Science/Technology

A Dose of Good News

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I woke up this morning and, like I do every day, stumbled out of bed, shuffled into the living room, turned on the morning news, and poured myself a cup of coffee.  The opening jingle of CBS This Morning helped pull me into consciousness and I waited for Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell, and Gayle King to tell me what’s going on in the world.

cbs-this-morning

And of course, I was barraged with news that a nearly eradicated disease was making a comeback because idiots with no medical training decide that they know better than medical doctors and not only abstain from vaccinating their children (which, should be considered child abuse), but spread their idiocy and convince other sheeple to hop on the bandwagon.  And then you have presidential hopefuls like Rand Paul and Chris Christie making matters worse by ignoring science and turning this whole thing into some political debate about big bad government taking away your personal liberties (seriously, these guys want to be in the White House??? And have access to the nuclear launch codes???).

Then the next story was about more beheadings and violence in ISIS controlled territory.  And I thought about the Koch brothers recent announcement that they plan to spend $900 million on the 2016 presidential race, and I began pondering the definition of democracy and oligarchy and then I began spiraling into the dark abyss of misanthropy.  It took everything I had to not crawl back into bed and try to start over.

So, I decided to look up some GOOD NEWS in order to combat the urge to get “I HATE PEOPLE” tattooed on my forehead.

If you’re like me and needing some hope for humanity, here are a couple of stories that will lift your spirits!

1) Nineteen Year Old Invents Affordable Prosthetic Limbs:  

Easton LaChappelle was always interested in robotics.  When he was just 14, he built a robotic hand from Legos and a few rudimentary electrical components.  When he was 17, he earned an internship at NASA.   He once met a girl who was born without an arm and when he learned that her prosthetic arm cost $80,000, he knew that he could make a better one for a fraction of the cost.  LaChappelle recently unveiled the 3rd generation of his prosthetic arm: It’s fully robotic and can do many things a human arm can do, with a full range of motion and agile fingers….Oh, and you can control it with your mind!  God, if those old plastic stumps cost 80 grand, this robotic arm must require a second mortgage, right?  Nope; it costs $350.  That’s pretty much the cost of three college science textbooks.   And the really cool thing?  LaChappelle, who’s now 19, made the design open to the public, free of charge.  So, he won’t become a bajillionaire off his invention, but he hopes that having the plans out there for the world to use will result in someone improving his design to create an even better prosthetic.  “No one person can change the world,” LaChappelle says in the video. “It takes multiple people, so if I can develop technology in a way so other people can take what I’ve done and grow from it and do something more with it, someone could take that and keep impacting someone else’s life and eventually try and rule out a lot of the bad in the world by giving back to our own kind.”  (Read a 2013 article about LaChappelle on engineering.com here and a 2015 article on Huffington Post here.)

Hear LaChappelle talk about his invention in his own words:

Another video here: 

LaChapelle

 

President Obama shakes hands with the robotic arm that Easton LaChappelle invented. (photo courtesy of www.america.aljazeera.com)

President Obama shakes hands with the robotic arm that Easton LaChappelle invented. (photo courtesy of http://www.america.aljazeera.com)

 

2) The Humans of New York (HONY) Fundraiser for Mott Hall Bridges Academy in the Bronx, NY:

If you haven’t been following this story, you should.  I absolutely love Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York photography project (really, by now, it’s more than a project – it’s more of a combination of commentary on human life, social movement, and window into the soul) – and I’m not the only fan; he has over 12 million followers on Facebook.

Back on January 19th, he posted a random picture of a boy named Vidal.  Stanton asked Vidal who influenced him the most in life.  Vidal’s answer:  “My principal, Ms. Lopez…When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Vidal, photo from HONY, January 19, 2015 (www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork)

Vidal, photo from HONY, January 19, 2015 (www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork)

Stanton was intrigued and went to meet Ms. Lopez at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in the Bronx.  He soon fell in love with Ms. Lopez and the whole school, and I can see why.  HONY started doing a profile on the school, highlighting the teaching philosophy and the many wonderful teachers there.

According to Ms. Lopez:   “This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

Ms. Lopez, principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (photo posted Jan. 23, 2015 - www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork

Ms. Lopez, principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (photo posted Jan. 23, 2015 – http://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork

Feeling the compassion of the teachers and administration at the school, Stanton asked what they would do for the school if money wasn’t an option.  At a meeting, Ms. Lopez and the school’s Director of Programs Ms. Achu came up with an idea of how the HONY community could help the school (on the HONY Facebook page, Stanton points out that it was Ms. Achu’s idea, and he and Ms Lopez whole-heartedly agreed):  They wanted to take the scholars on a trip, to show them that there was a world beyond their neighborhood.  And not just a trip to anywhere, but to Harvard University to show the scholars that anything was possible for them.

So, at noon on January 22, Stanton launched an online fundraiser, hoping to raise $100,000 for the field trip.  Within 3 hours, they had raised $185,000.  Within 24 hours, $365,000 worth of donations had piled in.  Within 4 days, HONY and Mott Hall Bridges Academy supporters had raised $700,000.  Two days later, the total had jumped to $1 million.  As of today, the total raised has reached $1.2 million!

And the cool thing?  If you scroll through the donations, you’ll see that it’s from people donating anywhere from $2 to $50 – with the average seeming to be somewhere around $15.  After scrolling through for several pages, the highest donation I saw as for one hundred dollars.  So, this is the result of many, many people validating the importance of the work that these educators and world-changers at Mott Hall Bridges Academy are doing.

