B I/O G
Query: Science and tech. Interface: debonair; suave, with an obnoxious streak.
Montreal’s new Rio Tinto Planetarium will open April 6. Photo Michael Wrobel
Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum was on hand to greet visitors. Photo Michael Wrobel
The planetarium’s permanent exhibition was still under construction during the open house on March 16. Photo Michael Wrobel
A mock-up of the planetarium shows the building’s unique green roof and landscaping. Photo Michael Wrobel
The Zeiss opto-mechanical star projector that was used in the old Dow Planetarium, now on display at the new location. It was used for 45 years and consisted of more than 150 projectors. Photo Michael Wrobel
When the Montreal Planetarium shut down in October 2011, stargazers were undoubtedly disappointed.
But the closure was only temporary. And on April 6, the wait will finally be over. The newly renamed Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium will reopen in a new, purpose-built location at the Olympic Park.
The planetarium made the move for two reasons: to group all of Montreal’s natural science museums in one area, and to provide visitors with a fresher, more immersive experience.
The Olympic Park is already home to the Biodome, the Botanical Gardens and the Insectarium. They will now collectively form, with the new planetarium, what has been dubbed the Space for Life—the largest natural science museum complex in Canada.
“The mission of Space for Life is to reconnect humankind and nature,” said Charles-Mathieu Brunelle, executive director of the museum complex.
He promised that visitors will reconnect not only intellectually, but emotionally, thanks to the new planetarium’s two theatres. Brunelle said one of the theatres will be reserved for artistic productions, featuring shows that explore “metaphors and ideas inspired by astronomy.”
“There’s a strongly reflective floor, you sit on beanbags and Adirondack chairs, there’s a [musical] score by Philip Glass. […] You have the impression that you’re taking off. You really have the impression that you’re in the middle of this cosmos, that you’re really part of it. And that’s the whole idea, to reconnect by science, by education, but [also] by emotions.”
Brunelle said that the sense of awe people get when they look at the stars might inspire them to look at their role on the planet in a new way.
“I think we need to re-find our place in nature, a place really inside, in the middle of it […] and then we’ll be less intrusive to this planet, hopefully,” he said. “Looking at the stars is a nice way to feel the humility towards this planet that I think we should [feel more often].”
Montreal multidisciplinary artists Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon were in charge of the museum’s artistic direction, and the planetarium’s website promises “a breathtaking meeting of technology, art and science.”
A new permanent exhibition, Exo: Our Search for Life in the Universe, will be interactive and digital, complete with projections and multimedia games.
Visitors will be able to “travel through the solar system” or “operate a robot on the surface of Mars,” as well as view part of the planetarium’s collection of 300 meteorite pieces, according to the museum’s website.
The building itself follows strict LEED environmental standards. Rainwater collection and the use of drought-resistant plants in the building’s landscaping will mean that drainage into municipal sewers will be reduced by 60 per cent, and there are also plans to minimize water consumption.
The planetarium also has a green roof that will absorb heat and reduce the building’s impact on the urban heat island. The building’s outdoor lighting complies with tough standards regarding light pollution.
Over 95 per cent of waste materials during construction were “saved from going to landfill through sound environmental management,” according to the planetarium’s website.
The media and the general public were given a preview of the new planetarium during an open house held March 16. A line formed outside the building, and Mayor Michael Applebaum was on hand to greet visitors as they entered.
“This [museum complex] is changing the way people think in their lives,” said Applebaum. “How do we incorporate nature in our daily lives? And how are we able to reduce our footprint? This is what is being done here with Space for Life.”
“When people come to see this facility, they’ll realize that it’s an incredible investment. This is part of the leg for the 375th anniversary of the city of Montreal. […] This is a new facility, and it’s a facility, of course, that will be recognized throughout the world when we talk about nature and space. This is really going to be an attraction for the city of Montreal.”
Montreal’s original planetarium was opened in April 1966, ahead of the Expo 67 international exposition. From 1966 until its closure, some 6 million people passed through its doors.
Space Concordia is sending a satellite into orbit to explore the South Atlantic Anomaly. Photo Gregory Gibson.
The latest Samsung Galaxy S4 is expected to retail for $199 in US, according to CNet, though no word on the smartphone’s price in Canada. Photo Isriya Paireepairit.
Researchers are developing personalized cures to diseases by artificially creating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and then abating it with adult stem cells. Photo Greg Marshall.
Holy cubes, Batman!
