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Physics Projects Deflate for Lack of Helium-3

U.S. radiation detectors suck up the existing supply

3 min read

Earlier this year, a panicked U.S. congressional panel traded barbs about who was at fault for a sudden and surprising shortage of helium-3. The stable isotope is crucial in MRI lung research, low-temperature experimental physics, and—at the heart of the congressional dustup—in neutron detectors that can reveal smuggled nuclear materials. The United States has historically been the biggest global supplier of He-3, so the shortage there is affecting the entire world. In many countries, authorities are scrambling to find ways to procure more of the gas, stretch their remaining supplies, and find alternatives. But for some users, there are no substitutes.

He-3 is one neutron short of the two neutrons and two protons that make up its heavier cousin, the helium-4 of party balloons and silly voices. The lighter isotope is rare in nature, but it is a by-product of the decay of tritium (hydrogen-3) in thermonuclear weapons.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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