The US Hitches Its Final Ride to Space From Russia—for Now

On Thursday, a Soyuz rocket carrying three astronauts to the International Space Station is scheduled to depart from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakhstan desert. The coronavirus pandemic means there won’t be the usual crowds of wellwishers lining the streets to see the astronauts on their way, but the flight is a historic one. It marks the end of NASA’s dependence on Russian rockets for human spaceflight and the return of crewed launches to the United States. But NASA says American astronauts may still end up hitching rides to space in a Soyuz capsule in the future.

Ever since NASA called it quits on its space shuttle program in 2011, the Russian spaceport has been the only facility operating crewed flights outside of China. But that’s about to change. SpaceX is preparing for its first crewed NASA mission to the space station, which could launch from Florida by the end of next month. Boeing has also contracted with NASA for crewed flights, although its program was delayed for several months after a suite of errors during a test mission last year. For the first time in nearly a decade, NASA has options for sending humans to space.

“It’s an amazing time to be at this agency,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference in December. “We will launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. It’s overdue.”

Chris Cassidy, who is heading to the ISS for the third time, will be the only American astronaut on Thursday’s launch. His two flight companions, Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin, are both cosmonauts at Roscosmos, Russia’s national space agency. Cassidy is a veteran of the shuttle program and flew on a Soyuz rocket once before in 2013.

According to a NASA spokesperson, Cassidy’s seat is the last one that the agency has purchased from Roscosmos. “However, NASA is currently in negotiation with Roscosmos for an additional seat,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to WIRED. “Once NASA certifies the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft, NASA expects to work with Roscosmos and international partners to continue to fly mixed crews.”

NASA’s dependence on Russia to send humans to space has been expensive. A seat in a Soyuz capsule costs $86 million today, an increase of nearly 400 percent over about a decade and a half. A 2016 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that the agency would end up paying Roscosmos more than $3.4 billion by the time SpaceX and Boeing were ready to fly. But when you’re the only one with access to the space station, you can charge what you want.

By bringing launches back to the US, NASA stands to save a lot of money on crewed flights. Last year, the Office of Inspector General determined that a seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will cost just $55 million and a seat on Boeing’s Starliner capsule will cost around $90 million. (Boeing officials disputed this figure on the grounds that the company’s capsule can also carry a crew member’s worth of cargo, which they claim makes its seat price closer to $70 million.) Still, both price tags are still way less expensive than a seat on the space shuttle.

Thursday’s Soyuz launch will mark the end of the longest period in NASA’s history since it started crewed spaceflight that the agency didn’t have the capability to send its own astronauts to space. The rebirth of American crewed spaceflight will be spearheaded by Doug Hurley, who was the pilot on NASA’s final shuttle mission and one of two astronauts on SpaceX’s first crewed mission. Hurley and his crew partner Bob Behnken may be riding a Dragon to space this summer, but as far as mythical animals go, it seems more like a phoenix.


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Bernie Sanders Is Out—but He Transformed Campaigning For Good

Bernie Sanders has officially suspended his bid for the Democratic nomination for president. After getting steamrolled in a series of state primaries by former vice president Joe Biden, the Vermont senator and former front-runner accepted the reality that the contest was effectively over. “I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win,” Sanders said in a livestream to more than 100,000 onlookers.

The digital format of the announcement—Sanders, alone, speaking into the camera, without the throngs of young supporters who might otherwise have attended his farewell speech—was a consequence of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But it was also appropriate in its own way. Sanders has been making the same policy arguments for a half century, but his presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 were among the most technologically innovative in history. He may not have fully delivered the “political revolution” he so often promised, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t revolutionize politics.

“In so many ways, Bernie Sanders’ run in 2016 and, less so, in 2020, cemented the fact that insurgent candidates running a strong, robust challenge to institutionally validated candidates can use the internet as an extremely powerful tool,” says Daniel Kreiss, a professor of political communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (The distinction: By 2020, Sanders was less of an insurgent.) “To translate energy and enthusiasm into very real, very concrete, and very powerful electoral resources.” 

Sanders wasn’t the first insurgent candidate to make creative use of digital technology, of course. Howard Dean used Meetup in 2004. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign tapped into emerging tools to achieve unprecedented email outreach. But those were ages ago, in tech years. As much as any political figure, Sanders showed how politics could work in the age of YouTube, Instagram, and the smartphone.

