Posts byChris Holdgraf

Issue 28 has arrived!

Hey blog readers—it is with great excitement that we announce the latest edition of the Berkeley Science Review. As always, this encompasses hundreds of hours of work put forward by a spectacular team of graduate student scientists. Whether it be creating designs for our articles, organizing the editing and quality assurance, brainstorming new ideas, or writing
READ MORE ARTICLES

Coding is climbing

These days coding is all the rage. With phrases like “data science”, “big data”, and “machine learning” being thrown around with the promise of solving all the worlds problems and, gasp, actually getting you a job, I’m often asked by people how they could possibly learn to code. “But I’m 28!” they say, “I’m horrible
READ MORE ARTICLES

Issue 26 is here

Dear readers, It is with pride that we announce the release of the latest Berkeley Science Review, Issue 26. You can read the new issue, in it’s entirety, right here. Those of us who create the Berkeley Science Review each semester are graduate students and postdocs in the sciences. We are acutely aware of the
READ MORE ARTICLES

The importance of uncertainty

I just came from the lab with an amazing new discovery, one that will change the landscape of fruit-based research: bananas get you jobs. That’s right, I’ve uncovered evidence that studying bananas in your graduate years significantly improves your post-graduation salary. Don’t believe me? Check out this great bar graph I put together: That’s right
READ MORE ARTICLES

We’ve redesigned!

You know the saying – out with the old, in with the new.  Four years ago, a small group of graduate students at Berkeley decided to take an already amazing print publication, and give it a home on the internet.  Thus, the BSR blog was born. We have since grown several times over, so we
READ MORE ARTICLES

What we could learn from industry.

You have probably heard a lot of articles, blog posts, tweets, and facebook rants lately about the abysmal state of the job market for aspiring academics.  You’ve probably heard stories (the Berkeley Science Review even ran one last semester) about the shifting reality for graduate students, and about the needed focus on non-academic careers for graduate education.

The number of PhDs awarded has exploded in recent years

I’m not here to debate any of this, but there’s plenty of material out there if you’re curious.  However, there’s a really important point in this discussion that almost never gets voiced: learning about the non-academic world is not only about getting a non-academic job, it also makes us better scientists. 

Now, I can see you all rushing to your keyboards to rise up in protest, so let me make this clear: I’m not saying that academia should be a “business” in some sense, and I understand the importance of keeping conflicts of interest out of science (though last time I checked the simple desire to publish can be, itself, a conflict of interest).  What I’m saying is that we have a lot to learn from the non-academic world, about how to interact with our peers, how to work together as teams, how to manage projects, and how to communicate with others.

In my most cynical moments, I view “business” as a relatively simple game: how can the right collection of people make as much money as humanly possible?  This may sound like a critique, but it’s not. It is just a goal (in reality probably only one of many). And guess what businesses are really good at doing?  Making money, and accomplishing that goal.  They’re clearly doing something right, so what is it that we can learn from them?
READ MORE ARTICLES

Issue 25 is here!

BSR_issue25_coverAnd just like that, another semester has passed and another issue of the Berkeley Science Review is hot off the press.  This issue is one of our most diverse and interesting yet, and we’re proud to host it officially in web-format for all of you to enjoy into eternity!  Take a look at the BSR online table of contents and you’ll see all of our great articles formatted for easy reading online.

We know that throwing a ton of articles online all at once isn’t exactly internet par-for-the-course, so in the coming weeks we’ll make sure to feature stories and followups that highlight some of the best material in this year’s edition.

As a starter, you might notice the decidedly atypical cover article on this year’s BSR.  As a magazine and website run entirely by graduate students, we like to write about the topics most near-and-dear to our hearts.  The cover story this time around covers one of the most important topics in graduate education: non-academic careers.  As graduate students ourselves, we’re constantly thinking about what’s the next step after grad school.  Hopefully, this piece will shed a little bit of light on where we are now, how we got here, and what’s coming next in the world of professional training for graduate students.

But don’t worry, the latest edition covers plenty of strictly-science too.  Look inside and you’ll find cutting edge chemistry that captures snapshots of chemical reactions, a technique that unveils the uncanny powers of the sun as a disinfectant, and even a new step in quantum theory that may allow us to redefine the standard unit of mass.  And don’t forget that all of this wonderful science is happening right here at UC Berkeley, brought to you by the Berkeley Science Review.

Producing the Berkeley Science Review is truly a joy for all of us on the team, and making it available to all of you online (free, as always) is the icing on the cake for us.  I hope that you enjoy the latest edition of the BSR, and I invite you to take a look inside, explore the many fascinating aspects of science going on at UC Berkeley, and tell us what you think.
READ MORE ARTICLES

A Touching Evening

For those of you who read the BSR blog, you may have noticed that we’ve been a bit obsessed with “touch” of late.  So interested, in fact, that we decided to have an entire evening of events, interviews, and demonstrations to dive into one of the most fundamental senses that we all possess.  Touch Me was the first BSR “live event”, an event that was held in collaboration with the (amazing) Bay Area Science Festival.  It was a real-time exploration of the many facts and facets that underly the sense of touch.

TouchMe_robot_small

So why touch?  Well, for starters, imagine a world without sight.  Seems pretty easy—just close your eyes.  Imagine a world without hearing.  Yup, hands over the ears, not too tough.  Now imagine a world without touch? Pretty hard huh?

