Better to see the beautiful, ugly truth of the cosmos

The assumption that the cosmos is symmetrical over large scales is an elegant one, but how far must evidence deviate from expectations before we rethink it?

(Image: NASA/ESA)

“THE great tragedy of science,” as Victorian biologist Thomas Huxley observed, is “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”. He was talking about the origins of life, but scientists of all stripes would have agreed – perhaps more today than ever.

The beautiful idea at hand: the universe looks much the same no matter which direction you look in, and no matter where you are. The ugly fact: it doesn’t. Our hope that the universe is symmetrical, or homogeneous, at very large scales just doesn’t seem to be coming true (see “Embrace the lumpiverse: How mess kills dark energy“).

Why did we ever think it would? Because humans find symmetry beautiful, and because scientists have to come to expect that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”, as John Keats put it. It often seems to work out that way: from the elegance of DNA’s double-helix structure to the existence of antimatter –found” first in a beautifully proportioned equation by Paul Dirac. “The elegant universe” has become a rallying cry among physicists seeking deeper truths, be it in the mirror-particle world of supersymmetry or the higher dimensions ofstring theory.

But Keats was a Romantic poet, not a scientist; and beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Few non-mathematicians would find it in Dirac’s equation. And the universe is under no obligation to satisfy anyone’s aesthetic preferences.


So while we shouldn’t belittle this conviction, we shouldn’t be blinded by it, either. In cosmology, for example, simplicity has also been a matter of expediency. Only by assuming homogeneity can we solve the fiendishly complex equations that Einstein used to describe the universe’s evolution.

Some cosmologists suspect this to be an oversimplification that has caused our theories to diverge from observations, with the result that we have had to conjure up spectres such as dark matter and dark energy to bring them back together again. This is still a minority view, but one worth exploring. While it is a radical departure from the cosmological thinking of the past century, it is also in some ways an elegant solution. That’s because the view that the cosmos is not uniform allows us to advance our understanding without invoking ever more entities or jeopardising general relativity – whose own beauty has also gone unslain by ugly fact for a century.

Might other branches of physics be better off if they abandoned aestheticism? The standard model of particle physics, peerlessly precise though its predictions might be, is often criticised for its lack of a unifying scheme: it is a hotchpotch of theories that has proved supremely successful at describinghow the universe’s building blocks behave but not necessarily why they behave the way they do. Numerous attempts have been made to unify and expand it within more elegant schemes. So far, however, nature has been disinclined to reward scientists with hard evidence.

So must we endure a universe that offends our sensibilities? Perhaps for consolation we could look to the founder of the scientific method. “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” said Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon – a sentiment rather lost in the din of modern science.


p class=”infuse”>A less-ordered universe might be less pleasing to the mind’s eye, and in some cases less tractable. But perhaps it’s time we stopped trying so hard to find the truth through beauty, and instead try a bit harder to find beauty in the truth of ugly facts


Robots can grip anything thanks to hands that can see

Robots sent in to clean up disaster zones like the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan need a strong, secure grip. A robotic hand that can “see” in three dimensions could help.

London-based Shadow Robot is testing its Dexterous Hand with a Kinect depth-sensing camera that would allow it to analyse the 3D shape of any object a mobile robot is focusing on – or which is being held out to it by a human. Software then builds a 3D computer model of the approaching object and works out the arrangement of the four fingers and thumb that will most securely grip the object.

Developed by Shadow Robot and King’s College London with funding from the UK Technology Strategy Board, the technology is being demonstrated at theAutomatica 2014 robotics exhibition in Munich, Germany, this week.

In an exclusive demonstration for New Scientist, it was fascinating to see the visual “thought” processes underway on a screen beside the hand. As an object approached the hand – whether a delicate light bulb, a tough metal drinks flask or a copy of New Scientist (see video) – the software not only scanned its shape but also estimated its position, with a large 3D arrow representing the way up it thought the object was.

“Once it has seen an object, and worked out its orientation with respect to itself, it works out the best way to grasp it,” says Shadow Robot’s head of operations, Gavin Cassidy. “Even when it is holding the object it continually monitors the stability of the grasp using its pressure and touch sensors.”


This means that if a small piece of fruit is offered to it, the system will just use two fingers and a thumb to hold it in a light, almost genteel fashion. But a larger object will get the full four fingers and thumb in a wraparound grasp. Once an object has been identified by the system it can be placed in an archive to speed recognition the next time around, says Mark Addison, a Shadow Robot software developer.

