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Updated: 28 min 48 sec ago

Ars on your lunch break: Robert Green on what darkness lurks in our DNA

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 12:00

Enlarge / No matter how many times you stick your head in a microwave, this probably won't happen. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

This week we’re serializing yet another episode of the After On Podcast here on Ars. The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy. You can access the excerpts on Ars via an embedded audio player or by reading accompanying transcripts (both of which are below).

My guest this week is medical geneticist Robert Green, and our topic is the promise and peril that could come from reading your full genome. The cost of full-genome sequencing is falling so quickly and the actionable insights it can reveal are growing fast enough that this data will eventually be as widely collected as cholesterol levels (perhaps within a decade or so).

This will divulge the precise contents of your 20,000-ish genes to you and your doctor. Since some human genes literally have thousands of known mutations, that’s a lot of data—and on the day you first receive it, we still won't know how to interpret the crushing majority of it.

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Categories: News

Chinese space official seems unimpressed with NASA’s lunar gateway

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 11:36

Enlarge / ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer joined Chinese colleagues in Yantai, China, to take part in their sea survival training on August 19, 2017. (credit: ESA)

This week, the European and Chinese space agencies held a workshop in Amsterdam to discuss cooperation between Europe and China on lunar science missions. The meeting comes as Europe seems increasingly content to work with China on spaceflight programs.

Although the meeting is not being streamed online, space systems designer and lunar exploration enthusiast Angeliki Kapoglou has been providing some coverage of the meeting via Twitter. Among the most interesting things she has shared are slides from a presentation by Pei Zhaoyu, who is deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration.

Very very interesting statement by CNSA’s Pei Zhaoyu. “NASA will focus on building the LOPG. CNSA will build the lunar scientific research station on the surface” Moreover, according to Pei the LOPG has low economic effectiveness. #MoonVillage #ESA_ISRU pic.twitter.com/Tbg9SQ4LhZ

— Angeliki (@Capoglou) July 16, 2018

Overall, Pei does not appear to be a fan of NASA's plan to build a deep space gateway, formally known as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, at a near-rectilinear halo orbit. Whereas NASA will focus its activities on this gateway away from the Moon, Pei said China will focus on a "lunar scientific research station."

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Categories: News

News of Trump passing cognitive test may make it harder to detect dementia

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 18:18

Enlarge / US President Donald Trump answers questions about the 2016 US election during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (credit: Getty | Chris McGrath)

News reports in January that President Donald Trump passed a widely used test that screens for mild cognitive impairment flung the little-known clinical tool into public focus. Google searches for the test—the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA)—spiked as dozens of media reports shared parts or all of the test and political commentators batted it around.

The president’s supporters proudly played up the test, boasting of Trump’s perfect 30-out-of-30 score and using it to laugh down those who questioned Trump’s mental state. Others snickered over the test’s seemingly straightforward components, such as asking test takers to correctly draw times on a clock and identify animals.

But the laugh may be on all of us, according to a research letter published Monday, July 16 in JAMA Neurology.

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Categories: News

D-Wave’s quantum computer successfully models a quantum system

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 17:15

Enlarge (credit: D-Wave Systems)

D-Wave's hardware has always occupied a unique space on the computing landscape. It's a general-purpose computer that relies on quantum mechanical effects to perform calculations. And, while other quantum-computer makers have struggled to put more than a few dozen qubits together, D-Wave's systems have already scaled to more than 2,000 addressable bits. But the D-Wave systems don't perform calculations in the same way and, despite all those bits, haven't clearly demonstrated performance that can outpace even traditional computing hardware.

But D-Wave has come out with a research paper in Science that suggests that the system can do interesting things even in its current state. The company's researchers have set it loose modeling a quantum system that closely resembles the bits used in the hardware itself, allowing them to examine quantum phase transitions. While this still isn't cutting-edge performance, it does allow researchers full control over the physical parameters of a relevant quantum system as it undergoes phase changes.

Spins and spin glass

D-Wave's systems can be thought of as a large collection of magnets, each of which can flip orientations. These aren't qubits in the same way that the components of IBM or Intel's quantum processors are, but they do rely on quantum behavior for performing calculations. On their own, there's nothing that favors one orientation over another. But put a second magnet nearby and the two influence each other; now, if one flips its orientation, it changes the energy content of the system. D-Wave's current system scales this up to 2,048 individual magnets, along with associated control hardware that determines which of these magnets is connected and how strong that connection is.

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Categories: News

To make Curiosity (et al) more curious, NASA and ESA smarten up AI in space

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 10:30

Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars and one of several identified by the Mars Exploration Rovers. (credit: NASA)

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has done many great things in its decade-plus of service—but initially, it rolled 600 feet past one of the initiative’s biggest discoveries: the Block Island meteorite. Measuring about 67 centimeters across, the meteorite was a telltale sign that Mars' atmosphere had once been much thicker, thick enough to slow down the rock flying at a staggering 2km/s so that it did not disintegrate on impact. A thicker atmosphere could mean a more gentle climate, possibly capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, maybe even life.

Yet, we only know about the Block Island meteorite because someone on the Opportunity science team manually spotted an unusual shape in low-resolution thumbnails of the images and decided it was worth backtracking for several days to examine it further. Instead of this machine purposefully heading toward the rock right from the get-go, the team barely saw perhaps its biggest triumph in the rear view mirror. "It was almost a miss," says Mark Woods, head of autonomy and robotics at SciSys, a company specializing in IT solutions for space exploration that works for the European Space Agency (ESA), among others.

Opportunity, of course, made this near-miss maneuver all the way back in July 2009. If NASA were to attempt a similar initiative in a far-flung corner of the galaxy today—as the space organization plans to in 2020 with the Mars 2020 rover (the ESA has similar ambitions with its ExoMars rover that year)—modern scientists have one particularly noteworthy advantage that has developed since.

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Categories: News

Britain joins the microlaunch space race with a new rocket and spaceport

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 09:10

Orbex/Anders Bøggild

The United Kingdom has entered the race to develop low-cost, high-volume rockets for small satellites. Orbex, a British-based company with subsidiaries and production facilities in Denmark and Germany, announced Monday that it has raised $40 million from public and private sources to develop what it is calling the "Prime" launch vehicle.

The company intends to launch Prime from a new spaceport—also just announced—that will be located in northern Scotland. This facility would be the first commercial vertical launch site in the United Kingdom, and represents a significant investment in rocket infrastructure by the British government after decades of dormancy.

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