Fix Google Pixel’s Auto-Brightness Bug and More With the Latest Android Update

Google’s October Android security patch is rolling out today. These regular updates patch OS-level security bugs for all Android devices, but this month’s patch also has a number of bug fixes for Pixel devices running Android 11.


For example, take the Pixel 4a. It’s only been out since August, but owners have reported lagging and inaccurate auto-brightness adjustments when in rooms lit by LEDs and other high-intensity blubs.


Some users have also experienced poor responsiveness when using a screen cover on their device. Installing the October 2020 Security update should alleviate both of these issues, plus several others.

Google’s monthly update also addresses a number of security flaws—including six critical issues related to Qualcomm components—so there’s really no reason to dawdle with your download. That, and Google has patched up enough minor gripes that you’ll want to install the update if you use one of the supported Pixel handsets. The patch applies to the Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4, and 4a, plus any XL models.

Here’s a list of the Pixel bugs the October 2020 security patch squashes (via Google Support):

  • Improvements to auto-brightness response in certain lighting conditions (Pixel 4a).
  • Improvements for touch sensitivity with screen protectors (Pixel 4a).
  • Improvement for auto-rotation in certain device orientations (Pixel 3, 3a, 4, and 4a devices).
  • Fix for some devices stuck during boot (Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4, and 4a devices).
  • Fix to prevent inadvertently disabling call notifications (Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4, and 4a devices).
  • Fix for missing auto-rotate icon in certain device orientations (Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4, and 4a devices).
  • Fix for undetected overview swipe gesture in launcher (Pixel 2, Pixel 3, 3a, 4, 4a devices).


The update will hit all Pixel devices running Android 11 soon, but the exact timing will differ between devices and carriers. These monthly patches normally install automatically, so it’s possible you might already have it. You can check by confirming your phone’s firmware in the Android settings:

  1. Go to Settings > About phone 
  2. Tap “Android Version.”
  3. Check the date listed under “Android Security update.” This new patch will be dated “October 5, 2020.”


If the date listed is October 5, 2020 (or later), you have the patch. If it’s earlier, you can try manually downloading the new security update by visiting Settings > Security > Security Update and tapping “Check for Update.” Install anything that’s available.

Razer’s Dumb Light-Up Visa Card for Gamers Is Proof This Timeline Is Cursed

Illustration for article titled Razers Dumb Light-Up Visa Card for Gamers Is Proof This Timeline Is Cursed

Image: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Tech companies are really loving the idea of making credit cards. Apple did it, Google’s purportedly working on it, Samsung got on that train this summer, and just yesterday, Venmo announced it, too, making a card. But leave it to Razer to create the dumbest of them all: the Razer Card, a prepaid Visa cashback card that also lights up because, well, duh, it’s Razer.


The idea behind the Razer Card is to, as the press release would imply, appeal the Youths and Millennials via a “unique gamified rewards experience.” Supposedly this rewards experience isn’t the same as your typical loyalty rewards program. According to Razer, its version allows you to “track, score, and redeem rewards based on tasks and everyday transactions.” Which…sounds not that different from a typical reward program, but OK. The card itself will work in tandem with Razer Pay, and will receive 1% cash back for any purchase, with up to 5% cash back for RazerStore and Gold purchases.

There are few ways you can get the card. There’s a digital version for e-wallets, a standard black card, and a premium card. The premium card is the one that lights up when you pay for no reason whatsoever. It should be noted, and this is possibly most important to Razer fans, the light-up card is not RGB. Digest this devastating news as you will.


There are a few things to keep in mind, however. For starters, this extremely dumb card is only available in Singapore. So even if, for whatever reason, a dumb light-up Razer Card was something you wanted, ya can’t get one. Razer also hasn’t indicated whether it plans to bring the card to other countries. If you are in Singapore, the card is currently in beta and will be available to “1,337 selected users” through December 31 ahead of a public release. Yes, 1,337 users. While that corny-ass marketing in the year of our lord 2020 has destroyed my will to live, these lucky 1,337 beta users can get an extra 10% in cash back on RazerStore and Razer Gold purchases. There’s also, sigh, gamified tasks that can help you “level up” for a chance at $2,000 (in Singaporean dollars) in Razer gear. At least there’s no cash back cap, or seemingly any cap on Razer’s tolerance for cheese.

