Science X Newsletter Tuesday, Aug 4

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for August 4, 2020:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

Exploring the interactions between microswimmer medical robots and the human immune system

CTCV J2056-3014 is an unusual polar, study finds

Malignant cancer diagnosed in a dinosaur for the first time

Ancient shell llama offering found in lake Titicaca

Disposed PPE could be turned into biofuel, study shows

Surface clean-up technology won't solve ocean plastic problem

Implantable transmitter provides wireless option for biomedical devices

Richard Branson space-bound in early 2021 says Virgin Galactic

Blood test could diagnose baby brain damage just hours after birth

Why microwaving liquids is different from other heating techniques, and how this issue can be resolved

Nanostructures modeled on moth eyes effective for anti-icing

Novel experiment isolates genes that cause some people to gain muscle while others don't

Large study confirms vitamin D does not reduce risk of depression in adults

Droplet spread from humans doesn't always follow airflow

Famous economics experiment reproduced thousands of times

Physics news

Why microwaving liquids is different from other heating techniques, and how this issue can be resolved

Tea drinkers have been saying it for years. Water heated in a microwave just isn't the same.

Droplet spread from humans doesn't always follow airflow

The World Health Organization has warned that aerosol transmission of COVID-19 is being underestimated. If aerosol spread is confirmed to be significant, as suspected, we will need to reconsider guidelines on social distancing, ventilation systems and shared spaces.

CERN experiments announce first indications of a rare Higgs boson process

At the 40th ICHEP conference, the ATLAS and CMS experiments announced new results which show that the Higgs boson decays into two muons. The muon is a heavier copy of the electron, one of the elementary particles that constitute the matter content of the Universe. While electrons are classified as a first-generation particle, muons belong to the second generation. The physics process of the Higgs boson decaying into muons is a rare phenomenon as only about one Higgs boson in 5000 decays into muons. These new results have pivotal importance for fundamental physics because they indicate for the first time that the Higgs boson interacts with second-generation elementary particles.

Casimir force used to control and manipulate objects

A collaboration between researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of California Merced has provided a new way to measure tiny forces and use them to control objects.

Sulfur-containing polymer generates high refractive index and transparency

Researchers reported a novel technology enhancing the high transparency of refractive polymer film via a one-step vapor deposition process. The sulfur-containing polymer (SCP) film produced by Professor Sung Gap Im's research team at KAIST's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has exhibited excellent environmental stability and chemical resistance, which is highly desirable for its application in long-term optical device applications. The high refractive index exceeding 1.9 while being fully transparent in the entire visible range will help expand the applications of optoelectronic devices.

Scientists propose a novel method for controlling fusion reactions

Scientists have found a novel way to prevent pesky magnetic bubbles in plasma from interfering with fusion reactions—delivering a potential way to improve the performance of fusion energy devices. And it comes from managing radio frequency (RF) waves to stabilize the magnetic bubbles, which can expand and create disruptions that can limit the performance of ITER, the international facility under construction in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power.

Professor's milestone in nuclear physics seeks to understand the universe itself

A nuclear physics professor from Florida International University was among a team of researchers that proposed something so out of this world, colleagues first hesitated to accept it was possible.

SLAC's new X-ray beamline aids COVID-19 research

There's a new bright spot at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource: Beam Line 12-1, an experimental station devoted to determining the structures of biological macromolecules with high brilliance X-rays. Researchers from around the country are using it to examine the atomic structure and function of different components of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Astronomy and Space news

CTCV J2056-3014 is an unusual polar, study finds

Astronomers have investigated a nearby cataclysmic variable system known as CTCV J2056-3014 using ESA's XMM-Newton satellite. Results of the study, presented in a paper published July 28 on the arXiv pre-print repository, indicate that the object is an unusual accretion-powered, intermediate polar containing an extremely fast-spinning white dwarf.

Richard Branson space-bound in early 2021 says Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson could shoot into space on his Virgin Galactic aircraft as its first passenger early next year, the company said, potentially blazing a path for commercial flights.

Lava oceans may not explain the brightness of some hot super-Earths

Arguably some of the weirdest, most extreme planets among the more than 4,000 exoplanets discovered to date are the hot super-Earths—rocky, flaming-hot worlds that zing so precariously close to their host stars that some of their surfaces are likely melted seas of molten lava.

