Science X Newsletter Wednesday, Dec 4

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for December 4, 2019:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

Researchers achieve quantum control of an oscillator using a Josephson circuit

A multi-objective optimization approach for socially aware robot navigation

Unusual X-ray spectral variability observed in NGC 1313 X-1

Researchers discover stress in early life extends lifespan

Parker Solar Probe traces solar wind to its source on sun's surface: coronal holes

First giant planet around white dwarf found

Atmospheric river storms create $1 billion-a-year flood damage

Monthly birth control pill could replace daily doses

Freeze frame: Scientists capture atomic-scale snapshots of artificial proteins

Adding copper strengthens 3-D-printed titanium

Global carbon emissions growth slows, but hits record high

Sleep helps memory, right? Not for eyewitnesses

Permanent hair dye and straighteners may increase breast cancer risk

A common drug could help restore limb function after spinal cord injury

New screening method identifies potential anticancer compounds that reawaken T cells

Physics news

Researchers achieve quantum control of an oscillator using a Josephson circuit

Superconducting circuits, which have zero electrical resistance, could enable the development of electronic components that are significantly more energy-efficient than most chips used today. Importantly, superconducting circuits rely on an electronic element known as the Josephson junction, which allows them to manipulate quantum information and mediate photon interactions. While past studies have tried to enhance the performance and coherence of Josephson circuits, so far, the most promising results in terms of photon lifetimes were achieved in microwave cavities.

Scientists develop tomographic method to visualize state of 'solitary' electrons

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), working with the University of Latvia, the University of Berlin, Cambridge University and University College London, have developed a tomographic method to visualize the state of solitary electrons emitted from electron pumps.

Standard compression algorithm could revolutionize physical and biological computations, researchers say

Entropy, a measure of the molecular disorder or randomness of a system, is critical to understanding a system's physical composition. In complex physical systems, the interaction of internal elements is unavoidable, rendering entropy calculation a computationally demanding, and often impractical, task. The tendency of a properly folded protein to unravel, for example, can be predicted using entropy calculations.

How the U.S. hydrogen bomb secrets disappeared

Given a choice of items to lose on a train, a top-secret document detailing the newly developed hydrogen bomb should be on the bottom of the list. In January 1953, amid the Red Scare and the Korean War, that's exactly what physicist John Archibald Wheeler lost.

How small is a small-world network?

Discovered in the field of social sciences in the 1960s, the phenomenon known as small-world networks has fascinated popular culture and science for decades. It arose from the observation that in the world, any two people are connected by a short chain of social ties.

Chip-based optical sensor detects cancer biomarker in urine

For the first time, researchers have used a chip-based sensor with an integrated laser to detect very low levels of a cancer protein biomarker in a urine sample. The new technology is more sensitive than other designs and could lead to non-invasive and inexpensive ways to detect molecules that indicate the presence or progression of a disease.

Atom music lets listeners experience atomic world through sound

Atom music is a fun new way to explore the atomic world via musical synthesis techniques.

Astronomy & Space news

Unusual X-ray spectral variability observed in NGC 1313 X-1

An ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX) in the NGC 1313 galaxy, known as NGC 1313 X-1, showcases an unusual X-ray spectral variability, according to a new study recently conducted by an international team of astronomers. The finding is reported in a paper published November 21 on

Parker Solar Probe traces solar wind to its source on sun's surface: coronal holes

A year ago, NASA's Parker Solar Probe flew closer to the sun than any satellite in history, collecting a spectacular trove of data from the very edge of the sun's million-degree corona.

First giant planet around white dwarf found

Researchers using ESO's Very Large Telescope have, for the first time, found evidence of a giant planet associated with a white dwarf star. The planet orbits the hot white dwarf, the remnant of a Sun-like star, at close range, causing its atmosphere to be stripped away and form a disc of gas around the star. This unique system hints at what our own Solar System might look like in the distant future.

Star-quake vibrations lead to new estimate for Milky Way age

Data gathered by NASA's now defunct Kepler telescope provides a solution to an astronomical mystery.

New study finds the mix that makes Titan's lakes spew nitrogen bubbles

New research explains how bubbles erupt in frigid hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn's largest moon Titan, potentially creating fizz intense enough to form geologic features on the moon.

