Science Friday

Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion with host Ira Flatow.

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Friday, January 16, 2015 Permalink

Science Friday: Hackers, Planetary Rotation, Sea Turtles and Magnets

Which Cyber Hacks Should We Worry About?

President Obama has spent the last week pushing for new cybersecurity legislation in the wake of several high-profile breaches. Yet, when it comes to the word “hack,” the exact meaning of the term has become increasingly murky. Do cyber attacks on corporations and acts of “cybervandalism” on Twitter, for example, both pose the same level of threat? Molly Sauter, author of The Coming Swarm, explains what differentiates the brief takeover of U.S. Central Command’s social media accounts this week from, say, the recent break-in on the Sony Pictures Entertainment computer network.


The Long Quest to Make Machines Talk

As early as the 1700s, scientists built speaking machines that, through various combinations of reeds, bellows, and pipes, simulated the sounds of the human voice. Then, in 1939, Bell Labs debuted its "VODER" (Voice Operation DEmonstratoR), which simulated the physics of speech with electrical circuits—in a decidedly robotic tone.

Today, of course, we have the much more realistic voices of Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, which combine almost-human speaking capabilities with enough artificial intelligence to converse and answer our questions. But speech synthesis still isn't entirely convincing—it lacks much of the emotion, melody, and creaky flaws of real human voices.
 
Brad Story, a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences, walks us through the history of talking machines, and computer scientists Alan Black and Rupal Patel talk about making computerized voices more personal and engaging.


The SciFri Book Club Reads ‘The Lost City of Z’

This week, the SciFri Book Club kicks off our first book for 2015: David Grann’s non-fiction tale of Amazonian exploration, The Lost City of Z. For Book Club newbies, the concept is simple: Read the book, then discuss it with authors, scientists, and fellow SciFri listeners on-air and online using the hashtag #SciFriBookClub. This session, two guest readers will join us: archaeologist Sarah Parcak and writer Jeff VanderMeer. So get reading, and don’t forget to call in during our wrap-up discussion of the book with Jeff and Sarah on February 6th. Keep an eye on this page for updates, and hear a clip from a SciFri interview with David Grann below. 
 
Those who will receive a free book will be notified within a week. If you weren't among the first 20 to sign up, you can get a 30 percent discount if you order The Lost City of Z from Powell's Books using this link.

 


Does the ‘Innate Genius’ Stereotype Widen the STEM Gender Gap?

Do you think it takes innate talent to succeed in physics or philosophy? What about molecular biology or psychology? Reporting in Science, researchers say that the idea that “brilliance” is necessary for success in certain STEM subjects might contribute to the gender gap in those fields. Psychologist Carol Dweck (who was not a part of the study) discusses how the “inanate genius” mindset might affect learning, motivation, and the gender gap.  


Spinning Theories on Planet Rotation

On June 30th of this year, the International Earth Rotation and Reference System Service will add a leap second to our clocks to keep up with the gradual slowing of the Earth. Theoretical astrophysicist Norman Murray explains what gives planets their unique rotation and what might happen to life on Earth if the planet stopped spinning.


Sea Turtles Guided Home by Magnetic Sense

Sea turtles can swim from their home beach in North America to the coasts of Africa during a migration. And yet when it's time to lay their eggs, females tend to return to the same coastlines where they themselves hatched. Now researchers say that the turtles appear to navigate to their preferred nesting spots using the earth's magnetic fields as a guide. Roger Brothers, lead author on a paper about the phenomenon in Current Biology, explains.

 


Tablets and Smartphones Might Be Sapping Your Sleep

Sea turtles can swim from their home beach in North America to the coasts of Africa during a migration. And yet when it's time to lay their eggs, females tend to return to the same coastlines where they themselves hatched. Now researchers say that the turtles appear to navigate to their preferred nesting spots using the earth's magnetic fields as a guide. Roger Brothers, lead author on a paper about the phenomenon in Current Biology, explains.