Archive for May, 2011

Post by Minna Krejci

A few weeks ago, Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog explored the hidden message in Pixar’s films:

“The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.” –Kyle Munkittrick on Science Not Fiction

One of the Pixar examples given as evidence was The Incredibles, which shows how human enhancement to beyond the human norm can lead to revulsion and alienation reactions.  The lesson, according to Munkittrick: “…human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.”

We’ve always been interested in ways to improve our minds, bodies, or abilities.  But what happens as new technologies increasingly allow us to push the limits of our abilities to beyond what is “normal” for our species?  Do we limit human enhancement for fear of “enhanced” individuals acquiring an unfair advantage (in work, school, politics, athetics, etc.)?  Do we avoid regulation to retain our personal freedoms and rights to improve our own minds, bodies, and lives?

In a report funded by the National Science Foundation, the Human Enhancement Ethics Group discussed these kinds of issues in the form of 25 questions and answers regarding the ethics of human enhancement.  I recommend taking a look — it’s an interesting and relevant read, considering that we are already seeing these kinds of debates with respect to cognitive-enhancing and performance-enhancing drugs.  Is it ok for students diagnosed with ADHD to take stimulants to correct the “attention deficit,” but not ok for otherwise-normal students to take stimulants to help them focus better when studying for exams?  Where do you draw the line between what supplements/drugs athletes can and can’t take to improve their performance?

It sounds like we’ve got a lot of “why does he get one and I don’t” and “why can’t I use it just because she doesn’t have one” to look forward to…

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Post by Henderson

Engineering mixes many disciplines, from mathematics to art to economics, to respond to the needs of growing societies.  As populations grow, needs of infrastructures change, and new ideas bring forth new challenges, engineers work in large or small teams to find solutions to these problems.

The idea of human engineering starts with the idea that the body is a machine.  A machine that can be understood, repaired, and if need-be, parts replaced.  This is not a new idea and has existed in greater or smaller ways since Rene Descartes wrote about the mind-body duality.  Separating the body into an automatic as a machine in his description of the human body.  But what Descartes contemporaries did not have were the tools needed to understand how the body works.

The human body is an efficient collection of complex systems.  As an example, something as simple as taking a walk requires the coordination of, at least, the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and cardiovascular systems.

When something goes awry in those systems, when the body is not responding the way it should given normal conditions, changes can be made to improve the way it works.  Sometimes this improvement can be made by physical training or changes to the diet of the individual.  But failing these, more invasive methods are employed to correct the problem.

Today’s engineers are faced with more than the idea that the body is a machine.  They are faced with a growing body of knowledge that gives them the tools to transplant hearts, implant electrodes into the brain, and even manipulate the genome to create favorable outcomes.

One of the biggest stories to hit the news in the last few years are surprisingly small.

The J. Craig Venter Institute announced last year the creation of a synthetic and self-replicating bacterial cell.  The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

In this example, Venter’s lab has proven that we can mechanize the process of problem-solving on a cellular level.  Their work is adding to the public sphere a body of knowledge that will enhance the understanding of basic chemical and biological concepts and be integral to the production of new vaccines and medicines, amongst other things.

If there is a promise that could come from advances such as this, it is that we can treat the body and its most basic properties in a machine-like way.  In the end making it possible to provide basic research that enhances the human experience.

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Posted by Henderson

Here’s a riddle:

It’s present everywhere, but occupies no space.

We can measure it, but we can’t see it, touch it,  get  rid  of  it,  or  put it  in  a container.

Everyone knows what it is and uses it every day, but no one has been able to define it.

We can spend it, save it, waste it, or kill it,  but  we  can’t  destroy  it  or  even change it, and there’s never any more or less of it

What is it?  Time.

Today, most of us depend less on the cycles of the moon than we do on clocks.  Digital displays help us keep track of everything from how long a turkey has been in the oven to what time to be at work.  But with all of the advances in the study of time over the last century, we still don’t know much more about it than did our early ancestors.

But we are getting a little closer to that understanding.

Research published by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology shows that there is a link between time and gravity.  In a test of Einstein’s theory of relativity, researchers using two super accurate optical clocks placed one above the other and proved that the clock on the bottom ticked nanoseconds slower than the one above it.

