By NEAL KARLINSKY and MEREDITH FROST
Working behind the counter at a futon store in Tacoma, Wash., is not the place you would expect to find a man some call a mathematical genius of unprecedented proportions.
Jason Padgett, 41, sees complex mathematical formulas everywhere he looks and turns them into stunning, intricate diagrams he can draw by hand. He’s the only person in the world known to have this incredible skill, which he obtained by sheer accident just a decade ago.
“I’m obsessed with numbers, geometry specifically,” Padgett said. “I literally dream about it. There’s not a moment that I can’t see it, and it just doesn’t turn off.”
Credit: Courtesy Jason Padgett
Padgett doesn’t have a PhD, a college degree or even a background in math. His talent was born out of a true medical mystery that scientists around the world are still trying to unravel.
Ten years ago, Padgett was only interested in two things: working out and partying. One night he was walking out of a karaoke club in Tacoma when he was brutally attacked by muggers who beat and kicked him in the head repeatedly. Padgett said they were after his $99 leather jacket.
“All I saw was a bright flash of light and the next thing I knew I was on my knees on the ground and I thought, ‘I’m gonna get killed,’” he said.
At the time, doctors said he had a concussion, but within a day or two, Padgett began to notice something remarkable. This college dropout who couldn’t draw became obsessed with drawing intricate diagrams, but didn’t know what they were.
“I see bits and pieces of the Pythagorean theorem everywhere,” he said. “Every single little curve, every single spiral, every tree is part of that equation.”
The diagrams he draws are called fractals and Padgett can draw a visual representation of the formula Pi, that infinite number that begins with 3.14.
Jason Padgett’s drawing of Pi. Credit: Courtesy Jason Padgett
“A fractal is a shape that when you take the shape a part into pieces, the pieces are the same or similar to the whole. So say I had 1,000 pictures of you, that were little and I put all those little pictures of you in the right spot to make the exact same picture of you, but bigger,” he explained.
Much like the mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe in the 2001 film, “A Beautiful Mind,” researchers believe Padgett has a remarkable gift. To better understand how his brain works, Berit Brogaard, a neuroscientist and philosophy professor at the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and her team flew Padgett to Finland to run a series of tests.
A scan of Padgett’s brain showed damage that was forcing his brain to overcompensate in certain areas that most people don’t have access to, Brogaard explained. The result was Padgett was now an acquired savant, meaning brilliant in a specific area.
“Savant syndrome is the development of a particular skill, that can be mathematical, spatial, or autistic, that develop to an extreme degree that sort of makes a person super human,” Brogaard said.
Credit: Courtesy Jason Padgett
Padgett said his goal now is to get out of the furniture store and into the classroom to hopefully teach others that math is as beautiful and natural as the world around us. When asked if he thought his talent was a burden or a gift, Padgett said it was a mixture of both.
“Sometimes I would really like to turn it off, and it won’t,” he said. “But the good far outweigh the bad. I would not give it up for anything.”
Credit: Courtesy Jason Padgett
Built-in GPS in birds in tune with Earth’s magnetic field
HOUSTON — (April 26, 2012) — Birds do not need the latest in navigational technology when it comes to flying south for the winter; they come with their own built-in GPS system that uses the Earth’s magnetic field. But just how they detect the magnetic force is still unknown. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are now closer to answering that question.
In a study that appears in the current edition of Science, Drs. Le-Qing Wu, post-doctoral fellow, and J. David Dickman, professor of neuroscience, both at BCM, have shown how certain brain cells in pigeons encode the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field.
Neurons play role
“We know birds and many other animals can sense the magnetic force; behavioral studies show that birds fly along magnetic routes during seasonal changes,” said Dickman, who conducted much of the research at Washington University in St. Louis. “It is still unknown what exactly acts as a receptor within the bird; however, in our current study we are able to show how neurons in the pigeon’s brain encode magnetic field direction and intensity. This is how we believe birds know their position on the surface of the Earth.”
Dickman said certain areas of the brain are activated when a particular area of the inner ear, known as the lagena, is exposed to a magnetic field. Without it, several of these corresponding areas in the brain show no activity.