NASA launching RiTS 'robot hotel' to International Space Station

Sometimes robots need a place to stay in space, too. NASA is attaching a "robot hotel" to the outside of the International Space Station with the upcoming launch of the Robotic Tool Stowage (RiTS), a protective storage unit for critical robotic tools.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx in the midst of site selection

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission is just days away from selecting the site where the spacecraft will snag a sample from asteroid Bennu. After a lengthy and challenging process, the team is finally ready to down-select from the four candidate sites to a primary and backup site.

Looking for exoplanet life in all the right spectra

A Cornell senior has come up with a way to discern life on exoplanets loitering in other cosmic neighborhoods: a spectral field guide.

Image: A cloudy martian night through the eyes of a supercomputer

As NASA's Curiosity rover makes its way over the surface of Mars, it's sometimes accompanied by clouds drifting by in the sky above. Like Earth, the Red Planet has a water cycle, with water molecules moving between the surface and the air, traveling through the atmosphere and coming together to form clouds. The behavior of water-ice clouds on Mars plays a big role in its climate, and this computer simulation shows them forming and dispersing over the course of a Martian day.

Extent of the challenge to clean up space debris revealed

Current levels of space activity may not be sustainable, even without the introduction of so-called 'mega-constellations,' a new study from the University of Southampton has shown.

Scientists have found out why photons from other galaxies do not reach Earth

An international group of scientists, including Andrey Savelyev, associate professor of the Institute of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Information Technologies of the IKBFU, has improved a computer program that helps simulate the behavior of photons when interacting with hydrogen spilled in intergalactic space. Results are published in the scientific journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Mexican students launch a small satellite to the International Space Station

The first satellite built by students in Mexico for launch from the International Space Station is smaller than a shoebox but represents a big step for its builders.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe sheds new light on the sun

In August 2018, NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched to space, soon becoming the closest-ever spacecraft to the Sun. With cutting-edge scientific instruments to measure the environment around the spacecraft, Parker Solar Probe has completed three of 24 planned passes through never-before-explored parts of the Sun's atmosphere, the corona. On Dec. 4, 2019, four new papers in the journal Nature describe what scientists have learned from this unprecedented exploration of our star—and what they look forward to learning next.

Sun's close-up reveals atmosphere hopping with highly energetic particles

Outbursts of energetic particles that hurtle out from the sun and can disrupt space communications may be even more varied and numerous than previously thought, according to results from the closest-ever flyby of the sun.

SpaceX delays space station delivery due to high wind

SpaceX has delayed its delivery to the International Space Station because of dangerous wind gusts.

Technology news

A multi-objective optimization approach for socially aware robot navigation

Mobile robots are gradually making their way into a number of human-populated environments, including hospitals, malls and people's homes. In order for these robots to interact with humans in their surroundings, they should respect a number of unspoken social norms that are associated with sharing a given environment with others.

Amazon launches Transcribe Medical for doctors to dictate speech to text

Amazon is wasting no time in pursuing the opportunity to apply their voice technology expertise to the medical sector, which indeed has a need for voice to text transcriptions. With Amazon's service, the doctor can dictate clinical notes and speech into accurate text, resulting in transcriptions real time.

Tencent, Nintendo to launch Switch console in China

Chinese internet giant Tencent and gaming titan Nintendo on Wednesday announced plans to launch the Japanese company's popular Switch console in China from next week.

Google co-founders step down as Pichai named Alphabet CEO

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are stepping down from their roles at the helm of parent firm Alphabet and handing the reins to current Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the company said Tuesday.

United Airlines orders 50 Airbus aircraft to replace Boeing 757s

United Airlines said Tuesday it had ordered 50 Airbus A321XLR aircraft, worth an estimated $6.5 billion, to replace an existing fleet of aging Boeings.

Green-sky thinking for propulsion and power

We're seeing a transformational change in the propulsion and power sectors. Aviation and power generation have brought huge benefits—connecting people across the world and providing safe, reliable electricity to billions—but reducing their carbon emissions is now urgently needed.

