Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category

Lieutenant Uhura is now with the stars.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ dead at 89
Nichols was one of the first Black women featured in a major television series, and her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original TV series was groundbreaking: an African American woman whose name came from Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom.”

“For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., Star Trek’s Uhura Reflects On MLK Encounter

Nichelle Nichols showed us all that the future belonged to more than just white men, and then she helped NASA build that future.

“After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.”

— NASA Administrator Bill Nelson
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She demonstrated, with talent, conviction, determination and grace, that the future is brighter when all of us are in it.

“If they let me in the door, I will open it so wide that they will see the world.”

— Woman in Motion tells story of how Star Trek’s Uhura changed NASA forever | Ars Technica

She did. We did. And humanity is so much better for it.

“If you can see it, you can be it,” the saying goes. Nichelle Nichols gave millions of people the opportunity to see themselves on the frontiers of science and exploration, boldly expanding human understanding.

She inspired so many of us to reach for the stars. What a legacy.

— Hillary Clinton

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(NASA/Bill Ingalls) NASA Identifier: nasahqphoto-5161637425

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Yesterday’s drabble was fiction, but this article is not. There really are Martians, and they’re living among us!

NASA engineer Nagin Cox on Mars rover time

This comic, illustrated by Anuj Shrestha, is inspired by an interview with NASA engineer Nagin Cox from TED Radio Hour’s episode It Takes Time.

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First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope | NASA

The dawn of a new era in astronomy has begun as the world gets its first look at the full capabilities of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope…

NASA has begun to roll out new images from the Webb Telescope. They are (insert understatement here) impressive. This is one example, of the Carina Nebula:

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

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Would you like to know more?

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Welcome to Monday, brought to you by an AI’s idea of a “cat in the style of Vincent van Gogh.”

Not bad, actually.

Running through different versions using the same root prompt (“cat in the style of”) made the artistic differences (and any deficiencies) clear. A lot of the images produced by the DALL-E mini system are a bit odd, particularly when faces are involved. (The site even has a FAQ on “Why are faces so weird?”)

Even so, it was interesting to see what an AI considers the essential style of an artist or technique, and there were a number of attempts I found fun.

Rather than upload all images I made a slideshow. It’s lower-resolution (I shrunk it down to 16MB instead of 80MB+) but you should still get the picture.

Cat in the Style of

(Did I leave out the truly disturbing results? Yes. I don’t know what this AI has against Vermeer but I want no part of it!)

Thanks, Craiyon!

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I attended the sort of progressive high school that allowed students to create their own classes. I decided to study the practical applications of plants, specifically their uses in food, textiles and medicine.

Basically, I cooked, dyed wool and made diluted poisons. Typical high school stuff.

I learned a lot about my local plants during that semester. What I’m not always great at is identifying new plants. That’s why I downloaded a plant identifier app. I won’t suggest the one I use because it’s just ok, full of tech walls designed to shunt you away from free options and toward a purchase, but I’ve charted a path around those barriers and can get the information I want.

That said, I’ve learned that iOS 15 users* already have a free alternative.

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The feature is called Visual Look Up and once you know it’s there, it’s easy to use. It works for plants but also other subjects like landmarks, art and animals.

Today I learned you can identify plants and flowers using just your iPhone camera

Just open up a photo or screenshot in the Photos app and look for the blue “i” icon underneath. If it has a little sparkly ring around it, then iOS has found something in the photo it can identify using machine learning. Tap the icon, then click “Look Up” and it’ll try and dredge up some useful information.

Is it perfect? Not in my (admittedly limited) experience, but it is surprisingly good. My father-in-law sent me a picture of a mystery flower that had appeared (quite mysteriously!) next to his pond. Despite living in the area for decades he had never seen the plant before. Did I know what it was?

I did, in fact, have a pretty good guess. It looked an awful lot like a native plant Mr Man and I bought when we first moved into the house, the Blue Flag Iris. I ran the image through my app to be sure, and it helpfully appended “Northern” to the name. Points for me, but confirmation is always nice.

After discovering Visual Look Up I tested it on the same photo. It got me to “Iris” but without additional specifics. (To be fair, when I took a quick snapshot of the clearer image below and ran Look Up, it identified the plant as a Blue Flag Iris. Points for it.)

