The threat of AI comes from inside the house

My other SIAM News contributions are necessarily math-focused. This one is a bit different: a review of a very good and  funny popular-science book about machine learning and its failures.

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The Threat of AI Comes from Inside the House

For SIAM News:

Artificial intelligence (AI) will either destroy us or save us, depending on who you ask. Self-driving cars might soon be everywhere, if we can prevent them from running over pedestrians. Public cameras with automated face recognition technology will either avert crime or create inescapable police states. Some tech billionaires are even investing in projects that aim to determine if we are enslaved by computers in some type of Matrix-style simulation.

In reality, the truest dangers of AI arise from the people creating it. In her new book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shane describes how machine learning is often good at narrowly-defined tasks but usually fails for open-ended problems.

Shane—who holds degrees in physics and electrical engineering—observes that we expect computers to be better than humans in areas where the latter often fail. This seems unreasonable, considering that we are the ones teaching the machines how to do their jobs. Problems in AI often stem from these very human failings.

[Read the rest at SIAM News…]

The future of transportation will (probably) not include teleportation

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Why We’ll (Probably) Never Be Able to Teleport

For Curiosity:

For many of us, teleportation would be the absolute best way to travel. Imagine just stepping into a transporter and being able to go thousands of miles in nearly an instant. It’s a staple in “Star Trek” and other science fiction, and a form of it even shows up in “Harry Potter.” In the real world, unfortunately, human teleportation may never be achievable. The reasons for that come from fundamental physics.

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com…]

In awe of the size of this black hole. Absolute unit.

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How Big (or Small) Can a Black Hole Get?

For Curiosity:

The biggest astronomy story of 2019 arguably was the first-ever image of a black hole, captured by a world-spanning observatory made up of dozens of telescopes. One big reason this achievement was so astounding is because black holes are relatively tiny compared to their mass: this black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, but in overall size, it’s comparable to the size of the solar system. So what sets the size of a black hole, and how big — or small — can they get? And what does the size of a black hole even mean?

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com]

If the world stopped turning

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What If Earth Stopped Turning?

For Curiosity:

Earth is spinning on its axis, completing one rotation every 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds. That spin brings us day and night, makes stars appear to rise and set, and contributes to the general habitability of our planet. Rotation plays a role in the tides, along with the circulation of the atmosphere and oceans. So what would happen if Earth stopped rotating? Don’t worry about “how” or “why”; just think about the end result. The consequences tell us a lot about how our planet functions — as well as other worlds in the galaxy.

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com…]

The science connecting extreme weather to climate change

The linked 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 this article contains (just a few simple) equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip 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! ]

Linking Extreme Weather to Climate Change

For SIAM News:

As the world’s climate changes, the warming atmosphere and oceans produce heavier rainfalls and more hurricanes, snowstorms, and other instances of extreme weather. Climate models predict the change in frequency of these events as a result of human-driven global warming. However, scientists and non-scientists alike are interested in whether climate change is responsible for specific weather events — such as Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

“The kosher answer to this used to be that we can never say that climate change causes a specific event,” statistician Claudia Tebaldi of the University of Maryland’s Joint Global Change Research Institute said. “This has actually changed over time, because a few recent events were so extreme that the probability of observing them without climate change would have been practically zero.”

In other words, scientists and science communicators are growing increasingly confident about linking specific weather to global changes, a subfield of climate science and meteorology known as “event attribution.” Researchers calculate the probability of a particular event’s occurrence with or without climate change by considering a combination of factors, including human activity and variations that are independent of human contribution. Event attribution is a relatively recent discipline; scientists first used it to link climate change to the 2003 European heat wave [4], which killed thousands of people.

[Read the rest at SIAM News…]

Can the Nobel Prize be fixed?

Yesterday, the 2019 Nobel Prizes were awarded, but the lack of women science laureates was both predictable and conspicuous. As I point out in my new comic with Maki Naro for Vox, only 19 women have won Nobels in chemistry, medicine/physiology, and physics out of 607 total awardees — a far lower rate than the actual representation of women in science. What is the source of this gender imbalance, and can it be fixed?

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

Why are so few Nobel Prizes awarded to women?

The 2019 Science Nobel award winners are out. Where are the women?

panel from a comic by Maki Naro and me

While Nobel Prizes are hardly the only award in science, they’re by far the highest profile. By awarding almost no women, the Nobels help perpetuate the problem of gender imbalance in science. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

Read the whole thing at Vox!

P.S. Do you like this comic? If so, please pledge to Maki’s and my forthcoming comics collection Who Owns an Asteroid? (from Unbound), which will include many such nonfiction science comics in full color!

The world … er, the universe is flat!

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What’s the Shape of the Universe? A New Study Is Sparking Debate

For Curiosity:

What is the shape of the universe? The universe is everything that we can observe, so we can’t stand outside it to see if it’s shaped like a ball or a potato chip or something else entirely. That doesn’t mean cosmologists aren’t trying to figure it out, though. It’s an important question, though it forces us to expand our ways of thinking about shape. As it turns out, the answer to the question relates to what the universe is made of and how it began. The issue got some public attention recently when three cosmologists claimed the universe curls back on itself, which contradicts many other observations. So who’s right?

