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Hitting the Books: The first man to listen to the birth of stars

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If the efforts of the 10,000-plus people who developed and assembled the James Webb Space Telescope are any indication, the age of the independent scientist are well and truly over. Newton, Galileo, Keppler, and Copernicus all fundamentally altered humanity’s understanding of our place in the universe, and did so on their own, but with the formalization and professionalization of the field in the Victorian Era, these occurences of an amatuer astronomer using homebrew equipment all the more rare. 

In his new book, The Invisible World: Why There’s More to Reality than Meets the Eye, University of Cambridge Public Astronomer, Matthew Bothwell tells the story of how we discovered an entire, previously unseen universe beyond humanity’s natural sight. In the excerpt below, Bothwell recounts the exploits of Grote Reber, one of the world’s first (and for a while, only) radio astronomers.

The Invisible Universe by Matthew Bothwell published by Oneworld

Oneworld Publishing

Excerpted with permission from The Invisible Universe by Matthew Bothwell (Oneworld 2021).


The Only Radio Astronomer in the World

It’s a little strange to look back at how the astronomical world reacted to Jansky’s results. With hindsight, we can see that astronomy was about to be turned upside down by a revolution at least as big as the one started by Galileo’s telescope. Detecting radio waves from space marks the first time in history that humanity glimpsed the vast invisible Universe, hiding beyond the narrow window of the visible spectrum. It was a momentous occasion that was all but ignored in academic astronomy circles for one very simple reason: the world of radio engineering was just too far removed from the world of astronomy. When Jansky published his initial results he attempted to bridge the divide, spending half the paper giving his readers a crash-course in astronomy (explaining how to measure the location of things in the sky, and exactly why a signal repeating every twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes meant something interesting). But, ultimately, the two disciplines suffered from a failure to communicate. The engineers spoke a language of vacuum tubes, amplifiers and antenna voltages: incomprehensible to the scientists more used to speaking of stars, galaxies and planets. As Princeton astronomer Melvin Skellett later put it:

The astronomers said ‘Gee that’s interesting – you mean there’s radio stuff coming from the stars?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s what it looks like’. ‘Very interesting.’ And that’s all they had to say about it. Anything from Bell Labs they had to believe, but they didn’t see any use for it or any reason to investigate further. It was so far from the way they thought of astronomy that there was no real interest.

After Jansky had moved on to other problems, there was only one person who became interested in listening to radio waves from space. For around a decade, from the mid-1930s until the mid-1940s, Grote Reber was the only radio astronomer in the world.

Grote Reber’s story is unique in all of twentieth-century science. He single-handedly developed an entire field of science, taking on the task of building equipment, conducting observations, and exploring the theory behind his discoveries. What makes him unique is that he did all of this as a complete amateur, working alone outside the scientific establishment. His job, designing electric equipment for radio broadcasts, had given him the skills to build his telescope. His fascination with the scientific literature brought him into contact with Jansky’s discovery of cosmic static, and when it became clear that no one else in the world seemed to care very much, he took it upon himself to invent the field of radio astronomy. He built his telescope in his Chicago back garden using equipment and materials available to anyone. His telescope, nearly ten metres across, was the talk of his neighbourhood (for good reason – it looks a bit like a cartoon doomsday device). His mother used it to dry her washing.