So next time you discover something mysterious that you don’t mind sharing with the tech giant in your pocket, try out this feature.

For a free option covering multiple life and other forms?** Recommended.

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* Those in the US, Australia, Canada, UK, Singapore, Indonesia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Mexico, for now. Not an iPhone user? I haven’t tried it, but Google Lens has similar functionality and works for both iOS and Android.

** But does it work on aliens?

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Ten? Ten.

This morning my computer helpfully informed me that it has been ten years since I started this site.

Seriously? That can’t be true… It is true!

I also passed 1,000 posts a few weeks ago, which felt like a fun milestone.

So, happy site birthday! Any excuse for cake, right? In honor of this week’s Super Strawberry full moon, let’s go with strawberry.

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Photo by Junior REIS on Unsplash

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While I engage in the joy that is Tuesday and also wait for a bit of family news, here’s a window into the happy, hyperactive world of the West Texas hummingbird.

For more live bird cams (including some involving things you shouldn’t do with a squirrel!), visit Cornell Lab Bird Cams.

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If you’re in North America, you may be treated to a dramatic meteor shower tonight. 

Or, you know, maybe not.

Meteor storm of 1,000 shooting stars per hour possible this week | Space

The Tau Herculids meteor shower may light up the skies over North America on May 30 and 31. Or it may not. There’s a chance we might pass through the thickest part of the comet fragment that is creating the debris, in which case the night skies will be filled with shooting stars.

You can watch the possible tau Herculid meteor shower live online, courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project. The project’s astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will provide live all-sky cameras from Arizona and Brazil starting at 12 a.m. EDT (0400 GMT) on Tuesday, May 31.

I kind of love that despite all of humanity’s scientific advances, such events can remain a delightful surprise.

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Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

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I forgot to mention yesterday’s Super Flower Blood Moon eclipse. Hopefully you saw at least some of it, but if you missed it NASA has a number of livestreams, including this one from Georgia in the US:

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Some of my time today was taken up by story edits, so I thought I could use a bit of help on the blog post today.

You may have heard the fuss around OpenAI’s GPT-3, a new AI that can generate impressive results with text and code. (Here’s an explainer, or you can think of it as the world’s most sophisticated auto-complete.) I decided to test out an open-source version called GPT-J by asking it to create a list of ten speculative fiction books.

* Disclaimer: I am an untrained hack playing with a system that (in some hands, at least) is giving the Turing Test a run for its money. Cue hilarity.

My new assistant was happy to help, if sometimes a bit, um, off base. After tweaking the prompt, settings, and iterating several many times to get around the length limitations, here is the result:

Original Prompt (My comments in brackets and bold, all else from GPT-J):

List 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien


List 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. 1984 by George Orwell

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

4. The Shining by Stephen King

5. The Stand by Stephen King

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve been reading a lot of speculative fiction lately, mostly dystopian and post-apocalyptic, so I decided to put together a list of ten of my favorites. It’s probably a bit more of a guilty pleasure than an accurate reflection of my reading habits, but these are all books that I’ve really enjoyed and can’t wait to reread. I’ll probably be back to add some more to the list.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The first fantasy book I ever read and it’s still one of my favorites. I picked it up when I was 14 or 15, and I’ve read it a few times since. It’s a story of good versus evil, with good triumphing over evil. [geesh, spoiler alert] I read the trilogy in order, though I’d recommend reading the prequel, The Hobbit, first if you haven’t already.

2. 1984 by George Orwell

Orwell’s dystopian novel about a future where the government has full control over the citizens. It’s written in the form of a diary entry by an unnamed character, so you don’t really know who it’s talking about. It’s probably my favorite dystopian novel and the one I’ve read most often. I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while, but I haven’t found the time yet.

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This book is about a teenage boy named Alex who is doped up on hallucinogenic drugs. He gets in trouble with the police, and when the drugs wear off he goes berserk and starts brutally attacking people. He’s a classic anti-hero. [I saw the movie. don’t want to see/read it again]

4. The Shining by Stephen King

I haven’t read this one in a while, but I remember enjoying it. It’s about a writer who gets trapped in a hotel during a blizzard, with an evil presence in the hotel. It’s got a great story and a lot of twists and turns, but it’s also very scary.

