World Solar Challenge status update

Well, the World Solar Challenge is getting closer. In 34 days, the race office opens in Darwin. Of the 43 solar car teams currently on the list, 67% have now unveiled their cars, and another 4 teams will do so before the end of the month. The first overseas team – Eindhoven – has already arrived in Australia, with other teams following soon (my annotated team list will continue to be updated with the latest status). Good luck to all the teams!


The eclipse

Above, a NASA photo of the solar eclipse of August 21.

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, ‘Soon it will hit my brain.’ You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.” — Annie Dillard, 1982

I wish I had been there to see it.


Killer robots: it’s not the AI that’s the problem

In a recent open letter, Tesla’s Elon Musk and others called for a ban on autonomous weapons, saying “Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.

Yet autonomous weapons are already with us, after a fashion. And artificial intelligence isn’t actually the biggest problem.

A bullet, during the second or so that it is in flight, autonomously follows the laws of physics. But the world is not likely to have changed much during that time. If shooting the bullet was appropriate, that will still be true when it hits. A cruise missile can fly for several hours, and home in on a precise spot, specified by GPS coordinates – although things may have changed during those hours of flight.

Smarter again is a heat-seeking or radar-guided missile, which can home in on an aircraft, even one doing it’s best to evade the threat – yet it cannot distinguish passenger aircraft from military aircraft. The next step up are systems guided by IFF, which can distinguish friend from foe. After that comes the kind of AI that Elon Musk is talking about.

The ultimate extreme is the “Menschenjäger” of Cordwainer Smith’s 1957 short story “Mark Elf.” The Menschenjägers were built by the “Sixth German Reich” to seek out and kill their non-German enemies (whom they could infallibly detect by their non-German thoughts). Being virtually indestructible, the last Menschenjäger had travelled around the planet on this mission 2328 times by the time the story is set. Since no Germans were alive at that point, there was nobody left to shut it down.

The real problem with the Menschenjägers was not their AI, but their persistence in time. A similar problem arises with that most stupid of autonomous weapons, the landmine. Sown in their tens of millions, landmines continue to kill and maim for decades after the war that buried them is over.

It isn’t really a matter of whether the weapon has AI or not – it’s whether the weapon has an off switch or a self-destruct mechanism. No weapon should keep on pointlessly killing people.


World Solar Challenge head to head: UK

The World Solar Challenge is an exciting race to find the best solar car in the world. That makes for serious competition between countries. But there are also some interesting contests within countries. The most obvious is between Nuon (3) and Twente (21), who came first and second in the Challenger class last time.

Within the UK, Cambridge University (12, above) has spent several years trying to make their series of teardrop-shaped cars succeed. The new rules may help with this. Meanwhile, Durham University (20) have improved their 2015 car (DUSC, below), and are ready to make it zoom. Who will be the fastest British Challenger this year?


Molecules: a book review


Molecules by Theodore Gray

I recently purchased Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray of periodictable.com (this is the sequel to his superb The Elements, which I have previously reviewed). The book is packed with interesting facts about chemistry as it relates to daily life, and the photographs are absolutely beautiful, as this two-page spread shows:

The structure of the book is necessarily a little ad-hoc, lacking the obvious pattern of The Elements. However, it is still well-organised, informative, and compelling. Everyone interested in science should probably have this one on the coffee table too.

I would give this book five stars, except that nothing could be quite as good as The Elements. I should also note that Theodore Gray’s Reactions is coming out soon. I expect that to be worthwhile as well.

* * * *
Molecules by Theodore Gray: 4 stars


World Solar Challenge head to head: USA Cruisers

The World Solar Challenge is an exciting race to find the best solar car in the world. That makes for serious competition between countries. But there are also some interesting contests within countries. The most obvious is between Nuon (3) and Twente (21), who came first and second in the Challenger class last time.

Within the Cruiser class, the University of Minnesota (94 this year, Eos II, above) has been the only US entry since 2013, and held its own both times (see chart at top for 2015 results). This year, however, Iowa State University (PrISUm) has entered the class as well (9, Penumbra, below). Both teams have very nice-looking cars. Which of the two will be the biggest challenge to Eindhoven and Bochum?


Updated museum tag map

Since I have made even more museum-related posts, I have revised my earlier tag maps to give the clickable mosaic below. This tag map links to many (though not all) of my posts concerning museums (large and small) around the world. See the mouseover text, or click to jump to the relevant post:

The centre four rectangular photographs (and all six circular ones) here are mine; the others are public domain.