HONY and the school officials have already announced that $700,000 is enough money to make the Harvard field trip a permanent part of the school for its students.  All money raised in excess of $700,000 will go into a scholarship fund for MHBA graduates.  The fund will be called the Vidal Scholarship, and the first recipient will be Vidal himself.

This story has rightly gotten a lot of press in the past 10 days.  Here, you can find articles on CBS, CNN, and the Huffington Post as just a sample.  And here’s a video of Brandon Stanton, Vidal, and Ms Lopez on the Ellen DeGeneres Show yesterday.  (Target decided to make a surprise donation to the academy and to schools in the surrounding neighborhood, too!)

If you’d like to donate to the fundraiser, you can do so here.  The last day is tomorrow, February 5, 2015. 

 

Hopefully, those stories filled you with a little more compassion and idealism.
It’s easy to get disheartened and overwhelmed with negativity, so let’s take these stories as motivation to get out and make the world a better place,
one small act of kindness at a time.

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Categories: Humor, Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Come on, Microsoft!

I’ve been taking notes in the archives, and to save time, I decided that I wouldn’t worry about my spelling mistakes as I went along, and that I’d go back at the end and correct everything.  Then, a couple of weeks in, Word interrupted me with this message.  (I knew my spelling was bad, but damn.)
X Too Many Errors for Word

And I want to know, who the hell at Microsoft thought it would be a good idea to put the “rename” and “delete” buttons right next to each other?! (Oh, let me just update this right quick – OH MY GOD! THERE GOES 5 YEARS OF WORK!)  
X Rename & Delete

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Nature is Awesome

Love Science

Sometimes I wish I had developed my interest in science and nature into a career path…But then I remember how horrible I am with math, memorization, patience, and other skills needed for science (I can’t even begin to tell you how disappointed I was on the first night of my astronomy class to find out how much math was involved…).  That doesn’t stop me from trying to keep up with what’s going on in the science, technology, and medical worlds, though (as long as there’s a dumbed-down explanation available).  I recently found the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science, and they post some crazy, awesome stuff on their site.  Here are a few gems:

Afraid of Spiders?

Arachnid in Pores

sharks = 420 myo, trees 370 myo

Sharks have existed for 420 million years, while trees are only 370 million years old.

Fugitive orangutan

GPS Orangutans

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Life under Totalitarian Regimes

War on Cancer

Robert Proctor’s study of science and medicine under National Socialism and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life under Stalinism both offer intriguing insights into what life was like under two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.  Proctor grapples with the question of whether we can see anything “good” or even “progressive” coming out of the same regime that produced Josef Mengele and state-sanctioned euthanasia programs for the sick, elderly, and handicapped.  Proctor concludes that recognition of Nazi public health campaigns against cancer does not equal an endorsement of Nazi medicine; but he asserts that we must recognize that “the Nazi war on cancer was the most aggressive in the world,” even if this recognition only complicates our understanding of the Nazis’ aims (4).  Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, looks at life for “everyday” people under Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia in an effort to define normalcy.  How did men and women adjust to a life of material shortages, surveillance, and random terror? What did daily life look like for them?  Interestingly, while Fitzpatrick attempts to study the formation of a new normal life or routine, what her book ultimately highlights is the formation of a new, normal Soviet citizen under Stalinism.

In the Nazi War on Cancer, Proctor studies Nazi leaders’ public health campaigns, focusing specifically on their attempts to prevent cancer within their sphere of influence.  He reveals that Nazi Party leaders and doctors led initiatives that helped raise awareness between the connections of environmental factors (chemicals and asbestos, for instance) and the development of cancer.  They promoted new ideal diets for the Germans, encouraging healthy eating (even going so far as forcing bakeries to sell whole wheat bread) (130), the avoidance of alcohol, and even herbal remedies that were believed to lower the risk of cancer  And it was in Nazi Germany that the connection between tobacco and lung cancer was first made (176), leading to a massive anti-smoking campaign that included banning of smoking in public places as well as strict laws on advertisement for cigarettes.  Proctor deftly presents these facts and shows that the Nazis’ efforts were more focused on prevention rather than cures, but all throughout his book (and most clearly in his prologue and concluding chapter), he explicitly grapples with why he felt compelled to write the book in the first place.  Of course it was not meant to exonerate Nazi doctors for their other, more infamous acts (even though he shows that between 1950 and 1990 German women have experienced the most drastic drop of lung cancer mortalities than any other Western nation – a result he believes could possibly be tied to Nazi anti-smoking efforts, 268). Instead, Proctor argues that acknowledging these more “socially responsible” aspects of Nazi policy gives a more complex and accurate understanding of life under Nazism.  “Both elements – the monstrous and the prosaic – are key” to understanding the realities of Nazi science and medicine (277).

In complicating the picture, Proctor reminds his readers that these “progressive” campaigns must be viewed in their historical context.  Yes, the Party leadership, along with the doctors who supported them, wanted to prevent cancer in their population.  But they had a very narrow definition of who belonged in the Aryan Volk, which meant that their ideas of public health were steeped in racism.  Just as Nazis wanted to purge the Volksgemeinschaft of racial enemies like Jews, they wanted to cleanse the German body of impurities like cancer.  In this vein, Hans Auler, a Berlin professor and researcher claimed, “It is fortunate for German cancer patients, and for anyone threatened by cancer, that the Third Reich has grounded itself on the maintenance of German health” (71).  Proctor then sees Nazism as “an experiment of sorts – a vast hygienic experiment designed to bring about an exclusionist sanitary utopia” (11).  In this light, “the Nazi campaign against tobacco and the ‘whole-gran bread operation’ are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps” (278).

