Science X Newsletter Monday, Oct 12

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for October 12, 2020:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

Direct visualization of electromagnetic wave dynamics by laser-free ultrafast electron microscopy

New virtual reality software allows scientists to 'walk' inside cells

Chemists create new crystal form of insecticide, boosting its ability to fight mosquitoes and malaria

Can the voice of healthcare robots influence how they are perceived by humans?

Astronomers determine distances to 18 dwarf galaxies

Experimental COVID-19 treatment given to Trump found to relieve symptoms in macaques and hamsters

Best of Last Week: Speed of sound upper limit found, new solar panel design and machine washing COVID-19 masks

Tetrahedra may explain water's uniqueness

Stacking and twisting graphene unlocks a rare form of magnetism

Fake asteroid? NASA expert IDs mystery object as old rocket

5G iPhone expected to star at Apple event

In the eye of a stellar cyclone: Bizarre secrets of a ticking time-bomb star

Dueling proteins give shape to plants

Ancient tiny teeth reveal first mammals lived more like reptiles

American duo wins Nobel Economics Prize for work on auctions

Physics news

Direct visualization of electromagnetic wave dynamics by laser-free ultrafast electron microscopy

Femtosecond lasers can be integrated with electron microscopes to directly image transient structures and morphologies in materials in real time and space. In a new report, Xuewen Fu and a team of scientists in condensed matter physics, microsystems, nanotechnology and materials science in China and the U.S. developed a laser-free ultrafast electron microscope (UEM) offering similar potential but without the requisite femtosecond lasers or elaborate instrumental modifications. The team created picosecond electron pulses to probe dynamic events by chopping a continuous beam with a radiofrequency (RF)-driven pulser with a pulse repetition rate tunable from 100 MHz to 12 GHz. They studied gigahertz electromagnetic wave propagation dynamics as an application for the first time in this work and revealed the transient oscillating electromagnetic field on nanometer space and picosecond time scales with time-resolved polarization, amplitude and local field enhancement. The study showed the use of laser-free, ultrafast electron microscopy (UEM) in real-space visualization for multidisciplinary research—specifically in electrodynamic devices associated with information processing technology. The research work is now published in Science Advances.

Einstein's missed opportunity to rid us of 'spooky actions at a distance'

Why do moving rulers shrink (length contraction) and moving clocks run slow (time dilation) such that everyone measures the same speed of light c, regardless of their relative motions? Einstein resolved this mystery at the turn of the 20th century in "principle fashion" by turning the question on its head. He invoked the relativity principle (AKA "no preferred reference frame") and argued that since c appears in the equations of physics, no preferred reference frame says that everyone must measure the same value for c regardless of their motions relative to the source (that is, regardless of their reference frames).

Stretching makes the superconductor

When people imagine "new materials," they typically think of chemistry. But UConn physicist Ilya Sochnikov has another suggestion: mechanics.

Revealing the reason behind jet formation at the tip of laser optical fiber

When an optical fiber is immersed in liquid, a high-temperature, high-speed jet is discharged. Researchers expect this to be applied to medical treatment in the future. Now, a research team from Russia and Japan has explored this phenomenon further and revealed the reasons behind the jet formation.

Machine-learning technique could improve fusion energy outputs

Machine-learning techniques, best known for teaching self-driving cars to stop at red lights, may soon help researchers around the world improve their control over the most complicated reaction known to science: nuclear fusion.

Astronomy and Space news

Astronomers determine distances to 18 dwarf galaxies

Astronomers from the Special Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Nizhnij Arkhyz, Russia, have conducted photometric observations of dwarf galaxies identified by the ALFALFA survey. The results allowed the researchers to determine accurate distances of 18 dwarf galaxies. The study is detailed in a paper published October 1 on the arXiv pre-print repository.

Fake asteroid? NASA expert IDs mystery object as old rocket

The jig may be up for an "asteroid" that's expected to get nabbed by Earth's gravity and become a mini moon next month.

In the eye of a stellar cyclone: Bizarre secrets of a ticking time-bomb star

While on COVID lockdown, a University of Sydney honours student has written a research paper on a star system dubbed one of the "exotic peacocks of the stellar world".

Astronomers find x-rays lingering years after landmark neutron star collision

It's been three years since the landmark detection of a neutron star merger from gravitational waves. And since that day, an international team of researchers led by University of Maryland astronomer Eleonora Troja has been continuously monitoring the subsequent radiation emissions to provide the most complete picture of such an event.

Researchers obtain special photometric behaviors of novae-like system and confirm evidence of disk wind

Ph.D. student Fang Xiaohui, and Prof. Qian Shengbang from Yunnan Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and collaborators analyzed the long-term photometric data of the nova-like SW Sextantis (SW Sex), and found that the light variation of this object shows a possible quasi-periodic oscillation with the time-scale of about ten years. Combined with the change of the orbital period, they inferred that there is a very strong wind in the system. The study was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Death by spaghettification: Scientists record last moments of star devoured by black hole

A rare blast of light, emitted by a star as it is sucked in by a supermassive black hole, has been spotted by scientists using telescopes from around the world.

