Science & Technology

Scientific News, Technological Developments, and Other
Interesting Items Online and at Middletown Thrall Library

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The First of a New Generation
of Cosmic Images

July 2022

The first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope have been released, and they are spectacular!

You can follow this link to see some of the amazing views of the universe Webb has delivered.

For even more images and updates, you can visit this "mission page" at NASA.
Comments? or Questions?

5,000 Exoplanets!

March 2022

On March 21, 2022, NASA announced, "The count of confirmed exoplanets just ticked past the 5,000 mark, representing a 30-year journey of discovery led by NASA space telescopes." (source)

An "exoplanet" is a planet "outside" (beyond) our solar system.

These other worlds do not orbit our sun. They orbit in other solar systems, around their own stars situated many "light years" (very far) away in the universe.

NASA published a YouTube video that runs over a minute and a half long and offers a brief overview of some of these planets and solar systems out there.

For more information on this exciting milestone, please see these NASA's websites:
Comments? or Questions?

James Webb Space Telescope

January 2022

NASA has successfully launched the new James Webb Space Telescope.

Since then, the space telescope has been going through prepatory maneuvers and configurations (e.g. deploying its mirror) so it can begin its scientific mission to "study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System" (quote source).

This space telescope follows in the tradition of its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and promises to bring about a new generation of scientific discoveries and amazing photographs.

NASA has created a website where you can explore the latest news and images from this mission.

More Webb Links:
Comments? or Questions?

Perseverance Rover Update

Images & Data

On February 22, 2021, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars!

NASA has provided a a video of the landing as well as audio clips recorded on the surface of Mars.

For more images and exciting updates, please check out NASA's website.

See also our earlier post on the rover to learn more about this incredible space mission!
Comments? or Questions?

Perseverance Rover

NASA has an exciting new Mars 2020 mission in progress:

"The Mars Perseverance rover mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The Mars Perseverance mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars. The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars Perseverance rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a 'cache' on the surface of Mars. The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars." (source)

In addition to the rover NASA hopes to deploy, there is a also helicopter named Ingenuity set to be launched when Perseverance reaches the planet!

To learn more about this mission, please follow these links:
Comments? or Questions?

Science & Technology eBooks

Our RCLS OverDrive eBooks service, which is free to members of Thrall, contains a number of science and technology-related titles you might find informative and enjoyable.

These titles exist in three separate formats: eBooks, eAudioBooks, and eMagazines.

Most of thesse items can be accessed immediately in your Web browser without any downloads!

You can follow any of these links to view items of possible interest:
To access this free service, please have your library card handy and log in with your library barcode number (without spaces).

When prompted for your PIN, that will be the last four digits of your telephone number when you registered for a library card, unless you changed it.

Titles which are listed as "available" can be borrowed and viewed immediately.

For other titles, you can add yourself to a wait list by following the "Place a Hold" link for any given item.

You can explore even more OverDrive topics and reading possibilities by following this link.

If you're more interested in science journals and scholarly/professional articles, please follow this link for our Science Databases, which includes Encyclopedia of Scientific Principles, Laws, & Theories and Salem Science.

You can also follow this link for our General Reference Databases, which include Academic OneFile and General OneFile, two databases that contain millions of full-text articles from numerous journals and publications.

For even more information, you can also explore our Science & Technology menu as well as the Science section in our Ready Reference Center.
Comments? or Questions?

A Map of the Moon

USGS Releases First-Ever Comprehensive Geologic Map of the Moon:

"Have you ever wondered what kind of rocks make up those bright and dark splotches on the moon? Well, the USGS has just released a new authoritative map to help explain the 4.5-billion-year-old history of our nearest neighbor in space. For the first time, the entire lunar surface has been completely mapped and uniformly classified by scientists from the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in collaboration with NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute." (source)

You can...
USGS Moon Map [detail]

For more about Earth's fascinating moon...
Comments? or Questions?

2019 Nobel Prize Winners

in the Sciences

The 2019 Nobel Prize winners were recently named in their respective fields:
For more about the 2019 Nobel Prizes in the Sciences and other areas, please visit this link.

See also our post on the 2018 + 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature in our Booklovers blog.
Comments? or Questions?

View/Download Full Image - Apollo mission images based on NASA photos with Saturn V rocket and astronaut on the moon

Apollo Mission
50th Anniversary

July 12, 2019

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo space mission to the moon is approaching later in July 2019!

Experience - for the first time, or once again in this historic context - the sheer exhilaration, the epic sense of human daring and achievement, the collaborative spirit of thousands of persons working toward an unprecedented goal, and the imagination-inducing wonder of voyaging to distant realms beyond our world.

NASA, along with other agencies, organizations, and media outlets, have made available new websites and multimedia, a selection of which we are providing links to below for your examination and enjoyment.

Apollo Anniversary Resources

NASA Coverage

News & Related Coverage

Apollo-related Library Items
within our RCLS Library System Catalog

You might also enjoy viewing our own Apollo Mission composite image based on NASA photos, something designed for our central in-house book display.

If you do visit Thrall sometime this July, we invite you to explore - and borrow from - our Apollo-themed book displays, which we hope will inspire readers of all ages!

Parents or guardians might also consider signing up their children for one of our Youth Services' (2019 NYS Summer Reading Program) "Universe of Stories" events this summer during the months of July and August!

Comments? or Questions?

Black Hole Imaged
for the First Time

April 10, 2019

Until now, the cosmic phenomena of black holes were explored indirectly and studied theoretically through mathematics and scientific theories.

Any visual representations of black holes, up to now, were necessarily artistic and speculative, drawing from theories proposed by Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Newton's Laws of Motions, and others.

Today, following one of the most incredible and significant cosmological breakthroughs ever, it was announced that scientists around the world, in collaboration with NASA and others, successfully used the Event Horizon Telescope - a global array of radio telescopes - to capture the very first image of a black hole.

The black hole imaged is not in our own Milky Way galaxy but rather one known as "M87," which is located approximately 53.5 million light-years from Earth.

This image, and the corresponding science and studies to follow, is expected to help astronomers and cosmologists learn more about the physical nature of the universe.

For Further Exploration...

Related News Coverage

Learn More about Black Holes:

Comments? or Questions?

Space Sounds from NASA

In preparation for the upcoming 50th Anniversary of NASA's historic Apollo 11 mission, NASA and the University of Texas at Dallas's Center for Robust Speech Systems have released approximately 19,000 hours of "behind-the-scenes audio":

"Hundreds of audio conversations between the flight controllers and other teams supporting the mission were going on every minute of the mission over an intricate intercom system....

The conversations occurred over what are called communications 'loops.' The air-to-ground loops between the Apollo 11 crew and Mission Control were released to the news media and public as they happened as NASA fulfilled its responsibility to share its work with the American public.

