Hasbro’s Bluetooth lightsaber lets kids train to become a Jedi

Hasbro’s Bluetooth lightsaber lets kids train to become a Jedi


Hasbro/The Verge

Hasbro has a new toy for the future Jedi in your life. The Star Wars Lightsaber Academy is a suped-up version of the standard lightsaber that comes with its own training exercises and activities built in, according to The Verge. The toy connected to a smartphone app via Bluetooth to provide Jedis-in-training with interactive challenges that teach them to fight like their favorite Star Wars characters.

Gallery: Star Wars Lightsaber Academy | 5 Photos

Similar to Lenovo’s augmented reality game Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, Lightsaber Academy comes with a standard, extendable lightsaber base. Once connected to the accompanying smartphone app, the device starts to stand out. It features walk-through on how to fight like five different characters, including Yoda, Rey, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. The guide explains each character’s poses and attack styles and uses motion tracking to record progress. The app evaluates the user’s ability to master each style and scores them as they play through different challenges. Like foam lightsaber toy Sabertron, the Lightsaber Academy also lets you go head-to-head and battle with other players.

Hasbro’s Star Wars Lightsaber Academy lightsabers will retail for $49.99. Versions of the sabers that don’t include Bluetooth connectivity will be available for $7.99 and will come in red, blue and green. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader models will also be available for $19.99. While they won’t be able to connect directly with the mobile app, they can still access some content via QR code. All of the lightsaber models will be available on October 4th.

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NASA’s SPHEREx mission will investigate the origins of the universe

NASA’s SPHEREx mission will investigate the origins of the universe


Caltech

NASA has announced a new space telescope mission dedicated to understanding the origins of life and the universe. It’s called the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer or SPHEREx, for short. The space agency is aiming for a 2023 launch and has already earmarked $242 million for the project, not including launch costs, which is supposed to last for at least two years.

Once SPHEREx is already in orbit, it will observe and collect data on over 300 million galaxies, some as far as 10 billion light-years away from Earth, and 100 million stars in our own Milky Way every six months. It will use technologies adapted from Earth satellites and Mars spacecraft to survey the sky in optical and near-infrared light. Since it will use 96 wavelengths in all, it will give NASA a way to create an extremely detailed sky map with a resolution that’s much, much higher than previous ones.

The space telescope’s main goals, though, are to search for water and organic molecules within the Milky Way. It will also look for those ingredients of life in regions where stars are born, as well as in disks around stars forming new planets. By training the telescope’s eye beyond our galaxy, NASA is hoping to find more clues on how our universe formed and evolved.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said:

“This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers. It will deliver an unprecedented galactic map containing ‘fingerprints’ from the first moments in the universe’s history. And we’ll have new clues to one of the greatest mysteries in science: What made the universe expand so quickly less than a nanosecond after the big bang?”

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‘Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’ gets a second life on Switch

‘Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’ gets a second life on Switch


Nintendo

Nintendo had a giant surprise waiting at the end of its latest Direct show: it’s remaking The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Switch. The company shared precious few details, but the brief gameplay demonstration showed that it would preserve the top-down perspective of the Game Boy original. This isn’t a Breath of the Wild-style reimagining of the series, then, but it might be ideal for anyone wishing they could play the classic action RPG once again. You can expect it to reach Nintendo’s system sometime in 2019.

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Recommended Reading: Building a life in ‘World of Warcraft’

Recommended Reading: Building a life in ‘World of Warcraft’


Blizzard

My disabled son’s amazing gaming life in the ‘World of Warcraft’
,
BBC News

This is an amazing story from parents about their son who suffered from a rare degenerative muscular disorder. After his passing, they discovered that Mats had lived a full life through video games. He made friends all over Europe in the process, rather than being confined to an isolated existence due to his medical condition.

One way ‘The Social Network’ got Facebook right
Megan Garber,
The Atlantic

Facebook recently celebrated its 15th birthday, so The Atlantic took a look at back at the film that chronicled the company’s origins. While the movie has its flaws, it did foreshadow the trials Zuckerberg & Co. are currently facing.

The challenge of America’s first online census
Issie Lapowsky,
Wired

The 2020 census is going digital in the US, and to say there are challenges to making it happen is a massive understatement.

The anger inside Gary Clark, Jr.
Patrick Doyle,
Rolling Stone

Gary Clark, Jr. is one of the most talented musicians in the game right now, and the current political climate is fueling a fire inside of him.

The rise of the iPhone auteur
Ben Lindbergh,
The Ringer

Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird is the latest in a library of movies that were filmed entirely on an iPhone. The Ringer examines how this still rarely-used technique has benefits and how it could eventually become the norm.

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Mary Jackson: A Life of Service and a Love of Science

Mary Jackson: A Life of Service and a Love of Science

Mary Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity.

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The latest NASA “Image of the Day” image.

Scientists study organization of life on a planetary scale

Scientists study organization of life on a planetary scale

When we think of life on Earth, we might think of individual examples ranging from animals to bacteria. When astrobiologists study life, however, they have to consider not only individual organisms, but also ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole.

In astrobiology, there is an increasing interest in whether life as we know it is a quirk of the particular evolutionary history of the Earth or, instead, if life might be governed by more general organizing principles.

If general principles exist that can explain properties common to all life on Earth, scientists hypothesize, then they may be universal to all life, even life on other planets. If a “universal biology” exists, it would have important implications for the search for life beyond Earth, for engineering synthetic life in the lab, and for solving the origin of life, enabling scientists to predict at least some properties of alien life.

Previous research in this area has primarily focused on specific levels of organization within biology such as individual organisms or ecological communities. These levels form a hierarchy where individuals are composed of interacting molecules and ecosystems are composed of interacting individuals.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) has gone beyond focusing on individual levels in this hierarchy to study the hierarchy itself, focusing on the biosphere as a whole. The results of their study have been recently published Science Advances.

“To understand the general principles governing biology, we must understand how living systems organize across levels, not just within a given level,” says lead author Hyunju Kim of ASU’s Beyond Center and the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Through this study, the team found that biochemistry, both at the level of organisms and ecosystems, is governed by general organizing principles. “This means there is a logic to the planetary-scale organization of biochemistry,” says co-lead author Harrison Smith of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Scientists have talked about this type of logic for a long time, but until now they have struggled to quantify it. Quantifying it can help us constrain the way that life arises on a planet.”

For this research, the team constructed biochemical networks using a global database of 28,146 annotated genomes and metagenomes and 8,658 catalogued biochemical reactions. In so doing, they uncovered scaling laws governing biochemical diversity and network structure that are shared across levels of organization from individuals to ecosystems, to the biosphere as a whole.