The clocks are based on the oscillations of a single aluminum ion that vibrates between two energy levels a million billion times per second. One clock is accurate to within one second in about 3.7 billion years, and the other is almost as accurate, NIST says.

The clock on the bottom ticked slower, basically, because it is closer to the Earth’s gravitational field and thus “felt” more gravity.

But what are some applications of this knowledge?  Any ideas?

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Perhaps the most notable thing about time is that we notice it.  This may seem unimpressive at first, but think about it.  We don’t notice most of what happens in the universe.  Infrared, ultraviolet, and microwave radiation pass our eyes without a blip.  Magnetic fields pulse and fade.  But time is something that we perceive—without even having a sense set aside for it.

The most studied area in the psychology of time is our perception of the past.  Human  memory is complex and surprisingly fickle.  If you’ve ever gotten into a He Said/She Said argument, you know that people recall events in ways that make them look good, even at the cost of accuracy.  And when we’re very stressed—for example, just after witnessing a crime—we unthinkingly fill in memory gaps with whatever other people claim to have seen.

Even with their flaws, our memories do a lot for us.  Memory helps you keep track of who and what you are.  It helps you keep track of other people’s personalities, so that you learn who and when to trust.  It lets you improve your handling of a situation the second, third, and three thousandth time you encounter it.

The psychology of the future seems like it should be a fuzzier thing.  When we plan and daydream, we imagine many different possibilities.  We consider different ways of asking for a raise tomorrow, or fantasize about remote chances years away.  But it turns out that memory and planning are, in many ways, really the same thing.

Over the last several years, psychologists have begun to examine future thinking in detail.  What they’ve learned is that it draws heavily on memory.  Want to know what the future will be like?  In many cases, it will be like the past.  When it’s not, past patterns may still be useful in guessing at the differences.  Planning your next party lights up the same brain areas that spark when you reminisce about your last one.  These abilities, more and more frequently, are grouped together as “mental time travel.”

In the mind, the past and the future intertwine more closely than anyone guessed.  People with amnesia often have trouble creating a detailed image of the future.  People who give vague answers (“I always do badly at math”) when asked about specific events (“Tell me about the last time you took a test”) are prone to equally vague fears about the future, and to depression.  And some skills—a vivid imagination, social modeling, and mental mapping—extend our reach beyond the present and allow it to flourish in both directions.

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Post by Minna Krejci

Quiz time: What do Donnie Darko, Star Trek, A Wrinkle in Time, Contact, and Stargate have in common?

I’ll give you a hint:

"Wormhole" painting by the artist Andrew Leipzig (http://blog.onlineclock.net/wormholes-as-time-machines/).


The concept of the wormhole is popular in science fiction — wormholes make it possible to travel across the universe within the span of a human lifetime.  (To put things into perspective: if we traveled at the fastest speed recorded by a manmade object — set by the Helios 2 spacecraft at 150,000 miles/hr — it would take us 19,000 years to get to the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, 4.22 light years from Earth.)

Wormholes provide a shortcut through space and time.  While wormholes have never actually been observed outside of science fiction, the theory of general relativity allows for the existence of these kinds of structures.  We can visualize “spacetime” as a 2D sheet bent back on itself, with a wormhole “bridge” connecting two distant regions:

Recent calculations suggest that advanced civilizations might be able to make wormholes work by using something called “exotic matter,” which has a negative energy, to prevent a wormhole from collapsing on itself.  If such “traversable” wormholes exist, then they hypothetically could allow for time travel.  (Just hypothetically, at least for now.)

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Famed professor Brian Cox explains time…

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

On-line and interactive is an interesting way to learn about science. But it can also be a useful—if uncomfortable—way to do science.

When most people think about science, they think about lab work: setting up equipment, running experiments, and gathering data. But science is also what happens afterward. Once data is collected and written up, the research usually undergoes peer review. This is not a complicated process. Journal editors send an article out to other researchers (usually 3), and ask them to comment on its merits. Reviewers can ask for further explanation, or additional studies to rule out competing explanations for the findings. Sometimes they decide that the study wasn’t sufficiently well-done to share with the wider public at all; more often they demand changes that make for stronger, if somewhat delayed, published work.

The Peer Review Process

Many researchers have questioned the peer review process. Reviewers may be biased, positively or negatively. They may miss problems because they are caught up in the excitement of an interesting finding, because they are distracted by their own studies, or because they are fitting the review into 37 free minutes at 2 AM. As Winston Churchill said of democratic government, it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others we’ve tried. But the collaborative hothouse of the internet opens up new possibilities.

