Sep 19 2017

Soft Robots

vaderhandPart of the reason I like science fiction is because it can be a thought-experiment about future technology and society. For this reason, like any self-respecting nerd, I often pay close attention to the details of how future technology is portrayed. Stepping out of the movie-as-entertainment and storytelling for minute, and focusing on the ideas that went into crafting a vision of technology advanced beyond our current tech – how did they do? What assumptions did the creators make, and did they break any laws of physics.

I tend to be most fascinated by what hidden assumptions and biases go into visions of the future. I wrote about this previously with respect to spaceship design. The same idea applies to how robots are portrayed in science fiction.

For example, perhaps my biggest peeve is Star Wars (probably because it is a beloved franchise). I don’t necessarily mind the design of droids, because you can argue that they are intended to look unmistakably mechanical. However, we get a few glimpses of artificial robotic limbs – Luke’s hand and Vader’s arm, for example. These appear to be entirely constructed of wires and pulleys. Vader’s arm is the worst – the stump is nothing but a mass of wires.

This image of artificial robotic parts is almost ubiquitous in science fiction, although recently there are some great examples of moving past this cliche. Just compare the original West World, where robot faces look convincingly human, until they are removed and revealed to be rigid metal with wires underneath. The recent series West World, however, portrays soft 3D printed robotic technology. That’s what I’m talking about.  Continue Reading »

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Sep 18 2017

Update on Arctic Sea Ice

seaice_trends_chartThe extent of Arctic sea ice is an important marker for global climate change. In the last forty years it also has been unequivocally shrinking. NASA has been tracking Arctic sea ice extent at different times of the year, with the September minimum being an important point of comparison. Like any chaotic system there are going to be short term fluctuations, but the long term trend is crystal clear. Look at the graph and look at the video on the NASA site linked above – the shrinking is clear.

The first estimates for September 2017 are in and they are consistent with the overall trend. Arctic sea ice’s most recent maximum for the September minimum was in 1996 at 7.87 million square km. The minimum minimum was in 2012 at 3.62 million sq km – less than half. This year the minimum is estimated to be 4.7 million sq km, slightly more than 2016. All of the last 10 years are below the average for the previous 30 years.

This past year we had a warm winter, which led to the lowest amount of March Arctic sea ice on record, but a cool summer allowed the Arctic ice to rebound a bit.

All of this adds to the strong scientific consensus that the globe is warming and this trend is largely due to human factors (not natural cycles). But as you probably know, there is a well-financed campaign of denial, ideologically and financially motivated, to muddy the waters and create doubt and confusion about this scientific consensus. This is easy to do with complex scientific questions.

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Sep 15 2017

Cassini’s Dramatic End

Published by under Astronomy
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Saturn- CassiniThe Cassini probe to Saturn has been considered one of the most successful space missions in history. Today it will plunge into the upper atmosphere of Saturn. As the atmosphere gets thicker on its way down the probe will begin to tumble from the turbulence, until it is ripped apart by the violent forces and finally melts in the intense heat of the gas giant. (As I am writing this there are just 30 minutes left.)

This is the intended fate of the probe. It was launched in 1997, took seven years to get to Saturn, and has been studying the planet and its moons for 13 years. It has dramatically improved our knowledge of the Saturn system. Cassini was the first probe to orbit Saturn. Prior to that, Pioneer and Voyager had performed flybys, which gave us quick glimpses but did not allow for extended study.

In addition to being a feat of science and engineering, Cassini surpassed expectations. Its original mission profile was for four years. It was able to have two mission extensions, for a total of 13 years. Now it is almost completely out of fuel – its mission is over.

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Comments: 8

Sep 14 2017

India Opens Homeopathy Laboratory

homeopathy-803_250pxAs I continue my efforts to fight against pseudoscience in medicine, I often ask myself – how bad can it theoretically get? I have had this discussion with others as well, some of whom argue that we should not worry because science will win out in the long run. Science is self-corrective, and pseudoscience will become marginalized over time. I hope this optimistic view is correct, but I am not reassured by the evidence.

Let’s consider a recent article in the Hindustan Times, written completely without skepticism or irony, which details how the government of India has opened a state-of-the art laboratory to study homeopathy.

Howrah-based Centre of Excellence in Fundamental Research in Homoeopathy will also undertake fundamental research studies in homoeopathy with an interdisciplinary approach.

“This institute has undertaken several clinical research studies such as autism, psoriasis, vitiligo, breast cancer, hypertension, migraine etc. along with proving of new drugs in homoeopathy with their clinical validations,” said Naik.

The lab will support PhD students in homeopathy and focus on research into viral and other infectious diseases. This is all part of the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH). In India, pseudoscience in medicine, including homeopathy, have been fully institutionalized and are explicitly endorsed by the government.

This is how bad it can get.

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Comments: 48

Sep 12 2017

The Safety and Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

Google-SDCGermany just came out with their first regulations for self-driving cars that address how they will be programmed with respect to safety. Specifically – what should the programming do if harm cannot be completely avoided and it has to decide between the lesser of two bad outcomes? Germany is the first country to come out with such regulations, and therefore sets the example for other countries who will likely follow.

Here are the key elements of their decision:

  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).

