Monday, March 31, 2008

Particle smasher 'not a threat to the Earth'

I'm loving the near-apocalyptic sci-fi-esque headlines that are cropping up as the LHC nears it's summer 2008 completion date.

Botanist sues to stop CERN hurling Earth into parallel universe.

Particle Smasher 'not a threat to the Earth'

My grasp of black holes, strangelets and strings is tenuous at best. So while I'm willing to trust the experts on this one, I still frequently wish that I understood the physics better. This comment from QuantumLeap at BoingBoing seems informed and helpful (if somewhat foreboding in it's final line):

First, let me disclaim that I worked for CERN for a few years and now work for a US National Lab, doing research work for an experiment within the LHC (the ATLAS experiment, )

This mini-black-holes we expect to generate at LHC don't look at all like what most people associate to them. Have a look:

In fact what we see is the Hawking Radiation ( emitted by the evaporating black hole, which should disappear in about 10e-25s. Meaning, if it were traveling at the speed of light it would cover a distance of less that the radius of an hydrogen atom. This is a 8TeV black hole.

And . . . particle collisions way more energetic that that happen every day in our atmosphere, and we're still around...

The danger of strangelet conversion ( is even more exotic since it's not only merely a vague theoretical possibility as it needs matter densities way higher that what you have on earth to be of any concern. A strangelet, if it exists, is even more unstable that a mini-black-hole and so at the speed of light will barely cover more than the distance of a proton radius before disintegrating. Only in a very packed and dense environment (like a neutron star) it would be able to propagate.

Anyway, soon all this debate will be over...

From the virtual LHC center:

LHC is the Large Hadron Collider, an accelerator being built at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. When it is complete in the summer of 2008 it will be the largest and highest energy accelerator in the world. Here are the stats:

* Type of collision: proton-proton
* Center of Mass Energy at Collision: 14 TeV (7 times energy of the Fermilab Tevatron)
* Diameter of Ring: approx 27 km
* Average depth of ring below ground: approx 100 m
* Main particle Detector Systems: ATLAS, CMS, LHCb, ALICE
* Hoping to Discover: Higgs boson, Graviton, Supersymmetric Particle, Extra Dimensions...

Ideas Worth Waiting For

This is a plug for a program called Ideas, broadcast on that bastion of Canadian national pride, CBC Radio One. In an impatient age, this is a 55 minute show that usually simply hands over a microphone to a learned and entertaining speaker, and lets him or her speak for an hour. The topics are varied; here are some sample abstracts from shows over the last couple of weeks:

Evelyn Fox Keller is both a scientist, a philosopher and a historian of science. In her book The Century of the Gene, she argues that the idea of genes has outlived its usefulness. She explains why we need a new biology

We are healthier than ever before, and we live longer, but improvements in health are not distributed evenly. The rich outlive the middle classes, who outlive the poor. Swedes and Japanese live longer than Canadians, and Canadians, longer than Americans. Freelance journalist Jill Eisen discovers that the reasons have little to do with our health care systems.

Religious passions are stirring up politics around the globe. The West has learned to separate religion from politics. But Islam has another political theology—one that places God at the center. Historian Mark Lilla surveys this intellectual landscape.

Does that say it all? Sure there are some boring shows... but here is a rare place where truly abstract and/or original thought is given its own way with no advertising for an hour. Some of the shows are available as podcasts or mp3 downloads. Users all over the world can listen live online, and for the Haligonians I know are reading this, you can listen at 9pm every weeknight.

I've noticed that many of my favorite shows are not easily available online, so your best bet is really to tune and listen to it on the air. That requires some patience... but the journey deeper into your own mind is worth it, because some ideas really do take an hour to explain.

Also check out The Age of Persuasion, and Spark on Radio One.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Nature ran an article about some researchers at Stanford in California that are creating a new distributed computing platform (think SETI@home) that uses computers equipped with accelerometers to detect earthquakes. Many modern laptops have them built in, and they'll soon be offering them at a cost to allow more machines to join their grid.

