Two new species of African mole-rat have been discovered by researchers. The species, formally described as Fukomys hanangensis and Fukomys livingstoni, were found around Mount Hanang and at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, both in Tanzania. Evolutionary Biology news from Science Daily
[unable to retrieve full-text content]Science Daily Biology News
[unable to retrieve full-text content]
On April 25, at 10:50 a.m. local time, a white helium balloon ascended from Wanaka, New Zealand, and lifted Angela Olinto’s hopes into the stratosphere. The football stadium-size NASA balloon, now floating 20 miles above the Earth, carries a one-ton detector that Olinto helped design and see off the ground. Every moonless night for the next few months, it will peer out at the dark curve of the Earth, hunting for the fluorescent streaks of mystery particles called “ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays” crashing into the sky. The Extreme Universe Space Observatory Super Pressure Balloon (EUSO-SPB) experiment will be the first ever to record the ultraviolet light from these rare events by looking down at the atmosphere instead of up. The wider field of view will allow it to detect the streaks at a faster rate than previous, ground-based experiments, which Olinto hopes will be the key to finally figuring out the particles’ origin.
Olinto, the leader of the seven-country EUSO-SPB experiment, is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago. She grew up in Brazil and recalls that during her “beach days in Rio” she often wondered about nature. Over the 40 years since she was 16, Olinto said, she has remained captivated by the combined power of mathematics and experiments to explain the universe. “Many people think of physics as hard; I find it so elegant, and so simple compared to literature, which is really amazing, but it’s so varied that it’s infinite,” she said. “We have four forces of nature, and everything can be done mathematically. Nobody’s opinions matter, which I like very much!”
Olinto has spent the last 22 years theorizing about ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. Composed of single protons or heavier atomic nuclei, they pack within quantum proportions as much energy as baseballs or bowling balls, and hurtle through space many millions of times more energetically than particles at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful accelerator. “They’re so energetic that theorists like me have a hard time coming up with something in nature that could reach those energies,” Olinto said. “If we didn’t observe these cosmic rays, we wouldn’t believe they actually would be produced.”
Olinto and her collaborators have proposed that ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays could be emitted by newly born, rapidly rotating neutron stars, called “pulsars.” She calls these “the little guys,” since their main competitors are “the big guys”: the supermassive black holes that churn at the centers of active galaxies. But no one knows which theory is right, or if it’s something else entirely. Ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays pepper Earth so sparsely and haphazardly — their paths skewed by the galaxy’s magnetic field — that they leave few clues about their origin. In recent years, a hazy “hot spot” of the particles coming from a region in the Northern sky seems to be showing up in data collected by the Telescope Array in Utah. But this potential clue has only compounded the puzzle: Somehow, the alleged hot spot doesn’t spill over at all into the field of view of the much larger and more powerful Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina.
To find out the origin of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, Olinto and her colleagues need enough data to produce a map of where in the sky the particles come from — a map that can be compared with the locations of known cosmological objects. “In the cosmic ray world, the big dream is to point,” she said during an interview at a January meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C.
She sees the current balloon flight as a necessary next step. If successful, it will serve as a proof of principle for future space-based ultrahigh-energy cosmic-ray experiments, such as her proposed satellite detector, Poemma (Probe of Extreme Multi-Messenger Astrophysics). While in New Zealand in late March preparing for the balloon launch, Olinto received the good news from NASA that Poemma had been selected for further study.
Olinto wants answers, and she has an ambitious timeline for getting them. An edited and condensed version of our conversations in Washington and on a phone call to New Zealand follows.
QUANTA MAGAZINE: What was your path to astrophysics and ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays?
ANGELA OLINTO: I was really interested in the basic workings of nature: Why three families of quarks? What is the unified theory of everything? But I realized how many easier questions we have in astrophysics: that you could actually take a lifetime and go answer them. Graduate school at MIT showed me the way to astrophysics — how it can be an amazing route to many questions, including how the universe looks, how it functions, and even particle physics questions. I didn’t plan to study ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays; but every step it was, “OK, it looks promising.”
How long have you been trying to answer this particular question?
