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Intel Museum December 24, 2016

Posted by flashbuzzer in History, Science.
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I recently visited the Intel Museum in Santa Clara. This museum showcases the history of Intel.

Here are five nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were two of the Traitorous Eight employees who resigned from the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to form Fairchild Semiconductor. Each of the founders of Fairchild made an initial contribution of $500 to the company; Noyce solicited the assistance of his grandmother in that regard. Later, Noyce became so frustrated with the onerous bureaucracy of Fairchild’s parent company, Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation, that he and Moore resigned to form NM Electronics; later, they changed its name to Intel.

2. When Noyce and Moore founded NM Electronics, they targeted the memory market. At that time, the dominant technology was magnetic core memory – which was unreliable and expensive, as it had to be made by hand. In light of this, Noyce and Moore decided to unlock the potential of semiconductor-based memory. Their first product was the i3101 64-bit RAM. Later, they achieved great success with the introduction of the Intel 1103 which utilized metal oxide semiconductor technology.

3. In 1969, the Nippon Calculating Machine Corporation contracted Intel to design twelve custom chips for their Busicom 141-PF calculator. During the ensuing research and development phase, Intel produced a design that only required four chips. The 4004 microprocessor was a critical component of that novel approach.

4. Silicon wafers originate from a solution of liquid silicon with a purity of 99.9999999 percent. A seed crystal is dipped into that solution and then withdrawn. That seed crystal is later tapered at both ends and then sliced into a set of thin wafers. Photoresist is applied to those thin wafers as a critical step in photolithography.

5. A Front Opening Unified Pod is typically found in clean labs; it weighs about 25 pounds and contains a stack of 25 silicon wafers that are ready to be processed. A set of FOUPs is conveyed about the lab by an Automated Material Handling System, which is a network of conveyor belts that move at about 1.5 meters per second. The typical clean lab at Intel has at most 1 particle – with a size of 0.5 microns – per cubic foot of air.

The museum had several interesting exhibits that showcased Intel’s pioneering products. I also enjoyed the anecdotes that I encountered; for example, Intel requested that the city of Santa Clara change the name of Coffin Road to Bowers Avenue.

In terms of drawbacks, the accompanying text for some of the exhibits was so small that it was difficult to read. I also happened to visit the museum when several school groups were touring it – making it difficult for me to concentrate on the exhibits.

Overall I would recommend that tourists bypass this museum for the Computer History Museum – as its scope is more narrow than that of the Computer History Museum.

Computer History Museum July 25, 2016

Posted by flashbuzzer in History, Science.
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I recently visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. This museum showcases the history of computing.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. The simple abacus had various native idiosyncrasies. For example, the Chinese suan pan had two beads in its upper section and five beads in its lower section. In contrast, a Korean abacus had one bead in its upper section. Furthermore, a Japanese soroban had one bead in its upper section and four beads in its lower section.

2. Punched cards were proposed by Herman Hollerith as a solution to a challenge posed by the U.S. Census Bureau before the 1890 census. They had been previously utilized by Joseph-Marie Jacquard as an essential element of the Jacquard loom for weaving. Later, they were employed by Maurice Wilkes in a landmark survey of the native flora and fauna of Great Britain.

3. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, relied on approximately 18000 vacuum tubes to perform its computations. Since these vacuum tubes had high failure rates, users of the ENIAC employed a plethora of tricks; for example, they ran the tubes well below their performance limits. When a tube did fail, a skilled technician would locate it within 15 minutes.

4. John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert capitalized on the success of the ENIAC in their development of the Universal Automatic Computer, or UNIVAC. They founded a company to manufacture the UNIVAC; this company was later acquired by Remington Rand. General Electric (GE) was one of the first entities to purchase a UNIVAC for its accounting division; after some initial setbacks, GE was able to integrate its UNIVAC with its business processes. The UNIVAC was later rendered obsolete by IBM.

5. Quipu was utilized by officials in the Incan Empire as a form of documentation; this system was based on colored cords and the precise placement of knots in these cords. Tally sticks were also used for record-keeping through 1) the precise placement of notches of varying depths in these sticks or 2) splitting a stick in half and giving the larger portion to the stock-holder in a stock transaction.

6. Seymour Cray was arguably the impetus for the rise of supercomputers. As a staunch opponent of bureaucracy, he enjoyed working in small engineering teams and would often work late at night to minimize distractions. He was particular about minimizing delay; thus, many of his products had to be meticulously hand-wired to satisfy that requirement. He also relied on fluids such as Fluorinert and Freon as coolants for his products. His final product, the Cray-3, flopped – due to its reliance on unproven gallium arsenide technology.

7. The Chalk River Laboratories worked with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to develop a computing device that could control one of its reactors. In the process, DEC engineers Gordon Bell and Edson de Castro designed a landmark device – the PDP-8, which was the first commercially viable minicomputer. The PDP-8 relied on flip chip technology, where a machine automatically wired connectors on the back of a panel containing various components.

