Stories tagged computer science

It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
Today,
"Kelly Ward, senior software engineer for Walt Disney Animation Studios, was tasked with bringing Rapunzel's locks to life in Disney's new movie, Tangled. The hair had to look realistic, but not too real -- otherwise Rapunzel would be towing 80 pounds behind her."
Sep
17
2009

A memorial statue of Alan Turing
A memorial statue of Alan TuringCourtesy Kurt Seebauer
This has been in the news recently, but it didn’t occur to me until just now that it really has a place on Science Buzz.

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science. He developed some of the earliest computers, and created the very first designs for a “stored-program” computer (a computer that keeps data and instructions inside of it, as opposed to one that required the operator to input every step.)

He was also interested in artificial intelligence, and proposed an experiment called the Turing test, meant to determine if a machine was truly intelligent. (Basically, a computer that could fool a human into thinking that he or she was talking with another person would pass the Turing test.)

Turing was also a code breaker, which is where the “war hero” part comes in. The day after the United Kingdom entered World War 2, Alan Turing went to work for the Government Code and Cypher School, an organization meant to break enemy codes. At GCCS, Turing and his colleagues developed automatic code breaking machines to decipher the elaborately encrypted messages of the Axis forces.

Turing’s work in collecting German military secrets through code breaking has been said to have shortened WWII by as much as two years, saving thousands of lives.

Alan Turing was also gay, and when he admitted this to the police after his home was broken into, he was charged with “gross indecency,” a law that essentially made homosexuality a criminal offense. Turing was given the choice of going to prison or accepting probation on the condition that he undergo chemical castration. Chemical castration involves the administration of drugs that change the subject’s hormone balance. This can cause the loss of sexual drive, as well as loss of hair, and muscle and bone density.

Two years after his conviction, Alan Turing killed himself.

It was a pretty awful way to treat someone who had contributed so much to the peace and safety of the world, as well as to the revolutionary discipline of computer science. This month the British government finally issued an apology to Alan Turing, acknowledging the scientist’s great contributions to humankind, as well as the shameful way he had been treated by his own government.

So there you go. Let’s not let it happen again.

Feb
16
2009

Evolutionary trees like the one Charles Darwin scribbled to illustrate his epiphany are still used today to help biologists understand and communicate the diversity of life. Like Darwin and his contemporaries, today’s evolutionary biologists are part of an ongoing effort to figure out how Earth's many species are related. As new tools help biologists to analyze evolutionary relationships, the tree of life changes and grows ever more complex.

How will biologists today and in the future to organize all of this information? No one knows for sure - but a number of computer scientists and software designers are taking a crack at it! In collaboration with biologists designers are creating programs that will allow researchers to share and search through enormous amounts of taxonomical information. Some programs, like UC Davis's paloverde, take cues from familiar web tools like WIkipedia and Google Earth, allowing users to search the tree of life from various perspectives and distances.

Beyond making research more accessible to scientists and the public, software tools like this will help scientists around the world work together in new ways - developing new medicines to treat constantly evolving diseases, new products and processes that take into account changing ecosystems, and to understand biodiversity on a local and global scale.

The potential of these tools is as big as the imagination of the designers and engineers behind them - what kind of tool would you create to help organize the tree of life?