We often take it for granted, but touch is fundamental to any living creature.  It is perhaps the first method that we have to interact with the world, and it is often the last thing that remains before we leave it.  Touch allows us to communicate with others, to navigate, to give and receive comfort.  It is one of the most intimate acts we can perform, informing someone that we are here, with you, right now.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Portrait of a brain: connectivity and anatomy

Recently there’s been a push from many leading governments to “figure out the brain.”  Whether it be Obama’s recent brain initiative, or the European commission for the Human Brain Initiative, it seems that wealthy governments are starting to recognize the importance for understanding the brain.

In the coming years you’ll probably hear a lot about “functional connectivity”, “anatomic mapping”, “calcium imaging”, and a bunch of other crazy sounding names. In this series of blog posts, I’ll explore some of these ideas in order to make sense of the crazy questions that neuroscientists are asking.  This first post will dive into one of the oldest, yet one of the most exciting topics within neuroscience: anatomy and connectivity.

Low-scale Anatomy

Probably the most obvious question that one might ask about the brain is “what kinds of things are in the brain and where are they?”  If you asked yourself this question, then you have the makings of an anatomist!  Low-scale anatomy looks at cells within a brain (often after it has been frozen, sliced, or otherwise maimed), and determines whether their pattern and type corresponds to interesting structures in a particular region.

Diving into the structure of brains makes you realize that there’s a lot of diversity across even a single millimeter of tissue.  For example, did you know that regions of the cortex, believed to be a major computational engine of the brain, are actually organized in layers?  Check out this image by Ramon y Cajal, one of the most famous neuroscientists (and also a pretty great artist):

See how the cell density, structure, and general organization changes as you move up the picture?  This is seen throughout the surface of your entire brain, and there are all kinds of theories as to what this so-called “laminar” structure of the brain actually means.  Some believe that signals come in through one layer, and are sent out through another.  Others think that different layers contain different kinds of information.  However, all agree that understanding the low-level of organization in the brain is essential to understanding the brain.
READ MORE ARTICLES

From snowmelt to city blocks

Living in a big city, it’s easy to take really important things for granted.  If I want to take a shower, I go to the bathroom, turn the knob, and a powerful stream of pristine water begins to pour from my showerhead.  If I’m thirsty, I need only look to the kitchen for a cup of nature’s most important liquid.

However, underlying all of this convenience is an intricate system of canals, reservoirs, rivers, and massive pipes.  Collectively, this incredibly complex network does one of the simplest things that we can think of: move things from point A to point B.  However, when “things” means water (clean water, that is), and points A and B are several hundreds of miles apart, this becomes a more difficult situation.

For proof, one need only look to Chicago, whose historic river woes resulted in one of the most sophisticated engineering feats at the time.  You see, back in the late 1800’s, Chicago was growing fast.  As thousands of people were flocking to the city for all the jobs, industry, and attractions of a big city, these people were also bringing with them two important things: the need for clean water, and waste.

Why do I focus on these two things?  Well it turns out that they’re deeply intertwined in almost any city.  The water and sewage system of a city behaves in a manner that is surprisingly similar to our own digestive systems.  As people, we want to put good things into our body, and we want to expel the bad things.  Cities want the exact same thing.
READ MORE ARTICLES

On being ‘right’ in science

The other day I was standing around with a few friends arguing about ergonomics  (these are the things you do when you’re a graduate scientist). At one point, my friend referenced a presentation that was chock full of the worst kinds of sensationalist science writing (it said that the act of sitting was literally killing you).

As a scientist and writer myself, I jumped all over the presentation, calling it sham science, and pointing out the many ways in which it was confusing or obscuring the truth. Expecting to be met with nodding approval, I instead faced several annoyed looks and the strong feeling that I was being wished out of the room.  I didn’t understand what was wrong—they had presented a piece of evidence, and I had summarily shot it down.  Isn’t that what arguing is all about?  Instead of feeling right, I felt like a jerk.

And then I realized something: it didn’t matter whether I was right; nobody was listening to me anymore.

Many scientists run into this situation on a daily basis, but understanding this problem digs into one of the biggest crises facing scientific research today: there’s a difference between being right and being persuasive.  The first entails having the facts straight, and the second means convincing someone else to believe them.

As an academic, I’ve often heard that “the facts speak for themselves”, or that one need only to “look at the data” in order to see the truth.  Unfortunately, experience has taught me that neither of these statements is correct.  Facts are always colored by the context in which they are presented, and data can be massaged and molded to tell almost any story you want. And so what if you’re correct, if nobody will pay attention to you in the first place? . . .
READ MORE ARTICLES

How to get a job in the internet age

career-111932_640Do you remember the first time that you heard about your university job fair?  As you hurriedly made your way to the university gym, visions of Google and Apple representatives promising you riches beyond your wildest dreams popped into your head.  Excitedly, you entered the job fair armed with a newly-crafted resume, prepared for the torrent of job offers to be lobbed your way.

And then you actually got there, and found yourself in a large, overcrowded room with about five thousand other undergrads who were all thinking the same thing.

