Author: Ambrossini

Using a Sphere to Talk to Mars?

It’s hard to send a message from Mars. When the Curiosity rover, currently active on the surface of the red planet, has something to tell NASA back on Earth, it formulates its communication in binary code and beams it our way. Noise inevitably creeps in during the long transmission, so that the message received by NASA is different from the one the rover sent. At that point it’s a game of telephone, as NASA engineers make their best guess about what Curiosity was trying to tell them. The situation from Mars is an exaggerated version of what happens whenever a message is communicated through any noisy channel — be it from a flash drive to your computer or an air traffic control tower to an airplane. In each case, the receiver has to estimate what the sender meant to say. One way to ensure that the message gets through is to use a geometric way of packaging information called a “spherical code.” A spherical code is a way of translating a message written in one …

Disobedience

Disobedience

The first sound we hear in Disobedience is the sharp, prolonged blaring of the shofar. In the Jewish religion it’s a call for people to pay attention, to wake up from a slumber of complacency and think about our relationship with God. Immediately the film places us in the middle of an Orthodox congregation, gazing up at the final sermon of a dying rabbi; we can see the rows of women in wigs and long, black skirts far above him, watching from the gender-segregated balcony. The oddness of the image — the faith leader in the foreground, his life draining as he speaks, his perspective dwarfed by the often out-of-focus women watching him from above — has the peculiar effect of inverting the ways we typically understand Orthodox power dynamics. In this moment, who is closer to God? Based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, the film chronicles a forbidden romance between two women with ties to this London Orthodox community. Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the rabbi’s free-spirited daughter, left the religion years ago to make …

Catalonia’s independence referendum

Catalonia’s independence referendum

An old refrain often used about Spain is that in the country “everything is politicised”. This became apparent following the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in mid-August 2017. As the nation sought an explanation for the attacks, the debate rapidly became wrapped up in the ongoing dispute between Madrid and the regional Catalan government in Barcelona. The blame game became framed in Catalan or Spanish terms. For some, the Catalan police became national heroes, while for others they had, through negligence, apparently failed to prevent the attacks. The disagreement is only partially about the aftermath of the attacks. It’s also part of the push for independence in Catalonia, which has become a permanent feature of the political landscape in Spain. The Catalan parliament passed a measure in September officially announcing its plan to hold a referendum on October 1. If Yes won on the day, the parliament said, it would declare independence from Spain within 48 hours. The Madrid government responded by declaring the vote illegal. The Spanish government is now attempeting to prevent …

New government in Spain and what it means for Catalan's

New government in Spain and what it means for Catalan’s

Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez rose to office against a backdrop of unprecedented drama. But now he could capitalise on the circumstances that landed him the top job to resolve the conflict with Catalonia. Sanchez successfully ousted his predecessor Mariano Rajoy by passing a motion of no confidence against the Partido Popular government. Seizing on the unique opportunity offered by the sentencing of several prominent PP officials in a long-running corruption trial, the opposition leader moved quickly. Sanchez needed at least 176 votes but his Socialist party (PSOE) only had 84 seats and Ciudadanos, a centrist-liberal formation with a strong Spanish nationalist rhetoric, wouldn’t endorse a new left-wing government. So, Sanchez needed to muster the support of all other parties in the Spanish parliament. This included the left-wing party Podemos, and several nationalist parties from the Basque country and Catalonia, such as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). Sanchez takes office after his bold move in parliament. EP/Emilio Naranjo At the same time, in Barcelona, Quim Torra – a Catalan nationalist hand-picked by the exiled …

Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes

In 1985, when Carl Sagan was writing the novel Contact, he needed to quickly transport his protagonist Dr. Ellie Arroway from Earth to the star Vega. He had her enter a black hole and exit light-years away, but he didn’t know if this made any sense. The Cornell University astrophysicist and television star consulted his friend Kip Thorne, a black hole expert at the California Institute of Technology (who won a Nobel Prize earlier this month). Thorne knew that Arroway couldn’t get to Vega via a black hole, which is thought to trap and destroy anything that falls in. But it occurred to him that she might make use of another kind of hole consistent with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: a tunnel or “wormhole” connecting distant locations in space-time. While the simplest theoretical wormholes immediately collapse and disappear before anything can get through, Thorne wondered whether it might be possible for an “infinitely advanced” sci-fi civilization to stabilize a wormhole long enough for something or someone to traverse it. He figured out that …

Is religion a force for good?

