Vol. 1 / No. 18 — Elon’s Nice Legs, Empty Gox, and Bleeding Blue for Science

Nice Legs

If you’ve been following the news out of SpaceX, you’ll know that their work on the reusability of their Falcon 9 rockets is progressing nicely. As a follow-up to the successful 750m test of their grasshopper system, the company has now installed the hydraulic legs on the Falcon 9 slated to take the next ISS resupply mission to orbit.

Nice Legs. Photo credit: Elon Musk
Nice Legs. Photo credit: Elon Musk

If successful (which Elon Musk is apparently estimating at less than 50-50) the first stage of the rocket will return rocket-first for a soft landing over water, test-deploying the landing legs before gently splashing down. The resupply mission CRS-3 launches no earlier than March 16. Check out the full story over at nasaspaceflight.com.

Empty Gox

This week the news came out that Mt. Gox, one of the early Bitcoin exchanges, has filed for bankruptcy in Japan. Furthermore, the CEO of the company, Mark Karpeles, has told authorities that there are 750,000-850,000 bitcoins “missing” from the exchange. While the loss has been blamed on something called the “transaction malleability bug”, many in the Bitcoin community suspect internal corruption and some even believe Karpeles still has the bitcoins in accounts he controls. This does not mean anything like the end of Bitcoin, any more than the death of Hotmail would mean the end of e-mail. The exchange, the fifth largest at the time of its collapse, had been seen by many in the Bitcoin community to be holding the fledgling currency back by undermining consumer confidence — for many months there had been irregularities with the exchange, with delays and inefficiencies leading the price to vary widely from the average price at other exchanges. The price has since rebounded, and there is a great deal of sentiment that this will actually lend stability to the currency. Ars Technica has more on the story.

Bleeding Blue for Science

In The Atlantic this week, Alexis Madrigal reports on “The Blood Harvest” — the harvesting of the blood of an estimated half a million horseshoe crabs every year. Turns out we need a substance in their coppery, blue blood in order to test for the presence of bacterial pathogens. Thankfully, we’re pretty close to finding a synthetic replacement, so we won’t have to bleed the little guys for too much longer.

“Safer” Guns?

Meet the Smart System iP1, a .22 caliber pistol that refuses to fire without the presence of an accompanying wrist watch.

Photo Credit: Armatix
Photo Credit: Armatix

The logic seems to be that if you own one, and you’re not around to fire it, nobody else will have the dubious privilege of doing so without you. In theory, widespread application of this and similar systems should prevent children from accidentally shooting themselves, as well as prevent thieves from making use of the weapons unless they also steal the watch. In a fight, no-one would be able to use a dropped gun (though how often this happens outside of Hollywood is up for debate). Gizmodo has more on what’s being called “the iPhone of guns.”

Peer Reviewed?

In a mildly embarrassing turn of events, around 120 scientific papers have been withdrawn from theoretically peer-reviewed scientific journals after being identified as computer-generated nonsense. The papers had been generated using a piece of software called SCIgen, whose stated aim is “to maximize amusement, rather than coherence.” One potential application, they say, is “to auto-generate submissions to conferences that you suspect might have very low submission standards.” As such, the discovery of over 100 of such papers this week by Joseph Fourier University computer scientist Cyril Labbé in publications by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in New York has probably turned a few cheeks red. Amar Toor over at The Verge has the whole story.

Comcast and Netflix

In a deal bound to make regulators even more uneasy than before, Netflix and Comcast signed a deal this week to cut out the middle man. Previously, Netflix’s traffic (which accounts for nearly a third of all internet traffic these days) had to go through a third-party provider to get to Comcast’s network, a company like Cogent Communications or Level 3. With the new deal, Netflix will have more direct access to Comcast’s distribution network, which should relieve some of the congestion problems users have been experiencing. What this means for net neutrality is still up in the air — it won’t affect net neutrality directly, but it could set a dangerous precedent. Emma Woollacott, over at Forbes, has the details.

The Habitable Epoch

What if life were omnipresent in the early universe? That’s what Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb has conjectured. The idea is that right now the so-called “habitable zone” around stars is pretty small: get too far away and there isn’t enough energy to sustain life. But what if planets didn’t need to rely on energy from the stars? Loeb’s suggestion is that in the early universe, the ambient temperature of the universe was enough to keep water liquid, making it possible for life to have existed billions of years earlier than previously thought. The article is online at arXiv.org, and Annalee Newitz over at Slate has the story.

Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon

If you haven’t reached your monthly free reading limit over at the New York Times, there’s a great long-read by Nathaniel Rich about a man named Ben Novak and his lifelong quest to bring the Passenger Pigeon back from extinction. It’s a great Sunday afternoon read for anyone interested in the whys and hows of the de-extinction movement, on the difference between ecological resurrection and species resurrection, and on whether or not a hairy elephant the likes the cold will really be a wooly mammoth. Give it a look: The Mammoth Cometh.

Rest of the Best

Finally, here are the things I didn’t get to this week: New Scientist has a story on the emergence of “carbon-negative” fuels; IBM’s Watson is now helping chefs be more creative; a massive solar flare has stuck around for another spin around the sun; there’s new research that shows promise for fighting pancreatic cancer; and if we had 78,000 wind turbines, we could knock hurricanes down a peg.

And now you can make yourself feel really small any time you want, with the scale of the universe website.

Have a great week.