Sunday, July 29, 2007

Wii, air bags, washing machines and micro-electro-mechanical systems

The first time I heard of the word MEMS, I didn't know what it meant. I searched on the web and found that it stands for Micro Electro Mechanical Systems. Didn't really make things any clearer. I thought I would never really care about it anyway. I was wrong.

Sarah has been asking our parents for a console Wii so we can play family games together. The Wii remote detects motions and accelerations. This makes for very natural game play - golf, tennis, etc.

Our car is equipped with air bags. Last winter Dad drove over a frozen bridge covered with black ice and hit a tree. He was safe, thanks to the air bags that instantaneously protected him.

My digital camera correctly orients pictures horizontally or vertically because it knew how I hold it when I took the shot. You've probably seen the demos for the iPhone, the screen automatically rotates when the user holds the device horizontally or vertically.

MEMS are everywhere. These tiny components are hiding in each of the machines discussed above and are no thicker than a piece of hair. They are called electro-mechanical because they contain small mobile parts causing or responding to electrical signals. There are thousands of different kinds - motion sensors, tiny motors to mix fluids, arrays with hundreds of minuscule mirrors to switch Internet signals from one fiber optic to a different one... Even our washing machine uses MEMS to detect rotation imbalance. Humans also carry natural mems. The inner part of our ears contains tiny stones that touch sensitive cells informing our brain about the position of the head and body vibrations - so we retain very good and stable vision even when we move a lot. Sometimes the minuscule stones, called otholiths, get blocked. A person gets nausea and suffers from a helpless feeling of falling down.

To go further
  • Stunning images and videos of MEMS devices from the prestigious Sandia National laboratories in the United States. This lab is famous worldwide for its foundry capable of building very advanced MEMS machines.
Sarah is too busy with the latest Harry Potter book and she entirely forgot about the Wii.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Who are you? Where does the world come from?

Who are you?
She had no idea. She was Sophie Amundsen, of course, but who was that? She had not really figured out - yet.

Where does the world come from? it said.
For the first time in her life she felt it wasn't right to live in the world without at least inquiring where it came from.

Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder

Dear Sarah,
I hope your travel back to Canada went well. You must be happy to be with your parents and friends again. Alex started this blog after we all returned home, what a great idea. We can keep in touch despite the distance between Europe and North America. I am glad I can take some rest from the science summer camp though I miss all of you.
In the bus taking us to Grenoble, you said how much you liked the Harry Potter's series. You were impatient to receive the last volume. I hope you are enjoying it. I have found the english title of my favourite book: 'Sophie's World'.
This best seller was written by a norwegian philosophy teacher named Jostein Gaarder. I cannot summarize this book. It is so much more than a history of philosophy. It is an extraordinary novel. Sophie is in many ways just as attaching a character as you are. You are about the same age - Sophie is fifteen years old. Maybe you could meet one day. Maybe the two of you have met already if some of the readers of 'Fun Science With Your Computer' have also read 'Sophie's World' - these readers may understand what I mean. This book had a profound influence on me. I decided I would study philosophy at university La Sorbonne. I particularly like epistemology. My copy of the book is in french - 'le monde de Sophie'. You will easily find the english version at your local bookstore. Do not skip the last chapters - they reveal important twists in the story...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Brad Pitt, Bill Murray and statistical machine translation

What do Brad Pitt, Bill Murray and statistical machine translation have in common, you may ask?

You are about to find out after this little detour. Do you read and write chinese? I don't. However I can pretend I do, and that's thanks to the recent english to chinese online translation service provided by Google. A relative from Taiwan asked us to explain the two following english sentences.

1:Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a classic American novel.
2:Greek island-hopping makes for a very varied vacation.

You can see the transation in chinese in my reply to that email. That's a straight copy and paste from Google Translate. So what is the big deal? Well, I was asked sometimes later by another relative of mine - and native speaker - if it was true that I had simply used a translation made by a machine. Why? Because the translation was surprisingly good.

Current statistical machine translation programs have made amazing progress. Google trains its machines with billions of documents from the United Nations that were translated in many languages by real human translators. Yes this takes our tiny Java program discussed in Activity 4 - Translator to a completely different level.

Can online translation accessed through an iPhone make travel in foreign countries easier? If you answer yes, you may want to watch again the movies Babel figuring Brad Pitt, and Lost in translation with Bill Murray. Cultural shock goes beyond translation issues... Brad Pitt and Bill Murray may still not fit in. They would be able to carry a conversation with a local for a medical emergency in Morroco and visit Tokyo via its many subway lines without actually understanding Kanji characters.

Friday, July 20, 2007

English draughts, Harry Potter and the Fellowship of Scientists

Well before we get on to Harry Potter, one word about an article that caught my attention recently: Computer program is unbeatable at English draughts, the prestigious science journal Nature is reporting. The article explains also that Chess and the game of Go have a lot more possible combinations so it isn't yet possible to completely resolve them.

That's one more reason we should continue to enjoy our little Java Chess program from activity 11...

And now, let's move on to the topic of the day. I wish Sarah and all Harry Potter's fans good luck in their quest for the latest volume Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. One more hour to go here in Canada eastern time. If only we could find the magical receipe to make books about popular science as appealling. What can we learn from Harry Potter that we could apply to science books? Alchemy and science have long been sisters, see the evidence with this article on Newton the alchemist. Maybe we just have to say the truth about science to make it fun. That is, we need to reveal all the wizardy behind the fragile mathematical interpretations. Science is made by all these wizards in their lab, learning how to master the many steps in mysterious and unexplained experiments. We prefer to call them Nobel laureates, doctors, scientists or engineers. But they know better. They are true wizards in their domain... Just like Harry.

Maybe we should invite Harry to join the summer camp in the book 'Fun Science With Your Computer' and rename its title to 'Harry Potter and the Fellowship of Scientists'... Note I am half serious, half joking. Truth is, I really am impatient to read the latest Harry Potter too!