Archive for the ‘Yes, But When?’ Category


1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 8 October 2011 at 8:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?
Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 April 2010 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Print your own skin

Researchers funded by the US military are working on a way of printing new human skin as a treatment for burn victims. What’s more, they’ve using a regular inkjet printer and cartridges filled with human skill cells:

Grow your own font

Typographer Craig Ward has developed a typeface with a difference – each letter was grown from live cells and moulded into the correct shape.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 August 2009 at 6:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

A week on the Guardian’s Technology desk means I haven’t been keeping up with all the science news as much as I normally would. Don’t worry though, I’ve still got some good stuff in this week’s roundup.

Run Forrest.exe, Run!

Toyota have created a robot that can run. Not an easy task, as the machine must keep its balance whilst moving at fast speed, but the result looks promising:

Will we eventually have millions of these little guys running about the place, I wonder?

LaTeX tech

Bit of a geeky one this. LaTeX is a language used by scientists and other people to create documents containing lots of equations. I’ve used it in the past, and whilst it produces nice results, it can be tricky to use because of all the commands you have to learn. Remembering the codes for mathematical symbols can be especially difficult. Detexify allows you to draw the symbol you want with your mouse, and it will give you the code. Even if you have no use for LaTeX, it’s fun to have a play and watch the symbol recognition in action. Try drawing a smiley face!

Kill or cure?

Kill or cure? is a website that seeks to “make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” Where else can you learn that ketchup prevents cancer, but toothpaste causes it?

Kids vs climate change, round 2

A while back Sam wrote a post laying out the environmental reasons not to have children. It inspired quite a debate between some commenters, and now his position has been backed up by new research. Statisticians at Oregon State University found that in the US, having one less child will have an almost 20 times larger impact on the environment than things like changing the car you drive, or recycling.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 7:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Yes, But When?

I guess it’s fitting that I should write a story about bacteria whilst feeling ill:

Computers are evolving – literally. While the tech world argues netbooks vs notebooks, synthetic biologists are leaving traditional computers behind altogether. A team of US scientists have engineered bacteria that can solve complex mathematical problems faster than anything made from silicon.

The research, published today in the Journal of Biological Engineering, proves that bacteria can be used to solve a puzzle known as the Hamiltonian Path Problem. Imagine you want to tour the 10 biggest cities in the UK, starting in London (number 1) and finishing in Bristol (number 10). The solution to the Hamiltonian Path Problem is the the shortest possible route you can take.

Read the rest at the Guardian

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 July 2009 at 12:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

Many alternative energy sources have been suggested as a replacement for oil; wind, solar or biofuel just to name a few. Now another can be added to the list: urine.

Whilst abundant worldwide, this waste liquid is not the most obvious choice for weaning the world off oil. To extract urine’s energy Gerardine Botte of Ohio University employed a process called electrolysis which uses an electric current to break up molecules. The resulting hydrogen can then be put to work as a clean source of energy.

Electrolysis has already been used to create hydrogen from water, but this requires quite a lot of energy. Botte turned to urine as a way of improving efficiency. Although urine is 95% water much of the remaining 5% is urea, a chemical compound which has four hydrogen atoms per molecule. This is twice the number found in water molecules, and the atoms are less tightly bonded so extracting the hydrogen from urea instead of water requires about a third of the energy.

Originally the research team used “synthetic” urine made by dissolving urea in water, but the process works equally as well with the genuine article. Working with human urine requires special clearance, which held up the publication of their research, says Botte.

The team are now looking at the long-term feasibility of urine hydrolysis, as well as the potential for scaling it up to industrial levels. Botte believes that existing sewage plants could be put to work generating energy, as well as cleaning up waste. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel as there are already electrolysers being used in different applications,” she says.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 June 2009 at 7:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

That’s one small Tweet for man…

To mark the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission next month, Nature are using Twitter to relive the Moon landing, 40 years on. You can follow @ApolloPlus40 in the run up to July 20th, and imagine what a mission to the Moon would be like in the internet age.

First image from Herschel

Emma covered the launch of Herschel and Planck, the two latest telescopes to be sent off in to space, and now Herschel’s first image has been beamed back.

The first Herschel image.
The first Herschel image.

It shows the Whirlpool Galazy, also known as M51. First discovered by Charles Messier in 1774, it lies 23 million light-years away. Impressive stuff.

World’s first spaceport begins construction

I’ve been following the progress of Virgin Galactic for quite some time, as they bring the promise of commercial spaceflight ever closer to reality. I even blogged about the company in Just A Theory’s very first week. It’s quite exciting then to see construction begin for Spaceport America in New Mexico. The design is fantastically futuristic:

You can tell it's the future, look at all the blue lights.
You can tell it's the future, look at all the blue lights.

