Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Is it Christmas Everywhere in the Universe?

Is it Christmas everywhere in the Universe?  

Dennis Overbye, one of my favorite science journalists, has taken a stab at this question in a light-hearted and fun way in this article in the Times, asking himself, "would an alien know it is Christmas?"  I love how he manages to stimulate our thinking by posing some interesting questions with a few answers but without writing a treatise on the philosophy of science and religion.  How exactly does he do it?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Journalist Asks "How Do We Know"

Dean Miller, the Director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University posted this warning on his New York Time blog.  News literacy, whether you are a producer or consumer of news, is based on skepticism and, perhaps more than anything else, a healthy awareness of your own bias.

But it seemed odd to me that he could ask the question "how do we know" and feel obligated to restrict his assessment of veracity to the text itself and not even mention objective sources or empirical evidence outside of the story.  Is that the best we can do?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Monday, November 25, 2013

Robotics Scientists Meet to Discuss Ethics

In October a group of leading robotics scientists and engineers met to discuss the ethical implications of their work.  Until recently a vast majority of industrial robots have been confined to cages where they work and humans are unwelcome.  Increasingly, however, we find robotic applications in our human world.  They are "aware" of us, sensing our presence, our identities, our activity and inferring from those data our intentions and goals.  And these robots act in our world too, based on their own objectives and what they can sense from their surroundings, including present human beings.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Memory: The Relationship Between Brain and the Experience of 'Self'

Interesting article in Time Magazine about a woman named Lonni Sue Johnson who was a very successful artist, violinist and pilot until she suffered an attack of encephalitis in 2007 at the age of 57.  Studying patients like Johnson, scientists are learning about the relationship between the physical brain and experiences and even the nature of 'self'.
With the help of the hardware and Johnson's willingness to sit still for so much study, science may be able to answer one other, more abstract question: What is it like to have lost so many memories about your life and the world? If who you are is an amalgamation, at least in part, of the things you've experienced--the people you've loved, the places you've lived, the tragedies you've endured--are you actually you at all when those things are wiped away? The self is ineffable, but it's also material, the product of neurochemicals sparking their way through living tissue. How we draw the line between those two dimensions--the biological and the experiential, the brain and the far less knowable mind--has kept philosophers awake for millennia.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

More Asteroid Strikes in Our Future?

The Times today reported that we are likely to encounter more astroid strikes than we thought.  "That's interesting," I thought, "But how do we know?"  And "What changed?"

Turns out that they are using a new measurement that begins with empirical observations of collisions instead of predicting the number of likely collisions based on estimates of how many asteroids there are in orbit around the Sun and what their orbits are.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Disruptive Change; Creative Destruction

Today the neighborhood video chain Blockbuster closed its doors, apparently "outdone by Netflix."

But the dynamic between these companies looked very different at different stages in their histories. Initially, both Blockbuster and Netflix rented DVD's.  Blockbuster had the initial, first mover advantage and at its peak consisted of a network of over 9,000 stores.  To compete, Netflix made no investment in physical stores, instead using the post office to deliver its disks in its iconic red envelopes.