Monthly Archives: Feb 2016

A Powerful New Tool Set for Humanity

“In the near future, every object on Earth will be generating data including our homes, our cars, even our bodies. Almost everything we do today leaves a trail of digital exhaust, a perpetual stream of text, location data and other information that will live on well after each of us is long gone. We are now being exposed to as much information in a single day as our 15th century ancestors were exposed to in their entire lifetimes.

But we need to be very careful because in this vast ocean of data there is a frighteningly complete picture of us—where we live, where we go, what we buy, what we say. It’s all being recorded and stored forever. This is the story of an extraordinary revolution that’s sweeping almost invisibly through our lives.”

That powerful opening statement sets the stage for a fascinating in depth look at the dramatic new era of “big data.”

The Human Face of Big Data, a critically acclaimed documentary based on the best-selling book of the same name by executive producer Rick Smolan, is premiering this week on CuriosityStream.

Smolan is an award-winning photojournalist and creator of the epic Day in the Life series. He was also a 2015 Curiosity Retreat Luminary, engaging our audience with real life stories about how the explosion of big data is affecting all our lives.

Smolan says healthcare is likely to be the area of this revolution that impacts people’s lives first.  Who hasn’t gone to the Web to diagnose their own illness?  Those searches, and the data behind them, have a dramatic impact.



 

Other stories include a fascinating experiment by an MIT researcher, revealing a breakthrough theory about how children acquire language.  And a story about how the explosion of digital information shared on social media is transforming how we respond to disasters like the Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Sandy.

But is all this for better or for worse?  Every new technology raises that question.  And big data certainly has a dramatic impact on our privacy and our future, as we each evolve into virtual human sensors.

Smolan says, at the beginning of this project, he was skeptical.  Could the big data revolution really be more transformative than the Internet?  He says he is now a convert, convinced that big data could turn out to be the most powerful tool set we have to address the widespread challenges facing our species and our planet.

The documentary has already toured several film festivals, and was honored with the Jury Prize for “Best Cinematography” at the Boston International Film Festival.  And the U.S. Department of State selected the film to be shown at embassies and consulates around the world as part of the American Film Showcase.

The Human Face of Big Data is now premiering on CuriosityStream for our subscribers. And you can hear about Smolan’s own quest to learn more about the big data revolution in his 2015 Curiosity Retreat lecture here, and in a ‘behind the scenes’ look at The Human Face of Big Data here.

And then you can begin to decide for yourself about the impact of this new set of technologies on humanity and on you.

 

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“Einstein Would Be Beaming…”

It’s a stunning breakthrough in physics, proving once again that Albert Einstein was right. Scientists have announced they’ve detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Einstein predicted 100 years ago.  And the proof was captured in audio form, so we can now actually listen in on the sounds of the universe, hearing two black holes collide more than a billion light years from Earth.

Dr. Sean Carroll is a physicist and a professor at Cal Tech, who describes himself as a theorist who thinks about the fundamental laws of nature, especially as they connect to cosmology.  And, Dr. Carroll is a 2016 Curiosity Retreat Luminary.  He wants to make sure we all truly understand the magnitude of this new discovery.

The following was originally published on Dr. Carroll’s blog, PreposterousUniverse.

ONCE upon a time, there lived a man who was fascinated by the phenomenon of gravity. In his mind he imagined experiments in rocket ships and elevators, eventually concluding that gravity isn’t a conventional “force” at all — it’s a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime. He threw himself into the study of differential geometry, the abstruse mathematics of arbitrarily curved manifolds. At the end of his investigations he had a new way of thinking about space and time, culminating in a marvelous equation that quantified how gravity responds to matter and energy in the universe.

Not being one to rest on his laurels, this man worked out a number of consequences of his new theory.  One was that changes in gravity didn’t spread instantly throughout the universe; they traveled at the speed of light, in the form of gravitational waves.  In later years he would change his mind about this prediction, only to later change it back. Eventually more and more scientists became convinced that this prediction was valid, and worth testing. They launched a spectacularly ambitious program to build a technological marvel of an observatory that would be sensitive to the faint traces left by a passing gravitational wave. Eventually, a century after the prediction was made — a press conference was called.

