Robots and Cyborgs

by Kathryn on April 20, 2017

Recently, I’ve written two articles for Science News for Students about robotics:

Teaching robots right from wrong and Wired and weird: Meet the cyborg plants

Artificial intelligence has always been one of my favorite things to learn about and think about. When my editor at Science News for Students said she’d like to see a feature on robot ethics, I was thrilled. An ethical system isn’t necessarily intelligent or self-aware, but clearly if machines do become self-aware, we’d want them to follow some sort of code of ethics that makes it possible for us to peacefully co-exist.


I loved researching this story. At first, I thought I’d be focusing on ethical dilemmas – the kinds of situations in which a robot or autonomous system is torn between difficult choices, such as the self-driving car that must choose between killing its passenger and killing a group of pedestrians. But as I worked on the piece, I realized these imaginary situations are interesting thought experiments, but not very practical. And the science just isn’t at the point yet where such an unlikely situation even matters. 99.99% of the time, the self-driving car simply has to avoid hitting pedestrians – that’s almost always the right thing to do! But even that simple rule can be tricky to implement, even given recent advances in machine vision and AI.

My other story, about cyborg plants, is more technical than philosophical. But it was also a fun one to work on because most people don’t think about combining plants and electronics. I know I certainly didn’t before I discovered the news story about a rose with a wire growing through its stem!

The robot theme doesn’t end here, either. I’ve also written two books that will come out in the next year: Careers in Robotics and Cutting Edge Careers: Robotics Engineer. Plus, I recently agreed to write a book about robotics in medicine, though I haven’t started that project just yet. I’m sure it will be fun to work on!


A Love of Language and Letters

by Kathryn on March 9, 2017

A very special article just came out in Muse magazine: “Communing with the Letter Spirits.” This piece is about Douglas Hofstadter’s Letter Spirit project, which was an attempt to model human creativity through a computer program that created its own fonts. But for me, the meaning goes much deeper.

My alphabet

The alphabet for the language I invented

When I was a teenager, I invented my own language. Granted, I didn’t come up with a very extensive vocabulary or grammar. But I made up an alphabet, and wrote several poems in the language, all for use in a fantasy book I was working on at the time. It turns out I had more fun working on the language than on the book!

Also in high school, I read a book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. This book remains one of the top three most influential books I’ve ever read. It changed the way I thought about math and language. It revealed new ways of thinking and expressing thoughts that had never occurred to me before. I was so blown away, that I went on to read everything else Hofstadter had written.

I also continued to invent alphabets all through college. Usually these were just doodles besides whatever notes I was taking. I took a course on Sanskrit one semester, mostly to learn the script, which is still used in Hindi today. My quizzes and tests for that class looked like a secret code, but I could decipher them. In another class in college, a reading assignment included Chinese writing alongside the English translation. I spent hours puzzling over the characters, trying to figure out each one’s meaning, just for fun.

I also completed a senior scholar project — a sort of a thesis — called Thought Made Visible. The project focused on linguistics, creativity, and expression, and it took up all of my time for an entire year.


Examples of a few fonts from the Letter Spirit project

After college, I seriously considered a couple of different paths. One was going on to graduate school in cognitive science — I specifically wanted to study with Hofstadter. But in the end, I decided to join the Peace Corps. My two requests for my destination were: 1) somewhere cold and 2) somewhere with a different alphabet. I wound up in Kyrgyzstan, which is definitely cold and uses Cyrillic writing.

But I always regretted a little bit not pursuing cognitive science. I’ve always considered Hofstadter to be an important role model, but I figured I’d never get to work with him. But then the opportunity to write this article came along, and I got to talk to him. He’s in his eighties now, so I was lucky to get this opportunity while he’s still taking interviews.

It was a special conversation for me, and I’m so happy to see the article out in print! I hope some other young person who is obsessed with languages finds the article and gets the same joy out of discovering Hofstadter’s work as I did.

Letter Spirits


Climate Change vs Fracking

February 13, 2017

Four years ago, I attended a fascinating talk by Richard Alley about melting ice and climate change at the AAAS conference in Boston. Read my post about it here. When I found out that Muse magazine was going to focus an upcoming issue on climate change, I immediately remembered that talk and pitched an article […]

Read the full article →

How to Make a Dream Journal

November 21, 2016

I had the most awesome college job ever. I worked in the library repairing books. An elderly gentleman named Chuck taught me how to reinforce spines, replace covers, and repair torn pages (with a tiny iron and special fabric – never scotch tape!). I even learned some binding techniques. I loved that job. For Muse’s […]

Read the full article →

Happy Halloween

October 28, 2016

Ever since I first learned that a fungus can turn ants into zombies, I’ve wanted to write about it. I finally got the chance! My editor wanted a piece on “real zombies” in time for Halloween. This was a dream assignment for me. I love bugs, especially spiders. Ants are pretty cool, too. Here are […]

Read the full article →


October 25, 2016

Hooray! Author copies of my most recent book arrived over the weekend: The Science of Dinosaurs, part of the Super Awesome Science series from ABDO publishing. The book is aimed at grades 3 to 6, a much younger age range than my usual audience. And it’s about dinosaurs. My son (almost 2) loves dinosaurs. So […]

Read the full article →

More Video Games

October 14, 2016

Well, I guess I’ve found my niche in children’s nonfiction: video games. My husband used to work as a software engineer on games (like, 5 years ago), and conversations with him way back then led me to propose an article on video games to Odyssey magazine. Well, that article eventually landed me my first book […]

Read the full article →

From Brainwaves to Mind Reading

September 26, 2016

My latest article was just published on Science News for Students: One day, computers may decode your dreams Along with it, I wrote this explainer: How to read brain activity When I set out to write this article, the only real guidance I had was to write something about the science of brainwaves, including what […]

Read the full article →

Thinking Differently

September 7, 2016

I’ve been fact checking every issue of Muse magazine for a little over a year now. This job requires carefully reading every word of every issue. As a result, I feel a small sense of ownership for all of the articles, not just the ones I wrote. (I still contribute regularly, and someone else fact […]

Read the full article →

Chili Pepper Science

June 7, 2016

Sometimes, an article just seems to write itself. That was the case with my most recent piece, “The Cool Science of Hot Peppers.” Usually, my articles for Science News for Students go through at least three rounds of substantial edits. It can be a long, painstaking process to make the article the best it can […]

Read the full article →