Science & Technology

The Science Dispatches (01/07/18). A fascinating look at how judgement is formed, an AI assistant heads to ISS and the interstellar medium’s ‘space-grease’

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Welcome to the Scisco science dispatches for the final week in June 2018. Examining a fascinating study into how we form judgements, a new floating robot assistant with a computer brain heads to the ISS and researchers recreate ‘space grease’ to discover the abundance of carbon in early planet formation.

Purple or blue? A fascinating new study uses a deceptively simple method to examine how humans form judgements

New research implies that even our determination of something as simple as colour may not be hard and fast (Science)

It seems like a perfectly simple question, look at a picture and determine how many blue dots you see compared to how many purple dots you see. But research published this week in Science shows that such a determination may not be as simple as we first assume. In fact, this deceptively simple task may tell us a great deal about how we form our judgements and that such determinations may not follow hard and fast rules. Concepts like ‘threat’ and even colour may be circumstantial.

Researchers took non-colour blind participants and asked them to identify blue dots from a field of 1000 dots ranging from extremely blue to extremely purple. The researchers then reran the test, the first 200 times the participants were shown the same ratio of blue to purple dots. After the 200th trial though, the researchers gradually reduced the number of blue dots.

What the researchers found was that by the end of the study participants had changed their idea of what constituted ‘blue’by identifying dots that they believed to be purple at the start of the tests to be blue by the end of testing. The researchers then re-ran the trial with a more complex judgement.

Researchers switched the test to represent a more complex judgement (Science)

For the next series of tests, subjects were asked to identify threatening faces from a series of expressions ranging from friendly to menacing. Again after the first 200 tests the number of threatening faces was reduced. What the researchers found was that faces that were initially considered non-threatening began to be identified as such by the end of the testing.

What made these tests particularly interesting was that even when researchers forewarned the participants that the number of blue dots would be reduced, they found the same shift in judgement took place. The shift in judgement to classify shades of purple as blue even when the researchers took the quite remarkable step of offering participants cash to keep their judgement consistent!

This research may have profound implications with regards to how we, as a species, view the world around us. The authors of the study believe that it implies that the research indicates why we tend to hold pessimistic views of the current events. As issues such as illiteracy and child poverty are eliminated, they believe that smaller issues begin to seem more pressing.

Floating Robot Brain Heads to the International Space Station.

CIMON a robot assistant or the crew of the ISS is on its way to the space station

Whilst researchers on Earth concern themselves with human brains, a floating ball-shaped robot with a computer brain programmed by IBM has begun its journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN (CIMON) which is described as a “flying brain” by Manfred Jaumann, head of microgravity payloads at Airbus, blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Friday abroad SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon cargo capsule. The package, also containing food and water, will dock at the ISS on Monday.

“Right now our main mission is to support the astronauts with their daily tasks to save time because time is the most valuable and most expensive thing on the ISS,” IBM engineer Matthias Biniok told Reuters.

CIMON’s activation represents the culmination of two years of research and design and the commencement of an experiment to see if astronauts and AI assistants can collaborate on space missions. The unit which weighs 5kg and floats thanks to 14 fan units is programmed to respond to the voice and face of Alexander Gerst, 42, a geophysicist with the European Space Agency. When Gerst calls to CIMON it senses his location acoustically and jets its way to him.

If it starts whistling ‘Daisy Daisy’ turn it off and on again…

The robot, built with metal and plastic using 3D printing allows astronauts to communicate hands-free via short voice commands. The experiment is far more than a floating smartphone in space though. The robot is designed to guide Gerst through a series of increasingly complex procedures. Gerst can ask the robot questions about the procedure beyond the instructions and a team can monitor Gerst’s actions via a video link.

Three experiments are currently planned, one using crystals, one with a Rubik’s cube and finally, a medical experiment in which CIMON will be employed as a flying camera. Beyond this CIMON has the capacity to learn and it is hoped that it will eventually be able to respond to a wide range of emergency situations.

The material between star systems in the Milky Way may be rich in ‘grease-like’ organic molecules

New research indicates that ‘grease-like’ aliphatic carbon molecules may be more abundant in interstellar medium than previously believed


This week saw the relation of fairly big news regarding the discovery of organic molecules on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Whilst that was being announced another team comprised of astronomers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney (UNSW), and Ege University in Turkey announced that they had managed to synthesise material analogous to interstellar dust, the material that exists between star-systems, finding it to have some remarkable properties. The results from this experiment, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, estimate the amount of ‘space-grease’ in the Milky-Way, beyond the limits of our solar system.

Organic molecules are mainly comprised of carbon in rings or chains along with other elements like nitrogen and hydrogen. Even though there is some dispute over the abundances of such molecules in the universe, it is believed that only half of the universe’s carbon is found in its native form in stars, whilst the rest is locked up in two main forms,  grease-like chains (aliphatic molecules) and mothball-like rings (aromatic molecules).

The team simulated interstellar dust by recreating the outflow of carbon from carbon-rich stars in the lab by expanding a carbon-rich plasma into a vacuum at a low temperature. They then collected the expelled material and analysed it with a variety of techniques including spectroscopy and magnetic resonance.

Professor Tim Schmidt, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science in the School of Chemistry at UNSW Sydney, explains “Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars,”

From the results of this experiment, the team estimates that are roughly 100 aliphatic carbon molecules for every million hydrogen atoms. This means the abundance is far greater than estimated. Tens of billions of tonnes greater.

The team are quick to point out that this isn’t the kind of grease that you could eat and it’s not biological in nature. “Think of it more as like greasy soot,” Schmidt told CNN. “It’s not a pure substance, it’s not biological. It’s random, it’s not something that you want to eat. It would make things dirty like soot would.”

The team will now continue their research with the aim of estimating the amounts of aromatic materials in the interstellar medium. The ultimate challenge is to find how much complex carbon molecules would be available for the development of life in the development of young planets.

Think there’s anything major we’ve missed this week or have any suggestions for stories we should cover in next week’s dispatches leave a comment… Can anyone else hear whistling? Sounds like ‘A bicycle built for two’. I’m sure it’s nothing



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