Chances are that everyone reading this blog post has heard that LIGO, the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory, officially announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves. Two black holes, caught in a close orbit, gradually lost energy and spiraled toward each other as they emitted gravitational waves, which zipped through space at the speed of light before eventually being detected by our observatories here on Earth. Plenty of other places will give you details on this specific discovery, or tutorials on the nature of gravitational waves, including in user-friendly comic/video form.

 

What I want to do here is to make sure, in case there was any danger, that nobody loses sight of the extraordinary magnitude of what has been accomplished here. We’ve become a bit blasé about such things: physics makes a prediction, it comes true, yay. But we shouldn’t take it for granted; successes like this reveal something profound about the core nature of reality.

Some guy scribbles down some symbols in an esoteric mixture of Latin, Greek, and mathematical notation. Scribbles originating in his tiny, squishy human brain. (Here are what some of those scribbles look like, in my own incredibly sloppy handwriting.) Other people (notably Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, and Kip Thorne), on the basis of taking those scribbles extremely seriously, launch a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of decades. They concoct an audacious scheme to shoot laser beams at mirrors to look for modulated displacements of less than a millionth of a billionth of a centimeter — smaller than the diameter of an atomic nucleus. Meanwhile other people looked at the sky and tried to figure out what kind of signals they might be able to see, for example from the death spiral of black holes a billion light-years away. You know, black holes: universal regions of death where, again according to elaborate theoretical calculations, the curvature of spacetime has become so pronounced that anything entering can never possibly escape. And still other people built the lasers and the mirrors and the kilometers-long evacuated tubes and the interferometers and the electronics and the hydraulic actuators and so much more, all because they believed in those equations. And then they ran LIGO (and other related observatories) for several years, then took it apart and upgraded to Advanced LIGO, finally reaching a sensitivity where you would expect to see real gravitational waves if all that fancy theorizing was on the right track.

And there they were. On the frikkin’ money.

ligo-signal

Our universe is mind-bogglingly vast, complex, and subtle. It is also fantastically, indisputably knowable.

I got a hard time a few years ago for predicting that we would detect gravitational waves within five years. And indeed, the track record of such predictions has been somewhat spotty. Outside Kip Thorne’s office you can find this record of a lost bet — after he predicted that we would see them before 1988. (!)

kip-bet-1

 

But this time around I was pretty confident. The existence of overly-optimistic predictions in the past doesn’t invalidate the much-better predictions we can make with vastly updated knowledge. Advanced LIGO represents the first time when we would have been more surprised not to see gravitational waves than to have seen them. And I believed in those equations.

I don’t want to be complacent about it, however. The fact that Einstein’s prediction has turned out to be right is an enormously strong testimony to the power of science in general, and physics in particular, to describe our natural world. Einstein didn’t know about black holes; he didn’t even know about lasers, although it was his work that laid the theoretical foundations for both ideas. He was working at a level of abstraction that reached as far as he could (at the time) to the fundamental basis of things, how our universe works at the deepest of levels. And his theoretical insights were sufficiently powerful and predictive that we could be confident in testing them a century later. This seemingly effortless insight that physics gives us into the behavior of the universe far away and under utterly unfamiliar conditions should never cease to be a source of wonder.

We’re nowhere near done yet, of course. We have never observed the universe in gravitational waves before, so we can’t tell for sure what we will see, but plausible estimates predict between one-half and several hundred events per year. Hopefully, the success of LIGO will invigorate interest in other ways of looking for gravitational waves, including at very different wavelengths. Here’s a plot focusing on three regimes: LIGO and its cousins on the right, the proposed space-based observatory LISA in the middle, and pulsar-timing arrays (using neutron stars throughout the galaxy as a giant gravitational-wave detector) on the left. Colorful boxes are predicted sources; solid lines are the sensitivities of different experiments. Gravitational-wave astrophysics has just begun; asking us what we will find is like walking up to Galileo and asking him what else you could discover with telescopes other than moons around Jupiter.

grav-wave-detectors-sources

For me, the decade of the 2010’s opened with five big targets in particle physics/gravitation/cosmology:

  1. Discover the Higgs boson.
  2. Directly detect gravitational waves.
  3. Directly observe dark matter.
  4. Find evidence of inflation (e.g. tensor modes) in the CMB.
  5. Discover a particle not in the Standard Model.