Cutting through the bullshit, if Razer’s true goal is to expand digital payments to the Youths, a prepaid card makes sense. For instance, you only have to be 16 years old to apply for the Razer Card. And as we all know, 16-year-olds are notoriously well known for financial literacy and fiscal responsibility. But at the very least, making the card prepaid would theoretically prevent a misguided youth from blowing all their cash on a sweet hoard of RGB Razer peripherals.


Will the rampant fintech tie-ins ever end? Not likely. Cynically speaking, it’s convenient for users, and from a brand’s perspective, it’s a sticky way to keep loyal customers hooked on your ecosystem and services—and get valuable financial transaction data. But hey, at least this monstrosity lights up. Take that, Apple Card.

Shoot Your Shot With the Best Digital Cameras, According to Photographers

Top Product: Sony A7-III | $1,998 | Amazon

Never has the world of photography been so diverse, but figuring out where you belong in it can be confusing. Almost everything has a camera now, so contemplating the best digital cameras is like trying on a new pair of jeans. Those you love won’t fit right, and some will have you saying, “Meh, I can make it work.” And make it work you will.


Likewise, the best camera is usually the one you have with you. For most people, this is a smartphone, but if you’re looking to graduate to something that affords more creative freedom, you’ll want a separate digital camera, and many are available for the cause.

There’s just one problem: with so many cameras to choose from, most of which are fantastic, even after you’ve settled on a particular brand or form factor, it’s hard enough to decide. For the first rendition of this list, we’ve highlighted five great digital cameras that fit a variety of budgets and needs, and we’ll be updating it over time to introduce more options from each of the top brands.


Best Overall: Sony A7-III Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera

Illustration for article titled Shoot Your Shot With the Best Digital Cameras, According to Photographers

Image: Sony

Sony spearheaded the mirrorless market with a meaty lineup including both APS-C and full frame options. After several years of maturation, the company has created what I feel is one of the most impressive cameras in its range. Especially if you can find it on sale around $1,800 (body only), the Sony A7 III—while not the newest of the camp—is a great value for full-frame mirrorless. The 24.2MP sensor has an insane ISO range. It reaches 204,800, and while it won’t produce what I’d call a “pleasant” photo that high, you’ll get very little noise up to ISO 51,200. Put simply, this thing is a beast in low light conditions. It bests most cameras on the market by at least one or two stops, which could be the difference between a usable photo a snapshot bound for the trash bin.

The Sony A7-III fits a variety of needs. With a 10fps silent shutter, you’ll be able to shoot sports, children playing, and other fast-motion scenes in a powerful buffer-filling burst. Its impressive autofocus system has up to 693 focus points in its phase-detection system covering about 93% of your screen, and with features like Eye-AF, Sony makes it easy to produce sharp photos. It also has some of the best battery life you’ll find in a mirrorless camera thanks to Sony’s upgraded NP-FZ100 battery.


For video users, the Sony A7 III offers full-frame 4K at 24fps with in-body image stabilization (meaning your lens won’t need it!), and you can sacrifice some of those pixels to reach 30fps. If you stick to 1080p, you’ll be able to reach up to 120fps for slow-motion editing. Although considered “entry-level” gear by seasoned photographers, the A7-III packs plenty of pro features like a dual microSD slot, a dedicated exposure dial, and tons of customizable buttons. You’ll need to contend with a messy and confusing menu system, but once set up and mastered, the Sony A7-III is a delight to use.


Best for Beginners: Sony A6100

Illustration for article titled Shoot Your Shot With the Best Digital Cameras, According to Photographers

Graphic: Quentyn Kennemer


If you like the Sony A7-III but find it’s overkill for you needs, consider the Sony A6100. A great beginner’s option at its price, Sony has a rare advantage in offering the same mount system across both its APS-C and full frame bodies to date. That means you can buy this thing and get some great E-mount lenses for it, plus you’ll be able to take that glass with you no problem whenever you’re due for an upgrade.

