Archive for November, 2008

The idea of spherical robots is not new, however they are still interesting and Rotundus, the spherical robot that happened to be in the Popular Science best of ’08 is very interesting.

groundbot[Groundbot, Image Soure: PopSci]

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The Rotundus is driven by a pendulum inside the spherical casing. This pendulum controlled by a motor gives the robot direction. Getting the pendulum to move forward makes the robot to roll forward and moving it left or right gives it the ability to steer. The makers of this robot hope to make it autonomous with improvements. They hope to integrate in it a GPS so that it can follow specified routes to patrol and to incorporate radar sensors to help move about obstacles. They also plan to give it sufficient power to move up on slopes.


[Rotundus: Image Source]

From Popular Science:

The GroundBot is a spherical sentry designed to roll up to 6 mph through just about anything—mud, sand, snow and even water. Two gyroscopically steadied wide-angle cameras and a suite of sensors give remote operators a real-time, 360-degree view of the landscape, letting them zoom in on prowlers or detect gas leaks, radioactivity and biohazards. Originally invented by Swedish physicists to explore other planets, the GroundBot features a tough design that requires almost no maintenance and can also be programmed to run autonomously. Its sealed shell protects its interior against grit and allows it to survive steep drops, while a rubber skin dampens vibration and provides traction. To get rolling, the robot simply shifts its weight. Its center of mass is suspended from a pendulum inside the sphere, so motors just push the pendulum to the front, to the back, or to the side. Lithium-ion batteries provide up to 16 hours of spy time.

The advantages of a spherical robot are manifold, its design is extremely non-complicated. It offers good protection to the sensors and equipment sealed inside the sphere. Rotundus is very light, just about 25 Kilos, but the low weight advantage is multiplied as the rotundus is sealed. That means that it has a low density and can thus float. Thus it may be used to operate on-road, off-road and over water! Sealing the bot has other advantages than simply allowing the robot to have low density so that it can float, it also ensures that no sand can get inside to interfere with the motors and etc. The sealing also makes the robot of good use in gas leak scenarios as electrical sparks (if any) in the inside are sealed off. The design also makes the robot a very silent operator.

Check the following video showing the Rotundus roll along in snow:

A group of Rotundus robots may be used as helper bots along with the new Mars rover, the SUV sized Mars Research Laboratory that is expected to be launched by next fall.

The Rotundus has some obvious limitations. Like it can’t operate properly inside buildings as it can’t move up stairs. For such purposes biologically inspired bots remain the best bet IMO. See some of them here, really cool research:

Quick Links:

1. Rotundus

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I wrote rather passionately about J. Robert Oppenheimer in one part of a previous post marking an anniversary of the first nuclear bombings. Those interested in Oppenheimer’s life might be interested in reading that part.

I read American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Buy it) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin between 14-29 October. And it is amongst the best biographies I have read. It is a very different book, it is not inspiring like some biographies on great men are. It is not philosophical or based on some mad pursuit. I have never seen such a well researched biography before. Sometimes I found the details about Oppenheimer’s personal life nauseating, but that just indicates the amount of surveillance he was under.

This book is not inspiring, it is haunting*.


[American Prometheus- Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin. Image Source ]

A Pulitzer prize winner (2006), this book chronicles the life of physicist, administrator, poet, American patriot and the father of the atomic bomb from his very early days to his last. The authors delve into every aspect of Oppenheimer’s life from his birth, to his time in England and Germany as a student. His leftist days at Berkeley, his love interests, his role in the Manhattan project, his public humiliation in the security hearings of 1954 at the height of the red scare and his quiet life after that, till his death. Twenty five years of research by the authors culminated into a devastatingly sad biography of one of the most famous men of all time.

The prologue in the book quotes George Kennan (1904-2005) the famous American diplomat now known as the father of the containment policy during the red scare as saying the following about him:

“In the dark day of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcomed in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking academic residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Damn it, I happen to love this country’

The book is divided into 5 parts and 40 chapters, each part covering a stage in his life. I would request all who get the opportunity to read this book, even those who have personal enmity with science and scientists but read once in a while about general things.

Some sections of the book are striking and stunning and represent major turning points in the book and just stand out.

While reading I observed that the authors place very clearly facts about the “Apple Incident” in which I was interested ever since I read about it, where in a state of depression and enormous emotional distress in his troubled student days at Cambridge, England in the autumn of 1925 Oppenheimer placed a “poisoned” apple on the desk of his head tutor, Patrick Blackett (few people know that Blackett was an adviser to Jawaharlal Nehru). The authorities learned of the incident and after some talking with his parents he was allowed to stay at Cambridge subject to the condition that he visit the psychiatrist as per a mandated chart. Oppenheimer gradually recovered and thrived in his golden intellectual days at Gottingen, Germany shortly afterwards when he produced some fundamental research and became known as one of the best quantum physicists of the time. The time bracket from this period at gottingen to his days as the Director of the Manhattan Project were his best days. By the end of 1945 Oppenheimer was one of the most famous physicists of the time.