Until now, however, the recordings of those myriad 'backroom loops' where individual experts discussed the details of their systems, and sometimes the details of their lives, have been locked away in special climate-controlled vaults.

NASA's Johnson Space Center has the only functional remaining tape recorder capable of playing those approximately 170 remaining tapes. But the time and effort of converting them to current digital formats was daunting, and required the tape deck to be modified from being able to handle two-channels at a time to handle the 30 channels on the historic tapes. But through a collaborative effort with The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), the conversion finally has been completed, and the unique perspective of those at the core of supporting humankind's 'giant leap' is available to download and listen to all 19,000 hours of audio recordings." (source)

You can follow these two links to begin exploring this audio release:

More Space Sounds...

Even as physics students and aficionados would correctly assert "sound does not propagate in the vacuum of space," NASA has, nevertheless, extracted "sound" (from energy/vibrations/frequencies) from various missions and studies and shared some of their interesting findings over the years.

You can explore the links below to hear these recordings and learn more about these audio data visualizations and related research:
Comments? or Questions?


NASA recently launched a powerful tool to aid them in their ongoing search for new planets beyond our solar system. Such planetary objects are called "extrasolar planets" or simply "exoplanets."

The new probe, known as TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), is designed to be "an all-sky survey mission that will discover thousands of exoplanets around nearby bright stars."

To learn more about TESS, please see these links:
For further exploration:
Comments? or Questions?

Stephen Hawking

January 8, 1942 - March 14, 2018

Legendary scientist, cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and author Stephen Hawking has passed away.

We invite you to explore the links below which lead to variety of resources and library items where you can learn more about Hawking's life as well as his contributions to science and cosmology (the study of the universe):

National Public Radio (NPR):
The New York Times:
USA Today

For Further Exploration...
A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking The Grand Design - Stephen Hawking My Brief History - Stephen Hawking On the Shoulders of Giants - Stephen Hawking The Theory of Everything - Stephen Hawking

Comments? or Questions?

Solar Eclipse 2017

On August 21, 2017, many people across North America will be able to share in the excitement of a rare "total solar eclipse."

Depending on where you are when the eclipse occurs, you might experience a full or partial eclipsing of the sun caused by the passage of the moon between the Earth and the Sun.

As viewing solar eclipses does involve visual safety considerations, please be sure to examine NASA's Safety Tips website below.

If you'd like to attend a viewing party locally, in Middletown, NY, please check out this post from our Youth Services Blog for more about that and to learn about the free solar eclipse glasses which will be freely provided (one per family, while supplies last).

Also, in hopes of helping you learn more about this eclipse, and eclipses in general, we've collected some links below to websites you might enjoy exploring:

For further exploration...
Comments? or Questions?

2016 Nobel Prizes
in Science

Award announcements from
For further exploration:
Related news coverage:
Comments? or Questions?

New Billion Stars Map

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced major new findings about our galaxy through scientific observations conducted through their Gaia probe:

"The first catalogue of more than a billion stars from ESA's Gaia satellite was published today - the largest all-sky survey of celestial objects to date. On its way to assembling the most detailed 3D map ever made of our Milky Way galaxy, Gaia has pinned down the precise position on the sky and the brightness of 1142 million stars." (source)

Images and Maps: Videos:
For further exploration:
Comments? or Questions?


Juno & Jupiter

July 5, 2016

On July 4, 2016, the Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, to begin its scientific mission to explore this giant world.

Juno will help scientists back on Earth analyze Jupiter's atmosphere, magnetic and gravity fields, planetary structure, auroras, and more.

You can follow the Juno mission through this link to NASA's website.

For further exploration...
Comments? or Questions?

Gravitational Waves

February 12, 2016

For decades, researchers searched the universe in hopes of confirming something Albert Einstein's famous Theory of General Relativity predicted: the presence of "gravitational waves."

Yesterday, the LIGO research team reported their historic discovery and explained their findings:

"For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos. Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained." (source)

For more information about this discovery, its importance, and related ideas, here are some links for your consideration:

About the Discovery
About Gravitational Waves
About LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory)
Related Media Coverage
For further exploration...
Comments? or Questions?

EPIC Earth

EPIC Earth Images

November 14, 2015

NASA has launched a truly EPIC (as in Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera) service for earthlings:

a "10-channel spectroradiometer" which "provides 10 narrow band spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth using a 2048x2048 pixel CCD (Charge Coupled Device) detector"

...which means we can now view regularly updated images of our planet from space!

Follow this link to see Earth in all its EPIC details!

For further exploration...
Comments? or Questions?

2015 Nobel Prize in Physics

October 9, 2015

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald "for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass" (source):

Details from
News Coverage:
For further exploration...
See also:
Comments? or Questions?

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2015

October 9, 2015

The The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2015 was just awarded to three scientists - Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich, and Aziz Sancar - for their "mechanistic studies of DNA repair" (source).

Details from
News Coverage:
For further exploration...
See also:
Comments? or Questions?

Water on Mars

September 28, 2015

Today, NASA held a press conference to confirm the presence of water on the planet Mars.

This finding holds particular significance with regards to the potential of life, past or present, on the "Red Planet."

NASA's Official Announcement:
Related Observations from NASA:
Key Prior NASA Articles on the Topic:
Related NASA Websites for Further Exploration:
Comments? or Questions?


Earth, Meet Pluto!

July 13, 2015

NASA's current New Horizons mission promises to yield amazing imagery and much new science about the far-flung "dwarf planet" Pluto.

Pluto lost its planetary status in 2006, after the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided it did not meet their definition for full planetary status.

After New Horizon passes Pluto, it will continue its mission into the Kuiper Belt region, exploring potential "Kuiper Belt Objects" in that distant realm of our solar system.

You can use the links below to follow this unprecedented mission and learn more about Pluto: See also
Comments? or Questions?

Hubble Source Catalog

June 2, 2015

Astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University recently established a "master catalog of astronomical objects" known as the Hubble Source Catalog.

This catalog will likely be of most use to advanced astronomers, but budding astronomers will have fun exploring its images and contents while getting a sense of the very scientific side of astronomy.

Here's the official description of the from HubbleSite:
Hubble has amassed a rich legacy of images and other scientific data over its 25 years of exploring the universe. All of the images are stored in the computer-based Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), which astronomers use for their research. The archive is bursting with more than a million images, which contain roughly 100 million small sources ranging from distant galaxies to compact star clusters to individual stars. For astronomers, however, a major challenge is the difficulty involved with sifting through the archival gold mine to collect the data they want to analyze. The Hubble Source Catalog now allows astronomers to readily perform a computer search for characteristics of these sources.

The Hubble Source Catalog is a database from which astronomers can obtain the Hubble measurements of specific astronomical objects they want to investigate. A query to this database can take just seconds or minutes, while previously it might have required a few months of hard work by searching separate files throughout the archive. This capability promises to open the door to exciting new areas of research with Hubble that otherwise might have been too cumbersome to tackle. (source)

You can...

