Category Archives: Technology

Google… how did the internet work before?


Co-founders are multi-billionaire mathematicians and computer scientists.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Google after 1 minute 30 seconds of ridiculous intro chat about Kenny Rogers in this clip:

[audio – Google and artificial hearts.mp3]

How do you get to be one of the biggest companies on the planet when your website looks like this?

Google grew out of the vision of Larry Page and Sergey Brin who met as PhD students at Stanford University in the early 1990s. Since its inception, it has grown to become one of the world’s biggest tech companies. You know you have achieved a milestone when your company name becomes a verb – this has happened with Hoover (must irritate Dyson), Xerox and Skidoo among others. When we refer to searching for something on the web, we almost invariably say that we ‘googled’ something – even if we used a competitors search engine!

How a search engine works

For 5 or 6 years before Google came along, the internet worked differently. If you found a webpage about a subject you were interested in, you bookmarked it immediately. Webpages were only discoverable by entering their exact html address and it became very tedious listening to people read out all of the words and slashes (is it a backslash or a forward slash?). Gradually, early search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista started to group links by interest category and this is when the internet took off – companies recognized the need to have their names grouped with competitors. I recall hearing a pundit in 1995 saying ‘any company that isn’t on the web won’t survive.’ I was shocked at the time about the prophecy of the importance of the world-wide web but I very quickly came to see the truth in what was said.

As a student looking for a PhD project, Sergey Brin was interested in data mining. At the same time, Larry Page was studying the idea that the importance of publications was linked to the number of times they were cited… These two interest sets mesh nicely and, in retrospect, I can see how the two came up with the idea of Google. Personally, I’m too thick to have even appreciated what they had done when I saw it in action — even when I started using it habitually. Gradually I stopped using the bookmarks feature in web browsers. It was actually easier just to type in the keyword or a company name and the website would magically appear.

Brin and Page’s idea was that web searchers needed a prioritized list of websites that match search terms entered by the user, i.e. if I search for Hoover, I probably am more interested in the actual Hoover website than just a randomly ordered list of all websites that mention the word ‘hoover’ (noun or verb – for any North Americans that might have accidentally strayed into this blog, we in the UK ‘hoover’ rather than ‘vacuum’). But how do you prioritize the results of a web search? Simple, you could list web pages that mention a search term based on how many other web pages refer to them. The more a page is refered to, the more important it must be – right? Of course, nowadays, the algorithms (methods) that search engines like Google use are much more ‘intelligent’ than that in my simplified example but that was the genesis of an elegant idea.

A web-crawler. These guys do the work so that a search engine can make your life easier

All the search engine company needs to do is to read every webpage on the internet, catalogue every word that’s written into a giant index, and be able to instantaneously deliver your web search results. Sounds daunting but computers are fast and getting faster all of the time. Companies like Google employ spiders – well software that they call web crawlers or web spiders – to systematically search the web for purposes of cataloguing words. That’s why we are told to be sure our web pages have pertinent titles and keywords – so that the spiders find us and display us on Google. This page, for example, has tags like ‘fun science’ and ‘technology’ that the spiders will read. It won’t be catalogued immediately but within a few days it will start to appear in Google searches (how did you get to this page?).

How many computers running crawlers and answering search queries must a company like Google have in order to keep up with the demand? The answer is astounding. Probably more than a million – running 24/7 – and they’re not insignificant computers either. All spread across at least 6 sites around the world.

How does Google make money? Simple, they will prioritize your website to a higher level if you pay them to. Notice the sites that appear at the top of you Google search that are just slightly shaded in color – they’ve paid for the privilege of being at the top of your search return. Many of us just click the first link we see when our search is returned and, chi-ching for that company.

How big can Google get?

Where is the internet going? Not-so-simple. I don’t know, but then again you know that I’m not very good at seeing the need or the promise in new web ideas. I can tell you that I’ve just gotten a new smartphone that runs the Android operating system developed by Google. That purchase was so that I could more easily interface with my email and calendars at work because we’ve switched over to Gmail (what would you guess the ‘G’ stands for?). I am now a member of Google ‘circles’ although I haven’t yet figured that out completely (Twitter takes all of my time!).

So from small things big things come. Will Google get as big as Cyberdyne Systems? Should I get a Google tatoo…?

Keeping an eye on the cuckoo


You can migrate but you can’t hide…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss tracking cuckoos at  at 7 minute 36 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

A cuckoo with stylish tracking device

So we all know that birds we see in the summer fly south for the winter. I often think jealously of the birds laughing it up in sunnier climes while we suffer the cold and wet of winter. The journey that birds embark upon is epic and preprogrammed as an instinctive response to the onset of cold.

We’ve heard the stories of the thousands of miles that birds fly each year but the trip is really brought home to us when we can see the exact route that a bird takes.  Until now, we know that certain species are here in the summer and we also know that the same birds appear in the distant south during the winter. Data to support these observations has come anecdotally from travellers who recognize our native summer species. For almost 100 years, researchers have been banding birds with rings that are inobtrusive and which contain location data. We marvel that birds tagged in England appear in southern Africa, or that the same birds appear year after year in the same summer locations. How do they pathfind on their journeys? Do they have some inbuilt SatNav that lets them accomplish amazing feats of orienteering?

The Common Cuckoo of Europe (bird, not clock) is renowned for the distance of its migration

Follow cuckoos every step, uh… flap along the way

which sees it travelling from Northern Europe to Southern Africa every year. For some in the UK,  hearing the call of the Common Cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring. The problem is that the bird is becoming very endangered and scarce. Scientists are puzzled as to exactly why the species is in decline and now, in collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology  (BTO – but not Bachman Turner Overdrive takin’ care of business…), have decided to do something about it.

