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Writing Worth Reading

Godfather Of Graphene

Profile of physicist Andre Geim, discoverer of graphene, Nobel prize-winner, Russian emigré now established in Manchester, England. Graphene, “100 times stronger than steel and 100 times more conductive than copper”, is “the applied-science project of the age”. If optimistic projections hold true, Geim will be “more than a mere scientist; he will be the founder of a new economy, like James Watt 230 years ago” (4,730 words)

How The Zebra Got Its Stripes

After developing new models of computing, and running a code-breaking team that helped save Britain from Hitler, Alan Turing went to Manchester and invented a mathematical theory of embryology showing that complex structures could evolve from two interacting components. Now, 60 years later, geneticists are finding that Turing was right. His systems explain much about the development of organisms (4,930 words)

Hearing Music In Noise

Profile of Martin Hairer, winner of the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics. His sideline, writing music-editing software, familiarised him with the algorithms used to compress jpeg and mp3 files; these inspired his “fantastic” solution for stochastic partial differential equations, which are used to model highly complicated patterns of growth, such as a drop of water spreading through a paper napkin (3,260 words)

Why We Can’t Rule Out Bigfoot

How experimental science works. You start with the assumption that the effect you are observing is random (the “null hypothesis”), then try to collect data to show that the effect is almost certainly not random — usually meaning a less than 5% probability of occurring by chance. You reject the null hypothesis. This is a high standard of proof. We have not, for example, “disproved” the existence of Bigfoot (1,380 words)

Science Is Not About Certainty

How can science claim authority, when it changes over time? “On the one hand, we trust our past knowledge, and on the other hand, we are always ready to modify, in depth, part of our conceptual structure of the world. There’s no contradiction between the two. Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain” (4,400 words)

Cloudy With a Chance of War

English physicist and mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson pioneered scientific weather forecasting in the 1920s by developing equations that captured atmospheric turbulence. His maths was too complex to be useful at the time, but now provides the basis of computerised weather forecasting. Richardson’s greater ambition was to develop a mathematics for forecasting war. That didn’t go so well (3,940 words)

The End Of The Experiment

Wide-ranging conversation with physicist and mathematician George Ellis about the future of science. Big experimental science is approaching its limits: We’re never going to build a bigger collider on Earth; astronomical observations are at their visual horizons; we’ve mapped the earth and we’ve almost mapped the oceans. The new challenges are all about complexity. “The brain will give us work to do for many centuries more” (2,780 words)

Of Maggots And Brain Scans

Brain scans may seem to explain behaviour in biological terms. But what we see so far is loose correlation, not reproducible causation. There is “serious redundancy”. A small group of activated neurons can induce a given behaviour, “but thirty to forty different groups may elicit the same behaviour”. Second, “a given set of neurons may not always produce the same kind of behaviour, even in the same brain” (1,300 words)

Fasinatng History of Autocorrect

The early Microsoft Word had a feature called ‘glossary’ which allowed a writer to insert stock phrases using short-cuts. Soon a Microsoft scientist twigged that ‘glossary’ could also remedy common spelling mistakes, and that the space bar could trigger substitutions automatically. Autocorrect was born. Not everyone was happy: “Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs(3,030 words)

An Interview With Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Conversation about life and the Universe. “Future evolution is going to take place not on the Darwinian time scale, of natural selection, but on the technology time scale, because we’re obtaining the capacity to modify the genome. If there are communities a few centuries from now living on other planets, we’d surely wish them good luck in deploying all known science to adapt to an alien environment” (5,377 words)

The Man Who Saved The Dinosaurs

Yale paleontologist Robert Ostrom transformed our understanding of dinosaurs. Before his work in the 1970s they were seen as “plodding, thunderous monsters, cold-blooded and stupid”. He showed them to “have been fleet-footed, highly predaceous, extremely agile”, covered in feathers and related to birds. His view of birds as living dinosaurs, revolutionary when first presented, has become mainstream (2,385 words)

Visualising Algorithms

Wonkish and beautifully illustrated. “To visualise an algorithm, we don’t merely fit data to a chart; there is no primary dataset. Instead there are logical rules that describe behaviour. Algorithms are a reminder that visualisation is more than a tool for finding patterns in data. Visualisation leverages the human visual system to augment human intellect: we can use it to understand abstract processes, and perhaps other things, too” (6,760 words)

