Feb 8, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1. What the SpaceX launch might mean for science

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Fla., on Feb. 6, 2018. Photo: Jim Waston / AFP / Getty Images

In the afterglow of SpaceX's successful Falcon Heavy launch on Tuesday, Elon Musk told reporters the reusable rocket could "launch things direct to Pluto and beyond; no stop needed. You don't even need a gravity assist."

Why it matters: Interplanetary spacecraft often rely on the gravitational forces of planets to reach their targets — because that method takes less fuel and a smaller rocket.

  • Cassini was boosted to Saturn by Venus, Earth and Jupiter, for example.
  • If the Falcon Heavy and any successors can provide a direct route to the outer solar system, it would save time (and money) and could therefore mean more missions.

Potential targets: Right now, scientists have their sights on comets, the Saturn moons Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter's Europa.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. This launch was about demonstrating the rocket could carry a heavy payload (for example, a satellite for national security reconnaissance) to space, coast with it for hours, and then restart its engine in order to place the cargo in its final orbit, Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics tells Axios. "That was the main point," he says.

  • A deep space mission, on the other hand, could require a different fuel type or optimizing other parameters.

Go further: The Axios team on why the successful launch matters.

2. Fire > AI ?

Illustration: Caresse Haaser, Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Some researchers and business leaders are putting artificial intelligence — in its current and aspirational forms — on the same pedestal of human invention and innovation as fire, electricity and the light bulb. But other experts say we won't know for a long time whether AI will ever merit such lofty imagery.

"It could be. If AI really leads to the birth of intelligences greater than humans', it will arguably be the most important event in the history of life on Earth since, well, humans. But that's a very big if, of course. In the meantime, AI's impact is far smaller than electricity or fire's (and in fact, you could say that AI is part of electricity's impact, since it wouldn't exist without it)."
— Pedro Domingos, professor of computer science, University of Washington
"If this were the Stone Age, where we’re at with AI is “we know what wheels are but not how to build them. ... But wheels are a whole lot easier to build than AI."
— Gary Marcus, psychology professor, New York University

Consider this: Fire arguably made humanity. Taming it more than a million years ago brought our ancestors safety from predators and allowed us to leave the trees.

  • When early humans learned to use it to cook food, it provided more calories that “jump started a brain that was getting larger already,” says Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College.
  • Like toolmaking before it and farming after, reining in fire was a cultural innovation that spawned a biological change to our species.

What we don't know: The impact of AI and technologies more broadly. It's too soon to tell whether screen time, for example, will change our species' vision or how high-functioning neural prosthetic devices might affect us.

Read the rest of the story.

3. Axios Science stories
4. What we're reading elsewhere
  • The original Starman: Astronaut Bruce McCandless' final interview with National Geographic's Nadia Drake. McCandless, who performed the first untethered space walk in 1984 and passed away in December 2017, said: "[W]hen we look down from space, we really can’t see the political subdivisions, and we wonder, why us — meaning everybody that’s on spaceship Earth — why we can’t learn to work with each other and get along."
  • Seeing in the dark: Starfish living on the sea floor can do it, Abby Olena reports for The Scientist. Studying them could bring insights into how vision evolved and "help humans innovate and create new types of sensors that can detect light in different conditions," she writes.
  • In memoriam: String theorist Joe Polchinski and physicist and educator Alfred Hübler. Their stories are worth knowing.
  • For the weekend: David Grann in the New Yorker retraces the life and steps of polar explorer Henry Worsley, who attempted to cross Antarctica solo.
5. Something wondrous

Ruby-topaz Hummingbird female, Chrysolampis mosquitus. Photo: Juan Jose Arango / VW PICS / UIG via Getty Images

Erin writes: Hummingbirds are masters of flight — they can hover in place, move backwards or sideways, and zip away so fast they seem to disappear. Some can even fly in thin alpine air.

Among the 338 known species of the birds, there are those weighing only a few grams and others with beaks as long as their bodies. But despite massive variation in size and shape, most species seem to trace their incredible acrobatics back to a handful of shared maneuvers.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers tracked the movement of 207 hummingbirds from 25 species using high-speed cameras. Each bird was allowed to explore its environment for 30 minutes, with no set tasks.

What they found: The researchers could identify a hummingbird species by its preferred flight maneuvers 34% of the time. For comparison, they could be correctly identified by their body shape 65% of the time.

The birds’ acrobatics also traced their evolutionary history, with closely related species preferring certain maneuvers, even if they lived in very different habitats.

Their wing muscles seemed to best predict the types of movements each species would excel at performing. Since these birds use accelerations, flips and turns to fight each other, impress mates, find food, and avoid predators, the researchers think differences in musculature can influence their behavior.

The next move: Scientists want to figure out how the birds' habitats and landscapes shaped their bodies and therefore their behaviors.

Alison Snyder