8. Vacuum tubes acted as digital logic components in early computing devices; when a filament (cathode) was heated, current would pass through a grid and strike a plate (anode). They were superseded by transistors. John Bardeen and Walter Brattain developed the first transistor – two gold contacts on a sliver of germanium. Texas Instruments then played a pivotal role in an industry-wide shift from germanium-based transistors to silicon-based transistors by touting the robustness to temperature of silicon.

9. The University of Utah played a pivotal role in the rise of computer graphics. For example, Martin Newell used a simple teapot to show how a wireframe mesh could divide a three-dimensional object into sections of (roughly) constant smoothness. Also, Ivan Sutherland allowed his students to create a wireframe mesh model of his car and apply polygonal shading to it. In addition, Utah alumni have founded several leading graphics companies, including Silicon Graphics and Pixar.

10. The Simon Personal Communicator was developed by IBM and BellSouth as the first smartphone. Users could place calls, organize their contacts, and send e-mails with that device; it flopped, though. Other early smartphones included the Nokia Communicator, which allowed users to browse the Web.

The museum featured an impressive array of exhibits and artifacts, including a wooden optical mouse that had been donated by Donald Knuth, a copy of a pamphlet of IBM “company songs” that extolled the virtues of Thomas Watson, and a Google server from 1999. I also enjoyed perusing the explanations of devices such as Napier’s bones and slide rules.

I should note that the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics section was a bit sparse; hopefully it will be upgraded soon.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend it to those who happen to be in the Bay Area.

MIT Museum June 20, 2012

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I recently visited the MIT Museum in Cambridge. This museum features a collection of science-themed exhibits – most of them are connected to MIT.

Here are five nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. The slide rule arose from an invention of John Napier, who is best known for inventing the logarithm. After several people improved on Napier’s invention, William Oughtred invented the slide rule itself. Interestingly, slide rules were used by the English to enforce their harsh 17th-Century tax laws; they were also used by the British to calculate the fines on Massachusetts colonists for the Boston Tea Party. In addition, James Watt actually invented the Soho slide rule.

2. Malaria can have a rather debilitating effect on red blood cells, which are normally pliable, allowing them to squeeze through narrow capillaries in the brain. In particular, malaria can decrease the elasticity of a red blood cell membrane, restricting its movement through narrow channels. Also, malaria increases the adhesiveness of a red blood cell membrane, resulting in capillary blockage.

3. Edwin Land became intrigued by optics at a young age, when a camp counselor showed him a block of calcite, introducing him to the concepts of reflection and refraction. Land would later drop out of Harvard to pursue his passion for optics. He invented the instant camera after a 1943 trip to Santa Fe, where his daughter asked him why she couldn’t immediately view the photos that he had taken. He would also spur the creation of MIT’s UROP with an impassioned 1957 speech.

4. John McCarthy is credited with organizing the first conference in the field of artificial intelligence in 1956; it was held at Dartmouth and had ten attendees. McCarthy persuaded those in attendance to refer to their new area of research as “artificial intelligence.” He would soon move to MIT to continue his research in AI. He is also credited with developing the LISP programming language.

5. The Kanchenjunga region straddles Nepal and India. The name “Kanchenjunga” means “Five Treasures of the Great Snow” in Tibetan. The tallest mountain in this region, Mount Kanchenjunga, is the world’s third-highest peak; it was actually believed to be the world’s tallest peak until the discovery of Mount Everest.

The museum contains an impressive collection of robots that MIT researchers have developed in the CSAIL, including the well-known Kismet robot. I also enjoyed the Gestural Engineering exhibit by Arthur Ganson, which consisted of many curious contraptions.

I don’t have any quibbles at this time.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in science.

Review: The Double Helix – A Personal Account of the Discovery of The Structure of DNA November 9, 2010

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I recently finished The Double Helix – A Personal Account of the Discovery of The Structure of DNA by James D. Watson.

This book has already been thoroughly reviewed on Amazon, but I figured that I would add my two cents to the ongoing discussion.

In this book, the author presents his recollection of the events that culminated in the discovery of the structure of DNA. In particular, he describes his tenure as a researcher at Cambridge and discusses the fine points of working with his most famous collaborator, Francis Crick. Besides Crick, the reader is introduced to other prominent post-World War II DNA researchers, including Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

I enjoyed the fact that the author pulled off the difficult balancing act of 1) continuously referring to concepts from biochemistry while 2) keeping the book accessible to non-scientists. I hadn’t taken any biology courses since my freshman year of college, so it was helpful to get a refresher on DNA biochemistry. I also enjoyed how the author described the various misguided approaches that he and Crick pursued, especially their hypothesis that the nitrogenous base pairs resided on the exterior of the DNA structure while the sugar-phosphate backbone resided on its interior. Based on my experiences, I can attest to the fact that every research breakthrough is accompanied by a litany of failures. In addition, the descriptions of the “rivalry” between the Crick-Watson collaboration at Cambridge and 1) the Wilkins-Franklin group at King’s College London and 2) the Pauling group at Caltech were enlightening. As expected, I had never heard these stories in my biology courses.

