Computer Programmer Aims To Help Novice Sports Broadcasters

Relax sports broadcasters – robots aren’t coming for your job. At least not yet.

“The human aspect is important,” said Greg Lee, a recent Ph.D. graduate in computer science from the University of Alberta. Mr. Lee recounted how, while watching baseball on TV, he stumbled upon Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame sportscaster now in his 59th season as the voice of the L.A. Dodgers.

“In addition to keeping you up to date on the score of the game, he drops in little tidbits about the players and will tell stories from past games,” he said. This got the self-described baseball fan thinking about how he could use his programming background to help rookie sportscasters lacking Mr. Scully’s deep knowledge of statistics and anecdotes.

The Sports Commentary Recommendation System (SCoReS) was the result. Mr. Lee said the program monitors game statistics in real time, matching those numbers to a compendium of pre-loaded stories. If a broadcaster finds they are running out of material, SCoReS provides a story related to what’s happing in on the field.

Here’s an example. Say it’s late April and a batter on the Mets just hit two home runs. SCoReS scans its database and pulls up a story about New York Mets All-Star Keith Hernandez, who did the very same thing on April 26, 1988. As the colorful (but probably apocryphal) story goes, following the game Hernandez said, “I should get a divorce every day. I’d be broke, but I’d be in the Hall of Fame.”

I spoke with Mr. Lee about the development of SCoReS.

Hear an excerpt from our interview –

What makes for a good sports commentator?

To me, particularly in baseball, what makes a good commentator is when the action is slow, which is fairly often – especially in regular season games – they fill up that time with stories from baseball’s rich past.

When you start to design a computer program to replicate that, what are some of the first things you do?

It’s capturing what’s important about a game and a story. We call those features. What features of the current game – what numbers describe it succinctly? And the same for a story. That was a big first step – how were we going to to relate the two things? How are we going to model the problem? And that’s not a simple task.

For the game features – we mostly went with what was available from Major League Baseball’s online live updated site. For the stories, I must mention one of the books we used was Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. He does an excellent job of getting more details on the story than what people have usually heard.

How many people did you test this on?

In total, 264 test subjects.

And you showed them Triple-A Baseball games?

Yeah, we were able to get rights to minor league baseball games. The International League provided the 2009 Triple-A All-Star game. Also, the Buffalo Bisons and Syracuse Chiefs were nice enough to let me use footage from one of their games.

Can you describe what the testing process for SCoReS was like? 

We played games with just crowd noise, games with their original commentary, and games with the original commentary plus a SCoReS selected story added in. We tried to see which clip they liked more. So subjects would sit there with a pencil and paper, watch the clips and answer the same questions for each one – how much did they enjoy it? What did they learn? Did it make them want to watch baseball more?

You also demonstrated SCoReS to professional commentators?

I had SCoReS serve up stories to them and just asked, would you tell this story at all?

Did the commentators suggest any tweaks?

Yeah. All of them did hockey commentary at one time or another. I’m in Canada, so that’s not too surprising. They said the stories are too long for hockey because the action is so much faster. There is the time between whistles, but we need faster stories, they told me. I designed it for baseball because I thought it was most applicable there, but I don’t see any reason it would’t be applicable to other sports. You just need a few tweaks and then it should work.

Looking forward – talk about the future of automated sports broadcasting. I know some news outlets already use automated reporting systems, but where do you see all this stuff going?

I don’t see play-by-play and color commentators being replaced by computers. I suppose you could get sufficiently good voice generation that it would sound real, but the human aspect is important. Going into this project my goal was never to replace anybody. It was to help. Particularly commentators who didn’t have a lot of stories to tell. I mean, if you’re just starting out – if you’re young – you don’t have as many stories as an 85-year-old who’s been doing it for 50 years. I would hope that soon you could have these stories recommended to color commentators and they could tell them.

In the future, I don’t see much changing in terms of human play-by-play and color commentators. I would personally hope, as a baseball fan, that’s the way it stays. That’s what I enjoy. I assume other people do as well.


Science: How Furry Animals Get Dry

Using high-speed video cameras, hoses, and a healthy dose of bravery, David Hu’s lab is studying the science behind how wet animals get dry.