This all makes sense to me and I don’t see anything overly controversial. Prioritizing people over property is a no-brainer. Treating all people as of equal value also seems like the right move. This is because you could not individualize such decision – only treat people demographically or as part of a group. This would be too ethically fraught to be practical.

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Comments: 54

Sep 11 2017

PETA’s Counterproductive Attack on Young Researcher

PETA_Protest_onlineIn North America house sparrows are a menace. They are an invasive species introduced in the 19th century, and have established themselves as a large population. Unfortunately they do so by displacing many local species, such as blue birds. They are cavity nesters and will use up many of the prime nesting spots before migratory native birds get a chance. Their presence reduces the population of many native species.

Birders have a special disdain for house sparrows and European starlings (another invasive species). They are both a threat to bird biodiversity. They are also not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means it is legal to remove their nests and even to capture and euthanize them (you can then donate them to raptor refugees for food). Many birding enthusiasts recommend active measures to control house sparrows and minimize their impact on native species.

Partly for these reasons house sparrows are an ideal target for scientific research. They can be legally captured, and the research will then serve the extra added small benefit of removing house sparrows from the wild.

All of this makes it all the more ironic that PETA has chosen to target a young researcher (a post-doc) for harassment due to her research on house sparrows. Really, PETA, you have chosen the wrong subject to defend, the pests of the birding world.

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Comments: 41

Sep 08 2017

How People Thrive

happy-facesThere is a science to happiness and to what we might call thriving (sometimes called flourishing) – not just surviving, but being happy and fulfilled. Obviously any such phenomenon is going to be very complex and variable, but some clear patterns are emerging in the psychological literature. A recent study by Brown et al reviews that literature in an attempt to summarize what we know about thriving.

Brown identifies a number of factors that contribute to thriving, but the core seems to come down to two things: being confident and being good at something. Other researchers looking at the same question have had a slightly different emphasis, but I think are essentially saying the same thing. Thriving correlates with living with purpose, for example. Other studies emphasize community and having a belief system (which may just be a proxy for having a purpose). Having a purpose in life has even been associated with better physical health in older adults.

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Comments: 36

Sep 07 2017

Eliminating Personal Belief Exemptions for Vaccines

ExImmunMap15-TuesdayIn the US routine childhood vaccination is required for entry into public school, and in some states even private school. This is a reasonable public health policy. Vaccination not only protects the individual against common infectious diseases, but when enough people get vaccinated this creates community immunity (often referred to as herd immunity) which protects everyone.

Any parent knows first hand that children are seething vectors for germs. Their concept of hygiene, generally speaking, is often not the same as the average adult. Put a large group of children together in a close environment like a school, and you have basically created a disease factory.

Further, some children cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. They may have a chronic illness that makes their immune systems too weak to handle the vaccine, or they have an intolerance to vaccines. For these children, if they want to attend school, their only protection is the community immunity that results from all the more healthy children being vaccinated.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 25

Sep 05 2017

Sustainably Using Space

space-debrisIt does seem that human civilization has grown to such a point that sustainability is becoming a significant issue in many domains. Prior to the last century or so the world was relatively large compared to human population. For most of human history it seemed as if resources were limitless – we could pull fish out of the sea without worrying that they would run out. Resources and disposal locations were treated like bottomless pits.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our population, our industry, and our appetites are now large enough that infinite sustainability is no longer something we can blithely assume.

It is also true that over the last couple of centuries there have been many premature warnings about “peak whatever”, or some way in which our civilization would not be sustainable. So far technology has advanced to fill in any gaps. This has given any new warnings about sustainability a reputation for screaming that the sky is falling, and makes it easy to dismiss. They were wrong before, so why should we worry now? Technology will eventually change the game and everything will be fine.

The classic errors that lead to these premature warnings were simplistically extrapolating from current trends, and not considering the development of new technology. The phrase “if current trends continue” should always be looked at with a skeptical eye. Historically, current trends rarely continue. You have to consider what is driving those trends, and if there are any feedback loops that will tend to moderate them. Also, we have proven a very clever species and I would not underestimate our ability to find innovative solutions.

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Aug 29 2017

40 Years of Voyager

voyager1_highOn August 20th 1977 Voyager 2 was launched. On September 5th Voyager 1 followed. The reason 2 launched before 1 is because V1 was on a faster trajectory and would arrive at Jupiter several months before V2, and NASA felt it would be easier not to have to explain endlessly to the media why V2 was arriving before V1. At present V1 is 12,959,246,289 miles from Earth, and V2 is 10,657,559,202 miles.

Voyager 1 is the farthest human made object from the Earth. If our civilization collapses tomorrow, the Voyager probes would be the longest surviving artifacts of our existence.

If you do not remember the Voyager missions, then think of what it was like for Horizon to fly by Pluto. Pluto went from a fuzzy blob to a detailed alien world. The Voyager missions were the same, except times four. This was our first closeup look at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It was our first closeup look at the large moons of Jupiter – Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. We discovered even more smaller moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We discovered volcanic activity on Io, and that Jupiter has rings of its own.

Our knowledge of the outer solar system exploded, and we were rewarded with seemingly endless gorgeous pictures of these giant worlds and their companions.

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