That prowess starts with social media. Beginning with his run against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Sanders has relied on a massive Facebook following and targeted Facebook ads to build an enormous email list. Those techniques—which Donald Trump, another former outsider, has also deployed to dramatic effect—allowed Sanders to raise a war chest surpassing his rivals’ while spurning fundraisers and wealthy donors. (In his speech today, Sanders thanked supporters for making 10 million contributions, at an average donation of $18.50.) His 2020 campaign fastidiously livestreamed all of his appearances across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and—in a nod to the candidate’s appeal among younger voters—Twitch, which also hosted his concession speech. A Sanders rally might draw a few thousand people in person but could reach hundreds of thousands online. The campaign told The Washington Post in March that, of 57 million Facebook Live views for Democratic primary candidates over the previous year, the Sanders campaign accounted for 54 million.

“The smartest thing that the Sanders campaign did was to invest in building an owned media infrastructure to reach their own supporters where they thought they would be,” says Kyle Tharp, the vice president of communications at Acronym, a Democratic digital communications organization. “They calculated very early on that the media would not give them a fair shake, and so they built their own.” He adds, “I think the livestreaming of campaign events is going to become a major best practice.” 

But while Sanders’ social media presence has gotten the most attention, his embrace of distributed organizing—using technology to enlist and manage an army of volunteers—might prove even more influential in the long run. “I think those almost-more-boring tools for organizing are the Sanders legacy and have become really important and fundamental to campaigning,” says Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a Fordham professor who studies the use of digital communication in politics.

A Digital Army

Those innovations started back in 2015, during the first Sanders presidential campaign. They were born, as always, of necessity.

“We had 100,000 people sign up to volunteer on day one,” says Kenneth Pennington, the digital director for the first Sanders campaign. Pennington fought for permission to hire one organizer: Zack Exley, a veteran of progressive politics. It didn’t go smoothly at first. “He asked me, OK, now I need to hire a team of organizers who will help put all these volunteers to work.’” Pennington says. “I said, ‘You don’t understand—I only have a budget for you, and I had to put my ass on the line to get you hired.’ And he quit on day one.’”

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iPads Are Crucial Health Care Tools in Combating Covid-19

“The hearing impaired find the device extremely helpful and it provides a lot of confidence and comfort,” said Wren Lester, chief experience officer and director of patient relations at Downstate Medical Center. Lester says the hospital hopes to expand the program after the crisis.

Downstate isn’t currently using the technology to provide inpatient virtual care, like Mass General and others. The intensity of NYC’s coronavirus crisis has left staff little time to create such a system. “The numbers have been growing so quickly that we have to change [core aspects of our] process quite regularly just to deal with the surge of patients and manage the crisis,” said chief information officer Michele Scaggiante.

Staff at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, home to the city’s first dedicated Covid-19 treatment unit, initially turned to tablets and smartphones to help connect patients with their loved ones after local officials banned most hospital visitors on March 14. Since then, the devices have been adopted for other uses throughout the hospital, says Dr. Kathleen Jordan, vice president of the hospital.

“We were dealing recently with an end-of-life situation and had actually quite a beautiful experience with extended family from multiple locations being able to be present in a virtual way,” recalls Jordan. It was the first time the hospital had used such technology with such a large audience and in an end-of-life experience, she says.

Doctors at Saint Francis use the devices to check on patients in the hospital. There are, of course, still many tests and procedures that must be done in person, but for those that can be conducted remotely, many clinicians are finding virtual appointments provide them with the opportunity for greater intimacy with patients, Jordan says.

At most hospitals, Covid-19 patients see few other people, all of them cloaked in masks, goggles, and gloves. “It’s a very frightening experience,” says Schwamm of Mass General. “With the iPad device in place, they get to interact verbally and in a reassuring way with a nurse who they can’t touch, but whose facial expressions they can now see.”

The adoption of inpatient telemedicine has also helped with staffing, by allowing more providers to participate in care, says Jordan, at Saint Francis. Immunocompromised and other at-risk providers who had been kept away from patients to protect themselves can now weigh in remotely. Doctors who feel healthy but are quarantined because of Covid-19 exposures are also now able to contribute, Jordan says, which has helped the hospital avoid dire personnel shortages.

