Author Archives: Jacob

About Jacob

Jake, Engineering undergraduate and Santander Scholarship recipient studying in Philadelphia USA

Art Museums, Philadelphia USA

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Taken with a proper camera, the view down Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the top of the Rocky steps at Philadelphia Museum of Art

So far I have been to three of the city’s art museums; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum and Barnes Foundation.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the city’s main attractions. It houses works spanning many continents, cultures and times, and in two visits I still haven’t been able to see it all in the depth I would like to. The permanent galleries are European Art 1100-1500, 1500-1850, 1850-1900; Arms and Armor, Asian Art, American Art and Modern and Contemporary Art. I also went to a special International Pop Art exhibition on the second visit. The museum is home to work by famous artists such as Duchamp, Braque, Cezanne, Eakins, Van Gogh, Dali, Degas, Matisse, Rubens, West, Van Eyck and many more. In and amongst the rooms there are pieces situated in time period themed rooms, which form a nostalgic surrounding in which you can take yourself back in time thanks to the atmosphere the décor creates. This ranges from a 12th century French cloister to a Japanese tea house. Part of the attraction is the building itself, which is modelled after the ancient temples of Greece such as the Parthenon. But the most recognisable aspect is the ninety nine steps that lead up to the entrance, better known as the steps that Rocky Balboa runs up and poses at the top of in the film Rocky; and the accompanying triumphant statue of him is at the bottom of the steps. The main highlights for me though are the paintings which can only be fully appreciated in their presence; and not through my dictation.

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Taken with a proper camera, a miniature version of ‘The Thinker’ within ‘The Gates of Hell’ at Rodin Museum

Less than half a mile down Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Rodin Museum, which is home to the largest collection of sculptures by Augustine Rodin outside of his birthplace Paris, but casts of his sculptures can be found all over the world. Rodin is probably one of the most widely known sculptors and his work has made it beyond the art world into public consciousness. Among the most recognisable that are here at the museum in Philadelphia are The Thinker– a ruminating man with his chin resting on his hand and regularly used as an image signifying Philosophy; and The Gates of Hell– depicting the inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy. His approach can be summarised as human forms in a true to reality appearance, translating inner expression and emotion into external posture rather than narrative and decoration. His work also has the ability to demonstrate motion, as well as a feeling of retention of the sculptors crafting and handiwork. Underappreciated in his lifetime, his style is now considered to have been revolutionary for the time and remains today a beloved sculptor.

Finally, next door and couple of minutes’ walk away is the Barnes Foundation, which is a collection of art that was assembled and founded as a museum by Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphian physician, chemist and art collector. Set in modern building and grounds, the work is laid out in the style of old fashioned galleries, with paintings scattered all over the walls in ensembles through a series of rooms. On display there are plenty of Renoirs, Cezannes and Matisses, along with much more including work by recognisable names such as Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, Rousseau, Courbet, Titian and Picasso. Alongside the paintings are other artefacts Barnes collected for instance Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, African sculptures and Ming era Chinese art.

There is still one more place related to visual arts that I still haven’t visited yet which is a separate part of and in the vicinity of the Philadelphia Museum of Art called the Perelman building. This is home to permanent collections of photography, costumes, textiles and contemporary design; which should be interesting to see once I can get down there.

Galaxy Classifying, Philadelphia USA

As the termJ213741.44+005316.9_standards classes approach finale, the ratchet turns on the workload. In one class I was required to give a presentation to the other 25 members and the lecturer; then field questions and debate afterwards. Mysteriously I ended up with the highest score in the class and enjoyed doing it. Apparently when presenting I have a latent ability to act as if I am a decent public speaker. My confidence is high about the exams in the next few weeks, but I won’t be claiming to enjoy them any time soon.

To distract me from this, as part of my Astronomy class I have been given the chance J223149.86+002649.5_standardto do some galaxy classifying, and as an amateur astronomer, this isn’t far from being my perfect job! Simply put, galaxies are be categorised by shape (elliptical, spiral, irregular), bars, arms, bulges; then individual variances such as signs of tidal debris, merging, gravitational lensing and young star formation. Satellites take photographs some of the millions of visible unknown galaxies, but professional astronomers do
not have time to sit and classify these when their time is better spent on other research. It is also not difficult once you know how to do it, so would be a waste of their talents. Because of this, the banks of photographs are available to be clJ223002.77-001652.5_standardassified by the amateurs, this is called citizen science. As a result I’ll be spending until the end of term at least on voluntary classification projects such as Illustris and DECaLS. So I am quite proud to contribute to scientific research and discoveries, while aiding professional researchers with contributions to publications; and if I am very fortunate I could get my name in a research paper. What a pleasure it is to actively engaging in my greatest passion. The pictures are a few examples.

