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Astrophysics – Wikipedia

This article is about the use of physics and chemistry to determine the nature of astronomical objects. For the use of physics to determine their positions and motions, see Celestial mechanics. For the physical study of the largest-scale structures of the universe, see Physical cosmology. For the journal, see Astrophysics (journal).

Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that employs the principles of physics and chemistry “to ascertain the nature of the astronomical objects, rather than their positions or motions in space”.[1][2] Among the objects studied are the Sun, other stars, galaxies, extrasolar planets, the interstellar medium and the cosmic microwave background.[3][4] Their emissions are examined across all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the properties examined include luminosity, density, temperature, and chemical composition. Because astrophysics is a very broad subject, astrophysicists typically apply many disciplines of physics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics.

In practice, modern astronomical research often involves a substantial amount of work in the realms of theoretical and observational physics. Some areas of study for astrophysicists include their attempts to determine the properties of dark matter, dark energy, and black holes; whether or not time travel is possible, wormholes can form, or the multiverse exists; and the origin and ultimate fate of the universe.[3] Topics also studied by theoretical astrophysicists include Solar System formation and evolution; stellar dynamics and evolution; galaxy formation and evolution; magnetohydrodynamics; large-scale structure of matter in the universe; origin of cosmic rays; general relativity and physical cosmology, including string cosmology and astroparticle physics.

Although astronomy is as ancient as recorded history itself, it was long separated from the study of terrestrial physics. In the Aristotelian worldview, bodies in the sky appeared to be unchanging spheres whose only motion was uniform motion in a circle, while the earthly world was the realm which underwent growth and decay and in which natural motion was in a straight line and ended when the moving object reached its goal. Consequently, it was held that the celestial region was made of a fundamentally different kind of matter from that found in the terrestrial sphere; either Fire as maintained by Plato, or Aether as maintained by Aristotle.[5][6]During the 17th century, natural philosophers such as Galileo,[7] Descartes,[8] and Newton[9] began to maintain that the celestial and terrestrial regions were made of similar kinds of material and were subject to the same natural laws.[10] Their challenge was that the tools had not yet been invented with which to prove these assertions.[11]

For much of the nineteenth century, astronomical research was focused on the routine work of measuring the positions and computing the motions of astronomical objects.[12][13] A new astronomy, soon to be called astrophysics, began to emerge when William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered that, when decomposing the light from the Sun, a multitude of dark lines (regions where there was less or no light) were observed in the spectrum.[14] By 1860 the physicist, Gustav Kirchhoff, and the chemist, Robert Bunsen, had demonstrated that the dark lines in the solar spectrum corresponded to bright lines in the spectra of known gases, specific lines corresponding to unique chemical elements.[15] Kirchhoff deduced that the dark lines in the solar spectrum are caused by absorption by chemical elements in the Solar atmosphere.[16] In this way it was proved that the chemical elements found in the Sun and stars were also found on Earth.

Among those who extended the study of solar and stellar spectra was Norman Lockyer, who in 1868 detected bright, as well as dark, lines in solar spectra. Working with the chemist, Edward Frankland, to investigate the spectra of elements at various temperatures and pressures, he could not associate a yellow line in the solar spectrum with any known elements. He thus claimed the line represented a new element, which was called helium, after the Greek Helios, the Sun personified.[17][18]

In 1885, Edward C. Pickering undertook an ambitious program of stellar spectral classification at Harvard College Observatory, in which a team of woman computers, notably Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, and Annie Jump Cannon, classified the spectra recorded on photographic plates. By 1890, a catalog of over 10,000 stars had been prepared that grouped them into thirteen spectral types. Following Pickering’s vision, by 1924 Cannon expanded the catalog to nine volumes and over a quarter of a million stars, developing the Harvard Classification Scheme which was accepted for worldwide use in 1922.[19]

In 1895, George Ellery Hale and James E. Keeler, along with a group of ten associate editors from Europe and the United States,[20] established The Astrophysical Journal: An International Review of Spectroscopy and Astronomical Physics.[21] It was intended that the journal would fill the gap between journals in astronomy and physics, providing a venue for publication of articles on astronomical applications of the spectroscope; on laboratory research closely allied to astronomical physics, including wavelength determinations of metallic and gaseous spectra and experiments on radiation and absorption; on theories of the Sun, Moon, planets, comets, meteors, and nebulae; and on instrumentation for telescopes and laboratories.[20]

Around 1920, following the discovery of the Hertsprung-Russell diagram still used as the basis for classifying stars and their evolution, Arthur Eddington anticipated the discovery and mechanism of nuclear fusion processes in stars, in his paper The Internal Constitution of the Stars.[22][23] At that time, the source of stellar energy was a complete mystery; Eddington correctly speculated that the source was fusion of hydrogen into helium, liberating enormous energy according to Einstein’s equation E = mc2. This was a particularly remarkable development since at that time fusion and thermonuclear energy, and even that stars are largely composed of hydrogen (see metallicity), had not yet been discovered.[non-primary source needed]

In 1925 Cecilia Helena Payne (later Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin) wrote an influential doctoral dissertation at Radcliffe College, in which she applied ionization theory to stellar atmospheres to relate the spectral classes to the temperature of stars.[24] Most significantly, she discovered that hydrogen and helium were the principal components of stars. Despite Eddington’s suggestion, this discovery was so unexpected that her dissertation readers convinced her to modify the conclusion before publication. However, later research confirmed her discovery.[25]

By the end of the 20th century, studies of astronomical spectra had expanded to cover wavelengths extending from radio waves through optical, x-ray, and gamma wavelengths.[26] In the 21st century it further expanded to include observations based on gravitational waves.

