STEM Scene: March 27


Emily Tan

STEM Scene is Harker Aquila’s STEM repeater focusing on current developments within the STEM world. This installation features five briefs.

by Claire Zhao, Copy Editor

OpenAI releases new language model GPT-4

Following its predecessor GPT-3.5, OpenAI released GPT-4, the latest language system for ChatGPT, on March 14. GPT-4 is available with a $20 monthly subscription to ChatGPT Plus. While it is “less capable than humans in many real-world scenarios,” it “exhibits human-level performance on various professional and academic benchmarks,” according to the San-Francisco-based company. The new model can accept and analyze both images and text inputs, in comparison to GPT-3.5, which only allows text inputs. It can also compute income tax deductions if given the necessary code, as shown by OpenAI President Greg Brockman in an online demonstration on March 14. Among a wide range of simulated exams, GPT-4 received a 1410 on the SAT — compared to GPT-3.5’s 1260 — and a 4 on the AP Calculus BC exam — compared to GPT-3.5’s 1. It even offers “steerability,” meaning its outputs can be customized by the user through the “system” message. For instance, when prompted to tutor a student with the Socratic method, talk like a Shakespearean pirate or write its responses in JSON instead of plaintext, it can consistently do so without breaking character. Although GPT-4 still runs into occasional errors with logical reasoning and reporting facts, it has already shown drastic improvements over GPT-3.5, and its possibilities don’t stop there. Many educators hope that GPT-4 will be a convenient and accessible learning tool, especially for those who previously could not afford high-quality education. Additionally, earlier this year, Microsoft fused chatbot technology with its Bing search engine after investing over $1 billion in OpenAI. The company also introduced Microsoft 365 Copilot on March 16 — a system that embeds many large language models (LLMs), including GPT-4, into Microsoft 365

Cause of the coronavirus remains unknown

It’s been three years since the start of the pandemic, but scientists, health officials and governments alike are still debating over its actual origins. Some say the SARS-CoV-2 virus resulted from a mutation in an animal virus which incidentally spread to humans, most likely originating from bats. However, U.S. intelligence officials, including the Department of Energy, recently hypothesized that the virus was a lab leak –– in other words, man-made. The World Health Organization (WHO) requested access to China’s lab data in 2022 in order to investigate the theory, but the Chinese government allegedly withheld the relevant data. Between these two theories, a 2021 intelligence report stated that four of the U.S. intelligence community members reported low confidence that the virus came from an animal, while one reported moderate confidence that the virus came from a lab. Although the U.S. intelligence community has not reached an agreement on this matter, both of the theories have various implications attached to them. Scientists in support of the animal theory say that it is much more believable than the lab leak theory. SARS-CoV-2 is the ninth coronavirus variant to infect humans, while all previous coronaviruses came from animals, according to a 2021 research paper published in the journal Cell. Two 2022 studies published in the journal Science also found that the virus most likely originated from Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, at least in its earlier stages. On March 14, a French scientist also shared her findings of raccoon dog DNA entangled with virus DNA from the same market, further ratifying the animal-to-human theory. On the other hand, scientists such as Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, would disagree. She cites the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the epicenter of this potential lab leak, with one of their research proposals in 2018 containing “a blueprint for COVID-like viruses.” These claims have caused considerable concerns surrounding the potential of this virus as a biological weapon. However, the 2021 intelligence summary stated their aversions to this theory.

Four new SpaceX crew members arrive at space station 

SpaceX launched four astronauts from the U.S., Russia and the United Arab Emirates to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 2, and they successfully arrived on March 3. Their capsule is a Crew Dragon spacecraft named Endeavour, attached to a Falcon 9 rocket. Originally, SpaceX scheduled the flight for Feb. 27 but called it off last-minute due to technical difficulties. Additionally, an issue with a docking hook delayed their linkup by an hour. The mission, called Crew-6, took off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and gained recognition for including astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi: the second person from the U.A.E. in space, and the first person from the U.A.E. to go on a 6-month space mission. The crew also includes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Stephen Bowen, a retired Navy submariner and the crew’s leader, NASA’s Warren “Woody” Hoburg, a former engineer and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, a retired Russian Air Force major. Al-Neyadi expresses excitement that he will be joined by two other Arab SpaceX astronauts this spring, making three Arab astronauts in the ISS at one time. Notably, March is also the month of Ramadan, but he explains that fasting might compromise his health during the mission. Bowen said the team had meshed well, despite tensions between the countries they represent. This new crew will replace the previous mission, Crew-5, which consists of two NASA astronauts, a Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut who have been at the ISS since last October. Their capsule safely returned to Earth late on March 11, arriving in the Gulf of Mexico.

EPA proposes limit on harmful ‘forever chemicals’

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed restrictions on “forever chemicals,” or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), on March 14. PFAS have been used in consumer products — including food packaging and shampoo — since the 1940s, and they have only recently been diminishing in prevalence. These toxic, widespread chemicals take their name from their non-biodegradability, and strong evidence suggests that they are linked to conditions such as kidney cancer, heart attacks, low birthweight, decreased fertility and immunocompromisation. Although the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that forever chemicals could cost $38 billion to remove from drinking water, the EPA plans to limit them to the lowest detectable levels, benefitting an estimated 100 million Americans. The restrictions would mainly be imposed on two types of PFAS, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). They would also monitor the combined levels of four other PFAS, including GenX chemicals, which are used as alternatives to PFOA and PFOS. To do so, the EPA wants approximately 4% to 12% of water providers to test their water for PFAS, as well as inform the public and remove them if they are found. It has also provided $2 billion for states to help with pollution and are planning to give more in the future. For years, environmentalists have been looking forward to these mandatory regulations. Some state or local regulators, including Michigan with a PFAS limit that has been in place since 2020, have already been restricting forever chemicals. Now, with federal efforts, PFAS limits could help a significantly higher number of communities in the U.S.

Scientists create baby mice from two males

Scientists created functional mice embryos using cells from two male mice, according to a study published in the journal Nature on March 15. In their described procedure, the researchers started by taking skin cells from the tails of adult male mice. Then, they converted these into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, or a special type of cell that can develop into a wide range of other tissue and cell types. As these iPS cells grew, the scientists used a process called differentiation, involving the use of a specific drug, to transform them into egg cells. Finally, after the cells finished fertilization, researchers implanted them into female mice. This new breakthrough might make it possible for male same-sex couples to have biological children without donor eggs, and scientists could also use it to help endangered animals, according to a commentary on the study. However, only around 1% of 630 embryos the researchers implanted ultimately grew into pups, which potentially renders the method inefficient and unreliable. Diana J. Laird, a co-author of the commentary, states that scientists would need to take note of any mutations that might occur, and that it may be too early to determine whether it would be safe for humans. But regardless of its current feasibility, the technology represents the first step towards using the same procedure for human embryos.