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Science fair is about ‘questioning the answers’

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

The Surry County Schools District Science Fair Thursday was the youthful embodiment of John Gowie, or “Professor G-Force,” of Mad Science of the Piedmont’s sentiment that “while most think science is answering the questions, it’s really all about questioning the answers.”

“Student participation has been up over the last two years and the projects appear to show greater creativity and a higher level of thinking,” said Science Institute Coordinator Jeff Edwards. He said judges’ comments noted participants appeared highly knowledgeable in their project as well as the projects being original and creative with many students knowing where to take the investigation to the next level.

Dobson Elementary’s Jasmine Narehood was first in the elementary division, grades 3-5, with her project titled “Red vs. White” which involved testing red clay from Surry County. Chloe Snow, Belle Bullington and Gretta Tucker were tied for second place. Third-place finishers were Amelia Radford, Sophie Hutchens and Colby Calloway. All participants in this division will advance to regional competition.

The junior division, grades 6-8, featured biological science, chemistry, physics, earth/environmental and technology/engineering categories. Gentry Middle student Anna Burcham was first in the biological science A division with Sydney McKeaver in second and Cherokee Sexton finishing third. Taylor Cochran of Central Middle topped the field in biological science B with Leah Harris in second and Emma Crouse third.

The winner in the chemistry division was Andrew Blutler of Gentry Middle. John Hicks took second place and Troy Castro was third. Pilot Mountain Middle School eighth grader Jessica Clayton was first in the physics division. Spreanne Norris was second and Jarrett Hiatt was third. First and second place winners in each category in this division will advance to regionals.

Cental Middle’s Jordan Westmoreland was first in the earth/environmental division with Nicholas Bryant finishing second and Alex Hege in third. Gentry Middle’s Ethan Shumate was first in the technology/engineering division with Tyler Tilley taking second and Sarah Marion finishing third.

The senior division, grades 9-12, was divided into biological science, chemistry, physics, technology/engineering and earth/environmental. East Surry student Sarah Gibson was first in the biological science a division with Anna Sentor, Gabe Wilmoth and Cortni-Morgan Snow finishing second. Early College students Amy Wall and Abigail Robertson were third.

Timothy Gosnell, also of East Surry, took first in biological science b division with North Surry’s Julisa Ramos, Cidney Fulk and Anna Martin teaming up for a second place finish. Lena Shelton was third. Whitney Hall and Caleb cooke were first in the chemistry division with Kinley Jesup taking second and Molly Slater in third.

Cardinal Will Nichols topped the field in the physics division with North Surry’s Jerrik Giesbers in second and Haley Stanley of Surry Central finishing third. Greyhounds Barrett Slate and Alex Jones were first in the earth/environmental division. Luke Horton was second and Jake Whitaker finished third.

Early College students Gatlin Hale, Stetson Bedsaul and Cody Farmer were first in the technology/engineering division with Klaudia Tucker in second and Randall Hall in third. First and second place winners in this category will advance to regionals.

David Broyles may be reached at 336-415-4739 or on Twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.

 
 

Article source: http://www.mtairynews.com/news/home_top-news/50730596/Science-fair-is-about-questioning-the-answers

Environmentalists, scientists fret over Republican bills targeting EPA science

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Over objections from the White House and many science and environmental groups, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives this week approved two bills that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtains and uses scientific data and advice. The bills aren’t likely to become law this year, but they are fueling an intense political battle that is likely to resurface when the new Congress convenes in January.

Proponents of the bills, which the House passed almost entirely with GOP votes, say they would increase transparency in how EPA uses data to justify its regulations and result in better, more balanced scientific advice for the agency. “EPA has an extensive track record of twisting the science to justify their actions,” and so reform is needed, said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), head of the House science committee, in a statement supporting one of the bills.

But opponents say the legislation would do more harm than good. “These bills are the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), top Democrat on the House science committee, in a statement.

White House officials say they would recommend that President Barack Obama veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. That’s unlikely in the current Congress, which ends next month, given that Democrats still hold a majority in the Senate. That makes the votes largely symbolic. But observers say they represent another salvo in a long-standing battle over the release of scientific data that underlines key regulations—and a sign of battles to come once Republicans assume control of both chambers of Congress in January.

One bill, approved 18 November on a mostly party-line 229 to 191 vote, would overhaul rules regarding the membership and meetings of EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). That federally chartered body of scientists, economists, and other scholars reviews agency risk assessments and scientific documents and advises the agency on other matters. The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act (H.R. 1422), sponsored by Representative Chris Stewart (R–UT), would require the agency to make SAB’s membership “fairly balanced,” add more public comment opportunities, require more acknowledgment of dissenting panelists’ views, bar panelists from discussing their own research, and limit nonscientific advice from the panel. “Ensuring that the [board] is balanced and transparent will help instill more confidence in the EPA’s decision making process,” Stewart said in a statement.

