Archive for June, 2010

Edison Would Have Been Proud of Today's Young Data-Crawlers

By Kevin Grazier | June 29, 2010 5:59 pm

Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” We recently saw a fine examplePavonis_Mons_PIA05243_small of this in a field in which Edison’s quip may prove increasingly true.

It turns out that  group of 8th Graders have discovered what appears to be a “skylight” — a caved-in lava tube–on Mars. This isn’t the first such discovery, but they’re not overly common, either. The students’ work was done as part of the Mars Student Imaging Project through Arizona State University. The program allows students, 5th graders through college sophomores, to pose a question about Mars and then have a Mars-orbiting spacecraft take the observations necessary to answer it. The team that found the skylight was from Evergreen Elementary School in Cottonwood, CA, and initially they sought to examine erosional features on Martian Volcanoes, in particular Pavonis Mons (at right) one of the Tharsis Volcanoes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Geology, Space Flight

IBM Computer Fails the Turing Test But Just Might Pass the Jeopardy Test

By Malcolm MacIver | June 28, 2010 8:51 pm

In his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing proposed what is now known as the Turing test in artificial intelligence. The idea is that if you are unable to discriminate between a computer and a human who is answering your questions via a keyboard and screen, then the computer is intelligent.

Single_Jeopardy!_Game_BoardThere are many problems with this idea, but despite these problems, it still remains a compelling benchmark, and one that has yet to be reached. But think of the following variation: rather than have your computer and human team answer any old question, the questions have to be similar to what you would expect on the quiz TV show Jeopardy! – clues about trivia in the form of answers to a question that you must come up with.

Even this greatly restricted version of the Turing test is very challenging, but I.B.M.’s machine called “Watson” has recently made intriguing steps toward passing it. Watson takes any Jeopardy-type question and gives a response. It was not developed as a new type of intelligence test, but instead as a grand challenge to beat a human at a language-based task, like a Deep Blue of language (IBM’s Deep Blue chess playing computer beat the world chess champion in 1997). You can challenge it yourself here. It currently uses a fixed set of a large number (in the millions) of documents and a sophisticated parallelized statistical algorithm running on a supercomputer. By being parallelized, the algorithm can try a large number of possible interpretations of the question out at once, and pick the most likely interpretation.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Artificial Intelligence

A Microwave Beam to Keep the Frost Away

By Eric Wolff | June 28, 2010 1:26 am

tempwaveIn Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld, the alien Kzin attack humanity under the assumption that humans, having been at peace for years, had no weapons. But when the Kzinti attack, humanity uses communications and industrial lasers as formidable defenses that successfully ward off the invasion.

In a reversal of that, Raytheon has taken a weapon, its Active Denial System, and used it as a heat ray to keep crops warm against a frost, a device called Tempwave.

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Mythbusting the Mythbusting of Capt. Kirk and His Handmade Diamond Cannon

By Eric Wolff | June 28, 2010 12:28 am

Alas, Capt. Kirk’s muzzle-loading bamboo gun would more likely have killed Kirk himself then the Gorn attacking him—or at least, so said the Mythbusters a while back. For those who haven’t seen arguably the best episode of Star Trek TOS (Arena), the plot is as follows: An alien race wants to test humanity by pitting Kirk against another alien, called a Gorn, in a fight to the death. The Gorn is bigger and stronger, but Kirk wins the day by finding and mixing together saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal into black powder, loading them into a bamboo tube, and, using diamonds as ammunition, shooting and killing the Gorn.

The Mythbusters set about testing the theory and found that it didn’t work. They handmade some half-decent gunpowder, but it didn’t have enough force to fire anything, and if it had, the bamboo tube couldn’t contain the explosion. The Mythbusters discovered the exploding bamboo  would have been more likely to kill Kirk then the gorn.

But it’s possible the Mythbusters didn’t use optimal ingredients in their low-energy gunpowder.

Like, maybe they used bad charcoal. Ulrich Bretscher is a retired Swiss chemist who turned his discipline and training to the art of homemade black powder, and he says the charcoal is the key element in determining the effectiveness of the gunpowder.

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How to Make Attack of the Clones Not Suck

By Jeremy Jacquot | June 25, 2010 6:05 pm

How to Defeat Your Own CloneIf you’re anything like me, then you probably uttered an audible groan of disdain upon first laying eyes on the title of this book. In a literary landscape already awash in guides on surviving the coming zombie/robot/(insert your own term) apocalypse, the last thing I wanted to read was yet another piece of cloying, pseudo-scientific babble.