Better yet, the Sony A6100 boasts the same impressive autofocus performance as its bigger siblings (albeit with a 10% cut to usable focus points) all while pushing a respectable image quality in its own right. Many would opt in for size alone. Smaller than the full-frame options, it’s the perfect walk-around camera for taking both photos and video. And with a flip-up LCD screen that even the more expensive A7-III lacks, it’s one of the better cameras for 4K vlogging.


Best for Streaming Video: Fujifilm XT-4

Illustration for article titled Shoot Your Shot With the Best Digital Cameras, According to Photographers

Graphic: Quentyn Kennemer


The Fujifilm XT-4 is a very popular choice for video. This APS-C camera is nice and petite with a fully articulating display, and that alone is a win in some books, but the fact it achieves a full 4K at 60 frames per second with some of the most flexible color grading profiles available makes it an excellent choice for videographers. Step down to 1080p, and you’ll be able to record at up to 240 frames per second for silky smooth slow motion. In-body image stabilization is included to help if you can’t use a gimbal, too.

This classically designed camera is also top-notch for stills. It has a 26.1MP CMOS 4 sensor that stretches to ISO 12,800, and with the help of a powerhouse processor inside, you can fill a buffer at up to 30 frames per second (albeit with a 1.25x crop at those speeds). A hybrid autofocus system uses both contrast and 425 dedicated phase-detection points for speedy target acquisition. But you want to know my favorite feature? It’s got a 3.69-million dot OLED electronic viewfinder, one of the few on the market rivaling that of typical DSLRs.


Best Point-and-Shoot: Panasonic Lumix ZS200

Illustration for article titled Shoot Your Shot With the Best Digital Cameras, According to Photographers

Graphic: Quentyn Kennemer


If you’re looking for something akin to traditional point-and-shoots of old, look no further than the viewfinder of the Panasonic ZS200. Unlike the options we presented above, the ZS200 doesn’t have an interchangeable lens system, but that doesn’t doom you from an image quality standpoint either. While it won’t match a solid cylinder of removable glass, the 15x zoom Leica DC lens (equivalent to 24-360mm on a 35mm body) can produce decent bokeh (background blur) effects thanks to its f/3.3-6.4 max aperture. Combined with a 12,800 maximum ISO, the one-inch MOS sensor has surprisingly potent low light performance. The Lumix ZS200 supports 4K video recording at up to 30 frames per second, all of it kept steady with built-in stabilization.

Don’t let looks fool you, either: this is an exceptionally versatile camera in terms of options and features. You can set and forget with its wide variety of preset modes; however, you’ll also get manual shooting modes to dial in the perfect settings for exposure or artistic effect. The Panasonic ZS200 is a fantastic bridge to give you more control over your photography if you’re not ready to leave this convenient form factor behind.


Best Action Cam: GoPro Hero8 Black

Illustration for article titled Shoot Your Shot With the Best Digital Cameras, According to Photographers

Graphic: Quentyn Kennemer


When you’re roaming the unbeaten path, there’s no substitution for a GoPro. Although it’s praised mostly for its 4K video recording capabilities, the GoPro Hero8 Black also snaps decent photos. It’s not as flexible as other action cam options given its single focal length and noted lack of manual controls, but you’re still afforded a respectable suite of customizable settings to match your scene. And don’t forget, that includes underwater shots. Alongside dust and shock resistance, you can submerge the GoPro Hero 8 in waters up to 33 meters deep, ideal for capturing modest aquatic adventures.

The GoPro Hero 8 includes the company’s HyperSmooth 2.0 image stabilization, and while it can’t deliver gimbal-level stability, you’ll be surprised how much camera shake it eliminates. That means you can simply strap one to your helmet or chest strap, hit the road, and then share your exciting life with built-in live streaming and cloud uploads.


