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The Final Frontier?

April 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Celestial findings have always held a strange fascination for me; in a world that is rapidly shrinking in its exposure and proximity, where better for one to turn to when it comes to daydreaming of adventure and the great unknown. As a humble Star Trek fanatic, I’ve been meaning to do a post all semester about space exploration but nothing quite relevant nor worthy of the topic caught my eye until this past week. 

US space entrepreneurs have just announced a venture to launch robotic prospectors in the hopes of bringing water and other precious minerals back to earth from certain asteroids. My initial reaction was one of overwhelming excitement, and I thought this would be plenty of inspiration for a post. The aftermath of this announcement however, turned out to be even more thought-provoking.

Frans von der Dunk, (quite the name) a professor of space-law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has publicly announced his opinion that the applicable legal-system, both in the US and internationally, must be further developed to catch up to this sort of technological innovation. Although there are certain treatises and pieces of legislative work that address the legalities of space-initiatives, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which says that outer space constitutes a “global commons”, it is a field that is far too underdeveloped for this kind of mission.

My initial, admittedly not mature reaction, was not a positive one. Who is this Frans von der Dunk to limit the genius of today’s space cowboys? Having given it some thought though, I realize that his words of caution may be in our best interest. It is so tempting to throw caution to the wind and jump into an idea, a new project, so overwhelmed are we by the thrill of seeing inspiration materialize through hard work. This often blinds us to the repercussions of our actions, and disasters that could have been prevented by more careful planning have a way of coming out of the woodwork. The space race has been an area of contention for decades, and its parameters remain vaguely undefined. In the article I read, the authors compared this sort of project to deep-sea mining- what jurisdiction is applicable in such an alien environment? Who is responsible for the projects that go on there and the products they send back home? Should this be part of the public or private sector? Who can determine ownership and rights in a place that is physically beyond the realm of human control? 

I think that this is fascinating because it is one of the issues that our generation is going to have to contend with. Although I’ve accepted that I will probably never get to co-captain the USS Enterprise, I still value the importance of questions that bridge our life on Earth with the adventures and possibilities that outer space has to offer. What do you guys think? Where are our responsibilities in terms of this?

Here’s the link to the article to read more!http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120426134927.htm 

 

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The power of the self-fufilling Prophecy

April 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Have you ever had a book or movie, article or anecdote inspire a wave of self-revelation? I think everyone experiences these unexpected epiphanies, and I’m sure most people would agree with me when I say how surprising it is where they lead you. Walking out of a movie with a friend tonight, we got around to exchanging fatalist philosophies and questions. These musings led me to, of course, a google search, and then to a study released a few years ago by the American Psychological Society, called “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Synergistic Accumulative Effect of Parents’ Beliefs on Children’s Drinking Behavior.” 

The study involved 115 parents and their seventh-grade children. At the beginning of the year researchers administered a survey asking the parents what they predicted in terms of their children’s drinking patterns for the upcoming 12 months. After the year had passed they collected responses from the kids, asking about their drinking over that time period. Ultimately, the results showed that parents assessed the alcohol use beyond the predicted risk-factors- something that researchers identified as the self-fufilling prophecy effect.

Although the study was very narrow in it’s focus, the questions raised and the results found are incredibly applicable and thought-provoking. As it turned out, parents who overestimated their children’s drinking habits had the strongest self-fuffilling effect. By contrast, parents who underestimated their children’s drinking habits did not have as dramatic an effect. I think that many of us wonder, particularly at our age when there is such a heavy emphasis on our future, to what degree do our assertions alter the direction of our lives? What we do not always consider, and perhaps wrongly so, is the effect that other people’s expectations have on the decisions we make. 

A review of the study suggested its implications in terms of the negative stereotypes that surround certain groups, particularly certain age groups such as adolescents. Although a certain behavior must initiate perceived characteristics, perhaps these stereotypes are as perpetuated by those who perceive certain individuals as they are by those individuals themselves. Perhaps the way we act at each stage of our lives is dictated not by free-will, but by a subliminal influence of those whose expectations we interact with on a day-to-day basis. If some behavior is expected of you by an overwhelming majority of people, even if it is negative, irrational, or irresponsible behavior, do you not, on some level, feel obligated to act accordingly? 

I cannot think of a group of people to who this is more relevant. In college, we are exposed to so many conflicting expectations and standards. There are those of our parents, which by all means vary with each individual. There are those of our peers, which, again, when broken down, depend entirely on those friends we surround ourselves with. In a way, I think it is very much a domino effect; one action can attract attention from a certain kind of person, whose influence can lead to more actions, either of a similar or entirely different nature. 