The team sampled everything from mice to dogs and even took a trip to a zoo in Atlanta, where they sprayed down a bear and watched how it dried off. “My grad student had the pleasure of going into the animal cages with a hose and a high speed camera,” joked Mr. Hu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Getting dry quickly is critical in the wild, Mr. Hu said. If a wet animal can’t dry itself it could face hypothermia.

Flickr Creative Commons, Fountain_Head

After studying the tapes of 33 different animals, Mr. Hu’s lab found the most effective shakers were mice, which dried off by shaking at a rate of 30 times per second. That’s enough energy to throw water with a force equivalent to about 70 times standard Earth gravity. Humans, by contrast, can only move their heads back and forth about twice per second.

“Imagine coming out of your shower and pressing this button and getting 70 percent dry in a tenth of a second.” Mr. Hu explained. “[Mice] get instantaneously get dry.”

Dogs, on average, took about three-quarters of a second to dry off. Mr. Hu said most animals gave about three shakes to get rid of excess water and that all animals closed their eyes while shaking, potentially to prevent damage to their retinas due to the high forces involved.

Mr. Hu’s team also noted the loose skin on furry animals helps increase the amplitude – and thereby efficiency – of a good shake.

“For many years evolutionary biologists had noticed that all furry animals have loose skin, but no one had known why,” Mr. Hu said.

The practical applications for studying shaking animals could be wide-ranging. Mr. Hu’s lab is working to implement their findings into robotics, where autonomous cleaning devices could potentially shake and clear the dust off the solar panels attached to a stalled rover on the surface of Mars or another planet.

Mr. Hu said he comes from a mechanical engineering background, but he’s always been fascinated by biology. Today, his lab focuses on natural ways animal repel water. And while a graduate student at MIT, he worked to build a robot mimicking the way a water strider moves across the surface of a lake.

“I think that was sort of a formative experience for me.” Mr. Hu said. “Seeing that there’s so much low-lying fruit in nature. If we want to build better devices that can tackle all this different terrain, nature’s already done it. We just need to figure out how she did it.”

For more, check out an epic-slow-motion video of shaking mammals at Nature Magazine.

Booyah Achieved

Told myself in April I’d like to get something published in The New York Times this year.

Well, hello.






Achieving goals feels good, Internet.

Find A Mate: How Search Changes The Way We Find Love

We all know the Internet has made it easier to shop for cars and plane tickets, but what about love?

“People who are looking for the Jewish, Hindi-speaking, mountain climbing vegetarians, they need the Internet,” said Michael Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University who surveyed more than 4,000 Americans and quantified who benefits the most from searching dating sites.

According to Mr. Rosenfeld’s survey, online dating is now the second most popular way couples meet. In 2010 and 2011, 21 percent of heterosexual and 61 percent of same-sex couples reported meeting online. And while online search has grown in popularity, almost all the traditional ways of meeting potential partners – church, work, school, and neighborhood – were in decline.

I spoke with Mr. Rosenfeld about his study and how Internet searches are changing the way we find love. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. (As always, full audio is below.)

Tell me the objective of this study.

We started out with the goal of trying to figure out how Americans meet their romantic partners and whether the way Americans meet partners has changed over time. We thought there would be good data out there already about this, since it’s something sociologists are generally interested in. But it turns out there wasn’t.

So you collected and encoded 3,000 “how you met” stories.

Which took us a while. But eventually, we got a picture of how Americans meet their partners and we stratified it by when they had met.

We were able to figure that people who met in the mid-20th century were much more likely to have met through family. In the post-1950s era, friends replaced family as the number one way couples met. That’s actually still true today. Friends are still the number one way people meet.

But in the past 15 years, there has also been this really interesting rise in the Internet. The Internet is now the number two way people meet their partners. About 21 percent of heterosexual couples who met in the past two years met online. For same-sex couples, it is about 61 percent. Same-sex couples are dramatically more likely to meet online and we found that kind of surprising.

Did you find that romantic relationships forged online were of any different quality than those forged offline?

A lot of critics of social media argue that online relationships are superficial compared to face-to-face relationships. Of course, in our data everyone has a face-to-face relationship. But the question is this: are the relationships that start online more fly-by-night? Are they hookups, rather than serious relationships? It turns out that there is no difference. People who meet online are just as likely to stay together and just as likely to say they are happy with the relationship as people who meet through friends or family.

Why do you think same-sex couples turning to online dating in such high numbers?

