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.

About That Earth-Like Exoplanet

It’s about 500 light years away, but Kepler-186f may have provided NASA a little shot in the search for extraterrestrial life arm.  The planet is the first planet the size of Earth that has been found in the habitable zone of its star.  The possibility of life on this planet is much, much higher than of any exoplanet found to date (The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia lists 1784 as of April 17).

While Kepler-186f is on the outside of the habitable zone, and slightly larger than Earth, it could still hold liquid water, an important characteristic for possible life.  Unfortunately, the Kepler telescope can only detect planets of that size indirectly – in this case by a shadow cast by the planet on its star.  Additional evidence will have to wait for other sensors to target the planet (like the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI)).

I expect that NASA will target Kepler-186f and any similar planets found with future exploration efforts.  That should be good enough to keep some money flowing for more launches of space instruments.  But since increased human spaceflight activity by China has not prompted new political support for NASA activity, I don’t think this discovery will do anything to get Congress to stop bickering about the asteroid mission and start agreeing on what to do in space.

It’s still really cool.

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.

Nominations Corner – Health And Human Services

The recent resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius prompts a revisit of the slow march from nominee to confirmation.  While the President acted quickly to nominate Sylvia Burwell (current Director of the Office of Management and Budget) to replace Sebelius, the continuing paralysis of the Senate may mean it will be several months before she takes the job.

Normally the Secretary is, oddly enough, distanced from many of the science and technology functions the Department deals with.  But with the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Public Health Service (headed by the Surgeon General), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues, and various research programs connected to Medicare and similar health programs, it would be tough for a Secretary to be completely detached from such actions.  In the case of Secretary Sebelius, perhaps her most controversial science and technology action is her decision to overrule the FDA in connection with the availability of emergency contraception.  While I doubt it will come up during the confirmation hearings, I think there will be an attempt to revisit the decision with a new person in charge of the Department.

(While we’re on the subject of Health and Human Services nominations, it’s worth noting that the latest attempt to nominate a Surgeon General has been blocked due – at least in part – on the refusal of some Senators to accept the nominee’s opinion that gun violence is a public health issue.)

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.