“Quantifying general principles of life — not restricted to a domain on the tree of life, or a particular ecosystem — is a challenge,” says Smith. “We were able to do that by combining tools from network science and scaling theory, while simultaneously leveraging large genomic datasets that researchers have been cataloging.”

The research team, led by Kim and Smith under supervision of Sara Walker of the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Beyond Center, also includes Cole Mathis of the Beyond Center and the ASU Department of Physics (now at the University of Glasgow), and Jason Raymond of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“Understanding the organizing principles of biochemistry at a global scale better enables us to understand how life operates as a planetary process,” says Walker. “The ability to more rigorously identify universal properties of life on Earth will also provide astrobiologists with new quantitative tools to guide our search for alien life — both in the lab on other worlds.”

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Intel’s new CEO is facing the same old challenges

Intel’s new CEO is facing the same old challenges

After seven months as interim CEO, Robert “Bob” Holmes Swan has been appointed as Intel’s seventh full-time leader. Swan started life at General Electric, spending 15 years there before leaving to become vice president (and later CEO) of the doomed online grocery business Webvan. In 2006, he returned to the technology industry as eBay’s CFO, a position he held for nearly a decade. In 2016, he joined Intel as CFO, one of a handful of “outside hires” the notoriously inward-looking company placed in leadership roles. And he takes the helm at a crucial time for the chipmaker as it looks to revitalize itself in a world that may no longer need the technologies the giant offers.

Manufacturing

For a company that lives and dies on its manufacturing, Intel’s recent record isn’t great. Cannon Lake is the codename for its first 10-nanometer chip, which was expected to arrive in 2016. Unfortunately, the company struggled to get the yields — the number of functional, saleable chips — high enough.

After numerous delays, the company began shipping a “10nm chip” of sorts, in low numbers, but only really for appearance’s sake. The silicon was apparently so compromised that the integrated graphics had to be disabled, and the chips were sold inside a China-only Lenovo Ideapad 330.

Mass-production on the sort of scale that Intel, and we, expect has yet to happen, and the company is apparently redesigning the chips from the ground up. But the delay has allowed rivals, like Samsung and TSMC, to boast about its own 7nm and, in Samsung’s case, 8nm silicon. Those chips are not the same as one of Intel’s desktop CPUs (marketing spin is strong), but the fact remains that Intel has slipped here.

Production hell has had a knock-on effect for the rest of Intel’s production lines, which weren’t prepared for a surge in PC buying across 2018. Those looking for a low-cost laptop struggled as Intel chopped and changed its strategy to cope with demand.

In September, Swan had to write an open letter explaining the situation. The company decided to prioritize “the production of Intel Xeon and Intel Core processors,” he wrote, so it could “serve the high-performance segments of the market.” In short, Intel would focus on building and selling its most expensive chips while supplies were short.

Swan’s appointment letter outlined four priorities under his leadership, and the terseness of this third point spoke volumes. “Third, our execution must improve. And it will. Our customers are counting on us,” he wrote, suggesting he doesn’t want to have to write another public apology any time soon.

The PC business

Intel can point to its blockbuster 2018 as a sign that everything’s okay — the company made a $21.1 billion profit over the year — but the PC market is still in a serious decline. On the upside, Gartner says that Intel’s failure to make enough new chips means there’s likely a big market for new PCs in 2019. But with a global recession looming, people are likely to avoid spending on pricey new tech if they can avoid it. Which would mean that Intel could see demand slump for its chips just as it’s ready to serve all of the pent-up demand.

Intel is hoping to balance out any fall in consumer spending by pushing towards its data center business, but that’s also in jeopardy. The company announced that unit volumes fell by three percent at the end of 2018, pointing to a slowdown in spending. It’s likely that, between a recession, a trade war and the potential that there’s little growth in the data center market, Intel may find itself boxed in. In its 2019 forecast, the company said that reduced demand from China, as well as the big cloud players, may see its figures drop in the near future.

Moore’s Law and the competition

Swan’s going to have to deal with the technical limits that Intel is struggling to push past in order to keep making faster, better chips. The death of Moore’s Law means that the company will need to find innovative new solutions to not lose ground and, crucially, miss deadlines.

The magic bullet for Intel’s woes may be in the form of Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography (EUV), a way to make chips at far greater density. Essentially, if current chipmaking methods are akin to writing with a fat sharpie, EUV is a wafer-thin ballpoint.

In October 2018, Samsung announced that it was ready to start building 7nm chips using the process, and will ramp up next year. And, potentially, densities could get higher in the not-too-distant future. Intel, meanwhile, reportedly won’t even start using EUV in its factories until 2021 at the earliest.

In the PC space, AMD has been able to at least become competitive with Intel’s desktop chips, and offers very good price to performance ratio. It’s still a distant second, but compare benchmarks and you’ll spot several AMD chips that are far cheaper than their closest Intel equivalents.

Intel will also be nursing a grudge about how it let the world of mobile slip through its fingers, allowing ARM licensees to dominate. These low-power chips are less capable than Intel’s laptop offerings, but innovation in the space has skyrocketed in the last decade. Look at what Apple has been able to do with its A-Series chips, and you can see why Intel might be mildly concerned.

Right now, the chips that ARM licensees like Qualcomm and Apple create are not suited for full-power desktop (or laptop) computing. But Apple’s A-series chips are the equal to Intel’s laptop chips in benchmarks at the very least. And plenty of companies, led by Microsoft, are testing to see if a smartphone chip could be repurposed to run inside a laptop. Look at ASUS’ NovaGo, a Windows 10 laptop running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835.

These devices are pretty lackluster right now, but if the computing industry wanted to punish Intel for its slow progress, it could. Not to mention that any performance losses could be equally balanced with far longer battery life and the promise of greater mobile connectivity. It seems there’s a higher chance that an ARM chip will offer PC-like computing than there is of Intel making an all-conquering mobile chip.

Bob Swan’s own record

It isn’t fair to suggest that, because someone’s trained in finance rather than engineering, that they’re not going to be able to run a manufacturing company. But that will be a stick that the press, and analysts, will use to beat Swan if he doesn’t show improvement.

He is, after all, the first Intel CEO who wasn’t a “lifer” at the company and one with a background in finance. Reporting on his appointment, Bloomberg pointed out that he’s only the second Intel CEO who wasn’t an engineer with the company, after the late Paul Otellini. Depending on who you ask, Otellini was either a great leader who managed to nearly double Intel’s profits, or the person who missed out on building the iPhone’s CPU. The implication will always be that, because he’s a numbers guy, he won’t have the smarts to see where the industry is going. Swan will need to surround himself with people who can give him the advice that he needs.

