Posts about amazing

Letting Children Learn – Hole in the Wall Computers

The hole in the wall experiments are exactly the kind of thing I love to lean about. I wrote about them in 2006, what kids can learn.

Research finding from the Hole in the Wall foundation:

Over the 4 year research phase (2000-2004), HiWEL has extensively studied the impact of Learning Stations on children. Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Stations were installed in diverse settings, the impact of interventions was monitored and data was continually gathered, analyzed and interpreted. Rigorous assessments were conducted to measure academic achievement, behaviour, personality profile, computer literacy and correlations with socio-economic indicators.

The sociometric survey found:

  • Self-organizing groups of children who organize themselves into Leaders (experts), Connectors and Novice groups.
  • Leaders and Connectors identified seem to display an ability to connect with and teach other users.
  • Key leaders on receiving targeted intervention, play a key role in bringing about a “multiplier effect in learning” within the community.
  • Often girls are seen to take on the role of Connector, who initiates younger children and siblings (usually novices with little or no exposure to computers) and connects them to the leaders in the group

I believe traditional education is helpful. I believe people are “wired” to learn. They want to learn. We need to create environments that let them learn. We need to avoid crushing the desire to learn (stop de-motivating people).

If you want to get right to talking about the hole in the wall experiments, skip to the 8 minute mark.

Related: Providing Computer to Remote Students in NepalTeaching Through TinkeringKids Need Adventurous PlayScience Toys You Can Make With Your Kids

All present-day Life on Earth Has A Single Ancestor

All present-day life arose from a single ancestor

All life on Earth shares a single common ancestor, a new statistical analysis confirms.

Because microorganisms of different species often swap genes, some scientists have proposed that multiple primordial life forms could have tossed their genetic material into life’s mix, creating a web, rather than a tree of life.

A universal common ancestor is at least 102,860 times more probable than having multiple ancestors, Theobald calculates.

For his analysis, Theobald selected 23 proteins that are found across the taxonomic spectrum but have structures that differ from one species to another. He looked at those proteins in 12 species – four each from the bacterial, archaeal and eukaryotic domains of life.

Then he performed computer simulations to evaluate how likely various evolutionary scenarios were to produce the observed array of proteins. Theobald found that scenarios featuring a universal common ancestor won hands down against even the best-performing multi-ancestor models.

Very interesting. Surprising too. As the article points out this doesn’t mean all life ever on Earth evolved from the single ancestor – life that has gone extinct could be from outside this single “tree.”

Related: Viruses and What is LifeEvolution is Fundamental to ScienceBacteria “Feed” on Earth’s Ocean-Bottom Crust

Gravity Emerges from Quantum Information, Say Physicists

Gravity Emerges from Quantum Information, Say Physicists

One of the hottest new ideas in physics is that gravity is an emergent phenomena; that it somehow arises from the complex interaction of simpler things.

perhaps the most powerful idea to emerge from Verlinde’s approach is that gravity is essentially a phenomenon of information.

Over recent years many results in quantum mechanics have pointed to the increasingly important role that information appears to play in the Universe. Some physicists are convinced that the properties of information do not come from the behaviour of information carriers such as photons and electrons but the other way round. They think that information itself is the ghostly bedrock on which our universe is built.

Gravity has always been a fly in this ointment. But the growing realisation that information plays a fundamental role here too, could open the way to the kind of unification between the quantum mechanics and relativity that physicists have dreamed of.

This speculative physics is fascinating. Open access paper: Gravity from Quantum Information.

Related: Does Time ExistQuantum Mechanics Made Relatively Simple PodcastsLaws of Physics May Need a RevisionOpen Science: Explaining Spontaneous Knotting

Researchers Explain How Rotifers Thrive Despite Forgoing Sex

Bdelloid rotifers haven’t had sex for at least thirty million years. Most asexual animals are doomed to extinction. The excellent show, Science Friday, looks at the extraordinary adaptations that allow rotifers to thrive sex-free.

For millions of years, the rotifers have reproduced asexually, flying in the face of an idea known as the Red Queen Hypothesis, which states that without the advantage of sexual reproduction, more-rapidly evolving parasites and predators will eventually doom the asexual species. Now, the researchers studying the tiny organism say that its ability to dry up and blow away to greener pastures may have given the rotifers a hidden tactical edge in this evolutionary war.

The webcast provides a nice overview of the research. Every week Science Friday provides many such interesting reviews of recent scientific research.

What Are Rotifers?

Rotifers are small, mostly freshwater animals, and are amongst the smallest members of the Metazoa — that group of multicellular animals which includes humans, and whose bodies are organized into systems of organs.
Most rotifers are about 0.5mm in length or less, and their bodies have a total of around a thousand cells. This means that their organ systems are a greatly simplified distillation of the organ systems found in the bodies of the higher animals.

