May Roundup (Maths, Tech, Computing)

Hi everyone! Due to revision and exams, I was unable to complete the April roundup, but I am now back with 3 new stories in the areas of tech/computer science (or really just science in general because let’s be honest, half of the topics that I write about don’t fall under the tech/computer science/maths umbrella). As usual, the links that I used for research will be at the bottom for anyone who wants to do some further reading. Also, the dunes on Pluto is technically a June story since the research article on it was published today, but we’re just going to ignore that.

New dunes found on Pluto

Findings from Nasa’s New Horizons mission provide evidence of frozen methane dunes covering approximately 2000 square km (roughly the size of Tokyo) on Pluto. The Nasa spacecraft flew close to Pluto back in July 2015 at a speed of 58,536 km/h. The scientists who studied the data gathered by New Horizons explained that they studied pictures of a nitrogen glacier about the size of France, known as Sputnik Planitia. Parts of it seemed to be covered with what look like fields of dunes lying close to a range of mountains of water ice 5 km high. The scientists concluded that the dunes are made up of particles of fine-grained frozen methane between 200 – 300 micrometres in diameter – roughly the size of grains of sand. Dr Matt Telfer, a physical geographer at the University of Plymouth who lead the research paper on these dunes, stated that they could not see individual grains, but were able to measure the distance apart of the dunes and thus create a physical model which allowed them to deduce the size of the grains. Pluto’s dunes reach heights of around 100 feet, approximately as high as the Mesquite Flat Dunes in the Death Valley National Park.

For dunes to be able to form, an atmosphere dense enough to make wind transport possible, a supply of dry particles and a mechanism that lifts particles off the ground was required. Previously, it was believed that none of these conditions were met on Pluto. In particular, there had been doubt about whether Pluto’s extremely thin atmosphere could generate the wind needed to form such dunes. Dr Telfer and his colleagues believe that the dunes are in one of Pluto’s windiest areas, with wind speeds around 22mph, high enough to keep the particles moving. However, the wind alone is too weak to lift the grains off the ground. The researchers believe that the warming from the Sun raised the temperature just enough that the nitrogen ice sublimates, turning directly from solid to gas. This would be powerful enough to fling the methane crystals up and be carried by the wind to subsequently be deposited as dunes. William B.McKinnon from Washington University in St. Louis, who studies the geology of worlds in the outer solar system and was not an author of this report, stated that he believed the sublimation theory to be “somewhat speculative”. He argues that other explanations, such as periodic increases in Pluto’s atmospheric pressure, could also result in lofted dune particles.

Dr Telfer said that this research has changed the way Pluto should be viewed: “It’s really exciting just to be able to look at this world and recognise that it’s not just a frozen icy blob in the outer reaches of the Solar System, but really we’re seeing a dynamic world still changing, still forming today”. This is further supported by Professor Alexander Hayes, an astronomer at Cornell University, who says that Pluto is now known to be “a geologically diverse and dynamic world driven by internal heat, extreme seasons and sublimating ices”. Pluto now joins Earth, Mars, Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan and Neptune’s moon Triton as a home to dunes. This raises the question about whether there are dunes on worlds in other star systems too. Leading on from this, the research also has implications in the study of other planetary surfaces; the dunes on the various planets and moons have similar shapes, but are produced by slightly different processes depending on the environmental conditions.

Yanny or Laurel?

Back in 2015, the picture of “the dress” became a viral internet sensation, with some people disagreeing over whether the colour of the dress was black and blue or white and gold. An audio version of “the dress” appeared on Reddit earlier this month, the conflict now being on whether the clip says “Yanny” or “Laurel”.

According to Lars Riecke, an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University, the sound clip is the auditory equivalent of Rubin’s vase, a picture where the two faces in profile also form an image of a vase: “The input can be organised in two alternative ways”. According to him, what you hear is based on your ability to hear a range of frequencies. Dr Andrew Fishman, director of neurotology at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield corroborates this, saying that “some people have more hearing in some frequencies than others”. “Yanny” is outputted at a higher frequency and “Laurel” at a lower one. Although, some of the variation in what we hear is due to the device on which you are playing and/or listening to the clip on. Riecke suspects that the frequencies of the Y might have been made artificially higher, whilst the frequencies that make the L sound might have been lowered. Furthermore, the words “Yanny” and “Laurel” have similar rhythm and cadence, so they have the potential to sound the same. Jody Kreiman, a principal investigator at the voice perception laboratory at the University of California stated that “the energy concentrations for Ya are similar to those for La; N is similar to R; I is close to L.”

It has now been revealed that the original source of the soundbite was from where a computer-generated voice says the word “Laurel”. Bharath Chandrasekaran, a professor in the department of communications sciences and disorders at the University of Texas stated that because the clip was noisy, this caused our brain to fill in with what it thinks it should be, causing “perception to be a little more ambiguous”. This is argument is supported by Brad Story, Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing at the University of Arizona, who states that “the low quality recording creates enough ambiguity in the acoustic feature that some listeners may be led toward the ‘Yanny’ perception”. Dr Fishman also stated that our brains interpret what we hear, suggesting that in some part, people are hearing what they want or expect to hear. For example, someone whose mother is named Laurel is more likely to hear Laurel than Yanny. Similarly, the musician Yanni, tweeted that he heard Yanny.

Sonix, a company that produces AI-based speech recognition software, ran the sound clip through its own transcription tools as well as Google, Amazon and Watson’s. Google and Sonix got “Laurel” on the first attempt whilst Amazon repeatedly got “year old”. Watson alternated between producing “yeah role” and “Laurel”.


Everyone must have received an exorbitant number of emails about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect on the 25th of May so I’ll try and keep this short. The GDPR is a policy adopted by the European Union in 2016 that consists of a set of rules to do with data protection. This includes requirements to notify regulators about data breaches within 72 hours and transparency for users about what data is being collected and why. The EU Commission stated that “the objective of this new set of rules is to give citizens back control over of their personal data, and to simplify the regulatory environment for business.” GDPR applies to any business that processes the personal data of EU citizens and so US companies will also have to become GDPR compliant. Jason Straight, an attorney and chief privacy officer at United Lex, a company that sets up GDPR compliance programs for businesses stated that “companies, especially US companies, are definitely scrambling here in the last month to get themselves ready”. This could be because European companies were based in countries that already had pre-existing privacy laws which overlapped with the GDPR and so had less to do. In a survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute of over 1,000 companies in April, half of the companies said that they would not be compliant by the deadline.

One of the most significant GDPR requirements is the data subject access request. EU residents have the right to request for their personal information gathered by companies to be deleted, corrected if incorrect and even delivered to them. Prior to becoming GDPR compliant, this information was likely to be on multiple different servers and in a variety of formats. Therefore, setting up internal infrastructures so that these requests could be responded to was a major task for many companies. If an EU resident submits a data subject request, a company has 30 days to respond. Some companies that are still in the process of becoming GDPR compliant may fail to respond, giving the subject the opportunity to file a complaint with their local regulator. GDPR allows regulators to fine companies up to 4 percent of their global revenue for violations of GDPR (or €20 million, whichever is greater). Under GDPR, personal data is defined to be any information relating to an identified or identifiable person.

New dunes found on Pluto

  1. BBC
  2. Reuters
  3. The Guardian
  4. The Conversation
  5. Washington Post
  6. Science Mag
  7. Science News

Yanny or Laurel?

  1. The Verge
  2. Chicago Tribune
  3. CNN
  4. The New York Times
  5. Popular Science
  6. Live Science
  7. Tech Crunch


  1. The Verge
  2. Tech Crunch
  3. BBC

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