Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Computers and Cosmic Rays

A transistor is just a fast switch
A computer has millions and which
If they fail to work right
Your plans they will blight
But the experts just say "It’s a glitch."


The very first computers used large valves as electrical switches and these often failed. The coming of the first transistors greatly improved reliability, and integrated circuits involving millions of transistors on a single chip has reduced that possibility of a single transistor failing when being used to almost nothing.

But not entirely. Individual transistors in an integrated chip are now so small that they can be affected by alpha-particles caused by radioactive decay in other components - and by the even more energetic cosmic rays - which becomes important in computers which are to be sent into space.

Where appropriate self-checking and redundant circuits can be used to minimise the possibility of the system becoming non-functional. 

If you are interested in the technical side you can find a detailed history and explanation at How Cosmic Rays cause Computer Downtime (pdf).

However for the average users with a pc, laptop or android system, 99.99% percent of gitches are going to be due to software bugs, malicious viruses, or good old human error.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Comet Siding Spring

The comet was named Siding Spring
It came as if thrown from a sling
From the distant Oort cloud
Passing Mars as it ploughed
Round the Sun, then it left with a swing.



The Comet Siding Spring, which originated in the Oort Cloud, passed close to Mars on 19th October and while it was photographed from the Mars Opportunity Rover and Mars Renaissance Orbiter (above) we will probably have to wait for the most interesting findings until a conference to be held in December. In the mean time the best places to find the latest news is on Wikipedia under the comet's official name C/2013 A1.

The Computer that was born in a Tea Shop



An excellent video of the origin of commercial computers in the UK.

I started work on a Leo Computer (see Working with Leo III at SMBP 1965-7) and the basic ideas behind CODIL arose when I was looking at ways to upgrade from the batch system provided by the Leo to an early interactive system.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Political Climate Deniers

In New York a great crowd in the city
Said that more climate change was a pity
While some congressmen fools,
Just as stubborn as mules,
Formed a "climate deniers" committee.

The most important box, in which we are all trapped, is the planet on which we live - and climate change is a very serious long term threat. I first got seriously interested in the subject in 1990 (see Global Warming - To Australia in a Box) and every year I get more worried as the signs of change become more and more obvious, and so little is being done.
This weeks limerick was inspired by Donald Prothero's article Signs of Hope—and Despair—on Climate Change which starts with the news that a quarter of a million people demonstrated on the streets of New York urging that action was needed at the United Nations level. Clearly a lot of people are worried - but is it too late to avoid very dramatic changes that will effect us all?

His article goes onto despair about the many scientifically illiterate politicians who sit on the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. If you have missed out on the kinds of nonsense arguments they are using to try and push climate change issues into the long grass you should read DOnald's article - and realise that as long as the public (everywhere and not just the USA) continues to vote for eloquent fools there is no hope of appropriate action being taken.

However there was one other interesting bit of news from the USA which may be a good sign. The Pentagon has issued a report 2014 Climate Change - Adaptation Road Map (pdf) which takes a serious look at the way that climate change could affect the U.S. military policy. IN addition to obvious matters (such as rising sea levels affecting coastal installations) it considers the potentially serious destabilization effects on governmens and economies around the world and suggests that climate change could be a "threat multiplier" which could make make increased terrorism more likely. While I do not support all aspects of US military policies I am delighted that a major organisation in the US is beginning to realise that the most important medium term threat is social disintegration of the most effected countries.

Climate change gives us all cause to fret
And the future look grim, I would bet.
There'll be more CO2,
With the seas rising too,
And so hot we’ll all end in a sweat.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rural Relaxation: Where have all the people gone?

The Cafe in Wendover Woods
The countryside changes with the seasons and with the weather, and the trees seem very different when seen on a dark and misty day which drains the colour out of the scenery so that even the pale pastel shades of the table parasols jump out at you. I took this earlier today, after a visit to Stoke Mandeville Hospital where I am thankful that with their help I can still enjoy such a view, even if today I enjoyed it from inside The Cafe in the Woods while having my lunch. If it had not been for hospital's help I would now be permanently viewing everything through a thick mist. Now with cataracts removed from both eyes, and the glaucoma in the left eye  now well under control, I still enjoy the countryside, come rain or shine, well into retirement.

And I mustn't forget that I can now hear the singing of the birds in the trees (except that today they were keeping very quiet) thanks to hearing aids provided by the hospital - and there are several other departments who over the years have helped to make my old age more bearable. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Killer whales learn to "talk" to Dolphins

Orcas - AKA Killer Whales
In land mammals, such as humans, it is very expensive to have a large brain but this is not the case with the whales which live in the sea. Their braain has a similar density to sea water so they don't have to worry about its weight. And while a large and busy brain consumes energy - which could be a problem for early humans living in warm climates, the whales live in cold water and need to keep warm. And what better way to generate the heat generated as a byproduct of thinking.

In addition living in the ocean means that sound is a good way of communication, especially in social groups which hunt together. This means that it should surprise no-one if orcas and dolphins use sound to communicate and this could be considered a kind of language which could have a far longer evolutionary history than our own. The recent press release by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is therefore very interesting. The research shows that Orcas held in captivity with bottle-nosed dolphins modify their calls as if they had learnt the dolphin communication language.

As people are trying to learn to understand and speak "dolphin" (What is going on in an animal's brain?) does this mean that, in the animal linguistic field, Orcas are better than humans?