The upsides

Thankfully, Swan’s new old job shouldn’t be greeted with a non-stop deluge of doom and gloom, because there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Like the fact that Intel really is the only game in town for most corporate buyers, and still benefits from the Wintel lock-in. The existential threats to its future have been known for a while, and the core business, as it stands, remains healthy for now.

On January 24th, Intel announced its fourth-quarter and full-year figures for 2018, and they make for extraordinary reading. The company pulled in revenues of $18.7 billion and $70.8 billion, respectively, making a net profit of $21.1 billion across the year. And, for as long as Swan can avoid the company throwing buckets of cash out the window, it’s likely he’ll have the time to implement his plan.

In his letter, Swan said that Intel’s “core strategy is not changing,” which is fine, so long as he’s capable of doing what his predecessor couldn’t: making that strategy work. Good luck, Bob.

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How the fruit fly got its stripes: Researchers explore the precision of embryonic development

How the fruit fly got its stripes: Researchers explore the precision of embryonic development

The first moments of life unfold with incredible precision. Now, using mathematical tools and the help of fruit flies, researchers at Princeton have uncovered new findings about the mechanisms behind this precision.

In a new study published in the journal Cell, the team showed that cells determine exactly where they need to be and therefore what body parts they will become by optimizing the use of all information available from the genetic code. This optimization allows each cell to position itself within one cell’s width of where it should be, rather than making errors that later are corrected.

The study also demonstrates that a complex biological system can operate according to a mathematically optimal process. The team was able to predict the placement of cells to within 1 percent of their actual locations along the length of the embryo, showing that biological behaviors can be computed and predicted from theoretical principles.

“The information required to specify precise cell locations — and therefore what body parts they will become — is present and utilized at the earliest stages of development in fruit flies,” said Thomas Gregor, associate professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. “This contrasts with the prevailing view that the position of the cells is refined slowly over time.”

“The theoretical idea is very simple, which is that every cell is using all the information that it can squeeze out of the relevant genes,” said William Bialek, the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. “Something we’ve known for a while, but never stop being amazed by, is that the whole system is incredibly precise, and this fact is what spurred us to believe that the cells are using all the information that they can.”

Cells take cues from genes, or more specifically, from the protein molecules that those genes produce. But do the cells use all of the information to get everything right the first time? Or is the system messy, with mistakes that are repaired before irreparable harm is done to the embryo?

The question was exactly the type of big-picture problem that the team of biologists and physicists, who have been working together since the early 2000s, likes to tackle.

Thanks to previous work by team member Eric Wieschaus, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, scientists know exactly which genes and molecules are involved in creating stripes across the embryo that mark the segments of the fly larva. If anything goes wrong, the stripes form in the wrong places or not at all.

“The experiment defines the first truly quantitative measure of how much information cells have available for crucial developmental decisions and how much of that information they actually use,” said Wieschaus, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and earned the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work on the genetic control of early embryonic development.

“This gives us an amazing tool for understanding how decision-making in biology actually works, one that is useful at levels ranging from the way proteins bind to DNA to how new biological pathways arise and compete during evolution,” he said.

Mariela Petkova, a co-first author on the study, was an undergraduate working in Gregor’s laboratory when she took on the question of how the cells use genetic and molecular information to find their locations and fates.

“We take seriously the idea that in a developing embryo cells need to “know” their position in order to make the correct developmental decisions,” said Petkova, Class of 2012. “One can imagine cells as GPS devices which, instead of satellite signals, collect molecular ones to figure out their locations. We are able to decode how such molecular signals specify positions along the length of the early fly embryo.”

Scientists have long known that the stripes form as a result of a cascade of steps that starts with the fly mother, who tucks into each egg an instruction set built from three different kinds of signaling molecules.

These signaling molecules spread through the embryo’s body, forming concentration gradients that activate four so-called “gap” genes. The expression of these genes produces protein molecules that act on DNA segments known as enhancers to drive “pair-rule” genes to produce the striped pattern.

Petkova made detailed measurements of gap gene expression and the exact amounts of molecules produced in the cells along the long body axis. She started the research as part of her senior thesis and then deferred going to graduate school for a year to continue working on the project. She finished the work while on breaks from her studies at the Harvard University Biophysics Graduate Program.

With these measurements in hand, the theoretical physics part of the team was able to model how the cells use information to find their place in the embryo. The team included co-first author Gašper Tkačik, who earned his Ph.D. in physics at Princeton in 2007 and is now a faculty member at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.

There are many ways that the cells could use the information encoded in the molecules. But the researchers chose to assume that the embryo makes use of all the available information encoded in the molecules. They called this the “optimal decoding approach.”

With that assumption, Tkačik and Bialek used a relatively straightforward mathematical approach to predict where the stripes would form. The team then compared the predictions to the actual measurements of gap molecules and found they had accurately anticipated the locations of the stripes.

The real proof came when Petkova studied the eggs laid by flies which have mutations in the genes coding for the maternal signaling molecules that are at the start of the cascade. The team precisely predicted how various gene mutations altered the stripe pattern — for example by making some of the stripes disappear or form in the wrong place.

“We used genetic manipulations to shuffle the gap gene patterns and ‘trick’ the cells into ‘thinking’ they were somewhere else along the length of the embryo,” Petkova said. “We put these shuffled patterns through our decoder and built decoding maps, which told us where the cells were versus where they thought they were. Using these maps we predicted where the embryos would make stripes. When we looked at these mutant embryos under a microscope we actually found the stripes at the predicted locations! It was very satisfying.”

The study gets at the question of whether it is possible to make robust predictions about biological systems starting from theoretical principles, according to the authors.

“This finding gives us theorists hope that our job in biology will not be forever relegated to fitting models from data, but actually predicting and quantitatively understanding why evolution came up with certain solutions,” Tkačik said. “This gives promise, for at least a few example cases, that there may be a ‘predictive theory for biology’ — an excellent motivation for future work.”

Added Bialek: “A hallmark of modern physics is that general theoretical principles can be connected to an experiment in exquisite quantitative detail,” he said. “It has long been difficult to imagine this sort of theory — experiment interaction in the physics of biological systems — living things seemed too complex, too messy. This work is one of the strongest examples of theory-experiment comparison that I have seen. I had always hoped that we would get to this level, but I didn’t know when it would happen.”

Wieschaus added: “Most scientists tend to think that biological processes are inherently sloppy and that cells achieve precision by multiple corrective steps and complicated interactive networks. Such processes certainly exist. What is amazing to me, however, is how precise and reproducible information can be at a single step in development, and once that information is there, how evolution and natural selection can push the cells to make maximum efficient use of that information.”

The fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is frequently used to learn general principles of biology that may apply to more sophisticated organisms such as humans. Whether organisms other than the fruit fly adhere to this optimal use of information remains to be seen, said Gregor.

“This research gives us a look at how genetic networks encode information, how networks work together, and how they do the computations they can do,” Gregor said. “There are genetic networks that do all sorts of things in biology, so this is certainly a rich area for further exploration.”

This work was supported in part by U.S. National Science Foundation grants PHY-1607612, CCF-0939370 (Center for the Science of Information), and PHY-1734030 (Center for the Physics of Biological Function); by National Institutes of Health grants P50GM071508, R01GM077599 and R01GM097275; by Austrian Science Fund grant FWF P28844; and by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Predoctoral Fellowship.

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Earth’s largest extinction event likely took plants first

Earth’s largest extinction event likely took plants first

Little life could endure the Earth-spanning cataclysm known as the Great Dying, but plants may have suffered its wrath long before many animal counterparts, says new research led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

About 252 million years ago, with the planet’s continental crust mashed into the supercontinent called Pangaea, volcanoes in modern-day Siberia began erupting. Spewing carbon and methane into the atmosphere for roughly 2 million years, the eruption helped extinguish about 96 percent of oceanic life and 70 percent of land-based vertebrates — the largest extinction event in Earth’s history.

Yet the new study suggests that a byproduct of the eruption — nickel — may have driven some Australian plant life to extinction nearly 400,000 years before most marine species perished.

“That’s big news,” said lead author Christopher Fielding, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences. “People have hinted at that, but nobody’s previously pinned it down. Now we have a timeline.”

The researchers reached the conclusion by studying fossilized pollen, the chemical composition and age of rock, and the layering of sediment on the southeastern cliffsides of Australia. There they discovered surprisingly high concentrations of nickel in the Sydney Basin’s mud-rock — surprising because there are no local sources of the element.

Tracy Frank, professor and chair of Earth and atmospheric sciences, said the finding points to the eruption of lava through nickel deposits in Siberia. That volcanism could have converted the nickel into an aerosol that drifted thousands of miles southward before descending on, and poisoning, much of the plant life there. Similar spikes in nickel have been recorded in other parts of the world, she said.

“So it was a combination of circumstances,” Fielding said. “And that’s a recurring theme through all five of the major mass extinctions in Earth’s history.”

If true, the phenomenon may have triggered a series of others: herbivores dying from the lack of plants, carnivores dying from a lack of herbivores, and toxic sediment eventually flushing into seas already reeling from rising carbon dioxide, acidification and temperatures.

‘It Lets Us See What’s Possible’

One of three married couples on the research team, Fielding and Frank also found evidence for another surprise. Much of the previous research into the Great Dying — often conducted at sites now near the equator — has unearthed abrupt coloration changes in sediment deposited during that span.

Shifts from grey to red sediment generally indicate that the volcanism’s ejection of ash and greenhouse gases altered the world’s climate in major ways, the researchers said. Yet that grey-red gradient is much more gradual at the Sydney Basin, Fielding said, suggesting that its distance from the eruption initially helped buffer it against the intense rises in temperature and aridity found elsewhere.

Though the time scale and magnitude of the Great Dying exceeded the planet’s current ecological crises, Frank said the emerging similarities — especially the spikes in greenhouse gases and continuous disappearance of species — make it a lesson worth studying.

“Looking back at these events in Earth’s history is useful because it lets us see what’s possible,” she said. “How has the Earth’s system been perturbed in the past? What happened where? How fast were the changes? It gives us a foundation to work from — a context for what’s happening now.”

The researchers detailed their findings in the journal Nature Communications. Fielding and Frank authored the study with Allen Tevyaw, graduate student in geosciences at Nebraska; Stephen McLoughlin, Vivi Vajda and Chris Mays from the Swedish Museum of Natural History; Arne Winguth and Cornelia Winguth from the University of Texas at Arlington; Robert Nicoll of Geoscience Australia; Malcolm Bocking of Bocking Associates; and James Crowley of Boise State University.

The National Science Foundation and the Swedish Research Council funded the team’s work.

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Kanye West settles lawsuit over ‘The Life of Pablo’ Tidal exclusivity

Kanye West settles lawsuit over ‘The Life of Pablo’ Tidal exclusivity


ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kanye West has settled a lawsuit with fan Justin Baker-Rhett, who sued the artist over claims that West’s album The Life of Pablo would be available exclusively through Tidal. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed but all charges filed in the case have been dismissed, including a potential class-action lawsuit that will no longer move forward.

When The Life of Pablo first dropped on February 14, 2016, West said the album would be available only on Tidal. The day after its initial release, the artist took to Twitter to say “My album will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale… You can only get it on Tidal.” That drove many people, including Baker-Rhett, to sign up for Tidal, either grabbing a free trial or ponying up the $9.99 monthly subscription fee to hear the album. Despite the rapper’s claims, TLOP made its way to Spotify and Apple Music just a few weeks later, leaving fans stuck with an unwanted subscription to Tidal.

West defended the release of TLOP on other streaming services by claiming that, because he made changes to the album and added a song after its release, it was actually a different record entirely. With the settlement between West and Baker-Rhett, the artist will (for now) avoid a class-action case that would have allowed anyone talked into Tidal just to hear TLOP to join the suit.

West is no stranger to controversy, but The Life of Pablo has had a particularly contentious history. Beyond the whole exclusivity fiasco, the album is also at the center of a criminal investigation in Norway. Investigators in the country believe Tidal may have inflated the streaming figures on a number of exclusive albums including TLOP and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

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My other life as a Kickstarter scammer

My other life as a Kickstarter scammer

I have the process down to a tee. I start by browsing Kickstarter, looking for projects with active campaigns. There’s no specific selection criteria. Perhaps I find one that’s just gone live, or one coming to the end of its fundraising window. I reach out with a message, explain who I am and invite the project contact to book in an interview. On the call, I feign interest, ask the right kind of questions and promise a write-up on Engadget in the near future. I leave it a day or two and reach out again, saying I’ve heard great things from others about a specialist that can increase a project’s exposure for a daily fee. A highly unethical move for a journalist, but I set to profit from it, so what do I care? The Engadget article never materializes, of course, because this person isn’t me.