Studying the sun as a star to understand stellar flares and exoplanets

New research shows that sunspots and other active regions can change the overall solar emissions. The sunspots cause some emissions to dim and others to brighten; the timing of the changes also varies between different types of emissions. This knowledge will help astronomers characterize the conditions of stars, which has important implications for finding exoplanets around those stars.

The current state of space debris

Swirling fragments of past space endeavors are trapped in orbit around Earth, threatening our future in space. Over time, the number, mass and area of these debris objects grows steadily, boosting the risk to functioning satellites.

Moon to Earth: Western Australia to host space communications station

An optical communications station capable of receiving high-speed data transmissions from space is set to be built in Western Australia.

The moon is the perfect spot for SETI

In less than four years, NASA plans to land the first woman and the next man on the moon as part of Project Artemis. This long-awaited return to the moon is to be followed by the construction of the Lunar Gateway, the Artemis Base Camp and a program of "sustainable lunar exploration." The creation of an enduring human presence on the moon will also create many opportunities for exciting scientific research.

ESA's force-feedback rover controlled from a nation away

A controller in Germany operated ESA's gripper-equipped Interact rover around a simulated moonscape at the Agency's technical heart in the Netherlands, to practice retrieving geological samples. At the same time a smaller Germany-based rover interacted with ESA's rover as if together at the same site—in a dress rehearsal for a robotic test campaign to the Moon-like volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, scheduled for next year.

Russia shuns US lunar program, as space cooperation under threat

Russia is unlikely to participate in the Moon-orbiting station planned by the United States, a Russian official said Monday, marking the probable end of the type of close cooperation seen for two decades on the International Space Station (ISS).

Technology news

New virtual reality software allows scientists to 'walk' inside cells

Virtual reality software which allows researchers to 'walk' inside and analyse individual cells could be used to understand fundamental problems in biology and develop new treatments for disease.

Can the voice of healthcare robots influence how they are perceived by humans?

Robots are gradually making their way into hospitals and other clinical facilities, providing basic assistance to doctors and patients. To facilitate their widespread use in health care settings, however, robotics researchers need to ensure that users feel at ease with robots and accept the help they can offer. This could potentially be achieved by developing robots that communicate in empathetic and compassionate ways.

5G iPhone expected to star at Apple event

Apple is expected on Tuesday to unveil a keenly anticipated iPhone 12 line-up starring models tuned to super-fast new 5G telecom networks in an update considered vital to the company's fortunes.

Software spots and fixes hang bugs in seconds, rather than weeks

Hang bugs—when software gets stuck, but doesn't crash—can frustrate both users and programmers, taking weeks for companies to identify and fix. Now researchers from North Carolina State University have developed software that can spot and fix the problems in seconds.

Campaigns sidestep Cambridge Analytica crackdown with new methods

"Your early vote has not been recorded," one text message said, with a link for more information.

Apple can continue blocking Fortnite from the App Store, judge says

In the latest update in the ongoing battle between Apple and Epic Games, a California judge has ruled that the iPhone giant can continue to block Fortnite from its app store.

Report: Apple to start shipping iPhones, iPads and other devices from retail stores to speed local delivery

If you live near an Apple Store, your iOS device orders might soon start arriving more quickly than before.

Multi-state data storage leaving binary behind

The total amount of data stored in data centers around the globe is of the order of ten zettabytes (a zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes), and we estimate that amount doubles every couple of years.

Offshore wind research buoys float into California's waters

Two offshore wind research buoys managed by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) were deployed recently off the coast of California. This marks the first time the buoys have been launched to gather meteorological and oceanographic measurements off the West Coast.

COVID impacts demand a change of plan: Funding a shift from commuting to living locally

Long-term planning has delivered mass transit systems to cater for high-patronage, hub-and-spoke transport systems. Unfortunately, this has left many city residents without basic access to public transport services. And we could never have planned for the impacts of COVID-19.

Do social media algorithms erode our ability to make decisions freely? The jury is out

Have you ever watched a video or movie because YouTube or Netflix recommended it to you? Or added a friend on Facebook from the list of "people you may know"?

Twitter tightens rules to thwart election threats

Twitter said Friday it will take down calls for violence starting after polls close on US election day and slap warnings on premature victory claims to fight efforts to undermine the election.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, American-Canadian abolitionist, honored in Google Doodle

Google is paying tribute Friday to the first Black female newspaper editor and publisher in North America.

Airline industry official defends response to pandemic

The airline industry has been shaken to its core by the pandemic, pushing some foreign carriers into bankruptcy and driving a few small U.S. ones out of business.

Why is the ECB eyeing a 'digital euro'?

The European Central Bank will on Monday launch a public consultation and start experiments to help it decide whether to create a "digital euro" for the 19-nation currency club.

