Category Archives: science

The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute

Dedicated to foundational theoretical physics, the Perimeter Institute (PI) has an active outreach programme. In their latest ‘newsletter’ (received via email on September 19, 2018) highlights poetry written by scientists, (from the ’12 poignant poems’ webpage),

It can be said that science and poetry share the common purpose of revealing profound truths about the universe and our place in it.

Physicist Paul Dirac, a known curmudgeon, would have dismissed that idea as hogwash.

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way,” Dirac grouched to a colleague.  “The two are incompatible.”

The colleague to whom Dirac was grumbling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a lover of poetry who dabbled in it himself — as did, it turns out, quite a few great physicists, past and present. Physicists have often turned to poetry to express ideas for which there are no equations.

Here’s a look at some of the loveliest stanzas from physicists past and present, plus a few selections of rhyming silliness that get an A+ for effort.

Considering his reported distaste for poetry, it seems Dirac may have committed a few lines to verse. A four-line poem credited to Dirac laments the belief that, once past the age of 30, physicists have already passed their peak intellectual years.

dirac poetry

Perhaps the most prolific of all the poetic physicists was the Scottish genius [James Clerk Maxwell] whose equations for electromagnetism have been called “the second great unification in physics” (second to Isaac Newton’s marriage of physics and astronomy).

Maxwell’s best-known poetic composition is “Rigid Body Sings,” a ditty he used to sing while playing guitar, which is based on the classic Robbie Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye” (the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). In terms of melding poetry and physics, however, Maxwell’s geekiest composition might be “A Problem in Dynamics,” which shows both his brilliance and sense of humour.

james clerk maxwell poem

Read the full poem

If Maxwell’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” is a little too technical for your mathematical comfort level, his fellow Scottish physicist William J.M. Rankine penned poetry requiring only a rudimentary understanding of algebra (and a peculiar understanding of love).

rankine physics poem

Richard Feynman was known for both his brilliance and his eclectic lifestyle, which included playing the bongos, safe-cracking, and, occasionally, writing poetry.

Read the full poem

Although theoretical physics is her specialty, Shohini Ghose is a true polymath. Born in India, educated in the US, and now a multi-award-winning professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ghose has delivered popular talks on subjects ranging from climate change to sexism in science. She recently joined Perimeter Institute as an affiliate researcher and an Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Specialist. On top of all that, she is a poet too.

Shohini poem

English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester was a prolific scholar whose collected works on matrix theory, number theory, and combinatorics fill four (large) volumes. In his honour, the Royal Society of London bestows the Sylvester Medal every two years to an early-career mathematician who shows potential to make major breakthroughs, just as the medal’s namesake did. It is only fitting that Sylvester’s best known work of poetry is an ode to a missing part of an algebraic formula.

sylvester poem physics

Read the full poem

Sonali Mohapatra is a Chancellor’s PhD Student at the University of Sussex and an alumna of the Perimeter Scholars International master’s program (during which she sang on the nationally broadcast CBC Radio program Ideas). She’s also the author of the poetry compilation Leaking Ink and runs an international magazine on creative resistance called Carved Voices. In her spare time — which, remarkably, she occasionally has — she delivers motivational talks on physics, feminism, and the juxtaposition of the personal and the professional.

sonali poem

Read the full poem

William Rowan Hamilton was an extraordinary mathematician whose research had long-lasting implications for modern physics. As a poet, he was a bit of a hack, at least in the eyes of his friend and renowned poet William Wordsworth. Hamilton often sent his poems to Wordsworth for feedback, and Wordsworth went to great pains to provide constructive criticism without hurting his friend’s feelings. Upon reading one of Hamilton’s poems, Wordsworth replied: “I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their exercise in the regions of prose.” Translation: don’t quit your day job, Bill. Here’s one of Hamilton’s better works — a tribute to another giant of mathematics and physics, Joseph Fourier.

hamilton poetry

Read the full poem

For some lyrical physicists, poetry is not always a hobby separate from scientific research. For some (at least one), poetry is a way to present scientific findings. In 1984, Australian physicist J.W.V. Storey published a research paper — The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 — as a 38-stanza poem. To any present-day researchers reading this: we dare you to try it.

storey poem

Caltech physicist John Preskill is one of the world’s leading researchers exploring quantum information and the application of quantum computing to big questions about spacetime. Those are extremely complex topics, but Preskill also has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in accessible (and, occasionally, rhyming) terms. Here’s a snippet from a poem he wrote called “Quantum Cryptography.”

john preskill poems

Read the full poem

Nitica Sakharwade is a PhD student who, when not tackling foundational puzzles in quantum mechanics and quantum information, writes poetry and performs spoken word. In fact, she’s performing at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October 2018. Though her poems don’t always relate to physics, when they do, they examine profound ideas like the Chandrasekhar limit (the mass threshold that determines whether a white dwarf star will explode in a cataclysmic supernova).

chandrasekhar limit

David Morin is a physics professor at Harvard who has become somewhat legendary for sprucing up his lessons with physics-based limericks. Some are quite catchy and impressively whittle a complex subject down to a set of simple rhyming verses, like the one below about Emmy Noether’s landmark theorem.

noether symmetries

Other poems by Morin — such as this one, explaining how a medium other than a vacuum would affect a classic experiment — border on the absurd.

morin poems harvard

Lastly, we can’t resist sharing a poem by the brilliant Katharine Burr Blodgett, a physicist and chemist who, among other achievements, invented non-reflective “invisible” glass. That glass became very useful in filmmaking and was first put to use by Hollywood in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. After she retired from a long and successful career at General Electric (where she also pioneered materials to de-ice airplane wings, among many other innovations), she amused herself by writing quirky poetry.

katharine burr blodget

I’d usually edit a bit in an effort to drive readers over to the Perimeter website but I just can’t bear to cut this up. Thank you to Colin Hunter for compiling the poems and the write ups. For anyone who wants to investigate the Perimeter Institute further and doesn’t have a PhD in physics, there’s the Slices of PI webpage featuring “fun, monthly dispatches about science designed for social sharing.”

Quantum Rhapsodies

“Quantum Rhapsodies” combines a narrative script, video images and live music by the Jupiter String Quartet to explore the world of quantum physics. The performance will premiere April 10 [2019] at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Courtesy Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology

Here’s more about Quantum Rhapsodies, a free public art/science music performance at the University of Illinois on April 10, 2019, from an April 5, 2019 University of Illinois news release (also here) by Jodi Heckel,

A new performance that explores the world of quantum physics will feature the music of the Jupiter String Quartet, a fire juggler and a fantastical “Alice in Quantumland” scene.

“Quantum Rhapsodies,” the vision of physics professor Smitha Vishveshwara, looks at the foundational developments in quantum physics, the role it plays in our world and in technology such as the MRI, and the quantum mysteries that remain unanswered.

“The quantum world is a world that inspires awe, but it’s also who we are and what we are made of,” said Vishveshwara, who wrote the piece and guided the visuals.

The performance will premiere April 10 [2019] as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. The event begins with a 5 p.m. reception, followed by the performance at 6 p.m. and a meet-and-greet with the show’s creators at 7 p.m. The performance will be in the atrium of the Beckman Institute, 405 N. Mathews Ave., Urbana, [emphases mine] and it is free and open to the public. While the available seating is filling up, the atrium space will allow for an immersive experience in spite of potentially restricted viewing.

The production is a sister piece to “Quantum Voyages,” a performance created in 2018 by Vishveshwara and theatre professor Latrelle Bright to illustrate the basic concepts of quantum physics. It was performed at a quantum physics conference celebrating Nobel Prize-winning physicist Anthony Leggett’s 80th birthday in 2018.