A typical rotifer might have a brain of perhaps fifteen cells with associated nerves and ganglia, a stomach of much the same number, an excretory system of only a dozen or so cells, and a similarly fundamental reproductive system. They have no circulatory system. It is an anomaly that despite their complexity, many rotifers are much smaller than common single-celled organisms whose world they share.

they are able to survive long periods — even perhaps hundreds of years — in a dried or frozen state, and will resume normal behaviour when rehydrated or thawed.
Secondly, they exhibit what biologists call cell constancy — they grow in size not by cell division, but by increase in the size of the cells which they already have.

Related: Bdelloid Rotifers Abandoned Sex 100 Million Years AgoFungus-gardening Ant Species Has Given Up Sex CompletelyAmazon Molly Fish are All Female50 Species of Diatoms

Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

cover of Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer is an excellent book. It is full of fascinating information and as usual Carl Zimmer’s writing is engaging and makes complex topics clear.

E-coli keep the level of oxygen low in the gut making the resident microbes comfortable. At any time a person will have as many as 30 strains of E. coli in their gut and it is very rare for someone ever to be free of E. coli. [page 53]

In 1943, Luria and Delbruck published the results that won them the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in which they showed that bacteria and viruses pass down their traits using genes (though it took quite some time for the scientific community at large to accept this). [page 70]

during a crisis E coli’s mutation rates could soar a hundred – or even a thousandfold… Normally, natural selection favors low mutation rates, since most mutations are harmful. But in times of stress extra mutations may raise the odds that organisms will hit on a way out of their crisis… [alternatively, perhaps] In times of stress, E coli. may not be able to afford the luxury of accurate DNA repair. Instead, it turns to the cheaper lo-fi polymerases. While they may do a sloppier job, E coli. comes out ahead [page 106]
Hybridization is not the only way foreign DNA got into our cells. Some 3 billion years ago our single-celled ancestors engulfed oxygen-breathing bacteria, which became the mitochondria on which we depend. And, like E. coli, our genomes have taken in virus upon virus. Scientists have identified more than 98,000 viruses in the human genome, along with our mutant vestiges of 150,00 others… If we were to strip out all our transgenic DNA, we would become extinct.

I highly recommend Microcosm, just as I highly recommend Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer.

Related: Bacteriophages: The Most Common Life-Like Form on EarthForeign Cells Outnumber Human Cells in Our BodiesAmazing Designs of LifeAmazing Science: RetrovirusesOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’s

3D Printing is Here

photo of objects printed using a 3D printerPhoto by Jessica Sabo at the at 2009 Annual ASEE Conference.

The Future of Printing is 3D [I removed the broken link]

At this year’s annual ASEE Conference in Austin, one of the main topics of conversation started with the question, “have you seen the 3D printer?”. The company Stratasys, Inc. has created their Dimension 3D Printers. Their latest innovation is their line of uPrint machines, which are less costly (prices starting at $14,900)

Jesse Roitenberg, the representative from Stratasys at the conference, explained the benefits of using 3D printing as opposed to building models by hand:

“With a 3D printer, you are actually able to create an object as you had designed it. Once the object is created, the designer is then able to hold, test and verify the design. The object created is more accurate and the process is less time consuming.”

The Dimension 3D printers have been used in both educational facilities and the workplace, benefiting everyone from engineers to middle school science teachers. Below is a video of Jay Leno explaining how he was able to use the 3D printer to recreate an old steam engine car part.

Related: Open Source 3-D PrintingA plane You Can PrintCool Mechanical Simulation SystemTransferring Train Passengers Without Stopping
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Google Wave Developer Preview Webcast

Google Wave is a new tool for communication and collaboration on the web, coming later this year. The presentation was given at Google I/O 2009. The demo shows what is possible in a HTML 5 browser. They are developing this as an open access project. The creative team is lead by the creators for Google Maps (brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen) and product manager Stephanie Hannon.

A wave is equal parts conversation and document. People can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.

A wave is shared. Any participant can reply anywhere in the message, edit the content and add participants at any point in the process. Then playback lets anyone rewind the wave to see who said what and when.

A wave is live. With live transmission as you type, participants on a wave can have faster conversations, see edits and interact with extensions in real-time.

Very cool stuff. The super easy blog interaction is great. And the user experience with notification and collaborative editing seems excellent. The playback feature to view changes seems good though that is still an area I worry about on heavily collaborative work. Hopefully they let you see like all change x person made, search changes…

They also have a very cool context sensitive spell checker that can highlight mis-spelled words that are another dictionary word but not right in the context used (about 44:30 in the webcast).

For software developer readers they also highly recommended the Google Web Development Kit, which they used heavily on this project.

Related: Joel Spolsky Webcast on Creating Social Web ResourcesRead the Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog in 35 LanguagesLarry Page and Sergey Brin Interview WebcastGoogle Should Stay True to Their Management Practices

Went Walkabout. Brought back Google Wave.
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Intel Science and Engineering Fair 2009 Webcasts

Tara Adiseshan, 14, of Charlottesville, Virginia; Li Boynton, 17, of Houston; and Olivia Schwob, 16, of Boston were selected from 1,563 young scientists from 56 countries, regions and territories for their commitment to innovation and science. Each received a $50,000 scholarship from the Intel Foundation.