Individuals who are gay and lesbian have a fundamental search problem. One woman told us she lived in a southern state, realized she was gay, visited a gay bar and the one left-leaning, progressive, pro-gay church she knew and didn’t find anybody in either of those two places. She figured she would have to resign herself to being without a partner because there wasn’t anybody. But then she discovered online dating and realized she could search for people in her zip code. Suddenly, it became dramatically easier to find potential partners.

The same is true for single heterosexuals in their late-30s and 40s. This is another thin dating market because heterosexuals in this group are almost all partnered. The rate of partnership is about 85 percent, which means only 15 percent of the heterosexuals in those age groups are single. Again, it’s not always easy to figure out who is single and who isn’t. So we discovered that it turns out among heterosexuals, it’s the middle-aged people who are the most likely to date online.

Was that surprising?

I sort of expected, when I started, that the heterosexuals who would be most likely to date online would be young adults. I have these kids in my classes at Stanford and it’s hard to get them to put the laptop and the phone down.  I figured these people would be dating online because they are always online, but it turns out that is not true. Because they are in a rich market for partners, because they have single people all around them, they don’t date online. They can always find somebody. They are bumping into people all day. And that sort of suggests that for people who have lots of options in the old face-to-face networking world that’s around them, they prefer the face-to-face. And that maybe meeting online is kind of a second choice for people for whom the face-to-face options are not as good.

Sling On: Scientist Sees Future In Space Tethers

Robert Hoyt dreams that one day the International Space Station (ISS) won’t need fuel to stay in orbit.

“When you consider that launching one kilogram into orbit costs about $20,000 and that the [International Space] Station needs something on the order of ten tons of propellant per year, that can add up to hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars over the lifetime of the station,” Mr. Hoyt said.

Hoyt is the CEO and chief scientist for Tethers Unlimited, Inc., a research firm located near Seattle, Wash. His company is working to craft a system of space tethers to propel the ISS away from the Earth without burning any chemicals.

“What we are trying to design is sort of like an orbital tugboat,” Mr. Hoyt said.

That tugboat works because when an electrically charged wire passes through the Earth’s magnetic field, it generates energy. Hoyt wants to control that energy, feeding it through a series of extremely tough, thin wires attached to the ISS. The design is kind of like a long, sparse net, Hoyt said. Multiple tethers placed far apart mean the system is engineered to withstand inevitable tears from a space tether’s mortal enemy — debris or micrometeor impacts.

This week, Hoyt’s company received a Small Business Innovation Grant from NASA to continue their tether design work for the ISS. I spoke with Mr. Hoyt about his designs and the history of space tether experimentation. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. (Fuller version, as always, in the audio below.)

What is a space tether?
A space tether is basically a long wire or string deployed from a spacecraft that can be used to move spacecraft around in orbit without burning up propellent. If the string has high strength you can tie two spacecraft together, enabling one spacecraft to fling another into a different orbit. If the tether contains a conductive wire, then you can drive currents along the wire and those currents will interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, producing forces you can use those to raise or lower the orbit of the spacecraft.

Electrodynamic propulsion …
We are working on several different uses of electrodynamic propulsion. One of them is called the Terminator Tether, which uses a wire or a conductive tape deployed from a spacecraft to drag it down from orbit after it’s completed its mission. The idea is to reduce the buildup of space debris.

That seems very marketable. Has it been tested in space?
We haven’t yet gotten to demonstrate it in space. We started developing that about 14 years ago and at that point we were probably about 14 or 15 years ahead of the market. There wasn’t a real requirement for deorbit at that time. But over the past few years, NASA and other organizations have started to take stronger steps to make sure we don’t contribute to the growth of space debris. Space programs are starting to be required to take care of “end of mission” disposal. So we are seeing renewed interest in the concept, but it’s an unconventional technology and the space industry tends to be very leery of new technologies because it costs so much to get stuff up into orbit.

On Wednesday (July 17), your company received a SBIR grant from NASA to continue work on design plans for a tether system on the International Space Station. What is it you are trying to do?
What we are trying to design is sort of like an orbital tugboat. It would be another small spacecraft that would be deployed from the space station and remain connected to it by a long tether or cable. That tugboat would use the cable to generate propulsion forces, driving currents along the tether to push against the earth’s magnetic field. [Trivia - this repulsion works due to the Lorentz Force]

Where would you get the power to drive the current?
We’d probably use solar panels on the orbital tugboat to drive the current along the tether. There might be power available on the space station but we are not going to rely on that.

