Category Archives: scientastic

review – physics of the future

20130331-104943.jpgSo instead of spending hours hunting for the witty words to persuade the reading of this book I’ll just cut to the quick. Michio Kaku does a fine and informed job not only in speculating our technological and cultural future as driven by science, he does so without invoking the predictable dystopian frownies with which science seems in a constant state of handholding. In his Physics of the Future, it’s hard not to marvel at how much easier science will be making our lives, not only now but in just few years to come.

Kaku smartly concentrates his dissection of human scientific endeavor in three stages for the common person in this century: the near future, mid century, and the far future (until 2100). Methodically moving from our reliance upon and discarding of the now obsolete desktop/laptop computer to our eventual mastery of artificial intelligence and robotic fabrication, microchipping and nanotechnology, to the unlocking of unlimited new energy sources, Kaku plainly (though with plenty of detail) sings the silent tsunami of our scientific evolution, providing unlimited possibilities of our survival and potential.

Of particular interest and importance is his foreshadowing of our fulfillment of Moore’s Law, predicting the eventual scrapheap of the modern computer as we know it, in favor of the exponential micro-advances already in development today, such as smart lensing and the microchipping of nearly everything we will use to augment and enhance our sense of reality. In our quest to make everything convenient, our robots will aid in every aspect of our lives, whether fully integrated within our bodies or swarming interstellar space as nano-probes, searching for and designing our future modes of habitability. Our current, feeble attempts at harnessing green energy will eventually lead to better and smaller fusion reactors even magnetic transportation, promising the ability to fly and hover at will.

Alas, all is not rosy within our microchipped HUD lenses. Humanity will inevitably be confronted with hard decisions and sacrifice in paving this future. In addition to the obvious implications of our advances in medicine, the issues of human evolution and robotics resound heavily in his book. Is it inevitable that humans will integrate themselves, even their consciousness, into more mechanical beings? Will there be singularity of consciousness in which our machines think better than we do, rather than just compute? Is this a natural evolution for us?

Whatever the answer, Kaku can’t be blamed for continually disclaiming that the future is indeed in our hands, and that we have the ability to prevent all sorts of silly Skynet scenarios from becoming reality. The real tragedy Kaku hints, is within our own limitations, our fears and dependence upon archaic governance structures that preserve and protect their own interests rather than those they purportedly represent. Despite our ever-exponentially advancing scientific and technological progress, Kaku states, Humanity will continually grasp toward the stars while still having their feet firmly planted in the mud. Whether that is a good thing is yet to be determined, but it too, is reality. If anything, reading the final chapter “a day in the life in 2100″ offers an excellent summary of the beautifully chaotic control we may very soon possess. Physics of the Future is an excellent speculation of science-fact, nicely serving as reference upon the futurist’s and inquisitive’s bookshelf.

review – space chronicles: facing the ultimate frontier

ImageFor an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks plainly. Whether conversing on behalf of presidential space commissions or to the local trash collector, he knows his audience well, brilliantly conveying the place of space and science in the lives of everyday people. Such is his tone in Space Chronicles, a compilation of recent addresses centering on the possibilities and precariousness of our glacially paced emergence among the stars.

A proponent of the world’s “second oldest profession”, there’s no doubt of Tyson’s feverish talent for presenting astoundingly wondrous insights of the universe. This work isn’t as focused on that as it outlines the astoundingly small-but-giant steps we’ve achieved in the infancy of our space exploration, and the current factors decelerating the improbable momentum gained from such achievements as the Apollo and Hubble endeavors. Of the many points of emphasis, a select few are consistently repeated: that our focus on war and defense has historically been the trigger for space exploration, coupled with China’s surplus of scientifically literate citizenry (more than the entire population of the United States), and the invisible, unheralded contributions of NASA (not only for space exploration but humanity’s welfare) on mere fractions of the US tax dollar. These are but a few hindrances to consider when faced with the more looming obstacles such as preventing the inevitable asteroid collision, commoditization of the fledgling aerospace industry, and providing more interesting reasons for gravitating students toward science, like designing anti-matter propulsion or theorizing light-speed travel rather than incrementally increasing our fuel efficiency for outdated systems.