Franklin Institute, Philadelphia USA

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Ben Franklin’s writings on electricity

I recently visited the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s famed science museum, a 30 minute walk from University City.

Initially I headed for the planetarium for a few shows. The first was named ‘Dark Universe’, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. The show covered some of the fundamentals of astrophysics and cosmology such as the Big Bang, Galaxies and Planets; as well as two of the cosmic mysteries- Dark Energy and Dark Matter. Aside from the beautiful intergalactic visuals, I am quite good at getting inside of and sinking in to immersive planetarium dome experiences. The second show was called ‘To Space and Back’, reminding the viewer how many advances in everyday life and systems have origins in the innovations within the Space Industry. This engineering and technology used in space exploration and observation regularly filters down and benefits the applications and advances that become a given in society.

The museum is home to a giant Foucault’s Pendulum, which swings in between a winding staircase. This is a four storey example of an 1851 experiment by Foucault which demonstrated the nature of Earth’s rotation around its axis. The pendulum moves with the Earth whilst the Earth rotates beneath the pendulum and so appears to change direction over the day. This is revealed by the pendulum knocking down a circle of pegs one at a time.

Next up were the exhibitions. The Electricity exhibit was fascinating for its interactive exhibitions and historical artefacts. This featured some of the inventions of the cities Renaissance man Ben Franklin, including his lightning rod, the first practical application of electrical knowledge. Another pair of pioneers, the Wright Brothers, were centre stage next in the aviation exhibit. This contained original drawings of the 1903 Wright Flyer and the most intact remaining Wright aeroplane- the 1911 Model B Flyer. There were also some excellent aeronautical and fundamental physics interactive demonstrations, which I enjoyed experimenting with. The Franklin Institutes famous Giant Heart and Train Factory exhibit were just a couple more highlights.

Spending time reading every word of and playing with every exhibit meant the museum closed before I could see everything. The observatory and the Genghis Khan exhibit, among others, will have to wait for my next visit. On leaving, I was greeted by a full moon and city lights to saunter home under.

Artificial Intelligence

With the intention of diverting my brain away from midterm exams and simultaneously getting thoughts out of my brain and on to paper, I have done some thinking and written out some of my considerations on one of my favourite topics, Artificial General Intelligence and Artificial Superintelligence and its future impact on us. Overall, I hope that it will be achieved within my lifetime, and hopefully help us in project humanity in ways that currently escape our reach. It can be positive if correct precautions are taken while we can think about it. It is a very interesting field of the future which may transform the future of humanity. How will it help us technologically and how could it affect our human survival? It may, as with any seemingly futuristic technology, just seep into our lives in real time and we simply take it in our stride and barely notice that life was any different before. In many ways we are already surrounded by AI’s. The financial incentive for the development of artificial intelligence is huge, and race will not stop, because from the point of view of those developing it, if they don’t somebody else will. There are many points of view on the future of AI ranging from optimists to pessimists about its effect on humanity, with varying reasons of worry or positivity to support that point of view. There are also plenty of top scientists who believe a huge take off in artificial general intelligence is unlikely anytime soon (one of these is David Deutsch who is an excellent Physicist who explains this well).  It is tempting to throw artificial intelligence fears in with the millennium bug or that the Large Hadron Collider was going to create a black hole, i.e. people worrying about nothing. Yet, I still think it is a fascinating topic to think about. I will play devil advocate and explore briefly some of my thoughts on the potential dangers of AGI / ASI.

We currently have chess playing computers that can defeat the greatest human chess player, however this is called brittle intelligence meaning it cannot do anything other than that; i.e. that same computer can’t defeat anyone at anything else, but can defeat me at chess a trillion times in a row. The interesting developments come in the form of strong AI or also known as artificial general intelligence (AGI) and then beyond that, artificial superintelligence (ASI). Strong AI can learn how to learn and this learning can transfer to multiple situations whilst this doesn’t diminish anything which it had previously learnt. In the ultimate example the computer will be able to make improvements to itself, and so eventually becoming the greatest designer of itself. This is where the idea of an exponential take off in intelligence is possible. So if there is this exponential take off, it will very quickly surpass any human brain capacity and potentially our human control. In fact our current computers are somewhat ‘superhuman’ in that they have huge memories, far greater calculating abilities than us and potential access to all of human knowledge via the internet. So an ASI with millions of times more computing power than humans could potentially make thousands of years of human level progress within months or weeks. This is how AI could escape from us, so I would like to think that many at the frontier of this field are asking the question how can we control the conduct and objectives of such a machine. As a result, there are certain responsibilities that need to be thought about to make sure this doesn’t destroy humanity rather than help us, and this comes in many forms. One is the ethics of the machine, which need to be on the same level as that of ideal human values and programmed to understand our ideal ethical systems. For example if you asked the machine “make all humans happy”, you don’t want the machines response to be to kill all unhappy people thus leaving only happy humans. You can’t assume that machines will share what we consider common sense, ideal values would need to be built into the machine. Likewise, asking it to conduct a mundane task such as “block all spam email”, we need to insure the response isn’t to just kill people, which probably would be the most effective way. These are specific and maybe extreme consequential examples, but there are a myriad of shades of grey issues that fall between these.

