Jun 8, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Welcome back and a big welcome to Axios' new science writer, Erin Ross. She'll be contributing to the newsletter, our stream and whatever else we cook up. As always, I look forward to your feedback and comments at alison@axios.com.

In this issue, read about this week's top science stories, a big idea from the world of computer science, and, of course, something wondrous.

Invite: I'll be in LA next week to moderate an Axios event about the human brain on Wednesday morning. It's one of the most exciting areas of science — with the potential to improve lives and answer deep questions about what it means to be human. More information and RSVP here.

1 big idea: solving computing's power problem

When it comes to computing, much of the focus is on getting more powerful computations out of ever-smaller chips (think of your cell phone) but it isn't always about intense calculations. There is a different issue: power. If we want to deploy sensors in the corners of the world or the crannies of our lives, the chips need a continuous source of stable power or the software basically breaks. Brandon Lucia at Carnegie Mellon University is trying to solve this in hopes that low-cost, low-power computer chips can be used with less risk of failure.

"This isn't about high intensity computing. It is about not having a battery," Lucia says. He is developing programming language and computer systems to be included in his launch of the world's smallest satellite, expected next year. Read more here.

Axios stories to spark your brain:
What we're reading elsewhere:
Tried and true: the starlight-bending power of gravity

Axios' new science reporter Erin Ross explains a historic experiment that thrust Einstein into the public eye:

As noted above, scientists announced Wednesday they observed starlight as it was warped by the gravity of another, more distant star. It was the first deep-space detection of gravity's space-time bending effects — but it had been seen once before, closer to home. In 1919, a solar eclipse allowed physicists to watch the sun bend starlight. It was the first major proof of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

The prediction: In Einsteinian physics, gravity is a force from massive objects that bend the fabric of space-time, like a bowling ball dropped in the middle of a tightly-held blanket. Because space-time is bent, any light passing through it would also be bent.

Einstein's idea: When he proposed his theory, he noted that if it was true, it should be possible to observe the light from stars shifting as our sun moved past them in the sky. But this was hard to observe, because the sun's brightness drowns out the surrounding stars, so he suggested testing it during an eclipse.

How they did it: In 1919, British physicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington went on an expedition to the island Príncipe off the coast of Africa to measure the positions of stars during the eclipse. It was a rainy day, but right as the moon moved in front of the sun, the clouds parted. Eddington took sixteen pictures of the stars, two of which yielded clear measurements. Sure enough, when compared to earlier photos, the light from the stars had shifted.

The legacy: Eddington's observations launched relativity into the spotlight and the resulting media storm turned Einstein into a household name. But in 1938, Einstein wrote that he didn't think we'd ever see another effect of gravity's ability to bend light: gravitational microlensing. If a distant star's light was bent by something outside of our solar system, Einstein hypothesized the light would be bent into a ring. That's the big result physicists reported this week. One can only imagine Einstein's reaction to seeing another one of his unprovable predictions pass the experimental test.

Something wondrous

About 115 million years ago, when the continents were one, dinosaurs ruled and flowering plants were making their debut on Earth, a mushroom growing alongside a river fell into the water and was carried away to a lagoon where it was preserved in limestone. The remarkable fossil — the oldest known of a mushroom, which will typically live for just a few days and are rarely fossilized — was found in Brazil and looks very similar to those seen today.

Alison Snyder