For more on this exciting development and related topics, please see these links:
Comments? or Questions?

Dwarf Planet Ceres

March 6, 2015

Ceres Ceres, first discovered in January 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, is now (over two hundred years later) being explored through NASA's Dawn Mission, which traveled over 3.4 billion miles to reach this "dwarf planet."

On Friday, March 6, 2015, NASA has announced:
"NASA's Dawn spacecraft has become the first mission to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet. The spacecraft was approximately 38,000 miles (61,000) kilometers from Ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet's gravity at about 4:39 a.m. PST (7:39 a.m. EST) Friday." (source)

For more about Ceres, the Dawn Mission, and related topics...
Comments? or Questions?

International Year of Light

January 30, 2015

International Year of Light The United Nations (UN) has declared 2015 to be the "International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015)."

The UN explains:
"In proclaiming an International Year focusing on the topic of light science and its applications, the United Nations has recognized the importance of raising global awareness about how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century. It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society." (source)

In support of this, the UN has created a new website, which includes related IYL news, a blog, as well as informative pages such as:
Some links for further exploration...

Other IYL websites:
Websites about Light + Related Topics:
Select topics in the library system catalog:
Comments? or Questions?

Orion - Photo Credit: NASA

NASA's Orion Launch

This morning, NASA conducted its first flight test of the Orion "Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle" (MPCV) aboard its new Space Launch System (SLS), the "largest launch vehicle ever built" (source).

With this launch comes new hope for the future of deep space exploration, including the possibility of astronauts traveling to local solar system attractions such as asteroids or Mars.

Missed the Orion/SLS liftoff? You can watch it on YouTube through this link!

For more information about the Orion module and the Space Launch System, please see these links from NASA:
Comments? or Questions?

2014 Nobel Prizes: Chemistry & Physics


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014 has been awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."

For more about the award recipients and their research:


The Nobel Prize in Physics 2014 has been awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources".

For more about the award recipients and their research:

See also our other posts on the 2014 Nobel Prizes in...
Comments? or Questions?

Charles Darwin's HMS Beagle Library

The National University of Singapore recently announced a new digital library online:

"For close to 180 years, Charles Darwin's library aboard the ship HMS Beagle during his landmark expedition around the world in the 1830s remained lost. The library was dispersed at the end of the voyage. Today, the library has been electronically re-constructed in its entirety and made freely available online as part of the Darwin Online website by historian of science Dr John van Wyhe, a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore." (source).

You can access Charles Darwin's Beagle Library via this link.

For further exploration and related resources, please see these links:
Comments? or Questions?

Hundreds of Worlds

Jovian Planet © rjt2013
NASA's Kepler Mission recently helped verify the existence of over 700 new "exoplanets" - planets which have been found well outside of our solar system:

"These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system. Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system." (source)

To learn more about these exciting discoveries and exoplanets in general, check out these links:
You can also try these subject searches in the library catalog to locate related books and videos:
Comments? or Questions?

Comet ISON

Image credit: NASA / Hubble

Comet ISON

November 18, 2013
(*updated December 2, 2013)

Comet ISON (also known as "Comet C/2012 S1") was discovered last year by two Russian astronomers via the International Scientific Optical Network.

ISON will approach our sun near the end of November. As ISON is a "sungrazer" comet - one which comes extremely close to the sun - it will be interesting to see how it fares.

The comet might disintegrate, or, as some astronomers suggest, it could survive its encounter with the sun and continue to be visible for a while as it embarks on a new journey beyond our solar system.

*Updates from NASA:
  1. November 28, 2013: Comet ISON Fizzles as it Rounds the Sun
  2. November 29, 2013: Comet ISON May Have Survived
  3. December 2, 2013: Investigating the Life of Comet ISON

You can learn more about ISON, its journey, and other comets through the links below:

Comments? or Questions?

2013 Nobel Prizes in the Sciences

October 9, 2013

The following three Nobel Prizes were just awarded:
For more information, please see these websites... well as these topical links to items (books, videos, etc.) in the library system catalog:
Comments? or Questions?

One Billion Pixels!

June 20, 2013

If you ever wondered what it might be like to stand on another planet and take a good look around, you're in luck!

NASA has published a "billion pixel view" of Mars:

"A billion-pixel view from the surface of Mars, from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, offers armchair explorers a way to examine one part of the Red Planet in great detail." (source)

"This full-circle view combined nearly 900 images taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, generating a panorama with 1.3 billion pixels in the full-resolution version. The view is centered toward the south, with north at both ends." (source)

You can preview the overall area at this link.

When you're ready to zoom in and explore further, you can follow this link to an interactive view, where you can zoom and pan across the surface of Mars!

For even more amazing views and news from this Martian mission, check out NASA's Curiosity rover (which more formally known as the "Mars Science Laboratory").
Comments? or Questions?

Happy 20th Birthday,
World Wide Web!

April 30, 2013

Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist, made some history at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in 1989: he invented the World Wide Web!

A few years later, CERN decided to release the technology to the world...

"On April 30, 1993, CERN published a statement that made World Wide Web ("W3", or simply "the Web") technology available on a royalty-free basis. By making the software required to run a Web server freely available, along with a basic browser and a library of code, the Web was allowed to flourish." (source)

Back then, the Web was incredibly simple and small. In fact, you can revisit the very first website right at this link.

Before the Web, there was the Internet. Today, people often use the terms interchangeably, but it was the much earlier creation of the Internet (the underlying system of computer information protocols) which would first enable information to be shared between computers and people over networks.

Tim Berners-Lee's invention allowed for the rise of "hypertext," "hyperlinks," and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) - digital pages encoded with links and computer commands enabling readers to "jump" from one document or website to another.

While the Web we know and rely on so heavily today barely resembles that first website, the underlying ideas of HTML and "hyperlinked Web pages" still endure as thousands of new websites come into existence every month.

For further exploration...
Comments? or Questions?

A Map of the Universe

Planck's Scan of the Sky - Click to View Fully

March 21, 2013

The European Space Agency (ESA) just published a radiation map of the universe:

"The most detailed map ever created of the cosmic microwave background - the relic radiation from the Big Bang - was released today revealing the existence of features that challenge the foundations of our current understanding of the Universe." (source)

This map was produced through ESA's Planck mission, which observes the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), what ESA describes as "a background sea of microwaves," which they state was "released into the Universe by the Big Bang itself, about 14 thousand million years ago" (source).

To learn more about the map, the mission, CMB, and related science, here are some additional links to information from ESA:
For further exploration, please consider these library links:
Comments? or Questions?

Free Ebooks from NASA

December 27, 2012

NASA has teamed up with the Space Telescope Science Institute/HubbleSite and the European Space Agency (ESA) to offer two free ebooks for your enjoyment:

There are two versions of these freely downloadable ebooks: interactive editions for iPad users and regular PDF documents for other computers/ereaders.

