Gigapixels: The (Really) Big Picture

Innovative imaging technologies have always had a knack for furthering science. Without telescopes (originally devised to help military commanders spot enemies on the battlefield), we might still have an Earth-centered view of the solar system. Without microscopes, we might still believe that flies spontaneously arise from rotting meat.

A few weeks ago, a few of my NOVA colleagues and I attended The Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging and glimpsed some of the ways that this clever new technology is impacting not just science but also education and the art world.

What's a "gigapixel" image? Just what it sounds like--an image comprised of billions of pixels. (By contrast, the cherished family photos you may have on your computer are likely mere "megas.") To get a sense of their power, peruse this popular example, a political junkie's version of "Where's Waldo?":

(inauguration Gigapan copyright David Bergman)

If you zoom in to the right spot, you can even see the details of Hillary Clinton's earrings. And the inauguration image is only 1.5 gigapixels. The largest to date, a stunning cityscape of Rio de Janeiro, is a whopping 152 gigapixels. Gigapixel imaging essentially combines robotics, digital cameras, and "stitching" software to create ultra-high-resolution pictures from hundreds or even thousands of smaller pictures. (The Rio record-breaker used over 12,000.)
Sculptor James Sanborn, creator of "Kryptos"--perhaps the world's most famous piece of cryptographic art--has found that it's not easy keeping a secret for 20 years, particularly one that thousands of fanatical puzzle-solvers are dead set on discovering. Since 1990, when his coded sculpture was first unveiled in the courtyard of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Sanborn has been deluged with letters, email, phone calls, and even an unsolicited 100+-page paper purporting to crack the code.  


                                                                      © WGBH Educational Foundation

The seemingly incoherent strings of letters stamped out of Kryptos's copper panels are actually meaningful passages of text. There are four separate passages (K1, K2, K3 & K4), each encoded with a different cryptographic key.

When NOVA first reported on Kryptos in a 2007 NOVA scienceNOW segment, three of the sculpture's four puzzles had been solved. But K4, a passage only 97 characters long, remained elusive. (In the game of cryptography, shorter codes are tougher to decipher because they offer fewer recognizable patterns.) Following the broadcast, Sanborn agreed to field questions from Kryptos's many fans, but he dodged their attempts to fish for answers, noting, "I have already given all of the clues that I want to give."

Apparently, that's now changed.

The beautiful woman on the book jacket cavorting with a baby bonobo might make Bonobo Handshake look like family-friendly fare. But primatologist Vanessa Woods' powerful new memoir is no Curious George (unless you can imagine The Man in the Yellow Hat swept up in a passionate romance and living with endangered apes in war-torn Congo).

Bonobo Handshake cover.jpgI came across Woods' book in the course of doing research for an upcoming NOVA scienceNOW website on animal cognition, and it is indeed a window into the emotions and psychology of our nearest primate relatives, bonobos and chimps. But more than that it's a revealing look into the mind and heart of a young woman finding her way as a scientist and a conservationist.
The book is an appealing read even for people not usually drawn to science (hardcore science fans might, in fact, be turned off by the personal drama) and an eye-opening reality check for anyone interested in doing research with primates. I would love for my own young daughters to read it someday, but not much about this book is G-rated.

Let's start with the title. What, exactly, is a "bonobo handshake"? Here's a hint: "Kikongo ... sticks his penis through the bars, waving it wildly at the bonobos outside munching on papaya and manioc leaves, begging for a bonobo handshake." It turns out that when bonobos greet one another--even strangers from another troop--they are as likely to rub each other's genitals as we humans are to shake hands. (In contrast, when chimps encounter unfamiliar chimps, they often react with murderous rage.) As the primatologist Frans de Waal famously puts it, bonobos are the "make-love-not-war" primate.

Sex among bonobos is less about procreation than recreation--it's the means for resolving conflicts when tensions flare; it's the glue that holds social groups together. And while bonobo sex resembles a hippie lovefest, the sex life of chimps is more like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. What makes chimps and bonobos so different? And which of our primate cousins are we humans more like?

The Stuff of Dreams

The old Freudian notion that dreams are a window into the unconscious--revealing desires and fears that we'd rather not consciously face but that a therapist can help us excavate and confront--makes many neuroscientists today raise their eyebrows. That skepticism was clear in NOVA's program "What Are Dreams?" as well as in what sleep-and-dream researcher Bob Stickgold had to say to the flood of viewers who e-mailed questions after the show aired. (The gist: "Freud was probably 50 percent right and 100 percent wrong!")

Stickgold and his colleagues continue to rack up evidence that dreams are nonetheless a reflection of critical processes at work in the brain as we sleep, neurological housekeeping that helps consolidate and organize our memories and thereby enhances learning. A study in the April 22 issue of Current Biology led by Erin Wamsley, a postdoc in Stickgold's lab at Harvard Medical School, offers an intriguing case.

Wamsley and her team taught 99 Harvard undergrad volunteers how to make their way through a computer maze, represented by the schematic below.

Maze in Memory Study.jpg
(Courtesy Erin Wamsley)

The students had to remember the location of a particular object (the checkered cone) and then find the cone as quickly as possible when they were plunked down at different spots within the maze. After a first round of testing their navigation skills, half the group was led into a sleep lab for a 90-minute afternoon nap. The other half stayed awake, quietly watching videos.

MsChif at NOVA

What do PBS's premier science program and the ChickFight women's wrestling tournament have in common? Before last week, probably very little. But on Friday, a green-haired goth wrestler named MsChif swept into our production studio to be interviewed for NOVA's Web series "The Secret Life of Scientists."

In my 20 years at NOVA, I've met many interesting scientists--intrepid oceanographers, Nobel prize-winning physicists, my childhood idols Jane Goodall and Carl Sagan. Never, though, had I encountered a professional wrestler / microbiologist like Rachel, whose ring name "MsChif" only hints at the stunts she pulls during matches. (In one infamous brawl with a 270-pound wrestler known as "Amazing Kong," MsChif disqualified herself by spitting an "illegal" green mist at her nemesis.)