Some science you may have missed XII

Posted in Tech on January 2nd, 2013 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

Scoop marks on Mars. Water not shown.A full year in “Some science you may have missed.” Now that 2013 is upon us, here’s a few things you may not have seen in December of 2012. Let’s hope 2013 will be as good as 2012 was for science!

Sun Contacts – One of the benefits to wearing contacts is that you can still wear cool shades, should the brightness require them (or not, if you’re that kind of person). But soon, thanks to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium, you may be able to wear contacts that are also sun-“glasses” themselves! Thanks to an LCD-contact technology, the future is bright, but you won’t have to let that impede your vision!

Biological Pacemaker – Imagine a future in which a pacemaker is not implanted, but rather, converted from tissue in your heart. That future may not be that far off, thanks to Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute researchers who have created a virus that, in guinea pigs, turned heart tissue into a natural pacemaker. One day, a pacemaker will be as simple as that: no more batteries, no more invasive surgery.

Water on Mars! – Last month, water on Mercury. This month, water on Mars. Early in December, NASA announced that the Mars Curiosity Rover found water, sulfur, and chlorine molecules in the Martian soil. Clay was also found, implying that liquid water may have at one time been present as well. Next month, I expect them to announce water on Earth.

Some science you may have missed XI

Posted in Tech on November 30th, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

Some parts of Mercury never see heat. These are the parts where ice has formed.My blog-writing may slow, but science doesn’t do so! Holy cow November saw a lot of progress. I truly believe we’re living in a glorious time for scientific research. Here’s some of the ways in which that seems increasingly obvious this month:

Water on Mercury – NASA, no longer the butt of jokes as often and now again a scientific powerhouse, has announced that frozen water has been found on Mercury, the planet so close to the sun that parts of it heat to 800F. The ice was located in parts untouched by the sun, and accompanies other organic material. Combine this with a major Mars announcement to occur in the coming days, and it looks like NASA is back on their a-game.

Down Syndrome, HIV, Alzheimer’s – All three of these may one day be a thing of the past. University of Washington scientists have now removed an extra chromosome 21 (the cause of Down syndrome), which, though it will not likely lead to a “cure,” could lead to serious treatments. Meanwhile, Canadian researchers successfully passed phase I testing of their HIV/AIDS vaccine, putting us that much closer to HIV eradication. And finally, a gene has been discovered that triples the risk of Alzheimer's disease. This could serve as an early warning sign to trigger necessary treatment.

Print me some cartilage – 3D printing continues to advance, and the latest advance is a printer that can create implantable cartilage. This synthetic cartilage would also encourage patients to regrow cartilage in areas where that may not have been possible with ongoing motion. The printed cartilage withstood tests that previous synthetic cartilage had not been able to pass. Amazing.

Some science you may have missed X

Posted in Tech on November 3rd, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

The unmanned SpaceX Dragon craft that successfully resupplied the ISS.I missed the end of October but that doesn’t mean that the month wasn’t full of all kinds of awesome advances in science and technology. In addition to the announcement of multiple Nobel prize winners for various scientific fields, here’s some neat things that occurred in October:

Nanotube Transistors – IBM scientists, driven by the physical limitations of silicon (the decreasing size and power of silicon transistors will soon reach a physical boundary), have successfully placed 10000 carbon nanotube transistors on a single chip. Now, this is nowhere near current transistor numbers (Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips have 1.4 billion silicon transistors), but it’s an amazing step toward keeping Moore’s Law alive.

DNA testing in two days – There are about 500 genetic diseases, of the 3500 known that can get a newborn into the neonatal intensive care unit, that can be treated successfully. The difference in life or death for those newborns who are afflicted with those 500 comes down to detection, in the form of DNA testing. And until now, such testing took weeks or months. But now, researches at the Children’s Mercy Hospital have developed a genetic test that can screen DNA for babies in fifty hours. The result is that more newborns should survive infancy, simply by virtue of having the right diagnosis early on.

SpaceX restocks ISS – SpaceX, a private space transport company based in California, has successfully completed a mission to the International Space Station. The three-week mission involved supplying ISS astronauts with 880 pounds of various supplies and gathering things to be returned to Earth such as medical samples and broken machinery. Now that there are no more shuttles, NASA has turned to the private sector to accomplish small tasks. Of course, this only paves the way for these companies to eventually accomplish the larger space exploration tasks as well.

