The Prismatic Typewriter

The Olivetti Lettera 35 typewriter is a bona fide endangered species these days.  The clunky clack-clacking word processor that filled Italian offices circa 1970 is mostly relegated to curio shops, hobbyist attics, and eBay now.  I hadn’t seen any in years and yet as I enter a darkened corner of the M.I.T. Museum, one appears before me like a phantom out of thin air thin air.  I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m coming around to holograms.

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Category: Media, mysteries, Philosophy of science | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Weak Link in the Chain: Intelligence

In my previous blog post, I talked about the likelihood – or unlikelihood – of your existence.  The fact that you’re here, and I’m here, is contingent on a vast array of happenings that all had to come about first.

To narrow things down a bit, let’s say that the first few hurdles have already been met: Suppose we already have a universe with the sorts of physical parameters and physical laws that we now observe.  And let’s say that universe is filled with an enormous number of stars with an enormous number of planets.  Given all of that, what are the odds that you’d end up with (a) living things and (b) intelligence?

Over the last decade or so, astronomers have found more than 500 planets orbiting stars beyond our own sun.  Recently, the first “potentially habitable” planet was announced, based on data from the orbiting Kepler telescope.  NASA already sponsors research on “astrobiology” – roughly, the science of figuring out what kind of life might be “out there.”  And most scientists, I suspect, wouldn’t be shocked if some sort of definitive sign of extraterrestrial life were discovered within the next couple of decades.  Thrilled, but not shocked.  We don’t have any numbers yet, of course, but it’s worth noting that simple one-celled creatures sprung up on our planet within 1.7 billion years or so of its formation (which doesn’t mean life sprang up overnight; but still, that’s sort of fast in terms of the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history).
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Category: Anthropology, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Paleontology, Philosophy of science, Probability science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Update on the Satellite that Fell From the Sky

In mid-January I reported on the remains of a Russian satellite discovered on a remote beach in the Grenadines. The satellite washed ashore in mid-December and I concluded that its history – including how it got there – was an unsolved mystery.

Well, it appears to no longer be a mystery, as more details have emerged. Dwight Parsons, a local tour operator in the Grenadines, commented on my personal website with additional details on the satellite discovery, which he says he was part of, on December 6, 2011 at 10 AM on Petit Tabac island. He says the satellite was pulled and tied up 34 days later (as my mid-January photos depict).

The satellite fragment was indeed part of a Russian Soyuz 3 Rocket by Arianne Space Solutions. The US Embassy in Barbados, not the Grenadines, confirmed that it was similar to a piece that washed up in Barbados in July 2011. Three informative pieces on CNN iReport located here, here, and here contain photos of the satellite soon after the discovery.

The purpose of the satellite and the larger program it was part of remains unknown.

Category: mysteries, photography, satellites | 1 Comment

Pictures of the mysterious satellite that fell from the sky

Perhaps the most recognizable sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the match cut between a rotating bone and an orbiting satellite, a representation of human progress from its earliest stages fast forwarded, in one fell swoop, to the forefront of human technical achievement.

However, technology doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Sometimes, the satellites fall from the sky.

Such was the case in the Southeastern Caribbean, where part of a Russian spacecraft washed ashore on a remote beach of the Tobago Cays, part of the country of St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

How it got there is a mystery.

The satellite piece appeared in early December. I had arrived in the Grenadines several weeks later in January, where I would be testing out a new macro underwater photography rig, not expecting that the most interesting aspect of the trip would be above water on an otherwise-empty sand beach.

According to the Tobago Cays marine park ranger I talked to, the satellite was discovered floating in the water by one of his colleagues. It briefly attracted worldwide attention from news crews and government officials before disappearing from the media radar almost as suddenly as it showed up. (For example, search for ‘satellite grenadines’ and you will get nothing but television offers and pictures taken from space).