In preparation for the influx of patients, Saint Francis set up a surge area to act as an extension of the hospital’s emergency room. The surge facility isn’t located in the same area as the ER, but ER physicians will be able to lead remote visits and consultations for the surge facility without having to leave their posts.

“People have this idea that remote work is not really for clinicians, and I think this is showing us otherwise,” says Juan Estrada who oversees Virtual Consults Services at Mass General. He’s spent years trying to get the tech into the hands of health care providers, but until recently says he met largely with resistance.

“Change is difficult in medicine. Historically, telehealth has been an exercise in pushing so that people begin to see how technology can make a difference,” says Estrada. “These last three weeks, we are not really pushing. We are being pulled. This huge community of providers is clamoring for these solutions now. It’s amazing.”


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After 50 Years of Effort, Researchers Made Silicon Emit Light

Within the wafer, the silicon atoms are arranged as a cubic crystal lattice that allows electrons to move within the lattice under certain voltage conditions. But it doesn’t allow similar movement for photons, and that’s why light can’t move through silicon easily. Physicists have hypothesized that changing the shape of the silicon lattice so that it is composed of repeating hexagons rather than cubes would allow photons to propagate through the material. But actually creating this hexagonal lattice proved incredibly challenging, because silicon wants to crystalize in its most stable, cubic form. “People have been trying to make hexagonal silicon for four decades and have not succeeded,” says Bakkers.

Bakkers and his colleagues at Eindhoven have been working on creating a hexagonal silicon lattice for about a decade. Part of their solution involved using nanowires made of gallium arsenide as a scaffold to grow nanowires made of the silicon-germanium alloy that have the desired hexagonal structure. Adding germanium to the silicon is important for tuning the wavelength of the light and other optical properties of the material. “It took longer than I expected,” says Bakkers. “I expected to be here five years ago, but there was a lot of fine tuning of the whole process.”

To test if their silicon alloy nanowires emit light, Bakkers and his colleagues blasted them with an infrared laser and measured the amount of infrared light that made it out on the other side. The amount of energy Bakkers and his colleagues detected coming out of the nanowires as infrared light was close to the amount of energy the laser dumped into the system, which suggests that the silicon nanowires are very efficient at transporting photons.

The next step, says Bakkers, will be to use the technique they’ve developed to create a tiny laser made from the silicon alloy. Bakkers says his lab has already started work on this and may have a working silicon laser by the end of the year. After that, the next challenge will be figuring out how to integrate the laser with conventional electronic computer chips. “That would be very serious, but it’s also difficult,” Bakkers says. “We’re brainstorming to find a way to do this.”

Bakkers says he doesn’t anticipate that future computer chips will be entirely optical. Within a component, such as a microprocessor, it still makes sense to use electrons to move the short distances between transistors. But for “long” distances, such as between a computer’s CPU and its memory or between small clusters of transistors, using photons instead of electrons could increase computing speeds while reducing energy consumption and removing heat from the system. Whereas electrons must transmit data serially, one electron after the other, optical signals can transmit data on many channels at once as fast as physically possible—the speed of light.

Because photonic circuits can quickly shuffle large amounts of data around a computer chip, they are likely to find widespread use in data-intensive applications. For example, they could be a boon to the computers in self-driving cars, which have to process an immense amount of data from onboard sensors in real time. Photonic chips may also have more mundane applications. Since they won’t generate as much heat as electronic chips, data centers won’t need as much cooling infrastructure, which could help reduce their massive energy footprint.

Researchers and companies have already managed to integrate lasers into simple electronic circuits, but the processes were too complex and expensive to implement at scale, so the devices have only had niche applications. In 2015, a group of researchers from MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Colorado successfully integrated photonic and electronic circuits in a single microprocessor for the first time. “This demonstration could represent the beginning of an era of chip-scale electronic–photonic systems with the potential to transform computing system architectures, enabling more powerful computers, from network infrastructure to data centres and supercomputers,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

By demonstrating its application in the main ingredient in conventional computer chips, Bakkers and his colleagues have taken another major step toward practical light-based computing. Electronic computer chips have faithfully served our computing needs for half a century, but in our data-hungry world, it’s time to kick our processors up to light speed.


