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Imagining the year 2000 (in 1900)

19 Aug

The other day, I stumbled across these brilliant French illustrations imagining what life would be like in the year 2000. Issued between 1899 and 1910, they were enclosed inside cigarette/cigar boxes or sent as postcards, and the first series was produced for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

It’s pretty funny now to look back at some of the artists’ predictions – one can’t help but think they might be a little bit disappointed with today’s lack of flying firemen and ever-present robots. But I wonder how many of our predictions for the year 3000 will come true (according to Busted, we’ll all be living underwater with lots of naked, triple-breasted women).

Anyway, here’s a few of the retro-futuristic illustrations by Villemard and Jean-Marc Côté (view the full set here):

Gravity-defying firemen

A conductor operates his mechanical orchestra

Madame at her toilette

Croquet in diving helmets!

A lazy teacher feeds textbooks into his pupils’ heads

Not all of them are so far-fetched though. This one is essentially Skype, albeit with vintage equipment…

Skype, retro-future style. Check out that hat…

And I’d be very grateful if anyone could explain this one to me. Some kind of equine theatre maybe? A fully-clothed version of Equus?

A horse on a stage. No idea what this one’s about…

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Superhero Science: Tomorrow’s caped crusaders

6 Jun

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Everyone loves a good Hollywood ending. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a masked hero finally dispatch an evil villain. But aren’t flying men with super-strength a bit passé? Maybe it’s time for some new, cutting-edge superheroes…

Introducing… Corner Woman, Neutrino-man and Camo-Kid (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Science and superheroes have a surprisingly intimate history. Pick any of the well-known protagonists from the Marvel or DC comic books and the chances are you’ll be able to trace their history back to science.

Spider-Man, for instance, came into existence when geeky high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider during a science demonstration. Some superheroes were even fully-fledged scientists before freak accidents gave them their powers – Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) are two examples.

The X-Men, whose superpowers developed from mutations, were undoubtedly inspired by the theory of evolution. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the real world is going to start growing claws out of their hands, but mutations are known to play an important role in natural selection, in which a random mutation, if beneficial, can eventually become a new characteristic of a species.

Even Superman – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” – is not quite as unscientific as you might think. In 2007, Dr Chris Stanley at London’s Natural History Museum discovered a mineral with the chemical formula ‘sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide’. He soon realised that this composition was remarkably similar to the description of a rock containing Kryptonite in the 2006 film Superman Returns. The real mineral, however, is white, powdery and harmless – quite unlike the green, radioactive material that blights Superman throughout his adventures.

Superman plays with himself (credit: JC Hancock)

Clearly, then, there’s a fair amount of science in the world of superheroes. But what type of superhero, I wondered, could be born from today’s cutting-edge scientific research? I decided to browse through some of the recent science news stories and create three science-inspired superheroes of my own. This trio probably won’t be gracing a Marvel comic or Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but I hope you’ll take them into your heart anyway.

Continue reading

A very brief history of personal computing

22 Jan

Here’s a lovely little video (via Asymco)  showing the rise and fall of different personal computing platforms since 1975. On the vertical axis: number of units sold per year (note the log scale). On the horizontal axis: computing platform (in alphabetical order). Read more about the data analysis here.

No surprises about which platforms are currently dominating the market, but let’s spare a thought for poor old Commodore 64 and Amiga, who both experienced a dramatic fall from grace in the early 1990s.

When Google Doodles Scientists

13 Jan

Ever since 1998, Google has been brightening up its homepage with “Google doodles”, playfully customised logos which celebrate a current event or the birthday of a famous person. The first ever doodle was created when the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, attended the Burning Man festival and wanted to let Google users know that they were “out of office”.

Since then, the Google doodle has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. There have now been over 1,000 doodles, celebrating events ranging from the anniversary of the ice cream sundae to Freddie Mercury’s 65th Birthday (this one needs to be seen!).

A couple days ago, being the geek that I am, I got quite excited by a science-themed doodle – a strati-tastic version of the Google logo in celebration of Nicolas Steno, an important figure in modern geology.

So, noticing that Google keeps an archive of all of its doodles, I thought I’d find out which other scientists had been honoured by Google’s creative bods. Turns out there’s quite a lot… Continue reading

Tomorrow’s World, today

14 Dec

During one of my recent procrastination-fuelled trips across the internet (the kind where you begin on Wikipedia and end up fifteen minutes later watching a video about bog snorkelling), I came across an undiscovered gem.

Up until 2003, the BBC broadcast a science-themed TV show called Tomorrow’s World. It was often a showcase for new inventions, giving a nation of goggle-eyed viewers their first ever glimpses of PCs, compact discs, mobile phones, and, errr, the Segway. So I was chuffed to find out that the BBC have uploaded some old Tomorrow’s World episodes to their archive, dating all the way back to 1965.

In the following clip, originally broadcast in 1967, Europe’s very first home computer terminal is introduced, featuring a businessman who seemingly likes to work in his pyjamas:

Rex Malik sees a future world where…every home will have its own terminal plugged into a central brain.” Ring any bells? I think Tomorrow’s World may just have predicted the internet.

He sees his son growing up in a world where eventually his very thoughts could be stored and perhaps assessed for his future use.” I’m not sure about this bit, but it does sound a little like Facebook.

And the next video, from 1979, showcases an experimental cordless mobile phone:

Texting must’ve been a nightmare with that rotary dialer. Keep watching for the outtake at the end…the first incorrect number dialed on a mobile phone.

But although Tomorrow’s World was usually ahead of its time, the show also featured some inventions that are now best forgotten. This clip, from 1968, introduces the plastic garden:

No more weeding! No more withered flowers!  No more mowing! That may be true, but does anyone really want a garden that’s a cross between an AstroTurf football pitch and a tacky restaurant? At least plastic garden chairs caught on…

Gunshot Forensics: what’s in a bang?

30 Oct

Imagine you’re a crime scene investigator and you’ve been called to the aftermath of a shooting. There’s been a bloody gun battle between two rival gangs, and you arrive to find a bullet-ridden corpse lying in the middle of a busy street. What would be your top priority?

Some crime scene investigators get to work in CSI

If, like me, your gut instinct would be to get out of there as soon as possible, forensics probably isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a calm-headed pro, you’d first need to secure and isolate the crime scene. Then you’d photograph the area and maybe start making a note of incriminating evidence such as abandoned weapons or scraps of clothing.

In any case, trying to locate an audio recording of the gunfight probably wouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind.

However, there’s a growing number of forensic scientists who study gunshot sounds, because, surprisingly, a bang isn’t just a bang. Instead, gunshots are like fingerprints: master their subtle differences and you may be one step closer to solving the crime. Continue reading

What happens when two chatbots talk?

30 Aug

Answer: a very surreal conversation that involves religion, unicorns, and a fair bit of bickering.

The sexual tension is palpable…

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