The human eye can see ‘invisible’ infrared light

The eye can detect light at wavelengths in the visual spectrum. Other wavelengths, such as infrared and ultraviolet, are supposed to be invisible to the human eye, but Washington University scientists have found that under certain conditions, … more

Any science textbook will tell you we can’t see infrared light. Like X-rays and radio waves, infrared light waves are outside the visual spectrum. But an international team of researchers co-led by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found that under certain conditions, the retina can sense infrared light after all.

Using cells from the retinas of mice and people, and powerful lasers that emit pulses of infrared light, the researchers found that when laser light pulses rapidly, light-sensing cells in the retina sometimes get a double hit of infrared energy. When that happens, the eye is able to detect light that falls outside the visible spectrum.

"We’re using what we learned in these experiments to try to develop a new tool that would allow physicians to not only examine the eye but also to stimulate specific parts of the retina to determine whether it’s functioning properly," said senior investigator Vladimir J. Kefalov, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University. "We hope that ultimately this discovery will have some very practical applications."

The findings are published Dec. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Online Early Edition. Collaborators include scientists in Cleveland, Poland, Switzerland and Norway,

The research was initiated after scientists on the research team reported seeing occasional flashes of green light while working with an infrared laser. Unlike the laser pointers used in lecture halls or as toys, the powerful infrared laser the scientists worked with emits light waves thought to be invisible to the human eye.

Frans Vinberg, PhD (left), and Vladimir J. Kefalov, PhD, sit in front of a tool they developed that allows them to detect light responses from retinal cells and photopigment molecules. Credit: Robert Boston

"They were able to see the laser light, which was outside of the normal visible range, and we really wanted to figure out how they were able to sense light that was supposed to be invisible," said Frans Vinberg, PhD, one of the study’s lead authors and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University.

Vinberg, Kefalov and their colleagues examined the scientific literature and revisited reports of people seeing infrared light. They repeated previous experiments in which infrared light had been seen, and they analyzed such light from several lasers to see what they could learn about how and why it sometimes is visible.

"We experimented with laser pulses of different durations that delivered the same total number of photons, and we found that the shorter the pulse, the more likely it was a person could see it," Vinberg explained. "Although the length of time between pulses was so short that it couldn’t be noticed by the naked eye, the existence of those pulses was very important in allowing people to see this invisible light."

Normally, a particle of light, called a photon, is absorbed by the retina, which then creates a molecule called a photopigment, which begins the process of converting light into vision. In standard vision, each of a large number of photopigments absorbs a single photon.

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Our eyes aren’t supposed to be able to see infrared light because infrared light waves are longer than the waves in the visual spectrum, but new work from vision researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis finds that … more

But packing a lot of photons in a short pulse of the rapidly pulsing laser light makes it possible for two photons to be absorbed at one time by a single photopigment, and the combined energy of the two light particles is enough to activate the pigment and allow the eye to see what normally is invisible.

"The visible spectrum includes waves of light that are 400-720 nanometers long," explained Kefalov, an associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences. "But if a pigment molecule in the retina is hit in rapid succession by a pair of photons that are 1,000 nanometers long, those light particles will deliver the same amount of energy as a single hit from a 500-nanometer photon, which is well within the visible spectrum. That’s how we are able to see it."

Although the researchers are the first to report that the eye can sense light through this mechanism, the idea of using less powerful laser light to make things visible isn’t new. The two-photon microscope, for example, uses lasers to detect fluorescent molecules deep in tissues. And the researchers said they already are working on ways to use the two-photon approach in a new type of ophthalmoscope, which is a tool that allows physicians to examine the inside of the eye.

The idea is that by shining a pulsing, infrared laser into the eye, doctors might be able to stimulate parts of the retina to learn more about its structure and function in healthy eyes and in people with retinal diseases such as macular degeneration.