Do you have an elevator pitch for NASA about why we should do this?
Right now, NASA has to rely on the Russian and European Space Agency to launch several fuel tankers up to the International Space Station every year to provide it the propellent it needs to stay in orbit. As a result, a significant amount of NASA’s budget is being used to subsidize this instead of being spent on funding work in the United States.

We are hoping to develop a way of providing the propulsion the station needs to stay in orbit without continually burning up propellent. Then we can reduce the cost that NASA needs to bear to maintain the International Space Station.

How much money could this potentially save?
It could save huge amounts of money. When you consider that launching one kilogram into orbit costs about $20,000 and that the station needs something on the order of ten tonnes of propellant per year  - that can add up to hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars over the lifetime of the station.

In terms of what Tethers Unlimited is presenting to NASA – how far along in the process are you with them? And how soon, if everything went well, could this become part of the International Space Station?
What we are working on now is a preliminary design and feasibility study. I have to make it clear that NASA upper management hasn’t made any decision to use this on the station or even fund a test fight. What we are trying to do now is develop a credible design and show that it would be affordable to do a demonstration flight on another test vehicle. We need to show that the technology works. And then if it does work, hopefully within a few years we could put the system in place on the International Space Station. We are hoping to put together a design for a flight experiment that we could carry out probably about three or three-and-a-half years from now.

Tell me about some other tether experiments that paved the way for your current work.
In 1993 NASA flew an experiment called the Plasma Motor Generator Experiment, which deployed a half-kilometer long conducting electrodynamic tether. The experiment demonstrated that you could flow currents up and down the tether and make electrical connection to the conducting plasma that is in the earth’s ionosphere.

Unfortunately, most people only heard about an experiment that flew twice on the Space Shuttle and ran into issues both times. [Here’s video from the second Space Shuttle mission (STS-75), which was widely circulated by UFO enthusiasts.]

Beyond that there have been a number of other tether experiments that flew and were highly successful. The most recent one was an experiment called T-Rex that the Japanese Space Agency flew on a suborbital rocket about a year or year and a half ago. That demonstrated deployment of a conducting tape and that they could make electrical contact with the ionosphere and flow current through it. So the basic physics of electrodynamic tethers have been proven. We’ve shown that it can work, but what we still need to do is show that we can produce enough thrust to controllably move a spacecraft around or keep a large system like the International Space Station in orbit.

Do you think there has been a stigma attached to the technology since the Space Shuttle incident that you mentioned? It just didn’t work and it was kind of a high profile case.
Yeah. Unfortunately, most people have not heard of the many tether experiments that worked perfectly, they’ve only heard about two on the shuttle that didn’t go perfectly. So we do constantly have to address the common perception that tethers are problematic. But if you look at the early history of the the development of rocket systems, most of those early systems blew up or went off course.

But the organizations developing them kept investing in them and were able to get them to where they are highly reliable. Although they do still occasionally have incidents. Tether technology is still in its infancy. We’ve had a number of successes, we’ve had some missteps. But with further investment and hard work we think we can get it to the point where it can be a reliable propulsion system.

Robert Hoyt is CEO and Chief Scientist of Tethers Unlimited, Inc., located in Bothell, Wash.

Project Icarus Plans For Interstellar Travel By 2100

Andreas Tziolas spends a lot of his time thinking about how we can go to the stars.

As a child in Greece, he became obsessed with Star Trek. Every Sunday at 7 A.M., he would flip on the TV and marvel while Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock zipped across the galaxy, bouncing from star system to star system.

“I never missed an episode,” Mr. Tziolas said.

Today, Mr. Tziolas and about 50 other volunteers are working to build their own version of the USS Enterprise under the auspices of Icarus Interstellar and Project Icarus. Their mission is to send an unmanned, fusion-powered probe to Alpha Centauri by 2100.

According to Tziolas, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Icarus Interstellar is full of highly qualified scientists willing to slog through the countless math and design questions presented by an interstellar mission.

” I don’t think interstellar travel isn’t feasible, it just requires dedication,” Mr. Tziolas said.

