Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

Invisible World

September 25, 2009

Pollen photo

I Can’t See You, But I Know You’re There
I don’t think I spent a day of my life without thinking about invisible things. Of course I’m not talking about truly invisible things as in supernatural thing, but rather things that are invisible to the naked eye but that we know are there because we can see or measure them with instruments.

Every single day I randomly think about things like allergens (the photo above is of pollen), DNA, cells, viruses, atoms in various conformations (proteins, lipids, hydrocarbon chains, neurotransmitters, etc) and of various kinds, radio waves, photons and electrical flows (from how much energy is used when I flip various switches to the incredibly fast pulses that encode everything in my computer and over my broadband connection). I also often think about the large invisible things, like stars, galaxies, nebulas, black holes, and the vastness of space in between it all.

Our brain has a hard time with these things because, as Richard Dawkins would say, it has evolved in “middle world” and is simply not equipped to grasp these things properly at scale.

What’s Your Relationship With the Unseen?
I know that it’s probably not that way for everybody, and it makes me wonder how it changes my perception of the world.

How do you see the world? Do you naturally think about invisible stuff, or do you rarely consider these things? Please let me know in the comments below.

Amazon Text Stats

September 20, 2009

Amazon Text Stats image

Analyzing and Comparing Books
I have just noticed that Amazon has a “Text Stats” section on its book pages. I’m not sure how long it has been there, but it’s very interesting.

  • The Fog Index was developed by Robert Gunning. It indicates the number of years of formal education required to read and understand a passage of text.
  • The Flesch Index, developed in 1940 by Dr. Rudolph Flesch, is another indicator of reading ease. The score returned is based on a 100 point scale, with 100 being easiest to read. Scores between 90 and 100 are appropriate for 5th and 6th graders, while a college degree is considered necessary to understand text with a score between 0 and 30.
  • The Flesch-Kincaid Index is a refinement to the Flesch Index that tries to relate the score to a U.S. grade level. For example, text with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 10.1 would be considered suitable for someone with a 10th grade or higher reading level.

Information Technology & Book Writing
I wonder how long before publishers and writers start to use this data to better zero in on certain targets in the hope of better reaching their target demographics. I’m sure that someday – if it hasn’t already happened – writers will get notes from editors asking them to “bring the Fog Index rating of their manuscript down by at least 20%” or “reduce the number of complex words by 10%”, all based on statistical analysis of the composition of recent best sellers.

A kind of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for books, in a way.

Like all tools, it could be abused and lead to bad results. But if used properly, it could result in more readable books and reduce the variability in quality output between individual editors (probably not by much, but any improvement would be welcome).

The pic on top of this post is from the Amazon page for I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter (which I’m currently reading).

Here’s an excerpt that I liked:

I Am A Strange Loop book

Update: Just to make it clear, this post isn’t an ad for I Am A Strange Loop. It’s just the book I looked up on Amazon when I noticed the Amazon Text Stats feature, and I thought some people might be curious to know which book the Text Stats in the screenshot came from.

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Aubrey de Grey’s Paper on the Methuselarity

September 17, 2009

Aubrey de Grey photo

Discipline for my Information Diet

June 14, 2009

One of the demons I’m wrestling with when it comes to my information diet is keeping a high signal to noise ratio for an extended period of time. I know that the time and mental energy I’m spending reading news items about business, politics and technology are taking away from the energy I have for settled science and more timeless information (I mentioned this previously in Curiosity: Good Friend, Bad Master).

I think my problem is mostly discipline. I know that I’ll get more out of reading books and textbooks from my to read list than by reading The Economist and whatever interesting blog posts are featured on Hacker News, but even after I resolve to focus on the highest-quality material first and read other fun things on the side, as weeks pass I get less and less vigilant about it… until I some day I realize that I open the ‘hard’ books infrequently and spend most of my time reading lighter things that give me less lasting value. Once in a while there’s a big spike of willpower that brings me back on track, but it doesn’t last and at the bottom of the cycle I end up feeling feeling that I wasted an opportunity to learn new things and grow.