[Read the rest at Curiosity.com …]

MY BOOK CHAPTER! The architecture of Fermilab

I’m a science writer by profession (obviously), but occasionally I get the chance to write about something fun that’s only tangentially related to science. A while back, Belt Publishers — which publishes books and a magazine about the part of the American Midwest known as the Rust Belt — solicited pitches for chapters on a book about Midwestern architecture, and I sent them (shhh) a portion of my book I couldn’t get published. Belt liked what I sent them, and the result is I have a chapter in the forthcoming anthology Midwestern Architectural Journeys (edited by Zach Mortice), available October 15, 2019!

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

When Brilliant Physicists Toiled Under a Beer-Can Roof

The inspired and eccentric design of a hub of Cold War physics research, the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois

One thing I didn’t have space to write about: one of the physicists who led an experiment at Fermilab was neighbor to New Yorker cartoonist George Booth. Their friendship led to Booth designing a mascot for the experiment, which ultimately wasn’t used, but still graces the outside of one of the buildings. [Credit: moi]

Chapter excerpt published by CityLab:

I didn’t come to the prosaically named Silicon Detector building for its roof. I was there to look at some cutting-edge telescope technology, soon to be implemented at one of the world’s leading observatories. But here I was looking up at the interior of a funky squashed geodesic dome, constructed of triangles in muted reds, blues, and golds, like an electron micrograph of a virus built of stained glass by Buckminster Fuller.

The Silicon Detector (or SiDet) building itself is a squat concrete structure with sloping sides and a trapezoidal profile, a distinctly 1970s structure. The geometric dome originally was intended to be a patriotic red, white, and blue, but time has faded it into autumnal colors. The panels are made out of recycled beer and soda cans with their ends cut off, arranged between two sheets of colored plastic reinforced with glass. Light shines through the cans, but not so brightly as to create a glare.

The SiDet building is all the more striking for what and where it is: It’s a physics lab devoted to the fabrication of next-generation detectors for experiments and telescopes. More specifically, SiDet was originally part of a facility meant to study neutrinos: very fast-moving, low-mass particles that are notoriously hard to detect. Similarly, the facility itself is hidden from the general public’s view behind a security perimeter on the grounds of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, more commonly known as Fermilab.

[Read the rest at Citylab, and order the book from Belt]

Protecting privacy with mathematics

The linked 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.

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

Using Differential Privacy to Protect the United States Census

Census data must simultaneously be publicly available and protect the privacy of the people it describes. Differential privacy is a method that injects noise into the data to hide the presence of individual responses, while preserving the general statistical structure of the data. [Credit: moi, which is why I’m not a professional graphic artist]

For SIAM News:

In 2006, Netflix hosted a competition to improve its algorithm for providing movie recommendations to customers based on their past choices. The DVD rental and video streaming service shared anonymized rental records from real subscribers, assuming that their efforts to remove identifying information sufficiently protected user identities. This assumption was wrong; external researchers quickly proved that they could pinpoint personal details by correlating other public data with the Netflix database, potentially exposing private information.

This fatal flaw in the Netflix Prize challenge highlights multiple issues concerning privacy in the information age, including the simultaneous need to perform statistical analyses while protecting the identities of people in the dataset. Merely hiding personal data is not enough, so many statisticians are turning to differential privacy. This method allows researchers to extract useful aggregate information from data while preserving the privacy of individuals within the sample.

“Even though researchers are just trying to learn facts about the world, their analyses might incidentally reveal sensitive information about particular people in their datasets,” Aaron Roth, a statistician at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “Differential privacy is a mathematical constraint you impose on an algorithm for performing
data analysis that provides a formal guarantee of privacy.”

[read the rest at SIAM News…]

“Peanuts”, vaccination, and the limits of persuasion

In my new comic with Maki Naro, we go meta: using a comic to talk about a comic! Specifically, we comics’ed about one of the most beloved comic strips of all time, Charles M. Schulz’ “Peanuts”. While the strip mostly steered clear of the issues of the day, occasionally Schulz did include topical material. One of those stories is still relevant today: vaccinations.

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When “Peanuts” Went All-In on Vaccinations

Charles Schulz used his culturally monolithic comic strip to advocate for public health. But his approach had some serious shortcomings.

panel from "When 'Peanuts' Went All-In on Vaccinations" comic by Maki Naro and me

This panel includes a true fact as well as a bad pun. What else are comics for? [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

I’m a lifelong fan of “Peanuts”, and occasionally binge-read old stories. A little while back, I noticed Schulz ran multiple pro-vaccination cartoons — nothing overt like saying “vaccinate your kids!”, but definitely normalizing the practice and not-so-subtly nudging his readers to vaccinate. My latest comic with Maki Naro takes a look at where “Peanuts” fits into the wider landscape of vaccine advocacy, including how methods of persuasion can fail badly. Suffice to say that, much as I love “Peanuts”, the strip is incredibly lacking on issues of race.

P.S. Do you like this comic? If so, please pledge to Maki’s and my forthcoming comics collection Who Owns an Asteroid? (from Unbound), which will include many such nonfiction science comics in full color!