Job fairs have never been  as effective as one would hope (though a strategy never hurts), but what else can one do in this day and age?  Lucky for us, the answer is: quite a bit. As the landscape of business changes in response to the ever-growing influence of the web, many other practices within industry are changing as well.  As a result, new opportunities for connecting with business and finding your niche in the market are available to those who seek them.
READ MORE ARTICLES

3-D printing and a revolution in the making


When people talk about recent technological revolutions, they almost always mention two of the biggest upheavals to hit our society: the advent of automated manufacturing, and the creation of the internet. The first allowed for the rapid creation of millions of different components and items, resulting in a huge boom for economies around the world and paradigm shift for businesses. The second created the ever-growing connected world of information bombardment that we live in today.

What happens when you combine these two components? Well, you get 3-D printing, and it promises to bring yet another revolution to the way we live our lives.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Digital movies, perceptual psychology, and tricked out bicycles.

When you live in the Bay Area, you quickly realize that one of the standard status symbols is the bicycle. It’s amazing what kinds of messages you can send on two wheels and a frame. Are you the worn-down fixey hipster type? Or maybe the svelte 2-pound frame roadster? Whatever your look, Bay Area cultural cred requires that the bicycle fits the personality. Well, this situation is about to get a lot more complicated.

Enter “MonkeyLectric”, the bicycle accessory manufacturing group that boasts a creative vision that’s just as impressive as its electrical engineering skills. Put simply, the company likes to put pictures on moving bike wheels – in fact, they just launched a Kickstarter campaign to build a device that would display a movie on your wheel as you ride. That’s right, a moving picture on your wheel that’s rotating at more than 70 RPMs. How do they do it? Well, to understand this requires a brief foray into the world of perceptual psychology.


READ MORE ARTICLES

Strange science from the deep sea: why the Barreleye is the coolest fish I’ve seen

As a neuroscientist, I spend my time thinking about the inner workings of the brain and what they mean for human life.  I often find myself carelessly losing sight of the amazing world that exists around me, with the assumption that what goes on in between our ears is more interesting than anything else.  Every now and then, I hear about a scientific discovery that snaps me back to reality, making me realize that this planet is a much more mysterious, unknown place than I give it credit for.  For a prime example of one of earth’s natural wonders, I present to you the Barreleye:

Now, I want you all to stop for a second and look at the picture above.  Notice anything strange?  That’s rightthe fish’s head is transparent.  And those two globular things inside: no, they’re not its brain, they’re actually the fish’s eyes.  While the creature’s existence has been known for a while, researchers were recently able to capture a Barreleye on video with some pretty sophisticated deep-sea exploration.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Behind the Science: Hyperspectroscopy

We spend a lot of time here at the BSR talking about all kinds of awesome scientific findings.  But reporting your discoveries is only a small fraction of the life of a scientist.  The large majority of our time is spent finding problems and using tools to solve those problems.  Personally, I find that one of the coolest things about science isn’t in the final discovery, but in all the ingenious ways that we try to reach up with that discovery.

alignleft

As such, this is the first in an ongoing column that talks about the actual tools that scientists use in order to understand the world.  This might be anything from mathematical concepts to cutting-edge hardware to clever uses of proteins and biology.  When you begin to understand the tools that scientists use, you get a unique glimpse into the immense challenge that any scientist faces: attempting to find truth in an incredibly noisy and complicated universe, with remarkably few ways to actually do this.

Hyperspectroscopy: not your grandpa’s backyard telescope

And so, I want to start off this series with a technique that has found use in everything from astrophysics to geology.  It’s called hyperspectroscopy, and it aims to identify objects based solely off of the light information that they emit into the world.  At this point you might say, “Yeah, that’s a telescope, so what”?  The trick here lies in the fact that there’s much more to light than wavelengths we can actually see.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Beyond Academia: a new approach to PhDs

Beyond Academia Logo

If you ask a tenured professor, they’ll often tell you that graduate school largely serves a single purpose: to prepare the next generation of professors.  Such an approach to graduate school reflects a romantic view of academia: hundreds of bright young minds flocking together at the worlds greatest institutions of new ideas and cutting-edge thinkers.  However, upon their arrival at the annals of nearly any big-name university, a different reality begins to set in.

Contrary to the enthusiastic encouragement of their professors, getting an academic job isn’t simply a matter of going to grad school and settling into a tenure-track position.  Instead, only a small fraction of them will actually get an academic job.  In a recent report, the NSF suggested that a mere 20% of graduate students get jobs in the academic world, a staggeringly small number given that the “sole” purpose of graduate school is supposed to be training professors.

This is largely a product of the changing demographics in the world of academia.  Just like any industry, the world of university-driven research has attracted more and more people to it, and universities in turn have expanded their ability to train graduate students.  However, this influx of eager young scientists has not coincided with an increase in the number of jobs available to academics.  As such, a fixed slice of the pie is being divided up by larger and larger groups of people, often leading to a cutthroat and politically-driven culture of scientific one-upsmanship.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Digging into the past with a computational shovel

When you think about the best tools that we have available for understanding the origins of civilization, you might imagine a pickaxe, a dusting brush, a shove–no doubt all of them wielded by some Indiana Jones-esque adventurer standing chest-deep in the bowels of some excavated lost city.