The Real 10 Algorithms That Dominate Our World

An algorithm is a “well-defined computational procedure that takes some value, or set of values, as input and produces some value, or set of values, as output”. The first stage in data processing is usually to get the input values sorted — which is why Merge Sort, invented by John von Neumann in 1945, is probably the hardest-working algorithm in the world today, along with its close cousins Quick Sort and Heap Sort (1,900 words)

The Hack That Saved Apollo XIII

An oxygen tank blew up in the Service Module; the moon landing was aborted; the astronauts moved to the Lunar Module. But the Lunar Module was equipped to sustain two men for 36 hours; not three for 96 hours. Carbon dioxide would kill them. What could they do? Here’s what they did: A 19-stage kludge to improvise new scrubbers for the air filtration unit. And of course it required a roll of duct tape (1,050 words)

Diffusers Of Useful Knowledge

The word “scientist” was invented only in 1833, to characterise a new breed of practical hobbyists and experimenters and to distinguish them from “natural philosophers” who saw science as a “moral, cosmological and metaphysical” enterprise. The early 19C was a golden age for popular science, much of it baloney, but the enthusiasm for speculative theories prepared the ground for the real revolution of Darwinism (1,000 words)

Game Theory Of Life

Computer scientists say an algorithm used for 50 years in game theory and machine learning mirrors perfectly equations used to describe the distribution of genes within a population of organisms. Evolution can be seen as a repeated game in which the winning strategy for creating the most robust population is to favour not only immediate fitness, but also diversity as a hedge against future uncertainty (1,766 words)

Why Your iPhone Earbuds Always Get Tangled

Because physics. Strings knot themselves spontaneously. And here’s a scientific paper to prove it: “Spontaneous Knotting Of An Agitated String” by Dorian M. Raymer and Douglas E. Smith of the University of California at San Diego. “A cord shorter than 46cm will almost never tangle itself when sealed inside a rotating box for a period. But between 46cm and 150cm the probability of a knot forming rises dramatically” (630 words)

I Don’t Believe Robots Will Eat All The Jobs

Venture capitalist counsels caution. “Robots and AI are not nearly as powerful and sophisticated as people are starting to fear. With my venture capital hat on I wish they were, but they’re not. There are enormous gaps between what we want them to do, and what they can do. There is still an enormous gap between what many people do in jobs today, and what robots and AI can replace. There will be for decades” (1,900 words)

Eccentric Genius Whose Time Has Come

Norbert Wiener is remembered as the father of cybernetics — the merging of mathematics and engineering into control systems for automation. But in many respects he was too far ahead of his time. His visions of a computerised and robotised future, implausible 50 years ago, are all too plausible now. He warned that smart machines would evolve beyond human control, and make their own decisions (1,400 words)

David Deutsch’s New Theory of Reality

Pioneer of quantum mechanics proposes “constructor theory”; said to be “simpler and deeper than quantum mechanics, or any other laws of physics”. Constructor theory “forms a bedrock of reality from which all the laws of physics emerge”. Fundamental principle: “All laws of physics are expressible entirely in terms of the physical transformations that are possible and those that are impossible” (1,340 words)

The Wormhole Actualization Machine

What’s it like to get sucked into a black hole and travel at hypersonic speed? Find out by building a Wormhole Actualisation Machine. You will need an Arduino, 120 LEDs, an infinity mirror, and lots of fiddly bits: “Not counting SPI pins for the wormhole LEDs, the I2C for the three 7-segment displays, and serial TX/RX for the sound module, I needed 54 additional I/O pins for all the switches, buttons, and knobs” (4,000 words)

Why We Don’t Destroy Smallpox

Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, but labs in the US and Russia still hold virus samples. If those escaped, smallpox could spread again. So why not destroy them? Five reasons: America and Russia don’t trust each other; other countries might have hidden stocks; smallpox could survive in dead bodies; we might yet learn things from the samples; the virus could be synthesised from public information (930 words)

Major Blunders In Modern Astronomy

The history of astronomy is “littered with ideas that once seemed incontrovertibly right and yet later proved to be bizarrely wrong”, starting with the ancient propositions that the Earth is flat, and at the centre of the universe. But grand errors continued into modern era — in the search for exoplanets, for example — perhaps because astronomers, relative to other scientists, work with relatively little data (820 words)

Quantum Or Not?

A Canadian company called D-Wave sells quantum computers. Even though nobody is quite sure how quantum computing works; nor is it generally agreed that quantum computing is taking place inside D-Wave’s black boxes; not is it clear how anyone could be sure that quantum computing was taking place in there, even if it were. Besides which, D-Wave does it differently from anybody else. Now read on (2,877 words)

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