Surprise Discovery Rewrites Human History

In what could be one of the most astounding discoveries ever regarding human evolutionary history, anthropologists have discovered the remains of a hominin they have named Homo floresiensis that apparently lived up to about 13,000 years ago. H. floresiensis lived on the island of Flores, east of Java, in Indonesia. The hominin stood only about one meter tall and had a brain the size of a grape fruit, but it walked on two legs and used stone tools and weapons.

So how are these creatures related to humans, and why the big deal? Until now, scientists thought that Homo sapiens sapiens (the subspecies sapiens of the species sapiens of the genus Homo) – in other words, modern humans – was the only species of several different hominin cousins to survive after about 160,000 years ago. Scientists believed that modern humans alone flourished and advanced quickly from then until now to become the dominant species on earth.

This simple history of humanity has been textbook material for several decades now, but because the H. floresiensis remains have been dated to only 18,000 years old this suggests a much more complicated history for humanity. In fact, modern humans began to arrive on Flores long before then, so it is likely that they may have come into contact with H. floresiensis. How might such contact have gone? The discovery also begs the question, how did H. floresiensis get to Flores? The researchers believe that perhaps 800,000 years ago, members of another species of hominins, H. erectus, may have used boats to travel to the island. Isolated from the rest of the world on this island, the species gradually shrank in size due to the scarcity of resources. This process is well known in biology as “island dwarfism” and is common among mammal species stranded on islands for long periods of times. For example, H. floresiensis apparently hunted Stegodon, a extinct dwarf elephant whose remains have also been found in the same deposits on Flores. Island dwarfism has not been previously documented in hominin species.

The discovery was made a little over a year ago and the research was published in the October 27, 2004 issue of Nature. The scientists believe there are future discoveries to be made of other cousin species to modern humans that survived until quite recently. They also believe that this discovery proves our genus, Homo, is much more dynamic, varied, and flexible than previously considered. National Geographic has an artist’s rendition of H. floresiensis on their website, along with a small gallery of images of the skull. In early 2005 they will air a program about the discovery on the National Geographic Channel.

Head-Scratching Images of Titan

Scientists admitted this morning that they are stumped by the best-ever images of the Saturnian moon Titan. At a 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time press conference this morning, team members of the Cassini/Huygens mission tried their best to avoid speculating about the nature of the terrain visible in images, with varying degrees of success.

The tantalizing images show clear boundaries between light and dark areas, few if any impact craters, linear features and streaks on the surface, and a few probable clouds. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini Imaging Team Leader, described some of the linear features as “meandering”, a term often used to describe one type of river on the Earth, but she later noted that she was not a geologist and it was simply too soon to know for sure exactly what these images showed.

The difficulty in interpreting the images comes from the fact that there are no shadows present to get a sense of topography. The scientists speculated that this could mean there is low relief in the terrain. Cassini also used radar during this flyby, but the data was still being analyzed at the time of the press conference. Another press conference will be held tomorrow morning at the same time to discuss the radar data.

The lack of round surface features and obvious impact craters also suggests that the moon experienced recent resurfacing through tectonic or volcanic activity. Another possibility is that the craters exist but are filled up with hydrocarbons falling from the active atmosphere or slushy ice oozing up through cracks in the moon’s surface.

The scientists at the press conference were obviously very excited, but appeared to be as frustrated as the reporters present, who tried to pry more speculative explanations for the strange features in the Titan images from the mission team. Team members stated that answers would require putting together all the evidence from the various instruments aboard Cassini and the Huygens probe over the next few years. The lack of definitive explanations hint at just how strange and alien Titan really is, and how exciting science can be.

Titan up Close

The best ever images of Titan are being beamed to Earth by the Cassini spacecraft through early this morning. Most of the pictures released by NASA so far have not been cleaned up, but reveal distinct divisions between dark and light areas, and areas were the darker material completely surrounds pockets of the light material. Scientists are working through the night to be ready for a press conference at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time regarding their analysis of these images.

Some scientists have theorized in the past that there might be liquid ethane lakes or seas on the Saturnian moon. So far it is unclear what we are looking at in these images. Xanadu is the light area, large as a continent on the earth and one of the first surface features of Titan to be captured by ground-based telescopes.

Cassini must observe Titan through a thick smog-like atmosphere. Since different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, pass differently through different materials, Cassini’s cameras can snap images at various wavelengths. This flexibility results in scores of images taken at different wavelengths that focus on the opaque haze above the rest of the atmosphere, the various levels of clouds in the atmosphere, and the surface.

Crater density appears to be low on the moon’s surface, unlike most of the moons in our solar system. This suggests that geological processes are at work on Titan that result in a much younger surface. Learning what these processes might be will require further research and more images. Cassini will flyby Titan many times, with some orbits bringing it closer to the surface than last night’s flyby.

