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Modeling the future is complicated; counting meteors is much easier

By Aaron Leitko,

Technology

America’s next top model

Scientific American, December

Time travel: probably not going to happen any time soon. At least, not in the physical, “Back to the Future” sense. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to peek into the future. In the December issue of Scientific American, writer David Weinberger chats with Dirk Helbing, a Swiss physicist and sociologist who is pitching a project called the Living Earth Simulator, a billion-euro computer system that would absorb vast amounts of data, use it to model global-scale systems — economies, governments, etc. — and predict the future.

Well, maybe. Weinberger speaks with researchers who point out the roadblocks. While it’s possible to model small systems, such as highway and pedestrian traffic, getting a read on the economy, the environment and public health all at once is a much more complicated process. For instance, how would you account for feedback loops in the system — that is, what happens when the computer model’s conclusions alter the situation that it’s modeling? And if you can’t understand the process through which the model generates an answer, the whole thing is just a giant Magic 8 Ball, anyway. The computer may call upon world leaders to “set fire to all the world’s oil wells,” writes Weinberger. “That will not be actionable advice if the policymaker cannot explain why it’s right.”

Astronomy

When you wish upon a star,take notes

Meteor Counter iPhone App

When you see a shooting star, make a wish. But also, take note of its brilliance. After all, NASA is counting on you. With its new Meteor Counter app — available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch — the space administration is calling upon amateur stargazers to help it keep a running tab on meteor showers around the globe. All you have to do is look up, get lucky, see a glowing hunk of matter hurtle through the mesosphere and then tap a few buttons. The interface is fairly idiot-proof: Just dial in the viewing conditions (hazy, cloudy, overcast) and the light level of the dimmest stars in the sky. Then, each time you see a meteor, tap the screen to indicate how bright it was. At the end of session, the app will automatically upload the data to a server for review by NASA researchers. Meteor Counter can also be set to record and transmit audio commentary, so, if you have a salient observation to make or just want to get a simple “Whoa!” on the official record, you can do that, too.

— Aaron Leitko

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