As the researchers have stated, the trick is just throwing more and more machines at the system, called the Quake-Catcher Network. The more machines they have, the less important it is for all those nodes to be accurate. When a laptop is picked up or moved, its not going to signal some alarm.

I find this particularly interesting because one of my favorite bloggers, the eminently badass Robert Hodgin over at Flight404, recently wrote about his interest in tracking quakes and what could be done with real-time data, lamenting the fact that the only way to get at such information cost thousands of dollars. A system like GCN has the potential to provide just such a service, partly due to the fact that it can be deployed for next to nothing. I hope they have the foresight to pass on those savings to the web community at large, and it would be especially wise to open source the whole thing. Imagine being able to hook into the system at a lower threshold and pick up on more localized events. It could be used for all sorts of potentially interesting things. Tie it in with some sort of news reporting and you can track the more-or-less exact location of an explosion. Expand the service to a place like my own (NYC!) and with enough users you might be able to keep track of the movement of trains underground. How neat would that be!?!?

I digress. This system is teeming with potential, and it really kind of makes me wish I lived on the other coast to be a part of it.

EDIT: Upon diving a tiny bit into the QCN website, QCN is built atop the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC!), as does SETI@home. It's open source!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pre-Edison Sound Recording

Ok this is awesome. An article at IHT tells of a recording that was made something like thirty years prior to Edison's first recording and playback. This recording, called a phonautograph, was very recently played back for the first time. It was created by a French typesetter and librarian named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and what really fascinates me is that he had no intention of trying to play it back. His interest was in capturing sound as a written, permanent thing. This is something more akin to the very recent interest in audio visualization (Reactable, for example) as opposed to Edison's intent, and that of the entire audio industry that followed in his wake.

To me, seeing a sound wave really strikes me as a very modern thing, though maybe that's completely wrong. It's more a symbol of a questioning, experimental nature than of the concrete marketability of the phonograph. For this reason, it really feels to me like Scott was 150 years ahead of his time.

More Crimes Perpetrated by Infinity

Here's another brain teaser involving infinity...

One afternoon at 4pm, an old man was pulling a bucket of water up from his well, and was delighted to discover that ten golden coins were in the bucket, and they were strangely numbered 1 through 10. He took them inside, and stacked them lovingly in his cellar, and puzzled over their origin.

At 4:30, he returned to the well, and drew the bucket again, and shouted for joy when he saw ten more coins, these labelled 11 through 20. Unbeknownst to him, back in his cellar, a curious mouse had found his stack of coins, and stolen one from the bottom. When the mouse heard the old man returning, he fled to his hole, holding coin number 1. The old man entered the cellar and added coins 11 through 20 to his pile.

At 4:45, he could not resist going out again and checking the well once more, and sure enough, he discovered coins 21 through 30. He hurried inside with them, by which time the little mouse had managed to work coin number 2 out from under the pile. Since there were still 18 coins remaining, the old man didn't notice that any were missing as he put coins 21 to 30 on top of the pile.

The old man made further trips to the well in shorter and shorter times, after 7.5 minutes, then 3.75 minutes, etc, each time making the trip from well to cellar in half the previous time (he was a spry old man), each time adding ten new coins to the top of his ever-growing pile. Also each trip, the mouse managed to creep back out and sneak a single coin from the bottom of the ever growing hoard.

(Take a moment here to convince yourself that infinitely many trips to the well will have occurred by 5pm... and kindly suspend disbelief!)

At 5pm, the old man was very tired, having moved infinitely fast, but was also satisfied that he had gathered the infinitely many numbered coins that the well seemed determined to offer. He returned to his cellar to view his spoils, and was shocked at what he saw!

What did the old man see?

And the really crazy question: What would be different if a sparrow had been stealing coins from the top of the pile instead of a mouse from the bottom. It matters! Think of the numbers on the coins.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Space Aliens

It's true, there are aliens floating around the center of our very own galaxy. They're called amino acetonitriles.

