Nine years ago, Joshua Robinson was approached by his then-advisor with news of a discovery that would end up transforming his career, and much of materials science. “I saw this crazy talk about 2-D graphite,” he recalls his adviser saying.
The adviser was referring of course to graphene, the first material to exist as truly two-dimensional: only a single atom thick. Back in 2006, the physics community was just beginning to wrap its mind around how a 2-D material could even exist.
Fast forward to 2015. The realization that materials can be thinned down to the absolute limit of a single atom is spreading, both throughout the world and across the periodic table. Researchers are learning that 2-D isn’t just for the carbon atoms of graphene. Different elemental combinations can lead to fascinating new science and applications.
Robinson is now associate director for Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Two-Dimensional and Layered Materials, a center with 20 faculty and over 50 students dedicated to uncovering the fundamental properties of this new zoo of 2-D materials. It is one of many such centers around the world. And as scientists continue to create new 2-D materials there’s a palpable frenzy to characterize their surprising electronic, optical, and mechanical properties.
The excitement stems from the fact that materials shaved down to only a few atoms act very differently from their so-called “bulk” or 3-D version. Quantum effects begin to take hold as the electrons in the material are squeezed into that impossibly thin layer.
And, being flexible, 2-D materials could bring those unique electrical properties to all sorts of new applications – from bendable touch screens to wearable sensors.
We make a huge number of decisions every day. When it comes to eating, for example, we make 200 more decisions than we’re consciously aware of every day. How is this possible? Because, as Daniel Kahneman has explained, while we’d like to think our decisions are rational, in fact many are driven by gut feel and intuition. The ability to reach a decision based on what we know and what we expect is an inherently human characteristic.
The problem we face now is that we have too many decisions to make every day, leading to decision fatigue – we find the act of making our own decisions exhausting. Even more so than simply deliberate different options or being told by others what to do.
Why not allow technology to ease the burden of decision-making? The latest smart technologies are designed to monitor and learn from our behavior, physical performance, work productivity levels and energy use. This is what has been called Era Three of Automation – when machine intelligence becomes faster and more reliable than humans at making decisions.
A national chain restaurant once approached McCormick & Company because it wasn’t getting the kind of fajitas sell-through it expected. When VP of applied research Marianne Gillette and her colleagues visited the restaurant, they observed the ritual of the fajita moment: An awe-struck silence would sweep across the dining room as a waiter carried a sizzling fajita skillet to some lucky table. They went back to the office and brainstormed. How can we make this moment even more dramatic? They created a “sizzle sauce,” which made the sizzle louder and the aroma more intense. Sales spiked.
McCormick once made a cedar-plank flavor for a restaurant that didn’t want the bother of cooking salmon on actual cedar planks. Using the same technology it used to create the imitation vanilla, McCormick has created “Ultimate Lemon,” which was formulated using aroma chemicals found in lemon peel, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme, and Limoncello (a refreshing and highly drinkable Italian liqueur). Ultimate Lemon might show up in a beverage, dessert, or salad dressing.
Not that you’ll ever know. Whether it says so on the label or not—and it usually does not—McCormick is in every aisle and on every shelf of the supermarket. The company provides “custom flavor solutions” for nine of the top ten American food companies and eight of the top ten food service companies. (Food service refers to large chain restaurants, companies that sell to smaller restaurants, school cafeterias, hospitals, and so forth.) McCormick is in your pantry, your fridge, your freezer, and nearly every restaurant. Unless you are a hunter-gatherer or have spent your life obtaining calories via feeding tube, McCormick has used the science and psychology of food to make you happy. It’s probably happened in the last week.
On February 20, 1962, the spacecraft Friendship 7, carrying astronaut John Glenn, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This Mercury 6 mission made Glenn the third American to enter space and the first to orbit the Earth.
Glenn also has the distinction of being the first American to eat in space. His astro-meal consisted of applesauce squeezed from an aluminum tube, which he washed down with an orange-flavored powdered drink mix called Tang. Hardly anyone remembers the applesauce, but the drink was history-making.