By bringing out these connections, Proctor reminds us that the relationship between science and politics, or between science and society is much more intricate than we may think.  Science was neither a neutral subject, removed from the effects of politics and society, nor was it simply a tool of Nazi ideologues.  The

relations between “science” and “society” are more complex than is commonly imagined. Even in the microcosm of Nazi cancer research we find very different ways that science can express politics, and vice versa…Fascists were arguing over what kinds of science should be supported, and scientists were arguing over what kinds of fascism should be supported (251-252).

Nazi ideologies set some of the directions of medicinal research and public health initiatives, just as science and medicine helped shape Nazi ideology.  “Public health initiatives were pursued not just in spite of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism” (249).  By adding these nuances to our understanding of life under the National Socialist regime, we learn that “Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible” (7).

In Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick studies the emergence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus, a “social species” that developed in response to the transformation of everyday life under Joseph Stalin.  The term “Soviet” makes it into Fitzpatrick’s rhetorical classification because the Soviet state was a “central and ubiquitous presence” for individuals living in Russia during this period (3).  In this book, Fitzpatrick studies a vast range of everyday processes: obtaining goods, travelling, telling jokes, finding housing, marriage and divorce, voting, avoiding the secret police, and more.  Interestingly enough, she does not take working and the workplace into consideration, because that would mean that she could talk about only one section of society: men (but she also shows that almost ten million women joined the labor force in the 1930s, so one wonders why women could not be taken into consideration when studying the process of working under Stalin, 139).  Despite this absence, the rest of her material is enlightening.

The predominant characteristic of everyday life in Stalinist Russia during the 1930 was shortage.  Shortages of basic material goods such as clothing and food accompanied near complete absence of luxury goods, which were randomly dispersed among the new cultural elite.  Additionally, an influx of nearly 10 million peasants into Russia’s cities created gross housing shortages that the state seemed to overlook in lieu of its efforts to industrialize and modernize other sectors of society.  The ubiquity of shortage led to cultural shifts in Russian society.  New words and phrases entered the common vocabulary.  People no longer spoke of “buying” goods, but instead of “getting” them; men and women carried “just in case bags” for the unlikely chance that some product was being distributed while they were in town (40).

Fitzpatrick reveals how, by the 1930s, the main function of the Soviet state transitioned from the redistribution of wealth and goods to the basic distribution of all goods to its citizens (39).  In a life plagued by shortage, not money or production, but personal connections became the currency to acquire goods.  Blat (“influence” or “pull”) “subverted the meaning of Stalin’s great economic restructuring, creating a second economy based on personal contacts and patronage parallel to the first, socialist, economy based on principles of state ownership and central planning” (65). The inefficiency of the State to distribute even the most basic of goods, despite its dogmatic emphasis on rationalized central planning, forced its citizens to become risk takers.  Shopping became a survival skill and blat undermined the state’s control on distribution; corners were cut to meet unrealistic goals in the labor force.  Ultimately, the need for goods was greater than the fear of being caught on the black market.

A life of chronic shortages became the new, “normal” everyday life for Homo Sovieticus.  Fitzpatrick’s discussion of “normal” reminds me of Marion Kaplan’s discussion of normality and “catastrophic gradualism” in Between Dignity and Despair, in which she shows that people quickly become accustomed to new normals.  But while Fitzpatrick shows that new routines were established in Stalinist everyday life, she also reveals that the people themselves did not think of their life as normal.  The hardships of life they were experiencing were understood as temporary, a transition period into a life of abundance.  This mindset reveals another aspect of life under a totalitarian regime (or one could argue under any regime): the leaders’ ability to influence its citizens’ collective memories.  She describes these collective memories as “common property,” stories that help “make sense out of the scattered data of ordinary life, providing a context, imposing a pattern that shows where one has come from and where one is going” (8).  These sets of stories helped Homo Sovieticus understand their period of transitional hardship leading to a “radiant future,” position themselves in a great modernizing crusade to overthrow the backwardness of imperial Russia, and understand themselves as preparing for the final battle with capitalism.  All of these mentalities allowed Russian citizens to see normal life as something just around the corner, worth working for; but Fitzpatrick shows that life under Stalin had indeed established new, everyday routines, a new normal that would prove to be anything but temporary.

Both Proctor and Fitzpatrick urge us to reevaluate our understandings of life under National Socialism and Stalinism.  Nazism’s apparent concern for its (narrowly defined, “racially pure”) citizenry may help explain why everyday Germans were willing to follow the movement and overlook its more radicalized aspects.  According to Fitzpatrick, most people in history accept their governments simply because they perceived that there was no other choice – and Russians under Stalin were no different (225).  The omnipresent existence of state surveillance and arbitrary terror “encouraged fatalism and passivity in the population, instilling a sense that the individual was not and could not be in control of his own fate” (219).  “Us vs. them” mentalities are important in both stories, though in different ways.  Russian citizens (“us”) identified with each other in relation to – and often against – the state (“them”), a group of men calling the shots and causing shortages from their position “up there” in the government.  The Nazi state, on the other hand, sought to create an “us” that included both state and people who were meant to serve each other.  The “them” was meant to be racio-political enemies of the German Volk.  In both cases, the party-states and citizenry saw themselves as not only modernizing, but ultimately vanquishing the troubles of modernity while capitalizing on its fruits.  This process of perceived modernization helped provide a cohesion and goal for Nazism and Stalinism, both of which promised to usher in a new era for humanity.