These possibilities were highlighted late last year, when NASA-funded scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced her discovery of arsenic-based life in a California lake. This work had undergone peer review and been published in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, then brought to public attention amid intense hype. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues were somewhat startled to find their work subjected to an informal, and often snide, supplement to the original review—but with dozens of well-informed reviewers rather than a handful.

Arsenic-Rich Mono Lake, Source of the Controversial Bacteria

There is an excellent overview here, but in brief: several scientists criticized Wolfe-Simon’s methods and measurements, questioning her conclusions. She, and NASA, responded by suggesting that the peer review process was not only important, but the only legitimate venue for scientific critique. They dismissed the input from blogs and Twitter—on the basis that it occurred on blogs and Twitter. And they used the journal’s prestige as a defense against the very real questions of fact raised by their critics.

There’s always some tension between science and scientists. Science works by constantly seeking evidence against claims, accepting only those which are supported by the observed state of the world. Technically speaking, every experiment should be a whole-hearted attempt to prove that one is wrong—because one can only be sure of being right when that disproof fails. Scientists, however, depend on rightness for their livelihood and reputation. If you successfully disprove all your hypotheses for several years, universities and grant-givers consider you a failure. Furthermore, scientists are human, and we like to be right.

The peer review process is intended as a counter to these human tendencies. It is not the only one possible: any expansion of informed debate and criticism is good for science. That the criticism is informed—that it comes from people who understand and are involved with the field in question—is important. That it come from a traditional venue is not. Online forums provide a rich environment for discussion, facilitating a more collaborative and extended critique than was previously possible.

Some scientists take deliberate advantage of 2.0 review. A few journals print any paper that appears to have valid methods, with review as an ongoing and public process. Other sites are devoted to “post-publication peer review.” Although these methods have their weak points, they have the potential to fill some of the gaps in the more traditional system. And as these innovations become more familiar, one hopes that more researchers will welcome them—and that their research will become stronger as a result.

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Carolina (Cemile) Avalos Interviewed by Henderson

Carolina Avalos, a local painter, talks with MASI about her re-emergence into the Chicago art-scene. A spiritual creative, her works seek to unearth the purest connections between us.

In the throes of creativity, the mind becomes trance-like and still.  Experiences and relationships converge to a razor-sharp focus clearing away distractions and leaving only the pure intent of the spirit.  Here, a brush-stroke connects common paths and colors signify mood and the passage of time.

Carolina Avalos’ mind has never been more still than when she is in the process of creating.  Whether painting, writing, or drawing, in this place where she is most calm, a busy mind can be disconnected, material desires can be cast-away, and purpose can be defined through deep spiritual practice which open doors to an observant spirit.  In the past two years, Carolina has been practicing this stillness of and searching for her artistic voice through the philosophy known as oneness.

Oneness defines everything in the universe as being connected; from the energies that cause the movements of galaxies to the winds carrying seeds across continents to the interpersonal experiences we share.  Inherent in the philosophy of oneness is the idea that all living things experience a “belonging and not a separation from” things within this existence.

Carolina’s art makes her viewers aware of this oneness and depicts a world free of a “separation anxiety” of the soul.  In the end, she is painting an existence that can be.

Only One by Carolina Avalos.

Q:  What is oneness?

A:  That connection to one another.  We all come from one source and that one source experiences itself through multiplicity, we are the multiplicity.  When you are able to look at the soul of a person, then you can experience that oneness.

Q:  Explain to me your practice of Qigong and how it helps you focus?

A:  It keeps me aware of my thoughts, where they are coming from and which ones come from my internal voice and which ones come from an external influence.  Two years ago, I couldn’t concentrate on one thing.  [Qigong] helps me to discipline my awareness of my body.  It is moving meditation [that helps me] focus internally on my body movement.  You have to experience everything that is going on in your body.

Q:  How has society become fragmented?

A:  [Because of our] ego, we see with our eyes and not our hearts.  We are more than this external form.  Our behavior is what makes us.  Everything you do, it affects somebody..

The Cycles by Carolina Avalos.

Q:  What is spirituality and is this something that we all share?

