Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Ars Technica published a nice overview of the current state of solar power technology: “The future of solar power technology is bright“. As owner and user of a solar panel installation I am happy to see that research on this topic has not halted. The current weather here in Belgium makes it clear, to me at least, that we will also need panels – or something else – to generate electricity when the skies are cloudy.

I wonder: having technology is one thing; making sure it is applied in the best way is something else. If we want more solar energy here in Western Europe, we will need to find a way to turn our rooftops and perhaps even south-facing walls and windows into solar panels. If we want developing countries to avoid a dependency on coal and petrol, then we’ll have to help them install appropriate systems for generating electricity rather than exporting our old cars and trucks to them.

Talking about cars: our family currently owns/uses two cars, both more than 10 years old but still in good working order. We are contemplating replacing one of them by a small hybrid or even full electric car. But that market is still immature, and many of the cars offered are still quite expensive. Replacing my diesel-powered car by an electric will make me feel good, but what will happen to the old car? If it’s moved to another part of the world and continues polluting the environment, does that really improve the world?

Is this part of the long-term future?

How hard would it be (or is it) to replace the petrol engines in current cars with something more environment-friendly, like an electric engine? Can petrol engines be converted into hydrogen engines? Could I add a solar panel on top of my car to help the battery? Or… well, you get my drift. I assume that the “economics” of such transformations have already been calculated by car manufacturers. Of course, they will not like such an operation, because it would result in less sales of new cars. The cost of doing nothing (and just continuing what has been done for a long time now) is becoming more apparent every day – even China is now committed to do something about air pollution.

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On December 23rd, 2016, I bought a few books, as I am accustomed to do every year in the holiday season. One of those books is a second-hand copy of Brian Green’s “The Elegant Universe“. I have already read some of his other books, and I am – since a long time – quite interested in the origin and evolution of the universe as well as fundamental physics. So this buy was a no-brainer.

For some reason I could not put the book down once I started reading (although I had not yet finished William Gibson’s “The Peripheral“, but that one has to wait). Green writes about the development of superstring theory from an insider viewpoint, and that makes the story much more interesting. Even if your mathematics isn’t that great (like mine) this book can help you understand the essence of string theory, so I recommend it strongly.


To start his story, Green clearly explains Special Relativity and General Relativity. As it should, Albert Einstein features prominently in his exposé. From there on, Green explains, one after the other, the problems encountered by theoretical physicists and the solutions devised to solve them. Einstein is mentioned regularly in most of the chapters.

And then, a few days ago, an online news site extensively mentioned Einstein as an author on a completely different subject: politics. Hence I discovered that Einstein was more than “just” a brilliant physicist. Already in 1909 (!) Albert Einstein wrote:

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

(Source: Monthly Review)

I have not yet found the time to read more about Einsteins views on politics, but it says something about the man that he was already quite outspoken on this subject even before he rose to fame (after all, his paper on Special Relativity saw the light four years later, in 1912). At the same time, I can only see that we have not yet found an answer to his questions, let alone a solution to the problems posed…

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xkcd: Earth Temperature Timeline

Visit XKCD’s website for the full, long version
(Just click on the picture).

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Yes, that’s how Julldozer describes his digital sundial: he uses “programmable pixels inside a shadow” to make the sundial “print” the time on a flat surface. This is the result (there’s more of this in a time-lapse video on his website):

The Mojoptics Digital Sundial in use

The Mojoptics Digital Sundial in use

In a video Julldozer explains the science behind this remarkable object. The complexity of the sundial object is reduced, according to Julldozer, by using an open-source tool called OpenSCAD to program the design instead of designing it manually. And then all you need is a 3D printer and lots of time… Or you can presumably buy one in his gift shop.

All in all, I like this contraption. It’s an ingenious build, and it’s a nice display of what 3D printers are capable of.

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The speed of light is, according to currently accepted science, “the maximum speed at which all matter and hence information in the universe can travel” (Wikipedia). That’s faster than fast for most of us here on earth: there is no way we will be getting close to that speed on a motorcycle, for example, or in a plane.

BoingBoing pointed me to a fantastic animation on Vimeo, that shockingly illustrates how slow the speed of light turns out to be on a cosmic scale: “Riding Light“.

This animation illustrates, in realtime, the journey of a photon of light emitted from the surface of the sun and traveling across a portion of the solar system, from a human perspective.

This is what you reach after almost three quarters of an hour: the orbit of Jupiter.

(Click the image for a larger version, or go to https://vimeo.com/117815404 for the complete animation)

(Click the image for a larger version, or go to https://vimeo.com/117815404 for the complete animation)

That’s just “two blocks away” in terms of the solar system (Jupiter is the second planet beyond Earth, counting from the sun out). Also notice how the stars in the background hardly move once the first few minutes of traveling have passed. Humbling, is it not?

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The name Ramanujan isn’t new to me: I already knew (don’t ask me how) that this young Indian mathematician had come to England in the beginning of the twentieth century, because some of the things he wrote were quite astounding for someone who did not complete college. I am surprised, however, that someone took the time to turn his life (or at least something a lot like his life) into a feature movie, called “The Man Who Knew Infinity“.

Source: Independent

Source: Independent

Stephen Wolfram has written up an extensive article about the life and the importance of Ramanujan: “Who was Ramanujan?“. It’s well worth reading this, if you’re going to see the movie. And I will try to go see it, preferably in a theater, if I did not already miss the opportunity. I prefer this kind of science heroes to the usual superheroes of the current silver screen ;-)

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BoingBoing signals an intriguing question: “Can a sexbot be a murderer?“.

[The robot] walks into a police station carrying a bag with the severed head of her former owner. She announces that she murdered him because his masochism kink insisted that she be real, and thus capable of being hurt, and so she learned to be real, and then she killed him, because he insisted on hurting her. Now she wants a public defender.

The story, written by , is published on the Slate website. If you’re going to read it, you should also read the comments on this story by a “an expert on robotic law”: “When a Robot Kills, Is It Murder or Product Liability?

Rights entail obligations. If I have a right, then someone else has a responsibility to respect that right. I in turn have a responsibility to respect the rights of others. Responsibility in this sense is a very human notion. We wouldn’t say of a driverless car that it possesses a responsibility to keep its passengers safe, only that it is designed to do so. But somehow, we feel comfortable saying that a driverless car is responsible for an accident.

It’s not that simple, of course. In fact, I’m guessing that this subject will remain a matter of debate for many years to come, as lawyers, insurance companies and politicians try to make sense of what is, in essence, an ethical question. Can a man-made object have “a free will”? Is “articial intelligence” really different from human intelligence?

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