Archive for the 'Technology' Category

“Man vs. Machine” for $400, Please, Alex

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

For the first time in history, a computer will compete on Jeopardy!.

Meet Watson.

Watson is considered to be the smartest computer on Earth. Designed by IBM, Watson was created with the specific goal of being able to compete – and win – on Jeopardy!. Starting this Monday, Watson will be competing against the game show’s all-time top contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, for a prize of one million dollars. Will Watson be able to succeed?

Creating a computer that can answer Jeopardy!‘s questions seems simple at first – just download every piece of information from every encyclopedia, book, play, movie, Wikipedia, etc. into a database, right? Wrong. This is where the trickery that is Jeopardy! comes in.

IBM had to create a computer that could understand the nuances of human language. Jeopardy! is famous for subtle clues in the questions, wicked wordplay, and requiring contestants to piece together multiple points of information from grammar and syntax in order to find the correct answer. For a computer to win at Jeopardy!, it needs a level of artificial intelligence that has all the data of Google but can “think” like a person.

It took four years, but IBM thinks they’ve done it. Composed of 90 computer servers – basically ten refrigerators of hardware – thousands of algorithms, and over a million lines of new code, Watson is ready. The best Jeopardy! champions give correct answers approximately 90% of the time, and Watson’s is right up there with them.

So will Watson be the next Jeopardy! champion? Possibly. But, then again, Watson’s still known to miss a few. For example, when asked during a practice run “It’s what grasshoppers eat,” Watson replied, “What is kosher?”

Along with watching Watson compete on February 14-16, be sure to watch Nova’s Smartest Machine on Earth, the story of Watson’s creation and how scientists are teaching computers to think and learn.

Who do you think will win this Jeopardy! championship, man or machine?


From the Archive: Looking at the Past Through…Yellow-Colored Glasses?

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Local History Archive

Have you ever opened an old family album only to find that the vibrant hues from your color photos have turned a sickly yellow and orange? Well, you’re not alone. Many historic color photographs, especially those from the early days of snapshot photography when color film was first widely available for personal use, have faded due to unstable color dyes, photo papers, and/or processing techniques. Exposure to years of light if the photos have been on display often exacerbates discoloration and fading of color pictures.

While I was looking through some historic photos of Loveland last week, I came across a group of lemon-yellow photographs. Here are two examples:

Loveland High School
Lake in Loveland

The backs of the photos indicated that they were processed in 1951 on Kodacolor film. I decided to do a little research on Kodacolor using my trusty copy of The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs by Henry Wilhelm.

Wilhelm has no affection for Kodacolor film. In a section of the book entitled “The Totally Lost Kodacolor Era of 1942-1953” he states that he “does not know of a single Kodacolor print taken from 1943 until 1953…that survives today in reasonable condition; all have faded and developed an ugly, overall orange or yellow stain regardless of whether they were exposed to light on display or kept in the dark in albums…These hundreds of millions – or perhaps billions – of Kodacolor prints and negatives represent the first great era of color photography to be totally lost.”

Wilhelm cites unstable magenta dye-forming color couplers that remained in the prints after processing as the chief culprit in the yellowing effect. Conversely, most images made from the famous Kodachrome film seemed to have fared far better than their Kodacolor counterparts.

Do you have any Kodacolor prints in your family albums? How about Kodachrome slides? How have they held up over time?

Science Wednesday: A Sonic Screwdriver

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Prof. Bruce Drinkwater, who's working on creating a sonic screwdriver

I love it when Science-Fiction tools move from realm of fantasy to the hardware store shelf.  Today I carry around a portable communication devices that would seem right at home in the hands of Captain Kirk and Mister Spock.   My smart phone even has an application that turns it into a functioning Tricorder, capable of measuring sound levels and magnetic fields amongst other things.  Lasers have become so common place over the last fifty-years that they appear in our entertainment systems and grocery store check-out lines.