I first found out about my impersonator, who I’ll call Fake Jamie, from a LinkedIn message that popped up in late August last year. “Did we speak today?” the first line of the message read in bold. The person who contacted me had just launched a Kickstarter project, and apparently, I’d reached out to “help spread the word.” I’d even pledged over $100 to show my enthusiasm. We’d set up an interview and on the call, I’d mentioned I know a guy that can improve the reach of Facebook ads. He’s worked with various successful campaigns, and his service fee ranges from $150 to $250 per day.

The project creator was seriously considering it but had done the research. Before the interview, they looked me up; they knew what I sounded like, and the voice on the end of the Skype call was not me. They wanted to believe they were about to get press exposure, and that perhaps this highly recommended marketeer could give the project another boost. Still, they were glad they hadn’t been duped.

I didn’t think much of this first event. If anything I was flattered. Someone out there thought I had enough clout to be the frontman for an elaborate Kickstarter scam. But then the emails started coming in… one after another after another. Clearly I was naive to think, Once thwarted, twice shy.

I’ve received the odd LinkedIn message from suspicious project creators, but primarily they forward me email exchanges they’ve had with Fake Jamie, adding the question: “Is this really you?” The formula is always the same: Reach out on Kickstarter, follow-up via email, conduct interview, then talk up the services of someone that can give the campaign a better shot at meeting its funding goal.

Some of the finer details change. Fake Jamie has said on occasion that he wants to feature the project in new crowdfunding roundup column he’s spearheading for Engadget; sometimes he says he’s just going to cover it outright. He originally began plugging a Felix Benson as the magic-worker, but in the most recent example, it’s Brett Pearson. The service they offer changes, too. Sometimes it’s the promise of better Facebook reach, maybe, or a more prominent spot on the Kickstarter site.

Fortunately, Fake Jamie raises a bunch of red flags. For one, recommending the services of a marketeer is a bizarre if not entirely unethical move on behalf of a journalist. He also targets a variety of campaigns, several of which, such as fashion projects, would obviously fall outside of the purview of a consumer-tech publication. Not to mention that Engadget rarely covers crowdfunding campaigns anyway, given the inherent risks.

The most obvious red flags, though, are that Fake Jamie doesn’t use an Engadget email address nor, for reasons I’m still completely stumped by, my picture. The Kickstarter profile image he originally used isn’t me, though it is one of a nerdy type with rectangular, black-rimmed specs similar to ones I wore until recently. But you only have to Google me or go to my Engadget editor page to find an official-looking headshot for all your scamming needs. And as I’ve said, Fake Jamie doesn’t sound like me — he isn’t even British — but you would have to go out of your way to find an Engadget video I’ve fronted to note that inconsistency.

Jamie Rigg

Actually me (ignore cheesy pose thanks)

Beyond these cracks in Fake Jamie’s facade, I’ve learned that many Kickstarter project leads are wary by default. I’ve come across various questionable Kickstarter campaigns in the past, from straight up money-grabs to attempts at selling white-label Alibaba wares for twice the price. Then there are the ones where the updates just stop coming one day, and products that are eventually delivered fall short of the original promise. I’ve had the pleasure of throwing money at a few of these myself. Kickstarter is a risky place, but that applies to project creators, too.

You can understand why they’re targets. Many will have quit jobs and/or blown savings to make this product or that company happen. And they need help, hence turning to crowdfunding in the first place. If someone crawls out the woodwork and says they can drive traffic to a campaign, it’s within the creators’ interests to listen. Some of the Kickstarter landing page is manually curated, but other parts are algorithmically filled. From what I’ve read, aspects like how much traffic your campaign page gets, and how quickly it approaches its funding goal factor into your Kickstarter ranking, as it’s called. But the so-called services I’ve found online that claim to game the system look sketchy at best. Then again, any seller of likes, clicks or fake reviews can be characterized as “sketchy,” I suppose.

One creator told me about a project that employed one of these services, and with excellent results. What they thought was genuine engagement, however, turned out to be dummy accounts that canceled their pledges just before the end of the funding window. Fake Jamie, then, isn’t really doing anything new, he’s just adding another layer and an air of legitimacy by promising a write-up on this site alongside his completely impartial advice.

My initial flattery quickly turned to frustration, among many other emotions, as Fake Jamie grew more prolific. The fact he was using my name made me feel strangely responsible, and I began spending an increasing amount of my time responding, day or night, to the suspicious creators who were reaching out. I offered my phone number and spoke at length with people and teams that wanted a side of explanation with the main course of me dashing any hopes they had of appearing in Engadget.

Identity theft is something we’re all supposed to be wary of. But I had always pictured it as someone trying to socially engineer my mother’s maiden name out of me or stealing my passport from a hotel room drawer. I never imagined someone would take my name and my work, purely to use as a tool to scam others. That’s a special breed of violation: Not opportunistic, but premeditated. And the deeper I went down the rabbit hole, the stronger that feeling of violation became.

Fake Jamie hasn’t just been pretending to be me but has also established a paper trail of sorts. I discovered a Facebook profile, for instance, that was set up around the time this all started last August. Again, the picture isn’t me, but it’s another dude with rectangular, black-rimmed specs that could pass as me at a very cursory glance. And I know the Facebook account is supposed to be me because the header image is the same one Fake Jamie has plastered on his website. Yes, he registered a fucking website, jamierigg.co.uk, in order to have a semi-legit email address to run the scam from. The stones on this guy. The banner image on Facebook and the site, I’ve managed to trace back to royalty-free stock image library rawpixel.com. Once more, it doesn’t look unlike me, and it’s shot in a convincing setting.

The color version of the stock photo used on jamierigg.co.uk (Photo: rawpixel)

Obviously, I began fighting back as soon as I received that first LinkedIn message. I started up a dialogue with Kickstarter, which immediately banned the account he was probing from. Days later, he had an identical account that was registered several years prior to the banned one. You can change Kickstarter account details, though, so I assume he must’ve bought one, if that’s something you can even do. That second account was also swiftly banned, but Fake Jamie was evolving. He began setting up accounts in other names, including one impersonating Amber Bouman, our Community Content Editor. Others sported more generic names like “Linda from Engadget,” but the initial outreach would always lead back to Fake Jamie eventually. Kickstarter has kept broadening its net, killing accounts claiming to be associated with Engadget, and it appears the game of whack-a-mole has worked, at least for now.

I informed Indiegogo about the situation as a matter of course, but Fake Jamie seems to have limited his activity to Kickstarter. I also got Oath (now Verizon Media), Engadget’s parent company, involved. After all, Fake Jamie is only impersonating me is because of the brand I’m attached to, and I figured a huge corporation might be better equipped to find the killswitch. I’ve also logged a cybercrime case with the UK police, but there is little anyone can do or has done beyond the top-level investigating I’ve performed already.