Both electronic books present beautiful illustrations and photos of areas throughout the cosmos as well as a wealth of technological and scientific information space enthusiasts will find interesting!
Comments? or Questions?

Computer Operating Systems

October 25, 2012

An operating system (OS) is what enables you to use a computer. Even portable digital devices such as eReaders, MP3 players, and smart phones have their own built-in OS software these days.

Apple, Microsoft, and Ubuntu recently announced new versions of their respective operating systems.

For example, Windows 8 is the latest operating system from Microsoft. Like Windows 7 (and earlier versions of other operating systems), each new OS introduces new possibilities along with potential challenges and hardware requirements for computer users.

To help you sort it all out and keep up with all these changes, Thrall offers an up-to-date and extensive collection of computer books, including numerous titles on Microsoft, Apple, and Linux operating systems and software.

We encourage you to come to the library to browse our computer book collections. You can also use the links below to browse items available at Thrall and throughout the local library system (RCLS):

Here are some additional Web resources for further exploration:
Comments? or Questions?

Neil Armstrong (1930 - 2012)

August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, forever to be rememebered as "the first man on the moon" and an American hero, passed away earlier this week.

When he exited the lunar module and spoke the fateful words "one small step," Neil Armstrong inspired people worldwide to new, bold dreams of space exploration and life beyond Earth.

You can learn more about this fascinating person, the Apollo space missions, and more at the following resources from NASA and others:
Comments? or Questions?

Countdown to Curiosity

August 2, 2012

NASA's Curiosity Rover
The latest chapter in NASA's Mars Exploration Program involves a robotic rover named Curiosity.

Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars on Monday, August 6, 2012.

Once safely on the ground and activated, Curiosity will use its numerous scientific instruments to sample soil, rocks, and other aspects of Mars.

If you wish to learn more about this mission and share in the excitement, here are links to NASA's online coverage:

About the Curiosity Rover & the Mars Science Laboratory

About the Planet Mars

You can explore items about Mars in the library system catalog by clicking this link.

Also check out our...

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Comments? or Questions?

The Higgs Boson Particle

July 5, 2012

On Wednesday, July 4th, scientists from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) announced their preliminary findings concerning a long-sought subatomic particle called the "Higgs Boson."

Many scientists believe it is the Higgs Boson that gives other particles their mass and enables them to interact and form matter throughout the universe.

For more on CERN's findings and related topics, here are links to consider:
Comments? or Questions?

Voyagers to the Edge

June 15, 2012

Since 1977, the two Voyager space probes have soared past the planets on epic journeys taking them toward the edge of our solar system and the beginning of interstellar space.

Already 11.1 billion miles into its historic trip, Voyager I still beams back useful information and shows no signs of slowing down as both probes press onward at well over 30,000 miles per hour, according to reports from NASA.

Voyager 2 is not that far behind either: it's gone over 9 billion miles so far.

Their incredible extended missions rank them among the most distant space craft launched from Earth (in addition to some of the Pioneer probes).

At this very hour, the Voyagers continue to hurtle without hesitation into the greater unknown.

For more on Voyager I and II, please see these pages from NASA:
For futher reading...
Comments? or Questions?

Cloud Computing

June 7, 2012

The Cloud... Cloud Computing... what does it all mean?

"The Cloud" is not really a place; it's somewhat of a convenient and catchy phrase used to describe "online services" located around the world.

Essentially, anything "in The Cloud" is "on the Internet" or accessible electronically through a Web-based service.

In the most general sense, "The Cloud" is almost a synonym for "the Web," but it does get far more technical than that.

If you use a Web-based e-mail account, you (and your messages) are already somewhere "in The Cloud" to a certain extent. This is also true if you store photographs online or use online computer backup services.

As more capable online "apps" (software/programs) and Web-based services become available, more users are able to access and work with information and files from virtually any location over the Internet.

In this age of "cloud computing," it will often make more sense for a person to "save" (store) a file in their e-mail (as a "file attachment) or send that file to a "cloud storage" service rather than to save the file to their computer's "C" drive or to an external "USB flash drive."

Once online, these files can be "downloaded" (retrieved), printed, or updated as necessary. New files can be created and "uploaded" (sent) to "The Cloud" as well.

As you might imagine, this opens up all sorts of new and interesting possibilities, especially for mobile technology users as well as persons generally looking to move beyond the limitations of solitary personal computers - and to take full advantage of the Web!

If you'd like to learn more about The Cloud, you can click the following link to browse the library system catalog:

You might also check out one or more of these links:
Comments? or Questions?

Einstein Archives Online

March 29, 2012

A new archive promises to offer unprecedented access to the writings of Albert Einstein:

"The Einstein Archives Online Website provides the first online access to Albert Einstein's scientific and non-scientific manuscripts held by the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, constituting the material record of one of the most influential intellects in the modern era. It also enables access to the Einstein Archive Database, a comprehensive source of information on all items in the Albert Einstein Archives." (source)

Please click here to visit Einstein Archives Online.

For even more information on Einstein:
Comments? or Questions?

The Speed of Light

October 21, 2011

Regarded by most scientists as something of a cosmic "speed limit" (around 186,000 miles per second as it travels through a vacuum), the speed of light is one of the most important concepts helping to define and describe the physical nature of our universe.

After decades of examining light throughout the cosmos as well as on Earth, most scientists tend to agree on this statement: nothing should be able to travel faster than the speed of light!

Recent news from CERN (the European Organization of Nuclear Research and home of the Large Hadron Collider) indicated one of their experiments produced results appearing to exceed the speed of light.

What does this mean, and why should we care?

First, if proven (and that being one of the biggest "ifs" of all time in science), CERN's findings could hint at many new and thrilling possibilities, such as previously undocumented properties or dimensions within the universe (as suggested in alternative theories of physics such as "Superstring" or "M-theory"). Such unexpected findings might also, as a matter of course, demonstrate our current understanding of physics is incomplete or possibly incorrect somehow.

Such "bad news" would require scientists to revise old theories or create new ones (and more than a few textbooks might need to be rewritten). For science, which is in a permanent state of revision and refinement, this is nothing new or shocking: science must adapt as new observations and discoveries are documented and confirmed definitively.

New observations, theories, facts - and all the new questions they tend to generate - have made the search for a "grand" scientific theory of the universe extremely difficult.

The potential "good news" of CERN's results is that there could be, among other things, "faster-than-light" (FTL or "superluminal") thought-provoking concepts (and paradoxes) yet to be considered along with all sorts of exotic and exciting theoretical possibilities, such as FTL transportation - as in "warp speed," a familiar concept among sci-fi fans, one that is famously represented in such fantastical technologies as the "warp drive" of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon's "hyperdrive" from Star Wars.

