Author Archives: Pedro de Mello

Grow Tall, not Wide

Farming is something so banal in our modern, highly urbanised world, it’s easy to forget it even exists if you don’t come into contact with it often enough. But it has been a major factor in human civilisation since the beginning of what can even be called “civilisation”: with agriculture, humans were able to settle to tend to their crops instead of hunting for food, and soon enough, the farmers found themselves with a lot of free time between planting, taking care of, and harvesting crops. This free time coming from a settled existence birthed the earliest forms of art, crafts and perhaps even religion. Settlements grew to become cities, which traded and communicated with each other, causing either alliances or war if they were too close together; soon, campaigns were fought against other cities, kingdoms and empires, and the ancient world was born. Literature, philosophy, science, engineering, everything we associate with the civilised world was only possible because our ancestors decided it was better to plant wheat and wait around for a while than to go hunting for some juicy gazelle meat right now.

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So, what is the next step? We conquered almost all land on the planet, but our population is still growing. Is there going to be a point where humanity grows to such high numbers that Earth simply won’t have enough farming space to provide us with food? The solution to this problem is vertical farming, the next step in food production technology. The process used in Belgian startup Urban Crops, for example, is but an application of what we know about growing crops to an enclosed, compact environment: an automated system is set up so that the crops are planted in a substrate that imitates soil (to eliminate the issue of diseases and whatnot), rotated through one of dozens of shelves in a room blasted with LED lights and fed with a hydroponic system providing the plants with mineral rich water. When ready, the plants are rotated out and ready to be consumed, similarly to a factory production line and independent of season or climate conditions.

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This system is tremendously efficient when compared with traditional farming, as it requires a smaller area, has higher yields and consumes only a small fraction of the water currently used in fields. While Europeans are still sceptic about the prospect, since their populations are small and their fields are close to their cities, this system could be revolutionary in densely populated and highly urbanised areas such as NYC, Beijing and Delhi. This means that transport rates will go down as cities’ demands can be fulfilled by themselves, fresh produce will be available to people even in the middle of Manhattan, and most important of all, traditional farms will gradually disappear as we have no need for them anymore. And with the advent of lab-grown meat, we can do away with outdoors food production altogether, leaving nature to reclaim the land we no longer have any use for.

This will change the dynamic of human existence forever. We will finally become a truly urban civilisation, harvesting what we need from our own technology instead of nature. While a world of cities dotted around immaculate natural landscapes is hard to imagine, it is possibly where we are headed to with this technology. As indoors farming becomes more widespread, it will be massively more successful than old farms due to its low costs and high yields, eventually causing traditional farmers to either abandon their farms and come to the cities or migrate to vertical farming as well. This may be the next – and last – agricultural exodus, making humankind, at long last, be the city-dwelling species it has always longed to be.

How Close are Dogs to Us?

Dogs are man’s best friend. There is no denying that because, whether you like dogs or not, our species have been working and living together for tens of thousands of years. Genome sequencing of modern dogs tells us they diverged from their cousins, the wolves, about 27000-40000 years ago, which means it’s possible humans were influencing lupine evolution even back then. From hunting accessories to pets to cuddle with, dog and man have been inseparable since we came together millennia ago. But they are not just in an occasional mutual relationship with us, as a recent study discovered, it might be in their genes to be close to us.

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The research team, from Linköping University, in Sweden, conducted an experiment with beagles to find out how willing they would be to seek human assistance when presented with a challenge they could not solve. The researchers put the dogs in controlled environments with a human they had never seen before; they were then presented with three sliding doors with treats behind them, one of which was fixed and could not be moved by any means available to them. The most common reaction was for the dogs, after trying in vain to open the fixed door, to turn to the human for help. After the experiment, the dogs were scored based on their likeliness to seek human assistance and the few with the top and bottom scores had their genomes analysed. After compiling the results, the researchers came to the conclusion that five specific genes were likely linked to the observed behaviour – four of which are known to be associated with autism in humans. It is unclear if they can have the same effect on dogs as of yet.

