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WSJ Staff

In today’s pictures, a boy receives communion in South Africa, Easter egg hunters go on a spree in Belgium, a rescue worker responds to a mining accident in Tibet, and more.

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If the thought of a robot apocalypse is keeping you up at night, you can relax. Scientists at Cambridge University are studying the potential problem. From the article: "A center for 'terminator studies,' where leading academics will study the threat that robots pose to humanity, is set to open at Cambridge University. Its purpose will be to study the four greatest threats to the human species - artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear war and rogue biotechnology."

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How to blend in and stand out: Marwa Al-Ansari at TEDxDelft

Marwa is working for Shell Global Solutions and has recently moved to the Netherlands from Qatar in October 2012 as an Environmental Lead for a major petrochemical project. Marwa joined Shell in 2007 and was appointed as Research Lead for Sulphur utilization (Shell Thiocrete) project at Qatar Shell Research and Technology Centre (QSRTC). Her work involved investigation of waste streams in Qatar and employing them as a value added materials in Thiocrete technology. Additionally, she designed formulations to the sulphur-concrete matrix and conducted material testing in tandem with her virtual team in Amsterdam lab. Prior to her work with Shell, Marwa worked for 4 years in the field of Project Management in the construction sector and also has 4 years of teaching experience at Cambridge University. In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
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Alan Turing slate statue at Bletchley Park museum

Flickr user Duane Wessels

June 23 marks the 100th birthday of Alan Turing. If I had to name five people whose personal efforts led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, the English mathematician would surely be on my list. Turing's genius played a key role in helping the Allies win the Battle of the Atlantic—a naval blockade against the Third Reich that depended for success on the cracking and re-cracking of Germany's Enigma cipher. That single espionage victory gave the United States control of the Atlantic shipping lanes, eventually setting the stage for the 1944 invasion of Normandy.

Alan Turing's Year

2012 is billed as the "Alan Turing Year," and a lengthy compendium of past and future Alan Turing events can be found at the Centenary site hosted by the United Kingdom's Mathematics Trust. The big gathering taking place right now is the Alan Turing Centenary Conference in Manchester.

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TEDxLosGatos - Kim Silverman - Magic can change how we think about our lives

Dr. Kim Silverman, Ph.D. Principal Research Scientist at Apple Dr. Kim Silverman is Principal Research Scientist at Apple. His Ph.D. is from Cambridge University, and his post-doctoral research was conducted at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. By night Dr. Silverman studies the more "esoteric" arts. He is a president of the Society of American Magicians (Palo Alto), and a Magician Member of the Academy of Magical Arts, better known as the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood. Drawing from his backgrounds in science, technology, and cognitive psychology, Kim strives to move the performance of magic from mere presentation of "tricks" to a deeper and more meaningful affirmation of human life. His presentation will demonstrate this with some of his award-winning signature pieces. In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
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201107051535

My friend and MAKE contributing editor William Gurstelle has written a new book: The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices. It has instructions for 16 fiery projects. Bill and his publisher kindly gave us permission to run the introduction to the book here.

THE PARADOX OF FIRE

Fire is the most important agent of change on earth. It makes our cars and airplanes move, it purifies metals, it cooks our food. It also destroys forests and pollutes the atmosphere. Fire is also one of the most paradoxical forces in nature. Sometimes it's incredibly difficult to light a much-desired campfire and keep it going, while at other times unwanted fires start far too easily.

To Greek philosophers of the Classical era, fire was a tangible, material thing. The legends they repeated held that noble Prometheus purloined fire from Mount Olympus and secretly gave it to human beings, much to the chagrin of an angry Zeus.

As Greek civilization progressed, legends became insufficient; people sought to understand fire on a more scientific basis. The first major nonmythological theorist was the Greek scholar Empedocles, who devised the earliest well-known explanation of the nature of the world. Everything, he said, was made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. This was called the Four Element hypothesis. Aristotle refined that a bit, and for the next 2,000 years it was accepted with only minor modifications as the cosmological basis for the entire universe.

The hypothesis stated that everything in the world is composed of these four elements; the only difference between all the things we see or touch is the relative abundance of the four constituent components. Wood, according to Aristotle, is a composition of earth and fire, as evidenced by the way wood burns. Nonburning rock is mostly earth, with perhaps a bit of water added.

