Science, Sound, Tattoos

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First tattoo, my design. Here’s the story behind it.

Tycho Brahe’s Universe

The main part of the design is the Tycho Brahe model of the universe, a compromise between the geocentric (Copernican) and heliocentric (Ptolemaic) models. Brahe believed the Earth was at the center of the universe and that the sun and moon orbited the earth, while the planets orbited the sun. As you may already have noted, this is inconsistent with what we observe of the universe today. However, it was a paradigm shift in thinking that nudged us — and our egos — from the center of the picture, building toward a more accurate model. In fact, one of Brahe’s apprentices was Johannes Kepler, who, in later years, used Brahe’s work as the basis for the laws of planetary movement.

Here’s where it gets a little weird.

While I was doing some more research about Brahe, I learned that he apparently wore a prosthetic nose, allegedly a result of a sword duel:

“Tycho had earlier quarrelled with Parsbjerg over the legitimacy of a mathematical formula, at a wedding dance at professor Lucas Bachmeister’s house on the 10th, and again on the 27th. Since neither had the resources to prove the other wrong, they ended up resolving the issue with a duel.”

I kind of dig the fact that the nature of drunken academic disputes has barely evolved in the last few centuries. (I’m smarter than you. No, I’m smarter that you!”) Not to mention, this wasn’t Brahe’s only memorable brawl. He also got into a feud with Galileo.

And then…there’s the bizarre story about his pet moose:

The hoofed critter would trot alongside Brahe’s carriage like a loyal dog and lived inside his castle. But, unfortunately, it also appears to have developed a regrettable taste for Danish beer […] A nearby nobleman had asked him to send the moose to his castle to entertain the guests at a party. As the dinner wore on, the creature grew increasingly tipsy until it eventually wound up roaring drunk. According to Brahe’s biographer Pierre Gassendi, shortly thereafter, “the moose had ascended the castle stairs and drunk of the beer in such amounts that it had fallen down [them]” to its eventual demise.

Voyager and the Golden Record

On the outermost ring of my tattoo is an aerial view of a record needle, a symbol etched on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record:

 

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The Voyager space craft is best known for being the only man-made object to have exited the heliosphere, traveling farther than anything else humans have ever built. The Golden Record was a project (directed by Carl Sagan) to create an all-encompassing sonic record of life on Earth to send off into space. Think of it as an audio time capsule of our existence, meant for anyone or anything that may eventually find it.

The ethos of that project was this: “To the makers of music — all worlds, all times.”

On that record are sound samples of 55 languages, whale calls, folk songs, heartbeats, you name it. Listen to an excerpt of an ancient Chinese folk song on that record:

Not surprisingly, a radio piece made me fall in love with this project, the story of how Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan fell for each other:

Mandalas

On a macro level, the tattoo design also resembles a mandala, elaborate and artful circular symbols in Hinduism and Buddhism. The psychologist Carl Jung once wrote that mandalas are expressions of the “totality of the self.” They are also used as representations of the universe:

In common use, mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe.

Monks who are trained to create mandalas spend days, even months working on meticulous designs, only to destroy them after they are finished. They are reminders of the impermanence of life itself — how the things we build, no matter how beautiful nor coveted, will eventually give into entropy. This follows the Hindu cycle of the universe, a belief that things are created and destroyed repeatedly, which I believe to be true in science and in ourselves. Matter and energy within the universe combine in a multitude of permutations to give us elements, planets, stars, and life. Within us, the energy and matter that encompass us allow us to experience life through suffering, joy, and healing (forces of destruction and creation in their own right).

THE MANDALA (A Short Documentary of the The Celestial Palace)

Circles

I also have a penchant for circles.

Mathematically, circles incredibly intriguing. They have an infinite number of tangents, and all points in a circle are equidistant from a center point, giving it a unique symmetry. Then, there’s the infamous value of  π, taken from a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter (C/d), which has maddened mathematicians and mystics alike. The number continues without a sensible pattern into infinity; the fact that such an irrational number can be derived from such a symmetrical shape is simultaneously fascinating and perplexing.

In nature, circles occur almost everywhere you look: ripples, halos around the sun, craters, bubbles, hurricanes. They also occur in man-made objects, e.g. clocks, wheels, bowls, compasses, buttons. They have come to symbolize balance and perfection, despite the fact that perfect geometry only truly exists in abstraction.

…Which brings us to the whirling dervishes from the Mevlevi Order. You’ve probably seen movies or photographs of whirling dervishes: men dressed in white gowns and tall hats spinning continuously – as if in a trance– usually on a stage or in a large hall. This dance, called the Sema, originated in the 13th century:

The Sema represents a journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to the “Perfect.” Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the “Perfect.” He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, able to love and to be of service to the whole of creation. The Sema is a testament to the dizzying effects of attempting to reach perfection.