Now, a scientist in the UK is working on one of my favorite Sci-Fi devices, as seen in the long running series Doctor Who.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Doctor, he’s not your typical hero and tends to favor intellect over brute force.  While other fictional characters save the Universe with blasters, phasers, and light sabers, the Doctor is equipped with a screwdriver, albeit a pretty spiffy one.  Equally effective at opening locked doors and dismantling the plans of intergalactic evildoers, the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver could soon become a reality.

A scene from the Dr. Who episode “The Doctor Dances,” 2005

According to Bruce Drinkwater, the professor who has proposed the idea of creating a functional sonic screwdriver, ultrasonic waves can be rotated at high enough speeds to create a force field capable of turning screws and moving other objects.  Working at Bristol University, with a youth science program entitled Big Bang, Drinkwater is hoping to inspire the next generation of young engineers.  Ultrasonic waves, sound waves humans can not normally hear, are often used to penetrate objects supplying focused energy that can be measured as it bounces back as a form of sonar.  Ultrasound images are already in use as a medical diagnostic tool, and often provide expectant parents with their very first baby pictures.

What Dr. Drinkwater is hoping to create is a twisting force, a bit like a mini-tornado, to remotely manipulate objects.  Other uses for ultrasonic devices could include medical probes and instruments that could separate diseased cells from healthy ones.  Sonic tools could also be used in the manufacture of nanotechnology devices, another science fiction staple of the last few decades.

Sometimes truth is just a strange as fiction.

Science Wednesday: President Obama, The Mythbusters, and Archimedes

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

On tonight’s episode of Mythbusters (9pm ET/PT, The Discovery Channel), the Mythbusters are tackling a myth they’ve already tested not once, but twice. Why try again? Well, the President of the United States asked them.

The Myth: Archimedes Solar Ray

The story goes that, in 212 BC during the Second Punic Wars, Archimedes was able to set a ship on fire by reflecting the light from the sun off of 500 polished shields and focusing it on the enemy ship.

The Challenge: Set a ship on fire using only the focused power of the sun.

The Mythbusters tested the story in 2004, and declared the myth a bust – no fire. However, enough people said it could be done, and that they had done it, that in 2005 the show tested the story again. Still no fire.

So why did President Obama ask the Mythbusters to attempt Archimede’s Solar Ray for a third time? STEM.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is an education initiative dedicated to helping and encouraging children to excel in science and math that the president’s administration supports. It might seem funny to include a show famous for blowing things up in the tools used to increase scientific literacy, interest and success in science and math, but The Mythbusters are sneaky – using the scientific method is the backbone of every myth, question and story they explore.

The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center isn’t quite so sneaky. Our mission is to create meaningful opportunities for people of all ages to learn, reflect and have fun through hands-on and collections-based explorations of science and culture, and STEM plays a role. Our programs, from Starlab Planetarium shows to Meet the Animals and Science Surprise, follow the STEM guidelines for informal education. We’re dedicated to helping to build a STEM-literate and STEM-excited community and, we promise, you’ll have fun, too!

In tonight’s episode, President Obama and the Mythbusters will use the help of 500 primary, middle and high school students with mirrors to test Archimedes’ Solar Ray once again. What do you think, will they succeed in setting a boat on fire?

Students aim their mirrors

And for your next scientific ventures, be sure to check out the museum’s calendar for fun upcoming events.

Introducing: On the Discovery Docket

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Amongst the staff and volunteers at the museum, our passions for all things history and science doesn’t stop when we leave work for the day. Awesome nerds that we are, we’re forever telling each other about new books and magazine articles we’ve read, radio programs we’ve listened to, and documentaries we’ve watched.

Since it’s not fair for us to keep all this good stuff to ourselves, we want to include you in these conversations. So we’re launching a new feature on the blog: On the Discovery Docket. On the Discovery Docket is our place to connect you to resources beyond the museum that will feed both your mind and your imagination.

What can you expect to find? Well, in the upcoming posts, be on the lookout for recommendations on

  • an exciting, interesting and funny history of the periodic table (who would have thought that gallium could cause so many giggles?)
  • a selection of podcasts sure to spark new conversations
  • a short documentary on perspective that will have you double-checking to make sure you’re not actually suspended from the ceiling.

Curious to know more? You’ll just have to come back!