This week: what goes into an award-winning cube satellite, why Samsung doesn’t need Google and why are scientists recreating Parkinson’s disease in monkeys and then defeating it with stem cells?
But first… a “cure” for HIV/AIDS—sort of—in our latest installment of (cue music) WTF moments in Science.
Last week, a major announcement came out of Atlanta about a Mississippi infant who was functionally cured of HIV after it was transmitted from the mother just before birth. The infection was not detected before the mother went into labour, but if it is found earlier in the pregnancy then antiretroviral drug treatment can effectively stop transmission to the child 98 per cent of the time.
The team at the University of Mississippi hospital began treating the baby less than 30 hours after her birth. They upped the ARV dosage from one to three. Like other HIV treatments that come in threes (I’m thinking triple cocktail here) the initiative was much more successful. Within a month, viral load levels in the newborn held such minimal traces of the virus that it was practically undetectable. After the child stopped taking medication for five months her body was still virtually clean of the disease.
Fourteen adults were also announced to be “fundamentally cured” this week. Early and aggressive treatment with ARVs is being hypothesized as the answer (again, not unlike the triple cocktail in July 1996 in Vancouver). But myself, along with many experts in the medical community, seem to be rather tepid to call this a real cure. Immunologists will tell you that these “cured” individuals still harbour traces of the disease—and that CD4 cells will host the dormant virus for years. Epidemiologists will point out there are multiple strains and substrains of HIV and each has varying tolerances to certain ARV treatments. Some people are entirely immune to such treatment.
Ultimately, while this baby and the other 14 patients can now lead better lives, a lot of false hope was doled out in the process.
Hence thinking, wtf?
But moving on: the smartphone world had its next mini paradigm shift this week with the unveiling of the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4. Editors over at CNet were able to test drive the phone, and from their remarks it looks like Samsung is pushing its flagship smartphone in the hardware department to maintain its hefty market share. Particularly, the octa-core 1.6 GHz processor in the Asian and European models has been long anticipated. The world’s biggest electronics company also made headway with new software, such as a tracker to stop video when you turn away from the screen—but the advances have some at Tech Crunch wondering if Samsung is planning on replicating what it needs from Android and then doing away with Google alltogether. As open source, Android software has already been appropriated by Amazon and others. Samsung has the weight as a company to try and build up its own Samsung-only apps, though I still think that it will run the generic Android OS for the time being.
In other news: researchers have successfully transplanted neural cells from a monkey’s skin into its brain. The process is rather fascinating, but also gruesome; the researchers created a monkey model of Parkinson’s disease by infusing a lesion to the brains of three monkeys. They then developed adult stem cells known as pluripotent stem cells from the monkeys’ neural cells. The iPS cells were then transmitted into the hosts, changing into a legion of different cells in the brain. Sadly, the monkeys did not get better, yet the researchers are hopeful this practice of using one’s own cells can become standard practice. But three still-sick monkeys is a long way off from personalized medicine.
This week we have have something really special to talk about. Space Concordia, an engineering club at Concordia University, has been kind enough to supply us with details and specs of their soon to be launched satellite: the ConSat-1. It is a CubeSat: a small open source satellite design typically 10cm x 10cm x 10cm—though ConSat-1 is a 3U CubeSat, which is 30cm x 10cm x 10cm. ConSat-1 was entered into the inaugural Canadian University Satellite Design Challenge put on by commercial satellite developper Geocentrix Inc. Space Concordia beat out nine other universities with its plans to explore the South Atlantic Anomaly, an area of intense yet still unexplainable radiation found in Earth’s inner Van Allen belt, discovered in the 1950s. While the CubeSat is still in need of about $14,000 in funding Space Concordia is hoping for an August launch through the European Space Agency.
The satellite utilizes solar panels for power while in orbit, generating 4.9 W BOL, with an expected degradation of 1 per cent per year in space. It is also equiped with a $16,000 Q6 processor card donated by Xiphos Inc. It is the same flight controller that controls the International Space Station. ConSat-1’s main payload is a specialized Geiger–Müller tube to compute ionized radiation levels.
The satellite and its team of engineers will travel to South America for final preparations before launch. In the meantime, a second design team is already building ConSat-2 for the next design challenge. This one has perhaps an even more interesting mission: testing self-healing materials in space.