If the question is, ‘are the birds just not managing the migration successfully,’ the answer might be to track their whereabouts at all times. Modern electronics technology has been able to produce satellite transmitters that are so small that they can be fitted in a non-invasive way to a cuckoo. If you click on the image above, you will see the travels of a set of male cuckoos that the BTO have been tracking since departing Britain. You will see that the birds take very different routes, sometimes flying vast distances over water or the Sahara desert.

Miniature tracking technology is fairly accurate on a global scale but is not yet as accurate as the GPS systems in common use in our cars and phones. Those devices would still be to heavy for the birds to carry. The newest of these Platform Transmitter Terminals use solar panels to recharge the batteries – this means that after 10 hours of tracking, the transmitter must be shut down to recharge for 48 hours (I wish we got that after working for 10 hours!). In the age of Big Brother on television, many have come to expect instant gratification from our voyeur systems. The 48 hour shut down is going to be the undoing of many passionate birders who stay glued to their computers to see how the birds are making out. For example, exactly as I am writing this, one of the birds whose name is Lyster seems to be taking a break in a desert are of Mauritania. But no, he is moving. Is he getting food somehow in this relatively barren part of the world? Is he just all shagged out after a particularly long squawk? We’ll just have to stay tuned.

You can sponsor a bird and your donations will help the BTO keep this amazing experiment running so that we can finally figure out why our cuckoo is declining.

Curiosity goes for a spin on Mars


7 minutes of dread…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss the Mars Science Laboratory at 1 minute 33 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

Curiosity’s landing was the stuff of science fiction. Click image to watch video (make popcorn first!).

Just watch the video, an animation of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. It’s amazing. I wish I had been a Martian standing there watching it land. It would have been awe-inspiring.

Anyway, this week’s landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) (which is the rover called ‘Curiosity’ and it’s associated science equipment) was the culmination of one phase of the work of a great number of scientists over many years. Videos of dancing scientists and engineers in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and about a million celebratory tweets, highlight the importance of those crucial few minutes when Curiosity was touching down.

Curiosity, ready to rock and roll

The thing is, though, that Mars is a long way away and radio transmissions from the planet take a long time to get back to Earth – 7 minutes to be exact. Hence the subtitle of this piece – 7 minutes of dread. Try to imaging what it must have been like for all of the people associated with getting the rover to Mars. They had spent years planning and building for every contingency, systems on board had multiple redundancy as a hedge against failure, everyone was certain that nothing could go wrong… But you just never know, do you? The entire assemblage of space vehicles and parts was programmed to go through a choreographed sequence – brake against the weak Martian atmosphere, adjust trajectory, jetison heat shield, deploy parachute, fire rockets, lower Curiosity on tethers, cut tethers – what could go wrong? Meanwhile, back on Earth, scientists have to wait during the time Curiosity is supposed to have landed because radio transmission to verify a successful landing takes 7 minutes to get here. During that time, Curiosity might have been fine – or it might have been a mass of twisted wreckage blotting the Martian landscape. For those waiting, 7 minutes of dread indeed.

Jubilation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The picture says it all. I’m sure the 7 minutes probably seemed to last 7 years but, very shortly after the allotted time came the first transmission of a successful landing on the red planet. My sincere congratulations to all of the women and men who have devoted their scientific careers to making such an incredible moment.

What now? Curiosity has already turned its systems on and verified that everything seems to be in working order.  It will just sit for a bit and sample its surroundings using a vast array of cameras and scientific gadgetry designed to look for, amongst other things, signs of life. Once it has the lay of the land, the rover will head out to explore the environs of the giant crater that it has landed in. Experiments are set to run for almost the next two Earth

Is there life on Mars?

years (one Martian year). Will Curiosity find life? Probably not giant life forms but, hey, we’d be happy with a few biomolecules like amino acids or nucleic acids. Anything that gives us a clue about what went on in Mars’ past.

What a giant step for Science.

‘Unstealable’ objects


Why can a phone be described as ‘unstealable’?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss unstealable objects starting at 7 minutes and 1 second in this clip:

[audio – Weather and Unstealable objects.mp3]

Electronic chains, maybe

Surely, if I want to steal your phone, that should be no difficult task. Just stick it in my pocket and I’m off. Well, nowadays, small and valuable electronics items like smartphones, laptops and tablet computers have a trick that means that thievery isn’t such a lucrative pastime. They will just let you know where they are!

Marconi – the father of radio



[audio – DNA and Marconi.mp3]

Marconi invents radio


Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

Artificial Intelligence – are the machines intelligent yet?!


Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Artificial intelligence and Ben Franklin.mp3]

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Can computers be as ‘smart’ as Humans? Computers certainly are becoming powerful and these days can be programmed to access the answer to any question in almost impossibly small amounts of time.

‘Watson’ the supercomputer triumphs on Jeopardy

The real question is, is knowing the answer the same as intgelligence. Alan Turing, the famous British mathematician and computer scientist devised a set of criteria that could establish weather a machine had achieved intelligence. This is known as a Turing test.

Recently, a supercomputer named Watson cleaned up on the American game show Jeopardy which pits the finest brains around against each other. It’s fun to watch Jeopardy and scream incorrect answers at the TV screen.  I think anyone who says ‘I knew that’ once they hear an answer (question) should be penalized!

My vision of the future – flying cars!


Flying cars are here

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Flying cars and cane toads.mp3]

a flying car – no kidding


Wouldn’t it be cool to be invisible


New – invisibility cloaks

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Musicality and invisibility.mp3]

The invisible man