (Space.com)
Older stars, which have become more metallic as they’ve aged, produce less ultraviolet light, which destroys DNA. I.e. older stars = better for life. (Inverse)
New research provides “unprecedented” evidence that “dark matter could be made of ultralight particles that cumulatively act as waves.” (Motherboard)
Building all sorts of astronomy stuff on the moon, instead of Earth, could be a boon for our understanding of space, as was recently discussed by the Royal Society. Watch the video playlist of the discussion here. (The Conversation)
NASA researchers discovered an extremely promising new alloy that, in one test, was 600 times more resistant to stress and heat than current heat-resisting alloys. The alloy “could find use in rocket nozzles and even nuclear fission or fusion reactors, and moreover, could signal an era of rapid advancement in materials science.” (Inverse)
There’s a new, less fuzzy (but still fuzzy) image of that black hole that they imaged awhile back. (Gizmodo)
Also, have you seen some of the original sketches that inspired the USS Enterprise bridge? (@Aviation_Intel)
There’s a new winner of the 2023 Sony World Photography Award, but he refused to accept it after revealing that he made his submission with AI (!). Photo above. (BBC)
Nuclear terraforming. What would it would it take to build a mountain in Kansas using nuclear bombs? About 2,000 100 kiloton explosions (cost of $4B) to puncture the lithosphere so magma “drips out” and forms a volcano. Read the fun thread here.
Text-to-video AI is getting better and better. Watch a recent creation produced with Runway here.
According to UC Davis, Lake Tahoe’s water is the clearest it’s been in 40 years, due to a resurgence of native algae-eating zooplankton. (ZeroHedge)
Lexus just dropped a badass hybrid minivan, with a 48-inch display in the back for watching movies. It will release in Europe this fall. (Inverse)
Finally, enjoy this animation of a majestic elephant seal’s “sleeping dive,” which is how they do it underwater, literally corkscrewing for 10 minute intervals while descending hundreds of feet. (Gizmodo)
Touch grass this weekend.
An inside joke among Civ players; Civ VI actually has a hidden agenda called “Nuke Happy” which Ghandi has a 70% chance of having