For test purposes, the system uses an external depth-sensing camera close to the hand. But the aim is to build a microchip-sized high resolution depth camera into the hand itself, says Cassidy.

That makes sense, says Tony Belpaeme, a robotics researcher at Plymouth University, UK. He says that similar systems using a depth camera at a distance sometimes can’t get the full picture of the target object. “So your grasp might be right for the part of the object you can see, but wrong for the ‘dark side’ of the object,” he says.


p class=”infuse”>”Having a depth sensor on the hand offers a lot of promise, as the hand could scan the object from all sides and then compute an optimal grasp.”

Two 34-Year-Old Aussies Are Latest Techies To Become Billionaires Thanks To Sky High Financing Round

Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes, both 34, who founded the company twelve years ago, did not sell any shares in the latest round of funding, meaning the estimated 1/3 ownership stake each own in the company is worth about $1.1 billion. The selling shareholders in the deal include current and former employees, as well as Accel Partners, which invested $60 million in the company in 2010 at a valuation of $400 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What’s driving such a high valuation for the Australian software shop? A unique business model that has fostered rapid growth and a liquid balance sheet — the latter being a distinction many tech companies can’t claim. Atlassian specializes in developing online business software tools like JIRA, a product that helps companies manage the projects and workflow for their development and IT teams. Its services are used by more than 35,000 companies worldwide, including a broad array of heavyweights like BMW, American Airlines, Cisco, Facebook and Citigroup C +0.08%. It boasts positive cash flow and has done so for the past 10 years; its compound annual growth rate for the past five is 40%.

IN PICTURES: The World’s Youngest Billionaires: 31 Under 40

The two founders, both programmers, met while studying at the University of New South Wales in Sydney in the early 2000s. Each did internships prior to graduating and neither came away enamored with the corporate work environment. In 2002, they decided to break out on their own instead. Their first plan — third-party support for a company out of Sweden — was a bust. But the next gambit, crafting software that allows developers to track tasks and bugs in their projects, would eventually become JIRA. Their initial financing method? They opened a $10,000 line of credit on a credit card.

Unlike the model of behemoths like Oracle ORCL +0.77%, or even contemporaries like Workday WDAY +0.25% or Box, Atlassian chose to minimize costs by not investing in sales staff or marketing, focusing instead on research and development. It simply sold their competitively priced products on the website.

“We felt if we could sell something at a reasonable price and sell it on the internet then we’d be able to find a market there. And that’s what worked out,” Farquhar said.

Like many start-ups, early sales were from friends of friends and acquaintances. But the company knew it had broken through when, without solicitation or any human interaction, the credit card information for a purchase from American Airlines came through.

“Then we knew we could scale this,” Farquhar recalls.

Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes inside the San Francisco Atlassian office.

It’s been 12 years of rapid growth since, and it now has a $200 million revenue run rate (current revenue levels projected over a whole year). The company  has main headquarters in Sydney and San Francisco as well as offices in Amsterdam, Yokohama and Manila. It plans to grow its 800-employee workforce by 30% by June, and its newest outpost will be in Austin, Texas, a city whose funky and quirky ethos meshes nicely with Atlassian’s.

Having a unified vision and culture from day one has helped guide the company’s precipitous growth path.

“From the beginning our goal was to build a long-term company. We want to build a company that will stand the test of time,” says Farquhar. “That’s why we spend a lot of time on company culture.”

Among the cultural mores Atlassian values include “Open Company, No Bullshit” — an emphasis on transparency — as well as a keen preoccupation with never screwing over customers. But perhaps the most important is “Be the Change You Seek,” which Farquhar says is key to building a company that will adapt and thrive 50 years from now.

“The way companies fail is they don’t make changes. People don’t feel empowered to make change,” says Farquhar.

The company has no near-term plans for an initial public offering, a luxury their rapid growth and positive cash flow affords them. But Farquhar says Atlassian will hit the stock exchanges down the road.

“It’s definitely in our future. There are very few companies that stand the test of time that aren’t public.”

Even online, emotions can be contagious

BE CAREFUL you don’t catch those Facebook blues. Feelings, like viruses, can spread through online social networks.

