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


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.


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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On Nautil.us: The Most Important Object In Computer Graphics History Is This Teapot

From an article reviewed by SNF and posted yesterday on Facts So Romantic, the blog of Nautilus magazine:

Let’s play a game. I’ll show you a picture and a couple videos—just watch the first five seconds or so—and you figure out what they have in common. Ready? Here we go:


Did you spot it? Each of them depicts the exact same object: a shiny, slightly squashed-looking teapot…This unassuming object—the “Utah teapot,” as it’s affectionately known—has had an enormous influence on the history of computing.

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A jumping spider leaps towards its prey – a tethered fly

Six ways a jumping spider is cooler than your cat

There’s a hairy beast out on the prowl. It spots its prey from a distance, stalks along the forest floor, and pounces with a mighty flying leap. It then proceeds to suck its prey dry.

This animal is, of course, a tiny jumping spider.

You may not be used to thinking of spiders as strategic hunters, but jumping spiders have cat-like talents, bundled in package smaller than a dime. Take a look at how these spiders make your house cat look like an amateur hunter.

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Cool Your Liquor

One glass of Knob Creek (on the right) with ice, one glass (on the left) with whiskey stones.

One glass of Knob Creek (on the right) with ice, one glass (on the left) with whiskey stones.

Last December, a friend gave me an early Christmas present. The package was a perfect cube, and hefty as a rock. “Whiskey stones!” I exclaimed after tearing off the wrapping paper, and promptly gave my friend a hug.

A week later, I was exchanging gifts with my undergrad friends over our annual Christmas brunch. One friend passed me a heavy gift bag. At the bottom of an assemblage of tissue paper sat a cubed box of whiskey stones. “Oh no,” bellowed a third friend, “I got Djuna whiskey stones too!”

My friends know me well.

Whiskey stones are marketed to fellow drinkers, who have indulged in the vice long enough to prefer the burn of whiskey straight. Whereas ice, the traditional cooling agent, melts and dilutes your cocktail, whiskey stones will chill your beverage without watering it down. Although 3 sets of whiskey stones would require an imbibing of alcohol excessive even for me, one box claimed that whiskey stones could also be used to cool coffee and tea for iced beverages.

Delighted by my new alcohol accessory acquisition, I immediately began adding whiskey stones to every beverage best served cold. I had grand plans of a new life enjoying undiluted tastes, secretly laughing while others unknowingly sipped cooled drinks with a weakened flavor. How disappointing it was when, after a few weeks, I swore I would never use my plethora of whiskey stones again. This was not due to any resolution to quit drinking caffeinated beverages or whiskey (you wish, Mom). Rather, it was simply thermodynamics.
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