Scientists find way to track space junk in daylight

Scientists said Tuesday they had discovered a way to detect space debris even in daylight hours, potentially helping satellites to avoid the ever-growing cloud of junk orbiting the planet.

VLBA finds planet orbiting small, cool star

Using the supersharp radio "vision" of the National Science Foundation's continent-wide Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), astronomers have discovered a Saturn-sized planet closely orbiting a small, cool star 35 light-years from Earth. This is the first discovery of an extrasolar planet with a radio telescope using a technique that requires extremely precise measurements of a star's position in the sky, and only the second planet discovery for that technique and for radio telescopes.

Researchers explore the origins of stars rich in phosphorus

The journal Nature Communications has published the discovery of a new type of star that is very rich in phosphorus, which could help to explain the origin of phosphorous in our galaxy. This achievement has been made by astronomers of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and researchers in computer science from the Centre for Research in Information and Communication Technology (CITIC) at the University of La Coruña (Galicia).

Surprisingly dense exoplanet challenges planet formation theories

New detailed observations with NSF's NOIRLab facilities reveal a young exoplanet, orbiting a young star in the Hyades cluster, that is unusually dense for its size and age. Weighing in at 25 Earth-masses, and slightly smaller than Neptune, this exoplanet's existence is at odds with the predictions of leading planet formation theories.

NASA's Lucy mission passes critical mission milestone

Last week marked the completion of a major milestone on the path to spacecraft assembly, test, and launch operations for NASA's Lucy mission.

The quiet Sun is much more active than we thought: study

Solar activity varies in 11-year cycles. As the activity cycle switches to a new one, the Sun is usually very calm for several years.

Return of the LIDAR

In a peninsula far, far away, a laser shoots into the sky to study the Antarctic atmosphere at Concordia research station.

Technology news

Exploring the interactions between microswimmer medical robots and the human immune system

Over the past few years, robotics researchers have designed tiny and untethered swimming robots, also known as microswimmers, with increasingly advanced sensing and locomotion capabilities. These microrobots could prove very useful in medical settings, particularly for the implementation of minimally invasive targeted therapies in parts of the body that are difficult to reach, such as the central nervous system or vascular system.

Implantable transmitter provides wireless option for biomedical devices

Purdue University innovators are working on inventions to use micro-chip technology in implantable devices and other wearable products such as smart watches to improve biomedical devices, including those used to monitor people with glaucoma and heart disease.

Green energy and better crops: Tinted solar panels could boost farm incomes

Researchers have demonstrated the use of tinted, semi-transparent solar panels to generate electricity and produce nutritionally superior crops simultaneously, bringing the prospect of higher incomes for farmers and maximizing use of agricultural land.

Neural network model finds small objects in dense images

In efforts to automatically capture important data from scientific papers, computer scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a method to accurately detect small, geometric objects such as triangles within dense, low-quality plots contained in image data. Employing a neural network approach designed to detect patterns, the NIST model has many possible applications in modern life.

Windows 10 turns thumbs down on CCleaner

For 16 years, CCleaner has been a popular computer system cleaning and optimization tool, known for efficiently removing unwanted files, programs and accumulated digital fragments from users' hard drives.

Future energy systems need to be climate proof

Climate policy for future energy systems typically focus on the challenge to make them carbon neutral to avoid climate change. However, it will also be critically important to make them climate proof to ensure that they are resilient to future climate change. This is the key conclusion of a literature review published in Nature Energy, analyzing 220 peer-reviewed articles. Climate proofing of energy systems is becoming more important as energy systems are expected to become more sensitive to climate change.

Sony net profit jumps 53.3% in Q1 but virus clouds annual outlook

Sony said Tuesday its net profit surged 53.3 percent in the first quarter, but warned annual profits were likely to see double-digit falls as the coronavirus pandemic continues to cloud the forecast.

US 'cloud' supremacy has Europe worried about data

Europe is sitting on a wealth of data that is the 21st century equivalent of a precious metal mine during the gold rush.