Books under review:

Proctor, Robert. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila.  Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Creative Commons License

Life under Totalitarian Regimes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Trouble with Nature

The-Trouble-with-Nature-Lancaster-Roger-N-EB9780520936799

Lancaster, Roger N.  The Trouble with Nature:  Sex in Science and Popular Culture.  Berkley: University of California Press, 2003. 

Subject: In an entertaining study, Lancaster explores the ways in which sex science (studies into the causes of (homo)sexuality) have been represented in US popular culture since the 1990s.

Main Arguments: Writing as an anthropologist, Lancaster approaches the subject firmly through the social constructionist-lens and is, from the start, very skeptical (bordering on hostile) to the essentialist view of biological science.

Essentially, he’s arguing that the progress/explosion of research into the gay gene, gay brain, or sex gene (as well as a slew of other genetically determined characteristics, including a sweet tooth) comes as a direct result of the anxieties that emerged in the 1990s as a result of the social changes in gender relations.  In other words, this bio-reductionist research was meant to re-shore up “traditional” gender roles by finding biological ‘causes’ for men’s aggressiveness, women’s timidity, and the naturalness of heterosexuality.  This research doesn’t, Lancaster argues, reveal actual discoveries.

So, why does the general population think so?  For several reasons: 1) the nature of genes is oversimplified so that the public can understand them.  It’s much easier to think that there is an “intelligence gene” or an “addiction gene” that controls these issues than to explain and understand that thousands of biological and environmental factors control things like intelligence, athletic ability, etc.  2) More importantly, the public wants to believe that masculinity and sexuality are in their genes, because at least that is stable.  Moreover, many LGBT activists are proponents of an essentialist view because that would take homosexuality out of their hands, thus guaranteeing their place as a sexual and political minority deserving rights.

While Lancaster does spend some time on representations of science – and homosexuality in general – in the media and in TV shows (Will & Grace is one of his favorites to discuss!) – more important for us is his treatment of science.  He argues that science, as we currently understand it (as objective pursuits of knowable, indisputable facts) is only one narrative, one way of knowing and organizing reality.  Science is a “story-telling practice that offers its audience schema for daily living.”  In this view, science is just one of many narratives competing to make sense of our worlds.

By its very nature, science naturalizes sexuality and thus establishes the dominance of heterosexuality (and monogamous heterosexuality in particular) because it reproduces the species.  Therefore, any non-reproductive, non-genital, non-heterosexual acts become unnatural, deviant, and genetic errors (even though the cause of those mistakes are out of our control, and are – in fact – “natural” in origin, in that they are found in mistakes in our biology).

Lancaster claims that this approach is simplistic and goes against all of the social scientific data that has been collected by anthropologists, historians, and other scholars of the humanities.  Their research backs up the social constructionist approach by showing that different cultures in different times throughout time have understood and conceptualized sexuality and gender in a number of historically specific ways.

My Comments:

This is an interesting and useful book for anyone wanting to do work with contemporary subjects.  As an anthropologist, he’s good at critically reading documents and finding out how different symbols are imbued with different meanings and interpreted differently by different people.  His tone is light-hearted and entertaining, but this more relaxed feel has a downside: sometimes it feels very unorganized – or at least not very well organized.  Moreover, he perpetuates the essentialist/constructionist debate (coming down firmly in favor of social constructionism), but I’m not sure how helpful that is – I’ve been looking for something that either bridges the gap or moves beyond that debate.  This is not that work.

But, I can say, he was helpful in portraying science as just one mode of understanding, instead of being the search for “real” truth that is later “socially constructed” in different ways.  Seeing the whole enterprise of science itself as a narrative or as itself socially constructed was helpful in making the connection as to why we’re so willing to accept biological determinism.

For a longer list of books on the history of sexuality, see my post here

Categories: Book Review, Science/Technology, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

It’s Science

 

Our solar system in perspective :

Perspective

 

7 Facts about Time that will blow your mind:


7 Facts About Time

The same could be said for Communism, socialism, & fascism

Stupidism

THIS is scientific fact:

You're a dumbass

Sober vs. Drunk:

Drunk vs. Sober

Girls vs. Guys:

Guys vs Girls

Categories: Entertainment, Humor, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe

Scientists in Geneva on Wednesday applauded the discovery of a subatomic particle that looks like the Higgs boson.

By , NY Times, original article here.
Published: July 4, 2012

ASPEN, Colo. — Signaling a likely end to one of the longest, most expensive searches in the history of science, physicists said Wednesday that they had discovered a new subatomic particle that looks for all the world like the Higgs boson, a key to understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe.

Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.

“I think we have it,” said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN, the multinational research center headquartered in Geneva. The agency is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the immense particle accelerator that produced the new data by colliding protons. The findings were announced by two separate teams. Dr. Heuer called the discovery “a historic milestone.”

He and others said that it was too soon to know for sure, however, whether the new particle is the one predicted by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half-century. The particle is predicted to imbue elementary particles with mass. It may be an impostor as yet unknown to physics, perhaps the first of many particles yet to be discovered.

That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality.

For now, some physicists are simply calling it a “Higgslike” particle.

