UAB Magazine Online Features
Alumnus Aims to Keep Mars Rover Safe
By Matt Windsor
merica’s latest Mars probe is called Curiosity, but as the car-size spaceship hurtled toward the Red Planet on August 5, Luther Beegle’s 10-year-old son, Ryan, was experiencing a different emotion: anxiety.
Beegle, who holds a master’s degree in physics and a doctorate in astrophysics from UAB, was a little antsy himself. A safe touchdown meant he would finally get a shot at a mission after more than a decade as a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It would also be a neat follow-up to the Mars rover missions undertaken by his UAB mentor, Thomas Wdowiak, Ph.D., in the mid-2000s.
The Big Dig
“Five minutes before the rover landed, my son came up to me and said he was really nervous,” Beegle says. “He and my daughter, Abigail, have been to the lab many times and saw the rover being made, but it didn’t become real to them until the landing. I gave him a hug and said it would be OK.”
It was. Curiosity landed safely, drawing cheers from the crowd. In a conversation a month later, Beegle was still elated, even though the pressure has, if anything, intensified.
Beegle’s role on this mission is to be something of an interplanetary safety inspector. “I am one of three surface sampling systems scientists,” he says. “We’re in charge of Curiosity’s drill and scoop”—which are crucial to the mission goal of “finding traces of organics and understanding the habitability potential of Mars,” Beegle says. “It’s our job to let the engineers know if it’s safe to drill into something. If the drill fails, then the two analytical instruments can’t work, so we’re very conservative in what targets we choose.”
For the first 90 days of the Curiosity mission, Beegle and the entire team are working on Mars Time. Since a day (or “sol”) on Mars lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes, that means his shift begins roughly 40 minutes later each day. (Beegle and most other team members track the shifting clock using a NASA smartphone app, which has largely replaced the “Mars watches” used by earlier crews.) After three months, “we go to a more reasonable 8:00-to-6:00, seven-day-a-week schedule,” Beegle says. “It sounds horrible, but it’s really not; I’m doing such interesting work.”
A Student Voice for Sustainability
By Matt Windsor
Dexter Forbes came to UAB because of the city scene, but he found his niche as an advocate for the land. As a high school senior in Auburn, Maine, Forbes earned an Alabama G.I. Dependents’ Scholarship. (His parents, both members of the United States Navy, were stationed in Maine; his father was originally from Anniston, Alabama.) He visited several schools in the state, but “I chose UAB because of its urban campus and diverse environment,” he says. “And I really liked the gym.”
Looking for a way to get involved on campus, Forbes discovered the UAB Green Initiative, a student organization “that works toward a more sustainable community,” he says. Forbes, now a junior majoring in African-American studies and English, says he enjoyed the opportunity to learn about local and national environmental issues—and the chance to make a difference in his own backyard. He is now the group's president.
The Green Initiative “started a recycling program at Glen Iris Elementary School”—just off UAB's campus—“where we put bins in the hallways and the teachers’ lounge and transport their paper recycling over to the UAB Recycling Center,” he says. On Mondays, group members volunteer at the recycling center. Regular training sessions and trips to national conventions such as Power Shift give members inspiration and ideas they can bring back to campus, Forbes says.
Computer Scientist Uses Language to Fight Crime
By Matt Windsor
olice detectives track criminals using fingerprints.
UAB computer scientist Thamar Solorio, Ph.D., wants to do the same with words. Her research team is bringing artificial intelligence technology to bear on the field of stylometry, which aims to figure out who wrote a piece of text by analyzing word choice and other idiosyncrasies.
“Our goal is to see if we can generate a ‘writeprint’ to identify a document with its author,” Solorio says. The UAB group is developing algorithms that can sift through tiny snippets of style from Twitter updates, Facebook posts, and chat transcripts to discover common elements. Several other research teams are working on automated “authorship attribution,” Solorio notes, but her lab is one of the first to tackle social media.
Solorio’s work, funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Office of Naval Research, among others, could help identify the authors of terrorist plots from conversations in Internet chatrooms. The same algorithms could also be used to combat cyberbullying among schoolkids and provide valuable information in many other applications, Solorio says. She and fellow UAB researcher Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., are now investigating ways to use authorship attribution techniques to combat a major problem facing Wikipedia—namely, the altering, or defacing, of pages on controversial topics by partisans supporting different sides.
The Clue’s in the Comma
Solorio’s research group, the Computational Representation and Analysis of Language (CoRAL) lab, specializes in natural language processing. This branch of artificial intelligence drives everything from Google’s sorting of search queries to the speech-recognition software used by your bank.
Whether you’re aiming to teach a computer to recognize customers’ voices or a cyberbully’s threats, “you’re trying to design a program that can generalize beyond the examples that you give it so that it can make accurate predictions about new data,” Solorio explains.
The trick is to generate useful predictions when you have only a handful of characters to study—such as the dozen or so words in a typical Twitter post. To succeed, “you need to move beyond word choice and frequency,” Solorio says. “You need to look at syntax, what kinds of word classes are being used, and the length of the sentences, for example. On the Web, you can look at emoticon use and capitalization, too.” Punctuation marks can also hold clues, Solorio says—“there are definite patterns in how people use semicolons, for instance.”
Artificial Conversations Spark Insights into the Evolution of Ideas
By Matt Windsor
Top: Philosopher Marshall Abrams is designing a digital simulation of the flow of ideas among individuals that leads to cultural change.
Above: a representation of the neural networks inside one "person" in the simulation.
In a small office in UAB’s Humanities Building, philosopher Marshall Abrams, Ph.D., is hosting a heated debate about the origins of life. The nine participants share their opinions rapid-fire, completing several hundred conversations every minute. Nevertheless, not a word is spoken; all the action is happening on Abrams’s computer screen. Welcome to philosophy’s digital era.
Abrams is building a computer-based simulation of cultural change, the flow of ideas among individuals that exerts a powerful shaping force on a society’s guiding values. “Meteorologists want to understand the local changes that affect large-scale weather patterns,” Abrams says. “Social scientists want to do the same thing with cultural change. But just like the weather, it is very subtle and complicated. I’m trying to see what a digital model can add.”
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Researchers study the process of cultural change largely through surveys and by tracking books, speeches, films, blog posts, and other recorded artifacts of our collective thought processes. But Abrams, inspired by a growing number of simulations in social science fields, is taking a different approach. Building on software developed by Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard, Abrams has designed a system that lets individual software “agents” talk amongst themselves, sharing their opinions and then responding to the ideas of others by changing their own views.