Tags: science

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Monday, November 11th, 2019

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Near miss

When I was travelling across the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary 2 back in August, I had the pleasure of attending a series of on-board lectures by Charles Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.

Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.

Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.

Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.

Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”

I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”

Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.

On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.

Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:

A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

2001 A Space Odyssey, Epilogue. Featuring Frank Poole on Vimeo

This is quite a beautiful homage to Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Monday, October 14th, 2019

Something for the weekend

Your weekends are valuable. Spend them wisely. I have some suggestion on how you might spend next weekend, October 19th and 20th, depending on where you are in the world.

If you’re in the bay area, or anywhere near San Francisco, I highly recommend that you go to Science Hack Day—two days of science, hacking, and fun. This will be the last one in San Francisco so don’t miss your chance.

If you’re in the south of England, or anywhere near Brighton, come along to Indie Web Camp. Saturday will feature discussions on owning your data. Sunday will be a day of doing. I’ve written about previous Indie Web Camps before, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough!

Do me a favour and register for a spot—it’s free—so I’ve got some idea of numbers. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott - Oxford University Press

This’ll be good—the inside story of the marvelous Zooniverse project as told by Chris Lintott. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this book when it comes out in a couple of months.

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

The Atlas of Moons

Take an interactive tour of our solar system’s many moons.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

Chaos Design: Before the robots take our jobs, can we please get them to help us do some good work?

This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.

So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.

I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:

Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Exploring the Frontiers of Visual Identity… | Speculative Identities

Brand identity in sci-fi films, like Alien, Total Recall, Robocop, and Back To The Future.

This makes for a nice companion site to Sci-fi Interfaces.

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

BBC World Service - 13 Minutes to the Moon

I’ve been huffduffing every episode of this terrific podcast from Kevin Fong. It features plenty of my favourite Apollo people: Mike Collins, Margaret Hamilton, and Charlie Duke.

Rotating Space Station Numbers

Ever wondered what would happen if you threw a ball inside an orbital habitat? Well, wonder no more!

You can adjust the parameters of the space station, or choose from some pre-prepared examples: an O’Neill cylinder, a Stanford torus, a Bernal sphere, Rama, a Culture orbital

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

BBC Shows and Tours - Shows - James Burke: Our Man on the Moon

I wish I were here for this (I’m going to be over in Ireland that week)—an evening with James Burke, Britain’s voice of Apollo 11.

Here is your chance to find out what went on behind the scenes as James revisits the final moments of the Apollo mission. He’ll recreate the drama, struggling to make sense of flickering images from NASA and working with the limitations of 1960s technology. We’ll hear what went wrong as well as what went right on the night! Illustrated with amazing archive material from both the BBC and NASA, this will be the story of the moon landings brought to you by the man who became a broadcasting legend.

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

CURRENT FUTURES: A Sci-Fi Ocean Anthology—XPRIZE

A collection of sci-fi short stories about oceans, featuring contributions from Madeline Ashby, Lauren Beukes, Elizabeth Bear, and more.

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Opinion | It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning - The New York Times

The New York Times is publishing science-fictional op-eds. The first one is from Ted Chiang on the Gene Equality Project forty years in our future:

White supremacist groups have claimed that its failure shows that certain races are incapable of being improved, given that many — although by no means all — of the beneficiaries of the project were people of color. Conspiracy theorists have accused the participating geneticists of malfeasance, claiming that they pursued a secret agenda to withhold genetic enhancements from the lower classes. But these explanations are unnecessary when one realizes the fundamental mistake underlying the Gene Equality Project: Cognitive enhancements are useful only when you live in a society that rewards ability, and the United States isn’t one.

Friday, May 24th, 2019

The Bit Player

Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!

I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.

Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

The Training Commission

Coming to your inbox soon:

The Training Commission is a speculative fiction email newsletter about the compromises and consequences of using technology to reckon with collective trauma. Several years after a period of civil unrest and digital blackouts in the United States, a truth and reconciliation process has led to a major restructuring of the federal government, major tech companies, and the criminal justice system.

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian | The New Yorker

Ted Chiang has new collection out‽ Why did nobody tell me‽

Okay, well, technically this is Joyce Carol Oates telling me. In any case …woo-hoo!!!

Monday, May 6th, 2019

A Full Life - MIT Technology Review

A cli-fi short story by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Saturday, April 27th, 2019

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

Science and Tech Ads on Flickr

Stylish! Retro! Sciency!

Martin ad

Friday, March 29th, 2019

CERN Hack days – Chiteri’s Blog

Martin gives a personal history of his time at the two CERN hack projects …and also provides a short history of the universe.