For example, the ability to travel (or send unmanned space probes) at near-light or faster-than-light speeds could, in theory, extend humanity's access to distant planets beyond our solar system, faraway stars, and deeper regions in space, which would otherwise take thousands to millions of years (or more) to reach through current scientific understanding and existing propulsion technologies. For now, such abilities are possible only in the world of science fiction.

Even if the "speed limit" of light does hold true, as many expect it will upon reevaluation of CERN's results, there are numerous other unproven yet equally intriguing scenarios where humans, robots, or communications might one day be able to overcome the seemingly impossible distances between our sun and other stars through the use of wormholes, warp drives, quantum entanglement, and other very imaginative ideas currently being proposed, researched, dreamed, and debated around the world.

However this works out, light will continue to fascinate humankind, especially the prevailing mysteries of light's true nature: light as a particle (photon), light as a wave, or both. Questions and speculations from scientists, physicists, philosophers, spiritual persons, and others will keep these discussions lively and rich and remind us this discourse really transcends physics: this is about learning the true nature of the universe, our place in it, and everything else between and beyond.

As it unfolds, our collective quest to understand and interpret light and its many cosmic implications will inspire new inquiries and insights well into the forseeable future, illuminating incredible paths into the unknown.

To learn more about light, the speed of light, physics, and related concepts, please consider the following links:

For Further Reading...

Articles, Books, and Websites on Light & the Speed of Light:
Comments? or Questions?

NASA space shuttle lifting off
(source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle

July 8, 2011

On July 8, 2011, the last of NASA's space shuttles soared into space, marking the end of a series of historic liftoffs, challenges, discoveries, and returns.

You can read about the final shuttle mission at these NASA links:

President Obama released a statement on the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis:

"Today, Americans across the country watched with pride as four of our fellow citizens blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and America reached for the heavens once more..." (continued - full statement at this link)

NASA also offers a number of excellent pages covering all aspects of the space shuttle, including its history, past missions, benefits, technologies, photographs, computer wallpaper, and much more:

For further reading on the space shuttle, answers to the question of "what comes next," and other space exploration topics, check out these sites:
Comments? or Questions?

Transistors in Transition

May 12, 2011

Today's computers and consumer electronic devices would not exist were it not for the transistor.

Transistors help to govern the flow of electricity through electronic components. Transistors took the place of larger vacuum tubes, making it possible to develop smaller yet more complex electronic devices, including such popular items as cell phones and digital music players.

Transistors, along with other components, work together in "integrated circuits" and create a complex system of paths for electrical current so that energy can be harnessed, guided, and ultimately used by a computer to calculate, store information, and perform many different tasks.

Over the years, computer chips have gotten smaller and increasingly powerful. The amount of transistors that can be made to fit on a chip relates to something called "Moore's Law," not "a law of physics" but rather an anticipation of transistors (and computing power) roughly doubling in capacity on computer chips every two years.

A computer's CPU (Central Processing Unit), essentially a computer's "brain," can contain millions to billions of tiny transistors. More transistors generally can mean "a more powerful" computer, but today's CPUs depend on different methods and technologies to achieve their respective levels of performance. In fact, CPUs are increasingly working along with graphics cards (graphics processing units, or GPUs, which help display information on screens) to complete more tasks and calculations in less time.

Physically, there are limits as to how small a computer chip can get (and how many transistors can be made to fit on a chip). Computer chip manufacturers have been working for decades in attempts to further miniaturize transistors so chips can become more capable, working faster, while consuming less electricity.

One recent example is Intel Corporation's announcement that it will create chips using three-dimensional (3D) transistors in hopes of preserving Moore's Law.

AMD, another major computer chip producer, has its own plans to achieve greater energy efficiency and increased CPU capability.

Competition between companies such as Intel and AMD, along with increasing consumer demands for faster, cheaper, and more powerful computers and electronics have motivated chip producers to innovate and, wherever possible, push present technologies to very their limits.

For more information on the past, present, and near future of transistors (and, consequently, computers and consumer electronics) check out these links:

From Intel Corporation:
From AMD:
Related Articles:
Comments? or Questions?

Watson, Supercomputer

February 17, 2011

Two humans recently competed against a "supercomputer" (named Watson) on the popular television trivia show called Jeopardy.

In case you didn't hear about it, the humans "lost" the challenge.

If "supercomputer" sounds like a "very powerful computer," at least something faster and more capable than your average desktop PC or laptop, that is putting it mildly. According to IBM, Watson uses "terabytes of storage and thousands of POWER7 computing cores working in a massively parallel system." (source)

In other words, Watson is not simply a computer but a vast system of computers that collectively exercise many more magnitudes of computational power and information storage capacity than most "everyday computers" will ever provide.

But Watson is not only about the "hardware" - processors, wires, and memory chips. Watson is a compelling representation of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the ability of a computer to "think" in ways somewhat analogous to (but not nearly as capably or creatively as) human thought. AI technology has existed for many years and is already used, in varying degrees and forms, throughout the world.

Watson is only the latest "supercomputer" to come along and generate some sensational headlines. Before Watson there was "Deep Blue," the chess computer which managed to beat chess champion Garry Kasparov back in 1997.

As these supercomputers "win" against human opponents, many of us are provoked to wonder what this might mean, if anything, for the future of humankind, especially after encountering cautionary or dystopian movies such as "The Terminator" or "The Matrix" - or reading classic tales such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Isaac Asimov's I Robot.

AI still has a very long way to go before any scientist can claim a computer has attained the full functional equivalence of a human mind. Generally speaking, computer systems like Watson still have quite a difficult time deciphering what some of the most basic human sentences mean, since language can be rich with meanings and interpretive possibilities. This became evident as Watson responded errantly several times.

AI-capable computers rely primarily on grammatical rules and logical relationships between words and ideas, which are encoded by human programmers. Consequently, increasingly abstract and intricate ideas continue to present formidable (if not presently insurmountable) challenges to even the most artificially intelligent computers on the planet.

So, humanity need not worry too much at the moment.

That said, AI, along with robots (and all forms of "robotics"), will continue to evolve and play expansive and decisive roles in the course of human events, making these seemingly far-fetched topics, once relegated to sci-fi and hobbyists, something nearly everyone will need to consider seriously in the coming years.

Further Reading

If you would like to read more about Watson, here are some links:

For more information on AI and robots, please check out these links:
Comments? or Questions?

Sci/Tech Best of 2010

December 20, 2010

2011, fast approaching, brings with it a fresh year full of potentially interesting (if not incredible) scientific discoveries, technological advances, new gadgets, and perhaps some medical breakthroughs as well!

If you're wondering what exactly 2010 supplied, in terms of new science and technologies, we have compiled some of the best "best of 2010" sci/tech lists below to help satisfy your curiosity:
You might also find one or more of these books (available in the RCLS library system) interesting:
Speaking of 2010...

