December 29, 2012
Today as the year ends, several scientists, innovators and scientific advocates pass into memory. From the inventor of the barcode to the first human to perform an organ transplant, their lives and their work helped to shape our culture, modern way of life and place in human history.
Space Sciences: 2012 saw the passing of a few key figureheads of space exploration, as mentioned in a previous post. In addition, Bernard Lovell, a physicist and astronomer who founded Britain’s Jodrell Bank Observatory of radio telescopes, died August 6. The telescopes he helped build were the first to identify quasars, and one was the only telescope in the western hemisphere capable of tracking Sputnik–the first artificial satellite–after it was launched by the Soviets in 1957. In 1960, his telescope became the first to transmit a command to a deep space probe–Pioneer V–22 million miles away, directing it to separate from its carrier rocket.
Earth and Environmental Sciences: F. Sherwood Rowland, winner of the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1995, died March 10. Sherwood and colleagues warned in a landmark 1974 Nature paper that chlorofluorocarbons–CFCs, a chemical found in refrigerants and aerosol spray cans–were destroying the ozone layer at alarming rates. The ozone layer protects life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays which damage tissues and cause skin cancer in humans; without this layer, life couldn’t exist. His discovery and his efforts to draw public attention to the ozone layer’s destruction helped pave the way for the Montreal Protocol, which in 1987 was adopted by the world community to phase out CFC production.
Barry Commoner, labeled as the “Paul Revere of ecology’ by Time magazine in 1970, passed away September 30. Commoner, a biologist, helped to make saving the planet a political cause by showing that the post-World-War-II technological boom had environmental consequences–he documented the global effects of radioactive fallout and spoke against pollutants released by the petrochemical and nuclear power industries–and he argued that the public had a right to know about the use and extent of industrial pollutants.
Medicine: On July 24, Robert Ledley, a radiologist who invented the CT scanner–technology that produces cross sectional images of the human body–died from Alzheimer’s disease. The technology revolutionized how physicians treat cancer–before this invention, health professionals used exploratory surgery to search for cancerous masses. Joseph E. Murray, the doctor who performed the first successful human organ transplant in 1954 (PDF) when he removed a kidney from one twin and placed it in the other ailing twin, died on June 28. He won the Nobel prize in medicine in 1990. Also dead this year is William House, who invented the cochlear implant–a device that helps restore hearing to the profoundly deaf. He died on December 7.
On Feburary 20, Renalto Pulbecco died; Pulbecco shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 1975 for his work on how certain viruses altered DNA and caused cancer cells to spread at accelerated rates. This finding provided the first concrete evidence that cancer growth is tied to genetic mutations. Another Nobel prize winner to pass away this year was Andrew Huxley, who helped to unravel the mechanism behind how nerve impulses control muscle action. Huxley died on May 30. Joining the list of deceased Nobel laureates is William S. Knowles, who died June 13. Knowles helped devise a mechanism that allowed researchers to separate medicinal compounds from their toxic mirror images (same composition, different chemical orientations); his work won him the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2001.
Technology: Stanford R. Ovchinsky, who died on October 17, invented the rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery. He also played a role in the development of solar panels, rewritable CDs, and flat panel displays. December 9 saw the death of N. Joseph Woodand, the co-inventor of the barcode now ubiquitous in global commerce. Woodand drew inspiration for the think and thin lines of his product identifiers from Morse code, which he learned as a Boy Scout.
Paleoanthropology: For upwards of 50 years, Phillip Tobias led excavations in South Africa that helped identify extinct species of human ancestors. Tobias, who discovered more than a third of the world’s early hominid fossils, died on June 7. One of his benchmark finds was an extraordinarily complete 2.2-million-year-old fossil skeleton, nicknamed “Little Foot,” uncovered in 1995.
However you celebrate the New Year, may these late greats be in your thoughts!
December 7, 2012
We all have science nerds in our lives (if you’re reading this blog, in fact, you probably are one yourself). But when the wintertime gift-giving holidays roll around, picking out gifts for this crowd can be more difficult than for others. A sweater just won’t cut it. With this in mind, here some fascinating (if sometimes impractical) gift ideas for science nerds:
Glass anatomical models: as detailed by Wired, master glassblower Gary Farlow and his team of artists make exquisitely detailed full-scale anatomical models of the human body’s vascular systems (above), from the arteries of the brain to the vessels that feed our internal organs. These stunning creations aren’t just for show—designed with the help of cardiologists, the see-through systems are used for training medical students. You might want to reserve them as gifts for the extra-special bio-nerds on your list, though, as a full-body model costs up to $25,000.
