Science Museum News posts – 2015 (part 1)

  • Kepler space telescope helps experts create a ‘star clock’
  • New antibiotic discovered by digging in soil
  • 20 minutes of light exercise each day could stave off preventable diseases
  • GM bugs have custom built-in code that stops them sharing their artificial DNA
  • Some very bright people suggest we should be worried about AI
  • Facial recognition is so efficient a smartphone could recognise billions of faces
  • UK sugar regulations are tougher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines
  • DeepMind gave AI classic games to explore, it can now beat humans at most of them
  • Electricity from new tidal power station cheaper than from nuclear

Spinning stars show their age
6th January 2015

Sun

 

To me there’s nothing better than gazing up at the stars on a clear night. I often wonder how old they all are. Now astronomers have found a way to accurately measure a star’s age.

They do this by looking at how fast a star spins. Like anything set in motion, the longer you leave it, the slower it gets. Stars appear quite featureless from a distance, so to see how fast they spin astronomers had to look for telltale sunspots on their surfaces.

Image: NASA

 

Digging for new antibiotic discovery
7th January 2015

bacteria

I’m amazed by the power of antibiotics, but I’m also aware that bacteria are becoming resistant to them. So it’s great to hear that scientists in Boston have isolated a new class of antibiotic that bacteria aren’t resistant to yet.

The team used tiny compartments buried in soil to grow bacteria that can’t survive in normal Petri dishes. One bacterium makes a compound that kills dangerous bacteria such as MRSA. This method could unlock many more new antibiotics – and it makes me hopeful about fighting diseases in the future.

Image: Flickr/filterforge

 

Fit not Fat
15th January 2015

fatness

I strive to stay in shape, so it’s reassuring that experts link regular exercise with good health. But the flip side of this makes me worry for some people, as lack of exercise is now deemed more harmful than obesity.

Researchers at Cambridge monitored the health of over 300,000 Europeans for 12 years. They found that inactivity causes 676,000 deaths each year, almost twice as many as obesity. People who exercised and had slimmer waists suffered less from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Image: Flickr/hansdekker

 

No escape for GM bugs
22nd January 2015

bugs

I don’t believe a lot of the fear-mongering I read about genetic modification. So it’s good to learn that scientists have found a new way to keep their creations safely contained in the lab.

The US researchers engineered bacteria that can only feed on an artificially created nutrient that doesn’t exist in nature. So in the unlikely event some bugs escaped, on someone’s shoe say, they would be unable to spread.

It’s comforting to know we’re safe, and I hope this puts people’s minds more at ease about GM.

Image: Flickr/lamenta3

 

Artificial intelligence threat
29th January 2015

robot

Whether they’re trying to program the heating or organise photos online, machines never seem to work properly. So I share Microsoft’s scepticism that artificial intelligence (AI) is a threat to us.

AI is all about making a machine ‘think’ like a person. We’ve often seen it go wrong in films, though that doesn’t stop people researching it further.

But AI can be useful – when trying to automate a car for example, or by acting as your voice-controlled personal assistant. I think we should play down the dangers of AI.

Image: Flickr/isherwoodchris

Spot a face in the crowd
5th February 2015

lego heads

If you put photos online you’re probably used to social networks wanting to ‘tag’ you. What I find worrying is that Facebook’s DeepFace system is now as accurate as human beings in recognising faces.
Why does this concern me? Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I can imagine ways companies and governments might use this to badger or even oppress citizens.
The software is fascinating. Using ‘deep learning’ it studies faces in tagged photos to spot them in untagged ones. It can recognise someone regardless of age, pose, illumination and expression.

Image: Flickr/Sunfox

Sugar money
12th February 2015

lego sugar

I try my best to avoid sugar, as experts agree it’s bad news for your health. So I’m rather worried that some scientists who advise the government on health matters are accused of accepting money from the sugar industry. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mars and Nestlé have funded research projects for a few health advisory groups.

However these scientists claim it’s good to work with industry and they are not influenced by this funding. I for one like to think all good scientists would put public health interests before their own.

Image: Flickr/wwarby

 

Beaten at our own games
26th February 2015

lego computer

I enjoy playing computer games but I’m never very good at them. So I feel humbled to learn that a machine not onlytaught itself to play games but plays some better than any human!

Computer scientists at DeepMind in London created an artificial intelligence (AI) which isn’t told in advance how to play games but has to figure them out. It’s goal is to improve its own score at whatever game it plays.

Previously AI had to be specifically programmed to play games such as chess. This general-purpose AI thinks creatively, more like a human.

Image: Flickr/londonmatt

Tidal power for the UK
2nd March 2015

jetty

I can’t wait for the day when all our power is generated by clean, renewable sources. So I get excited when I see projects like the proposed tidal lagoon power station.

It’s an artificial lagoon made by sea walls that contain turbines. At high tide water flows into the lagoon, spinning the turbines to generate power. At low tide the water leaves the lagoon and again spins the turbines to generate power.

I think it’s pretty clever – and the sea walls could be used for cultural and sports activities too.

Image: Tidal Lagoon Power

 


These stories and more were originally published on the Science Museum website and interactive news gallery ‘Antenna‘.

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