Category Archives: Natural Science

How “Hidden Figures” Can Help Inspire a STEM Generation

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Hidden Figures film poster and images ©2016 20th Century Fox, all rights reserved.

History abounds with examples of unsung science heroes, researchers and visionaries whose tireless efforts led to enormous breakthroughs and advances, often without credit or lasting widespread esteem. This is particularly true for women and minorities, who have historically been under-represented in STEM-related fields. English mathematician Ada Lovelace is broadly considered the first great tech and computing visionary — she pioneered computer programming language and helped construct what is considered the first computing machine (the Babbage Analytical Engine) in the mid-1800s. Physical chemist Dr. Rosalind Franklin performed essential X-ray crystallography work that ultimately revealed the double-helix shape of DNA (Photograph 51 is one of the most important images in the history of science). Her work was shown (without her permission) to rival King’s College biology duo Watson and Crick, who used the indispensable information to elucidate and publish the molecular structure of DNA, for which they would win a Nobel Prize. Dr. Percy Julian, a grandson of slaves and the first African-American chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, ingeniously pioneered the synthesis of hormones and other medicinal compounds from plants and soybeans. New movie Hidden Figures, based on the exhaustively researched book by Margot Lee Shetterley, tells the story of three such hitherto obscure heroes: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, standouts in a cohort of African-American mathematicians that helped NASA launch key missions during the tense 19060s Cold War “space race.” More importantly, Hidden Figures is a significant prototype for purpose-driven popular science communication — a narrative and vehicle for integrated multi-media platforms to encourage STEM diversity and scientific achievement.
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How Animation Technology Is Helping Scientists Visualize Data

A spiral galaxy in the Dorado constellation created by a black hole. Technology from the film Interstellar is helping scientists gain greater understanding of this phenomenon. (credit: Roberto Colombari/Stocktrek Images/Corbis)

From its earliest inceptions, science fiction has blurred the line between reality and technological fantasy in a remarkably prescient manner. Many of the discoveries and gadgets that have integrated seamlessly into modern life were first preconceived theoretically. More recently, the technologies behind ultra-realistic visual and motion capture effects are simultaneously helping scientists as research tools on a granular level in real time. The dazzling visual effects within the time-jumping space film Interstellar included creating original code for a physics-based ultra-realistic depiction of what it would be like to orbit around and through a black hole. Astrophysics researchers soon utilized the film’s code to visualize black hole surfaces and their effects on nearby objects. Virtual reality, whose initial development was largely rooted in imbuing realism into the gaming and video industries, has advanced towards multi-purpose applications in film, technology and science. The Science Channel is augmenting traditional programming with a ‘virtual experience’ to simulate the challenges and scenarios of an astronaut’s journey into space; VR-equipped GoPro cameras are documenting remote research environments to foster scientific collaboration and share knowledge; it’s even being implemented in health care for improving training, diagnosis and treatment concepts. The ability to record high-definition film of landscapes and isolated areas with drones, which will have an enormous impact on cinematography, carries with it the simultaneous capacity to aid scientists and health workers with disaster relief, wildlife conservation and remote geomapping.

The evolution of entertainment industry technology is sophisticated, computationally powerful and increasingly cross-functional. A cohort of interdisciplinary researchers at Northwestern University is adapting computing and screen resolution developed at DreamWorks Animation Studios as a vehicle for data visualization, innovation and producing more rapid and efficient results. Their efforts, detailed below, and a collective trend towards integration of visual design in interpreting complex research, portends a collaborative future between science and entertainment.
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Podcast: Disrupting Incubator Innovation With “Lab Launch”

Front entrance of LA-based Lab Launch scientific incubator hub.

