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Monsters, wimps and rockstars

Monsters, wimps and rockstars

(Copyright: Science Photo Library)

Our pick of the week’s science and technology stories include age-defying jellyfish, infamous trolls, elusive particles and celebrity teachers.

Moral machines
Gary Marcus | New Yorker | 27 November 2012

Google's driverless cars are already legal in three US states, California, Florida and Nevada. The assumption is that at some point these vehicles will drive better and more safely than we can, but as Marcus says what we really need are machines that can make value judgements as well as technical ones. For instance, if your self-driving car faces a sudden choice between hitting an errant schoolbus carrying 40 children or plunging over a ravine and potentially killing only you, what should it do?

Meet the 'tutor kings and queens'
Yojana Sharma | BBC News | 27 November 2012

If asked to name a career that would guarantee an A-list celebrity lifestyle, chances are that teaching wouldn’t feature highly (if at all) on your list. In Hong Kong, it’s a different matter, though. Tutors in sophisticated hair-dos and designer clothes are treated like idols by young fans who flock to their classes. The phenomenon is a result of the huge growth in out-of-school tutoring in Asia, but their success isn’t just down to teachers’ brainpower. “If you want to be a top tutor, it definitely helps if you are young and attractive," says one so-called “tutor queen”.

Can a jellyfish unlock the secret of immortality?
Nathaniel Rich | New York Times | 28 November 2012

Like Benjamin Button, a species of Turritopsis does something unusual – it appears to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it begins its life cycle again. The idea that the secret to human immortality lies within this jellyfish is somewhat overstated, its cells may be immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself. But it’s an entertaining read nonetheless, Rich is clearly taken with the story’s protagonist, who by day is an eccentric and engaging Japanese scientist called Shin Kubota, said to be the only scientist in the world who cultivates the creature, but who by night is a karaoke singer and minor celebrity called Mr Immortal Jellyfish Man.

The internet’s best terrible person goes to jail: Can a reviled master troll become a geek hero?
Adrian Chen | Gawker | 27 November 2012

A fascinating and thought-provoking profile of 27-year-old hacker and internet troll Andrew Auernheimer, perhaps better known as "Weev". "I hack, I ruin lives, I make piles of money," says Auernheimer, so-called "iPad hacker", and the man behind the infamous Goatse internet prank (we don’t recommend that you Google this). It’s hard to sympathise with Auernheimer, he’s an abrasive and provocative character. But the case he is being tried of poses a significant dilemma. By discovering that AT&T had accidentally made the email addresses of subscribers to its iPad 3G wireless service publicly accessible, and sending 100,000 of those addresses to the press, is what Auernheimer did criminal hacking or simply exposing a security failure?

Forest Giant
David Quammen | National Geographic | 30 November 2012

On a gentle slope above a trail junction in Sequoia National Park, around 7,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada, lies a very big tree. It’s a giant sequoia, called the President, and it’s the second largest tree on Earth. Quammen follows a team of scientists, who have learned surprising new facts about giant sequoias by climbing and measuring them inch by inch. The photograph of the scientists hanging from the President is simply breathtaking, as is Quammen’s description of the elderly monster standing regally in the snow.

Dark matter: the underground lab searching for wimps
Robin McKee | Observer | 18 November 2012

At Gran Sasso National Laboratory, nearly a mile beneath an Italian mountain range, scientists are trying to isolate the particles they believe hold the universe together. Dark matter is believed to permeate the universe in the form of weakly interacting massive particles – or wimps – and McKee visits the subterranean laboratory with a 1.4-kilometre-thick rock roof, designed to block out nearly all particles from cosmic rays that could hamper scientists’ readings. “With its labyrinth of tunnels, uniformed guards and glittering racks of equipment, it is one of the world's most spectacular laboratories,” says McKee. “All that was lacking from my visit was an appearance from Ernst Blofeld clutching a white Persian cat.” But the question is will this be enough to detect the elusive wimps?

How Google plans to find the unGoogleable
Tom Simonite | MIT Technology Review | 27 November 2012

The online search giant wants to improve its mobile search services by automatically delivering information you wouldn’t think to search for online. “We’ve often said the perfect search engine will provide you with exactly what you need to know at exactly the right moment, potentially without you having to ask for it,” says Jon Wiley, lead user experience designer for Google search. And carrying out what he calls “experience sampling” is the best way to do it – that is, asking people to share what they want to know right now, whether they took action on it or not.

Bonus read: The origins of Frankenstein
The Guardian republished this article from their archives, in which Mary Shelley revealed the inspiration behind her famous novel. Philosophical conversations between Lord Byron and her husband (Percy Bysshe Shelley) on the nature of the principle of life haunted her dreams. “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she says. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out; and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”

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