The two directions the ASI could go is ‘conscious’ or ‘unconscious’. ‘Conscious’ direction assumes that the consciousness we experience in the brain is not mysterious and is replicable in computer form, i.e. in silicon and ‘ones and zeros’. This leads to an interesting philosophical argument about our place in the food chain of things. We as humans base our significance on us being the most important species due to our capacity to experience a greater range of emotion and thus greater understanding the world; compared to for example bacteria, ants or really any other animal. The moment a ‘conscious’ AI that has far greater knowledge, potential and access to ‘experiencing the universe’; and looks down upon us the way we apathetically look down on bacteria or ants, our place in existence would be redefined as less important as we are relegated to the status of bacteria or ants. It is not necessarily unimportant that we survive but we become less important, because that AI would be more capable of making progress towards any understanding of the universe than we are. And also as it is now more important and intelligent than us, who’s to say that it would want to hang around with us measly humans and do our bidding? It could just build itself a spaceship and leave us behind.

The negatives shouldn’t be looked at as if it was an evil terminator robot intent on destroying humans. It should be looked at in the way that humans don’t hate ants, yet if there is an ants nest in the middle of where a hydroelectric that has just been built, the ants become less important; or when walking in the dark your mind isn’t concerned with the wellbeing of ants beneath your feet.

Also, even if we as humans came into possession of such an ASI power and had full control over its intentions, it may not be used for benign purposes. The development of nuclear power for example hasn’t been directed entirely at its energy benefits. In all its potential power, you could effectively be building the ultimate war machine. So in the wrong hands it could be the creation of a very dangerous weapon. The building of such a machine would need rational actors cooperating to seriously benefit humanity. I expect if it was simply made in the USA for example, Russia and China would be quite suspicious over the intentions of its use, and vice versa. Furthermore we would need to build an economic system which could cope with large scale unemployment even among white collar workers, but maybe new jobs will be produced? But this is what we want ultimately, an effective society in which we can work far fewer and less stressful hours and dedicate more of our finite and miniscule glimpse of the universe lives to our passions, talents, deep thought and interpersonal relationships.

In summary, it seems important that control issues should be mediated now, as AI can be excellent for the world in terms of problems it could solve for us that we might be incapable of solving, our deus ex machina. As the power of technology grows, the more chance there is that mistakes will have bigger consequences. Similar to how you have more chances to learn from errors with steam power than with nuclear power. ASI is something we don’t want to make any mistakes with, we should aim to get it right first time.

Back for more, Philadelphia USA

I will not be rIMAG0391eturning home during spring break, so it is now a straight run to the summer. I was quite ready for a break in order to regenerate. I hope this placement year isn’t a pyrrhic victory; in which I have completed something successfully but have exhausted my brain and physically aged by ten years in doing so; which is how I currently feel.

A useful mechanism for keeping mentally sharp is a varied course enrolment. The course balance I had during the first term I have continued in the second; two degree related to extend and reinforce my specialisation; and two that are either of personal interest or something completely new in order to take on a fresh discipline and / or plug gaps in knowledge.

Towards the end of January Philadelphia experienced its fourth largest snowstorm in recorded history. Over approximately 48 hours up to 2 feet of snow descended relentlessly on Pennsylvania, New York and the surrounding north east and mid-Atlantic states. The snow itself moved back and forth between gentle picturesque falling and an almost horizontally inclined blizzard. The result was an almost complete shutdown of the city- no transport, no people and no business; but provided abundant out of window entertainIMAG0375ment. A US snowstorm is far more dramatic and grand than a UK equivalent. It was even more exciting for some of my fellow friends from Brazil, for whom it was their first ever experience of snow. The amount of snow that fell was demonstrated even more once ploughed out of the roads and piled into the gutter reaching above head height, creating little walkways. Much of this snowy architecture still remains, long after it fell.