“It’s something that may, in the end, be one of the biggest observations of any new phenomena in our field in the last 30 or 40 years,” said Joe Incandela, a physicist of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a spokesman for one of the two groups reporting new data on Wednesday.

Here at the Aspen Center for Physics, a retreat for scientists, bleary-eyed physicists drank Champagne in the wee hours as word arrived via Webcast from CERN. It was a scene duplicated in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists had gathered for a major conference, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, New York, London and beyond — everywhere that members of a curious species have dedicated their lives and fortunes to the search for their origins in a dark universe.

In Geneva, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into an auditorium at CERN, where some attendees noted a rock-concert ambience. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a sustained ovation.

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.

According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.

Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.

Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version predicted by current theory — and there are hints of some already — could begin to answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model. For example, what is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies?

And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?

“If the boson really is not acting standard, then that will imply that there is more to the story — more particles, maybe more forces around the corner,” Neal Weiner, a theorist at New York University, wrote in an e-mail. “What that would be is anyone’s guess at the moment.”

Wednesday’s announcement was also an impressive opening act for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics machine, which cost $10 billion to build and began operating only two years ago. It is still running at only half-power.

Physicists had been icing the Champagne ever since last December. Two teams of about 3,000 physicists each — one named Atlas, led by Fabiola Gianotti, and the other CMS, led by Dr. Incandela — operate giant detectors in the collider, sorting the debris from the primordial fireballs left after proton collisions.

Last winter, they both reported hints of the same particle. They were not able, however, to rule out the possibility that it was a statistical fluke. Since then, the collider has more than doubled the number of collisions it has recorded.

The results announced Wednesday capped two weeks of feverish speculation and Internet buzz as the physicists, who had been sworn to secrecy, did a breakneck analysis of about 800 trillion proton-proton collisions over the last two years.

Up until last weekend, physicists at the agency were saying that they themselves did not know what the outcome would be. Expectations soared when it was learned that the five surviving originators of the Higgs boson theory had been invited to the CERN news conference.

The December signal was no fluke, the scientists said Wednesday. The new particle has a mass of about 125.3 billion electron volts, as measured by the CMS group, and 126 billion according to Atlas. Both groups said that the likelihood that their signal was a result of a chance fluctuation was less than one chance in 3.5 million, “five sigma,” which is the gold standard in physics for a discovery.

On that basis, Dr. Heuer said that he had decided only on Tuesday afternoon to call the Higgs result a “discovery.”

He said, “I know the science, and as director general I can stick out my neck.”

Dr. Incandela’s and Dr. Gianotti’s presentations were repeatedly interrupted by applause as they showed slide after slide of data presented in graphs with bumps rising like mountains from the sea.

Dr. Gianotti noted that the mass of the putative Higgs, apparently one of the heaviest subatomic particles, made it easy to study its many behaviors. “Thanks, nature,” she said.

Gerald Guralnik, one of the founders of the Higgs theory, said he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause, like a football game.”

Asked to comment after the announcements, Dr. Higgs seemed overwhelmed. “For me, it’s really an incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime,” he said.

Dr. Higgs was one of six physicists, working in three independent groups, who in 1964 invented what came to be known as the Higgs field. The others were Tom Kibble of Imperial College, London; Carl Hagen of the University of Rochester; Dr. Guralnik of Brown University; and François Englert and Robert Brout, both of Université Libre de Bruxelles.

One implication of their theory was that this cosmic molasses, normally invisible, would produce its own quantum particle if hit hard enough with the right amount of energy. The particle would be fragile and fall apart within a millionth of a second in a dozen possible ways, depending upon its own mass.

Unfortunately, the theory did not describe how much this particle should weigh, which is what made it so hard to find, eluding researchers at a succession of particle accelerators, including the Large Electron Positron Collider at CERN, which closed down in 2000, and the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., which shut down last year.

Along the way the Higgs boson achieved a notoriety rare in abstract physics. To the eternal dismay of his colleagues, Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, called it the “God particle,” in his book of the same name, written with Dick Teresi. (He later said that he had wanted to call it the “goddamn particle.”)

Finding the missing boson was one of the main goals of the Large Hadron Collider. Both Dr. Heuer and Dr. Gianotti said they had not expected the search to succeed so quickly.

So far, the physicists admit, they know little about their new boson. The CERN results are mostly based on measurements of two or three of the dozen different ways, or “channels,” by which a Higgs boson could be produced and then decay.

There are hints, but only hints so far, that some of the channels are overproducing the boson while others might be underproducing it, clues that maybe there is more at work here than the Standard Model would predict.

“This could be the first in a ring of discoveries,” said Guido Tonelli of CERN.

In an e-mail, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the CMS team of physicists, said: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything — I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said: “It’s a triumphant day for fundamental physics. Now some fun begins.”

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Paralyzed, Moving a Robot Their Minds

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Cathy Hutchinson, one of the study’s subjects, uses a robot arm to serve herself a drink, a first for her in 15 years  since a stroke.

By , NY Times
Published: May 16, 2012 (Click here for original article)

Two people who are virtually paralyzed from the neck down have learned to manipulate a robotic arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach out and grab objects. One of them, a woman, was able to retrieve a bottle containing coffee and drink it from a straw — the first time she had served herself since her stroke 15 years earlier, scientists reported on Wednesday.

“She had a smile on her face that I and the research team will never forget,” said Dr. Leigh R. Hochberg of the Department of Veterans Affairs, an author of a study reporting the achievement.