We want to thank all our patrons - our community - for helping to make this such a wonderful year of public service and success at Thrall. We look forward to continue serving your interests and informational needs.

We wish you all the best in the coming new year!
Comments? or Questions?

Computers & CPUs

December 13, 2010

Many of us use computers every day, but how do they work? What's inside of them that lets us do what we do? Besides the typical circuit boards, wires, and buttons we might expect to find inside, what is really "in there" that gives computers the ability to... compute?

In computers commonly used, the main "part" that makes everything work is the "Central Processing Unit" (or "CPU"). This CPU (also known as a "microprocessor") is what we might consider to be the "brain" of a computer.

Unlike our brains, which have actual thoughts and memories, CPUs are not all that intelligent by themselves: they cannot remember things, make decisions independently, get creative, or come up with new ideas on their own. CPUs must be told what to do and need to connect with other things in a computer to function properly.

This is why many computers (such as desktop PCs and laptops) also need "memory chips" (called "RAM") and other parts (known as "hardware"). CPUs do what they are told by "programs" (also known as "software" or "applications").

Word processors, Web browsers, and computer games are all programs which tell a CPU what to do. When you interact with those programs, they in turn "instruct" the CPU to do things on your behalf.

The main program that lets you use your desktop computer or laptop is called an "operating system." Windows, Linux, and Apple OS/X are examples of operating systems.

As there are many different types of computers, there are numerous kinds of CPUs, which can vary in minor or major ways, above all in terms of their respective speeds and overall computational powers.

Some advanced CPUs called "multicore processors" can handle multiple tasks at the same time, making a computer more capable and faster.

CPUs live on a circuit board (known as the "motherboard") located within the computer. Using a variety of chips, wires, electricity, and other parts, all things connected to the motherboard communicate constantly. Even when a computer appears to be idle, doing nothing, things can be quite active on the motherboard!

Deep within the CPU is a microscopic maze of electrical switches (transistors) which work together to complete tasks requested by the operating system, programs currently working, and requests from you, the "user" of that computer.

Every action you take on a computer sets off a series of signals, actions, and reactions with the CPU and across the motherboard. Even your simplest requests - checking your e-mail, typing a letter, or printing a picture - will result in millions if not billions of computations to be carried out deep within the computer, and all within seconds - or faster!

The inner world of the simplest computer can be a truly fascinating phenomenon!

If you would like to learn more about CPUs, computers, and related topics, you might want to explore some of the following links:
Comments? or Questions?

Grand Designs

Exploring Theories of the Universe

September 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking, renowned physicist and author of such titles as A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, and The Grand Design (his latest book), provoked a range of reactions worldwide as he concluded the creation of the universe was born of physical laws, a wholly natural process which did not, as he understood it, require divine intervention.

Whether or not you agree with Hawking, this can still be a timely opportunity - a "teachable moment" - to learn a bit about theories of the universe, how they come into being, and what they might never be able to tell us.

Hawking's assertion, neither new nor exclusive to him (and certainly not new to him either: see his lecture "Does God Play Dice?"), is a particularly important belief among those persons who seek to express their understanding of the existence of the universe in strictly mathematical and scientific terms. The decidedly precise and limited language of science allows but a little ambiguity or metaphor, and so such scientific statements might resonate, beyond scientific communities, with a certain harshness or shock, even if that was not the intention of a speaker.

Scientists, duty-bound to honor the Scientific Method, must carefully observe, experiment, theorize, and revise findings in accordance with new discoveries. While there is, in fact, plenty of opportunity for "new thinking" and creativity in science, any sound scientific theory must be subject to further testing, documentation, independent analyses, and should, in the end, comply with currently known laws of physics and observable natural phenomena.

This means some theories, such as inflation (from the "Big Bang"), tend to be supported more than others in scientific communities because those theories seem to fit well with tests and observations made repeatedly over decades and tend to survive challenges from alternate theorists.

Dominance of a theory might seem to suggest it can become, at some point, a universally accepted truth, something beyond and above questioning, but that is not true: some of the most accepted and prevailing theories of the universe proved to be wrong. Past theories, such as Ptolemy's Earth-centered (geocentric) model of the cosmos, were later challenged and disproved as new ideas and technologies presented new truths.

Humans studied the universe for thousands of years, yet only within the last century or so have scientists begun to develop and enhance technologies to observe the universe in greater detail, test ideas, and develop new theories. In spite of such advancements, there are still many questions to ponder, many discoveries to be made, and many more challenges to meet in defense of some of physics' most cherished and central ideas.

For example, the discovery of quantum mechanics introduced countless new considerations and continues to cause much wonder and rethinking among scientists who are trying to reconcile the implications of quantum theory with established laws of physics and the nature of the universe. That two particles at opposite ends of the universe can be "entangled" and, across that impossible-to-imagine distance, still affect each other illustrates just one of many quantum questions yet to be fully fathomed.

All of this has complicated the quest for the so-called theory of everything, which, in its most ideal form, would uniformly describe the most basic forces of nature: electromagnetism, gravity, and the "weak" and "strong" nuclear interactions. These physical forces have long been recognized to govern how matter and energies exist and interact atomically.

As Albert Einstein and others tried to make sense of the universe and develop theories which could describe what they saw, they recognized aspects of the universe which did not seem to work as they expected. Why does the universe appear to expand? Why is that expansion apparently accelerating? Einstein came up with something called the "Cosmological Constant" in an effort to amend his theories of relativity to fit what he saw - only to backtrack and call it his "greatest blunder."

Today, there is lively talk of "dark matter" and "dark energy" as efforts continue to locate "missing matter" and identify unexpected forces in the universe. Such discussions and future observations and tests will likely yield new insights and new theories, perhaps even leading to a true theory of everything or require a rethinking of modern day physics.

Until then, the universe will continue to surprise scientists with unanticipated possibilities. Along the way, persons like Hawking, might present their findings as evidence supportive of what they personally and professionally believe to be the "real" truths of the universe, yet, due to the constraints of the Scientific Method, they can only go so far in their statements and theories, which speak solely to what can be documented, examined, and reasoned through the Scientific Method.

As some individuals researching topics such as intelligent life beyond Earth are fond of saying, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." In other words, a failure to detect something does not disproove the existence of that thing. Scientists can really only go by what can be seen and inferred and logically deduced. What questions remain become matters of speculation, philosophy, or personal belief.

Believe it or not, the universe, vast as it is, might not be "all there is" to "everything": some scientists contend there might actually be a metaverse (or "multiverse") containing possibly infinite universes (or "parallel universes"), each perhaps with their own laws of physics! And while that might satisfy questions of where our universe might have originated, questions of the metaverse's origin and nature hint at even more epic contemplations awaiting future generations.