Dickman and Wu used electrodes in one brain area, known as the vestibular nuclei, to record activity when the bird was exposed to a changing magnetic field.
“The cells responded to the angle and intensity of the magnetic field. Some cells were more sensitive depending on what direction we aimed the magnetic field around the bird’s head,” Dickman said.
More studies are needed but Dickman believes the vestibular neurons are part of the receptor network that detects and sends information about the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field to the rest of the brain. It is believed that birds use this information to create spatial maps.
“Birds give us a unique opportunity to study how the brain develops these spatial maps and the receptors that feed into it because they have such a great ability to navigate,” Dickman said. “Birds actually have more similarities to the human brain than not, so understanding these characteristics could eventually lend itself to understanding how we create spatial maps and those disorders that affect these areas of the brain.”
Funding for this study came from the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communications Disorders.
Microbial fuel cell energy harvester (credit: CU Denver)
A novel energy system that increases the amount of energy harvested from microbial fuel cells (MFCs) by more than 70 times has been developed by University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) scientists.
The new approach also greatly improves energy efficiency. MFCs are emerging as a way to use bacteria to directly harvest electricity from biodegradable materials, such as wastewater or marine sediments.
The energy from a single MFC reactor is usually too low to be used in the real world. But CU Denver engineers developed a harvesting system to allow active extractions of electrons from bacteria.
“This process changes the way we think about MFC energy,” said Zhiyong (Jason) Ren, PhD, assistant professor of civil engineering in CU Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “This may be a game changer for waste treatment or remote sensing because we’ve proven we can harvest energy as well as generate savings.”
Data collected shows the system increased energy output by 76 times and improved energy efficiency by 21 times compared to a commonly used charge pump.
“The energy output from an MFC reactor is difficult to use directly,” said Jae-Do Park, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering at CU Denver, who developed the harvesting scheme and prototype system. “That is why the role of the control system is so important. Our prototype has shown great progress toward harvesting energy.”
The study was funded by the Office of Naval Research.
Ref.: Heming Wang, Jae-Do Park, and Zhiyong Ren, Active Energy Harvesting from Microbial Fuel Cells at the Maximum Power Point without Using Resistors, Environmental Science & Technology, 2012 [DOI: 10.1021/es300313d]
Brain function – A new way to measure the burden of aging across nations
Laxenburg, Austria, 19 December 2011 – Cognitive function may be a better indicator of the impact of aging on an economy than age-distribution, with chronological age imposing less of a social and economic burden if the population is “functionally” younger, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study finds that one standardized indicator of cognitive ability – memory recall – is better in countries where education, nutrition, and health standards are generally higher. Aging populations are of concern to many countries as it is often assumed that ageing necessarily implies a greater cost to society in terms of aged care, age related disease, and reduced capacity to contribute to society.
However this research suggests that the effects of chronological aging are uneven across nations and that in some countries, particularly more affluent ones that are able to invest in early and sustained education and health programs, cognitive function and thus the ability to live healthy, productive lives, is maintained longer.
“Demographic indicators of the economic impact of an aging population typically rely on measures based on populations’ age-distribution, expressed as the Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR). Whilst this is helpful measurement it does not include information on individual characteristics, other than age,” says lead author Vegard Skirbekk from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).
“We believe cognitive function can provide a new and comparable measure of how a region or a nation’s population may age. Such information can inform early intervention in the education and health systems to try and improve cognitive performance, ultimately reducing the burden of aging.”
“For example, in northern Europe or the United States where there is a relatively large population over the age of 65, we found that cognitive function is higher for this age group than for the same age group in Mexico, India and China. Overall, even though Europe and the US may be chronologically older they are ‘functionally’ younger.”
Cognitive ability levels are also good indicators of individual productivity and this has direct relevance to the economic and business activities within a country.
The authors suggest that the difference in cognitive function may be explained by the fact that seniors in some regions of the world experience better conditions during their childhood and adult life; including nutrition, duration and quality of schooling, exposure to disease, and physical and social activity.
The study involved surveys of people aged over fifty years from a range of countries including the United States, Mexico, India, Japan, and across Europe, from both urban and rural areas. The surveys measured, among other parameters, short-term memory, or the ability to immediately recall words read-out to the participants. Immediate recall has been shown to influence decision-making ability and the risk of dementia.