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has a writeup about this little guy, which is a precursor to amino acids and thus a precursor to what we call life. Researchers in Germany have apparently found this stuff in space, which is apparently an awesome thing.

And as a sidenote, his fancy picture of an amino acetonitrile looks nothing like the one I've got here, which was the result of a quick google image search. I don't really know how to read these things anymore, but who am I to question the all-knowing google? No one, that's who.

And as another sidenote, why does the picture look so goofy? Why can't I align it properly to begin at the same height as the text? Silly Blogger.

Monday, March 24, 2008

In case you forgot about it...

now would be a good time to re-discover Astronomy Picture of the Day.

How It Works

Given my previous post, this seems appropriate. xkcd.

The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism

Meet Sarah.

Sarah can “identify and anticipate what [her husband] is feeling—often before he is conscious of it himself.” Like the magician who knows that you’ll pick the seven of diamonds before it’s even left the pack, Sarah can amaze her husband at whim, thanks to her lucky knack of knowing what he’s feeling before he even feels it. (Ta-DA! Is this your emotion?) Sarah is neither a fairground psychic nor the somewhat irresponsible owner of a futuristic brain wave interpreting machine. She is simply a woman who enjoys the miraculous gift of mindreading that, apparently, is bestowed on all owners of a female brain:

‘Maneuvering like an F-15, Sarah’s female brain is a high performance emotion machine—geared to tracking, moment by moment, the non-verbal signals of the innermost feelings of others.’

Sarah is just one of the many curious characters who populate lay science books about gender. She can be found in Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain, one of several recent popular and influential books arguing for fundamental and ‘hard-wired’ differences in male and female psychology.

Unfortunately, scientific accuracy and commonsense are often casualties in the ugly rush to cloak old-fashioned sexism in the respectable and authoritative language of neuroscience.

These are the opening sentences in a piece by philosopher Cordelia Fine. She's responding to the recent wave of literature that attempts to parse sexist hunches in the language of neuroscience, pretending that there's science to prove that the stereotypes are really "hardwired sex differences" when the science we have says just the opposite.

Full text, entitled "Will Working Mothers' Brains Explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism." with citations available here.

I'm so sick of seeing the sort of articles and books Fine writes about.

Take for example, this NY Times article which was among the most emailed of the week when it was released. The article explores Leonard Sax's new book "Why Gender Matters" which asserts that female teachers (who according to him are "soft spoken" *) bore boys with their gentle tones. In fact, according to Sax, boys would be doing much better in grade school if we could just get them away from all the soft and pretty girly stuff that grade school is apparently inundated in -- 'coz the boys need a cool, steely room where they're encouraged to draw pictures of people kicking each other to really learn. Riiiiight.

It's been my hope since I started this blog to produce a series of posts debunking these sorts of claims and laying out the science the way it really is. It's just a matter of finding the time. Until then, I'm glad Fine has the ball rolling.

* Somebody should let all those ham-fisted (and strong voiced) ladies who taught me grade school know about this.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Slow and Infintely Steady Wins the Race

It must be confessed, this is my first post to any blog, ever. I know, I'm a cave man. So for my 'test post', I thought I'd try a little mathematical riddle that may or may not be familiar...

Fast Fred and Slow Susan propose to have a race; a marathon of 100km. Given their (literal) track records, the outcome seems utterly predictable – Fred will easily outpace the slower Susan. As a result, he gives her a head start. Since she is 32 years old, he will allow her a 32 km head start before he even begins to run. Fred knows he runs at twice Susan’s pace, so that any head start of less than 50km should pose no problem for him. So that he may know when to begin, they will both carry phones with GPS devices, and be in constant contact.

The race begins, and Fred faithfully waits until Susan’s little blip shows her 32km along the route. Then he begins. After very little time (since Fred is so fast), he notices that he himself has come to the 32km mark. “Susan”, he says into his phone “I’ve reached your 32km already”.