In terms of quibbles, the author’s depiction of Rosalind Franklin left me wishing that she had not passed away before writing her own perspective on the discovery of DNA. In this book, Franklin comes across as a brilliant yet stubborn, prideful, closed-minded researcher. The author attempts to paint a more agreeable picture of Franklin in the epilogue, but this fails to compensate for the picture that has been painted in the first 29 chapters of the book. It would have been interesting and enlightening to read Franklin’s thoughts on arguably the most significant scientific breakthrough of the 20th Century, especially if sexism influenced the portrayal of her actions towards Watson, Crick and Wilkins.

Overall, I would recommend this book to those who are interested in a blow-by-blow account of the discovery of the structure of DNA and desire 1) a refresher on the underlying concepts from biochemistry and 2) an expose of the interpersonal dynamics among researchers that is typically avoided in biology curricula.

Museum of Science, Boston August 25, 2009

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I recently visited the Museum of Science in Boston. The museum features a variety of exhibits that present the marvels and wonders of science to the general public.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Cormorants and seagulls are often at odds as they carve out a shared existence along the New England coast. In fact, seagulls enjoy swooping down upon a mother cormorant’s nest and stealing her eggs for food.

2. Beavers are capable of altering an entire ecosystem via their diligent dam-building endeavors. They also possess wide, flat tails that can be used to alert other beavers of impending danger; a “sentinel” beaver accomplishes this by slapping its tail against the water.

3. Deciduous forests can be found throughout Massachusetts, which helps to explain the local sentiment of “you can experience all four seasons here.” In contrast, conifers are more prevalent in New Hampshire and Vermont, which happen to lie in a tundra zone.

4. Our understanding of black holes is enhanced via data collection across a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory searches for the tell-tale X-rays that are emitted by black holes. Also, the Hubble Space Telescope scans the visible portion of the spectrum, hunting for stars in the vicinity of a black hole. In addition, the Spitzer Space Telescope scans the infrared portion of the spectrum, enabling it to observe regions of star formation in the clouds of gas and dust that typically surround black holes. Combining images from all three sources provides a comprehensive picture of a black hole and its environs.

5. Contrary to popular belief, black holes do not serve as powerful vacuums, sucking up and destroying all of the matter within an arbitrary radius. The “critical” distance for vacuum-like behavior is actually the Schwarzschild radius which, in some sense, can be thought of as the “diameter” of a black hole.

6. One statement of Minkowski’s Theorem is as follows: “consider an infinite two-dimensional lattice where adjacent points are separated by a unit distance. Also, consider a convex region that is centered at one of these lattice points. If this convex region has area greater than 4, it contains at least three of the lattice points.” This is a neat example of a simple, yet elegant mathematical truism.

7. The Galton machine is a fascinating mathematical device. In this contraption, a collection of balls is released into a set of wells; using a clever arrangement of pins between the ball release point and the wells, the flight of the balls can be altered to allow the distribution of balls in the wells to follow the well-known normal distribution. The Galton machine highlights the importance of Gaussianity in all sorts of natural phenomena.

8. Dean Kamen, who is perhaps best known for inventing the Segway scooter, has designed a new device that should be a boon to developing nations. Known as the Slingshot, it purifies water via a cycle of steam formation and condensation. It also generates power via an ingenious device known as a Stirling engine.

9. Cladistics is a powerful method that has been used by scientists to map the evolution of various traits in dinosaurs. In particular, we now know that birds can be classified as dinosaurs, while pterosaurs are technically not dinosaurs; they lack the distinctive hole in their hip sockets that is present in all dinosaurs.

10. Nanotechnology relies on many fascinating natural phenomena for invaluable design insights. For example, cabbage leaves are quite remarkable in terms of their water-resistant and self-cleaning properties. A close examination of their surfaces reveals a network of raised bumps which inhibits water collection. As water drops onto this network of bumps, it rolls off, taking dirt particles with it.

The museum provides a welcome diversion for families who may be looking for ways to keep their children from succumbing to boredom during the long summer months. Exhibits such as the Cahners ComputerPlace challenge students with various hands-on puzzles such as the Tower of Hanoi problem. Visitors will have the treat of observing numerous children experiencing the joys of science and expressing genuine intellectual curiosity.

In terms of drawbacks, the museum is so expansive that it is difficult, if not impossible, to thoroughly browse all of its exhibits in a single day. Proper advance planning is necessary in order to get the most out of a single-day trip. Also, if you visit the museum by taking the T to the Science Park stop, you may be stuck on the wrong side of the Charles River Dam Bridge and have to wait for the bridge to lower before being able to approach the museum.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum and I learned a lot, though I would like to return at some point to browse the exhibits that I missed.