Explore further: Creating bright X-ray pulses in the laser lab

More information: Palczewska G, Vinberg F, Stremplewski P, Bircher MP, Salom D, Komar K, Zhang J, Cascell M, Wojtkowski M, Kefalov VJ, Palczewski K. PNAS Online Early Edition, Dec. 1, 2014

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A home-brew observatory detects exoplanet

by Nancy Owano

Credit: David Schneider

David Schneider, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, was interested in exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the sun, but figured this kind of exercise as a home-based project was going to need expensive telescopes; he stumbled across a project at Ohio State University, where resourceful astronomers had figured out a way to spot exoplanets using a device with a lens designed for high-end cameras. Schneider’s wheels turned, thinking he might also be able to pull this off if he got his hands on a charge-coupled-device detector not research-grade, and maybe he could forget about an expensive telescope as well? He also discovered an online posting by an amateur astronomer saying he had detected a known exoplanet using a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera with a telephoto lens.

So go the events leading up to Schneider’s recent DIY video, which shows him successfully star-tracking with a telephoto lens and barndoor tracker—otherwise known as two pieces of plywood hinged together. Without the aid of a high powered telescope, then, "You yourself can detect an extrasolar planet, and I’m gonna show you how," he tells viewers, showing a little telephoto lens. He holds up two pumpkins, one smaller than the other. "If you’re very lucky, the planet, as it orbits its star, will come directly in front of the star, as viewed from earth—in which case, the amount of light coming from that star diminishes, very briefly as the planet passes in front of it. But that signal could be big enough for you to detect with a DSLR camera. The lens that comes with your camera probably isn’t going to do it." Instead, he said, you can inexpensively purchase a 300-millimeter Nikon telephoto lens, along with a Nikon-to-Canon adapter.

For next steps, cost-conscious Schneider looked for DIY alternatives to an expensive tracker and went for two pieces of plywood, which he referred to as his barndoor tracker. To drive the tracker, he pulled gears out of a defunct inkjet printer, added an Arduino microprocessor, wooden platform and ball head to orient the camera in any direction. He said he used software that came with his camera, allowing adjustments to camera settings, taking shots, recording images directly to a computer and programming a sequence of timed exposures.

Schneider’s goal? "A gas giant that belongs to a binary star system variously named HD 189733, HIP 98505, or V452 Vulpeculae, depending on the star catalog." (His article in IEEE Spectrum noted that, 63 light-years away, HD 189733 is too dim to be seen with the naked eye. Finding it required the use of such waypoints as the Dumbbell Nebula.) He used Iris software to perform corrections needed to calculate the brightness of HD 189733 as well as four reference stars. "So," he concluded "it seems my home-brew observatory did detect an exoplanet—using little more than run-of-the-mill DSLR and a $92 eBay camera lens."

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Explore further: Perth’s planet hunter helps discover unusual exoplanet

More information: IEEE Spectrum,… y-exoplanet-detector

© 2014

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Graphene body armor: Twice the stopping power of Kevlar, at a fraction of the weight | ExtremeTech

Graphene, the wonder material that should rejuvenate almost every sphere of science and technology in the next decade or so, can add another application to its already exceedingly long list: bulletproof armor. US researchers have found that, by stacking sheets of graphene on top of each other, it has between eight and 10 times the stopping power of steel.

I know, I know — at this point, it’s hardly surprising that graphene would make the ideal material for thin and light bulletproof armor. It’s still pretty awesome, however, that all of graphene’s properties — from being the most electrically conductive material in the world, to being super-strong, to allowing for transparent brain implants — all derive from a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure.

This is what perfect graphene looks like: A monolayer of carbon atoms. Turns out, it’s super-strong, along with being mega-conductive among other things.

This new research, carried out by Rice University and the University of Massachusetts, is notable for being one of first examples of actually testing graphene out. Usually, a lot of graphene research is simulated or theoretical or extrapolated. In this case, the US researchers actually fired tiny gold bullets at sheets of graphene, and then measured the results.

