Science

November 22, 2008

When Fact Meets Fiction – Learning Science the Fun Way

Books
iStockphoto / Ugur Evirgen

I don’t normally read science fiction, but Michael Crichton is an entirely different story. I fell in love with his work even before he gained a greater degree of fame with Jurassic Park and its sequels. Right from Andromeda Strain to the Sphere, I’ve enjoyed the way he combines a little bit of fact and a whole lot of fiction to spin a believable yarn about worlds of both the future and the past.

Another author who qualifies for such bouquets in my book is Dan Brown, not for The Da Vinci Code, the famous (notorious) bestseller that caused a ton of controversy, but for its sequel, Angels and Demons, which in book, was a better book than the Code. I particularly took a great deal of interest in the Large Hadron Collider and the way antimatter was explained and used to cause great mayhem and potential destruction. And when I saw the fine print that said that this fact was indeed fact and that fiction had been woven around it, I looked up the project on the Internet and read all I could about it. I admit I was a bit smug when I could tell all my friends that I knew all about this project more than a year ago, and even though they initially thought that I had turned into some kind of science junkie (which I definitely am not), they were surprised to learn that good fiction can have fact as its basis.

Science is a subject that not everyone understands easily; but when it is couched in fiction, when a compelling yarn is woven using the slightest thread of truth, it’s then that people want to learn more and discover more. That’s the best part of books, the fictional kind, because they teach you more than their subject-specific counterparts ever will. Just ask any aficionado of medical and legal mysteries – they’re bound to be familiar with a whole lot of facts, processes and procedures that relate to hospitals and the courtrooms respectively.

And that’s because they don’t consider the process as one of learning, but one of enjoyment. Reading these books are leisure activities for them, while slogging over textbooks is drab, routine work that must be done to achieve good grades. There’s a vast difference in the results achieved when a task is done just for the sake of it and when it’s really enjoyed wholeheartedly. And this delineating line is where fact meets fiction!

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of web learning versus class learning. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24 at gmail dot com

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October 21, 2008

Your Entire Life On An iPhone

Atomic Wires
iStockphoto / James Benet

Thanks to Mohir at K21st for a recent article describing how Professor Lee Cronin and Dr. Malcolm Kadodwala of the University of Glasgow have developed a nanotechnology technique that can store 150,000 times more data per square inch than current technology.

With this technique, the researchers were able to assemble a functional nanocluster just one nanometer in size. This tiny size would permit an incredible storage of 500 trillion bytes per square inch - enough capacity to store:

  • 100 million MP3s
  • 5 million CDs
  • 100,000 DVDs
  • 100 years of video at 1Mbps

Storage capabilities at this level like this will benefit projects like Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell's MyLifeBits. Gordon's project aims to store and index an entire human's lifetime of books, emails, phone calls, video, audio, and more.

Combine this incredible amount of data storage with an eyeglass cam, and OCR, speech and facial recognition software. Now imagine being able to search and play back anything you've ever seen, heard or read right from your iPhone.

You can read the original article from the University of Glasgow here.

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October 20, 2008

Brain Science Is About To Fundamentally Change

After inventing the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins focused his efforts on neuroscience. He describes his memory-prediction framework theory of the brain in his book On Intelligence.

Predicting Patterns

This theory describes the process of how the brain makes predictions of future events by matching sensory inputs to stored memory patterns. Inputs that are processed from the bottom-up interact with expectations from the top-down to generate predictions. When a particular level recognizes a pattern, a label is associated and forwarded to the next level in the hierarchy.

Jeff Hawkins was inspired by an issue of Scientific American dedicated to the brain. He saw that neuroscience lacked a comprehensive framework to describe the operation of the brain and embarked on an effort to build one. In this TED video, he describes his ideas and their implications on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

by Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net

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October 05, 2008

Daniel C. Dennett and The Awesome Power of Memes

Daniel C. Dennett is a philosopher who co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter. In this video from a TED conference, he expands on Richard Dawkins' concept of memes - ideas that survive by their ability to replicate in a manner analogous to genes.

