Biggest Brewery This Side of the Nile

Think about the history of beer, and Bavarians in lederhosen swilling from steins might spring to mind. But thousands of years before the advent of Oktoberfest, beer played a central role in ancient Egypt. That fact was recently underscored when archaeologists unearthed the ruins of a massive brewery, dating from about 3000 BCE, at the site of the ancient city of Abydos. The discovery is the first proof that inhabitants of the Nile Valley brewed quantities comparable to modern commercial operations. “This was really industrial-scale production on a level that wasn’t happening anywhere else in the world,” says Matthew Adams, senior research scholar at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and director of the Abydos project. The findings demonstrate that Egyptian kings of that era had “an ability to marshal labor and mobilize resources, as well as serious administrative, organizational, and logistical capacity,” says Adams, “and that is what allowed them to build the pyramids just a couple of centuries later.”

An illustration depicting three Ancient Egyptian figures, stylized in hieroglyphic art form, drinking bottles of beer from a sarcophagus that is being used as a refrigerator for the beer.

For ancient Egyptians, drinking beer was about more than just a good time. “Beer was an absolute staple and part of their basic subsistence,” says Adams. “Wages were paid first and foremost in foodstuffs, and the most basic ones were bread and beer.” And home brewing wasn’t only for hipsters: “Every family made their own beer, on a household level.”

Though not the oldest, the Abydos brewery is by far the largest. “The scale of production is staggering. We’re talking about more than 20,000 liters of beer per batch, which equates to around 40,000 pints,” says Adams. “That’s enough to give a pint of beer to every person in a professional sports stadium. And they could probably do a batch every week, adding up to more than a million liters per year.”

So who was guzzling all that booze? Possibly no one. Abydos was home to the tombs and funerary temples of Egypt’s first kings, and evidence suggests the beer was used in ceremonies dedicated to those deceased rulers, who were considered gods. “Worshipping meant presenting the dead with offerings, which they believed the person would come and partake of to sustain them in the next world,” says Adams. “Offering food or beer was the most fundamental aspect of religious performance.”

Like some modern varieties, the beer produced at Abydos was made from fermented wheat, but it would have tasted quite different from ours. “The Egyptians didn’t have hops, which are almost universal in beer today and provide that characteristic crisp, bitter flavor,” says Adams. “In comparison, Egyptian beer would have seemed almost sweet and, because the Egyptians didn’t have the filtration technology we have, it would have been very cloudy, with a certain amount of particulate content. That also gave it a higher nutritive value.”

The team plans to return to Abydos, aided by specialists. “A paleobotanist will be doing detailed analysis of the beer residues to try to work out its composition and chemistry, and we’re collaborating with beer scientists from the Technical University of Munich,” says Adams. “The project brings archaeology solidly into the hard sciences—biology, biochemistry, DNA analysis—and represents a high level of global collaboration. Almost everyone can identify with beer, so if we’re successful in everything we want to do, the end results will make a big splash.”

—Jenny Comita

An illustration with a bright pink background depicting a rat wearing human clothes and sitting in an armchair like a person while clicking the screen of a cell phone. The rat also has heart symbols in its eyes.

Addicted to Like

Post. Refresh. Count likes. Post. Refresh. Count likes. This could go on all day. And since we’re talking about social media here, it sometimes does go on all day. This human behavior bears a resemblance to that of lab rats in a Skinner box clicking levers to release a little food, according to a study co-led by David Amodio, professor of psychology and neural science. “Internet use is often described as an addiction or conditioned response, like rats in a cage,” he says. “Although it’s a caricature, it led us to wonder if people’s online posting behavior might actually resemble a mechanism of reward-reinforcement learning, [which] had never been tested.”

So the researchers fired up Instagram and analyzed more than 1 million posts by more than 4,000 users, focusing on the timing and cadence of posting and how it correlated to rewards (hearts and likes, of course). A pattern emerged: the frequency with which someone posts directly corresponds to the number of likes their posts get. “This form of learning is associated with dopaminergic pathways involving the striatum, a part of the brain that supports reward processing and goal-driven behavior in all aspects of human behavior,” he says. “Our findings add to the growing understanding of how social media platforms like Instagram affect people—how they draw them in and keep them posting.”