In the Middle Ages, this explanation no longer fit the results of many experiments that involved fire. Many alchemists had excellent experimental technique and analyzed a number of chemical processes in their quest to turn base metals into gold. But when fire was involved, their experiments yielded results that didn't jibe with the classical Four Element worldview. The pillars of cosmological doctrine were crumbling away. The alchemists were beginning to suspect that the world was more complex than they had been taught.

In the 1700s, a new way of thinking called phlogiston (flo-jis'- ton) theory came into fashion. This theory, which was promoted by many of the leading scholars of the age, held that fire was caused by the liberation of an undetectable chemical substance -- phlogiston -- which was bound up inside all things that could be made to burn. Those items that possessed phlogiston ignited and combusted; those without it did not. Phlogiston theory made sense for a while. But like the Greek notion of matter, phlogiston was merely an expedient, a theory cobbled together to describe the things that even close observations of the world could not otherwise explain.

At the end of the 18th century, improvements in experimental technique combined with the astute observations of a new generation of enlightened thinkers led to a much better understanding of the world in general and science in particular. It started with important discoveries by Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, Joseph Priestley, and Henry Cavendish. The work they did laying the foundations of modern chemistry was built upon by others, notably John Dalton and Antoine Lavoisier, until a new and correct interpretation of the phenomenon of fire emerged. At the turn of the 19th century, scientists were finally beginning to truly comprehend fire.

At that time there was a lively, collegial, and incredibly productive community of scientists fascinated by fire. During a fairly short window of time, a few years on either side of the year 1800 and centered around the Royal Institution in London, a surprisingly small but interconnected community of scientists solved the mysteries and banished the superstitions surrounding fire, finally allowing scientific understanding to take hold.

It was not a direct path. There was plenty of meandering and zigzagging through half-correct theoretical deductions and unexpected laboratory results. But eventually, a body of true and practical knowledge was accumulated. It was these turn-of-the-19th-century "natural philosophers" (the word "scientist" was not coined until the 1830s) who paved the way for modern scientists to understand the true nature of fire.

Isaac Watts was one of the key contributors to the advancement of pre-Industrial Revolution science, but he wasn't a scientist. He was a 17th-century English logician and musician, best known as a composer of Christian hymns. (His most famous work is "Joy to the World.") More than that, he was an important theorist on the nature of learning, a father of scientific and logical pedagogy. His influence on the scientists and experimenters who appear in these pages was immense.

Watts shared his philosophy on understanding the world in several highly regarded books, his most famous being The Improvement of the Mind. Written in 1815 toward the end of his life, it had tremendous influence on generations of students and teachers. It is still in print and popular even now, 200 years after Watts wrote it.

Watts's books were standard issue to generations of Oxford and Cambridge University students. His ideas served as one of the foundations for learning logical thought, shaping European society for more than a hundred years. Many suggestions for bettering oneself flow through the pages of Watts's books. Foremost among them, Watts urged his readers to improve their minds in five different ways, which he called his "five pillars of learning." Through the technique of the five pillars, Watts hoped to improve the lot of the world.

There are five eminent means or methods whereby the mind is improved in the knowledge of things, and these are: observation, reading, instruction by lectures, conversation, and meditation.

All of these methods, wrote Watts in the pedantic, pointed, yet elucidating style of 18th-century English self-help authors, are important and useful in improving the mind. But of all the methods, judged Watts, observation is the foundation upon which all other learning methods rest. As Watts explains, "We may justly conclude, that he that spends all his time in hearing lectures or pouring upon books without observation . . . will have but a mere historical knowledge of learning, and be able only to tell what others have known or said on the subject."

Reading a book like The Practical Pyromaniac is one of the five Wattsian ways in which knowledge can be acquired. What sets this book apart from others, however, is the integration of all of the methods Watts recommends, including lecture and personal observation.

Besides providing the stories of great scientists, experimenters, and practical geniuses -- those who played with fire and in so doing came up with new and important ideas and inventions -- The Practical Pyromaniac contains numerous peripatetic projects and experiments. Further, there are video demonstrations on the Internet designed specifically to integrate with the information.

While it is not necessary to view the videos, undertake the experiments, or read the other books listed in the bibliography, if you do attempt a few of the projects and view some of the video lectures and demonstrations developed in conjunction with this book, your experience will be enhanced.

Copyright 2011 by William Gurstelle. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Chicago Review Press.

The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices

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