A talk on the dark side with Brian Greene

Three Americans physicists took home the Nobel Prize today for demonstrating that the expansion of the known universe is accelerating. The discovery supports the notion that a mysterious force called “dark energy” is pushing the cosmos apart. Dark energy has been a top priority for many in the astrophysics community, because the long standing conventional wisdom was that the expansion of the universe is actually slowing down due to gravitational forces. The notion that dark energy may be “pushing” harder than gravity is “pulling” has major repercussions for how the universe will look in the distant future.

Last year, I spoke with bestselling author and Columbia physics professor Brian Greene about why the existence of dark energy spells trouble for stargazers.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Fear not, humans: Watson the new Jeopardy champion won’t take over the world — yet

Ken Jennings, left, Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson compete on the game show "Jeopardy!" Photo: AP/Jeopardy Productions, Inc., Carol Kaelson

After “Jeopardy” began taping its three man-vs.-machine matches last month, pitting the IBM artificial intelligence software Watson against two of the game show’s most celebrated champions, host Alex Trebek confessed some concern about the contest to author Stephen Baker.

“Is this going to be fair?” he and the producers of “Jeopardy” asked, repeatedly. It wasn’t just a matter of ensuring an honest fight. The show’s producers wanted the Watson challenge to be compelling television. And if the machine — powered by a cluster of 90 servers with nearly 3,000 processing cores and 16 terabytes of data storage — made mincemeat of its human opponents, the show would be a pretty dull affair.

The IBM team, led by principal investigator David Ferrucci, reassured the show’s producers that the terms of the contest would, if anything, favor the humans.

“What we’re doing is we’re building a machine, and the machine has all kinds of weaknesses. It doesn’t understand language very well. And it doesn’t know anything,” Baker said, recalling the IBM team’s argument. “So we’re putting an ignorant machine that has a language handicap up, and you’re saying it’s not fair because it happens to be fast on the buzzer?”

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A hot rock and a gas blob make headlines

Two exciting cosmological discoveries were announced this week. The first: the Kepler satellite detected a small planet outside of our solar system. The second: the Hubble telescope team photographed a large, green blob and found that it was, in fact, producing stars. Both  discoveries were unveiled at a Seattle American Astronomical Society conference, and both are generating quite a bit of buzz.

The new planet, NASA announced, is the smallest yet discovered outside of our solar system. The amazing part? It’s hard and rocky. Like Earth.

An artist's concept of Kepler-10b. Photo: NASA

Astronomers have cataloged hundreds of planets outside of our solar system, but most are huge, glowing gaseous balls that dwarf our (comparatively) small blue home. The newly discovered planet, Kepler 10-b, is solid and only 1.4 times the size of Earth.

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The revolution will be … faxed?

Photo: Flickr/aliceinreality

Last night at the Council on Foreign Relations, CFR president Richard N. Haass sat down with Google CEO Eric Schmidt and CFR Adjunct Fellow Jared Cohen to discuss “The Digital Disruption” as part of the organization’s CEO Speaker Series.

The wide-ranging discussion touched on the impact of mobile technology in the developing world, the necessity of cultivating reliable sources of information in cyberspace and the challenge of keeping these new technologies out of the hands of bad guys.

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Test your religious IQ

Americans are almost as clueless about religion as we are about geography. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked 3,412 randomly chosen adults questions about everything from the golden rule to prayer in school, and found that the average person got only half right. Ironically, atheists and agnostics scored the highest, followed by Jews and Mormons.

How would you fare? Take the quiz to find out. And feel free to brag about your score in the comments section. I got 14 out of 15 (and have since read up on the First Great Awakening).

The Facebook co-founder who got away

Photo: flickr/Steve Rhodes

While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg edges his way up Forbes’ list of the richest people in America and is cast as villain in the must-see movie “The Social Network,” (premiering tonight at the New York Film Festival), his co-founder Chris Hughes is about to launch a new social network — one aimed at fighting poverty and its attending ills. Read All »

The truth hurts

In the comedy world, 2010 is the year of Betty White.  The collective fawning over the 88-year-old funnywoman reached fever pitch when she hosted “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year.  Her performance was critically acclaimed as fearless, and the result has been the unlikely rekindling of her career.

Photo: AP/Chris Pizzello

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Building a sneakier robot

If robots weren’t annoying enough already with their beeping and clanging and general lack of empathy, now two scientists from Georgia Tech are teaching them how to be liars too.

The experiment, published last week in The International Journal of Social Robotics, endeavored to see if two machines, Hider and Seeker, could psych each other out by leaving fake trails for one another.  While we’re still a long way from a machine that’s sneaky enough to feign regret like HAL 9000, the research marks a significant step forward in the science of teaching artificial intelligence to use deception.
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