Holding your breath in eager anticipation of science's greatest revelations is not advisable: even the most successful and accepted theory of the universe could be, in the end, a bit of a disappointment among non-scientists interested less in equations and more in potential answers to the mysteries of life and more. Besides how the universe works are, for many persons, deeper questions of "why" which extend well beyond the scope of science.

Einstein conceded this much. In 1940, at the "Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion," Einstein had some interesting things to say, including this famous and thought-provoking quote:

Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.

Creative, if not poetic thinking can also be essential to the discovery and expression of new knowledge, as writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson noted with dramatic flair in his "Poetry and Imagination" essay:

A poet comes who lifts the veil; gives them glimpses of the laws of the universe; shows them the circumstance as illusion; shows that Nature is only a language to express the laws, which are grand and beautiful; and lets them, by his songs, into some of the realities.

Indeed, the universe can be looked upon through many lenses, many wavelengths, many theories, and many other ways, including as an anthology of visual poetry, as the Hubble Space Telescope historically demonstrated, through one amazing image after another, how remarkably beautiful the universe can be, full of spectacular sights and surprises that have the potential to inspire and teach us more about ourselves, our world, and our own cosmic context.

For more on stories and theories of the universe, please see these sections in our Internet guides:
You can browse related materials and debates in the library catalog through these links:
Also check out our blog post on Science and Spirituality for related information, books, and more library catalog links.
Comments? or Questions?

Ubiquitous Gadgetries

July 21, 2010

In our increasingly digital world, everywhere - and even in places you do not expect them to be - you find them:

the gadgets...

GPS, laptops, netbooks, HDTV, WI-FI hotspots, "Bluetooth" devices, MP3 players, smartphones, digital cameras, smartphones, apps...

These devices, which fall under the fairly friendly name of "consumer electronics," can perform many different and impressive tasks. For example, cell phones can double up as cameras or mini video recorders, and "smarter" phones yet allow you to surf the Web, play video games, text friends and family, and do countless other things - all within a screen no bigger than your hand.

If you know your way around all these different technologies, that's great! If not, don't worry! You can quickly catch up (and maybe even surpass some of your gadget-wielding friends and coworkers) by checking out some of the latest "Gadget News" sites as well as books available in our library system:

For starters, our Current Interests Center has a Gadgets News section you can browse to see some of the latest and forthcoming technological innovations in consumer electronics.

You can also find reviews for electronics and many other kinds of products through our Consumer Information guide.

If you're interested more in how things work, then you probably want to visit the Technology section of our Ready Reference Center as well as the Inventors and Inventions section.

For books, you can browse these topics in our library catalog:
Some specific titles you might find interesting:
In case you're curious about the potential social implications of some of these technologies, here are some links to related items in the catalog:
If you missed it, you might also like to check out our earlier blog post on the PBS "Digital Nation" documentary.
Comments? or Questions?

Digital Radio Transition

April 8, 2010

In the United States, the transition to digital television (DTV) took place in June 2009. As you probably recall, this is when television broadcasters were required to switch over to digital broadcasts. If you were among the fortunate ones unaffected by this national changeover, you did not have to upgrade your television or converter box.

Nearly a year later, the seeds of another major digital transition have been sown - this time in the United Kingdom: currently working its way through by the British Parliament's legal review and approval process is the Digital Economy Bill.

Among other things, the Bill establishes a digital radio transition date of 2015, when radio broadcasts in Britain would switch from AM/FM to digital broadcasting. This effort follows recommendations made in the British Government's Digital Britain project, which sought to identify ways technologies in the UK could be modernized.

Back in the United States, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has its own preliminary document concerning a future transition to digital radio:
In this document, the FCC explains "What is Digital Radio," lists advantages of digital (versus analog) receivers, and answers the inevitable question of whether or not you would need a new radio (at home or in your car) whenever such a transition were to occur nationally within the United States.

For more information on digital radios and related topics, check out these links:
Comments? or Questions?

Science & Spirituality

April 2, 2010

Regardless of any of our personal persuasions, be they scientific, spiritual, both, or agnostic, we can generally agree, at least, on one thing: the relationship of science and religion has been a complex one throughout the ages.

From long before Galileo's finding that Earth was not the center of the cosmos to Stephen Hawking's figurative yet intriguing conclusion (in A Brief History Of Time) of ultimately knowing "the mind of God" through a theory of everything, science and religion intertwine inevitably, century after century.

Questions naturally emerge as this happens: Are science and religion incompatible, mutually exclusive, or part of a greater reality? Can things be learned and shared between them? Should humans attempt to "play God" through things like cloning or genetic engineering? Will robots ascend to "higher thoughts" and spirituality once they surpass physical human awareness? How and why was the universe created?

Fresh waves of books attempting to answer such questions appear yearly - in recent times due to renewed debates over evolution, intelligent design, and even the origin of the universe. On either side of these debates stand firm believers joined by others: the undecided and the agnostic, the open-minded, as well as the newly persuaded.

Each of these authors, proceeding from their own beliefs, participate in data-driven or divinely-inspired discussions already in progress for thousands of years. Writers of such books sometimes take up their cause in hopes of demonstrating common ground or to present fresh perspectives in light of recent discoveries - or revelations, as might be the case.

Making sense of it all has turned into a lifelong profession for many persons. These are not things easily understood or dimissed: astronomical observations and quantum mechanics unleashed entire universes of new questions in scientific circles while religions around the world face their own challenges and reflections, including secularism, technological issues, bioethics, and intolerance. Both science and religion continue to experience various suppression and censorship attempts as well.

In your own efforts to better understand these subjects, you might find yourself wanting more balanced information or clearer / less emotional positions than what you might encounter among the more vocal commentators populating websites and mainstream media (the ones whose strenuous opinions further complicate and sensationalize these already difficult topics).

Remember: you are welcome to research and contemplate all of these kinds of topics calmly at your local library. Believe it or not, this is one of the most important reasons to use and support public libraries: so that you, or anyone else, can freely and fearlessly access the full spectrum of information on any given topic, not just what certain individuals would have you reject or accept as truth.

For example, these are a few of many related titles available in the library catalog. You can click on them or their authors to check on these and other relevant works:
You can also browse "science and religion" topics and related issues in the library catalog through subject headings such as:

For more information, please check out our databases and information guides:
Comments? or Questions?

Automating Autonomy

Artificial Intelligence & Robots

March 31, 2010

The world of robots just got a little more interesting!

NASA recently announced one of its Mars Rovers (Opportunity) was upgraded to become more autonomous. As NASA explains, this means Opportunity can "make its own choices" when it comes to which rocks the rover observes next.

For many computer users and followers of technology news, such a report is not really all that out of the ordinary. In fact, efforts to create machines with some basic abilitites to help people complete tasks date back to civilization's earliest days.

Not too long ago, in the 19th Century, Charles Babbage, inventor of the mathematical difference engine, helped paved the way for modern computers and artificial intelligence by recognizing how a machine could help humans calculate numbers.