I know the Skype account he uses (or has used); I even have a recording of an “interview” he conducted with a Kickstarter project creator. But technically he doesn’t exist. He is me, albeit with an Australian accent, so there’s no telling where he’s actually based. And all I have to show are indications he’s impersonating me for the purposes of defrauding people. Since I only hear from those suspicious of Fake Jamie, I have no concrete evidence he’s ever succeeded. Only email threads with people he’s failed to defraud.

The profile picture used on Fake Jamie’s Facebook account
Facebook

Even his website leads to a dead end. Technically, every .co.uk domain must have a named registrant, as per the rules of regional registry Nominet. But Fake Jamie purchased the domain in August last year through name.com, so that third-party is listed as the registrant. And the website itself is hosted by DigitalOcean, but contacting its “trust and safety team” has been a thoroughly fruitless exercise. “Just because the domain is hosted on our network, does not mean the emails originated from our network,” a line in the latest email I received reads. I’ve provided what I believe is enough evidence of abuse, but from the tone and frequency of Digital Ocean’s responses, I see that the company has little to no intention of taking the matter seriously. Business is business, I guess.

The point might be moot now, anyway. So far this year, I haven’t had another “is this you?” email come through, and towards the end of last year they were already becoming few and far between. Between Kickstarter banning accounts and contacting those who may have been targeted, plus a now-deleted KickstarterForum post and Reddit thread that warned of the scam at its peak, the jig might well be up. Or perhaps another journalist now has a pestilent online double masquerading as them.

I wasn’t sure when exactly to publicize this on Engadget, in the same way one doesn’t release details of an exploit until it’s been patched. While I rarely think about Fake Jamie these days, the whole episode still doesn’t sit well with me. Most of all, it makes me uncomfortable to think about all those who perhaps didn’t reach out — the ones that took it all at face value and were defrauded for their trust. After all, Fake Jamie wouldn’t be doing this, or keep doing it, if nobody was falling for the charade.

So beware of the internet, and if you find yourself talking to me online, remember it might not be me. Unless it’s on a dating app. Then it’s almost definitely me.

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Counties with dirtier air have more stroke deaths

Counties with dirtier air have more stroke deaths

In a nationwide study, counties with dirtier air had higher rates of stroke deaths and shorter life expectancies, according to preliminary research to be presented in Honolulu at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2019, a world premier meeting for researchers and clinicians dedicated to the science and treatment of cerebrovascular disease.

Researchers examined the average yearly levels air pollution (PM2.5) that contains fine inhalable particles. Produced by diesel engines and the burning of coal, biomass and kerosene, this type of air pollution has previously been shown to enter the circulatory system and harm health.

Analyzing health data and pollution monitoring information from 1,561 counties across the United States between 2005 and 2010, researchers found the yearly average for fine air pollution ranged from 7.2 to 14.7 (average 11.75) micrograms per cubic meter.

“Overall, the annual average was at a level considered acceptable. However, 51 percent of counties had an annual average exceeding 12 micrograms per cubic meter, the annual average limit of the National Air Quality Standards for PM2.5 set by the Environmental Protection Agency (December 2012),” said Longjian Liu, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

When researchers examined associations between county average PM2.5 pollution levels and health measures (age-adjusted rates in adults 35 years and older), they found:

  • The dirtier the air, the higher the rate of stroke deaths and shorter life expectancy in both men and women.
  • The higher the poverty rate and fewer health providers in a county, the greater the health impact of high pollution.
  • The highest impact on stroke was in the South. The new results raise the possibility that exposure to PM2.5 pollution may be a factor in creating the so-called “stroke belt” in the southern United States. Other possible contributors to excessive rates of stroke in these states are poverty, diet, smoking, the control of stroke risk factors and the availability of health services.

“To reduce the risk of stroke, clinicians should consider their patients’ likely exposure to air pollution along with other risk factors. They can ask patients whether they live or work in an urban industrial area or whether they are aware of sources of pollution near their home or workplace. Clinicians can then encourage at-risk patients to take measures to reduce their exposure when possible, such as avoiding major roadways during rush hour traffic, keeping car windows closed and setting the air conditioner to circulate internal air,” Liu said.

The researchers are currently analyzing other findings that emerged from the county comparisons, including associations between higher levels of PM2.5 pollution and a greater risk of other leading causes of death, including coronary heart disease, heart failure and cancer.

The study did not have separate information on the number of clot-caused and bleeding strokes.

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Apple Smart Battery Case review (2019): A basic, effective iPhone add-on

Apple Smart Battery Case review (2019): A basic, effective iPhone add-on

Sad as it seems sometimes, few things in life are as uniquely stressful as using a phone whose battery is on the brink of death. It’s little surprise then that battery cases have become so popular. But unfortunately, owners of Apple’s 2018 flagship smartphones haven’t had many great options to choose from.

Engadget Score


Poor


Uninspiring


Good


Excellent

Key

Pros
  • Gives the XS a much-needed battery boost
  • Integrates well with iOS
  • Doesn’t feel overly cumbersome
  • Works with the iPhone X
  • Supports fast charging
Cons
  • Adds significant weight to a small phone
  • Difficult to remove from pockets

Summary

Apple is back in the battery case game, and of all the company’s new smartphones, the iPhone XS stands to benefit the most. With one of Apple’s new Smart Battery Cases installed, the XS runs for several hours longer without a hitch, and it’s not uncommon to see the accessory basically double the phone’s battery life. The downside to all this is that the case makes the small XS feel noticeably heftier, but thankfully, the total package never feels downright cumbersome. A similarly priced power bank might make more sense for some, but if all you care about is protecting your XS while avoiding power outlets, this is probably the best you can get for now.


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Engadget Score


Poor


Uninspiring


Good


Excellent

Key

Pros
  • Provides several more hours of iPhone use
  • Integrates well with iOS
  • Supports fast charging
Cons
  • Makes a big phone feel even bigger
  • Difficult to remove from pockets
  • Arguably not as necessary as the XS version

Summary

The XS Max’s Smart Battery Case might be a little bigger, but it actually packs the exact same batteries as its little brother. In average daily use, that means the case won’t quite double the XS Max’s battery life, but that’s arguably not a huge problem since the Max’s battery is already significantly better than the XS’s. Because of that, though, this Smart Battery Case just might be overkill for most people. And while there’s no question that the Smart Battery Case does a great job keeping the XS Max running even longer, the added size and weight will make an already big phone even harder for some people to use. All told, this is a great battery case for those who really need it, but it just doesn’t seem as necessary as the XS version.


