Through the looking glass

The image of Seattle being refracted through m...

The image of Seattle being refracted through myopic glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some inventions are so mundane that we barely give them a second thought. They just do their job well and everyone takes them for granted. There is one such invention that I rely on every day of my conscious life. Like the majority of the population, I wear spectacles. Without them – I’m lost. I can fumble my way around, especially if I’m familiar with the terrain, but ask me to read anything and I’m sunk.

Nowadays of course, the lenses are fashioned from lightweight plastic, but it wasn’t always the case. When I started wearing glasses at the tender age of 2, they really were made of glass. In those days, optical technology was nowhere near so advanced, so the lenses were thick and heavy. No matter, I have always been grateful for the invention of glass.

Without glass, homes would have no windows and be very draughty and cold. There would be no TVs if there were no screens. Nor would there be any tablets, mobile phones or laptops. There would be limits on how fast cars without windscreens could comfortably travel. Aeroplanes would not be able to fly so high or so fast and there would be no such thing as a skyscraper.

Thanks to volcanic activity, glass occurs naturally but not in a particularly workable form. Stone age man managed to use bits of glass as cutting tools, but that was about as far as it went. Man made glass was in full swing in the late Bronze Age, but commonly only used for beads or drinking vessels. It wasn’t until medieval times that man started to make glass window panes.

The building of Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton for the great exhibition of 1850 in London marked the first real use of glass as a fundamental construction material. During the industrial revolution, glass manufacture became increasingly mechanised and refined and the material became ubiquitous.

Optic fibres have been spun since Roman times, but it was only in the late 18th century that the Chappe Brothers from France invented an optical telegraph system. Others experimented with the optical fibres using them for everything from illuminating body cavities to central lighting for the home. Fast forward to today and fibre optic cable forms the very bedrock of the World Wide Web.

Scientists in Turkey have even invented a form of spray on glass although the invention has been taken to market by a German company. It is a form of silicone dioxide which can create a flexible and even breathable layer. The substance, when applied, is 500 times thinner than a human hair. It is environmentally friendly, food safe and is quickly finding applications in just about every field of human endeavour.

So the next time you look at a screen, a skyscraper or drive your car or take a flight – be thankful for the material that makes it all possible.


Artificial intelligence?

IBM Watson (Jeopardy at Carnegie Mellon) - How...

IBM Watson (Jeopardy at Carnegie Mellon) – How I saved humanity! (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

People remember Alan Turing  for many different reasons. He was a British mathematician who worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War 2. He also went on to become one of the pioneers of computing along with Max Newman. In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of homosexuality. He accepted treatment with female hormones (or chemical castration) rather than go to prison and 2 years later committed suicide. In short, he was a genius who became a victim of his time. Were he born today, no-one would bat an eyelid at his homosexuality.

One of the his legacies is the Turing test. A machine could be said to be intelligent if it was indistinguishable from a human in conversation. He suggested that it would be better to come up with a learning machine (like a child’s mind) that could be taught and not something that simulates an adult mind. There is some debate as to whether a machine has ever really passed this test. I can think of a few humans who would struggle too.

Whenever I’ve seen any proffered example of artificial intelligence, I could not help but be disappointed. Today, however, I attended a very interesting session on IBM’s Watson semantic supercomputer. As supercomputers go, its $3m cost and 4TB of storage are pretty modest. Built on standard hardware and software, it resembles Turing’s child-like mind that can be taught. Indeed, before it can answer any sensible questions in a  particular domain, it needs to be fed with information. Lots of it. Even that’s not enough, Watson needs to do further research on everything it reads.

English: IBM's Watson computer, Yorktown Heigh...

English: IBM’s Watson computer, Yorktown Heights, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once loaded up with information, Watson is ready for questions. The first step in being able to answer any question is to parse it into the component elements. From this, Watson can determine the type of question being asked and what sort of answer is expected. It then generates many different permutations of the question to give the greatest chance of coming up with the right answer. For each interpretation of the question, Watson searches (in parallel) its knowledge base to see what answers it can find, coming up with as many as possible.

For each of the possible answers, Watson goes on the hunt for evidence, both for and against. Based on this evidence, obviously incorrect answers are discarded and the remainder scored based on the quality and reliability of the evidence. Finally, Watson uses the experience it as gained in the past in answering similar questions to gauge the value of the different types of evidence and comes up with a final confidence rating for each answer and ranks them accordingly. The process is very similar to that used by Doctor Gregory House in the hit TV program. You write-up all the possible answers and cross them out as the evidence goes against them.