5. The Stand by Stephen King

Another Stephen King book I haven’t read in a while, but I remember enjoying it. It’s about a virus that’s being spread by a zombie-like virus, and the only way to stop it is to kill every single person. [admission: haven’t read it, but even I know this isn’t quite on the money]

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is a dystopian novel about a future where women are subjugated to the men. The story revolves around a woman named June, who becomes pregnant and has to go through an arranged marriage with a man named Nick. [I mean, sort of? on the money about “the men” though]

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is one of my favorite science fiction novels. [I can tell, see below] It’s about a time traveler from the future who is stuck in the past, and the only way he can get back to the future is to find the way to his home world. [eehhhh, close enough]

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve read this one before, and I loved it. It’s about a group of hobbits and elves [um, kind of?] who go on a quest to destroy an evil ring. It’s not just a simple story about good and evil, but a story about friendship and loyalty. It’s a great fantasy novel. [truth]

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

[not speculative, but at this point we’re just going with it]

This is a bestseller in Sweden [and everywhere else], and it’s the first in a trilogy. It’s about a journalist who is hired to investigate a crime in Sweden, and the story is told from the perspective of the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist.

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is the second in a trilogy, and it’s about a girl named Katniss Everdeen who gets sent to the Hunger Games to be a tribute, where she has to fight and kill other contestants in a fight to the death.

I’m a big fan of both dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I was excited when I found this book at a used book store. I’d been wanting to read it for a while, and I was happy to find it for a reasonable price. 

[So, errors but it’s really not terrible so far, although it’s often almost right enough to be problematic if you’re not careful; now here’s where it goes off the rails]

The story is told from the perspective of a 14 year old girl named Charlie who has to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I’m not a big fan of the Hunger Games series, but I did enjoy this book. It’s a story about the dangers of technology, and it’s one of the few dystopian novels I’ve read that I actually enjoyed. It’s about a man named Anthony, who has a terminal illness and is given the chance to be frozen in a cryogenic chamber and wake up later.

The story is told in the form of a journal entry by the protagonist, Richard. He has a wife and son, and he’s trying to cope with his son’s death, as well as his own imminent death. The story revolves around Richard trying to make sense of what has happened, and trying to cope with the loss of his son.

I read this book in one sitting, and I’m still thinking about it. [me too, GPT-J, me too]

I’m sure there’s a tech explanation for what happened there, but for now I’ll just be amused. 

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In earlier tests, GPT-J did a pretty good job of identifying both science fiction and more generally speculative fiction, but did get a few things wrong.


9. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This is a novel set in a virtual reality world called the Matrix. It’s a world in which you can literally “hack” reality.

It’s a brilliant book. It’s set in a future where virtual reality is the new reality. But it’s a bit like the movie Snowpiercer. Snow Crash is a bit like a cross between Snowpiercer and Snow Crash.

It’s really, really, really good. I can’t recommend it enough.

[just, yeah]

7. The Stainless Steel Rat by John Creasey [nope, that was Harry Harrison; it didn’t know that Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War either]

Also, from some of the earlier versions of this experiment GPT-J seems to have a serious thing for H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Here’s an example:


Complete this list of 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin


2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

3. The City and the City by China Miéville

4. The Iron Heel by Jack London

5. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

6. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

8. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

10. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Ok, then!

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I will say that all of this took a great deal more time than actually, I don’t know, writing the list myself. That said, even this tiny glimpse shows off the system’s enormous potential. 

So (aside from “Generative Pretrained Transformer”) what does GPT stand for? 

GPT-J has thoughts:

A: GPT stands for Genuine Personal Testimony.
A: GPT stands for GNU Parted Table. It’s the name of the backend to which I’m referring to when I say that I’m talking about the “system” and not the “table.”
A: GPT stands for “grandparents’ primary teacher”. I created the term to describe those teachers who start a conversation with students and parents as if they are a student’s grandparent. It’s a term I use to describe teachers who have the experience of a parent.

Me, I say it stands for generate, proof, and for the love of The Time Machine, please think.

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Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

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