While “Quantum Voyages” was a live theater piece, “Quantum Rhapsodies” combines narration by Bright, video images and live music from the Jupiter String Quartet. It ponders the wonder of the cosmos, the nature of light and matter, and the revolutionary ideas of quantum physics. A central part of the narrative involves the theory of Nobel Prize-winning French physicist Louis de Broglie that matter, like light, can behave as a wave.

The visuals – a blend of still images, video and animation – were created by a team consisting of the Beckman Visualization Laboratory; Steven Drake, a video producer at Beckman; filmmaker Nic Morse of Protagonist Pizza Productions; and members of a class Vishveshwara teaches, Where the Arts Meet Physics.

The biggest challenge in illustrating the ideas in the script was conveying the scope of the piece, from the galactic scale of the cosmos to the subatomic scale of the quantum world, Drake said. The concepts of quantum physics “are not something you can see. It’s theoretical or so small you can’t put it under a microscope or go out into the real world and film it,” he said.

Much of the work involved finding images, both scientific and artistic, that would help illustrate the concepts of the piece and complement the poetic language that Vishveshwara used, as well as the music.

Students and teaching assistant Danielle Markovich from Vishveshwara’s class contributed scientific images and original paintings. Drake used satellite images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites, as well as animation created by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in its work with NASA, for portions of the script talking about the cosmos. The Visualization Laboratory provided novel scientific visualizations.

“What we’re good at doing and have done for years is taking research content and theories and visualizing that information. We do that for a very wide variety of research and data. We’re good at coming up with images that represent these invisible worlds, like quantum physics,” said Travis Ross, the director of the lab.

Some ideas required conceptual images, such as footage by Morse of a fire juggler at Allerton Park to represent light and of hands moving to depict the rotational behavior of water-based hydrogen within a person in an MRI machine.

Motion was incorporated into a painting of a lake to show water rippling and light flickering across it to illustrate light waves. In the “Alice in Quantumland” sequence, a Mad Hatter’s tea party filmed at the Illini Union was blended with cartoonlike animated elements into the fantasy sequence by Jose Vazquez, an illustrator and concept artist who works in the Visualization Lab.

“Our main objective is making sure we’re representing it in a believable way that’s also fun and engaging,” Ross said. “We’ve never done anything quite like this. It’s pretty unique.”

In addition to performing the score, members of the Jupiter String Quartet were the musical directors, creating the musical narrative to mesh with the script. The music includes contemplative compositions by Beethoven to evoke the cosmos and playful modern compositions that summon images of the movements of particles and waves.

“I was working with such talented people and creative minds, and we had fun and came up with these seemingly absurd ideas. But then again, it’s like that with the quantum world as well,” Vishveshwara said.

“My hope is not necessarily for people to understand everything, but to infuse curiosity and to feel the grandness and the beauty that is part of who we are and the cosmos that we live in,” she said..

Here’s a preview of this free public performance,

How to look at SciArt (also known as, art/science depending on your religion)

There’s an intriguing April 8, 2019 post on the Science Borealis blog by Katrina Vera Wong and Raymond Nakamura titled: How to look at (and appreciate) SciArt,

….

The recent #SciArt #TwitterStorm, in which participants tweeted their own sciart and retweeted that of others, illustrated the diversity of approaches to melding art and science. With all this work out there, what can we do, as advocates of art and science, to better appreciate sciart? We’d like to foster interest in, and engagement with, sciart so that its value goes beyond how much it costs or how many likes it gets.

An article by Kit Messham-Muir based on the work of art historian Erwin Panofsky outlines a three-step strategy for looking at art: Look. See. Think. Looking is observing what the elements are. Seeing draws meaning from it. Thinking links personal experience and accessible information to the piece at hand.

Looking and seeing is also part of the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method originally developed for looking at art and subsequently applied to science and other subjects as a social, object-oriented learning process. It begins by asking, “What is going on here?”, followed by “What do you see that makes you think that?” This allows learners of different backgrounds to participate and encourages the pursuit of evidence to back up opinions.

Let’s see how these approaches might work on your own or in conversation. Take, for example, the following work by natural history illustrator Julius Csotonyi:

I hope some of our Vancouver-based (Canada) art critics get a look at some of this material. I read a review a few years ago and the critic seemed intimidated by the idea of looking at work that explicitly integrated and reflected on science. Since that time (Note: there aren’t that many art reviewers here), I have not seen another attempt by an art critic.

STEMMinist Book Club: Vancouver chapter opens in April 2019

[dpwnloaded from: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/stemminist-bookclub-vancouver-reading-broad-band-by-claire-l-evans-tickets-58158054306]

The image of the book cover for Vancouver’s first ever STEMMinist (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, an d medicine) book club meeting on April 23, 2019 at Vancouver’s Hycroft Manor is seemingly ensconced in a garden located at the University of British Columbia (nowhere near the manor). I could be wrong (it wouldn’t be my first time) but I’m pretty sure I have an old photograph of myself in that garden.

Moving on, here’s a little more about the event in Vancouver,from the EventBrite page for the STEMMinist Bookclub Vancouver – Reading Broad Band by Claire L. Evans,


During our inaugural meeting of the STEMMinist Bookclub Vancouver, we will be reading “Broad Band” by Claire Evans. Join us for a lightly guided discussion on the topics covered in this book and we will see where the conversation goes from there! All are welcome!

The plan is to mirror the STEMminist Bookclub that was started in Australia by Dr. Caroline Ford (@DrCFord). We will aim to read one book every two months followed by an in-person meeting here in Vancouver, BC. You can also contribute to the discussion online on twitter @stemminist / #stemministbc.

If you are interested in the contributions of women to science, learning more about the history of science, and want to talk about some of the issues and stories brought up in the books this is the book club for you

Broad Band is available online and in select book stores, and or may be ordered in by your favourite bookstore.

Date and Time
Tue, April 23, 2019
6:00 PM – 7:30 PM PDT

Location
Hycroft Manor
1489 McRae Avenue
Vancouver, BC V6H 1T7


FAQs

What are my transportation/parking options for getting to and from the event?
Free street parking in the surrounding area.
Busing:
99 bus, walk or bus up Granville St from Broadway to 16th Ave
33 bus, walk up McRae Ave.

What can I bring into the event?
We welcome you to bring your children.

Tea and Coffee will be available for purchase from the venue. Bringing your own is also welcome.

How can I contact the organizer with any questions?
VancityStemminists@gmail.com

As to how the STEMMinist book club was founded, there’s a March 15, 2018 article by Caroline Ford for positive.news than call fill in some of those blanks,


Dr. Caroline Ford, co-founder of the Stemminist movement, shares her thoughts on how a supportive and empowering space for women and minorities in Stemm has been found in an unexpected place

Even your grandfather has heard of Stemm these days.

There has been a huge focus on Stemm (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) education in recent years, and a myriad of initiatives launched to encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in these areas.

… what about the women already working in Stemm, dealing daily with a system that historically did not value them or even want them there? Remarkable women who encounter unconscious and outright bias in their workplaces, and systems that are built to benefit and promote a model of a scientist that doesn’t look or act anything like them. Responding to these numerous challenges, an online community of women in Stemm has been brought together through an unexpected medium – a very modern book club. [emphasis mine]

The STEMMinist Book Club was founded online in January 2018 and has already amassed more than 1,700 members from 25 countries. The online discussion takes place on Twitter, allowing members worldwide the flexibility and opportunity to join the conversation. Twitter has become an important medium for scientists in recent years, with scientists the third most regular users, following journalists and politicians. It can be a supportive and empowering space for women and minorities in Stemm, particularly for those working in more isolated environments.