Our robotic creations, this time Cassini, continue to explore areas of our universe that remain inaccessible to humans, allowing us to explore alien worlds from the comfort of our planet. Just yesterday, all we knew of Titan was its thick atmosphere and hints of surface features. This morning we are suddenly peering at strange landscapes and vistas never before seen by humanity.

The Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) website has much bigger images available for viewing. The imaging team’s center for operations is the University of Arizona.

Apple’s Latest Media Player Advance

According to Frontier Channel’s “Future Wants” column in August 2004, the future “truly successful eBook reader” will include:

  • a color display;
  • the ability to view images and perhaps video;
  • the ability to play music and read at the same time;
  • accessibility features such as voice readback of text for the blind; and
  • sharing features.

Apple announced today the release of their iPod Photo, an iPod with a 220×176-pixel, 65,536 color LCD display, the ability to view images (in addition to its original ability to play music), and the ability to play a slide show accompanied by music on a TV or projector.

Steve Jobs said today that bringing video to the iPod is not a current goal as there is little content and a lack of consumer interest. However, some of Apple’s competitors are beginning to add video playback to their media players. It is only a matter of time before a video iPod becomes available.

None of the companies are discussing eBooks (although most media devices now supports audiobooks), but you should expect advanced support for eBooks very soon. Only resolution issues are holding back the flood of text from books, novels and magazines into digital formats, and screen technology will continue to improve over the next few years. In fact, Hewlett-Packard just demonstrated a prototype display using new LCD technology that they expect will match the high quality and resolution of glossy magazines and book text within five years. They expect the form factors of these incredible displays to range from the size of a magazine up to poster and billboard sizes. Other companies are also working on high-resolution screen technologies. By the time 2010 roll around, almost all displays for cellphones, cameras, media players, eBook readers, televisions, other consumer electronics, computers, walls and billboards should surpass the highest quality resolution available on glossy paper today. The human eye will eat up this future eye candy and a new baseline of technology will become the foundation for the next round of technological advance.

The iPod Photo comes in two sizes, a 40GB model for US$499 and a 60GB model for US$599.

Closing in on Titan

Today is the big day. The Cassini spacecraft is heading toward a close flyby of Titan, with the likely result the best pictures ever taken of the shrouded Saturnian moon. On Sunday, Cassini snapped a clear image of the moon at a wavelength that allowed it to see through the thick atmosphere. The large and white continent-sized area is called Xanadu. So far, scientists are not clear as to the exact nature of this terrain, but perhaps by tonight they will have better information.

In December, the Huygens probe that is riding piggyback on Cassini will be released and set a course for Titan. Several days later Huygens will parachute through the atmosphere of Titan, snapping pictures and recording sounds on its way to the surface.

Cassini itself will revisit Titan several times over the next four years, perhaps much closer than this current flyby. Cassini will also fly by many of the planet’s other moons. The mission has already revealed much greater detail, more mysteries, and better pictures than any other previous mission, and the best is yet to come.

NASA TV will begin live web coverage of the event tonight at 6:30 p.m. Pacific Time. NASA TV is also available on some satellite and cable systems. Stay turned for updates and images right here on beginning very early tomorrow morning.

Is Moore’s Law Dead? Not a Chance

For the first time in a long time, the increase in desktop CPU speeds appears to be flat. Is this the beginning of the end for Moore’s Law? Does this put to rest the theory of a technological singularity?

Gordon E. Moore, who co-founded Intel, observed that the complexity of components on a chip was doubling roughly every one to two years, while the cost remained the same or decreased. Although the speed of the microchip in a desktop computer has risen very slowly over the past year, complexity continues to rise at an exponential rate. The microchips in cell phones, portable computers, and the chips used in home electronics and cars, are all experiencing rapid advancement. And in supercomputing, this progress continues at a breakneck pace. Researchers are finding new ways to combine multiple chips into supercomputers that simulate weather, astrophysical phenomena, and quantum mechanics.

Meanwhile, the networking revolution continues, as these supercomputers are beginning to merge into various computing grids around the world. Grids share data and computing resources across multiple computers and over various distances, so that all the computers on a grid perform together like one gigantic supercomputer.

So what is happening with the desktop computer? Modern CPUs get hot, and they suck up a lot of juice. To combat these issues, the major chipmakers, including IBM, Intel, and AMD, are transitioning to dual-core CPUs. This allows better management of heat and energy usage. Experts expect the future of the CPU to be multi-cored, with real gains coming when each core focuses on a particular duty. Although the new CPUs don’t run at exactly two times the speed of each core, future versions and future application upgrades should result in noticeable performance gains.