This Is the Best Way to Store Sippy Cups

Illustration for article titled This Is the Best Way to Store Sippy Cups

Photo: N. Mitchell (Shutterstock)

I’m kidding. The photo is a joke, I’m not here to suggest you store your kid’s sippy cups by wedging them between two tree trunks. That seems like a solution that only works for this one specific sippy cup, and surely you’ve got more than one. In fact, you probably have multiple, as well as plastic water bottles of different shapes and sizes. You’ve got the cups you use at home and the ones you take with you in the car; you’ve got the expensive cups you splurged on and the cheap-o’s the kids prefer. Which is why this is actually the best way to store all those cups and their lids:

Illustration for article titled This Is the Best Way to Store Sippy Cups

Photo: Julia Dehn


That is the suggestion of one of our Offspring Facebook Group members, Julia, who realized that over-the-door shoe organizers don’t have to be used just for shoes. They can also be used as a way to tame the ridiculous assortment of plastic cups, water bottles, snack cups, and lids that parents of little kids accumulate over the years.

As an added bonus, the cups in the bottom slots are within reach of little hands, so kids can grab their own cup as needed.


Of course, you can also use shoe organizers like these to organize actual shoes—in fact, they are particularly good for little kids’ shoes because you can fit a full pair (rather than just one adult-sized shoe) into each slot. Julia does that, too:

Illustration for article titled This Is the Best Way to Store Sippy Cups

Photo: Julia Dehn

But if you’ve got a bunch of plastic cups and bowls junking up your kitchen cabinets, throw one of these organizers over the back of your pantry door and enjoy some newfound space.

Meet the smartest parents on Earth! Join our parenting Facebook group.


The Bat-Family’s Vehicles Are Getting Their Own Animated Kids’ Show

It’s a talking, crime-fighting Batmobile. Yep.

It’s a talking, crime-fighting Batmobile. Yep.
Image: Warner Bros. Animation

“Jingle bells, Batman smells.” But luckily the Batmobile didn’t lose a wheel—instead, it’s patrolling the streets right alongside the Caped Crusader. Warner Bros. Animation has announced Batwheels, a new children’s show about a bunch of talking cars that help Batman fight crime.


Warner Bros. Animation revealed in a press release that the studio was starting production on Batwheels, an animated series aimed at preschoolers starring sentient cars that were created by the Batcomputer and now help Batman and his friends fight crime. There’s Bat (the Batmobile), Bibi (the Batgirl Cycle), Red (the Redbird), Jet (the Batwing), and Buff (the Bat Truck). Since they were only recently brought to life, they’re basically kids…that are also cars. That fight crime.


It might sound like an outrageous concept—because it is—but it’s not surprising. Talking cars are a huge thing in children’s entertainment right now. For example, there’s Disney Pixar’s Cars franchise, along with Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder, Blaze and the Monster Machines, and so many others. Hell, just search “talking car kids show” on YouTube and your toddler will be entertained for hours—even as your braincells slowly start to die.

Batwheels is set to debut on Cartoon Network and HBO Max, though no expected release date has been announced yet.

For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.


Eero partners with internet providers to sell its routers to customers

Eero is moving beyond consumers and partnering with internet service providers. The Amazon-owned router company has announced Eero for Service Providers, an offering that includes hardware and software tools for ISPs. It will be available in the US and Canada starting in November, with more features coming in December and throughout 2021. Eero says it’s offering the tools at “attractive price points.”

The platform includes three components at launch. One is Eero Insight, which collects usage data to help ISPs foresee customers’ Wi-Fi issues and address them early. The company estimates that the tool will provide technicians “up to an estimated 30 percent reduction in time spent resolving Wi-Fi issues.”

The second is Eero Secure, a subscription service that can be deployed with the company’s mesh Wi-Fi systems. Customers can use it to block attacks like malware, spyware, and phishing. It also includes parental controls. And Eero is also offering its Eero 6 Mesh Wi-Fi system to ISPs, which supports Wi-Fi 6 and includes a built-in Zigbee smart home hub. The company says that users will be able to manage their internet experience with an “ISP co-branded mobile app” — they can pause their internet service and share it with guests.

Eero isn’t the first manufacturer to release products like this. Comcast’s xFi internet platform also includes a subscription security service that blocks suspicious activity and quarantines devices. (Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.)

