What to Read, View and Visit in July and August

A smartphone makes you hear voices in your head, data pioneer Ivan Sutherland wants to clean your (computer's) clock and Mayans turn up in Minnesota.

By Gemma Tarlach|Tuesday, October 22, 2013
RELATED TAGS: MUSEUMS, BOOKS, TECHNOLOGY
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Destinations

Ohhhh, Mayan! 
Science Museum of Minnesota,
St. Paul, Minn.

The Maya of Mesoamerica thought big: Consider the monumental architecture left behind at Tikal, Palenque and other sites. So it’s fitting that Minnesota’s Science Museum built its world premiere exhibit, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, on a grand scale. At 15,000 square feet, it’s billed as the largest traveling exhibit on the Maya ever mounted in the U.S. Hundreds of artifacts reveal both the art and everyday experience of the culture, while multimedia and hands-on displays give visitors a glimpse into ongoing field research that will further our understanding of this fascinating civilization. Opens June 21. 

Stone Laboratory
Ohio State University
Put-In-Bay, Lake Erie 
41d 39' 28.2"N 82d 49' 15.8"W

The 6.5 acres of tiny gibraltar island on lake erie's south edge are crammed with reasons to visit, including Stone Laboratory, the oldest freshwater biology research station in the U. S. Tour the island, soak up the science and then rent a kayak to explore more of this scenic slice of the Great Lakes region.  

FISH TALES: Start your trip just a few hundred feet away from Gibraltar on nearby South Bass Island, at Stone Lab’s sister facility, the Aquatic Visitors Center. It’s open Wednesdays through Saturdays from June 19 through Sept. 7. Learn about Stone Lab’s ongoing research into algal blooms and invasive aquatic species.

BAD HAB-ITS: Lake Erie’s harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a growing problem for its ecosystem. A new water-quality lab under construction on Gibraltar will augment research already underway; public tours of the island include a discussion of HABs, their causes and possible remedies.

ISLAND LIFE: Gibraltar, now property of OSU, was owned by a series of moneymen, including Civil War financier Jay Cooke. His elegant Victorian residence, Cooke Castle, still stands on the island, which has had a working marine research station since 1895. 

NAVAL-GAZING: Sept. 10 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, when Oliver Hazard Perry and a few hundred other Americans took on the British Navy near Put-In-Bay — and won. Visit during Labor Day weekend to watch tall ships and re-enactors commemorate the event. 

Go: Getting to Gibraltar Island is half the adventure of visiting Stone Lab. All visitors check in at the site’s field office in Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island. Catch the water taxi to Gibraltar at the town’s public boardwalk on Wednesdays for tours and Thursdays for lectures in the summer. Put-In-Bay also offers the nearest public accommodations. Get directions, find lodging and learn more about events in the area here.

R-E-SSS-P-E-C-T: Gibraltar Island is a center of study for the threatened, non-venomous Lake Erie water snake, often mistaken for the dangerous cottonmouth.

GET GROOVE-Y: Rock formations with evocative names such as Needle’s Eye dot the island, but Gibraltar’s most famous geological feature may be the deep grooves on its western shore, carved by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.

Go Deeper: Stone Lab offers courses for college and graduate students as well as various programs for educators and high school students. A seasonal lecture series is open to the public.

Interview

A Computing Pioneer Looks to the Next Frontier
Among the big guns of computer science, Ivan Sutherland is a bazooka. Fifty years ago, Sutherland’s Sketchpad program arguably launched the field of computer graphics. In the ’90s, the Nebraska native’s “logical effort” method optimized circuitry speed. Sutherland is currently focused on asynchronous computing, which he believes will revolutionize his field. Now at Portland State University, he spoke with DISCOVER Associate Editor Gemma Tarlach about his place in history and biggest source of pride.

Computing today runs, well, like clockwork: A circuit’s signal is forced onto a pathway made of regular intervals. But you’ve been developing asynchronous computing, which allows signals to progress at different speeds. Why is this method the next big thing?

All computing systems today march to the beat of a clock. It’s a very rigid design form we used. That’s why computer designers are struggling. If you cast aside the clock paradigm, you get a lot of advantages. When we learned to add in second grade, we learned there were easy additions and hard additions, and the hard additions required carries and took a little longer. Asynchronous computing allows hard cases to take a little longer. It allows you flexibility. Physics tells you asynchronous computing must happen. But it’s hard. There are legions of engineers who believe the clock paradigm is the only way to go. 

What do you think of calls for digital literacy, teaching children how to create code as well as how to read and write?

Not necessary. Do kids need to learn to drive? Probably. But do they need to know how to repair an engine? No. Give people the opportunity to learn the skills they’ll find useful.

Then how will today’s students become tomorrow’s Sutherlands?

It's about investment. My parents made very substantial efforts and investments in the rearing of children. That’s the answer.