Do we need religion in order to be moral? George Washington cautioned against“indulg[ing] the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”, and today more than half of Americans believe morality is impossible without a belief in God. The idea that religion is important for morality is not just widespread but deeply ingrained. Psychologist Will Gervais has shown that even people who explicitly deny believing in God harbour the intuition that acts such as serial murder and incest are more representative of atheists than of religious people. Of course, prominent atheistic commentators resent any suggestion that the religious have some special claim on moral behaviour. Comedian Tim Minchin said “if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.” In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion he writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” In a month when gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) while murdering 132 school children in Pakistan, it may be easy …

Struggles of self taught Artificial Intelligence

Until very recently, the machines that could trounce champions were at least respectful enough to start by learning from human experience. To beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, IBM engineers made use of centuries of chess wisdom in their Deep Blue computer. In 2016, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo thrashed champion Lee Sedol at the ancient board game Go after poring over millions of positions from tens of thousands of human games. But now artificial intelligence researchers are rethinking the way their bots incorporate the totality of human knowledge. The current trend is: Don’t bother. Last October, the DeepMind team published details of a new Go-playing system, AlphaGo Zero, that studied no human games at all. Instead, it started with the game’s rules and played against itself. The first moves it made were completely random. After each game, it folded in new knowledge of what led to a win and what didn’t. At the end of these scrimmages, AlphaGo Zero went head to head with the already superhuman version of AlphaGo that had beaten Lee Sedol. …

Is there an evolutionary advantage in being religious?

For a biologist like me, the interesting questions about religion have always been where did it come from and why did it evolve? I taught evolutionary biology in a Catholic University in the most Catholic country in the world – Brazil. Some of my colleagues here in the UK thought that must have been very challenging, but it wasn’t. The Brazilian population is unusual in that 60% of the population are religious and also believe in evolution by natural selection. The development of new religions looks like the way new species are formed and thrive. In case of protestants, the “evolutionary spark” would be Martin Luther with his calls for reform. Similarly the deliberate differences, such as religious rituals, were created to keep the two faiths separated in the same manner that speciation of songbirds often provides related species with similar, but distinct songs so they will not interbreed. A recent study by Bernard Crespi and Kyle Summers at Simon Fraser University attempts to explain religion in biological terms. They believe that evolution of religion …

Debate on Universal Basic Income in the U.S.?

Universal basic income is a controversial proposal under which the government provides regular, permanent cash payments to each citizen with the intent of lifting everyone out of poverty, encouraging their participation in the economy and covering the costs of their most fundamental needs including food, housing and clothing. Everyone, in other words, gets a paycheck – whether they work or not. The idea of setting a universal basic income has been around for centuries but remains largely experimental. Canada, Germany, Switzerland and Finland have launched trials of universal basic income variations. It gained some momentum among some economists, sociologists and tech industry leaders with the advent of technology that allowed factories and businesses to automate the manufacturing of goods and to reduce the size of their human workforces. How the Universal Basic Income Works There are many variations of the universal basic income. The most basic of these proposals would merely replace Social Security, unemployment compensation and public-assistance programs with a basic income for every citizen. The U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network supports such a …

Resurgence of Catalan

Resurgence of Catalan

Barcelona is one of the best-known cities in the world, yet visitors expecting to practice their Spanish can often be surprised when they hear Catalan spoken in the streets. The language has had a troubled history, but is a key marker of identity in Catalonia, a region where many hope for independence from Spain. The outcome of regional elections on September 27 means the current Catalan president Artur Mas may now seek to declare independence. Attempts to suppress the Catalan language and culture have deep historical roots but were intensified during the era of Francisco Franco. The dictator banned the Catalan language from public spaces and made Spanish the sole language of public life. For 40 years under the dictatorship, Spain tried to present itself as an ethnically and politically homogeneous state. The execution of Franco’s opponents continued after the end of the Spanish Civil War. One prominent victim was the former Catalan president, Lluís Companys who was deported from Nazi-occupied France in 1940 and then executed in Barcelona. Cultural repression After the Spanish Civil …