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‘Desus & Mero’ Adapt to Life in Quarantine

Having one’s own TV show comes with a lot of perks, but these days regular grooming is the one The Kid Mero often misses most. Along with his comedy partner Desus Nice, Mero hosts Showtime’s Desus & Mero, a show for which he normally gets his hair and makeup done before going on air. Now, New York’s shelter-in-place guidelines mean no more regular barbering. “In about a week,” he says, “my beard is going to be long enough for me to start drawing faces on random balls around the house and calling them my friends.”

The show might be hairier, but it must go on. Desus and Mero aren’t the only ones showing up on late-night TV a little more au naturel. The social restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic make it impossible to bring together the full crews necessary to put on a talk show, let alone assemble a studio audience, so in recent weeks many productions have been experimenting with filming their shows remotely. John Oliver reports from what looks like a vacuum for HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has a new camera operator: his wife, Nancy Jovonen. For a brief period early on, Stephen Colbert was doing The Late Show from a bathtub. Adapting Desus & Mero had an added challenge because, as its title suggests, it’s not one guy sitting behind a desk. “The big dilemma: We have two humans,” executive producer Tony Hernandez says. Hernandez watched how other late-night hosts had started shooting remotely and realized it wouldn’t work for his program. “They both needed to talk, to interact with each other.” Producer Julia Young, who guides the show’s flow by teeing up videoclips and making jokes with the hosts, needed to be in the mix as well.

What’s more, the heart of the appeal of Desus & Mero is its goofy, conspiratorial hangout energy, like eavesdropping on the funniest people you know shooting the shit. That mood of intimacy “brings a different quality than other late-night shows have,” says Desus & Mero producer Victor Lopez, who is also the duo’s longtime manager. Re-creating that feeling while its hosts were sequestered separately proved to be a challenge. “A big part of our chemistry is me and Mero being in the same room,” Desus says. Now they’re not even in the same state. Normally filmed in a midtown Manhattan studio with a live audience, Desus & Mero is currently working with two ad hoc sets: Mero’s basement in his New Jersey home and Desus’ “sneaker room” in his New York apartment.

Initially, the desire to stay close-knit had the crew floating other ways to keep the show on before they realized how long this crisis would last. “We were going to just hunker down in the studio with all the staff members,” Desus says. “We were just like, ‘What if we just get a lot of food and everyone just stays in the studio? We could just live here because it used to be the old Al Jazeera studio. So it’s bulletproof, fully protected, and self-contained.’ So in theory, we could have probably stayed there for a couple weeks. But, you know, people have families and kids.” The remote option quickly became the only option.

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The hosts are using some of their own equipment, but much of it was either sent over from the studio or, after the studio abruptly closed, ordered online and shipped to their homes. “No matter what limitations we had, the tech team figured it out,” Desus says. “The Showtime tech team virtually went into my MacBook and had the unmitigated audacity to tell me my MacBook was too old to run the streaming software! So I was sitting there in my feelings like, ‘How dare they?!’ But because it’s Showtime, the next day there was a fresh-out-the-box MacBook Pro at my door, and I had to spray it with Lysol and keep it moving.”

Desus tried to set up his living room as his home office but didn’t like the way his white walls looked, especially after he compared his background to MSNBC anchors and Trevor Noah’s setup. “Everyone has a really nice house. So I was like, ‘I have to find the best place in my apartment so people don’t think I’m broke.’” He settled on his sneaker room, a small second bedroom where he keeps his expansive shoe collection. “I’m not going to lie. Every time I look at it on TV, I’m like, ‘Wow, that looks cool as hell.’”

Mero, meanwhile, has turned the “weed-smoking basement” in his suburban home into his studio. “I have four kids, so that makes recording anywhere else in the house pretty much impossible,” he says. As all of the children are currently being homeschooled, Mero says being able to lock the door is crucial to avoiding constant cameos from his offspring. Plus, he often writes in the basement, so it feels like a comfortable space to create, especially now that he’s loaded up with gear. “There’s four microphones in a stand, there’s headphones out the wazoo, there’s all types of hard drives. And there’s multiple monitors,” Mero says. “I look like a conspiracy theorist. It’s wild, but it works.”