Tang became an emblem of the space age. With a list of ingredients that includes lots of things you’d find in a chemistry lab and less than 2 percent “natural flavor,” the powdered drink mix also became a bellwether for the breaching of another frontier: the brave new world of synthetic food.
Vancouver-based architect Michael Green was unequivocal at a conference at which I heard him speak a while ago: “We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”
True, regulations in that part of Canada have changed relatively recently to permit an additional story, but the point still stands. This can hardly be said to keep pace with the new manufacturing technologies and developments in engineered wood products that are causing architects and engineers to think very differently about the opportunities wood offers in the structure and construction of tall buildings.
Green himself produced a book in 2012 called Tall Wood, which explored in detail the design of 20-story commercial buildings using engineered timber products throughout. Since then he has completed the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America.
The unparalleled motion and manipulation abilities of soft-bodied animals such as the octopus have intrigued biologists for many years. How can an animal that has no bones transform its tentacles from a soft state to a one stiff enough to catch and even kill prey?
A group of scientists and engineers has attempted to answer this question in order to replicate the abilities of an octopus tentacle in a robotic surgical tool. Last week, members of this EU-funded project known as STIFF-FLOP (STIFFness controllable Flexible and Learnable manipulator for surgical OPerations) unveiled the group’s latest efforts.
A minor fracas between astronomers and robo-lawnmowers has been making headlines, which sounds painfully futuristic. At issue, whether the maker of Roomba can let its autonomous mower operate on restricted radio frequencies that telescopes use to observe the cosmos.
And the whole thing is futuristic in another, more subtle way, as well. Robot lawnmowers are just one of the many coming gadgets that will be incorporated into the Internet of Things, a wireless network in which even our everyday appliances will participate. And it’s that future that has astronomers on edge.
A Web of Nouns
The trouble began because iRobot doesn’t want its customers to have to do any physical labor — not cutting the grass and definitely not digging the trenches for the underground wires that most autonomous lawn mowers use to sense the edge of their domain. iRobot applied to the FCC to be allowed to use wireless broadcasters instead, at radio frequencies between 6240 and 6740 MHz. Problematically, though, space-based methanol also broadcasts radio waves at those frequencies. Methanol traces star formation and tells us about the evolution of our galaxy, which (taken to its extreme) tells us how we got here. To protect that band, the FCC says “all practicable steps shall be taken to protect the radio astronomy service from harmful interference.” And within that band, it prohibits “fixed outdoor infrastructure.” The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says iRobot’s guiding beacons violate that prohibition and insist the mower-bot stay 55 miles away from its telescopes. iRobot says nuh-uh, “there is little risk of interference,” and 12 miles is sufficient.
If one brand’s wireless landscape-eater can cause such a stir, just imagine what could happen when our world is full of self-adjusting, internet-connected devices all communicating wirelessly with each other and with the Web. They will all need to use the radio “spectrum,” but how they’ll split it up — and share it with astronomers, other industries, and the government — when more devices need a slice of the pie remains to be seen.
Smart thermostats can already make your house the temperature you want while monitoring the outdoor weather. Bluetooth beacons help you find your keys. Sensors monitor inventory and alert vending machine owners that Fruitopia is sold out. This is the Internet of Things, and it’s coming. “There are no spectrum bottlenecks for dedicated Internet of Things systems yet,” Kevin Ashton, co-founder and former executive director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center, told Bloomberg BNA, “but we are seeing Wi-Fi services get maxed out, as there are only so many channels you can cram into the available spectrum.”