Observational astronomy is a division of the astronomical science that is concerned with recording data, in contrast with theoretical astrophysics, which is mainly concerned with finding out the measurable implications of physical models. It is the practice of observing celestial objects by using telescopes and other astronomical apparatus.

The majority of astrophysical observations are made using the electromagnetic spectrum.

Other than electromagnetic radiation, few things may be observed from the Earth that originate from great distances. A few gravitational wave observatories have been constructed, but gravitational waves are extremely difficult to detect. Neutrino observatories have also been built, primarily to study our Sun. Cosmic rays consisting of very high energy particles can be observed hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

Observations can also vary in their time scale. Most optical observations take minutes to hours, so phenomena that change faster than this cannot readily be observed. However, historical data on some objects is available, spanning centuries or millennia. On the other hand, radio observations may look at events on a millisecond timescale (millisecond pulsars) or combine years of data (pulsar deceleration studies). The information obtained from these different timescales is very different.

The study of our very own Sun has a special place in observational astrophysics. Due to the tremendous distance of all other stars, the Sun can be observed in a kind of detail unparalleled by any other star. Our understanding of our own Sun serves as a guide to our understanding of other stars.

The topic of how stars change, or stellar evolution, is often modeled by placing the varieties of star types in their respective positions on the HertzsprungRussell diagram, which can be viewed as representing the state of a stellar object, from birth to destruction.

Theoretical astrophysicists use a wide variety of tools which include analytical models (for example, polytropes to approximate the behaviors of a star) and computational numerical simulations. Each has some advantages. Analytical models of a process are generally better for giving insight into the heart of what is going on. Numerical models can reveal the existence of phenomena and effects that would otherwise not be seen.[27][28]

Theorists in astrophysics endeavor to create theoretical models and figure out the observational consequences of those models. This helps allow observers to look for data that can refute a model or help in choosing between several alternate or conflicting models.

Theorists also try to generate or modify models to take into account new data. In the case of an inconsistency, the general tendency is to try to make minimal modifications to the model to fit the data. In some cases, a large amount of inconsistent data over time may lead to total abandonment of a model.

Topics studied by theoretical astrophysicists include: stellar dynamics and evolution; galaxy formation and evolution; magnetohydrodynamics; large-scale structure of matter in the universe; origin of cosmic rays; general relativity and physical cosmology, including string cosmology and astroparticle physics. Astrophysical relativity serves as a tool to gauge the properties of large scale structures for which gravitation plays a significant role in physical phenomena investigated and as the basis for black hole (astro)physics and the study of gravitational waves.

Some widely accepted and studied theories and models in astrophysics, now included in the Lambda-CDM model, are the Big Bang, cosmic inflation, dark matter, dark energy and fundamental theories of physics. Wormholes are examples of hypotheses which are yet to be proven (or disproven).

The roots of astrophysics can be found in the seventeenth century emergence of a unified physics, in which the same laws applied to the celestial and terrestrial realms.[10] There were scientists who were qualified in both physics and astronomy who laid the firm foundation for the current science of astrophysics. In modern times, students continue to be drawn to astrophysics due to its popularization by the Royal Astronomical Society and notable educators such as prominent professors Lawrence Krauss, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Stephen Hawking, Hubert Reeves, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The efforts of the early, late, and present scientists continue to attract young people to study the history and science of astrophysics.[29][30][31]

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Astrophysics – Wikipedia

NASA Astrophysics | Science Mission Directorate

In the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the Astrophysics division studies the universe.The science goals of the SMD Astrophysics Division are breathtaking: we seek to understand the universe and our place in it. We are starting to investigate the very moment of creation of the universe and are close to learning the full history of stars and galaxies. We are discovering how planetary systems form and how environments hospitable for life develop. And we will search for the signature of life on other worlds, perhaps to learn that we are not alone.

NASA’s goal in Astrophysics is to “Discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars.” Three broad scientific questions emanate from these goals.

Astrophysics comprises of three focused and two cross-cutting programs. These focused programs provide an intellectual framework for advancing science and conducting strategic planning. They include:

The Astrophysics current missions include three of the Great Observatories originally planned in the 1980s and launched over the past 28 years. The current suite of operational Great Observatories include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Additionally, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope explores the high-energy end of the spectrum. Innovative Explorer missions, such as the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, NuSTAR, TESS, as well as Mission of Opportunity NICER, complement the Astrophysics strategic missions. SOFIA, an airborne observatory for infrared astronomy, is in its operational phase and the Kepler mission is engaged in K2 extended mission operations. All of the missions together account for much of humanity’s accumulated knowledge of the heavens. Many of these missions have achieved their prime science goals, but continue to produce spectacular results in their extended operations.

NASA-funded investigators also participate in observations, data analysis and developed instruments for the astrophysics missions of our international partners, including ESA’s XMM-Newton.

The near future will be dominated by several missions. Currently in development, with especially broad scientific utility, is the James Webb Space Telescope. Also in work are detectors for ESA’s Euclid mission and hardware for JAXA’s XRISM (X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy, previously named XARM) to provide breakthroughs in the study of structure formation of the universe, outflows from galaxy nuclei, and dark matter.

Completing the missions in development, supporting the operational missions, and funding the research and analysis programs will consume most of the Astrophysics Division resources.

In February 2016, NASA formally started the top Astro2010 decadal recommendation, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST will aid researchers in their efforts to unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the cosmos. It will also discover new worlds outside our solar system and advance the search for worlds that could be suitable for life.

In January 2017, NASA selected the new Small Explorer (SMEX) mission IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer) which uses the polarization state of light from astrophysical sources to provide insight into our understanding of X-ray production in objects such as neutron stars and pulsar wind nebulae, as well as stellar and supermassive black holes.