While about 70% of the behaviour in dogs has to do with experience and psychology rather than genes, this may be the sign of a mutualistic relationship far deeper than previously known. A specialist in canine genetics from Cambridge University said that while this does shed some light on the depth of human-dog relationships, the experiment conducted investigated only a specific factor in how dogs perceive men, and that the full picture likely involves many more genes acting in their genomes to make them attracted to humans. This is only the tip of the iceberg on the subject, which may go deeper than expected. The Swedish researchers are now planning on doing similar tests on different breeds of dog to find if this is as widespread as assumed. It’s hard to say how far the rabbit hole will go, but one thing is for sure: our relationship with dogs is even more unique than it has ever known to be.

Breaking the Language Barrier

According to biblical legend, humans in a time before our time at one point attempted to build a tower so tall and magnanimous as to reach the heavens. Hundreds of thousands of men worked on the tower, known as the Tower of Babel; but God, despising humanity’s ambition to reach his abode, laid a curse upon the people so it would all come crumbling down: He cut the entire project by its roots by destroying its very foundation, the organisation of the workers. God made the men speak different languages from each other, creating chaos and confusion, ultimately bringing down mankind’s dreams of reaching heaven forever. This, according to Abrahamic mythology, is the origin of the many languages spoken today, and why some people can’t understand each other even though they may look alike and live in the same land.

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This myth was inspired by the thousands of years old perception that languages, while useful to communicate with those who understand you, can create problems with those who don’t. Language is the mother of culture, and different cultures have been fighting for dominance over those they see as foreign or inferior for ages – the word “barbarian” itself has its origin in the ancient Greeks, who said the languages of the non-Greek savages were no more than grunts and sounded like “bar-bar-bar-bar”. Language barrier is so potentially divisive that whole empires have fallen because of it, and even today, in a deeply interconnected world, it causes misunderstandings and factionalism. Recently, however, the always ambitious Google has announced a tool that may be the first generation of what could one day end the language barrier altogether: the GNMT System.

The GNMT, an acronym for “Google Neural Machine Translation”, is a new technology that uses Artificial Neural Networks (something Google has been using for quite some time now) to learn the connection between an input phrase (a sentence spoken in language A) and its related output (a sentence heard in language B). While older tools such as online translators break up sentences into individual words and rearrange them into a roughly equivalent sentence in the desired language, – very often creating nonsensical constructions – the Neural Machine considers the entire phrase as an unit of translation to output something that would make sense in the target language. This behaviour mimics how humans perceive language; while machines tend to process everything in units (in this case, words), the human brain processes context and ideas to create meaning.

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It also aims to solve a big problem in modern translation: namely, the infamously mismatched pair that is English to Mandarin Chinese and vice-versa. As of the public announcement of the new technology, Google has been using the GMNT System in their translator, raising the quality of the roughly 18 million translations made everyday in the two languages.

It is not, however, perfect. The GMNT still suffers from many issues that plague digital translation, such as disregarding context in paragraphs and focusing on the phrases themselves and mistranslating uncommon terms or proper names, but it is a massive step in the direction of universal translation. By applying a loose interpretation of Moore’s law, it’s safe to say that the next generations of Neural Translation software will become incrementally more refined and sophisticated, possibly even generating flawless translations by the end of the century. While the new system still isn’t even accurate and fast enough to be used for every language in Google Translate, only time will tell what its equivalent will look like a mere twenty years from now.

Our Future in Space

On the 21st of June, Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin (but more widely known as the CEO of Amazon) was announced as the third recipient of the Heinlein prize for his feats regarding accessibility of space for the common man. His Blue Origin has achieved important milestones in rocket reusability and orbital vessels, but this is far from what makes him and his little known agency outstanding. Bezos plans on, along with other private entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson, kickstarting human expansion into space and beginning a multi-planetary empire.