[The above photo of Oppenheimer’s porkpie hat was the cover of Physics Today in May 1948, exemplifying the high regard and respect Oppenheimer commanded at that time. Image Soure]

Taking a brief digression, I’d cite two of my favorite quotes from the book:

After the emotional turmoil of his student days in England, Oppenheimer was always trying to be above that. His guiding principles were discipline and work. Quoting him from a letter to his brother.

Discipline is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation…I believe that through discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity what would else have seemed to us indispensable.

There is another fantastic quote attributed to P.A.M Dirac, the legendary physicist who was known to be eccentrically single minded to his dedication of science. Once Oppenheimer gave him several books as a gift. Dirac politely refused and remarked:

Reading books interfered with thought.

The Beast In the Jungle: I mentioned just a paragraph earlier that there were some very strong parts in the book that represented a watershed in his life. Some of them were just stunning. Like this part named “The Beast In the Jungle“. Until this section of the book Oppenheimer had been doing fine even though the number of his enemies were increasing. It was after this chapter that his decline began or rather accelerated.

The authors mention that Oppenheimer had harbored a vague sort of a premonition that something dark was in store for him in the future for a while. In the late 40s he read a novella by Henry James written in 1903 titled “The Beast in the Jungle“. James’ story was one of obsession, tormented egotism and as the authors put it, of existential foreboding. The story is very short, I have placed a link below to read the book from, for those interested. I could finish it under a couple of hours only. The basic plot of this story is as (from wikipedia):

John Marcher, the protagonist, is reacquainted with May Bartram, a woman he knew ten years earlier, who remembers his odd secret: Marcher is seized with the belief that his life is to be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event, lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” May decides to buy a house in London with the money she got from her Great-Aunt who passed away, and to spend her days with Marcher curiously awaiting what fate has in store for him. Marcher is a hopeless egoist, who believes that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his “spectacular fate”.

He takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, but does not allow her to get close to him. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement where he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.

Oppenheimer was struck by the charge of the story and asked his friend Herb Marks to read it. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the authors write citing evidence Oppenheimer lived with a similar feelings that someday he would be struck by his “beast in the jungle” which would alter his whole life. Oppenheimer knew he was kept track of and that people in the Govt and the intelligence were looking for evidence to destroy him. As it turned out, his beast in the jungle was Lewis Strauss, who destroyed him.

Einstein and Oppenheimer: The parts on Einstein in the book were interesting.

Oppenheimer and Einstein at IAS[Einstein and Oppenheimer at IAS: Image source]

The book mentions Einstein in numerous instances throughout. However the ones related to Oppenheimer are the ones that I intend to touch upon.

Einstein could not understand why Oppenheimer was so keen on maintaining access to Washington and the echelons of the government. Einstein by instinct disliked politicians, and figures of authority. I quoted him in one previous post on this:

To punish me for my contempt of authority, fate made me an authority myself.

Einstein was always uncomfortable with attention is a well known fact to all those who admire him. There was this unforgettable quote in the book by him. On Einstein’s 71st birthday, Oppenheimer was walking him to his residence and Einstein said:

You know, when it’s once been given to a man to do something sensible, afterward life is a little strange.

Einstein suggested to Oppenheimer that he resign just taking into account the sheer outrageousness of the attacks on him. Einstein had left Germany when the Nazi nationalist frenzy swept the country and never set his foot on Germany again. He believed that the rise of McCarthyism in America was alarming, and he thought that Oppenheimer would end up humiliating himself.

As the authors note that Einstein’s instincts were right. He confided to a friend:

Oppenheimer is not a gypsy like me, I was born with the skin of an Elephant; there is no one who can hurt me.

and he thought that Oppenheimer was the reverse.

I would once again suggest the book to everyone who can set his/her hands on it. I would also congratulate the authors for the extremely gripping and compelling biography, it is amazing to think that the authors could piece together research spread over 25 years in such a wonderful way and I am already not able to get myself to complete a 60 page report on a project based on Support Vector Machines, in which I don’t even have to “piece together” things.

* This line is in no way borrowed from, or inspired by the newsweek review on this book.


1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer – Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

2. The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James (Download it from Project Gutenberg)

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I got linked to by a blog today morning and I wanted to see what it was about. It turned out to be a web-log on the author’s digital photography, compositions of multiple images taken by him and images post processing. Some of the processed images are beautiful. Consider a sample:


[The Spirit of Autumn]

The above image christened The Spirit of Autumn is actually a composition of 3 different images taken on a digital camera. The resultant image was then processed further in GIMP (GNU based image manipulation tools) to get a wonderful output.

