Archive by category | Society

Artist of the animatronic

The Last Supper, Giles Walker's art installation at the London Science Museum's Robots show (multimedia).

Not all roboticists are scientists or engineers. Giles Walker, an artist in Brixton, south London, specialises in turning scrap metal into animatronic sculptures — ‘art robots’ that do not involve AI. Walker uses low-tech, unashamedly cheap technologies to animate artbots: car windscreen wiper motors for big clumsy movements, radio-control servos for delicate ones, coordinated via a communications protocol used in theatre lighting. His replica of the 1928 talking tin man Eric is a star of the London Science Museum’s Robots exhibition (reviewed here). Another of Walker’s works on display there, The Last Supper, enters darker territory. This animatronic ‘ensemble piece’ involves 12 mechanical figures sitting around a table.  Read more

Science fiction: journey to the East

Cixin Liu

Last week’s Chinese Sci-Fi event at the London Literature festival was irresistible: I love science fiction and have a keen interest in the Far East. The star here was Cixin Liu, whose 2008 Hugo-awarded novel The Three-Body Problem is a huge best-seller in China and, since its English translation (Head of Zeus, 2015), beyond. (See Nature’s interview with its translator, sci-fi writer Ken Liu, here.) Liu’s fellow panellist was Xiaolu Guo, the award-winning, genre-defying Chinese novelist and filmmaker now living in Britain, whose works include the 2014 I Am China and 2012 UFO In Her Eyes.  Read more

The rise and fall of the UFO

The rise and fall of the UFO

It seems amazing that anyone ever believed in them. In the mid-twentieth-century heyday of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), grainy pictures of flying saucers hovering in the sky were a staple even in  respectable magazines such as Time and Life. Volumes were written earnestly detailing the visits of aliens. This novel form of cold war paranoia seemed to seep into the collective psyche on both sides of the Atlantic.  Read more

Star Trek puts its stamp on the future

Star Trek puts its stamp on the future

As Star Trek boldly sails into its second half-century, you might wonder what other impacts on science and culture this astonishing franchise could have. ‘Live long and prosper’, for instance — could the show hold clues to hyper-longevity? (Certainly ‘Bones’ McCoy managed to survive an incurable terminal illness, xenopolycythemia, during heated skirmishes on the asteroid-ship Yonada in an early series). Might the weird paradoxes the series harnessed to explain time travel ever transpire?  Read more

Breaking barriers: the US space programme’s black women mathematicians

Breaking barriers: the US space programme's black women mathematicians

Some of the most intriguing stories in the history of US science have emerged over the past few years. It’s about time. These books centre on something long under wraps: the centrally important roles women played starting some 70 years ago in the great technological transition that gripped the twentieth century. Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City (Touchstone, 2013) chronicled the contributions of the women who worked at the secret atomic-bomb laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Second World War. Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (reviewed here) depicted the mathematicians or “human computers” who crunched numbers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California from the 1940s. In this catalogue, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is more than just another entry.  Read more

Lunar balloonist

Artist's impression of Museum of the Moon as it will look in a park setting.

Multi-media artist and researcher Luke Jerram experiments with sound, movement and materials in a dazzling array of installations. He has created monumental blown-glass sculptures of bacteria and viruses (Glass Microbiology), the acoustic wind pavilion Aeolus, and Retinal Memory Volume, an interactive sculpture using the mechanisms of eyesight. Here Jerram talks about his new Museum of the Moon, a vast globe that will premier at the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta in August.  Read more

Crowdfunding an online tree of life

The fully revised, reissued edition of the 2004 classic by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong.

Putting all living things, from kingdom to species level, onto a single, easy-to-explore ‘tree of life’ is an ambitious project. But a newly formed charity has just gone a long way towards that by releasing the website To crowdfund the new ‘OneZoom’ tree, biodiversity theorist James Rosindell and evolutionary biologist Yan Wong are asking the public to sponsor their favourite animals and plants. Here Rosindell and Wong talk about OneZoom, and why graphics from it have made their way into a fully revised edition of The Ancestor’s Tale – the 2004 classic Wong co-authored with Richard Dawkins.  Read more

Share the repair

Share the repair

A few decades ago, a broken radio, fan or kettle generally triggered a trip to the repair shop. Now, it often means a journey to the dump. In Britain alone each year, over 2 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment are discarded; in Europe and the United States, repair services have been in decline for some decades. This ‘take, make and dispose’ approach sits uncomfortably with shifts towards closed-loop thinking and policy, such as the European Commission (EC) package on the circular economy, which emphasises repair, recycling and reuse.  Read more