A Lonely Leaf

Complex fractal vein branching patterns of a single leaf. (Photo by Mark Boucher)

Imagine, you – as a thinly veiled metaphor for early primate consciousness – are wondering the lonely, empty landscape of ignorant oblivion at the beginning of our species’ sentient awakening. You are not aware of your passage through space and time and subjectivity and introspection are, for now, well beyond of your reach.  Now let’s propose that in this hinterland you found a leaf. Let’s also imagine that you’ve never seen one before. Ever. I know, I know. But pretend, if you can. The leaf in isolation provides you with little information beyond that of its physical form: its shape and colour. You know and understand nothing of its inner workings.

Later, with the basic comprehension that the lonely leaf provided fresh in your rapidly evolving memory, you find another leaf, but this time it is attached to a branch. You now discover that you have a little bit more information, visual and potentially behavioral, about what exactly the leaf has evolved to do, even though at this stage you understand nothing of the theory of evolution by natural selection. You now realise that the leaf is part of a larger whole, the stick, but yet you still understand little of the why the leaf, and now the stick exist, aside from the basic fact that they do. Your unwillingly ignorant self cannot yet process the deeper philosophical connotations of this curious observation.

You then stumble across a tree. The tree encompasses many sticks, all playing host to many more leaves. The complexity of the information that you are processing is increasing, as is your understanding of it. You realize that the tree is the sum of its constituent parts, and you may even take a purely hypothetical, completely untestable philosophical stab-in-the-dark at how it works, and why it’s here. You may be right, but it’s unlikely at this stage as all your conjecturing and hypothesising is based on incomplete evidence and basic observational logic. Nevertheless, a guiding torch of rationality has been lit; the match, human curiosity.

You now begin to appreciate the role of the whole organism within the environment – the leaves feed other animals, animals that you in turn can eat. Its fruit can also feed you and your family. You surmise, completely logically, that bigger fruit means more food. You begin to postulate the mechanisms behind what makes fruit bigger, and attempt to exploit this fact to your advantage. You may now also realise that trees only grow in the sun and with sufficient nutrients, and determine that sunlight and fertiliser are directly involved in the process of providing this organism with vitality. Your understanding is increasing, going beyond the purely visible, physical structure of the tree, and into the biology, into the inner workings of the organism. Through trail-and-error and basic observational analysis, agriculture is now within your grasp.

But increasing information doesn’t necessarily correspond to increasing spatial scale. The microscopic sphere increases the possible complexity of the organism by several orders of magnitude. You can uncover the organs and cells of the plant and their constituent parts, right down to the smallest, subatomic particle. You discover that the tree harbours the ability to harvest energy by using photons to split molecules of carbon dioxide and water to form complex sugars and that it emits a metabolic waste product in the form of oxygen gas.

The trend towards increasing complexity continues when you discover that you can increase your computational abilities beyond that of your own intelligence by passing complex tasks on to other organisms, in our case computers, that are better equipped to deal with this greater complexity, thus revealing more and more information, and more and more levels of complexity and interconnectedness. Organic ‘coding’ (DNA) is discovered, and the organism can now be artificially modified and genetically engineered by using our outsourced processing units to suit the basic requirements of an increasingly populous species. Drought and pesticide resistant, larger and more rapidly growing than before, we have altered the properties of the now unrecognisable organism by unnatural selection, not in order for the organism to best exploit its environment, but rather to assist us in exploiting ours. We have moved on from being absorbers of information, to manipulators and creators; we have taken the leap from observational to applied-intelligence.

Our understanding of the complexity of this organism, and by implication the path of discovery itself, has been fuelled by the comprehension of ever increasing information marching in evolutionary tandem with our increasing abilities in information processing. Increased information input, naturally selects for increased processing and computation abilities, if that means that the organism will be better adapted to survive and flourish in its environment. If so, gradually increasing intelligence will eventually culminate in a sentient, highly intelligent species.

That’s us. You and me. Humans: borne from the information gleamed from a lonely leaf.

Corrupted Coursework


Article first published as Coursework Corruption on Technorati.

Most undergraduate degrees in the U.K. are taught in a modular fashion, with an allocation of ‘credits’ or similar granted to each student to select individual courses, usually in the department or school in which their degree is based, and construct a semi-personalised degree programme. Students normally take half a dozen modules a year, and these are assessed using a combination of coursework assignments, exams or research papers.

