Scientists make organs transparent so you can see inside

Add some color to the internal structures and you've got some eye-popping imagery.

Image source: Zhao, et al
  • By manipulating light refraction in organ tissue, it can be made transparent.
  • Coloring internal structures is as "simple" as slipping dyes between tissue cells.
  • A new method paves the way for fully 3D imagery of mature human organs.
Keep reading

Could genomics solve the climate change crisis?

Technological advances in molecular biology could help fix the planet.

  • Genomics is the study of genes and their functions. The branch of molecular biology presents the idea that the genome can be manipulated for added resilience against harm.
  • Yale professor and editor Daniel C. Esty argues that genetic modification in nature as a way to improve sustainability should be seriously considered.
  • In the book A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, Esty and several authors offer actionable solutions for dealing with greenhouse gases, including genomic intervention in nature.
Keep reading

Why democratizing AI is absolutely crucial

Without regulations, implicit bias could shape artificial intelligence into a nightmare for some.

  • Implicit biases are feelings and ideas subconsciously attributed to a group or culture based on learned associations and experiences. Everyone has them, but it can be dangerous when those biases are transferred to a powerful technology like AI.
  • By keeping the development of artificial intelligence private, we are risking building systems that are intrinsically biased against certain groups.
  • Governance and regulations are necessary to ensure that artificial intelligence remains as neutral as possible.
Keep reading
Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • One of NASA's most important telescopes has been put to sleep in space.
  • The infrared Spitzer Space telescope made a number of science-shaking discoveries over the course of its 16-year lifespan.
  • Without Spitzer, we wouldn't know about the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets.

It was one of NASA's four Great Observatories. Each of the telescopes was tuned to its own wavelength of light, watching the universe in its own way. Together, the quartet presented to scientists a universe of unprecedented detail. There was the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope, capturing infrared light. Last Thursday, at 2:30 p.m. PST, Spitzer was decommissioned after 16 years of invaluable observations, and 11 years after its original mission ended. It now continues to orbit the Sun in safe mode some 266,600,037 kilometers from Earth.

While not as well-known as other telescopes, particularly the Hubble, Spitzer's contributions were nonetheless equally as important. According to NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen, "Spitzer has taught us about entirely new aspects of the cosmos and taken us many steps further in understanding how the universe works, addressing questions about our origins, and whether or not are we alone." Moreover, Zurbuchen points out, "This Great Observatory has also identified some important and new questions and tantalizing objects for further study, mapping a path for future investigations to follow. Its immense impact on science certainly will last well beyond the end of its mission."

Spitzer will be replaced by the Webb telescope, launching in 2021.

Spitzer, take a bow

Spitzer image of the Tarantula Nebula

Spitzer image of the Tarantula Nebula

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spitzer weighs about 865 kilograms (nearly a ton) and is about 4 meters tall. For its sensors to detect infrared light, their temperature control is critical — they have to operate at about 5 degrees above absolute zero (That's -450 F or -268 C). Other equipment on the telescope needs to be relatively warms, so its body is divided into the frigid Cryogenic Telescope Assembly and the spacecraft itself.

In the Cryogenic Telescope Assembly is a 0.85-meter telescope, as well as a multiple instrument chamber containing the Infrared Array Camera, the Infrared Spectrograph, the Multiband Imaging Photometer, and the Cryostat, in addition to the Outer-Shell Group. The Assembly was cooled with liquid helium, though by the end of the original mission in 2009 it had been depleted. Since that time, just two of the Infrared Array Camera's four wavelength bands have been scanning the stars.

The spacecraft itself contains what you'd expect: navigation, communication, solar panels, and so on.

TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets

Artist representation of Trappist-1 system

Representation of Trappist-1 system

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Probably the most famous of Spitzer's accomplishment is its discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, seven Earth-sized bodies orbiting a single star. Three of them occupy the habitable zone around their sun, which is a bit cooler than ours, and are potentially capable of supporting life. Spitzer provided some 500 hours-worth of observations of the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Big babies

Big mature galaxies as seen by Spitzer in an early universe.

Big mature galaxies as seen by Spitzer in an early universe

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA

Spitzer was especially good at detecting distant, ancient young galaxies. The oldest infrared light it captured was from about 13.4 billion years ago, just 400 million years after the universe's birth. Spitzer also revealed and identified a set of "big baby" galaxies that were unexpectedly well-developed for their relative youth — the implication being that larger galaxies may not have resulted from collisions of smaller ones after all, but came together quickly on their own in the early days of the universe.

Great buckyballs in space!

Artist rendering of NGC 2440 nebula

Artist rendering of NGC 2440 nebula

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Buckyballs are spherical carbon molecules whose hexagon-pentagon-patterned surfaces make them look like soccer balls. They belong to a molecule class called buckminsterfullerenes, named after the famous dome-shaped buildings designed by architect Buckminster Fuller. Spitzer found buckyballs in space orbiting a dying star called Tc 1.

So much more

JPL photo of Spitzer's final ovation

The final ovation

Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spitzer's been incredibly productive over the years, and NASA's compiled a page of 15 of its most notable accomplishments. "Everyone who has worked on this mission should be extremely proud today," said Spitzer Project Manager Joseph Hunt. "There are literally hundreds of people who contributed directly to Spitzer's success, and thousands who used its scientific capabilities to explore the universe. We leave behind a powerful scientific and technological legacy."

Automation apocalypse: Too many robots? More like not enough.

Ezra Klein offers good reasons to take a skeptical look at automation apocalypse theories.

  • Ezra Klein, editor-at-large and cofounder of Vox, doesn't buy into automation apocalypse theories. The data is not there to support those predictions.
  • "In many cases, part of the problem in our economy is not that we have too many robots but that we don't have enough robots," says Klein. "If we were being able to do a better job automating things ... we would be getting richer faster and we would be able to share those gains faster."
  • Klein doesn't believe greater automation will leave us with a useless class of jobless people. Humans excel at assigning value to jobs, unrelated to their actual use or dignity, he says. Humans will imbue new jobs with both social capital and money as the future pushes forward.
  • Check out new episodes of Klein's podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, every week.
Keep reading