A:  It is, essentially, our soul.  We are part of that oneness that is that one pure light of energy, and that is how we connect to one another.  I believe that we are all born knowing our purpose for being in this world, but along our life’s journey distractions blur and almost erase that knowingness.

Sharing?  There’s tons of ways, acceptance of the individual, tolerance, looking beyond the societal conditions we’ve been raised in…  Art, communication with music, science, writing etc…

Q:  How do you observe?

A:  I observe through my art.  The knowledge I’ve gained is what I am sharing  about acceptance, tolerance, understanding, whatever it is that I am observing.

Q:  Why is it important to be mindful?

A:  You have to be conscious of what you do.  Being mindful keeps you from being irrational, in a negative sense.

Q:  How would you describe your art?

A:  I am a maker of things, I create things.  I’m not someone who just has something show from my own emotions.  I have an intention and a mission to accomplish [that includes raising issues in] tolerance, education, etc…

But, I don’t want to make art that shows you what you are already living.  I want to show you what you could be living, beyond that.

What type [of creator] am I?  Whatever someone who is looking at my creation thinks, I suppose.

I don’t do realistic pictures of people, but I can.  I want to stray away from specific identifications of certain things.  I don’t have a specific color of skin.  There’s no identity, [the figures] all kind of look the same.  They may look different in proportion.  I don’t want to show a division between any one of them.  Because we should look beyond that.  Everything is kind of abstracted.  I want my art to be accessible to everyone.

I don’t really categorize myself, but I would describe my art as a progression, one piece leads to the next.  Currently I am focusing on tightening up my skill level and technique so that I can speak to the viewer of oneness, tolerance, spirit, and energy… that we are not what we see but how we behave and  that there are limitless possibilities if you so choose to take them.

Q:  What is your artistic mission?

A:  To speak to the viewer, provoke open-mindedness, awareness, and curiosity and have the viewer come out of their box and explore their own conditioning.  I don’t want to inflict my views on others, I want people to use the Socratic method of questioning and see the world through their own light.

Q:  How are you different than you were two years ago?

A:  I’m more aware of myself and why I tended to do certain things in the past.  Now I can deal with situations with mindfulness and know my true intentions from random thoughts.

Extended Out To You by Carolina Avalos

Q:  What has changed about your art since leaving art education?

A:  I read a lot spend much time outside observing, writing, and exploring people’s behavior.  I meditate and realize that I’m not this outside person, I’m a soul.  So I concentrate on getting to know myself better.  Been doing that for the past two years.  You can say my art has grown with me and I am not attached to making art just about me.

Q:  What types of societal divisions are you exploring?

A:  Classicism, racism, prejudice.  The same ones that have existed for years and add to our own duality, or separation, within our soul.  [I want to show people that] there’s no limit to what you can do.  We’re not the carnal superficial being.  We’re more than that.

Q:  Why is art important?

A:  Because it it’s a tool we can communicate with and describe what is external and internal.  It is an internal expression of the external, or vice versa, to bring about change.  With positive intention can bring about awareness.

Q:  In the last two months, what have you seen or had an experience of that makes you think your are justified in how you see the world?

A:  Synchronicity .  My grandfathers passing and my sister’s pregnancy.  Everything happens for a reason.

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Post by Minna Krejci

As we blast through this information age, the ease and speed with which we can acquire, process, modify, and contribute to available information continues to accelerate.  Through blogs, wikis, and other social media entities, information becomes dynamic rather than static, creating a conversation.

Visualization of the various routes through a portion of the internet, as connections between IP addresses (via Wikipedia).

The creators of the website Science 2.0 envisioned the concept of Science 2.0 as collaboration, communication, participation and publication.  Science could be communicated directly from the source instead of filtered by various limitations (such as size, or the opinion of an editor).  Scientists and non-scientists could have the opportunity to write freely about science topics that they enjoy discussing and improve their writing and communication skills.

The idea of “open science” emerged as an important element of Science 2.0, where scientific research becomes more transparent, and research results are shared openly amongst scientific and non-scientific audiences.

The merits of this approach are fairly obvious — knowledge and information can drive progress.  But there are several hitches that may need to be addressed:

Information overload:

If all information is freely available, how do you know what’s relevant and what’s not?  How much time do you spend reading websites and articles that weren’t exactly what you were looking for, possibly being led farther and farther off track?  If you’re like me, this can be known as the “where on earth did 5 hours of my day just go?” syndrome — more popularly, this is the “rabbit hole risk” of information overload.

The “spigot risk” is that information is growing exponentially, while our reading and filtering abilities are not.

Particularly due to the spigot risk, we tend to rely on external forces to do our searching, collecting, and filtering of information for us (like google searches or possibly social networks).  How is this influencing what information we end up receiving?

Quality control: 

In terms of primary scientific research and publication, there is the possibility that allowing more people to publish more data more frequently may result in a general decrease in the quality of the work published.  Or at least a perceived decrease, if researchers are making unpolished documents like lab notebooks freely available.

Potentially more important is the fact that open access to scientific results is likely to correlate with greater media sensationalism.  If the results of a preliminary experiment point to a certain conclusion, then the release of this information before the results are verified might lead to unjustified hype.  (How many times has the discovery of the Higgs boson been reported?)  This argues for continued control over what results get leaked to the blogosphere and to journalists.


If a research group spends five years and millions of dollars to find out that something doesn’t work, do they want to share that information with other groups?  Ideally, yes… but in the process, they may be saving time for their competitors and losing their own competitive advantage in the race for grant money.  It’s worth mentioning here the concept of open innovation, a sort of intermediate level of information-sharing that is increasing in popularity in the business world, where companies buy or license processes or inventions from other companies instead of developing everything in-house.

Open access to scientific journals seems to be something that scientists want when they’re reading papers but not when they’re publishing papers.  Some of this has to do with money.  No one wants to pay to read a paper; however, open access journals need to cover costs somehow, so they often ask authors to pay a fee to publish.  The result?  Authors don’t want to publish there.  (Another part of this is prestige: if you publish your work in an open-access journal like PLoS ONE that doesn’t judge papers based on perceived merit, does this mean that your work has less merit than that published elsewhere?)

I’m by no means trying to discourage the sharing of information — that would defeat the purpose of this blog!  I just wanted to point out a few of the most popular discussion topics I’ve seen regarding Science 2.0 and open science.

At least, these are the most popular discussion topics according to my google searches and trips down rabbit holes…

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Post by Henderson

We’ve got a busy week in store.  We’re talking about communicating science in a 2.0 world.  Heading over to the Adler Planetarium and checking out the Bailey-Salgado Project’s Sidereal Motion, and gearing up for NEIU’s S.T.E.A.M. conference this weekend.

Suffice it to say, we’re getting a fill of science communication.

Science communication, like many things, is coming into its own in a quickly changing world where technology and access to information reign.

So what’s in a name?

Well, communicating science in a 1.0 world is static.  Sure, the information is accessible.  It’s in your scholarly journals and books, it’s in the college classes and workshops.  But it’s a one-way street.  The information is there, but there is little to no interaction.  You’ll remember this scene from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Communicating in a 2.0 world is more dynamic.  It’s social media, it’s blogging, interactive articles in your online newspapers, and the merging of information from different specialties.  It’s presented in a way that you, as the learner, want to see it.  And if you don’t like what you’re given, you interact.  Sometimes the information changes, sometimes it doesn’t.

But changing something, in itself, is not the point of communicating in a 2.0 world.  The point is to be more socially interactive and present subject matter in a way that different types of learners can “get it.”

Sidereal Motion – Trailer from Jose Francisco Salgado on Vimeo.

Sidereal Motion is a wonderful example of communicating science 2.0.  “The Bailey-Salgado Project is an audiovisual ensemble formed in 2010 by musician and composer Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins/Babble, International Observer) and Adler Planetarium astronomer and visual artist José Francisco Salgado. They combine music with photography, video, and motion graphics to create multimedia works that have as subject the physical world.

For me, this is a boon.  As a kid, I learned a lot through personal observations using photography.  The time lapse photography that Salgado uses to explain sometimes challenging celestial concepts is just what we’re talking about when communicating in a 2.0 world.

Another great example of how to communicate science is in this video narrated by none other than Neil Degrasse Tyson.  It beautifully blends the latest in computer graphics with the best science available (reminiscent of the beginning scene of the movie Contact).

Zooming out from Earth, the video takes you on a serene journey to what we know as the known universe.

More of this needs to be done.  And it doesn’t take a big production company to do it.

Know any novel ways to get across information in a 2.0 world?  Let us know!

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