The ranger speculated it could be related to the recently failed Mars Probe that the European Space Agency lost contact with (Earth to satellite? Where are you?) However, the time frame is slightly off: the Mars Probe was anticipated to return to Earth in mid January which it has since done, and that probe entered the atmosphere around the same time I landed in St. Georges.

But the writing on the satellite gives weight to the idea that it’s Russian in origin.

The satellite was the subject of two articles in a local newspaper (1) (2), where an online commentator claimed it was part of an “Arianne Space Solutions series Soyuz 3 delivery system rocket” and is related to a piece that purportedly washed up in Barbados in July, from a launch site owned by the company in French Guiana.

A photo caption of a local article describing the discovery says that the flamingo mural on the back side of the piece (not visible in the photographs I took, as that side was facing down in the sand) was matched to markings from a launch in French Guiana, yet it is not clear to me how someone in the US embassy in the Grenadines would know the decorative details about the exterior of a Russian satellite launched in a department of France.

One thing that is likely is that the satellite will remain unclaimed. As of now, no one has formally declared the piece as their own (this makes a certain amount of sense, as it would be a somewhat embarrassing admission.)

Any telltales signs of a specific satellite – as opposed to coming from ‘a satellite’ in general – would have burned up in the atmosphere upon reentry or sank in the ocean, as only the lightweight exterior, aided in part by the titanium honeycomb construction seen below, has enough buoyancy to float.

For the time being, the satellite still sits in sand, a reminder that we often only know what is up there in space when something goes wrong. Until this mystery is solved, here are some more photos to enjoy…

Photos taken by Conor L. Myhrvold

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Discovering discovery: Fear and button-mashing at the GabLab

One of the highlights of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing so far has been the lab experience, which requires me to spend 20 hours hanging out in a lab of my choosing. In case you haven’t heard, some pretty spectacular stuff goes on at MIT: not just freefalling pianos and colossal androids, but the occasional piece of really amazing science, too.

But MIT has a gerjillion labs, and at the beginning of the year I found myself paralyzed by indecision. The lab experience can take place anywhere outside my area of expertise; my background is in computer science, so the Media Lab and the Lincoln Lab were off-limits to me, but I could still choose from fields as diverse as astronomy, materials science, or  bioengineering—really, anywhere I could get a researcher to allow me to nose around his or her lab for a few weeks.

The details of the requirement are loosely defined—all we’re really told is that we need to “spend time” in a lab, so how we spend that time is pretty much up to us and our researcher co-conspirators. Some students take an active role, dissecting mice or titrating chemicals or changing out the core in MIT’s nuclear reactor — whatever their supervisors will let them get away with. Others take the Dian Fossey approach, simply observing scientists in their native habitat. Anyway the thrust of the requirement is that we get a feel for how science actually gets done.

I was drawn toward the science-y looking labs—materials science and chemical engineering, labs behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the Infinite Corridor where white lab coat-clad scientists don those thick rubber gloves and reach into frothing metal cylinders. But for a variety of reasons ostensibly related to my thesis research (but actually related to the 14-year-old boy inside me who still has a fascination with guts and brains and other squishy things), I ended up passing on chemistry and materials in favor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and landed at John Gabrieli’s creatively named GabLab.

My approach was to volunteer as a test subject, get my noggin scanned, then interview the researchers for a behind-the-scenes look at how their research gets researched. The first several hours of my lab experience clung doggedly to my preconceptions of brain science, consisting primarily of big, noisy machines and cross-sections of heads.

I had never been through an MRI before, and discovered two things. (1) The borehole in an MRI scanner is roughly the same dimensions as a coffin, and it turns out I’m not quite as non-claustrophobic as I thought I was. (2) They’re damn noisy. I was outfitted with foam-rubber earplugs and pads strapped over my ears, but when your head is eight inches from the core of an MRI machine deep in the throes of a diffusion-tensor imaging run, the sensation is not unlike lying on the hood of a Buick doing 75mph off-road.