Earlier examples yet can be found in the depths of history, including the "Antikythera mechanism," an ancient computational device that appears to have helped its users figure positions of stars and planets - nearly two thousand years ago!

These creations collectively suggest an otherwise natural progression of technological advances: having mastered mechanical challenges of making machines do things, the next challenge for humans would be to make machines think - at least in some very basic ways.

The formal name of this activity is artificial intelligence ("A.I." or simply AI). The word "artificial" implies something manufactured, not of the natural world - implying a simulation or semblance of intelligence. And that would be correct: computers and machines can only emulate human-like intelligence.

This does not mean computers are completely unintelligent: etymologically speaking, intelligence comes down to chosing between things - certainly a task computers can often excel at easily, given their increasing hardware and software abilities to sift through vast amounts of information (formally called "data") and make decisions based on specific methods (technically known as "algorithms" which are part of larger "computer programs").

Here's a good example: in 1997, the chess computer called "Deep Blue" managed to beat chess champion Garry Kasparov thanks to being able to consider reportedly 200 million moves a second while having access to a database of thousands of previously played chess games.

Deep Blue's "brain" was physically unlike Kasparov's yet still competitive in the realm of matching or recognizing patterns of chess piece positions and making decisions based on that information - all within seconds.

This "man versus machine" competition generated a lot of buzz at the time, but humans could still breathe a collective sigh of relief: Deep Blue was a special supercomputer designed for this one specific task. Personal computers are still not so bright on their own as of 2010.

One goal among some AI scientists is to make AI more humanlike in its abilities, especially in terms of a computer's ability to communicate naturally with a person. Computers can "synthesize speech" (artificially create word sounds) but do not "speak" on their own (just yet) because language - even simple phrases - is a fairly complex task to construct and understand. Technical phrases for these activities include natural language processing and speech recognition.

Today there are such things as "chatterbots" - programs that can talk quasi-intelligently to you (ELIZA being one of the first). Some computers, telephones, and now cars are equipped with speech recognition capabilities, allowing them to respond to a limited set of spoken commands.

Entire fields of study and industries - from food and car manufacturers to NASA scientists, video game designers, and many others - rely heavily on automation and artificial intelligence. Some companies and organizations even employ "software agents" to help carry out certain tasks, some of which include communicating with real people (much to our frustration as customers having to deal with voice menus).

Some computer software programs can speak in nearly convincingly ways, while others specialize in producing meaningless text and still others fight against the spread of unwanted information. You still can often tell when you are talking with a computer - notoriously so when it does not understand what you said (and asks you to repeat or rephrase your words) or uncreatively when its replies fail to be anything but predictable.

As AI technologies become more fluent and flexible, these issues will eventually fade. To help AI scientists gauge their progress in this area, there is something called the Turing Test (devised by Alan Turing). The Test helps determine how effectively a computer can speak. A computer "passes the test" if a person talking to it (and to another person) cannot tell the computer from the person.

While humankind is not quite on the verge of a robot uprising, for well over the past century, AI has steadily increased its presence and influence throughout all areas of life. In that time, machines and robots have also become more agile, capable, and some have even come to resemble humans.

This is no longer a topic best left to fantasy or science fiction: the robots really are here!

Through our Current Interests Center you can follow current some of the most recent developments in AI and robotics:
You can also catch up on the history of these topics by following any of these links into the library catalog:

[Concerning Wikipedia links: please note Wikipedia's disclaimers]

Comments? or Questions?

National Broadband Plan

March 15, 2010

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing a National Broadband Plan, which they describe as "setting an ambitious agenda for connecting all corners of the nation while transforming the economy and society with the communications network of the future."

For most users, "improved broadband conditions" ultimately translates to mean "faster and more reliable Internet access."

Beyond that, pricing, availability, and the general state of networked technologies could also benefit eventually if such broadband improvement efforts are successful.

You can read more about the FCC's proposal in their press release: You can also click here to read the FCC's Executive Summary (PDF format).

Additional details about the FCC's efforts can be found at their new broadband information website:
Comments? or Questions?

Exploring the "Digital Nation"

February 2, 2010

Tonight, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) will air a new in-depth series of reports investigating how the Internet, virtual reality, and other digital technologies have impacted and will continue to influence modern life, education, relationships, and many other aspects of human existence:

The program is called Digital Nation - Life on the Virtual Frontier

The program can also be viewed online at the above link as a series of videos (Adobe Flash Player required). Videos are arranged by topics: Living Faster, Relationships, Waging War, Virtual Worlds, and Learning.

At the Digital Nation website you will also find resources for teachers and parents.

"Digital Nation" advances upon an earlier PBS Frontline report called Growing Up Online: Just How Radically Is the Internet Transforming the Experience of Childhood.

For more information on these topics, explore these links:
The Pew Internet and American Life Project offers a number of relevant studies and presentations you might also want to examine:
Books on these topics also exist in the library system. Click these topics to browse available titles:
Comments? or Questions?

3D TV: Three-Dimensional Television

January 8, 2010

If you survived last year's digital television (DTV) transition and perhaps even purchased a new digital or HDTV - possibly even a Blu-Ray disc player - you might consider yourself all caught up with video entertainment technology.

For the moment, you would be right, but, as you probably know by now, technology is ever-changing, all about "what's next." Even as viewers and video afficionados breathe a sigh of relief, news of a new TV technology is making its way around the Web thanks in part to the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

That technology is known as 3D TV - as in three-dimensional television.

3D movies existed for years, but the technology behind 3D has come quite a distance since the days of the quirky blue-and-red glasses. Some film showings employ polarized "RealD" glasses, which resemble sunglasses.

The film Avatar is one of several movies recently released, in certain theaters, in 3D, along with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and A Christmas Carol.

As you might have guessed, this just marks the latest wave of 3D video entertainment, and more such films - and now television programs - are in the works.

After all this, you might wonder (naturally), "What's next?" Could it be holographic television displays? We'll see!

For more information about 3D TV and other 3D technologies, check out these links: Also check out these topics in the library catalog: By the way...

Did you know books with 3D images (called "stereograms") also exist? They do!

Click here to browse some of the "Magic Eye" titles (and click here to find out how they work).
Comments? or Questions?

Free Cybersafety Guides

December 18, 2009

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Education, and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have published a new free Internet safety booklet for parents, guardians, and students:

Net Cetera: Chatting with Kids About Being Online (Adobe PDF format: view with the Adobe Reader)

Chapters in this 50+ page publication include: For more information about Net Cetera, please read this press release from the FTC.

Related information can be found in earlier blog posts of ours:
Middletown Thrall Library also offers free downloadable guides covering various aspects of Internet safety and awareness as well as critical thinking: Please click here to browse these and other Awareness guides.

A number of books on these topics are also available throughout our library system. Click on any link below to browse titles currently in the catalog:
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