Joy or sorrow? <i>(Image: Petri Artturi Asikainen/Getty)</i>

A face-to-face encounter with someone who is sad or cheerful can leave us feeling the same way. This emotional contagion has been shown to last anywhere from a few seconds to weeks.

A team of researchers, led by Adam Kramer at Facebook in Menlo Park, California, was curious to see if this phenomenon would occur online. To find out, they manipulated which posts showed up on the news feeds of more than 600,000 Facebook users. For one week, some users saw fewer posts with negative emotional words than usual, while others saw fewer posts with positive ones.

Digital emotions proved somewhat contagious, too. People were more likely to use positive words in Facebook posts if they had been exposed to fewer negative posts throughout the week, and vice versa. The effect was significant, though modest (PNAS,

Ke Xu of Beihang University in Beijing has studied emotional contagion on Chinese social networks. He says Kramer’s work shows that we don’t need to interact in person to influence someone’s feelings.

Forget passwords – to log in, just start typing

Software can identify peole based solely on the way they use their mouse and keyboard, and it could let us do away with passwords altogether

AS WE sit hunched over our keyboards, it is hard to believe that the way we peck at the keys and swish the cursor around is unique. But several companies believe this could be used to prove our identity, doing away with one of the most annoying aspects of digital life: passwords.

Just be yourself <i>(Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty)</i>

From e-commerce sites to social media profiles, passwords protect all kinds of sensitive information. But recent security breaches show just how vulnerable the system is. Earlier this year, the Heartbleed bug sent people scurrying to change passwords across a huge swathe of the internet. And in May, eBay announced that over 200 million accounts may have been compromised in a security breach.

This has boosted interest in behavioural biometrics, says Uri Rivner ofBiocatch, a firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Behavioural biometrics is based on the idea that individuals subconsciously use their mouse and keyboard in predictable ways – and that these behaviours can reliably identify them. Examples of these actions include how quickly a user selects buttons that pop up on screen, how long they hover over menus, how fast they move the mouse and whether they scroll using the cursor keys, the scroll bar or the mouse wheel. Not all of these need to be used, though.

“We don’t need to find behaviours unique to each person on the planet,” says Neil Costigan, CEO of Behaviosec in Luleå, Sweden. “We just need enough of a spread of behaviours to verify that someone is who they say they are. We look at the behaviour to see if it matches that person’s previous behaviour.”

Plenty of companies are already beginning to implement this technology.Biocatch ran successful trials on the networks of two different banks, which it announced on 17 June had helped it to raise $10 million in venture capital funding. In the US, IBM is starting to deploy the technique in online security software it sells to banks. And Behaviosec has been funded by the Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, to adapt its desktop behavioural biometrics systems to tablets and smartphones.


IBM’s system monitors behaviour only after a person has logged in using their password. This can prevent a fraudster making transactions, pretending to be an authenticated user who has, for example, gone to make coffee without logging out. When behaviours are detected that are out of character, the software will ask them to log in again with some extra security questions.

Biocatch aims to replace passwords entirely, although at the moment its software is also only used after logging in. The system is more active than IBM’s, presenting people with what it calls subconscious “challenges” that garner distinctive responses. For instance, the software makes the cursor disappear for a few seconds and the type of mouse motion people use to recover it – clockwise, anticlockwise, large arc, small arc – is recorded.

Rivner says that by building a model of how individuals respond to these challenges, and then monitoring actions while banking or shopping online, the software can tell within a few keystrokes if the user is the same person who originally logged in. He says this is well on the way to ridding us of the hassle of passwords, PINs, captchas and other login methods.


p class=”infuse”>Similar advances are on the way with mobile technology. Touch behaviours like finger pressure, swipe speed, angles of swipe, gyroscope and accelerometer readings can all be harnessed to authenticate a user, says Costigan. “The smartphone has an amazing array of inputs for behaviour recognition.”

Gerry Goffin, writer of song Natural Woman, dies

Songwriter Gerry Goffin poses at the BMI's 60th annual Pop Music Awards n Beverly Hills, California 15 May 2012 

Songwriter Gerry Goffin, who penned chart-topping songs with his then-wife Carole King, has died at the age of 75 in Los Angeles.

He wrote dozens of hits over two decades, including The Loco-Motion, Will You Love Me Tomorrow and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

He was inducted, along with King, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

In a statement, King said Goffin was her “first love” and had a “profound impact” on her life.