I performed a few different tasks while in the scanner, all of which centered on pushing one of two buttons; I did this some 500 times over the two-hour session. (I won’t elaborate on these tasks, lest someone read this who ends up a test subject.) Claustrophobia and clatter notwithstanding, the experience was novel and interesting and I came out of it with a neat-o picture of my brain and having made a small but substantive contribution to science.

Taylor Beck, one of my classmates in the GPSW, worked for several years in neuroscience labs, switching eventually to writing because he didn’t particularly enjoy working at the lab bench. When he first told me this I was mystified—I had in my mind a (naïve) picture of neuroscience that was much like materials science or chemical engineering, all titration and rubber gloves and inscrutable machinery, and I found it hard to imagine how that wouldn’t be fun.

But during my interviews with researchers and assistants and technologists after the scan I started to understand Taylor’s perspective a little better. Neuroscience—and, I suspect, many other sciences—doesn’t get done with test tubes and centrifuges, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single white coat during my time at the GabLab. Moreover, John Gabrieli’s laboratory is basically indistinguishable from many of the corporate offices I’ve worked in: cubicles with computers and people in them, offices with glass doors. Just looking at them, you’d have no idea what the lab’s inhabitants were doing.

What they’re doing, though, is manipulating data. While the resolution of a functional MRI scan is fairly low, the scans still produce a vast amount of information—far too much for humans to work with. And neuroscientists work with impossibly complex material: the adult human brain has something like a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillion connections between those neurons. Instead of forcing research assistants to work in neuroscience sweatshops, laboring night and day over pictures of my brain and searching for the risk/reward centers, the scientists hand the job off to computers.

And they write code for those computers. Lots and lots of code. Programs to normalize data, to correct for twitchy claustrophobic graduate-student test subjects who can’t keep their heads still, programs to find and fix abnormalities, mistakes in the scans, to sort and to search and to order. To build cool graphs and diagrams that are easier for humans to digest than mountains of incomprehensible raw MRI data.

But all this emphasis on computers means that what actually goes on in the lab—outside of the scanning itself—consists of a whole lot of time in meetings talking about things like budgets and planning and scheduling, researchers presenting their work to their colleagues, coders coding , power lunches and water-cooler banter. Pretty much like any other office, except with more brains.

This is not to say that exciting science doesn’t get done in the GabLab—quite the opposite. These scientists are working to understand memory, to find the roots of autism and dyslexia, to learn how we learn, how we understand. But the way this science gets done is far from the traditional picture, and it’s not thrilling to watch. It’s unsurprising, once you stop to think about it, but it also presents a challenge for a science writer. How do you convey the exhilaration of discovery when discovery happens so slowly, and with such a preponderance of tedium?

It’s a problem I struggle with regularly—I’m interested in computers, after all, and computer science belongs to the butts-in-chairs school of research, too. I don’t have a decent answer to this question. But MIT is not a bad place to work on it, and writing blog posts helps. Getting my hands dirty in MRI scanners helps, too, as does tackling other, flashier, subjects outside my normal areas.

So I try my hand at cognitive science and meteorology and archaeology—scientists in khaki shirts, on their knees in the Libyan desert scraping away at thousand-year-old ruins, are not difficult to make interesting. My fellow GPSW students have tackled everything from stomach ulcers to spiders. Check it all out on Scope, the online publication of the GPSW—and check back frequently to see how we’re faring on the tedium-as-excitement problem.

Also, if you’re in the Boston area and are interested in making a contribution to science, you should check out the Brain and Cognitive Science test-subject signup page. They’re always looking for victims. I mean volunteers.

Category: Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Lab Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life, the Universe, and Everything: What are the Odds?

Have you ever wondered how likely – or unlikely – it is that you exist?  Although it may sound pie-in-the-sky, it’s really a scientific problem, though you don’t have to be a scientist to be captivated by it.