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With the crew’s help, the technical elements of producing the show haven’t been as challenging as anticipated. “If I had to do it on my own, forget it, I’d be lost in the sauce,” Mero says. “You know how people say something was a team effort but one guy scored 45 points? Like it’s just the polite thing to say? Well, this really was a team effort.”

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Trump’s Coronavirus ‘Experts’: A Field Guide

While millions of Americans may be worried about Donald Trump’s fitness to manage the coronavirus pandemic, the fact is he has spent the past half-century accruing credentials to prepare for this moment: real estate mogul, author, WWE Hall of Famer, steak pitchman, reality TV star, and, now, politician. In fact, his many-thing-ness is one of his defining attributes: Trump sees himself as the consummate generalist. When asked in early 2016 who he was consulting with to prepare for the job of president, he famously replied, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”

To put it in technical terms that the president would have little time for, Trump has arguably emerged as history’s most fervent proponent of the “g factor” theory of general intelligence. It makes sense, then, that he tends to listen to people who share his cross-disciplinary confidence.

Here’s a guide to some of the men—and, yes, they do all seem to be men—who refuse to let a lack of relevant knowledge or training stop them from weighing in on how to deal with the pandemic.

Peter Navarro

Who he is: Trade adviser to the president.

Academic credentials: PhD in economics

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Brought a stack of foreign research on chloroquine to a meeting of the coronavirus task force and angrily upbraided Tony Fauci for not embracing the antimalarial drug. “That’s science, not anecdote,” he yelled, according to Axios. (The French study that put chloroquine on the map as a coronavirus treatment was riddled with flaws, including a lack of a control group and a tiny sample size. It also somewhat unhelpfully excluded from the analysis patients who died.) Navarro does hold the distinction of being perhaps the only administration official to take the threat of a pandemic seriously as early as January.

Coronavirus expertise: “My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist,” he told CNN. “I have a PhD. And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics, or whatever.”

Rudy Giuliani

Who he is: Former federal prosecutor, mayor of New York, presidential candidate, Trump’s personal attorney; current informal Trump adviser.

Academic credentials: Law degree

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Along with Navarro, has pushed the wider use of chloroquine.

Coronavirus expertise: “One of the things that a good litigator becomes is, you kind of become an instant expert on stuff, and then you forget about it,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t claim to be a doctor. I just repeat what they said.”

Richard Epstein

Who he is: Law professor at New York University and one of the country’s leading libertarian legal academics.

Academic credentials: Law degree

Contribution to humanity’s understanding of the coronavirus: Published an article for the Hoover Institution’s website on March 16 arguing that the reaction to the disease was going too far. According to Epstein, as deadlier strains of the virus claim more victims, the cases that spread will be weaker, less deadly strains. (Here it’s worth mentioning that there is absolutely no evidence that there are stronger and weaker strains of the coronavirus. “The fallacy in his argument is the overall lack of scientific rigor in his analysis,” Daniel Kuritzkes, the chief of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told The New Yorker.)

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In his March 16 article, which reportedly influenced the White House’s short-lived pivot toward reopening the economy by Easter, Epstein predicted 500 US deaths, a number that was surpassed one week later. He later admitted that was a mistake and updated his estimate to 5,000. (As of this writing there have been about 11,000 reported coronavirus-related deaths in the US.) Eventually, he updated his update to 50,000.

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Why Does Covid-19 Make Some People So Sick? Ask Their DNA

SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic coronavirus that surfaced for the first time in China last year, is an equal opportunity invader. If you’re a human, it wants in. Regardless of age, race, or sex, the virus appears to infect people at the same rate. Which makes sense, given that it’s a totally new pathogen against which approximately zero humans have preexisting immunity.

But the disease it causes, Covid-19, is more mercurial in its manifestations. Only some infected people ever get sick. Those who do experience a wide range of symptoms. Some get fever and a cough. For others it’s stomach cramps and diarrhea. Some lose their appetite. Some lose their sense of smell. Some can wait it out at home with a steady diet of fluids and The Great British Baking Show. Others drown in a sea of breathing tubes futilely forcing air into their flooded lungs. Old people, those with underlying conditions, and men make up the majority of the casualties. But not always. In the US, an alarmingly high fraction of those hospitalized with severe symptoms are adults under the age of 40. Kids, and in particular infants, aren’t invincible either.

person lathering hands with soap and water

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To understand what accounts for these differences, scientists have been scouring the patchy epidemiological data coming out of hotspots like China, Italy, and the US, looking for patterns in patients’ age, race, sex, socioeconomic status, behaviors, and access to health care. And now, they’re starting to dig somewhere else for clues: your DNA.