In March 2017, NASA selected the Explorer Mission of Opportunity GUSTO (Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory) to measure emissions from the interstellar medium to help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way, witness the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our galaxy.

Since the 2001 decadal survey, the way the universe is viewed has changed dramatically. More than 3400 planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. Black holes are now known to be present at the center of most galaxies, including the Milky Way galaxy. The age, size and shape of the universe have been mapped based on the primordial radiation left by the big bang. And it has been learned that most of the matter in the universe is dark and invisible, and the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating in an unexpected way.

For the long term future, the Astrophysics goals will be guided based on the results of the 2010 Decadal survey New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The priority science objectives chosen by the survey committee include: searching for the first stars, galaxies, and black holes; seeking nearby habitable planets; and advancing understanding of the fundamental physics of the universe.In 2016 the New Worlds, New Horizons: A Midterm Assessment was released.

In 2012 the Astrophysics Implementation Plan was released (updated in 2014 and again in 2016) which describes the activities currently being undertaken in response to the decadal survey recommendations within the current budgetary constraints.

The Astrophysics roadmap Enduring Quests, Daring Visions was developed by a task force of the Astrophysics Subcommittee (APS) in 2013. The Roadmap presents a 30-year vision for astrophysics using the most recent decadal survey as the starting point.

Work on the upcoming 2020 decadal survey has commenced. Please visit the “2020 Decadal Planning” page for additional information about the Large Mission and Probe Mission concept studies currently underway.

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NASA Astrophysics | Science Mission Directorate

Astro-Physics – Buy Telescopes

Astro-Physics products can be shipped to overseas destinations except for the following countries: Australia, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

Astro-Physics is dedicated to the production and development of amateur telescopes and accessories. They strive to produce the highest possible quality telescope components at an affordable price. Astro-Physics builds optics, critical gears, circuit boards, and components including the knobs and fitting from scratch.

Astro-Physics offers a variety of telescope mounts andmount accessories, tube rings and photo / visual accessories.

The German Equatorial mounts Astro-Physics manufactures are: the Mach1GTO, 1100GTO, 1600GTOand 3600GTO. The Mach1GTO is compact, light-weight and portable. The 1100GTO German Equatorial Mount incorporates the design features of the 1600GTO in a smaller, more portable package.The 1600GTO can be used for basic configuration or with the optional Absolute Encoders it can go into demanding astro-imaging. The 3600GTO is the solution for imaging with large instruments or with a combined weight.

Mounting plates are another product of Astro-Physics. They produce an arrangement of dovetail mountings and fixed mountings. Astro-Physics also offer an array of accessories from counterweight shaft options, shaft extension and shaft safety parts, tripod, piers, power supplies and so much more. From the smallest accessory to the largest telescope mount you will find Astro-Physics products to be of the finest quality.

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Astro-Physics – Buy Telescopes

Scientists to Test New Cancer Treatment on Human Patients in 2019

A new cancer treatment that uses the body's own immune system to fight cancer is scheduled to start human trials in 2019.

Cancer Treatment

A new cancer treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer is scheduled to start human trials in 2019.

The U.K.’s Telegraph reports that the new treatment, devised by researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London, uses implanted immune system cells from strangers to fight tumors, instead of old-school cancer treatments like chemotherapy — a new tack in oncology that the researchers say could boost cancer ten-year cancer survival rates from 50 percent to 75 percent.

Immune System

The scientists behind the project explained it as a “do-it-yourself” approach to cancer treatment in interviews with the Telegraph. Instead of relying on chemicals or radiation outside the body to fight tumors, the transplants aim to help the bodies of cancer patients fight the tumors on their own.

“It’s a very exciting time,” said Charlie Swanton, one of the Francis Crick researchers involved in the work, in an interview with the paper. “Using the body’s own immune cells to target the tumor is elegant because tumours evolve so quickly there is no way a pharmaceutical company can keep up with it, but the immune system has been evolving for over four billion years to do just that.”

“Rapidly Treated Diseases”

Swanton told the Telegraph that he believes the trials could lead to a whole new tool set that doctors will be able to use to fight cancer.

“I would go so far as to say that we might reach a point, maybe 20 years from now, where the vast majorities of cancers are rapidly treated diseases or long-term chronic issues that you can manage,” he said. “And I think the immune system will be essential in doing that.”

READ MORE: Cancer breakthrough: Scientists say immune system transplants mean ‘future is incredibly bright’ [The Telegraph]

More on cancer research: Researchers May Have Discovered a New Way to Kill off Cancer Cells

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Scientists to Test New Cancer Treatment on Human Patients in 2019

Holograms Are Resurrecting Dead Musicians, Raising Legal Questions

Dead Musicians

Michael Jackson. Amy Winehouse. Tupac. Roy Orbison.

Those are just a few of the dead musicians who have been resurrected on stage in recent years as holograms — and a new feature by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explores not just the critical reception and technological frontiers of the new industry, but the legal minefield it raises to dust off the visage of a famous person and bring them out on the road.

Back to Life

According to University of Sydney digital human researcher Mike Seymour, today’s musical holograms have only started to tap the medium’s potential. In the future, he predicted to the ABC, machine learning will let these long-dead holograms interact with the crowd and improvise.

Additionally, according to the report, the law is still grappling with how to handle life-after-death performances. In the U.S., a legal concept called a “right to publicity” gives a person, or their estate, the right to profit from their likeness. But whether right to publicity applies after death, and for how long, differs between states.

Atrocity

Of course, no legal or technical measures will win over fans of an act who find it disrespectful to raise a performer from death and trot them out on tour.