FAA spells out design changes needed in grounded Boeing jet

Federal regulators on Monday outlined a list of design changes they will require in the Boeing 737 Max to fix safety issues that were discovered after two deadly crashes that led to the worldwide grounding of the plane.

Q&A: TikTok saga continues with Microsoft talks. Now what?

The latest twist in the TikTok saga is an especially strange turn in a tale filled with strange turns. Suddenly, Microsoft—known primarily for work software like Windows and Office— is in talks to buy the popular Chinese-owned video app, which has raised national-security concerns for U.S. officials.

PlayStation 5: DualShock 4 controllers will work for the console, but not for PS5 games

The DualShock 4 wireless controller will work with the PlayStation 5 console, and supported PlayStation 4 games, but it won't work with new PS5 games, Sony announced in a blog post Monday.

Review: Meet the best budget phone with premium features, Google Pixel 4A

Google has been selling the Pixel phones since 2016, to little fanfare. But what would have happened had it launched back then with the Pixel 4A, the new phone set to debut on Aug. 20?

Tracking the neural network's nuclear clues

Following the 2011 earthquake in Japan, a tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling in three Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactors. The reactors' cores largely melted in the first 72 hours.

Researchers shine light on roiling market for stolen debit and credit cards

Much of the world has switched to embedded anti-counterfeit EMV (Europay, MasterCard, Visa) chips in credit cards, but adoption in the U.S. lags. Therefore, a significant percentage of the U.S. population is vulnerable to theft by "skimming" and other means of stealing data from magnetic stripes during the transactional process, which is then used to produce counterfeit cards or to monetize data through other illicit activities.

Greater connectedness in remote areas: A Ka-band transceiver for satellite communications

Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology and Socionext Inc. have developed a novel transceiver for enabling seamless communication between Earth ground platforms and satellites in the low, middle and geostationary Earth orbits. Among other things, this transceiver could bring internet access to people in remote rural areas and at sea.

Grid coordination opens road for electric vehicle flexibility

As electric vehicle (EV) sales continue to rev up in the United States, the power grid is in parallel contending with the greatest transformation in its 100-year history: the large-scale integration of renewable energy and power electronic devices. The expected expansion of EVs will shift those challenges into high gear, causing cities to face gigawatt-growth in electricity demand and higher amounts of variable energy.

Consumers don't fully trust smart home technologies

Smart home technologies are marketed to enhance your home and make life easier. However, UK consumers are not convinced that they can trust the privacy and security of these technologies, a study by WMG, University of Warwick has shown.

Open-source software overcomes the limitations of videoconferences by supporting impromptu conversations

During the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing systems have become our lifelines for workplace communication. But while those platforms work well for many kinds of virtual meetings and conferences, their capacity to replicate the kinds of spontaneous, informal interactions that take place when people are together in person is limited.

Honda recalls 1.6M vans and SUVs in 4 different US recalls

Honda is recalling over 1.6 million minivans and SUVs in the U.S. to fix problems that include faulty backup camera displays, malfunctioning dashboard displays and sliding doors that don't latch properly.

EU launches 'in-depth' probe of Google bid for Fitbit

The European Commission launched an "in-depth investigation" on Tuesday into whether US tech giant Google's planned $2.1 billion purchase of smartwatch maker Fitbit would give it an unfair market advantage.

Interpol warns of 'alarming' cybercrime rate during pandemic

Global police body Interpol warned Monday of an "alarming" rate of cybercrime during the coronavirus pandemic, with criminals taking advantage of people working from home to target major institutions.

Ford COO Jim Farley to lead company, CEO Hackett to retire

Jim Farley will lead Ford Motor Co. into the future as the global auto industry faces a new era of autonomous and electric vehicles.

Google Pay partners with six banks to offer mobile checking accounts next year

Google is expanding its push into financial services amid a nationwide shift toward online banking.

Microsoft could be 'white knight' for TikTok—or fall flat

A deal allowing Microsoft to buy social media phenomenon TikTok could be transformative for the US tech giant's efforts to become more consumer-focused— if it can overcome the business and political risks.

China accuses US of 'outright bullying' over TikTok

China accused the United States on Tuesday of "bullying" over popular video app TikTok, after President Donald Trump ramped up pressure for its US operations to be sold to an American company.

