August 16, 2019

Close but Not Enough: The Uncanny Valley

Steve and Sophia had just met. As a senior correspondent at Business Insider, he’s usually quite at ease during interviews yet talking to Sophia made him nervous. She has worked for Hanson Robotics since 2016 and will soon be starring in a “surreality” show about her life and experiences. It is hard to tell if she noticed Steve’s discomfort, or if she was perhaps offended by his questions. “I want to take care of the planet, be creative and learn how to be compassionate and help change the world for the better”, she said as she blinked her glassy green eyes. She sounded sincere yet something, a lingering feeling that…

July 26, 2019

Escaping a war to conquer the skies

Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete silence, and a cold breeze, I stood on top of the bunker in Mojave Desert at 2:00 am, awestruck by nature’s beauty steeped in darkness. As the team worked endlessly in preparation for the morning’s rocket launch, I was completely hypnotized by the isolation of the night. I then realized that I wanted to dedicate my life to understanding the mysteries of our Universe. “Come down here! It’s freezing!” my teammate yelled at me as I was looking through the telescope and taking pictures of the moon. People live through different experiences that shape their perspective on the world. In 2003, the Iraq war…

June 28, 2019

Secrets encoded in ancient human genomes

Not long after my return to Amman, I took a faculty position at the Hashemite University. The university was built along a busy highway leading to the Syrian border, about fifty minutes from my family’s home. I used to joke to myself along the way that if I felt like it, I could skip class, drive all the way to Damascus, and make it back for my last lecture of the day. The war changed all of that of course. An hour-long commute could seem like a burden, but I actually enjoyed the drive and treasured my time in the car. I would listen to books and novels on tape…

May 29, 2019

“Paw-sitive” rewiring of the brain

January 24, 2019: A research article that I submitted to a journal gets rejected for the second time. My Masters advisor hasn’t replied to my urgent emails in quite a while and exams are already starting to roll. Things have been taking their toll on me, and despite pretending that it’s just one of those days, I feel hopeless and defeated. When I get back home, Dusk is waiting for me at the door, wagging his tail and his shiny eyes are happy to see me after a long day. But this time his cheerful and loving ways fail to draw a smile on my face. As I make my…

April 29, 2019

Lurking in the shadow, ringing across the Universe: the dark secrets of blackholes

On a bleak December evening in 1915, a German lieutenant scribbled away in his notebook as the World War I raged outside the trench on the Russian front. The barrack reverberated with the noise of war; exploding of shells, shouting of orders, whistles and the cries of wounded men. As he pored over Einstein’s paper, he was more and more incredulous. What his calculation proved was that if any mass is compressed to fit a certain radius, something very strange happens; no known force would stop it from collapsing and nothing would be able to escape that radius. He had found the first exact solutions to Einstein’s equations of general…

March 28, 2019

Music of the Spheres

Humans have been in awe of the harmony of the heavens since times immemorial. Ancient Greeks believed that celestial bodies made music. In the clinging of hammers Pythagoras heard “a clue from God”, or so a folk myth goes. Stretching strings and plucking them, he discovered an intimate connection between mathematics and music, and that objects produced sound when in motion. He was thus convinced that planets moving in orbit should be humming a heavenly tune, and he sought to find the astronomical harmony of the cosmos.   In our modern times, another polymath longed for a similar fulfilment. In 1926 Arthur Eddington, an English astronomer lamented in his book The…

February 27, 2019

Catching Up With a Girl Left Behind

Sputnik launched just as I started elementary school; the first astronauts landed on the moon soon after I finished high school. I watched the story of our first space age unfold on our old black-and-white Philco TV as CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite deftly narrated events that held me enraptured. What kid growing up during this heady time wouldn’t want to be an astronaut? Sadly, girls of my era were not allowed, encouraged or academically prepared to pursue careers in science and tech. “You don’t have the right temperament,” my high school guidance counselor admonished me when I told him I wanted to take advanced trigonometry. He signed me up…

January 31, 2019

When AI says ‘no’ to your mortgage application

Imagine this scenario: A married couple working hard for a few years finally save up enough for a deposit on a small house. At last, they think, we can move out of this rented property into our own home. They fill out the necessary forms for a mortgage and send it off. Afterwards, for a couple of weeks, they eagerly await the postman every morning hoping that the brown envelope of acceptance will fall through the door onto their mat. Eventually something does arrive, but unfortunately it’s the brown envelope of rejection. They look disbelievingly at the letter and at each other. Why was their application rejected? The lady makes…

December 21, 2018

The Long Hand of Darkness

Mist lifts over the Boyne Valley in Ireland as the Sun dawns on the stone tomb Newgrange. A narrow sunbeam streams through the passage just above the entrance. It reaches the floor and slowly crawls towards the back of an ancient crossed-shaped chamber. The beam of the rising Sun expands, flooding the tomb of ancestral ashes and bones with light for 17 minutes. This Stone-age alarm announces the 355th day of Earth’s year-long journey around the Sun. Today darkness yawns and stretches over the North, its longest stretch of the year. In a wheat field nearby, Aisling glances up to see the Sun tracing its shortest arc. It hasn’t escaped…

November 30, 2018

Darwin’s principles unravel the evolution of our Galaxy

Chemical elements that make up our bodies and everything around us were made in stars. A star is born once it starts to shine, a process triggered with nuclear fusion in its core. This fusion produces heavier elements. The more massive the star, the heavier the elements it can fuse and produce. A massive star burns up its fuel by cooking heavier and heavier elements up the periodic table to iron. An iron core, however, is unstable because it can’t support the gravity of the outer layers. Thus it collapses, releasing a massive amount of energy and neutrons. Neutrons quickly get captured by the different nuclei produced during the star’s…