“If you are appalled by [the idea], because you think it’s an atrocity to the original act, you are going to hate it,” Seymour told the broadcaster. “And if you are a fan that just loves seeing that song being performed again, you are going to think it’s the best thing ever.”

READ MORE: Dead musicians are touring again, as holograms. It’s tricky — technologically and legally [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

More on hologram performances: Wildly Famous Japanese Pop Star Sells Thousands of Tickets in NYC. Also, She’s A Hologram

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Holograms Are Resurrecting Dead Musicians, Raising Legal Questions

New Theory: The Universe is a Bubble, Inflated by Dark Energy

A mind-bending new theory claims to make sense not just of the expanding universe and extra dimensions, but string theory and dark energy as well.

Dark Energy

A mind-bending new theory claims to make sense not just of the expanding universe and extra dimensions, but string theory and dark energy as well.

According to the new model, proposed in the journal Physical Review Letters by researchers from Uppsala University, the entire universe is riding on an expanding bubble in an “additional dimension” — which is being inflated by dark energy and which is home to strings that extend outwards from it and correspond to all the matter that it contains.

Breaking It Down

The paper is extraordinarily dense and theoretical. But the surprising new theory it lays out, its authors say, could provide new insights about the creation and ultimate destiny of the cosmos.

In the long view, though, physicists have suggested many outrageous models for the universe over the years — many of which we’ve covered here at Futurism. The reality: until a theory not only conforms to existing evidence but helps explain new findings, the road to a consensus will be long.

READ MORE: Our universe: An expanding bubble in an extra dimension [Uppsala University]

More on dark energy: An Oxford Scientist May Have Solved the Mystery of Dark Matter

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New Theory: The Universe is a Bubble, Inflated by Dark Energy

Poll: Two Thirds of Americans Support Human Gene Editing to Cure Disease

The majority of U.S. adults would support gene editing embryos to protect babies against disease, according to a new poll.

Human Gene Editing

The majority of U.S. adults support human gene editing to protect babies against disease, according to a new poll.

But they wouldn’t support gene edits that make babies smarter or taller, according to the new research by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which polled about a thousand U.S. adults this month to learn about public attitudes toward genetic engineering.

Deep Divides

The AP research found that 71 percent of respondents support gene editing to protect a baby from an inherited condition, and 67 percent support reducing the risk of diseases like cancer.

But just 12 percent would be okay with tampering with intelligence or athletic ability, and only 10 percent would consider altering physical characteristics like eye color or height.

CRISPR Drawer

Questions about using technologies like CRISPR to gene edit human embryos gained immediacy last month, when Chinese scientists claimed to have edited the genes of two babies in order to protect them against HIV — a move that prompted an international outcry, but also questions about when the technology will be ready for human testing.

“People appear to realize there’s a major question of how we should oversee and monitor use of this technology if and when it becomes available,” Columbia University bioethicist Robert Klitzman told the AP of the new research. “What is safe enough? And who will determine that? The government? Or clinicians who say, ‘Look, we did it in Country X a few times and it seems to be effective.

READ MORE: Poll: Edit baby genes for health, not smarts [Associated Press]

More on human gene editing: Chinese Scientists Claim to Have Gene-Edited Human Babies For the First Time

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Poll: Two Thirds of Americans Support Human Gene Editing to Cure Disease

Experts: Stop Adding Cancer-Causing Chemicals to our Meats

Burgers full of beef and bacon are facing a new threat from cancer causing chemicals.

Bringing Home The Bacon

Experts in the UK are smoking mad over a lack of regulation surrounding food additives which may be leading to increased rates of cancer in people who eat processed meats.

Meat has had a mighty difficult go of things since a concerning 2015 World Health Organization report which reclassified processed meats as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans. The news that your crispy bacon might be causing cancer was met with mixed reactions. But scientists in the UK are now suggesting there may be a way to have your bacon and eat it too.

Nasty Nitrites

Part of the problem may center around the meat industry’s use of nitrites as preservatives. Nitrites are used as both a preservative and color fixture, ensuring meat has a pinkish hue, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A coalition led by Queen’s University professor Chris Elliott claims there is a “consensus of scientific opinion” that adding nitrites to cure meats can cause an increased risk of cancer in humans and leading to 6,600 cases of bowl cancer in the UK. Coalition members, like cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, are calling upon the UK government to stop the use of nitrites are preservatives.

“Government action to remove nitrites from processed meats should not be far away. Nor can a day of reckoning for those who dispute the incontrovertible facts. The meat industry must act fast, act now – or be condemned to a similar reputational blow to that dealt to tobacco,” Malhotra said to The Guardian.

Home Of The Whopper

In the United States, nitrites are considered to be a safe food additive by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established guidelines on the recommended limit for nitrite and sodium nitrite additives.

“To meat or not to meat” may be a question one has to decide for one’s own self. Thankfully, we may be about to get many more plant-based meat alternatives that seem almost like the real thing, even as debates rage whether plant-based alternatives should be allowed to be called meat.

READ MORE: Stop adding cancer-causing chemicals to our bacon, experts tell meat industry [TheGuardian]

More on Meat: Think Big Oil’s a Problem? “Big Meat” Emits More Greenhouse Gas Than Most Countries

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Experts: Stop Adding Cancer-Causing Chemicals to our Meats

Google Wins Lawsuit Over Facial Recognition Technology

Google won a key Illinois lawsuit that has long been a barrier to big tech companies' use of facial recognition software.

Apple Of My Eye

After weeks of notoriety and backlash, Google has scored a legal victory allowing it to keep a close watch on users of Google products.

