Category Archives: Science and Technology

Cardboard Kayak Race 2015: The Thrill of Victory… And the Delight of Defeat

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Cardboard Kayak Race 50

“We’re going to the cardboard kayak races this weekend, right?” Vlad said, looking at me expectantly. I glanced back dubiously.

We’d missed the 2013 race, the first year that the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance had organized the race as part of its City of Water Day, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the video. Last year, I’d provided kayak safety support for the race, while Vlad took photos. And we wrote it up on Wind Against Current.

As much fun as the race had been, did we really need to experience it again?

Yes, we did! So last Saturday we headed out to Governors Island, on a sultry summer day that started out reasonably comfortable, but promised heat and stickiness by the afternoon.

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Industry

By Vladimir Brezina

Seen on our travels through New York Harbor—

New York Harbor 1
New York Harbor 2
New York Harbor 3
New York Harbor 4
New York Harbor 5
New York Harbor 6

Spot Johna in the last photo!

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Industry.

The Sunspot Story

By Johna Till Johnson

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding. …

—Philip Larkin, Solar

.
What’s the longest-running scientific experiment in history?

I bet you didn’t think of monitoring sunspots.

Sunspots

Sunspots (photo by NASA)

And I can’t definitively say it’s the longest-running experiment —there may be others I haven’t heard of yet. But the first recorded systematic observation of sunspots in the West was by astronomers Thomas Harriot, Johannes and David Fabricius  in 1610 (Chinese astronomers observed them as far back as 300 BC). Scientists have been monitoring sunspots ever since—which means that sunspots have been monitored for the past 405 years!

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Clean-up Crew

By Vladimir Brezina

Do not watch if you are prone to nightmares involving swarming insects! (However, more than 8 million people have not been able to resist watching this classic YouTube video…)

I particularly like the way they carry off the skull in the end… :-)

Some background and explanation is here.

Happy Birthday, Hell Gate Bridge!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Barge Approaching Hell Gate Bridge

Barge approaching Hell Gate Bridge

It’s hard to believe the Hell Gate Bridge is almost 100 years old.

98, to be exact: The bridge first opened on September 30, 1916. I’ve written about my love for the Hell Gate three years ago, in my birthday greetings to the Bayonne Bridge.

But it’s worth summarizing again why I feel so strongly about the Hell Gate. As I wrote then:

I love bridges. I’m not entirely sure why. Partly it’s the look of them: They seem almost alive, taking off in a leap of concrete, stone, or steel,  somehow infinitely optimistic and everlastingly hopeful. Partly it’s their function: Bringing things together, connecting people and places that were previously divided. And of course, bridges often cross moving water—another of my favorite things.

But though I love them all, some bridges in particular hold a special place in my heart.

Many years ago I worked north of New York City (in Connecticut and later in White Plains). The hours were grueling—some days I’d leave my apartment at 5 AM and not return until 11 PM. Sometimes I drove, but I preferred to take the Metro-North train. I relished the peacefulness of the scenery rolling by.

As we crossed the Harlem River, I’d catch sight of one bridge in particular, a study in contrasts: graceful, soaring, yet solid, composed of two steel arches with slightly different curvatures, so they were closer together at the top of the arch and wider apart at the bases, anchored in solid stone towers.

The rising sun would touch this bridge and (so I thought) paint it a lovely shade of rosy pink.  The memory of that beauty was often the nicest part of my day.

Hell Gate Bridge, seen from our window

Hell Gate Bridge at sunrise, seen from our window

But for years, I didn’t know what the bridge was called, or even where, exactly, it was. All I knew was that the sight of it reliably brightened my mornings.

One day I happened to mention the bridge to my father, a retired naval officer who had once been stationed in New York City, but now lived hundreds of miles away.

He recognized it immediately from my description: “That’s Hell Gate Bridge,” he said. An odd name for a structure of such harmonious beauty! I hadn’t heard of Hell Gate before, and my dad explained it was where the Harlem River joined the East River. Hell Gate was a treacherous body of water characterized by converging currents and occasional whirlpools that had been the doom of hundreds of ships over the past several centuries.

“As a young ensign, I was on a ship that went through Hell Gate,” my father said. “But I don’t recall that the bridge was pink.” That would have been in the late 1940s; I can’t recall for certain what kind of ship he told me it was, but my memory insists it was a destroyer.

Many years later, I’ll not forget the thrill I had the first time I passed under the bridge, in a far different vessel: My trusty yellow kayak, Photon.

We paddle under the Hell Gate Bridge

We paddle under the Hell Gate Bridge (photo by Johna)

As for the bridge’s color, I later learned my dad was right. The bridge was painted “pink” (actually a color called Hell Gate Red) only in 1996—but the paint has faded to a pastel rose, as you can see.

When doing further research, I learned that:

  • The Hell Gate and Bayonne Bridges reflect the vision of the same man, Czech-Austrian civil engineer Gustav Lindenthal. (Lindenthal designed the Hell Gate, and his Swiss co-worker and protege Othmar Ammann designed Bayonne.)
  • Their beauty is no accident. According to Wikipedia, “Lindenthal’s work was greatly affected by his pursuit for perfection and his love of art. His structures not only serve the purpose they were designed for, but are aesthetically pleasing to the public eye.” Indeed!
  • There’s a third sister (or perhaps cousin): The world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although designed by a different firm, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was inspired by Hell Gate and Bayonne.

I also learned that the Hell Gate Bridge was so perfectly engineered that when the main span was lifted into place, the adjustment required was a mere half-inch!

Happy birthday, you beautiful creature. You haven’t aged a bit!

Mom, We Did It!

By Johna Till Johnson

Occasionally a news story really resonates with me. This is one: An Indian spacecraft called Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has just reached orbit around the planet Mars.

And the achievement is astonishing on many fronts: It’s the first time in history that any country’s spacecraft has made it on the first attempt. At $74 million, the effort cost less than making the movie “Gravity”—and almost 10 times less than the US’s NASA Mars mission.

Scientists and engineers cheer as MOM reaches Mars orbit (Photo: Reuters)

Scientists and engineers cheer as MOM reaches Mars orbit (Photo: Reuters)

And, as with the NASA effort, some of the top scientists and engineers involved are women. There’s something symbolic in “Mother India”—which is linguistically, culturally, and even genetically the ancestor of many of us of European descent—sending a spacecraft called MOM to Mars.

I’m really proud of our Indian sisters and brothers for pulling this off. And I’m psyched to see so many saris involved in the celebration.

MOM, we did it!

Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!