Asteroids, Mars, and a vision for space beyond colonialism

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

Who owns an asteroid?

Celestial bodies like Bennu could help us tell Earth’s origin story. Or they could be strip-mined for resources

Panel from “Who Owns an Asteroid?” with words by me and art by Maki Naro. Click for the whole comic.

Discussions around space travel are saturated in colonialist language and narratives, from “space colonies” on Mars to multiple proposals for mining asteroids. These concepts are often treated as inevitable, with conversations about when and how, rather than if we should do any of this in the first place. In The Nib, artist extraordinaire Maki Naro and I look at how colonialist attitudes have colored our dialog on asteroids and Mars, with a focus on the ethical and — dare we say — the spiritual component of conservation on other worlds.

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The mathematics of knowledge networks in the brain

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

This article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

Understanding Knowledge Networks in the Brain

For SIAM News:

One strength of the human mind is its ability to find patterns and draw connections between disparate concepts, a trait that often enables science, poetry, visual art, and a myriad of other human endeavors. In a more concrete sense, the brain assembles acquired knowledge and links pieces of information into a network. Knowledge networks also seem to have a physical aspect in the form of interconnected neuron pathways in the brain.

During her invited address at the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Portland Ore., last July, Danielle Bassett of the University of Pennsylvania illustrated how brains construct knowledge networks. Citing early 20th century progressive educational reformer John Dewey, she explained that the goal of a talk—and learning in general—is to map concepts from the speaker/teacher’s mind to those of his or her listeners. When the presenter is successful, the audience gains new conceptual networks.

More generally, Bassett explored how humans acquire knowledge networks, whether that process can be modeled mathematically, and how such models may be tested experimentally. Fundamental research on brain networks can potentially facilitate the understanding and treatment of conditions as diverse as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

[Read the rest at SIAM News…]

Squeezing light to detect more gravitational waves

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

This article appeared in the fall print issue of Popular Science, but I missed that this article had also been published online.

Something called ‘squeezed light’ is about to give us a closer look at cosmic goldmines

Gravitational wave detection is going through an even tighter squeeze.

For Popular Science:

In 2015, scientists caught evidence of a ­cosmic throwdown that took place 1.3 billion light-​years away. They spied this binary black-hole collision by capturing gravitational waves—­ripples in spacetime created when massive objects ­interact—​for the first time. But now physicists want to see even farther. Doing so could help them accurately measure waves cast off by colliding neutron stars, impacts that might be the source of many Earthly elements, including gold. For that, they need the most sensitive gravitational-wave detectors ever.

The devices that nab waves all rely on the same mechanism. The U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart, Virgo, fire lasers down two mile-plus-long arms with mirrors at their ends. Passing waves wiggle the mirrors less than the width of an atom, and scientists measure the ripples based on when photons in the laser light bounce off them and come back. Ordinarily, photons exit the lasers at random intervals, so the signals are fuzzy.

[Read the rest at Popular Science]

The secret to good digital animation is physics

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

This article is a little different from the fare you’re used to getting from me: it’s for SIAM News, which is the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

The Serious Mathematics of Digital Animation

For SIAM News:

While computer simulations have a wide range of uses, their goals are generally similar: find the simplest model that recreates the properties of the system under investigation. For scientific systems, this involves matching observed or experimental phenomena as precisely as necessary.

But what about movie simulations? Should they match the processes they replicate so closely? Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is a common feature in both animated and live-action films. For these CGI systems, creating visuals that look right is an important task. However, Joseph Teran of the University of California, Los Angeles believes that starting from physical models is still a good idea.

During his invited address at the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Portland, Ore., this July, Teran pointed out that beginning with a mathematical system is often easier than drawing from real life. Many movies model a system’s various forces and internal structures with partial differential equations (PDEs) for this reason. While solving these equations to produce CGI is computationally expensive, such methods have become powerful tools for creating realistic visual cinematic effects.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]

The weird new physics of neutrinos

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Already beyond the Standard Model

We already know neutrinos break the mold of the Standard Model. The question is: By how much?

For Symmetry Magazine:

Tested and verified with ever increasing precision, the Standard Model of particle physics is a remarkably elegant way of understanding the relationships between particles and their interactions. But physicists know it’s not the whole story: It provides no answer to some puzzling questions, such as the identity of the invisible dark matter that constitutes most of the mass in the universe.

As a result, in the search for physics beyond the Standard Model, one area of notably keen interest continues to be neutrinos.

In the Standard Model, neutrinos come in three kinds, or flavors: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. This mirrors the other matter particles in the Standard Model, which each can be organized into three groups. But some experiments have shown hints for a new type of neutrino, one that doesn’t fit neatly into this simple picture.

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The knotty problem of DNA tangling

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

This article is a little different from the fare you’re used to getting from me: it’s for SIAM News, which is the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

I will also have you know, I only included one of the many knot-theory puns I came up with while writing the piece. Professionalism, people. Professionalism.

Untangling DNA with Knot Theory

For SIAM News:

Long before there were sailors, nature learned to tie—and untie—knots. Certain DNA types, proteins, magnetic fields, fluid vortices, and other diverse phenomena can manifest in the form of loops, which sometimes end up tangled. But knots, kinks, and tangles are often undesirable for the system in which they occur; for instance, knotted DNA can kill its cell. In such cases, nature finds ways to restore order.

Mariel Vazquez of the University of California, Davis, uses topology to understand the knotting and unknotting of real-world molecules. Specifically, she and her colleagues employ topological concepts from knot theory to demonstrate that cells detangle DNA with optimal efficiency.

During her talk at the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Portland, Ore., this July, Vazquez emphasized her work’s multidisciplinary nature; although she focuses on DNA, her research has applications beyond molecular biology.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]

The math behind leopard spots and chemical waves

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

This article is a little different from the fare you’re used to getting from me: it’s for SIAM News, which is the glossy magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

Leopard Spots, Frog Eggs, and the Spectrum of Nonlinear Diffusion Processes

For SIAM News:

Stripes, spots, or a mix of both appear on the skin of many animals — from tigers to beetles to whale sharks. These patterns are typically unique to individual creatures, and biologists often use them for identification. While distinct patterns may seem random, they obey certain rules that suggest a common underlying description. Striping and spotting occur in many unrelated species, implying that both evolutionary advantages and simple biochemical mechanisms drive such patterns.

As Björn Sandstede of Brown University noted during his invited address at the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Portland, Ore., this July, similar patterns appear in certain chemical reactions and granular material under vibration. Nonlinear reactions and diffusion describe biological and non-biological patterns, producing stable concentrations in this space.

Alan Turing—best known for his work in computer science and cryptography—first made the mathematical connection between nonlinear diffusion processes and animal stripes in the 1950s. Many researchers have applied the resulting model to demonstrate how various species get their spots and describe nonlinear waves in chemical reactions.

[Read the rest at SIAM News]