According to interim student project leader Mehdi Sabzalian, the compound has been used before in car paint to repair scratches. It was created in partnership by Dr. Suong Hoa of Concordia University, MDP Technologies and the Canadian Space Agency.
The plastic-like composite has pellet-like containers inside to repair cell damage. It could be used to shield the ISS from micrometeorites and other space debris.
Winners for the second challenge won’t be announced until 2014, so there is a long time to go before we know whether ConSat-2 will even see liftoff. Until then, if anyone needs me, I’ll be watching home recordings of “Cosmos” with Carl Sagan.
Until next time, folks.
Here’s a fitting space-inspired pick-me-up from famous astrophysicist and world’s greatest laugher Neil deGrasse Tyson:
“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”
Bitted and spaced like a CubeSat,
—Assistant News Editor
And we’re back.
With almost two months between postings, it might have looked like the BI/OG had closed up shop. In truth, we felt like we needed some time apart—it’s not you, we promise, it’s us; we are hard to please, difficult to understand sometimes and very excited about pretty objects in the sky (but who isn’t, really).
After some soul searching, we’ve decided to make a few changes here at the BI/OG. Some of them are rather big—ambitious, even. We’ll be unveiling them over the next couple of weeks, so keep our URL handy and that finger on the refresh button.
First up this week, a new segment we’re calling mini paradigm shifts: small bites of news worth sharing.
Now that the craze has died down a little bit, we can look back and say with unadulterated honesty (not that we didn’t at the time) what was everybody thinking with this Harlem Shake business?
This craze—more crazy than phenomenon—appeared out of nowhere and took YouTube by storm.
But for those who weren’t convinced to go spastic en masse, what was the appeal? Well, according to Josh Constine over at Tech Crunch, the simplistic dance formula is too tantalizing for the uncreative.
To begin with, Constine breaks down the math for us, like so:
[14T x (A1 + V1)] => Δ => [14T x (A2 + V2)] => [2T x (A3+V3)]
Or, to simplify: 14 seconds of build-up music with one person dancing passively on screen as others stand still around them, then the video cuts to 14 seconds of “bombastic dance music” played as the onlookers and original person bust some aggressive moves, and finishing with two seconds of slow-motion recapping of all the crazy.
Calling it a form of “symbiotic meme” (a term he made up for his Ph. D. dissertation), Constine says the easily-remixable format make its ever-growing audience more and more curious about the source of the viral video. This floods traffic back to the original or flagship version of the meme, he argues.
Whether this truly explains the popularity of the Harlem Shake craze—or is excusable for the dance’s continued existence—is still not clear.
Regardless, thank you Mr Constine for numbercrunching this questionable trend.
Partitioning over to the tech world: This year’s Mobile World Congress wrapped up today in Barcelona, without its usual hyped-up new product launches. But while we didn’t get treated to a Galaxy S4 from Samsung, there were some cool things being unveiled.
New screen materials were on display. One made of AL2O3, aka an aluminum oxide compound but better known as a sapphire was showcased on Apple iPhones. It is, apparently, two to three times stronger than current screen fixtures. Mozilla also finally unveiled their long-awaited mobile web browser “Firefox OS” to a crowd of 700 at the conference—though it apparently wasn’t the best new mobile OS in the eyes CNet’s review panel (click the jump to find out their pick—which happens to be mine too, if anyone’s interested).
And this week’s WTF moment comes to us from a recent idea presented at the latest meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: the origins of alcohol consumption. While modern humans break down ethanol (the kind of alcohol in wine, beer, and so on) using alcohol dehydrogenase 4, or ADH4, our common ancestors with chimpanzees and gorillas used a less-evolved and potent version of the enzyme. Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla. and his team have built compounds mirroring the enzyme, using estimates of its genetic code from up to 10 million years ago. From an evolutionary standpoint, they argue that early humanoid mammals developed a tolerance to ethanol in order to eat fruit fermenting on the ground, which is why orangutaans do not carry a honed ADH4.
Without accurate samples from the time period (which are scarce to say the least), the idea will remain just that—an idea. “This is cool work,” admitted Jeremy DeSilva, a biological anthropologist at Boston University, to Science News magazine. “We’ll be able to evaluate it with better evidence as we find more fossils from that time period.”
But where were we?
Getting back on track, an upcoming movie is looking for funding. Now, at face value that doesn’t seem that important, but the project is literally out of this world. Planetary Collective teamed up with everyone from poets and astronauts, physicists and storytellers, anthropologists and even Tibetan lamas to try and answer some of the most fundamental questions of humanhood. If that already sounds intriguing wait ‘til you see the cinematography.
