Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project + Gorgeous Vintage Seed Catalog Cover Artwork

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What 30 double-decker buses have to do with biodiversity and our dinner parties of the future.

All human life — all life — depends on plants. The genetic information for future plants is held in their seeds, so the biodiversity of our planet, as well as the sustenance of our species and others’, depends entirely on the seeds that survive from generation to generation. Since 2000, the Millennium Seed Bank Project by the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens has been working with hundreds of partners in 50 countries to provide an “insurance policy” against the extinction of plants in the wild by storing seeds for future use. In 2007, it banked its billionth seed. By 2010, they had collected seeds from 24,000 different species of plants, representing 10% of the world’s dryland wild plants. By 2020, the project will have collected 25%. The underground seed vault, if filled wall-to-wall, could hold 100,000,000,000 rice grains or 30 tightly packed double-decker buses.

The Last Great Plant Hunt: The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project offers an unprecedented look at one of the most important and ambitious international conservation efforts of our time. From how seeds are collected and cared for to what role they play in conservation research, the book blends equal parts practicality and perspective to reinstill in you a profound appreciation for our planet’s remarkable biosphere.

If you still doubt the vital significance of plants, this short but compelling 2009 TED talk by Kew’s Jonathan Drori will convince you otherwise:

For an even more breathtaking, visceral reminder of the magnificence of plants — one unaffiliated with the Millennium Seed Bank Project but in a way a manifesto for it — get lost in this stunning vintage cover artwork from the Smithsonian’s collection Seed Nursery Catalogs.

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culturomics: What We Can Learn from 5 Million Books

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How to put your “beft” foot forward, or what the algorithm of censorship has to do with 1950.

We’ve already established that we could learn a remarkable amount about language from these 5 essential books, but imagine what we could learn from 5 million books. In this excellent talk from TEDxBoston, Harvard scientists Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden reveal fascinating insights from their computational tool that inspired Google Labs’ addictive NGram Viewer, which pulls from a database of 500 billion words and ideas culled from 5 million books across many centuries, 12% of the books that have ever been published.

They call their approach Culturomics — “the application of massive scale data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” From advising you on the best career choices for early success to figuring out when an artist is being censored to proving that we’re forgetting the past exponentially more quickly than ever before, the data speaks volumes when queried with intelligence and curiosity.

[The database pulls from] a collection of 5 million books. 500 billion words. A string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome. A text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the moon and back ten times over. A veritable shard of our cultural genome.”

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Public Science Triumphs: Cat-Inspired Computing of the Future

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Why your cat is 83 times smarter than your computer, or how government funding can bridge the gap.

This month, io9 editor Annalee Newitz approached a roster of leading science journalists and independent writers with an ambitious project: Public Science Triumphs — an ongoing series of articles highlighting the importance of publicly-funded scientific research in an effort to influence Congress’s budgets supercommittee, which on November 23 will present a proposal for $1.2 trillion in cuts to government spending. For more on what public science actually is and why it matters, see Annalee’s excellent primer on the importance and urgency of the issue.

Brain Pickings is participating, so today we’re highlighting the promise of public science through an intersection of two of our running themes — biomimicry and the future of computing, which converge in the work of University of Michigan researcher Wei Lu. In 2010, Lu led a biologically-inspired computing research project, in which his team used the face-recognition circuitry of the cat brain to model a new kind of machine that promises to outsmart a supercomputer in learning and recognizing faces, making complex decisions, and performing more simultaneous tasks than current computers can manage. For comparison, a typical supercomputer with 140,000 CPUs and a dedicated power supply performs 83 times slower than a cat’s brain. The research was made possible through DARPA funding.

We are building a computer in the same way that nature builds a brain. The idea is to use a completely different paradigm compared to conventional computers. The cat brain sets a realistic goal because it is much simpler than a human brain but still extremely difficult to replicate in complexity and efficiency.” ~ Wei Lu

To mimic how feline brains perform higher-level computations as their synapses link thousands of neurons into complex pathways that store past interactions, Lu’s team connected two electronic circuits with one memristor. This created a system capable of a process called “spike timing dependent plasticity,” which is thought to be the foundation of memory and learning in mammalian brains.

Lu’s research is not only a pinnacle of the cross-disciplinary exploration at the heart of some of the most groundbreaking innovation, but also holds remarkable promise for everything from supercomputer performance to memory and facial recognition technology to sophisticated artificial intelligence decision-making. It’s also a reminder that, rather than a glamorous Eureka! headline, the most valuable research, the kind that serves as a wayfinding signpost for future study, is often just a small but significant step in the incremental process of innovation — a step that takes countless person-hours in the lab, a great deal of technical and intellectual resources and, yes, public science funding to make it all possible.

This article is part of the Public Science Triumphs series. Do you have a story about how publicly-funded science is making the world a better place? Share it at [email protected], with the subject line “public science triumphs.”

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