And, as always, we want your input for more history and science resources. Know of a book that we just have to read? What about a movie or television show? Recommend them!

And since we don’t want to make you wait too long for the first official On the Discovery Docket post, here’s a short film to get you started.

Did you ever wonder how they inspect high-voltage cables? Watch a professional high voltage cable inspector and learn about Michael Faraday, hot suits, and how a half a million volts of electricity can pass over a man’s body safely. Absolutely beautiful.

Science Wednesday: Using Nanotubes to Make Water Act like Flubber

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Remember when we showed you how to cornstarch combined with water creates a non-Newtonian fluid that acts a lot like Flubber? Well, it turns out that’s not the only way to get the “Flubber” effect. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have figured out how to make water bounce, hop, break and merge. You just need a superhydrophobic carbon nanotube surface and a microscope to see it. Now why didn’t we think of that?

And for those of you (including me) who needed a short introduction to the world of nanotechnology, I’ve always found that singing puppets put everything into perspective.

Building “Curiosity”

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Just in time for Halloween you can watch a team of folks dressed in Bunny Suits surrounding a Martian Explorer.

Okay, that may not be exactly what you were expecting.  The “bunny suits” in question are actually clean suits to keep Earthly contaminants from hitch-hiking to Mars.  The explorer is a robotic probe being prepared for a flight to the red planet sometime late next year, with an expected arrival date in August of 2012.  You can see all of the work being done at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory via a live video feed from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, PDT, Monday through Friday.

The rover, named appropriately enough, Curiosity,* can be seen being assembled by the team of technicians sporting the fashion forward, white lab wear designed to supplement the “Clean Room” environment.  The ensemble that constitutes the bunny suit includes a protective smock, hood, booties, and gloves.  If you’ve seen the “Television Room” scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you may have a pretty good idea of what to expect.  While the crew uniforms may leave a bit to be desired, the Curiosity Rover is equipped with the latest in planetary exploration gear for its trip to another planet, including a geology lab, multiple cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser, and rocker-bogie suspension.

And while most of us can only dream about making the trip to another planet, all of us have the opportunity to send our names. By visiting the Mars Science Laboratory,  you can register to have your name placed on a microchip that will be sent to Mars aboard the Curiosity Rover.

For more information on the Mars Rover project, go directly to the mission’s homepage.

*The rover’s original name was “Mars Science Laboratory.” Catchy, wasn’t it? NASA held a contest to re-name the rover, and 12 year old Carla Ma’s entry of “Curiosity” won!

Science at Home: Playing Video Games and Advancing Science

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that playing video games can help improve your brain. But did you know that playing video games can also help improve science?

There’s a growing trend of turning real scientific problems into video games and having people, rather than computers, work to solve them. Why use people? Well, it turns out that there are many things that the human brain can do better than a computer (especially if that human brain has been improved by playing video games – it’s a win-win circle).

Here are some new ways to have fun and help science, and all you need is a computer.

Good at solving visual puzzels? Try Foldit, a game that challenges you to find new ways to fold proteins.


Protein Folding


Proteins, composed of long chains of joined-together amino acids, exist in each of the trillions of cells in your body and are the chief  workers within those cells. Without proteins, you can’t live. For as fantastic as proteins are, they have one big problem: they’re small. So small, in fact, that scientists can’t see their shapes. And when it comes to proteins, shape is very important. Why? Proteins fold. Protein folding is the physical process in which polypeptides, or chains of amino acids, fold into specific three-dimensional structures. The shape of a protein determines its function, and the better scientists can understand a protein’s shape, the better they can understand what a protein does.

Foldit takes those amino acid chains and turns them into a sort of scientific Tetris. Small proteins can have hundreds of amino acids, large proteins often have thousands. By following the biological rules of protein folding (e.g. hydrophobic amino acids need to be on the inside of the protein), the goal is to find the protein’s most stable state – the shape it would fold into in real life. Find the lowest state, get the most points.

