Inspiring Science

Massive solar flares, a Mayan calendar that goes to at least 3500, active sand dunes on Mars, Vesta is a proto-planet, a material scientist has found new atomic structures in metallic glass, and this…
http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/05/11/giant-pulsing-sea-blob-identified/

So much to marvel at and be inspired by!

What Might Happen Between Now and 2111?


This evening I have been reading New Scientist and came across an article about major science news from 2011. Here is the link to the New Scientist article: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228444.900-review-of-2011-the-years-biggest-news-at-a-glance.html. It was a quite remarkable year in science. Just to give you a taste:

In physics, scientists at CERN managed to bottle atoms of anti-hydrogen for 1000 seconds. This doesn’t sound like a long time but it is about 10,000 times longer than has been managed before and it is ANTI-hydrogen, as in anti-matter that doesn’t get on well with regular matter. It is claimed, and this is still being debated, that neutrinos travel faster than light. Lastly, the universal theory of physics received a boost when two teams of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider both announced evidence for the elusive Higgs boson particle that would be the key particle to the universe. Of course the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron collider was predicted by Eloi Cole who was found rummaging in bins outside the facility back in April 2010. He told authorities that “Countries do not exist where I am from. The discovery of the Higgs boson led to limitless power, the elimination of poverty and Kit-Kats for everyone.”

In aeronautics and space sciences, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the last time in July. This was the last space shuttle flight after 135 missions. The space shuttle was a dream of moving people and materials into space with a re-usable craft, unlike the previous rockets that had gone into orbit and to the moon. I can remember watching the landing of Columbia in April 1981 after its successful orbital test flight. When Atlantis landed in July it was the end of an era. The world’s first 3-D printed aircraft made its maiden flight in the UK in August. The parts took 2 days to design and 5 days to print which is quite remarkable. In the 1940’s, the United States in conjunction with Henry Ford invested in the Willow Run manufacturing plant to create B-24 bombers. At first the plant was called the Willit Run Plant and it took months for it to actually produce a single airplane. In November, NASA launched a Martian rover named Curiosity as part of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft. It will land on the red planet sometime in August 2012.

In medical science, in July it was announced that not only did antiretroviral drugs help those with HIV to stay alive, the drugs also helped to reduce the transmission of the virus. In November, the cognitive decline of two people with Alzheimer’s disease was reduced by using electrical impulses on brain tissue. Both of these announcements are good news and possible breakthroughs for diseases that are being elusive to find cures for.

In the world of computer science, while people used social media to organize street protests last January in Syria, Tunisia, and elsewhere, the Egyptian government cut its citizenry off from the Internet. This is a far cry from the pamphlets of the Enlightenment Era. In April, a software bot called LIDA showed the first hints of consciousness. Recent research into artificial intelligence has also lead to new understandings in regards to how humans formulate thoughts and express these thoughts through language. The Language of Thought theory that holds that humans have an underlying logical thought process similar to natural languages was bolstered. Sony Playstation’s network was hacked into and the personal details of 77 million users were compromised and this forced Sony to take their Network offline. The total population of the UK is just over 62 million to give this some perspective. Ongoing and recent research also shows that the skills that people learn by gaming transfer to real life.

These stories are just a small smattering of the science that was announced this last year. We live in such a magnificent and wondrous universe with so many things to investigate and learn about. Just looking at the marvelous things in these stories– bottling anti-matter, “printing” aircraft parts in 7 days, slowing the progress and transmission of a cunning virus, having 77 million people’s personal information illegally accessed. All of this a hundred years ago would have seemed like science fiction. What might happen between now and 2111?

Bad Science and Harmful Beliefs


Today a friend of mine sent me a link to the blog Bad Science that is written by Ben Goldacre for a specific post titled “Matthias Rath– steal this chapter.” Ben Goldacre wrote a book titled “Bad Science: The Doctor WIll Sue You Now” about some of the things that he writes about on his blog such as the pseudo-science of homeopathy and how to evaluate a bad argument. This particular post Goldacre writes about Matthias Rath who is supposedly a former medical researcher from the Linus Pauling Institute. Rath is a very wealthy man and has a large following amongst people interested in alternative healing. He sells vitamins and touts the virtues of a nutritious diet which is all quite good, but he goes so far as to say that vitamin supplements can prevent HIV and cure AIDS. And he has been pedaling his vitamins in South Africa where the AIDS epidemic has been devastating. Please take a look at: http://www.badscience.net/2009/04/matthias-rath-steal-this-chapter/ This chapter in the book could not be published originally when the book was published because Rath was suing Goldacre.

