Conor Myhrvold

Keeping Count


In 1996, when I was seven-and-a-half, approximately sixty miles north of Seattle, I counted bald eagles on the Skagit river. In that one morning, in about two hours, I saw 126 eagles. I know this because I kept count.

For the purpose, my dad had given me a clicker, a small sleek shiny metal device whose entire job was to be a number. The clicker had a satisfactorily cool feel to it and felt dense owing to its durable metal construction. On the right hand side was a silver knob with ridges. Twist the knob, and four centered analog dials with stenciled white Courier New numbers behind a centered crystal display would satisfactorily click-click-click and advance from 0000 to 9999 to reset the clicker. Further up, and closer to the side of the clicker, was a metal lever that looked something like a gas pedal that had been bent out of shape. It stuck out enough from the rest of the clicker that any absentminded flick of the fingers would advance the count by one. On the left hand side you could put your thumb through a rotating metal ring to make sure that the clicker did not fall out of your hand. Hence your number would stay with you, always a palm away at your fingertips.

I remember that first counting experience vividly because it was the beginning of a long indoctrination of the certainty that numbers provide. In the sixteen years since that time I could sleep soundly knowing exactly how many eagles I saw that crisp fall morning. Knowing was a satisfactory feeling. Counting seemed simple at the time, but my days of naïveté were numbered.

Are numbers really as certain as we make them out to be in school? From an early age we are taught to deal with numbers. Perhaps we learn how to count things we know the answer to, like the number of bananas or cookies on a Sesame Street set, because it is the easiest way to see how a three dimensional object can be represented, first by two dimensions (describing the object as a word), and then by something even simpler: a number. Flip through any children’s book, and you will also see collections of animals that are very countable and verifiable.

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The Jekyll and Hyde Immune Cell


In HIV infection populations of immune system cells are devastated, but researchers have found one immune cell type that survives the onslaught.

These surviving cells prevent inflammation, but they do so by suppressing the immune system. This new finding raises the question of whether their survival during HIV infection helps the body or the attacking virus.

The cells, called T regulators, may be useful because they normally prevent a hyperactive immune system which leads to its exhaustion.

But in the case of HIV infection their role of suppression could be disastrous, if this effect means the immune system causes its own demise by shutting itself down in a time of crisis. Knowing the difference could eventually help develop new HIV treatments, and this will be a central question guiding future research.

The reason why the Jekyll and Hyde nature of T regulators (T-regs) are being found now, after thirty years of HIV research, is because researchers are looking in a new place, one that has been harder to investigate. Full Article »

Shapiro’s Bathtub Experiment


Over forty years ago, in the 1960s, the world briefly became captivated with how a bathtub drains. Did something called the Coriolis effect influence the twirling water?

The Earth’s rotation influences how fluids swirl on the planet’s surface. It’s why low-pressure systems in the northern hemisphere twist counterclockwise. This phenomenon, known as the Coriolis effect, is the appearance of an object to deflect to one side in a rotating reference frame. Since it is such a tiny effect on small scales, no one had yet proven that this inertial force actually affects how water leaves a bathtub, despite many previous efforts.

In 1962, the same year that Watson and Crick received their Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix, MIT professor Ascher Shapiro, an expert in fluid mechanics, set up an elaborate test to try to change that. Shapiro’s elementary experiment, which started with a bathtub, quickly turned into a complicated and ambitious undertaking that involved a tank six feet wide and six inches deep.

The Coriolis effect at MIT’s latitude, 42°, was just “thirty-millionths that of gravity, which is so small that it will be overcome by filling and even temperature differences and water impurities,” reported one of many newspapers and periodicals that covered the results of Shapiro’s experiment. After much tinkering to cancel out these interferences, and presumably a hefty water bill, Shapiro found the answer: the Coriolis effect does indeed cause a bathtub vortex in the northern hemisphere to swirl counterclockwise. Full Article »

Direct Human Ancestor, or Not?


A new set of fossils found in South Africa has set off a frenzy of speculation on how the discoveries might re-write the path of human ancestry and origin. The fossils, found in 2008, date to approximately 2 million years ago. Lead anthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand believes they are an early human ancestor, which he has named Australopithecus sediba. Berger and his collaborators say A. sediba may supplant other ancestors, such as Homo habilis, because of emerging and surprising features in these new fossils that are similar to modern humans.

It remains unclear, however, whether the fossils in fact represent a distinct species. The controversy lies in the very way in which paleoanthropology is done: the skeletal traits of one fossil finding is usually compared to another. What you pick to compare makes all the difference.

In this case, Berger and company compared the hand, pelvis, foot, ankle and skull of A. sediba with several other South African fossils and a human skeleton. For example, A. sediba has a relatively advanced pelvis for its smaller skull, and both resemble that of humans. And the hand has a comparatively longer thumb than other human ancestors, just like our thumbs today do. This enables us to grasp and make tools. . Full Article »

An Illusive Reality


What is a hologram? Is it an illusion or is it real, an image or an object?

Well, both.

If you ask the curators at the MIT Museum, they’ll write “a hologram is not an image of an object, but a device that records and replays the light wave front from an object or scene.” Yet at the same time, “Holography is a way of using laser light to make a single recording of the way an object looks from many different positions.” The conflicting definitions are a reflection of the dual nature of holograms: they are both what we see (a projection) and the creator of what we see (a re-creation of one object manipulated through a different one). Although holograms today are ubiquitous and easily identifiable—on the backs of our bank and credit cards, on the baseball cards and stickers we collected as kids, or on museum walls—discovering and defining what they mean, or are, is still a murky endeavor.

It might help to understand a hologram through our experiences. Besides the attributes of an object, such as shape, size and texture, our perception of that item depends in part on our own memories. We rely on our recollections to make sense of what we see. An object is not just its material properties, but a mix of those physical features combined with the feelings and reactions we have from having seen similar-looking objects. Full Article »