The problem with these methods is that they involve a painstakingly detailed approach to understanding history, picking through evidence one piece at a time. While this can be an incredibly useful way to understand the world, it isn’t the only method for building our knowledge of the past.  An increasingly popular approach takes the opposite approach: leveraging large amounts of information at the same time in order to discover hidden complexities and patterns that aren’t available to the human eye.

In a paper published this week out of UC Berkeley, a team of researchers has leveraged the raw power of modern-era computers in order to understand the complicated process by which ancient languages morph into their present-day forms.  The the evolution of language is an incredibly complicated process, it also has a lot of structure.  This structure tends to be relatively consistent over time, with small changes being enacted across epochs of civilization.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Brains, big data, and semantic spaces

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PLoSBiol4.e126.Fig6fNeuron.jpgIt’s easy to imagine the brain as a biological analogue of a digital computer. As our understanding of the brain advances, it’s quickly becoming clear that this is a vast oversimplification. One of the most interesting fields in neuroscience asks: how and where is information represented in our brains? Reflections of this age-old question are seen in countless articles that attempt to find the “XYZ” part of the brain, and trying to localize a particular kind of thought to one location in the cortex is still a hot topic of debate.

Answering this question has certainly resulted in some interesting findings (for example, there’s a location in the brain known as the “Fusiform Face Area“, that tends to increase its activity only when faces are shown to the individual). However, it often carries with it some very big assumptions about what kinds of answers we might find. Studies that localize certain kinds of thoughts to specific locations in the brain also tend to make an inherent assumption: that discrete organization—i.e. that a certain kind of thought is in one location and not in many—is the way we store ideas and concepts in the brain. However, recent research out of Jack Gallant‘s lab at Berkeley might suggest otherwise.
READ MORE ARTICLES

The science of Sandy: how a Category 1 storm can panic a nation

While I’m sure that you are all enthralled by the “in-depth” coverage of our presidential race, a few of you might have noticed that there’s a giant hurricane barreling down upon the Northeast.  Amongst the tweets, mudslinging, and poll “results”, Hurricane Sandy has quietly gained strength, becoming a hurricane with some real destructive force over the last couple of days.

So what is it about this particular hurricane that’s got people so worried?  Certainly, it’s not the kind of “mega-storm” that we tend to associate with mass evacuation and destruction: Sandy is only a Category 1 hurricane.  And yet, a wide range of meteorologists and hurricane experts have urged extreme caution on par with other hurricanes that we still reminisce about with anxiety today.  Why?

Well, one question you might ask is: “Why is this hurricane happening in the first place?”  As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, the large majority of hurricanes occur around latitudes of zero: warm, tropical regions like the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean.  However, Sandy is arcing its way up the east coast, and looks to make landfall somewhere in the northeast of America.  Why might this be?
READ MORE ARTICLES

One last goodbye – Space Shuttle Endeavor passing through the Bay Area tomorrow

Well folks, it’s been a good run.  On Friday, September 21st, space shuttle Endeavor will be making its final journey across the country and to its final resting place at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.  It will mark the end of the active life of this space shuttle, as well as the closing of a magnificent chapter in American science.

The shuttle began its journey on the “Space Cost” of Florida, leaving the John F. Kennedy space center en route to Texas, where its transport will refuel and head towards the West Coast tomorrow morning.  Luckily for us, the shuttle is planning to make one final tour of the coast, including several spots in the Bay Area.

While the specific details have been a little sparse, all signs point to a flyover sometime tomorrow in the early morning.  More likely than not, your best bet to view the flyby will be one of the many science centers and landmarks scattered throughout the Bay Area.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Bringing science to youngsters: the tale of Ned the Neuron

Graduate school teaches a lot of really useful skills.  Analytic reasoning, writing scientific papers, conducting experiments, and (hopefully) communicating one’s ideas clearly and concisely are all parts of a quality science education these days.  However, there are still many facets of the scientific world that are often overlooked, be it intentionally or not.

We at the BSR often think of ourselves as offering an opportunity to work on one such skill: communicating complex ideas concisely and clearly.  However, the world of science communication is far more complex than a blog and magazine; there are thousands of potential science devotees out there, and reaching them all requires a multifaceted and clever approach that considers their myriad differences and interests.  One such group of people is our youth.  These are the folks that will be making the world-changing discoveries years from now, so I am especially impressed when scientists take the time out of their research to try and appeal to the emerging scientists among us.

Which brings me to Ned the Neuron.  Say, “Hi,” to Ned, everybody!
READ MORE ARTICLES

Why is California’s coast so cold anyway?

For those of us living in California, one of life’s great tragedies is that the Pacific ocean is both so close to us, and so poor for actual swimming. Just to our west lies miles and miles of beautiful California coast and beaches, but spending more than five minutes in their waters sounds like a recipe for pain and thermal shock, rather than the leisurely fun that summer is supposed to bring.

So why are the California waters so cold, anyway? As always, the answer is a combination of several factors, all of which highlight the intricate complexity of our global ecosystem, and how the effects that we feel locally often originate from hundreds of miles away.

Perhaps the first, most obvious answer for California’s chilly waters lies in the ocean currents that carry water from up north. The dominant current that flows past California is part of the “North Pacific Gyre”, a giant spiraling circle of water that takes up most of the Pacific Ocean.