Splitting up the Spectrum
The Internet of Things requires wireless devices. A Nest would look stupid with an Ethernet cable snaking out of its circumference. If your wearable glucose monitor had to be plugged into a router to work, you’d never get far from home. Each device operates at a specific radio frequency. In the US, the FCC controls who gets to use which frequencies. In some bands, anyone can transmit radio waves, as long as they stay below a certain power (most Internet of Things things operate here). Other bands require a license, which the government sells to organizations at (surely riveting) auctions. And, finally, some bands are reserved for radio astronomy. Check out this graphic to see how it’s parceled out:
The radio astronomy bands, however, only cover a tiny portion of the spectrum, while radio astronomers are interested in almost all of it. So while the Internet of Things may color within the lines of its own little boxes (which seems dubious if iRobot is a harbinger), objects in space have no such compunctions. They will continue to send out radio waves that have the same frequency as your video-chat dog-treat dispenser. And the signal from your dog’s sockeye-salmon biscuit video could completely swamp a signal that’s been traveling valiantly across space for billions of years. But as the spectrum gets more crowded, we’re more likely to see changes and challenges to its allocation — just like with iRobot — that bleed toward protected bands.
Radio Waves … from Space
Astronomers use radio telescopes like those in Green Bank, WV; Socorro, NM; Jodrell Bank, England; Arecibo, Puerto Rico; and Parkes, Australia to detect the radio waves coming from space. Although cosmic radio waves come from powerful sources like black holes, pulsars, and natural lasers, they have traveled a long way before hitting earthly antennas. Radio waves, like visible light, appear dimmer the farther you are from the source. If you are 1 light-year from a pulsar, and then you step back to 2 light-years, the radio waves will become four times dimmer. Step back 4 light-years, and the waves are 16 times dimmer. By the time radio waves get here, they’re way less than shadows of their former selves. A single cell phone placed on the Moon, for instance, would show up more powerfully in radio waves than almost anything else in the sky.
So when you put a cell phone right next to a telescope, or even miles away, it easily drowns out the pipsqueaks coming from space. Imagine trying to see a flashlight that someone was holding in front of the Sun (hint: rhetorical).
To protect their ability to do radio astronomy without the intrusion of your smartphone, astronomers put their telescopes in remote locations, preferably valleys surrounded by mountains that absorb radio waves trying to trespass from outside. But in a world full of radio-emitting devices, being away from population centers isn’t good enough. Any population is a problem — and not just because of the obvious suspects, like cell phones. Nearly any electronic device emits radio waves (proof? Turn on a portable radio, tune to an empty AM station, and hold it up to your refrigerator/fluorescent light/digital camera/oscillating fan).
Some observatories politely ask people to turn off their cell phones, as if this were the beginning of a movie and not the fate of our understanding of the universe. But others, like Green Bank, have established “radio-quiet zones,” where lots of normal things are against the law. For 13,000 square miles around the observatory — a region that includes parts of Virginia and Maryland as well as West Virginia — broadcasters have to fill out special paperwork to make sure the telescope can’t “see” their transmitters. If it can? Permit denied. So for an hour or so radius around Green Bank, you can’t get cell phone service, no matter how high you hold your iPhone in the air. “Keeping cell service out of the immediate vicinity hinders the utility of lots of gadgets which would potentially transmit on multiple bands, not just their link to the cellular service,” says Green Bank’s Carla Beaudet, the observatory’s radio-frequency interference engineer. “The National Radio Quiet Zone offers protection to Green Bank both directly and indirectly.”
In a smaller, 10-mile radius around the observatory, the rules are stricter: no Wi-Fi, no microwaves, no cordless phones, no wireless game controllers, no Bluetooth transfers. It’s an enforceable law, and NRAO has a truck that can track down rogue radio waves. Employees have knocked on doors to find shorted electric blankets, malfunctioning electric fences, contraband Wi-Fi routers, and once (at least according to legend) was plagued by the radio tracking collars on fast-moving squirrels.
Green Bank has the most well-known and oldest quiet zone, which was established in 1958 (not in small part because the government’s communications station Sugar Grove is just down the valley). But Australia, South Africa, and Chile — home to the next generation of radio telescopes — have or soon will have their own versions. “Geospatial exclusion areas like the National Radio Quiet Zone can go a long distance (pun intended) towards protecting specific radio astronomy facilities,” says Beaudet, “particularly if there is additional protection from terrain obstacles” (such as mountains).
