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How Do We Create, Define, and Search for Life?

Christoph Adami makes "artificial life," effectively self-replicating computer programs. If you've heard of Tierra*, that's the kind of thing Adami does. In this TED Talk, Adami discusses his work, including a brief discussion of how we define life on Earth -- which is lots of fun, as he describes a real-world organism that does not die. And no, we haven't been overrun by this monster (yet).

After the initial discussion of "what is life" (in the context of wanting to identify extraterrestrial life), Adami explains his own artificial life programs, and that's when things get deeply geeky. If you're interested in science of any kind, this talk is worth your twenty minutes. Stick around for the animations showing biodiversity, and then the animation showing how the rate of mutation affects populations -- it's strikes a very weird geek chord to see a fellow geek demonstrate his "it's alive!" moment onstage.

* = Brief personal anecdote on artificial life: in high school, I became interested in Tierra and similar systems. So for my high school's science fair circa tenth grade, I wrote a life simulator that attempted to demonstrate a form of "natural selection" (well, non-natural, but at least selection) based on mutation and competition within an artificial landscape. My project was a C program that created various artificial life forms (predators and prey) that competed in a virtual landscape, reproduced, mutated using an ultra-simplified DNA-ish structure, ate each other, died of old age, and so on. The program's output was text-only, indicating the genomes and population counts of dominant organisms. The program was so resource-intensive that I had to borrow computers to run it on, in order to actually demonstrate the system's long-term viability -- my home PC was so slow that a single "generation" took several minutes to run, and I needed to run thousands or millions to demonstrate the long-term effects of small mutations. Anyway, I won the Computer Science division of the fair (by virtue of being its only entrant), but didn't place overall. Oh well -- I learned that it's really hard to explain "artificial life" to non-geeks, so it's encouraging to see Adami's presentation, particularly his clever animation showing the mutation threshold necessary to sustain artificial life.

You might also enjoy a photo of me with an elementary school science fair project. I was working with real, plant-based life at the time.

(Via Hypercritical episode 67.)

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This Giant Baking-Soda-and-Vinegar Volcano Tops Any Science Fair Project
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The baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, an elementary school staple, has received a super-sized upgrade. As Atlas Obscura reports, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry revealed their 34-feet version of the classic science project in celebration of their new Pompeii exhibition.

The mountainous structure relied on the same chemical reaction as smaller artificial volcanoes, but this time the reaction was recreated on a much larger scale. After wrapping the three-story scaffolding with brown tarp, museum staff filled it with 66 gallons of vinegar and 50 gallons of baking soda, plus water and red food dye to create two geysers of pink liquid.

While it's still a fraction of the height of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano towers over anything you’d find in an elementary school science fair. After showing off the project in front of a crowd of 3000 people, the museum plans to submit its creation to the Guinness World Records committee for consideration.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Science Explains Why You're Not a Morning Person
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Can't get out of bed in the morning? Allow science to tell you why—and whether or not you can change that.

I’m awful in the mornings. Can science fix me?

Maybe not, but it can explain why you’re such a sleepyhead (which may or may not be of interest to your boss). “There are morning people and evening people,” says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, director of education at UC-San Diego’s Sleep Medicine Center. “We call them larks and owls.” Which one you are has to do with your circadian system.

How does my circadian system work?

A region of 20,000 nerve cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus keeps your body on schedule throughout the day, regulating everything from hormone levels to when you digest food. And, of course, when you feel sleepy.

How does that explain me?

Larks are “phase advanced,” meaning they feel tired early in the evening. Owls are “phase delayed”—a pattern most common in teens and young adults—and don’t feel tired until late at night.

Should I be concerned?

Larks do have a mental edge. In 2013, a study found that early and late risers have structurally different brains. Larks have more quality white matter, which helps nerve cells communicate.

Can I change that?

A little bit. Your circadian rhythm changes over your lifetime. Babies wake at dawn, while teenagers can’t get out of bed before noon. As adults age, mornings typically get easier. You can also hack your clock by sticking to a regimented sleep schedule and avoiding light before bed. Light receptors in the eye tell your brain when to call it a night.

Can I blame this on genetics?

You bet! In 2012, scientists discovered a single nucleotide near a gene called “Period 1” that determines whether you’re an owl, a lark, or in between.

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