READ MORE ARTICLES

From the ground to the stars: A brief take on asteroid mining

Remember that movie where a giant space rock was hurtling towards planet earth, and the best idea that humanity was able to come up with was rocketing Bruce Willis towards the asteroid to drill an atomic bomb into its core?  Remember how silly you though that was but also how you secretly wished that it might come true one day?  Well, it looks like your dreams may come true soon (at least the “sending miners to asteroids” part…you’ll have to wait a bit longer for King Bruce to blow one up with a nuke).

While the idea of asteroid mining is far from new, in the past few years the concept has garnered quite a bit of attention from the private sector.  The latest step came in April, when the company Planetary Resources announced its intention to design and build a system that could extract minerals from nearby asteroids.  The basic idea was similar to many that had come before it, but the roster of individuals behind Planetary Resources turned quite a few heads.  Amongst the ranks of investors in the company are superwealthy entrpreneurs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (of Google fame), space billionaire Charles Simonyi, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Dropping some celestial knowledge

Now that summer is finally upon us, I realized that we at the BSR let the most recent solar eclipse slip through the cracks.  Given how awesome and rare an event like this is, I’d like to apologize.  To make it up to you, I thought I’d explain a bit about these rare celestial occurrences, and give you a heads up to a particularly cool one coming up soon. As everybody knows, an eclipse occurs when the moon passes in front of the sun, but there are actually all kinds of different eclipses that happen, depending on where the moon, sun, and earth are positioned relative to one another. The moon and sun look to be about the same size because the sun is about 400 times larger than the moon, while the moon is about 400 times closer than the sun.  From earth, it may seem like things don’t change too much up there in space, but the distance between all of these objects actually changes on a fairly regular basis.  For example, check out the table below:

Note that the largest moon is always bigger than the largest sun – that’s why we get a total solar eclipse, complete with the famous corona that astronomy buffs everywhere live for.  However, this won’t always be true – it turns out that the moon is actually moving further away from earth at about four centimeters per year.  This means that in the past, the moon was always larger than the sun, whereas at some point in the future, a total solar eclipse may never happen again.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Technology reveals science that the naked eye cannot admire

One of the reasons that fields such as biology and chemistry can be difficult for non-scientists to understand is that the objects and processes they study are far too small to be seen with the naked eye.  Envisioning what something like endocytosis might look like is as much an exercise in creativity as reality. However, technology is beginning to bridge this gap, and the result is every bit as fascinating as we could have imagined.

At the University of Cambridge, the “Under the Microscope” project aims to detail the beauty and complexity of biology at its tiniest.  Take, for example, this image of a “Killer T-cell” attacking a cancerous cell in the body:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jgJKaP0Sj5U

In this video, we see the Killer T-cell (in green) identify and attack a cancerous cell beneath it (in blue).  While watching it, two things immediately came to my mind.  One was the accuracy of the T-cell in carrying out its duty of destroying the cancerous cell.  The environment was filled with all kinds of tiny cellular neighbors, and yet our hero knew what to aim for and how to get there.
READ MORE ARTICLES

John Snow and the cholera outbreak of 1854: Revealing an unintuitive truth using data

Truth reveals itself to us in many different ways. Sometimes, it takes the form of an amazing revelation, an eye-catching explosion of color, or a terrifying act of nature. Other times, it takes on a more subtle form, discovered only through a combination of patience, knowledge, and determination.

Turn the clock back a few hundred years, and you would find a culture that did not have the sophisticated data analysis techniques to uncover the truths of natural world that we have today.  Claims were often backed up by “common sense”.  Society lacked a way of quantifying information and letting the data speak for itself. But this mentality began to change in the 1800s, marking an important shift in our scientific culture that continues to this day.  While the process spanned several generations and countless individuals, one of the more interesting stories is that of a man named John Snow.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Piecing together the past at IceCube


I’d like all of you to try something before reading this article: go outside (or, if you live in the Bay Area, you may have to settle for your fridge), and take a look a a piece of ice. Doesn’t seem to be much going on there, huh? Well, what if I told you that you could measure energy that originated from the creation of the universe using that piece of ice? Setting aside my possible insanity as an answer, you’d probably want a good explanation. Well, without further ado, allow me to explain…

How to see the history of the universe with a piece of ice:

Step 1: raise $271 million in venture capital.
Step 2: build a giant lepton detector in the south pole.
Step 3: record the energy released by sub-atomic collisions originating from the creation of the universe

See how easy that was?

Even if you’re unable to carry out this little experiment by yourself, it turns out you’re in luck because someone else is already trying it. I’m referring to the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, located in Antarctica.  It’s run by researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and aims to tell us something about the distant (and I mean distant) past by measuring the energy emitted in ice deep within the south pole.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Live Blog: 2011 BERC Energy Symposium pt. 2

This is Chris here with the second half to our two-part coverage of the BERC energy conference at UC Berkeley. I’ll be here for an hour this afternoon, and will take the reigns again later today. This marks my first post in quite some time, so hopefully I won’t bore you all to death!