What first drew me in to Continuum was the short released last year by the group (it’s embedded above). Being that “Overview” is it’s title, it deals with what has been refered to as—quaintly enough—the “overview effect.” Attributed first to Frank White in 1987, it is an experience based on the idea of looking back at the Earth from space that “transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it,” as the producers put it. The astronauts describe being fundamentally humbled at the sight—and so was I, just from a video snapshot of what they’d really seen. Just that were enough to bring me on board (figuratively speaking, of course). Continuum pushes forward from “Overview” and brings the discussion closer to home. The project is seeking donations via kickstarter.org, an online platform that connects creative types with investors. With luck, the project will get off the ground and be released quite soon.
That’s it for the BI/OG this week. Here are some poignant words from Werner Heisenberg, my favourite of the fathers of quantum mechanics—because he’s always that predictable, am I right?
“Natural science, does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.”
Bitted and spaced, and happy to be back,
-Assistant News Editor
I have to tell you in advance this is going to be a rather hard thing to have to read through.
Last Friday Aaron Swartz—Reddit co-founder and a developer of RSS web feed software—was found dead in his apartment, having hanged himself.
Swartz, 26, was to go on trial in April, charged by American prosecutors for the illegal copying and attempted distribution of academic articles. He obtained these files by hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network via a computer wiring closet, according to the federal prosecutors in Boston. They allege Swartz swiped about 4 million articles from JSTOR, a pay-subscription article database, and was planning to release them for free on the Internet.
At his funeral, his father Robert proclaimed that Swartz “was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”
Defenders of Swartz’ actions accuse the government of trying to make an example out of the young hacktivist. JSTOR had already dropped the charges once the cache of documents was returned to them. Others, such as the analysis of Time magazine—which instantly dismisses his actions and ideology—are not as agreeable.
“In Swartz’s case, a misdemeanor conviction and a stern warning that the next infraction would result in a felony charge would have likely put him on a straight path,” wrote Adam Cohen in Time last week.
Sure, for all we know, Swartz could have gone to court in April and received a plea bargain or some other form of slap on the wrist. As a matter of law Swartz probably would not have been in jail for more than a year. This largely has to do with Swartz’ intention—the documents’ free and open distribution on the Internet. Even though his actions are illegal, they are not for personal gain—in fact, they are more so for collective, communal gain. Many are opposed to this democratic view of freedom of information, yet at one time this notion of democratizing content was paramount to the Web’s existence. Cohen’s belief that Swartz’s needed to be corrected, his path realigned, is wrong. Sure, Swartz was in violation of the law of today, but he certainly did not deserve to be.
Dating back decades, but perhaps archived most famously by the 1986 manifesto, The Conscience of a Hacker by “The Mentor” aka Loyd Blankenship, hackers, cyberpunks and computer science prophets have proclaimed an ideology of free information. They “use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons… and you call us criminals.”
Throughout his career, Swartz became even more revered for his activism than his inventions. He campaigned against the Stop Online Piracy Act and its American Senate counterpart, which would have authorized the Justice Department to force search engines, Internet service providers, and other companies to remove any content—once served an order—that is alleged to be infringing on copyright. Detractors to the proposed legislation said it would destroy the free and open Internet. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, written by Swartz in 2008, is in this tradition of non-barred knowledge hunting:
“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”
It is no surprise then that Swartz was a friend and possible source of Wikileaks. Since the dawn of networks there have been the curious; there have been those waiting for information to be free. We started this blog last year with words from William Gibson, author of acclaimed cyberpunk literature such as 1984’s Neuromancer —and I called him the godfather. Gibson and his contemporaries were aware of the dangers to knowledge ownership, probably because most of them were hackers as well. They knew the promise of the World Wide Web was to allow for people to connect and share without the barriers of access that had plagued other media, ones easier to monetize and monopolize. But corporations got to work, and now the Web is dead.
With the rise of apps and web 2.0, write’s Michael Wolff for Wired, “the Web of countless entrepreneurs was being overshadowed by the single entrepreneur-mogul-visionary model, a ruthless paragon of everything the Web was not: rigid standards, high design, centralized control.” This is happening all over the digital sphere, with newspapers installing online paywalls for their content, and fair use and fair dealing copyright laws constantly being restricted. It is indeed ironic that Swartz has come to be immortalized in this context—a genius and innovator—when he devoted his life to fighting this entrepreneurial-mogul paradigm of content ownership.