On Saturday, a U.S. District Judge in Chicago dismissed a lawsuit filled against the internet giant which alleged that Google violated users’ right to privacy by using facial recognition technology without their consent. The lawsuit, originally filed in 2016, was the result of the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, one of the strictest biometric security laws in the nation. It requires tech companies to obtain explicit permission from Illinois citizens in order to make any biometric scans of their bodies.

Facebook and Snapchat are facing similar challenges from the law, but Google’s victory could signal a new era in the use and development of facial recognition technology.

“Concrete Injuries”

In his dismissal of the case, U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang cited the lack of “concrete injuries.” In the legal realm this means either physical damage or damage to one’s reputation which actually exists. In short, Chang’s conclusion was that despite not asking permission, Google’s use of the plaintiff’s photos didn’t result in any physical harm or damage to their reputation and was therefore legal. The cases against Facebook and Snapchat are still pending, but Google’s win could provide lawyers with some ammunition in defending the other two tech giants.

Big Brother

Facial recognition technology may take center stage in increasingly common debates about the intersection of advanced technology and rights to personal privacy.  Still, development continues despite the technology’s imperfections and warnings from other tech executives calling for stricter legal guidelines.

Facial recognition technology is becoming increasingly common in everyday life, cropping up at airports and even Taylor Swift concerts. Yet, as we continue to decide who has what right to our data and why, big technology companies are moving quickly to decide our future for themselves.

READ MORE: Google wins dismissal of facial recognition lawsuit over biometric privacy act [TheVerge]

More on facial recognition: Microsoft President Warns Of “1984” Facial Recognition Future

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Google Wins Lawsuit Over Facial Recognition Technology

Elon Musk Thinks the First Mars Settler Could Be an AI

On Friday, Elon Musk speculated that a sophisticated artificial intelligence might touch down on the Red Planet before the first human Mars settler.

The MartAIn

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to establish a base on Mars — but he isn’t sure its first resident will be human.

On Friday, the mercurial billionaire responded to a question on Twitter about whether a sophisticated artificial intelligence might touch down on the Red Planet before human colonists. Musk’s answer: 30 percent.

30%

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 27, 2018

AI Overlords

Musk has a fraught relationship with the topic of AI. He’s publicly warned about the danger’s of unregulated AI, even going so far as to found the organization Open AI to encourage the development of responsible machine learning systems.

It’s such a signature issue for Musk that other tech personalities have weighed in on his claims — including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who said the notion of killer AI was “pretty irresponsible,” and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who quipped at an event earlier this month that Musk was “writing a great screenplay for a Black Mirror episode.”

Case For Optimism

But Musk also believes that AI could be made to help humankind — or that the two could even merge, ushering in a new era of evolution.

Or, as the Friday tweet shows, it seems that Musk could get on board with AI as long as it could help further his visions for the colonization of space.

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Leaked Documents Show How Facebook Controls Speech Across the Globe

Leaked documents showing how Facebook controls speech online raise deep questions about the future of the company's role in international discourse.

Unfriended

Documents obtained by the New York Times show how the social giant’s international content moderation strategy is dictated by thousands of pages of PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets that “sometimes clumsily” tell thousands of moderators what to allow and what to delete. The revelation raises deep questions about the future of Facebook’s role in international discourse — especially in the wake of damaging revelations about how the platform allowed propaganda during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

“Facebook’s role has become so hegemonic, so monopolistic, that it has become a force unto itself,” political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic told the Times. “No one entity, especially not a for-profit venture like Facebook, should have that kind of power to influence public debate and policy.”

It’s Complicated

Facebook moderators who spoke to the Times under condition of anonymity said they felt hamstrung by the extraordinarily complex rule set, which forces them to make rapid decisions, sometimes using Google Translate, about fraught topics including terrorism and sectarian violence.

“You feel like you killed someone by not acting,” said a moderator who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity.

The result, according to the Times, is that Facebook has become a “far more powerful arbiter of global speech than has been publicly recognized or acknowledged by the company itself.”

“A Lot of Mistakes”

Facebook executives pushed back against the implication that its content moderation efforts were murky or disorganized, arguing that the platform has a responsibility to moderate the content its users post and defending its efforts to do so.

“We have billions of posts every day, we’re identifying more and more potential violations using our technical systems,” Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert told the Times. “At that scale, even if you’re 99 percent accurate, you’re going to have a lot of mistakes.”

READ MORE: Inside Facebook’s Secret Rulebook for Global Political Speech [The New York Times]

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Gov Shutdown Means 95 Percent of NASA Employees Aren’t At Work

The ongoing government shutdown means that 95 percent of NASA's workforce is home on furlough during New Horizons' historic flyby.

Get Furlough

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft soars by the space rock Ultima Thule on New Years Eve, it will be the most distant object humankind has ever explored.

Though you’ll be able to stream the historic flyby on the YouTube channel of Johns Hopkins Univerisity’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the event — which is arguably the most awe-inspiring item of space news all year — won’t be available on NASA TV, which typically offers extensive commentary and access to subject matter experts regarding the space agency’s projects. The reason: the ongoing government shutdown means that 95 percent of NASA’s workforce is home on furlough.

“Act of Ineptitude”

NASA employees are disgusted by the legislative dysfunction that’s keeping all but the most mission-critical workers home during the historic flyby, according to the Houston Chronicle — and their ire is reportedly focused on politicians who have allowed the science agency’s work to grind to a halt.

“We have not heard from a single member who supports the president’s inaction,” said the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union that represents federal workers, in a statement quoted by the paper. “Most view this as an act of ineptitude.”

Heat Death

The Chronicle also pointed to a post by Casey Dreier, a senior space policy adviser to the nonprofit scientific advocacy organization The Planetary Society, that chastised leaders for failing the nation’s scientific workers — and worried that the political brinkmanship of a shutdown could lead talented workers away from government work entirely, altering the dynamics of space exploration.

