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Pokemon GO-bal Positioning System

Earlier this July, my childhood dream finally came true.  Over the series’ 20 year history, I’ve played more than 30 Pokemon video games, and with each new release I’ve wanted to become a gym leader and to catch ‘em all – a feat I accomplished, once, back in the first game.   Now, as a 28-year old working on a Ph.D., I can finally achieve my dream with the help of Niantic’s latest augmented reality game, Pokemon GO.

 IMG_2016-07-10-13445138 I can find a Pidgey (the Pigeon Pokemon) on a city sidewalk thanks to GPS telling Pokemon GO where I am.  Finding a Goldeen (the Goldfish Pokemon) on the same city street would not make sense.

In Pokemon GO, as I wander around my city, my phone periodically vibrates indicating that I’ve found a Pokemon.  I quickly look at my phone and tap on the Pokemon to enter a battle with it.  The game knows where I am thanks to GPS, the Global Positioning System, and uses that information to show me location-appropriate Pokemon, such as Water-type Pokemon close to rivers and Fire-type Pokemon in deserts.

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The Rogue Geo-engineer

Photo of iron sulfate dumping off the coast of Canada from http://phys.org/news/2012-10-canadian-knew-sea-fertilizing.html

In the summer of 2012, scientist and entrepreneur Russ George sailed purposefully past the coast of Vancouver to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. There, he proceeded to dump 100 tons of iron sulfate into 10,000 square miles of ocean.

The Haida Indians had given him their blessing. George was the director of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and the Haida Indians were told that this iron would fertilize the plankton, a valuable feedstock for the native salmon. But George’s intentions went beyond fish farming: adding iron would allow swarms of plankton to blossom, which would draw down massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Russ George claimed to have found a solution for amending the starving salmon population and mitigating the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in one fell swoop.

Most experts, however, were infuriated.

Since then, George has become an infamous case of the dangerous line between ingenuity and recklessness. Supporters argue that such drastic measures may be needed in the future unless we somehow reduce our greenhouse gas emission. But most scientists and policymakers argue that his hasty deed had no scientific merit, and could cause irreversible damage to the ocean environment.

How could an experiment with such good intentions have gone so wrong?
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Spin your phone in the air around these three axes. Can you get a few full turns in without allowing the side that faces you to change?

The Mysterious Phone Tumble

Physics is full of outlandish scenarios where our basic intuitions break down. Quantum mechanics, relativity, nanoparticles…so many phenomena seem counter-intuitive, or even impossible, that it’s almost not surprising when we hear of another in some remote domain. But sometimes, physics surprises can be found right in our hands.

My favorite counter-intuitive motion can be demonstrated with an object that you likely have near you right now: a smartphone. To see it, hold your phone with the screen facing towards you and give it a light toss into the air, spinning it so the screen stays facing towards you. Make sure that if you drop it, it falls in your lap or somewhere soft.* Watch how the phone rotates in the air. Continue reading

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Hitting a fastball requires more than just quick reactions

In 2004, Albert Pujols was considered one of the best baseball hitters in the world, leading the Major Leagues the previous year with a .359 batting average. Jennie Finch was considered the world’s best softball pitcher, leading the U.S. to a Gold Medal in the Olympics by striking out more than one hitter per inning and giving up 0 runs. So when Finch challenged Pujols to a matchup, it was billed as a classic showdown of men vs. women. But that was just on the surface. Deep down, this matchup also provided the perfect experiment to test the limits of a human’s reaction time – and how our brains make it possible to surpass them.

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The Simple Problem Machines Can’t Solve

“I do apologize for not being able to satisfy a lot of people’s expectations. I kind of felt powerless,” [1], said GO grandmaster Lee Sedol after a surprising 1-4 loss to the artificial intelligence AlphaGO recently.

Machines had conquered most of the games mankind has created, including chess, Scrabble, and even Jeopardy!.  The ancient game GO, exponentially more complex than chess, was once considered to be one of the ultimate tests of machines’ capabilities. Yet with Lee’s loss, the game has been conquered. Given the rapid advances in artificial intelligence, one cannot help but wonder “Is there any limit to what a machine can do?”

While machines have become smart enough to defeat humans in sophisticated games, humans have cleverly devised a problem that machines definitely cannot solve. Impressively, the problem was constructed more than 80 years ago, even before the birth of digital computers. The star of humanity who came up with this construction was mathematician Kurt Godel. Later, Alan Turing, the father of computer science, used Godel’s techniques to prove an analogous theorem in the context of computer science. In its simplest form, this theorem states that there exist problems that a machine will never be able to conquer. Continue reading

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On Nautil.us: How Big Data Creates False Confidence

Another SNF-workshopped article on Facts So Romantic, the blog of Nautilus magazine:

If I claimed that Americans have gotten more self-centered lately, you might just chalk me up as a curmudgeon, prone to good-ol’-days whining. But what if I said I could back that claim up by analyzing 150 billion words of text? A few decades ago, evidence on such a scale was a pipe dream. Today, though, 150 billion data points is practically passé. A feverish push for “big data” analysis has swept through biology, linguistics, finance, and every field in between.

But there’s a problem: It’s tempting to think that with such an incredible volume of data behind them, studies relying on big data couldn’t be wrong. But the bigness of the data can imbue the results with a false sense of certainty. Many of them are probably bogus—and the reasons why should give us pause about any research that blindly trusts big data.

Read the whole article on the Nautilus website.

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Not All Waste Should Be Wasted

The heat of an Alabama summer afternoon certainly wasn’t helping the aroma of several million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage.  This field trip to the Auburn Wastewater Treatment Plant was always the worst one I led for my Intro to Environmental Engineering class.  Fortunately, we were near the end of the process and far from the most fragrant part of the plant.  At this point the wastewater had been treated by the sludge, which is a “fancy” name for the bacteria that eat the organics in the wastewater. The sludge had been separated out of the treated water, the bacteria had eaten each other, and the remainder had just been pressed to remove excess moisture.

We were standing next to a twelve-foot-tall pile of biosolids, the dewatered bacteria, when the tour guide pulled his usual stunt.  He took an ungloved hand and stuck it into the pile, pulling out a handful of what appeared to be a dark, rich soil.  The class reacted the way classes on these trip always react:  with revulsion.  That’s how people respond to things recovered from wastewater, completely unaware of how valuable they can be.      

The Great Poop Train

Biosolids look like rich soil because they are rich in nitrogen and organics, which are beneficial for the growth of plants.  But that doesn’t make them any more desirable to keep around, and cities often go to great lengths to dispose of them.  By 1986, New York City completed its 14 wastewater treatment plants.  The resulting wastewater system handled 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater produced every day, creating several thousand tons of biosolids. So the city set out to find somewhere to get rid of it.  At first, it was dumped into the ocean.  But in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency told the city they had to stop dumping and find a good use for the biosolids to make amends for their previous polluting ways.  

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