Earth grows fine gems in minutes

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but some of Earth’s finest gemstones were, according to new research from Rice University.

Aquamarine, emerald, garnet, zircon and topaz are but a few of the crystalline minerals found mostly in pegmatites, veinlike formations that commonly contain both large crystals and hard-to-find elements like tantalum and niobium. Another common find is lithium, a vital component of electric car batteries.

“This is one step towards understanding how Earth concentrates lithium in certain places and minerals,” said Rice graduate student Patrick Phelps, co-author of a study published online in Nature Communications. “If we can understand the basics of pegmatite growth rates, it’s one step in the direction of understanding the whole picture of how and where they form.”

Pegmatites are formed when rising magma cools inside Earth, and they feature some of Earth’s largest crystals. South Dakota’s Etta mine, for example, features log-sized crystals of lithium-rich spodumene, including one 42 feet in length in weighing an estimated 37 tons. The research by Phelps, Rice’s Cin-Ty Lee and Southern California geologist Douglas Morton attempts to answer a question that has long vexed mineralogists: How can such large crystals be in pegmatites?

“In magmatic minerals, crystal size is traditionally linked to cooling time,” said Lee, Rice’s Harry Carothers Wiess Professor of Geology and chair of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Rice. “The idea is that large crystals take time to grow.”

Magma that cools rapidly, like rock in erupted lavas, contains microscopic crystals, for example. But the same magma, if cooled over tens of thousands of years, might feature centimeter-sized crystals, Lee said.

“Pegmatites cool relatively quickly, sometimes in just a few years, and yet they feature some of the largest crystals on Earth,” he said. “The big question is really, ‘How can that be?'”

When Phelps began the research, his most immediate questions were about how to formulate a set of measurements that would allow him, Lee and Morton to answer the big question.

“It was more a question of, ‘Can we figure out how fast they actually grow?'” Phelps said. “Can we use trace elements — elements that don’t belong in quartz crystals — to figure out the growth rate?”

It took more than three years, a field trip to gather sample crystals from a pegmatite mine in Southern California, hundreds of lab measurements to precisely map the chemical composition of the samples and a deep dive into some 50-year-old materials science papers to create a mathematical model that could transform the chemical profiles into crystal growth rates.

“We examined crystals that were half an inch wide and over an inch long,” Phelps said. “We showed those grew in a matter of hours, and there is nothing to suggest the physics would be different in larger crystals that measure a meter or more in length. Based on what we found, larger crystals like that could grow in a matter of days.”

Pegmatites form where pieces of Earth’s crust are drawn down and recycled in the planet’s molten mantle. Any water that’s trapped in the crust becomes part of the melt, and as the melt rises and cools, it gives rise to many kinds of minerals. Each forms and precipitates out of the melt at a characteristic temperature and pressure. But the water remains, making up a progressively higher percentage of the cooling melt.

“Eventually, you get so much water left over that it becomes more of a water-dominated fluid than a melt-dominated fluid,” Phelps said. “The leftover elements in this watery mixture can now move around a lot faster. Chemical diffusion rates are much faster in fluids and the fluids tend to flow more quickly. So when a crystal starts forming, elements can get to it faster, which means it can grow faster.”

Crystals are ordered arrangement of atoms. They form when atoms naturally fall into that arranged pattern based on their chemical properties and energy levels. For example, in the mine where Phelps collected his quartz samples, many crystals had formed in what appeared to be cracks that had opened while the pegmatite was still forming.

“You see these pop up and go through the layers of pegmatite itself, almost like veins within veins,” Phelps said. “When those cracks opened, that lowered the pressure quickly. So the fluid rushed in, because everything’s expanding, and the pressure dropped dramatically. All of a sudden, all the elements in the melt are now confused. They don’t want to be in that physical state anymore, and they rapidly start coming together in crystals.”

To decipher how quickly the sample crystals grew, Phelps used both cathodoluminescence microscopy and laser ablation with mass spectrometry to measure the precise amount of trace elements that had been incorporated into the crystal matrix at dozens of points during growth. From experimental work done by materials scientists in the mid-20th century, Phelps was able to decipher the growth rates from these profiles.

