History

Last Night a #Cosmos Saved My Life

Last night the series premiere of Cosmos, a miniseries exploring the universe, debuted on Fox. Its a reboot of the original 1980s series which was hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan, and is one of the most widely watched miniseries in history. I saw part of the original series in the mid and late 80s, but I was still young and didn't fully appreciate it.

Last night, a Cosmos saved my life.

After graduating college, my good friend Raymond told me about Sagan's book Cosmos, which was made after the TV series gained in popularity. I immediately recognized the name as the series that I watched so many years before, but I did not know that the book would become one of my favorites of all time. OF ALL TIME.

Sagan has a way of describing complicated topics such as the length of time since the big bang in terms that can be grasped by a variety of folks. His Cosmic Calendar - where the entire history of the universe is placed in a calendar year - remains one of my favorite ways to explain exactly how new humans are to the universe. All of recorded history takes place at the very, very end of the calendar. Puts things into perspective.

I had so much fun watching Cosmos and participating in the discussions that followed on and offline. Be sure to check me out on Twitter (@ShareefJackson) every Sunday at 9pm Eastern as I tweet about Cosmos during the show. A sample of my tweets from the premiere are shown below via Storify.

Mandela's Vision for Science

 Image Credit: Len Sak (via Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Image Credit: Len Sak (via Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Nelson Mandela passed away this week. He's one of the few that could truly be called a  legend, despite the criticism he received for most of his life. He's done so much for the world for his revolutionary role in taking on a country system built on hate, being imprisoned for 27 years of his life, and coming back to lead that same country. He's stood as a champion for education, and the The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) supports his vision of cultivating leaders to keep Africa on a consistent path of improvement.

According to a 2009 presentation by NM-AIST alumni Burton LM Mwamila, World Bank Group President Jim Wolfensohn met with several African leaders in 2001 and 2002. It was there where Mandela suggested that one of Africa's greatest needs are science institutes in the vein of the Indian Institutes of Science and Technology (IITs), MIT, CalTech, etc. NM-AIST schools were thus created in Western, Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa.

The official vision and mission are listed below:

The Vision of NM-AIST is to become a world-class institution of higher learning dedicated to the pursuit and promotion of excellence in science and engineering, and their applications for economic growth and sustainable development in Africa.

The Mission of NM-AIST is to deliver and promote high quality and internationally competitive teaching and learning, research and innovation, and public service in science, engineering and technology for enhanced value addition to people and natural resources, emphasizing entrepreneurship with a view to stimulating, catalyzing and promoting economic growth and sustainable development in Africa.

I love the focus of the vision and mission - it's not just to churn out great scientists, but to apply their knowledge in South Africa, a country that has been exploited over and over again by external powers. HIS country. Mandela was committed to improving his country and making it self-sustaining by developing its own crop of talented scientists.  It's refreshing to see that instilled in the documented vision of an educational organization.

Make sure to check out the Nelson Mandela Foundation for great info on the man. RIP.

To Hell With The Space Race

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Space exploration was hugely influenced by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. It became a sense of national pride to launch artifical elements, and then people, into space.  It really came down to a race for military and ideological supremacy. Anything else was a bonus.  

That was then. In current times, this space race mentality is no longer necessary. We shouldn't be comparing ourselves to China, India, or other countries.  Especially since space exploraiton is a great example of international cooperation (the International Space Station, and the science projects which take part on it, wouldn't exist otherwise).

I watched a great panel this weekend with former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, chief astronomer Derrick Pitts, Dr. Nina Khrushcheva and aeronautics professor Wesley Harris. It's rare to see a nuanced, in depth discussion about space on television - check it out!

(If you can't see the video below, click here)

Interestingly, Melissa Harris-Perry's experience with the Challenger explosion made her hate space. I had the opposite reaction - it made me dig into my resources to see what went wrong and how our scientists worked hard to improve the safety aspects of space travel.  Science is about exploration, which unfortunately means learning from mistakers

The second video is on the privatization of spaceflight with the same panel - check it out!