If you think about it, the earth spins on its axis; the planets rotate around the sun. The quantum particles around and in us vibrate and spin, though undetected by the naked eye. Because we are rooted on the earth and made up of these particles, we are all eternally spinning. We are all constantly attempting, reaching to be better than ourselves.

Whirling dervishes

In short, the synthesis of all these symbols is a reminder of our collective longing for perfection, the perpetual pursuit of knowledge, our impermanence in this world, and two things that have made a lasting impact in my life thus far: science and sound.

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Pop Art: How Popcorn Works

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I had never seen popcorn pop, so I decided to take the kernels outside of the bag and heat them over a stove. It’s a little creepy to watch them start expanding and then rupturing, but it quickly becomes amusing and subsequently delicious.

popart from Lilian Bui on Vimeo.

If you’re wondering how popcorn “works,” here’s the description according to about.com:

Popcorn kernels contain oil and water with starch, surrounded by a hard and strong outer coating. When popcorn is heated, the water inside the kernel tries to expand into steam, but it cannot escape through the seed coat (the popcorn hull). The hot oil and steam gelatinizes the starch inside the popcorn kernel, making it softer and more pliable. When the popcorn reaches a temperature of 180 °C (356 °F) the pressure inside the kernel is around 135 psi (930 kPa), which is sufficient pressure to rupture the popcorn hull, essentially turning the kernel inside-out. The pressure inside the kernel is released very quickly, expanding the proteins and starch inside the popcorn kernel into a foam, which cools and sets into the familiar popcorn puff.

Given my new, buttery fascination, I would push for a redesign of popcorn bags far and wide so that more people could enjoy the process. Then again, there’s probably a safety hazard attached to standing too close to the microwave for too long.

 

Sensors, Uncensored

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How open sensor data can help enrich storytelling + bolster the media’s potential role in galvanizing civic engagement with the sciences.

By Lily Bui

Listen up, journalists.

Something interesting is happening, and you should be in the loop. Two words: “sensor journalism.”

The term is not entirely new, as it has circulated the blogosphere again and again. However, it’s been popping up more frequently in my e-mail stream and in conversations I’ve had with people on and offline, which kind of, sort of, really makes the science nerd in me tingle with excitement.

What is sensor journalism?

Sensor journalism refers to a method of generating or collecting data from sensors, then using that data to tell a story. You may think this sounds familiar, especially with the rise of data-driven journalism and the open data movement. However, as Kelly Tyrrell aptly puts it, “sensor journalism is the first cousin of data journalism.”

The distinction is this: instead of scraping data from the internet or existing databases, you are collecting the data (or enlisting the help of others to do so). Using sensors. In real-time.

I know that was a mouthful. So, let me show instead of tell.

My favorite example, to date, is WNYC’s Cicada Tracker. Lead by John Keefe, the project engaged WNYC listeners to build their own temperature sensors at home using instructions provided on the station website. The goal was to crowdsource temperature readings around the east coast to predict the emergence of the Magicicada brood. The data were then collected, visualized (beautifully) on a map, and used to tell a story.

The Cicadas Are Coming! from Radiolab on Vimeo.

Both scientific research and journalistic endeavor begin with the same thing: a question. In answering that question, for both science and journalism, crowdsourcing data allows the public to actively contribute to the investigation of the truth.

Who is gathering the data, and how accurate is it?

To reiterate, the idea of crowdsourced data collection is not new. Maker communities like Instructables, Spark Fun, Public Lab, MakeZine, and DIY.org have been around for a while and often focus on building tools (hardware and software) to make remote measurement possible. People who identify themselves as citizen scientists, hobbyists, or amateur scientists connected to communities like Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, CosmoQuest, SciStarter, Your Wild Life, and Zooniverse are also likely candidates for crowdsourced projects.

“This kind of technology is not for monitoring people,” said Travis Hartman in a recent interview with Current. “It’s for monitoring the environment we all share.” Hartman is a journalism grad student with an idea for a project to deploy a set of sensors throughout Columbia, Missouri, in order to study the city’s sound ecology.

As you’ve probably already picked up, Hartman is a j-student, not a scientist. Like him, many citizen scientists are non-experts (i.e. they don’t hold formal science degrees) but have an avid interest in science. That said, the argument against the quality or legitimacy of crowdsourced data does come up. And I’ll concede that it is, indeed, a valid one. How can we trust the data, even if we can track where it’s coming from? How do we know that build-it-yourself sensors are accurately calibrated and in working condition? Or worse–what if the data are biased or completely wrong? We can’t always know, but that shouldn’t deter us.

[AsideThere is also a phenomenon known as the “wisdom of crowds.”]

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An academic paper finds, “Most [citizen science] projects employ multiple mechanisms to ensure data quality and appropriate levels of validation. (Wiggins, et al., 2011)” Some citizen science project managers use crowdsourced data sets in an auxiliary manner to observe general trends rather than precise data points. Then, some projects use crowdsourced data comparatively, with reference to existing academic data. The basic message from the research community seems to be, We know. We’re aware. We’re working on it. We’ve found some solutions in the meantime.

