Science, technology & design

What science can’t explain – and shouldn’t

It is a fascinating idea to ask a crop of scientists whether there is anything that can’t be explained by science. Even more probing, to ask if there is anything it should not try to explain. The people chosen, including Michael Brooks, Derek Burke, Richard Swinburne, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, are all scientists at the top of their field, whether it is space or biochemistry.

This group seemed to be saying, in general, that science can’t always explain, but should not fear to try. Neil Tyson, an astrophysicist, declared: “I know of no time in history when ignorance was better than knowledge.” As Brooks says, “scientists have a good track record in transgressing boundaries”. Since the word science derives from Latin scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’, and it is the effort to understand the history of the natural world using observable physical evidence, then scientists will only stop when humans have no more urge to know. That seems unlikely.

A couple of scientists said they would not continue with scientific understanding if it were to do harm. This is fine, but understanding something is no guarantee of doing something about it – whether good or evil. Brooks says, even though we know the relative harm caused by alcohol, the government is unlikely to classify it as a class A drug. Daniel Dennet says we will never know the origin of the universe and claims the Big Bang may look as parochial one day as Newton looks now.

Paul Davies says we have to accept the laws of nature as given and wonders whether we will ever understand those. He wonders if the ultimate laws may turn out one day to be less eternal, precise or immutable than we think. Peter Bussey says physics tries to answer three kinds of question: what it is made of, how the parts are put together, and what laws of nature are operating. It cannot deal with our conscious mental nature and our nature as human people. A number of scientists agree that they will not be able to grasp human consciousness.

Derek Burke, a biochemist and a Christian, confidently pursues scientific explanations without fearing he will lose faith in God. He says, too often an explanation is found and then the “God of the Gaps” in knowledge disappears – but he believes science can operate alongside religion. Science asks the “how?” questions and religion asks “why?”.

Richard Swinburne, a philosopher, says science can never explain why the highest level law eventually produced a universe containing a planet on which human beings evolved. Martin Rees says our brainpower may not stretch far enough to be able to understand deepest reality. Maybe the most startling knowledge can only arise with post-human intellects.

Finally, Richard Dawkins says, “If there is a question about the universe that science can never answer, no other discipline will. Science is our best hope…” Spoken like a scientist.

Ref: New Statesman (UK), 7 May 2012, 'Dangerous Knowledge.'
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They take it in your stride

We are constantly trying to develop new security systems that identify people under suspicion. Facial recognition and iris scans are less effective because they rely on high quality images and fingerprinting mostly relies on willing subjects. What if technicians could identify people by the way people walk? After all, we do it all the time.

Gait analysis or automatic gait recognition will be a useful technique alongside fingerprinting. For example, a gait energy image uses a blurred silhouette that is characteristic of someone’s gait. This becomes a kind of signature to recognise next time. Researchers in Germany have a more sophisticated version that includes shadows on the person’s clothing and uses the Microsoft Kinect sensor to separate the target from the background. It had a recognition rate of nearly 80%, superior to 13 other analysis methods.

Of course, people are seen at different angles, which makes it more difficult to spot them. Osaka University filmed 20 people on a treadmill using 24 cameras and used the data to create software that can model somebody’s gait from several different angles. Similar types of research are being conducted in Britain.

So it seems likely that some form of gate analysis will be used in the future: they take it in your stride.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 22 September 2012, 'Secrets of your stride.' J Giles.
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Reading nature’s programming

In our last issue, we wrote about a revolutionary DNA sequencing gadget called the MinION (see The zipless DNA). It is small – no more than the size of a matchbox – but it can do for $US3,000 what was considered in the early 2000s to be at least $US3 billion. The technology is based on the transformative work of the mathematician, Alan Turing, whose 100th birthday would have been this year.

A nanopore is literally a tiny hole. The MinION is a chip with 512 holes in it. If you put DNA into the MinION it pulls DNA molecules through the pores and electronically senses each of the four different chemical bases. This information is sent to the USB of your computer where the string of bases reassembles as a genome sequence. The MinION can read about a billion bases before it runs out of pores.