The decade is about half over, and we’ve done two of them! Keep up the good work, observers and experimentalists, and the 2010’s will go down as a truly historic decade in physics.

This blog was originally published at PreposterousUniverse.com.

You can explore more about the origins of the universe on CuriosityStream.  Our 2 part series, The Ultimate Formula, details the journey as physicists search for a blueprint of the universe in the form of a single mathematical formula.  And, go inside Monster Black Holesin an episode from our Cosmic Front series.

And, our original, short form series A Curious World explores the reality of black holes:

 

 

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Curiosity Retreats 2016

Greetings from CuriosityStream! I’m pleased to announce the speakers for our next Curiosity Retreat, to be hosted October 2-7, 2016 at Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa.

Led by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alan Stern and David Eagleman, our Curiosity Retreat will feature eight world-class speakers leading four days of “deep dive” exploration of science, technology, civilization and the human spirit.  All lectures will be filmed so that we may share them on CuriosityStream with our community of inquisitive minds.  As well, the retreats allow participants to interact directly with the speakers in small breakout sessions in between lectures.  Our 2016 lineup includes:

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Presidential Historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author & Political Commentator
Balancing Work, Love and Play: Lessons from the Presidents

David Eagleman
Neuroscientist, PBS Host of The Brain, best-selling Author, Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine
The Future of the Brain

Alan Stern
Planetary Scientist & Principal Investigator of the New Horizons Mission
To Pluto & Beyond

Sean Carroll
Cosmologist, Physicist & Author, Winner of the Andrew Gemant Award in Physics
The Big Picture

Nonny de la Peña
Pioneer of Virtual Reality & CEO of Emblematic Group
Our Virtual Reality

Spencer Wells
Population Geneticist, Anthropologist; Former Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic
The Human Journey: A Genetic Odyssey

Roland Fryer
Economist, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics, Harvard University, 2015 Winner of the John Bates Clark Medal
The Economics of Incentives

Max Tegmark
Cosmologist, Astrophysicist, Author & Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Our Mathematical Universe

 

We hope you will consider joining us in October!  In the meantime, I encourage you to enjoy our Curiosity Retreat Lectures series featuring past luminaries including Michio Kaku, Brian Greene and Jason Silva, on CuriosityStream.

Stay curious!

EHN signature

Elizabeth Hendricks North is President & CEO of CuriosityStream. Follow her on Twitter @ehendricksnorth.

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Happy New Year!

Or, translated in Mandarin: Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year, the Asian country’s most important holiday. The first day of the year is determined by the lunar Chinese calendar, so the date changes, but it always falls between the end of January and mid-February.  The celebration is centered around the home and family, and its traditions are honored in the hopes of good health and fortune for the coming year.

Each Chinese New Year is characterized by one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.  2016 is the year of the red monkey, the ninth animal in the cycle. If you are born in the year of the red “fire” monkey, you are said to be ambitious and adventurous, intelligent and clever.  But there’s also your mischievous side, and your quick temper, too, much like your namesake.

You might also be wise to keep in mind a few of the Chinese New Year beliefs.

-Taking medicine on the first day of the lunar year means one will be sick for the entire year.

-Make sure you ignore the urge to clean house today.  Sweeping on the first day means your wealth will be swept away, too.

-And be sure to keep the kids happy today. The cry of a child is believed to bring bad luck to the family.

Dive deep into the rich history of the world’s most populous country and learn more about its distinct culture with CuriosityStream.  Explore China’s greatest monument with our 2 part series China’s Great Wall.  And travel back in time to meet the rulers, rebels and renegades who laid the foundation of China’s preeminent city in Beijing: Biography of an Imperial Capital.  Here’s a preview of our 3 part series:

 

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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