“There are three variables,” he said. “There’s the likelihood of things getting brought in. That’s the partition coefficient. There’s how fast the crystal is growing, the growth rate. And then there’s the diffusivity, so how quickly elemental nutrients are brought to the crystal.”

Phelps said the fast growth rates were quite a surprise.

“Pegmatites are pretty short-lived, so we knew they had to grow relatively fast,” he said. “But we were showing it was a few orders of magnitude faster than anyone had predicted.

“When I finally got one of these numbers, I remember going into Cin-Ty’s office, and saying, ‘Is this feasible? I don’t think this is right.'” Phelps recalled. “Because in my head, I was still kind of thinking about a thousand-year time scale. And these numbers were meaning days or hours.

“And Cin-Ty said, ‘Well, why not? Why can’t it be right?'” Phelps said. “Because we’d done the math and the physics. That part was sound. While we didn’t expect it to be that fast, we couldn’t come up with a reason why it wasn’t plausible.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

There’s a reason bacteria stay in shape

Fat bacteria? Skinny bacteria? From our perspective on high, they all seem to be about the same size. In fact, they are.

Precisely why has been an open question, according to Rice University chemist Anatoly Kolomeisky, who now has a theory.

A primal mechanism in bacteria that keeps them in their personal Goldilocks zones — that is, just right — appears to depend on two random means of regulation, growth and division, that cancel each other out. The same mechanism may give researchers a new perspective on disease, including cancer.

The “minimal model” by Kolomeisky, Rice postdoctoral researcher and lead author Hamid Teimouri and Rupsha Mukherjee, a former research assistant at Rice now at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, appears in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

“Everywhere we see bacteria, they more or less have the same sizes and shapes,” Kolomeisky said. “It’s the same for the cells in our tissues. This is a signature of homeostasis, where a system tries to have physiological parameters that are almost the same, like body temperature or our blood pressure or the sugar level in our blood.

“Nature likes to have these parameters in a very narrow range so that living systems can work the most efficiently,” he said. “Deviations from these parameters are a signature of disease.”

Bacteria are models of homeostasis, sticking to a narrow distribution of sizes and shape. “But the explanations we have so far are not good,” Kolomeisky said. “As we know, science does not like magic. But something like magic — thresholds — is proposed to explain it.”

For bacteria, he said, there is no threshold. “Essentially, there’s no need for one,” he said. “There are a lot of underlying biochemical processes, but they can be roughly divided into two stochastic chemical processes: growth and division. Both are random, so our problem was to explain why these random phenomenon lead to a very deterministic outcome.”

The Rice lab specializes in theoretical modeling that explains biological phenomena including genome editing, antibiotic resistance and cancer proliferation. Teimouri said the highly efficient chemical coupling between growth and division in bacteria was far easier to model.

“We assumed that, at typical proliferation conditions, the number of division and growth protein precursors are always proportional to the cell size,” he said. T

he model predicts when bacteria will divide, allowing them to optimize their function. The researchers said it agrees nicely with experimental observations and noted manipulating the formula to knock bacteria out of homeostasis proved their point. Increasing the theoretical length of post-division bacteria, they said, simply leads to faster rates of division, keeping their sizes in check.

“For short lengths, growth dominates, again keeping the bacteria to the right size,” Kolomeisky said.

The same theory doesn’t necessarily apply to larger organisms, he said. “We know that in humans, there are many other biochemical pathways that might regulate homeostasis, so the problem is more complex.”

However, the work may give researchers new perspective on the proliferation of diseased cells and the mechanism that forces, for instance, cancer cells to take on different shapes and sizes.

“One of the ways to determine cancer is to see a deviation from the norm,” Kolomeisky said. “Is there a mutation that leads to faster growth or faster division of cells? This mechanism that helps maintain the sizes and shapes of bacteria may help us understand what’s happening there as well.”

