Science Talk

From Gadgets to Galaxies: Conference Reports

Scientific American technology editor Seth Fletcher talks about the recent Consumer Electronics Show and astronomy editor Clara Moskowitz discusses last month's American Astronomical Society conference  


Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:  Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk, posted on February 10, 2014.  I am Steve Mirsky.  In this episode we’ll hear from two Scientific American editors, Clara Moskowitz, who covers space and physics, and Seth Fletcher from the technology beat.  They both attended recent major conferences, the CES and the AAS.  They’ll explain the acronyms.

Seth, first tell us what is the CES.

Seth Fletcher: CES is the Consumer Electronics Show, a huge international trade show in Las Vegas, and every year thousands of exhibitors come and show off their newest gadgets.  And this year I think there were 150,000 attendees, 8,000 exhibitors, so it’s just kind of a big zoo.

Steve Mirsky:  And you were the only journalist, of course.

Seth Fletcher: I was the only journalist, yeah, in the world.

Steve Mirsky:  There are hundreds of journalists and maybe thousands that come, right?

Seth Fletcher: Yeah, it’s crazy.  Yeah, it’s very international and it’s a madhouse, but there’s a lot of good stuff to see.

Steve Mirsky:  What did you see that stuck with you?

Seth Fletcher: One thing that I thought was really incredible, but ultimately I don’t know how practical it is, are these amazing curved OLED TVs. 

Steve Mirsky:  OLED stands for?

Seth Fletcher: OLED, organic LED TVs.  So these are-

Steve Mirsky:  LED is light-emitting diode.  You might as well say the whole thing.

Seth Fletcher: Light-emitting diode.  Right.  Right.

Steve Mirsky:  So they’re curved?

Seth Fletcher: They’re curved.  The curve is really kind of a gimmick.  The OLED itself is cool enough, but these are – I mean they’re really like televisions from a vision of the future, because they’re, you know, millimeters thin, they look brighter than reality, they’re huge, they’re beautiful, and right now they’re just for really rich people.  And they’re apparently pretty hard to manufacture too.  They’ve been promised for a long time and, I mean they’re amazing.  The thing is that they’re still very much toys for rich people.  So it was fun to stand there and marvel at them, but I don’t know how big of an impact they’re going to have soon.

Steve Mirsky:But ten years ago just the regular old HDTV might’ve been very expensive on display at one of these consumer electronics fairs.

Seth Fletcher: That’s true.

Steve Mirsky:  And now you might get the same thing for a few hundred dollars.

Seth Fletcher: No, that’s definitely true.  You know, right now there’s no reason to buy a new TV really, because they’ve gotten so good, but if the price comes down on these they will be kind of irresistible if they become affordable.  They look great.

Steve Mirsky:  And the big thing is the LED, but they’re selling also the curve of the screen.

Seth Fletcher: Right.

Steve Mirsky:  What would be the advantage of a curved screen?

Seth Fletcher:Well, the idea is that it gives you a sort of theater experience, from any point in the room you get this perfect view, and it’s not dependent on your position.  And I guess that’s probably true.  But at the same time I think it’s a little bit of a marketing gimmick, or maybe it’s a total marketing gimmick.

Steve Mirsky:  It’s like they saw that the screen is so thin, “Hey, you know what, we could curve it.”  But that probably wasn’t what they were going for.

Seth Fletcher: Well, curved glass is a new – it’s sort of a showy trick right now.  I mean Samsung has this curved smartphone, and I think it’s the electronics industry’s way of saying, “Hey, look, we can start to make things slightly flexible.  We’re sort of moving beyond the paradigm of electronics being hard and shiny and crunchy and they break when you bend them even slightly.”  So I think they’re kind of showing off their new manufacturing techniques.  I don’t know how much of an advantage it really has at this point.  I mean it is undeniably cool to look at.

Steve Mirsky:  Did you see anything – I’ve been reading about wearable electronics.  Did you see stuff about that there?

Seth Fletcher: Yeah, that was the other big theme – one of the other big themes.  So wearable electronics.  Yeah, smartphones and tablets are definitely old, old, old news, although there were plenty of them there.  The big news was what comes next, and a lot of people say that’s wearable computers, watches, glasses.  Google was not there, but many people talking about making applications for Google Glass, competitors to Google Glass.  I moderated a panel on augmented reality that had a bunch of people there, and then this idea is that we will in the future be wearing our computers instead of carrying them around in our pockets.  That is the – one of the big themes that, you know, the CES organizers and manufacturers are really pushing this year.