As well as online discussions of key books about women in Stemm and feminism, group members meet up physically in cities around the world including Sydney, Dublin, Istanbul, Montreal and Oxford. …

I’m familiar with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (add in the arts), so STEMM (with medicine added) is new to me. I wonder if there’s be a STEAMM one day? As well, I wonder about the humanities, Are they going to insist on being added so we can have SHTEM, SHTEAM, and SHTEMM/SHTEAMM?

One final note, there are four copies of Broad Band available through the Vancouver Public Library.

A Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) March 26, 2019 talk on Shifting the plastic landscape: bio-plastics, circular economy and sustainable material management and Superorganism ciy and Evolution in Toronto

I recently received three email announcements that might be of interest to people looking for science and/or art/science events.Of course, they are taking place thousands of kilometers apart.

March 26, 2019 Café Scientifique event in Vancouver

Café Scientifique sent out a March 7, 2019 email announcement about,

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, MARCH 26TH at 7:30PM in the back
room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. LOVE-ESE CHILE, founder of Grey to Green Sustainable
Solutions.

SHIFTING THE PLASTIC LANDSCAPE: BIO-PLASTICS, CIRCULAR ECONOMY AND
SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL MANAGEMENT

Growing public and scientific opinion are driving businesses and
policy-makers to change the way plastics circulate through our
communities. Moving away from a linear supply chain that allows a
multitude of plastic to seep out into the environment, this talk will
discuss new ideas and technology being implemented to move plastics into
a circular supply loop.

Dr. Love-Ese Chile is a sustainable plastic researcher based in
Vancouver, BC. Arriving from New Zealand, Ese completed her doctoral
thesis on biodegradable plastics at the University of British Columbia
in 2017. During her studies, Ese became a vocal supporter of
sustainability, green chemistry and community-driven science. In 2018,
Dr. Chile started a research consulting company, Grey to Green
Sustainable Solutions, that works with local businesses, not-for-profit
groups and policy-makers to increase understanding of the sustainable
plastic supply chain and develop new technologies that will allow
plastics to transition into a circular economy.

We hope to see you there!

I love her name and I couldn’t find too much information other than her LinkedIn page and her page on Research Gate. Her first name reminds of flower names and her last name does not signify her country of origin, which is New Zealand. Enjoy!

Superorganism city on March 27 and 28, 2019 in Toronto

Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon’s email announcement was also received on March 7, 2019 ( Note: The formatting has been changed),

Superorganism city

A LECTURE, A WORKSHOP AND A COLLECTIVE EXPERIMENT EXPLORING ART, BIOLOGY AND URBANIS

We are pleased to invite you to a series of events featuring interdisciplinary artist Heather Barnett and Physarum polycephalum: during her visit, Barnett will present her recent research, will conduct a workshop, and will explore the city of Toronto, inspired by the nonhuman perspective of this organism, also known as slime mould.


The slime mould (Physarum polycephalum) is a bright yellow amoeba that possesses primitive intelligence, problem solving skills and memory. It is highly efficient at forming networks between given points and has been used to map the worlds’ transport networks, migration routes and desire paths. Most notably, in 2010 it accurately replicated the Tokyo suburban rail network. The slime mould is also quite beautiful, the branching patterns reminiscent of forms seen at varying scales within nature, from blood vessels to tree branches, from river deltas to lightning flashes. It can learn about its environment, remember where it’s been and navigate through complex territories – all without any sensory organs and not a single neuron to its name.

Join us to these events:
 
RESEARCH TALK
March 27 2:00-3:00 PM 

Sensorium (YORK U) *
 
WORKSHOP (by invitation)
March 28 1:00-4:00 PM
Wilson Hall (UofT) *

 
COLLECTIVE EXPERIMENT
March 30 1:00-5:00 PM
Wilson Hall (UofT)
 

*  Sensorium Research Loft
Level 4
Joan & Martin Goldfarb
Centre for Fine Arts
York University
4700 Keele Street
Toronto, ON M3J 1P3
https://sensorium.ampd.yorku.ca/research-loft/

**  Wilson Hall
Student Lounge
(2nd floor)
University of Toronto
40 Willcocks street
Toronto, ON
M5S 1C6

Biography:
Heather Barnett’s art practice engages with natural phenomena and complex systems. Working with live organisms, imaging technologies and playful pedagogies, her work explores how we observe, influence and understand the world around us. Recent work centres around nonhuman intelligence, collective behaviour and knowledge systems, including The Physarum Experiments, an ongoing ‘collaboration’ with an intelligent slime mould; Animal Collectives collaborative research with SHOAL Group at Swansea University; and a series of publicly sited collective interdisciplinary bio/social experiments, including Crowd Control and Nodes and Networks.

This event has been possible thanks to the support of the School of Cities and New College (UofT), and is a collaboration between ArtSci Salon, Sensorium, the Research Centre for Creative inquiry and Experimentation, the Departments of Computational Art and Visual Art & Art History at York University
 
Research for this event was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
 
ArtSci Salon is an interdisciplinary program hosted by the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous is a project of Leonardo® /ISAST

For anyone who’d like to see the poster in its original format, go here. I don’t believe you have to register for either of the two public events.

Evolution – Exhibition and Panel Discussion on March 29, 2019 in Toronto

On March 9, 2019 I received another Art/Sci Salon email announcement (Note: The formatting has been changed),

Evolution – Exhibition and Panel Discussion March 29, 2019
What is nature and the evolution of living beings is an inevitable issue. While searching for the answer to this and other questions around Nature and its variations, we find what we are and how we stand among all organisms and in the world. Charles Darwin offered the world a simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth: evolution by natural selection. Countless scientists have found that Darwin’s work is fundamental to their own.

Contemporary scientists can now answer questions about the natural world in ways Darwin never could. New tools and technologies, such as DNA analyses, can reveal unexpected relationships between seemingly dissimilar groups.

This event consists of an exhibition (part of FACTT-TO) and a panel discussion. Together, they interrogate the meaning, the relevance and the implications of evolution from different vantage points, including perspectives from a range of scientific disciplines, technological approaches, and artistic practices. We wish to reflect on the condition of co-habitation and co-existence of human and non-humans in this world (and beyond?) and pose questions about transformation; forced or elective mutation and survival; agency and decision making; conservation and intervention.
 