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Recently, though, Apple made that list a little longer with its new Smart Battery cases for the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max. This move might have been inevitable, but you’d be forgiven for thinking Apple had given up on its battery case plans altogether — after all, the company hadn’t released a new mobile battery case in over two years. Stranger still, devices like the XS Max and XR offer some of the best battery life we’ve ever seen in iPhones. Does Apple really need to be making these cases?

For the right people, yes. After a few days of testing, Apple’s new Smart Battery cases are mostly great options for the power-paranoid. Still, there are a few things you should keep in mind before giving Apple even more of your money.

Editor’s note

Thanks to some shipping delays, the iPhone XR battery case arrived after cases meant for the XS and XS Max. Because of that limited testing time, this review focuses on battery case performance for Apple’s two XS models — we’ll update this story after we’ve tested the XR version more thoroughly.

Gallery: Apple Smart Battery case review (2019) | 9 Photos

The broad strokes

If you’ve seen one of Apple’s older Smart Battery cases, you’re mostly up to speed here — these aren’t unlike the company’s standard silicone options, just with some big ol’ battery humps. More importantly, these new models work just as nicely with iOS as the originals did; when they’re connected to an iPhone, you’ll be able to check battery levels for the phone and the case through a widget in the Today View. (That said, it would’ve been nice if Apple included a readout for the case in the Control Center too. Right now, it only shows the phone’s current charge level.)

Don’t be fooled by the similar design, though: In the two or so years since Apple has produced a new battery case, it’s changed its approach to these products. For one, the hump now sits low on the XS and XS Max’s back, rather than toward the midsections. That’s a big deal for people who weren’t so fond of the original design, which — in the words of my boss Dana — made iPhones looked like they had just “finished a big lunch.” This time around, Apple’s giving its phones big butts instead of big guts, and that’s a good thing.

These design flourishes aren’t pretty, but they give your hand something substantial to grip while you’re texting or taking phone calls. The downside is, these make relatively thin phones like the XS feel much more chunky. Things get even dicier with the iPhone XS Max, which was already a handful. The added heft won’t be a deal-breaker for everyone, but there’s little question these cases make iPhones less comfortable to use.



You’d never know just by looking, but Apple did considerable work under that soft-touch exterior, too. Rather than stick a single large battery into the frame of the case, it instead used two batteries that collectively work out to a total capacity of 1369mAh. But here’s the thing: 1369mAh might not sound like a lot when you consider just the smaller iPhone XS has a 2,658mAh battery. On paper, one might easily assume that the battery case only extends that phone’s longevity by about 50 percent. Not true. We’ll dig into this more a little later, but the battery case generally doubled the XS’s battery life.

Anyway, there’s also a Qi wireless charging coil baked into the top of the hump, so you can plop the whole thing down onto your wireless charger. It’s a helpful flourish if you’ve already invested in the right charging accessories, but you’ll almost certainly want to use a Lightning cable if you want to charge the whole package quickly.

It’s also worth noting that device charging priority changes depending on what kind of charger you’re using. If all you have is the standard, tiny 5W iPhone charger, the phone charges before the case does. The 18W charger that comes with devices like the new iPad Pro fast charges the iPhone, assuming you have the right USB-C to Lightning cable. And if you’re using a 30W charger, the phone and the case will fast-charge at the same time.

In use

Of all the new phones for which Apple built these battery cases, the iPhone XS stands to benefit the most: When we reviewed the XS, we found that with frequent use, the built-in battery generally ran between nine and nine and a half hours before going completely dry. We’ve found that the external battery adds an additional nine to 10 hours of power, though.

Of course, that number is largely dependent on what you’re doing with your phone. In our case, I measured the battery’s performance while going through my usual routine. That means lots of podcasts and mobile hotspot time while in transit, near-constant Slack and Gmail use and a spot of gaming now that Langrisser is out, et cetera.

Your mileage may vary, but with what feels like normal, fairly consistent use, the case essentially doubled the XS’s battery life. If you’re the kind of person who uses your iPhone for a bit and then puts it away for long periods of time, you can expect even better performance. (The same is also true for last year’s iPhone X, which works with the XS battery case despite not fitting perfectly.)

Apple Smart Battery case review for iPhone XS and XS Max

Going into this review, I was concerned that the extra weight of the battery would make the already-small XS uncomfortable to use. It’s actually not that bad — the added heft never goes unnoticed, but the total package isn’t overly cumbersome. That said, the hump plus the grippy silicone means pulling the encased phone out of my pocket is often a struggle.

I wish I could say the same about the XS Max’s battery case. Like its little brother, this external battery adds about nine to 10 hours of use, but the Max just doesn’t need it as much. By dint of being one of its biggest iPhones Apple has ever made, the XS Max already has a giant battery that routinely lasted for 12 hours of frequent use.

Apple Smart Battery case review for iPhone XS and XS Max

There’s no question the Smart Battery Case does its job well, but it’s arguably overkill for most people who splurged on Apple’s big phone. (For those keeping track, Apple never released a larger version of its Smart Battery Case for its Plus-sized iPhones, presumably for this very reason.) The idea of being able to use an XS Max for two days off a single charge (three, if you’re lucky) is definitely appealing, but since most people charge their phones fully at least once a day, I have to wonder who really benefits from this thing.

And let’s not forget that this case makes the XS Max feel pretty huge. You can forget about slipping it into your pocket unobtrusively. I know my share of people who already find the XS Max a little unwieldy, and for them, the Smart Battery case is a non-starter. It nearly doubles the phone’s diameter. Anyone with small hands will find it close to impossible to use one-handed.

Wrap-up

Mophie’s forthcoming Juice Pack Access is also worth a look.

If you’re willing to live with the extra size, Apple’s Smart Battery cases are among the best ways to keep your iPhone XS or XS Max running longer. That’s a pretty big “if” for some of you, though. The XS’s battery case is a solid buy, but it bulks up the Max to the point where it just doesn’t work for everyone. (Granted, this is an issue that faces all XS Max battery cases, but it’s still worth pointing out.)

$130 isn’t pocket change either, and other options in the same price range offer more bang for your buck. You could easily pick up a more flexible power bank like Mophie’s USB-C XXL Powerstation that’ll charge your phones and your computer (assuming it draws power over USB-C) for around the same price. And while there aren’t loads of XS and XS Max battery cases from reputable vendors, there are a few worth noting. Mophie’s $120 Juice Pack Access will pack plenty of power for the XS and Max when it launches, and while it isn’t specifically made for the XS, Moment’s $100 iPhone X battery case works fine with the newer phone and lets you attach a variety of new camera lenses.

