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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“I see by hearing”*…



Daniel Kish navigates the world like a bat does—and he does so without ever leaving the ground.

After losing his vision as an infant, Kish taught himself to move around with the help of echolocation. Like bats, Kish uses his mouth to produce a series of short, crisp clicking sounds, and then listens to how those sounds bounce off the surrounding landscape. (Our winged neighbors tend to emit these clicks at frequencies humans can’t hear, but Kish’s clicks are perfectly audible to human ears.) From there, Kish makes a mental map of his environment, considering everything from broad contours—like walls and doors—down to textural details.

Kish now teaches echolocation, mostly to students who are blind. For these students, Kish believes that an echolocation practice can buoy confidence and independence. Kish’s own experience is persuasive—he famously bikes along hilly, car-lined streets—and a growing body of scholarly research has begun to unpack exactly how expert echolocaters do their thing. This research has also backed up the idea that this skill is highly learnable. When researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, asked novice echolocators to use tongue clicks to determine which of the two objects in front of them was larger, the newbies were soon able to do so in a way that the scientists couldn’t attribute to chance.

Whatever your sightedness, there’s something to be said for learning to listen more attentively to sonic scenery. Kish believes that vision has a way of blunting the other senses unless people work to really flex them. Deft echolocators, he says, are able to perceive fine differences—distinguishing, say, between an oleander bush (“a million sharp returns”) and an evergreen (“wisps closely packed together, which sound like a bit like a sponge or a curtain”). They’re discovering sonic wonder wherever they go…

A beginner’s guide to navigating with sound: “Teach Yourself to Echolocate.”

* Darrin Lunde, Hello, Bumblebee Bat


As we take sound advice, we might send closely-heard birthday greetings to Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett, FRS; he was born on this date in 1886.  A psychologist (and the first professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge), he was one of the pioneers of both cognitive psychology and cultural psychology.  His 1932 book Remembering was hugely influential in its demonstration (via the experiments it reports) that memory is not a consultative process that retrieves facts from an immutable record, as most then believed; rather, it is reconstruction, open it a variety of influences that can shape what is recalled.

But relevantly here, he also studied sound and its impact on humans.  His 1934 book The Problem of Noise is a study of “sound that is a nuisance,” and its impact, both physiological and psychological, on hearers.  It was, though probably unintended, Bartlett’s contribution to “clearing the air” for echolation.

Bartlett source


Written by LW

October 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“And so the Universe ended”*…



Conceptual illustration of the Higgs Field that physicists believe permeates the Universe, and that could theoretically bring about its end.


Every once in a while, physicists come up with a new way to destroy the Universe. There’s the Big Rip (a rending of spacetime), the Heat Death (expansion to a cold and empty Universe), and the Big Crunch (the reversal of cosmic expansion). My favourite, though, has always been vacuum decay. It’s a quick, clean and efficient way of wiping out the Universe…

Learn more about a possibility that really sucks: “Vacuum decay: the ultimate catastrophe.”

* Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


As we we abhor a vacuum even more than nature does, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Jesse Leonard Greenstein; he was born on this date in 1909.  An astronomer who ran Cal Tech’s storied program for decades, he co-discovered (with Maarten Schmidt) the quasar.  While other astronomers had previously observed the bright bodies, Greenstein and Schmidt were the first to to interpret the red shift of quasars and correctly identify them as compact, very distant– and thus very old– objects.  Later, working with Louis Henyey, Greenstein designed and built a new spectrograph and wide-view camera to improve astronomical observations,

greenstein source


Written by LW

October 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others”*…



FIRST OF FOUR?: The first Copernican revolution moved the Earth out of the center of the solar system. The second recognized that there are many planets in our galaxy, and the third that there are many galaxies in the observable universe. Proving that our universe is one among many would represent a fourth Copernican revolution.


A challenge for 21st-century physics is to answer two questions. First, are there many “big bangs” rather than just one? Second—and this is even more interesting—if there are many, are they all governed by the same physics?

If we’re in a multiverse, it would imply a fourth and grandest Copernican revolution; we’ve had the Copernican revolution itself, then the realization that there are billions of planetary systems in our galaxy; then that there are billions of galaxies in our observable universe. But now that’s not all. The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of “our” big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps infinite ensemble.

At first sight, the concept of parallel universes might seem too arcane to have any practical impact. But it may (in one of its variants) actually offer the prospect of an entirely new kind of computer: the quantum computer, which can transcend the limits of even the fastest digital processor by, in effect, sharing the computational burden among a near infinity of parallel universes…

Cambridge physicist and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees suspects that our universe is one island in an archipelago: “The Fourth Copernican Revolution.”

* Philip K. Dick


As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1884 that 41 delegates from 25 nations, meeting in Washington, DC for the International Meridian Conference, adopted Greenwich as the universal meridian.  They also established that all longitude would be calculated both east and west from this meridian up to 180°.

PrimeMeridianThm source


Written by LW

October 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague”*…




In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people worried about the difficulty in measuring the line between life and death. Fearful that loved ones would be buried alive, people attached strings and bells to a finger of a person who appeared dead, so that they could detect any movement and commence or continue resuscitation.

There were also societies dedicated to the resuscitation of people who appeared to be dead, for example, the Institution of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Humane Society) founded in 1788 and modeled after the Royal Humane Society of London founded in 1774. The Humane Society’s main purpose was to revive those apparently dead. In Boston and along the coastline, their concern lay first and foremost with the drowned. The London Society’s founders claimed that it had been successful in reviving 790 out of 1300 people “apparently dead from drowning.” The men who brought the Institution to Massachusetts hoped to replicate this effort, restoring loved ones to their friends and family members…

Early attempts to find the line between life and death: “Who is dead?

* Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”


As we take our pulses, we might spare a thought for Sir Richard Blackmore; he died on this date in 1729.  A physician of note, he argued that observation and the physician’s experience should take precedence over any Aristotelian ideals or hypothetical laws, and he rejected Galen’s humour theory. He wrote on plague, smallpox, and consumption.

But he is best remembered for his passion, poetry.  A supporter of the Glorious Revolution, he wrote Prince Arthur, an Heroick Poem in X Books, a celebration of William III.  Later he authored Blackmore produced The Nature of Man, a physiological/theological poem on climate and character (featuring the English climate as the best), and Creation: A Philosophical Poem.

While he was praised in his time by John Dennis, Joseph Addison, and, later, Samuel Johnson, history’s verdict has been written by his detractors– main among them Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Dryden– all of whom found Blackmore’s poetry “grandeloquent,” “stupid,” and “leaden.”

(Readers can judge for themselves at the Internet Archive’s collection of his work.)

440px-Richard_Blackmore source


Written by LW

October 9, 2018 at 10:01 pm

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose”*…



Akira Horiuchi, winner of this year’s Ig Nobel for medical education, demonstrates his self-colonoscopy technique during this year’s award ceremony


From workplace voodoo dolls and self-inflicted colonoscopies to cannibalistic diets and using roller coasters to pass kidney stones, here are the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes.

It’s that time of year again, when some of the strangest science gets its turn to shine. To be clear, the Ig Nobel Prizes aren’t meant to diminish or demean scientific work, nor do they recognize dubious or bad science. Rather, it’s an opportunity to highlight some of the weirder work that gets done in research labs around the world, or scientific work that, quite frankly, is fucking hilarious. The tagline from the group behind the Ig Nobel Prize, Improbable Research, says it best: “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.”…

More on the ceremony at “Solo Colonoscopies, Cannibal Calories, and More 2018 Ig Nobel Prize Winners.”  See the complete, official run-down of laureates and their work at “The 2018 Ig Nobel Prize Winners.”

* Zora Neale Hurston


As we pursue knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1721 that The Boston Globe announced the arrival of the first camel to the United States: “Just arrived from Africa, a very large Camel being above Seven Foot high, and Twelve Foot long, and is the first of its Kind ever brought into America to be seen at the bottom of Cold Lane where daily Attendance is given.”

The first commercial importation of a number of camels into the U.S. was made in 1856  for military purposes (in the desert West), following an appropriation of $30,000 made by Congress in 1855.

camel source


Written by LW

October 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The blazing meteor, when it descends to earth, is only a stone”*…




The odds of being hit by a meteorite are extremely low. You’re far more likely to die in a car crash or a fire than you are to die from a meteorite strike. It’s also more likely that you’ll be killed by lightning or a tornado – both of which are extremely rare. However, there’s bad news too – you have a higher chance of being hit by a meteorite than you do of winning the lottery…

Oh, and avoid the United States (and India)!  See why at: “What Are Your Chances of Being Hit by a Meteorite?

* Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


As we duck and cover, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that a large meteorite fell near Murchison in Victoria, Australia.  Both because it was an observed fall (its bright fireball was seen by many) and because it proved to be rich in organic compounds (an abundance of amino acids), it has been one of the most-studied meteorites.

220px-Murchison_crop source


Written by LW

September 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner”*…


around corners


While vacationing on the coast of Spain in 2012, the computer vision scientist Antonio Torralba noticed stray shadows on the wall of his hotel room that didn’t seem to have been cast by anything. Torralba eventually realized that the discolored patches of wall weren’t shadows at all, but rather a faint, upside-down image of the patio outside his window. The window was acting as a pinhole camera — the simplest kind of camera, in which light rays pass through a small opening and form an inverted image on the other side. The resulting image was barely perceptible on the light-drenched wall. But it struck Torralba that the world is suffused with visual information that our eyes fail to see.

“These images are hidden to us,” he said, “but they are all around us, all the time.”

The experience alerted him and his colleague, Bill Freeman, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the ubiquity of “accidental cameras,” as they call them: windows, corners, houseplants and other common objects that create subtle images of their surroundings. These images, as much as 1,000 times dimmer than everything else, are typically invisible to the naked eye. “We figured out ways to pull out those images and make them visible,” Freeman explained.

The pair discovered just how much visual information is hiding in plain sight. In their first paper, Freeman and Torralba showed that the changing light on the wall of a room, filmed with nothing fancier than an iPhone, can be processed to reveal the scene outside the window. Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner. This summer, they demonstrated that they can film a houseplant and then reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the rest of the room from the disparate shadows cast by the plant’s leaves. Or they can turn the leaves into a “visual microphone,” magnifying their vibrations to listen to what’s being said…

Computer vision researchers have uncovered a world of visual signals hiding in our midst, including subtle motions that betray what’s being said and faint images of what’s around a corner: “The New Science of Seeing Around Corners.”

* G. K. Chesterton


As we crane our necks, we might send infectious birthday greetings to Mary Mallon; she was born on this date in 1869.  Better known by the nickname given her by the press, “Typhoid Mary,” she was the first person in the United States identified (in 1915) as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever… before which, she inadvertently spread typhus for years while working as a cook in the New York area.  From 1915 to 1938, when she died of s stroke, she was quarantined on North Brother Island (in the East River, between Riker’s Island and the Bronx).


Written by LW

September 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

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