835 posts tagged Science
Albert Einstein was a genius, but he wasn’t the only one – why has his name come to mean something superhuman?
Before he died, Albert Einstein requested that his whole body be cremated as soon as possible after death, and his ashes scattered in an undisclosed location. He didn’t want his mortal remains to be turned into a shrine, but his request was only partially heeded. Einstein’s closest friend, the economist Otto Nathan, took possession of his ashes, but not before Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, removed his brain. Family and friends were aghast, but Harvey convinced Einstein’s son Hans Albert to give his reluctant permission after the fact. The eccentric doctor kept the brain in a glass jar of formalin inside a cider box under a cooler, until 1998, when he returned it to Princeton Hospital, and from time to time, he would send little chunks of it to interested scientists. Most of us will never be victims of brain-theft and ash hoarding, but Einstein’s status as the archetypical genius of modern times singled him out for special treatment. An ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius – and his grey matter – belongs to the world. Even in his lifetime, which coincided with the first great flowering of mass media, Einstein was a celebrity, as famous for his wit and white shock of hair as he was for his science. Indeed, his life seems to have been timed perfectly to take advantage of the proliferations of newspapers and radio shows, whose reports often framed Einstein’s theories as being incomprehensible to anyone but the genius himself.
There’s no doubt that Einstein’s contributions to science were revolutionary. Before he came along, cosmology was a part of philosophy but, thanks to him, it’s become a branch of science, tasked with no less than a mathematical history and evolution of the Universe. Einstein’s work also led to the discovery of exotic physical phenomena such as black holes, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and the Higgs boson. But despite this formidable scientific legacy, Einstein’s fame owes something more to our culture’s obsession with celebrity. In many ways, Einstein was well-suited for celebrity. Apart from his distinctive coif, he had a way with words and, as a result, he is frequently quoted, occasionally with bon mots he didn’t actually say. More than anything, Einstein possessed the distinctive mystique of genius, a sense that he was larger than life, or different from the rest of us in some fundamental way, which is why so many people were desperate to get hold of his brain. (via Why is Einstein the poster boy for genius? – Matthew Francis – Aeon)
An article published in the journal Nature looked into psychological therapy that causes brain changes within patients of mental disorders. Though neuroscience and clinical science are different and there is a “culture gap” between the two, the essay suggests that the two disciplines must be combined and explored together for the best results. Michelle Craske, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, said that they are unaware of how patients of mental disorder find relief after talking to a psychological therapist. He and his colleagues said that a fact finding was necessary. Worldwide, there are one in four mental health disorder cases, including depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders. According to a study by Craske, Cambridge University Professor Emily Holmes and MIT Professor Ann Graybiel, “Psychological treatments hold the strongest evidence base for addressing many such conditions but they need improvement.” Psychological treatments are seen to be effective in most case, but in some conditions such as bipolar disorder, psychological treatments are seen to be ineffective or are in their infancy. The life report also threw light on the “culture gap” between neuroscientists and clinical scientists that has hindered the progress of mental health treatments. The authors of the report state that scientists from both disciplines must work together to advance the understanding and treatment of psychological disorders.
Humans are currently the most intelligent beings on the planet – the result of a long history of evolutionary pressure and adaptation. But could we some day design and build machines that surpass the human intellect? This is the concept of superintelligence, a growing area of research that aims to improve understanding of what such machines might be like, how they might come to exist, and what they would mean for humanity’s future. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies discusses a variety of technological paths that could reach superintelligent artificial intelligence (AI), from mathematical approaches to the digital emulation of human brain tissue. And although it sounds like science fiction, a group of experts, including Stephen Hawking, wrote an article on the topic noting that “There is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.”
Brain as computer
The idea that the brain performs “computation” is widespread in cognitive science and AI since the brain deals in information, converting a pattern of input nerve signals to output nerve signals.
Another well-accepted theory is that physics is Turing-computable: that whatever goes on in a particular volume of space, including the space occupied by human brains could be simulated by a Turing machine, a kind of idealised information processor. Physical computers perform these same information-processing tasks, though they aren’t yet at the level of Turing’s hypothetical device.