The recent emergence of ‘freelance writing’ websites has provided unwilling or unable undergraduates the opportunity to ‘outsource’ their coursework, for a reasonable fee naturally. I suspected that undergraduates (and even postgrads) are using these services to submit essays and dissertations that are not original, effectively degrading the academic integrity of their degree and those of their peers in the process. These sites undoubtedly profit from this arrangement, and I consider them to be fully aware of the potential for abuse of their system and its effect on higher education, but they have a number of loopholes to exploit that avoid the possibility of any wrongdoing on their part.

I recently signed up to one of these sites as a freelance researcher to further investigate the nature of the industry, and the level and subject of submissions. My intention was merely to observe and investigate and I feel that it is worth mentioning that I never completed or entered a bid for any project, and received no payment. I also think it’s probably best that I do not mention the name of the website, as I’m sure I couldn’t afford to defend myself against any legal proceedings that their studious lawyers may bring against me. What I will say however is that they vet their researchers thoroughly; I had to provide details of my qualifications (degree certificates etc.) and identity and these were vehemently scrutinised for a number of days before I was accepted.

The ‘briefs’ are organised on a central page and researchers can review and bid on them depending on their level and area of expertise. In my experience, many of the projects came from legal and social science courses, but other subjects such as engineering, health and biology were also well represented. All levels of work are available, from A-level to PhD. Many of the briefs were very brazen about the fact that they were very obviously intended to be submitted as a dissertation or piece of graded coursework, as opposed to the ‘research’ or ‘note-making’ that the website’s administrators claimed their service was providing. For example, the screen-capture below clearly shows that the project submitted by the researcher will be submitted as a PhD proposal in the field of management, for entry to a UK university.

Screen capture showing part of a 'brief' for a PhD proposal.

Often, the clients would neglect to remove some of the course information from the supplementary information provided with their brief, and it was relatively easy to use a search engine to trace the negligently included course codes back to the UK university where the course was obviously being run and the student paying for the services were based. For example, the image below is taken from the documentation supplied with a brief posted a couple of months ago. It clearly shows the course code and name of the module, which I found to originate from Portsmouth University’s School of Languages and Area Studies’ undergraduate module unsurprisingly entitled, The Structure of English.

Image taken from supplementary documentation supplied with a brief.

Certain phrases or acronyms can also reveal the source of a brief. For example, the use of the the phrase ‘Geography Undergraduate Thesis’ and the submission location in the ‘Global Studies Research Centre’ in the supplementary information supplied with a brief on sand-dunes brought me fairly rapidly to the Geography Department at Sussex University, where it was confirmed  by a member of staff that the document provided was an excerpt from the undergraduate handbook. The price for the completion of this work was £379.

In many cases, the header and course codes were removed or obscured from the attached material to prevent them from being traced back to their origin. The evidence that this ‘freelance writing’ service is being used to commit serious academic misconduct is fairly substantial, but what can be done about it?

As it turns out, not much. The researchers’ submissions are thoroughly screened for plagiarism before being accepted, thus making their detection by university plagiarism software difficult as the work is essentially original, but fraudulent in its origin. The writers are also well paid, the going rate being around £500 per 10000 words for undergraduate work, so there is little incentive for them to object. The image posted below illustrates this point; completing a PhD project in Tax Law would land you a cool £1872.

Screen capture from freelance writing website showing the fee for the completion of a PhD project in tax law.

In an attempt to address the issue, I contacted a number of departments, including those mentioned above, with my concerns and provided them with as much information and evidence as possible. Many were indifferent, some were surprised, but the main response was one of indignant futility. Little could be done to ensure that the work was submitted by the student whose name was on the front unless it was flagged up by a plagiarism filter, which as I mentioned before, was unlikely.  The situation was succinctly summarised by a member of staff at Sussex University:

             “You will understand, however, that it is almost impossible for Universities to proof such cases although I’m sure it’s a common form of academic fraud. I cannot promise we can pin down the candidate should s/he really submit a “personalised” piece of work.”

