Rights for Robots

December 21, 2006


 The BBC news web site quotes a government report that robots may some day need to be given human rights. Sounds crazy at first hearing, but if a robot were to pass the Turing Test for ‘lifelike’ behaviour, how would you fail to grant such rights? Of course, given rights they will have to accept responsibilities, such as the payment of taxes!

Photo by drp


Liquid Water on Mars

December 6, 2006

NASA has announced the discovery of liquid water on Mars thanks to MGS images.

The clue is that the continual imaging by the MGS has enabled the team to track changes in the surface over time. The really exciting thing is that the team think that this shows evidence of material being moved by water today. The traces are light streaks in gulleys.

Mars Water
Photo by NASA

There are a few reasons why the scientists are arguing for the existence of water. One is the colour of these streaks. Usually when the dust gets disturbed on Mars, the surface gets darker. This is seen in the tracks the Mars rovers make, the trenches Viking made and the scars of impacts from space. These streaks are a lot lighter. Why the streaks are lighter is unknown, but there are couple of possibilities.
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The Antikythera Mechanism

November 29, 2006

A paper on the Mechanism appears in tomorrow’s Nature. In brief what it is these days is a rather unimpressive looking lump of heavily corroded metal. I have a photo of it somewhere, but it’s a very bad blurry photo which doesn’t do justice to its lumpy unimpressiveness. Fortunately Wikipedia has this much better photo.

Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism in the National Museum, Athens. Photo from Wikipedia.

The reason why it’s news is that there’s been a lot of painstaking work to try and see beyond the corrosion, and its proven spectacularly successful. The mechanism has been examined using X-ray tomography, which is where X-rays are used to build up a cross-section of a subject slice by slice without physically pulling the subject apart. The results are confirming that Greek technology could be staggeringly sophisticated.
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Transit of Mercury

November 8, 2006

Mercury is passing in front of the Sun as I type. You can follow the Mercury transit until 0100 GMT (UT) via the Big Bear Solar Observatory‘s webcam. Here’s the start. You’re looking for the black dot that shifts.

Mercury Transit

Below is a version I’ve re-coloured, but hopefully you can see where the dot has moved.

Mercury recoloured

The reason the live image appears black and white is that the Big Bear Observatory is only looking at light in the H-Alpha wavelength, which means that it’s all one shade. This limitation that allows them to pick out features on the Sun better. Observations of this transit were used as a test of Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

Prize Students Enrol

November 2, 2006

Two potential future Nobel Prize winners have enrolled at the University of Leicester.  The pair, both medallists from the 2005 International Physics Olympiad, have qualified for direct entry into the second year of the MPhys degree in the department of physics and astronomy.

Professor Ken Pounds said: “It is perhaps no coincidence that 2004 and 2006 saw the strongest results ever from our final year, with a record number of first-class honours, as our own UK students sought to match the high standards set by their international colleagues. Olympiad students could be the Nobel Prize winners of the future.”

An Inconvenient Truth

October 13, 2006

I went to see An Inconvenient Truth this week. It’s on a short run outside of London making it briefly a slightly more convenient truth. I was rather impressed. There’s little new in the film, at not to those living in Europe, but what is there is put together and presented very well. The film tackles four basic issues, What is Global Warming? What’s causing it? Why does it matter? What can we do about it?

The explanation of Global Warming is simplfied, it solely about CO2 in Al Gore’s film, which skips over the problems that might be caused by things like Methane clathrates. For the sake of explaining the problem this is a very smart move, because it allows him to then concentrate on one issue for tackling the cause. The common rejoinder from industry is that warming and cooling follows a natural cycle. Gore’s able to show that this is true it does. He’s then able to follow this up by showing the range of natural variation, and how modern carbon dioxide levels are way waaaay in excess of natural variation. Some of the more powerful scenes in the film explore why this matters. In the preview above you can see that a feasible rise of sea level caused by the melting of Greenlandic or a portion of Antarctic ice will cause large scale flooding of densely populated coastal areas.

The weakest part of the film, from a European perspective is the call to action. He says nothing wrong, but it’s all very old news over here. This is very much a section for the North American audience where being green is a matter of envying your neighbour’s gas guzzler. One scene is about proposed improvements in fuel efficiency by the state of California which are being opposed by the motor industry and it’s hard not to laugh. They’re pitiful. California wants to be, in twelve year’s time, where China is today. If this really is a problem for Ford or General Motors then who in their right mind would buy an American car?

This aside, it is a very good introduction to the problem. Like all politicians Gore cannot tell jokes, but he comes close on a couple of occasions. What he does do is get across his message clearly, effectively and powerfully. Visual aids are used well, but so is his presence as a speaker. As an example of science communication its hard to beat.

Monet the Astronomer?

October 8, 2006
Monet the Houses of Parliament

Is Monet’s painting of the Houses of Parliament above an accurate painting of London? The story that it could well be broke in August but I’ve delayed commenting on it because I wanted to sit down with the original paper.

Woman with a guitarI tend to be sceptical of claims that art can be read scientifically. For instance does this really look much like a woman with a guitar? The Monet paper had the added problem of stating that the time of painting could be dated. Astronomy is usually a terrible way to date things. It really only works if you already know the period of the thing you’re dating, which is why the paper ‘Solar position within Monet’s Houses of Parliament‘ by Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes makes a lot of sense. It’s an example of good interdisciplinary thinking.

The reason it works so well is that Baker and Thornes are able to use historical material to eliminate a lot of speculation. Monet’s life is well studied and many of his letters survive, so they are able to place the period during which Monet was in London. To examine the painting more closely they also needed to calculate where Monet’s vantage point was. This was made easier as they knew the building he was in, Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Using architectural drawings and Monet’s description of the room they had a set of likely candidates. They then tried to match this to the view from the painting.

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