These two ideas come together to give us the conclusion that intelligence itself is the result of physical computation. And, as Hawking and colleagues go on to argue, there is no reason to believe that the brain is the most intelligent possible computer.
In fact, the brain is limited by many factors, from its physical composition to its evolutionary past. Brains were not selected exclusively to be smart, but to generally maximise human reproductive fitness. Brains are not only tuned to the tasks of the hunter gatherer, but also designed to fit through the human birth canal; supercomputing clusters or data-centres have no such constraints.
Synthetic hardware has a number of advantages over the human brain both in speed and scale, but the software is what creates the intelligence. How could we possibly get smarter-than-human software?
If it feels hot to you now in the dog days of this summer, imagine a time when summertime Boston starts feeling like Miami and even Montana sizzles. Thanks to climate change, that day is coming by the end of the century, making it harder to avoid simmering temperatures. Summers in most of the U.S. are already warmer than they were in the 1970s. And climate models tell us that summers are going to keep getting hotter as greenhouse gas emissions continue. What will this warming feel like? Our new analysis of future summers illustrates just how dramatic warming is going to be by the end of this century if current emissions trends continue unabated. For our Blistering Future Summers interactive we have projected summer high temperatures for the end of this century for 1,001 cities, and then showed which city in the U.S. — or elsewhere in the world, if we couldn’t find one here — is experiencing those temperatures today. We’ve highlighted several striking examples on the interactive, but make sure to explore and find how much hotter summers will likely be in your city. By the end of the century, assuming the current emissions trends, Boston’s average summer high temperatures will be more than 10°F hotter than they are now, making it feel as balmy as North Miami Beach is today. Summers in Helena, Mont., will warm by nearly 12°F, making it feel like Riverside, Calif.
Love is the drug, scientists find
Cambridge University scientists find that those with drug addiction and sex addiction have similar neurological responses
When Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry declared that ”love is the drug” he may have been speaking the truth. Cambridge University scientists have found that sex and drug addiction may be two sides of the same neurological coin. When diagnosed sex addicts looked at explicit sexual images, it triggered brain activity very similar to that seen in people dependent on drugs. But the researchers caution that this does not suggest pornography is generally addictive. Lead scientist Dr Valerie Voon, from Cambridge University, said: ”The patients in our trial were all people who had substantial difficulties controlling their sexual behaviour and this was having significant consequences for them, affecting their lives and relationships. ”In many ways, they show similarities in their behaviour to patients with drug addictions. We wanted to see if these similarities were reflected in brain activity, too. ”There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts.” Previous studies have suggested that up to one in 25 adults may be affected by an obsession with sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviour they are unable to control. Public awareness of sex addiction has been raised by celebrities seeking help for the problem, including actors Michael Douglas and David Duchovny. The Cambridge scientists recruited 19 male sex addicts and played them short videos featuring either explicit pornographic scenes or people engaged in exciting sports such as skiing or skydiving. At the same time, the men’s brain activity was monitored using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The experiment was repeated with a matched group of volunteers not affected by sex addiction. Three regions of the brain were found to be especially more active in the brains of the sex addicts than in the healthy volunteers, the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala. All three are also known to be activated in drug addicts stimulated by the sight of drug-taking paraphernalia. (via Love is the drug, scientists find - Telegraph)
The next couple of years will be make or break for the next big theory in physics called supersymmetry - SUSY for short. It might make way for a rival idea which predicts the existence of a ‘fifth force’ of nature. Next Spring, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) resumes its experiments, scientists will be looking for evidence of SUSY. It explains an awful lot that the current theory of particle physics does not. But there is a growing problem, provocatively expressed by Nobel Laureate George Smoot: “supersymmetry has got symmetry and it’s super but there is no experimental data to suggest it is correct.” According to the simplest versions of the theory, supersymmetric particles should have been discovered at the LHC by now. One set of null results prompted Prof Chris Parkes, of the LHCb to quip: “Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital”. But other forms of the theory are still very much in play.