But many telescopes — such as Arecibo — have only terrain obstacles, and no official protection. Soon, they may only be sensitive enough within the officially protected radio astronomy bands — and that’s only if corporations play by existing rules. “The extent to which the Internet of Things will be a threat to radio astronomy will depend upon whether the regulatory standards can be upheld in the face of the massive onslaught of lawyers funded by the private sector,” says Beaudet. “If the regulatory standards are upheld rather than modified every time somebody needs more spectrum, there will still be small windows of spectrum in which astronomers can observe.”
In the future, telescopes outside quiet zones may detect so much blah-blah-blah from our devices that they won’t catch the whispered conversation from space. But the people who live in those quiet zones won’t be able to fully inhabit the modern world. Their dogs will have to eat treats all alone. Their home heating systems will be woefully inefficient. They’ll never buy an app. (Note: Some want it that way and move to places like Green Bank because it’s electromagnetically old-school. )
If we live in a hyperconnected wireless world, which we already do, we learn less about the universe than we would if radio telescopes were the only technology in operation (at least until we can build a radio telescope on the Moon). But we’re not going to stop making smart devices and linking them together, nor should we. We will have to find a way to manage and balance those interests. Not every iRobot will get what it wants. Not every pulsar will be discovered. Conversations like the one between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and iRobot are just beginning. Go get yourself some popcorn. You won’t believe what happens next.
The recent earthquake in Nepal demonstrated yet again how difficult it is to reliably predict natural disasters. While we have a good knowledge of the various earthquakes zones on the planet, we have no way of knowing exactly when a big quake like the 7.8-magnitude event in Nepal will happen.
But we know that many animals seem able to sense the onset of such events. We could use powerful computers to monitor herds of animals and make use of their natural instincts to provide forewarning of natural disasters.
Immediately before an earthquake, herds of animals often start to behave strangely – for example suddenly leaving their homes to seek shelter. This could be because they detect small, fast-traveling waves or because they sense chemical changes in ground water from an impending earthquake.
Although there are possibilities here, we certainly need more studies – because it’s difficult to find statistically significant links between unusual animal behavior and impending disasters. This is because natural disasters occur relatively rarely and it’s hard to reliably interpret animal behavior after the fact. In fact, this uncertainty was quoted by the Chinese government after reports that zoo animals behaved strangely before the Wenchuan earthquake a few years ago.
Technology enhanced with artificial intelligence is all around us. You might have a robot vacuum cleaner ready to leap into action to clean up your kitchen floor. Maybe you asked Siri or Google—two apps using decent examples of artificial intelligence technology—for some help already today. The continual enhancement of AI and its increased presence in our world speak to achievements in science and engineering that have tremendous potential to improve our lives.
Or destroy us.
At least, that’s the central theme in the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie with headliner Ultron serving as exemplar for AI gone bad. It’s a timely theme, given some high-profile AI concerns lately. But is it something we should be worried about?
Facebook is watching you, collecting data on your every interaction and feeding it to their data scientists, who are hungry for correlations. But you know that, and you accept it as the price to live in the modern world (you probably even know that Facebook is manipulating you).
And Facebook’s data-science team is particularly interested in your romantic life. They’ve been watching you hook up and break up and, according to a recent presentation by Facebook employee Carlos Diuk, they’ve noticed a few things about you.
But, keep this in mind: these findings are the result of private and proprietary number-crunching, circumventing the normal procedures that let scientists call their output “science.” More on that in a minute.
So without further ado, six things Facebook thinks it knows about your love life:
1. Matchmakers have more friends than the people they’re introducing—73 percent more. (Matchmakers are people who introduce two of their friends, who later become a couple.) And those friends are more disconnected. Matchmakers’ networks include lots of people who aren’t friends with each other. The way I choose to interpret this: matchmakers have to diversify their interactions, so as not to overwhelm any single one with their aggressive extroversion and statements about who would be perrrrfect for whom. Read More