Why is it such a big deal to me? Because I feel that there’s a qualitative difference in how much I benefit from the highest quality material compared to whatever’s being written about this week. In short: More life-changing books like Gödel, Escher, Bach, and fewer articles about what’s happening this week in Myanmar.

Solution (?)
Maybe what I need is a way to keep track of my commitment, both as a reminder and a motivator. It worked pretty well with my molecular biology textbook… Until I moved to Ottawa. I haven’t opened that textbook in a month. You see what I’m talking about?

In fact, if I’m totally honest with myself, I’m thinking that maybe what will give the best result is a more drastic change. I’ve already unsubscribed to a few periodicals in the past, but maybe I should make deeper cuts and even create some rules about which websites I can visit and when (or maybe just re-arranging my bookmarks and RSS feeds would be enough to modify my behavior?).

If you’ve had a similar problem and found an effective way to deal with it, let me know in the comments.

See also:

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Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey at BIL

March 15, 2009

Aubrey de Grey at BIL Conference photo

When Aubrey de Grey’s Happy, I’m Happy…
Why? Because he’s one of the leaders and main instigators of the scientific movement working on defeating the diseases of aging, by far the number one cause of death and suffering in the ‘Western’ countries.

Future Current has a transcript of the talk that Aubrey gave at the BIL ad-hoc conference (a kind of less exclusive TED).

But the best way to experience this is to watch the video of Aubrey.

How? Why?
If you are new to all this, I recommend starting with this older TED talk or this longer Google Tech Talk, then this primer at FightAging, and then Aubrey and Michael Rae’s book, Ending Aging.

The best way to contribute to the research efforts are to donate to the Methuselah Foundation.

I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

February 23, 2009

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists – a father and son – basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.

Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.


Darwin Week: Daniel C. Dennett

February 9, 2009

Daniel C. Dennett carleton university darwin week photo

Just saw Daniel Dennett give a talk about “Darwin and the Evolution of Reasons” at Carleton University for Darwin Week.

Here’s the blurb about the talk:

Evolution by natural selection not only accounts for the apparent design of the biological world; it explains the emergence of intelligent designers like us, acting on reasons that we formulate and evaluate. Thanks to language, we can propose, analyze, and criticize our own designs and those of others. This capacity to be moved by reasoning is one of evolution’s most potent products to date, unique in the biosphere. It gives us a lens through which we can look back at the evolutionary process itself, discovering the source of our abilities and aspirations, and then questioning our deepest convictions.

I didn’t learn too many new things, but it was still a pleasant experience. Dennett’s a very good speaker and gets concepts across in a clear and concise manner. If you have a chance to see him speak, I recommend it.

Science is a Process, Not Just a Bunch of Facts

February 1, 2009

A study published in the January 30 issue of Science shows that learning more scientific facts doesn’t seem to improve the ability of students to use proper scientific reasoning. This seems like a “well, duh” observation to me, but apparently it isn’t obvious to those who create science curriculums in many schools around the world.

The researchers tested about 6,000 students majoring in science and engineering at seven universities (4 in the US and 3 in China). Here are the results:


Is Graphene/Graphane the Future of CPUs?

January 31, 2009

Graphene image

The Yin…
Graphene, shown above, is a very interesting material. It’s very strong (“strongest material ever measured“), and a very good electrical conductor: “The corresponding resistivity of the graphene sheet would be 10^−6 Ω·cm, less than the resistivity of silver, the lowest resistivity substance known at room temperature .” (source)

But what makes graphene even more interesting, in my opinion, is the recently discovered possibility of turning it into graphane simply by adding some hydrogen atoms.

Graphane image
Graphane. Carbon atoms in gray, hydrogen atoms in white.

…and the Yang
These hydrogen atoms apparently change the properties of the material in a very interesting way:

A hypothetical example for this is graphane (7), a wide-gap semiconductor, in which hydrogen is bonded to each carbon site of graphene. Here we show that by exposing graphene to atomic hydrogen, it is possible to transform this highly-conductive semimetal into an insulator.