Some science you may have missed IX

Posted in Tech on September 28th, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

The future of warp technology. Yes, there's football in the future too. Football in space!Oh man science, you never cease to amaze me. And you never cease to keep doing stuff so cool that we've previously only dreamed about it in works of fiction. But I guess they call them science fiction for a reason. This month, science has made some serious strides in meeting our dreams. Science!

Warp drives may be possible – Einstein suggested that matter cannot move faster than the speed of light, leading many to rule out interstellar travel. But what if we could warp the space around the matter, so that it didn't have to move faster than the speed of light to cover immense distances? Well scientists at NASA have announced that such a thing may be possible, and with not too much energy required either. Chalk another success up to sci-fi.

The Diamond Age is nearly here – Right now I'm reading a Neal Stephenson book, The Diamond Age, in which everything in a not-too-distant future is provided by 'feed' lines that, connected to a global repository of elements, construct things on an atomic/molecular level. Pretty awesome book and I recommend it. I also recommend the future, because scientists at the Vienna University of Technology have developed a technique to place individual molecules at specific points in 3-D structures. Not quite the atomic 3-D printing of The Diamond Age, but we're getting close.

Hopefully this won't lead to GATTACA – Previously it was thought that only about 2% of the genome mattered with the rest being "junk DNA." Now, researchers from thirty-two laboratories have announced that this "junk DNA" isn't junk at all, and has a much more important role in the biological process. Understanding this huge chunk of human DNA will enable scientists to better understand disease risk, mental illness, and so much more about our bodies.

Some science you may have missed VIII

Posted in Tech on August 31st, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

Sky-crane. Need I say more?It's that time again! The monthly science wrap-up, this month with more sky-crane!

Nuclear SUV dropped from sky-crane on Mars – So obviously this has been the big science story of the month, and it's possible you missed it but I doubt it. We're on Mars again. Here's the parts you may have missed: it's nuclear powered, it was dropped from a floating sky-crane, and it received a software update remotely beamed from Earth after it landed. Wow.

Cancer "stem cells" found – Scientists in three separate studies in Texas, the Netherlands, and Belgium have discovered the characteristics of so-called cancer "stem cells" that cause cancers to form tumors. These cells are the ones that cause cancers to turn into tumors and could provide new avenues for treatment, not only against cancer, but against its return.

Cars can talk to each other – Long ago, I dreamed of a world with self-driving cars that communicated with each other so as to change their vectors for maximum efficiency. If every car knew where every other car was, traffic lights would become obsolete. Speeds could maximize. Everyone would be happy. And now we're one step closer to that. We're still talking human drivers and this is only happening in Michigan, but progress is progress!

So another great month for science. And there's a lot of stuff on the horizon, in medicine, technology, even in the science of food. We've got a bright future ahead of us and we owe a lot of thanks to science. Science!

Some science you may have missed VII

Posted in Tech on July 31st, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

The artificial jellyfish. Awesome.Now that we're safely in the second half of the year, we can look at 2012 and say that this is a good year for science. Heck, it involved finding the Higgs Boson! July was no different, a month filled with good and interesting scientific announcements. Here's a few of them.

Manufactured jellyfish – Supposedly this is useful for future advances in reverse-engineering muscles and other simple life forms, but even if that weren't true, the fake jellyfish created by Caltech and Harvard scientists using heart cells would still be awesome. It responds to electricity, swimming like a jellyfish when stimulated, and it acts a lot like a heart, pumping to move.

No more cavities – Some Chilean scientists, working with a Yale researcher, have developed a molecule they call "Keep 32" that would completely eradicate the cavity-causing Streptococcus Mutans for a few hours. Of course, if this truly works, I hope that time travel is the next major breakthrough so that I may go back and prevent all the myriad cavities I had while growing up.

Converting electricity to gas – This seems to be the opposite of what one would want, but Stanford and Penn State scientists have identified microbes that convert electricity into natural gas. Besides the rather dubious claim that this methane is cleaner (since the electricity that produced it originally has not changed), it does provide one really interesting advantage: the ability to essentially store electricity, which cannot currently be done, as fuel.

