Random Samples

Science  15 Oct 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6002, pp. 301

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  1. Start the Engine

    A piece of the Analytical Engine.


    A computer programmer in the United Kingdom wants to construct a never-built Victorian computer, more than 150 years after it was designed.

    British mathematician Charles Babbage first dreamed up his Analytical Engine in 1837. It's essentially a mechanical, steam-powered version of the modern mainframe, says author and computer scientist John Graham-Cumming. Babbage's son got as far as building a small part of the machine's central processing unit (pictured), currently in the Science Museum in London. Now Graham-Cumming is looking for public support to build the rest (http://plan28.org/).

    He has a precedent: In 2002, a team led by computer scientist and historian Doron Swade finished a 17-year-long, approximately £400,000 project to build Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, a 3.4-meter-long brass-and-steel contraption that calculates and prints logarithms. The more-sophisticated Analytical Engine would be considerably bigger—“the size of a small steam locomotive,” Graham-Cumming says.

    As the engine was never built, who's to say its design will actually work? Swade says the key would be to simulate and “debug” the computer on, well, a computer. “It's like reaching back into the past and assisting your ancestor,” he admits with a laugh. As to whether Graham-Cumming is likely to find anyone to jump on his bandwagon, Swade says, “There are a good number of healthy lunatics about.”

  2. Calling All Bio-Balladeers

    If the words “computational biology” inspire you to grab your guitar and pluck out an impromptu folk ditty, there's a job for you. The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) in Knoxville, Tennessee, is accepting applications for up to five “Songwriters in Residence” to spend a month at the institute, interacting with scientists and composing songs based on the experience. They're especially looking for touring musicians who will add the new songs to their repertoire, says NIMBioS Director Louis Gross. See www.nimbios.org/songwriter.

  3. From Cambodia, With Helium


    Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, launched an object into space for the first time earlier this month. The vessel—dubbed “Preah Atet,” or “The Sun,” by a local 16-year-old high school student—was a 20×30-cm Styrofoam box borne aloft by a helium balloon and festooned with cut-up pool toys in case of a watery landing. A digital camera, nestled in chemical hand warmers to keep it working at the frigid edge of space, took 2000 photos and a video during the 2.5-hour flight.

    All in all, Preah Atet weighed less than 1 kilogram and cost less than $1000, says Eduardo Jezierski, the chief technical officer of a local NGO and the mission's leader. Jezierski learned to construct the space balloon from reading Web sites and launching similar balloons with friends in America. But Cambodia presented unique challenges: For one thing, his team had to import approximately 6000 liters of helium from Vietnam. And the country's minefields, wet terrain, and limited cell-phone coverage and roads meant Jezierski's team had to be trained in land-mine safety and had to keep mountain bikes and an inflatable boat on hand to recover the vessel. (Luckily, the box landed in a tree, in a spot accessible by car.)

    After the flight, Cambodians in Phnom Penh were treated to a screening of the video during a performance of popular local band the Cambodian Space Project—whose tongue-in-cheek name suddenly didn't sound so absurd. “I never thought there'd be a space project [in Cambodia], not for a very, very long time,” says guitarist Julien Poulson. For video taken by Preah Atet, go to http://tinyurl.com/opbdCambo.

  4. Who's Bigger?


    Surprise! It's the insect. Just 2 cm long, this Batrachylodes frog is dwarfed by its fellow rainforest dweller, the spiny, 7-cm Mossula katydid. The critters are just two of approximately 200 new species of insects, mammals, amphibians, and plants announced last week by a team of scientists. Their 2-month expedition to the remote mountain forests of Papua New Guinea was coordinated by Conservation International and funded by an outside grant.

    Team Member Piotr Naskrecki, an entomologist at Harvard University, discovered the still-unnamed species of Mossula in September 2009 by stalking through the forest at night, listening for unfamiliar katydid calls with an ultrasound detector. These relatives of the grasshopper normally rely on camouflage to evade predators, leaping to safety on their powerful hind legs if found. But the new Mossula had a different use for its spiky limbs: hitting back at the attacker, in this case Naskrecki himself. “I've never seen it in katydids,” he says of the feisty behavior. “It took me by surprise, and I got jabbed a few times.”