Prior to becoming Project Lead at Icarus, Mr. Tziolas worked on the Mars Express/Beagle-2 mission to Mars. He holds multiple degrees in physics, gravitation and cosmology. Other members of Icarus Interstellar include Vinton Cerf, Vice President at Google and co-inventor of the architecture and basic protocols of the Internet.

I spoke with Mr. Tziolas about the mission of Project Icarus and what we could expect to gain from an interstellar mission.

What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Listen to the entire interview below.

Why should we be going to the stars?

Because we can. Recently, over the last 30 years, we have been developing the technology and physics that would allow us to go to another star. As a civilization, we are at a stage where we can pursue this avenue of thought. As a culture we have the responsibility to create the opportunity for our race to survive in space and perhaps on other planets and solar systems. Although the possibilities are small, there’s still a chance that Earth can fall pety to a global catastrophic event. So number one reason is to preserve the survival of our race.

A kind of backup plan?

That’s what my argument pertains to. There are other reasons. The need for exploration is a strong motivator. The technology we would develop in the duration of pursuing such a program would project us into a completely new realm of thought and give us a new technological baseline. It would change completely the way our life on earth would look. There’s also the never-ending question of whether we are alone in the universe. If we don’t start reaching out to other stars, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

How long might it take to reach the nearest star?

The best we could do using current technologies – like fusion – would get us to Alpha Centauri with deceleration in about 50 years. And that’s the best case scenario.

Explain what you mean when you say deceleration. That’s unique to this project, right? I know there’s been projects before like Project Daedalus, which wanted to do a fly-by of a star and they’d zip by at like 10 percent of light speed, take a few snapshots and that’d be it. But this is different, you actually want to slow down and orbit the star?

Exactly. Project Daedalus proved for the first time that interstellar flight was possible. Their objective was to put together the physics, do the hard math and devise the mission profile that would allow us to travel to another star in the first place. All they were trying to do was get there and the encounter time with the target star (Barnard’s Star) was only about a week-and-a-half. Now that we are redesigning the mission, we are taking on some broader challenges and trying to answer more difficult questions. The first is what is the tangible scientific outcome?

The only way to maximize the science is to decelerate the spacecraft on arrival and engage in a multi-year target solar system study. If we used Alpha Centauri, for instance, we are considering landers, orbiters, and penetrators that would do some subsurface work as well as a system of telecommunication relays to facilitate further missions. We’re hoping [Icarus] would create a base station.

So that’s when we get there. But what about the trip out there? We are talking about a journey which may be 100 years. That’s longer than the history of the space program. How do you upkeep the ship on its journey?

There are several philosophies for approaching this. One is build it so that it doesn’t fail. Build it with enough redundancies so that you can assure a 99.99 percent success rate on arrival. A hundred years is probably not even that bad in terms of a journey. Voyager has been working for almost 50 years already. We are getting to a point where we can amass enough statistical information from existing missions to say there is a valid case to keeping these things operating.

But we are designing a starship so we do indulge in using some more far out concepts. One of them is developing viable machine intelligence that would run Icarus. This would be a network of computers and sensors and decision making processes that continuously assesses the current state of the spacraft and decides whether something needs replacement.

We would need something very clever. We want to make sure that when the Icarus ship decelerates at Alpha Centauri, if there is a derelict alien spacecraft in orbit we want to make sure it doesn’t just ignore it.

How do you program for that? How do you give Icarus eyeballs?

There are certain types of structures and certain types of elements that are common in solar systems that you expect to see. Anything that has a shape that doesn’t conform with the geometry you expect in a certain place is definitely a curiosity. Say there is a survey of asteroid belt objects and one of the objects there is perfectly spherical. It’s probably either a small planet or if it is of a certain size and metallic than perhaps it is a structure of some type.

It’s obvious you are passionate about this. When did you get interested in the question of interstellar flight?

[laughs] I grew up in Greece. I remember being a fanatic Star Trek fan. It used to be on Sunday mornings at 7 o’clock. It was amazing to me that none of my friends caught it, but they probably didn’t because it was on at 7 o’clock in the morning. But I never missed an episode.

When I was growing up, I had the notion in my mind that if we want this to happen – that this is a future I would like for my children – then someone has to start pushing. Someone has to dedicate their life to the hard work and solve all these problems. I don’t think interstellar travel isn’t feasible, it just requires dedication.