“His words expressed what so many people were feeling but didn’t know how to say.”

Born in the New York city borough of Brooklyn in 1939, Goffin married King when he was 20 and she was 17. They had their first hit, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, sung by the Shirelles, shortly afterwards.

After their divorce in 1968, Goffin continued writing songs, including a hit for Whitney Houston, Saving All My Love for You, in 1985.

He is survived by his wife, Michelle Goffin, who confirmed he died from natural causes. He had five children and six grandchildren.

A statement from the Recording Academy, which presented him and King with a Trustees Award in 2004, called Goffin a “legendary songwriter” and “profound lyricist”.

“His prolific career has left an indelible mark on our culture, and his exceptional legacy will continue to teach and inspire many generations to come,” said Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy’s president.

“Our music community has truly lost one of its finest, and our deepest sympathies go out to his family, his friends, and all who have benefited from and have been moved by his extraordinary and heartfelt talent.”

‘A dynamic force’

Goffin was behind dozens of top 40 hits during his career and co-wrote seven songs that topped the US charts, including Diana Ross’ Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?).

He also co-wrote Up On The Roof, Monkees’ track Pleasant Valley Sunday, the Everly Brothers’ Crying in the Rain, Bobby Vee’s Take Good Care of My Baby, Gladys Knight and the Pips’ track I’ve Got to Use My Imagination and James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend.

He also hired singer Kelly Clarkson to sing on some of his demos in 1995, before she was on American Idol.

He and King divorced in 1968, after having two children including singer-songwriter Louise Goffin. Their story is told in hit Broadway musical Beautiful: The Carole King Story, which won two Tony Awards this year.

King, who backed the project which was also produced by one of their daughters, only sat through the show in April, having avoided seeing it for months after it opened because it dredged up sad memories.

The musical shows them composing their songs at the Brill Building publishing company in Manhattan that also employed Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

“Gerry was a good man and a dynamic force, whose words and creative influence will resonate for generations to come,” said King.

“His legacy to me is our two daughters, four grandchildren, and our songs that have touched millions and millions of people, as well as a lifelong friendship.”

Gerry Goffin and his wife Michelle at the opening night of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in New York 
Gerry Goffin and his wife Michelle at the opening night of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in New York

She added: “If you want to join his loved ones in honouring him, look at the names of the songwriters under the titles of songs. Among the titles associated with me, you’ll often find Gerry’s name next to mine.”

‘Soul brother’

Goffin, whose final album Back Room Blood was released in 1996, was working as an assistant chemist when he met King at Queens College.

He told Vanity Fair in 2001: “She was interested in writing rock and roll, and I was interested in writing this Broadway play.

“So we had an agreement where she would write (music) to the play if I would write (lyrics) to some of her rock and roll melodies. And eventually it came to be a boy-and-girl relationship.

“Eventually I began to lose heart in my play, and we stuck to writing rock and roll.”

Goffin struggled with mental health problems during their marriage and at one point King made a decision to admit him for shock therapy, an experience she talks about in her memoir A Natural Woman.

His daughter Louise said her dad “wore his heart on his sleeve, and I am deeply blessed to have had a father who could so easily make the world laugh and cry with just a spiral notebook and a pen.”

Composer and pianist Barry Goldberg, who wrote many later songs with Goffin, has also paid tribute.

“Gerry was one of the greatest lyricists of all time and my true soul brother,” he said.

“I was privileged to have had him in my personal and professional life.”

2014 World Cup: set to be the most high-tech tournament yet. Smart balls, vanishing free-kick line, Frozen shirts all in one tournament