He spent years scanning the sky with his homemade machine. He observed with his telescope all night, every night, while still working his day job (apparently he would snatch a few hours of sleep in the evening after work, and again at dawn after he was finished at the telescope). When he realised he didn’t know enough physics and astronomy to understand the things he was seeing, he took courses at the local university. Over the years, his observations painted a beautiful picture of the sky as seen with radio eyes. He detected the sweep of our Milky Way, with bright spots at the galactic centre (where Jansky had picked up his star-static), and again towards the constellations Cygnus and Cassiopeia. By this time he had learned enough physics to make scientific contributions, too. He knew that if the hiss from the Milky Way was caused by thermal emission – heat radiation from stars or hot gas – then it would be stronger at shorter wavelengths. Given that Reber was picking up much shorter wavelengths than Jansky (60 cm, compared to Jansky’s fifteen-metre waves), Reber should have been bombarded with invisible radio waves tens of thousands of times more powerful than anything Jansky saw. But he wasn’t. Reber was confident enough in his equipment to conclude that whatever was making these radio waves, it had to be ‘non-thermal’ – that is, it was something different from the standard ‘hot things glow’ radiation we discussed back in chapter 2. He even proposed the (correct!) solution: that hot interstellar electrons whizzing past an ion – a positively charged atom – will get sling-shotted around like a Formula 1 car taking a tight corner. The cornering electron will emit a radio wave, and the combined effect of billions of these events is what Reber was detecting from his back garden. This only happens in clouds of hot gas. Reber was, it turns out, picking up radio waves being emitted by clouds containing new-born stars scattered throughout our Galaxy. He was, quite literally, listening to stars being born. It was a sound no human had ever heard before. To this day, radio observations are used to trace the formation of stars, from small clouds in our own Milky Way to the birth of galaxies in the most distant corners of the Universe.

In many ways, Reber’s story seems like an anachronism. The golden age of independent scientists, who could make groundbreaking discoveries working alone with homemade equipment, was hundreds of years ago. With the passing of the Victorian era, science became a complex, expensive, and above all professional business. Grote Reber is, as far as I know, the last of the amateur ‘outsider’ scientists; the last person who had no scientific training, built his own equipment in his garden, and through painstaking and meticulous work managed to change the scientific world.

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Plaid’s new privacy controls let you manage your financial data from a single hub

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Plaid, a go-between for financial apps like Robinhood, Venmo, and Betterment and bank accounts, has created a privacy hub where you can manage all of your financial connections. The hub is a requirement of a lawsuit Plaid settled about its handling of user data.

The hub, called Plaid Portal, shows users exactly which apps they’re connected to by Plaid. It can be found by accessing my.plaid.com, where the service will prompt users to set up an account. Then, it’s possible to browse connections and disconnect unused apps from bank accounts. The portal details the kinds of data users sharing through Plaid, as well as which bank accounts are connected. It’s also possible to wipe all of a user’s linked data through the portal.

Plaid, which is used by more than 5,500 apps to connect to bank accounts, has been accused of taking too much financial data from users and using that information to access and sell their transaction history. A class-action suit alleged that Plaid collected users’ bank account login information through web pages that mimicked “the look and feel of the user’s own bank account login screen.” The company settled the suit for $58 million without admitting wrongdoing, and claimed it was adequately transparent with the user.

As part of the settlement, Plaid is required to delete some of its stored data, minimize the data it collects going forward, as well as “improve and maintain” the changes it has already made to Plaid Link, the tool Plaid uses to connect users’ bank accounts to apps. It was also required to create a privacy dashboard, which we now know as the Plaid Portal.

If you’re a US resident and connected your bank account through Plaid from January 1st, 2013 and November 19th, 2021, remember to file a claim through the class-action settlement’s site by April 28th, 2022.



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Amazon is taking up to 40 percent off WD and Sandisk storage for today only

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All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

If you’re looking to buy new microSD cards, external hard drives or flash drives, you may want to take a look at Amazon’s deal of the day sale. You’ll be able to get SanDisk and WD storage products for up to 40 percent off their usual prices, including the SanDisk 256GB Extreme microSDXC card for its all-time low price of $32. That’s $6 off its original retail price of $38 and is the lowest we’ve seen it sell for on the website. The microSDXC card has read speeds of up to 160MB/s for fast file transfers of large images and videos, and it also has 90MB/s write speeds for fast shooting. It’s a UHS speed class 3 card with a video speed class of 30 (V30), making it capable of handling 4K UHD and Full HD files. 

Buy SanDisk and WD storage products at Amazon

SanDisk’s 512GB Ultra microSDXC is also currently on sale for its lowest price yet — you can get it for $50.49, which is almost 50 percent off its original retail price of $100. Advised for use with smartphones, tablets and mirrorless cameras, this microSDXC card has read and transfer speeds of up to 120MB/s. 

