Science Pop Culture: Science With Tom Gets Its Eyes Checked; Textbook Gets Cosmo-ified

The latest science rap gestated by Tom McFadden is out.  Reworking a rap by Macklemore, the students at Nueva School teach us about cataracts.

There’s another science mashup coming your way later this year.  It’s a textbook written by comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) Megan Amram.  Science…For Her! comes out November 4, and stands a chance of provoking the same kind of reaction as the initial video for the European Commission’s campaign – ‘Science, it’s a girl thing‘.

But while the Commission managed to stick its foot in its mouth with that video, Amram’s tongue seems firmly in her cheek over a science textbook that might have been written by the editors of Cosmopolitan.  Even so, I expect some will not quite understand.

Science…For Her! is available for preorder.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of April 21

Most everyone is back from break, so relatively few repeats this week.  Unfortunately, there’s not much that qualifies for listing this week.

Tonight (Monday), the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, stops by The Daily Show. On Tuesday’s edition of The Talk, the show’s technology reporter, Chi-Lan Lieu, visits.  Robin Roberts will visit The Daily Show on Wednesday.  Her new book is a memoir heavily influenced by the diseases she’s struggled with over the last few years, so health may be a topic of discussion.  On Friday The Piedmont Bird Callers return to The Late Show with David Letterman (possibly for the last time).

In other science and technology television, COSMOS continues, with episode 7 (of 13) airing last night in the United States.  Host Neil deGrasse Tyson recently posted an episode of his podcast/radio show StarTalk with COSMOS writer Steven Soter.  Soter is an astrophysicist, and work on both the 1980 and 2014 presentations of COSMOS.  Soter and Tyson are joined by Tyson’s frequent co-host Chuck Nice.

In Other Festival News

While the science festival action is in Washington next weekend (and Philadelphia continuing through the following weekend), there are other large festivals of note that you may want to attend.  Check out the Science Festival Alliance for details on these and other science festivals in the U.S.

Tickets for the 2014 World Science Festival will go on sale May 1 (it’s closer than you think).  Taking place in New York City, this festival is in its seventh year, and will run May 28 through June 1.  Here’s the festival promotional video:

There was also a Gala connected to the Festival.  Held on April 7, it honored geneticist Mary-Claire King and was hosted by Alan Alda.  A schedule of this year’s festival events is not yet available, but if they can deliver on a scale with previous years, I would recommend any science and technology enthusiasts in the greater New York City area to take advantage.  Those in Europe may want to explore attending the World Science Festival in Amsterdam, scheduled for September 6 and 7.

Those in the Boston area are probably recovering from the first weekend of this year’s Cambridge Science Festival, which will run through April 27.  The first science festival in the United States (and not to be confused with the bigger science festival in the UK), the Cambridge Science Festival is co-sponsored by the city and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Festival The Third Coming To Washington Next Week

The USA Science and Engineering Festival has its Expo next Saturday and Sunday in Washington, D.C.  The schedule and map are available online, and I strongly encourage you to print them out and plan ahead.  There’s just too much going on to take it all in. The big names in attendance include:

Mike Rowe
They Might Be Giants (two concerts)
Bill Nye The Science Guy
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Danica McKellar
Michio Kaku
Science Cheerleaders

Well, those are the names you are most likely to recognize.  Many of the other guests you might recognize on sight, or at least the organizations they work with.  Scientists from several federal departments and research universities will be in attendance.  Science advisers for major television programs, hosts of other science programs, extreme athletes, authors and musical entertainment.  If you like science and engineering (and if you don’t, why are you here?) you should be able to find plenty here to fill your day, or even your weekend.

I’ll be there, wandering about, both days.  If you’d like to meet, look for a fellow in a They Might Be Giants or Rap Guide to Evolution t-shirt.

Does Transcendence Herald The Singularity?

Opening today in U.S. theaters is Transcendance, the feature debut of director Wally Pfister, the long time cinematographer for Christopher Nolan.  Nolan serves as executive producer of the film (and Nolan’s next science fiction film, Interstellar, will come out this fall).

Since I will be discussing plot elements of the film, it seems proper to note SPOILERS before continuing.

