Spend a few minutes chatting with Taylor Wilson and three things will happen: You will feel old. You will feel dumb. You will feel like you’ve squandered your life.
Wilson, who first garnered fame as the kid who built a nuclear reactor in his Reno garage, told the crowd gathered to hear him Wednesday at TED2013 that he’s left his first love, fusion, for a fling.
“I’m really into fission now,” declared Wilson, still in his teens. “Is fission played out or is there something left to innovate there?”
Wilson’s fission flirtation has led him to develop a compact molten salt reactor that he says needs refueling only once every 30 years, and “loves to eat downblended uranium.” Because much of the reactor is buried and its uranium is not weapons-grade, Wilson added, it’s less vulnerable either to terrorist attack or misuse.
While his talk on Wednesday’s main stage in Long Beach was as polished as entrepreneurs three times his age, it was when I sat down with Wilson later in the day that I found myself thinking: I just hope he uses his powers for good.
A spark. A vision. A lightbulb over the head.
These are the ways we often define that moment of creative inspiration that puts us on a path of making something, whether it’s a knitted iPad case (see Etsy for more examples than you might expect) or something slightly loftier, such as a global education system.
Dr. Sugata Mitra, announced Tuesday as the winner of the 2013 TED Prize and the $1 million that comes with it, had that a-ha moment when he was watching children in a Delhi slum learn, and teach each other, how to use a computer he’d put in a kiosk on the street with no instructions. The Hole in the Wall experiment led Mitra to develop SOLE, Self-Organized Learning Environments, and, eventually, his current project, the School in the Cloud. Mitra believes children can learn even complicated ideas and find elegant solutions when they work collaboratively and organically, without rote exercises, unforgiving evaluation tests and guided adult instruction.
“The teacher sets the process in motion, then stands back and lets the learning happen,” said Mitra, addressing the Long Beach audience at TED2013 after his win was announced. “And then admires the answer.”
Asked to describe the five senses, most of us can rattle them off without hesitation: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But what do those words mean, and do they mean the same thing to every person?
Take sound, for example. Randall Poster, who has worked as a music supervisor on movies ranging from School of Rock and Velvet Goldmine to Moonrise Kingdom, believes the inherent audience experience of a score or soundtrack has changed.
While researching music for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Poster unearthed a treasure trove of “photoplay music,” sheet music written for the musicians performing live at local nickelodeons in the silent film era. The titles of photoplay compositions—“In a Merry Mood” and “Agitato Mysterioso,” for example—reveal the emotional response from the audience that the music would provoke. It’s a response, however, that makes assumptions about its audience’s culture.
“Music renders the collective psychology of the moment, of the human condition,” said Poster, speaking at a seminar Monday at the TED2013 conference in Long Beach, Calif. “But what sounded suspenseful in 1920 may not sound suspenseful today.”
Pete Etchells is a lecturer in biological psychology based in Bristol, UK. He writes about science in the news at Counterbalanced, but secretly wishes he were an astronaut. You can find him on Twitter at @drpeteetchells.
I’m never taking a photo of myself and sticking it up on Facebook ever again. How could anyone possibly contemplate it, when they’ve got to compete with self-portraits like this one? Thanks NASA.
Really, there’s so much awesomeness in this photo. It’s a picture of a robot, taken on another planet. A freaking robot! On another world! Evidently though, not everyone shares this sense of wonder. At around the same time that Curiosity was taking pictures of itself, Felix Baumgartner was being interviewed by the UK’s Telegraph, and had this to say:
“I think we should perhaps spend all the money going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it does make sense.”
Disheartening words from someone who you would think would share so much in common with the Mars exploration mission, given his recent space jump. Baumgartner’s words completely miss the point, because Curiosity’s story isn’t just about what happens on Mars. It’s also about what happened on Earth before it left, and what is still happening now. It’s the story of extraordinary life-saving technologies, like heart pumps and advances in drug treatments, but it’s also the story of ordinary, everyday things like mattresses, hockey sticks and baseball bats. These are technologies that NASA and its offshoot companies never originally set out to develop; instead, they were born out of ingenious solutions to practical problems faced in the space program.
Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.
There are few things more romantic than being a discoverer, whether it be Captain James Cook’s Sandwich Isles or Alvin Roth’s and Lloyd Shapley’s recent-Nobel-winning work on stable allocations. And the excitement exists even among us regular-folk scientists—our discoveries may not be of the magnitude of Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin or Einstein’s special relativity, but we bask away unheeded. “Dear world, here is my beautiful solution to the puzzle.” Not only is the solution typically beautiful—that’s often what makes a good discovery “good”—but it is packaged into elegantly-written journal articles or glossy books. On the basis of the splendor of our discoveries, laymen might wonder whether our minds are beautiful as well.
Far be it from me to debunk the mythical, magician-like qualities sometimes attributed to us scientists, but the dirtiest little secret in science is that our science minds are just as dirty and unbeautiful as everyone else’s… and this has important implications, both for aspiring students and for how science is funded. I’ll get to these later.
Now, it’s not that the entire scientific process behind discovery is ugly. Much of it is elegant. Good experimental design, valid statistics, analyses of hypotheses—there are sound principles guiding us, the same ones we teach our students.
But where we see the everyday-ness of our science minds is in the discovery process itself, that is, in the efforts to find the new idea (hypothesis, theory, whatever) in the first place. Discoveries can be dressed up well, but the way we go about finding our ideas is almost always an embarrassing display of buffoonery.
Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.”
The silent purr of an electric car is a selling point over the vroom of a gasoline engine, but it comes with an undesirable side effect: An electric car can pounce on unsuspecting passerbys like a puma on prey. In fact, the NHTSA found that hybrid electric cars are disproportionately dangerous to pedestrians. To deal with this problem, it has been proposed that sound be added to hybrid and electric vehicles, whether it be bird-songs or recordings of someone making “vroom vroom” sounds.
In this light, I wondered whether it might be possible to add “smart sound” to these dangerously quiet cars destined to rule the road in the near future. The solution, I realized, might come from faster-than-light-speed objects on the moon. I’ll get to this crazy-sounding part in a bit.
The Melody of Movement
In setting out to solve this problem, I reasoned that when electric cars are moving very fast they make enough sound to be heard due to the rumblings of the car parts. It’s when they’re moving at lower speeds that they’re most perilous, because at these speeds they’re most silent. Therefore, if electric cars are to be fitted with some sound, it should be designed to work even at lower speeds—or, especially at lower speeds.
Next question was, What sort of sound do we want on slowish, stealthy electric cars? To answer this, it helps to grasp the sorts of cues your auditory system uses for detecting the movement of objects in your midst.
The most obvious auditory cue is that nearer objects are louder, and so when you hear a moving object rising in loudness, you know it’s getting closer.
But that’s not the most important auditory cue. To illustrate why, imagine walking along a curb with traffic approaching and passing you from behind. The important observation here is that when this happens you aren’t in the least worried. Even without seeing the car, you know it’s merely passing you despite the massive crescendo in its sound. Why?
The Doppler shift changes the observed pitch of the siren as the car moves.
You know the car isn’t going to hit you because of its pitch. Due to the Doppler shift, this car has a falling pitch, and this falling pitch contour tells your brain unambiguously that, although the car is going to get arm-reachably close, it is going to pass you rather than collide with you. If it were going to collide with you, its pitch would be high and constant—that’s the signature of a looming collision.
Neuroskeptic is a neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field and beyond at the Neuroskeptic blog.
Life is dominated by the Earth’s cycles. Day and night, spring and autumn, change the environment in so many ways that almost all organisms regulate their activity to keep up with time and the seasons. Animals sleep, and many hibernate, moult, and breed only at certain times of the year. Plants time the growth of seeds, leaves, fruit and shoots to make the most of the weather.