The first outing for Watson was to win the TV quiz game Jeopardy against two former champions. IBM admit that this was little more than a bit of fun and a publicity exercise. Watson is now being geared up for much more serious applications such as medical research and diagnosis support. The applications for such technology are legion and the team freely admit that there are far more valid use cases than they have the time to exploit right now.

For the first time in my life, I am genuinely inspired by an example of artificial intelligence and I will follow Watson’s progress with interest.

The inconvenient science of science fiction

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside,...

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside, Iowa, reading “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

150 years ago, Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon. 5 years later, he wrote about a powered submarine. Arthur C Clark wrote about GPS long before it ever became a reality. Captain Kirk used communicators to get Scotty to beam him up. Spot the odd one out.

Well, we’ve been to the moon and we have countless submarines creeping around the world packed with missiles waiting to unleash Armageddon. Most people have GPS in their smartphones which they also use as portable wireless communication devices. All of these things that were dreamed up in the realm of science fiction have since become true. Unfortunately, transporter beams have yet to be invented. We’re not even close.

In some Star Trek episodes, they talk about how transporters work. They transfer the subject’s substance or matter into energy, send it to another place and then turn the energy back into matter arranged according to the pattern. When something goes wrong, they “pull back” the subject to their starting point, only sometimes, they don’t make it. It all sounds terrifying and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on trying out early prototypes.

But how likely are they to happen?  I once asked a hulking great Jamaican barman on a cruise ship whether the crew ate the same food as the passengers. With a deep-throated roar of laughter, he told me “same meat, same fish, same vegetables – different chef, different recipe”. In other words, just transferring matter is not enough, the pattern in which that matter is arranged is crucial.

We have a pattern for the human body. Twelve years ago the first draft of the human genome was published. Our DNA is incredibly complicated with 25,000 genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs arranged in a double helix. In a recent update, scientists announced that what they previously thought was junk DNA is actually crucial to the make up of the human body.

A tiny unwanted accidental change in the pattern could be enough to render the subject blind, deaf or worse. It would seem to be a pre-requisite that this work is completely finished before transporter technology could be feasible for transmitting humans. But what about simpler matter? Using something I don’t claim to understand called quantum entanglement, scientists in Copenhagen have transported  matter 18 inches. Physicists in the Canary Islands have used the same trick to transmit small payloads over 89 miles.

Scientists admit that the same trick won’t work for humans, so something fundamentally different will need to be discovered to make transporters viable. Looks like we will be stuck with planes, trains and automobiles for a while yet.

The UK goes supernova

The supermassive black holes are all that rema...

The supermassive black holes are all that remains of galaxies once all protons decay, but even these giants are not immortal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A supernova is a colossal explosion of a star when the fuel within that star becomes too much to handle. When such a celestial event happens, the star shines brighter than an entire galaxy, but only for a celestial instant (a few weeks or months). During this time span, the star will burn more energy than our Sun will burn during its entire lifespan. Such events are uncommon. The last one observed in the Milky Way happened over 400 years ago.

In the wake of the star that has shone so brightly is left either a neutron star or a black hole. Neutron stars are tiny. One could fit in the area covered by Greater London. They are, however, very dense. One teaspoon of neutron star would weigh a billion tons. If the star going supernova is big enough, instead of ending its life as a neutron star, maybe it will become a black hole instead. Black holes are not seen. Black holes spend their time pushing the rest of the galaxy around in the background.

During the last year or so, I can’t help but feel that the UK has gone supernova. We have had a Royal Wedding. This year, not only have we have celebrated the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen taking the throne, but we have also witnessed the very first British winner of the Tour de France. To top it all off, London has been host to the Olympics – the first city ever to host the event for the third time. To add to that – we picked up our biggest medal haul ever.

Notwithstanding the Paralympic Games (which we are all looking forward to), there is a certain finality to this evening’s closing ceremony when we hand over the Olympic baton to Rio. After a glittering array of events on the horizon, we are back to life as usual. No Royal weddings to look forward to, no impending Royal anniversaries, no world-class sporting events.

As a nation, we will be coming down from a very big high.