Sadly, this month was rather a boring month for space exploration, it seems. Some interesting discoveries were made about distant galaxies and commercial space flight is getting closer, but not a whole lot on that front otherwise. Hopefully August will be different because space exploration is always a good source of science news.

So it looks like the Higgs Boson has been discovered

Posted in Tech on July 9th, 2012 by Nathan – 1 Comment

CERN's ATLAS, which searched for the Higgs Boson. I want one of these.Obviously with any scientific discovery of this magnitude, there's a lot of room to ensure absolute certainty and so pending confirmation, we can't be completely sure that the Higgs has been discovered. But under the current announcement, the certainty is at 5 Sigma standard deviation (approximately one chance in two million that there is a mistake), so it looks like the Higgs Boson has in fact been discovered.

Normally, I'd wait until the end of the month for a science wrap-up, but a discovery like this deserves its own post. Seriously, this is awesome.

What is a Boson?

Simply put, it's an elementary particle.

Everything is made of matter. And matter is made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of subatomic particles, which are in turn made of elementary particles. A boson is one type of elementary particle, and the Higgs Boson is one type of boson.

The other types are the photon, gluon, Z boson, and W boson. The photon is responsible for electromagnetism, the gluon handles the strong force, and the W and Z both handle the weak force. These make up three of the four fundamental forces of nature, the fourth being gravity (though it has been argued that gravity is a projection of the interactions between the other three forces).

Since gravity is essentially an acceleration caused by objects' masses, and since none of the other bosons or other elementary particles seems to dictate mass, the question of where mass comes from has been one that has plagued physicists for some time. This is where the Higgs Boson comes in.

What is the Higgs Boson?

Essentially it's the particle that gives us mass, which is a measurement of how much stuff is in something. (A gram, for instance, measures mass. Interestingly, an ounce/pound does not; that measures force, which is mass times acceleration; in the case of weight, this acceleration is due to gravity. In the standard system, we don't have a very good unit of mass. This is one of the very few times in which the metric system is better.)

The Higgs Boson was first proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs and five others. It was proposed to answer the question "where does mass come from?" since none of the other elementary particles could answer this question. Some elementary particles in fact have mass, but this is not required for any equations to work; in other words, there must be some reason they have mass, and it's not to fulfill their functions. The Higgs Boson solves this by positing a Higgs Field that imparts particles with mass.

How does the Higgs Boson work?

Well, assuming it actually exists, and again, this is still tentatively announced, (though seriously, at a certainty of 5 Sigma, we are pretty safe in this assumption) the Higgs Boson creates a field, just like other bosons, which acts as a mass-imparting-mechanism. How it works is complicated, but a simple explanation can be drawn from a sporting event.

Imagine that a large group of fans is outside the ESPY awards ceremony, and for whatever reason, are unfettered in their ability to interact with the various athletes coming through. Before any athletes arrive (assuming this is an open space, like, say, a field), the people are relatively well-distributed.

Suddenly, LeBron James and Tim Tebow arrive, simultaneously, at opposite sides of the field. Immediately, fans are drawn toward them, crowding around, and slowing down James and Tebow, who now have much more "mass" of fans. When Kris Humphries arrives later, he gathers a small crowd, but not large enough to significantly slow him down. He has much less mass.

Basically, some particles, like the W and Z, have large mass, because they are the James and Tebow of the Higgs field. As they go through the field accompanying the Higgs Boson, they "pick up" mass. Meanwhile, other particles, such as the Gluon, are reviled by the elementary particle world because of their relationship with Kim Kardashian, and therefore do not attract any mass.

Is this discovery a good thing?

So that's an interesting question. It's good, in that it will bring us closer to proving Peter Higgs right, and giving us a more complete understanding of particle physics. And it's good in that the CERN, who discovered this, was focusing on this goal first and foremost. However, interestingly, it's not all good. Finding that what we expected is true is a little boring. Had we instead never found the Higgs Boson, we'd have to do all kinds of crazy things to find a different answer to the mass question.

However, I'm in the camp that knowledge is good, and therefore I am very excited about this discovery. Sure, this will take away one question, but there are so many more questions, I'm sure we won't run out anytime soon.