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The woman who created the technology behind internet calls explains what it takes to innovate
She's the reason you're able to work and chat from home.
If you've ever wondered how a Zoom call works, you might want to ask Marian Croak, Vice-President of Engineering at Google.
This is the woman who invented "Voice over Internet Protocol": the technology that has enabled entire workforces to continue to communicate and families and friends to remain in touch throughout 2020's lockdowns – and inevitably beyond.
It is a lifeline technology that was developed in the 1990s. Croak describes how at the time "many people were sceptical – and they were right for that time. But with a lot of work and a lot of testing and experimentation, you see what we've accomplished today."
She joined moderator, Eniola Mafe, Lead, Vision 2030 at World Economic Forum to talk alongside Schwab Foundation awardee, Lindiwe Matlali, Chief Executive Officer at Africa Teen Geeks and Schwab Foundation awardee at the Pioneers of Change Summit. They revealed insights into what it takes to innovate, why kids are an inspiration and how not fitting in can be an advantage.
Here's what they said.
Is the worst of times the best of times for innovation?
Croak spoke about history and seeing this moment in time as part of a trajectory of bursts of innovation that happen at difficult times. "There are scientific revolutions where people have these amazing paradigm shifts. It typically happens at periods of great turmoil – everyone is very motivated for something new and something to alleviate the chaos."
In my own personal life, most of what I've done that has an impact on others is typically at times of stress and difficulty. I think we can benefit from this horrible time in history.
—Marian Croak, Vice-President of Engineering at Google
If at first you don't succeed, what's next?
Both women spoke of hard work and determination. Matlali said, "You are often focused on arrival – but the journey is just as important. The only way to get doors to open is to be impressive and work so hard that you can't be ignored."
While for Croak, it is about having the right mindset and the confidence to know that you can fix things that are broken.
"You don't have to be a victim of trouble. You can rise above problems and fix them. In the journey to fix them, it involves failure. Things evolve and you have to keep experimenting and perfecting them."
She says the current situation might appear to be a kind of stasis, but that things can and will change because human beings have the power to imagine different scenarios.
"Inventors are just humans. Anyone can have innovative ideas. But we have to share those ideas and collaborate with each other so that they can be realized."
How do you get a seat at the tech table?
With characteristic modesty, Croak admitted that "leaving a pathway for others to step in" is important, but also revealed that she is quite comfortable with being an outsider.
"Many times I've felt it's really to our advantage that we don't fit in and that we don't have that seat at that table. That to me is often a benefit because it allows us to step back and really observe in quite an objective way as to where the gaps are and what's needed for change. Being part of the group spoils your perspective because there's a need to confirm, but invention requires you to be different."
But she conceded, "It's fine to be the only one – but you don't want to remain in that position – you want others to come along. I make sure that the generation behind me can climb the ladder as well."
For Matlali, the example of Marian Croak – a woman of colour succeeding in the tech world – has been significant.
"I have to sell myself all the time," she said, "If you are black and a woman, you have to prove that you are competent. Moving forward there are ways that we can change that – making sure that people like (Marian) are visible will make it easier for someone like me."
If you are black and a woman, you have to prove that you are competent.
—Lindiwe Matlali, Chief Executive Officer at Africa Teen Geeks
What can kids teach tech innovators?
Wonder and naivete are powerful tools. Croak argues that children have rich imaginations – which is the fuel of invention. "You need to be childlike. A little naïve and not inhibited by what's possible."
Matlali's work with disadvantaged teenagers brings her directly into this world, where she sees that "children are passionate but hopeful for the future. For them, everything is possible. You want kids to have the imagination and passion for them to achieve their dreams."
Croak said her motivation for 2021 was to keep her own childlike curiosity going, forgetting about her personal circumstances and focusing on the "painpoints".
What's the biggest opportunity for change in a post-pandemic world?
"The most significant thing that I see that will cause things to change – and we hope that they will – is the increased awareness of inequities." Croak urged the tech community to zero in on that "gift" to see what the world is truly like and where the gaps are. "To address that huge amount of inequity."
Matlali's work in education in Africa is one such gap. She said, "knowing that no matter how small the contributions I am making – it makes a difference. Even if it helps one child to have the opportunities that I've had – it all came through education. For me, that's what I want to try do and make sure that as many children as possible can break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage."
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.