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All in one show…

I happened to watch WIRED Science on TV last night – the magazine-format show, by the folks at WIRED, had articles on photography, Internet security, and science, all in one show. What can I say? I was hooked! :-)

The photographic stories included the virtual reality app “Photosynth” by Microsoft, which was shown at the virtual reality conference in Berkeley in June and began life as something called “Sea Dragon”:
The application synthesizes a 3D virtual composite of the photos of a number of photographers who photographed the same scene. The photos can range in quality from cell-phone-quality to digital SLR quality.

A second article on photography dealt with videography of faces, and software that attempts to “read” the underlying emotional state of the person who was photographed. The work is done at MIT’s Media Lab and is called the “Emotional Social Intelligence Prosthetic” or “ESP”. Feedback that describes the “target” :-) person’s emotional state can be visual or auditory.
The folks at MIT have found applications for people with Asperger Syndrome, who have trouble with the nonverbal components of human conversations, because they tend to watch only the mouth, not the eyes or other parts of the face of the people talking to them. Although the article did not describe *who* may have funded the research originally (this is MIT; do the math), the ever increasing numbers of networked cameras in our societies, and the fact that facial recognition software at Super Bowl XXXV way back in 2001 allowed the arrest of 19 people with pending arrest warrants cause me to hope that the technology will be used for good purposes.

Internet security was covered with regard to botnet attacks on the nation of Estonia (one of the most “wired” nations in Europe), which brought the computer infrastructure of the small nation to its knees.

“Dubbed E-Stonia by some, the country ranked No. 8 out of 82 countries in putting the Net to practical use in a recent World Economic Forum report. The country ranked No. 2 in Internet banking and third in e-government.”

ATM machines were disabled, governmental systems and financial institutions were disabled, people could not get their money, and only the technological sophistication of the nation and fast action allowed restoration of systems in a timely manner. The Wired Science show indicated that such an attack on a small nation would not be expected to produce the same results on a larger nation like the United States, but that the United States may also not have the same degree of online integration and technological awareness as Estonia.

Ah, science…WIRED Science interviewed folks at one small company that supplies the types of chemicals formerly found in the “chemistry sets” of children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This small company was fined $30,000 for interstate shipping of hazardous materials! Supposedly, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was an average of one chemistry set in every household in America. I had one. WIRED Science also showed a graph with declining enrollments for science majors in the United States from that time. Today, as the result of safety concerns, tighter regulations, and liability concerns, there are “chemistry sets” being shipped with *no chemicals*!

Having traveled that (scientific) path, I would like to comment about some of the factors that I believe have contributed to a decline in science enrollments, especially by Americans, in this nation’s colleges and universities, and not necessarily in the order of importance:

1) active limitation of the number of science graduates by faculty at colleges. In the name of making sure that only the best candidates survive to enter graduate schools (hey, I did), undergraduates are sometimes forced to compete with graduate students taking undergraduate courses as a “refresher”, grading curves are severely skewed, and “correct” answers to exams are not necessarily “correct”. I remember Dr. Melvin Newman’s (Newman projection) response to one student concerning the correct answer to an exam question by another chemistry professor. He replied that “That may be good in theory, but it will never occur in the lab.”

2) the failure rate in scientific research. I really *do admire* folks who can persist in a discipline with such high failure rates, especially in academic environments with the battles for funding, and with the academic politics. Speaking of funding – I do sometimes wonder about the funding of academic research by private business, a common practice. Business can have a different set of ethics than that found in academia. (George Carlin, in hyperbole, described “business ethics” as an oxymoron.)

3) the delayed gratification of scientific research. It may be years (or never) before the researcher knows whether an experiment was a success or failure, in contrast with, e.g. engineering, where the feedback and rewards can come more quickly. Any behavioralist out there will tell you the effects of #2 and #3 (and #4 below).

4) the rewards themselves, and this is the most important factor. Years ago, I had roommates who were astronomy majors. At that time, 10 astronomy Ph.D.s were placed (in *jobs*) in the United States each year. Both of these gentleman a) were brilliant and b) had to take so much math, physics, and computer science to earn an astronomy degree that they could easily be employed in any of those areas and earn more money than in astronomy. As someone who spent a lot of time in the biological sciences, I believe in the effects of selection “pressures”. If there is no reward at the end of the long maze of education in the sciences, there will be fewer and fewer who are willing to make the journey. Many will go to medicine (another story), and many will go to engineering and other disciplines. Those who go to the other disciplines may later wind up in business. Many scientists in the U.S. are treated as commodities and hired through “temp agencies”. Seldom do they receive the respect and rewards that they have earned. America does not value ($$$) its scientists, and so fewer students become scientists.

Not all of the considerations above are “fixable”. The most important one, #4, is.

If the WIRED Science program is available in your area, it is worth your attention. The program is also available in HD in some areas.

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo

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