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How the Ford Motor Co. Invented the SQUID

In the 1960s, auto company researchers scored this key breakthrough in superconductivity, even though the work had nothing to do with cars

13 min read
Photo: Arnold Silver/Ford
Ford’s SQUID Team: The researchers who invented the SQUID were (from left) John Lambe, James Zimmerman, Arnold Silver, Robert Jaklevic, and James Mercereau.
Photo: Arnold Silver/Ford

Cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero, a superconducting quantum interference device, or SQUID, can do something amazing: detect a magnetic field only a millionth as strong as the human brain’s, or less than 5 quintillionths of a tesla.

Measuring such minute magnetic fields turns out to be useful for many things, including geophysical and archeological surveys, detection of the cosmic microwave background, nondestructive testing of materials and devices, and imaging the brain, heart, and other body parts. Invented some 50 years ago, the SQUID now comes in dozens of varieties, with different materials and circuitries, and operating temperatures both high (at the liquid-nitrogen range of around 77 kelvins) and low (less than 10 K, in the realm of liquid helium).

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The World’s Largest Camera Is Nearly Complete

The future heart of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will soon make its way to Chile

3 min read
A large black cylinder with a glass lens in front rests on a sturdy white structure in a bright room.

The LSST camera, eventually bound for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, sits on its stand in a Bay Area clean room.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The world’s largest camera sits within a nondescript industrial building in the hills above San Francisco Bay.

If all goes well, this camera will one day fit into the heart of the future Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. For the last seven years, engineers have been crafting the camera in a clean room at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif. In May 2023, if all goes according to plan, the camera will finally fly to its destination, itself currently under construction in the desert highlands of northern Chile.

Building a camera as complex as this requires a good deal of patience, testing, and careful engineering. The road to that flight has been long, and there’s still some way to go before the end is in sight.

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Lab Revisits the Task of Putting Common Sense in AI

New nonprofit Basis hopes to model human reasoning to inform science and public policy

5 min read
ai hand and human hand touching pointer fingers
iStock

The field of artificial intelligence has embraced deep learning—in which algorithms find patterns in big data sets—after moving on from earlier systems that more explicitly modeled human reasoning. But deep learning has its flaws: AI models often show a lack of common sense, for example. A new nonprofit, Basis, hopes to build software tools that advance the earlier method of modeling human reasoning, and then apply that method toward pressing problems in scientific discovery and public policy.

To date, Basis has received a government grant and a donation of a few million dollars. Advisors include Rui Costa, a neuroscientist who heads the Allen Institute in Seattle, and Anthony Philippakis, the chief data officer of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. In July, over tacos at the International Conference on Machine Intelligence, I spoke with Zenna Tavares, a Basis cofounder, and Sam Witty, a Basis research scientist, about human intelligence, problems with academia, and trash collection. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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