(If you can't see the video below, click here)

Les Paul Is a Science God

I recently attended the Time Warner STEMFest at Discovery World here in Milwaukee.  I was floored by the museum's Les Paul exhibit.  Since he is a Wisconsin native, the exhibit is a vast exploration of his life and how his inventive mind literally transformed music.

I knew Les Paul's name from his Gibson guitar line, but I had no idea that he was a true scientific inventor at heart. He grew up learning about sound by using the family piano, studying the rumbles from the nearby train station, and analyzing a record player (phonograph). He built most things that he used, from his original guitar idea that he shared with Gibson to his own recording studio.

 Distortion, reverb, and delay were all terms that Paul mastered within the musical lexicon.  He also helped launch multitrack recording, which enabled him to put different vocals / instruments on different tracks and mix them together.

Check out the pics below from Paul's exhibit and make sure to swing by if you're in the Milwaukee area! 

 My turntables might wobble but they won't fall down

My turntables might wobble but they won't fall down

 Les Paul was an inventor at heart.

Les Paul was an inventor at heart.

 From wikipedia: Les Paul  , a friend of Crosby's and a regular guest on his shows, had already been experimenting with overdubbed recordings on disc. He received an early portable Ampex Model 200A from Crosby. He invented   Sound on Sound  recording using this machine. He placed an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track.    

From wikipedia: Les Paul , a friend of Crosby's and a regular guest on his shows, had already been experimenting with overdubbed recordings on disc. He received an early portable Ampex Model 200A from Crosby. He invented Sound on Sound recording using this machine. He placed an additional playback head, located before the conventional erase/record/playback heads. This allowed Paul to play along with a previously recorded track, both of which were mixed together on to a new track. 

 

 Basic hardware behind a recording studio

Basic hardware behind a recording studio

 One of Les Paul's mixing boards

One of Les Paul's mixing boards

 Make 8 bit music after the Les Paul exhibit

Make 8 bit music after the Les Paul exhibit

Ada Lovelace Day: Support Matters

Transient

Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852) is widely regarded as the world's first computer programmer, and this was in the 1840s! From today's Washington Post: 

Lovelace's friend Charles Babbage designed a concept for a machine he called the "Analytical Engine" -- essentially a mechanical computer that would have relied on punch cards to run programs. He recruited Lovelace to translate some notes from one of his lectures, but while Lovelace was translating she added to the notes herself. The notes grew to  three times their original length, as Lovelace described what many call the first computer program. Because of funding issues, the machine was not built during her and Babbage's lifetimes. But Lovelace's published article on the Analytical Engine later became a source of inspiration for Alan Turing’s work to build the first modern computers in the 1940s.
There are several articles and websites celebrating Ada Lovelace day. I found a particularly interesting article in Australian Science, which speaks about two other women in STEM with different support structures. Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie was encouraged to study by her father, grandfather, and husband.  Unfortunately, Clara Immerwahr lacked the same level of support, even though she was the first woman to get a Ph.D. from the University of Breslau. In fact, her husband Fritz Haber was involved with developing poison gas for use in World War 1. From the article:

Immerwahr was repulsed by Haber’s growing obsession with the development of poison gas. She confronted him numerous times but her pleas fell on deaf ears. On May 2nd 1915, she quarreled violently with Haber when she found out that he had come home for just the night and was leaving again in the morning to direct more poison gas attacks on the Eastern front. In the early hours of the morning, Immerwahr walked into the garden with Haber’s army pistol and shot herself in the chest. Haber of course did not let this inconvenience him, and left as planned the next morning without even making any funeral arrangements.

Support systems make a difference. It's critical that everyone within science feels supported, especially underrepresented folks that face additional pressures. To read more about Curie and Immerwahr, check out the Australian Science article here.