What can you do with a good conductor that you can turn into an insulator by adding a few atoms?

Adieu to Silicon?
To me it seems like the obvious thing would be to try to make a CPU. If you can make enough pure graphene and you can control precisely where to add hydrogen atoms, you can probably replace photolithography, the technique currently used to make computer chips.

Your feature-size would be limited by how finely you can add hydrogen atoms to the graphene substrate (or maybe by electricity leakage – I’m not familiar enough with that to be sure), and your chips would be based on easy to find elements: carbon and hydrogen (though others would no doubt be needed – hydrogen is one way to modify graphene’s properties, but the Manchester University scientists who discovered graphane seem to think there are many others).

More R&D is required to know if this would work at all, and then to figure out practical ways to actually build microchips with these materials, but from what I know, it does seem very promising.

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Using a Polymer Implant to Program Your Immune System

January 28, 2009

Nature Materials has a fascinating paper on a kind of polymer implant that can ‘program’ your dendritic cells. This would allow doctors to use your own immune system to attack, for example, cancer cells. But it could also be used to combat other diseases related to the immune system (arthritis and diabetes are examples given by Technology Review), or even to “train other kinds of cells, including stem cells used to repair damage to the body.”

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Cancer vaccines typically depend on cumbersome and expensive manipulation of cells in the laboratory, and subsequent cell transplantation leads to poor lymph-node homing and limited efficacy. We propose that materials mimicking key aspects of bacterial infection may instead be used to directly control immune-cell trafficking and activation in the body. It is demonstrated that polymers can be designed to first release a cytokine to recruit and house host dendritic cells, and subsequently present cancer antigens and danger signals to activate the resident dendritic cells and markedly enhance their homing to lymph nodes. Specific and protective anti-tumour immunity was generated with these materials, as 90% survival was achieved in animals that otherwise die from cancer within 25 days. These materials show promise as cancer vaccines, and more broadly suggest that polymers may be designed to program and control the trafficking of a variety of cell types in the body.

This immediately made me wonder if this technique could also be used to combat some of the diseases of aging that are caused by the accumulation of toxic by-products of metabolism that our immune system isn’t clearing up.

For example, maybe we could train our immune system to clear up the mis-folded protein aggregates (beta-amyloids) that accumulate in our brains throughout our lives and eventually, past a certain threshold, cause Alzheimer’s disease. A standard vaccine might do the trick, but maybe this technique could produce a more effective immune response?

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Are Cities Draining Our Mental Energy?

January 4, 2009

New York City Neon Signs photo

Cities Are Attention Whores
Cities bring a lot of benefits to their inhabitants, but we haven’t evolved to live in them and that has an impact on many facets of our lives, including our mental health.

Just being in an urban environment, [scientists] have found, impairs our basic mental processes. […]

A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power. [This depletes our ability to focus and interferes with our self-control].

It will be unsurprising to anyone who has studied evolutionary psychology to learn that a good way to give your brain a break is to spend some time in a natural setting. In fact, some studies show that just looking at some trees or grass through a window or on a picture can be beneficial.

I wonder if house plants can have the same effect…

In any case, this is just one of many examples among man-made systems that we could design better using knowledge of our brains and bodies and the evolutionary forces that shaped them.

Source: Boston Globe

Photo: Trey Ratcliff

Implications of Artificial Intelligence on Innovation at the Intersections

January 2, 2009

A lot of innovation happens at the intersection between two (or more) different fields. You take an approach normally used in a certain field and apply it to another where it hadn’t been tried before, or you take a technology (lasers) and you figure out a way to apply it to your seemingly unrelated problem (storing music).

For example, in the field of biogerontology, the approach used so far was the scientific one. Let’s figure out how things work, and then we can try to solve problems. Aubrey de Grey‘s major insight was to sidestep the whole process by taking an engineering approach; We don’t need to understand the whole system, we just need to learn enough so that we can get the results we want. It’s easier to learn how to repair a house periodically than to learn how to built a house that never gets damaged…

But nowadays, no human can claim to know everything that humanity as a whole knows. Even if we limit it to scientific knowledge, it’s simply impossible. If all you did was speed-read scientific journals 24/7, and you had the training to understand everything you read, you’d probably still be slower than the rate at which new knowledge accumulates.