There is a very dedicated community when it comes to this stuff. I’m wondering if NASA or mainstream academia – if we want to use that term – addresses interstellar travel. I think I remember back in the late 1990s Dan Goldin, who was one of the NASA administrators, said we need to send a robotic probe somewhere. And then it just sort of fizzled out.  Are places like NASA or Harvard working on things like this? Or is there just not the interest?

People have these interests, but the funding isn’t there to support the research. When the funding isn’t there, you have to move on to something that can sustain you. As the funding moves around, people’s interests move around. Recently, we’ve been very fortunate that there’s a massive drive toward exoplanet searches. We’ve got Kepler and a lot of ground based telescopes doing planetary transit studies looking for exoplanets.

Thousands are being detected, many of which are terrestrial planets. When we detect a terrestrial planet with a nitrogen oxygen atmosphere. Is there any doubt in your mind that there would be interest and the funding to pursue interstellar flight? I mean this is another world, potentially. When that happens we believe we will see a shift toward interstellar exploration and Icarus will be there having done a lot of work. A lot of the people that are working for NASA that already have very good ideas, many universities, a lot of independent researchers from all over the world will come together to contribute toward this grand plan.

Explain the name Project Icarus.

Project Icarus was the follow up to Project Daedalus. Mythologically, Daedalus was Icarus’s father. Daedalus was a great inventor that created these wings out of feathers and wax and he constructed them so that he could escape Minas’ labyrinth, which is where the minotaur was being held. Icarus flew too close to the sun on these wings and in doing that he fell to the ocean and was never seen again.

There are two takes on this myth. One is that Daedalus played it safe. He didn’t test the limits of the technology, but Icarus was continually pushing the limitations of the technology and identified a flaw. The next time those wings would be designed that flaw would be identified and the machine would be improved on. That is almost exactly what Project Icarus is doing right now. We are identifying the flaws in Daedalus design and improving it.

In terms of Icarus’ “failure,” I like putting a personal twist on that – and I’m inspired by so many Hollywood movies and sequels – I believe Icarus didn’t fall to the ocean and perish. He washed up on a Greek island somewhere. He reflected on what happened and after searching for his father in the skies, decided he was going to build another pair of wings for himself that would be stronger and better and he would soar to the heavens and reach his destination on his own.

Yes, Teleportation Exists. No, You Can’t Watch It Happen.

If you work a lot, you’ve probably fantasized about getting up from your desk, stepping into a teleporter, and magically appearing on a warm tropical island.

It’d be the ultimate lunch break – sandwiches on a beach, thousands of miles from your cluttered cubicle.

Let’s start with the bad news. Christopher Monroe, fellow at the University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute, says that idyllic getaway will probably never happen. People are made of too much stuff. A human has about 10²⁷ atoms in their body. A teleporter would need to map double that number to work (since both you and your “copy” would need to get stored).

“I don’t even know how to think about such a big number,” Mr. Monroe said. “That’s the problem, we’ll never be able to deal with such amounts of information.”

But don’t lose hope. Surprisingly, teleportation is already here. Scientists call it “quantum entanglement” and Mr. Monroe accomplished it in his basement lab a few years ago, when his team successfully transmitted information between two atoms about a meter apart. Monroe said his team couldn’t watch the teleportation as it happened because if they did, it wouldn’t happen. (Quantum mechanics is weird like that and Mr. Monroe explains the details below.)

And there’s even more good news, while Star Trek teleporters may never work, quantum entanglement is already opening up exciting horizons for high-speed quantum computing. Listen to the entire interview below.

What follows is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Mr. Monroe.

One of the things you work on at your lab is quantum computing. Explain what that is.

A quantum computer is a very speculative idea right now. The basic idea is pretty revolutionary – it has numbers stored in quantum states and the neat thing about quantum states is that they can be in several states at the same time. So you can store numbers in parallel with one device. This is revolutionary because we don’t experience anything like that in the real world – things being in two places at the same time, for instance. But quantum mechanics allows that.

Compare that to a binary computer that is out there now …

Well, quantum computers are also binary. But you know that we currently encode information in zeroes and ones. That’s the most basic way to do it. We do this in quantum systems also, but the difference is we can have a transistor that has zero and one stored at the same time.

For instance, in two bits, there are four numbers you can store simultaneously (0-0, 0-1, 1-0 ,and 1-1).