The film – which I have not yet seen – engages at least two major science fiction themes that have relevance to modern day debates.  The main characters are artificial intelligence researchers who (and this is in the promotional material for the film, so not really a spoiler) appear to succeed in uploading a human intelligence into a computer.  The transcendence of the title appears to be either the uploading of that intelligence, or the connection of that intelligence to the Internet.

If it’s the latter, that would resemble the Singularity predicted by Raymond Kurzweil.  His singularity is a point in time when machines become smarter than humans and things change so dramatically that it would be tough to predict what might happen.

The antagonists in the film are opposed to the goal of the artificial intelligence research in the film, which is to generate a sentient machine.  They take to violent means to achieve these goals, which helps propel the plot.  It certainly makes it easier to create drama with the judicious (or excessive) application of violence.  But I am concerned that it makes the treatment of the serious issues at the heart of the film more one-sided that it needs to be.  People can object to the means by which others obtain goals that the first group might otherwise support.  In the shorthand of cinema, I hope it doesn’t get lost in the drama and theatrics that those who would rather not download their consciousness into a machine (and/or connect it to the Internet) have a perspective worth discussing, even worth respecting.

Not Every Innovation Prize Gets A Comic Book Tie-In

Next month is the deadline for submissions to the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize (If you haven’t already registered, you’re too late).  Thirty teams are working on a tool that can capture health information and diagnose a collection of 15 diseases.  Come September, 10 finalists should be selected to move on to building full versions of their devices.

In between now and then, there will be a promotional comic book.  Give the origins of the prize name, it’s not as surprising as it seems.  In a special Star Trek comic out in July, the six doctors from the Star Trek television series will join forces to fight a virus.  The special is called Flesh and Stone, and is published by IDW.  The XPRIZE Foundation is involved as well.  However, not many details are available, aside from a possible cover (which includes three tricorders).

I dig the Star Trek, so I’m interested.  But given how far along things are in the competition, I don’t know how effective the book will be in promoting the Prize.  I’ll have to wait and read it to see.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of April 14

This week is heavy on repeats.  Even the new editions of The Tonight Show and Late Night are on break.  Repeats of note:

Monday (tonight): Data Journalist Nate Silver on The Daily Show 
Tuesday: Host of National Geographic’s Brain Games, Jason Silva, on Last Call with Carson Daly
Thursday: Primatologist Jane Goodall on The Colbert Report
Friday: Melissa Rauch (she plays a microbiologist on The Big Bang Theory) on The Late Show, Wally Pfister (director of Transcendance) on Last Call

Not all the programs are in repeats this week.  Craig Ferguson, who could soon take the number two spot in terms of late night science and technology content, chats with Dominic Monaghan tonight.  A new season of Monaghan’s animal program (Wild Things) is airing on BBC America in the U.S.  I mention Monaghan, when I don’t usually mention animal experts, because his segments typically avoid in-studio stunts in favor of video clips and discussions of his travels.  Kunal Nayyar, who plays one of the scientists on The Big Bang Theory, comes by on Wednesday.

About that change in the rankings.  It was announced late last week that Stephen Colbert will take over for David Letterman sometime in 2015.  Regular readers know full well how often science and technology guests (and similar content) appea on The Colbert Report.  For instance, since the first of the month, Dan Harris plugged his science book, mathematician Edward Frenkel was a guest (and we saw a clip of Frenkel’s erotic math film!), and Stephen updated us on the continuing odyssey of shady dealings to obtain execution drugs.  Once Colbert begins hosting an hour-long program on a broadcast network, it’s unclear how much time he’ll be spending on these matters.  This Slate article anticipates a drop-off (and I find it interesting that the author approaches The Colbert Report in the context of other news programs), but I would note that of the broadcast late night programs, both The Late Show and The Late Late Show have on authors and scientific people more frequently than the others.

Missed Humor Opportunity – Thermal Hydrolysis In Washington

Even with a former comedy writer serving in the United States Senate, I would have expected someone to mine the humor potential in this energy project.

