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Talk nerdy to me

Let’s Talk Nerdy about fighting wildfires, democratizing fine art, new frontiers in OCD research, stressed-out whales, and putting names to the faces in Civil War photos.

Fighting fire with data

Supercomputers and 3D simulations predict the spread of wildfires by projecting the constantly changing, interactive relationship between fire, fuels, atmosphere, and topography. Courtesy Los Alamos National Lab.

The November 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California was the deadliest wildfire in the US since the 1918 Cloquet fire in northern Minnesota. The Camp Fire claimed the lives of eighty-eight people and injured seventeen. Over 153,000 acres of land burned and the estimated cost to insurers is between $7.5 and $10 billion.

Wildfires are complex, but scientists can now model the factors that contribute to their ignition and spread. Alexandra Jonko, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, models fires in detail using a supercomputer and a system called FIRETEC.

With FIRETEC, Jonko can simulate the effects of different wind speeds on a fire’s spread. This helps fire managers make decisions when doing prescribed burns. Fire managers also use airborne lidar to visualize trees and ground-based lidar to see the vegetation beneath the trees, to give experts an idea of what fire-feeding fuels are present.

Computing power won’t eliminate wildfires, but it will help scientists gain a better understanding of the factors that make them so destructive.

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More than a reasonable facsimile

Most of us will never be able to hang an original Degas or Monet in our living room, but a promising new technology may give us access to authentic facsimiles.

The RePaint system reproduces paintings with a deep learning model that determines how to stack 10 different inks to recreate specific shades of color that remain consistent under any lighting condition. Courtesy MITCSAIL.

RePaint is a system developed by Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). It uses 3D printing and deep learning to recreate existing works of art. These high-quality facsimiles can be used to expose art pieces to a broader audience while leaving the originals unharmed.

An essential part of the researchers’ work with RePaint is accurate reproduction of spectral color. They’ve developed a technique called "color-contoning," which incorporates a 3D printer and ten different transparent inks stacked in very thin layers. They combined their method with  "halftoning," in which an image is created with dots, rather than continuous tones.

Mike Foshey, a mechanical engineer on the team says there is a tendency for fine art to be locked up and kept away from the public. He believes RePaint can be used to create inexpensive and accurate reproductions for the whole world to enjoy.

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Stuck in a loop

<strong>Stuck in ‘wrongness.'</strong> People with OCD may have repeated thoughts of behaviors that cause anxiety, such as a fear of germs, compulsive counting, or excessive hand washing. A recent study of brain scan data show that specific areas of the brain are associated with the repetition of OCD. Here’s some good news for people who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In a recent study, researchers were able to identify the specific areas of the brain and processes associated with the repetitive behaviors of OCD. The study suggests that when you have OCD, your brain gets stuck in a loop of “wrongness.”

Researchers at the University of Michigan led by postdoctoral fellow Luke Norman, gathered task-based functional brain scans and other data from a worldwide pool of OCD studies. The data showed that people with OCD had far more activity in the parts of the brain involved in recognizing that they were making an error, but less activity in the areas that could help them stop.

Research team member Kate Fitzgerald compares OCD brain activity to driving a car. "It’s like their foot is on the brake telling them to stop, but the brake isn’t attached to the part of the wheel that can actually stop them."

The team plans to test techniques aimed at taming repetitive behavior and preventing the anxiety that usually accompanies the disorder. They are seeking teens and adults with or without OCD up to age forty-five for a clinical trial.

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When whales worry

The ear wax tells all. Scientists have discovered a novel technique for using whale ear wax to assess the human impact on individual whales and multiple generations. Courtesy Baylor University.

Being a whale is not as easy as you might think. Human activities like industrial whaling create stress for the giant ocean-dwelling mammals. Thanks to a recent study, researchers at Baylor University can tell us just how stressed whales are.

Stephen J. Trumble and Sascha Usenko analyzed the earwax of fin, humpback, and blue whales originating in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from 1870 to 2016. They looked at levels of the stress-response hormone, cortisol, in response to industrial whaling, World War II activities, and sea-surface temperature. They found that cortisol levels peaked in the 1960s when 150,000 whales were harvested.

Trumble says that whales suffered from the indirect effects of whaling, like ship proximity and noise, and constant harassment. High cortisol levels also corresponded to World War II. Levels of the stress hormone decreased during the mid-1970s when whaling moratoriums were put in place.

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Closing historical gaps

Kurt Luther is a computer scientist and Civil War enthusiast. He was inspired to launch Civil War Photo Sleuth after seeing a photo of his great-great-great-uncle in the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, PA.

<strong>Nameless no more.</strong> The Civil War Sleuth website uses facial recognition software to help put names to faces in Civil War portraits, like these two unidentified Union soldiers. Courtesy Library of Congress.Civil War Photo Sleuth is a free and easy-to-use website that applies facial recognition to anonymous portraits taken during the Civil War. The goal is to identify the person in the photo.

Luther created the web platform with Ron Coddington, the editor of the magazine Military Images, and Paul Quigley, the director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, along with a group of Virginia Tech student researchers.

When a user uploads an image, the software maps up to 27 distinct “facial landmarks.” Users can refine their searches by adding filters for uniform details that could offer clues about the soldier’s rank. The software then cross-references the photo with others in the database and presents possible matches and names.

Coddington once determined that there were 40 million photos taken of Union soldiers during the war. He says that even if only 10 percent of those photos still exist, four million are out there somewhere. Luther’s goal is to identify the people in every one of those pictures. He says giving names to the faces humanizes those who might otherwise be a number on a casualty report.

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