Swartz was fighting for open access. It is no surprise then that Tim Berners-Lee, developer of the World Wide Web and current MIT Professor, spoke at his funeral.
As we’ve seen, Robert Swartz’ eulogy spoke out strongly against how his son was treated by the Justice Department. Finding a cause for a suicide is a touchy subject—as is contradicting a grieving father. Rather, I think it is fair to say Swartz’ intentions were noble—and let it be said, personally agreeable in my view—though certainly illegal in how we frame information ownership at this time.
Robert Swartz’ anger towards MIT is indeed interesting, for the institution has made strides to offer its teaching tools online for free. They also refused to support a plea deal that would have allowed Swartz to escape prison time.
Speculation aside, all that can be said is that a gifted young man is dead. Online communities are in mourning, even challenging the Westboro Baptist Church when they threatened to protest Swartz’ funeral.
We have many questions to ask ourselves in the wake of this loss. What is the role of the Internet? Who can own what information? How do old models of business adapt to the online paradigm? What should not be monetized? What will be left to profit from?
Here are some words to chew on while you look for some answers:
“As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion.”
—U.S. Judge Stewart Dalzell, Communications Decency Act panel (1996)
Bitted and Spaced,
—Assistant News Editor
A new year means new tech.
This week we’ll be checking out upcoming goodies in 2013—and more serious things, like research and whatnot.
Firefox OS: If phones must get smarter, then it makes sense to finally use a smart OS. If iOS 6 left a bad taste in your mouth (or directed your car to a desert thanks to its wonderful mapping program) then Mozilla’s upcoming foray into smartphone operating systems will be a welcomed change. The makers of Firefox are keeping to their principles, which have always secured them a sizeable demographic of internet browser usage. The new Firefox OS will be open source and cheaper than Android for phone developers to purchase for outfitting their new models.
Leap Motion: Another new gizmo already ready to pre-order is the Leap Motion. Though it looks like a soap bar iPod, the Motion senses hand gestures and allows them to be simulated on a desktop or notebook. You can work in 3-D space and have it 100 per cent replicated on the screen—designers rejoice! Business folk will be forever thankful of the sensor’s eight-foot range, allowing for powerpoint presentations to be dynamic and away from the computer screen. The degree of control is astounding. For starters, think of the finger motions associated with Apple’s trackpad—now imagine being able to do that, but also tilt your hands and play a flight simulation-style video game!
Google Project Glass: Perhaps my favourite new item is one that has gotten some attention already at The Link. Google’s recently announced Project Glass is a visor with a Head Mounted Display. The HMD weaves augmented reality into everyday life by displaying popular smartphone features directly into our line of vision. This technological veil can expand around the lenses so we can simulate seeing faces, have notes recorded and transcribed before our very eyes —so to speak—and even have maps and directions pop up and layer themselves on top of the roads and paths they’re directing us through.
Now, all this new tech sounds pretty swell, but what about new ideas? What paradigm shift is ready to discombobulate our world views? Well, to be honest a lot is not known because research is a highly coveted and stealable currency.
But from what is out there, I am excited about the recent troubles analyzing the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider out in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to published data, there seems to be two peaks where experiments have found traces of the illusive universal building block.
The problem is scientists at the LHC have two different decay processes (essentially a spontaneous transformation of one particle into another) which create two separate value clusters of mass for the Higgs.
The difference is only about 3.1 gigaelectronvolts—or roughly three times the mass of a proton—but a small crack can signal a fissure.
Some physics blogs are expecting a calibration error to be at fault But whether the two distinct data clusters are in fact resulting from error or because we have a second Higgs-like boson remains to be seen.
The Higgs is transforming our conception of how objects can even have mass. With the drama still unfolding, it looks like with our evolving understanding of the Higgs and its interactions with the rest of the universe—a fifth fundamental force, it looks like—there is enough to be excited for in 2013.
I leave you with a quote you already know. Neil Armstrong said throughout his life that this famous phrase came to him in the moment as he first touched down on the moon. But his brother has posthumously debunked that. Remember that even the greatest acts cannot be accomplished without a bit of foresight—even the writing of an abstract saying to proclaim your landing first on the moon:
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
—Neil Armstrong (1969)
Bitted, spaced and so done with 2012,
-Assistant News Editor