In case you just read that paragraph and have no idea what I’m talking about, take a look at Anna’s live blog entries from earlier today, as well as Brian’s experience last night at the Innovation Expo. The quick bit is that the BERC is a gigantic energy club that connects researchers studying energy issues from many different fields. They’re currently having a huge conference here at UC Berkeley, and the BSR is here to cover the action and keep the ticketless among you well-informed. Stay tuned for more!
READ MORE ARTICLES

Emotions, inspiration, and what it means to be human: an interview with Brian Christian

I’m going to do something amazing today.  I’m going to tell you what it means to be human. Well, actually, Brian Christian, author of the bestselling book The Most Human Human, is going to tell you what it means to be human. (I have previously written about his work, here).

Christian recently passed through Berkeley as part of his nationwide book tour. In between answering his fans’ questions about consciousness, creativity, and robotic dating, he took a few minutes to sit down with me and explain why he’s so interested in studying the distinguishing characteristics of humans and machines.

Christian’s book, in part, describes his experience as a participant in last year’s Turing Test, an annual competition in which man and machine vie for the title of “The Most Human”. In the competition, a panel of (human) judges engage in short electronic conversations with a hidden responder, either a fellow human or a computer “chatbot”. At the end of the conversation, the judges are asked to decide whether the person they were talking to was a human or a chatbot, and the winner is the responder who earns the most “human” votes.

Now you might be thinking “what a silly contest – of course human beings are the most human.”  If this thought crossed your mind ten years ago, you’d be absolutely right. However, this intuitive reaction may not ring true for much longer. Chatbots have become increasingly adept at fooling human judges, and in 2009, one program fell just shy of winning the competition.

That brings us to Christian’s desire to participate in the Turing test. Being the champion of human nature that he is, Christian heard of the close call and decided to take action by entering himself into the competition. In his words: “I wanted to know how I could get involved on behalf of humanity.”

Christian’s academic background made him a uniquely qualified competitor in the Turing Test. He holds degrees in Philosophy and Computer Science and at one point worked in a computational psychology laboratory. While these fields might appear to share little in common, Christian finds them “relevant in ways that don’t seem expected. Computer science and philosophy are… both about cognition, but they’re both about rigor.  Breaking things down to an atomic level.”
READ MORE ARTICLES

How to argue with a fencepost

I don’t often go off on rants about the importance of science communication (well, not in blog form anyway), but a recent article in Mother Jones magazine got me thinking about how important it is for the scientific community to know how to speak to the public.

The article by Chris Mooney isn’t about communicating science per se; it is about making arguments in general. You might think that convincing someone you’re right in an argument is dramatically different from telling someone about the awesomeness of the natural world, but (sadly) many public voices in science are faced with just such an antagonistic situation. People don’t just believe facts; they believe a selective group of facts that coincide with their particular worldview or belief system. Mooney describes a number of belief “experiments” that shed some insight into the ways that people incorporate information into their beliefs. Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which vastly different groups are guilty of the same practices.

Take for example the Seekers, a small cult based in Chicago in the 1950s. They were thoroughly convinced of their ability to communicate with ethereal aliens, one of whom was believed to be some sort of cosmological version of Jesus Christ (adding weight to my own theory that old JC was, in fact, a Time Lord). Like so many cults before (and after) them, the Seekers saw their day of reckoning come and go with nary a revelation nor apocalypse. Reason might suggest that these misled folks would end it there, that they’d pack up their bags, return to their lives (what was remaining of them, since many had sold their possessions and quit their jobs in anticipation of the big day), and agree not to speak of their monumental goof ever again.

But you probably know that’s not what they did. Instead, they began to rationalize for what had occurred, suggesting that they had actually diverted an apocalypse from happening. An announcement was made to the world, lauding the Seekers for their devotion and suggesting that “the little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Sounds familiar, no?

Introducing Nerd Nite SF – Wednesday, June 15 at 8 pm

To me, one of the best aspects of life in the Bay Area is getting to mingle with the assortment of geeks, scientists, and all the other kinds of nerdery that populate the world’s hotspot of science and technology.  And where better to mingle than a gathering whose name says it all: Nerd Nite, held on the third Wednesday of every month at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.

Here’s how it works: each month, Nerd Nite hosts a series of three talks.  These talks generally have something to do with science and technology, but most important is that they’re fun, interesting, and occasionally irreverent.  If you don’t happen find any of these things in a particular talk, then no worries – there’s a full bar at your disposal as well!

This month’s agenda:

“Strum and Twang: A Brief History of the Guitar and Its Cousins”
Ever wonder why guitars are so popular these days?  This talk promises to cover the 4,000 year history of this awesome musical instrument as well as it’s importance in our culture.

“Science in The Simpsons
We all love the Simpsons for it’s four-fingered hilarity, but did you know that many of the show’s episodes reference quite a bit of fascinating science?  This talk will delve into the nerdy side of the Simpsons and give you a greater appreciation for our yellow friends.

“Building a Star on Earth: The National Ignition Facility”
I probably don’t need to hype this one up too much — after all, they want to build a star… on earth. Jim Post and Tim Frazier will describe their roles at the National Ignition Facility, which for me invokes some combination of a particle accelerator and the Death Star.  The talk promises to give a fascinating glimpse into our attempt to create a self-sustaining energy source using ultra-powerful lasers.

If none of these talks tickles your fancy, then don’t despair!  There will be another Nerd Nite next month too.  Here is a link to their website, where you can learn about their past and future productions in all their nerdy glory.

If you want to check out this week’s event, then here are the details.  I hope to see you there!

