5 Crazy Science Stories That Flew Under Everybody's Radar
Between Year 4,038 of our current viral episode and your social media feeds being flooded by shouting matches about which cantankerous grandfather from the Mid-Atlantic region gets to rule the world next, it's hard to keep up with current scientific events. So if you want to take a break from all the potential planet-destroying news and catch up on some potential universe-destroying news, here are five weird and on-going scientific developments.
Curly The Curling Robot Is Changing The Sport Forever
Curling, despite looking like a sport invented to see how many pub game drunkards you can give frostbite to in one evening, has become quite popular. But while it's an easy game to get into (all you need is a stone and a couple of your best OCD buddies with brooms), it's almost impossible to master. So much so, that curling is sometimes referred to as chess on ice.
No wonder then, that this noble game of kings and janitors has been taken over by a machine-learning robot. This icier Deep Blue is called Curly, an entity divided into Skip-Curly, who monitors the target area (the house) and devises the best strategy, and Thrower-Curly, the hyper-advanced stone throwing machine that looks like if a Zamboni machine and a PS5 had a baby.
In a joint experiment by researchers of Korea University and the Berlin Institute of Technology, Curly recently took on South Korea's leading women's and wheelchair curling teams and wiped the ice rink with them. And since sentient-broom technology is still stuck in the Fantasia-phase, Curly had to do it without the help of a team of overclocked Roombas smoothing the ice, meaning they have to make the perfect throw almost every single time.
Big deal, right? That sounds like something robots can machine learn in their sleep. But like chess, and very much unlike chess, curling is really a game of chaos. The ice is in a constant state of minuscule flux, shifting with every temperature change or glide of the 42-pound heavy stone. That requires a lot of thinking on your feet (or one foot and one knee, in curling), not something robots are known best for.
But Curly, after a gazillion simulated ice matches, is the first proof that virtual scenarios are now advanced enough to give AI's real-world experiences, enough that, like a cannoneer, Curly can adjust to situations on the fly. That it can adapt and react to "a highly nonstationary real-world scenario" has much farther-reaching application than beating some ice nerds at their own game. Curly's independent AI can actually practice in the real world, then learn and adapt. That means it's only a matter of time before every car, factory arm and guided missile will achieve real-time adaptation perfection thanks to the world's greatest curler.
Related: The 7 Creepiest Old School Robots
Birds Are Getting Real Sexy During Quarantine Times
What? No, I'm not implying that we've all been trapped alone inside for so long that even the sight of a yellow-throated warbler is making us hot under the pajama collars. (I'm also not not implying that -- I mean, those throats). Specifically, it's bird songs that are getting mighty sexy now that the humans are locked indoors. Bird song, though so varied and melodious, comes in two basic types. One is a collection of songs all titled "If you come near my tree, I will mess you up" while the other is just a collection of chirpy covers of "I'm Too Sexy."
But over the past decade, bird calls have become less ... sensual. Due to excessive street noise, males had to trade quality for volume, shouting their songs in the stressful timbre of a New York cab driver dealing with someone who's walking here. But with mankind in lockdown cities became quieter, allowing birds to " the soundscape that we basically abandoned," according to Dr. Elizabeth Derrberry, an expert in the effects of noise pollution on birds.
Because of her and others' long term study of San Francisco's white-crowned sparrows, which hadn't enjoyed such peace and quiet since the '50s, researchers were able to pick up what the males were putting out: lower amplitude, steamer versions of their songs. And the results are making female sparrows all hot and bothered. Oddly, this has also helped them with their city-rage issues. Birds are the sinister, mob kind of animals. They rely less on being loud and more on being very specific in the way they talk to their adversaries. The softer they can whisper their pecking threats, the less violence ensues.
The sudden shift is definitive proof that, for some species, noise pollution can cause as many health and stress downsides like any other kind of pollution. And while we're about to get back to the days of Angry Shouty Birds, at least in a time when lesser species have been fighting for territory inside of car engines, they've used this crisis to make love, not war.
We're Destroying The Environment By ... Washing Our Jeans?
As a good citizen of the world, odds are you do your part in protecting the environment. Maybe you recycle. Maybe you bike to work. Maybe you're inventing a time machine to kick Thomas Midgley Sr. in the balls. But let me ask you this question: have you ever washed your clothes? If so, then you're a fiend, a monster, a dirty ecoterrorist.
Yes, making and maintaining synthetic clothing is much more damaging than we feared. Every time you wash your fleece or anything polyester, the water washes away with thousands of tiny synthetic microfibers riding its polluted waves. According to a study in Plos One, 5.6 million tonnes of these teensy flecks have been dumped back into our waters between 1950 and 2016, enough synthetic fibers to give every fish in the world a pair of Juicy sweatpants.
