All posts filed under: Technology

Technology

Questions about exploring outer space

Questions about exploring outer space

Metallic shrapnel flying faster than bullets; the Space Shuttle smashed to pieces; astronauts killed or ejected into space. The culprit? Space debris – remnants of a Russian satellite blown up by a Russian missile. The one survivor, Ryan Stone, has to find her way back to Earth with oxygen supplies failing and the nearest viable spacecraft hundreds of miles away. Over on Mars, 20 years in the future, an exploration mission from Earth is going wrong. An epic dust storm forces the crew to abandon the planet, leaving behind an astronaut, Mark Watney, who is presumed dead. He has to figure out how to grow food while awaiting rescue. Hollywood knows how to terrify and inspire us about outer space. Movies like Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015), present space as hostile and unpredictable – spelling danger for any intrepid human who dares to venture outside Earth’s hospitable confines. This is only part of the story, however – the bit with people centre stage. Sure, no one wants to see astronauts killed or stranded in space. And we all …

Discovering gravitational waves from neutron stars

Discovering gravitational waves from neutron stars

Rumours have been swirling for weeks that scientists have detected gravitational waves – tiny ripples in space and time – from a source other than colliding black holes. Now we can finally confirm that we’ve observed such waves produced by the violent collision of two massive, ultra-dense stars more than 100m light years from the Earth. The discovery was made on August 17 by the global network of advanced gravitational-wave interferometers – comprising the twin LIGO detectors in the US and their European cousin, Virgo, in Italy. It is hugely important, not least because it helps solve some big mysteries in astrophysics – including the cause of bright flashes of light known as “gamma ray bursts” and perhaps even the origins of heavy elements such as gold. As a member of the LIGO scientific collaboration, I was immediately in raptures as soon as I saw the initial data. And the period that followed was definitely the most intense and sleep deprived, but also incredibly exciting, two months of my career. The announcement comes just weeks after three scientists were awarded the Nobel …

Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons

Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons

When he talks about where his fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology have taken a wrong turn, David Poeppel of New York University doesn’t mince words. “There’s an orgy of data but very little understanding,” he said to a packed room at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in February. He decried the “epistemological sterility” of experiments that do piecework measurements of the brain’s wiring in the laboratory but are divorced from any guiding theories about behaviors and psychological phenomena in the natural world. It’s delusional, he said, to think that simply adding up those pieces will eventually yield a meaningful picture of complex thought. He pointed to the example of Caenorhabditis elegans, the roundworm that is one of the most studied lab animals. “Here’s an organism that we literally know inside out,” he said, because science has worked out every one of its 302 neurons, all of their connections and the worm’s full genome. “But we have no satisfying model for the behavior of C. elegans,” he said. “We’re missing something.” …

Challenges of keeping the masses moving

Cities worldwide face the problems and possibilities of “volume”: the stacking and moving of people and things within booming central business districts. We see this especially around mass public transport hubs. As cities grow, they also become more vertical. They are expanding underground through rail corridors and above ground into the tall buildings that shape city skylines. Cities are deep as well as wide. The urban geographer Stephen Graham describes cities as both “vertically stacked” and “vertically sprawled”, laced together by vertical and horizontal transport systems. People flow in large cities is not only about how people move horizontally on rail and road networks into and out of city centres. It also includes vertical transport systems. These are the elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks that commuters use every day to get from the underground to the surface street level. Major transport hubs are where many vertical and horizontal transport systems converge. It’s here that people flows are most dense. But many large cities face the twin challenges of ageing infrastructure and increased volumes of people flowing through transport …

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

In the early days of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty … of a rich country inhabited by starving people.” Would any head of state today voice this view? A 2013 poll recorded that only 36% of Americans had “a lot” of trust that the information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. High-profile leaders, especially on the political right, have increasingly chosen to undermine conclusions of scientific consensus. The flash-points tend to be the “troubled technologies” – those that seem to threaten our delicate relationship with nature – climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetic therapy and geo-engineering. The polarisation in these public debates constitutes an implicit threat to the quality of decisions that we must make if we are to ensure the future well-being of our planet and our species. When political colour trumps evidence-based science, we are in trouble. Could it be that this increasingly dangerous ambivalence towards science in politics is related to our continued misgivings over its cultural …

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 …

Atomic clocks are helping physicists search for New Laws of Physics

Atomic clocks are helping physicists search for New Laws of Physics

In the late 1990s, Jun Ye, a young physicist at the research institute JILA in Boulder, Colorado, decided to dedicate much of his career to making the world’s best atomic clock. He spent some time getting to know different atoms — magnesium, calcium and barium. Eventually he settled on strontium for its internal stability. He then set to work building a laser that would tickle strontium atoms at just the right frequency. What Ye didn’t know is that he was also designing a dark matter detector. That realization came only in April 2015, when he got an email from Victor Flambaum, a physicist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Flambaum told Ye that according to certain theories, dark matter could subtly tweak the fundamental constants of nature, ever so slightly changing how fast clocks tick. Ye’s latest device — improved 20,000 times over his first version — was one of the few in the world sensitive enough to have a chance of picking up this faint signal. Ye is now carrying …

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. …

Tech companies want to detect your emotions and expressions, but users are not happy

As revealed in a patent filing, Facebook is interested in using webcams and smartphone cameras to read our emotions, and track expressions and reactions. The idea is that by understanding emotional behaviour, Facebook can show us more of what we react positively to in our Facebook news feeds and less of what we do not – whether that’s friends’ holiday photos, or advertisements. This might appear innocuous, but consider some of the detail. In addition to smiles, joy, amazement, surprise, humour and excitement, the patent also lists negative emotions. Possibly being read for signs of disappointment, confusion, indifference, boredom, anger, pain and depression is neither innocent, nor fun. In fact, Facebook is no stranger to using data about emotions. Some readers might remember the furore when Facebook secretly tweaked user’s news feeds to understand “emotional contagion”. This meant that when users logged into their Facebook pages, some were shown content in their news feeds with a greater number of positive words and others were shown content deemed as sadder than average. This changed the emotional …

Danger in the online and real word

The term “stranger danger” was coined as a warning to children: beware the unknown adult, proceed with caution and be very careful what personal information you reveal. The question is, do adults take their own advice? Perhaps most would be more guarded and make sure they know who they are dealing with before revealing too much about themselves. But our relationship with “strangers” has been evolving and social media has torn down some of the barriers that used to protect us. Now a relative stranger could be a Facebook “friend” and evidence shows that sexual predators are using this to their advantage. How we transition from stranger to non-stranger relationships is a relatively unexplored strand in research, with little recognition paid to the fact that the internet has completely transformed our level of engagement with strangers. At the same time other studies are showing how the rate of reporting sexual offences to conviction is low. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) concluded that 1 in 4 sexual offences should have been recorded …