Take, for example, the wonderfully-named Cosmicomics of 20th-century Italian writer Italo Calvino – a collection of whimsical, science-fiction-flavoured short stories.  One of the stories, called “How Much Shall We Bet,” involves two characters, the narrator (with the unpronounceable name “Qfwfq”) and someone named “Dean (k)yK.”  The two men seem to have existed since the before the beginning of the universe – somehow separate from the universe, whatever that could mean – and they seem to be immortal.  All they do is make an endless series of bets regarding what sorts of things will happen in their cosmos.

As you might imagine, the series of events that they bet on, and the series of events that actually unfold, are rather familiar:  They seem to resemble the actual events that have unfolded in the history of our own universe.  Their first bet is on the formation of atoms; the narrator bets for it, while Dean bets against it.  They go on betting on the formation of various chemical elements, and, looking billions of years ahead, they bet as to whether the Assyrians will invade Mesopotamia. We’re told that Dean always bets no, “not because he believed the Assyrians wouldn’t do it, but because he refused to think there would ever be Assyrians and Mesopotamia and the Earth and a human race.”

Let’s begin with the big philosophical questions:  First there’s the issue of determinism – roughly, whether the “stuff that happens” in the universe is largely, or perhaps completely, determined by what came before.  This is something that thinkers have wrestled with for 2,500 years, and I won’t attempt to add to that discussion here; but it is worth mentioning that most versions of determinism seem to place free will in jeopardy, making them rather unappetizing (though not necessarily wrong).  (But I would say that, wouldn’t, if I were destined to say it?)

Secondly, assuming that the future is not fully determined by the present, there’s the string of probabilities associated with each development along the way to “us.” Thinking again of Calvino’s story:  Before you can have Assyrians, you have to have human beings, and before you can have human beings you have to have life, and before you can have life you have to have a habitable planet orbiting a star at just the right distance… it does sound like a leaning tower of improbabilities, doesn’t it?

In my next blog post, I’ll explore what I think is the weakest link in that chain – the appearance of intelligent life.  But first, let’s have some more fun with the ideas and the numbers.

Certainly, the more specific the outcome, more improbable it seems.  If you consider some particular state of affairs, and then ask what the odds are, starting from today and going back even a short time (let alone the 3.8 billion years to when life first appeared on this planet), that particular state will seem extraordinarily unlikely.  For example, imagine turning the clock back five years.  From that perspective, what were the odds that, on this particular day, you would be sitting in this particular room, in this city, reading this particular sentence?

And what something even more basic – say, your own existence?  A couple of months ago, a “probability chart” produced by Harvard Law School blogger Ali Binazir went somewhat viral, encouraging people to contemplate this very question.  In the chart, Binazir calculates just how improbable it was that the right sperm from your father hooked up with the right egg produced by your mother – by his estimate, it’s about one chance in 400 quadrillion (that number seems only slightly more tame in scientific notation: 4 x 10^17).  And that’s hardly the whole battle:  To even get to that stage, all of your ancestors, going all the way back to the beginning of life on Earth, had to survive to reproductive age.  Multiplying the string of probabilities together, he concludes that the odds of your existence are an astronomical one in 10^2,685.000.  (As you can imagine, not everyone in the blogosphere was kind to Binazir; one asked if it was painful to pull those numbers out of you-know-where.)

To be sure, we can quibble about the precise figures.  But I’m sure we can agree that the chances of anything specific happening, viewed from a remote enough point in the past, seem absurdly low.  And yet, for some reason, we often weave stories in which historical events have a flavour of inevitability to them.  Think how many science fiction stories you’ve read on the theme of time travel, in which the time traveller attempts to “change history,” only to find that what was going to happen, happens anyway.  Push history, and it pushes back.

