AI art is popular, but it is ethical?

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). However, even though the main audience for this magazine is professional mathematicians, this article contains no mathematics whatsoever, but does contain possibly the worst pun I ever have contributed to a published article.

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The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence-Generated Art

For SIAM News:

In recent months, many people have begun to explore a new pastime: generating their own images using several widely-distributed programs such as DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion. These programs offer a straightforward interface wherein nontechnical users can input a descriptive phrase and receive corresponding pictures, or at least amusingly bad approximations of the results they intended. For most users, such artificial intelligence1 (AI)-generated art is harmless fun that requires no computer graphics skills to produce and is suitable for social media posts (see Figure 1).

However, AI algorithms combine aspects of existing data to generate their outputs. DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, and other popular programs pull images directly from the internet to train their algorithms. Though these images might be easily obtainable—from the huge Google Images database, for example—the creators have not always licensed their art for reuse or use in the production of derivative works. In other words, while publications like SIAM News obtain permission before disseminating restricted-license images, popular AI algorithms do not distinguish between pictures that are freely usable and those that are not.

Read the rest at SIAM News
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Whip it good: how flagella help cells move

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). However, even though the main audience for this magazine is professional mathematicians, I wrote it to be understandable even if you gloss over the math.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

A Mathematical Tale of Fibers, Fluids, and Flagella

For SIAM News:

Under a microscope, a cell scoots along by its own power and hoovers up small crumbs of nutrition from the water around it. An example of such an organism is a choanoflagellate, which has a thin, whip-like appendage called a flagellum that controls its feeding and motion. While similarly proportioned apparatuses would be useless on a human scale, flagella are common among single-celled organisms like bacteria, the sometimes-toxic dinoflagellate algae, and even human sperm cells.

Motion in the microscopic world—particularly in fluids—involves an entirely different set of forces than those that govern macroscopic environments. Flagella operate efficiently under these forces and allow microscopic life to move around in fluids, where large viscous forces are present even in substances such as water. The motion of choanoflagellates and the way in which flexible fibers or strands of cells passively respond to liquid flow all constitute a set of complex problems with many potential applications in engineering and medicine.

“With the advent of microfluidic devices and computational technology, there has been an incredible resurgence in studies of the flow of tiny creatures at the microscale,” Lisa Fauci, an applied mathematician at Tulane University and a former president of SIAM, said. “There are possibilities of creating nanorobots that can be guided with external magnetic fields to break up blood clots or deliver drugs to a tumor.”

Read the rest at SIAM News

Modeling tuberculosis from molecules to organs

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). However, even though the main audience for this magazine is professional mathematicians, I wrote it to be understandable even if you gloss over the math.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Multiscale Models Shed Light on Tuberculosis

For SIAM News:

As demonstrated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a thorough understanding of infectious diseases requires data and models on multiple interconnected levels. Epidemiology addresses population-level issues, transmission models describe individuals within their environments, and a variety of biomedical approaches help researchers comprehend the way in which pathogens infiltrate the body — and the body’s ability to fight back.

Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the deadliest infectious diseases in the world. It accounts for roughly 1.5 million deaths per year and causes the most HIV-related casualties. While decision-makers know in principle how to slow the spread of certain illnesses, TB is more stubborn than most.

“TB is unique compared to many other diseases and the way we treat them,” Denise Kirschner, a mathematical biologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, said. During her plenary talk at the hybrid 2022 SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences (LS22), which took place concurrently with the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa., this July, Kirschner described the major challenges that surround TB’s characterization.

Read the rest at SIAM News

Dropping science like Galileo dropped the orange

Over the past few years, the MICROSCOPE spacecraft performed precision experiments to test the difference between gravitational mass, which governs how strongly matter responds to gravity, and inertial mass, which is the measure of resistance to being pushed. Our modern theory of gravity, Einstein’s general theory of relativity, says these masses are equivalent, which is (among many other things) why your stomach sometimes goes whoopsy when you’re driving fast over the crest of a hill, or when an airplane hits a bit of turbulence. To accompany the announcement of the final MICROSCOPE results, the American Physical Society’s Physics Magazine commissioned a comic from me and artist Maki Naro.