Safeguarding the power supply in the event of a major outage

Germany's power supply is one of the most reliable in the world. Yet the growth in renewable energy has introduced a host of unpredictable factors into the power mix. The increasing number of irregular power sources can bring problems for grid stability. Moreover, in the event of a prolonged outage, there is the need to maintain the supply of power to critical infrastructure. In a groundbreaking concept, Fraunhofer research teams are seeking to combine digital twin technology with a fleet of autonomous electric vehicles for precisely this purpose.

Sensors for early disease symptom detection in European fruit cultivation

The apple is Germany's favorite fruit. Pears rank sixth in annual per capita consumption. Yet apple and pear trees both frequently suffer from diseases: Apple proliferation and pear decline are widespread in European fruit growing. Fraunhofer research scientists, together with partners, are seeking ways to detect disease symptoms early. They are using satellite images and hyperspectral analysis to detect disease infestation from the air in order to replace time-consuming field assessments and laboratory analyses in the future. Machine learning methods are a key technology for the analysis of disease symptoms.

Virus sees slash quarter of global staff

Online travel agency said Tuesday it will cut up to a quarter of staff worldwide due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, leading to thousands of job losses.

Tampa teen accused of profiting from Twitter hacks pleads not guilty

Graham Ivan Clark, the 17-year-old accused of taking control of major Twitter accounts in order to solicit Bitcoin payments, pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

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▼ Google’s Pixel conundrum and Microsoft’s TikTok conundrum

I have more chill about the first one‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ 

Hi everybody. I'm back to writing this newsletter after some time off and somehow, magically, still somewhat refreshed by my week off in the woods of northern California. If you're a new subscriber, welcome! This is a newsletter about computers and consumer tech.

I'm not going to try to catch you up on everything that happened last week, but the antitrust hearings were the main thing. We have a full story stream of the biggest news here, I suggest you check some of it out.

Since I was only vaguely aware of last week's goings-on, the things that jumped out to me were a couple funny bits: Amazon clocked Google's Nest acquisition as having been a bit of a fiasco and Tim Cook forwards along long emails on Sunday evening with just a single "Thoughts?" in the body, truly the mark of a terrifying boss.

This week is going to be a big one. Samsung will announce the Note 20 on Wednesday, Microsoft is in the middle of a Trumpian swamp of dangerous confusion over its desire to acquire part of TikTok, and likely other weirdness is coming. August is no longer a slow news month for consumer tech.

Google Pixel 5, 4A 5G, and 4A

The week kicked off with reviews of the Pixel 4A from Google — here's mine. The phone is very good and at $350, very inexpensive. The fact that a budget phone can literally take photos of comets and the Milky Way is really something. Using the Pixel 4A made me fall in love with the Pixel's camera all over again.

And yet, no matter how good the Pixel 4A is, it won't be a smash hit. Part of that will come down to the pandemic, but a lot of it will come down to marketing. US carriers only want to push 5G phones and the 4A is not 5G. Google's answer to that conundrum was to just up and say that, well, there are 5G phones coming later this fall.

The conventional wisdom around the Pixel is that it's in trouble. We're at or just beyond the self-imposed deadline Google put on itself to see tangible success in the phone hardware business and it's fair to say it hasn't happened — at least not at the scale you'd expect from a company as big as Google.

I think it's probably too much to ask of the Pixel 5 to solve that problem — especially since signs currently point to it not being a take-on-the-best flagship. That doesn't mean we should ignore it nor that it won't be good: we should pay attention to what Google thinks an Android phone should be, and often it gets a lot of things right when it does.

Here's where I see it these days: the Pixel is the Nexus by another name. Google's old Nexus program made different phones with different manufacturers from year to year, but Nexus phones were never expected to sell in huge numbers. Instead, the Nexus was a showcase for new technologies for Android and a north star for what Google hoped would be trends for the hardware that ran it.

Until and unless Google can show quite a bit more ambition than it has to date, I think that's the right way to think about the Pixel line. They're Nexus phones that happened to be made by Google. Expecting them to be anything more is a recipe for disappointment.