Text by Marta de Menezes and Roberta Buiani

Join us March 29 for the opening and tour of FACTT, followed by a panel discussion

5:00 pm Opening Tour

Meet us in Sidney Smith (University of Toronto), 100 St George street (enter from Huron street)

Stop#1 – Sidney Smith Commons (Huron Street side)

Stop#2 – McLennan Physics Labs (60 St. George street)

Artists: André Sier; Elaine Whittaker; Felipe Shibuya & Pedro Cruz; Gunes-Helene Isitan; Jenifer Wightman; Jennifer Willet; Jude Abu-Zaineh; Kathy High; Maria Francisca Abreu-Afonso; Maria Manuela Lopez; Nicole Clouston; Nigel Helyer; Suzanne Anker; Tarah Roda; Tosca Teràn

6:00-8:00 pm Panel Discussion

The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
Rm 23

Guests:

Marta DeMenezes – Artistic Director, Ectopia; Director, Cultivamos Cultura

Gary Smith – Artist and landscape architect, Visiting Artist at Santa Clara University

Boris Steipe – Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Department of Molecular Genetics

Jenifer Wightman – Research Associate (Cornell) and Lecturer (New School/Parsons)

Biographies

Marta DeMenezes is a Portuguese artist (b. Lisbon, 1975) with a degree in Fine Arts by the University in Lisbon, and a MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture by the University of Oxford. She has been exploring the interaction between Art and Biology, working in research laboratories demonstrating that new biological technologies, DNA, proteins and live organisms can be used as an art medium. Her work has been presented internationally in exhibitions, articles and lectures. She is since 2005 artistic director of Ectopia – Experimental Art Laboratory and from 2009 director of Cultivamos Cultura – Association. http://martademenezes.com

Gary Smith lectures frequently at botanical gardens, art museums, and professional conferences. In his work he examines the basic patterns in nature, finding ways they form a visual vocabulary for human cultural expression. Formerly an Associate Professor of Landscape Design at the University of Delaware, Smith has also served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas. In 2012, Smith was the Nadine Carter Russell Chair in the School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University. He is currently Visiting Artist in the Department of Art and Art History at Santa Clara University, in Santa Clara, California. www.wgarysmithdesign.com

Boris Steipe is Director of the Specialist Program in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Department of Molecular Genetics. He is interested in recurring patterns in molecular structure: the computational methods of pattern discovery, their characterization regarding features, context and distribution, their association with function in proteins, and their utility for protein engineering and design. http://biochemistry.utoronto.ca/person/boris-steipe/
Trained as a Toxicologist,

Jenifer Wightman is a research scientist specializing in greenhouse gas inventories and life cycle analysis of agriculture, forestry, waste, and bioenergy systems at Cornell University, funded by DoE, USDA, NYS DA&M, and NYSERDA. Her art practice began in 2002 and employs scientific tropes to incite curiosity of biological phenomena and inform an ecological rationality. Her art has been commissioned by NYC parks, featured at the Lincoln Center, BAM, and Imagine Science Festival, and is held in collections such as the Morgan Library, Library of Congress, Gutenberg Museum, Bodmer Museum, and the Danish Royal Library http://www.audiblewink.com/

ArtSci Salon thanks the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences, Art and Science and the Physics Department at the University of Toronto for their support.
ArtSci Salon is an interdisciplinary program hosted by the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous is a project of Leonardo® /ISAST [International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology ]

You can signup for the ‘Evolution’ event here.

This ‘Evolution’ event is part of the 2019 FACTT festival; there was also a 2018 FACCT festival in Toronto. I have a bit more about FACTT and last year’s event in a January 29, 2018 posting (scroll down to Toronto) and a brief reference to it in a January 10, 2018 posting (scroll down to Do CRISPR monsters dream of synthetic futures?).

Happy International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019—with a shout-out to women in science

I did a very quick search for today’s (March 8, 2019) women in science stories and found three to highlight here. First, a somewhat downbeat Canadian story.

Can Canadians name a woman scientist or engineer?

According to Emily Chung’s March 8, 2019 article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news site, the answer is: no,

You’ve probably heard of Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Mark Zuckerberg.

But can you name a woman scientist or engineer? Half of Canadians can’t, suggests a new poll.

The online survey of 1,511 Canadians was commissioned by the non-profit group Girls Who Code and conducted by the market research firm Maru/Blue from March 1-3 and released for International Women’s Day today [March 8, 2019].

It was intended to collect data about how people felt about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers and education in Canada, said Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the group, which aims to close the gender gap in technology by teaching girls coding skills.


The poll found:

When asked how many women scientists/engineers they could name, 52 per cent of respondents said “none.”

When asked to picture a computer scientist, 82 per cent of respondents immediately imagined a man rather than a woman.

77 per cent of respondents think increased media representation of women in STEM careers or leadership roles would help close the gender gap in STEM.


Sandra Corbeil, who’s involved a Women in STEM initiative at Ingenium, the organization that oversees Canada’s national museums of science and innovation, agrees that women scientists are under-recognized.

… Ingenium organized an event where volunteers from the public collaborated to add more women scientists to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science this past February [2019].

The 21 participants added four articles, including Dr. Anna Marion Hilliard, who developed a simple pap test for early detection of cervical cancer and Marla Sokolowski, who discovered an important gene that affects both metabolism and behaviour in fruit flies. The volunteer editors also updated and translated several other entries.

Similar events have been held around the world to boost the representation of women on Wikipedia, where as of March 4, 2019, only 17.7 per cent of biographies were of women — even 2018’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Donna Strickland, didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until the prize was announced.

Corbeil acknowledged that in science, the individual contributions of scientists, whether they are men or women, tend to not be well known by the public.[emphasis mine]

“We don’t treat them like superstars … to me, it’s something that we probably should change because their contributions matter.”

Chung points to a criticism of the Girls Who Code poll, they didn’t ask Canadians whether they could name male scientists or engineers. While Reshma Saujani acknowledged the criticism, she also brushed it off (from Chung’s article),

Saujani acknowledges that the poll didn’t ask how many male scientists or engineers they could name, but thinks the answer would “probablybe different. [emphasis mine]

Chung seems to be hinting (with the double quotes around the word probably) but I’m going to be blunt, that isn’t good science but, then, Saujani is not a scientist (from the reshmasujani.com’s About page),

Reshma began her career as an attorney and activist. In 2010, she surged onto the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. During the race, Reshma visited local schools and saw the gender gap in computing classes firsthand, which led her to start Girls Who Code. She has also served as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City and ran a spirited campaign for Public Advocate in 2013.

I’m inclined to believe that Saujani is right but I’d want to test the hypothesis. I have looked at what I believe to be the entire report here. I’m happy to see the questions but I do have a few questions about the methodology (happily, also included in the report),

… online survey was commissioned by Girls Who Code of 1,511 randomly selected Canadian adults who are Maru Voice panelists.

If it’s an online survey, how can the pollsters be sure the respondents are Canadian or sure about any other of the demographic details? What is a Maru Voice panelist? Is there some form of self-selection inherent in being a Maru Voice panelist? (If I remember my social science research guidelines properly, self-selected groups are not the same as the general population.)

All I’m saying, this report is interesting but seems problematic so treat it with a little caution.

Celebrating women in science in UK (United Kingdom)

This story comes from the UK’s N8 Research Partnership (I’m pretty sure that N8 is meant to be pronounced as ‘innate’). On March 7, 2019 they put up a webpage celebrating women in science,

All #N8women deliver our vision of making the N8 Research Partnership an exceptionally effective cluster of research innovation and training excellence; we celebrate all of your contributions and thank you for everything that you do. Read more about the women below or find out about them on our social channels by searching #N8Women.

Professor Dame Sue Black

Professor Dame Sue Black from Lancaster University pioneered research techniques to identify an individual by their hand alone, a technique that has been used successfully in Court to identify perpetrators in relation to child abuse cases. Images have been taken from more than 5000 participants to form an open-source dataset which has allowed a breakthrough in the study of anatomical variation.

Professor Diana Williams

Professor Diana Williams from The University of Liverpool has led research with Farming Online into a digital application that predict when and where disease is likely to occur. This is hoped to help combat the £300m per year UK agriculture loses per year through the liver fluke parasite which affects livestock across the globe.

Professor Louise Heathwaite

Professor Louise Heathwaite from Lancaster University has gained not only international recognition for her research into environmental pollution and water quality, but she also received the royal seal of approval after being awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2018.

Professor Sue Black

Professor Sue Black from Durham University has helped support 100 women retrain into tech roles thanks to the development of online programme, TechUP. Supported by the Institute of Coding, the programme lasts six months and concludes with a job interview, internship or apprenticeship.

