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“An investigation into fusion-energy, a time-traveling super nova, and secret messages from AI.”

Views expressed in this science and technology update are those of the reporters and correspondents.  Accessed on 15 June 2023, 2025 UTC.

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June 15, 2023: An investigation into one of the world’s most expensive fusion-energy projects, a time-traveling supernova and secret messages from AI. Enjoy!
Andrea Gawrylewski, Chief Newsletter Editor

Fusion Confusion

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is a fusion energy project being built by a consortium of 35 nations in southern France. ITER started as a $5 billion, 10-year project that would put the reactor online in 2016. But after more than 16 rocky years of development, the current official cost estimate stands at more than $22 billion, with a notional startup date of 2025. An investigation by journalist Charles Seife reveals the project is facing additional major schedule slips and cost overruns—and that the likely impacts of these setbacks are not being clearly communicated to the public.
Why this matters: As I wrote about last week, thermonuclear fusion—the same process that makes stars shine—could solve our energy and climate woes, providing an almost limitless source of essentially carbon-free power–IF we can make it work. ITER was intended to show that there is a viable path forward for constructing practical fusion-power plants.
What the experts say: “We are of course very much aware of the consequences as far as schedule and cost are concerned—and they will not be insignificant,” said ITER director general Pietro Barabaschi, in a November 2022 press release about unexpected repairs required for some of the project’s core components.

Tale of Two Lorises

Lorises are small mammals that secrete venom from glands in their elbows during a fight; they then lick the venom to coat their teeth with it (not making this up). They are elusive and little is known about them. A new genetic study of museum samples shows that the pygmy loris species is actually two: a lankier species with a longer muzzle (dubbed “ugly”), and a fuzzier-button-nosed species (called “cute”).
Why this matters:  Pygmy lorises were officially listed as an endangered species in 2020. Now that the species is split, each population is more at risk.
What the experts say: “The distribution of these species is much smaller than before,” says Truong Nguyen, a zoologist at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology. “Therefore, we have to do more to conserve them.”
Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Rodney (John Hopkins University, USA) and the FrontierSN team; T. Treu (University of California Los Angeles, USA), P. Kelly (University of California Berkeley, USA) and the GLASS team; J. Lotz (STScI) and the Frontier Fields team; M. Postman (STScI) and the CLASH team; and Z. Levay (STScI)
If, on its way to Earth, a distant supernova’s light passes around the gravitational grip of a massive object—such as a galaxy cluster—the light could be “gravitationally lensed,” or warped and bent to follow multiple divergent paths to Earth, some longer and some shorter. The end result would be a single supernova appearing multiple times in slightly offset positions in the sky, with the delay between each apparition corresponding to the total distance its light had traveled. Above, the supernova Refsdal appears in three versions around the galaxy cluster MACS J1149+2223, with the top circle indicating its first appearance in 1995, the lowermost circle in 2014, the middle circle in 2015.
• Large language models such as ChatGPT tend to make things up. A new tool allows the systems to explain their responses—at least partially. | 13 min read
• More AI news: Using steganography, humans have attempted to hide messages within other messages or images, but they have never perfected it. Machines could make this possible. | 11 min read
• A new English dialect is emerging in South Florida, according to linguists. | 6 min read
• Laws that require newborns to be immediately removed from mothers with substance use disorders discourage pregnant women from seeking addiction treatments. | 8 min read
More News
• Teachers who ask students to independently correct their own work make the student an active partner in the revision process rather than a passive recipient of feedback. This approach can help kids thrive academically, writes Camilla Mutoni Griffiths, a social psychologist at Stanford University SPARQ. | 5 min read
More Opinion
To dig deeper into the state of fusion energy research, check out this feature from our June issue. And if you’re worried about those cute and ugly lorises–conservationists have devised a cool tool to help the primates stay connected with others of their kind.
This newsletter is always evolving! If you have any feedback, suggestions, or spot any errors while reading these newsletters, please let me know! Email me at See you tomorrow!
—Andrea Gawrylewski, Chief Newsletter Editor
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