According to the authors, because aspects of cognitive functioning at older ages can now, for the first time, be more readily compared, such a measurement may also serve as a benchmark for countries to assess the burden of aging across nations.
Reference: Vegard Skirbekk, Elke Loichinger, and Daniela Weber: Variation in cognitive functioning as a refined approach to comparing aging across countries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS Early edition Article no 201112173).
For more information or interviews contact:
Vegard Skirbekk, IIASA
Phone: +43 (0) 2236 807 378
Leane Regan, IIASA
Phone: +43 (0) 664 443 0368
IIASA is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Our findings provide valuable options to policy makers to shape the future of our changing world.
IIASA is independent and funded by scientific institutions in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. www.iiasa.ac.at
The research also contributes to the work of the recently established Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (WIC), based in Vienna. The new Wittgenstein Centre is a collaboration between the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and the new Research Institute on Human Capital and Development, Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). It builds on an existing and highly successful collaboration over the past years and is made possible by several European Research Council (ERC) Grants and the Wittgenstein Prize 2010.
Responsible for this page: Communications
Last updated: 19 Dec 2011
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April 23, 2012
Robots fighting wars could be blamed for mistakes on the battlefield
By Molly McElroy
News and Information
As militaries develop autonomous robotic warriors to replace humans on the battlefield, new ethical questions emerge. If a robot in combat has a hardware malfunction or programming glitch that causes it to kill civilians, do we blame the robot, or the humans who created and deployed it?
Some argue that robots do not have free will and therefore cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. But psychologists at the University of Washington are finding that people don’t have such a clear-cut view of humanoid robots.
The researchers’ latest results show that humans apply a moderate amount of morality and other human characteristics to robots that are equipped with social capabilities and are capable of harming humans. In this case, the harm was financial, not life-threatening. But it still demonstrated how humans react to robot errors.
HINTS lab, UW
Arguing with Robovie over the robot’s mistake while playing a game.
The findings imply that as robots become more sophisticated and humanlike, the public may hold them morally accountable for causing harm.
“We’re moving toward a world where robots will be capable of harming humans,” said lead author Peter Kahn, a UW associate professor of psychology. “With this study we’re asking whether a robotic entity is conceptualized as just a tool, or as some form of a technological being that can be held responsible for its actions.”
The paper was recently published in the proceedings of the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.
In the study, Kahn and his research team had 40 undergraduate students play a scavenger hunt with a humanlike robot, Robovie. The robot appeared autonomous, but it was remotely controlled by a researcher concealed in another room.
After a bit of small talk with the robot, each participant had two minutes to locate objects from a list of items in the room. They all found the minimum, seven, to claim the $20 prize. But when their time was up, Robovie claimed they had found only five objects.
Then came the crux of the experiment: participants’ reactions to the robot’s miscount.
“Most argued with Robovie,” said co-author Heather Gary, a UW doctoral student in developmental psychology. “Some accused Robovie of lying or cheating.”
(Watch a video of one of the participants disagreeing with Robovie.)
When interviewed, 65 percent of participants said Robovie was to blame – at least to a certain degree – for wrongly scoring the scavenger hunt and unfairly denying the participants the $20 prize.
This suggests that as robots gain capabilities in language and social interactions, “it is likely that many people will hold a humanoid robot as partially accountable for a harm that it causes,” the researchers wrote.
They argue that as militaries transform from human to robotic warfare, the chain of command that controls robots and the moral accountability of robotic warriors should be factored into jurisprudence and the Laws of Armed Conflict for cases when the robots hurt humans.
Kahn is also concerned about the morality of robotic warfare, period. “Using robotic warfare, such as drones, distances us from war, can numb us to human suffering, and make warfare more likely,” he said.
The National Science Foundation funded the study. Co-authors at UW are Nathan Freier, Jolina Ruckert, Solace Shen, Heather Gary and Aimee Reichert. Other co-authors are Rachel Severson, Western Washington University; Brian Gill, Seattle Pacific University; and Takayuki Kanda and Hiroshi Ishiguro, both of Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Japan, which created Robovie.
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