Surface VP Panos Panay holding the new Surface Book | Photo: Mark Von Holden/AP Images
This week saw a lot of interesting news: Microsoft had a game-changing Apple-style product-release conference, the Nobel Committee announced the winners of the Medicine and Physics Nobel Prizes, and hot on the heels of the most realistic Mars movie yet made, NASA has released a plan for how to get us there. Read on!
This Tuesday Microsoft held a “Windows 10 Devices Event,” where they unveiled some new hardware, like the Surface Pro 4 and the device Surface VP Panos Panay is holding above, the new Surface Book.
I don’t normally get excited about hardware that runs Windows. I’ve been burned by that OS too many times to really trust it anymore. Everything I do now is on some version of Linux or other (Ubuntu, ChromeOS, Android — you get the idea). But this thing… it almost makes me want to try Windows 10 again, and that’s saying something. Designed as a direct competitor for the Macbook Pro, it has two pieces: a solid keyboard that docks with the tablet. But if you’re thinking that’s just like the Surface Pro, you’re wrong. The keyboard literally adds power to the device: an extra battery, for starters, as well as an additional graphics processor. The keyboard, when attached, can still be flipped around behind the touch-sensitive screen as well, and the pen apparently has over a thousand degrees of pressure sensitivity, so much that it might actually be feasible for artists to use. The reviews have everyone excited, and it’s a real coup for the aging software company, that’s now both working with and competing against Apple in more markets every day. Check out reviews from Slate and Engadget for more.
Also revealed was that their new augmented reality headset, Hololens, will ship to developers in 2016. And it already has a game, in which digital enemies are inserted into whatever room you’re in, and you can fire at them with a digital gun that miraculously stays in your very real hand. Check out Gizmodo for more on that: their review is, quite reasonably I think, called “Project X Lets You Fight HoloLens Aliens In Your Living Room, And It’s Freaking Unreal.”
Two science Nobel Prizes were announced this week, first Physiology and Medicine, and then Physics. The Physiology and Medicine prize was split: one half of the prize went to Irish-American William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura of Japan for their discovery of a class of drugs, avermectin, used in fighting roundworms, a family of parasites that infest millions upon millions of people around the world. The other half went to Tu Youyou of China, for her work that led to the development of artemisinin, the most effective drug we have to fight Malaria. As a skeptic I can say that Tu’s work is the very best example of the way we should be treating traditional medicines: she went through a catalogue of traditional Chinese treatments for Malaria, isolated the compound responsible in one that worked, and learned to synthesize it, tested it for toxicity, and did all the things science requires of something for it to be a reliable and effective medicine. Truly excellent. Check out the Guardian for more on them and their work.
The Physics prize went to Takaaki Kajita of Japan and Canadian Arthur B. McDonald for their work in discovering that neutrinos, which come in three “flavours,” actively transition between those flavours. This is a harder thing to do than you’d think — neutrinos are insanely common (just reading this paragraph, thousands of them are passing through you every second) but almost completely unreactive to normal matter. They’re tiny, they don’t have a charge, and so their view of the universe is largely empty. To study them, you need to go underground, where, after passing through literally miles of solid rock, they can just about be detected with very sophisticated mechanisms. The neat thing about their discovery — that these changes happen — is that the math says that if they change flavours, they must have mass. Which means something in the standard model is off (which is super exciting for physicists). Check out Wired for more on these two and their work.
Getting to Mars
With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian now out in theatres (as well as its science coming under scrutiny and its locations explored by NASA), it may be the perfect time for NASA to have released a 35-page document outlining the steps it’s planning to take to get to Mars. Divided into three stages, the plan lays out the steps to design, build, and test the technologies we’ll need to get there in as (relatively) safe a manner as we can. The first stage is called Earth Reliant. We’re already doing a lot of the things in this phase, from putting astronauts on the ISS for longer and longer durations, to building more reliable long-term environment support systems, to testing “ISRU” (In-Situ Resource Utilization) technologies. The second is called Proving Ground. This is the stuff that’s coming up soon: the development of the SLS to get humans back into Lunar space, out two or three days from home to test new capabilities. This stage includes the proposed asteroid redirect mission that’ll see astronauts rendezvousing with a captured asteroid in lunar orbit and performing studies of it — an analogue for perhaps visiting Mars’s moons. The third is called Earth Independent, and it’s the really cool stuff — long-term deep-space habitats, temporary and reusable infrastructure in orbit and on the surface of Mars, and human adventurers finally visiting the red planet themselves. It’s a curious mix of well-grounded realism and almost wacky optimism, but it’s well worth the read. Check it out here.
In related news, Gizmodo is reporting that the first private mission to the moon has been chartered by an Israeli Google Lunar X Prize team, set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in 2017.
In future, apparently, we and our stuff will all be driven around in clean vehicles that drive themselves, if the news this week is anything to go by. Daimler is testing its self-driving truck system on the Autobahn, and things seem to be going fine. Proterra, a startup by an ex-Tesla employee, is now testing a new design of bus that can go over 250 miles on a single charge (more than many city bus routes drive in a day), making them officially as useful and perhaps even cheaper in the long run than even the diesel-electric hybrids I see driving around town. Meanwhile Toyota just released a design for a hydrogren-powered concept car that could, in theory, also power your home while producing no emissions save water vapour, and also in Japan, the Guardian is reporting that the town of Fujisawa will be the first to host a completely autonomous taxi fleet (with human supervisors, for now) in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. It’s a crazy, clean, driverless world we’re moving into, folks. Get ready.
In case you missed it, this is how the week ran right here at This Week In Tomorrow. On Monday, we looked at people having a blast on sci-fi book covers; on Tuesday we ran a biosketch of SETI co-founder and all around awesome #WomanInSTEM Jill Tarter as part of our countdown to #AdaLovelaceDay; On Wednesday I got upset at the way racism is being used to win an election in Canada; on Thursday, I shared a biosketch of Wilhelm Reich, an honest pseudoscientist; and on Friday, we had a guest post by literary historian Raven See on the forgotten women of the Beat Generation. If you haven’t read them yet, check them out!
Best of the Rest
There’s still more to cover, and only so many hours in the day, so to keep things brief here’s a little linkspam to fill you in.
- Quantum computing got a little easier with the invention of silicon-based quantum logic gates
- An anti-vaxxer-funded study found no link between vaccines and autism, much to their annoyance
- The price of installing green energy has continued to drop
- The NRO launched another spy satellite, as well as 13 non-classified piggybacking cubesats, and
- Harvard made a robotic bee that can swim.