Dr Anna Olsson-Brown

Dr Anna Olsson-Brown from the University of Liverpool has been instrumental in research into next-generation drugs that can treat patients with more advanced, malignant cancers and help them deal with the toxicity that can accompany novel therapies.

Professor Katherine Denby

Professor Katherine Denby, Director of N8 Agrifood, based at the University of York has been at the forefront of developing novel ways to enhance and enable breeding of crops resistance to environmental stress and disease.

Most recently, she was involved in the development of a genetic control system that enables plants to strengthen their defence response against deadly pathogens.

Doctor Louise Ellis

Dr Louise Ellis, Director of Sustainability at the University of Leeds has been leading their campaign – Single Out: 2023PlasticFree – crucially commits the University and Union to phase out single-use plastic across the board, not just in catering and office spaces.

Professor Philippa Browning

Professor Philippa Browning from the University of Manchester wanted to be an astronaut when she was a child but found that there was a lack of female role models in her field. She is leading work on the interactions between plasmas and magnetic fields and is a mentor for young solar physicists.

Doctor Anh Phan

Dr Anh Phan is a Lecturer of Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering at Newcastle University. She has been leading research into cold plasma pyrolysis, a process that could be used to turn plastic waste into green energy. This is a novel process that could revolutionise our problem with plastic and realise the true value of plastic waste.

So, Canadians take note of these women and the ones featured in the next item.

Canada Science and Technology Museum’s (an Ingenium museum) International Women’s Day video

It was posted on YouTube in 2017 but given the somewhat downbeat Canadian story I started with I thought this appropriate,

It’s never too late to learn about women in science and engineering. The women featured in the video are: Ursula Franklin, Maude Abbott, Janice Zinck, and Indira Samarasekera

Quantum back action and devil’s play

I always appreciate a reference to James Clerk Maxwell’s demon thought experiment (you can find out about it in the Maxwell’s demon Wikipedia entry). This time it comes from physicist  Kater Murch in a July 23, 2018 Washington University in st. Louis (WUSTL) news release (published July 25, 2018 on EurekAlert) written by Brandie Jefferson (offering a good explanation of the thought experiment and more),

Thermodynamics is one of the most human of scientific enterprises, according to Kater Murch, associate professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It has to do with our fascination of fire and our laziness,” he said. “How can we get fire” — or heat — “to do work for us?”

Now, Murch and colleagues have taken that most human enterprise down to the intangible quantum scale — that of ultra low temperatures and microscopic systems — and discovered that, as in the macroscopic world, it is possible to use information to extract work.

There is a catch, though: Some information may be lost in the process.

“We’ve experimentally confirmed the connection between information in the classical case and the quantum case,” Murch said, “and we’re seeing this new effect of information loss.”

The results were published in the July 20 [2018] issue of Physical Review Letters.

The international team included Eric Lutz of the University of Stuttgart; J. J. Alonzo of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Alessandro Romito of Lancaster University; and Mahdi Naghiloo, a Washington University graduate research assistant in physics.

That we can get energy from information on a macroscopic scale was most famously illustrated in a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon. [emphasis mine] The “demon” presides over a box filled with molecules. The box is divided in half by a wall with a door. If the demon knows the speed and direction of all of the molecules, it can open the door when a fast-moving molecule is moving from the left half of the box to the right side, allowing it to pass. It can do the same for slow particles moving in the opposite direction, opening the door when a slow-moving molecule is approaching from the right, headed left. ­

After a while, all of the quickly-moving molecules are on the right side of the box. Faster motion corresponds to higher temperature. In this way, the demon has created a temperature imbalance, where one side of the box is hotter. That temperature imbalance can be turned into work — to push on a piston as in a steam engine, for instance. At first the thought experiment seemed to show that it was possible create a temperature difference without doing any work, and since temperature differences allow you to extract work, one could build a perpetual motion machine — a violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

“Eventually, scientists realized that there’s something about the information that the demon has about the molecules,” Murch said. “It has a physical quality like heat and work and energy.”

His team wanted to know if it would be possible to use information to extract work in this way on a quantum scale, too, but not by sorting fast and slow molecules. If a particle is in an excited state, they could extract work by moving it to a ground state. (If it was in a ground state, they wouldn’t do anything and wouldn’t expend any work).

But they wanted to know what would happen if the quantum particles were in an excited state and a ground state at the same time, analogous to being fast and slow at the same time. In quantum physics, this is known as a superposition.

“Can you get work from information about a superposition of energy states?” Murch asked. “That’s what we wanted to find out.”

There’s a problem, though. On a quantum scale, getting information about particles can be a bit … tricky.

“Every time you measure the system, it changes that system,” Murch said. And if they measured the particle to find out exactly what state it was in, it would revert to one of two states: excited, or ground.

This effect is called quantum backaction. To get around it, when looking at the system, researchers (who were the “demons”) didn’t take a long, hard look at their particle. Instead, they took what was called a “weak observation.” It still influenced the state of the superposition, but not enough to move it all the way to an excited state or a ground state; it was still in a superposition of energy states. This observation was enough, though, to allow the researchers track with fairly high accuracy, exactly what superposition the particle was in — and this is important, because the way the work is extracted from the particle depends on what superposition state it is in.

To get information, even using the weak observation method, the researchers still had to take a peek at the particle, which meant they needed light. So they sent some photons in, and observed the photons that came back.

“But the demon misses some photons,” Murch said. “It only gets about half. The other half are lost.” But — and this is the key — even though the researchers didn’t see the other half of the photons, those photons still interacted with the system, which means they still had an effect on it. The researchers had no way of knowing what that effect was.

They took a weak measurement and got some information, but because of quantum backaction, they might end up knowing less than they did before the measurement. On the balance, that’s negative information.

And that’s weird.

“Do the rules of thermodynamics for a macroscopic, classical world still apply when we talk about quantum superposition?” Murch asked. “We found that yes, they hold, except there’s this weird thing. The information can be negative.

“I think this research highlights how difficult it is to build a quantum computer,” Murch said.

“For a normal computer, it just gets hot and we need to cool it. In the quantum computer you are always at risk of losing information.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Information Gain and Loss for a Quantum Maxwell’s Demon by M. Naghiloo, J. J. Alonso, A. Romito, E. Lutz, and K. W. Murch. Phys. Rev. Lett. 121, 030604 (Vol. 121, Iss. 3 — 20 July 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.030604 Published 17 July 2018

© 2018 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘Superconductivity: The Musical!’ wins the 2018 Dance Your Ph.D. competition

I can’t believe that October 24, 2011 was the last time the Dance Your Ph.D. competition was featured here. Time flies, eh? Here’s the 2018 contest winner’s submission, Superconductivity: The Musical!, (Note: This video is over 11 mins. long),

A February 17, 2019 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news item introduces the video’s writer, producer,s musician, and scientist,

Swing dancing. Songwriting. And theoretical condensed matter physics.

It’s a unique person who can master all three, but a University of Alberta PhD student has done all that and taken it one step further by making a rollicking music video about his academic pursuits — and winning an international competition for his efforts.

Pramodh Senarath Yapa is the winner of the 2018 Dance Your PhD contest, which challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through a jargon-free medium: dance.

The prize is $1,000 and “immortal geek fame.”

Yapa’s video features his friends twirling, swinging and touch-stepping their way through an explanation of his graduate research, called “Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.”