But what about humans? We sleep, and women menstruate, but do other biological cycles affect our behavior? The Internet has offered researchers a unique resource for answering this question.
For example, according to research published recently in the Archives of Sexual Behavior from American researchers Patrick and Charlotte Markey, Americans are most likely to search for sex online during the early summer and the winter.
The authors looked at the Google Trends for a selection of naughty words and phrases, and this revealed a pretty marked 6 month cycle for searches originating from the USA, with two yearly peaks in the search volumes. The words were related to three categories: pornography, sex services (e.g. massage parlors), and dating websites.
Google Trends searches for pornography-related words over time
This image shows the graph for pornography searches—the grey line—with an idealized six-month cycle also shown for comparison, the black line. The data show a strong twice-yearly peak. The picture was similar for two other categories of sexual words: prostitution and dating websites.
Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs, mainly about the history of spaceflight, at Vintage Space, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.
Last week, NASA announced its next planetary mission. In 2016 the agency is going back to the surface of Mars with a spacecraft called InSight. The mission’s selection irked some who were hoping to see approval for one of the other, more ambitious missions up for funding: either a hopping probe sent to a comet or a sailing probe sent to the methane seas of Saturn’s moon Titan. Others were irked by NASA’s ambiguity over the mission’s cost during the press announcement.
An artist’s rendition of InSight deploying its seismometer and heat-flow experiments on Mars.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery program, a series of low-cost missions each designed to answer one specific question. For InSight, that question is why Mars evolved into such a different terrestrial planet than the Earth, a mystery it will investigate by probing a few meters into the Martian surface. The agency says InSight’s selection was based on its low cost—currently capped at $425 million excluding launch costs—and relatively low risk. It has, in short, fewer known unknowns than the other proposals.
But while InSight costs less than half a billion itself, the total value of the mission by the time it launches will be closer to $2 billion. How can NASA get that much zoom for so few bucks? By harnessing technologies developed for and proven on previous missions. The research, development, and testing that has gone into every previous lander take a lot of guesswork out of this mission, helping it fly for (relatively) cheap.
Aside from the Moon, Mars is the only body in the solar system that NASA has landed on more than once. With every mission, the agency learns a little more, and by recycling the technology and methods that work, it’s able to limit expensive test programs. This has played no small part in NASA’s success on the Red Planet thus far. When it comes to the vital task of getting landers safely to the surface, NASA has been reusing the same method for decades. It has its roots way back in the Apollo days.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. She is also the science editor at BoingBoing.net, where this post first appeared.
It began with a few small mistakes.
Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data. The problem was quickly fixed. But nobody turned the program back on again.
A little over an hour later, one of the six coal-fired generators at the Eastlake Power Plant in Ohio shut down. An hour after that, the alarm and monitoring system in the control room of one of the nation’s largest electric conglomerates failed. It, too, was left turned off.
Those three unrelated things—two faulty monitoring programs and one generator outage—weren’t catastrophic, in and of themselves. But they would eventually help create one of the most widespread blackouts in history. By 4:15 pm, 256 power plants were offline and 55 million people in eight states and Canada were in the dark. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 ended up costing us between $4 billion and $10 billion. That’s “billion”, with a “B”.
But this is about more than mere bad luck. The real causes of the 2003 blackout were fixable problems, and the good news is that, since then, we’ve made great strides in fixing them. The bad news, say some grid experts, is that we’re still not doing a great job of preparing our electric infrastructure for the future.
Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, with research interests in biological materials, education, and design. You can follow her on Twitter: @debcha.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert laid out a prediction for how oil production in a nation increases, peaks, and then quickly falls down. Since then many analysts have extended this logic and said that global oil production will soon max out—a point called “peak oil“—which could throw the world economy into turmoil.
I’m a materials scientist by training, and one aspect of peak oil I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.
The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. Still, this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.
But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still only account for about 2% world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.