Hunting for the lowest known nuclear-excited state

Nuclear clocks could make our time measurement even more accurate than atomic clocks. The key to this lies in thorium-229, an atomic nucleus whose lowest excited state has very low energy. A research team from the Kirchhoff Institute for Physics at the University of Heidelberg, TU Wien, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Helmholtz Institute Mainz (HIM), and GSI Helmholtzzentrum in Darmstadt has now succeeded in measuring this low energy. Using an extremely accurate detector, it was possible to detect the tiny temperature increase due to the energy released during the de-excitation of the atomic nucleus. This brings the realization of a nuclear clock a big step closer.

In radioactive decay, atomic nuclei spontaneously re-arrange, eject some part of their building blocks, and transform into a nucleus of a different atom. In this process, the new “daughter atom” usually has internally stored energy that is released in the form of gamma rays. The energies of these rays are characteristic for each type of nucleus — just like fingerprints. Researchers learn a lot about atomic nuclei by characterizing these gamma-ray fingerprints.

Back in 1976, L. A. Kroger and C. W. Reich investigated the decay of uranium-233, which is an artificial nucleus of uranium that decays to thorium-229 by emitting an alpha-particle; this is immediately followed by the emission of characteristic gamma-rays that occur in distinct and generally well-understood patterns. Kroger and Reich, however, registered an anomaly: one gamma-ray that was predicted by all nuclear theories was missing in the measured signals. The best explanation was that the internal energy stored in the lowest nuclear excitation of thorium-229 was too low to be observed by the detectors. Over the following decades, many attempts were made to observe this low-energy gamma-ray without success, constraining it to ever-lower energies.

New perspectives for constructing a nuclear clock

Nowadays, we know that the lowest excited-energy state of the thorium-229 nucleus, called an isomer state, is located at the lowest known energy among all nuclei, at an energy that is orders of magnitudes lower than usual excitation energies. Consequently, the energy of the associated gamma-ray is so low that it is placed in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum rather than in the typical gamma-ray region. This leads to the unique situation that the opposite process of the de-excitation by the emission of this “ultraviolet gamma-ray,” namely the excitation of the lower state is possible by shining ultraviolet light onto the nucleus. It is the only nuclear system that could be excited with “table-top” laser light. This opens up exciting prospects, including the construction of a “nuclear” clock, in which time is measured by oscillations of the nucleus between these two states. The precision of such a clock is predicted to be better than that of the best current atomic clocks, which rely on oscillations between states in the electron shell, which is more susceptible to external perturbations than the 10.000 times smaller nucleus.

The key problem is, though, that the energy of the isomer state is not yet known with sufficient precision to know which ultraviolet light is needed to stimulate the oscillation. A consortium of researchers from Heidelberg, Vienna, Mainz, and Darmstadt have now repeated the iconic gamma spectroscopy measurement of Kroger and Reich, but using a highly advanced state-of-the-art gamma spectrometer, designed explicitly for registering rays of such low energy.

Cool studies give the highest precision

For this, the research team of Professor Christian Enss and Dr. Andreas Fleischmann at the Kirchhoff Institute for Physics at the University of Heidelberg developed a magnetic microcalorimeter named maXs30. This detector is cooled to minus 273 degrees Celsius and measures the minuscule temperature rise that occurs when a gamma-ray is absorbed. The temperature increase leads to a change in the detector’s magnetic properties, which is then converted into an electric signal using SQUID magnetometers similar to those that are commonly used in magnetic resonance tomography. The maXs30 detector has unprecedented energy resolution and gain linearity; still, it took about 12 weeks of continuous measurement to obtain the gamma-ray spectrum with sufficient precision.

To make this challenging measurement possible, the team of Professor Christoph Düllmann in Mainz and Darmstadt produced a special sample of uranium-233. First, they chemically removed all decay daughter products that had built up over time before the sample was used. They also removed unwanted radioisotopes, the decay of which leads to an unwanted background in the measured data. Then they designed a source geometry and sample container that led to minimum interference of the weak signals on their way from the sample to the maXs30 calorimeters. These steps were required for the success of the measurement because only one in 10,000 decay processes produces a signal that is useful for the determination of the isomer energy. The measurement produced the most precise gamma-ray spectrum of uranium-233 to thorium-229 decay to date. The team of Professor Thorsten Schumm at TU Wien, together with the Heidelberg team, employed four different schemes to derive the energy of the isomer state from this data. The most precise one yielded a value of 8.10(17) electronvolts, which corresponds to light of a wavelength of 153.1(32) nanometers, with the number in parentheses indicating the uncertainty of the last digits. This measurement paves the way for a direct laser excitation of the thorium-229 isomer.