On Monday, 23andMe launched a new study intended to illuminate any genetic differences that might help explain why people who’ve contracted Covid-19 have such varying responses to the infection. The consumer genomics company joins a number of emerging academic projects aimed at answering the same question. Prior research indicates that some gene variants can put people at higher risk for certain infectious diseases. Others offer protection, like the CCR5 mutation that makes people who carry it resistant to HIV. At this point, it’s too early to say how big a role DNA might play in vulnerability to Covid-19. But these findings may one day be used to identify people with higher risk for the most serious symptoms and to sharpen the search for potential new treatments.

“We want to understand how your genes influence your response to the virus,” says Joyce Tung, 23andMe’s vice president of research. “Our hope is that by collecting data from people who’ve been tested and diagnosed with Covid-19, that we can learn something about the biology of the disease that we can contribute to the scientific community to help them treat people more successfully.”

While other at-home DNA testing companies have converted their shuttered labs into Covid-testing operations, 23andMe decided to leverage a unique asset: its database of more than 10 million customers, 80 percent of whom have given consent for their genetic information and other self-reported details to be used for research. The company has spent years building out a platform that makes it easy to push out surveys en masse to this trove of potential study participants. As a result, each genetic profile comes with hundreds of phenotypic data points—like how many cigarettes a customer has smoked in their lifetime or whether anyone in their family has ever been diagnosed with diabetes. The sheer volume of data that 23andMe has at its disposal has powered the company’s leap into drug discovery, and made it a genetic research publishing powerhouse.

The latest survey to go live on 23andMe’s customer portal asks questions about where people live, what kinds of social distancing they’ve been doing, and whether or not they have been tested for, diagnosed with, or exposed to Covid-19. (The survey is only open to 23andMe customers in the US.) Company officials hope to enroll hundreds of thousands of customers in the study, including those who have tested positive, those who have tested negative, and those who have experienced flulike symptoms but not yet been tested—as well as those whose family members have experienced infections. People who have tested positive will receive a follow-up survey about the severity of their symptoms and whether or not they were hospitalized, according to Adam Auton, a principal scientist at 23andMe who is heading up the new Covid-19 study. Anyone who participates will get invited back each month to answer more questions, so 23andMe can capture any new cases that develop among this cohort over time.

If the company collects enough responses from people who’ve contracted Covid-19, 23andMe’s research team will conduct a statistical analysis called a GWAS, or genome-wide association study. A mainstay of genetic research, GWAS involves sorting people into different groups—in this case probably based on symptoms—and scanning their DNA data to see if certain single-letter variations in the genetic code show up more often among people with certain symptoms. If that happens a significant number of times, they can say with some confidence that those variants are linked to those symptoms.

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Turns Out, Traffic Spreads Like the Coronavirus

Just as the novel coronavirus has spread from person to person across the world, so too does traffic propagate through highways and city centers like a contagious disease. From a single crash, congestion ripples through a city, and now scientists have the models to prove it. Researchers in Australia, Iran, and the US have modified a common model for mapping the spread of disease to show that it also works for describing the spread of traffic jams—only in this case it’s cars infecting each other with congestion instead of people infecting each other with a virus.

Weirdly, they found that in six distinct cities—Chicago, London, Melbourne, Montreal, Paris, and Sydney—traffic spreads quite similarly. “We can calculate how fast congestion spreads in a network, and that is actually independent of the geography and topography of the city,” says University of New South Wales engineer Meead Saberi, lead author on a new paper in Nature Communications describing the work. “It could be anywhere in the world, and the dynamics of the spread is very similar.”

More later on how that could possibly be—but first, let’s talk about those models. One way to characterize the spread of a disease like Covid-19 is known as a susceptible-infected-recovered model. Susceptible means the group of people who haven’t gotten the disease before and can now get sick; infected means those who are sick now; and recovered means those who’ve beaten the illness. Because the recovered are now immune, a pandemic tends to wane over time, as the virus has fewer and fewer potential hosts available to infect.

