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Archive for the ‘Science/Technology’ Category

We’re One Step Closer to Getting Real Lightsabers, People

Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker on Bespin

Image via Wookiepedia

According to an article published in the science journal Nature, scientists from MIT and Harvard have managed to observe light photons as particles. That means that while light doesn’t really have matter or mass in the way we normally understand it, it can still be made to “stick together” to form light molecules.

Now, if we can just get three or four feet worth of these light molecules to stick together and add whatever properties let it deflect lasers and slice through flesh, we’ll have ourselves our very own lightsabers.


STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too


It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Ethiopian Kids Go From Illiterate to Hackers in 5 Months

Kids are smart. Much, much smarter than we give them credit for. Most kids have an inherent curiosity, a craving for knowledge and a greater patience with the learning process than most adults. And curiosity is the most powerful force in education.

That was the hope of the non-profit OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project, an organization that provides educational resources to kids in the poorest communities. For this particular project, they shipped a box full of Android tablets to a rural village in Ethiopia. The town was illiterate. The kids had no concept of written language. Yet they were suddenly gifted a box of English-language tablets. No instructions, no instructor, just a powerful device.

The old axiom tells us that teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish. But what about giving the man a fishing pole? OLPC wanted to see how well these kids would perform if they simply had access to better tools. Would the kids’ curiosity be enough?

The answer was yes, but to a much greater degree than anyone expected. These kids went from having never seen the printed word to accessing hidden and disabled features on the tablet in months.

It’s an amazing story, but kind of a bittersweet one. There is limitless potential inside kids who haven’t yet had access to education and millions more who will never have access to education. There aren’t many causes as noble as providing that access.

For more information on OLPC, visit

Is Using Siri While Driving As Bad As Texting While Driving?

siriA recent study out of Texas A&M University concluded that sending hands-free, voice-activated text messages impairs driver reaction times just as badly as actually typing them out.

“In each case, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren’t texting,” Christine Yager, who headed the study, told Reuters. “Eye contact to the roadway also decreased, no matter which texting method was used.”

Now, being distracted behind the wheel is obviously a serious problem for a lot of drivers, so I don’t want to cast doubt on the accuracy of the study, especially if it could save a few lives. But I do have to take some of the conclusions with a grain of salt. There are two other things Yager said, one I totally agree with, one which I’m not so sure.

Totally Agree

The biggest concern is that the driver felt safer while using voice-to-text applications instead of traditional texting, even though driving performance was equally affected, she said.

This may lead to a false belief that texting while driving using spoken commands is safe when in reality it is not, Yager said.

This part makes perfect sense to me, and seems to me like the most important thing to take home from this study. If drivers are just as unsafe using voice-to-text software as thumb-typing, it’s not because of the inherent danger in using a mobile device, but because of a misplaced confidence boost. Drivers need to be educated and disciplined enough that they keep their focus on the road. As terrible an idea as texting while driving is, only the most reckless of reckless drivers wouldn’t be aware of how dangerous they’re being while they’re doing it. Maybe that actually leads to an extra layer of caution drivers using voice-to-text don’t have.

Not So Sure

“You’re still using your mind to try to think of what you’re trying to say, and that by proxy causes some driving impairment, and that decreases your response time,” Yager said.

While I’m not doubting this from a technical perspective, I’m not sure what conclusions we’re really supposed to take away from this. I mean, I use my mind all the time while driving. It’s how I keep from dozing off during my hour commute into work. I listen to music or audiobooks. I think about stuff I’m going to do that day. I daydream. If I have a passenger, I talk to them. But if something comes up that requires my unbroken attention, I’ll stop doing those things and refocus.

I guess I’m just not entirely convinced that all types of distraction are inherently bad. There has to be a benefit to keeping your mind active while doing a monotonous activity.

Everyone needs to remember how new and unpolished this sort of technology is. As it gets better and as we get more comfortable using it, there will be less fiddling with the device, less need to make corrections, and less false confidence that it’s 100% safe. Then our phones will do a better job at helping us get through a long drive instead of distracting us.

A Mixed Drink Inspired by Today’s Russian Meteor and Close-Call Asteroid

meteorBetween Asteroid 2012 DA14 passing a mere 17,200 miles from the surface and the meteor impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia causing over 1,000 injuries, I think it’s time we  start calling February 15th International Space Junk Day. Children can celebrate by throwing rocks at each other. Adults can coat ice cubes in 151, light them on fire, and drop them into a vodka & tonic. We can call the drink an “Atmospheric Entry,” or maybe a “Siberian Sky.”

New NASA Spacesuits Look an Awful Lot Like Buzz Lightyear

NASA is working on redesigning their space suits. The idea behind the latest redesign, currently called the Z-1, is to make something more flexible and easier to take on and off. The hope is that these suits will one day be attached to the outside of rovers, so astronauts can simply step into the suit as they’re exiting the rover to walk around Mars (or wherever). Look closely at the “backpack” and you’ll see it’s actually a hatch. The astronaut simply climbs through to put the suit on.

Apparently it was also someone’s idea to make them look exactly like Buzz Lightyear.

I guess they’re saving the wrist-mounted laser for the Z-2 and the retractable wings for the Z-3. (more…)

NYU Just Proved the Dangers of ‘Reply All’

Any NYU students reading this? They should already know the story…

Like all schools, NYU keeps a listserv of all its students for anytime it needs to send out mass emails. But because it was improperly set up, one student gave the entire student body access to that listserv by accidentally hitting “reply all” instead of “forward.” (more…)

Every Time NASA Gets Excited, We All Hope It’s Because of Aliens

A NASA photo of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.

