Oct 25, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: Chicago's 30-mile-long quantum internet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists in Chicago are embarking on a major project that could yield progress toward a quantum internet.

Why it matters: If they succeed, the researchers will produce one, 30-mile piece of a far more secure communications system with the power of fast quantum computing. The Chicago Quantum Exchange will take advantage of an unused fiber-optic link from 1980 that connects three Chicago-area research institutions — Argonne National Lab, Fermilab and the University of Chicago.

Details: The project will allow scientists to use quantum physics to transfer information at a real-world distance, rather than in a lab setting.

  • Data will travel across the 30-mile distance in order to facilitate a property known as quantum entanglement.
  • During entanglement, two particles are linked despite being located in different places.
  • When they are entangled, whatever happens to one particle is related to what happens to the other, even when they are separated by many miles.

David Awschalom, an Argonne scientist who is the principal investigator of the project, told Axios that this concept is difficult to grasp, even for experts.

"... [E]ntanglement is a very counterintuitive process that we don’t see in the everyday world. Can you create information and place it in two or more particles so that the shared information is kept shared, even when you physically separate the particles or bits very far apart?"
David Awschalom, Argonne National Lab

The goals: Quantum networks hold tremendous promise for vastly increasing computing power and for creating more secure ways of sending information.

“One of the other unusual properties of quantum matter is that you’re unable to ascertain the state of the information until you look at it, and the act of looking changes it," Awschalom tells Axios. "So while that might seem a liability, it’s an asset for secure communications because if I send you a message, you would like to be confident that no one has eavesdropped on the message I’ve sent you."

What they're saying: Prineha Narang, a researcher at Harvard who studies quantum materials and is not involved in the Chicago project, says it's a promising effort to provide real-world proof of techniques that have only been demonstrated in lab settings.

"Fundamentally what they’re doing has been done before but just in a much, much smaller setting. And it sounds like, ok, so it should just scale, but something we’ve noticed with quantum technologies in the past, particularly doing things reliably, is that when you try to scale them over long distances things don’t always work."
Prineha Narang, Harvard University

Go deeper: China's lead in developing quantum communications networks

2. Sepsis: The sneaky killer

Sepsis survivor Pamela Popp checks out a sepsis medical training demonstration using dummies. Photo: John Leyba, The Denver Post via Getty Images

Combatting sepsis — the body-wide immune response to an infection that can lead to amputations, the loss of organs or death — continues to elude researchers, who are trying to develop a consistent and effective treatment, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: Sepsis affects more than 30 million people worldwide every year, killing roughly 6 million. But it's tricky to treat and quick to develop, leaving doctors with little option but to flood the body with multiple antibiotics and other therapies once the blood infection has developed.

"Sepsis is a medical emergency ... and incredibly complicated."
Runa Hatti Gokhale, CDC sepsis expert

What we know: Gokhale says any type of infection can turn into sepsis, but the most frequently identified germs linked to it include Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli) and some types of Streptococcus.

  • At least 1.7 million Americans develop sepsis every year, of whom 270,000 die — making it a leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • Treatment protocol tends to start with antibiotics ASAP, followed by other steps.

However, there's growing concern about the general practice of hitting patients with multiple antibiotics within the first three hours of admittance, due largely to the rise of antibiotic resistance.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are 1 of the 4 main types of infections linked with sepsis, along with lung, skin and gut infections, Gokhale says.

  • Recurrent UTIs are of particular concern because often a patient is given automatic refills and "there's no database to go to that says how many refills a person has gotten," says Gary Eldridge, president and CEO of the pharmaceutical company Sequoia Sciences, which is currently working on a recurrent UTI vaccine.
  • UTIs also have been found to be increasingly resistant to antibiotics as well.

Go deeper: Read the rest of Eileen's story here.

3. Super Typhoon Yutu makes the history books
Super Typhoon Yutu engulfs and then moves past the Northern Mariana Islands. Animation: CIRA/RAMMB and Andrew Witherspoon, Axios Visuals

On Wednesday, Super Typhoon Yutu became the strongest tropical cyclone to hit U.S. soil since 1935. Its cloud-free eye enveloped the tiny island of Tinian in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, making for an eerie sight from space. The high-end Category 5 storm contained maximum sustained winds of at least 180 mph.

The storm's intensity, coming so soon after Hurricanes Michael, Patricia, Maria and Super Typhoon Haiyan may revive a push in some corners of meteorology to create a Category 6 designation, which currently does not exist.

Why it matters: Super Typhoon Yutu caused widespread destruction in Tinian and in Saipan, which was positioned in the right front eyewall of the storm, likely containing the storm's strongest winds.

