Thursday, September 30, 2010

In the Basement with Boston's BUILDSers

(The headline isn't a typo, it's just not a very good headline.) 

Walking in, it's pretty much what I expected; the room is crowded with college kids, hunched around tables and over computers, nose-deep in books or tearing apart electrical equipment. The walls have murals of sci-fi landscapes and old-style phone switchboards, and there are power tools and wires and metal cabinets just about everywhere you look. There are more females than I’d expected, and that's a pleasant surprise.

This is the headquarters of BUILDS, a workshop and research lab tucked away in the basement of Boston University's Math and Computer Science building.  While BU has more than 550 clubs, this one in particular has something that most clubs don't - freedom. BUILDS is one of the few student-organized, student-managed, student-directed clubs at BU.  While the club still has the prerequisite faculty advisor, the members are the chief decision-makers.

"BU was starved for a space like this," club treasurer and BU junior Valerie Young says, "a place for open creativity and expression."

(It would have made my life easier if one of them had been named Bob.)
The club's philosophy is based around a "hacker ethic," which is deeply exploratory, constructive, and free. It’s the old hacker philosophy; the digital realm is a neutral zone, and hackers seek to test the tentative boundaries of this evolving world, illuminating security risks and contributing to the general knowledge-pool.

When I first meet her, Valerie is mired in thoughts over a new campaign the club is launching to draw more female members. She pores over a drawing of a defiant, overalls-clad girl gripping a wrench and looking off into the distance. Valerie’s looking for a slogan for this future poster, for the right words to speak to the "inner badass" of women on campus. She’s also the lead on a project that will create a musical staircase in one of BU's student unions, using infrared emitters and sensors. Everyone in BUILDS has many facets.

Meanwhile, the weekly BUILDS club meeting has ended and the night has turned into a study session. Most of the remaining members have a mid-term to prepare for, and they're discussing some example problem, making references to something that sounds like binary code.  The group effort is effortless.

One guy keeps track of the different angles of attack on a large wipe-board, and different members throw out ideas and questions and lamentations. Some follow along on computers and some are scrawling on torn-off pieces of paper-towel. I offer them some sheets of paper from my note-pad, but apparently it's a matter of personal preference.

The club is designed to bring people together and provide resources to realize visions, current vice-president and college sophomore John-Nicholas Furst tells me. It’s all about being able to bring your ideas to life, whether that means garnering team interest in a larger project, or just having access to resources for something you're doing on your own. The club has drawn attention from faculty, giving the club some great mentors, but there's an inherent freedom that was negotiated and fought for, and that's what the officers want to preserve.

(That's their name.)

John has time to tell me this briefly before he's drawn away by another BUILDS member who has been tearing apart iPods. Apologizing, John says he has to run; he's working on acquiring a rather large transistor for the Tesla coil the club is building.

Part workshop, part support-group for DIY-ers, BUILDS combines a hacker core with an engineering ambition, where members pitch, design, learn, and build for the sheer joy of it. And every Friday night, they have a lock-picking seminar.

"It's mostly social," Valerie says. "Besides, you have to do it regularly or else you lose it."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Looming Disappointment: Jupiter is Big, but it’s Not a Big Deal

Is it a bird?  A plane? A star? No, it’s a distant gas giant.

If you’re watching the night sky this month, you’ll see a bright spot rising in the east as the sun sets in the west.  It’s the planet Jupiter, and it’s making its usual pass by Earth at closer-than-usual distance, drawing much attention from the media.  Mention it to astronomers, however, and you be subject to bored stares.  

A Google search for “Jupiter” brings up over 400 articles for the month of September, many with phrases like “celestial treat” and “rare phenomenon.”  All the major news institutions have covered it, including the New York Times and National Geographic. predicts, “It should be a stunning sight.”  

Professor Tom Bania of Boston University’s Department of Astronomy doesn’t see what the fuss is about.  His office sits just below the Judson B. Coit Observatory, where he’d have access to views of this “celestial treat,” if he’d bother.  The Earth comes relatively close to Jupiter every year, and although this year is a bit closer than most, Bania’s not expecting anything spectacular:

“Are we going to learn the secrets of the universe?  No.  Are astronomers throwing Jupiter-parties?  No. It’s a media hype thing.”  

Jupiter is the fifth planet from our sun, an enormous, whirling gas giant that has at least 63 moons, four of which were originally discovered by Galileo in 1610.  It is best known for its huge red spot, a centuries-old storm on its southern end that is physically larger than the planet Earth.  

(Artistic rendering.  The green ones are moons.)  