3-D Printers: Once restricted to professionals, 3-D printers are rapidly coming down enough in price to enter the consumer market in earnest. Much like a normal printer takes digital images and puts them on a piece of paper, a 3-D printer can convert plans for 3-D objects and carve them into plastic or other materials. They are beloved by engineers, inventors and tinkerers of all types. At the low end of the market is the Printbot jr., a $399 machine that requires some self-assembly, and the $480 Portabee 3D Printer, billed as the world’s first portable 3-D printing device.
Retro Adding Machines: The age of the artisan calculator is upon us. As he desribes on his website, Andy Aaron makes fully functional Victorian-inspired adding machines, using old-fashioned tools like switches, cranks and levers, all mounted in a handsome wood casing. The handcrafted devices each take roughly a year to produce—and all the ones posted on Aaron’s website are already marked “SOLD”—so you might went to get in touch with him pronto if you want to buy one this holiday season.
Electronic Field Guides: In the past, nature lovers roamed forests and countrysides with a trusty field guide at hand to help identify plant and wildlife species. Now all you need is your smart phone. Leafsnap is one of the first in a series of field guide apps being developed by researchers from a group of institutions (including the Smithsonian) that automatically identify a plant species based on a picture you take of a leaf. Even better, it’s entirely free.
Martian Meteorites: As Curisoity explores Mars, you can buy yourself a small piece of it. MeteoriteMarket.com sells a variety of meteorites, including pieces of Martian Shergottite rock that crashed into the Oman desert and were discovered in 1999. While the many of the smallest pieces are already long gone, a handful remain, ranging from $1067 to $14,500 in price.
August 29, 2012
This Friday, look to the night sky and you’ll see what’s referred to as a “blue moon”—the last time you’ll get the chance to glimpse this phenomenon until 2015. Those expecting to see a moon that’s actually an unusual color, though, will be disappointed. The term simply refers to the unusual occurrence of a second full moon within one calendar month, and since we already had a full moon on August 2, this will be a blue moon, the first seen in the United States since December 2009.
Every 29.53 days, the moon undergoes a complete phase cycle, as the portion of its surface that’s illuminated by the sun shifts from entirely within our line of sight (a full moon) to entirely hidden on the “far” side of the moon, away from the earth (a new moon, which is completely dark). Since 29.53 days is relatively close to the lengths of the months in our calendar, most months only have one full moon. Our calendar, however, is based off our motion around the sun, not the phases of the moon, so the periods don’t match up exactly.
As a result, every 2.7 years, two full moons are squeezed into one month. It’s the same way that, if you get a paycheck every two weeks, you’ll occasionally end up getting three paychecks within one month, since two 14-day pay periods (28 days) don’t match exactly with the calendar month. That’s what’s happening on Friday—the moon will reach its second full phase of August at precisely 9:58 a.m. EDT on the the 31st—and will happen next in July 2015.
If the moon won’t actually be blue Friday, then why the colorful name? Although it’s frequently cited as a piece of old folklore, Philip Hiscock, a professor of folklore at Memorial University in Canada, writes in Space & Telescope that this isn’t the case. Hiscock writes that it’s “a truly modern piece of folklore, masquerading as something old.”
Originally, in the early 1900s in places such as the Maine Farmer’s Almanac, the term “blue moon” was used to refer to a related phenomenon, when four full moons occurred within a given season, instead of the typical three. However, in 1946, amateur astronomer James High Pruett incorrectly interpreted the term in an article he wrote in Sky & Telescope using the meaning we know today. The mistake was repeated several times—notably, in 1980 on the NPR show Star Date—and eventually the new definition stuck, along with a common misattribution to traditional folklore, which “appeals to our modern sensibilities, including our desire to have plausible origins,” Hiscock writes. Since then, the term has been appropriated for everything from a novel to a butterfly to the widely popular Belgian white-style beer.
On very rare occasions, the moon actually can appear blue, if particulate matter of the right size is suspended in the atmosphere and interacts with light reflecting off the moon. “If there’s been a recent forest fire or volcanic eruption that pumped significant smoke or ash into the upper atmosphere, it is possible for the moon to take on a bluish hue,” says Space.com. Specifically, if the ash or other particles are roughly 1 micron wide (1 millionth of a meter), they will scatter red wavelengths of light, allowing other colors to pass through and reach the earth. This can cause the moon to appear blue or greenish and has happened several times in recent history, such as during the June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which caused the phenomenon to occur in several places around the world.
