6 Bots That Deliver Science and Serendipity on Twitter


“It’s striking how often people tweet encouraging, nice things at the plant about how shiny its leaves are or how fast it’s growing,” wrote Ms. He, a programmer and artist, in an email. “I think I’ve discovered that a humbly tweeting plant is actually the secret to world peace (or at least kindness on Twitter).”

@usinjuries

This bot tweets descriptions of emergency room visits from a government database that tracks about 100 hospitals across the United States.

Its parent, Keith Collins, a reporter at Quartz, emailed that he didn’t expect to laugh out loud when he first looked at the data. But most of the injuries are minor, he said, and there’s something about the way they’re written in the “pithy style of a rushed E.R. doctor.” Noticing a glut of entries about patients who punched walls, he charted the age distribution of wall-punchers and found that 15-year-olds were most prolific.

Many of the bot’s retweets come with comments like “same” or “it’s me,” he said. It “gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves.”

@birdcolourbot

Each tweet from @birdcolourbot is a bird name followed by a swath of colors resembling a paint chip. Each band’s width is determined by the probability of a given bird of that species being that hue.

“I’m red-green colorblind, so I’m interested in color perception and how different people see birds (or anything really),” emailed David L. Miller, the bot’s creator and a statistician with affiliations at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

@mothgenerator

Also dedicated to winged creatures, this bot tweets make-believe moths of all shapes, sizes, textures and iridescent colors. It’s programmed to generate variations in several anatomical structures of real moths, including antennas, wing shapes and wing markings.

Another program, which splices and recombines real Latin and English moth names, generates monikers for the moths. You can also reply to the account with name suggestions, and it will generate a corresponding moth.

Inspired by naturalist illustrations, such as those of Ernst Haeckel, the programmers designed their bot to create moths stroke by stroke, with each insect composed of tens of thousands of individual strokes. “At its core, the moth generator is a wildly byzantine drawing machine in the shape of a moth,” said Katie Rose Pipkin, an artist at Carnegie Mellon University who created the bot with Loren Schmidt.

@i_find_planets

“They have discovered a planet. A guinea pig-like creature lives there and creeps through the valleys. It is something of a mystery.” Such are the snapshots offered by Newfound Planets, a bot that tweets about fictional distant worlds.

The human behind it, Charles Bergquist, who directs the public radio program Science Friday, wrote via email that he thinks people enjoy the bot because they yearn to know what it’s like on another planet — “how big it is, might there be water or what might the sunrise look like.”

@unchartedatlas

This bot also tweets about fictional lands, but based on actual erosion science. Martin O’Leary, a glaciologist at Swansea University in Wales, programmed it as part of National Novel Generation Month, a spinoff of National Novel Writing Month that challenges people to write an algorithm that writes a novel (here’s his accompanying novel).

The bot starts with a random initial terrain, then simulates how water would flow over it to create channels, valleys and coastlines. Cities are placed away from each other and near running water, and Dr. O’Leary wrote another program to name the cities.

To him, Twitter bots are a piecemeal form of science outreach. He said a lot of publicly available information about science amounted to, “Look at this amazing thing right now!” But Twitter bots “worm their way into your life, sit there and slowly give you this drip of stuff. They’re gentle.”

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