Now if you have 300 bits, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but you can store two to the power of 300 at the same time. What makes that fairly interesting is that that number is more than the number of fundamental particles in the universe. The entire universe. So even with 300 bits you can, in a sense, store more information than could ever be stored in the universe using conventional computers like the ones we use now.

So what are the steps you are doing in your research right now to realize that goal? I mean, the ultimate goal is to build this quantum computer that can do all this super stuff, but how close are we to that?

Yeah, well everything I’ve said sort of comes with a catch. Quantum systems are very exotic. They need to be shielded from everything because this idea of superposition – this idea of having multiple things there at the same time – that only works as long as you’re not looking. That’s a little weird. A computer’s no good if you can’t look at it eventually. So a quantum computer is sort of in the dark – it’s doing it’s parallel computation and then at the end of the day, you have to look at the device.

When you say the atoms are computing – does this mean they are entangled? They are somehow related to one another?

Yeah. Computing is a pretty broad term. We take the simple road and describe only 2 levels inside the atom. A and B if you want. That describes our “bit.” We call it a quantum bit. In the community they are called qubits. Each atom is a qubit.

You mentioned the world entanglement. Entanglement is something that comes about when you make superposition states of multiple qubits. Like if we have two qubits, exactly two. We can make a superposition of them both being in the state A and both being in the state B at the same time. So in that way, they are correlated – in a sense. That’s called entangled.

What’s interesting is this property of entanglement can persist over very long distances. You could have one atom in Hartford, Conn. and the other atom in Fairfield, Conn. and they could be still entangled even though there is no physical wire connecting them. This lack of a wire is what computers need. You know the hookup problem? When you make computers faster and smaller, but it’s very difficult to wire them together …quantum mechanics sort of gives us that wire, without the wire.

And this is sort of where the world teleportation comes in. I know one of the things you were saying to me before I started recording was that it’s a big word that’s often associated with Star Trek and kind of destroying a person and then rebuilding them. Can you explain what teleportation means in the context that you guys are using it?

Sure. It’s actually a very important concept. Unfortunately, it’s clouded by people thinking that it works for large systems like people. Teleporting people. And I’ll get to why that’s probably never going to happen. I mean, people have way too many atoms in them for this to work. Remember I mentioned if you only had 300 atoms  – and that’s a pretty tiny chunk of matter — with only 300 atoms it is very, very difficult.

So teleportation – it sort of describes what actually happens in the laboratory. In a teleportation process, what we are doing is we are not moving the atom itself. We’re not moving any mass from one place to another We are moving the information contained in that matter. What’s interesting about that concept is that it sort of calls into question what we mean by reality. This sounds sort of philosophical – it’s funny that math and physics bring you down to philosophy, but in quantum mechanics, that’s true.

The idea is we have two identical atoms – again, my example, one in Hartford and one in Fairfield – and they’re identical. The one in Hartford is prepared in a particular state. It’s in general, a superposition of both its states – zero and one or heads and tails. And remember that only works if you don’t look at it. So you have to sort of keep that in the dark. And our task is we’d like to move that state – whatever it is – we’d like to move it down to Fairfield. Without touching it, destroying it or looking at it.

Teleportation does that. In the sense, it moves the essence of that atom from Hartford to Fairfield without destroying it, but the atom itself never moved. What allows this to happen is that these two atoms are previously entangled and that wiring allows this to work. We did this in the laboratory [at the Joint Quantum Institute].. Not hundred miles apart, but a couple of meters apart on a single table. Nevertheless, the atoms were very far apart.

Now when you think of Spock going through the teleporter in Star Trek, the one thing they have missing is that if he’s on the planet and he needs to be teleported up to the ship – there’s nothing there in the ship. There have to be a bunch of atoms that represent Spock up in the ship, but these atoms are not encoded with the information that allow us to recognize them as Spock. There’s some lump of atoms. It’s probably kind of messy looking. Like Jell-O or something.

So … I’m disappointed.

(laughs) Well, talk about big numbers. Spock has 10²⁷ atoms in him. So that means they could be in two to the 10²⁷ states. So that amount of information is just … I don’t even know how to think about such a big number. So that’s the problem, we’ll never be able to deal with such amounts of information.

When you are doing this teleportation in your lab – transmitting information from one atom to another – is anything destroyed in the process? Do you get 100 percent fidelity or is it always less than that?

