Another Cousera course: Python

I just can’t stop taking Coursera classes. I mean, they’re free. Who doesn’t like to learn for free?

Well, you might not all like to spend your few spare hours learning a new computer programming language but that’s what I’m doing this time. I’m a couple of weeks into An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python, and have already done two quizzes and submitted an assignment. It’s been a long time since I did proper programming but I’m really enjoying this so far.

It’s wonderfully geeky too. Our first, very simple, project involved this:

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The second, more involved, program involved this:

Jaws: The Restoration

The best film ever made has been given a loving makeover and was released on Blu-Ray in April.

I’m posting this on this blog because the depth of restoration required applied science of the highest order. Just check out the technology involved.

This restored, high-definition version is getting a theatrical release in the UK. I hope it goes elsewhere (and so does Ain’t It Cool News). I never saw Jaws in the theatre, and would absolutely love to do so.

The new space race: commercial outfit SpaceX launches supplies to the ISS today

I think we could be on the verge of an exciting new space boom. In less than 3 hours from the time I write this, a company named SpaceX will launch an unmanned rocket called Dragon with supplies for the International Space Station. It will have to navigate and dock, things SpaceX has already demonstrated in tests that they can do.

This isn’t the first commercial space venture, of course, but it’s the first non-government capsule that will connect to the ISS.

Space programs are huge. Can you imagine the industrial competition that will take place to get such massive contracts? Can you imagine the opportunity, the growth, that could easily produce?

It makes me very excited.

Read more about SpaceX and Dragon here.

EDIT: Nooooo! Engine anomaly means the launch is off.

Dragon. Photograph: SpaceX

Scientists to sail robot boat on methane lake of Saturn’s moon Titan

From the Guardian:

Space engineers are planning to build the first extraterrestrial boat. They want to launch the craft towards Titan – Saturn’s largest moon – and parachute it on to the Ligeia Mare, a sea of methane and ethane on its surface.The robot ship would sail around this extraterrestrial sea for several months, exploring its coastline and measuring the winds and waves that sweep its surface.

Artificial “leaves” producing energy

ScienceDaily reports that researchers have developed gel devices that – similarly to leaves – can convert solar energy into electrical energy.

A team led by a North Carolina State University researcher has shown that water-gel-based solar devices — “artificial leaves” — can act like solar cells to produce electricity. The findings prove the concept for making solar cells that more closely mimic nature. They also have the potential to be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than the current standard-bearer: silicon-based solar cells.

This could be a better (or at least additional) way of producing energy from sunlight than current photovoltaic cells. The important thing is that research like this continues.

Butterfly Wing Colours May Reduce Bank Fraud

I love that headline.

From ScienceDaily, reporting on an article in Nature Nanotechnology last month, is a story about how some of nature’s colours have provided the inspiration for a potential source of encryption. You may have seen visual devices on bank notes – little holograms, for instance. These are difficult to reproduce without very specialised equipment, which makes it harder for counterfeiters to ply their fakery.

Harder, but not impossible. So those responsible for coming up with technical tricks to protect money are always looking for new, harder-to-copy methods for creating these sorts of identifying devices.

And nature has given them an idea for one: iridescence, which is when things – like butterfly wings, beetle shells, and the inside of seashells – appear to change colour when you view them from different angles.

Iridescence happens when something is made in layers that are translucent(that is, some light can pass through them), and usually with tiny structures in the layers. Light goes through the top layer, some of it bounces back out (at angles depending on the tiny structures) but some of it goes down to the next layer, where some of it bounces back out but some of it goes down to thenext layer, etc. But all of those reflections interfere with each other, and their frequencies are shifted with respect to each other, and they reflect differently off different bits of the tiny internal structures. Bottom line: the colours reflecting from objects made like this appear differently when viewed from different angles.

According to that article, a team have succeeded in artificially creating layers of material with those little microstructures. It’s a very complicated bit of nanotechnology to do so, and the end result could be a device that could more securely mark legit currency.

Thanks for the idea, nature.

First of the last shuttle launches

NASA’s Space Shuttles have become an icon of science, engineering, space, and – if I can wax lyrical – the spirit of human adventure. They’ve been in operation since 1982, and by the time they retire this year will have launched 130 missions into space. They’ve launched satellites, run experiments, and made possible the construction of the International Space Station. And, sadly, there have been two shuttle disasters. There’s a lot of space shuttle history, and it’s all been made in my lifetime, before my eyes.

But the end is near. The shuttles are old, and won’t be up for the job much longer. New orbiting vehicles will need to be developed if we want to remain in space. So the last few shuttle missions are being treated with the importance they deserve. Dan sent me a link to a series of excellent photos showing shuttle Atlantis’ recent activity, as it returned from orbit last year, landed, and has been prepared for yesterday’s final launch. There will be two more launches after this, for Discovery and Endeavour.

Check out the Atlantis pics.

Atlantis on the launch pad (Photo: NASA/Amanda Diller)

Computers that write to memory faster with germanium lasers

The breakthrough about how germanium lasers can be used to send computer data to memory more quickly than conducted electricity is filled top to bottom with juicy physics. It includes computer chip wafer design and assembly, how germanium can be put into chips easily but doesn’t normally make for a good laser, what distinguishes a semiconductor that does make a good laser from one that doesn’t, and how researchers at MIT have – via doping and straining – made germanium lase after all. The end result is a path for investigating much more efficient information transfer inside your computer.

Misa Digital Guitar

Once again, music and science come crashing together in a nexus of geekery so blogworthy that I actually start to drool a little bit.

My buddy Dave spotted this: the Misa Digital Guitar, from right here in Sydney.

Dave said that it repulses him but he wants it. I wonder how many guitar players felt the same way the first time they heard an electric guitar? Or how many piano players, the first time they heard an electric keyboard?

Here comes the future.