Home for winter break

One term down, two to go and it’s time for me to rest. The trip back to the UK consisted of a windswept night taxi journey through Philadelphia and over Schuylkill River, and a plane journey accompanied by a glass of red wine and finally finishing a book I was reading. At the airport I tried wasabi for the first time, and as a result, ate too much wasabi at once for the first time.

There have been numerous highpoints so far. My Astronomy course was fantastic and was the most mentally and personally satisfying course I have ever taken. Even more satisfying when you score 97%, receive the grade A+ and finished top of a class of 60. Another highpoint was taking the time to go and see Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra play their eclectic style of classical Chinese music live; little pleases my ears more than the richness and emotion of hearing an orchestra perform live. There were many other highlights, most of which escape my mind as of writing. I simply enjoyed embracing and taking in a new, bustling and historical city, most of which I am saving for later in the placement year. A main attraction to Philadelphia and the USA as a whole is its foundation, the declaration of independence, the constitution, the founding fathers, and anything concerning the birth and youth of a nation with such an illustrious genesis and the ups and downs it has experienced.

The prospect of sliding back into the comfort of home and quickly being catapulted back out I have been informed may be one of the primary study abroad tests. The first term was the short sprint, the challenge is the straight six months to follow. I also recall that my application for the US was made approximately one year ago, and a year on, I’m pleased with the decision I made.

Being a tourist: USA Week 5-6

IMAG0257Although when viewed rationally Philadelphia is a normal metropolitan city, there are plenty of the things that will keep Americanophiles entertained and enthralled. Whether that be huge skyscrapers or large marble receptions of mysterious nameless businesses; down to Irish Pubs or hitchhikers in the middle of the road, Philadelphia has these and more. The greatest American-typical sight I have seen so far has been seeing rows of people playing chess in Rittenhouse Square, a fascinating place to sit and watch the world in motion.

Getting out there and taking in the city should hopefully smooth out any culture shock that one could experience. Fortunately I haven’t had any major shocks, but culture shock can come in variety of ways and sizes. So far it has only been small things that could potentially trip me up or inconveniences, such as a debit card not always working or not knowing public transport well.

Another recent local indulgence was going to see an American college football match for the first time. The match was between University of Pennsylvania and Yale University played at Franklin Field, home of UPenn sports teams and was broadcast on national television. Another opportunity I had was to watch the US Open Squash tournament, which happened to be held at Drexel University. One of the most significant Squash tournaments on the calendar, it featured many of the best players in the world which was great to watch. I have played Squash quite a few times and is a great combination of physical fitness and tactical intelligence, and a game I’d like to pick up playing more at some point.IMAG0281

My most enjoyed tourist venture so far has been seeing Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra at the Kimmel Centre for Performing Arts. Shen Yun is an orchestra that combines traditional music of the east and classical music of the west, something which is not easy to do. The sounds of the Erhu and the Pipa – instruments that produce sounds
commonly associated with traditional Chinese music were more than enough to allow me to escape to a place far away and a to time forgotten to most. They played many of their own songs plus some famous western pieces including Zigeunerwisen (Gypsy Airs) by Sarasate, my favourite song of the performance.IMAG0196

Another thing keeping me away from working too hard has been the Lynch Observatory at Drexel University. During the Observatory Open House anybody can go up and do some astronomical observing. Housed there is the main Meade LX200GPS Telescope with 16” Schmidt-Cassegrain Optics, the largest telescope in Philadelphia. There is also access to a few ‘smaller but still better than anything I’ve got’ telescopes.

In summary, new surroundings allow you to open out your awareness to realise what is going on around you. This may in turn make you realise how potentially interesting where you come from is, and how much is going on there which you had never really paid much notice to out of being overly accustomed or indifferent to it. Although I definitely wouldn’t consider myself apathetic towards my home, I will take this thought consciously back to Birmingham and the UK. Making the most of what a city has to offer can also have the power to rekindle an old interest and inspire new ones.

Pleasures of drowning: USA Week 3-4

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Local Jazz Cafe

A mantra I have set myself for my time living and studying in Philadelphia is ‘If you can do this you can probably do everything else’.

Whatever it may be, there will be challenges I haven’t faced before and by putting yourself through those situations you learn to deal with them leaving you a more capable traveller and student. You are forced to get used to things very quickly, sink or swim. However, this should not be off putting. You could be a person travelling alone for the first time, attempting to navigate a new city or being subjected to a new language – to make the jump in to the unknown can be intimidating but you will walk out on the other side having had the experience. Some of the biggest challenges for me are the easiest to others and vice versa. As a self-sufficient person, living independently away from what I know and where nobody knows who I am is not a problem, in fact pleasant. However, being a more introverted person means the fairly basic tasks of airports, organised fun and the general extraversion of American people are more demanding. I’m hoping that throwing myself at the barn door covered in rusty nails will leave me a more capable and well rounded person. This is also reflected in classes. There is less emphasis on self-directed learning, there is regular homework / quizzes and depending on the class, graded class participation. This will take some getting used to, but used to it I plan on getting, for I will likely return for my final year at Aston in a stronger position because of it.