The tricky ethics of Google's Project Nightingale, an effort to learn from millions of health records

The nation's second-largest health system, Ascension, has agreed to allow the software behemoth Google access to tens of millions of patient records. The partnership, called Project Nightingale, aims to improve how information is used for patient care. Specifically, Ascension and Google are trying to build tools, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, "to make health records more useful, more accessible and more searchable" for doctors.

Machine learning research may aid many industries

Spam emails, bank fraud, diabetes, workers quitting their jobs. What do these topics have in common? The answer can be found in machine learning research at Binghamton University.

Pros and cons of outgoing car model vs. redesign

The end of the calendar year can be an exciting time for new-car buyers. Many vehicles have been redesigned and are packed with the latest technology. However, the outgoing models are still on dealer lots and likely to be discounted steeply by automakers and dealers looking to meet year-end sales goals.

Portland plans to propose first facial recognition ban affecting private companies

The city of Portland, Oregon, is considering a unique ban on facial recognition software that could limit how private companies use it.

Robotics researchers have a duty to prevent autonomous weapons

Robotics is rapidly being transformed by advances in artificial intelligence. And the benefits are widespread: We are seeing safer vehicles with the ability to automatically brake in an emergency, robotic arms transforming factory lines that were once offshored and new robots that can do everything from shop for groceries to deliver prescription drugs to people who have trouble doing it themselves.

Growth in data breaches shows need for government regulations

Do you remember when 40 million was a large number? Forty million dollars in sales, 40 million customers, 40 million Twitter followers, 40 million protesters —all once conveyed something substantial.

New 'hyper glue' formula developed

With many of the products we use every day held together by adhesives, researchers from UBC's Okanagan campus and the University of Victoria hope to make everything from protective clothing to medical implants and residential plumbing stronger and more corrosion resistant thanks to a newly-developed 'hyper glue' formula.

Travel giant Expedia sends CEO packing after weak results

Online travel giant Expedia announced the immediate departures Wednesday of chief executive Mark Okerstrom and chief financial officer Alan Pickerill after what the company termed "disappointing" third quarter results.

Holidays bring phishing scam surge aimed at small business

The email looked legitimate, so Danielle Radin clicked on the link it contained, expecting to have her products included in a holiday gift guide.

Sundar Pichai steps into huge role as Alphabet CEO

Taking the reins as chief executive of Google parent Alphabet, the soft-spoken, Indian-born Sundar Pichai faces a host of challenges at one of the world's most valuable companies, which has become besieged by activists and political leaders.

Instagram to require birth dates in move to block underage use

Instagram said Wednesday it would require new users to verify they are at least 13 when they join the visually focused, Facebook-owned social network.

California cuts electric-car rebates, drops luxury models

California's rebate program to entice more drivers to purchase electric vehicles has gotten less generous, especially for residents looking to buy luxury models.

TikTok sued in US over alleged China data transfer

A university student in California has filed a class-action lawsuit against video app TikTok, which she accuses of harvesting large amounts of user data and storing it in China.

TikTok drops 'blunt' cyberbullying policy

TikTok has dropped a "blunt" cyberbullying policy, the Chinese-owned video sharing app said Wednesday after a report it hid posts by disabled, gay and overweight people.

Suitable energy mix for smaller communities

Solar thermal, geothermal, photovoltaic—what form of energy supply is most suitable for a particular municipality? Representatives of smaller communities are overwhelmed by a huge amount of information, which tends to exacerbate existing uncertainty. A new online tool from Fraunhofer is now helping to clarify this confusion. The tool calculates the optimal energy mix for each individual case, including funding possibilities available.

How to build a smart city: Innovation diplomacy, transparency, trust and... conflict?

Turning smart city ambitions into partnerships and investment plans is a challenging path. Three people with hands-on experience in inspiring and guiding cities in this process are Muriel Pels and Inge van de Klundert from Municipality of Utrecht and Carolien van Hemel of Utrecht Sustainability Institute.

Google bans political ads in Singapore as elections loom

Google has banned political ads in Singapore ahead of elections, an opposition party said Wednesday, sparking accusations the tech giant was "kowtowing" to the tightly-controlled city's government.

Tips to help small business owners avoid phishing scam

Phishing scams that infect a computer and potentially allow hackers to invade bank and other accounts are highly preventable—but it takes eternal vigilance on the part of computer users.