Steve Mirsky:  What about actual clothing that would have electronics built into them, like a shirt?

Seth Fletcher:Sure.  I mean, you know, people talk about that.  And there may have been some there; I didn’t see any personal, because there’s just way too much for one human to see.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some, you know, early stage examples there, and people definitely talk about it.

Steve Mirsky:  But what would that get you, though?  I can understand a gadget that you wear, Google Glass or a watch that connects you, but what is having a pair of pants that’s electronic, what does that get you?

Seth Fletcher: Well, you know, the first big application for wearable computing is going to be fitness tracking equipment.  So there you can see where it would be useful; if you have a shirt that kind of measures your vital signs and records this incredibly detailed portrait of what’s happening to you while you’re working out or throughout your entire day, then, you know, that’s an application that’s easy to imagine and I think probably already here, although most of the fitness trackers are like watches, bracelets, that sort of thing.

Steve Mirsky:  Right.  So just from what you told me I could envision clothing that for elderly people would monitor their gait, for example. 

Seth Fletcher: Yeah, sure.  Mm-hmm.

Steve Mirsky:  Yeah.  See if they’re suffering from any kind of loss of fluid motion that may be an indication that they have some kind of underlying health issue that they’re not even aware of.

Seth Fletcher: Yeah, absolutely.  Yeah, we’re going to see a lot of stuff coming out in this general realm in the next year or two; everybody’s going to be pushing it.

Steve Mirsky:  Okay.  Tell me the one other big thing that struck you at the CES.

Seth Fletcher: If I had to pick one other big theme it would be the Internet of things.  And the press and the conference organizers were talking it up as one of the big themes before the event, and there were tons of vendors there.  You know, Intel was talking about it, the big manufacturers were talking about it, small manufacturers, and the idea is really that things in your house all talk to each other via wireless and then you can control them from your smartphone.  And then from there you can think of it – I mean any object you own could be theoretically connected to the Internet and monitored or controlled in some way.

Steve Mirsky:  So my refrigerator reminds me that I’m low on milk.

Seth Fletcher: Exactly.  People talk about a future where your refrigerator automatically orders orange juice for you from Fresh Direct when you’re out.  And that’s still obviously a ways away, but the energy efficiency benefits here, you know, we’ve been hearing about this stuff for a long time, but the technology seems to be rolled out.  What’s funny is that everybody was talking about this at CES, but only the week after CES Google announced that it was buying Nest, the thermostat company, for $3.2 billion.

Steve Mirsky:  $3.2 billion, right.

Seth Fletcher:So, you know, last week if the Internet of things seemed a little bit hype-y and nebulous, this week it really, I think, became imminent.  I think people really – that sort of investment from Google signals that the smart home Internet of things is really going to probably start happening probably coming to market much more quickly than maybe we thought.

Steve Mirsky:  So like right now I can use my smartphone to program my DVR when I’m out of the house.  And with these thermostats I’ll be able to tell the house to raise the temperature two degrees before I go home, or is it more complicated than that?

Seth Fletcher: Right.  Exactly.  Well, I think that there – you know, people talk about all sorts of weirder applications than that, like, you know, more sci-fi; since your house senses that you’re in a bad mood, so it changes the temperature.  You know, it can tell by your pattern of pacing around the house that you’re getting ready to go to the gym, so it prepares things.  You know, there are just lots of speculative ways that this technology could learn your routines and adjust the settings of your home and your car and whatnot to make life easier for you Jetsons style or HAL style, depending on how you want to look at it.

Steve Mirsky:  Well, yeah.  Those are the two sides of the coin, because the image in my mind is Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times going through the years of the machine as he becomes consolidated into the actual hardware.

Seth Fletcher: Right.  And some people are kind of freaked out about the Google Nest.  I mean there are definitely huge privacy implications involved in the Internet of things and wearable technology.  You know, hopefully we will – I think there’s a solid awareness of them; hopefully we’ll address them, you know, as the products come to market instead of building this huge new world and then suddenly realizing that Google knows everything about me and everything I eat and everything I – every step I take.

Steve Mirsky:  Well, you know, I didn’t play Scrabble for like 30 years, and now I have five games going at the same time all the time because I can do it on the smartphone. 