When the cameras of the world are packed up and taken home, will the UK become a neutron star? Small, but full of substance and shining brightly. Or will the UK become a black hole? Almost invisible and only detectable by the effect of the country’s actions. Time will tell, but I fervently hope for the former rather than the latter.

So we can land a one tonne truck on Mars, but we can’t cure the common cold?

Cheltenham ... Dr. Edward Jenner.

Cheltenham … Dr. Edward Jenner. (Photo credit: BazzaDaRambler)

For the last 48 hours, I have suffered with man flu. This vile condition strikes lightning fast and is scientifically proven* to be a million times more debilitating to men than to members of the fairer sex. This probably goes some way to explaining the lack of understanding or sympathy that poor men undergo when knocked flat by those nasty little flu bugs.

In 1896, a British doctor, Dr Edward Jenners first discovered vaccination in its modern form and proved to the scientific community that it worked. Since then, mankind has developed and widely immunised against diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis and tetanus. Many of these diseases have all but completely been wiped out which has contributed to a dramatic rise in the life expectancy of both men and women.

So if we can do it for all these horrible diseases, why can’t we do it for the common cold? The disease is reckoned to cost some $40Bn a year in the USA alone which you would have thought should be sufficient incentive. Although a large industry has built up in cold remedies with a bewildering array of lotions and potions available with comforting names like “max strength”.

If you search the news site for “common cold” you will see that the British have done their bit over the years for research into a cure. Set up in the aftermath of WWII in old Salisbury hospital, the Common Cold Research Unit spent  over 40 years infecting 30 people a fortnight with the common cold for research purposes. Although what they ended up with other than 10s of thousands of miserable people is unclear.

So let me do my bit for the scientific community. Observation over the last 48 hours suggests to me that tea is very effective at combating the symptoms but not for long. Beans on toast seems to be the most soothing foodstuff. Sleep is very good – whilst you are asleep, you don’t have to put up with the sore throat, the aches and pains and the staccato sneezing. Cats most definitely don’t help and neither do phone calls trying to persuade you to claim back PPI from the banks.

I have a flu jab every year. Despite the assurances of the surgery that the vaccine is not “live” and I should suffer no ill effects, I usually feel rubbish for a couple of days after the injection. I wouldn’t mind if that small bit of suffering was all the man flu I was going to get, but to add insult to injury, here I am suffering again.

Maybe the Mars Rover will find a cure.

* I was lying about the scientifically proven bit.

The slowest, most amazing thing in the world

English: Mount Everest North Face as seen from...

English: Mount Everest North Face as seen from the path to the base camp, Tibet. Español: Cara norte del Monte Everest vista desde el sendero que lleva al campo base en el Tibet (China). Français : Face nord du Mont Everest vue du chemin menant au camp de base. Tibet. Italiano: Faccia Nord del monte Everest vista dal sentiero che porta al campo base in Tibet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, Mother Nature gives us a short, sharp lesson in who’s boss. Whether it is the enormity of Hurricane Katrina or the tsunamis that have struck twice in recent history in Asia, these brutal events unfold with ferocity and yet when you see the video coverage, they seem to  move incredibly slowly. No doubt for the people on the ground facing them, they move plenty fast enough.

The sheer power of the forces involved is difficult to comprehend because most of the time, our landscape changes so very slowly. Our tectonic plates shift and collide (or separate) by distances that can be measured in centimetres every year. London sinks whilst the West of the UK rises. But when you look around at the scenery that surrounds us, every mountain, every hill and every valley has been formed by elemental, natural forces over an incomprehensible time period.

There is no shortage of impressive natural features in this world and they look wonderful in their own right, but once you understand how they came to be formed, they become even more epic in scale. The fjords of Norway were all cut by glaciers over millennia. The Grand Canyon was carved by the endless erosion of the Colorado river. The Alps and Himalayas formed by two tectonic plates squeezing together for a very long time.

There are experts who argue that mankind is causing irreversible damage to the planet and that climate change is a very real phenomena. The average temperature is rising and so are the sea levels. But there are as many experts that argue against climate change citing that temperatures and sea levels have a history of changing on a geological scale. I’m no expert but I’m certainly getting fed up of being rained on and I can’t help but feel that we’re not doing the planet any good.

I can only imagine that it must be frustrating to be a geologist – knowing that all these elemental forces have shaped the entire planet and that the best you can hope for is to see Mount Everest grow by about a foot in your lifetime.