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is set to be the
most scientific and technologically advanced
football tournament ever seen.
From smart clothing that keeps players cool, to advanced boots that enhance speed and skill, no stone has been left unturned in providing the best experience for audiences and players alike.
And the most notable technological advances will be taking place during matches.
For example, at this World Cup referees will have access to a foam, water-based, vanishing spray that will be carried in special belts.
When the first foul is committed and a player
lines up for a free-kick, referees will be able to draw lines.
This means that when a defending wall sets up to block a free-kick specialist such as Italy’s
Andrea Pirlo from scoring, it will be clear where they should be standing.
The referee will first circle the ball before
pacing out the ten yards (nine meters) required for a wall, and spraying a line on the ground.
Within a minute the line disappears, letting play continue without visible marks on the pitch.
Although this technology has been used before, such as at last summer’s under-20 World Cup,
this is the first time it has been used at the
World Cup proper. Let’s look at some of the new technologies in the world cup:
The “Brazuca” world cup Ball: The Brazuca football, which will be used in every minute of
every game at the World Cup is created by six propeller-shaped polyurethane panels being themally bonded together.
Between the seams the Brazuca also has a
different geometry to different balls, helping it remain more stable in the air.
Smoother balls, as seen with the previous
Jabulani at World Cup 2010 in South Africa, are more unpredictable due to a process known as ‘knuckling’.
As air passes over the seams it can create a
force that knocks or moves the ball.
The Brazuca, with its multiple seams and
roughness, will be less prone to the ‘volatile
swoops’ of the Jabulani.
Goal-line Technology: not so new though but way advanced. Goal-line technology is being supplied by German company Goal Control, who use seven high-speed cameras at each goal mouth to monitor the action.
More than 2,000 tests were performed in the
run up to the World Cup, all of which were
successful, while their managing director Dirk
Broichhausen claimed it was ‘unhackable’
because it doesn’t require a connection to the
Used in every stadium, the system is able to tell the referee if a goal has been scored within a second to an accuracy of 0.2 inches (0.5 centimeters), with the word ‘GOAL’ transmitted to a watch on the referee’s wrist if the ball has crossed the line.
This will be especially important for moments
where it is unclear if the ball has crossed the line – such as Frank Lampard’s infamous ‘goal’ that wasn’t given for England against Germany in 2010.
High-tech football Boots: This World Cup will see no end to the numerous innovations employed by kit suppliers to give their players the edge, with various manufacturers battling it out to prove who is the best.
Nike, for instance, has recently unveiled its
Mercurial Superfly boot that will be sported by Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, among other players.
The boots use a three-knit weave to put less
material between the foot and the ball,
enhancing the players’ touch.
Other players such as Belgium’s Marrouane
Fellaini and Ivory Coast’s Kolo Toure, meanwhile, will be wearing boots designed by Wilmslow- based Warrior Global.
‘The Gambler’ has nylon stacks positioned on the front of the boot to absorb the speed of the ball and give additional control.
A revised, more ergonomic plate on the instep
provides more aggressive grip and control, while the intricately designed sole gives better traction and comfort.
Cool Kits: Brazil’s 2014 World Cup jersey has 56 per cent more airflow than previous versions. It is also composed of 94 per cent polyester and just 6 per cent cotton – giving it the comfortable feel of cotton, but the heat regulation properties of polyester.
Adidas has designed a series of pre-cooling
sleeves and vests that can be worn by players
before and after matches, or during training.
They are designed to reduce body temperature and delay the onset of heat-induced fatigue. The garments are cooled in a freezer before being worn by a player, bringing their temperature down over 15 to 20 minutes.
The high-tech pre-cooling concept includes a
number of ‘hyper absorbent granule zones’
specifically located around the lower arms and upper back, which rigorous testing has revealed to be the body’s primary cooling areas.
These are just a few of the new technologies been put in place in this world cup but we are more excited about the new “instagram for the world cup” app launched by pipsports.
The PiPsports app lets sports fans create
personalized photos of live sports games,
enhanced with real-time data from international sports data company Opta.
Sports fans can use the app to take photos of
the sporting action, and overlay the image with one of a section of ‘skins’.
Each skin includes live data from Opta, such as the current score, location, team and game
statistics, match/event name and team crests
and logos, to create a personalized image.
Statistics from Opta can be overlaid in real-time when taking a photo, provided the user has a data connection on Wi-Fi or 3/4G.
Once captured. the photos can be shared on a
fan’s Facebook account or direct to the
PiPsports stream, which allows other fans to
follow the game or event through fan-generated images.
‘PiPsports is like the Instagram for football,
World Cup, and sports fans,’ former Australian professional footballer Lucas Neill, a brand ambassador for PipSports, told reporters.
‘Whether they’re going to be at a live game in
Brazil, in the pub or watching on the sofa at
home with friends, football fans can capture the most intense and exciting moments of watching their team and country play.
‘The app enhances normal photos by adding skins that include stats on the match being watched.
So if you take a photo of the celebration after a great goal, for example, you get the image of that moment with scoreline included – which makes for a pretty cool momento.’
Indeed Brazil’s 2014 world cup is a history maker! Photos after the cut