Microsoft shareholders defeat 2 activist proposals

Microsoft's shareholders have defeated two proposals by activist investors calling for the company to add a rank-and-file employee on its board of directors and report on gender disparities in company salaries.

Big United order shows Airbus opportunity as Boeing reels

United Airlines' order for 50 new mid-range aircraft from Airbus not only hands the European giant a huge win, it exposes a gap in Boeing's portfolio exacerbated by the 737 MAX crisis.

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▼ Google's third era

Yesterday's news that Sundar Pichai is taking on the new role of CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet was not exactly a "knock you over with a feather" kind of announcement. 

In a strictly technical, definitional sense, this is an "era-changing" moment because there's a new CEO for Alphabet. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of the company, are stepping back from running things and any time the founders change jobs, it means something. Arriving randomly on a Tuesday afternoon, it felt surprising and big.

But it also felt a little like a non-event, just a formalization of how things have been working anyway. The consensus is that Page hasn't been doing the necessary, public-facing part of being the CEO of Alphabet and maybe not much of the non-public work, either. So somebody needs to steer Alphabet, and Pichai is the obvious, steady choice.

More on what this all means after the links.

- Dieter

More from The Verge

+ The Verge guide to using social media

Adi Robertson has written an important piece here -- and the design on our site is also really good. Don't miss her appearance on The Vergecast or her Twitter thread. One thing I keep thinking about is how this is a useful guide for people who are sincere in their desire to find the truth (or something like it) online -- but what if fewer people want that than ever?

You should think about how you'll share some of these insights with your friends and relatives who have fallen prey to misinformation and clickbait. I would caution against just sending them the link. Instead, pick and choose a few of these tactics and talk with them about those specific things. Start small.

+ PlayStation 25th anniversary issue

Promised you yesterday this would be good and here it is: it is good. Read it all!

+ The rise and fall of the PlayStation supercomputers

I want to call out this piece by Mary Beth Griggs specifically, because it is a wonderful snapshot of a real thing that happened in computer history that turned out to be a fluke, but a really fascinating one.

+ Google Photos launches private messaging for quickly sharing photos

Jokes about Google's umpteenth messaging app aside (it's hard to set the jokes aside, believe me I know), this looks like a good and needed feature. Sharing photos in Google Photos involved a lot of teaching people about how obfuscated URLs work and while I stan the web forever, it was just too complicated.

+ Congress is split over your right to sue Facebook

Excellent look at this issue from Makena Kelly:

Republicans and Democrats disagree on other issues like nullifying state privacy laws and empowering the FTC, but tomorrow's [well, now it's today's -- Dieter] hearing could focus heavily on a private right of action. "We can pass any laws we want," Waldman said. "But if there's no way to enforce them, then what's the point?"

+ New Star Wars game show that sounds like American Ninja Warrior coming to Disney+

Do not be a hater about this. Ahmed Best is good and so are kids competition shows.

+ Ring reportedly outed camera owners to police with a heat map

+ Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 865 flagship is here — without integrated 5G

Qualcomm is doing its annual junket in Hawaii to announce its new products. We attended (and paid our own way, of course) last year, but didn't make it this year. There is a lot of 5G chatter, obviously, and all that 5G feels much more real that I would have expected a year ago. But all of this has the flavor of iteration, if I'm honest, even though that's not entirely a fair assessment. Will be interesting to see what gets announced today -- the event is ongoing.

+ Motorola vows to release lightning-fast flagship phones in 2020

Good, and overdue. I guess now that all the top engineers are done with the RAZR they can cycle back to making top tier phones again?

Verge Deal of the day 

Google and eero mesh Wi-Fi systems are still cheaper for Cyber Week

It's getting tougher to find good deals on tech, what with Black Friday and Cyber Monday being over — that is, unless you're looking for discounts on mesh Wi-Fi systems. Google's Nest Wifi and Amazon's eero system can blanket your whole home in reliable Wi-Fi signal, and you can save quite a bit of money right now.

A two-pack of Google Nest Wifi routers usually costs $336, but you can get them for $259 at Amazon right now. A three-pack of eero mesh Wi-Fi routers is $189 (usually $249) at Amazon.