Aside from lacking a more thorough bibliography of sources cited (apart from a grand set of space budget appendices), the only detractor to the book is that it can seem more an anthology than the entreaty it is. Tyson will in one instance expound upon his concern of the emergent cultural embrace of anti-intellectualism, while in another ponder the feminist implications of the traditionally phallus-shaped propulsion rockets, no better represented by the exalted Saturn V.  But the occasional disparate topic highlights Tyson’s theme of the necessity of cross-pollination among his audience in the interest of solidarity in scientific inquiry; the more disparate entities and peoples that can be tied together for a common purpose, the more likely we are to generate lasting interest in exploration and science itself, beyond even the realms of space.

Space Chronicles is a gentle though unsubtle reassurance of the popular meme that although we as a species have accomplished much, we are really not that special. If we see ourselves as otherwise in this unfathomably large universe and thus are lazy enough to abandon exploration beyond earth and take scientific inquiry for granted (as we are), humans are destined to ensure our own extinction. While preaching to the choir for space enthusiasts, Space Chronicles is a good primer for the space curious.

review – cosmicomics

A perfect exposition of science fiction, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is a tender and dreamlike weaving of stories that touch upon the sheer wonder both the universe and consciousness itself. Calvino begins each story with an established scientific conjecture, thereafter placing an anthropomorphic and wildly fictitious annotation of the universe at various stages or for lack of a better word, times. Narrating from entities personified through equations and representations, predominantly through the central character Qfwfq, Calvino wistfully describes the universe through fleeting instances of love, attraction, loss, creation and change.

The stories range from the concrete to the fluid, including a time when reaching the moon is as simple as climbing a ladder, the astronomical paranoia induced from simple messages sent from distant observers and millennia, where a dinosaur ponders the significance, perhaps even the power of its own extinction, to the familial colloid particles, uncertain of their new inertia, being torn apart in the creation of matter and planets. Though all have a human feel, it is a joyous exposition of the unfathomable, alien events we cannot ponder enough.

The sentience that Calvino gives to the entities persisting and changing throughout Cosmicomics is an appreciation not only of the scientific beauty of the universe, but of the beauty of his fiction.

Apple setting sights on kindle

Perhaps Apple’s subtle emergence into the ebook market will drive Amazon’s incentive to make a more functional, and less expensive reader.

The talks come as Apple is separately racing to offer a portable, full-featured, tablet-sized computer in time for the Christmas shopping season, in what the entertainment industry hopes will be a new revolution. The device could be launched alongside the new content deals, including those aimed at stimulating sales of CD-length music, according to people briefed on the project.

Book publishers have been in talks with Apple and are optimistic about their services being offered with the new computer, which could provide an alternative to Amazon’s Kindle.

Exciting times.

knowledge is good

The University of Nottingham is definitely on to something.  What with their wildly popular and scientastic Periodic Table of Videos, it looks as if they’ve unveiled a new venture that’s rampaging through the Interweaves.  It’s called Sixty Symbols, “a channel devoted to those funny letters and squiggles used by physicists and astronomers.”

As evidenced by the rejuvenated popularity of Star Trek, I think people’s minds are melding to the idea that the 21st century is more about learning than it is about greed. Huzzah.

infomaniacs hang out @ FORA.tv

fora A colleague just passed along a link concerning FORA.tv, and I must admit it looks exceedingly captivating.  Like academia.edu, FORA.tv is another piece of the academic’s puzzle for marketing ideas by and for those in the academic world, or rather anyone who wants to learn for learning’s sake.   What is FORA.tv all about?

FORA.tv helps intelligent, engaged audiences get smart. Our users find, enjoy, and share videos about the people, issues, and ideas changing the world.

We gather the web’s largest collection of unmediated video drawn from live events, lectures, and debates going on all the time at the world’s top universities, think tanks and conferences. We present this provocative, big-idea content for anyone to watch, interact with, and share –when, where, and how they want.