What: Nerd Nite SF
When: Wednesday, June 15th at 8:00pm (doors at 7:30pm)
Where: The Rickshaw Stop
Cost: $8.00 at the door
READ MORE ARTICLES

Interview with Mary Roach

Science is fascinating. At least, I think so. But maybe I’m not the best person to ask, given my position as a PhD student and academic minion researcher. While the idea of spending an afternoon coding an artificial neural network sounds fantastic to me, I am ready to accept that the large majority of people out there would think otherwise. Perhaps a better person to ask would be Mary Roach, a writer who manages to take complicated scientific ideas and paint a picture that is both understandable and amazing (often hilarious too). She has covered topics ranging from investigation of the supernatural to the history of sex research, and she has built an impressive body of commentary on the scientific process.

We at the Berkeley Science Review are always looking for ways to learn about science communication, so we invited Mary to come and tell us about her experiences. After the seminar, I had a chance to speak with her one-on-one about her feelings on science writing.


READ MORE ARTICLES

What can art tell us about the mind?

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Amy Cook, a professor at Indiana University, about some interesting new inroads that are being made between psychology and art. Professor Cook exists at the intersection of two fields that have historically been very far apart: theater and cognitive science.

She explained to me that both of these fields are ultimately touching on the same kinds of ideas, albeit from very different directions. While it is quite obvious that cognitive science is concerned with understanding the mind, theater is driven by our knowledge of the human psyche as well. Put the two together, and you have a very powerful combination. In a talk she gave at UC Berkeley, Professor Cook used a cognitive science perspective to look at Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. It turns out that The Bard was actually quite crafty about weaving a story that plays with your mind and deals with some pretty sophisticated mental concepts.

One of the fundamental themes that Dr. Cook sees embodied in Henry V is emergence.
READ MORE ARTICLES

The California Cognitive Science Conference: Metamorphoses of the Mind


What: Third Annual California Cognitive Science Conference

When: Saturday, April 30, 2011

Where: 416 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704

Have you ever wondered how the human brain is able to adapt itself so skillfully to the changing world around it? How nervous systems are able to repair themselves in the face of extensive damage? And what about the philosophical ramifications of all this: what does a changing brain say about what it means to be a human?

These questions are fascinating to me, so I was thrilled to discover that UC Berkeley’s upcoming California Cognitive Science conference focuses on these issues (and much more). Titled Metamorphoses of the Mind, the conference boasts an impressive list of speakers ranging from computer scientists to neurophilosophers, each with a unique approach to take on the human mind. Here is the scoop on the keynote speakers:
READ MORE ARTICLES

Nuclear power in a nutshell

With all of the media coverage going on right now about the disaster in Japan, perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. (Warning for those of you versed in the world of nuclear physics: this is going to be a relatively simple, watered-down, and incomplete idea of what goes on in a nuclear reactor…don’t get mad at me!) And let me get something out of the way right from the get-go: there’s not going to be a nuclear explosion in Fukushima, Japan. While atomic bombs and nuclear power plants both rely on nuclear reactions, they are extremely different when it comes to their potential to explode.

So here’s the short version. Essentially, nuclear reactors work in the exact same way as certain other engines we’ve been using for hundreds of years: by using steam. At the heart of a nuclear reactor lies a chamber that is submerged in large tank of water. Inside this chamber are a number of uranium “cores,” if you will. These are about the size of a Tootsie Roll, and they’re totally awesome.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Birds are quantum physicists!

A paper appeared last year in Current Biology describing the ability of birds to see magnetic fields. Many birds respond to changes in the earth’s magnetic field, and the theory is that they use this ability to navigate during migration. As I mentioned in my blog, scientists have been trying to figure out just how birds can accomplish this amazing feat. Several hypotheses involve the protein cryptochrome, a molecule that seems to be nearly one-of-a-kind as far as biological structures go. Now scientists have taken the awesome factor for this mechanism one step higher: a paper in PRL suggest that these birds may actually be using quantum entanglement in their navigational systems.

For those uninitiated into the world of really tiny physics, entanglement basically describes two electrons that are inextricably linked.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Blurring the line between man and machine

Human beings are a wonderful species, indeed. We’ve got the ability to think critically in difficult situations, to be flexible in the face of great adversity and challenge, and to create systems that were previously unthinkable. Our brains seem to be nature’s ultimate machine, a unique network of neurons in a storm of electrical activity. This fantastic assemblage of complex components has been the sole occupant of the throne of “consciousness” (whatever that is) for thousands of years now. However, our tenure as the known universe’s only sentient beings may be coming to an end.

This concept was recently discussed in an article in The Atlantic. Written by Brian Christian, a bona-fide flesh-and-blood human (honest), it covers one of the oldest questions facing humanity: what makes us special?


READ MORE ARTICLES

Why empiricism will always be imperfect

A new year is upon us, and that’s always a great time to clean out the skeletons in your closet. So without further ado, let’s take a look at Jonah Lehrer’s explanation of “the decline effect” (published in The New Yorker last month). Lehrer describes this odd phenomenon whereby statistical significance of previous scientific findings seems to decrease with age, as we get further and further away from the time that it was initially reported in literature.

