Everyone knows birds descended from dinosaurs, but exactly how that happened is the subject of much study and debate. To help clear things up, these researchers went all out and just straight up built a robotic dinosaur to test their theory: that these proto-birds flapped their “wings” well before they ever flew.
Now, this isn’t some hyper-controversial position or anything. It’s pretty reasonable when you think about it: natural selection tends to emphasize existing features rather than invent them from scratch. If these critters had, say, moved from being quadrupedal to being bipedal and had some extra limbs up front, it would make sense that over a few million years those limbs would evolve into something useful.
But when did it start, and how? To investigate, Jing-Shan Zhao of Tsinghua University in Beijing looked into an animal called Caudipteryx, a ground-dwelling animal with “feathered forelimbs that could be considered “proto-wings.”
Based on the well-preserved fossil record of this bird-dino crossover, the researchers estimated a number of physiological metrics, such as the creature’s top speed and the rhythm with which it would run. From this they could estimate forces on other parts of the body — just as someone studying a human jogger would be able to say that such and such a joint is under this or that amount of stress.
What they found was that, in theory, these “natural frequencies” and biophysics of the Caudipteryx’s body would cause its little baby wings to flap up and down in a way suggestive of actual flight. Of course they wouldn’t provide any lift, but this natural rhythm and movement may have been the seed which grew over generations into something greater.
To give this theory a bit of practical punch, the researchers then constructed a pair of unusual mechanical items: a pair of replica Caudipteryx wings for a juvenile ostrich to wear, and a robotic dinosaur that imitated the original’s gait. A bit fanciful, sure — but why shouldn’t science get a little crazy now and then?
In the case of the ostrich backpack, they literally just built a replica of the dino-wings and attached it to the bird, then had the bird run. Sensors on board the device verified what the researchers observed: that the wings flapped naturally as a result of the body’s motion and vibrations from the feet impacting the ground.
The robot is a life-size reconstruction based on a complete fossil of the animal, made of 3D-printed parts, to which the ostrich’s fantasy wings could also be affixed. The researchers’ theoretical model predicted that the flapping would be most pronounced as the speed of the bird approached 2.31 meters per second — and that’s just what they observed in the stationary model imitating gaits corresponding to various running speeds.
You can see another gif over at the Nature blog. As the researchers summarize:
These analyses suggest that the impetus of the evolution of powered flight in the theropod lineage that lead to Aves may have been an entirely natural phenomenon produced by bipedal motion in the presence of feathered forelimbs.
Just how legit is this? Well, I’m not a paleontologist. And an ostrich isn’t a Caudipteryx. And the robot isn’t exactly convincing to look at. We’ll let the scholarly community pass judgment on this paper and its evidence (don’t worry, it’s been peer-reviewed), but I think it’s fantastic that the researchers took this route to test their theory. A few years ago this kind of thing would have been far more difficult to do, and although it seems a little silly when you watch it (especially in gif form), there’s a lot to be said for this kind of real-life tinkering when so much of science is occurring in computer simulations.
The paper was published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.
Google is rolling out a big update to mobile search today: continuous scrolling.
Now, instead of making you tap to load the next page after your usual 10 links of search results, Google will just load the next page.
The company hopes that continuous scrolling will get people to look at more search results and that a longer supply of results is better for more open-ended search questions. The blog post notes that “most people who want additional information tend to browse up to four pages of search results.” If you search on your phone, you’ll find that continuous scrolling lasts for exactly four pages before the familiar “show more” link pops up. When Google automatically loads the next page, it also sticks an ad before the next page of search results.
Google said that “this new Search experience is starting to gradually roll out today for most English searches on mobile in the US.” It seems to work on the Google Search app and the website.
Now that Windows 11 is out, the arduous process of fixing the new operating system’s bugs can begin. The OS got its first Patch Tuesday update earlier this week, and now another update is rolling out to Windows Insiders in the Beta and Release Preview channels. It fixes a long list of early problems with Windows 11.
The headliner here is a fix for a problem affecting L3 cache latency on AMD Ryzen processors. According to AMD, the bug can reduce performance by 3–5 percent. The Windows 11 update released earlier this week may have actually made the problem worse, but at least a fix is imminent.
The L3 latency bug is one of a pair of problems that AMD identified with Windows 11 earlier this month. The other Windows 11 problem AMD identified, which can prevent high-core-count, high-wattage Ryzen chips from correctly assigning work to the processor’s fastest individual cores, will be fixed via an AMD driver update.
The Release Preview Insider channel is usually a Windows update’s last stop before public distribution. A post shared on Reddit suggests that the Windows update is being targeted for release on Tuesday, October 19th, while the AMD driver update for the other problem should be released two days later, on the 21st.
