The other night I wanted to kill some time before "30 Rock" started, so I sat down and tried to build a strand of RNA. I clicked a yellow adenine avatar to turn it into peppermint-candy-shaped guanine, preparing to form a base pair. I moused over whole sections of my virtual molecule, switching bases and zooming in and out to ensure I kept the required shape as I formed more chemical bonds.
For now, for me, the computer game EteRNA is a fun diversion. But maybe someday, if I get really good, Adrien Treuille and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University will bring one of my RNAs to life, synthesizing it in a lab and checking whether it could lead to new drugs or new research in biotechnology. I would so love to find out. And this is exactly the point.
In the data age, pretty much nobody stores sensitive information under physical lock and key. Whether it's in Dropbox, Megaupload, a hard drive or an SD card, our confidential records are stored in ones and zeroes protected by encryption software.
So what happens when that data becomes evidence in a criminal trial, but because of your careful data husbandry, the government can't access it? You may be required to decrypt it for them, handing over access to personal records that might incriminate you.
Despite this era's amazing advances in data storage and data mining, the accumulated records of our federal bureaucracy are largely — and perhaps unsurprisingly — languishing in the early 20th century. Paperwork and filing cabinets still comprise the bulk of government records.
Scientists from every discipline have more data than ever, but it's only as useful as the meaning behind it. Every bit of information is only explained by the context in which it was gathered, and often in the context in which it is used. "There is no such thing as raw data," says Bill Anderson of the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin and associate editor of the CODATA Data Science Journal.
Take the number 37, Anderson says. Other than stating a numerical order, it means little on its own. But with some more information — 37 degrees Celsius, for instance — it can take on more meaning. Now give it some context: 37 degrees C is normal body temperature. Now 37 represents something useful, something a doctor or researcher could use, and it becomes a piece of knowledge that could comfort a patient or answer a question.
On many a college campus are inscribed somewhere or other the words of Isaac Newton, who in 1676 said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Among those raising his stature you could probably count the people who took the young math prodigy seriously, and decided to publish his work on things like calculus and optics. The Royal Society, the world's oldest academic publishing institution, was the first to do so.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the basement of a quaintly cramped building on the Harvard University campus, down a set of corkscrew stairs that would make a rollercoaster designer dizzy, the shelves and filing cabinets are spilling over with 100 years of stars. Glass photographic plates shipped from telescopes around the world document the Beehive Cluster as it appeared in 1890, or Cepheid variable stars as they looked in 1908. The glass plates — some 525,000 of them — serve as the only permanent record of the skies as seen by our forebears.
But the 170-ton database represents much more than an archive of astronomical history — it's a potential gold mine for new discoveries, if only scientists could dig through it. With that goal in mind, a small collection of astronomers and archivists is using custom-built technology to bring this enormous data set into the digital age.
DARPA’s latest tech challenge should make you hesitate to throw out your shredded documents, instead opting for the handy caveman solution of simply burning them. Until DARPA comes up with a way to read ashes as well as messages on shredded paper.