“One point for you,” she replies “but I am still ahead; I have reached the 48km mark… I’m nearly half done!” Fred fixes the 48km mark in his mind's eye and presses on.

Before long, he reaches the 48km marker. “Susan”, he says “I’m at 48km now, and I’ll pass you before long”.

“two points for you, but I’m still ahead,” she replies “56km and counting… do you suppose you’ll have passed me by the time you reach 56 km?” Something bothers Fred about her comment, but he puts it our of his head and runs, the destination of 56km firm in his mind.

He soon reaches the 56km mark, and again calls his opponent “Susan, I’ve reached 56km”

“Very quick, three points” she says “and have you passed me yet?” Fred snorts in response. “I’m at 60km now. Do you suppose you’ll have passed me by the time you reach 60?”

“Surely, you’ll have gained some ground by then” Fred replies.

“Of course. In the time it takes you to reach my current spot, I’ll have moved on ahead. In fact, EVERY time you reach a spot where I’ve already been, I’ll have moved on further! Even when I'm saying 'a million points for you', I'll still be in the lead! We can keep this up forever, and I guess you can never catch me. It looks as though the race is mine Fred, you may as well give up!”

The easy question is, who will win the race? The harder question is: Why do we have a never-ending sequence of events in which Susan is winning, when it seems that Fred should win? The original version of this little riddle is called Zeno’s paradox, but I challenge you to use your head before your web browser to find the answer. So much more satisfying!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Marbled Icebergs

These stripey "marbled" icebergs are just incredible looking. The stripes are formed during periods of thaw and refreezing and get their colours from different gas and salt concentrations, as well as mixing with sediment and algae.

Iceberg Gallery 1
Iceberg Gallery 2

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Seeing Sounds, and Colours from Another World

Synesthesia must have made a splash in the news recently, because all of the sudden it's on everyone's lips. Synesthesia means "together perception" and refers to a sort of crossing of senses. Oddly enough, people who have this condition may taste what they hear or see what they smell.

One common type of synesthesia is grapheme -> colour synesthesia, in which individual letters and numbers appear coloured. Autistic rights and awareness person Amanda Baggs recently posted a beautiful set of images illustrating how she sees the English and Arabic alphabets.

Another common type of synesthesia is sound -> color synesthesia. In this great art video, animator and director Norman McLaren illustrates sound as he saw it.

Perhaps the most surprising phenomena associated with synesthesia is the ability of colour blind people with the condition to experience "martian colours". These are people who lack the necessary photoreceptors to make red-green or blue-yellow discriminations -- however, this deficiency is located in the retina of the eye -- on the opposite side of the brain from the primary visual cortex. Colour blind synesthetes may report colourings of letters or sounds that they don't see with their eyes, colourings that they are missing the appropriate photoreceptors for, "martian colours" as one synesthete notably put it.

See the following article and lecture for the neuroscience to synesthesia as well as some interesting perspective on the origin of metaphor and abstract thought. It's all about the angular gyrus!

Hearing colours, tasting shapes. Scientific American, 2003
Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. Reith Lectures, 2003

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Identical Twins may have Unidentical DNA

Results from a study conducted at the University of Alabama at Birhamgham indicate that identical (monozygotic) twins do not actually have identical DNA. Instead, even identical twins vary in the number of copies they have of a particular gene.

If this is true it might mean abandoning the notion that the environment plays a critical role in a number of diseases and conditions that we know to be largely genetic.

For example, we know that genes are very important in autism, but because an autistic's identical twin has a ~35% chance of being neurologically typical an important role for environmental factors has been reserved.

Article at the NY Times.

Internet Power


From Waxy

Piet: Programming inspired by Mondrian

Programming is almost wholly language-oriented these days. You have syntax and grammar and keywords and so on. So, it seems David Morgan-Mar decided to do something about that. He created a language he named "Piet". This language is cute. It uses colour, position and direction within a bitmap (ie, an image!) to drive an interpreter. The sample programs made me smile...