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Bezos is certainly ambitious on his expectations for us as a species, but he does have a plan. He envisions a future where mankind is spread across the entire Solar System, maybe even beyond, with Earth being a “residential planet” and heavy industry being confined to inhospitable planets with only colonies to maintain them. Our presence in space would number in the millions, perhaps even billions, with a massive, dynamic and interconnected society communicating and exchanging ideas throughout the vast sidereal space, always expanding into the unknown. This may be an optimistic, adventurous view of the future, but Bezos claims our future lies outside planet Earth.

According to him and many other scholars, it is essential to colonise Mars or even the Moon because, essentially, Earth needs a backup much like a computer. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet in the universe that contains life in any way, shape or form, and as such, we can’t risk its destruction with an asteroid impact, gamma ray burst or environmental collapse, since that would be the end of all known life. Which means, we need a colony outside of Earth so that if a catastrophe does happen, at least some humans and animals will still exist and be able to spread and repopulate somewhere else. It is not only a matter of striving for interplanetary greatness, but of survival of all known life, to colonise other planets as soon as possible.

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So, if we must go beyond the pale blue dot, how are we going to do it? Since we still don’t really have the technological capabilities for building even a basic colony on Mars, we must start with the first frontier – the atmosphere. Blue Origin has already taken steps towards launching heavy weight carrying rockets into orbit, which Jeff Bezos hopes will in the near future start a market for space tourism, where people would pay to go into orbit and enjoy the breathtaking views of Earth beneath their very feet as they float in a confined shuttle. If space tourism becomes a thing, competition will become a propelling force, driving space agencies to go farther and farther until we have the technology to make routine trips to the Moon or even Mars. Then it would be a matter of having the technology to settle, and we will then have taken the very first step towards the colonisation of space.

Space exploration is an uncertain and potentially dangerous enterprise, but also extremely rewarding. With the colonisation of the Americas beginning in the 15th century, the mineral and agricultural riches of the New World were so abundant an invaluable that they helped catapult western Europe towards the centre of human civilisation, sparking movements such as the Enlightenment and empire building. Colonising space will be the same. We will revel in the mineral wealth the many planets out there offer, creating planet spanning industrial powerhouses capable of fueling monumental projects, such as building massive colony spaceships or even a Dyson sphere, ensuring an incremental growth of our civilisation. At such a pace, humankind would be present in so many planets and satellites that our species would become essentially immortal.

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But let’s not get hasty. It’s still 2016, some people still believe vaccines are harmful and racism still lingers in the collective conscience. We still have a long way to go, but as soon as we take the first step, we walk down a glorious path from which we cannot return. There are men and women today fighting for our right to space, and those are the true unsung heroes of this generation. Our progress is slow yet steady, but our future has never been brighter.

Alcosynth: the future of drinking?

Everyone knows that alcohol isn’t a new thing. It has defined our history, our religions and our way of life. Be it wine in France, beer in Germany, vodka in Russia or sake in Japan, many peoples have adopted alcohol as a part of their culture, their identity. Alcohol and humans go back a long way, but most people don’t know quite how long: we have been consuming alcoholic beverages since Sumerian times, i.e. the beginning of civilisation as we know it. Beer in Sumeria was as important for socialisation and bringing people together as it is today, which shows that our relationship with it is even closer than one might imagine. Throughout our long history together, we have come to know that it has both positive and negative sides: it makes us dozy, happy and tipsy, but it also causes damage to our organs and causes headaches and nausea. We all know that alcohol is a double edged sword, and that we must enjoy it carefully. But now, Imperial College professor David Nutt aims to put an end to the negative aspect of alcohol and finally turn it into the nectar of the gods men have always made it to be.

