17 October 2021

University of Cambridge: “New class of habitable exoplanets ‘a big step forward’ in search for life”

The investigation led the researchers to identify a new class of planets, Hycean planets, with massive planet-wide oceans beneath hydrogen-rich atmospheres. Hycean planets can be up to 2.6 times larger than Earth and have atmospheric temperatures up to nearly 200 degrees Celsius, depending on their host stars, but their oceanic conditions could be similar to those conducive for microbial life in Earth’s oceans. Such planets also include tidally locked ‘dark’ Hycean worlds that may have habitable conditions only on their permanent night sides, and ‘cold’ Hycean worlds that receive little radiation from their stars.

Planets of this size dominate the known exoplanet population, although they have not been studied in nearly as much detail as super-Earths. Hycean worlds are likely quite common, meaning that the most promising places to look for life elsewhere in the Galaxy may have been hiding in plain sight.


The Cambridge team identified a sizeable sample of potential Hycean worlds which are prime candidates for detailed study with next-generation telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched later this year. These planets all orbit red dwarf stars between 35-150 light years away: close by astronomical standards. Already planned JWST observations of the most promising candidate, K2-18b, could lead to the detection of one or more biosignature molecules.

Nikku Madhusudhan, Anjali A. A. Piette & Savvas Constantinou

Exciting to think that scientists could detect potential signs of life on one of these planets over the course of the next decade! Exciting with a touch of sadness, as humans will never (at least not in my lifetime) be able to visit these planets and examine their strange life forms up close. At least I can console myself with science-fiction novels, where such worlds were imagined already – the closest analog that comes to mind is Poseidon in Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Wake.

16 October 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “Space Station Incident demands Independent Investigation”

By then the warped NASA management culture that soon enabled the Columbia disaster in 2003 was fully in place. Some of the wording in current management proclamations regarding the Nauka docking have an eerie ring of familiarity. Space cooperation continues to be a hallmark of U.S.-Russian relations and I have no doubt that our joint work reinforces the ties that have bound our collaborative efforts over the many years wrote NASA Director Bill Nelson to Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, on July 31. There was no mention of the ISS’s first declared spacecraft emergency, nor any dissatisfaction with Russian contribution to it.

To reverse the apparent new cultural drift, and thus potentially forestall the same kind of dismal results as before, NASA headquarters or some even higher office is going to have to intervene. The causes of the Nauka-induced “space sumo match” of massive cross-pushing bodies need to be determined and verified. And somebody needs to expose the decision process that allowed NASA to approve the ISS docking of a powerful thruster-equipped module without the on-site real-time capability to quickly disarm that system in an emergency. Because the apparent sloppiness of NASA’s safety oversight on visiting vehicles looks to be directly associated with maintaining good relations with Moscow, the driving factor seems to be White House diplomatic goals—and that’s the level where a corrective impetus must originate. With a long-time U.S. Senate colleague, Nelson, recently named head of NASA, President Biden is well connected to issue such guidance for a thorough investigation by an independent commission, followed by implementation of needed reforms. The buck stops with him.

James Oberg

What astonished me about this incident from earlier this year was also this relative radio silence from official NASA channels, and from the astronauts themselves! I follow one of the ESA astronauts currently on board the ISS, Thomas Pesquet, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning this unprecedented situation on his Twitter feed, which makes me suspect that NASA officials instructed them to stay quiet. Keeping things under wraps is not a great sign that the agency intends to thoroughly investigate and prevent similar incidents in the future. And sure enough, another test firing of thrusters on the Russian Soyuz crew module resulted in a second, albeit less severe, emergency just yesterday!

15 October 2021

Foreign Affairs: “The Singular Chancellor”

Yet outwardly, the most striking thing about the chancellor remains her determined normalcy. Merkel’s clear, light voice carries the unhurried intonation of the pine-forested, sandy-soiled Brandenburg countryside northwest of Berlin, where her father was a Lutheran parson. Her working uniform consists of sensible flats, black pants, and an endless supply of hip-length jackets in every color. The chancellor and her husband, a retired chemistry professor, live in their old Berlin apartment rather than the official residence; the only visible security is a police officer in front of the building. To the approval of Berliners, Merkel is sometimes seen walking in the city center or shopping in a supermarket, trailed by her bodyguards.


Merkel’s interpreters have labored heroically to reconcile these paradoxes. The simple truth is that Merkel the level-headed empiricist has little patience for visions when there are problems to be solved. She has whipsawed on her principles for the sake of power, but she has also been willing to pay a price for standing up for her deepest convictions. Few of her peers have been able to accumulate so much political capital. Yet even her admirers concede that although she has been exquisitely adroit at riding out the currents of politics, she has been far too reluctant to shape them.

Constanze Stelzenmüller

As Angela Merkel prepares to end her final mandate as German Chancellor, an interesting overview of her most consequential decisions during this long tenure. Naturally, a newspaper article, however long, can hardly grasp everything that happened during the past 16 years, nor map out all the repercussions of these decisions – in fact, we may not recognize them in full for years.