“I fear that we will see more and more NASA employees ask themselves why they put up with such needless disruptions and leave for jobs the private sector,” Dreier wrote. “We know that NASA can get back to work, but how long will the best and the brightest want to work at an agency that continues to get callously tossed into political churn?”

READ MORE: NASA, other federal workers not as supportive of government shutdown as Trump claims, union rep says [Houston Chronicle]

More on government shutdowns and space travel: Government Shutdown Hampers SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Testing

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Gov Shutdown Means 95 Percent of NASA Employees Aren’t At Work

Scientist Who Gene Edited Babies Is Being Held By Mysterious Guards

Ball and chain.

Spotted

After Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the scientific community by announcing last month that he had edited the genes of human babies, he mysteriously vanished.

And now he’s been found. The New York Times reports that guards are holding He in a guesthouse at his university, the Southern University of Science and Technology. It’s unclear whether the guards work for the Chinese government, the university, or another organization — but their presence is the latest sign that He’s transgressive research upset the delicate balance of the genetics research community and regulatory systems, prompting retaliation from powerful interests.

Plainclothes Guards

The Chinese government condemned He’s work after he announced it, launching an investigation and banning him from continuing his research. What was unclear, however, was whether He’s disappearance was a result of him laying low or being held somewhere.

Now the Times has found that He is staying at a university guesthouse normally used to house visiting scholars, where a dozen plainclothes guards refused to identify themselves to a Times reporter. He is able to communicate over email and phone calls, according to the Times, and has corresponded with business colleagues.

“He was extremely irresponsible to the employees, partners and investors,” said Liu Chaoyu, with whom He co-founded the gene-testing company Vienomics, in an interview with the Times. Liu last saw He the day before the conference at which he disclosed the existence of the gene-edited babies. “He did not discuss anything with us before he made his announcement and we had to deal with all of it unexpectedly.”

Shock and Awe

The university and Shenzhen police both declined to comment to the Times. In fact, all employees of the university have been barred from speaking to the press, according to a message obtained by the paper.

What’s clear is that He’s unprecedented work sent shockwaves not just through the research ecosystem but through the powerful machinery of international government — and as the saga of his treatment in the wake of the announcement unfolds, it could be a roadmap to the challenges other researchers would face if they follow in his footsteps.

READ MORE: Chinese Scientist Who Claimed to Make Genetically Edited Babies Is Kept Under Guard [The New York Times]

More on He Jiankui: Chinese Scientists Claim to Have Gene-Edited Human Babies For the First Time

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Scientist Who Gene Edited Babies Is Being Held By Mysterious Guards

Washington May Become the First State to Legalize Human Composting

Washington State may be set to become the first state to allow human composting

Death Reimagined

Grandma is in the garden. No, literally.

There’s something beautiful in deciding how one’s final moments should be confined to the memory of our loved ones. Advances in technology and changing mindsets seem to have people wondering why a coffin in the ground should have to be the only option of final resting place. Residents in Washington state have a brand new vision of returning to the Earth. Now a bill being sponsored in the state’s legislature could see Washington become the first state to legalize human composting.

A Tree of Me

The bill, backed by state Senator Jamie Pedersen, would allow for the “recomposition” of human remains, a process which speeds up decomposition and turns remains into a nutrient-packed soil which could be returned to families.

“People from all over the state who wrote to me are very excited about the prospect of becoming a tree or having a different alternative for themselves,” Pedersen told NBCnews.

Although “becoming a tree” and other futuristic burial ideas aren’t entirely new concepts, Washington would become the first state to allow human composting if the bill is passed. The idea isn’t just futuristic, it’s also economical. More and more Americans are turning to crowdfunding to support funeral costs, with the average funeral costing more than $7,000 in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The recomposition process in comparison is somewhat cheaper with costs expected to fall around $5,500.

Safety First

The process is very similar to traditional composting. Unembalmed human remains are placed in a composting chamber and left to decompose with organic material like woodchips or straw. Air is occasionally pulled into the chamber to help microbes speed up decomposition and in about one month all that remains is a cubic yard of compost.

A five-month study, in which six donor bodies were decomposed, was led by researcher Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Associate Professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State. The study was carefully controlled to prevent spreading any harmful pathogens, a concern which led to the defeat of a similar bill sponsored by Pederson in 2017.

Carpenter-Boggs’ study concluded in August that the remains produced were safe and she plans to submit her research for publication in 2019. If the bill passes, it would take effect May 1, 2020. Until then, we can keep dreaming of “becoming trees” but Pederson’s bill could open doors to new burial alternatives and ways we can choose to have our memory honored.

READ MORE: Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting [NBCNews]

More on Burial Alternatives: 7 Futuristic Things To Do With Your Body When You Die

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NASA Clears “Dream Chaser” Space Cargo Plane For Full-Scale Production

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft has been cleared by NASA for full-scale production

Space Plane

Watch out space, there’s a new commercial cargo carrier entering the race.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has been given the go ahead from NASA to begin full-scale production of it’s “Dream Chaser” commercial space cargo plane. Scheduled to make its first mission in 2020, the company announced on December 18 that it had cleared the last milestone in its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. Now the company is able to move ahead with the full-scale production of the carrier which will be used to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

T-minus 2 Years

The Dream Chaser was originally conceptualized for NASA’s commercial crew program but ultimately sidelined by NASA in favor of designs from Boeing and SpaceX. A redesigned version of the original Dream Chaser, the cargo version includes fold-able wings and is capable of carrying 5,500 kilograms (approximately 12125 lbs) of cargo to the International Space Station and return 1,850 kilograms (approximately 4078 lbs) to Earth in a runway landing.