The compound developed by professor Nutt has been branded “alcosynth”, with almost a hundred different compounds synthesised and patented. Two of these are currently undergoing extensive tests for their validation for public use. Nutt and his team believe the substance will revolutionise the alcoholic beverage industry, even estimating their compounds may completely replace ordinary alcohol by 2050. If true, this would also remove the problems of drunk driving (if humans are even allowed to drive anymore by 2050), alcohol related diseases, inebriate domestic violence and productivity issues related to hangovers, among others, benefiting not only the consumer, but also society in general.

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This apparently miraculous substance is but a clever manipulation of alcohol’s chemistry, according to professor Nutt. He says that, due to our extensive knowledge of the effect of alcohol on brain chemistry coming from over 30 years of observation and analysis, it is possible to isolate what causes good effects on our organisms and what doesn’t; with that in mind, it’s only a matter of devising a substance that only has the good effects. While alcosynth is admittedly still early in its process of being released onto the populace, Nutt has high hopes for his compounds, saying he knows the beverages industry knows alcohol will be gone by the end of the first half of the century. However, understandably so, investors are still sceptic about the validity of the substance to put too much capital into it. While alcosynth presumably is less inebriating than traditional alcohol and inoffensive to the brain and liver, the research costs are high and the promise has not been widely legitimised yet.

Some within the industry say alcosynth is unnecessary since low strength drinks already exist, and that the public conscience of moderation is increasingly responsible for less infirmities related to excessive alcohol consumption. Since the substance is still early in its development, only time may tell if it will revolutionise public health or fade into obscurity along many other so-called “visionary” projects that simply failed to be relevant enough to catch society’s attention. Meanwhile, moderation, sensibility and caution will have to do, as it has since the dawn of humanity.

You Don’t Need to be a Scientist to do Science.

Hello fellow non-scientists of SC200, my name is Pedro, and I bid you welcome. Welcome to the world of science, a world most of you won’t deliberately delve into ever again after this semester, a world of magnificent mechanics and intriguing mysteries that the common, everyday man dislikes because it is not accessible to the majority of people. Yes, it is a sad state of affairs for science, a fascinating universe of the most fantastic possibilities, yet poorly understood by many and therefore not looked up to. But it isn’t just scientists that can be interested in science.

Science as we’d call it began a thousand-odd years ago in Greece not as a field of study, but as a mere branch of philosophy aiming to explain and contemplate the natural phenomena surrounding our little human lives. Scientists were not the first to do science, philosophers were. It came to be when men started wondering where we come from, and where we are headed. What happens in the skies when lightning lights up the night, what makes a river flow, what is life, what are we. Curiosity, that’s the true mother of science.

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Curiosity is wondering what goes on in the backstage of the Universe. It is questioning the way things are instead of accepting them without giving them any thought. It is looking beyond what is visible. That is the root of science, an art developed throughout the centuries to explain why everything is the way it is. From Latin scientia, science means conscience, as in, to be conscious about what goes on around us.

A question such as “what is the meaning of life?”, for example, can have many answers. Those can be “to serve God’s will”, “to be a good person and help others”, or even “42”. What matters is that every human being craves conscience about life. We want to know what is there after death, we want to know who or what created us, we want to know if the world is going to end tomorrow or in a hundred trillion years. We are humans, and we want, nay, we need, to be conscious. We need science.

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And here we are, in college, aspiring to be knowledgeable enough that we will surpass others and succeed in life. Humans are not special because we are intelligent. Apes have memories far superior to ours, crows have known about the mechanics of water volume before Archimedes figured it out himself, and parrots can replicate hundreds of words in various languages. What makes Man unique is our will to seek out knowledge for the sake of it. Humans are hungry for answers.

In a way, we are all scientists, even if we don’t do research, or have a degree in astronomy or microbiology or anything of the sort. We need answers, and that only makes us human. Even though my major is History, I recognise science as a fundamental facet of human wisdom, that if explained well, can fascinate even the most indifferent student. It fascinates me, and I’m sure that, with enough effort, it will fascinate you too. I hope you all have an amazing semester and expand your horizons beyond you ever imagined they could go. Best of luck to us all, and remember, keep doubting.