Category Archives: Science

Microwaves Explained

The reason microwaves don't cook evenly comes straight from physics. When you continuously feed waves into a space—which is what microwaves do—you'll often have some "dead" spots:

In two dimensions, you get a similar but more complicated pattern.

via Microwaves.

All to answer the question of what's the best way to reheat Chinese leftovers. How I love 'What If'.

BBC - the Elements

BBC the Elements

A close look at chemical elements, the basic building blocks of the universe. Where do we get them, what do we use them for and how do they fit into the economy?

via BBC - Podcasts and Downloads - Elements.

BBC is running this very cool audio series that dedicates 40 minutes each to every element in the periodic table, specifically looking at how it fits into our economy. They are doing one element a week and started last November, so are about 1/2 way through the periodic table now.

So far all the episodes I've managed to randomly catch on WAMC have been great. But if you want the complete set, they've got it loaded up as a podcast as well. Definitely worth your time.

Massively collaborative synthetic biology

I recently started listening to podcasts by the Long Now Foundation, which is their monthly recorded lecture series. They've all been really good. However, this month's talk on Massively collaborative synthetic biology by Drew Endy was beyond really good. This is one of the best things I've listened to all year.

The talk gives you a primer on the current state of bioengineering, through lens of the iGEM program, which works with high school and college students participating in annual competitions to build reusable bio bricks. This program was born 10 years ago as a winter session class at MIT. Incoming students had the expectation that they would be taught about bioengineering, especially how to create organisms... except, no one had really figured that out yet. So instead the faculty framed this as a "let's learn together" exercise. And it grew from there.

During one of the iGEM summers they were working on changing the smells of e coli. Part of this exploration involved going to a local cheese shop and picking some of the smelliest cheeses to tinker with the options they had in front of them. In the process the students asked and interesting question though: most of these cheeses are small batch artisanal. As such, these are made by humans by hand. The human biome is massively diverse in bacteria. Could it be that the cheese maker is more than craftsman, but also mother to the cheese? The bacteria of the cheese maker herself being an important part of the final product.

There is also an interesting wander through the ethics of the field. Right now the conversation (via news reporting and entertainment) around genetic modification is starkly black and white. It's doom or it's salvation. It's definitely neither. But until we get out of a black and white world, we can't actually have the useful and productive conversation about the space.

Drew also lays out this vision of retooling our mater supply chain to be one that's biology based instead of petroleum based. Making stuff today largely requires fossil fuels. Not just for feed stock, but for the energy of the whole transformation process. But in a bioengineering future we could transform our making of stuff to be the growing of stuff. Going straight from the raw source of energy on this planet (the Sun) into the manufacturing process. To me, this is a really compelling future.

Honestly, these snippets just touch the surface. Do yourself a favor and have a listen to the talk. You won't regret it.

 

Facebook's Experiment

The internet is currently a fury on Facebook's paper where they spent 1 week in 2012 an manipulated 0.1% of their users feeds to have them see more positive or more negative than average posts, and see what they produced in return. And they published the results here. A very solid summary at the Atlantic.

screenshot_170

This outrage seems a little odd, in contrast to the Freemium game explosion, which is all about being as brutally manipulative as possible to make you buy in app upgrades. Candy Crush basically is actively exploiting the same human weaknesses that creates gambling addiction. If we want to talk about ethics in computing right now, Freemium is something we need to have a very serious conversation about.

The study highlights how your filter bubble impacts your mood. If you are exposed to more positive content, you end up more positive. If you are exposed to more negative content, you end up more negative. Not by huge margins, but by noticable ones. Who you are is impacted by what you emotionally ingest. It shouldn't be a surprising idea, but it does take something like Facebook to be able to measure the effect with enough controls to make sure it's real.

If seeing a few minutes a day of more positive or negative content impacts your mood enough to get a reaction out of you, what else impacts it? Home; Work; Friends; Media. And what hacks can you do to impact it yourself.

New Cosmos

“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
― Carl SaganCosmos

"It's time to get going again."

― Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos a Space Time Odyssey

Tonight, a new Cosmos series premieres on Fox. Ever since I heard about this project 2 years ago, I've been eagerly awaiting it's premier. And we are finally here.

The trailer itself gives me goose bumps. Watch the trailer above, and then watch the show. I'm sure it will not disappoint.

23 and maybe me?

So I decided to read the tea leaves of my DNA. I reasoned that it was worth learning painful information if it might help me avert future illness.

Like others, I turned to genetic testing, but I wondered if I could trust the nascent field to give me reliable results. In recent years, a handful of studies have found substantial variations in the risks for common diseases predicted by direct-to-consumer companies.

I set out to test the tests: Could three of them agree on me?

The answers were eye-opening — and I received them just as one of the companies, 23andMe, received a stern warning from the Food and Drug Administration over concerns about the accuracy of its product. At a time when the future of such companies hangs in the balance, their ability to deliver standardized results remains dubious, with far-reaching implications for consumers.

via I Had My DNA Picture Taken, With Varying Results - NYTimes.com.

I actually think a more fascinating thing to do would be to submit the same DNA to one of them 3 times under different names, and see how repeatable they are. I bet that would even be interesting.