The bill would seek to balance membership by setting a quota for state, local, and tribal government officials on SAB panels and clarify that industry experts aren’t barred from membership as long as their potential conflicts of interest are disclosed.

The second bill, the Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 4012), would require that the data from any study that EPA draws upon to inform its regulations, risk assessments, and guidance documents be “reproducible” and released publicly as long as the law doesn’t forbid it. “If you’re going to make public policy, do it by public data,” said Representative David Schweikert (R–AZ), the bill’s lead sponsor and chair of the House science committee’s environmental subpanel, on the House floor on 19 November. The House approved the measure on a mostly party-line 237 to 190 vote.

Trade associations in key industries—from chemicals to oil to natural gas—support the bills, saying that boosting data transparency and changing SAB’s composition would result in more scientifically sound, and thus publicly trusted, regulations.

Opponents, however, say the bills are thinly disguised efforts to make EPA’s job more difficult.

For instance, the EPA SAB reform act could “turn conflict of interest on its head” by opening the door to more representation from industry scientists, says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science and environmental advocacy group, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A White House statement argues that the new membership requirements “could preclude the nomination of scientists with significant expertise in their fields.”

Public health groups, scientists, and environmental groups warned in a letter to lawmakers that the bill would grind SAB to a halt by requiring an “endless loop” of public comment and responses from the panel to almost every comment. “At best, the SAB will be reduced to busy work. At worst, the SAB’s assessments will address the concerns of corporations, not the desires of citizens for science-informed regulation that protects public health,” the letter argues.

The “secret science” bill could drastically cut the number of studies that EPA would be allowed to use in developing rules, the advocates’ letter argues. By requiring “reproducible” data, the bill “seems to adopt a very narrow view of scientific information solely based on laboratory experiments,” it argues, noting that many studies that EPA traditionally relies on involve modeling or analyzing real-world health data, which can be hard to replicate.

H.R. 4012 could also rule out EPA’s use of other studies involving confidential health information, which can be important, critics say. And the bill’s requirements “could be used to prevent EPA from finalizing regulations until legal challenges about the legitimate withholding of certain scientific and technical information are resolved,” a White House statement warns.

Rosenberg argues that the real purpose of H.R. 4012 is to enable EPA critics to obtain data and turn it over to their own analysts, in order to pick apart studies they don’t like and produce findings more favorable to their views. “The problem they’re trying to fix is, they don’t like the answer” provided by certain studies, he says.

Both bills, or similar versions, are likely to resurface in the new Congress.

Article source: http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/11/environmentalists-scientists-fret-over-republican-bills-targeting-epa-science

The Science Behind "Interstellar’s" Stunning Wormhole Voyage (Weekend …

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

“Gravity bends the path that light follows in space,” said Pedro Marronetti, an National Science Foundation program director for gravitational physics and Google Scholar. “The stronger the gravitation, the more dramatic its effect.”

In the plot of Interstellar, Earth is dying; to save the human race, astronauts and scientists search for a new planet via a wormhole, essentially a shortcut through space to find a giant black hole at the other end. Interstellar producers sought to make visual representations of the wormhole as accurate as possible. They worked closely with Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist at Caltech and the film’s executive producer, who gave the special effects team the scientific equations to create a reasonable facsimile of a wormhole.

Thorne’s involvement in this gravitational lensing project led him to talk with the three Cornell grad students and their Caltech collaborators. The research of Bohn, Hébert and Throwe “on visualizing colliding black holes by gravitational lensing is very interesting and important,” Thorne said.

 

 

Wormholes do not actually exist in space, but black holes do, Throwe said, so the students created two short videos for Thorne, which showed what moving by a black hole in space would look like. It would be impossible to move through an actual black hole, they said, because the pull of gravity would tear a person apart.

Astronomers haven’t been able to visually observe black holes because nothing can escape from them, not even light or radiation. They can only be studied by noting their effects on nearby objects. That’s what makes this recent research so important–because it creates a new visualization.

The four graduate students who work in NSF-funded, Cornell astronomy professor Saul Teukolsky’s group–Andy Bohn, François Hébert, William Throwe and Katherine Henriksson–as well as NSF-funded Caltech researchers Mark A. Scheel, Nicholas W. Taylor and undergraduate Darius Bunandar–have been doing related research and recently published their work about binary black holes on an online repository for scientific papers called ArXiv. The paper, “What Would a Binary Black Hole Merger Look Like?” immediately garnered media attention, including in Nature.