As any scientist can tell you, the holy grail of an experiment is a low p-value, a statistical measure that tells whether your findings are indicative of an actual effect, not just randomness and chance. This sounds fairly straightforward – of course we want to find things of actual importance, rather than being lulled into a false discovery by arbitrary data – but it turns out to be much hazier than a simple “yes” or “no.”
READ MORE ARTICLES

Sunspots!

I just finished reading Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and doing so made the astronomer in me appreciate the vast and unknown universe that makes up 99.99999% of existence. Luckily, there are plenty of amazing people who devote their entire lives to this cause, such as the folks at the Swedish Solar Telescope. In 2002, this telescope (located in La Palma, Spain) collected a remarkable high-res image of a sunspot the size of a planet.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Taking AI to the next level

At the heart of artificial intelligence lies the question of whether we might be able to create artificial systems that behave and compute in the same manner than human beings do. This would obviously be a mind-blowing breakthrough were it ever accomplished – it would give us new applications for computers, change the nature of work in our society, and force us to redefine the very nature of being human. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that such a feat has proven to be incredibly difficult to achieve. While it has grown in complexity and scope, artificial intelligence is still quite far from any kind of accurate human resemblance. However, this may change very soon.

Back in 2008, the world of electronics was abuzz with excitement over a new invention – the memristor. This is an electrical component that behaves very similarly to a resistor, but with one key difference. Memristors impede the flow of electricity, but the amount that they do so is dependent on the current that has passed through the memristor in the past. Now, this might not seem like such a big deal, but think about the implications. Essentially, such a piece of hardware has the ability to store some information about its previous input. It has the electrical equivalent of memory. With that in mind, let’s venture into the realm of cognitive science.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Redefining the structure of life

Last Thursday, I was stuck at a conference, furiously refreshing my phone to try and get the latest scoop on the “big announcement” from NASA. Now that I’m back, I thought I’d look into exactly what has been found and what this implies for our understanding of life in the universe. First, we didn’t find extraterrestrial life. I emphasize this because people were speculating rampantly about this possibility. However, you could say that we’ve accomplished the next best thing.

On Thursday, a group of researchers from the US Geological Survey, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and a host of other groups published a paper detailing a strain of bacteria taken from Mono Lake, California that has the ability to live off of arsenic rather than phosphorous. They took samples of the bacteria and placed them into an environment that was devoid of phosphorous, but had plenty of arsenic. Such an environment should be fatal to life as we know it, but these bacteria were able to grow and proliferate, incorporating the arsenic into their biological makeup.
READ MORE ARTICLES

An unfinished chapter in the sad story of Deepwater Horizon

Given my ties to the good old Crescent City, I have to mention a sad (but not shocking) discovery that has recently been made off of the Gulf Coast. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig earlier this year led to one of the most disastrous oil spills of all time. Oil spills been relatively frequent over the last few decades, and while each one is an incredible affront to nature, this spill following was particularly bad because it came directly from the oil well, rather than a separate container.

Immediately after the spill, pictures began to surface of wildlife covered in black muck, struggling to stay alive (see Rachel Bernstein’s post on the fate of the brown pelican). At that time, there were not yet any signs of massive destruction to entire ecosystems near the oil spill. It was regarded as pure luck that we managed to escape this situation without damaging the environment even more seriously. Now it seems that what we’ve seen thus far may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Researchers on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship recently discovered large portions of dead underwater coral that appears to be a direct result of the recent oil spill.
READ MORE ARTICLES

Geeking out at the LHS

If you asked me to list my favorite things about the Bay Area, somewhere near the top of the list (perhaps in between the fantastic weather and sourdough bread) would be the unusually large amount of geek appreciation and culture that exists here. Gone are the days where “geek” meant sitting in your room, face aglow as coding forums and throwback episodes of Star Trek scroll down your computer screen. No, in the San Francisco Bay, being a geek is something to be proud of!

So here’s an opportunity for all of you science geeks out there to enjoy. It’s at the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS), an amazing museum nestled within the Berkeley hills that has all kinds of fun and informative things to enjoy (see here and here for our coverage of other events at LHS). When you hear “science museum,” it may invoke painful images of screaming children, organizational destruction, and long lines. This has been an all-too-familiar experience for us adults who have managed to hold on to our love of science and technology through the years, but luckily the LHS has heard our demands for a more adult-friendly experience. I’m talking, of course, about the LHS Geek Out!

Talk about a change of heart!

A ruling was released a few days ago by the US Department of Justice on the topic of genetic intellectual property laws, barring companies and individuals from claiming patents on isolated genetic sequences. For those of you unfamiliar with this incredibly controversial field, it essentially revolves around the question of whether or not any entity can “own” the rights to a particular sequence of the human genome.

Granted, this isn’t “own” as in “Hi, I’m Genencorp and I own your genes, now give them to me.” It’s a much more abstract and subtle sense of ownership, though it still has a strong impact on the world of biological research (and possibly on each of our lives).
READ MORE ARTICLES

Rotationplasty rocks!

Sometimes you see something that just makes you take a break and marvel at how fantastic our medical technology has become. Here is one such example.

The Mayo Clinic offers an online “patient education” video series that describes various medical procedures, their effects on the individual, and what life is like after undergoing them. This particular video covers rotationplasty, a thoroughly amazing operation that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around.
READ MORE ARTICLES