Read: Nanocellulose: A cheap, conductive, stronger-than-Kevlar wonder material made from wood pulp

The researchers tested between 10 and 100 layers of graphene — between 10 nanometers and 100 nanometers thick, respectively. They focused a laser on a gold filament, vaporizing it into a projectile bullet that traveled at 3,000 meters per second — or more than twice the muzzle velocity of a high-powered rifle. As the tiny (micrometer-sized) bullets slammed into the graphene armor, it showed around twice the stopping power of Kevlar, or about 10 times the stopping power of steel plate. [Research paper: DOI: 10.1126/science.1258544]

An illustration of graphene deforming, as it’s struck by a bullet

As expected, the impact of the bullets caused the graphene to deform into a cone shape — and then cracking radially. These cracks are somewhat problematic, but they could be easily solved with a composite structure (a ceramic plate, perhaps), or just by using more graphene. Remember, graphene is so thin and light that you can basically keep stacking layers of it indefinitely without incurring any significant bulkiness or mass; a million layers of graphene would be on the order of 1 million nanometers… or 1 millimeter thick.

Moving forward, we yet again return to the linchpin of the impending graphene revolution: Producing large quantities of the stuff, at a high enough quality for commercial applications. As it stands, we have processes that can produce fairly large quantities of low-grade graphene, or tiny quantities of high-grade graphene, but we’re still waiting for the Goldilocks method that does it all. And then… and then we’ll be taking rides on a space elevator, equipped with transparent, bendy smartphones, with batteries that last a week… and lightweight graphene body armor, just in case someone shoots you, or you’re hit by a stray piece of space debris. Doesn’t the future sound grand?

Now read: Graphene aerogel is seven times lighter than air, can balance on a blade of grass

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Solar and wind power are now fully cost competitive with fossil fuels – is it time t o switch over? | ExtremeTech

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Renewable energy production has boomed across the globe in recent years, driven by improvements to solar and wind turbines, increased economies of scale, and in some cases, significant government subsidies. This, in turn, has sparked a great many conversations over whether or not renewables are sufficiently advanced to provide significant amounts of base load power, the estimated cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and the timeline for transitioning from hypercompressed prehistoric plant matter to solar or wind power. A new report from financial advisory and asset management firm Lazard finds that the unsubsidized cost of solar and wind power has already reached parity [PDF] with conventional fossil fuels in many parts of the United States.

The improvements in just the past five years are striking. The graph below shows the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) for unsubsidized wind and solar buildouts. The cost ranges listed above each data point reflect different areas of the United States.

Solar power remains significantly more expensive than wind power throughout most of the country, but costs are expected to continue to fall, from a range of $180 to $265 per megawatt-hour (MWh) in 2014 for rooftop-mounted solar, to a range of $109 to $151 per MWh in 2017.

The unsubsidized price of energy has already reached parity in some markets and areas of the United States, as shown below:

Ubsubsidized renewable vs. conventional power costs

Obviously the applicability of these findings depends on where you live; Texas has a very different mix of wind and solar capacity than Maine does. Nonetheless, the implication is clear — in many cases, renewable power is now competitive with fossil fuels, even with no subsidies.

The base load question

The larger question that Lazard doesn’t address is when alternative energy capabilities will be sufficient to take over generating base load power. The term base load refers to a power plant that generates electricity steadily and on a 24-hour cycle as opposed to a “peaker” plant which cycles up only to meet increased daytime demand and shuts down when its output isn’t necessary.

Geothermal and hydropower plants are already used for base load power in some areas of the United States, but both of these methods rely on specific geological features that aren’t available across the entire country. Solar thermal plants and huge battery installations are both hypothetically capable of providing base load power, but both of these technologies are still under development and face formidable scaling problems.

Read: California’s new solar thermal power plant is actually a death ray that’s incinerating birds mid-flight

Recent research from the International Energy Agency speaks to the difficulty of adopting systems that rely heavily on renewable energy. According to the IEA, the existing grid can accommodate up to 10% renewable sources essentially for free, meaning operators don’t need to modify their control or switching systems to take full advantage of the new capacity. Past the 10% mark, existing electrical grids need to be intelligently “re-optimized.” the IEA notes that building out these networks in developed nations, where a fully functional power grid already exists, is an extremely challenging endeavor. It’s much easier for a country like China, Brazil, or India to build a modern “smart grid” than it is for nations like the United States.