Due to be completed in 18 months time, it will serve as the commercial base for Virgin Galactic, but other companies will eventually make use of the facility. I can’t wait.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 9:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Two stories today of new technology that could one day be built in to mobile phones. The first, developed by engineering students at Duke University, would allow people to write short notes by simply waving their phones in the air. The technology makes use of accelerometers already inside many newer phones, like the iPhone, which are used to switch the display from portrait to landscape view.

“We developed an application that uses the built-in accelerometers in cell phones to recognize human writing,” said Sandip Agrawal, one of the developers of the PhonePoint Pen. “By holding the phone like a pen, you can write short messages or draw simple diagrams in the air.

“The accelerometer converts the gestures to images, which can be sent to any e-mail address for future reference,” Ionut Constandache said. “Also, say you’re in a class and there is an interesting slide on the screen. We foresee being able to take a photo of the slide and write a quick note on it for future reference. The potential uses are practically limitless. That this prototype works validates the feasibility of such a pen.”

Whilst I can see the appeal of this, I’m not sure what more it offers over just using buttons or a touchpad keyboard. Perhaps if the keys are too small for you it would be useful alternative, but I think I’ll pass.

Perhaps more useful is this second story: Nokia are working on a phone that charges itself without being plugged in. This seemingly magical feat is made possible by sucking in power from the sea of electromagnetic energy that surrounds the modern world.

We are constantly wading through radio, TV and WiFi signals emanating from all directions, and scientists at the Nokia Research Centre in Cambridge have created a phone that harvests tiny amounts of power from a wide range of frequencies. So far though they have only achieved a tiny 5 milliwatts, which isn’t much use. Their next goal is 20 milliwatts, which would allow a phone to remain on standby indefinitely. Ultimately they hope to reach 50 milliwatts, enough to slowly recharge the handset.

You’re going to have to wait a while for both of these new gadgets though. In the case of PhonePoint Pen the team expect to put a prototype up for download in the next few months, but the recharging phones are at least three to five years off.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 8:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

So far, astronomers searching the universe for planets outside of our solar system have mostly discovered gas giants, like Jupiter. If you want a planet that can support life, something a bit smaller and wetter is in order. Now scientists believe they have found such a planet. It’s called Earth.

Well, obviously they haven’t only just comes across it. Using Deep Impact, a probe launched by NASA in 2005 to study a comet by smashing in to it, researchers devised a new planet-hunting method by re-discovering Earth. By imagining themselves as aliens hunting for planets like our own, they were able to ‘discover’ that Earth does indeed have liquid surface water.

By making two separate 24-hour observations of Earth’s light intensity, in wavelengths from near ultraviolet to near infrared, the researchers were able to monitor the changes in brightness as the Earth rotates and cloud-cover shifts. These changes show up as deviations from an average colour. Two wavelengths were dominant: red for long wavelengths and blue for short.

Interpreting red as land masses and blue as ocean water, the team were able to make colour maps of the planet as it rotated. Comparing this to the real Earth, the oceans became crystal clear. Nicolas Cowan, a University of Washington doctoral student, explains:

“You could tell that there were liquid oceans on the planet. The idea is that to have liquid water the planet would have to be in its system’s habitable zone, but being in the habitable zone doesn’t guarantee having liquid water.”

Cowan, who is lead author of a paper explaining the research and due to be published in Astrophysical Journal, hopes that their new technique will guide the construction of future Earth-hunter telescopes. Just don’t expect to be going for an extrasolar dip any time soon.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 May 2009 at 5:10 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

A pioneering project linking together millions of computers around the world, all in the name of finding out whether we are alone in the universe, turned ten this week. SETI@home (SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) was launched on 17th May 1999 and broke new ground in harnessing your idle computer time to crack some of science’s greatest questions. The internet is now awash with similar projects such as climateprediction.net or the World Community Grid but SETI@home was the first such scientific distributed computing project.

The project regularly farms out data from signals captured by the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico straight to your desktop. Then when you pop out for a quick cuppa it uses your computer to trawl the radio waves for signs of artificial messages sent by alien civilisations.

Unsurprisingly the search thus far has been fruitless. The usual needle and haystack analogies just don’t cut it when it comes to what the project is looking for. For a more in depth look the current state of SETI, including where astronomers are looking and how likely they are to find them, you can read my account of it here. To borrow a quote from it, what the astronomers behind SETI@home are doing is “casting their nets a few times into a vast ocean of interstellar signals, searching for a minute bottle that may, perhaps, contain a tiny piece of paper.” That’s the thing, we don’t even know if what we are looking for exists, let alone exactly where to look for it.

However, we shouldn’t give up hope of receiving an interstellar phone call from our galactic cousins. The work SETI@home continues to do, based wholly on charitable donations, could yet provide the most momentous discovery in the history of science. Happy Birthday SETI@home!

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 20 May 2009 at 11:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Everything from electric cars to mobile phones could soon be powered by air. A new type of battery promises ten times the energy storage of current designs by sucking in oxygen to recharge.

Research led by scientists at the University of St Andrews and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has resulted in new battery design that is both ligher and smaller than its predecessors – a definite plus for electric cars.