If you’re NASA, you should really be more careful about throwing around phrases like “one for the history books.” That’s the terminology John Grotzinger, head of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, used in a recent interview. But he was light on other details, so, since wild speculation is human nature, people are trying to figure out what Curiosity could have dug out of the Martian dirt that can be called “historic.”

The specifics of this discovery are remaining secret until (most likely) a conference in early December, to give the scientists time to triple-check the results. But since one of the primary objectives of Curiosity is to see if the Red Planet has ever been capable of supporting simple organisms, it stands to reason that a discovery along those lines would be the sort of thing NASA was looking for.

So what could they have found in the analyzed soil samples? Large amounts of methane, an organic compound that’s usually produced by lifeforms?

Sure, that’s a reasonable assumption, but who wants to hear that? I prefer the unreasonable, thank you very much:

  • a human skeleton
  • the Holy Grail
  • the Ark of the Covenant
  • whatever those magic stones were in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Amelia Earhart
  • a dinosaur in a space suit (proving they didn’t  go extinct, they just got tired of Earth)
  • this photo:

Marvin the Martian looks at the Earth through his telescope.

Sad News: Jurassic Park Proven Scientifically Impossible

The triceratops scene from Jurassic Park, with a tear added to the dinosaur's faceI have news that’s incredibly disappointing to my younger self, age 3 to 9. Sadly, we’ll never be able to build a real-life Jurassic Park, because the half-life of DNA strands only lasts 521 years.

While it’s been generally assumed that DNA would break down after a long enough period, proving it would require large samples of theoretically DNA-rich material. A group of Australian scientists found the right test materials in bones of the now-extinct moa, an emu-like bird  from New Zealand that looked a little something like this:

The extinct bird, the moa

These bones were hundreds or thousands of years old, not millions, but it gave the scientists enough information to conclude that it takes 521 years after cell death for the bonds that hold together DNA to dissolve completely. Even under perfect conditions (for example, protected inside mosquitos preserved in amber like in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie), there is no way the DNA would remain intact after the 6.8 million years that separate us from dinosaurs. The team’s best estimate for the oldest potentially readable DNA under perfect conditions is 1.5 million.

So no Cloneosaurus in our future. Though with that 521 year half-life bearing down on us, we still might be able to make a cloned Christopher Columbus if we hurry.

It’s Time To Stop Pretending Dumb Twitter Reactions Are News Stories

Olympic gymnastic Gabby Douglas holding her gold medal.

There was a very, very, very pointless news story last week regarding Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair. A handful of idiots took to Twitter to complain that her hair looked unkempt. Now any reasonable person reacts to this “story” by not reacting at all, because what an athlete’s hair looks like is about as important as what shoes a surgeon wears. In this case, a high and tight bun is standard operating procedure for gymnasts, so I really don’t know where the conversation came from in the first place.

Oh that’s right, it came from a handful of idiots. Turns out when you give everybody a voice through social media, idiots will say idiotic things.

What I don’t see is how that handful of easily ignored idiots got to dictate headlines. Tell me what’s wrong with the following real headlines:

“Controversy”? “Debate”? “Outrage”?

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

You all do realize that for a debate, you need a point and a counter-point. All we’ve got here is a counter-point. Nobody is actively arguing that Douglas’ overly practical hairstyle is unacceptable. But the press, blogs, and other commenters are keeping this one-sided conversation going anyways. It’s blossomed into a full-on “debate” but the only people having the debate are the ones still acting like there’s something that needs refuting.

Check out this lead from NBC’s Today Show website (the first link above):

Just before the scoreboard showed that Gabby Douglas had won the gold in individual gymnastics last week, her mom Natalie Hawkins had only one reaction: relief. It was relief that came after ten years of training, after her daughter said she dreamt of being an Olympian, and after she let her daughter move away from home at 14 to chase her dreams.

The relief didn’t last long, as Hawkins soon found herself defending her daughter’s hair, which had been swiftly criticized for being both “unkempt” and “embarrassing” very soon after Douglas made Olympic history.

“The relief didn’t last long”? Give me a break, Today Show. I seriously doubt Gabby or her family give any thought whatsoever to this “controversy” beyond when you and other media outlets bring it up. This all grew out of a handful of Twitter posts. Don’t you all know how easy it is to ignore a dumb Twitter post?

Creating a news story from Twitter stupidity is incredibly easy. You can do it yourself. Next time any sort of news or sports event happens, just search for keywords that could be linked to the most offensive possible interpretation. You are bound to be hit with big pile of ignorance and failed wit. That’s what one story did after the women’s soccer match between Japan and the U.S. I’m sure you can imagine what the keywords were for that.

Now, admittedly, we ran a story back in the spring about Twitter reactions, regarding The Hunger Games and the casting of actress Amandla Stenberg as the character Rue. Actually, it’s remained one of our most popular articles on the blog. But, as the writer of that article, I’d argue there’s a difference between stories that ask broader cultural questions — in that article’s case, people judging a film based on how it matches up to their own imagination, not to the descriptions in the book — and stories that simply point out dumb people saying dumb things.

We’ll always have idiots. Let’s try to limit how often we give them a stage.





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