Image from the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia.
Remember when you first learned about the land of the dinosaurs? For me, it was the Disney movie Fantasia that first introduced this wondrous prehistoric world. Huge beasts roamed the earth, squashing ferns the size of full-grown trees. These kings of the earth ruled millions of years ago. Suddenly, there’s a terrible flash of light as an asteroid crashes on to the surface, wiping dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. How wondrous. How terrifying.
To this day, most children are taught about the asteroid that killed these magnificent creatures called dinosaurs. This single asteroid event is still studied by top scientists, and we can now hypothesize specifics of this event, such as the date (66.24 Million years ago), temperature of the earth after the collision (20,000 degrees Celsius!) and what the dinosaurs would see right before the collision (literally a black gaping hole in the sky).1 It’s pretty much understood that this asteroid was what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, right?
In Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.
“New innovation from scientists,” read the subject line from my Mom’s email. Attached was a link to a Youtube clip of a male scientist balling plastic bags, sealing them in a steel vessel, and pushing a button. After a couple of hours, the eager scientist cracked open the vessel, and poured out a dark, ominous looking fluid. “People don’t know that garbage can be made into gasoline” the scientist beamed. Apparently after some refining, this scientist had converted plastic bags into gasoline.
My response was immediate: “Don’t go investing your money just yet. Plastic bags are a by-product of gasoline production. It would take a lot of energy to turn plastic bags back into gasoline, probably more energy than you would make.” I had put the thought out of my head, until one day when I was breezing through a fashion magazine (yes, some scientists read those too) and there was a short article about another woman who was also claiming she could turn plastic bags into gasoline. The idea was obviously gaining momentum. Could my opinion on trash-to-gas be jaded?
It’s that time of the year here in Pittsburgh, when I start cursing the first human who moved north of the tropic of Cancer from the bottom of my heart. For, once again, it takes me 10 minutes from when I’m “ready to leave” to when I actually leave the house after putting on many layers of socks, boots, half a dozen sweaters and coats, a couple of scarves, a hat and, of course, two pairs of gloves. (Whew! It was exhausting just typing all that!)
It’s not the actual below-freezing temperatures which get to me, mind you. It’s the wind – the terrible wind which whistles through the little holes in your hat and freezes your ears, finds the little spot of skin that you forgot to cover up and turns it into ice as you wait for the bus in the morning. Continue reading
Quick – which of these lines is longer?
If you’re reading this, you’re taking too long to answer the question.
If you said the one on the right, congratulations! You’re wrong, of course, but your brain is working perfectly well. This is an example of an optical illusion, an image specifically created to trick your brain. You probably saw a lot of these as a kid, and you may have even thought they were fun. I know I did. I remember finding optical illusions in books, learning about the trick, and then quizzing classmates about them (I was a strange kid). I got satisfaction from knowing the trick to the picture, especially when others couldn’t see the illusion.
Once I got through graduate school, though, I realized that there are a lot of times where knowing the trick just brings up more questions. For example, let’s look at those lines again:
Yup, still lines.
The right one still looks longer, right? But we absolutely know that these lines are the same length! That’s why, to me, the big question is this:
Why does the illusion still work, even after we know the trick?
When my research manuscript was rejected from my first choice journal, I felt my heartstrings tug. I swallowed my emotion, and methodically analyzed every comment from the reviewers. I considered the reviewers’ reasons why my experiment was insufficient and (begrudgingly) assessed why my conclusions were inadequate. I finally addressed each suggestion with new time-consuming experiments. After six full months of poring over this manuscript, bright eyed and hopeful, I submitted it to a second journal. When it was rejected again, I cried.
My adviser had a different reaction to the ordeal. The first time my manuscript was rejected, he read over the reviewers comments with a steely glare. He remained stoic, other than a slight frown. He finally exhaled a stern “Okay.” Over the course of those next six months, he calmly pored over all my edits. Our discussions on each reviewer’s comments were always sharp and concise. My adviser’s reaction the second time my manuscript was rejected: steely glare, slight frown, stern exhale, “Okay.”
Linguists have many theories about how language works. But how much should the computer scientists who work with language care? (CC image courtesy of Flickr/surrealmuse)
“You’ve just explained my entire life to me.” This was the last thing I was expecting to hear from Lori, my graduate advisor, in the midst of a discussion of my career plans. I gave a stiff smile and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “What you just said,” she continued, “that’s why I’m here, not in a linguistics department. In a linguistics department in the 80’s, I might have felt like a hypocrite.”
What I’d said hadn’t been a deliberate attempt to enlighten a researcher 30 years my senior. I’d simply mentioned my preference for application-oriented research groups, because I care more about producing useful insights than true theories. Apparently, though, the distinction between usefulness and truth struck a chord with Lori: in the field she and I work in, what’s useful isn’t always true, and what’s true is often not useful. Lori, a linguist in a school of computer science, has found her career path to be largely determined by that distinction.
I was sitting in my college dorm room, working on some engineering homework, but I just couldn’t focus. My mind kept wandering back to the game. How could I have played so poorly? My teammates must hate me. Did I cost us a chance at the playoffs?
In college I played on the varsity baseball team and studied mechanical engineering. I worked hard on the practice team for 2 years and finally got my shot to start at third base as a junior. But things weren’t going according to plan. Third base has a long throw across the infield to first base, and I was having trouble making the throw accurately. By itself, this wasn’t unusual; every player goes through his funks and eventually works out of it. But despite hours of extra practice, I was stuck in a rut. My frustration culminated in a game in which I committed 4 throwing errors and we lost to an important division opponent by 1 run. My teammates had battled tooth and nail to make it a close game, and I literally threw it all away.