Adapting this model to characterizing traffic, the researchers looked at “links” instead of people, which means the physical roads between any two intersections. (A four-way stop is technically two roads coming together, but each direction counts as one link.) And instead of studying biological symptoms like coughing or fever, they studied traffic congestion, aka the jams in which cars slow and back up as a congested mass. “We have three different kinds of links in the network,” says Saberi. “Links that are susceptible to become congested, links that are congested, and links that have been congested and now they’re recovered.” So it’s the same analogy, he says, but “from a traffic perspective.”

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These traffic dynamics are already well understood. Let’s say you’re on a freeway. There’s an accident up ahead, and everyone is rubbernecking as they drive by. When one person slows, the cars behind them slow in a fairly predictable way. They all have to slow eventually, lest each car slam into the one ahead of it. But as traffic picks up again after the accident, the speed-up is less predictable. Drivers accelerate as they see fit—some slam the gas, while others speed up more gradually. That is, there’s no constraint: Drivers don’t have to behave in a certain way, because there’s no longer a rubbernecking driver in front of them.

As a result of this stop-and-go phenomenon, congestion spreads like a contagion between cars and recovers when the accident is cleared off the road. “We managed to show that, yes, contagion models at a macroscopic level can describe the spread of traffic jams,” Saberi adds. “And we used some empirical data from six different cities around the world to show that it is actually universal.”

But how can traffic spread the same way in a labyrinthine city like London as it does along a more orderly grid like the one in Chicago? It turns out that it’s not about the street layout itself, it’s how the streets intersect—that is, how many links connect each intersection on average.

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In Chicago’s relatively orderly layout, it has a lot of intersections where two roads—or four links—meet. In Paris, sometimes five or six links might meet per intersection. “But when we look at all these different cities—although they have very, very different urban forms—that average number remains almost the same,” says Saberi. “So it’s somewhere between two and three—every junction, there is somewhere between two and three streets that are coming together. And that’s why, although the topographics are different, the results will be similar, because that average node number is almost the same for them.”

person lathering hands with soap and water

Should I Stop Ordering Packages? (And Other Covid-19 FAQs)

Plus: What it means to “flatten the curve,” and everything else you need to know about the coronavirus.

A model like this could help city officials better manage their traffic, treating the “disease” before it has a chance to spread. To add an economic twist to the metaphor, “if you’re traveling down a freeway, and it’s highly congested, there’s a cost to you in time lost, in wasted fuel,” says Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at the traffic data firm Inrix, who wasn’t involved in this new work. “And so people in that case—if the cost is really high—they’ll divert onto a side street, where they perceive their costs to be less. That’s sort of how you see traffic ripple out.” Those costs pile up as the contagion of traffic spreads, until swaths of the city are sick and unproductive.

But the disease model does have a few limitations. One is that while roads can get infected with traffic, they don’t then develop an immunity to traffic—their congestion may return just as severely the next day. At the moment, this model can only characterize what’s happening during one particular traffic peak, say evening rush hour. Also, the researchers developed a macroscopic model, so it can’t tell you exactly which street is congested, just how fast that congestion is propagating across a given city. “So you know that, for example, over this time period, half of the links in the network, or 10 percent of the links in the network, become congested,” says Saberi.

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Sony’s Noise-Canceling Wirefree Earbuds Are on Sale For $189

Need some new headphones? Sony’s WF-1000XM3 wirefree, noise-canceling earbuds ( 9/10 WIRED Recommends) are currently on sale for $189 ($40 off). That’s one of the best deals we’ve seen on these very nice earbuds.

As senior writer Adrienne So noted in her review, the worst part of these premium earbuds is the tongue-tripping name. They’re also a little bulky for exercising, but everything else about them is nearly flawless.

The WF-1000XM3 come in a palm-sized case with a flip-top cover. Sony helpfully includes seven pairs of silicone earbud tips in the box, ranging from soft to firm, making it easy to get a good fit in virtually any ear. The mobile app allows you to track battery life, set the adaptive sound controls, and tweak the equalizer to suit your ears. There’s also a handy feature that lets you turn up ambient sounds from the outside world by holding your finger on the left earbud.