I’m not sure, but it looks as if FORA.tv gathers its content from institutional organizations themselves rather than indexing from sites like YouTube or Google video, etc.; still a little uncertain on this one. Uploading video also requires a submission process, obviously for weeding out the less educational content.  But if you wanted to find the latest high-profile speech on the economy or were even wondering what it would be like to die via black holes, FORA.tv is the place to be.

review

worIt’s an easy speculation to say that without humans, the earth will restore, recleanse, rectify itself. Indeed, in his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman repeatedly hints to the reader that the world doesn’t need us as much as we need it. But Weisman goes beyond the obvious implication and details just how incredibly short-sighted we humans have been in just a brief time on this planet.

Weisman thoroughly stresses home the point that despite our tendencies toward toxicity, life will indeed find a way, whether it be millennia or billennia. There are a whole lot of ideas to take away from this thought experiment, for example the futility of our marvelous infrastructure once we are no longer around to monitor it; what will happen when wonders like the Chunnel, the Panama Canal, our volatile oil refineries and nuclear reactors/repositories as well as our subways have no one to flip the off switch or close the valve? How will the unmeasurable amount of polymers (plastic) dumped in our oceans annually begin to degrade, and what are the hopes of a hungry microbe that evolves the ability to feed on them?

Of the many thought provoking speculations and projections Weisman so meticulously researches and thoughtfully relates, he proposes the irony that the realization of our collective death may just perhaps contribute to the saving of ourselves. Interviewing the organizer of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and yes it it’s a real organization, he postulates that if humans were really serious about curbing overpopulation, thereby eliminating juvenile delinquency among other issues, we might just have an epiphany:

…spiritual awakening would replace panic, because a dawning realization that as human life drew to a close, it was improving. There would be more than enough to eat, and resources would again be plentiful, including water. The seas would replenish. Because new housing wouldn’t be necessary, so would forests and wetlands.

…Like retired business executives who suddenly find serenity by tending a garden, Knight envisions us spending our remaining time helping rid an increasingly natural world of unsightly and now useless clutter, in pursuit of which we’d once swapped something alive and lovely.

As improbable it may be that people would go to such extremes or even somehow suddenly become extinct, Weisman’s book is an ambitious and enlightening experiment that brings us closer to acknowledging our impact upon and responsibility to the world, while we’re still with it.

Spore in the Classroom?

I’ve been hearing a lot about the new game called Spore, and though I haven’t played it, there seems to be definite academic potential. What is Spore, you say? Basically, it’s a creation by Will Wright, the creator of all the SimCity enterprises, and it’s billed as the ultimate SimEvolution game. Create a creature, watch it evolve, determine its path to civilization.

There’s a whole lot of potential to explore here. Biologically speaking, I can see a tool for extrapolating, hypothesizing animal/organism behavior based on how an organism is constructed. Described in this Wired article:

Before you even begin the Cell stage, you have to make a decision: Is your little guy an herbivore or a carnivore? This can have lasting repercussions throughout the rest of the game. As a carnivore, the easiest way to get meat is to attack your fellow creatures. This turns your bacteria into kind of a jerk, and when he evolves, he’ll be more suited to being an aggressive land animal. Establishing dominance with violence will be easier than trying to reason with other creatures. And if you take this path of least resistance throughout the rest of the game, you’ll be a warlike, spacefaring race of jerks in no time, just because your aquatic ancestors went on the Atkins diet eons ago.

What’s cool is that some researchers already have their game on. This video from National Geographic shows us just how geeky us academics can be in creating the “ultimate animal”. Can spore be partially integrated into the life science curriculum?

I guess Spore isn’t just for science freaks as well. Like all Sim(…) games one must carefully decide the social science angle in determining the anthropological, sociological and political ramifications in the civilization stage, even if such a term can be said to exist in real, non-virtual life. My guess is that this segment of the game will devolve into the typical hulk-smash warmongering typically seen in most Sim games.

Even though Spore may try to be everything for every player, it does seem to set up an interesting template for game designers, simulation programmers to share with scholars in the academic sphere. I’m curious to find out where on the evolutionary scale librarians enter the picture.