All told, Apple’s new Smart Battery cases give the XS and XS Max dramatically better battery life, and they tie elegantly into iOS to boot. When you consider that and the limited competition out there, these are probably the best battery cases you’ll find at the moment. That’s great when you’re only concerned about your iPhone — if that isn’t the only gadget of yours that goes dry during the day, though, your money is better spent on something more flexible.

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Self-assembling nanomaterial offers pathway to more efficient, affordable harnessing of solar power: The new materials produce a singlet fission reaction that creates more and extends the life of harvestable electronic charges

Self-assembling nanomaterial offers pathway to more efficient, affordable harnessing of solar power: The new materials produce a singlet fission reaction that creates more and extends the life of harvestable electronic charges

Solar rays are a plentiful, clean source of energy that is becoming increasingly important as the world works to shift away from power sources that contribute to global warming. But current methods of harvesting solar charges are expensive and inefficient — with a theoretical efficiency limit of 33 percent. New nanomaterials developed by researchers at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY) could provide a pathway to more efficient and potentially affordable harvesting of solar energy.

The materials, created by scientists with the ASRC’s Nanoscience Initiative, use a process called singlet fission to produce and extend the life of harvestable light-generated electrons. The discovery is described in a newly published paper in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. Early research suggests these materials could create more usable charges and increase the theoretical efficiency of solar cells up to 44 percent.

“We modified some of the molecules in commonly used industrial dyes to create self-assembling materials that facilitate a greater yield of harvestable electrons and extend the electrons’ xcited-state lifetimes, giving us more time to collect them in a solar cell,” said Andrew Levine, lead author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center.

The self-assembly process, Levine explained, causes the dye molecules to stack in a particular way. This stacking allows dyes that have absorbed solar photons to couple and share energy with — or “excite” — neighboring dyes. The electrons in these dyes then decouple so that they can be collected as harvestable solar energy.

Methodology and Findings

To develop the materials, researchers combined various versions of two frequently used industrial dyes — diketopyrrolopyrrole (DPP) and rylene. This resulted in the formation of six self-assembling superstructures, which scientists investigated using electron microscopy and advanced spectroscopy. They found that each combination had subtle differences in geometry that affected the dyes’ excited states, the occurrence of singlet fission, and the yield and lifetime of harvestable electrons. Significance

“This work provides us with a library of nanomaterials that we can study for harvesting solar energy,” said Professor Adam Braunschweig, lead researcher on the study and an associate professor with the ASRC Nanoscience Initiative and the Chemistry Departments at Hunter College and The Graduate Center. “Our method for combining the dyes into functional materials using self-assembly means we can carefully tune their properties and increase the efficiency of the critical light-harvesting process.”

The materials’ ability to self-assemble could also shorten the time for creating commercially viable solar cells, said the researchers, and prove more affordable than current fabrication methods, which rely on the time-consuming process of molecular synthesis.

The research team’s next challenge is to develop a method of harvesting the solar charges created by their new nanomaterials. Currently, they are working to design a rylene molecule that can accept the electron from the DPP molecule after the singlet fission process. If successful, these materials would both initiate the singlet fission process and facilitate charge-transfer into a solar cell.

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Study of archaeal cells could teach us more about ourselves

Study of archaeal cells could teach us more about ourselves

Forty-two years after Carl Woese defined archaea as the third domain of life, scientists at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are still learning about these ancient organisms in ways that could help us learn more about eukaryotes.

Over time, scientists have realized that archaea have close ancestral relationships to eukaryotes — the domain of life that includes animals, plants, and more.

“Everybody’s interested in the origin of eukaryotic cells because we’re eukaryotes,” said Rachel Whitaker, a professor of microbiology, and a research theme leader at the IGB. “The more we can learn about archaea, the more we’ll understand about our own cells and what makes us unique.”

Whitaker and Changyi Zhang, a research scientist at the IGB, wanted to better understand the archaeal cell by studying Sulfolobus islandicus, an archaeal microorganism that is found in geothermal hot springs.

Their results, published in Nature Communications, give insight into archaea’s potential shared ancestry with eukaryotes and the evolutionary history of cells. Their research also overturns previously held beliefs about what S. islandicus requires for growth.

“One of the first questions is: what does it need in order to grow?” Whitaker said.

The researchers determined the essential genes — those that are critical for an organism’s growth and survival — of S. islandicus and then compared them to the essential genes of bacteria and eukaryotes to see if they could find genes that are shared between them.

In particular, they wanted to see if eukaryotes shared any essential genes with S. islandicus, as this could give insight into the origin of eukaryotes.

While they didn’t find any shared genes that hadn’t already been defined, they did find a set of genes that are both unique to archaea and essential for their growth. Now, they want to understand whether these genes are unique to archaea or whether they were present in a common ancestor of archaea and eukaryotes.

“There are two options. Either they were once shared by a common ancestor and lost by eukaryotes as they diverge from a common ancestor,” Whitaker said. “Or they’re new, and they’re innovations that happened in the archaeal cell that didn’t happen in the eukaryotic cell.”

If they can understand this better, they can further understand how archaea and eukaryotes diverged, and just how that process of evolution took place within the cell.

“Can you just evolve new functions?” Whitaker said. “What types of functions are the ones that you can evolve and change, that are essential, and what types of functions are the type you can lose?”

To study S. islandicus, a unique organism that grows in high temperatures, Zhang had to develop new tools to analyze its genome. These tools allowed him to make an unexpected discovery about the surface (S-) layer, the outer shell of archaeal cells that provides protection.

“It only has an S-layer surrounding the cell,” Zhang said. “If the cell loses the S-layer, it loses its protection against a lot of environmental stress.”

The consensus among scientists was that the S-layer was essential to Sulfolobus, but Zhang confirmed that it’s not. He said this came as a surprise, but they now have the tools to test how the archaeal cell functions with and without this outer shell.

“We think it might be really important in how the cell normally functions,” Whitaker said. “We know that they grow, but they look really different (without it). That gives us some ideas about what processes might be impacted, but we don’t know yet what they are.”

A better understanding of archaeal cells could help the scientific community learn more about functions of eukaryotic cells — many of which are not well understood. These functions can affect our cells’ health, and unhealthy cells can cause mutations and genome instability, which can cause cancer.

“Our hope is that, in better understanding the core pieces of those functions, we might be able to better understand those systems, and in doing that, better understand our own selves,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker and Zhang said that, since publishing their results, researchers from around the world have contacted them to request access to their data.

“The field of archaeal cell biology has really noticed this work . . . that’s great, coming from the IGB and from Illinois,” Whitaker said. “It’s reminding people that archaeal research is alive and well and really making big impacts here.”

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