The Equivalence Principle under a MICROSCOPE

Yes, I quoted the Beastie Boys in a comic about the equivalence principle. [Credit: words by me, art by Maki Naro]

Read the whole thing at APS Physics Magazine

How do cells “know” to move without brains?

The linked article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). However, even though the main audience for this magazine is professional mathematicians, I wrote it to be understandable even if you gloss over the math. And it involves the word “tortuosity”, which is just fun to say.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

The Mathematical Machinery That Makes Cells Move

For SIAM News:

A white blood cell slips through the gaps between other cells, stretching and bending as it goes. Though its movement strongly evokes that of a macroscopic creature—perhaps a rodent nosing its way through a maze—the cell is guided only by chemical signals and molecular forces. It has no need for a brain, not even the one in the human body that it shares.

Mathematical biologists have developed a number of models to understand self-organization both within and between cells. Leah Edelstein-Keshet of the University of British Columbia received SIAM’s prestigious 2022 John von Neumann Prize for her significant contributions to this field. Edelstein-Keshet has been a leader in mathematical biology research for several decades and also penned one of the earliest textbooks on the subject: Mathematical Models in Biology [1]. She delivered the associated prize lecture at the hybrid 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting (AN22), which took place in Pittsburgh, Pa., this July.

“I started off by looking at the interesting patterns that cells make,” Edelstein-Keshet said. “Fibroblasts try to align in parallel patterns, and the question was, how do they form these parallel arrays? We developed some mathematical language to deal with that. And it turns out that there are a lot of related problems of units that line up in parallel arrays.”

Read the rest at SIAM News

Abortion, police brutality, and the responsibility of a journalist

Why am I — science writer who mostly specializes in physics, astronomy, and a bit of math — writing an opinion piece about tear gas and abortion for Scientific American? After all, not only is this not my usual wheelhouse, I’m a cisgender man who will never be pregnant (and who never intends on getting anyone else pregnant either). However, I firmly believe it’s my duty and responsibility as a journalist to stand up for human rights when they are under attack, even if those rights aren’t specifically mine. As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote,

Science can supply information as input to a moral decision, but the ethical realm of “oughts” cannot be logically specified by the factual “is” of the natural world—the only aspect of reality that science can adjudicate. As a scientist, I can refute the stated rationale for Nazi evil and nonsense. But when I stand against Nazi policy, I must do so as everyman—as a human being. For I win my right to engage moral issues by my membership in Homo sapiens—a right vested in absolutely every human being who has ever graced this earth, and a responsibility for all who are able.

I bring the scientific data because I am a scientist and a science journalist. But when I stand against forced pregnancy backed by theocratic patriarchy and forced abortion backed by police power, I do so as a human being, standing with my fellow human beings. It’s my job and my duty.

Police Who Tear Gas Abortion-Rights Protesters Could Induce Abortion

Tear gas is widely used by law enforcement, even though it may cause spontaneous abortion

For Scientific American:

After the recent ruling by the Supreme Court overturning federal abortion rights, people have taken to the streets in protest. In multiple places, police attacked protesters with chemical weapons in the form of tear gas. In Arizona, law enforcement even fired canisters from the windows of government buildings.

One irony inherent in this violence is that chemical weapons can cause spontaneous abortions, commonly known as miscarriages. In other words, law enforcement officers use dangerous, unregulated weapons against unarmed civilians, possibly violating protesters’ human rights by terminating pregnancies that, according to the Supreme Court, those same protesters have no constitutionally protected right to terminate themselves.

[Read the rest at Scientific American]

Can scientists speak truth to power when they aren’t in the business of “truth”?

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Can Science Speak Truth to Power?

For SIAM News:

Since the onset of COVID-19, government messaging has been scattershot at best. In the meantime, epidemiologists, public health experts, and other members of the scientific community have struggled to communicate accurate information to the public — sometimes without adequate data (see Figure 1). To further complicate matters, many of these same scientists are paid with public money in the form of grants or beholden to corporate funding. Additionally, the priorities of civil leaders do not always align with those of public health efforts, and scientists themselves are not apolitical machines and thus have their own biases.

