SciTech Roundup, 9/26

A lot happened in the SciTech world this week: Silicon Valley layoffs, a James Webb telescope picture of Neptune, and a new COVID-19 booster shot.

Using reinforcement learning to shoot particles into hydrogen plasma donuts

Doctoral candidate Ian Char from the School of Computer Science's machine learning department was able to use reinforcement learning to help control nuclear fusion reactions. Nuclear fusion is a powerful clean energy alternative to the fossil fuel industry. To produce electricity that can be put on the grid, scientists must control the enormous amount of energy emitted when hydrogen nuclei fuse. These nuclei fuse naturally in the sun, which has high temperature and pressure but is difficult to harness, and also fuse in thermonuclear weapons, which cannot be used as an energy source.

Instead, Char used a tokamak — a "massive machine that uses magnetic fields to confine the hydrogen plasma in a donut shape called a torus." There is only one large-scale tokamak in the U.S. that can facilitate Char's research, the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego, California. To control the energy, scientists must control the speed at which hydrogen particles enter the "plasma donut." Char controlled the speed using reinforcement learning, a machine learning technique that learns the best outcome by trying different options and assessing the rewards and costs of each option. After pitching his idea to a Department of Energy-funded facility, he was given a three-hour slot to run his algorithms on June 28. Reinforcement learning does not seem to have been previously run on a tokamak before.

During the summer, NASA released stunning pictures of the galaxy taken by the James Webb Telescope (JWST), and on Sept. 23, they released a picture of Neptune, glowing softly with iridescent specks that the Irish Times described as

JWST is made to capture what the Hubble Telescope could not, using infrared technologies. The recent Neptune image shows Neptune's rings and dust bands, some of which haven't been seen since Voyager 2 observed Neptune in 1989. While many depictions of Neptune show the planet as blue, the JWST pictures do not appear so because the methane gas that makes Neptune blue absorbs the infrared that JWST uses to capture images. JWST also captured images of Neptune's 14 known moons.

Personally, my interest in the images peaked when I heard from vlogger and science educator Hank Green explain how the images show that "the past is in every direction." If you're as uneducated in this field as I am, you might be confused. But it actually just requires some knowledge of how light works.

So like most things in the world, light has a speed. The way you see an object, like an apple or this article, for example, is that light hits the object, and then the light that reflects off and travels to your eye. Most of the time, the distance between your eye and the object is close enough that you don't notice the travel time — the light almost instantaneously reaches your eye, producing an almost instantaneous image for your brain to register. But if the distance between your eye and the object is far enough, it will take longer. Light from the sun, for example, takes eight minutes to travel to the Earth's surface, and also your eye I guess, if you're staring directly at the sun.

Then what about stars from further galaxies? It would take a lot longer to reach your eye, somewhere between four years (which is the distance of the next closest star, Proxima Centauri) and a few hundred years. And that's just the stars that we can see. So essentially when we look at a star four light years away, we're seeing what that star looked like four years ago. After four more years on Earth, we'll be able to see what that star looks like right now.

The JWST is just a gigantic, extremely high quality eye, and can subsequently see more things that the human eye cannot. That also means that it can look further into the past than we can. And it also means that no matter which direction it looks in the sky, as long as it's able to see an object from the past, "the past is in every direction."

Some other fun facts: Apparently the reason why the stars in the photos appear to have six spikes is actually just because of the way JWST captures images. They're called diffraction spikes, and are produced due to JWST's hexagonal structs that are used to support the telescope. (The Hubble telescope only has four struts, so stars in their images have only four spikes.) Also in the galaxy pictures, some galaxies appear twice due to an effect called gravitational lensing.

Meta and Google starts cutting down on workforce, making employees uneasy

The recession is definitely hitting hard, but Silicon Valley is usually cushy enough to not feel the impact, continuing to offer in-office perks like free candy, sleep pods, and rock-climbing gyms. Now, it seems that they're starting to feel the burn.

Both Meta and Google have recently announced intentions to cut down on their workforce. In July, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Meta would likely be hiring thousands less employees, and possibly stop hiring in some departments entirely. He also told Meta workers to be prepared to work harder with fewer resources, or rather, "to execute flawlessly in an environment of slower growth." CEO Sundar Pichai has said similarly that Google needs to become "20 percent more effective." Google has also disbanded the Pixelbook Laptop team and slashed projects at its in-house research lab, Area 120, giving project members 90 days to find another job within Google.

As quoted in the New York Times: “I think some of you might decide that this place isn’t for you, and that self-selection is OK with me,” Zuckerberg said in a call. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here.”

That's honestly pretty ruthless coming from a sector that has been known for six- to seven-figure salaries, a plethora of benefits, casual meetings, and "fun office perks," convincing employees to integrate as much of their life with the company as possible. In fact, there are some people who collect salaries and stocks, enjoy all the company's benefits, and yet barely do any work at all.

These types of people are called the "rest and vest," and while some are "10x engineers" that can supposedly do 10 times the amount of work in the same time as other engineers, some honestly just don't want to work hard, working four hours a day and "coasting" along on their benefits. The "rest and vest" type has even been parodied in a TV-show called "Silicon Valley." The "rest and vest" tend to be common in research and development arms of companies, such as Google X, "the moonshot factory" in which Google experiments with products that aren't tied to their main brand, like Google Glass and self-driving car service Waymo. Because these projects don't have hard deadlines, employees can get away with having longer lunch breaks and going to a yoga class instead of working.

In the past, there was actually a benefit to keeping the "rest and vest" around: they could debug code that others couldn't, and train newcomers on old software. But in 2022, with tight wallets, Meta and Google don't want to finance those kinds of people anymore.

Meta has taken a few financial hits recently: Apple's privacy changes have cut into their advertising revenue, and Zuckerberg has also dedicated billions of dollars to build his proposed "metaverse." Google has also felt financial pressure from the recession, and CEO Sundar Pichai has also brought up concerns about competitors like TikTok gaining enormous success and competing against YouTube for a similar user base.

You can now get a booster shot of the newest approved COVID-19 booster vaccine at local pharmacies or on campus. To get the booster shot on campus, make an appointment online for one of the clinics on Sept. 28, Oct. 24 or Nov. 15. Carnegie Mellon requires all community members to be vaccinated with at least one booster shot.

Why get a booster? Vaccines and their boosters remain a trusted way to not only prevent COVID-19 infections, but also to lower the severity of outcomes if you do get COVID-19 at all. For example, you might recover in a few days instead of a week, or you might just stay in bed for a few days instead of being hospitalized. And the COVID-19 virus will continue evolving into new strains unless we're able to eradicate it from the population completely, which will not happen any time soon. Think about it like a flu shot: you're normally recommended to get it every year to stay up to date.

To get the booster, you must have already completed your first series of COVID-19 vaccinations, called the primary series. The number of doses to complete the primary series depends on your age and which brand of vaccine you got. For adults, if you need two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, or Novavax, or just one dose of Janssen.

It's also worth noting that you can no longer get monovalent boosters, as the FDA has removed emergency-use authorization for them while approving the new bivalent versions. However, you can still get a monovalent primary vaccine shot.