The company behind it, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, says the technology can be used for direct, electronic analysis of single molecules, such as DNA, RNA and proteins. This means it can be used in scientific research, personalised medicine, crop science and defence. No wonder it has attracted investors.

Turing would no doubt be fascinated to see where his thinking led. Information in computing has two forms, according to George Dyson’s book, Turing’s Cathedral: “patterns in space transmitted across time, termed memory; or patterns in time that are transmitted across space, called code”. DNA is a memory, transmitting information, and it is code, telling machinery what steps to take to create a protein. Oxford Nanopore programmed bacteria to make the pores it needed then built the device that could read DNA and decipher nature’s programming.

These kinds of groundbreaking steps may be hard to understand for most of us. But they do tend to point in the same direction: both biology and computer technology have much in common because they are based on a string of numbers. Perhaps you and your PC are not so far apart after all!

Ref: Intelligent Life (UK), May/June 2012, 'The music of science.' O Morton.
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Turing’s Cathedral, by George Dyson, Allen Lane.
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Get in touch with your screen

We may soon realise how sensorily deprived we are on our computers today: there is little sense of touch. All we have are fingers on a keyboard or touchpad, but the sensation on a touchpad is only the smoothness of glass. What if we could actually poke, fondle or massage what is onscreen? The new buzzword is ‘tactile graphics’. This new technology will transform your computing experience to one that actually engages all your senses (though this article is not about smell).

Apple’s iPhone was the first touchscreen to be used on a portable device and most smartphones will have a touchscreen by 2016. Some devices already offer a buzz sensation as you touch the screen, using tiny motors inside. But there is more to come to make a touchscreen feel textured, using three methods: electrovibration, screen vibration and raised surface.

Electrovibration applies an oscillating electric field to trick the brain into sensing friction and the frequency of oscillation can make the surface feel as if you are touching paper, leather or wood. Screen vibration can make your finger feel it is being pushed in a certain direction, such as flicking a switch. Raised surface keypad comes from pumping gas or fluid into cavities that can change shape under an electric field. Generally a high frequency current makes a screen feel smoother than a low frequency current. It is therefore possible to make an e-book feel as if it has the roughness of paper.

Another form of tactile stimulation is force. A screen by Lateral Haptics uses vibrations at 22,000 hertz, which are strong enough to move the screen away from the finger and generate a force that pushes a finger right or left. Combined with sensors, the screen simulates the feeling of, say, a concave button.

Last, is the novel of idea of moving away from flat screens to one that has shapes and buttons rise out of it, according to the function you want. In 2010, Apple applied for a patent for a morphing 3D screen. This would be an elastic touchscreen that could vibrate, bend or deform into any shape or position. More to come soon, no doubt. Tactile sensations will give us the feedback we need to become much more efficient with touchscreens. So it won’t be long before you can really get in touch with your screen.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 9 June 2012, 'Touch and go.' M Fellet.
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You are being watched online

You are being watched online, and you know it. Marketers have got all your personal information about where you go and what you buy. But what if you knew the government was tracking everything you do and say against them?

The Department of State in the US issued this year a procurement notice asking for contractors to bid to provide “deep analysis of topics, conversations, networks, and influencers of the global social web”. This software will be able to interpret seven foreign languages, including Chinese and Arabic, and will be trialled for online reaction to a specific event, such as a talk by a US ambassador.

The military awarded Lockheed Martin a $US27 million contract in 2007 to develop Web Information Spread Data Operations Module (WISDOM), which analyses all social media. Now the navy is upgrading WISDOM to “understand the latest regional trends and sentiment and predict threats from groups and individuals”.

Naturally privacy groups are very concerned as it could potentially stop people from saying what they think. We can’t help thinking that social media are a dream come true for surveillance agencies of all kinds. Users had better make sure they weigh up the value of transparency versus privacy, because corporations are clearly not interested in your privacy.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 16 June 2012, ‘Unlike’ the FBI on Facebook.' J Giles.
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