“We know [interstellar travel through wormholes is] kind of crazy, but it makes a good story,” Throwe said.Thorne used the students’ videos to help explain to the special effects team what kinds of information would be needed to make the visualizations believable.

While much is known about what a single black hole would look like in space, little was known about what two merging black holes would look like. New technology allowed the students to do that for their paper.

“The idea that you’re going to be one of the first people to look at what a merging pair of black holes would look like is a good incentive to keep going,” Hébert said.

One of Tthe best description of wormholes in science fiction was the movie Contact, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. While Sagan was writing the novel, he also consulted an expert in General Relativity, Kip Thorne,  to make sure that the way wormholes were treated in Contact was actually as close to being scientifically correct as possible. Ellie, played by Jodie Foster, travels through a series of wormholes to a place near the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where the crew meets the senders of a message to Earth guised as persons significant in the lives of the travelers.

Studies from French and German physicists suggest that some unexplained objects in the universe might actually be “wormholes” -portals to other universes. Thibault Damour and Sergey Solodukhin of the International University Bremen, believe that wormholes mimic black holes so closely that it might be impossible to distinguish.

Black holes and wormholes each distort the space and around them in a similar way, but though topically similar, they are, pardon the pun, universally different:

Black holes are the evolutionary endpoints of stars at least 10 to 15 times as massive as the sun. When a star of that proportion undergoes a supernova explosion, it may leave behind a burned out stellar remnant. With no outward forces to oppose gravitational forces, the remnant will collapse in on itself. In other words, all of its mass is squeezed into a single point where time and space stop. The point at the center of this black hole is called a singularity. Within a certain distance of the singularity, the gravitational pull is so strong that nothing – not even light – can escape.

Wormholes, on the other hand, are theoretical warps in the fabric of space-time. If wormholes could exist, they could potentially function as time machines. (They also provide the fodder for many science fiction novels…) According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time passes more slowly for a highly accelerated body. If one end of a wormhole were accelerated to close to the speed of light while another were stationary, a traveler entering into the stationary hole would emerge in the past from the accelerated hole.

Physicists like Stephen Hawking, however, aren’t convinced that wormholes even exist, arguing that properties of wormholes would be physically forbidden by basic universal laws. If time travel existed, it would cause irresolvable paradoxes: it would be impossible, for example, to travel back in time and kill your former self.

Ironically, Damour and Solodukhin theoretically differentiate the two by using “Hawking Radiation,” the existence for which Hawking himself argued in 1974. Hawking radiation is an emission of particles and light which should only come from black holes and would have a characteristic energy spectrum. Both Damour and Solodukhin found this radiation to be so weak, however, that it would be completely swamped by other sources, such as the background glow of microwaves left over from the big bang.

Unfortunately, it seems the only way to definitively resolve the question is to make the plunge inside one of these massive holes – but considering that doing so would cause the instantaneous explosion of every atom of anyone or anything daring enough to try, our closest experience is still a visit to the science fiction section of local bookstores.

The Daily Galaxy via Anna Carmichael, Cornell University cunews@cornell.edu

Related articles

“Giant Cosmic Microphones” –Soon to Detect Gravitational-Waves from Ancient Black Hole Collisions
Monster Galaxy Almost as Old as the Universe –Creating Stars 1,000 Times Faster than Milky Way
“There Might be Civilizations in the Middle of Cold Dark Space without a Milky Way” -NASA
Black-hole mergers cast kaleidoscope of shadows

Article source: http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2014/11/the-physics-behind-interstellars-stunning-wormhole-images.html

Crowdfunded Moon Mission Is Serious about Science [Video]

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

With government budgets for space exploration under strain, a UK consortium has embarked on a project to raise money for a robotic Moon mission by offering the public the chance to stash their memories and even a hair sample on the Moon.

The aim of Lunar Mission One is to put a lander on the Moon’s south pole within the next decade. The robotic probe would to drill 20–100 meters into the surface, seeking insights about the origins of the Earth and the Moon, and paving the way for establishing a lunar base.

To fund the $1-billion enterprise, parent company Lunar Missions plans to turn the borehole into a time capsule and personal repository for paying customers. Its backers started soliciting contributions on November 19, and had collected almost £90,000 (about $140,000) within the first 12 hours from its launch.

Skeptics doubt that there is enough interest to raise that much cash. But David Iron, who founded Lunar Missions and works on financing space projects at the consulting firm CGI, believes there is no harm in finding out. The consortium plans to raise an initial $1 million on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter by December 17, to see there is enough interest to push ahead with the plans, he says. A second major fundraising push would go ahead in 2019, he says. “If the first phase fails, it implies there isn’t the interest. There isn’t really a plan B,” he says.

While NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have shelved lunar exploration plans in the past three years, Russia, China and Japan have planned lander missions to the Moon — and China successfully put its first rover there, called Chang’e 3, at the end of 2013. Iron hopes that crowdsourcing will open a new vein of financing for space exploration. Everywhere except in China, “the ‘boldly go’ stuff is feeling the squeeze”, says Iron.

Lunar Mission One has gathered support from a range of UK partners, including RAL Space, part of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, based near Oxford; University College London; and the Open University in Milton Keynes. The high-profile announcement also comes with the endorsement of dozens of UK scientists — including TV celebrity Brian Cox of the University of Manchester — and of two former UK science ministers, Ian Taylor and David Willetts. Iron says that he hopes to involve international partners later.

“This looks like something real, if they can raise the money,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He contrasts the clout of science expertise in the line-up, which includes Ian Crawford, planetary scientist at Birkbeck University of London and the ESA Rosetta mission’s Monica Grady, with most of the teams competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, whose aims are “light on the science side” and are working to a less realistic timetable of putting a lander on the Moon by the end of 2015 (see Moon shots stuck on Earth).

Other Kickstarter projects have raised more than $1 million. The record stands at $13.3 million, pledged to a company making multi-gadgeted cooling boxes. The pledges, made online, are collected only if a project reaches its target. For Lunar Mission One, $1 million would allow the founders to establish management and legal arrangements and begin procurement. A detailed design would begin in 2017, and the main fundraising and sales drive would launch in 2019.

Sceptics doubt the shift from $1 million to $1 billion will be easy. “I know that this mission is only asking for a few hundred thousand [pounds], but just like many other crowd funded missions I see no realistic plan to actually raise enough to launch,” says Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford.

“Market research tells us we can get the billion,” says Iron. That is if, as the company’s market research predicts, 1% of the people who can afford to invest — themselves a small fraction of the global population — each put in a few hundred dollars. If their predictions are correct, the drive would raise around $3 billion, which would cover the creation of a non-profit trust to fund future space missions, including one to bring a lunar sample back to Earth, he adds.

Donors gain membership to the ‘Lunar Missions Club’, become part of an online community and are invited to events. Those who donate at least £3,000 ($4,700) will have their name inscribed on the lunar landing module. The main product will be a ‘digital memory box’ that will go into the lunar borehole. Donors can record family trees or photographs in the box, and they may even be able to archive a strand of their hair, says Iron. The time capsule would also include a record of human history and a database of living species, developed with help from the public. 

Adrian Sargeant, director of the center for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University, UK, says that crowdfunding is such a recent phenomenon that solid evidence about when it works and when it fails has yet to emerge. “Whether they succeed or not will depend on the extent to which they capture the public’s imagination, he says.

This high $1 billion target will be achievable only if the project manages to find and tap a fairly niche global community, says Elizabeth Ngonzi, a digital-engagement expert at the New York University Heyman Center for Fundraising and Philanthropy. “The types of people who would support this are not obvious to find,” she says.

The mission appeals to lunar scientists. The Moon’s south pole is thought to contain ice in its permanently shaded craters. Drilling in this little-explored region — and gaining access to pristine ancient rock — builds on ideas that the research community has proposed in the past, says Bernard Foing, a lunar scientist at ESA in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, who is not involved with the project. The technical challenge of drilling to such depths is high, he says. But the results could give insight into the impact history of the Moon and reveal organic molecules that could have been deposited by asteroids. “There is a strong science case,” adds Foing. Because of its potential water reserves, the south pole is also where space-faring nations are most likely to establish a base in the coming century, says Iron.

No governments or space agencies are involved in the project at present, but Iron says that will probably change if the venture takes off. Although Lunar Mission One would use private contractors, the project will need to act under a government authority to avoid the legal complications that could come with a private venture drilling on the Moon, he adds.
 

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 19, 2014.

Article source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/crowdfunded-moon-mission-is-serious-about-science-video/

Don’t Be So Nitpicky About the Science in Sci-Fi Movies Like Interstellar

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Many scientists and science journalists who reviewed Interstellar offered even less damning with faint praise. “A missed opportunity,” said Discovery.com’s Ian O’Neill. “If the pseudoscientific woo about love and time travel in Interstellar pissed you off, you aren’t alone,” declared Annalee Newitz of io9. And as Phil Plait said on Slate, “I could go on and on (and on and on and on and on … ) with the scientific missteps the movie takes.” Newitz summed up her frustration with Interstellar and other science fiction films with a metaphysical bent, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey: “These are films that aim to popularize science and our quest to colonize space, and yet they basically lie to audiences about how space works.” (Non-scientist critics, while not unanimous, were kinder to Interstellar, which is at 74 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.)