2678796319_0db988b36d[Through a Glass Wetly]

I am strongly attracted to painted abstract art, and very rarely to digital art (though I like ingenious fractals and mathematical figures) however this work is truly deserving of a hearty applause. Interestingly, the author pursues photography as a hobby. You can check out some of his other art work at his web-log here.

Image processing is one of my most favorite subjects and I have been involved in projects concerning some Image Processing too, however I think I should move beyond looking at MRI scans or X-rays once in a while and try my hand at post processing photographs taken by me (using tools ofcourse, not algorithms as such) to TRY and get as spectacular results as obtained by DJ Lenfirewood as above. LOL.


1. Download GIMP

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About two months back I came across a series of Reith lectures given by professor Vilayanur Ramachandran, Dr Ramachandran holds a MD from Stanley Medical College and a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge University and is presently the director of the center for Brain and cognition at the University of California at San Diego and an adjunct professor of biology at the Salk Institute. Dr Ramachandran is known for his work on behavioral neurology, which promises to greatly enhance our understanding of the human brain, which could be the key in my opinion in making “truly intelligent” machines.


[Dr VS Ramachandran: Image Source- TED]

I heard these lectures two three times and really enjoyed them and was intrigued by the cases he presents. Though these are old lectures (they were given in 2003), they are new to me and I think they are worth sharing anyway.

For those who are not aware, the Reith lectures were started by the British Broadcasting Corporation radio in 1948. Each year a person of high distinction gives these lectures. The first were given by mathematician Bertrand Russell. They were named so in the honor of the first director general of the BBC- Lord Reith. Like most other BBC presentations on science, politics and philosophy they are fantastic. Dr Ramachandran became the first from the medical profession to speak at Reith.

The 2003 series named The Emerging Mind has five lectures, each being roughly about 28-30 minutes. Each are a trademark of Dr Ramachandran with funny anecdote, witty arguments, very intersting clinical cases, the best pronunciation of “billions” since Carl Sagan, and let me not mention the way he rolls the RRRRRRRs while talking. Below I don’t intend to write what the lectures are about, I think they should be allowed to talk for themselves.

Lecture 1: Phantoms in the Brain

lecture1Listen to Lecture 1 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 2: Synapses and the Self


Listen to Lecture 2 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 3: The Artful Brain


Listen to Lecture 3 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 4: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese


Listen to Lecture 4 | View Lecture Text

Lecture 5: Neuroscience the new Philosophy


Listen to Lecture 5 | View Lecture Text

[Images above courtesy of the BBC]

Note: Real Player required to play the above.

As a bonus to the above I would also advice to those who have not seen this to have a look at the following TED talk.

In a wide-ranging talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran explores how brain damage can reveal the connection between the internal structures of the brain and the corresponding functions of the mind. He talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear color or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters.

Again he talks about curious disorders. One that he talks about in the above video, the Capgras Delusion is only one among the many he talks about in the Reith lectures. Other things that he talks about here is the origin of language and synesthesia.

Now look at the picture below and answer the following question: Which of the two figures is Kiki and which one is Bouba?

500px-booba-kikisvgIf you thought that the one with the jagged shape was Kiki and the one with the rounded one was Bouba then you belong to the majority. The exceptions need not worry.

These experiments were first conducted by the German gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler and were repeated with the names “Kiki” and “Bouba” given to these shapes by VS Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard. In their experiments, they found a very strong inclination in their subjects to name the jagged shape Kiki and the rounded one Bouba. This happened with about 95-98 percent of the subjects. The experiments were repeated in Tamil speakers and then in babies of about 3 years of age. (who could not write) The results were similar. The only exceptions being in people having autistic disorders where the percentage reduced to only 60.

Dr Ramachandran and Dr Hubbard went on to suggest that this could have implications in our understanding of how language evolved as it suggests that naming of objects is not a random process as held by a number of views but depends on the appearance of the object under consideration. The strong “K” in Kiki had a direct correlation with the jagged shape of that object, thus suggesting a non-arbitrary mapping of objects with the sounds associated with them.

In the above talk and also the lectures, he talks about Synesthesia, a condition wherein the subject associates a color on seeing black and white numbers and letters with each.

His method of studying rare disorders to understand what in the brain does what is very interesting and is giving insights much needed to understand the organ that drives innovation and well, almost everything.

I highly recommend all the above lectures and the video above.

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These comic attempts are intended for a very narrow audience (complexity scientists (which are not the same as scientists with complexes)), so don’t be surprised if you don’t find them funny… (they are silly anyway)

From Complex Humour

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