Indonesia’s old and deep peatlands offer an archive of environmental changes

Researchers probing peatlands to discover clues about past environments and carbon stocks on land have identified peatland that is twice as old and much deeper than previously thought.

Their findings, detailed in an open-access paper published Sept. 14 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, show that an inland site near Putussibau, not far from the Indonesia-Malaysia border, formed at least 47,800 years old and contains peat 18 meters deep — roughly the height of a six-story building.

The study provides new insights about the climate of equatorial rainforests, especially during the last ice age, said study co-author Dan Gavin, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.

“This existence of this very deep and old peatland provides some clues on past climate,” Gavin said. “It tells us that this area remained sufficiently wet and warm to support peat growth through the last ice age. The climate during that time is still poorly understood as there are few places in the very-wet tropics, where there is no dry season, that have such long sediment archives.”

For the study, the research team, led by Monika Ruwaimana, a doctoral student at the UO and lecturer at Indonesia’s Universitas Atma Jaya Yogyakarta, collected peat cores from two inland and three coastal sites associated with the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan, a province of Indonesia on Borneo.

The Putussibau site has been not been as disturbed as most other areas of Indonesia by deforestation and land conversion to agriculture.

“We thought the Putussibau site would be thinner because people had already built roads over it,” Ruwaimana said. “But surprisingly we found depths of 17 to 18 meters. As comparison, the average peat depth in Indonesia is 5 to 6 meters.”

In contrast, the coastal sites, particularly in the Kapuas River delta, contain shallower peatland that didn’t begin forming until after the last ice age and after sea level stabilized between 4,000 and 7,000 years ago.

The lower base of the inlet peats that were examined is lower than the current riverbed, noted co-author Gusti Z. Anshari of the Universitas Tanjungpura in Pontianak, Indonesia.

“The inland peat contains an important archive about past hydrology and climates,” he said. “The coastal peat bed is higher than the current riverbed, making it prone to dryness. The coastal peat burns every dry season because of water loss through hydrological conductivity.”

Human disturbances related to land-use changes, he added, have caused high carbon emissions and create fire-loving degraded peats.

“The inland peat possibly played an important role in climate and carbon storage before and during the last ice age,” Ruwaimana said.

During that glaciation, she noted, atmospheric carbon dioxide was much lower and previous evidence suggested that much of the region’s carbon had moved into the oceans. The new findings, however, show inland peatlands persisted.

Across the sites, 37 radiocarbon dates were obtained. During a cool, dry period 20,000-30,000 years ago, Ruwaimana said, the new dating synthesized with previous dating across Indonesia indicated a hiatus of peatland formation.

“The significance is that conditions must have remained sufficiently wet so that the peat in the upper Kapuas was not lost during this period,” she said. “The ages provide a clearer picture on its formation history and how it connects to the past climate. As this peat forms layer by layer like a pancake layer cake, each layer tells us the story about fire, plant and climate when that layer was formed.”

With the revised depths of inland peatlands at these sites, the researchers suggest that previous estimates of carbon storage — 25.3 gigatons across Indonesia and 9.1 gigatons on Borneo — are too low. However, Ruwaimana said, more data is needed across the region for more accurate calculations.

Depths of the older peats obtained in the study, she noted, varied dramatically, with some peats of less than two meters depth being more than 10,000 years old.

The inland sites, the researchers wrote, may be the oldest tropical peats and contain the largest density of carbon in the world but are increasingly being threatened by changes in land use.

Lucas Silva, a professor of geography and head of the UO’s Soil Plant Atmosphere research lab, also was a co-author on the study.