Who are we?

Question: What forces have shaped America most? 

Walt Mossberg: Capitalism. Capitalism has a lot of problems. There are a lot of inequities. There are a lot of things about it that are imperfect and should be tweaked and should be fixed.

But capitalism has created a world, in those countries that practice it, where if you have a great idea, you can raise some money and you can go do it. And certainly the personal computer and consumer digital revolution of the last 30 years would never have happened if it weren’t for free markets, people’s ability, from any walk of life, to come up with an idea, do it in a garage, get a little money from some venture capitalist or somebody, and then bring it to market.

And if it fails – and most of them do fail – you go try something else. And if it succeeds, you could become the wealthiest guy in the world, like Bill Gates did.

And I think you can’t overstate the importance of a free market economic system, and particularly the way it has been practiced in the United States where both technologists and investors have been willing to take risks.

Sometimes you’ve lost money on those risks. We saw it in the dot-com bubble and then bust of just six or seven years ago.

But overall, it’s been an extremely invigorating and healthy thing. And even in other capitalist countries where risk-taking was harder, and where failure was much more of a kind of final thing, they didn’t spawn the kinds of ideas, and products, and technologies that we did. Because it’s not a sin to fail in the United States, certainly not in tech.

I can tell you that people come to see me every day with companies and products who came to see me five years before for some completely different company and product which may have failed. Maybe it succeeded, but a lot of times it failed.

And I don’t say, “Well I’m not gonna see that guy because he failed in his last company.”

And the venture capitalists don’t say, “Well you failed in your last company. Why should we even listen to you?” No, they say, “Okay, you learned something from that failure. Let’s listen to your new thing.”

So American style free market capitalism has been a huge factor. 

Question: What forces have shaped technology most? 

Walt Mossberg: There have been two huge contributors to it, I think. This may be a little different than the last giant cycle of technological innovation when I think things were a lot less formal in America.

One huge cycle has been education – high quality institutions of higher education. Now it’s not always true. We’ve got to remember, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – who are probably two of the most famous high tech figures of the last 30 years – are both college dropouts. Michael Dell, who is not really a technology figure but runs a big technology company, is a college dropout. And even Sergey Brin and Larry Page who founded Google – while they are certainly not college dropouts, did drop out of their PhD programs and never finished their PhDs.

Having said that, it’s obvious that the last several waves of innovation in digital technology – that kind of thing that I write about – have been generated by higher education institutions of high quality. The pre-PC era; a reason that a lot of those companies were clustered around Boston was MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].

We still have companies being spun out of MIT today. You may have heard of iRobot, you know, which makes vacuum and a bunch of military robots. They’re an MIT spinoff.

There is a company spun off by MIT that are working on basically electronic paper and a number of other things.

But the PC revolution; Stanford played a much bigger role in that. Yahoo, Google, quite a few other of those Silicon Valley companies. The reason Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley is Stanford. Obviously not everyone went to Stanford, but it has been a huge catalyst; an area that at one time – I think as recently as 30 or 35 years ago – was primarily a fruit and flower growing area, and now it’s called Silicon Valley.

 

Recorded on: Sep 13, 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation is driven by good higher education.

Deep learning nails correlation. Causation is another matter.

Why do people with bigger hands have a better vocabulary? That's one question deep learning can't answer.

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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
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