Category: Feature

Get it sorted

RIXLUTS3aComputers don’t just automatically know how to do things – they need software programmed for them by people. Amobile phone, for example, has software installed to tell the on-board computer how to carry out different functions. This includes running the menus, digitising your voice to transmit it, and even playing music or games. The softwarebreaks down these functions into individual tasks, each of which is processed by a particular algorithm. ‘Algorithm’ may sound technical, but it is just a way of describing how to do something. An algorithm is a list of instructions, like following a recipe to bake a cake.

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In the picture

RIXLUTS2aA lot of what people use computers for involves images. Most web pages are now absolutely stuffed with colourful pictures, and we all love taking holiday photos on a digital camera or looking at pictures of our friends online. But all of this would be impossible if computer scientists hadn’t developed clever ways to store and transmit images digitally.

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All very logical

RIXLUTS1bComputers do many wonderful things: from running medical equipment and scientific simulations to searching the web and playing music or games. Yet all these different computer applications ultimately boil down to straightforward mathematical operations: adding or multiplying two numbers together, checking to see which of two numbers is the largest, and so on. This maths is performed by electrical circuits made up of logic gates. Logic gates are small electrical components that each perform a simple job, but can be built up in circuits to do very complicated processes.

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Information of life

RIXLUTS1aModern computer processors have been improving rapidly since they were first developed in the 1940s. Computer systems have advanced in two main ways: how fast they can run calculations and how much information they can store in a small space. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the chemical that stores the information of life in all our body’s cells, and nowresearchers are looking into ways of building DNA computers!

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Your Computer Needs You

Aristides Human_computersis a typical 13-year-old boy. He plays basketball after school, is learning the clarinet, and in the evening sits in front of his computer playing games. There is one game that he is especially keen on, however, which marks him out from his peers. Every day he logs on to, where, under the nickname “Cheese”, he plays a game that involves twisting, pulling and wiggling a 3D structure that looks a bit like a tree’s root system. He manipulates different lengths of these snaking green tubes until they fit into the smallest volume possible. It may sound like a rather bizarre game – a distant 3D relative of Tetris, perhaps – but it is in fact a brilliant disguise for one of the toughest conundrums facing biologists today: how do proteins fold?

Digital Art

Digital_artModern technology has changed many things in our lives, including the way we communicate, travel and entertain ourselves. Electronic instruments and computer simulations have revolutionised science. Mathematics, one of the purest forms of human logic and reasoning, has also been changed by computer approaches. Even art has been undergoing a deep upheaval in the way it is created and appreciated, using the fast processing and graphical output of computers. The boundary between artist, computer programmer, and mathematician is becoming ever more blurred. In this article, Lewis Dartnell leads us through some examples of this exciting new wave of digital art.

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Mars: Waterworld or Dune?

Biochemist_articleThere’s an old email that’s been doing the rounds for a while now, proclaiming that water has been found on Mars. The attached image double‑clicks open to show a glass of water smartly balanced atop a Mars chocolate bar. Very droll, but this humour does hint at a fundamental question that planetary scientists have been asking about the red planet for decades. What is the prevalence and history of water on the surface of Mars? And more importantly, at least in terms of the biological potential of the planet, what is the story of liquid water: the state necessary to sustain and support life as we know it. Has Mars ever been a Waterworld, with long‑standing lakes, seas and perhaps even a great northern ocean, or has the red planet forever been a desert, like Frank Herbert’s science‑fiction creation, Arrakis, the Dune planet?

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Space bugs!

Space_bugsOn Earth, microbes get absolutely everywhere. Indeed, there seem to be very few completely sterile natural environments. But what about microbial colonization of locations beyond Earth? In this article we’ll explore the realm of space bugs. There is a great deal of interest in the microbiology of the closed artificial environments created for human exploration of the cosmos, such as the International Space Station (ISS), as well as in minimizing the risks of inadvertently transporting terrestrial contamination elsewhere, and even the possibility of a natural mechanism spraying life between worlds over the history of the solar system.

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Matrix: Simulating the world Part II: cellular automata

Matrix2In the first part of Simulating the World we saw how simple mathematical models can be built to study everything from the flocking of birds to the collision of entire galaxies. In these examples, a matrix, or a grid of numbers, was used as a convenient way of storing information on all the objects included in the simulation, so that it can be updated each time step as the simulation progresses. In this second article, we’ll take a look at another class of mathematical models; ones where the matrix or array isn’t just a way of storing information during the simulation, but actually is the simulation itself.

Many real-world situations can be simplified as a sequence of objects in a line or an arrangement across a flat space — in other words, they can be faithfully represented by either a list of numbers (a one-dimensional matrix) or a regular grid of cells (a two-dimensional matrix). During the course of the simulation, the objects interact with those near-by according to a set of predefined rules, with the identity of each discrete position on the line or plane changing over time. Such a system is called a cellular automaton model.

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