Sep 28, 2017

Axios Science

Welcome back. I hope you caught the Halcyon House dialogue about robotics on the Axios stream this afternoon but if not my colleague Erin Ross has a quick recap to get us started. I always appreciate your feedback about what you're reading here and on the site so please send me a note ( or reply to this email.

1. Living with robots

Our latest Axios Science event, hosted with AAAS and Halcyon, had a couple of discussions with scientists and policymakers on what our future will be like living with robots. Food delivery drones, robotic caregivers, and autonomous construction-bots are in our future.

Watch the event, hosted by our own Alison Snyder. Among the panel members were: Republican Rep. Will Hurd, CyPhy CTO Helen Greiner, former White House CTO Megan Smith, and Fred Humphries, Microsoft VP of U.S. government affairs.

Read the highlights from the event here.

2. Why earthquakes are nearly impossible to predict

In the past 30 years, early warning systems for earthquakes that use sensors and software have been installed around the world to give people valuable seconds to protect themselves as best they can. Such a system likely saved thousands of lives in Mexico City last week and there are calls to finish an early warning network being installed on the West Coast in the U .S.

The key question: Those systems sense rumbles that are already underway. So, is there a way to actually predict an earthquake?

The bottom line: Erin spoke with seismologists about whether it's possible and found that scientists are not that close to predicting earthquakes in the traditional sense of looking for precursors.

"We're no closer to earthquake prediction than we ever were, and are perhaps farther in that we now understand the difficulties better," says Robert Geller, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo.

Yes, but: There are operational earthquake forecasts. Some geologists combine data gained about particular faults with algorithms for assessing the probability of an earthquake occurring at a time and place.

3. Axios stories to spark your brain
  • Invaders: Washed up debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami brought animals to North America, per Erin Ross.
  • Pro sports scouting: Steve LeVine writes about how sports teams are eyeing machine learning to up their game. So far, it's being used to psychologically screen recruits.
  • ICYMI: Detectors in Italy and U.S. spotted the ripples in spacetime from the collision of two black holes. It was the fourth time such signals have been observed — but this time they were able to narrow in on their origin.
  • Surprising death rate: Eileen O'Reilly writes about new county-level data showing a 30% rise in U.S. deaths from chronic respiratory diseases between 1980 and 2014. This is despite public health efforts. The hope is that this specific data will help to target those initiatives more effectively.
4. What we're reading elsewhere
  • Guns and public health: Melinda Wenner Moyer in Scientific American on what research says about the claim that more guns make more people safe. Her bottom line: "[G]uns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse." Equally interesting: Her look at the impact of Congress' now decades-long block on dedicated funding for gun research at the CDC, which otherwise extensively studies injury and death in the U.S.
  • Nobel predictions: A roundup of contenders for the prizes being announced next week in medicine (Monday), physics (Tuesday), and chemistry (Wednesday). Most cite the predictions of David Pendlebury, who has accurately forecasted 43 recipients since 2002, (and has a roundup of physics contenders too).
  • New look: Wired's Matt Simon looks at advances in swarming microbots.
5. Something wondrous

Over the past thousand years, origami has grown from a craft of ceremony to an art form to a method of science. In the folding and unfolding of paper, mathematical mysteries have been solved, engineering solutions inspired, and biological processes better understood:

  • Origami informed the design of the shield for the James Webb Space Telescope, aka, the origami observatory, that is scheduled to launch next year.
  • Biochemists look to it to understand how proteins fold in order to function.
  • It inspired the invention of a foldable microscope.
  • Sheets of metal, plastic, and even dried pig intestine can fold into robot bodies that can change shape and move through different environments. Yesterday, there was news of one that uses a thin layer of mylar that, when heated, folds into different configurations (wings and wheels are two of the four possibilities) to form a task-specific exoskeleton for the bot.

If you're in D.C. over the next month, origami pieces that are as much science as art, like the one above by MIT mathematician Erik Demaine and his father Martin Demaine, are on display at the Japan Information and Culture Center.