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Chinese astronomers want to build an observatory in the Tibetan Plateau

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Chinese astronomers want to build an observatory in the Tibetan Plateau


More than 2.5 miles in altitude, Lenghu “has been known to have unusually clear skies,” says Licai Deng, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a coauthor of the new study. “At the same time, the Lenghu area has a spectacular landscape similar to Mars.” Deng says the local government, which is eager to attract tourists interested in astronomy and geography, hired his team to survey the area and see whether it would be a good place to build an observatory.

Four major factors affect how suitable any location will be for astronomical research. The first is whether it tends to have clear skies—that means no dense cloud formations, and very little light pollution. The second is the stability of local air and weather conditions—and what effect the atmosphere will have on optical and infrared observations at night (even the tiniest particles in the air can interfere). The third is whether the site is connected to infrastructure (like power) and can be accessed without too much trouble. And lastly, you want an area where the night sky will be protected from human activity. 

High-altitude spots like Lenghu are of great interest to astronomers, since there’s simply less atmosphere to peer through while looking out at objects in space. The researchers monitored the Lenghu area for three years, measuring the darkness of the sky, the weather, the atmospheric conditions, and more. They found that the area scored at least as well on all four factors as other potential sites surveyed in the Tibetan Plateau. In many ways, the researchers think, it could be better than existing sites in Hawaii and Chile. There’s less variability in air temperatures and more stable atmospheric conditions, and the skies are slightly clearer. The amount of water vapor in the air is also low, which is especially useful for infrared observations important to cosmology. About three decades of weather records reveal just an average of 0.71 inches of rain a year. “In this context, Lenghu has the potential to host large facilities,” says Deng. 

In the long run, Lenghu may be more protected from the effects of human activity than Hawaii or Chile. The town passed rules in 2017 to preserve the dark sky, so light pollution should remain minimal.

“The results presented for the Lenghu site are nearly as good as those found for Mauna Kea, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s best sites,” says Paul Hickson, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who has previously conducted site testing at Dome A in Antarctica. “One thing that is particularly attractive about this location is the attention given to the control of light pollution.”

In some ways, this new research is an affirmation of China’s current astronomy plans for the area around Lenghu. Those plans include a 2.5-meter imaging survey telescope that began construction this year, a 1-meter solar infrared telescope that will be part of an international array of eight telescopes, and two others at 1.8 meters and 0.8 meters, for planetary science. 

As Deng points out, Tsinghua University and the University of Arizona are working together on building a 6.5-meter telescope to operate on the Saishiteng Mountain summit. And there are nascent plans for a 12-meter telescope to be located there as well. “It will be very crowded at the mountain top,” says Deng.

These instruments will go far in getting China on the map where infrared and optical astronomy are concerned—they are on par with some of the “large” telescopes operated in places like Chile. But they still pale in comparison with the “extremely large” observatories being built around the world, like the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, and the 39.3-meter Extremely Large Telescope in Chile. The type of science these instruments could pull off is expected to inaugurate a new era of astronomy. If China is serious about establishing a more ambitious astronomy program, it will have to catch up pretty fast.

It’s a good thing, then, that it has the Tibetan Plateau. “High, dry, isolated mountains are generally the best places for astronomy,” says Hickson. “There may well be other potential sites, perhaps even better ones, on the Tibetan Plateau that have not yet been explored.”

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The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city

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JA22 cover


Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.

As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.

To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.

Read the full list here.

The Urbanism issue

The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras. 

The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:

– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.

– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.

– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.

– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever


Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build. 

Quayside 2.0

The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat. 

In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this. 

 “To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech


What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language. 

Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.

Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).

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