(video removed, so the embed code has been removed)

In the webcast, Tara Adiseshan, talks about her project studying the evolutionary ties between nematodes (parasites) and sweat bees. She identified and classified the evolutionary relationships between sweat bees and the nematodes (microscopic worms) that live inside them. Tara was able to prove that because the two have such ecologically intimate relationships, they also have an evolutionary relationship. That is to say, if one species evolves, the other will follow.

Li Boynton developed a biosensor from bioluminescent bacteria (a living organism that gives off light) to detect the presence of contaminants in public water. Li’s biosensor is cheaper and easier to use than current biosensors, and she hopes it can be used in developing countries to reduce water toxicity. Li Boynton on What’s Great About Science:

Olivia Schwob isolated a gene that can be used to improve the intelligence of a worm. The results could help us better understand how humans learn and even prevent, treat and cure mental disabilities in the future.

In addition to the three $50,000 top winners, more than 500 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair participants received scholarships and prizes for their groundbreaking work. Intel awards included 19 “Best of Category” winners who each received a $5,000 Intel scholarship and a new laptop. In total, nearly $4 million is scholarships and awards were provided.

Related: Intel ISEF 2009 Final GalaGirls Sweep Top Honors at Siemens Competition in Math, Science and TechnologyIntel International Science and Engineering Fair 2007Worldwide Science Wizkids at Intel ISEF2008 Intel Science Talent Search
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Friday Fun: Bird Using Bait to Fish

In the webcast an Aukuu bird (Black-crowned Night Heron) fishes using bread as bait. They normally hunt by waiting at the side of a lake and fishing. This individual learned how to bait the fish with bread and improve the fishing results. It also passed on that method to other birds that learned how to use the bait method themselves.

Another bird using bait (with turtles trying to get the bait) and another bird using bait (with a stork trying to steal the fish). And another one. The videos seem to be different species of birds to me.

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearDolphins Using Tools to HuntBird Brain experimentposts on animals

Build Your Own Tabletop Interactive Multi-touch Computer

This is a fantastic Do-It_Yourself (DIY) engineering story. Very interesting, definitely go read the whole article: Build Your Own Multitouch Surface Computer

First, some acknowledgments are in order. Virtually all the techniques used to create this table were discovered at the Natural User Interface Group website, which serves as a sort of repository for information in the multitouch hobbyist community.

In order for our setup to work, we needed a camera that senses infrared light, but not visible light. It sounds expensive, but you’d be surprised. In this section, we’ll show you how we created an IR camera with excellent resolution and frame-rate for only $35—the price of one PlayStation 3 Eye camera. “But that’s not an IR camera,” you say? We’ll show you how to fix that.

As it turns out, most cameras are able to sense infrared light. If you want to see first-hand proof that this is the case, try this simple experiment: First, find a cheap digital camera. Most cell phone cameras are perfect for this. Next, point it at the front of your TV’s remote control. Then, while watching the camera’s display, press the buttons on the remote. You’ll see a bluish-white light that is invisible to the naked eye. That’s the infrared light used by the remote to control the TV.

Like the computer, the projector we used for the build was something we scavenged up. The major concern for a projector to use in this kind of system is throw distance—the ratio between projection distance and image size. Short-throw projectors, which are sold by all the major projector brands, work the best for this kind of project, because they can be set up at the bottom of the cabinet and aimed directly at the surface. Unfortunately, they also tend to be more expensive.

Ever thrifty, we went with a projector we could use for free: an older home-theater projector borrowed from a friend. Because of the longer throw distance on this model, we had to mount the projector near the top of the cabinet, facing down, and use a mirror to reflect the image up onto the screen. For this we ordered a front-side mirror (a mirror with the reflective surface on the front of the glass, rather than behind it) to eliminate any potential “ghosting” problems, caused by dual reflections from the front and back of the glass in an ordinary mirror.

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Very Cool Wearable Computing Gadget from MIT

Pattie Maes presentation at TED shows a very cool prototype for wearable, useful computing spearheaded by Pranav Mistry (who received a standing ovation at TED). It’s a wearable device with a projector that paves the way for profound interaction with our environment.

The prototype of the system cost only $350. The software, created by them, obviously is the key, but how amazing is that, $350 for the hardware used in the prototype! There is a useful web site on the Sixth Sense project.

The SixthSense prototype is comprised of a pocket projector, a mirror and a camera. The hardware components are coupled in a pendant like mobile wearable device. Both the projector and the camera are connected to the mobile computing device in the user’s pocket. The projector projects visual information enabling surfaces, walls and physical objects around us to be used as interfaces; while the camera recognizes and tracks user’s hand gestures and physical objects using computer-vision based techniques.

The software program processes the video stream data captured by the camera and tracks the locations of the colored markers (visual tracking fiducials) at the tip of the user’s fingers using simple computer-vision techniques. The movements and arrangements of these fiducials are interpreted into gestures that act as interaction instructions for the projected application interfaces. The maximum number of tracked fingers is only constrained by the number of unique fiducials, thus SixthSense also supports multi-touch and multi-user interaction.

Related: Awesome Cat CamCool Mechanical Simulation SystemEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-Shellerposts on cool gadgets