Gary Gutting: What do you think of the claim that scientific accounts provide all the explanations needed to understand the existence and nature of the world, so that there’s no need to posit God as the ultimate explanation?
Michael Ruse: Let me start at a more general level by saying that I don’t think science as such can explain everything. Therefore, assuming that the existence and nature of the world can be fully understood (I’m not sure it can!), this is going to require something more than science. As far as I am concerned, if you want God to have a crack at the job, go right ahead!
G.G.: Could you say a bit more about why you think that science can’t fully explain everything?
M.R.: In my view, none of our knowledge, including science, just “tells it like it is.” Knowledge, even the best scientific knowledge, interprets experience through human cultural understanding and experience, and above all (just as it is for poets and preachers) metaphor is the key to the whole enterprise. As I developed my own career path, as a historian and philosopher of evolutionary biology, this insight grew and grew. Everything was metaphorical — struggle for existence, natural selection, division of labor, genetic code, arms races and more.
G.G.: It’s clear that metaphors are useful when scientists try to explain complex ideas in terms that nonscientists can understand, but why do you think metaphors have an essential role in the development of scientific knowledge?
M.R.: Because metaphor helps you move forward. It is heuristic, forcing you to ask new questions. If your love is like a rose, what color is the rose? But note that it does so at a cost. A metaphor puts blinkers on us. Some questions are unanswerable within the context of the metaphor. “My love is a rose” tells me about her beauty. It does not tell me about her mathematical abilities.
Butterfly wings inspire cosmetics and bomb detectors
A tropical butterfly might not be the first place to look when seeking inspiration for the latest bomb sniffing technology for the US military, but the brightly coloured iridescent wings of a blue morpho provides one example of a promising branch of science - bio-inspiration. Other varied applications inspired by the South American butterfly’s shimmering wings include high-tech textiles, self-cleaning surfaces, cosmetics, and security tags. An exhibition called the Invisible Garden at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Hampton Court Flower Show is enthralling visitors with its displays of the microscopic world in gardens. “Oh wow!” cried one six year old school girl as she squinted into an optical microscope at the wings of a blue morpho. “It’s really shiny. It’s a really pretty one, that.” “They’re just like scales, like fishes have,” said her class-mate, “They’re really nice.” He was right about the scales. Lepidoptera is the Latin name for butterflies, which means “scaly wing”. But when an electron microscope is used to zoom in to the nano-structure of the wing scales themselves, a new world is revealed. This is what is inspiring scientists, like Professor Peter Vukusic, an optical physicist, at Exeter University. “They are aesthetically beautiful,” he said, “But scientifically, from the perspective of the physics which underpin the colour, they are hugely interesting. They are complicated. They are adapted to serve a set of complicated functions. The optical ingenuity that’s responsible for the appearances which we see is tremendous.” (via BBC News - Butterfly wings inspire cosmetics and bomb detectors)
Scientists Create a New Type of Ultra-High-Res Flexible Display
We are surrounded by imperfect screens. Our smartphones, laptops, televisions, watches, billboards, thermostats and even glasses all have screens with drawbacks: Some don’t work in sunlight, others mercilessly drain your battery; some can’t do rich color, and some can’t display a true black; most can’t be rolled up and tucked in your pocket. But something better may be on the way. In research published today in Nature, scientists describe what may be the first steps toward creating a new type of ultrathin, superfast, low-power, high-resolution, flexible color screen. If the inevitable engineering difficulties in bringing a product from the lab to the living room can be overcome, these displays could combine some of the best features of current display technologies. The new displays work with familiar materials, including the metal alloy already used to store data on some CDs and DVDs. The key property of these materials is that they can exist in two states. Zap them with heat, light, or electricity and they switch from one state to the other. Scientists call them phase-change materials (PCMs). “It is really fascinating that phase-change materials, now widely used in optical and nonvolatile electronic memory devices, found a potentially new application in display technology,” said Alex Kolobov, a researcher at Japan’s Nanoelectronics Research Institute who was not involved in the new work. (via Scientists Create a New Type of Ultra-High-Res Flexible Display | Gadget Lab | WIRED)