Google's third era

Google tells me Page and Brin will continue to stay on as Alphabet employees — they're not going away, they're just handing over the reins. In their letter, they wrote:

We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we're passionate about.

Their characterization of how they'll be "actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders" is a vital part of the story. As Kara Swisher has repeatedly pointed out, they retain special, company-controlling shares of stock. It gives them leverage over not just Pichai but also the board itself. So the circle you have to square is that the co-founders have near-absolute power to do whatever they want with the company — and that they apparently haven't been doing much. 

Those aren't strictly contradictory ideas, but instead weirdly orthogonal ones: Pichai is in charge, but he doesn't have ultimate power. Page and Brin are not in charge, but they control the company. It's a situation as convoluted as the corporate structure of Alphabet itself.

Alphabet was formed in 2015 as a weird holding company for Google, designed in part to distance Page and Brin's various pet projects from Google's core business. That's when Pichai was put in charge of Google as the CEO. Since then, I think Pichai's tenure has been marked by a few major stories that are really the same story: he has spent a significant chunk of his time cleaning up the messes that resulted from Google's culture up to that point. 

Pichai's rise through Google's ranks was well deserved because he has calmly and consistently delivered good products. From the very first Google Toolbar to Chrome to Google's online apps to ordering its scattered hardware efforts, he steadily took on more of Google's user-facing products until, eventually, he took on the job of CEO.

All of the stuff Google made was innovative and smart but also directionless and unpolished. Pichai's job was to take Google's products out of permanent beta. At the same time, he's had to ensure future technologies — especially those based on AI — turned into real products. From a purely product perspective, which of course includes the lucrative ad products that make the whole thing go, Pichai has been very successful.

Pichai is not a corporate suit — Google is still Google and will still toss out weird ideas and still do weird stuff to the web and Android all the time — but there's a sense of direction in the past few years that was lacking before.

These distinctions are necessarily arbitrary, but I find it useful to split Google into three distinct eras. The first is the early startup days from the Stanford dorm room up until Eric Schmidt's "adult supervision" led Google to IPO and to buy YouTube and DoubleClick — roughly 1996 to 2007. Next is Google's monumental growth across mobile, ads, the web, and everything else you can think of — roughly 2007 to 2015. 

I see the founding of Alphabet in 2015 as an explicit attempt to start Google's third era. But what it really was was a midlife crisis. Splitting off experimental divisions into separate companies inside an umbrella corporation might have made sense in theory, but in practice everybody knew the truth: it was all Google and so-called "other bets" on the side.

It didn't really start the new era, is what I'm saying. But now that Pichai is running Alphabet officially alongside (above? contiguous with?) Google, he can do the same product cleanup work for the Alphabet companies. 

That is, if Page and Brin will let him. They did promise to "continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we're passionate about." It's something to watch out for in the future, but it's also not the most important job Pichai has right now.

His most important job lies within Google still, and it's not just cleaning up the effects of Google's culture on its products. Instead, it's stabilizing the culture itself. After that, it's navigating the new world of regulation, antitrust, the techlash, and well-justified privacy concerns from its users (aka everybody who goes online). 

Google's internal culture is changing rapidly, and the list of how employees are beginning to lose faith is not short. There's the James Damore mess, the Google Walkout that followed the revelation of Andy Rubin's payouts, the scaled-back TGIF all hands meetings, and most recently the accusations of employee retaliation — just to name a few big moments off the top of my head. 

Only so many of those scandals can be laid at the feet of Google's previous management. If I could only pick one major failure of Pichai's now four-year-old tenure as CEO, it would be the inadequate and increasingly antagonistic way the company is interacting with its most politically active employees. 

And external pressures on Google are just as difficult to navigate: at some point the US federal government will get its act together and enact more tech regulations — or even antitrust actions. The EU is already there on both fronts with the GDPR and the new rules about Android. 

If the first era of Google was developing the technology, and the second era was growing to a massive scale, the third era is contending with the effects of that scale. 

That reckoning isn't happening because the founders formalized their already reduced roles by handing over the CEO title. It's happening because both internally and externally, we don't know how to deal with a company as big and powerful as Google. We just know that Page and Brin aren't the ones to figure that out anymore. 

The third era of Google was already here and has been for some time — yesterday's CEO announcement just made it official.

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