SNC was one of three companies, alongside SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), to receive a commercial cargo contract from NASA in 2016. The contract guarantees each corporation at least six missions to the ISS.

Various components of the full-scale Dream Chaser have already been produced and tested. At a conference last October, Steve Lindsey, Steve Lindsey, Vice President for Space Exploration Systems at SNC said he expected to be “the majority of the way through” assembly and testing of the first Dream Chaser by next October.

Commercial Space Race

High launch costs are one of the most limiting factors in commercial space operations. Increased competition between corporations is helping to reduce the cost of launches opening new doors for smaller companies.

“When those launch vehicle prices come down — which, by the way, is about 80 percent of our costs on every mission we fly — that opens up the commercial market,” said Lindsey. As both competition and innovation increase, companies will face new pressure to stake their claim among the stars.

READ MORE: Private Dream Chaser Space Plane Cleared to Begin Full-Scale Production [Space]

More on Dream Chaser: United Nations Set To Launch Its First Ever Space Mission for 2021 

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Rerouting Nerves During Amputation May Reduce Phantom Limb Pain

Nerve cells could be rerouted to help prevent phantom limb pain

Begone Ghost

If you’ve never had to feel pain in a limb you no longer have, consider yourself lucky.

“Phantom limb pain” is a sensation of pain and muscle tension in a limb which isn’t actually attached to the body anymore. Roughly 60% to 80% of amputees feel some sort of phantom limb pain after their procedure. The effects, beyond being painful, can be outright debilitating for some people.

Now, doctors from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have discovered that a procedure originally meant to help with advanced prosthetic devices may also reduce or prevent phantom limb pain entirely.

Un-Nerving

Primary targeted muscle reinnervation or TMR, the process of rerouting nerves cut by amputation into surrounding muscle, was originally developed to help patients have better control of upper-limb prosthetics. Normally the procedure is performed month or even years after an initial amputation. By performing TMR at the time of amputation, however, doctors can tie up loose ends (so to speak) helping to prevent pain.

Over the course of three years, surgeons performed 22 TMR surgeries on below-the-knee amputees. None of the patients have developed neuromas, or pinched nerves, and six months later only 13 percent of patients reported having pain.

Attaching severed nerves “allows the body to re-establish its neural circuitry. This alleviates phantom and residual limb pain by giving those severed nerves somewhere to go and something to do,” said Dr. Ian Valerio, division chief of Burn, Wound and Trauma in Ohio State’s Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Sweet Relief

By making TMR surgery a normal part of amputation procedures, doctors may be able to prevent a lifetime of pain for patients and later enable them to have more precise control over prosthetic limbs. In the United States alone there are approximately 185,000 amputations annually, according the Amputee Coalition. Developments, like those made by Valerio and team, will go a long way toward helping new amputees and those who use advanced prosthetic devices.

READ MORE: Rerouting nerves during amputation reduces phantom limb pain before it starts [EurekAlert]

More on Advanced Prosthetics: Electronic Skin Lets Amputees Feel Pain Through Their Prosthetics

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Rerouting Nerves During Amputation May Reduce Phantom Limb Pain

Tiny Robots That Repair Pipes Could Eliminate Road Work

The U.K. is investing millions of dollars into the development of micro-robots capable of navigating and repairing underground pipes.

Micro-Robots

The road workers of the future could be smaller. And a lot less human.

On Monday, the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy announced an $8.9 million investment into a project to develop micro-robots capable of inspecting and repairing the nation’s network of underground pipes.

If successful, the project could save the country billions of dollars annually — and change how road work gets done across the globe.

Pipe Dream

According to a government press release, a team of researchers from four U.K. universities will work together to develop the micro-robots, which will each be approximately just one-centimeter long. The goal is for these bots to fly, swim, or crawl through the pipes that transport water, gas, and sewage beneath U.K. streets.

One of the researchers working on the project, the University of Sheffield’s Kirill Horoshenkov, told The Daily Telegraph that the team plans to develop two versions of the robots.

One will be an “inspection bot” that can autonomously navigate and examine the pipes using sonar technology. The other will be a “worker bot” capable of repairing pipes using cement and adhesives or cleaning them with a high-powered jet. That robot will be slightly larger and steered via remote control.

According to Horoshenkov, the bots could be ready for use within five years.

Down the Road

Each year, 1.5 million road excavations take place in the U.K., and the traffic closures and business disruptions caused by this roadwork cost the nation an estimated $6.3 billion.

That means if this $8.9 million investment in the development of micro-robots pans out the way the U.K. is hoping, it’ll soon pay for itself many times over. There’s also the possibility of other nations adopting the same or similar tech after witnessing the U.K.’s success.

As U.K. Science Minister Chris Skidmore noted in the press release, “While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future.”

READ MORE: UK Invests in Micro-Robots Which Could Make Roadworks a Thing of the Past [The Telegraph]

More on micro-robots: Rolls-Royce Is Building Cockroach-Like Robots to Fix Plane Engines

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Tiny Robots That Repair Pipes Could Eliminate Road Work

Edible Coating Can Keep Food Fresh Longer and Cut Down on Waste

A new FDA-approved food coating can double a vegetable's shelf life. It may help reduce the $2 trillion cost and carbon emissions of food waste.

Greenhouse Gas

People waste a lot of food. In America alone, the National Resources Defense Council estimates that as much as 40 percent of the food people buy ends up in the trash, not to mention the perfectly-good food that never leaves the grocery store or even the farm.

The United Nations estimates that the world wastes 30 percent of all produced food, the total cost of which adds up to about $2.6 trillion. But the problem is bigger than an embarrassing misstep in your weekly budget — the methane emissions of all that rotting food are worse for the climate than if we had simply thrown that cash into the incinerator.