The current scientific landscape can best be thought of as a transitional one. With the proliferation of scientific innovation and the role that technology plays in our lives, along with the demand for more of these breakthroughs, comes the simultaneous challenge of balancing affordable lab space, funding and opportunity for young investigators and inventors to shape their companies and test novel projects. Los Angeles science incubator Lab Launch is trying to simplify the process through a revolutionary, not-for-profit approach that serves as a proof of concept for an eventual interconnected network of “discovery hubs”. Founder Llewelyn Cox sits down with ScriptPhD for an insightful podcast that assesses the current scientific climate, the backdrop that catalyzed Lab Launch, and why alternatives to traditional avenues of research are critical for fueling the 21st Century economy.
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Podcast: “Hollyweird Science” and the Quantum Quirks of Entertainment

Hollyweird Science cover ©2015 Springer Books, all rights reserved.
Hollyweird Science cover ©2015 Springer Books, all rights reserved.

Dr. Kevin Grazier has made a career of studying intergalactic planetary formation, and, over the last few years, helping Hollywood writers integrate physics smartly into storylines for popular TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, Defiance and the blockbuster film Gravity. His latest book, Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse traverses delightfully through the science-entertainment duality as it first breaks down the portrayal of science in movies and television, grounding the audience in screenplay lexicon, then elucidates a panoply of physics and astronomy principles through the lens of storylines, superpowers and sci-fi magic. With the help of notable science journalist Stephen Cass, Hollyweird Science is accessible to the layperson sci-fi fan wishing to learn more about science, a professional scientist wanting to apply their knowledge to higher-order examples from TV and film or Hollywood writers and producers of future science-based materials. From case studies, to in-depth interviews to breaking down the Universe and its phenomena one superhero and far-away galaxy at a time, this first volume of an eventual trilogy is the essential foundation towards understanding how science is integrated into a story and ensuring that future TV shows and movies do so more accurately than ever before. Full ScriptPhD review and podcast with author and science advisor Dr. Grazier below.
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Editor’s Selection: “The Martian” is a Transcendent Sci-Fi Opus

Movie poster and stills from "The Martian" ©2015 20th Century FOX. All rights reserved.
Movie poster and stills from “The Martian” ©2015 20th Century FOX. All rights reserved.

The Martian, is a film adaptation of the inventive, groundbreaking hard sci-fi adventure tale. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it’s a triumph of engineering and basic science, a love letter to innovation and the greatest feats humans are capable of through collaboration. Directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, and following in the footsteps of space epics Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian offers a stunning virtual imagination of Mars, glimpses of NASA’s new frontier – astronauts on Mars – and the stakes of a mission that will soon become a reality. Below, ScriptPhD.com reviews The Martian (an Editor’s Selection) and, with the help of a planetary researcher at The California Science Center, we break down some basics about Mars missions and the planetary science depicted in the film (interactive video).
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Citrine Informatics: Jump-Starting the Materials Science Revolution

Materials engineers performing research in the laboratory. Image ©Wonderful Engineering, all rights reserved.
Materials engineers performing research in the laboratory. Image ©Wonderful Engineering, all rights reserved.

The last 25 years have brought an unprecedented level of scientific and technological advances, impacting virtually all dimensions of society, from communication and the digital revolution, to economics and food production to nanotechnology and medicine – and that’s just a start. The next few decades will rapidly expand this progress with exponential discovery and innovation, amidst more pressing global challenges than we’ve ever faced before. The opportunities to develop faster, better and cheaper products that improve modern living are limitless – Tesla electric cars, energy-saving fuels and machines, robotics – but they all share a common basic need for developing and studying materials in a more efficient manner. This will require a real-time acceleration of sharing, analytics and simulation through readily accessible databases. Essentially, an open-source wiki for materials scientists. In our in-depth article below, ScriptPhD.com explains why materials science is the most critical gateway towards 21st Century technology and how California startup company Citrine Informatics is providing revolutionary new information extraction software to create a crowdsourced, open access database available to any scientist.
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Searching For The Next “MacGyver” (On TV And On Campus)

MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, a judge, mentor and sponsor of The Next MacGyver STEM competition in LA. ©2015 Paley Center For Media.
MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, a judge, mentor and sponsor of The Next MacGyver STEM competition in LA. ©2015 Paley Center For Media.