Jennifer Ouelette’s February 17, 2019 posting for the ars Technica blog offers more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

Yapa’s research deals with how matter behaves when it’s cooled to very low temperatures, when quantum effects kick in—such as certain metals becoming superconductive, or capable of conducting electricity with zero resistance. That’s useful for any number of practical applications. D-Wave Systems [a company located in metro Vancouver {Canada}], for example, is building quantum computers using loops of superconducting wire. For his thesis, “I had to use the theory of superconductivity to figure out how to build a better quantum computer,” said Yapa.

Condensed matter theory (the precise description of Yapa’s field of research) is a notoriously tricky subfield to make palatable for a non-expert audience. “There isn’t one unifying theory or a single tool that we use,” he said. “Condensed matter theorists study a million different things using a million different techniques.”

His conceptual breakthrough came about when he realized electrons were a bit like “unsociable people” who find joy when they pair up with other electrons. “You can imagine electrons as a free gas, which means they don’t interact with each other,” he said. “The theory of superconductivity says they actually form pairs when cooled below a certain temperature. That was the ‘Eureka!’ moment, when I realized I could totally use swing dancing.”

John Bohannon’s Feb. 15, 2019 article for Science (magazine) offers an update on Yapa’s research interests (it seems that Yapa was dancing his Masters degree) and more information about the contest itself ,

..

“I remember hearing about Dance Your Ph.D. many years ago and being amazed at all the entries,” Yapa says. “This is definitely a longtime dream come true.” His research, meanwhile, has evolved from superconductivity—which he pursued at the University of Victoria in Canada, where he completed a master’s degree—to the physics of superfluids, the focus of his Ph.D. research at the University of Alberta.

This is the 11th year of Dance Your Ph.D. hosted by Science and AAAS. The contest challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance.

“Most people would not normally think of interpretive dance as a tool for scientific communication,” says artist Alexa Meade, one of the judges of the contest. “However, the body can express conceptual thoughts through movement in ways that words and data tables cannot. The results are both artfully poetic and scientifically profound.”

Getting back to the February 17, 2019 CBC news item,

Yapa describes his video, filmed in Victoria where he earned his master’s degree, as a “three act, mini-musical.”

“I envisioned it as talking about the social lives of electrons,” he said. “The electrons starts out in a normal metal, at normal temperatures….We say these electrons are non-interacting. They don’t talk to each other. Electrons ignore each other and are very unsociable.”

The electrons — represented by dancers wearing saddle oxfords, poodle skirts, vests and suspenders — shuffle up the dance floor by themselves.

In the second act, the metal is cooled.

“The electrons become very unhappy about being alone. They want to find a partner, some companionship for the cold times,” he said

That’s when the electrons join up into something called Cooper pairs.

The dancers join together, moving to lyrics like, “If we peek/the Coopers are cheek-to-cheek.

In the final act, Yapa gets his dancers to demonstrate what happens when the Cooper pairs meet the impurities of the materials they’re moving in. All of a sudden, a group of black-leather-clad thugs move onto the dance floor.

“The Cooper pairs come dancing near these impurities and they’re like these crotchety old people yelling and shaking their fists at these young dancers,” Yapa explained.

Yapa’s entry to the annual contest swept past 49 other contestants to earn him the win. The competition is sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Congratulations to Pramodh Senarath Yapa.

AI (artificial intelligence) text generator, too dangerous to release?

Could this latest version of OpenAI‘s text generator be so good that it would fool you? And following on that thought could the concomitant reluctance to release the research be real or is it a publicity stunt? Here’s a sample of the text from the GPT2 AI model from a February 15, 2019 article by Mark Fraunfelder for Boing Boing,

Recycling is good for the world.
NO! YOU COULD NOT BE MORE WRONG!!
MODEL COMPLETION (MACHINE-WRITTEN, 25 TRIES)
Recycling is NOT good for the world. It is bad for the environment, it is bad for our health, and it is bad for our economy. I’m not kidding. Recycling is not good for the environment. It is destructive to the earth and it is a major contributor to global warming. Recycling is not good for our health. It contributes to obesity and diseases like heart disease and cancer. Recycling is bad for our economy. It increases the cost of a product, and in turn, the price of everything that is made with that product. Recycling is not good for our nation. We pay a tremendous price for the privilege of having the world’s most advanced and efficient recycling system. Recycling is a huge, colossal waste of time, energy, money, and resources. And THAT is why we need to get back to basics and get back to basics in our recycling efforts. One of the best ways to start is to look at the process of creating a paper product. When you make a paper product, it is basically a long chain of materials. Everything from the raw materials (wood, cardboard, paper, etc.), to the reagents (dyes, solvents, etc.) to the printing equipment (chemicals, glue, paper, ink, etc.), to the packaging, to the packaging materials (mercury, chemicals, etc.) to the processing equipment (heating, cooling, etc.), to the packaging materials, to the packaging materials that are shipped overseas and to the packaging materials that are used in the United States. Each step along the way creates tons of waste that we constantly have to clean up. The process of making a paper product is a very wasteful one. But the end result is something that all of us need to consume. And if we want to keep the recycling process running efficiently, then we really need to think about each and every step that goes into making a paper product.

The first few sentences don’t work for me but once the discussion turns to making paper products, then it becomes more convincing to me. As to whether the company’s reluctance to release the research is genuine or a publicity stunt, I don’t know. However, there was a fair degree of interest in GPT2 after the decision.

From a February 14, 2019 article by Alex Hern for the Guardian,

OpenAI, an nonprofit research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and others, says its new AI model, called GPT2 is so good and the risk of malicious use so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public in order to allow more time to discuss the ramifications of the technological breakthrough.

At its core, GPT2 is a text generator. The AI system is fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, and asked to write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should come next. The system is pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible, both in terms of the quality of the output, and the wide variety of potential uses.

When used to simply generate new text, GPT2 is capable of writing plausible passages that match what it is given in both style and subject. It rarely shows any of the quirks that mark out previous AI systems, such as forgetting what it is writing about midway through a paragraph, or mangling the syntax of long sentences.

Feed it the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – and the system recognises the vaguely futuristic tone and the novelistic style, and continues with: …

Sean Gallagher’s February 15, 2019 posting on the ars Technica blog provides some insight that’s partially written a style sometimes associated with gossip (Note: Links have been removed),

OpenAI is funded by contributions from a group of technology executives and investors connected to what some have referred to as the PayPal “mafia”—Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Jessica Livingston, and Sam Altman of YCombinator, former PayPal COO and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and former Stripe Chief Technology Officer Greg Brockman. [emphasis mine] Brockman now serves as OpenAI’s CTO. Musk has repeatedly warned of the potential existential dangers posed by AI, and OpenAI is focused on trying to shape the future of artificial intelligence technology—ideally moving it away from potentially harmful applications.

Given present-day concerns about how fake content has been used to both generate money for “fake news” publishers and potentially spread misinformation and undermine public debate, GPT-2’s output certainly qualifies as concerning. Unlike other text generation “bot” models, such as those based on Markov chain algorithms, the GPT-2 “bot” did not lose track of what it was writing about as it generated output, keeping everything in context.

For example: given a two-sentence entry, GPT-2 generated a fake science story on the discovery of unicorns in the Andes, a story about the economic impact of Brexit, a report about a theft of nuclear materials near Cincinnati, a story about Miley Cyrus being caught shoplifting, and a student’s report on the causes of the US Civil War.

