To the Stars with Data: September 5 2021

HUGE (and tiny) black holes, labor robots, virtual burning man, and more!

Hello Datanauts!

I’ve been thinking about the direction of To the Stars with Data and would love to hear what you think. If you’re interested in providing feedback, please respond to this email with your thoughts!

  • Data. To the Stars with Data indicates I provide data in the newsletter. (By data, I mean numbers, analyses, charts, etc.) Have I provided a good level of data so far? Should I include more data in future issues? Less?

  • Virtual Reality News. I’m going to experiment with replacing the “Things that make you think” section with a “Virtual Reality News” section where I explore news from the metaverse. Have you enjoyed the “Things that make you think section” in the past, or do you think it should be replaced? Does “Virtual Reality News” seem interesting?

Let’s go to the stars with data!

-Joe Lisle


Thought-Provoking Data Viz

Quick hits. In this video, Kurzgesagt discusses the sizes of black holes. The smallest theoretical black holes, “primordial black holes”, weigh only as much as a mountain and are the size of a proton. The largest black hole we know of, TON 618, could fit 11 solar systems within its event horizon and shines with the brightness of 100 trillion stars. Skip to 10:40 if you want to just see the size comparison montage.

Digging deeper. Black holes seem scary. I get it, even light can’t escape them. But there are two reasons not to worry. First, if the sun were replaced by a black hole with the same mass, Earth’s orbit would remain the same; the black hole wouldn’t suck us in. Second, the nearest black hole is 1500 light-years away. If you’re still worried, Wikipedia has our back with a list of the nearest black holes.


Earth News

🤖 Digit is now for sale

Quick hits. Digit is a humanoid robot that completes tedious physical tasks with two arms, two legs, and a “head”. It’s meant to work in environments built for humans. In the above video, Digit picks up, moves, and puts down crates alongside human workers and other Digit robots. Agility Robotics’s advertising is also somewhat comical: they literally say that Digit will complete the annoying tasks you don’t want to.

Digging deeper. Digit is an exciting step forward for robotics because of its ability to work in spaces designed for humans. Many robots require substantial infrastructure to operate (think of automated factories), which comes with a hefty temporal and commercial pricetag to establish. We naturally design our environments to fit us best, so Digit (and similar robots) would fit right in with minimal preparation.

According to the US, AIs cannot be inventors on patents

Quick hits. A professor in South Africa filed two patents with an AI listed as the inventor in over 10 countries (including the US, UK, and Australia). A federal judge in the US ruled that the patents could not be accepted with an AI listed as the inventor. The judge noted that the filing raises several policy considerations, but that Congress should be the ultimate decision-maker.

Digging deeper. Notably, the patents were approved in Australia and South Africa after initially being denied. The US has consistently denied that AIs could be listed as inventors on patents, but this will likely need to be revisited as AI technology becomes more competent.


Space News

💫 Watch 4 planets orbit a star 130 light-years away

Quick hits. This video, captured in 2017, displays four planets orbiting HR 8799, a star slightly larger than our sun. The sun is approximately 130 light-years away from us in the direction of the flying horse constellation. The four planets in the video are each thought to be a few times the mass of Jupiter. The video spans 7 Earth years.

Digging deeper. The 4 planets orbiting HR 8799 complete an orbit in approximately 45, 100, 190, and 460 years. For context, Pluto takes about 248 years to orbit. Though this was filmed in 2017, I’m still blown away that our instruments are able to capture such footage.

Fun fact. As of September 6, 2021, NASA lists 4514 confirmed exoplanets.

🚀 Firefly Alpha explodes during its first launch

Quick hits. Firefly Alpha’s first launch ended in failure when the rocket exploded about 2.5 minutes after liftoff. The above video captures the journey. Due to a premature engine shutdown, the rocket did not gain enough thrust and started tumbling, at which time technicians exploded the rocket. You can see the beginning of the tumbling at around 3:00 in the video.

Digging deeper. Even though it ended with an exploding rocket, Firefly’s first rocket launch is a big deal; building a rocket is hard—after all, it is rocket science. Thankfully, the explosion debris didn’t seem to hurt anyone and the space community has been very supportive. Firefly Aerospace seems to be generally happy with the data they collected. (Here’s a Twitter thread of their response.)


Virtual Reality News

🔥 Burning Man goes virtual

Quick hits. Similar to 2020, Burning Man went virtual in 2021 due to COVID. The event is free to visit and anyone can visit from a virtual reality headset or their own browser. If this year is anything like last year, 5 times the number of people will attend compared to a normal Burning Man.

Digging deeper. Last year, Burning Man’s organizers needed to create a virtual experience in a short amount of time. This year, they’ve had significantly longer to prepare, so the virtual experience will likely be improved. Visit soon! The event closes on September 7. If you want to see more, you can view photos from the event here.


Future-Thinking Companies

🐝 Arugga. Arugga produces an automated robot that pollinates tomato plants without the need for bees. It does this by shooting jets of air at flowers to scatter the pollen.

🎍 Bamcore. Bamcore uses timber bamboo as a construction material. Bamboo grows much more quickly and uses far fewer resources to grow than typical timber, so it’s more environmentally friendly.