Meanwhile, journalists are also finding ways to use crowdsourced data to contextualize and enrich stories rather than relying on them as a primary means of telling them (e.g. WNYC’s Cicada Tracker). At the end of the day, a healthy level of skepticism can only help advance current methods of crowdsourced data collection, as it suggests room for improvement.

How can open sensors benefit journalists?

When it comes to environmental monitoring, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do run regularly scheduled tests on air and water quality. However, this data is not always available to or accessible by the public. Also, if something were to affect the air or water quality between testing periods, and a government agency wasn’t aware of it, the public would otherwise be left in the dark about their environment. Bringing DIY-sensors into the picture could potentially democratize the process of monitoring your surroundings. For journalists, these data can offer insight into pertinent issues that eventually influence policy.

In making a case for why journalists should pay attention to and care about open sensor networks, Javaun Moradi writes (on his blog):

“It’s a responsibility that is every bit as noble as reporting and can achieve the journalism goals of informing the public, investigating corruption, speaking for the voiceless, and seeking truth. The other side benefit is that local media can deeply engage with their audience in new ways.” 

There’s also another dimension to this. While many citizen science projects are national and international (meaning anyone, anywhere can participate), some are local, focusing their research question on a specific region or city. As we all know, news can also be local–even hyperlocal. What could a more robust relationship between citizen science and the media potentially mean? A few things come to mind off the bat:

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  • raised public awareness and understanding of scientific research
  • a growing culture of civic engagement
  • deeper interaction with news audiences + richer storytelling

Local media outlets can also help connect the public to opportunities to take action in their own communities. WHYY-FM (an NPR affiliate station) in Philadelphia has launched a bi-weekly citizen science segment in partnership with citizen science site SciStarter, focusing on projects connected to their broadcast region. A recent story focused on how the public can help report sightings of the woody adelgid in Douglas firs to help scientists track the invasive species in or near Philly. Journalists and media outlets can help facilitate the discovery of these types of local opportunities.

Who else is doing this?

These are some more examples of crowdsourced science (some involving sensors, some not) in the news. No doubt, this is only a small slice of the pie. I sense (get it?) that there is much more brewing beneath the surface.

WBUR: Kite aerial photography to challenge construction permit on nuclear waste site
http://www.wbur.org/2013/07/10/pilgrim-nuclear-waste-permit

KPBS: Monitoring shark populations in San Diego
http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jun/04/sharks-attracting-attention-san-diego-waters/

KBIA: Urban sound ecology project
http://www.current.org/2014/02/grad-student-teams-up-with-missouris-kbia-to-measure-decibels-in-noisy-city/

Public Lab’s water monitoring tool, RIFFLE
http://publiclab.org/wiki/open-water
(There are many other Public Lab tools that can be used for environmental monitoring.)

“What Do Open Sensor Networks Mean for Journalism?” blog post by Javaun Moradi
http://javaunmoradi.com/blog/2011/12/16/what-do-open-sensor-networks-mean-for-journalism/

NBC: How citsci project JellyWatch identified species of salps clogging nearby nuclear reactor
http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/04/27/11432974-diablo-canyon-nuclear-plant-in-california-knocked-offline-by-jellyfish-like-creature-called-salp?lite

I am enthralled by how many people are trying new things with sensor data. I love this spirit of experimentation that is circulating, and I hope that it’s contagious.

As we move forward into the future, networked sensors will likely become a more integrated part of our lives. With the improvement of wearable tech like Google Glass, the FitBit, Jawbone, and more, will the possibilities for sensor journalism shift from reporting on our environment to deeper stories on data we’ve collected about ourselves and each other? Granted, these projections are not without their caveats. The incipient ubiquity of networked sensors also raises important discussions about surveillance, privacy, and ethics.

For now, I’d love to hear from you! You’ve made it this far, so you’re clearly interested in this conversation too. (That means we just formed a sacred bond. Sorry, you’re stuck.)

Questions: What other sensor projects (related to journalism or otherwise) have you come across? What other applications do you see for open sensor data that people haven’t tried yet? Leave your thoughts in the comment below or tweet me @dangerbui.

Image: Wikimedia (top & bottom right), USGS.gov (top right)

CARMA: What Goes Around Comes Around (In Space)

A radio story for the new Lily Bee Music Podcast

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Music and sound clips from this episode:

Hoagy Carmichael – “Stardust”

Bill Nye the Science Guy (PBS) – Outer Space

ACME School – radio waves

Helpful links:

How Radio Astronomy Works

Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) and CARMA Official Site

“Star Sailor” – original song from far too long ago in my YouTube history:

[youtube  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m3UYOtTYS4%5D