Rise of the Aggregator

Question: What is Google News, and how and when did it come about?

Josh Cohen: Yeah. So, actually it's an interesting about Google News. It started really as an idea from one of the early, early engineers at Google, somebody named -- and engineer named Krishna Bharat. Krishna was one of the first hundred or so employees at Google, and people have probably heard Google has 20 percent time where engineers are really encouraged to do things in their 20 percent time, things that aren't necessarily their day jobs. And Krishna had worked on clustering technology in his graduate work, and he started thinking about how to apply that towards news. And it actually sort of came about shortly after September 11th, where Krishna is -- went to school in the U.S. but is originally from India -- and when the September 11th attacks hit -- I mean, obviously this was a story for New York, it was a national story, it was an international story. And Krishna had his sort of regular sources that he would go to to sort of check out the news of the day.

But this was this huge global story, and he really wanted to understand how the rest of the world was responding to it. I mean, what was the different coverage like? So beyond just the sources that he knew and would go to on a regular basis, what was the rest of the world saying about this? So he really just in his spare time put together this demo where you sort of crawled the Web looking for news information and clustered it by story topic as opposed to by sources. And so that way you could get all these different perspectives on a given story, whether it's a different political perspective, a different geographic perspective, in some cases different languages as well, and that was sort of the germ of the idea behind Google News. And so this was sort of -- he had a working demo in late 2001, and then it really launched in beta in the beginning of 2002. And obviously, it's sort of changed significantly since then, and now Google News is available in over about 30 different languages, and upwards of 50 different editions or domains.

Question: How has Google News improved or gotten smarter over the years?

Josh Cohen: Yeah, so I think one of the things I just mentioned is actually a pretty good example of that, which is user behavior. If you look at sort of a story cluster, it's probably not a surprise that the first link in that story cluster that has the headline and the actual snippet gets far more clicks than the second and third and fourth and so on. That's not a huge shock. That's pretty consistent with what you see on Web search results as well. But if you think about a user behavior, they're supposed to, they're supposed to go and click on that first link. When a user comes in and doesn't click on that first link, and instead clicks on that third or fourth link -- maybe it's just the source name -- they weren't supposed to do that. You know, they weren't supposed to click on that link. Over time, as you aggregate that information and normalize it for click position, it can become a really, really strong signal for us to try and determine what a user thinks a trusted source is.

And just, you know, giving an example, if you look at a business story, and you've got a cluster of stories, and maybe you've got The Wall Street Journal or Reuters or Bloomberg, and they're ranked in a third or fourth position. A user may come in and say, I don't care that Google is telling me that this is the third most important link; this is a business story, and that's the source that I want to go to, and they'll click on that. You flip that around to, let's say it's a sports story, and maybe we've got The Wall Street Journal ranked first, and a used may say, I don't care that this is ranked first; I want ESPN or Sports Illustrated. And they'll bypass that first link from the Journal. So you can really begin, edition by edition and section by section, to understand a user's trust of a given source. And that becomes a really good signal for us to use, again, separate from the story variable rankings, but just all things being equal, how do you make some sort of distinctions between the sources? So that's one that we've really made much better use of in the last year or so.

How Google News was born, how it’s grown up, and what it’s still learning.

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From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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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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Image: NASA
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In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

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."