The smallest named unit in the metric system is the yoctogram, equal to 0.000000000000000000000001 grams. (Yes, that’s 24 zeros.) For a scale that can measure differences in mass as small as a yoctogram, which is on the order of the mass of a proton, physicists writing in Nature Nanotechnology turned to the wunderkind of nanotechnology: carbon nanotubes.
As computer hardware and software becomes ever more powerful, they find ways to match and then exceed many human abilities. One point of superiority that humans have stubbornly refused to yield is tuning musical instruments. Pythagoras identified the precise, mathematical relationships between musical tones over 2,000 years ago, and modern machines can beat out any human when it comes to precise math. So why aren’t computers better than people? The professional tuner does have one incontrovertible advantage: a trained human ear.
Imprecision, it turns out, is embedded in our scales, instruments, and tuning system, so pros have to adjust each instrument by ear to make it sound its best. Electronic tuners can’t do this well because there has been no known way to calculate it. Basically, it’s an art, not a science. But now, a new algorithm published in arXiv claims to be just as good as a professional tuner. To understand how this new algorithm works, it’s worth understanding how today’s electronic tuners don’t work.
Who thought a paper on the history of words could have so many graphs? Enter “culturomics,” an emerging field that drops data-crunching into the laps of humanities professors. Armed with the scanned corpus of Google books, researchers published in 2011 the first culturomics paper, which examined the changing popularity of words over time. The paper hinted at all sorts of possibilites: tracking the evolution of irregular verbs, mapping a politician’s rise to fame, identifying censorship when a name suddenly drops in popularity, etc.
A group of physicists have taken up culturomics with a new study that models the birth and death of words in three languages: Spanish, Hebrew, and English. At the same time they’re crunching serious math, they also have an eye on history. Here are a few of their in findings:
Them’s Fighting Words
Airplane food is notoriously bad. But airlines, in financial free fall over the last decade, have been trying to bring back the luxe food of early flight in business class and first class, to lure in more high-end travelers. Biology is working against them, though. As Jad Mouawad reports for the NYTimes, part of why plane food lacks subtlety is that we can’t actually taste as well when we’re at altitude:
Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds. And as the plane reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, cabin humidity levels are kept low by design, to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion. Soon, the nose no longer knows. Taste buds are M.I.A. Cotton mouth sets in.
Four years ago, artist Kate Findlay was reading an article about the Large Hadron Collider. When she saw photographs of the collider’s experiments, she, like many others since the project began, was struck by their beauty. But unlike most particle physics spectators, she set out to make art from them—using cloth. “The LHC is a remarkably beautiful machine. Its symmetry, the repeating motifs, [and] the colors were all things that I was drawn to–for any textile artist, pattern and color are top of the list and the LHC has all these!” she told PopSci in an interview last week.
Image courtesy of Kate Findlay
Tampering with GPS signals can cause big problems in both shipping routes and financial markets, warned experts at a conference on GPS security. The technology is routinely used in navigation and time synchronization nowadays, but signals are left vulnerable to jamming and spoofing.
This is partly because GPS signals are relatively weak: “A GPS satellite emits no more power than a car headlight, and with that it has to illuminate half the Earth’s surface,” said David Last, former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation, to the BBC.
Jamming devices work by broadcasting a signal at the same frequency as GPS, and can be bought for less than $100 online. When researchers set up 20 jamming monitors in locations around the UK, they caught 60 incidents in 6 months. They think most of these are from stolen trucks, where thieves jam the truck’s GPS to keep from broadcasting its location. According to Last, jamming GPS ships on ships isn’t much harder: Tests found that every major system was affected by a device with less than 1/1000 the power of a cell phone. The Financial Times reports:
The number one cause of plane crashes used to be controlled flight into terrain (pdf), accidents where pilots unintentionally collide with an obstacle. A pilot unable to see through fog, for example, could fly straight into a mountain, crashing an otherwise perfectly functional plane. Such accidents killed over 9000 people—until aviation engineer Don Bateman’s crash-avoidance technology changed all that.
Bateman invented the original Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) in the 1970s. Using information from the altimeter. airspeed indicator, and other devices already standard in planes, the original GPWS warned pilots with increasing urgency—first “Caution—Terrain,” then “Pull up! Pull up!”—if the plane was due to crash. Bateman, now 79 years old, still works at Honeywell and he’s still perfecting the GPWS. The modern warning system integrates GPS locations of potential obstacles. In a profile of Bateman for the Seattle Times, Bob Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, says, “It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”
In the 2011 edition of our annual Top 100 Stories of the Year issue, DISCOVER chose the OPERA experiment’s announcement of neutrinos that apparently move faster than light as the #1 story. This raises the question of whether the top spot should go to a “discovery” that many researchers think is wrong.
After much heated debate, we landed on not one but two answers. First, there is the extraordinary nature of the experiment itself. Shooting shadowy neutrinos through 454 miles of rock and then collecting and precisely measuring them at the other end is a historic technical achievement, one that may turn up new physics even if this particular result does not hold up. Second, and more important, there is the inspiring nature of the claim. This is the most credible evidence in years that our basic understanding of space and time needs an overhaul. No physicist believes that relativity has all the answers and that humans now understand everything there is to know about how the universe works. Someday some experiment will lead to insights that eluded even Einstein. If the neutrino experiment does not achieve that, it certainly points the way.
Also see the top 100 lists from previous years:
Worst Oil Spill of All-Time, and a Future Full of Oil
First Synthetic Organism Created
E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Altruism Shakes Up Understanding of Evolution
Climate Science Wins a Round, But the Campaign Goes Poorly
Family Genomics Links DNA to Disease
The Post-Oil Era Begins
The LHC Begins Its Search for the “God Particle”
The FDA Tackles Tainted Drugs From China
Slime Is Turning the Seas Into Dead Zones
Nations Stake Their Claims to a Melting Arctic
Party hats out, everyone! Stephen Hawking turned 70 years old yesterday, 49 years after being told he had fewer than four left to live.
The Cambridge professor suffers from a motor neuron disease related to Lou Gehrig’s disease that has gradually taken from him his ability to move, feed himself, and speak, except through a synthesizer that he operates using a cheek muscle (unfortunately, his control of that muscle is also fading). But despite these handicaps, he has survived to an incredible ripe old age—the average for an Englishman is currently 77.2—and has continued his work as a cosmologist and physicist throughout. How has he managed to live so much longer than expected? Read More