Last month, I finished the book What if 2 by Randall Munroe. It's a book filled with ridiculous questions that nobody takes seriously, but are actually answered! It's very fun to read and you'll learn a few things along the way. Here are two example questions:
- What would happen if you funneled Niagara Falls through a straw?
- The water would go at a quarter of the speed of light and emit more energy than a small star.
- Also: you would get into legal trouble because flow rate over Niagara Falls is mandated by law.
- How big would a phone be if we replaced transistors with vacuum tubes?
- Really, really big! And it would consume a lot of power, and it would kick out enough heat to melt through rock.
Being able to see past practicalities is something that many people can't do. When most people hear a question like the ones above, they immediately reply "that can't be done" or "you're not allowed to" or "that would not be possible". But that's not the point of asking ridiculous questions. I know you can't funnel Niagara falls through a straw. I know you can't build a smartphone with vacuum tubes. But what if we assume it would be possible? How do things behave in those situations? What are the physics involved?
Anyway, back to the newsletter. This is the last edition of 2022, so I want to give you my best wishes for the holidays and the new year!
See you in 2023!
🤓 Cool Stuff
OpenAI released an impressive new chatbot. You can ask the bot to write code, explain how to do certain things, dream up stories, give travel tips, tell jokes, or even debate with you. The result is very impressive (just look at some examples posted on Twitter). Elon Musk calls it "scary good" and a popular developer community even had to ban people because they were using the bot to answer questions.
That being said, the chatbot is limited by the knowledge it was trained on. IIt knows nothing about events that happened after 202, meaning you can’t ask questions about recent events. You can chat with it yourself at chat.openai.com.
A cyberattack on the government of Vanuatu has left the country paralyzed. Officials can't access internal tools, email or various databases. Instead, they're relying on personal email accounts and mobile hotspots to communicate. Meanwhile, citizens can't accomplish basic tasks like transferring money, paying taxes or getting travel visas. The hackers are demanding a ransom to restore the systems, but the government refused that offer. I'm sure many countries are watching to see what happens next.
In 1930, the Indiana Bell Telephone Company needed a bigger facility for their employees and telephone exchange. Tearing down the existing building would mean disrupting the telephone exchange. So a team of engineers rotated the 11,000 ton building by 90 degrees, making space for a new building. They moved the building in just 34 days, all without disrupting the telephone service. In fact, the 600 employees inside the building didn’t even feel it move!
Meta (Facebook's parent company) has trained an AI to play the game Diplomacy. In the game, 7 players compete to take control of Europe. Players are required to talk to each other, form alliances, and negotiate tactics. Lying about your intentions can be a short-term advantage, but will make you appear untrustworthy. Meta’s AI agent can balance all these elements. During online games, it could even convince human players to pick its side.
The CEO of DeepMind (a Diplomacy master himself) called it "very impressive". Then, DeepMind one-upped Meta by releasing an AI that can beat humans at Stratego, another difficult-to-master game.
Today, the internet is built around central locations that push data around. Netflix, for example, is known for straining networks because they stream shows and movies from a central location. IPFS turns this model upside down and uses "content addressing". Instead of telling a computer where to find a particular resource, you just tell it what resource you want. It spreads content around the world and allows you to download from many places. Maybe one of your neighbours has a copy of a file you want. Might as well download it from them. I think IPFS is a very cool system (with an awesome name). Check out the Simply Explained video about IPFS to learn more.
After two scrubs, NASA's Artemis 1 mission finally launched on Nov 16th. The rocket put the Orion capsule in the correct orbit to head to the Moon. No humans are on board yet, as this is a test mission to see if all systems function as expected. So far, everything works as expected. Orion is currently heading back to Earth and awaits its last test: re-entering the atmosphere. If all goes according to plan, we'll see a crewed mission (without landing) in 2024 and finally a crewed mission with landing in 2025. That would be the first time humans walked on the Moon since 1972!
One issue with deep space travel is the amount of radiation that astronauts will be exposed to. Turns out, we could use a biological shield that consist out of a fungus found at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It converts gamma radiation into chemical energy and feeds of it. It’s called radiosynthesis, and it’s similar to how plants use sunlight (photosynthesis). The fungus was tested on board the ISS, showing promising results. It’s not clear yet if it can survive the amount of radiation that occurs in space, but if it does, we’d only need a layer of 20cm to protect future deep space explorers!
⚡️ Energy & Environment
Most sources of renewable power are intermittent. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine, which means we can’t depend on them for all our energy needs. An alternative could be tidal energy, which harnesses energy from tides. It’s non-intermittent (seas are always moving) and prices for these installations have dropped 40% since 2018! Tidal energy is on track to be less expensive than nuclear energy by 2035.
In newsletter #21, I mentioned green aviation fuels which can reduce CO2 emissions from planes by 70%. Want them cleaner? Electric planes are out of the question because the energy density of batteries is too low compared to fuel. Now, Rolce-Royce is testing a jet engine that can run on hydrogen, which has a high energy density and only produces water when it’s burned. The only challenge now is to produce that hydrogen cleanly.
Five years after the introduction, Tesla is finally ready to deliver its fully electric semi truck. It has 3 motors: one which is always working, and the other two help when fast acceleration is needed or when climbing a hill. Electric semi trucks produce less noise and no air pollution. The first Semi’s were delivered to PepsiCo and Tesla will use them in their own supply chain as well. You can watch a replay of the delivery event here.
A team of researchers took human stem cells, turned them into brain cells and injected them into the sensory cortex of baby rats. Within 4 months, the human cells had grown to 9 times their size and formed connections with the rat brain cells. The hope is that this type of research will allow us to study human brain diseases.
It raises some questions though. Are we changing a species with these actions? And what happens if someone injects human brain cells into the part of a rat’s brain that is responsible for awareness? Will we create enhanced rats with greater cognitive capacities? Should we allow that?
CRISPR evolved in bacteria as a primitive immune system to protect themselves from viruses (phages). It cuts up the DNA of an invader. Now viruses have also adopted this system. Why? When multiple viruses infect the same bacterium, they have to compete for resources. Armed with CRISPR, a virus can cut up the DNA of a competitor and take full control. CRISPR has gone full circle!
Why is this important? Scientists use CRISPR as a gene editing technique. But our current system cannot be applied to all organisms because the Cas9 enzyme is too large. The system that viruses use, Cas-lambda, is 50% smaller, which could unlock new gene-editing applications.