Slap a Fresh Coat on it

Since people struggle to avoid wasting all that food and the market for unsightly-but-good vegetables still isn’t there, a Californian startup called Apeel Sciences developed a thin, transparent, edible coating that can keep food fresh much longer than normal, according to CNBC.

The coating, Epideel, preserves food by preventing the two main causes of spoilage. Acting as a physical barrier, Epideel blocks the water in the food from evaporating away and also blocks atmospheric oxygen from reacting with the food. Reportedly, the coating can double the shelf life of notoriously finicky foods like avocados.

Big Strides

Epideel, which is made up of fats and other compounds taken from fruits and vegetables, was designed in accordance with “Generally Recognized as Safe” U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations that allowed Apeel Sciences to circumvent the FDA’s normal approval process. Epideel-coated avocados are already on the shelves of grocery chains Kroger, Costco, and Harps Food.

Part of that success likely comes from the involvement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated a sizable portion of the $110 million that Apeel Sciences has raised since its start back in 2012. The company has already found its way to CNBC‘s 2018 list of the top 50 disruptors, which highlights how CEO James Rogers hopes Epideel-coated foods can help feed the world’s hungry.

READ MORE: This Bill Gates-backed start-up is fighting world hunger by making your avocados last longer [CNBC]

More on food waste: Reducing Food Waste in Creative Ways Could Help the World’s Hunger Problem

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Edible Coating Can Keep Food Fresh Longer and Cut Down on Waste

Bill Gates: U.S. Leaders Must Embrace Nuclear Energy

Gates nuclear energy

Power Play

Think your New Year’s resolution to hit the gym is daunting? Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wants to change an entire nation’s energy policy in 2019.

On Saturday, the billionaire philanthropist released a letter detailing what he learned in 2018 and what he hopes to accomplish in 2019. One of his goals for the next year is to persuade U.S. leaders to “get into the game” of advanced nuclear energy — and the future of our environment could be riding on his success.

Nuclear Option

Nuclear energy is produced by splitting the nucleus of an atom (fission) or combining the nuclei of two atoms (fusion). Nuclear fission reactors already meet 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity needs. But while fission doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, the technology is currently less than ideal — the U.S. built most of its reactors more than 30 years ago, and they require plutonium, which isn’t exactly easily accessible. The process also produces unwanted byproducts, some of which are radioactive.

Researchers have yet to figure out a way to produce stable nuclear fusion, but they’re getting closer. If — or, hopefully, when — they do succeed, we’ll have a near-limitless source of clean energy that we can create from hydrogen, which is far more accessible than plutonium, and the only byproduct would be a small amount of helium.

Worthy Investment

According to Gates, “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”

But the U.S. has been slacking off in terms of nuclear energy research in recent decades. To regain its position as a global nuclear energy leader it needs to “commit new funding, update regulations, and show investors that it’s serious,” wrote Gates.

He believes this renewed commitment will allow the nation to overcome the limitations of existing nuclear technology in a way that could significantly benefit the environment.

“The United States is uniquely suited to create these advances with its world-class scientists, entrepreneurs, and investment capital,” Gates wrote, later adding that the “world needs to be working on lots of solutions to stop climate change. Advanced nuclear is one, and I hope to persuade U.S. leaders to get into the game.”

READ MORE: As China Option Fades, Bill Gates Urges U.S. To Take the Lead in Nuclear Power, for the Good of the Planet [GeekWire]

More on nuclear energy: Nuclear Power Used to Seem Like the Future. Now Its Fate in the US Is in Question.

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Bill Gates: U.S. Leaders Must Embrace Nuclear Energy

The EU Is Banning Almost All Coal Mining on Jan 1

Come January 1, all unprofitable coal mines in the European Union will be shut down. In Spain, that means 26 new closures.

No More Handouts

Every unprofitable coal mine in the European Union must cease production by the first day of 2019, the date on which all public funds for the mines will come to an end. In Spain, that means that 26 coal mines are about to close up shop, according to Reuters.

This move away from coal is a refreshing bit of bluntness — letting the failed remnants of a fossil fuel industry fade away — compared to how the federal government in the U.S. is grasping at anything to keep coal alive. But it remains to be seen how much of an impact the coal closures will have in the ongoing effort to curb climate change.

Always a Bigger Fish

The deadline was set back in 2010 as the EU sought to move away from fossil fuel dependence, according to Telesur. The EU wanted to end public aid to coal mines sooner, but groups from Germany — which shuttered its last coal mine earlier this month — and Spain are responsible for extending the deadline all the way to the end of 2018.

Spain has already decreased the portion of its electricity generated by coal down to about 14 percent, according to United Press International. And 90 percent of the coal burned in Spain is imported from Russia and Colombia anyway.

Still, the deal that Spain struck with the EU dictates that nine of the 15 coal-burning plants in Spain must close by 2020, according to Telesur. That on its own is huge news for the transition to cleaner power, and marks a clear sign that major world powers are taking their responsibility to help prevent our impending climate change catastrophe seriously.

Think Ahead

Once again in stark contrast to the U.S., where coal miners in Appalachia face a weak job market with few prospects, Spain’s socialist government — largely supported by coal mining communities — made a deal with mining union in October to ensure that displaced workers will be taken care of, according to Reuters.

About 60 percent of the people who worked in closing mines are expected to take advantage of an early retirement offer, while others have access to the 250 million euros that the government is making available to help launch new businesses or repurpose the land around the coal mines.

READ MORE: Spanish coal miners work last shifts before mines shuttered [Reuters]

More on coal: More Than 40 Percent of the World’s Coal Plants Lose Money

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