The team published their work months before a whistleblower leaked internal findings from Facebook that its Instagram app contributes to higher levels of anxiety and depression among young people, as well as body image issues for teenage girls. “Other research has found that teens and adolescents are especially sensitive to reward learning,” says Amodio. “And due to their still-developing prefrontal cortex, they are less adept at self-regulation. This combination of factors may help explain why they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of social media.” His hope is that rooting such behavior in models of reward learning may yield new therapeutic approaches.

—Rory Evans

A photo showing a vast field of grain covered in sunlight as the sun sets in the distance over the horizon.

Tending to Farmers of Color

America’s deplorable history of yanking land, liberty, and livelihood out from under Black citizens extends to Black farmers, whose numbers have dwindled from nearly a million a century ago to about 45,000 today. In addition to being physically forced off their land through acts of domestic terror, Black growers are systematically denied the USDA subsidies and loans sustaining their White counterparts—who own more than 90 percent of the nation’s farms. Knowing who’d be hardest hit when the pandemic triggered an economic crisis and exacerbated food insecurity, Kaia Shivers created the Black Farmers Index.

“I wanted to offer a solution [that allows] people to directly contact farmers and buy their produce, their meat, and whatever it is that they harvest or raise,” says Shivers, Liberal Studies clinical assistant professor and founder of the online news agency Ark Republic. The free directory lists more than a thousand Black farmers and is especially welcome as promises of debt relief through the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan fade in the face of political and legal roadblocks. Shivers also publishes a biweekly newsletter, offers marketing tips, and very occasionally connects busy farmers with a potential big purchase. “We don’t like to be the middle people,” she says, “[because] we really want folks to have relationships with the people who grow their food.”

—Dulcy Israel

An illustration depicting a glowing chip processor against a blue circuit board background.

Breach Patrol

It happens all too often that news arrives of a fresh data breach at a company that processes precious details about you—your genetic profile, your credit card information, your Social Security number—subsequently followed by a notification informing you that your personal data has been compromised. But the incidence of such digital incursions could be dramatically reduced through the work of researchers at the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU Tandon, in collaboration with data security company Duality, to design a game-changing microchip (code-named Trebuchet).

Michail (Mihalis) Maniatakos, associate professor of computer engineering, and Brandon Reagen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science and engineering, designed the microchip to accelerate and facilitate practical applications of a paradigm-shifting form of encryption. Called fully homomorphic encryption (FHE), it’s an advanced cryptographic technique widely considered the holy grail of encryption. FHE will enable users to work with data that remains encrypted while in use, a more secure alternative to the prevalent practice of encrypting data only during transmission and/or storage. There’s a sticking point, though: “Despite FHE’s potential to solve many privacy issues, it’s far too slow to be used,” explains Reagen. “Therefore, large-scale, custom hardware like Trebuchet is really the only way this data-protecting tech sees the light of day.” It’s been Reagen’s goal to develop a chip with enough parallel functionality to allow multiple computations to happen simultaneously at maximum throughput. In other words, information multitasking on steroids that permits data to remain encrypted while being transmitted.

The solution is a strategic combination of streamlined hardware architecture and dedicated logic units that can natively process FHE’s underlying mathematical operations. The logic units employ a feature called large arithmetic word sizes (LAWS) to supply the horsepower to crunch the massive numbers involved. The other piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to keep these modular multipliers optimally busy by keeping them fed with data and thus avoiding wasted performance capacity. According to Reagen, “the overriding theme of the design is to remove all the fat from standard, general-purpose computers, in [figuring out] how to efficiently move the massive amounts of data around that are necessary for each computation.” This was achieved by defining a hierarchical architecture and designing customizations like parallel hardware that allow multiple processes to happen at once and at maximum capacity.

The team anticipates that squeezing all the juice possible out of these LAWS units will turbocharge the encryption process. They’re now working on perfecting the architecture and multipliers and, eventually, plan to collaborate with the Center for Cyber Security at NYU Abu Dhabi to fabricate a prototype. The end goal is private machine learning training and inference, enabling scientists to train and use AI systems on encrypted data. “FHE has the potential to revolutionize privacy—no more ‘Sorry, we got breached, all your data was taken’ excuses,” says Maniatakos. “Data will always be processed while encrypted, so there will be nothing to steal.”

—Abhimanyu Das

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Photos from top: illustration by Davide Bonazzi; illustration by Dan Page; instamatics/iStock; Panuwat Sikham/iStock