Each matched the style of the genre from the writing prompt, including manufacturing quotes from sources. In other samples, GPT-2 generated a rant about why recycling is bad, a speech written by John F. Kennedy’s brain transplanted into a robot (complete with footnotes about the feat itself), and a rewrite of a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

While the model required multiple tries to get a good sample, GPT-2 generated “good” results based on “how familiar the model is with the context,” the researchers wrote. “When prompted with topics that are highly represented in the data (Brexit, Miley Cyrus, Lord of the Rings, and so on), it seems to be capable of generating reasonable samples about 50 percent of the time. The opposite is also true: on highly technical or esoteric types of content, the model can perform poorly.”

There were some weak spots encountered in GPT-2’s word modeling—for example, the researchers noted it sometimes “writes about fires happening under water.” But the model could be fine-tuned to specific tasks and perform much better. “We can fine-tune GPT-2 on the Amazon Reviews dataset and use this to let us write reviews conditioned on things like star rating and category,” the authors explained.

James Vincent’s February 14, 2019 article for The Verge offers a deeper dive into the world of AI text agents and what makes GPT2 so special (Note: Links have been removed),

For decades, machines have struggled with the subtleties of human language, and even the recent boom in deep learning powered by big data and improved processors has failed to crack this cognitive challenge. Algorithmic moderators still overlook abusive comments, and the world’s most talkative chatbots can barely keep a conversation alive. But new methods for analyzing text, developed by heavyweights like Google and OpenAI as well as independent researchers, are unlocking previously unheard-of talents.

OpenAI’s new algorithm, named GPT-2, is one of the most exciting examples yet. It excels at a task known as language modeling, which tests a program’s ability to predict the next word in a given sentence. Give it a fake headline, and it’ll write the rest of the article, complete with fake quotations and statistics. Feed it the first line of a short story, and it’ll tell you what happens to your character next. It can even write fan fiction, given the right prompt.

The writing it produces is usually easily identifiable as non-human. Although its grammar and spelling are generally correct, it tends to stray off topic, and the text it produces lacks overall coherence. But what’s really impressive about GPT-2 is not its fluency but its flexibility.

This algorithm was trained on the task of language modeling by ingesting huge numbers of articles, blogs, and websites. By using just this data — and with no retooling from OpenAI’s engineers — it achieved state-of-the-art scores on a number of unseen language tests, an achievement known as “zero-shot learning.” It can also perform other writing-related tasks, like translating text from one language to another, summarizing long articles, and answering trivia questions.

GPT-2 does each of these jobs less competently than a specialized system, but its flexibility is a significant achievement. Nearly all machine learning systems used today are “narrow AI,” meaning they’re able to tackle only specific tasks. DeepMind’s original AlphaGo program, for example, was able to beat the world’s champion Go player, but it couldn’t best a child at Monopoly. The prowess of GPT-2, say OpenAI, suggests there could be methods available to researchers right now that can mimic more generalized brainpower.

“What the new OpenAI work has shown is that: yes, you absolutely can build something that really seems to ‘understand’ a lot about the world, just by having it read,” says Jeremy Howard, a researcher who was not involved with OpenAI’s work but has developed similar language modeling programs …

To put this work into context, it’s important to understand how challenging the task of language modeling really is. If I asked you to predict the next word in a given sentence — say, “My trip to the beach was cut short by bad __” — your answer would draw upon on a range of knowledge. You’d consider the grammar of the sentence and its tone but also your general understanding of the world. What sorts of bad things are likely to ruin a day at the beach? Would it be bad fruit, bad dogs, or bad weather? (Probably the latter.)

Despite this, programs that perform text prediction are quite common. You’ve probably encountered one today, in fact, whether that’s Google’s AutoComplete feature or the Predictive Text function in iOS. But these systems are drawing on relatively simple types of language modeling, while algorithms like GPT-2 encode the same information in more complex ways.

The difference between these two approaches is technically arcane, but it can be summed up in a single word: depth. Older methods record information about words in only their most obvious contexts, while newer methods dig deeper into their multiple meanings.

So while a system like Predictive Text only knows that the word “sunny” is used to describe the weather, newer algorithms know when “sunny” is referring to someone’s character or mood, when “Sunny” is a person, or when “Sunny” means the 1976 smash hit by Boney M.

The success of these newer, deeper language models has caused a stir in the AI community. Researcher Sebastian Ruder compares their success to advances made in computer vision in the early 2010s. At this time, deep learning helped algorithms make huge strides in their ability to identify and categorize visual data, kickstarting the current AI boom. Without these advances, a whole range of technologies — from self-driving cars to facial recognition and AI-enhanced photography — would be impossible today. This latest leap in language understanding could have similar, transformational effects.

Hern’s article for the Guardian (February 14, 2019 article ) acts as a good overview, while Gallagher’s ars Technical posting (February 15, 2019 posting) and Vincent’s article (February 14, 2019 article) for the The Verge take you progressively deeper into the world of AI text agents.

For anyone who wants to dig down even further, there’s a February 14, 2019 posting on OpenAI’s blog.

Ethiopia’s new species of puddle frog and an update on Romeo, the last Sehuencas water frog

It seems to be to my week for being a day late. Here’s my Valentine Day (February 14, 2019) celebration posting. I’ve got two frog stories, news of a dating app for animals, and a bonus (not a frog story) at the end.

Ethiopia

For the last few years I’ve been getting stories about new frog species in Central and South America. This one marks a change of geography. From a February 12, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new species of puddle frog (order: Anura, family: Phynobatrachidae, genus: Phrynobatrachus), has just been discovered at the unexplored and isolated Bibita Mountain in southwestern Ethiopia. The research team named the new species Phrynobatrachus bibita sp. nov., or Bibita Mountain dwarf puddle frog, inspired by its home.

A new species of puddle frog (female Phrynobatrachus bibita sp. nov.) from an unexplored mountain in southwestern Ethiopia. Credit: Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi researchers S. Goutte and J. Reyes-Velasco.

Here’s more from a February 13, 2019 New York University Abu Dhabi press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item (Note: I have reformatted parts of the following press release),

In summer 2018, NYU Abu Dhabi Postdoctoral Associates Sandra Goutte and Jacobo Reyes-Velasco explored an isolated mountain in southwestern Ethiopia where some of the last primary forest of the country remains. Bibita Mountain was under the radars of the team for several years due to its isolation and because no other zoologist had ever explored it before

“Untouched, isolated, and unexplored”

“It had all the elements to spike our interest,” says Dr. Reyes-Velasco, who initiated the exploration of the mountain. “We tried to reach Bibita in a previous expedition in 2016 without success. Last summer, we used a different route that brought us to higher elevation,” he added.

Their paper, published in ZooKeys journal, reports that the new, tiny frog, 17 mm for males and 20 mm for females, is unique among Ethiopian puddle frogs. Among other morphological features, a slender body with long legs, elongated fingers and toes, and a golden coloration, set this frog apart from its closest relatives. “When we looked at the frogs, it was obvious that we had found a new species, they look so different from any Ethiopian species we had ever seen before!” explains Dr. Goutte.

Back in NYU Abu Dhabi, the research team sequenced tissue samples from the new species and discovered that Phrynobatrachus bibita sp. nov. is genetically different from any frog species in the region.

“The discovery of such a genetically distinct species in only a couple of days in this mountain is the perfect demonstration of how important it is to assess the biodiversity of this type of places. The Bibita Mountain probably has many more unknown species that await our discovery; it is essential for biologists to discover them in order to protect them and their habitat properly,” explains NYU Abu Dhabi Program Head of Biology and the paper’s lead researcher Stéphane Boissinot, who has been working on Ethiopian frogs since 2010.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from 120 nations and speak over 120 languages. Together, NYU’s campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.