I felt compelled to give it a chance, however, after flipping to the authors’ page and realizing, to my great relief, that I was dealing with actual scientists. Scientists with a wry sense of humor and penchant for science fiction, as I soon found out. Having listened to (or slept through) my fair share of biology lectures during college, I was curious to see how they would approach such a complex topic–and, more importantly, how helpful their “tips” would turn out to be. I’m happy to report that not only have they written one of the most entertaining, succinct guides to biotechnology and cloning, they have also provided an exhaustive guide on how to best your clone—surely a pressing question for anyone reading this blog. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Books, Genetics, Media, Utter Nerd

Genomics Has Bad News For The Singularity

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 25, 2010 4:04 pm

Buried in the Economist‘s excellent special report “Biology 2.0” on the decade since the completion of the Human Genome Project is a chart that I almost didn’t believe when I saw it. Using data from M.I.T.’s Broad Institute, the cost of genomic sequencing (in dollars per million base pairs) was plotted against the cost of computing. The results were astonishing.


Moore’s Law (the speed of computing per dollar doubles every 18 months), perhaps the representative concept of ever accelerating technological progress and the foundation of Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of a technological singularity, looks pretty pathetic. And genomics is still getting cheaper and faster:

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An Extremely Cool New Book

By Kevin Grazier | June 24, 2010 6:24 pm

Where is the smelliest place in the Solar System?51PASPgIL5L__SS500_

Where are there snowballs in Hell?

Where is the surfing the most extreme, dude?

If you’re extremely intrigued by those questions, I’m extremely excited to announce an extremely interesting book coming this Fall, written by two extremely fascinating gentlemen.  It’s  The 50 Most Extreme Places in the Solar System by Dave Baker and Todd Ratcliff. Like any good scientist, I’ll admit my bias up front: the authors were graduate students with me at UCLA. Still, both of them are extremely knowledgeable and I’ve no doubt that the book will be extremely fun and interesting and…

…I’ve overdone the running gag to the extreme.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Geology

Cyborg Comedians Kick Ass (With Prosthetic Legs)

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 24, 2010 1:12 pm

One of my weirder hobbies is keeping track of things that prove we live in the future. So far I’ve got things like robot vacuum cleaners (Roomba), Star Trek communicators (iPhone), and lasers that correct vision (LAZIK). I can now add “cyborg comedians” to that roster. I don’t know what caused the synchronicity, but in the past couple days I’ve been coming across seemingly unrelated but very funny people talking about their significant disabilities and how they transcend them with mechanical aids.

The first video I saw was of Zach Anner’s addition for an Oprah competition. Zach, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, is gunning for his own show. Now that he’s introduced, I’ll just let the man with the “sexiest palsy” do the talking:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cyborgs, Politics

Traversing the Cosmos — With a Little Help from My Friends (Pt II)

By Kevin Grazier | June 22, 2010 10:24 pm

“In Pt. I, all you did was snark about TV and films that, you feel, didn’t depict gravity assist, something that you admit is a difficult concept, correctly.”

Well, every science educator has their “pet” topics–things they really like to convey to receptive minds. This is one of mine (tides are another and we’ll be visiting that topic soon).

“So how IS it done, Mr. Smarty Pants?”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics, Space, Space Flight

"Going to the Board" in the 21st Century: Interpretive Dances of Dissertations

By Kevin Grazier | June 22, 2010 7:19 pm

It’s always surprising to me how many people–and I mean people “on the street,” those that you may meet at the gym or at parties—say “Oh I’d love to read your dissertation” upon learning that you’ve spent far too many years in grad school.

Oh REALLY? You honestly want to read my dissertation? Most of my committee didn’t  even want to read my dissertation, but they had to. If you have a sleep disorder, I’m sure your GP can prescribe something…

Well now the American Association for the Advancement of Science has found a way to ease this potentially awkward situation by bringing you the 2010 “Dance your Ph.D. Competition.” Yes, not only can you now  exercise your body as well as your right and left brain, instead of having to give folks a copy of your dissertation, you can simply point to the video of your interpretive dance. You can even become a fan of the competition on Facebook.

While I’m not inclined to do it myself, I’d love to see somebody attempt an interpretive dance of “The Stability of Planetesimal Niches in the Outer Solar System: A Numerical Investigation.”


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