The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the first published demonstration that humans with severe brain injuries can effectively control a prosthetic arm, using tiny brain implants that transmit neural signals to a computer.

Scientists have predicted for years that this brain-computer connection would one day allow people with injuries to the brain and spinal cord to live more independent lives. Previously, researchers had shown that humans could learn to move a computer cursor with their thoughts, and that monkeys could manipulate a robotic arm.

The technology is not yet ready for use outside the lab, experts said, but the new study is an important step forward, providing dramatic evidence that brain-controlled prosthetics are within reach.

“It is a spectacular result, in many respects,” said John Kalaska, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal who was not involved in the study, “and really the logical next step in the development of this technology. This is the kind of work that has to be done, and it’s further confirmation of the feasibility of using this kind of approach to give paralyzed people some degree of autonomy.”

The two people in this study, a 58-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man, are quadriplegic, unable to use their limbs as a result of strokes years ago.

Each had a tiny sensor about the size of a baby aspirin injected just below the skull, in an area of the motor cortex known to be active when people move their arms or hands. They learned to move a robotic arm, mounted at shoulder height on a dolly next to them, by watching the researchers move the arm and imagining they were actually controlling it.

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The sensor — a chip of silicon with 96 pinprick electrodes connecting to a patch of neurons — transmitted those neurons’ firing patterns from this imaginary movement to a computer, through a wire. The computer recorded the patterns, then translated them into an electronic command: Move left, now down, now right.

With a little training, the two participants took control of the arm. It was the first time the man had used a limb of any kind in three years, and the first time in 15 years for the woman. Both were able to move the robotic arm and hand skillfully enough to pick up foam objects.

“It was encouraging to see that, 15 years after the brain was disconnected from the limbs, it was still able to generate all the neural activity necessary to make movements,” John P. Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University and the study’s senior author, said in a conference call on Tuesday.

His co-authors included Dr. Hochberg, who is also affiliated with Brown and with Massachusetts General Hospital, and Patrick van der Smagt, of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, in Germany.

The researchers still have many hurdles to clear before this technology becomes practical in the real world, experts said. The equipment used in the study is bulky, and the movements made with the robot are still crude. And the silicon implants generally break down over time (though the woman in the study has had hers for more than five years, and it is still effective).

No one has yet demonstrated an effective wireless system, nor perfected one that could bypass the robotics altogether — transmitting brain signals directly to muscles — in a way that allows for complex movements.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Andrew Jackson of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University wrote that economics might be the largest obstacle: “It remains to be seen whether a neural-interface system that will be of practical use to patients with diverse clinical needs can become a commercially viable proposition.”

But all agree that the new study — and the look on the paralyzed woman’s face when she served herself a sip of coffee — should give researchers the incentive and confidence to solve these problems.

The ultimate goal, Dr. Donoghue said, is to develop a system that is so effective and discreet that people with brain injuries “can interact with the environment without anyone knowing they’re using a brain-machine interface.”

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The Cloud Remakes America

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

Link to original article, here.

Quick, take a look around. Your stuff is disappearing.

Not long ago, homes would greet you with physical manifestations of personality — stately books, shiny CDs, classic movies on DVD, glossy photo albums. But all those touchstones, and more, are quickly changing from atoms to bits and taking up residence in the cloud, that shared virtual warehouse-in-the-sky being built out by Google, Amazon, Apple and others, where they await retrieval via our phones, tablets and computers.

The digitization of our lives is exploding: Last year, music downloads surpassed CD sales for the first time; e-books went from novelties to a billion-dollar market in a flash; and streaming is becoming the preferred way to take in films and TV shows.

So does that signal the death of materialism, of possessing, of collecting? The answer is as complicated as the technology.

“Anyone who has ever picked up a shell on a beach has the collector gene,” says Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo. “There’s little difference between someone who saves old Kodachrome prints in a garage and the person who stores digital photos online. If anything, the collector gene will be unleashed by the cloud.”

Spencer Haley, 33, who works at fabled Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., once proudly displayed 3,000 hardcovers in his home. But since a Kindle joined the family, he and his wife are down to a few hundred. “As long as the content hits my visual cortex, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in,” he says.

For Haley, collecting still means adding to those prized first-editions on his shelves. But it also refers to the list of e-books on his tablet, the book reviews he has amassed online and the friends who follow his recommendations via social networking.

“I missed flipping pages for about a day,” Haley says. “I don’t have CD or DVD racks anymore. Having things stored in the cloud just fits my lifestyle.”

But for others, the black-hole nature of the cloud only heightens the old-fashioned need to embrace something solid. Denver high school senior Ethan Hill is no stranger to gadgets and streaming subscriptions, but he adores collecting music on vinyl.

“There’s nothing like going into a record store and coming home with something in my hand,” says Hill, 17. “It’s a possession I’m proud of. I double-click on iTunes all the time, but it’s not the same.”

Collecting as socializing

This tech-driven shift is seismic; even the vaunted Encyclopedia Britannica soon will cease to exist in physical form. But the cloud is giving the concept of possession broader meaning.

Where it once meant “holding on to something in your room, now it’s about engaging with others online around a social object,” says Harvard tech culture researcher David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.

“Everything is heading into the social cloud,” he says. “Books on shelves used to serve that function, but to a very small group that usually already knew you. It’s the difference between fetishizing objects or celebrating them online, where at least you can make friends.”