In 1995, we had a study group at Fermilab for ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, because the AGASA (Akeno Giant Air Shower Array) experiment was seeing these amazing events that were so energetic that the particles broke a predicted energy limit known as the “GZK cutoff.” I was studying magnetic fields at the time, and so Jim Cronin, who just passed away last year in August — he was a brilliant man, charismatic, full of energy, lovely man — he asked that I explain what we know about cosmic magnetic fields. At that time the answer was not very much, but I gave him what we did know. And because he invited me I got to learn what he was up to. And I thought, wow, this is pretty interesting.
Later you helped plan and run Pierre Auger, an array of detectors spread across 3,000 square kilometers of Argentinian grassland. Did you actually go around and persuade farmers to let you put detectors on their land?
Not me; it was the Argentinian team who did the amazing job of talking to everybody. The American team helped build a planetarium and a school in that area, so we did interact with them, but not directly on negotiations over land. In Argentina it was like this: You get a big fraction of folks who are very excited and part of it from the beginning. Gradually you got through the big landowners. But eventually we had a couple who were really not interested. So we had two regions in the middle of the array that were empty of the detectors for quite some time, and then we finally closed it.
Space is much easier in that sense; it’s one instrument and no one owns the atmosphere. On the other hand, the nice thing about having all the farmers involved is that Malargüe, the city in Argentina that has had the detectors deployed, has changed completely. The students are much more connected to the world and speak English. Some are coming to the U.S. for undergraduate and even graduate school eventually. It’s been a major transformation for a small town where nobody went to college before. So that was pretty amazing. It took a huge outreach effort and a lot of time, but this was very important, because we needed them to let us in.
Why is space the next step?
To go the next step on the ground — to get 30,000 square kilometers instrumented — is something I tried to do, but it’s really difficult. It’s hard enough with 3,000; it was crazy to begin with, but we did it. To get to the next order of magnitude seems really difficult. On the other hand, going to space you can see 100 times more volume of air in the same minute. And then we can increase by orders of magnitude the ability to see ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays, see where they are coming from, how they are produced, what objects can reach these kinds of energies.
What will we learn from EUSO-SPB?
We will not have enough data to revolutionize our understanding at this point, but we will show how it can be done from space. The work we do with the balloon is really in preparation for something like Poemma, our proposed satellite experiment. We plan to have two telescopes free-flying and communicating with each other, and by recording cosmic-ray events with both of the them we should be able to also reproduce the direction and composition very precisely.
Speaking of Poemma, do you still teach a class called Cosmology for Poets?
We don’t call it that anymore, but yes. What it entails is teaching nonscience majors what we know about the history of the universe: what we’ve learned and why we think it is the way it is, how we measure things and how our scientific understanding of the history of the universe is now pretty interesting. First, we have a story that works brilliantly, and second, we have all kinds of puzzles like dark matter and dark energy that are yet to be understood. So it gives the sense of the huge progress since I started looking at this. It’s unbelievable; in my lifetime it’s changed completely, and mostly due to amazing detections and observations.
One thing I try to do in this course is to mix in some art. I tell them to go to a museum and choose an object or art piece that tells you something about the universe — that connects to what we talked about in class. And here my goal is to just make them dream a bit free from all the boundaries of science. In science there’s right and wrong, but in art there are no easy right and wrong answers. I want them to see if they can have a personal attachment to the story I told them. And I think art helps me do that.
You’ve said that when you left Brazil for MIT at 21, you were suffering from a serious muscle disease called polymyositis, which also recurred in 2006. Did those experiences contribute to your drive to push the field forward?
I think this helps me not get worked up about small stuff. There are always many reasons to give up when working on high-risk research. I see some colleagues who get worked up about things that I’m like, whatever, let’s just keep going. And I think that attitude to minimize things that are not that big has to do with being close to death. Being that close, it’s like, well, everything is positive. I’m very much a positive person and most of the time say, let’s keep pushing. I think having a question that is not answered that is well posed is a very good incentive to keep moving.
Between the “big guys” and the “little guys” — black holes versus pulsating neutron stars — what’s your bet for which ones produce ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays?