Data from NREL’s capacity factor survey

Beyond the cost of power

As the price of solar and wind power falls, resistance to their adoption should also dissipate, at least in part. Much of the pushback in the United States has focused on whether or not climate change actually exists, or the false idea that the government shouldn’t promote energy research or grant subsidies. The fact that similar programs exist for conventional energy sources and have existed for decades is typically swept under the table.

Wind turbines are great, but very low density: You need a LOT of them to make up the power from a single coal power plant

The long-term feasibility of widespread renewable adoption, however, will depend on more than the total cost of energy. Renewable plants often have much lower capacity factors than the coal and gas-fired facilities they replace, which means that while a coal plant might produce power 80% of the time, a wind turbine might only generate electricity 40% of the time. This means you need two wind turbines for every coal plant — and since one coal plant produces far more electricity than one wind turbine, the footprint of a wind farm is much larger than an equivalent coal plant.

Concerns over land use, pollution, up-front costs, and long-term environmental impacts are all issues that go beyond the simple cost of energy, but they’re all likely to be front and center of the larger debate over the United States’ energy policy. Proponents of a 100% renewable future have argued that high efficiency and innovative energy storage mechanisms can eliminate the need for traditional base load power generation. I’m skeptical on that point for the simple reason that storage mechanisms that work well enough on an a household level can’t necessarily scale to national or even regional deployments.

Bringing solar and wind costs into line with conventional power across the nation won’t solve the challenge of upgrading the electrical grid to meet the needs of the 21st century, but it’s a vital first step.

For more on the creation of new, super (and smart) power grids, read our featured story on the topic.

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DNA survives a ride into space—on the exterior of a rocket | Ars Technica

Researchers were sending one up anyway, so they put DNA on its surface.

University of Zurich

The ability of biomolecules—and entire organisms—to survive space has implications for a number of scientific questions: whether molecules from space could have seeded life on Earth, or whether life could spread among the inner planets following impacts. It also has practical implications, in that it dictates how careful we need to be in sterilizing hardware we send to other planets.

Chance gave some biologists access to a rocket, and they figured out a way to answer one of the questions. While prepping a sounding rocket for an experiment that briefly lofted some of their samples to space, they decided to put some DNA on the rocket’s exterior. And when it returned to Earth 780 seconds later, they were able to recover the DNA and put it to use.

Sounding rockets are typically used for payloads that only have to be put into space briefly. In this case, the researchers were putting cells into the payload of a VSB-30, a two-stage, solid-fueled rocket manufactured in Brazil. While doing so, they decided it would be interesting to see what happened to samples outside of the protection of the payload. So they obtained some DNA called a plasmid that carried two genes: one that provides antibiotic resistance to bacteria, and a second that encodes a green fluorescent protein.

They placed some of the DNA on the underside of the payload container, in the grooves of some screws on the rocket’s surface, and at specific locations on the nose of the vehicle. After all that was done, the VSB-30 was sent on a 13 minute trip from far-northern Sweden to space and back, after which the payload was recovered.

The researchers then simply washed the sites off with a sterile solution and check for the presence of DNA. Despite temperatures that were likely to have briefly reached 1,000 degrees Celsius on the exterior of the rocket, there was still DNA present. And, without any further cleaning up, that DNA could be inserted into bacteria and provide them with antibiotic resistance. When placed into cultured human cells, they glowed green. Sequencing the DNA revealed that it didn’t contain more than a handful of mutations, which may or may not be a result of its time in space.

All of which suggests that DNA might be a tougher molecule than it’s generally given credit for—tough enough to survive re-entry on any hardware that we don’t properly sterilize.

PLOSone, 2014. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112979 (About DOIs).

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Finding the Ebola virus’ vulnerable points | Ars Technica

We know what antibodies stop it in its tracks—we now know where they attach.

by Shalini Saxena Nov 30 2014, 4:00pm CST

Three copies of the Ebola glycoprotein (blue) with antibodies (yellow) latched on to them.

The latest Ebola outbreak has dwarfed any that have occurred since the discovery of the virus in 1976; previous outbreaks have had lethality rates of up to 90 percent. Yet no vaccines or therapies are currently approved for human use, which limits our ability to treat patients and contain the outbreak. Mixtures of monoclonal antibodies (see sidebar) are a potential treatment option that has been used experimentally.

