Fly tricks: Early science films

Source: New Scientist

“(Percy Smith) made a gimcrack device made up of a see-saw and two old tin cans. The tin cans slowly filled up with water, and when it would reach the bottom, clunk! it fired the shutter of the camera. And using this extraordinary home-made piece of aparatus, Percy Smith made the very beautiful film, Birth of a Flower.”

“The acrobatic fly was a bit of a close-up film-make, rather than shot through a microscope. And what Percy did was to tie the fly down with a tiny piece of silk thread, and then just pass small objects to the fly. It looked as though the fly was juggling, and that is what the public saw. But in actual fact, Percy came to the conclusion that the fly was just doing what came naturally to it, i.e. trying to walk.”

(I was reading up on Charles Urban when I stumbled upon this film.)

Goodbye to “one best way” solutions

Marvin Minsky of the MIT Media Lab and MIT AI Lab has a very pragmatic approach to robotic engineering and artificial intelligence based on systematic redundancy. “I’ve never seen any mechanical device that actually shows any thought about reliability,” he says (4:40) and goes on to explain his approach (from 4:45):

“My theory is that there are lots of theories about how the brain works. And you can see some guy saying “I have a neural net theory about how to make a machine that’ll learn anything.” And this one has a statistical theory of how to learn anything. And this one says “I’m going to make a simulated evolution.” And this one says “I’m going to make a rule-based system.” And there are about 10 movements in AI that, since about 1980, have gotten some good results, but stopped making progress. And the reason is, everyone’s trying to find the best way to do something.

Well, what you want is something like this” (he shows his mechanical leg model) “where you have six pretty good ways of doing something, and if some of them don’t work maybe the other ones will.

… To me, we’re just big gadgets, and made out of lots of little gadgets. And the important thing is to figure out how to put them all together, not holistically, but reductionalistically, so that if anything breaks, something else will take over.”

Now, that’s a widely applicable approach, I’d say.

Say, Mr Minsky, are you the original Q?

(Thanks, Christian)

The switch

Hey, cool: What’s this? What does it do? What can you do with it? How does it work? What are its mechanical or physical properties?

Created by Vancouver Film School student Zack Mathew through the VFS Digital Character Animation program. For a short interview with Zack, visit The man behind the switch Recommended by ebd35 on Twitter

Brainstorming properties of the cube, the man and the film:

  • Objective: sweet tasty hard soft square cube shiny matte hollow solid magnetic static sticky suspended floating strong unmoving immobile vibrating delicate heavy light shut closed locked impenetrable inextricable identical
  • Subjective: interesting curious surprising attractive forbidden intriguing thrilling electrifying dangerous scary terrifying spooky
  • The man: curious bored day-dreaming surprised inquisitive attracted thrilled electrified intrigued playful cautious incautious hesitant adventurous fun-loving risk-taking terrified scared
  • The film: funny, amusing, well done!

To make a beeline for something

When you’re going straight and fast towards a goal you make a beeline for it. And do bees make beelines, too? They sure do. This is no mean feat, but it’s vitally important, because like the geese they’re on a knife-edge energy budget. The straighter their beelines, the less energy they expend. Get a buzz from the flight of this bumble bee, especially seconds 0:50-1:20.

From the BBC Earth YouTube Channel:

Amazing wildlife video explaining the fascinating technology behind some of the world’s greatest nature photography and how this technology can be used to help us learn more about the behaviour of animal species. Watch this video to learn more about the behaviour of the bumble bee, including its long flights at high speed and its unerring ability to fly in straight lines – Bee Lines! Great video from BBC wildlife show Animal Camera, hosted by Steve Leonard. Visit for all the latest animal news and wildlife videos and watch more high quality videos on the new BBC Earth YouTube channel here:

to make a beeline for sth – etw. schnurstracks anpeilen
no mean feat – keine geringe Leistung
knife-edge – Messerklinge
to expend energy – Energie verbrauchen
to get a buzz from sth. – sich v. etw. positiv anmachen lassen, etw. genießen

10 things you didn’t know about…

Mary Roach takes the cake with her TED presentation on “10 things you didn’t know about orgasm”. Did you know that paraplegics can have orgasms by stimulating parts of their body not typically connected with sexuality, just above their sense-deprived bodyparts? That embryos masturbate? Or that there is a woman who can have an orgasm by brushing her teeth? A very entertaining topic and talk!

I like Mary Roach’s reduced presentation: ten slides, each with a short phrase, white on black (and a few rivetting photos and a film thrown in). It goes wonderfully with her lively and natural delivery. She’s a natural-born presenter, so why have competing slides? Less, as almost always, is more. Critical body language note to self and others: Don’t walk around too much in front of audience, stand still!

We’ll be watching this talk at Morphosys this week (a course with about 6 or 7 students, half of them scientists, half lab technicians) and I’ll ask each participant to create a short individual presentation using the model “Ten things you didn’t know about…” on a topic of their choice.

PS: Update after the class: Things went quite differently. We wound up talking about the Danish government plan for happy pork – and animal farming in general – and then about sex research and reproductive medicine – and then collected 10 things you didn’t know about biotech. Having people do actual presentations at the end of a long, hard day when it’s as dark outside as if it were winter is no-go.

The language of bacteria

Yesterday at Morphosys we had an interesting discussion based on the TEDTalk by Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria “talk” to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks by recognizing “self” and “other”. I asked the course how she “hooks” her listeners, and they said one of her main hooks was turning bacteria into actors, humanizing them, giving them “a mind of their own”. One of the participants said this was dumbing down, and didn’t like this type of popularized talk. But it got us thinking: Do we think actively, or is our brain just producing a series of chemical processes? What is consciousness? How legitimate or important is it to make an essential distinction between various levels of complexity in living organisms? I went home and read up on the “philosophy of mind” and the “theory of mind“, and I’m going to take some discussion points related to what I’ve found out back to them the next time I see them.

I love TEDTalks precisely for the way the speakers manage to popularize their enormously complex research to reach an interested audience, a skill any scientist must learn in order to get out of his or her highly specialized daily work to speak to people from other related disciplines – and to people in business! Plus they are 18 minutes long, a length proven to be just about ideal to keep an audience’s attention (See John Medina: Brain Rules for public speaking). That makes them the best source for learning presentation skills currently available on the Internet. The questions we ask are: How is the talk structured? How does the speaker hook the audience to engage them and bridge the gap between generalists and specialists? What is the take-home message?

Mike Hogan posted an article on how teach with another TED presentation, this one by Richard St. John, on Ask Auntie Web.

Jill Tarter: A young science in an old universe

Writing something on astronomy for Spotlight (dort Englischlernen). Ever since, as a child, I sat gazing at the August night sky on Drummond Island with those “10 to the 22” (=10 hoch 22) stars above me, I’ve always loved them. Isn’t it marvellous to think that what you see up there is history, fossilized astronomy, that what you see is sparkling at you from the past? I thoroughly enjoyed this talk by Jill Tarter (thank you, twittering thebirdsword !)

It’s the 400th anniversary of of Gallileo’s first use of the telescope, and the 50th year of SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – as a science. And the Kepler Mission, seeking planets similar to Earth, is due to launch on 6 March.