Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bring on the Science!

I'm having a fine time at Science Camp so far, everyone.

We learned about robotics and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute's robotics program this morning, and although we did not get a sock-wearing robot of our own to take home (so, yes, my heart is broken), we did get to see several tournament-winning machines from the WPI Team 190. We also met some of the impressive young men and women who design, build, program and drive these mechanical contraptions, and I must say that my faith in the continued future awesomeness of robots is strong.

Sure, they may one day turn on us and kill us all, but at least it will be a sign of our having been too clever by half. Go out in a blaze of poorly applied intelligence, that's what I say.

If I were younger, I would be so filled with a burning need to go into robotics, I can't even tell you.

Anyway, presenters Mike Gennert and Ken Stafford talked about what a robot is, the many applications of robots in society (medical uses including surgery and rehab, defense/military uses, nanotechnology, manufacturing, entertainment), and the interdisciplinary nature of the field, which draws from computer science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering.

Also discussed was the need to be aware of the social implications of these technologies: are robots making the world a better place? There are clear ethical issues around some of these things, like the way military drones can make war something like a 9-5 job that someone can do from an office, remotely launching missiles on the other side of the world. Robots can really change the way things are done, as well as the types of things we can do, and we have to think about the implications.

There was a lot more to the presentations, but alas, time is short and I must press on with other notes before I sleep.

After lunch, we had astronomy, which was very cool. I haven't had an astronomy class since college, so it was fun to get a refresher. One presenter, Dr. Stephen Schneider, basically went through everything from my astronomy 101 course in an hour and a half (minus the lab work). I love that stuff. Enormous, cosmic scales! The past and future of the universe! Peering backward through time by focusing into the farthest reaches of space!

Key concepts were the huge differences between studying things within the solar system, where we can see fairly clearly and send probes and cameras (and robots!) to test things out, and studying things outside the solar system, where we can only observe.

In both cases, astronomy, like geology, is a field in which we really can't do controlled experiments to test hypotheses the way we can in other disciplines. There's only the one universe, and things happen on such large scales of space and time that all you can really do is observe, make hypotheses, and then see how well they proves to predict something previously unobserved.

The second speaker, Dr. Alexandra Pope, addressed some specific research into large, dusty galaxies that are colliding. Apparently this situation is a veritable hotbed of star formation, which can be determined through measuring every possible wavelength of radiation coming from said galaxies. We learned about different types of telescope (radio, optical, submillimeter) that measure different wavelengths, and the sorts of things that can interfere with measurements.

In response to a question about whether there's still a role for amateur astronomers, we also learned about Galaxy Zoo, where you too can help astronomers explore the universe, and about the collaborative nature of much of astronomy, where large data sets from one study are often made available for others to use as well.

Again, there was a lot more than that, but no one wants to read all the details of my scrawled notes. Just take my word for it, it was a fun day and you are totally overcome with jealousy because you missed it.

And, in a completely unanticipated turn of events, the fact that I memorized the Robert Frost poem Fire and Ice 20 years ago came in handy. Which just goes to show, you never know. Seriously, you do not know.

That's why you do research.

Science ho!

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