Monoclonal antibodies bind to a single structural feature on an infectious agent, such as the Ebola virus. These antibodies act as markers to flag down immune cells that destroy the foreign matter. Some antibodies can also be neutralizing, in that they block the harmful biological effects of a virus or prevent the budding of new virus particles. Mixtures of antibodies increase the treatment’s efficacy by limiting the opportunity of a mutant virus to escape recognition.

Further Reading

Bio-high-tech treatment for Ebola may have saved two US citizens

Antibodies from mice, made to look human, then produced in tobacco.

Two specific monoclonal antibody mixtures have been extensively evaluated: MB-003 and ZMAb. ZMab contains both neutralizing and non-neutralizing antibodies. In contrast, MB-003 antibodies are not neutralizing when administered alone. Recently, both MB-003 and ZMab have been combined into a single treatment named ZMapp that has shown increased efficacy. ZMapp has been successfully administered to human patients who have contracted Ebola during the current outbreak.

Until recently, little has been known about what structural features on Ebola that the antibodies bind to or how that binding occurs. The genetic material of the Ebola virus is protected by a filamentous coating of glycoproteins (GP), which are proteins chemically linked to complex sugars. GP mediates recognition of a host cell, enabling viral entry and subsequent infection. Recently, researchers have investigated how each monoclonal antibody (neutralizing and nonneutralizing) within ZMapp latches on to Ebola. These studies reveal sites of vulnerability on the virus.

Further Reading

Understanding the Ebola virus

The virus itself is really nothing special—until it gets inside a human.

Binding competition assays, where antibodies are tested to see if they interfere with each other’s attachment to GP, indicate that the antibodies in ZMapp bind to three general areas on the GP coating. Two antibodies compete strongly at the first area and another two at the second areas, indicating that certain antibodies have overlapping binding sites on the virus surface.

In contrast, two antibodies bind the third domain, yet they do not compete with one another. This suggests that the structural features they bind are physically separate, or that the features are flexible enough to accommodate both antibodies. Researchers believe this area is a mucin-like domain, which has a consistency similar to jelly (the term mucin should evoke mucus).

Single-particle electron microscopy was used to reconstruct the conformations of antibodies bound to a portion of GP to further understand antibody binding in the first two areas. These studies reveal that the first area is at the side/base of GP relative to where it sticks into the virus’ membrane. The second area is the glycan cap, a sugar-coated region that sticks out on the surface like a cap. In both cases, the binding site of these antibodies overlaps extensively and the key difference found was the angle between the antibody and GP.

Overall, these studies reveal how four separate neutralizing antibodies recognize the GP protein. Thus, targeting these three areas of vulnerability on the viral surface in the development of future therapies could lead to enhanced treatments for this deadly disease.


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Tech’s Gender Gap Wasn’t Always So Bad. Here’s How It Got Worse | WIRED

CODE documentary

Robin Hauser Reynolds says her new film, a study of gender in Silicon Valley, was sparked by a call from her daughter.

This was about a year and a half ago, and her daughter was away at college. Sounding distraught, she told Reynolds she was dropping out of her computer science major, because she was underperforming. “Of course, she was doing just fine. She was in the top third of her class,” says Reynolds, a filmmaker based in San Francisco. “But she was just one of two women in a class of 35.”

The incident stayed with Reynolds, and she soon realized her daughter’s anxiety was symptomatic of a much larger problem—a problem that went well beyond gender. She started noticing headlines, almost daily, that pointed to a growing need for computer scientists in the job market. One report, by way of the White House, said that if trends continued, there would be 1.4 million computer-science-related jobs available by 2020 and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills needed dot fill them. “This is not just a gender issue,” Reynolds says. “It’s an economics issue.”

The result is a new documentary film called CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which explores the glaring lack of American female and minority computer science engineers, as well as the many reasons behind this shortage. In the film, Reynolds speaks with coders, computer science teachers, brain specialists, psychologists, top tech executives, and many others across the tech world and beyond, including the newly appointed White House CTO Megan Smith. Reynolds and her team recently wrapped the movie, and it’s slated for release sometime in 2015, after the team raised more than $86,000 on Indiegogo.