Not to freak anybody out, I know I get really overwhelmed as is, but I think it’s important to take a careful look at the environments we’re in, how the opinions of others influence our own priorities, and how these priorities, particularly at such a crucially developmental stage, might shape our futures. What do you guys think? Do you find yourself responding more to your own expectations or to those of the people in your life? At what point do you leave it all to chance, to your own self-fufilling prophecy, or to the prophecy of others? Just some food for thought; here’s the article if you’d like to read more! http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/releases/2005/pr050103.cfm 

 

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Earth Day and Bio-mimicry

April 23, 2012 1 comment

If you asked the average american what they know of kelp, what do you think their response would be? A blank stare perhaps? At best you might see them make the mental jump to seaweed and then a recommendation to their favorite sushi restaurant. Certainly it can be assumed that the vast majority wouldn’t have the slightest idea of the significance of this aquatic plant. To an Australian energy company however, the bull kelp is no less than an inspiration.  

“Bull kelp, named for its bullwhip shape, is one of the strongest and most flexible seaweeds in the world and can grow up to 100 feet from its holdfast (similar to roots) on the sea floor to the tips of its leaves” says Rachel Kaufman in an article recently released in National Geographic. Even more impressive is the movement of the kelps leaves as they photosynthesize sunlight. Teams of engineers are currently searching for an efficient way to emulate this motion and produce clean energy that can be used to sustain  civilizations around the world. 

There is a common conception that advancements in modern technology are taking us further and further from nature. As today is Earth day and the torrential rain scared supporters away from Kogan Plaza, I was left to my own reflections on the intersections of nature and our everyday life in 2012. I cannot help but wonder: are we not arrogant in assuming that we, human beings who have been on this Earth for only a minute fraction of it’s immense history and existence, are the sole possessors of solutions to the energy crisis? My research led me to this article in National Geographic, based off of a photography contest. It discusses the possibilities of bio-mimicry, a field that is increasingly popular with engineers today. 

Contrary to popular belief, all of our technological progress may in fact be leading us back to nature. This cycle presents so many interesting questions, particularly concerning our actions with regards to the green movement that has infiltrated the news, politics, and even civic engagement over the past few decades. For so long technological innovation has been at odds with the natural world; polluting and destroying the limited resources that are left to us. In an effort to find more harmonious solutions for sustainable living, it only makes sense that engineers find inspiration in natural forms. After all, over the course of 3.8 billions years of evolution, nature has found some of the most beautifully simple solutions to the struggles we grapple with today. 

That being the case, we must turn our attention to our treatment of these resources if we are ever to unlock the solutions they might provide. Our own resources, including time and money, are also limited, and we must determine how they can be best allocated; often the choice lies between preservation and progress. There are also people to feed, shelter, and international conflicts to be resolved. What do you all think? Where do our priorities lie within the next few years? 

Here is the link to the article! Let me know what you all think! http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/04/pictures/120419-biomimicry-for-energy/ Image

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North Korea and the Politics of space exploration

April 16, 2012 1 comment

Although the scientific community purports to be an entity unto itself, we have witnessed an increase in the intersections between scientific progress and political influence in the past century. This pattern is most recently exemplified by the failure of a North Korean rocket launch last friday. The nature of the launch is a highly contentious subject; although North Korea maintains that the aim of the launch was to put a satellite into orbit, many people suspect that it disguised a test of long range missile technology that violates UN resolutions. 

More important than the launch’s technological failure is the political ramifications that it has incited. The White House and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the launch, and the UN security council is due to meet and discuss what measures should be taken with regards to North Korea. I find it personally fascinating that the missile’s scientific significance is so under-explored, particularly when compared to the political turmoil that it has caused among other nations. 

One aspect of the launch which I think has been neglected by the press are the possible reasons for its origination. One could argue that the competitive nature of technological development between nations originated with the space race; beginning in 1957 with the USSR’s launch of Sptunik 1. From that point on the US worked furiously to surpass their Russian counterparts. As more and more resources become available to more and more countries, this “race” continues to expand; simultaneously increasing the exposure to and volatility of the scientific subject at hand. 

The principal question in this uneasy climate is that of responsibility. Who should have access to the technology that can create missiles? Who is to delegate this? What power does a treaty or set of agreements really have over it’s assenting members? Clearly not much, and it remains to be seen what sort of restrictions will be legitimately effective in this particular field. We must also consider the costs of such limitations. To what extent should political interactions dictate the advancement of space research? Can progress be discredited or even destroyed because it originated with the wrong country? Such questions are crucial to the betterment and continuation of science exploration as a whole. 