Article source: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/11/interstellar_neil_degrasse_tyson_scientists_are_too_picky_about_sci_fi_accuracy.html

Rooftop solar electrifies Roper Mountain Science Center

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Clean energy intersected with education with the flip of a switch at Roper Mountain Science Center on Tuesday as utilities and educators turned on the current to 84 rooftop solar panels at the Greenville facility’s Symmes Hall of Science.

The solar panels will cover 10-20 percent of the science hall’s electricity, but the focus for Roper Mountain isn’t just on the energy savings but on the education opportunities the solar array has provided for 50,000 Greenville County school students who visit the center annually, said Valerie Mosher, the center’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics specialist.

“It’s just a way for us to get the public exposed to alternative energy technologies,” Mosher said. “They see it and they can generate questions.”

The solar panels connect to an indoor energy lab that shows how the system works and provides real-time data on how much of the sun’s energy the system is harnessing at any one time.

Roper Mountain Science Center won a grant through Palmetto Clean Energy, a South Carolina non-profit funded by Duke Energy, to install the panels, which provide 25-kilowatts of energy, about six times the size of a home solar system.

The Roper Mountain Science Center Association, Greenville County Schools and Lockheed Martin contributed to match the PaCE grant.

The solar grant program started last December as a way to educate the public about alternative energy, said Emily Felt, Duke Energy’s director of renewable strategy and compliance.

Palmetto Clean Energy wanted to partner with educational institutions to let the next generation understand how the new energy technology works because it will only become more prevalent in coming years in South Carolina after the state passed its first comprehensive solar energy legislation last session, Felt said.

“Pretty soon, both South Carolina Electric Gas and Duke Energy will begin to offer customer programs to allow customers who are ready to put solar panels on their homes and really try to give the industry a boost,” she said.

Schools Superintendent Burke Royster said the science center’s solar program will help develop the whole student. It furthers the district’s emphasis on project-based, hands-on, STEM education.

“They get to actually see it, put their hands on it and experience it,” Royster said. “There’s nothing like that.”

Article source: http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/education/2014/11/19/rooftop-solar-electrifies-roper-mountain-science-center/19294445/

One Mom’s Mission to Encourage Girls in Science

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Kelly Mathews is on a mission — to get more girls interested in STEM.

That’s science, technology, engineering, and math. And for Mathews, it’s a mission that begins at home with her 9-month old daughter, Marilyn.

“I want her to look at things and wonder how they tick,” Mathews says, “and know that if she looks at something and says, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it could do that?’ that she can make it do that.”

That’s why Mathews reads books like “Rosie Revere, Engineer” to Marilyn and stocks her nursery with other such books, like “HTML for Babies.”

Mathews, a software engineer in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, believes the earlier girls are introduced to these fields, the better the chance they will be empowered to pursue those careers when they graduate from high school.

That’s a belief that is gaining support in the education and business communities. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates women make up less than 25 percent of the workforce in jobs related to STEM, an acronym coined by a member of the National Science Foundation in the 1990s.

Mathews has teamed up with TechGirlz, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that aims to bridge the gender gap by teaching middle and high school girls about careers in technology.

Mathews, one of only two female engineers in her company, feels her mission is simple: “You can be cool and you can be smart,” and that girls “don’t have to choose sides.”

Kelly Parisi, spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the USA, says her organization has been working to empower girls in science since its inception, way back in 1913.

At a recent badge activity in Hempstead, New York, Brownies and Juniors made what the volunteer scientists called “flubber”, a silly putty-type compound made from glue, Borax, water and food coloring.

Parisi points out, the Girl Scouts offer “over thirty S.T.E.M. badges in everything from coding to engineering to computer science.”

Sean Cohen, chief operating officer at the email marketing firm AWeber, says he believes employers should get more involved in high school programs.

“Create job shadowing programs. Create experiences for young women to get more involved in S.T.E.M. programs and see that there are careers around that,” Cohen says.

Mathews hopes that by starting early, her daughter will know a career in STEM is well within her reach.

“If she wants to, and if she doesn’t want to that’s great too. I just want her to know what’s out there.”

Article source: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/moms-mission-encourage-girls-science-26986783

Should Science End Humankind?

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

i
i

Robot.

“I want you to hold off on your intellectual gag response,” the speaker told us. “I want you to stay with me through this ’til we get to the end.”

The speaker was Paul Horn, former executive director of research at IBM. He’s the man behind Watson, the machine that beat humans at Jeopardy. Horn is a highly informed, deep thinker on future technology. His talk was called “The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines.” His purpose was to get us thinking more deeply about a revolution that, if it comes, would be unlike anything humanity has experienced so far in its long history.