The documentary is part of a much larger battle to close the gender gap in the tech world, bring additional diversity to the workforce, and indeed improve the economics of the hiring in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. Over the past year, the topic has risen to the forefront of public awareness, as behemoths such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have, one by one, released the diversity statistics of their workforce. These stats show that, yes, most tech workers inside these giants white and male. But like so many others, Reynolds says it doesn’t have to be this way.

‘Ambient Belonging’

With the film, Reynolds sought to answer one simple question: Why aren’t women being hired? Studies say women outpace men in college enrollment—females are 33 percent more likely than men to earn college degrees—so why is the ratio of male-to-female computer science majors so unbalanced?

After interviewing so many people across the industry, Reynolds found that the old excuse was true: women weren’t being hired in big numbers because there weren’t as many women to hire. Like her daughter, so many women drop out of computer science courses, or don’t enroll at all, because they didn’t feel like they fit in. They don’t experience what Reynolds calls “ambient belonging.” “Women and people of color don’t feel comfortable in this space. It sends a message, immediately: ‘Maybe this is not for you, maybe you shouldn’t be here.’”

Very few women are exempt—even those who, outwardly, appear to enjoy great success. Reynolds points to Danielle Feinberg, Pixar’s director of photography for lighting, who appears in the documentary. The 18-year Pixar veteran can still recall the difficulties of being in the minority in her computer science classes at Harvard. “She tells this story of how she used to have to email everybody in the class just to figure out who her partner would be for a project,” Reynolds says. “It was like being the last person left on the field when people had to pick their teams.”

The Difference Between Men and Women?

According to Jennifer Raymond and Allen Wyler, two neuroscientists Reynolds interviewed for the documentary, there is no physical evidence you can find in men and women’s brains that would suggest one gender would be inherently better at coding than the other. “If you take two people with the same exact IQ, and you give them the exact same education, there would be no reason that one would be better or worse at programming than the other,” Reynolds says. “Your brain is formed by experience.”

Indeed, the gender gap hasn’t always been this pronounced. For decades, in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. Then the mid-1980’s hit, and the percentage of women in computer science flattened out. Shortly after that, things got even worse. A recent study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in the mid-1980s, 37 percent of U.S. college computer science graduates were female, a far cry from today’s figure: 14 percent. “In the present,” Reynolds says, “there are very few women and people of color who can serve as role models in this industry.”

Another surprising insight Reynolds discovered in the process of filming CODE: In other technical fields, say medicine, when a woman decides to leave her job, her next job will typically still relate to medicine somehow. But when when a woman leaves her job in computer science, she tends to leave completely.

The problem is one of perception. But psychologists say that once a stereotype takes hold, it can take generations to reverse the impression. “The number one influencing factor is a person’s parents,” Reynolds says. “And beyond that, it’s going to be pop culture. As long as we have Hollywood reaffirming these stereotypes—in Barbie books and TV shows about Silicon Valley—stereotypes will prevail.”

Why Diversity Is So Needed

The scale of the problem is massive, Reynolds says, when you consider that today, technology permeates almost every area of humanity. “It’s in our pockets, in our cars, in hospitals—it’s everywhere,” she says.

There’s the computer science talent shortage to consider. But it’s more than that. If technology isn’t shaped by people with diverse views—at the coding level—our tech products won’t serve the greater good. The idea is that when you don’t have any diversity, says Reynolds, you end up creating products that serve the population that’s most like you.

“How many more Snapchats do we need?” Reynolds asks. “What we need are apps that are going to solve world hunger, medical issues, and environmental problems.”

What can push us in this direction? Reynolds points to the efforts of a group called Code for Progress. The Washington, D.C.-based initiative recruits a dozen social activists and puts them through a 5-month-long bootcamp to learn coding. Afterwards, the fellows are challenged to develop digital products, like apps and other services, that address issues of inequality. The twist is that the activists themselves are often re-emerging citizens. In the first group of fellows, for instance, three-fourths were women, most never went to college, and five out of 12 identified as LGBT. The effort represents more of what we should be hoping for—in more ways than one.

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