Always less than that. It’s about 90 percent, which is OK. But, you know, if you do it with two of them it will be probably 81 percent. If you do it with 300 of them, it will be probably zero. (laughs). Those exponentials get small very fast. So things are definitely not perfect and we need a lot of work. We’d like to have 99.99 percent fidelity. It turns out once you get beyond a certain threshold, there are some tricks you can play that allow it to be nearly perfect. We’re not there yet. No technology is there yet. This is why it’s going to take a few decades. There’s a lot of engineering that has to happen.

It must be kind of fun working on the fringe of physics, right?

(laughs) Yeah. And the neat thing is … look, we don’t really understand why quantum mechanics is the way it is. Einstein spent his whole life refuting it and he lost. So, you know where are we to stand if he wasn’t able to figure this out? I mean, look – I play with lasers and optics. I’m a knob turner. I build electronics. But at the end of the day, the last one percent of my work is really out-there stuff that makes us confront the nature of reality. So yeah, it’s pretty cool.

Thanks @ChionWolf, For Reminding Me How Awesome This Animation Is

By the way, Chion Wolf is pretty awesome too.

David Blankenhorn & The Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage

Mark Oppenheimer broke this story about David Blankenhorn changing his views on gay marriage. I produced the piece.

Blankenhorn described his switch in a New York Times Op-Ed, but if you have time, I’d encourage you to check out the full WNPR interview.

There’s something in his voice that doesn’t translate in print.

Some relevant cuts:

We’ve been fighting about gay marriage for 10 or 15 years now? Is there any evidence that fighting gay marriage is contributing to a greater appreciation among  the broad society of the marital institution? Is there any evidence that the re-institutionalization of marriage is happening as the result of opposing gay marriage? The best answer I can give to that is no. It is not. If anything, the opposite is happening.

I used to get mad when people would come up to me after talks and they would always wanna say — these gay and lesbian advocates– come up to me and show me pictures of their family, saying “I want to tell you that were just like ordinary people. You must think we have horns, but here’s a picture of my daughter.” That really used to bother me, because I felt like saying, “Do you want to see pictures of my children? Do you want me to tell you that I’m a good person?”  How am I supposed to respond to this? But now, in retrospect, I can kind of get the point a little bit. It’s the difference between knowing something and really knowing it.  I just don’t think I knew everything about it on the basis of personal relationships. This is the danger for intellectuals in general – they view the issue through the prism of words on a page by prominent people who’ve gotten book contracts and who are professors at universities  so it’s this kind of crystalline, kind of ideologically coherent argumentation. But you walk out the street, you bump into somebody – you don’t get ideologically coherent argumentation, you just get people trying to make their way through life …

Oppenheimer: Is there anyone on either side you owe apologies to?

Blankenhorn: I don’t think so …because I feel I’ve done my best to act in a way that I can live with. I don’t feel that I need to apologize to anyone for that … We’re just fragile people. We’re all lost about half the time. We’re just struggling. We’re half blind all the time. All of us. There’s never purity, or perfection, or everything’s just great, you know…noodle salad at the beach. But, can I live with myself in trying to feel satisfied that I’ve tried to have integrity as a leader on this issue? I do … I basically do not feel that I need to apologize for that.

Note: Dan Savage re-tweeted a link to the page and it kind of blew up the WNPR website.  If you can’t access the audio there, listen at The Public Radio Exchange.


Exploring Prom Night In America

I never went to my prom. As a high school sophomore, I attended to a “semi-formal” dance and had a great time. I experienced (and later lost) all the awkward photos,  donned the fancy outfits and bumbled my way through the presentation of a corsage to my lovely date.

I never really regretted my decision until last week’s show with writer Sloane Crosley and photographer Mary Ellen Mark (see Ms. Mark’s work below and at the Lens Blog.)

It was a fun conversation exploring the evolution of prom night in America that got spiced up by some wonderful callers sharing their heartwarming (and horrifying) prom stories.

All of it left me wondering, by skipping the prom, what memories did I miss?

Lucas Nathan and Grace Bush-Vineberg as photographed by Mary Ellen Mark during their prom in Pacific Palisades, Calif., 2008

Jameelia Ricks & Marielle Evangelista as photographed by Mary Ellen Mark during their prom in Ithaca, New York, 2008.

Ashley Conrad, New York City, 2009. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark