Archive for June, 2008

First Chess, Now Poker? Computer Programmers Try to Crush Human Competitors

By Andrew Moseman | June 30, 2008 6:47 pm

Will computers beat us at poker, too?It’s the middle of a high-stakes poker game. You steal a glance at your opponent—do they have a tell, or some physical tick that might inform you whether they’re bluffing or they actually have great cards? But all you see is a glowing laptop monitor, no help at all.

Phil Laak and Ali Eslami confronted this difficulty last summer, when they went to battle against Polaris, a poker-playing computer programmed by scientists at the University of Alberta. In a match-up called “The First Man-Machine Poker Championship,” man triumphed, but barely. Now an improved Polaris has returned for a rematch, and as the poker world gathers in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker later this week, other human players will try to defend humanity’s honor.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
MORE ABOUT: computers, gadgets

Thanks to His Own Popularity, Nemo Can’t be Found

By Andrew Moseman | June 27, 2008 5:18 pm

Clownfish and anemones depend on each other to liveMovie stardom can be a blessing and a curse, even for a fish.

Finding Nemo, the 2003 Disney/Pixar blockbuster about a young clownfish, his father, and a host of goofy aquatic animals, became the bestselling DVD of all time, according to The Times of London. While that was great news for Pixar, it turned out to be bad news for clownfish everywhere. British scientist Billy Sinclair of the University of Cumbria says that clownfish populations in the wild have been in steep decline since the movie’s release five years ago, and he thinks he knows what happened: They became pets.

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MORE ABOUT: endangered species

Weekly Science Blog Roundup

By Andrew Moseman | June 27, 2008 11:46 am

Yee-haw! It’s the blog roundup.• Andrew Revkin reflects on his 1988 global warming cover story in DISCOVER.

• It’s too expensive to send humans up into space for repairs; let’s send robots.

• The “Pillars of Creation,” from the famous Hubble photo have already been destroyed. We just won’t see it on Earth for another millennium.

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Greenhouse Gases, Meet Your Worst Nightmare: Plankton

By Andrew Moseman | June 26, 2008 6:29 pm

Ocean plankton may be fighting greenhouse gasesCall it a happy accident: Phytoplankton in tropical areas of the Atlantic Ocean may be helping to break down greenhouse gases.

After analyzing data gathered by airplane and in a lab at Cape Verde, a chain of Atlantic islands not far from West Africa, a team of British researchers was pleased but puzzled to find that ozone in the atmosphere near the islands had decreased 50 percent more than climate modelers had predicted. The reason, they think, is that phytoplankton produce chemicals like bromine monoxide and iodine monoxide that get pulled up into the atmosphere by all the water vapor that evaporates in a hot climate like Cape Verde. Once aloft in the low atmosphere, these chemicals can break apart ozone molecules. Not only that, says Alastair Lewis, of the U.K.’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, but the byproducts of that first chemical reaction then broke down methane, a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, into non-harmful components.

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MORE ABOUT: global warming, Ocean

Does a Dancing Cockatoo Really Feel the Rhythm?

By Andrew Moseman | June 26, 2008 1:22 pm

Cockatoos may be good dancersPerhaps you’ve seen the YouTube video, shown below, of Snowball the cockatoo bobbing its head and kicking its legs in time with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Nature reports that some scientists have seen it, too, and they say it could be more than a neat trick. If Snowball really feels the beat, the researchers say, that could help show them whether there’s a biological basis for rhythm perception.

At first, Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, and his colleagues had doubts. Snowball’s owners say they actually would dance off-camera while filming the bird to encourage it to bust a move. If Snowball were just a copycat, Patel says, that wouldn’t be nearly as impressive as if he could dance on his own. So to figure out whether the bird could actually feel the rhythm, they traveled to Snowball’s home in Indiana and videoed the bird dancing to music with different tempos. You can see the rhythm get progressively faster here, here, and here.

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Machiavellian Milkweed Doesn’t Play Fair with its Insect Partners

By Andrew Moseman | June 25, 2008 5:56 pm

Ants, aphids, and milkweed all have to live togehter Who’s the boss? Milkweed is the boss.

Milkweed plants engage in a helpful bit of mutualism with the aphids and ants who take up residence on them. Aphids feed on the milkweed’s sap, then secrete honeydew, which ants eat. The ants, in turn, are the muscle of the operation—they help both the plants and the aphids by fighting off potential predators like caterpillars. The partnership goes three ways, but the power is not equal—milkweed is in control.

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Coming Soon: The Robot Teacher That Reads Your Face

By Andrew Moseman | June 25, 2008 3:00 pm

What is your face telling your computer? In the future, the answer could be, “plenty.”If facial recognition software that can compare your features to a criminal database, or gather data for advertisers, wasn’t futuristic enough for you, consider this: Someday when you’re taking a class from a robot instructor, it might be able to tell how well you understand the material solely based on your facial expressions.

Jacob Whitehill, a computer science PhD student at the University of California, San Diego, has created software that would allow him to control how fast a video played just by moving his face. That was the first step, he says—showing that a computer could pick up on facial movements and, if it was programmed correctly, use those movements as instructions. You can check out video of his “smile detector” here.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
MORE ABOUT: computers, gadgets, robots

Better Meat Through Bach: Classical Music Makes Piglets Less Stressed

By Andrew Moseman | June 24, 2008 5:20 pm

Piglets—they dig BachAnd here we thought uncultured swine didn’t care for classical music.

Piglets, like many young mammals, like to fight amongst themselves, and pressing them together in the confined space of a hog house only exacerbates this tendency. However, a team of Dutch scientists led by Francien de Jonge at Wageningen University announced this week that they’d discovered a way to calm the little pigs—playing the music of Edward Elgar and Johann Sebastian Bach.

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Can an Eclipse Really Help us Date Events in Greek Mythology?

By Andrew Moseman | June 24, 2008 2:58 pm

Did Odysseus come home to an eclipse?Chinese, Greek, and many other ancient cultures left references in their texts to the sky going dark during the day, possible allusions to solar eclipses. These mentions are tantalizing clues to scientists, who think they might use those clues to date historical events.

The latest buzz in historical dating started this week, when researchers Marcelo Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis said they had tied an event in Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus’ return to Ithaca Italy after a two-decade journey, to a total solar eclipse on April 16, 1178 B.C. But how could they be so exact?

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MORE ABOUT: astronomy

Crop Circle Plants Pi in a Barley Field

By Andrew Moseman | June 23, 2008 4:58 pm

The geometry geeks (or space aliens, if you prefer) who stamp out intricate designs on the fields of the U.K. may have topped themselves this time.

British astrophysicist Mike Reed said last week that the giant formation that appeared outside the village of Wroughton in early June, and had stumped scientists and amateur enthusiasts attempting to decode it, has a simple explanation: Pi. That’s right. The world’s most popular irrational number, 3.14159 and so on, holds the key, Reed says. Starting from the circle in the center, a line spirals out toward the edge. The length of each segment, before it juts out, corresponds to a digit in pi. The smaller circle near the middle is the decimal point, Reed says, while the three larger dots near the edge are an ellipsis, indicating that the number never ends. Check out Wired‘s blog for a graph of the numerical progression.

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