As I read this post I thought about the various beliefs and misconceptions that abound and how they obscure the truth. And hurt people. Things like:

1. Vitamins can cure AIDS and prevent HIV infection. A good diet complete with beetroot, lemon peel, and African potatoes will make a person healthy.

2. Abstinence is the only way to prevent teen pregnancy.

3. AIDS is not real. There is no such thing as HIV. It is a moral judgement because of bad behavior. Or alternately, a curse from God and if one just acts in an upright manner the curse will be removed. Or it is caused by anti-retroviral medications.

4. It is possible to pull oneself up by one’s own efforts and anyone who isn’t doing so just doesn’t want to succeed. Poor people are poor because they are lazy.

5. There is no such thing as global warming and climate change. It is all a matter of a conspiracy for climatologists and scientists to rake in big bucks doing research and getting tax payer dollars in the form of grants.

6. We all create our own reality. Seriously think about this one and take it to its logical conclusions.

I could add more. Can you think of others?

13 Mysteries

I was reading New Scientist this morning and there is an article called 13 More Things That Don’t Make Sense.

Any of these things would make a marvelous start for a science fiction story.

They are as follows:

1. “Axis of Evil”– I am not so certain of the title of this one. It is about the pattern of radiation that was left after the Big Bang.
2. Dark Flow– This one I want to investigate further. Something very large that we cannot see is pulling other massive objects towards it at speeds that can only be comprehended in galactic terms. It is like a giant Hover vacuum sucking in galaxies.
3. Eocene Hothouse– During the Eocene the temperature on the Earth was MUCH warmer. It is estimated that at the poles the average temperature was between 15 to 20 degrees Celsius.
4. Fly By Anomalies– Space probes that are used the slingshot effect to get past the Earth seem to get a little extra boost from somewhere and are moving much faster than they should be.
5. Hybrid Life– This one I need to investigate a bit because I am not entirely certain exactly what New Scientist means by this one, but they are saying that it is not possible to have two distinct evolutionary lines fuse and yet the oceans have examples of this.
6. Morgellons disease which is a disease that isn’t supposed to exist. Again, I don’t know much about this one but I am going to go looking for info later.
7. The Bloop–In 1997 US ocean monitoring equipment heard some sounds that were very mysterious and very loud and no one has heard them since or knows what they were.
8. Antimatter Mystery– So when the Big Bang went off why wasn’t the Universe instantly annihilated by the equal amounts of matter and antimatter colliding and making whoppee?
9. The Lithium Problem– Where is all the lithium? There’s supposed to be more.
10. Einstein Wrong?–Radiation from a gamma burst reached the Earth 4 minutes later than the lower energy rays and that is incompatible with Einstein’s calculations.
11. No Monopoles– Magnetic poles always have a north and a south pole. Why?
12. The Universe is a Holographic Projection?– There is some mysterious noise at the edge of the universe. Dud signals from a gravitational wave detector?
13. Nocebo Effect– Thoughts can kill. A diagnosis of a terminal illness can become reality and kill even if the original diagnosis was wrong.

Fun stuff from New Scientist to play with!

Scent of Anxiety and the Arousal of Empathy

I was reading New Scientist earlier today and two different articles caught my attention. The first was an article about the development of gadgets that could read human emotions either by interpreting facial cues, monitoring the quality and speed of voices, or by interpreting things like heart and breathing rate. The article is called Emotional robots: Will we love them or hate them? The article goes on to talk about car alarms that jolt sleepy drivers, monitors that diagnose depression, and a computerized tutor that could monitor student frustration and slow down instruction.

Then the article talks about how computers can be programmed to read facial expressions accurately enough to recognize six basic emotions nine times out of ten. The computers can recognize disgust, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise. To read emotions even more accurately computers will need extra cues such as head motion and upper body position. Already facial tracking technology as it is called has analyzed the differences between real smiles and fake smiles and facial expression software is more accurate than actual humans at determining if someone is in pain. The computer software could detect if someone was really in pain or not 88 percent of the time. The untrained volunteers asked to participate in the study were right only 49 percent of the time.