Washington D.C.’s water department is working on an enriched water (also known as wastewater) plant that uses thermal hydrolysis to generate, among other things, energy.  It’s the first effort of its kind in North America, and it will start operations this summer, with the goal of achieving full operation in January 2015.  Cambi, a company in Norway, developed the technology that is the heart of the new water treatment plant.  Here’s a time-lapse video of construction.

Thermal hydrolysis will take the solids generated in regular wastewater treatment and cook them so that microbes can digest them more effectively.  The resulting methane gas will power a turbine on site.  That turbine will generate steam that provides the heat to cook the solids.  A different take on the circle of life, but a cycle nonetheless.

The power generated in the effort will be consumed by other plant operations, but it certainly helps reduce the resource demands for water treatment.  An additional benefit of this process is that the biosolids produced by thermal hydrolysis are class A (the current output is class B).  Class A biosolids can be used for a lot more agricultural purposes as they are cleaner.  Producing Class A solids will reduce the transportation costs for the plant’s biosolids, further reducing the energy costs of the operation.

But, seriously, nobody has mined the comic vein of Washington producing something out of excrement?  Maybe that will change once operations start, but I’m just a little disappointed.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of April 7

He may be in repeats a good chunk of the week, but a brief word on the announced retirement of David Letterman.  He will step away from his program sometime next year.  No word yet (and not likely for a while) as to who may succeed him.

Letterman may not have had on science guests with the frequency or the stature of his junior colleagues Stewart, Colbert and Ferguson.  But he was no slouch in the department.  Climate change is a particular concern of Letterman’s (he’s pretty convinced we’re screwed), and that motivated the appearances of many guests, including John Holdren – twice (once prior to his current position) – and James Hansen.  Letterman has two entries this week.  Jamie Edwards, a young British lad that managed to perform nuclear fusion in a school lab, visits on Wednesday.  On Thursday we have a repeat of the visit last month from Sgt. Brendan Marrocco and the lead surgeon on his double arm transplant, Andrew Lee.

In other news, this is a busy week.  The cast of the new HBO series Silicon Valley makes the rounds of various programs. Kumail Nanjiani sits with Conan Tuesday night, and Thomas Middleditch will be on Late Night with Seth Meyers Wednesday.

The cast of Transcendence, a movie focused on artificial intelligence, is also on the circuit.  That film premiers on April 18 in the U.S., and the director, Wally Pfister, talks with Carson Daly Wednesday night.  Paul Bettany talks with Jimmy Kimmel, and Morgan Freeman returns to talk with Craig Ferguson on Thursday.  Johnny Depp and Bettany will stop by to see Ellen Degeneres on Friday.

Tonight (heck, as I type this) mathematician Edward Frankel Frenkel visits Stephen Colbert to talk about his book on the beauty and elegance of math.  Fellow mathematician Danica McKellar will visit The Tonight Show Thursday, but that’s likely due to her current stint on Dancing With The Stars.  On Tuesday Jane Goodall talks with Stephen, and this is the longest late night listings post in an age.

More On The Drama Of Science

This perhaps falls between a collection of news items and an extension of yesterday’s post.

As seems to be customary with all AAAS events, news of them drips out for weeks and months after.  There’s an article in Scientific American on Alan Alda’s keynote presentation from the February meeting in Chicago.  If you’re already familiar with the science communicator career Alda has built over the last 2 decades, you can skip the first section of the article and get to the speech.

Relating directly to yesterday’s post about the theater show, Alda demonstrates how simple actions can be compelling to watch if the stakes are significant – and understood by the audience.  Explicitly linking the risks and/or rewards of the experiment/research/engineering project to the doing of that activity can help grab and keep an audience’s attention.

Another approach is seen in the Intergalactic Travel Bureau, a touring group educating the public on space tourism.  (It’s Kickstarter campaign has just been funded, so please disregard the pleas for money.)  It’s putting the audience in the imagined future that they want to have happen, and demonstrating the benefits they see.

If you’d like to try this for yourself, check out the recently announced science fiction contest by Issues in Science and Technology.  Treatments are due June 1, with semi-finalists given 3 months to write the 2,500 to 5,000 words.