You feel education is up to parents?

I learned algebra from the “I’m thinking of a number game,” in the back of a car with my brother, both of us bored. Our mother or our father would say, “I’m thinking of a number, I’m the square root of 18 if you subtract 2.” We did endless games like that, and that’s how I knew algebra before I even went to school. I just didn’t know it was called algebra.

What’s your greatest achievement? 

Four grandchildren. They all still talk to me. I like them, and they like me. I’d say that’s a big achievement.

Book Reviews

Rocket Girl
by George D. Morgan

After Sputnik’s successful 1957 launch, the U.S. was desperate to get ahead of Russia in the space race. Subpar rocket fuels held the Americans back until the Army put Mary Sherman Morgan on the problem. Without a college degree, Morgan concocted the right ratio of propellants and then pressurized the mix. Not long after Morgan pioneered the top-secret fuel, she gave up research and became a recluse, isolated even from her children. While writing her 2004 obituary, her playwright son George stumbled upon his mother’s classified contributions as the first female rocket scientist and reveals them here, taking dramatic license with dialog and details. – Breanna Draxler

How To Make a Zombie
by Frank Swain

Science Punk blogger Swain connects the undead dots from Haitian folktales to CIA mind-control research as he hunts for definitive proof of zombiism. Swain’s search covers a lot of ground, from early historical accounts of whole armies defeated by mind-altering honey to modern experiments reanimating severed dog heads and chilling whole dogs to a “controlled death state.” (Man’s best friend seems to be man’s favorite zombification study subject.) But the most disturbing theme to emerge from this often darkly funny book is our species’ apparent eagerness to control each other:
alive, dead or otherwise. – Gemma Tarlach

The Human Spark
by Jerome Kagan

What governs whether an infant will grow up to cheat at poker, win a Nobel Prize or dominate at karaoke? In this revision of his classic 1984 volume The Nature of the Child, Kagan explores new evidence in the nature vs. nurture debate. He adds material on moral development, emotion and mental illness in children and adolescents. Jargon-heavy at times, Kagan makes a strong case that personality is more elastic, and resilient, than we may think: Even toddlers who experience extreme abuse or deprivation can become well-adjusted adults. – Siri Carpenter

The Universe in the Rearview Mirror
by Dave Goldberg

You shouldn’t exist. Don’t take it personally — nothing should exist. But at some point, around 10-35 of a second after the Big Bang, there was a slight shift in balance and, long story short, all of the “stuff” of the universe was born. Physicist Goldberg takes a road trip through time and space trying to answer the big questions about existence, including why any of us are here. Mathematical symmetries lie at the heart of many of the answers, but Goldberg offers math-free guideposts along the way in this witty and accessible read. Tip: Don’t skip the copious footnotes, packed with geek humor. – Alison Mackey

Technology

Now That's Using Your Head 

While Kyocera’s rugged Torque is marketed as the sort of thing you could drop, dunk or summit a mountain with, it’s the phone’s tissue-conduction technology that caught our eye, er, ear.

The Torque is the first smartphone sold in the U.S. that conducts sound through tissue in your head, a technology originally developed for use in hearing aids. You can hold a conversation on the Torque while wearing earplugs, even with someone aiming a hair dryer into your other ear. (Yes, we went there.) As long as the phone’s screen is in contact with your head, it doesn’t need to be near your ear: We tried the base of the skull, forehead and even nose. It’s weird, but it works.

HEAR YE, HEAR YE: On the phone or otherwise, the process of hearing usually begins when airborne sound waves travel through the ear canal and then hit the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. A trio of small bones linked to the eardrum picks up the vibrations and sends them to the inner ear’s fluid-filled cochlea. As the cochlea’s fluid moves, about 15,000 hair cells sitting in it, each tuned to a particular frequency, pick up the motions; the cochlear nerve translates the movements into auditory messages that are sent to the brain.

DE-SURROUND SOUND: Ambient, airborne sound can wreck a phone conversation, whether you’re in a helicopter, on a construction site or surrounded by screaming toddlers. With tissue conduction, in a noisy setting you can wear earplugs or noise-canceling headphones (or go low-tech and use your fingers) and still hear because the sound waves of the conversation are traveling through your head. 

GET IT THROUGH YOUR THICK SKULL: Bone conduction devices already on the market, such as some Bluetooth headsets, work on a similar principle; the vibrations travel only through bone, however, so they bypass the soft tissue of the eardrum. Because the eardrum is more adept at conveying tone, bone-only conduction can have a muddy sound.

(SOUND) WAVE OF THE FUTURE: Tissue conduction is turning up in other consumer devices, too. Panasonic plans to roll out a set of tissue-conducting headphones soon, and the much-anticipated Google Glass reportedly uses similar technology.


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left: Jim Forbes/Discover, right: Dan Bishop/Discover
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