Daily Roundup

The internet’s been abuzz with quirky little (and not so little items) of note these past few days. For one, there’s a new lightest material in town — aerographite, produced by scientists in two European universities. It’s not simply 75 times lighter than styrofoam, which isn’t exactly concrete itself; it’s also electrically conductive, extremely strong, and absorbs light very efficiently, leaving it jet black. That means it’s probably going to be useful for a huge number of applications — from aviation to stealth weaponry to more efficient batteries. The material is tubular and porous, which is apparently what contributes to both its strength and lightness. I don’t imagine it will be seeing any immediate application, though. The production process doesn’t seem scalable at this point and is still being tweaked for maximum efficiency.

A completely different piece of news caught my eye earlier today: Wired had an interesting report on the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks to award legal rights to cetaceans like dolphins and whales. This is particularly quirky and very contentious, because it’s beginning to wrench at the deeper meaning of rights vs. legality and what rights even mean. As the article points out, the group isn’t saying dolphins have a right to education or anything like that; they are saying that cetaceans have a right to life, liberty and freedom.

For example, nobody will argue that SeaWorld’s orcas have a right to free speech or guaranteed medical care  — but they could have rights to freedom from imprisonment or captive breeding.

There are a lot of people who’d agree with that, and they wouldn’t necessarily use a scientific argument either. There are parts to this that are intriguing and possibly peculiar, though. A friend argued that simply assigning rights to cetaceans, no matter how complex they may seem to be, is still putting a very human perspective and value on things like brain size, individualism and social behavior. Paradoxically (at least it seems that way to me) he suggested that because of these skewed perspectives on what it means to be “a person”, we might be leaving out whole other species and even ecosystems. I will admit that this is indicative of some hubris. But — of course — the first thing that occurred to me was robots. Organizations like this place a premium on human intelligence, but what happens when we face a consciousness that we can’t relate to? Interesting thoughts.

Whiplash again as we move to another fascinating article on cryptography. Why, ask an interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists and cryptographers, would you want to consciously memorize your password when you can subconsciously — and safely! — access it? The idea is that, through a series of training exercises, before which the test subject has to create a random series of letters. Then the sequence, along with some randomized mixes of the sequence, is played back to the user almost exactly the way Guitar Hero works, where the player must hit a button when a falling disc hits the fret. Apparently, by the end of this training, you’d be able to pick out the correct sequence interspersed with other random letters. As the article says, “To pass authentication, you must reliably perform better on your sequence.” I think the practical applications of this would be… humorous at best, although the theoretical form of it is interesting.

The last item, I think, deserves a separate blog post of its own. I’ve noticed PopSci’s been running a series of climate change-inspired articles, and this one fits right into that sphere. Scientific American reports that an experiment to dump a load of iron into the ocean — thus fueling rapid algae growth and death — would suck a significant amount of carbon out of the air and thus perhaps offset global warming. Even besides the science, which is optimistic at best because we can’t control for all the ecological variables, this raises a whole slew of questions about ecological ethics. When we’ve screwed up, do we try to be as unobtrusive as possible or do we re-engineer our planet? Do we do it at the cost of whole ecosystems, when the bacteria that grow and die in countless numbers deplete the oxygen that’s normally at steady levels?


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