If you’re a Stephen King fan, you’ll know that his latest book, 11-22-63, involves a time traveller who attempts to prevent the Kennedy assassination (which of course took place on the date that gives the book its title).  As you might guess, even with several years lead-time, preventing the fatal shot from being fired from the Dallas book depository is no simple task.  As filmmaker Errol Morris puts it in his review of King’s book:  “What if history is too forceful to redirect?  What if jiggering the engine produces no favourable outcome – merely a postponement of the inevitable?  If he had lived, Kennedy might not have escalated the war in Vietnam, and might have kept America out of a bloody mire.  But we don’t know.  What if we were headed there anyway?  Then our tampering might only make things worse.  It is not historical inevitability, but something close.”

These kinds of questions, about the inevitability (or otherwise) of history, have made their way into our popular culture, so I’m happy to give the last word to Lisa Simpson.  I’m thinking of a Halloween episode in which Lisa had lost a tooth; as part of an experiment for a science fair project, she leaves the tooth in a glass of cola overnight.  Sure enough, the next morning she sees a peculiar mould growing on it; and looking through her microscope, she sees that she’s crated little cave men.  Some hours later she looks again, and the little people are undergoing what appears to be the Renaissance; soon, one of the little people is seen nailing something to the cathedral door. She gasps:  “I’ve created Lutherans!”

More on likelihood of life – and intelligent life in particular – next time.

Category: Philosophy of science, Probability science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Endangered lemur hunting prevalent in Madagascar despite local taboos, laws

What’s wrong with this picture?

Photo © Madagasikara Voakajy

It’s a boy in Madagascar. His face is blurred to preserve anonymity, and he’s carrying a freshly killed indri lemur, a source of bushmeat.
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Category: Anthropology, Fieldwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

SciWrite alumni featured on Bora Z’s Scientific American Incubator

In a few months, the MIT Science Writing program will have its ten-year anniversary. Last week, just in time for Thanksgiving, the inexhaustible Bora Zivkovic — the force of nature behind the SciAm blogs network and one of the instigators of ScienceOnline — posted one of his SciAm Incubator posts about some of the work the program’s grads have produced in the last few years. Check it out!

Category: Announcements | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Promise ’em Bigfoot, give ’em science

Like fellow PLoS blogger Seth Mnookin, I’m  spending a year at MIT, in my case as a Knight Fellow in Science Journalism. Unlike Seth, I work in the craven world of cable television, making science shows on everything from the intricacies of evolution (see below) to what we in the biz call weather porn, which is the technical term for attention-grabbing specials on earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes and other potential mega-disasters. I’ve also put in time at the venerable Nova series, so I come by my take on things through varied experience.

During the three months I’ve spent as a Knight Fellow, I’ve heard many scientists speak frankly about their mistrust of the media. (One of the pithier summaries I’ve heard: “I hate science journalists.”) I’m not unsympathetic: I’ve seen scientific studies get twisted, sensationalized and scare-mongered by the media. But, to echo a debate going on in the #SciWriteLabs series, scientists need to realize that they’re in a different business from their journalistic brethren. I’m reminded of the punch line to the old Jackie Mason joke about actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan:  “People criticize, but you can’t blame him.  It’s not his field.”  Scientists want their work represented as science–but journalists’ jobs are to communicate with the public, and the main tool they have at their disposal is the story.

Science, on the other hand, is less concerned with narrative than results. Scientists speak to other scientists through their work.  Reputations are based on careful accumulation of facts, and a professional reluctance to speculate. This communicates within the community well–but not so well to the world at large.

Out here among the populace, where, as the Jimmy Stewart character says in It’s a Wonderful Life,  people “do most of the working and paying and living and dying,” we communicate in the language of story. Stuart Brown, who studies play, puts it this way in his TED talk: “the basic unit of human intelligibility is the story.”  Stories need beginnings, middles, and endings.  They need tension and drama and resolution. All of which are anathema to any particular bit of science. Science only proceeds as a story in the big historical sweep of things. Individual scientists are like ants (or Borgs): The collective is all.