Horn’s main argument was that, in the near future, we will build machines surpassing us in intelligence. What the machines — those machines — then build will surpass their own creator’s intelligence. This process will rapidly continue until, very soon, it yields a new force on the planet — superintelligence. This runaway process is often called the “singularity” — and Horn’s main job was to argue that, given current trends in technology, something more or less like it is coming.

What happens next (not the subject of Horn’s talk), depends on your level of optimism. If you think things will turn out badly, well, then, you know the story. Skynet. The Matrix. Robot overlords.

But if you’re an optimist, then you think something wonderful is going to happen. With the help of our super-intelligent machines we become more.

“More what?” you ask. Well, more than human. We become the next step in evolution — and that will mean humanity, as we know it, will come to an end. What comes next will be a new post-human era (transhumanism, the step in between, is an idea we’ve covered before in this blog).

But now comes the real question. Even under the most optimistic scenario where a post-human transformation is available to everyone regardless of race, creed or (the more likely stumbling block) economic status, is it still a good idea? More to the point, is actively developing technologies to put us at the intellectual level of a schnauzer relative to future post-human beings ethical, just and proper?

Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford, identifies the core value of transhumanism in the ideal of human potential. Thus, for a transhumanist, raising future generations to the heights that our current potential makes possible is all that matters. As Bostrom puts it:

“This affirmation of human potential is offered as an alternative to customary injunctions against playing God, messing with nature, tampering with our human essence, or displaying punishable hubris.”

Bostrom runs through the limits that can be overcome when we transcend the current version of humanity: lifespan, intelligence, bodily functionality, sensory modalities, special faculties and sensibilities. Thus, in a post-human world our children’s’ children may live for centuries, see in all wavelengths of the spectrum and think trillions of times faster and more deeply than we can even imagine.

It all sounds pretty hard to argue with. But that is just where the idea of a gag factor steps in.

Whatever post-humans become, its hard to imagine they will be much like us anymore. Human ideals of beauty and grace may seem offensive or even horrific to them. Imagine the loveliest face you have ever seen. Now replace it with a thin fish-head topped with high ribbed fin. Perhaps that configuration — better for displacing heat from super-charged brains — will be the trans-humanist ideal of beauty. And what about post-human values and ethics? Post-human morality might seem wildly wrong to us on everything from simple social etiquette to questions of life and death. Does the fact that those ideals and ethics emerge from post-human higher intelligence change the importance of the ideals and values we hold?

From physical form (there will be many possibilities) to culture and behavior, it’s hard to even imagine how alien our post-human progeny might seem to us or us to them. Given the likely completeness of the post-human transformation, how ready are we to be so completely replaced? It’s a question that has to be on the table because we are, as a culture, rapidly pushing the enabling technologies forward right now.

So even in the most optimistic scenario, does the end of human suffering have to mean the end of human kind (at least this version)?

Article source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/11/17/364619831/should-science-end-humankind

The science of Interstellar: fact or fiction?

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead)

Time can be warped in space - TRUE

One of the main themes in Interstellar is that characters can age at different
speeds depending on where they are in the universe. When McConaughey
(Cooper) and Hathaway (Brand) make their ill-fated trip to Miller’s planet
they age by only a few hours, but return to find shipmate Romilly, is 26
years older.

Could that be true? Well yes. In 1912 Einstein predicted that gravity is a
product of huge bodies, like Earth, bending space-time. The typical
illustration is a heavy ball placed on a rubber sheet. The sheet bends to
the weight of the ball and stretches time out.

On Earth the effect is minimal, adding just a few microseconds a day to the
time of space. Although it does mean that time is moving ever so slightly
more quickly in a penthouse compared to a basement. Consequently GPS
satellites orbiting the Earth need to be adjusted to take into account that
they are moving through time slightly more quickly – 40 microseconds a day –
than a person with a Sat Nav on earth.

Compared with other bodies in the universe, Earth is quite small and so the
time shift is minimal.

However bodies with more mass have a bigger impact on time. A neutron star for
example is so dense that it slows time by a few hours. At the surface of a
black hole time is slowed to a halt.

What is even more extraordinary is that space is bending into a different
dimension, somewhere that is not part of universe – known to astrophysicists
as ‘the bulk.’

Miller’s planet is as close to the huge black hole Gargantua as it can be
without getting sucked in. The black hole is estimated to have a mass of 100
million Suns, and spinning at near to its maximum speed. While unlikely to
happen in nature, the effect would mean that anyone on that planet would age
just one hour while those outside of the black hole’s pull, like Romilly,
would age seven years.

