New freelance writings: apocalypses in comics, big black holes, fooling facial recognition

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Quanta magazine, Inside Science, and Physics magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

 

Apocalypse How-To? Better Science Fiction Stories About Threats to Humanity

While plenty of apocalypses occur in science fiction, the risks could be shown more realistically, experts argue.

Which science fiction movies, TV shows, and comic books give a realistic portrayal of the consequences of “antibiotic resistance”? None, said Jessica Petrillo, a State Department senior health security officer. There’s a dearth of stories exploring how overusing antibiotics is fueling drug-resistant diseases that kill more and more people every year, she said. Her first goal is to try to raise awareness of the global problem, including through “comic book diplomacy.”

That’s an extreme case, but a panel of government agents and scientists at San Diego’s Comic-Con last Friday argued that science fiction writers and artists can craft better stories about disasters that could imperil civilization. The possibility of a coming apocalypse pervades science fiction today, but how likely are those possibilities in the next few decades or the next century? These experts tried to figure out how nuclear proliferation, killer asteroids and pandemics might actually arise.

Take nuclear terrorism. Many movies and TV programs, including “24,” make it appear almost easy to acquire or engineer nuclear devices. But countries typically hold such devices with the highest security measures, such that maybe only a terrorist organization with the capabilities of SPECTRE from the James Bond movies or The Syndicate in the DC Comics universe could get around them, said Gregory Bernard, a Department of Homeland Security officer…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 24 July.]

 

Big Black Holes Found in the Smallest Galaxies

Tiny, dim “dwarf” galaxies have been found to hide gas-spewing black holes.

Even little galaxies have enormous black holes. That’s the takeaway from a new study of so-called dwarf galaxies — galaxies that are so small and dim that astronomers only know about the ones relatively nearby. What’s more, these black holes are somewhat explosive — engines powering strong jets of gas and radiation that stifle the galaxies’ growth.

“This is one of those things you’re hoping to find, and it came with thunder,” said Gabriela Canalizo, an astronomer at the University of California, Riverside, who led the research team. She and her colleagues found dwarf galaxies with black holes providing energetic feedback stronger even than they expected. The research has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

Astrophysicists long thought that the largest galaxies (like our own Milky Way) had a monopoly on mammoth, active black holes, which often lurk in the galaxy’s center. Astronomers find them either by spotting the hard turns made by nearby stars, or by catching the glow that appears when gas and stars fall in, creating a radiation-spewing “active galactic nucleus.”…

[Read the entire piece in Quanta magazine, published on 23 July.]

 

Biological Attacks Have Lessons for Image Recognition

A trick that pathogens use against the immune system turns out to be similar to a technique for fooling an image recognition algorithm.

The human immune system must distinguish the body’s own cells from invaders. Likewise, standard facial recognition software must distinguish the target face from all the others. A new mathematical model demonstrates this analogy, showing that a well-known strategy for outsmarting the immune system is akin to a standard way to fool a pattern recognition system. The model’s creators say that the fields of machine learning and immunology could each benefit from methods that work in the other field.

Every time an immune cell encounters a new biomolecule (“ligand”), such as the protein coating of a virus, it must categorize the molecule and determine the appropriate response. But the system isn’t perfect; HIV, for example, can avoid setting off an immune response. “In immunology, you have unexpected ways of fooling immune cells,” says Paul François, of McGill University in Canada. He realized that there is a similarity between the way certain pathogens outsmart the immune system and the way a sophisticated hacker can fool image recognition software…

[Read the entire piece in Physics magazine, published on 26 July.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.