SpaceX Gets Big NASA Contract

December 28, 2008

SpaceX Dragon Capsule photo

NASA deal potentially worth $3.1 billion
SpaceX, a start-up founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, has just beaten Lockheed Martin and Boeing and gotten a juicy NASA contract. It’s amazing to think that it only took a few years to bring competition to the bloated and bureaucratic space sector. We can now expect prices to go down and innovation to go up.

HAWTHORNE, CA – December 23, 2008 – NASA today announced its selection of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the International Space Station (ISS) Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract award. The contract is for a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the International Space Station. The firm contracted value is $1.6 billion and NASA may elect to order additional missions for a cumulative total contract value of up to $3.1 billion. […]

Under the CRS contract, SpaceX will deliver pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the ISS, and return cargo back to Earth. Cargo may include both NASA and NASA-sponsored payloads requiring a pressurized or unpressurized environment. SpaceX will provide the necessary services, test hardware and software, and mission-specific elements to integrate cargo with the Dragon delivery capsule.

Another company worth keeping an eye on is Bigelow Aerospace. They’re working on expandable space stations, and if they’re successful they will drive down the construction and maintenance costs of space structures. For a $100 billion, we should be able to get more than the ISS

Update: Irene Klotz at Discovery asks Elon Musk about the NASA contract.

Update 2: Check out these photos of Falcon 9 being assembled.

Update 3: Falcon 9 is now fully assembled.

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Source: SpaceX Press Release

See also:

Good News for Everybody who has a Brain

December 19, 2008

Brain in Jar photo

Rejuvenating The Brain
A study published in The EMBO Journal has identified proteins (calpain and cortactin) that help regulate the sprouting of connections between neurons, a phenomenon known as neural plasticity.

Neurons, or nerve cells, process and transmit information by electrochemical signalling and are the core components of the brain and spinal cord. During development, growing neurons are relatively plastic and can sprout new connections, however their plasticity levels drop rapidly as they mature and become integrated into neuronal networks. […]

“This discovery is exciting because we now know that neurons haven’t lost their capacity to re-grow connections, but instead are under constant repression by the protein calpain. If we can target therapies that block this mechanism, then neurons should be able to sprout new connections, therefore stimulating the brain’s ability to repair its wiring network.” […]

“The next step is to find a way to enhance neural plasticity without interfering with the good connections that are already in place.”

This surely has positive implications for the fight to extend healthy life in humans. For more on this topic, see Aubrey de Grey’s TED talk and his book Ending Aging.

Sources: Physorg, The University of British Columbia

Be Thankful for the Earth’s Molten Interior

November 28, 2008

Earth Interior Core

Here’s a thing that many people don’t even know they should be thankful for: The Earth’s molten interior. Not all planets have that feature, and without it there’s a very good chance that we wouldn’t be here.

Firstly, all that magma swirling around under your feet helped created our atmosphere via outgassing.

Secondly, the movements caused by convection in the outer core are what most likely generates the Earth’s magnetic field, without which we would all be toast (massive DNA damage from cosmic rays, etc).

Thirdly, plate tectonics. We rarely realize that without them constantly modifying the surface of the Earth via drift and earthquakes, our planet would most likely be much smoother. As Bill Bryson says: “If the Earth were perfectly smooth, it would be covered everywhere with water to a depth of four kilometers. There might be life in that lonesome ocean, but there certainly wouldn’t be baseball.”

So the next time you look down, think about what’s below your feet and how it was one of the many things that helped you come into existence.

For more: Structure of the Earth

I know I’m a day late for the “thankful for” stuff, but my excuse is that I’m Canadian and Thanksgiving was last month.

Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth

November 16, 2008

Euler and Diderot image
Euler on the left and Diderot on the right.

False Stories With True Lessons
It has been pointed out to me that the story about Pythagoras and Hippasus that I wrote about in my previous post was probably not historically accurate. I certainly hope so for Hippasus… Though the events might never have happened, the moral of the story is true, and you should be careful to keep “truth” as your ultimate goal instead of “being right”.

Leonhard Euler vs. Denis Diderot
There is another fictional anecdote that teachers us a similar lesson: The apocryphal encounter between Leonhard Euler and Denis Diderot.

The French philosopher Denis Diderot was visiting Russia on Catherine the Great’s invitation. However, the Empress was alarmed that the philosopher’s arguments for atheism were influencing members of her court, and so Euler was asked to confront the Frenchman. Diderot was later informed that a learned mathematician had produced a proof of the existence of God: he agreed to view the proof as it was presented in court. Euler appeared, advanced toward Diderot, and in a tone of perfect conviction announced, “Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x, hence God exists—reply!”. Diderot, to whom (says the story) all mathematics was gibberish, stood dumbstruck as peals of laughter erupted from the court. Embarrassed, he asked to leave Russia, a request that was graciously granted by the Empress.


Just be Glad You Aren’t Pythagoras’s Student…

November 15, 2008

Raffaello Sanzio - Pythagoras photo

If anyone who reads this is part of academia and is frustrated by how conservative his chosen field is (“Science advances one funeral at a time”), this story should make you appreciate more the current scientific climate.

From Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh:

One story claims that a young student by the name of Hippasus was idly toying with the number √2, attempting to find the equivalent fraction. Eventually he came to realize that no such fraction existed, i.e. that √2 is an irrational number. Hippasus must have been overjoyed by his discovery, but his master was not. Pythagoras had defined the universe in terms of rational numbers, and the existence of irrational numbers brought his ideal into question. The consequence of Hippasus’ insight should have been a period of discussion and contemplation during which Pythagoras ought to have come to terms with this new source of numbers. However, Pythagoras was unwilling to accept that he was wrong, but at the same time he was unable to destroy Hippasus’ argument by the power of logic. To his eternal shame he sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning.

The ability to change our minds when presented with evidence that disproves our beliefs – even our most entrenched ones – is a hard habit to acquire, but it is extremely valuable. When you start doubting, don’t turn away. Look into the light until your eyes adjust, and see if there is something there.

As P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” See the Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Update: Apparently this story is apocryphal. There’s a discussion about it on Reddit (which, btw, linked this page here — welcome to all Reddit readers!).

See also: Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth

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Humans are Tone Deaf to Probabilistic Reasoning

October 30, 2008

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker makes an interesting point about the fact that our brains haven’t evolved to intuitively grasp probabilities. It is an acquired skill like reading, not something innate like walking.

This can lead to scenarios like this:

Some experts are describing the risks of accident at some nuclear waste storage site. They describe various conceivable sequences of events that could lead to failure. For example, accidental drilling in the wrong place, erosion, undetected cracks in the rocks, which could lead to groundwater contamination. Then natural water movement, or volcanic activity, or a large meteorite impact could damage the site and release radioactive materials in the biosphere. The experts will estimate the probability of each event, or each chain of event, and numbers like 1 in X millions will come up.

To the experts, this is reassuring. They are basically saying: “This is pretty damn safe.” But they are speaking a different language from most people.

As Pinker says:

“When people hear these analyses, however, they are not reassured but become more fearful than ever — they hadn’t realized there are so, many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.”

How to make it better
How can we improve the situation in the hope that more rational decision-taking will take place? The only short-term realistic solution seems to be education. Just like we have no innate cognitive organs for abstract mathematics or reading but still can learn to use our brains to acquire these skills, we should try to make the understanding of probabilistic thinking more widespread.

We don’t expect people who have never studied physics at all to be any good at it, so why do we expect that decision-makers (and the voters/shareholders that supports them) will be able to understand probabilities – especially in complex situations – when they weigh the pros and cons of some proposal.