Friday, February 18, 2011

Real-Time Translation and Talking Dolphins

It's obviously been a while since I've done anything with my archive of interesting science links. I know this because the first link on the list today dates from October. October! A quarter of a year away! But my list is finally long enough for a decent-length post, so here goes.

It is now possible to transmitting sound through space. Conventional wisdom says sound can't move through a vacuum because sound needs to be carried through air (or something else that vibrates). This holds for the breakthrough, actually. They're not using sound waves, exactly. They're getting the sound to vibrates a piezoelectric crystal, which sends out an electrical signal, which hits another crystal, which turns the electricity back into sound. Electricity can travel through a vacuum, you see.

This reminds me of the interplanetary internet idea that was floating around a few years ago—fast, almost real-time information transfer via relay stations set up throughout the solar system. We could conceivably do something similar with these crystals, set up a satellite phone between us and Jupiter or enable space stations or spaceships to talk to each other. Or, if we start looking for electrical signals coming from space, maybe we'll finally make contact with aliens! Of course, I don't know enough space science or electro-physics to say if interstellar dust or asteroids or solar flares will change the quality of the signal, but it's certainly a cool thought, no?

Getting a little gory for a second, researchers at McMaster University* have found a way to turn skin into blood. You stick skin cells into a chemical bath and voilĂ ! Well, I imagine it's quite a bit more complicated than that, but still…. Once it's perfected a little better, this may be a way to get around the pesky stem cell debates, and if the blood is compatible with humans (unknown at date of original link), it might simplify blood transfusions. We wouldn't need as many donors to give blood, if they were willing to donate a bit of skin instead.

And back to our irregular broadcast: We have a universal translator! It's not without flaws, because it relies on 1) people being able to speak clearly and 2) Google Translate correctly identifying the words they're saying, but! Universal translator! The ability to go to any country I want, without speaking the language, and be understood! No phrasebooks!** There's also an iPhone app that translates Spanish-English texts in real time! Is that not awesome?

A while ago, the internet was buzzing about apparent evidence for precognition. A psychologist had run tests that seemed to prove that if you primed people on words after testing them on words, they'd still do better on the words you primed them on. It's compelling evidence and I'm half-inclined to believe it without further study, but it's only one researcher, after all. Let's see this replicated! Author Peter Watts has a fantastic analysis of the whole thing, and the controversy, and since he's got a science background, I direct you there.

Finally (and this one's new), we've come up with a rudimentary dolphin-human language! A series of whistles that humans can make, and dolphins can make, that code to various pool-side objects (ball, baton, fish, person…). Dolphins are actually using it to talk to us! I'd really like to see this developed to the point where it is a real language, or at least a functional pidgin, with verbs and determiners and adjectives and the whole deal. Think of what dolphins could teach us! Think of what we could learn about their minds, their culture, their own language! I've enjoyed the idea of talking dolphins in science fiction, but usually they've been altered to have human voice boxes/vocal tracts or they've got some kind of machine that translates thoughts.*** I'm surprised the idea of creating a hybrid language hasn't come up before. (I'm also starting to wonder if this new language will reveal that dolphins actually are from another planet. But I'm not holding out hope.)

Any cool science you've seen lately?

* Canada represent!
** I'd probably still buy one.
*** Actually, I'm not sure of this last one, but I swear I've seen it somewhere that isn't Up!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Talking dolphins were featured in an undersea TV series, can't remember the series but the dolphin was named "Dawin" and the captain of the boat was the guy who killed the shark in "jaws"