His secret to happiness: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.

by Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net

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September 28, 2008

Quantum Suicide and The Large Hadron Collider

Stern-Gerlach Experiment
Stern-Gerlach experiment. Source: Wikipedia Commons. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2.

Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes the behavior of objects at the atomic scale. The effects of quantum mechanics are typically observable only at this small scale, and not at larger ones, except in unusual or contrived situations.

Electron Spin

Electrons have a property called spin that may be measured in relation to an arbitrary axis. The name is somewhat misleading. It's not quite the same concept as a ball rotating around an axis but there are some useful similarities. Since an electron has an electric charge, its spin causes it to interact with a magnetic field, deflecting the electron's path in a manner similar to the way a charged sphere's course would be altered. An electron can have its spin measured by passing it through a magnetic field. If electrons were truly spinning spheres, a beam of electrons would spread out smoothly when passed through a shaped magnetic field since each rotating sphere would take on an arbitrary spin alignment.

However, what is actually observed is amazing and counter-intuitive. The 1922 Stern-Gerlach experiment showed that spin is quantized and only two values are observed - denoted up and down.

Standard Interpretation

In the standard Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, the electron does not have a definite spin until a measurement is made, and the quantum wave function collapses to a definite value. Schrödinger's Cat is a famous thought experiment which was originally conceived by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger as a critique of the Copenhagen interpretation. In a variation of this thought experiment, one imagines that a cat is placed in a box with a flask of poison and a device that can measure electron spin.

If a single electron that is passed through the device is measured with spin up, the flask of poison is released and the cat expires. If the spin is down, the cat survives. There is a 50 percent chance of either outcome. If the box is sealed so that it is impossible to determine the state of the experiment from outside, the cat will exist in a superposition of states to the outside world with equal probability of it being alive and dead. It's not that the cat actually exists in one state or another according to the Copenhagen interpretation. The cat has become entangled in the quantum wave function describing the contents of the box and truly exists in a superposition of both states.

Quantum Suicide; Many Worlds
iStockphoto / Sirin Buse.

Quantum Suicide

However, in the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, two different worlds exist - one in which the cat remains alive, and another in which the cat has perished.

A thought experiment called Quantum Suicide has been crafted as a hypothetical test of the Many-Worlds interpretation. In this experiment, an observer takes the place of the cat and the experiment is performed many times. In some worlds, the observer perishes, but his conscious experience continues in the worlds in which he survives. He will never observe his own death. The observer perishes in half of the worlds, but it does not appear that way from his point of view. After repeating the experiment as many times as necessary to satisfy his curiosity, the observer concludes that the Many-Worlds interpretation is correct.

With the Large Hadron Collider shut down for two months due to a malfunction, some have suggested with tongue-in-cheek that the Quantum Suicide experiment is being conducted in real time with our own world. In some parallel universes, the LHC creates stable black holes which destroy the Earth. We only remain conscious to observe this in universes where that doesn't happen. In those universes, events happen that prevent the LHC from creating those kinds of black holes.

While the LHC's troubles are more likely explained by mundane problems, the idea behind the Quantum Suicide thought experiment is still an intriguing one.

by Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net

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September 22, 2008

Searching for the Higgs Boson

Higgs Boson Production
The Higgs Boson may be produced through the decay of two gluons. Source: Wikipedia Commons. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

The Large Hadron Collider's Search

The Higgs boson is the only particle left that has not yet been observed by experimental research in the Standard Model of particle physics which lists some 40 species of elementary particles. One of the goals of CERN's Large Hadron Collider, situated beneath the border between France and Switzerland, is to search for this particle when it reaches full operation.

The Higgs boson is a component of the proposed Higgs field. Even in completely empty space, the Higgs field has a value that is non-zero. It is theorized that this non-zero value gives mass to other elementary particles that do in fact have mass.

How Does Mass Arise?

But how can one particle give rise to mass in another particle? This would seem at first glance to involve circular reasoning. The Exploratorium gives a great analogy here:

Imagine you're at a Hollywood party. The crowd is rather thick, and evenly distributed around the room, chatting. When the big star arrives, the people nearest the door gather around her. As she moves through the party, she attracts the people closest to her, and those she moves away from return to their other conversations. By gathering a fawning cluster of people around her, she's gained momentum, an indication of mass. She's harder to slow down than she would be without the crowd. Once she's stopped, it's harder to get her going again.