Slingshotting around a Neutron star – FALSE

The crew of Interstellar’s Endurance spaceship faced a headache when trying to
get to Miller’s planet because it is trapped within the control of the huge
black hole Gargantua.

To avoid being sucked into the black hole, the spaceship had to be travelling
at high speed to escape the huge gravitational and centrifugal forces

In Interstellar, Cooper gets round his speed dilemma by slingshotting around a
the black hole.

Actually this isn’t as wacky as it sounds. In fact the Rosetta mission skipped
around Earth and Mars to pick up enough speed to chase comet 67P
Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

However the speed needed to escape something is massive as Gargantua is huge.
The Endurance would need to be travelling at close to the speed of light to
escape the huge pull of the black hole, and then quickly slow down so it
could land on the planet. The sudden change in momentum would almost
certainly tear the ship apart.

In Interstellar, the crew uses the slow spin of Neutron star to slow down, but
it is unlikely to work. Only another black hole, around the size of the
Earth would have been able to slow the craft down.

Gargantua – TRUE

The film depicts the huge black hole of Gargantua as a black circle surrounded
by a swirling mass of stars and galaxies, almost like a human eye.

The distortion of the stars, known as ‘gravitational lensing’ was generated by
computer models.

In fact, the computer simulations were so accurate that Thorne and the team
discovered that black holes are slightly concave on one side and have a
bulge on the other. It is the first time the phenomenon has ever been seen,
and Thorne has now produced a scientific paper detailing the discovery.

The black hole depicted in Interstellar is probably the only known accurate
example of what it would look like to a human if you could ever get close
enough to view it.

“Accident is the first building block of evolution” FALSE

On finding that Miller’s planet is sterile, Brand (Hathaway) declares that
“Accident is the building block of evolution”

Brand goes on to explain that life never evolved on the planet because comets
and asteroids would have been prevented from landing by the huge pull of
nearby Gargantua.

It is true that comets are believed to have seeded life on Earth – and
possibly other planets – by carrying amino acids and water.

However almost all bodies – planets, comets are asteroids – have a strong
angular momentum and produce their own centrifugal force which will keep
them safe from harm. So Miller’s planet would have been bombarded with
comets and asteroids like all other planets.

Blight on Earth UNLIKELY

The main premise of Interstellar is that Earth is dying and mankind needs to
find a new home before the last crop – corn – is entirely used up, or falls
foul to the unstoppable blight which has wiped out all other grains.

It is true that most people today do not grow their own food and rely on a
global system of production and distribution. It is quite possible that the
system could break down on a small scale however the film doesn’t seem to
address that humans eat a lot of other things, like animals and fish.

And lethal blights usually only attack one group of plants and do not cross
species. Blights which affect more species are generally not that harmful.

Biologist Elliot Meyerowitz of the California Institute of Technology said it
might be possible for a pathogen to evolve which attacks chloroplasts –
cells which are crucial for photosynthesis.

“Without chloroplasts a plant will die. Now suppose that some new pathogen
evolves , for example in the oceans, that wipes out all algae and plant life
in the oceans and jumps to land where it wipes out all land plants,” he
said.

“This is possible. I see nothing to prevent it. But it’s not very plausible.
It is unlikely to even happen.”

Wormholes TRUE AND FALSE

In Interstellar, the crew overcame the vast distances between galaxies by
jumping through a wormhole.

The term wormhole was coined by the astrophysicist John Wheeler who based it
on wormholes in apples. If an ant is crawling around an apple, he could
reach the other side far quicker by travelling through a hole in the centre.

If you imagine the universe is a flat sheet of paper you could travel between
two points by moving in a straight line. However if you bend the paper so
that the points touch through it, and then make a hole, you can reach that
point much quicker.

Essentially, a wormhole is where space and time are being bent so that points
are now closer together.

They can exist theoretically but nobody knows how they could be held open so
that someone could travel through it. It is extremely unlikely they could
exist naturally in the universe. It would take a huge mass, like a Neutron
star, to create a bend in time which could push into ‘the bulk’ and meet up
another such tunnel on the other side. So far, nothing has shown any signs
of doing that.

In Interstellar, Cooper surmises that the wormhole which has been found near
Saturn has been put there by an advanced civilisation. However it is highly
unlikely anyone will ever find a way to bend space time and then rip a hole
in it so it could meet on the other side.

Prof Thorne adds: “I doubt the laws of physics permit traversable wormholes.
It they can exist, I doubt very much they can form naturally in the
astrophysical universe

“In Interstellar the wormhole is thought to have been made, held open and
placed near Saturn by a civilisation that lives in the bulk, a civilisation
whose beings have four space dimensions. This is terra extremely incognita.”