Exponential and double exponential growth curves are used as evidence that a technological singularity is coming in the next few decades, but these graphs are simplifications of the processes at work. For example, Damien Broderick uses an exponential growth curve to depict the history of progress in human transportation in his 2001 book The Spike. The speed at which we travel has increased exponential through foot transportation, horses, cars, planes, and rockets. This graph does not show the transitions that occurred when humans began using new types of transportation. Use of older transportation generally hits a plateau at some point, prior to a new transportation type that suddenly begins to experience exponential growth. When all these mini graphs are plotted together, the primary exponential growth curve in the progress of transportation technology is revealed.

Desktop CPU speeds could return to an exponential pattern at any time. On the other hand, there are a multitude of other technologies on the horizon that could replace the traditional silicon microchip. Each new advance in technology experiences its own exponential growth curve followed by a plateau in usage, but the overall exponential graph of computer advancement continues unabated into our future.

The Rise of the Brains

In the mid-1990s, scientists succeeded in merging brain neurons with a microchip to allow communication between the two. Since then, scientists have improved the technology. Early in 2004 they succeeded in cultivating snail neurons on a microchip.

At the University of Florida, scientists have grown a brain from rat neurons that is learning to operate a flight simulator program on a computer. Insight into the way neurons network and learn could help improve computer and networking technologies.

Meanwhile, students at the University of Arizona are using modern AI technology to create small surveillance planes that think for themselves. Unmanned surveillance drones are increasingly being used by the military, but they are big. Smaller versions are harder to detect.

Biology and computer technology are beginning to merge in interesting ways, heralding an age of integration that may find us humans as just one component in a much more complex entity.

The Great Merge

The merging of biology with technology frightens many people. Our fiction is full of horrors like killer cyborgs, conscious AI, and robots that rise to destroy humanity. People have taken comfort in the “fact” that biology and machine technology are very different, and can never merge. Humans are not machines. Machines cannot think. Life cannot merge with inanimate objects. The laws of biology and the laws of computers simply do not mesh.

How wrong we were. Once scientists realized in the last decade that a biological cell with its active DNA, RNA, and proteins was similar in many ways to a computational device, progress in biology and computer science exploded. This insight led to the mapping of the human genome, the rapid advancement of the machines used for this mapping, datamining of life science databases, the previously mentioned merging of neurons with microchips, monkeys remotely operating robot arms and quadriplegics operating computers with their thoughts, new fields of study such as proteomics and systems biology, the use of evolution to “evolve” new technology like satellite antenna, better search engines, the “HAL” AI experiment in Israel, implantable mechanical devices and microchips, and many, many more advances and research avenues.

Many people now take refuge in their comfort, pretending that nothing has changed, closing their eyes and hoping it all just goes away. They are in for a rude awakening when the merger of biology and technology taps them on the shoulder in the not to distant future. There are many others who are trying to put a stop to the progress, but even as they try to gather their thoughts, articulate their arguments, and win supports, the pace of progress leaves them far behind.

This merger is one of many. Even as biology and computer science merge and advance, so do all the other sciences. In time, new insights will set off new explosions in knowledge. Witness the rise of automated and robotic astronomy, digital life analogs to sociological issues, the theory of complexity combined with economics, the merging of physics and chemistry in nanotechnology, and computer expert systems grading college English papers.

Whether we try to hide from, prevent, or embrace science and technological advancement, we really have no choice. The progress continues unabated.

Cassini Set for Next Titan Flyby

The Cassini spacecraft at Saturn will flyby Titan again on October 26, 2004. It will be much closer this time. Scientists are hoping for clearer images of the moon’s surface and clouds.

Cassini’s orbit around Saturn has shrunk considerably and it will be making more frequent flybys of the planet and its moons in the coming months and years. NASA continues to release new images every business day on the official Cassini-Huygens mission website. The latest image shows turbulent cloud flows between bands in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Mars Exploration Rovers – One More Martian Year?

Dr. Laurence Soderblom from the U.S. Geological Survey provided yesterday an update on the Mars Exploration Rovers to faculty and students at the University of Arizona. Both rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are working well and could survive for another Martian year (about two Earth years).

Opportunity is still inside Endurance Crater and may attempt to exit the crater in the next few days. If successful, Opportunity may then travel to an even deeper and larger crater approximately five kilometers away.

Spirit has made its way up the Columbia Hills, studying rocks along its path. Scientists will then send Spirit to a nearby peak and then have it travel along the spine of the hills on its way to an apparent sedimentary basin.

The evidence for surface water in the distance Martian past continues to build, as well as evidence for alternating periods of wet and dry climates.