Right now, you can buy the Sony WF-1000XM3 wirefree earbuds at Amazon ($189), Walmart (with Magnetic Charging Case, $188), and Best Buy ($198).

When you buy something using the links in our stories, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Here’s how it works. You can also support our reporting and reviewing by purchasing a 1-year print + digital WIRED subscription for $5.

Are the Sony WF-1000XM3 Wirefree Earbuds for You?

We recommend Sony’s over-ear noise-canceling cans, the WH-1000XM3, as both our Best Noise-Canceling Headphones and our Best Wireless Headphones. But if that pair is too big and bulky, the discounted WF-1000XM3 are our top travel pick in our guide to the Best Wirefree Earbuds.

WIRED: These things sound awesome, and the noise-canceling abilities are so good you may never have to hear your kids/roommates/coworkers again. The earbuds automatically adjust to ambient sounds and offer an easy, touch-based On/Off controls for when you need to hear the world around you. They’re well-made and comfortable, and the battery life is pretty good. We didn’t get the full 24-hours Sony claims, but we managed six hours of battery life and 18 more with the case.

TIRED: They’re not water-resistant. There are no volume controls (just the On/Off feature). They’re a bit bulky for working out.

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HBO and AMC Are Offering Free Streams for Folks Stuck Inside

Hello, and welcome to this Monday’s edition of The Monitor, WIRED’s entertainment news roundup. Today we’ve got some news about Jay-Z and Meek Mill, a surprising second act for the South by Southwest film festival, and some free content from HBO and AMC. Let’s get going.

HBO and AMC Are Offering Free Streams for Folks Stuck at Home

Rejoice, everyone looking for new content to binge-watch! HBO and AMC are both now offering tons of streaming content for free. Starting Friday, HBO began offering nearly 500 hours of programming—from Veep to The Sopranos to Six Feet Under—available for free through its HBO Now and HBO Go apps. (Notably, it’s not offering Game of Thrones.) It’s also offering some 20 Warner Bros. movies, like The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and Crazy, Stupid, Love. (The full list of free programming is here.) The move is intended to give folks something to watch while they’re under stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Similarly, AMC Networks announced a campaign on Friday allowing viewers to watch the first half of The Walking Dead’s 10th season for free on the AMC website until May 1. It’s also making a series of BBC America documentaries free to watch, as well as IFC series Spoils of Babylon and Baroness von Sketch Show. (See the full lineup here.) “We want to join with our talent and respond to this moment in the best way that entertainment companies can—which is, to entertain people,” Sarah Barnett, head AMC Networks Entertainment Group, said in a statement. “We also wanted to make our great content available to more viewers at a time when we are all looking for fantastic things to watch.”

The SXSW Film Festival Is Headed to Amazon

As you may have noticed, South by Southwest didn’t happen this year. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see the films intended for its festival lineup. Last week, Amazon announced that the company is working with the annual Austin festival to stream the movies originally slated to play at this year’s event, which was canceled due to coronavirus. Organizers haven’t announced a date yet, but once the online film festival starts, filmmakers who opt to have their films screened will be able to offer them on Amazon Prime for free for 10 days, so that even folks who aren’t Prime members will be able to watch them. Those filmmakers will also receive a screening fee for their film. “We were delighted when Amazon Prime Video offered to host an online film festival, and jumped at the opportunity to connect their audiences to our filmmakers,” SXSW’s head of film, Janet Pierson, said in a statement. “We’re inspired by the adaptability and resilience of the film community as it searches for creative solutions in this unprecedented crisis.”

Jay-Z and Meek Mill’s Org Is Donating Masks to Prisons

The Reform Alliance, the criminal justice organization cofounded by Jay-Z and Meek Mill, announced over the weekend that it is sending 100,000 surgical masks to jails and prisons across the US. Covid-19 poses a heightened risk to inmates and correctional facility workers, and the masks are intended to help them prevent an outbreak. According to the organization, 40,000 masks will go to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, 5,000 will go to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, 50,000 will go to Rikers Island jail in New York City, and an additional 2,500 will go to a Rikers medical facility. “It’s a very vulnerable population, Reform’s chief advocacy officer, Jessica Jackson, told CBS News. “We’re really worried about the number of people coming in and out of the [facilities], the fact that people living there might be might be sitting ducks during this pandemic.”


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