Engineering has an unfortunate image problem. With a seemingly endless array of socioeconomic, technological and large-scale problems to address, and with STEM fields set to comprise the most lucrative 21st Century careers, studying engineering should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, attracting a wide array of students — or even appreciating engineers as cool — remains difficult, most noticeably among women. When Google Research found out that the #2 reason girls avoid studying STEM fields is perception and stereotypes on screen, they decided to work with Hollywood to change that. Recently, they partnered with the National Academy of Sciences and USC’s prestigious Viterbi School of Engineering to proactively seek out ideas for creating a television program that would showcase a female engineering hero to inspire a new generation of female engineers. The project, entitled “The Next MacGyver,” came to fruition last week in Los Angeles at a star-studded event. ScriptPhD.com was extremely fortunate to receive an invite and have the opportunity to interact with the leaders, scientists and Hollywood representatives that collaborated to make it all possible. Read our full comprehensive coverage below.
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Why Disney’s “Tomorrowland” Matters

Tomorrowland poster and stills ©2015 Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

One of Walt Disney’s enduring lifetime legacies was his commitment to innovation, new ideas and imagination. An inventive visionary, Disney often previewed his inventions at the annual New York World’s Fair and contributed many technological and creative breakthroughs that we enjoy to this day. One of Disney’s biggest fascinations was with space exploration and futurism, often reflected thematically in Disney’s canon of material throughout the years. Just prior to his death in 1966, Disney undertook an ambitious plan to build a utopian “Community of Tomorrow,” complete with state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, every major Disney theme park around the world has some permutation of a themed section called “Tomorrowland,” first introduced at Disneyland in 1955, featuring inspiring Jules Verne glimpses into the future. This ambition is beautifully embodied in Disney Picttures’ latest release of the same name, a film that is at once a celebration of ideas, a call to arms for scientific achievement and good old fashioned idealistic dreaming. The critical relevance to our circumstances today and full ScriptPhD review below.
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Artificial Intelligence: The Risk of Robots on the Rampage

For every friendly robot we see in science fiction such as Star Wars’s C3PO, there are others with a more sinister reputation that you can find in films such as I, Robot. Most movie robots can indeed be classified into a range of archetypes and purposes. Science boffins at Cambridge University have taken the unusual step of evaluating the exact risks of humanity suffering from a Terminator-style meltdown at the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.

“Robots On the Run” is currently an unlikely scenario, so don’t stockpile rations and weapons in panic just yet. But with machine intelligence continually evolving, developing and even crossing thresholds of creativity and and language, what holds now might not in the future. Robotic technology is making huge advances in great part thanks to the efforts of Japanese scientists and Robot Wars. For the time being, the term AI (artificial intelligence) might sound like a Hollywood invention (the term was translated by Steven Spielberg in a landmark film, after all), but the science behind it is real and is not going to go away. Robots can now actually learn things akin to the way humans pick up information. Nevertheless, some scientists believe that there are limits to the level of intelligence that robots will be able to achieve in the future. In a special ScriptPhD guest post, we examine the current state of artificial intelligence, and the possibilities that the future holds for this technology.
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It’s Not Easy Being Green: Water, Our Next Endangered Resource (And Innovation Opportunity)

“The wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water.” —Ismail Serageldin, World Bank

Last Call at the Oasis film poster ©2012, Participant Media, all rights reserved.

Watching the devastation and havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy and several recent water-related natural disasters, it’s hard to imagine that global water shortages represent an environmental crisis on par with climate change. But if current water usage habits do not abate, or if major technological advances to help recycle clean water are not implemented, this is precisely the scenario we are facing—a majority of 21st Century conflicts being fought over water. From the producers of socially-conscious films An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc., Last Call at the Oasis is a timely documentary that chronicles current challenges in worldwide water supply, outlines the variables that contribute to chronic shortages and interviews leading environmental scientists and activists about the ramifications of chemical contamination in drinking water. More than just an environmental polemic, Last Call is a stirring call to action for engineering and technology solutions to a decidedly solvable problem. A ScriptPhD.com review under the “continue reading” cut.
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