Seth Fletcher: Right.

Steve Mirsky:  So I can’t really complain about incursions into my privacy as far as that goes.

Seth Fletcher: Right.  Right. 

Steve Mirsky:  Clara, you were at the AAS meeting, which is?

Clara Moskowitz:       The American Astronomical Society.

Steve Mirsky:  This was just outside of D.C.?

Clara Moskowitz:       That’s right, in Maryland.  A bit humbler than CES. 

Steve Mirsky:  A bit humbler, but still a lot of people were there.

Clara Moskowitz:       Still a big deal for the astronomy community; they like to call it the Super Bowl of Astronomy, you know, thousands of astronomers gather for this annual meeting.

Steve Mirsky:  Are they pitted against each other?  Is that why they call it the Super Bowl? 

Clara Moskowitz:       I think they call it the Super Bowl because it’s like the biggest event all year.

Steve Mirsky:  Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.  So what did you learn there or what did you hear about there that you found particularly interesting?

Clara Moskowitz:       One of the most exciting things for me was Hubble, the Hubble space telescope unveiled the newest deep field image that it’s taken.  You remember, you know, decades ago they took the first deep field image, where Hubble focuses its camera on a blank piece of sky for many, many hours and then reveals all of these hidden galaxies that are farther away than almost anything we’ve ever seen before.

Steve Mirsky:  Why did we think it was blank?  Just because with our current viewing apparatus at that time we weren’t seeing anything?

Clara Moskowitz:       It was blank in the sense that nothing had ever seen anything in that patch before, but we knew it probably-

Steve Mirsky:  Right.  We knew it couldn’t be empty, right.

Clara Moskowitz:       -had tons of stuff, if we just looked deep enough.

Steve Mirsky:  And so what does that tell us?  It’s telling us about early universe and galaxy formation?

Clara Moskowitz:       That’s right.  They’re seeing galaxies that are between, you know, 12 and 13 billion years old, which is basically almost as old as the universe itself.  So they’re really trying to see the very first galaxies that ever formed.

Steve Mirsky:  Is that a surprise, that there are galaxies that are only, you know, less than a billion years after the Big Bang?

Clara Moskowitz:       It is pretty impressive that things got off to such a grand start quite so early on, but we really don’t understand how that came to be; we don’t understand a lot of the details of the early universe, so if we can actually glimpse these things that can solve a lot of problems we have.

Steve Mirsky:  Will it directly help solve the problems or will it just tell astrophysicists that these things exist and then they have to go work up some theory?

Clara Moskowitz:       Well, by studying their characteristics, their shape and elemental composition we can tell a lot about them, so then they can plug all that information into models and see what might have created a galaxy that looked like that.

Steve Mirsky:  All right.  So we have early galaxies.  What else did you hear about?

Clara Moskowitz:       Well, there’s a lot of talk of dark matter and dark energy; those are two of the biggest mysteries going on in the universe right now.  And, you know, one of the best ways to track dark energy, which is the force that’s causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, is to see how far spread apart things are in the distant universe, to see how fast the universe is pulling apart.  And it’s really challenging to look at these great distances.  So new studies have come out of thousands of galaxies all over the universe and they’re using really sophisticated measurement techniques to get precise distances to things and to map out the universe on greater scales than ever before. 

Steve Mirsky:  It’s just mind-boggling how much more we know now than we did, you know, ten years ago. 

Clara Moskowitz:       Right.  I mean in the ‘90s we didn’t even know that the expansion of the universe was accelerating; we thought, you know, maybe it was static.  And now we know there is something that we like to call dark energy, but we really have no clue what it is. 

Steve Mirsky:  This is an exciting and at the same time kind of troubling time for astrophysics.

Clara Moskowitz:       You really get the feeling at a meeting like this that everybody’s thrilled.  You know, just the past year alone has seen a lot of new breakthroughs, discoveries, and they’re constantly talking about the instruments that they’re building, the bigger telescopes that are coming online soon.  There was a lot of talk of the James Webb space telescope, which is NASA’s successor to Hubble.  It’s going to launch in 2018.  It’s going to see farther than anything before.  It’s going to see some of these earliest galaxies and the conditions in the universe right after it was born essentially.  It’s going to be amazing. 

Steve Mirsky:  Exoplanets are always hot.  Was that a big discussion there?

