From Couch Potato to Couch Surfer

The next great billion-dollar concept on the Web might just involve airbed mattresses, second-hand couches and the ability to swap and share local accommodations on a global scale. A group of Web-based startups led by CouchSurfing, Airbnb and One Fine Stay are starting to disrupt the online travel space in much the same way that companies like Expedia, Kayak and Trip Advisor disrupted the offline travel space years ago. At a time when the dominant zeitgeist calls for sharing, collaboration and connecting with others on a local scale, it's perhaps not surprising that nimble Web start-ups founded on these very principles are starting to raise the alarm bells at some of the leading names of the hospitality world.

At the heart of this disruptive change is the powerful concept of Collaborative Consumption, which has been most elegantly prosletyzed by Roo Rogers and Rachel Botsman. In the online travel space, companies are building on the basic notion that travelers to far-flung locales sometimes just want a place to crash for the night while hanging out with the locals. CouchSurfing, for example, bills itself as a worldwide network of travelers who are interested in meaningful cultural adventures and friendships. If you've ever done an international home stay, you get the basic idea -- instead of staying in an impersonal hotel eating Western versions of the local dishes, you get to stay in a "real" home and meet "real" people and sample "real" cuisine. So why not experience the "un-hotel"?

One of the most promising of these online travel pioneers is Airbnb, which has been touted as the next great billion-dollar company and the "eBay of physical space." The concept is simple – people want to visit a city and need a bed to crash in, but don't want to pay full market rate for a cookie-cutter experience. So they hook up with a local in the city via the Internet and get a room that’s much cheaper than available elsewhere. What started off as a concept that could disrupt the bed-and-breakfast industry is now emerging as a distinct threat to the biggest names of the hospitality industry.

Remember, truly disruptive innovations always start at the low end: that's Clayton Christensen 101.That's how powerful the concept of collaborative consumption is in the travel space -- sites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing started as ways to share accommodations nearly anywhere in the world, geared to travelers with smaller discretionary incomes. If you like to stay at a 5-star St. Regis, this is probably not the place to start looking. (But the choices are certainly intriguing, especially if you're visiting a city with a dearth of rooms for business visitors).

If eBay started by selling pez dispensers to fans, though, it's not an entirely absurd notion to think that an online travel company that started as a way to share airbed mattresses could evolve into something much more than that.

The problem is that it is not always possible to identify truly disruptive innovators in advance. Even the highly-regarded venture capitalist Fred Wilson has admitted publicly on his blog that he passed on Airbnb, seeing it as an interesting concept but one that would have a difficult time growing into a billion-dollar market behemoth. Now, he's an ardent supporter. There’s definitely something there in the whole sharing concept – keep in mind that the $75 million Zipcar IPO is on tap this week – perhaps the strongest proof point yet that the concept of sharing and collaborating around physical goods and space has a very strong and enduring future.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."