Of Giant Tortoises and Men

The back story

1 min read

The Galápagos Islands, a cherished haven for nature lovers and a rarefied ­ecosystem where Charles Darwin drew inspiration for his theory of evolution, is not the place you’d expect to find a multimillion-dollar cutting-edge engineering project.

So when IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Erico Guizzo learned that the Ecuadorian ­government, with help from the United Nations and an ­international consortium of utility companies, planned to build three massive wind turbines on San Cristóbal, the Galápagos’s easternmost island, his first thought was: This I have to see.

Guizzo contacted the ­organizers of the project, and late last year he found himself on a 32-hour-long journey—involving three planes, two taxis, one bus, and a three-and-a-half-hour open-ocean boat ride—to reach the archipelago, some 1000 kilo­meters from mainland Ecuador.

”It was really tiring, but when I saw San Cristóbal emerging on the hazy horizon, I knew this was a special place,” Guizzo says. ”And I can attest to its remoteness!”

On the island, he watched a team of engineers struggle to get the three 800-kilowatt turbines into operation. He also learned about the many other challenges the ­project faced as part of an effort to free the Galápagos from fossil fuels. [See Guizzo's full account, "Wind Power in Paradise," in this issue.]

Guizzo also took some time to check out the local wildlife, ­including the famed giant tortoises [see photo]. ”You can’t help feeling a bit like Darwin when you walk around this place and marvel at these otherworldly creatures,” he says.

But as Darwin noted more than 170 years ago, the uniqueness of the archipelago’s ecosystem means it’s also extremely fragile. The survival of its distinctive plants and animals, many of which are endangered, now depends on finding ways to protect them from foreign species—including us.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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