Clara Moskowitz:       For sure, yes.  They have seen thousands of exoplanets now, and a lot of them are thanks to NASA’s Kepler telescope.  But Kepler recently had a major malfunction and is currently shut down; it’s not doing anything.  So there’s a lot of talk about what to do now, and NASA is organizing another way to use Kepler, sort of revised mission.  And it turns out if you play some tricks you can basically make up for a lot of the deficits that this broken Kepler has.  So they’re trying to sell NASA on the idea that Kepler is worth saving. 

Steve Mirsky:  And it’s going to be turned into an asteroid hunter, is that it?

Clara Moskowitz:       That’s one of the possibilities.  Basically NASA asked scientists to submit every idea they had for what you could use Kepler for and one of them was asteroid hunting.  And this new mission they’re proposing, they call it K2, it would be a little bit of everything; they took all of the ideas that scientists submitted and tried to cram as many of them as they could into one mission.  It would still focus a lot on exoplanets, but it would definitely look for asteroids also. 

Steve Mirsky:Is there some connection between these two meetings?  I mean other than my planets app on my smartphone, which is great, ‘cause you’re looking up at the sky and go, “What is that?  Is that Mars or is that Saturn?” you know, with just naked eye, and then you just load your planets app and you know exactly what you’re looking at up there at night, and now I know that the newer versions on the iPad, you can just hold it up and it will know what you’re looking at and show you that part of the sky.  But is there anything that’s coming out of, you know, consumer electronics that the astronomy people might be excited about, or are there any developments in the apparatus used for astronomy that the consumer electronics people might want to co-opt for their own purposes?  I’m just throwing this at you both; I know you might not have thought about it, but any thoughts about that?

Seth Fletcher: Yeah, I think so.  And it maybe goes both ways, but I know that in radio astronomy, for example, they have taken advantage of a lot of the – and presumably in other kinds of astronomy as well, they’ve taken advantage of the, you know, how cheap storage is now and processing power to do really hugely data-intensive observations with off-the-shelf technologies, and they’ve used graphics processors to, you know, do things they could only do before with custom fabricated chips, which were obviously extremely expensive.  So that’s made it easy for – and the reason I say radio astronomy is because I’m following this one specific group of radio astronomers for another project and I’ve seen how off-the-shelf consumer electronics has really made their mission possible.

Steve Mirsky:  Yeah, instead of having to build all their own stuff from scratch.

Seth Fletcher: Right.  Right.

Clara Moskowitz:       Yeah, and like you said, “big data” is a term you hear a lot from astronomers these days, which is basically they’ve created this problem for themselves; their instruments are now bringing them back way more data than they can basically process or know what to do with.  So a lot of the advances in technology are helping to deal with that. 

But it’s interesting also that a lot of technology advances that we see here on the ground don’t translate into space.  You know, we use rockets that are really not much different than the rockets we used in the ‘60s to launch into space.  And you see these incredible gains in consumer electronics and you think, “Why don’t we have our jet packs?”  And it’s interesting because it’s just so different and there are some basic problems of gravity and getting off the Earth that we can’t really counteract with current technology easily.

Seth Fletcher: You can send solid state hard drives to space.  That’s one fun thing.  But they’re really expensive.  I’ve heard some astronomers talk about this.

Steve Mirsky:Why would you want to do that?

Seth Fletcher: Well, because they don’t have any moving parts, so you can send them into a vacuum. 

Steve Mirsky:  Talk about the cloud; this is above the cloud.

Seth Fletcher: Right.  Right.  Right.

Clara Moskowitz:       Yeah.  Another thing is citizen science; a lot of astronomy projects are really encouraging people to get involved, to help them sort through their data, look for funny-looking galaxies or even possibly signals from extraterrestrials.  And this is totally enabled by the kind of consumer electronics that we all have there. 

Steve Mirsky:  That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our website, where you can check out our section on citizen science.  These are the kinds of projects Clara was just talking about, in which researchers depend on science-interested individuals like you to help them analyze data and evaluate evidence, not just in astronomy, but in an assortment of fields, and you won’t merely be letting your computer do grunt work; these projects require human eyes and ears, like yours.  Human.

And follow us on Twitter, where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website.  Our Twitter name is @SciAm.  For Scientific American Science Talk I am Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

[End of Audio]

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