These are very small frogs with males growing to about 17mm, or 0.6 inches and females growing up to 20mm, or 0.8 inches.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A new species of puddle frog from an unexplored mountain in southwestern Ethiopia (Anura, Phrynobatrachidae, Phrynobatrachus) by Sandra Goutte, Jacobo Reyes-Velasco, Stephane Boissinot. ZooKeys, 2019; 824: 53-70 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.824.31570 (12 Feb 2019)

This paper appears to be open access.

Bolivia

First, here’s some background information. I wrote about Romeo, the Sehuencas water frog last year in my July 26,2018 posting: ‘Emergency!!! Lonely heart looking for love: Female. Stocky build. Height of 2 – 3 inches,’

“(Matias Careaga) [downloaded from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-made-matchcom-profile-bolivias-loneliest-frog-180968140/]That is a very soulful look. How could any female Sehuencas water frog resist it? Sadly, that’s the problem. They havn’t found any female Sehuencas water frogs yet.

It’s not for want of trying. Back in February 2018 worldwide interest was raised when scientists as the Cochabamba Natural History Museum (Bolivia) started a campaign to find a mate and raise funds for a search. …”

Happily, I stumbled on this January 17, 2019 New York Times article by JoAnna Klein for the latest about Romeo,

Romeo was made for love, as all animals are. But for years he couldn’t find it. It’s not like there was anything wrong with Romeo. Sure he’s shy, eats worms, lacks eyelashes and is 10 years old, at least. But he’s aged well, and he’s kind of a special guy.

Romeo is a Sehuencas water frog, once thought to be the last one on the planet. He lives alone in a tank at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Bolivia.

A deadly fungal disease threatens his species and other frogs in the cloud forest where he was found a decade ago. When researchers brought him to the museum’s conservation breeding center, they expected to find another frog he could mate with and save the species from extinction. But they searched stream after stream, and nothing.


He needed a match before he croaked, so last year conservation groups partnered to create a Match.com profile for him. People related to Romeo’s romantic struggles, and on Valentine’s Day last year, the company and his fans raised $25,000 to send an expedition team out to the cloud forest to find his Juliet.

And for all the lonely lovers searching for that special someone, Teresa Camacho Badani, a herpetologist at the museum who found Juliet [emphasis mine], has another message: “Never give up searching for that happy ending.”

Here is Juliet,

Photo of Juliet by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation [downloaded from [https://www.globalwildlife.org/press-room/lonely-no-more-romeo-the-sehuencas-water-frog-finds-love/]

If you don’t have much time, Klein’s article goes on to offer an engaging look at the successful expedition’s trip. For anyone who might like to keep digging, I have more. First, a video,


Global Wildlife Conservation has a January 15, 2019 posting (where I found the video) by Lindsay Renick Mayer which offers more detail via a Q&A (questions and answers) interview with Teresa Camacho Badani, the herpetologist who found Juliet. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite,

Q. What was the habitat like where you found the frogs?
A. It is a well-preserved cloud forest where the climate is rainy, foggy and humid because of the streams, which are less than a meter in width with currents that form waterfalls, and ponds that are not very deep. Other biologists had looked here for the frog, even last year, with no success. We selected this spot after months of doing an analysis of historic records of where the species had originally been found—most of which have since been destroyed. Field evidence suggests that the frog is very, very rare and there are likely few left in the wild. And because it was clear that the threats to the frogs were so close in proximity—the streams around us were empty—we decided to rescue all five of these individuals for the conservation breeding program.


Q. What happens to these five frogs next?
A. Right now they’re in quarantine at the K’ayara Center at the museum, where they are starting to acclimate to their new home. We’ll make sure they have the same quality of water and temperature as in the field. After they are used to their new habitat and they’re eating well, we will give them a preventive treatment for the deadly infectious disease, chytridiomycosis. We do not want Romeo to get sick on his first date! [emphasis mine] When the treatment is finished, we can finally give Romeo what we hope is a romantic encounter with his Juliet.

The Global Wildlife Conservation’s January 15, 2019 press release offers still more information,

“It is an incredible feeling to know that thanks to everyone who believes in true love and donated for Valentine’s Day last year [2018], we have already found a mate for Romeo and can establish a conservation breeding program with more than a single pair,” said Teresa Camacho Badani, the museum’s chief of herpetology and the expedition leader. “Now the real work begins—we know how to successfully care for this species in captivity, but now we will learn about its reproduction, while also getting back into the field to better understand if any more frogs may be left and if so, how many, where they are, and more about the threats they face. With this knowledge we can develop strategies to mitigate the threats to the species’ habitat, while working on a long-term plan to return Romeo’s future babies to their wild home, preventing the extinction of the Sehuencas water frog.”

These are the first Sehuencas water frogs that biologists have seen in the wild in a decade, though over the years (including in 2018) scientists had searched this area for the species with no success. This team, which had done careful analysis ahead of time to determine the best places to look for the frogs, still didn’t encounter the Sehuencas water frog until after failing for a few long days to find any frogs of any species in what seemed like perfect amphibian habitat—a well-protected stream in the Bolivian wilderness. …

The scientists are hoping for more money (from Global Wildlife Conservation’s January 15, 2019 press release),

Romeo became an international celebrity on Valentine’s Day in 2018 with a dating profile on Match, the world’s largest dating company. Now he is a powerful flagship for conservation in Bolivia. These expeditions were made possible by the individuals in more than 32 countries who made donations last year that were matched by Match for a total of $25,000.
“Our entire Match community rallied behind Romeo and his search for love last year,” said Hesam Hosseini, CEO of Match. “We’re thrilled with this outcome for Romeo and his species. He now joins the list of millions of ‘members’ who have found meaningful relationships on Match.”

Romeo’s followers can continue to cheer on him and his species by making a donation to support these conservation efforts. They can also stay up to date on these expeditions and other news about the most eligible bachelor through GWC’s blog, mailing list and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and the Alcide d’Orbigny Natural History Museum’s Facebook page. Romeo has also now taken to Twitter to share his thoughts on dating, love and romance.

Animal dating apps

Do check out Romeo’s Twitter feed. You may find something appealing such as this link to a February 14, 2019 news item on the News for Kids blog which discusses dating apps for animals. Romeo’s story is recounted and then there’s this about an app for farm animals,

In the United Kingdom a company called Hectare has come up with “Tudder” – an unusual way for farm animals to find partners.

Tudder is a “dating” app which allows farmers to easily find mates for their cows and bulls. Farmers can post pictures of their animals to the app, and swipe through pictures and descriptions to see other animals in need of a mate.

Tudder may sound a bit silly, but farmers say it saves them time and money because they don’t have to travel with their animals to find them a mate.

Funny thing is, I was wondering about Romeo just the other day and so, thanks is owed to the Beakerhead Twitter feed where I stumbled across the Romeo update. Thank you

Bonus

I have two furry bonuses. First, the cats,

The excerpt is from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s February 15, 2019 article by Devon Murphy about ‘Catwalk: Tales From The Cat Show Circuit’, a CBC documentary as is this excerpt,

Her hair is perfect, freshly washed, blow-dried, and combed, and her eyes are shining. She’s ready to compete and is calm as the judge approaches. Then, he takes a feather and twitches it in front of her face, and she turns on her back, furry stomach exposed, and bats at it with her immaculate paws.

Now for the pièce de résistance. Thank you to LaineyGossip (fifth paragraph) for this moment of “pure joy”,

That dog knows she’s a champion, whether or not she’s the fastest on the course. On February 10, 2019, she was a furry streak of lightning … in the 8″ division of the Westminster Dog Show’s Masters Agility Championship competition. Belated Happy Valentine’s Day.