Perhaps this accounts for the most commonly used meaning of the term, “once in a blue moon,” which refers to something that happens on a very infrequent basis. Unlike the blue moon that you can see Friday night and can count on like clockwork every 2.7 years, seeing a moon that’s actually in blue color will be more difficult. To do so, you might have to be patient for quite a while—and wait around for a massive volcanic explosion.
July 2, 2012
The Washington, DC area has seen its fair share of destructive storms–we get hurricanes, tornadoes and even the rare snowpocalypse. But on Friday night we got hit with another type of storm–one that I’d never heard of–called a derecho (pronounced ”deh-REY-cho”).
The storm swept through the area late Friday evening, bringing an incredible amount of thunder and lightning, winds up to 80 mph and sheets of rain. By morning, hundreds of trees had been blown down, millions were left without power and several people were dead. Netflix, Pinterest and Instagram had all been taken down by Amazon server outages caused by the storm. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival had to shut down for a day to clean up the mess. We were all left wondering, “what in the world had happened?”
The stifling heat wave that we’d been suffering through, which had stretched from the Midwest through the mid-Atlantic to the Southeastern United States and brought temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, was to blame for the fast-moving band of thunderstorms. The Capitol Weather Gang explains:
As this stifling air bubbled northward, clashing with the weather front draped from near Chicago to just north of D.C., thunderstorms erupted. They grew in coverage and intensity as they raced southeast, powered by the roaring upper level winds and fueled by the record-setting heat and oppressive humidity in their path.
The coverage and availability of this heat energy was vast, sustaining the storms on their 600 mile northwest to southeast traverse. The storms continually ingested the hot, humid air and expelled it in violent downdrafts – crashing into the ground at high speeds and spreading out, sometimes accelerating further.
Though unfamiliar to those of us here on the East Coast, derechos occur more commonly in the Corn Belt, which runs from Mississippi into the Ohio Valley, but even there they are relatively infrequent. They can wreak their havoc at any time of the year but are most likely to occur during May, June and July. Derechos get their starts in curved bands of thunderstorms called “bow echoes,” which are perhaps better known for their ability to spawn tornadoes. But instead of rotating cells of winds, derechos blow and travel in straight lines.
Derechos have a long history here in the United States. The term “derecho” was coined by University of Iowa physics professor Gustavus Hinrichs in an 1888 paper in the American Meteorological Journal in which he illustrated the path of such a storm that had crossed over Iowa on July 31, 1877. The storm’s straight path across the state gave Hinrichs the inspiration for the storm’s name–”derecho” means “straight” in Spanish. But path alone isn’t quite enough for a storm to qualify as a derecho; wind speeds must also reach a minimum of 57 mph.
Given that derechos are associated with warmer weather, could they become more common as the United States heats up due to climate change? Tom Kines, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com, told the Guardian: “If indeed we are seeing global warming, then it will certainly increase the risk of something like this happening again.”
June 21, 2012
How can we decide whether a computer program has intelligence? In 1950, British mathematician Alan Turing, one of the founding fathers of computer science, proposed an elegantly simple answer: If a computer can fool a human into thinking he or she is conversing with another human rather than a machine, then the computer can be said to be a true example of artificial intelligence.
As we get ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth on Saturday, we’re still chewing on the Turing test. He predicted that by the year 2000, we’d have computers that could fool human judges as much as 30 percent of the time. We have yet to build a computer program that can pass the Turing test this well in controlled experiments, but programmers around the globe are hard at work developing programs that are getting better and better at the task. Many of these developers convene annually at the Loebner Prize Competition, an annual challenge in which the some of the world’s most sophisticated AI programs to try to pass themselves off as human in conversation.
Strike up a conversation with some of these chatbots to see just how human they might seem:
Rosette won the 2011 Loebner Prize. It was built by Bruce Wilcox, who also won the previous year’s award with the program’s predecessor, Suzette. Wilcox’s wife Sue, a writer, wrote a detailed backstory for Rosette, including information on her family, her hometown and even her likes and dislikes.
Cleverbot is a web application that learns from the conversations it has with users. It was launched on the web in 1997 and has since engaged in more than 65 million conversations. At the 2011 Techniche Festival in India, it was judged to be 59.3 percent human, leading many to claim it had successfully passed the Turing test.
Elbot, created by programmer Fred Roberts, won the 2008 Loebner Prize, convincing 3 of the 12 human judges that it was a human. In its spare time, it says, “I love to read telephone books, instructions, dictionaries, encyclopedias and newspapers.”
A.L.I.C.E. (which stands for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity) is one of the programming world’s classic chatbots, and won the Loebner Prize in 2000, 2001 and 2004. Although it has been outstripped by more recent programs, you can still chat with it and see how it revolutionized the field more than a decade ago.