And if you think that, just because you haven't worn your cheap suit to work in months, that you're not part of the problem, washing casual jeans comes with its own microscopic mess. In a study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, researchers discovered that we're covering the Arctic Ocean in more bluejeans than Bruce Springsteen's dressing room. While jean fibers are technically organic (mostly cotton), what definitely isn't natural are all the chemicals jeans are treated with to get them that lovely shade of indigo, and a single wash can release up to 56,000 microfibers.
The way these millions of tonnes of microfibers make their way into natures due to ineffective wastewater treatment, With a removal efficiency of 99% max, treatment plants cannot stop these bacteria-sized particles from embedding themselves into the runoff. The only positive thing about the jeans fibers is that none of those find their way into fishes' stomachs (they're all on that low-Levi diet). The downside of that is that there's plenty more of them to make their back onto land. In fact, since wastewater sludge gets recycled into biosolids, almost a majority of these microfibers get planted in our soil without anyone being the wiser.
You Can Sing To Help Google Perfect AI Lip Syncing (But At What Cost?)
If there's one thing apocalyptic movies have missed completely, it's the fact that, when the machine uprising begins, they'll be posting millions of deepfakes of us begging them to crush us under their Terminator-like feet. But there is one way we can slow down the development of indistinguishable deep fake news, and that's by keeping our mouths shut. Especially when Google asks us to sing like a canary.
Google's latest AI project taps into that same desire people have to watch James Corden do bad karaoke in his Subaru. LipSync, via YouTube, asks participants to sing a tiny piece of Tones and I's "Dance Monkey" (which feels a bit on the nose, Google). But unlike your roommates, the program doesn't care how well your shower-singing skills really are. All Google's AI TensorFlow.js wants to do, is stare at your beautiful, luscious lips for a minute.
So why would you want to help Google's AI perfect the automated art of snitching via lip reading? Lip syncing AIs can have a lot of benevolent applications like dubbing, both for movies and online lectures. And in the long run, this technology could have amazing applications in the field of speech correcting. If perfected, there might exist a future where AIs can read the lips of people with ASL or other speech impediments and on-the-spot give them the voice that nature so cruelly robbed them off.
Sadly, in the interim of such do-goodery, singing your song to Google will only help the advancement of one thing: deepfakes. Mouth movement is pretty much the last "tell" that deepfakes still have, with their lip-syncing looking more like the AI cut through a picture of Mark Zuckerberg and is wiggling its artificial tongue through the slit. But recent released lip-synchronization models like Wav2Lip are already outclassing any deep fakes of the past years, proving that it's never been easier to put words, or scats, in other people's mouths.
A Physics Student Just Solved The Time Travel Paradox With Math
The time travel paradox is the great headache of sci-fi and science nerds alike. Could I stop 9/11 from happening if the reason I'm going back is that it happened? Can I go back in time to kill my own grandfather? What will the butterfly effect be if I sneeze on a dinosaur? How do you even begin to solve such an existential, deeply philosophical quandary? With math, of course.
With the help of his mentor, Dr. Fabio Costa, a 4th-year physics student named Germain Tobar from the University of Queensland managed to "square the numbers" to prove that it would be mathematically impossible to create a time travel paradox while still allowing for the travel to be possible. The mathematics in his study, published in Classical and Quantum Gravity, is ... complicated. Too complicated to comprehend by anyone who doesn't have a physics degree and has memorized every line from Back To The Future one, two, and three. But his calculations are able to allow Einstein's closed time-like curves (CTCs) inside a deterministic model (which allows no randomness). How? Tobar and Costa posit that it just takes two pieces of the CTC puzzle to remain intact and the universe will take care of the rest.
Say you want to kill baby Mussolini (as a practice run for baby Hitler). Your free will dictates that this is possible (quite easy, in fact) if you can time travel, which is also theoretically possible. The paradox lies in you deleting the very reason you were time jumping. But that's fine, responds the math. You can kill baby Mussolini, but the universe will then simply "force" the present to correct itself and before you can say "closed loop" -- poof, out pops another baby Mussolini, giving you the reason to go back in the first place.
What's the point of traveling back in time if you can't change it by killing a bunch of babies? To have responsibility-free fun, of course. According to Tobar's calculations, time travel doesn't mean you're doomed to make the same mistakes as before. You can make all new kinds of mistakes -- they'll just automatically have the same result, which allows CTCs to exist in an already determined universe. And it's a comforting thought that, whatever time travelers do, the universe will simply clean up their messes like a temporal butler.
Not that it'd be a great idea to test the limits of that. Because, sure, you can kill your own granddad, but the universe is going to find a genetic match for your grandma. And guess who's around for that job?
For more weird tangents and implied generational incest, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: Google / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Pxhere