Given that actual ownership isn’t required to form connections online around areas of mutual interest, the line between owning and renting is blurring. In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey on attitudes toward the cloud released in February, 90% of respondents were “somewhat” to “very interested” in the concept of storing and accessing content from a personal digital library. Most were specifically interested in the cloud as a rental hub.

“Two things happened in the past years: Technology improved, and the economy got worse,” says Theodore Garcia, managing director of PwC’s entertainment, media and communications practice.

“You remember when people had 500-disc DVD changers? Well, that’s when DVDs were impulse buys. Today, the value a consumer places on a physical disc is far less. It’s not about owning. They want to view the content and move on.”

Netflix knows that all too well. Its subscribers streamed 2 billion hours of movies and TV shows in the fourth quarter of 2011, a massive move away from the DVD rental model on which the pioneering company was founded.

“It’s the skinnying down of America and the whole world,” says Steve Swasey, a spokesman for Netflix. “It’s great to buy a book or DVD, but in truth, how many times will you read or watch it? Technology has always been a catalyst for consumer shifts. Look at young people today; their whole life is in a phone or a tablet. They seem to want to do with less, to be unencumbered.”

Other major cloud-computing players agree that for many consumers, less can be far more.

“I collected books and albums like everyone, but in the old days, you’d quickly run out of space in your house and risk renting a storage locker just to keep your stuff,” says Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services, overseeing the company’s varied content stores as well as its iCloud service.

He notes that iTunes’ Cover Flow feature, which lets users scroll through titles, is the modern-day version of flipping through albums. “Streaming (music) is great, because it’s about discovering new music. But eventually, if it’s something that’s meaningful to you, you want to own it.”

Mitch Singer, the chief digital strategy officer for Sony Pictures, says “we all have collecting in our DNA.” Singer also serves as president of UltraViolet, Hollywood’s foray into the cloud, which allows you to stash movies purchased from a variety of sources in a digital locker.

On Tuesday, Wal-Mart announced a “disc-to-digital” service through UltraViolet that lets customers bring in their standard- and high-definition DVDs and — for $2 and $5 respectively — buy full digital access to that content. “Owning is fundamentally about sharing,” Singer says. “If you can’t share, you won’t collect.”

Going beyond the object

Sometimes it’s not even about sharing an object of obsession. In the past, displaying a worn copy of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Hermann Hesse’s Siddharthamight have earned you hip credentials, but today it’s as much about what you have to say about those masterpieces.

“We don’t view the Kindle as a device but as a service that helps define you to others,” says Russ Grandinetti, vice president of content for Amazon’s e-reader. “In the past, you’d walk into someone’s house and see books on shelves. Now, you share all that virtually, along with your notes on a book and suggestions for other books.”

Grandinetti says the upside of the cloud revolution often is overlooked by those who lament the cultural demotion of objects.

“Maybe the record or CD collection is gone in physical form, but people listen to more music than ever,” he says. “What you must remember is that digital representations don’t necessarily totally replace the real thing. The physical object in some cases becomes an art object.”

Architect Mark Demerly says today’s homes are being designed to reflect both the cloud and physical collections as entertainment equipment shrinks and display areas grow to accommodate prized possessions.

“You’re talking about very sophisticated folks who are fully connected to the Web, but they still want to see these things that mean so much to them, whether that’s books or Civil War memorabilia,” says Demerly, an architect in Indianapolis who is chairman of the American Institute of Architects‘ custom residential committee. “It’s about telling people who you are.”

That is something the Web does masterfully. And perhaps to a fault, says Wiredmagazine writer Steven Levy, author of In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.

“The digital age has such a strong component of broadcasting and sharing that it’s almost like you’re doing it for self-promotion,” he says. “But there’s a difference between what I buy and showcase for myself at home and what I list online to say, ‘Here’s who I want you to think I am.’ ”

Levy used to collect vintage lunchboxes until the joy of the hunt was killed by the ease of eBay. Though he says younger generations seem to care less about physical objects, he predicts a growing “retro mystique” around collecting. “Fundamentally, collecting is a commitment to something, and that’s powerful,” he says.

The album-cover blues

Eileen Gittins remembers those days. The fiftysomething CEO of Blurb, an online self-publishing site that caters to photographers and authors, says she recently was hit by a wave of sadness when she realized she had no idea what musician was streaming through her home’s speakers.

“You used to have this moment when you bonded with the artist through the actual album, but now there’s nothing to see, and it bugs me,” Gittins says. “Our company caters to people who want to have a physically beautiful object, either to hold onto themselves or to give as a gift.”

Gittins is no Luddite, and she happily embraces the trend of sharing photos through a range of cloud-based social networking sites. But precisely because it’s so easy to share photos on Facebook, images we elect to print out are imbued with greater importance.

“You come back from Thailand, and maybe you want to preserve that memory in a book of photos and not a link to Flickr,” she says. “By bringing something into the physical world, you’re saying it matters to you.”

In fact, what mattered to many Boomers — physical objects created by others — is different from what has meaning for the next generation, says Jyri Engestrom, an Internet entrepreneur and founder of Ditto, a social networking site.

“My children aren’t interested in physical representations of media, they are far more intrigued by objects they create themselves,” Engestrom says, noting that he is an investor in a 3-D printing company called Tinkercad, which lets two-dimensional designs come to life.

“The sheer force of the utility of the cloud will cause us to let go of books and CDs and DVDs,” he says. “What we want to consume, we’ll stream. What we’ll collect, we might not even use.”

The cloud is here to stay. But for many, that doesn’t mean the advent of a stuff-less society.