I have no doubt that these writing services are the academic black market of the digital age and a blight on the credibility of higher education. They detract from the hard work being done by honest students and the fraudsters they benefit will carry their incompetence and propensity for corruption to the next stage of their now tarnished education, and eventually their careers too, any success in which will be borne of a lie. What concerns me most are submissions from the health, engineering or architectural sectors; these are professionals entrusted with the lives of others, either through direct medical intervention or via the construction of sound buildings and bridges. If they cheat their way through their education, how can they expect to become competent professionals in the future? Their careers, and qualifications, are built on a foundation of corruption and lies, at the root of which are these abhorrent and objectionable writing services.

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If you, or someone you know, has had experience with one of these services, please contact me at admin@andrewrushby.com. Your anonymity is guaranteed.

HD 85512 b

I thought I would share a cool infographic from Space.com outlining the most promising Earth-analogue found to date. The details of 50 new planets detected by the HARPS instrument were released today and are covered in this excellent article from the Bad Astronomy blog at Discover magazine.

Learn how the

Source: SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Ode to A Voyager

On this day in 1977 NASA launched the Voyager probes (1 and 2) to explore the outer solar system. These spacecraft are, in my opinion, one of humanity’s most impressive technological accomplishments. Unlike anything here on Earth, they are artefacts that shall endure long after we as a species have ceased to exist; a testament to the space-faring aspirations of a band of primates on a tiny planet in the corner of the Milky Way. The Voyager probes are marvels of scientific ingenuity and wonderful tributes to the foresight of the engineers and scientists that built them. They are pioneering scientific instruments that revolutionised our understanding of the outer planets and their moons, time capsules and timeless interstellar messengers.

Voyager 1

Image of the Voyager 1 probe from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Click the image to visit the NASA Voyager site.

After making several important discoveries about the properties of Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, and capturing the beautiful Pale Blue Dot image, Voyager 2 continued on to Neptune and Uranus whilst Voyager 1 was set on an interstellar escape trajectory and is currently approaching the edge of our solar system. At 118 astronomical units (AU) it is the furthest man-made object from Earth and is likely to pass through the heliosheath into the interstellar medium sometime between 2012 and 2015, at which point humanity will officially become an interstellar species.

The Voyagers remain in working order, albeit with many of their instruments offline, an impressive 34 years after launch. They still remain in radio contact with Earth and commands transmitted at light speed take approximately 16 hours to reach the probes. These weak tracking signals are 20 billion times more feeble than the electrical current passing through a standard digital watch. If Voyager 1 avoids collision (with micrometeorites and space debris) it will continue to wander through interstellar space forever and it is unlikely to be overtaken by any other conventional human spacecraft or probe. It will be 40,000 years before the lonely Voyager passes near another star when it comes within 1.6 light years of the enigmatic M-type star AC+79 3888 in the constellation Camelopardalis.

In around 5 and a half billion years from now the Sun will have ballooned into an enormous red giant and possibly consumed all of the inner planets, including the Earth. Humans will either have gone extinct or left the ageing Solar System long before our decaying Sun enters its final death throes. Even then, it is possible that somewhere in deep space the lonely Voyagers will continue to obediently sail through the depths of space and time on a mission lasting an eternity; a mission with no end and no more formal objectives. The probes will not decay in the vacuum of space and their form and technology will be preserved indefinitely, long after their instruments have stopped working.

The Voyager Golden Record

The Voyager Golden Record

It is also possible that in the very distant future the Voyager probe may be intercepted by an advanced alien civilisation, or even future humans or our descendants. It is with this remote eventuality in mind that the scientific team behind the probes, lead by Carl Sagan, attached the Voyager Golden Record (VGR) to the spacecraft. The VGR contains sounds and images designed to depict the diversity of life on Earth as well as the location the origin of the probes. The significance of the VGR as a message from humanity to the Universe was not underestimated by the scientific team or the leaders of the world at that time. An image included in the VGR is a message from the then U.S. President Jimmy Carter:

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours…”

Voyager 1 is therefore much more than just a spacecraft, it is an interstellar time-capsule and a messenger to the stars. Perhaps someday it will be the oldest surviving relic of a lost civilisation with great aspirations and a demonstrable foresight able to appreciate the scale of the Universe. The Voyager probes are as close to art as science can get. They are truly wonderful, eternal symbols of the best intentions of our species and the universalist philosophy of science.

Fly on Voyagers, fly on.

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