The details: According to the National Weather Service, not a single wind-measuring instrument survived the onslaught to record the actual wind speeds, so meteorologists will look closely at the damage for clues about how high they really were. “This is an historically significant event,” tweeted Michael Lowry, a FEMA hurricane specialist.

Based on satellite data, Super Typhoon Yutu was one of the strongest tropical cyclones (hurricanes and typhoons) observed anywhere on Earth in the modern record.

The storm intensified at a near record pace between Monday and Wednesday.

  • The typhoon went from a 50-mph tropical storm to a monstrous 180-mph Category 5 storm in just 48 hours.
  • More notably, it went from a Category 1 typhoon to a Category 5 in just 24 hours.
  • Emerging research shows that climate change may make rapid intensification a more frequent occurrence.

What's next: The storm is forecast to continue pushing west-northwest, toward a potential second landfall in Taiwan, China or the Philippines.

Between the lines: The U.S. has now been hit by a whopping five Category 4 or 5 tropical cyclones in a little over a year.

  • Studies show that human-caused climate change is causing ocean temperatures to increase along with air temperatures, providing more moisture and fuel for such storms to strengthen.
  • In general, hurricanes and typhoons are expected to become more intense and deliver more rainfall in the coming decades, although there's no indication such storms are becoming or will become more frequent.

Go deeper: One of the strongest storms ever slams the Northern Mariana Islands

4. Axios stories worth reading

Photo: Karl Tapales/Getty Images

Flu drug: The FDA approved Xofluza, the first novel treatment approved for the flu in almost 2 decades, Eileen reports. The drug targets the virus at an earlier stage in its development in order to reduce patients' recovery time.

CO2 removal: A major new report from the National Academies of Sciences recommends a new research effort into carbon removal technologies in order to reduce climate change, Ben Geman writes.

Robot fears: Nightmare visions of a robot dystopia, with millions of human jobs lost, have given way to far more rosy projections of our future relationship with robots. Steve LeVine surveys experts in the field to find out what's going on.

Shrimp and jam pizza: MIT students trained AI systems to come up with unconventional new ideas in fashion, food, art, cocktails and dance — and then bring them to life. This included an, uh, interesting pizza, Kaveh Waddell reports.

5. What we're reading elsewhere

Activists hold up the flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people at a rally for LGBTQI+ rights in New York City on Oct. 21. Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

The science of gender: The Trump administration is reportedly pursuing a plan to declare gender as a binary classification made at birth, which flies in the face of scientific evidence on gender and identity, Mark Kaufman writes for Mashable. Bonus: The stories from Wired and NYT on the topic are worth a read.

Underwater menace: Warming waters are enabling the purple urchin to ravage California's vast kelp forests, devastating sea life, Kendra Pierre-Louis writes for NYT.

Broken plates: An earthquake in Mexico split apart a 37-mile-thick tectonic plate in just tens of seconds, accompanied by "a gargantuan release of energy," Robin George Andrews reports for National Geographic.

6. Something wondrous: The headless chicken monster

The creature dubbed the "Headless Chicken Monster," which was recently seen in Antarctic waters. Photo: NOAA.

In case you're looking for a last-minute Halloween costume, here's a suggestion: Why not go as the "Headless Chicken Monster," the bizarre blob of the deep?

While this may look like an angry pillow, it's actually a type of deep-sea swimming cucumber, Enypniastes eximia, which was recently spotted for the first time in the Southern Ocean, near East Antarctica. It had previously only been seen in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The find, made by the Australian Antarctic Division, illustrates the unexpected marine biodiversity of the little explored but vitally important Southern Ocean. This region is key to powering global ocean currents and exchanging large amounts of heat and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere.

Details: Scientists are using underwater cameras to get a better idea of where to allow deep-sea fishing in the Southern Ocean, and as they go, they're making unexpected discoveries. This fascinating sea cucumber is one of them.

  • According to NOAA, the headless chicken monster "spends most of its time on the seafloor, feeding off of surface sediments; it can, however, swim if it wants to get somewhere more quickly or evade a predator."
  • “Some of the footage we are getting back from the cameras is breathtaking, including species we have never seen in this part of the world,” said Australian Antarctic Division program leader Dirk Welsford in a press release.
  • Australia is advocating for a new East Antarctic Marine Protected Area to protect the unique species in that region.

Be smart: Another name for this creature of the deep is the Spanish dancer, according to NOAA. So perhaps that's a less scary name for a costume!

Alison Snyder

Editor's note: The quantum internet story has been corrected to indicate that data is transferred over the fiber optic cable in order to facilitate quantum entanglement. This data is not transferred "instantaneously," as an earlier version of this article indicated.