What’s the deal with Google’s quantum computer?

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Google and NASA Team Up on Quantum Computer

The next generation of computers is a few years off, but it’s pretty damn cool

For The Daily Beast:

It’s like no computer you’ve ever seen, nor are you likely to ever own. It promises speed and the ability to tackle problems ordinary computers can’t handle.

The machine is the D-Wave 2X, and the only working model outside the company is in the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. A joint project between Google, NASA, and the Universities Space Research Association, the lab will test-drive the 2X on some sticky problems in high-powered computing.

The 2X is a type of quantum computer, which means it uses devices that exploit quantum physics to replace transistors and other components of ordinary computers. The quantum nature of the inner workings in theory should make the computer solve problems much faster than anything else available, making it useful for a wide range of applications. While there are no fully quantum computers out yet, the 2X is the closest yet—assuming it works as advertised. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

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Traces of salty water on Mars … and more mysteries!

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[Credit: Randall Munroe]

Water Found on Mars Could Be First Signs of Martian Life

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found traces of water that comes and goes on Mars—aka flowing water

For The Daily Beast:

We seem to discover water on Mars about once a year. Well, that’s not quite true: we’ve known Mars has water for quite a while. However, there are a lot of mysteries still to solve about how that water behaves and where it’s located. In particular, we’d like to know if water sometimes flows on the surface of the planet, which would tell us a lot about the cycles both above and below ground. And of course water is essential for life as we know it—finding flowing water, even transient flows, would make Mars seem a little more Earth-like.

The problem is that any liquid water evaporates quickly in the bone-dry Martian desert, and other processes can leave traces that mimic dried-up flows. When so little water is involved in the first place, it leaves us looking for the Martian equivalent of water spots on a long-dry drinking glass. And those spots are chemical traces—salt and other minerals once dissolved in the water—which must be identified by robotic spacecraft from orbit.

Today, scientists using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have identified some of those traces: a little bit of water comes and goes on Mars’ surface. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

The white scientist versus the African teenager

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A Rationalist’s Irrationality

Why is Richard Dawkins such a jerk?

For Slate:

Richard Dawkins is not your garden-variety Internet troll. He’s a retired professor at Oxford University and the author of a number of well-received, best-selling books on science and atheism. His book The Selfish Gene is one of the most-read popular accounts of evolution, and it introduced the term “meme,” long before Internet cats, as a way to express how ideas spread and evolve. In other words, he’s as establishment as they come. He is no fringe conspiracy-monger lurking in the anonymous cave of message boards and comment sections.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking he is, based on his willingness to say offensive things on social media, often at the expense of non-famous people. In the latest iteration, he proposed the notion—just as a simple “what if”—that Ahmed Mohamed got himself arrested on purpose as a way to get money and attention. [Read the rest at Slate….]

As a personal aside, I expected some pushback over this piece, and I certainly got it. At present, there are nearly 1000 comments at Slate, and I’ve lost track of how many people have sent me angry messages on Twitter. However, I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses as well, and despite a few people declaring they’ll never read a thing of mine again, I hope I haven’t driven too many away. It’s been an interesting 24 hours, to put it mildly.

One thing I did find interesting though was the various interpretations of the piece. I wrote a critique of a prominent scientist and science communicator, and intended it to be nothing more or less than that. It wasn’t a critique of atheism (though some took it that way), or a defense of religion in general or Islam in particular (though some took it that way). I personally am uninterested in debating those things in the abstract. Ideas are always fair game for criticism in my view, but people are only fair game in inverse proportion to their vulnerability. Thus, the powerful and the privileged are tough kids and can handle a little harsh truth if they need it. Picking on the poor, the minority, those whose voices are not widely respected is at best bullying.

Systems that privilege some and deny others demand criticism, which means yes! the practice of religion is definitely a legitimate target for criticism where it deserves it. But to say that any random practitioner of a religion — a child, say — is fair game because you don’t like some of the tenets of that religion? I can’t follow you there. Someone who uses political office to enforce their religious beliefs on another is leveraging power and privilege; an atheist like Dawkins with many listeners and a stable social position can also leverage power over others, albeit a less direct form of power. The privilege and power are the enemies when they are misused, and I think people of goodwill can unite in that cause, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof.

Of GUTs, glory, and the death of a proton

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Do protons decay?

Is it possible that these fundamental building blocks of atoms have a finite lifetime?

For Symmetry Magazine:

The stuff of daily existence is made of atoms, and all those atoms are made of the same three things: electrons, protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are very similar particles in most respects. They’re made of the same quarks, which are even smaller particles, and they have almost exactly the same mass. Yet neutrons appear to be different from protons in an important way: They aren’t stable. A neutron outside of an atomic nucleus decays in a matter of minutes into other particles.

What about protons?

A free proton is a pretty common sight in the cosmos. Much of the ordinary matter (as opposed to dark matter) in galaxies and beyond comes in the form of hydrogen plasma, a hot gas made of unattached protons and electrons. If protons were as unstable as neutrons, that plasma would eventually vanish.

But that isn’t happening. Protons—whether inside atoms or drifting free in space—appear to be remarkably stable. We’ve never seen one decay.

However, nothing essential in physics forbids a proton from decaying. In fact, a stable proton would be exceptional in the world of particle physics, and several theories demand that protons decay.

If protons are not immortal, what happens to them when they die, and what does that mean for the stability of atoms? [Read the rest at Symmetry…]

Traces of particles from the first second after the Big Bang

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Signs of neutrinos from the dawn of time, less than a second after the Big Bang

First unambiguous observation of the cosmic neutrino background

From Ars Technica:

The first 400,000 years after the Big Bang are inaccessible to us by using light; the material that filled the entire cosmos made it opaque. However, neutrinos interact very little with ordinary matter, so they could travel right through the opaque mess. Lots of these low-mass, fast-moving particles were formed in the first second after the Big Bang, so they could provide a sensitive probe of some of the very earliest moments in the Universe.

Unfortunately, these primordial neutrinos have never been detected directly, and they may have too little energy for us to ever detect them. But a new paper published in Physical Review Letters showed an unambiguous indirect detection using measurements of the cosmic microwave background light. This article marks the first clear measurement of the cosmic neutrino background, which is a significant confirmation of one of the major predictions of the Big Bang model. [Read the rest at Ars Technica…]