One reason that the Higgs boson has not yet been observed is because of the predicted large amount of energy necessary to create it. Generally, physicists believe that the Higgs boson will have a mass between 114 and 1,000 GeV / c2. The LHC will be able to operate at up to 7,000 GeV  / c2 on two beams.

by Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net

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September 19, 2008

Puzzling Discrepancies in Space Probe Trajectories

Gravity Waves
© iStockphoto.com / Karl Dolenc

The Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes were launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively with missions to survey Jupiter and the outer solar system. At the end of their successful missions, both probes had trajectories which left them on hyperbolic courses to exit the solar system forever.

After their primary missions were completed, NASA continued to monitor the probes until they were no longer able to transmit signals. The last time Pioneer 11 was heard from was in November 1995, and Pioneer 10's signal has not been detected since January 2003.

Unexplained Acceleration

Close examination of data regarding the paths of the spacecraft has shown that there is a very small acceleration towards the sun that cannot be accounted for after every known force is taken into account. A large number of possible effects have generally been ruled out including fuel leakage, the solar wind, and navigational errors.

The Pioneer probes are not the only probes that have experienced unexplained changes in acceleration. A number of more recent missions have also experienced small changes in velocity as they passed close to the Earth for gravitational-assist maneuvers:

Possible Causes

The cause of the effect is still an open question and their is not enough data to resolve the question conclusively. A number of potential causes have been suggested, including:

A mission to specifically to study the effect has been proposed, but has not been approved. Scientists will be especially interested in the third flyby of Earth by the Rosetta mission which will occur on November 13, 2009.

September 16, 2008

Animals Survive Experimental Exposure to Open Space

Waterbear
Tardigrade. Source: Wikipedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike version 3.0.

Space.com reports that tiny 8-legged animals were able to survive in open space during an experiment performed on a European Space Agency spacecraft. Tardigrades, more commonly called water bears, are similar to the brine shrimp Sea-Monkeys.

The Foton-M3 spacecraft carrying the experiment was launched by the European Space Agency in September 2007 and exposed the creatures to the extreme environment of space. Many of the Tardigrades were able to withstand the exposure to vacuum, ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays.

The results of the experiment lend support to the panspermia hypothesis - that seeds of life may be able to travel between planets and throughout the universe by a number of possible mechanisms.

by Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net

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September 01, 2008

LHC Nearing Full Operation, May Produce Black Holes

CMS Higgs Event
Source: CMS Media/CERN

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN continues on target to ramp up to full operation after a second and final test of the beam synchronization systems was completed on Friday, August 22, 2008.

Scientists are excited about the possibility that the collider will produce unstable, short-lived black holes or even dark matter. Physicists Steven Giddings and Michelangelo Mangano have ruled out the potential for dangerous, stable black holes to be created in a paper entitled Astrophysical implications of hypothetical stable TeV-scale black holes published in the journal Physical Review D on August 15, 2008.

The first attempt to circulate a beam of particles is set for September 10, 2008 and will be webcast live.

August 29, 2008

The Singularity Summit 2008

The Singularity Summit 2008

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has issued a press release with details of The Singularity Summit 2008: Opportunity, Risk, Leadership. The event will be held October 25, 2008 at the Montgomery Theater in San Jose, California. Previous summits have featured Nick Bostrom, Eric Drexler, Douglas Hofstadter, Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Thiel.

Keynote speakers include Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, and Justin Rattner, CTO of Intel. At the Intel Developer Forum on August 21, 2008, Rattner explained why he thinks the gap between humans and machines will close by 2050. "Rather than look back, we're going to look forward 40 years," said Rattner. "It's in that future where many people think that machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence."

Other featured speakers include:

  • Dr. Ben Goertzel, CEO of Novamente, director of research at SIAI
  • Dr. Marvin Minsky
  • Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, creator of Twine.com
  • Dr. Vernor Vinge
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

To register for The Singularity Summit 2008, click here. You can find a comprehensive list of other upcoming worldwide Singularity and Artificial Intelligence events here.

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