September 22, 2015
Across the island of Sardinia there are more than 7,000 ancient towers built with large blocks of local stone. Known as nuraghi, they resemble giant beehives, jutting out across the landscape. Little is known about the nuraghi or their Bronze Age architects but almost every Sardinian I met had a theory about their purpose. Some told me that they were forts; others that they were residences, places of exchange, even communication beacons. “The amazing thing is that from every single nuraghe you see another nuraghe,” Carlo Mancosu, a 34-year-old Sardinian, told me. “Now imagine a system of communication with flames or light or mirrors. I think there existed a people in a network.” ... It was this system, real or imagined, that inspired Mancosu and a group of childhood friends to found Sardinia’s first local currency: Sardex. Arts and humanities graduates with little financial experience, they built it from scratch in their home town of Serramanna as the island reeled from the financial crisis. Their hope was that the project would give them a job in the place where they had grown up. But six years later it has turned into a symbol of local action, spreading to create a new network of thousands of businesses. Together, they have traded nearly €31.3m in Sardex this year. ... For at least 150 years, business people, utopians, social reformers and eccentrics have tried to introduce local currencies, often in response to money scarcity. Their creations have taken an array of different forms, such as credit systems, time banks or paper money, and ranged from the ingenious to the absurd. Many have been shortlived — but others have outlasted the conditions that brought them into existence. ... “The permanent feature of monetary systems in Europe throughout the period from Charlemagne to Napoleon — for a good millennium — [is] a distinction between different moneys for different purposes,” says Luca Fantacci, an economist and historian at Bocconi University in Milan.
Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. ... Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs. ... It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. ... As it happened, the people who found it weren't genome engineers at all. They were basic researchers, trying to unravel the origin of life by sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (as in archaic), descendants of the first life on Earth. Deep amid the bases, the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that made up those DNA sequences, microbiologists noticed recurring segments that were the same back to front and front to back—palindromes. The researchers didn't know what these segments did, but they knew they were weird. In a branding exercise only scientists could love, they named these clusters of repeating palindromes Crispr. ... Pick your creature, pick your gene, and you can bet someone somewhere is giving it a go.
In a suburb of Bristol, in western England, not far from the Welsh border, a band of engineers are building a machine that they hope will make the biggest jump in the century-long history of the official world land-speed record, taking it from a smidgen above the speed of sound to 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) per hour. That’s roughly the cruising speed of a fighter aircraft, but it’s considerably harder to achieve at ground level, where the atmosphere is far thicker. And there’s the not-insignificant danger that the vehicle will end up plowing into the ground. ... Even in the complicated business of breaking such speed records, Bloodhound represents a remarkable array of firsts in terms of technology, engineering techniques, and propulsion systems, all set to send the missile-shaped car down a nearly 20-km-long racetrack in the South African desert toward the end of this year. Perhaps the most striking of those firsts is the project’s method of verifying the safety of the design. To a degree that would be unthinkable today, earlier record attempts relied on overengineering, best-guess estimates, intuition, and sheer luck. Earlier generations of engineers would often discover a car’s limits with destructive testing—running it until it broke. Now modeling and data acquisition, the preferred tools for designing both aircraft and cars, are making headway in this most extreme of sports. Bloodhound is the first project of its kind to apply them. By the time the car makes its great bid for the record in South Africa, it will have done the run 1,000 times in silico. ... Take the wheels, for example. They will be the fastest-turning wheels in the world. And when the car is traveling at 1,600 km/h, material on the rim of a wheel will experience about 50,000 g’s.
"Our interest is in technology and engineering and design, and as a family business, we are able to keep the focus and philosophy there. We’re able to think very long-term, to develop technology that might be 20 to 25 years away. We can afford to do it. We can afford to make mistakes without anyone being sacked. We can take a long-term view of everything." ... Last year, the company broke ground on a more than $400 million technology campus adjacent to the Malmesbury headquarters. When it is completed next year, it will house 3,000 designers and engineers. Already, the company has brought in hundreds of software and computer hardware specialists and tripled the size of its engineering staff. The company currently funnels $2.5 million into R&D every week ... In coming months, the technology campus will serve as a launching pad for a range of new verticals, some of which Dyson has disclosed (robotics), some of which seem imminent (the Sakti3 investment appears to indicate a further interest in household electronics), and some of which are entirely classified. ... In the 15 years Dyson spent painstakingly perfecting the 360 Eye, a range of autonomous floor cleaners have entered the market, including iRobot’s Roomba and several models from Samsung. Dyson says that the 360 Eye will offer better suction, more advanced sensors, and longer-lasting battery life than its competitors. Still, in a sense, the device is illustrative of the challenges Dyson faces as it attempts to expand into categories already thick with deep-pocketed rivals: What happens when a company accustomed to being hailed for its innovations decides to play catch-up?