All posts by Max G. Levy

About Max G. Levy

Science Journalist

Machines Learn Better if We Teach Them the Basics

QUANTA MAGAZINE

A wave of research improves reinforcement learning algorithms by pre-training them as if they were human.

Imagine that your neighbor calls to ask a favor: Could you please feed their pet rabbit some carrot slices? Easy enough, you’d think. You can imagine their kitchen, even if you’ve never been there — carrots in a fridge, a drawer holding various knives. It’s abstract knowledge: You don’t know what your neighbor’s carrots and knives look like exactly, but you won’t take a spoon to a cucumber.

Artificial intelligence programs can’t compete. What seems to you like an easy task is a huge undertaking for current algorithms.

Read the full story in Quanta Magazine

The Case of the Incredibly Long-Lived Mouse Cells

WIRED

In a bizarre experiment, scientists kept the rodents’ immune T cells active four times longer than mice can live—with huge implications for cancer, vaccination, and aging research.

DAVID MASOPUST HAS long imagined how to push immune systems to their limits—how to rally the most powerful army of protective cells. But one of the big mysteries of immunology is that so far, nobody knows what those limits are. So he hatched a project: to keep mouse immune cells battle-ready as long as possible. “The idea was, let’s keep doing this until the wheels fall off the bus,” says Masopust, a professor of immunology at the University of Minnesota.

But the wheels never fell off. He was able to keep those mouse cells alive longer than anyone thought possible—indeed, much longer than the mice themselves.

Read the full story in WIRED

The World’s Farms Are Hooked on Phosphorus. It’s a Problem

WIRED

Half of the globe’s crop productivity comes from a key fertilizer ingredient that’s non-renewable—and literally washing away.

DISRUPTING EARTH’S CHEMICAL cycles brings trouble. But planet-warming carbon dioxide isn’t the only element whose cycle we’ve turned wonky—we’ve got a phosphorus problem too. And it’s a big one, because we depend on this element to grow the world’s crops. “I don’t know if it would be possible to have a full world without any mineral phosphorus fertilizer,” says Joséphine Demay, a PhD student at INRAE, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

Since the 1800s, agriculturalists have known that elemental phosphorus is a crucial fertilizer. Nations quickly began mining caches of “phosphate rock,” minerals rich in the element. By the middle of the 20th century, companies had industrialized chemical processes to turn it into a form suitable for supercharging crops, hardening them against disease and making them able to support more people and livestock. That approach worked remarkably well: The post-World War II “Green Revolution” fed countless people thanks to fertilizers and pesticides. But sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.

Read the full story in WIRED

Physicists Controlled Lightning with Lasers on a Mountaintop

INVERSE

The car-sized laser can shoot up to 1,000 pulses per second.

LAST YEAR MARKED the 270th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod — but it’s more than a relic of history. The Franklin rod remains in use today because the simple design exploits some powerful physics: A tall metal rod lures in lightning and chunky wires dissipate the storm’s energy into the earth, sparing humans and surrounding structures.

But thanks to recent physics breakthroughs, a wild new technology could end the rod’s lightning safety monopoly.

Read the full story in Inverse

Florida Is Fighting to Feed Starving Manatees This Winter

WIRED

As the state’s residents step up to save the sea cows, advocacy organizations believe the solution is less about lettuce—and more about leaders.

FEW VIGNETTES SHOW how much human activity has affected wildlife more than the scene at Florida Power & Light’s plant in Cape Canaveral. Hundreds of manatees bask in an intake canal on its southeast edge, drawn by the warm waters. These manatees are hungry. Pollution has decimated their usual menu of seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon. Many have starved: 1,101 died in Florida in 2021, and as of December, 2022’s official estimate was nearly 800 deaths. So along the canal, members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are tossing them lettuce.

“It’s just emblematic of how dire the situation is,” says Rachel Silverstein, the executive director of environmental nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper. “The point where we would need to artificially feed a wild animal because their ecosystem is so destroyed that they cannot find food for themselves is pretty extreme.”

Read the full story in WIRED

The Mystery of Nevada’s Ancient Reptilian Boneyard

WIRED

Whale-sized shonisaurs dominated the ocean 230 million years ago. A fossil cluster offers a fascinating glimpse at how they lived—based on where they died.

BERLIN, NEVADA, IS a treasure chest for paleontologists. Just down the road from now-abandoned gold and silver mines, a rockbound collection of bones hints at an even richer past. The Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is teeming with dozens of fossils of ancient marine reptiles. That bone bed is so abundant and weird that researchers have been scratching their heads over it for decades.

Read the full story in WIRED

How the UN’s ‘Sex Agency’ Uses Tech to Save Mothers’ Lives

WIRED

Big Data, drones, diagnostics—the United Nations and other groups hope to innovate the world out of a maternal and reproductive health crisis.

TOWARD THE END of 2020, on a work trip to Chocó, Colombia, Jaime Aguirre came across a girl—perhaps 11 or 12 years old—holding a newborn.

“Is this your baby?” Aguirre asked. Yes, she said. He was shocked. “Can I ask you—sorry—why did you get pregnant so young?”

“My boyfriend at the time told me that the first time that you have sex, you don’t get pregnant,” he says she replied.

Aguirre is the innovation coordinator for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Colombia, a human rights agency focused on reproductive health. It’s the UN’s “sex agency,” and Aguirre describes his job as bolstering health in his country by supporting new technologies. Making them accessible to young people is especially important, because pregnancy is the number one killer of girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, according to data from Save The Children and UNFPA.

Read the full story in WIRED

How the physics of farts could help prevent an outbreak

INVERSE

Meet the S.H.A.R.T. machine, a device helping AI analyze toilet activities.

AS DAVID ANCALLE opened video after video of diarrhea this year, it struck him: This is not what he expected to be doing for his Ph.D.

Ancalle, a mechanical engineering student at Georgia Tech who researches fluid dynamics, is currently working to demystify the acoustics of urination, flatulence, and diarrhea. His team is training AI to recognize and analyze the sound of each bathroom phenomenon; in fact, research suggests that tracking the flow of our excretions could benefit public health.

Read the full story in Inverse

Scientists Reexamine Why Zebra Stripes Mysteriously Repel Flies

WIRED

While biologists still aren’t exactly sure how it works, a new study closes in on why the insects that pester Savannah animals zig when anything zags.

ABOUT 30 MILES north of the equator, in central Kenya, Kaia Tombak and her colleagues stood beside a plexiglass box. Tombak, who studies the evolution of animals’ social behavior, was dressed for the power of the Savannah sun in a light, long-sleeved shirt and pants. A gang of flies buzzed nearby, and Tombak wondered whether she’d be better off wearing stripes.

Read the full story in WIRED

The Sci-Fi Dream of a ‘Molecular Computer’ Is Getting More Real

WIRED

Chemists have long conceptualized tiny machines that could fabricate drugs, plastics, and other polymers that are hard to build with bigger tools.

DAVID LEIGH DREAMS of building a small machine. Really small. Something minuscule. Or more like … molecule. “Chemists like me have been working on trying to turn molecules into machines for about 25 years now,” says Leigh, an organic chemist from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “And of course, it’s all baby steps. You’re building on all those that went before you.”

Read the full story in WIRED