Other bugs addressed in the Windows 11 update include one that prevented some upgraders from seeing the new Taskbar or using the Start menu, a PowerShell bug that can fill up a storage volume with “an infinite number of child directories” when you try to move a directory into its own child directory, and a number of problems that could cause freezes, crashes, and slowdowns.
Another month, another Apple event. Fresh off a September event that delivered new updates for the entire iPhone lineup, some new iPads, and a gently tweaked Apple Watch, Apple is preparing for another event on Monday, October 18. And this time, we’re expecting the company to focus on the Mac, which is still in the middle of a transition from Intel chips to the Apple Silicon chips that are making new Macs feel exciting and important in a way they haven’t in years.
We’ll be following along live starting at 10 am Pacific on Monday, but in the meantime, we’ve gathered all the current rumors and put together a list of things we’re most likely to see (as well as one or two things that aren’t as likely). The short version is that Apple should finally be gearing up to show us high-performance Apple Silicon chips.
The “M1X” chip, or whatever it’s called
Just as the MacBook Air, the newest 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Mac mini, and the 24-inch iMac all use the same M1 chip, we expect the next round of Macs to share the same silicon as well. Commonly referred to as the “M1X,” the chip’s exact specifications are a bit of a mystery, since Apple’s chip designs are among its best-kept secrets. But it’s not hard to guess the general gist of what we’ll be getting—new chips that improve upon the performance of the Intel processors they’re replacing while also enabling a dramatic increase in battery life. Recent Intel MacBook refreshes have struggled to provide one or the other of these things, but the M1 Macs managed to do both.
To replace the higher-end Intel Macs, the M1X will need to have just a bit more of everything compared to the M1: more processor cores, more GPU cores, and support for more monitors and Thunderbolt and USB ports. Without adapters or docks, the M1 can drive only two screens at once, including the computer’s internal display. We’d also expect configurations with more than 16 GB of RAM, the current maximum for M1 Macs.
A report from late last year suggested that a higher-performance chip destined for the MacBook Pros could include as many as 16 of Apple’s performance cores, though more recent reporting suggests we could be looking at a chip with eight performance cores and two low-power efficiency cores. Even eight performance cores should be able to outpace the 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-core processors in today’s Intel Macs. The M1X will also reportedly be available with either 16 or 32 GPU cores, compared to the seven or eight GPU cores included in the standard M1 (Apple could also improve graphics performance by increasing memory bandwidth, as it has done in some older iPad processors, but we haven’t heard anything specific about that).
New MacBook Pros
New MacBook Pros that replace the four-port 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro are the thing we’re most likely to get out of Monday’s event.
Apple’s first few Apple Silicon Macs were very conservative from a design standpoint—the MacBook Air, two-port MacBook Pro, and Mac mini all put new guts into computers that looked identical to the ones they were replacing. But the new MacBook Pros could be a bit more adventurous, in the vein of the 24-inch iMac.
For example, persistent rumors claim that the 13-inch MacBook Pro could become a 14-inch MacBook Pro. And breadcrumbs left in some macOS betas suggest that Apple is working on laptops with higher-resolution screens that could obviate the need for the scaled, non-native resolution that all current MacBooks use out of the box. With a more efficient chip, Apple could also take the opportunity to shrink the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s huge 100 WHr battery, reducing the 4.3-pound laptop’s size and weight. Other improvements could include more energy-efficient mini LED backlighting for the displays and possibly even a 120 Hz refresh rate (the reporting for the 120 Hz refresh rate is thin, but it would dovetail nicely with macOS Monterey’s support for external monitors with variable refresh rates).
Other rumors suggest that Apple will walk back some of the more controversial changes made to the MacBook Pro back in 2016, the last time the laptops got a comprehensive overhaul. Alleged schematics from earlier this year suggest that the MagSafe power connector could make a return, along with a full-size HDMI port and an SD card slot. These changes would reduce the number of Thunderbolt ports to three, but having a few kinds of ports would still make the laptops more convenient to use, on balance, for people who frequently use external displays or SD cards. The Touch Bar may also be removed in favor of a physical row of function keys.
A faster Mac mini
We’d say the new MacBook Pros are pretty much a sure thing, but there are a couple of less-likely-but-still-possible Mac refreshes Apple could introduce.
Apple already has an Apple Silicon Mac mini, but you may have noticed that the company continues to sell a version of the 2018 Intel Mac mini with more ports and up to 64GB of RAM. Recent rumors suggest that Apple could replace this machine with a sort of “Mac mini Pro,” which would leverage the M1X’s improved performance and expanded connectivity. The current Apple Silicon Mac mini is great for basic use or even light photo and video editing, but an M1X Mac mini would be a better workstation for code compilation or professional video editing, tasks that generally take advantage of all of the processing performance they can get.