But if what you really need is an SD card for your camera, you can get the SanDisk 256GB Extreme PRO SDXC card instead. It’s currently on sale for $46, which is 54 percent off its original price of $100 and is the lowest we’ve seen it sell for on Amazon. That’s $2 less than the previous all-time low for the card with shoot speeds of up to 90MB/s and transfer speeds of up to 170MB/s. It’s V30 card with a UHS speed class of 3, and SanDisk says it’s perfect for shooting 4K UHD video and sequential burst mode photography.

In case you need an external drive to store all those videos, images and other files, you can also get the SanDisk 1TB Extreme PRO Portable SSD for 45 percent off. It’s back to its all-time low price of $170 that we last saw in November. That’s a whopping $140 off its full price of $310. The portable SSD can reach read and write speeds of up to 2000MB/s and is enclosed in a forged aluminum chassis that acts as a heatsink to be able to sustain those speeds. It’s also water-and-dust resistant and can withstand drops of up to 6.5 feet. There are a lot more drives and other products included in the sale if none of the above catches your eye — you just have to grab them before the sale ends within the day before they go back to the full price.

Follow @EngadgetDeals on Twitter for the latest tech deals and buying advice.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.





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Apple hit with weekly €5M fines in Dutch dating app dispute

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The Dutch competition regulator, the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM), has fined Apple €5 million (around $5.6 million) for failing to let dating app developers use third-party payment methods, the ACM has announced. The regulator says that Apple will continue to be fined €5 million a week until it properly complies with the order, which was publicly issued on December 24th.

With a market cap of well over $2 trillion and revenues last quarter of $83.4 billion, Apple’s bottom line is unlikely to be impacted by these €5 million fines. But the Dutch regulator’s actions, like South Korea’s before it, could embolden others to take action against Apple’s App Store policies, as well as Google’s which are also being scrutinized.

Apple made some effort to comply with the ACM’s instructions. Ahead of the January 15th deadline, the iPhone manufacturer announced that it would allow dating apps to offer third-party payment options in the Netherlands. Developers would be allowed to direct customers to a website to complete their purchase, or offer in-app purchases within their apps that don’t use Apple’s own in-app purchase system. “We are obligated to make the mandated changes which we’re launching today and we will provide further information shortly,” the company said at the time.

But the ACM has taken issue with Apple’s approach. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it says Apple hasn’t actually rolled out support for third-party payment providers in the Dutch App Store. The ACM notes that developers are now able to express their “interest” in using alternative payment systems, but that they’re not actually able to use them in their apps. “Apple has failed to adjust its conditions,” the regulator writes, “as a result of which dating-app providers are still unable to use other payment systems.”

Secondly, the ACM says that Apple appears to be forcing dating app developers to choose between pointing users to make payments outside of their app, or using an alternative in-app payment system. “Providers must be able to choose both options,” the ACM says.

When it announced the changes earlier this month, Apple said it still intended to collect a commission on payments made using external payment processors. It also indicated that developers would need to offer a separate version of their app for the Dutch market to access this functionality. The ruling relates specifically to dating apps rather than apps more generally, following a complaint from Match Group (owners of Tinder and other dating services), Reuters reported last year.

Apple did not immediately respond to The Verge’s request for comment on the ACM’s fine. But earlier this month it said it would be appealing the ACM’s decision. “Because we do not believe these orders are in our users’ best interests, we have appealed the ACM’s decision to a higher court,” the company said. “We’re concerned these changes could compromise the user experience, and create new threats to user privacy and data security.”

The decision was welcomed by Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney, who called Apple’s earlier response to the order a “sham solution.” Epic Games is currently embroiled with a long-running dispute with Apple over its App Store policies.

Apple’s policy of forcing many developers to use its own in-app payments system, for which it often collects a 30 percent commission, has been a consistent focus of antitrust scrutiny around the world. Last year, South Korea passed a law preventing major platform owners like Apple from forcing developers to use their own in-app payment systems (Apple said it intends to comply earlier this month). Meanwhile, in the US a judge forced Apple to allow developers to link out to other payment processors, although this ruling was subsequently put on hold pending appeal.



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