An excellent aspect of the course structure for exchange students is that for 50% of your courses you are open to study subjects unrelated to your degree. This has given me the chance to exalt some of my passions and now put them to the test academically. By far my favourite class so far has been my Astrophysics / Astronomy class. Not only has it so far covered fascinating themes such as Constellations, earthly phenomena, telescopes, the solar system and asteroids; but also gives you a solid grounding in scientific literacy. Do you really know how the common occurrences such as seasons, lunar phases, eclipses, tides and the scientific method work?

The opening weeks have been somewhat disrupted by the Papal Visit. As is to be expected the city was in lockdown and military presence on every street corner. Despite the temptation to take a trip into the city to see the events it would have also have been a lot of hassle, so I decided to divert my time elsewhere. However I’m regretting slightly not going to see one of the most important and followed people on the planet, and sharing in the emotion much of the crowd must have experienced. I spent this new found time wandering around the University of Pennsylvania, a beautiful Ivy League university less than a five minute walk from my accommodation. As well as this I have spent a few evenings relaxing at a local Jazz Café, listening to amateur and local musicians playing esoteric songs I will likely never hear again.

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A street corner for the popes visit

It is now the time of year in which the clubs and societies are recruiting. Another chance to get to know likeminded people and keep a balance between work and play, which can be more difficult than it would seem. I signed up for the Freethought Society and the Debating Society; but there are a lot of clubs and societies – more so than at Aston probably due to Drexel being a larger University. It will be interesting to hear different perspectives on topics and see how things differ from in the UK. There really should be something for everyone no matter what you enjoy, and if not there is always the possibility of trying something new or discovering a hidden talent.

Why am I here? USA Week 1-2

IMAG0285Hello my name is Jake and I am an Engineering undergraduate studying at Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA and a grateful recipient of the Santander Scholarship. So why choose a study placement and why the United States?

For me personally studying abroad represents a great challenge and is a first step in proving to myself that I can live and work abroad, something that I would like to do. So I’m pushing myself and taking that first step as early as possible. Plus, you’ve got your whole life to work, why not take the chance to do something different.

As for the location of my placement, it is a combination of personal challenge and personal intrigue. The US university system is considered the best in the world and I plan to test myself against it, learn from it and see if it lives up to expectations. Personally as with many people from the UK I have long had a curiosity with the US, both the good and the bad. It has a space program, a beautiful and palpable constitution, plus a sense of national pride and identity, all of which the UK lacks. It is home to many people whose work I admire such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. The nation is also in the swing of the presidential election cycle, which I will enjoy viewing. Overall, the United States can be an interesting topic of philosophical thought and I can now experience it first hand.

The first weeks have been unsurprisingly similar to being fired out of a canon. Fired head on fast paced, not always knowing where you’re going or what you’ll land on. Getting used to the surroundings and city immediately is essential, which is assisted a lot by the helpful grid street system here. The city has much to offer; museums, historic villages and art galleries – more than can be done in one week. Also, imperative is attending as many events as you can, not only for the contents of the events but to realise how many people there are in the same situation with similar aspirations and questions. During the opening two weeks I got a few invitations to some Fraternity and Sorority parties – if you plan to experience US university student life, these are a must. Let’s just say I had a good time.

However, a particular highlight so far has been a simple conversation with a stranger. Sat outside on a bench watching some volleyball a fellow student from Saudi Arabia sat next to me; at which point began a four hour, from daylight to dark conversation. We shared ideas and had discussions on a range of moral and ethical questions; a particular passion of mine, and by coincidence we happened to be people equally as open minded to dialogue. We discussed drugs and drug laws, criminal justice and rehabilitation, education systems, meditation, the universe and space travel, philosophy, lucid dreaming, artificial intelligence, history, religion and cultural differences – all without any wine. All ideas out on the table and both walking away exposed and enlightened to different viewpoints, exactly how a conversation on a university campus should be allowed to be.IMAG0082

As of week two the academic side has begun and the universities quarter term system combined with new learning and teaching practices to get used to has lead to quite an intense introduction. So making the most of the opening week and having as much fun as possible is the best start you can give yourself.