Here is an example from that page. The program calculates PI quite literally using that big circle. (!) From the page " Naturally, a more accurate value can be obtained by using a bigger program." :D

One wonders what insights might be gained through programming with such an immediately visual representation. (Graphs are often used as a higher-level metaphor in visual programming.)

via reddit

More Animal Robots

Berkeley researchers are paying attention to geckos. These guys use their tails as leverage if their front feet hit a slippery patch while climbing up something. It's neat to see. And watching a bunch of geckos falling a bunch of times is hilarious.

Boston Dynamics seems the place to be. They're responsible for Big Dog and this robot gecko thing. I hope they're also working on a robot giraffe.

via Nature

Monday, March 17, 2008

Big Dog is better at ice than you are!

I have been in love with "Big Dog" since Daniel showed me the original video some years ago. In this new video, Big Dog deals with not only hills, snow, and rocky terrain -- it even skips and jumps.

The obvious highlight of the video is Big Dog's dramatic recovery from a slip on the ice. The slip is replayed in slow motion so that you can really marvel at the capabilities of this thing.

Big Dog is intended to accompany soldiers, functioning as a robotic pack mule.

via BoingBoing

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Does Big Food own your favourite organic brands?

I know I don't know everything I'd like to know about the food I'm buying. Trying to find out can be an all-consuming task. Still, this chart from Good Magazine surprised me. I do buy occasionally from Kashi (Kelloggs), and Garden of Eatin', Arrowhead Mills and Celestial Seasonings (all Heinz).

Not saying I won't buy from them again, but I'll certainly be more careful about avoiding them when I have alternatives.

The chart also includes a list of the top 30 food processors in North America, with the cringe-worthy Smithfield Foods aka "Pork's Dirty Secret" ranking #8. They also make Butterball Turkeys.

via BoingBoing

Friday, March 14, 2008

Eight of the World's Most Unusual Plants?

Pictured above, Rafflesia arnoldii.

The Curio Society has compiled a neat list of some very surprising and mostly carnivorous plants. Take a gander!

Video Demonstrates DIY DNA Extraction

It's so easy! This brief video demonstrates how to extract DNA from your saliva:

Easily See Your DNA At Home - video powered by Metacafe

Yes, it really is the mucousy stuff you see at the end. If you're careful, you should be able to pick it up or spindle it around the end of a toothpick.

If you don't feel like running to the hardware store, rubbing alcohol used for cleaning cuts should also work for this experiment. Note, environmentally friendly dish detergents won't; you need the nasty sulfates.

Science in Fiction: The Giving Plague

The Giving Plague

A superb piece of science fiction from the sci-fi podcast magazine Escape Pod. Everything comes together in this one; interesting characters, a perfect choice of narration, and the science -- which involves a virus that causes people to become more altruistic -- is both compelling and accurate.

Here's an excerpt from EP:

"Yeah, you viruses need vectors, don’t you. I mean, if you kill a guy, you’ve got to have a life raft, so you can desert the ship you’ve sunk, so you can cross over to some new hapless victim. Same applies if the host proves tough, and fights you off — gotta move on. Always movin’ on.

Hell, even if you’ve made peace with a human body, like Les suggested, you still want to spread, don’t you? Big-time colonizers,you tiny beasties.

Oh, I know. It’s just natural selection. Those bugs that accidentally find a good vector spread. Those that don’t, don’t. Butit’s so eerie. Sometimes it sure feels purposeful…"

Happy π Day



Chris adds:
Of course, what most people miss is that the real beauty of pi is NOT in the decimal expansion. It's simply defined (ratio of the circumference to the diameter of any circle), but has crazily complex properties (not rational, and TRANSCENDENTAL which to us math minded people means it's not the root of ANY polynomial equation!!!!)

Did that deserve four exclamation points?