So how can we bridge this divide? As one of my Nova mentors told once told me, “Promise ‘em Bigfoot and give ‘em science.” It’s not a bad formula. Our job is to build a bridge to our viewers:  folks who are smart, curious, but not necessarily educated in the same way we are.  They come to us for the story, but we’ve got to meet them where they live.  So if we get them into the carnival tent with a promise of a “mega-disaster,” once they’re there, in between the flying pieces of metal, we may be able to persuade them that, say, climate change is real, and there are still some things we can do about it. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Category: Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Filter could provide cheap way to contain viral disease outbreaks

Using lab cleaning tissues and a chemical used for gene therapy, scientists in France have identified a new cheap way of filtering viruses.

The new filter could help with containing diseases during outbreaks, as described in the Chemical Engineering Journal by scientists from the University of Rouen and the University of Lyon.

The filter’s success hinges on the gene therapy chemical polyethylenimine, or PEI. Positively-charged PEI molecules attached to fibers in the cleaning tissues can capture negatively-charged viruses. In fact, when H5N2 viruses (a strain of the bird flu) were sprayed toward the filter as a test, no viruses were found past the filter.

Asked if this filter will be tested against other viruses, such as the more dangerous and more infamous H1N1 swine flu and H5N1 bird flu viruses, Trong Nguyen, a professor at the University of Rouen, replied, “We didn’t use H1N1 or H5N1 because of the problem of experimental cost. The H5N2 was available at the time from another experiment. And it is a little bit less dangerous then H1N1.”

Although there are no immediate plans to continue this research with other viruses due to the cost, Nguyen noted that a filter that works against H5N2 should work against other influenza viruses too.

The researchers hope that these filters will improve surgical masks. The use of surgical masks during flu season is a fairly common sight, as mask-wearers seek to contain germs or get germ protection.

However, masks are sometimes worn in vain. “Surgical masks are generally not very good protecting devices if you’re considering to protect the wearer,” says Sergey Grinshpun, professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati. “Instead, they’re good at blocking [contagious] particles from an infected person.”

According to Grinshpun, viruses leave people’s mouths via tiny water droplets, which the mask’s pores can block. However, airborne viruses are small enough to penetrate surgical masks, which don’t contain anything like PEI that can use electric charge attraction to capture viruses.

Masks that protect against airborne viruses already exist, rated N95 in the U.S. and FFP2 in Europe. These masks look like slightly clunkier versions of surgical masks, and unlike surgical masks, respirators also need to be fitted to the individual and are harder to breathe through.

“It would be practical to use them [N95 masks], for certain, but it wouldn’t be practical for everyone to use them,” according to Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University.

The first issue is that ordinary people tend to misuse N95 masks—and surgical masks too, for the matter. They do this by not fitting them properly, by taking them off when they aren’t supposed to, and by reusing the masks, which are supposed to be single-use. (The proper use of masks is especially important in hospitals, where the spread of diseases is a serious problem, as evidenced in Toronto during the SARS epidemic.)

The second is a matter of cost, which was one of the factors that led to the N95 mask shortage in U.S. hospitals in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, according to Lipsitch.

As explained in the paper by Nguyen and his colleagues, respirators are about five times as expensive as surgical masks, hence their motivation to create a cheaper antiviral surgical mask using PEI as an alternative. The paper also notes that PEI cannot be used in the filters of N95/FFP2 masks due to an incompatibility in materials.

The method used for making the PEI filters sounds similar to laundry. Lab cleaning tissues were soaked in PEI, left to drip, gently washed with water, air-dried at room temperature, and finally sterilized with UV light. “It’s very simple,” says Nguyen. “There should be no problem scaling up the process.”

It’s currently unknown how well these masks will market in real life. According to Nguyen, the public health community in France expressed a lack of enthusiasm towards the masks during a market study due to an unwillingness to change their mask procedures. Therefore, the success of these masks at virus protection may depend on something that is beyond innovation and laboratory experiments: how well the wearers of the mask use them, and how well they’re supplied.

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