Another article that I read was about how the scent of anxiety has an effect on the human brain and lights up areas that process social and emotional signals and are thought to be involved with empathy. The study was done on students taking exams.

As I was reading these two articles I began to think. Emotion sensing software has the possibility of frightening applications and the computers will not have the benefit of empathy. What if the reason that the untrained volunteers who were wrong about guessing if someone was in pain or not chose to assume that the person was in pain so that they could procure treatment for them? What if they were attempting to alleviate suffering by going with the safer bet and saying the person was in pain so they could get help? The study doesn’t give the details of how this was posed.

Further, the computer will be able to report to whoever wants the information a person’s emotional state. What if this technology were used in airports under the guise of stopping terrorism? What if this technology were installed in classrooms to ensure that another Columbine or Virginia Tech type of massacre did not happen? Would having this technology in place be beneficial? Or would it violate the idea of someone being innocent until proven guilty? Do we want not only to be spied upon but to have our emotions read without the benefit of empathy or context? What use for this technology could not be justified? Stores could have it installed to prevent shoplifting. Workplaces to ensure productivity. Homes under the guise of protecting our health and mental well being. And as that information would be collected– where would it go?

Our ability to smell another person’s anxiety makes us empathetic to their situation and possibly evolved as a way for one person to subtly cue others to the possibility of danger. It was a type of complex mechanism that very well might have come about to bring humans closer together and ensure our survival. How will we ensure that the application and the development of computers that can read our emotions and relay this information will have similar benefits?

Musing on Brain Research

I just returned from one of the classes that I am taking this semester and I needed to decompress a bit so after watching a rather disturbing episode of South Park in which the entire class had lice, I decided to cruise the internet and look for some breaking science news. After reading an article on the Science Daily site which can be found at www.sciencedaily.com/news/ about how children learn differently depending on how old they are, I read an article about correlating IQ test scores with MRI imaging. A researcher at Caltech working with patients in the brain lesion registry from the University of Iowa administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale to 241 neurological patients who all had some degree of cognitive impairments from a variety of different ailments. The researcher was able to correlate the region of the patients’ brain injuries with scores on each of the four Wechsler subtests. Other than processing speed, which seems to be a skill that is not localized in the brain, the other three subsections of the test seem to depend on very specific regions of the brain. The article talks a bit about revamping the test because verbal comprehension and working memory seem to be skills that rely on the same area of the brain.

Okay at this point I had to take a big deep breath.

I have been filling out job applications to become a teacher again after a four year hiatus. Some of the job applications that I have filled out include things like credit checks, police background checks, multiple essay questions, and personality inventories in addition to the standard application, resume, and references.

I could see a day in the future when a job applicant might be asked to have a standard MRI completed to submit with his or her application. Or the technology might go farther and be coupled with a personality inventory so that responses in areas of the brain could be mapped to ensure that the applicant would be a suitable employee. And perhaps an applicant will have to swab the side of his or her cheek and submit a DNA sample on top of the MRI and personality inventory in order to be proven to be an acceptable candidate. Perhaps all hiring will be done based on these methods and suitable candidates will be determined from statistical norms that indicate what type of personality profile, brain map, and genetic propensity best are suited to the type of employment.

Beyond the nightmare of trying to place this scenario within any context concerned with privacy rights, how does this integrate into ideas concerning discrimination? Also consider that the synergy that can happen within a work environment when people who think differently come together, mix different ideas, and approach problems in different styles will be entirely lost. Further, factors of motivation for why people do the work that they do would have no bearing. But the work force will be much easier to control potentially.

Of course this technology is just one step away from designing the perfect worker for whatever need if you combine it with rapidly advancing techniques in genetic engineering. And for that matter an entire utopian society could be created based on having everyone suited perfectly to their station in society. Different species of humanoid could even be created to codify castes or worker roles.

I will never argue that we should not do research and strive to learn as much as we can about ourselves, our environment, the universe, whatever, –but I do think that as a society we need to consider how the information might be potentially used and if this is a use that will benefit our species as a whole. Information for information sake is one thing, but we need to critically examine that information, its potential uses, and its ramifications. Further, we need to make active and aware decisions of how the information will be used.