Great communication about science neatly and elegantly explains immensely complex concepts (think: Neil DeGrasse Tyson at his best) in language that non-scientists can understand and relate to.
Great communication about science is also really difficult to do. Science is messy, complex concepts are interconnected, and knowledge is constantly growing and changing. The nature of a scientist’s job is to have a laser focus on one particular subject and seek to expand knowledge in that area. That’s great for scientific progress, but not so great for explaining the broader picture of the universe to laypeople.
Rensselaer researcher Carlos Varela has developed a computer system that detects and corrects faulty airspeed readings, such as those that contributed to the 2009 crash of Air France flight 447. Their approach to detecting errors could make autopilot systems safer and could also be applicable in many systems that rely on sensor readings.
Varela spoke to WAMC recently and his explanation of his work aired on the Academic Minute July 25.
Here’s an excerpt of his explanation:
Every day we use machines and devices that are loaded with sensors collecting information on everything from outside air pressure and traffic jams to body temperature and heart rate.
Detail of the comic strip Andrew Zonenberg etched onto a human hair
(Rensselaer doctoral candidate Andrew Zonenberg explains how his research led him to create the “world’s smallest comic strip” by using focused a ion beam to carve the drawings onto a strand of his girlfriend’s hair in this great guest post.)
As a doctoral candidate — working in with Professor Bülent Yener, director of the Data Science Research Center — my research focuses on how to make software harder to exploit by changing the way computer hardware is designed. This sort of work tends to blur the line with hardware security, tamper resistance, etc.
How many individual zebras are represented in this collage of 10 photos? If we were looking at human faces, most of us would have little trouble differentiating between multiple photos of the same person, and photos of different people. But when it comes to wildlife, people are easily stumped.
Not so for computers. If the differences between zebras, or other animals with distinctive markings, can be expressed in mathematical terms, computers can analyze those differences — and identify which animals appear in each photograph —at speeds and levels of accuracy that leave humans in the dust. And that is the idea behind the experimental Image-Based Ecological Information System, or IBEIS.
Rick Mastracchio, a 1987 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a NASA astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station, took questions from Rensselaer students Friday. The event was coordinated with Mastracchio’s three alma maters – Rensselaer, UConn, and University of Houston-Clear Lake. Six students from each institution were selected to ask Mastracchio questions and the entire event was streamed live on NASA TV.
Dean of Science Laurie Leshin emceed the event for Rensselaer and, as a former NASA executive, was able to offer a unique perspective on Mastracchio’s experiences and details about the ISS (including that it is about the size of a six-bedroom home).
The students from UConn went first; Mastracchio graduated from UConn in 1982 with dual bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science.
(Rensselaer civil engineering students shared some thoughts about their experience at the 2014 Geo-Wall competition, held this February in Atlanta by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Rensselaer team placed third!)
Every year, Rensselaer Professor Tarek Abdoun encourages his students to form a team and participate in the GeoWall competition, which is held annually at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) GeoCongress conference.
The first step is for teams to submit a report describing their design of an earth retaining wall that is built using specific materials, is mechanically stable, and can sustain multiple loading phases. The competition parameters change from year to year, and this year required a rubber-sand mixture for backfill instead of regular sand. The Rensselaer team developed their model, made from the backfill, paper strips, and other materials, and tested it in the Institute’s soil mechanics lab. Following rough geotechnical calculations and engineering judgment, a simplified numerical model was developed to verify the design.
After submitting the report, the Rensselaer team was informed it ranked 4th and was invited to compete in Atlanta on February 24. Based on the quality of their report, the team also received a $2,000 grant for their traveling expenses.
The team members, all civil engineering students, reflected on their experience.
(Rensselaer senior Lynnette Lacek and junior Colleen Lamberson, co-presidents of university’s chapter of the Global Medical Brigades, wrote this guest post about their recent work in Panama.)
In January, Rensselaer’s chapter of Global Medical Brigades traveled to the Darien Province in Panama to provide medical care to the indigenous Embera and Wounaan tribes. It was an amazing opportunity – for three days our small group of 21 students functioned as a mobile medical unit. We set up a small clinic in the local community center, and with the help of two doctors, one dentist, and one pharmacist, we were able to diagnose and treat 373 patients.