Science Sunday 7 August 2022

Science Sunday 7 August 2022

I had a science Sunday; the day revolved around experiencing and learning about science. My friend Claudia inspired us to have a wonderful day. A week ago, she suggested that we might visit The Infinite, a virtual reality (VR) experience centered on life in space. Users experience the project via Oculus VR goggles. I talked with my wife, Mary Ellen, and we thought it would make for a good outing. We met with our friends Claudia and Pat on a sunny morning and journeyed to Tacoma.

On the drive down to Tacoma, we started with a science appetizer. We listened to part of Claudia’s audiobook: “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us” by Ed Yong. The section we listened to was about dogs’ sense of smell, the primary sense for dogs. Since I spend a fair amount of time with my granddog Juniper, it was eye-opening to learn how she views the world. I hadn’t realized that dogs have a separate pathway for air to smell and air to breathe. Different paths let a dog sniff and observe scent many times a second. It was a sound learning snippet on our drive.

When we arrived, we decided we all needed a snack. Pat knew his donuts and remembered a great donut shop, The Original Donut House. After consulting with Google and Siri, we decided the Donut House was defunct. Luckily, Le Duc Donuts was nearby. I fortified myself with a cake donut with coconut sprinkles and green tea.

We went on to The Infinite, a traveling exhibit hosted in the Tacoma Armory. It was interesting to have a cutting-edge technology exhibit hosted in a building constructed in 1908. We went through a brief introduction and then entered an area where we learned how to get the most out of our Oculus VR sets. I found that I needed to have my glasses on to see effectively. The VR set allowed my glasses to fit in, it was slightly uncomfortable, but I adapted quickly.

We got a minute to adjust to the VR set. In our view, our group of four appeared as gold avatars, other visitors as blue avatars, and exhibit staff as green avatars. White dots delineated the floor below us. I found I walked cautiously. We entered the exhibit, and I was awestruck; I was floating in orbit around the Earth with the heavens above. Wow.

In a minute, the outline of the International Space Station (ISS) appeared. I slowly walked towards it and entered.

The station pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon, 2021 Source: NASA

Floating around us were orbs; I touched my first orb. The astronaut explained what she was doing in a science experiment on the ISS. I went on to another orb and another. A favorite was the astronaut and cosmonauts preparing and eating appetizers; I was next to the table with them. In another experience, an astronaut was floating toward me. I could look up into another node of the station. I was well above the floor when I looked down. I floated gravity free on orbit around Earth.

Four chapters of seven minutes divide the Infinite experience: Adaptation, Progress, Unity, and Expansion. In between each chapter is a transition of a few minutes. You leave the confines of the station and float above the Earth. There’s some ethereal music coming in via your headphones. The ISS appears in front of you, and you enter the next chapter. I saw the Earth from the cupola, a domed viewing port added to let astronauts see the Earth through large viewing windows. I also floated outside the station; nearby, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was docked, and the solar panels towered above me; what a view.

Most memorable were the crew interactions, the human element, and emotion. There was joy when a crew floated in; sadness when a crew departed. The station crews are “space people,” a term I learned from MIT researcher Ariel Ekblaw. [1]

Near the end, I had something upsetting happen. A message flashed that said a staff member wanted to talk with me. We connected after I lifted my headset. My VR set battery was 16%; I needed to change headsets. I struggled awkwardly to get the headset off; the headset captured my glasses. With my headset off, I was catapulted back to reality. There were a bunch of people standing in a warehouse. It was disconcerting. I asked to leave; I felt I would not reengage with the VR experience. The staff member guided me to an exit. I did talk with a manager and explained my concern; getting a partially charged headset that did not compute to me.

I think we just visited a section of the Metaverse; the experience was terrific despite the glitch. The exhibit is complex; taking it all in on a 35-minute visit is impossible. The good news is that I will get to come back and do the show again. In preparation for my next time, I bought a book about the exhibit: The Infinite, by Phoebe Greenberg and nine co-authors.

After our time in virtual reality, we needed lunch. We picked the Red Elm cafe in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma. It was some great food; I had a vegan breakfast waffle with hashbrowns and a soy latte. Mary Ellen enjoyed a chicken avocado sandwich with a cold latte. The food was delicious, and the staff was friendly and attentive. We met Henry; he teaches crochet lessons. Some of his knitted art was on the wall of the cafe.

On our way home, Claudia gave us another recommendation – to see the documentary AlphaGo. I knew the general story about a Google DeepMind team building an artificial intelligence (AI) program that defeated the world’s best Go player. We started the documentary; I thought we might spend 15 minutes viewing this 90-minute film. Wrong. The film captivated us. I was intrigued by the development of neural networks; I had colleagues who worked in this field in the early 1990s. The struggles of Fan Hui and Lee Sedol against the AlphaGo program was mesmerizing. Sedol learned new insights from AlphaGo; perhaps humans and AIs will team up to reach new levels of learning in the game of Go.

Well, that’s a summary of science Sunday. I woke up Monday morning with the thought of capturing a wonderful day with Mary Ellen, Claudia, and Pat. I found it took me longer than I thought to capture my thoughts in writing; about 2.5 hours from start to finish.

My writing was aided and abetted by visits from Gus the cat, who decided I needed to take an occasional break.

[1] Ariel Ekblaw: Space Colonization and Self-Assembling Space Megastructures | Lex Fridman Podcast #271 One of my favorite podcasts; I always learn something when Lex interviews people.

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