Denver high-schooler Hill says trolling old record shops for music made by ’80s power pop bands such Nikki and the Corvettes isn’t about bucking the latest tech trend. It’s a pastime that helps shape who he is.

“I applaud people who can get rid of material objects,” Hill says. “But I like to have things around that connect me to moments and memories in my life.

“And I think I always will.”

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Our Media, Ourselves: Are We Headed for a Matrix?

by , NPR, February 20, 2012.  Link to original article (to listen to the story) here.

Design Within Reach? The cool sterility of 2001: A Space Odyssey is just one example of how pop culture expresses an anxiety that's seemingly about technology, but may be as old as time.

 

When Hollywood imagines the future, from Logan’s Run to Avatar, it tends to picture living spaces as sterile and characterless, without any cultural clues to the person who lives there. No record library, no DVDs, no Hemingway on bookshelves … often no bookshelves.

And here we are, catching up to that vision of the future. Sales of physical books dropped 30 percent last year, while e-book sales more than doubled. Sales of DVDs fell during that same period, while online streaming rose. And in 2011, for the first time, digital music downloads overtook sales of CDs. It’s as if we’re deciding en masse that when it comes to the arts and entertainment, we can do without the actual object that is the object of our affection. Who needs real-world clutter in an age when everything streams?

In short: “Welcome,” as Morpheus put it in The Matrix, “to the desert of the real.”

In that film, as you’ll recall, people interact in a reassuringly cluttered but virtual reality. Actual reality is barren. No stuff at all. Nothing physical to establish that one person is different from another. It’s a horror story in which humanity has abandoned all of what makes us human.

This fear of losing ourselves as we lose our stuff — is it just a product of our experiences with technology? Well, if you look at science fiction from the past few decades, you’d certainly think so. In the 1950s, the newness of television inspired Fahrenheit 451, where TV substitutes factoids for information and books are outlawed. A decade later, early spaceflight prompted the sterile domain ruled over by the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The gene-pool experiments of the ’90s prompted Gattaca, where genetic purity is mirrored by a brutal architectural purity.

But the computer age didn’t invent that fear. British author E.M. Forster had these same thoughts more than a century ago. In 1909, right after writing A Room with a View, he penned a story about a cave without a view — a sci-fi story called “The Machine Stops,” written almost pre-technology, in an age of gaslight and pianos in the parlor. Here’s a bit of the story’s beginning (read on-air by Jennifer Mendenhall):

Imagine if you can a small room, hexagonal in shape like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no musical instruments, and yet this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair sits a woman, Vashti, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Remarkably prescient, no? Considering that light bulbs weren’t yet common in houses, and the first radio stations wouldn’t be founded for more than a decade.

There are good reasons for imagining sterile environments in stories about the future. Space travel requires eliminating things that might float around in zero gravity; clean lines feel “modern” because they contrast with the accumulated mess of everyday existence. But isn’t accumulated mess what defines us as individuals? Forster thought so, and figured we’d grow isolated without it — so, almost a century before computer geeks got around to it, he imagined Skype and the iPad:

“The round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her. ‘Kuno, what is it, dearest boy?’ ‘I want to see you not through the Machine,’ said Kuno. ‘I want to speak to you not through the Machine. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I want you to pay me a visit, so that we can meet face-to-face.’ “

Have a little … face time? The folks at Apple would recognize that. Imagine Forster’s horror if he could see people on a modern city street, avoiding eye contact and bobbing to the beat in their headphones. These days, we think technology is the culprit, but Forster was writing decades before TV started creating couch potatoes, almost a century before parents could complain about computer games turning kids into zombies. And still, his character Vashti doesn’t want to leave her little hexagonal cave. Why would she?

“Kuno’s image in the blue plate faded. For a moment Vashti felt lonely. Then the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. Buttons to call for food, for music, the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. Seated in her armchair, she spoke … while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well … and saw her, fairly well. The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.”

Abandoned for chat rooms? Online dating? We’re almost there, right? Everything virtual until you’re actually in the apartment of a new acquaintance. At which point, what do you do? Scan the bookshelves and glance through the DVDs, looking for clues. Faulkner? Tom Clancy? There by the stereo, is that Sinatra or Sid Vicious?

A friend told me the other day that she had no CDs in her house anymore. All her music was on her iPod. She still has books, but she’s not buying as many as she used to. From the kid stuff in her entertainment center you’d guess she’s a Disney stockholder. But as her family outgrows those videos, so will her living room.

And her kids’ll be growing up in a world without hard copies of a lot of what members of their mother’s generation use to “define” living spaces and to tell people who they are. It’s fashionable to worry about whether these days, the media in people’s lives are supplanting the people in people’s lives, and about what’s getting lost as the world goes digital — all those cool album covers we had as kids, the stacks of paperback sci-fi novels, the toy soldiers. Won’t the next generation be isolated without them — cut off like Vashti, staring at screens all day?

“The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

The title of Forster’s story, remember is The Machine Stops; it’s about overreliance on devices. But as in most dystopias, technology and the sleek sterile chill of modernity are stand-ins for the real culprit. Our anxiety is primordial — given voice in literature and art since whenever it was that people first gathered together. In caves maybe.

Once you’ve felt the comfort of society, you worry about losing it. So to remind yourself of how you’re connected, you gather things around. And you cling to them, not so you won’t lose them, or lose what makes you you, but so you won’t lose the connections they represent. The fear is of emptiness — but of emptiness inside us, not of empty rooms.

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