The researchers behind Foldit keep track of every solution every player finds. Because there are so many ways that even a small protein can fold itself, figuring out which way is the best way is a continuous problem in biology. Right now, the goal of the game is to show that human protein folders can be more effective than computers at predicting protein structures. If this turns out to be true, the folding strategies used by people will be programed into computer software, and players may someday be asked to work on proteins that do not have known structures and even design new proteins.

Watch Foldit in action!

Want to work on a slightly bigger scale than proteins? Check out Zooniverse. Zooniverse is the largest internet Citizen Science project, and it asks members to help NASA, museums and universities around the world explore the universe. That sounds like a big project (and it is!), but the more people who participate, the more the world learns about everything happening out in space.


Andromeda Island Universe


How can you participate in Zooniverse? Well, take your pick! Want to explore photographs of the moon, looking for craters, boulders and even the occasional piece of space hardware left behind by moon landings? Or, maybe you’d be more interested in monitoring images of the sun looking for solar flares? How about the chance to be the first person to see evidence of a supernova? There are over 300,000 people participating in the six Zooniverse projects, and they can always use a couple more.

The two great thing about all these video games? First: You get to decide when to play, what to play, and how long to play. You’re a researcher on your own terms. Second? Scientists really do use the data you create. So go forth, play games, and help advance science!

P.S. There’s a third great thing about the games: they’re really fun. I can’t stop playing Moon Zoo.


by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

October 1, 2010, is a day that many technophiles and computer programmers have greeted with much excitement.  It is significant in that the date can be viewed as a series of ones and zeroes, in this case 100110.  (For our friends outside the United States it may appear as 011010.)  So what’s the big deal?  Well, the 1st, along with the 10th and 11th of October, can be expressed as bits of binary code.  Factor in that the current year also ends in a one and a zero and some people get really excited.

What’s the big deal?  Binary code uses a series of ones and zeroes to express letters and commands to a computer with the ones representing “yes”, “true”, or “on” statements; while the zeroes represent “no”, “false”, or “off’.  The code is equivalent to turning a series of switches to an on or off position, with each configuration representing a different command.  If none of this makes sense, don’t worry too much.  As the saying goes, “There are only 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary – and those who don’t.”

You can also translate the alphabet into binary code. “A” = 01000001, “a” = 01100001, “B” = 01000010, “b” = 01100010, and so on.

We’ve left you some Coded Messages below. If you’re really ambitious, try decoding them with a binary alphabet key. However, if you’d like to let a computer do all the work (and, given that we’re discussing binary, that seems quite appropriate), you can have some fun with this translator:

01010100 01101000 01100001 01101110 01101011 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 00100000 01100110 01101111 01110010 00100000 01110110 01101001 01110011 01101001 01110100 01101001 01101110 01100111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01000110 01101111 01110010 01110100 00100000 01000011 01101111 01101100 01101100 01101001 01101110 01110011 00100000 01001101 01110101 01110011 01100101 01110101 01101101 00100000 00100110 00100000 01000100 01101001 01110011 01100011 01101111 01110110 01100101 01110010 01111001 00100000 01010011 01100011 01101001 01100101 01101110 01100011 01100101 00100000 01000011 01100101 01101110 01110100 01100101 01110010 00100000 01110111 01100101 01100010 01110011 01101001 01110100 01100101 00101110

01000010 01100101 00100000 01110011 01110101 01110010 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01100100 01110010 01101001 01101110 01101011 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01001111 01110110 01100001 01101100 01110100 01101001 01101110 01100101 00100001

The Math of the Stars and Stripes

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

The "long star" configuration for a flag with 68 states

While Flag Day was technically yesterday, I thought you might all still be interested in the recent stars and stripes work of Dr. Skip Garibaldi, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Emory University.

Professor Garibaldi wrote a computer program that figures out all the possible star combinations for the American flag if new states are added. While we’ve been the 50 states since Hawaii joined the Union on August 21, 1959, there’s always a chance that number could change (see the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010, which could open the door for statehood). Click here to see how our flag can change, from 1 star to 100, often with multiple star configuration options for each number. While Professor Garibaldi’s star configurations may be a solution for the future, also be sure to check out some of the early flag designs used in our country.

March 2023

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