Global deal on taxing tech giants still beyond reach: OECD

The 137 nations trying to hammer out a new global standard for taxing multinational tech firms will not secure a deal by the end of this year as hoped, the OECD acknowledged Monday.

Global watchdog proposes tax overhaul for Big Tech

A global economic watchdog on Monday proposed an overhaul of international tax rules to make sure big tech companies pay their dues, and warned that failure to adopt it would make the economic recovery from COVID-19 harder.

Yet another Brexit deadline looms; trade talks in rut

Almost by tradition, another Brexit deadline is looming. Just as much by tradition, talks are expected to continue afterward.

Facebook to ban Holocaust denial content

Facebook announced Monday that it will ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, describing the move as its latest effort to free the platform of hate.

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▼ 5G alone won’t be enough to justify buying an iPhone this year

This week, Apple will announce this year's new iPhones. We're expecting there to be four of them: the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12, and a smaller one that might be called the iPhone 12 mini. Apple's invitation for its Tuesday event included the catchphrase "Hi, Speed." Weird capitalization decisions aside, the "speed" hint embedded in the tagline lines up with the rumors: these will be the first 5G-enabled iPhones.

If you're looking to buy a new iPhone this year, even before I see these phones I can provide this simple piece of advice: don't buy one just because it has 5G.

That's been my advice for every single 5G-enabled Android phone that's been released thus far, and unless Apple has some reality-defying modem that enables 5G speeds in more places, it's my advice for the upcoming iPhone as well.

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The problem with 5G is that it's not good yet. In a comprehensive, US-wide test of 5G speeds, PC Mag found them seriously lacking. In many cases 5G speeds were actually slower than 4G speeds. And the study also found that the other hyped-up reason for 5G, low latency, also isn't here yet.

That all lines up with my experience using 5G on T-Mobile in the Bay Area. When it's faster, it's only nominally different. Often it's slower and just as often it seems to have a sharper dropoff to no data at all than 4G LTE. After a year of test 5G Android phones, I have yet to believe that 5G is the most important part of any of them.

The reason for these speed and latency issues comes down to some complicated spectrum limitations. Which means that in the future the carriers will be able to unlock faster speeds for 5G, but it's not going to happen overnight. Here's how PC Mag's Sascha Segan characterizes the current state of 5G play:

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon take very different approaches to 5G. To make a long story short, AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless. T-Mobile 5G can be a big boost over 4G, but its speeds are only what we'd expect from a good 4G network—it isn't a new experience. Verizon's 5G is often mind-blowing, but very difficult to find.

As you've likely heard by now, there are really two different kinds of 5G for phones, each operating in different parts of the radio spectrum. There's what's called "sub-6" 5G that's similar to LTE in how it can travel longer distances and penetrate buildings. Then there's mmWave 5G, which is what Verizon has been deploying so far. It does provide blisteringly fast speeds, but only if you can find it.

I often joke that mmWave is great if you're wiling to park in one spot outside next to a specific Verizon tower in a specific city — but it's not really a joke. Verizon's 5G is so difficult to find and use that I'm legitimately baffled as to why anybody would want to spend the extra money to build it into a phone. I'm doubly baffled that many phones cost $100 or more extra for mmWave compatibility.

Except I'm not baffled, not really. The last few years have seen the growth of the 5G Hype Industrial Complex. US carriers, Qualcomm, and phone manufacturers have all collaborated (one might say colluded) to drive a huge cycle of hype for 5G. They've promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and rural broadband for all. Some of those promises will come to pass, but the plain trust is that the networks aren't anywhere close to ready, and these 5G phones are the clearest evidence of the gap between hype and reality.

We always give the same advice when reviewing a phone: don't buy something today in the hopes of future updates making it better. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that bugs will be truly addressed come to nothing.

For 5G, that advice still holds — but there is some nuance to it. I don't think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you already were looking at has 5G, go for it.

Phone upgrade cycles are slowing. More people are keeping their phone for longer. I think this is a great thing: it means phones are good enough to last multiple years, it means less waste, and it saves consumers money. But given a timespan of two or three or more years, getting a 5G phone could make some sense, even if it's not yet something to seek out.

Buying a 5G phone this year is insurance against the future more than it is an immediate benefit today. Some upgrades are big enough to push an upgrade cycle even if you weren't planning on it. 5G isn't that kind of upgrade this year, but it doesn't hurt to have if you were planning on upgrading anyway.

To bring it back to the new iPhones, my fear is that Apple is going to become part of that 5G Hype Industrial Complex. It's disingenuous to promise immediate benefits from 5G — at least in the US — and I hope Apple doesn't succumb to the temptation to do so.

The new iPhones ought to have other big reasons to update: a new design, better cameras, intriguing AR features, or other things I haven't thought of. Any of those things could be a great reason to buy a new iPhone this year. Just getting 5G is not one of them.

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