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Fun Fridays and the Nobel Prize in Physics

March 12, 2012 1 comment

While on an epic procrastination streak, I literally “Sumbleuponed” an article about the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. They are credited with discovering graphene; an entirely new form of carbon which is the world’s first 2 dimensional material. When I first saw the headline, I admit there was a dramatic sigh and eye roll; yet another “science thing” sure to reach far beyond my comprehensive capabilities. What I did not expect was the inspiring story that accompanied this discovery. 

Believe it or not, these scientists greatest achievement did not originate with high-tech equipment and multi-million dollar grants, but with the plain old no. 2 pencil; the very same one I use doodle in the margins of my UW notes. Geim and Novoselov apparently had a tradition of “Friday night experiments” to break up the monotony of the week’s “serious” research. It was during one of these playful, no-pressure, creative experiments that they got the crazy idea to use scotch tape to “exfoliate” a piece of graphite. They were able to isolate graphene; a monolayer of atomic thickness that is transparent under almost all conditions. By sheer coincidence they chose exactly the right substrate to place the graphene flakes on, and were able to view them through an ordinary microscope. 

The potentials of graphene are very significant, due to its remarkable strength and conductivity. In the next few years we can expect to see it in numerous possible applications, including miniaturizing computer chips. I thought this story was absolutely fascinating, less because of graphene and it’s wonderful potential and more because of the way in which it was discovered! We always here about how the best inventions began as accidents, yet somehow, I’ve always found that hard to believe. I am now humbled, and admit that I did not give the role of creativity in science enough credit. I am so deeply reassured by this development; there is something so comforting in knowing that all the high-tech equipment and money in the world are still unmatched by pure curiosity. This really speaks to an important aspect of working in any field: finding joy in what you do just might affect the final outcome. As students, I’m fairly certain we can all relate to this, the idea that putting pressure on an individual might inhibit them more than anything. Who knew science could be so much fun? I know I didn’t, and I think it’s really important to consider that doing what we love keeps us motivated, and it is that motivation that is the greatest force for discovery. 

Here’s the link! http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2010/speedread.html

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I spent the pas…

February 27, 2012 2 comments

I spent the past 62 hours living and breathing ballroom dance. I’m part of the GW team and this weekend we attended a regional competition. It’s nearly impossible to describe the alternate universe that the competitors, if only for a short time, inhabit. The lights, the tuxedos and dresses, the music that has me taking study breaks to waltz through Gelman are completely alien to most people. Naturally, I dreaded this discussion period, if only because I couldn’t imagine a less scientific environment to inspire an academic revelation. I tried everything to focus my mind in a more studious direction; even turning my ipod onto an angsty heavy-metal playlist which no-one, under any circumstances, could ever dance to, but it was all useless. It was only when I tried to reconcile my passion for dance with this assignment that I got accomplished anything. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting things that this class has made me consider is that science and art may not be as segregated as I’d always thought. Visually, audibly, tangibly, there is an art to science and a science to art. While it may sound obvious, up until recently I hadn’t given a thought to how my brain responds when I go through my routines on the competition floor. That was until I read the following article called “So you think you can dance?: PET scans reveal your brain’s inner choreography” posted on the Scientific American blog;

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-dance

It really should have occured to me earlier: taking physics in high school had improved the quality of my technique exponentially, but hey, we’re only human and I guess I was still reluctant to aknowledge science’s role in performance art. I had always thought that people’s instinct to dance was just that: something involuntary that had everything to do with passion and little to do with the “calculated, clinical” nature that I had attributed to science. As it turns out, this instinct actually occurs when certain subcortical brain regions converse, bypassing higher auditory areas. This is what causes us to tap our feet when we identify a rhythm. As I watched championship level dancers sweep effortlessly across the ballroom, I could not help but marvel at their perception of space and their aptitude for choreography. Reading this article later, I learned that this requires specialized mental skills that are developed simultaneously as they train their movements- unconscious entrainment. There is one part of the brain that houses a representation of the body’s orientation. This interacts with another part of the brain which acts as a synchronizer; one which enables us to pace our actions to music. The two allow dancers to move through space in perfect synchronization with a piece of music. 

The article hypothesizes that dance is a fundamental form of human expression that evolved together with music as a way of generating rhythm. I’d certainly agree with this. It is truly remarkable what we are physically able to accomplish, especially when considering how much of the communication that occurs internally is completely sub-concious. Every movement, whether it’s dancing a foxtrot, playing a concerto, or painting a landscape, involves a complexity of response that is truly remarkable. In a way, I’ve accepted that this is the science of expression- that our most personal experiences are conveyed through a beautifully delicate web of neurological explanation. 

 

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