I think it’s 50-50 at this point — both can do it and there’s no showstopper on either side — but I root always for the underdog. It looks like ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays have a heavier composition, which helps the neutron star case, since we had heavy elements in our neutron star models from the beginning. However, it’s possible that supermassive black holes do the job, too, and basically folks just imagine that the bigger the better, so the supermassive black holes are usually a little bit ahead. It could be somewhere in the middle: intermediate-mass black holes. Or ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays could be related to other interesting phenomena, like fast radio bursts, or something that we don’t know anything about.
When do you think we’ll know for sure?
You know how when you climb the mountain — I rarely look at where I’m going. I look at the next two steps. I know I’m going to the top but I don’t look at the top, because it’s difficult to do small steps when the road is really long. So I don’t try to predict exactly. But I would imagine — we have a decadal survey process, so that takes quite some time, and then we have another decade — so let’s say, in the 2030s we should know the answer.
[unable to retrieve full-text content] Space and Time News from Science Daily
Researchers have constructed a marine food web to show how climate change could affect our future fish supplies and marine biodiversity. Science Daily Earth and Climate News
[unable to retrieve full-text content] Space and Time News from Science Daily
The Internet of Things security crisis continues apace. New botnets crop up to conscript routers and security cameras, hackers exploit medical devices to compromise entire hospital networks, and smart toys still creep on kids. Internet infrastructure company Cloudflare, though, has spent the last 18 months working on a fix.
Cloudflare’s traditional offerings range from content delivery to DDoS defense, but today it’s announcing a service called Orbit, which it conceives as a new layer of defense for IoT. It has the potential to make connected devices more secure than ever—but also raises a few questions in the process.
A VPN for IoT
Instead of focusing on patches and protections on individual devices, Orbit provides a sort of tunnel that they can automatically use to access the internet. Think of it as a VPN between IoT devices and the internet.
“The traffic to and from [IoT devices] will pass through Cloudflare’s global network. The idea is we’ll patch it in place,” says Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince. “What sits behind us might still be vulnerable, but it buys some time for the software developer or the hardware developer to get the patch itself right and for people to apply that patch over time. So it’s an additional layer of security.”
In other words, if a product experiences a security issue, Cloudflare can respond in the cloud, for example implementing a virtual patch or blocking connectivity from maliciously compromised units. That way owners of those devices have at least some protection while they wait for the manufacturer to come out with an official fix.
Cloudflare will offer multiple data security options (from IP verification up to full cryptographic connection signing) to ensure that data moving through the security layer is protected. The company adds that it doesn’t keep data logs. “Data passes through our network, but it’s very ephemeral,” Prince says. The company will also offer Orbit as a standalone product that IoT companies can use without also paying for other Cloudflare services.
Orbit has already attracted at least one high-profile client in Qualcomm, along with the smart lock company Lockitron, and the industrial control company Swift Sensors. The service doesn’t replace firmware updates and other important endpoint protections (security on individual units), but should provide some structure to an out-of-control security climate. Many IoT companies simply don’t have a solid grasp on security; partnering with Cloudflare at least gives a measure pf protection. One fear might be that companies will rely on Orbit as a panacea, but given that the alternative too often constitutes no investment in security at all, any protective step could be an improvement.
Give and Take
Still, every approach has tradeoffs. In Orbit’s case, you exchange lack of IoT oversight for centralized control. If your smart lightbulbs use Orbit, another service suddenly has access to your daily life and data, too. You may never even realize it. Cloudflare also says it counts router manufacturers among its clients, which adds another layer of complexity. Routers need a security boost more than almost any other device, but in the process, Orbit gives Cloudflare fundamental access to your internet connectivity and browsing data.
That’s not even necessarily a question of trusting Cloudflare. It’s a matter of exposing yourself to a new set of vulnerabilities; a recent Cloudflare bug highlighted the problems that can arise from concentrating responsibility for many internet services in one place.
“The idea isn’t a bad one, especially when you consider the alternative,” says Ang Cui, an IoT security researcher and CEO of the endpoint defense company Red Balloon of the general concept that underpins Orbit, not Cloudflare’s specific implementation. “I would rather one company come out and do this better than average, but if they implemented it poorly then this becomes a really attractive target and that could be super terrible. The privacy concerns are real.”