Once a year, the Earth lies right in the middle of a straight shot between the sun and Jupiter, and this is called Jupiter in “opposition.”  This year’s opposition happens to occur when Jupiter is orbiting closer to the sun, and thus closer to Earth than any year since 1963, but the difference is minuscule in planetary terms.  During last year’s opposition, Jupiter was 374,426,315 miles away, and this year it’s 367,547,580 miles away.  Ultimately, it’s less than a two percent difference.    

Professor John Clarke of the Center for Space Physics at the university compares the opposition event to a birthday.  “It’s significant as a historical marker, but nothing’s changed from the day before and nothing’s going to change the day after.”

While Clarke has focused much of his research on Jupiter, he’s far more interested in Jupiter’s ability to protect the Earth from interstellar asteroids, thanks to its much greater gravitational pull that draws objects toward it and away from us.   Scientifically, he says, this year’s opposition just isn’t a big deal.  

Bania worries that this type of hype draws attention away from new and important findings.  “We’re in a genuine age of discovery,” he says, but he’s afraid that real breakthroughs might get lost in the media cloud.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Did I do that? Research suggests that watching is as good as doing, as far as memory goes.

In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers have found that watching someone else perform an action can get jumbled in the mind and turned into a personal memory.  This study adds to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human memory is surprisingly fallible. 

Isabel Lindner of the University of Cologne in Germany led a team of scientists at Jacobs University Bremen in a study probing the mechanisms of memory.  The study builds on previous research which suggests that passively watching an act creates neurological activity similar to actually performing the act.  Lindner and her team wondered whether passive watching could also turn into falsely remembering. 

They conducted studies on 57 participants to test whether they remembered performing an action, such as shaking a bottle.  Some participants watched a video in which a person shook a bottle, while others did not.  When questioned two weeks later, participants were much more likely to falsely remember having personally shook the bottle if they had watched the video. 

“We were stunned,” Gerald Echterhoff, a fellow scientist on the study, said in the press release from the Association for Psychological Science. 

The researchers noted that this sort of mental mix-up doesn’t happen all the time, and it’s no reason to distrust every recollection you have, but it’s important to understand the limits of human memory. 

“It’s good to have an informed doubt or informed skepticism about your memory performance,” Echterhoff, added, “So you don’t just easily trust whatever comes to your mind.” 

Images to come!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dancing in the Dark: Tree Frogs Illuminate the Art of Vibration as Communication

You and I may use “no trespassing” signs to deter would-be invaders from stomping on our turf, but what if we could use something much more primitive – and perhaps more jarring – to get our message across?  If we were male red-eyed tree frogs, we would shake invaders away.  

In a paper published in Current Biology in July, Michael Caldwell and his colleagues from Boston University were the first to establish shaking, or tremulation behaviors as a means of vibration-based communication among red-eyed tree frogs.  While decades of research have been dedicated to visual and acoustic signals among animals, scientists have generally overlooked vibration as a means of communication. Caldwell’s article demonstrates, for the first time, that the vibration in the male tree-frog’s aggression display is more important than the visual dance.   

Red-eyed tree frogs are among the most photographed animals in the world, thanks to their distinct appearance.  With bright red eyes, vibrant green skin, blue bellies, and orange hands and feet, they make for a compelling image.  And their rump-shaking territorial behavior makes for compelling video.

Under the cover of darkness, these colorful frogs stake their claim among the leaves and use a sound called a "chack" to call for females. If a second male frog should appear on the same branch, the contest is on and the shaking begins.  With hands and feet wrapped around the branch, the frog rises up on its limbs and begins shaking, engaging in what looks like a frog tantrum, as Caldwell puts it.  If the encroaching frog isn’t immediately deterred, a fearsome wrestling match ensues until one of the frogs gives in and hops away. 

Your trespassing will have consequences.  Adorable ones.       
According to Karen Warkentin, Boston University Professor and Senior Author on Caldwell’s article, frogs have long played an important role in research on animal communication, but research into vibrations as message-carriers is pretty new.     

Using infrared cameras to catch the choreography (the frogs are shy – they only dance in the dark), Caldwell found that the shaking is always at a constant rate of 12 hertz, or 12 times per second.  The regularity of the shaking secures it as a clear signal to the other frogs, so it’s not easily mistakable for the effects of wind or rain. 

Caldwell’s team made a robot with a faux-frog on it to test whether the real frogs were responding to the visual or vibrational aspect of the shaking.  They found that the frogs did not shake back when the robot frog moved but the branch didn’t, further establishing the vibrations felt in the branch are the cue to start the fight. 

“Michael showed that the adult frogs use vibrations in male-male aggression more than they use sound, and I’ll be really surprised if these are the only animals that do,” said Warkentin.  

Special thanks to Michael Caldwell and John Christy of the Smithsonian Tropical  Research Institute, Karen Warkentin of Boston University, Peggy Hill of the University of Tulsa, and Paul de Luca of the University of Toronto for helping inform this article.  

More images to come!