AI Taking its First Breath in Second Life

Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have created an AI that expresses itself through Second Life. Eddie, as the AI is called, is able to reason and form beliefs on a level equivalent to that of a four year old. What makes Eddie interesting is that it ends up developing a theory of mind, which children do around age four, and is thus able to form beliefs about the beliefs of others. This ability is what allows Eddie--and children over 4--to pass the Sally-Ann test, as is shown here.

To pull it off, behind the Eddie avatar is two systems: one is the theorem prover, the logic-based AI that reasons and forms beliefs, and the other is an NLP system to convert conversational English to formal logic.

This is pretty awesome stuff, though not exactly the strong AI I'm assuming will come eventually.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Chemical CPU for Nanomachines

BBC just posted an article talking about a recent invention allowing one central unit to control multiple nanomachines simultaneously. While they currently need a scanning electron microscope to change the state of the tiny CPU, it's a hell of a start towards crazy things like autonomous nanorobots.

And on a similarly geeky note, here's a link about neurons and silicon living in joyful hippie-like harmony: link! Looks like progress is being made towards integrating silicon and brainstuff. Hopefully it won't be long until we start to see some real-world benefit from neurocomputing.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rachael's Cheek Epithelial Cells

stained with red food colouring!

I currently have a small job with the biology department helping to develop homework labs for first year students taking the online class. Because some of the students are taking the class as distance education, all the materials needs to be items that you can find around home or the grocery store. These cheek cells were harvested with a toothpick and stained with regular red food colouring.

The cells appear quite lucid under the microscope, it's unfortunate the photo does not do them justice.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Venter Does TED

Craig Venter is one of my role models. Since mapping the entire human genome wasn't enough, he's moved on to creating synthetic life. It's absolutely amazing work that will no doubt impact the life of every person on the planet sooner or later.

Something I found interesting was how he almost brushed off the breadth of this coming impact. He knows it'll be big, but it's just another day in the lab.

Pastafarian spoofs creepy Tom Cruise Scientology Video

(and does a great job of it too.)

Here's a link to the original Tom Cruise video.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Tiny robot bits of the soul.

* Potassium Channels and the Atomic Basis of Selective Ion Conduction

Roderick MacKinnon won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for his work on the "structural and mechanistic studies of ion channels". (He shares the prize with Peter Agre, who was also awarded for his work in the discovery of water channels.)

MacKinnon's Nobel lecture was required listening for one of my neuroscience classes, but I thought it was interesting and accessible enough that many people might enjoy it. A text version of the talk is also available in the form of a formal paper (not a transcript). It's a little less accessible.

In case you're wondering about the title, it was inspired by Italian philosopher and mathematician Guilio Giorello's "Si, abbiamo un anima. Ma e fatta di tanti piccoli robot." / "Yes, we have a soul, but it's made of lots of tiny robots!".

Lectures from other Nobel recipients are also available on the site.

Science in Art - Dan McCarthy

Captioned "Shared Memory".

I just love Dan McCarthy's artworks which seem to capture the essence of so many crisp, perfect evenings, and an expanded sense of life and death that places us in our bones and through geologic time.

Click here, and have a gander.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Future Power

The first of it's kind, this solar power station - located in Seville, Spain - appears stunning and surreal while bathed the light reflected by 600 large mirrors.

Link to BBC article: "Power Station Harnesses Sun's Rays">

Monday, March 3, 2008

To the Editor, FTW

This article from The Washington Post, formerly titled "Women Aren't Very Bright" and then renamed (to make it less offensive?) "How Dumb Can We Get?" had me fuming bad enough this morning that I emailed the autor & editor.

But this comment on Feministing made me laugh so hard:

To the Editor- I applaud your commitment to expanding the diversity of voices in the Outlook column. Might I suggest though, that a disclosure in the by line that "Charlotte Allen" is in fact the nom de plume of a 5th-grade boy would make the context of the piece much clearer.