14 October 2021

ZDNet: “Hey, Apple and Samsung, stop fixating on cameras! My dream phone gets work done”

Smartphone makers want you to spend a lot of money replacing your current phone with the latest, helping you take slightly better photos. When you then share these photos on social media and the quality is compressed, I’m sure you’ll be very excited that you spent over $1,000 to capture a photo no one really cares about.

As Apple iPhone sales indicate, most people simply want a smartphone camera where they can point, shoot, and share. If you want to get a bit creative, then there are many affordable and capable Android phones with accessible modes to enhance your creativity. Don’t get sucked into the marketing hype and think you will challenge professional reviewers or photographers with your expensive smartphone. Good photos and videos are a result of skills — not just the hardware.

Matthew Miller

I am not precisely a typical consumer in this regard, as I own a semi-professional Canon camera for most of my ‘serious’ photography, but I do agree with this article. The race among smartphone manufacturers in recent years to add multiple focal lengths and lenses to their flagship products feels more like a marketing gimmick to push people to spend more on devices and to upgrade them more frequently. Other features, such as screen quality, battery life and fast charging, are more important for the user experience, but are talked about less, probably because progress is slower and less tangible from year to year.

12 October 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “An Inconvenient Truth about AI”

Regardless of what you might think about AI, the reality is that just about every successful deployment has either one of two expedients: It has a person somewhere in the loop, or the cost of failure, should the system blunder, is very low. In 2002, iRobot, a company that I cofounded, introduced the first mass-market autonomous home-cleaning robot, the Roomba, at a price that severely constricted how much AI we could endow it with. The limited AI wasn't a problem, though. Our worst failure scenarios had the Roomba missing a patch of floor and failing to pick up a dustball.

That same year we started deploying the first of thousands of robots in Afghanistan and then Iraq to be used to help troops disable improvised explosive devices. Failures there could kill someone, so there was always a human in the loop giving supervisory commands to the AI systems on the robot.

Rodney Brooks

I very much appreciate Rodney Brooks’ grounded perspective on artificial intelligence – and I am a bit surprised to see that I haven’t quoted any of his articles on my blog previously. I have certainly written about enough examples that fall quite neatly into these two categories: in military applications human supervision is supposed to continue for the foreseeable future, whereas for games or automated translations the cost of failure is low to nonexistent. And when companies start overstepping clear boundaries, AI systems often fail spectacularly, as it happened with the Apple Card algorithms, and with automated piloting systems. Even Google’s Waymo, arguably the most advanced in the field of self-driving cars, is still employing remote overseers to guide vehicles out of irregular situations.

The New York Times: “John Kerry’s Sales Pitch to Save the Planet”

Portrait of John Kerry, the US presidential envoy for climate
I think most of the problems on Earth are caused by human beings, said John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy. And if we cause them, we ought to be able to solve them or prevent them. Al Drago for The New York Times

I deeply believe that this is a major crisis for our world, he said, as he relaxed in his hotel suite after a battery of meetings with Indian ministers and business leaders. And this is a moment where we have a chance to do something about it. And who can say no to a president of the United States who asks you to do that at this particular moment in time.

The wind is not at his back.

His trip last week ended without a commitment from India, the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitting country, that it would raise its ambitions to fight climate change. He ended a recent trip to China, the top emitter, similarly empty-handed. Brazil, which plans to continue burning coal for the next 30 years and where deforestation of the Amazon is a major contributor to climate change, skipped a virtual climate meeting convened by Mr. Biden last week.

Lisa Friedman

Unfortunately for John Kerry’s crucial mission, in international politics as in most aspects of life facts matter more than words and intentions. And facts speak against him at every step of the way: the United States is by far the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, but has done little to lead the world towards workable solutions. Instead, US lawmakers have constantly delayed and watered down these issues, incentivized by generous lobbying from the oil industry. As I write this, Biden’s modest climate agenda is stuck in Congress, opposed by members of his own Democratic party! And the same Congress has absolutely no issue approving, year after year, substantially higher military budgets.

11 October 2021

The Verge: “Teaching AI to taste and smell could help the future of product design”

00:07:05 Ashley Carman: But successfully making these on demand personalized scents is just part one of Centronics loftier goal.

00:07:12 Frederik Duerinck: The ultimate goal that we have is we really want to give you something that allows you to feel in a certain way that you want. So for instance, if you would say hey, you know, I’ve had a bad day and I want to relax a little bit. Can you give me something that really physiologically helps you to relax? So that’s an extremely complex, because then you need to understand like, OK, what is your physiological response, but as well what do you perceive?


00:09:20 Frederik Duerinck: If you go further down the line, we’re working on a very small device that you can wear, and you can connect to your phone, and basically if your smartwatch detects like, hey, you’re stressed, it can give you a small puff, because you kind of optimize it in such a way that you are able to control your mood a little bit. So that’s the end goal.

Ashley Carman

I have not come across this application of AI before listening to this podcast, although it makes sense to pursue. After all, our smell and taste senses are triggered by chemical compounds, and computer algorithms could help uncover or design new molecules to activate novel sensations.