These conflicts and confusions are particularly problematic during a global pandemic, but it doesn’t take a virus to reveal the presence of fissures in a world where people perform both science and public policy. Climate change, nuclear weapons, space exploration, deep-sea mining, endangered species protections, and garbage disposal are only a small sample of areas in which scientific issues overlap—or conflict—with governmental priorities.

“More scientists these days acknowledge that we are not those who are elected by the public,” Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey said. “We understand that the policy decisions that politicians and governments make depend on more than just the scientific evidence that we present.”

Read the rest at SIAM News

The snake-oil salesmen of “earthquake prediction”

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Earthquake weather

Earthquake predictions are going viral online — and spreading dangerous conspiracies along the way.

For Inverse:

In 1990, an eccentric Texan named Iben Browning appeared on the national stage with a dramatic prediction: On December 2 or 3 of that year, a major earthquake would hit the New Madrid fault in southwestern Missouri.

Professional earthquake scientists mostly declined to even give the prediction any attention, and — to their total lack of surprise — Dec. 3, 1990 came and went without a tremor. Nevertheless, Browning’s prediction sent a number of people into a panic, who built “Browning bunkers” and brought news crews to the small town of New Madrid (pronounced in a typically American fashion as “MAD-rid”). The non-event even inspired a 1993 song from the southern Illinois alternative country band Uncle Tupelo.

On its face, predicting an earthquake in New Madrid doesn’t seem too far-fetched. On Dec. 16, 1811, a tremor struck the town large enough to change the course of the Mississippi River and create the illusion of making the water flow backward. The young city of St. Louis was heavily damaged, and New Madrid itself was essentially destroyed. The New Madrid region even experienced a magnitude 4.7 quake in September 1990, which lent a little credibility to Browning’s claim in the public eye. The area has around 200 low-magnitude quakes annually, and disaster-preparedness experts are concerned that infrastructure is not robust enough to handle larger events.

But knowing earthquakes have happened at a particular site and are likely to happen again in the future is not the same thing as being able to predict them. Browning based his “forecast” on weather patterns and other phenomena, but never fully revealed his methodology for others to evaluate. (His primary motivation may in fact have been selling videocassettes explaining his theories to a panicked population.)

[Read the rest at Inverse]

Measuring the gravity of climate change

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Don’t be turned off by the name of the publication! This article for SPIE Photonics is meant for anyone, and describes a very sophisticated experiment that connects my area of expertise (gravitational physics) to the most pressing issue of our time: climate change.

The GRACE to tackle climate change

A pair of orbiting spacecraft use laser technology developed for detecting gravitational waves to measure melting ice in Greenland

For SPIE Photonics:

Climate change is the largest existential threat facing humanity. Melting ice in polar regions and in mountains contributes to rising ocean levels worldwide; warming air disrupts jet streams and precipitation patterns, making severe storms more likely. Tracking these disruptions is essential for understanding how rapidly climate change is happening. However, Earth is big and many of the important fluctuations can be hard to measure without intensive local observations year-round.

But Earth-observation satellites present another extremely effective way to track climate change. Since 2018, a pair of spacecraft has been recording data that allow scientists to measure the melting of polar ice and the depletion of water tables during droughts. The satellites, together known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO), track small fluctuations in Earth’s gravity as water moves from place to place. As its name suggests, the joint project between the US and Germany succeeds the original 2002-2017 GRACE mission. Both have proven so successful that researchers are now planning a third mission.

[Read the rest at SPIE Photonics]

Our Vanishing Sky

For the “Nature” print issue of The Nib, Maki Naro and I pointed out that space is a natural resource that should not be hogged or polluted. Our comic is now available for free on the Nib website!

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The End of Night

comic panel depicting an alien flying over a light-polluted Earth, reading "Companies based in wealthy countries disproportionately produce light pollution and space junk, just as they pollute the air and water around the world."
Panel from “The End of Night”, with words by me and art by Maki Naro

Read the rest at The Nib