Clear and Present Need
IoT companies will decide whether those tradeoffs are worth it eventually, but the urgency for some sort of fix will only increase. “If you just walk through the basic assumptions there are going to be more devices connected to the internet, manufacturers of those devices are not somehow magically going to be able to write perfect code, and it’s going to be impossible to convince my dad to upgrade his toaster,” says Prince. “Inherently you have to shift the security model, it can’t just be done on the device itself. The network is the logical place to deploy that security.”
At the same time, products like Orbit will require new awareness campaigns that help people understand that companies they’ve never heard of might have access to their devices. Especially since it’s a tradeoff being made on their behalf. “It’s important that all the implications of what is essentially an always-on VPN service, enabled by default out-of-the-box, are fully understood by consumers, ISPs, IoT vendors, security professionals, government regulators, and privacy advocates alike,” says Roland Dobbins, a principal engineer at the network security firm Arbor Networks.
In the meantime, at least Orbit represents a new approach. Given how little else has worked so far, that’s what IoT security needs the most.
“I’m not worried about the people who’re collecting our data right now, like the NSA,” Sam says. “I’m worried about what happens when people breach them—another nation-state, a company looking to use data for nefarious purposes.” Still, he stresses, “I don’t put stuff on my computer that’s incriminating, and I don’t do illegal things online.”
“I don’t even trust myself with my own data,” Alec says. “Even if I harden my home router, close all the ports, make sure it’s not running some shitty version of BusyBox, I’m still really vulnerable.”
“I don’t take nude pictures,” Matt says. “I don’t say anything I don’t want people to hear online. I also just don’t say that kind of stuff in general.”
But what’s life without dirt? Now I’m concerned about a chilling effect: that, to conform to the panopticon, they won’t do or say or even think anything that would warrant privacy at all, just shrink their lives down within the limits of restrictive public acceptability and unjust laws. Some day, they might even be called upon to participate in some form of surveillance. Would they resist, I ask, if their employers told them to write some snooping software? And if official whistle-blowing channels failed them, would they simply refuse to do it?
“We’ve had this discussion,” Sam says. “And if I worked for a company that was implementing some kind of surveillance and I didn’t agree with it, I wouldn’t write that feature. The CS people are the last line of defense for that.”
“We have the power to fight against the encroachment on people’s right to privacy,” Alec says. Later, he paraphrases the YouTube star CGP Grey: “The king cannot do anything without his servants.”
If the people in charge are evil or stupid, it seems that no amount of renewable energy, self-driving cars, or surveillance-baffling tech can protect or save us. But perhaps ethical technologists like the Sthacks crew will form a final check. Without the help of people like them, no body or mind can be surveilled. And the more that social issues demand technical expertise to even comprehend—net neutrality, encryption, TOSs and EULAs, bioinformatics, privacy law—the more society will need ethical techies to give us the sort of guidance my parents always ask me for. (“Son, why isn’t my capitalism working?” “Have you tried restarting it? Maybe it’s obsolete.”)
“They’re certainly not easy, quick fixes; they’re uphill battles that will have to be fought on the day-to-day scale, by passionate people,” Sam and Alec wrote to me, after I’d left, regarding problems like climate change and mass surveillance. “The real progress comes from putting ourselves in positions where we have the resources to do work against these. As young people we’re sure we’re romanticizing this a little, but we hope that when we have jobs in a couple years our feelings haven’t changed and that we will be able to drive change toward a safer, more private internet.”
The Sthackers aren’t ambassadors of their generation; they’re just seven freshmen on one floor of one dorm of one college in one state in one country on our one and only planet. For all their exceptional talent, there must be tens of thousands more, and they will be running the show. It seems likely this generation of makers and breakers will, quite figuratively, make or break us. I would ask them, or beg them, really, to take it apart, then put it back together.
This article appears in the May issue. Subscribe now.
Parkinson’s disease may start in the gut and spread to the brain via the vagus nerve, according to a study. The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem to the abdomen and controls unconscious body processes like heart rate and food digestion. Science Daily Molecular Biology News