Living in the Bulk FALSE

Throughout Interstellar, beings which live within ‘the bulk’ are hinted at,
although never named, simple referred to as ‘they’ or ‘them.’

Brand says to Cooper: “Whoever They are, They appear to be looking out for us.
That wormhole lets us travel to other stars. It came along right when we
needed it.”

Nolan’s idea is that ‘They’ are the descendants of humanity, who have learned
to live in five dimensions and can reach through space and time.

It’s just nonsense of course. For a start space in ‘the bulk’ would
infinitesimally small. A human could not exist inside it.

Falling in (and out) of a black hole TRUE AND FALSE

When Cooper plunges into Gargantura so that Brand can escape it seems unlikely
that he will survive. And yet he does.

Although previously scientists thought black holes would destroy anything that
fell into them, they now think that some could be gentle.

From Brand’s point of view, she would see Cooper moving more slowly and
finally freeze as he reaches the event horizon at the edge of the black
hole. For Cooper nothing would seem different.

As Cooper’s ship breaks apart in the force of the black hole, he evacuates and
ends up in a Tesseract – a four dimensional cube, supposedly created by
‘They’.

Because a Tesseract exists in four dimensions it can live within ‘the bulk’
and therefore Cooper can, theoretically, use it to travel back to his
daughter’s bedroom.

However Cooper would never have been in the Tesseract without the co-ordinates
to the secret desert NASA base. And he is the one who put them there. In the
future. As it is impossible to travel backwards through time and change the
past, the plot falls into a black hole at this point from which there is no
recovery.

For more detailed explanations read Kip
Thorne’s The Science of Interstellar
which is out now.

Article source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11236384/The-science-of-Interstellar-fact-or-fiction.html

Bio engineering facility shows MSU’s science commitment

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

The Michigan State University Bio Engineering Facility is being honored by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce for economic investment, research and development in the biomedical sciences and human health. The research facility, a 130,000-square foot building that has an investment of $61 million from MSU and the state, will open in summer 2015. The building will be connected to the existing Clinical Center C-Wing and Life Science B-Wing.

It will be the largest dedicated research facility built on MSU’s campus in more than a decade. The facility represents MSU’s commitment to research in the biomedical sciences and its impact on human health in such areas as nanotechnology, robotics, tissue engineering and imaging. Laboratories will have an open-floor design to enhance collaborative research. The modular construction provides flexibility as the nature of research evolves. The design uses energy-conservation methods that will create significant savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal of this facility is to educate students in biomedicine, develop technology, and translate technology into companies. A great example of a local company in a related area is Neogen, which was founded by an MSU researcher.

Leo Kempel is the dean of the MSU College of Engineering. He has been a faculty member in the MSU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 1998.

Number of employees:

“When finished it will hold on the order of 40 faculty, probably on the order of another 160 to 200 graduate students and post docs and other support people. It’s a fairly big building. That building will be helping us develop new technologies for health care and help us translate into local economy for decades to come. It has a strong long-term payoff for both MSU and the region.”

What makes the MSU Bio Engineering Facility special?

“This is the first facility I know of on campus for at least at least 20 years that has been specifically designed for health care research. Internal features of the building are designed to make biomed research more efficient and effective and it is a place for the College of Engineering, College of Human Medicine and the College of Natural Science and my guess is others over time, where they can come together to collaborate. It is not traditional to have space designed from the onset for interdisciplinary work. This is basically designed to do that.”

What plans are in the future for the Bio Engineering facility?

“We are in the midst of expanding our college. The student demand in engineering has really never been higher. We now have something like 6,000 students in the college. It has gone up considerably over the past five or six years. This is not solely an MSU trend, it is one you will see around the state and the country. I see engineering as a program of study that has fantastic job opportunities and is critical for economic development, no matter where you are — Michigan, the home of engineering excellence for well over 100 years — or in the Silicon Valley of California, or Chicago, or Atlanta or anyplace. New technology innovations are being local economic drivers. To do that you need a very strong supply of well-educated engineers and computer scientists. The college is growing and will require us to increase faculty to meet that need, and look hard at our use of space.”

What is the best thing about having this facility in East Lansing?

Because of the nature of cross disciplinary collaboration, this is going to result in new technologies being developed and marketed out of the mid-Michigan region. It would be fantastic if more and more of our engineering graduates stay here in mid-Michigan. We have a fantastic ratio already, something like 75 percent of all engineering students stay in Michigan. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if even more of them stayed close to home here?”

- Vickki Dozier

Article source: http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2014/11/15/bio-engineering-facility-represents-msus-commitment-science/19118169/