That said, if you want an Android phone that costs less than four or five hundred dollars, I think the choice comes down to the OnePlus Nord and the Pixel 4A — and since the Nord doesn't support the right LTE bands in the US, the decision is even easier.

┏ Google announces Pixel 5, Pixel 4A 5G, and Pixel 4A all at once.

┏ Google Pixel 4A review: back to basics for $349.

┏ Google's live-captioning feature will soon work with voice and video calls on Pixel phones.

Google getting into other businesses

┏ Google Pay will support mobile checking accounts starting next year. I still think this is a wholly unnecessary thing for Google to get into. I sincerely hope that these "digital bank accounts through Google Pay" are not locked down to Google Pay should a customer want to convert it to a direct relationship with the bank.

┏ Google invests in ADT, will integrate its Nest devices into smart home business. Mostly, I'm just relieved that Google isn't buying ADT outright. Jon Porter explains the motivations behind the $450 million investment, which gives Google 6.6 percent and, most importantly, the chance for exclusivity:

Eventually, however, Google says its Nest devices will become the "cornerstone" of ADT's smart home offering. The search giant says that its technology will mean fewer false alarms, better event detection, and more helpful notifications for ADT's customers. Google says that ADT customers will also get access to Nest Aware, its subscription service that offers intelligent alerts and 30 days of event history recording.

Verge Deal of the day

Apple's AirPods with a wireless charging case are $60 off

Amazon is selling the second-generation AirPods that include a wireless charging case for $140, the lowest price we've seen yet. Previously, getting $30 off was reason enough to tell you about, but $60 off turns it into one of those "so good that we don't know how long it will last" kind of deals.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy. Prices displayed are based on the MSRP at time of posting.

Microsoft, TikTok, and Trump

It is, as I said above, an absolute fiasco. The basics are that Microsoft was thinking of buying some parts of TikTok (in a weird list of regions that includes the US but not the UK). Then negotiations got messy when President Trump tweeted about banning the app. Then Microsoft put out an absolutely baffling blog post that was clearly designed to placate the Trump administration. (Emphasis mine below)

Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President's concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.


Adi Robertson has a good Twitter thread showing just how bad all of this could be if it were to become more real than just Trump tweets.

Here are some scary questions. Do we want the government this involved in a business deal? Do we want tech titans — in whom we have invested a lot of trust whether we like it or not because they run everything — pandering to specific administrations in this way? Do we want the already fraught relations between the US and China made even more complicated by these shenanigans? Do we want TikTok to continue to operate in such a way that our data could be used by the Chinese government and/or opaque algorithms could be limiting or changing speech? Is there even a mechanism for banning TikTok in the US that follows the rule of law — aka a method that's, you know, legal?

My sincere hope is that things settle down and most of those questions end up being rhetorical. That would mean that Microsoft will either buy parts of TikTok cleanly or the parts outside China will get spun out in some other fashion. Either way you're probably wondering why Microsoft would want TikTok in the first place. Tom Warren runs down all the potential benefits.

Oh, one more thing, just to further complicate matters: Snapchat is adding a TikTok-style music feature. Jacob Kastrenakes:

For now, it sounds like there won't be a feed of videos set to music, and there won't be a way to see other videos featuring the same song — two features key to TikTok. A Snap spokesperson emphasized that it's designed for sharing music with your "real friends." That said, Snap knows that TikTok is the target here. In an email detailing the new feature, Snap said that, "based on publicly available data," its app "reaches more people in the U.S. than Twitter and TikTok combined."

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And finally, some gaming news

┏ This is how Xbox games are getting touch controls for xCloud. This looks quite well thought through.

┏ Microsoft reveals redesigned, much faster Xbox store. One thing nobody ever seems to learn from Amazon: any millisecond slow-down in the buying process can and will result in lost sales. Microsoft doesn't deserve praise for making its store "more than twice as fast as before," it needs to ask itself why it let the old store be so slow in the first place.

┏ PlayStation 5 will support PS4 controllers, but only for playing PS4 games.

You are reading Processor, a newsletter about computers by Dieter Bohn. Dieter writes about consumer tech, software, and the most important news of the day from The Verge. This newsletter delivers about four times a week, at least a couple of which include longer essays.

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