The STAIR (St Andrews Air) cell, designed with the help of partners in Strathclyde and Newcastle, uses porous carbon as a replacement for lithium cobalt oxide. This change of material, combined with a more compact size, means that the new batteries will be much cheaper.

The battery is charged as normal, but as its energy is drained oxygen from the air is drawn through its surface. Then, the oxygen reacts with the pores in the carbon to create more energy and recharge the draining battery.

Oxygen drawn from the air reacts within the porous carbon to release the electrical charge in this lithium-air battery.
Oxygen drawn from the air reacts within the porous carbon to release the electrical charge in this lithium-air battery.

Leading the four-year research project is Professor Peter Bruce of the St Andrews Chemistry Department:

“Our target is to get a five to ten fold increase in storage capacity, which is beyond the horizon of current lithium batteries. Our results so far are very encouraging and have far exceeded our expectations.

“The key is to use oxygen in the air as a re-agent, rather than carry the necessary chemicals around inside the battery.”

You won’t be running on air just yet though, as further investigation in to the chemical reaction of the battery is needed. The team hope to build a small STAIR cell prototype soon, with the intention to power small devices such as mobile phones or MP3 players.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 5 May 2009 at 7:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Yes, But When?

Would you accept an organ from a sheep? The Times reports from Tochigi in Japan that these genetically engineered animals could solve the country’s organ donor shortage.

Currently Yutaka Hanazono and team at the Jichi Medical University has only created sheep with organs suitable for chimpanzees. Stem cells extracted from chimps are grown in a sheep to create fully-formed organs such as a spare pancreas. He believes that within a decade or two the technology could be extended to create human organs as well.

“We have made some very big advances here. There has historically been work on the potential of sheep as producers of human blood, but we are only slowly coming closer to the point where we can harvest sheep for human organs,” Professor Hanazono told The Times.

That will be too long for many Japanese patients seeking donors, as the legal system in Japan has created a deficit in organs. Death is defined at the point when the heart stops, at which point organs will begin to degrade from lack of blood flow. Brain death, where all brain activity has ceased but the heart and lungs can be kept functioning, allows more effective harvesting of organs, but Japan does not allow this.

The result is an extremely low rate of donation in Japan. The US has about 27 organ donors per million people, but in Japan this figure is less than 1 donor per million people. This forces many patients to seek organs abroad, but even this “transplant tourism” will become difficult as international rules on organs become more strict.

The Japanese people have a complicated moral choice ahead of them. Either they must revise their laws defining death, or accept the possibility of growing organs on demand. Both options have serious cultural and ethical implications, not just scientific ones, but something must be done to alleviate the organ shortage.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Talking in your sleep can be an annoying habit for anyone you share a bed with, but applying the same principle to computers could help combat climate change. ‘Sleep talking’ PCs are a new development from the University of California, San Diego and Microsoft Research that allow the computer to continue communicating on a network whilst in power-saving ‘sleep’ mode.

Computer science Ph.D. student Yuvraj Agarwal was lead author of a paper outlining the new technique, dubbed ‘Somniloquy’ – Latin for ‘sleep talking’. He says that people are leaving their PCs switched on even when they are not doing very much, simply because they want to remain online:

“Large numbers of people keep their PCs in awake mode even though the PCs are relatively idle for long blocks of time because they want to stay connected to an internal network or the Internet or both,

“I realized that most of the tasks that people keep their computers on for can be achieved at much lower power-use levels than regular awake mode.”

I know I’m guilty of going out for the day and leaving my PC on just to download a few files, and it turns out that I’m not alone. Previous research has shown that the average home PC is on 34% of the time, but only in use for half that.

Somniloquy works by plugging a piece of USB hardware into your PC that can communicate with other computers in the network. Low-intensity tasks can be performed whilst the PC is asleep, and if a bit more computational oomph is required Somniloquy will wake the PC up.

The current prototypes will work with any type of computer or network, and consumes anything from 11 to 24 times less power than a switched on, but idle, PC. This could mean a reduction of power consumption by 60 to 80% – quite a significant saving.

I’m a big champion of small, unglamorous ideas that can be rolled out on a large scale to lower energy usage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Somniloquy looks to be a great idea in this vein, and I look forward to installing it on my own PC.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 6:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

Fans of late 90′s disaster flicks will remember that 1998 saw the release of not one but two films about Near Earth Objects. Both Deep Impact and Armageddon featured massive space rocks on a collision course with Earth, and in both cases the day was saved by blowing them up with nuclear weapons.

Back in the real world, David French of North Carolina State University has come up with an unusual alternative. Instead of breaking out the nukes, aerospace engineer French has suggested using a big rope and some weights to save the planet from destruction.

It’s an idea that probably won’t be picked up by Hollywood any time soon, but it would work. By using an asteroid-tether-ballast system you change the object’s centre of mass, which according to Newton’s laws will in turn change its orbit. The space rock flies by, completely missing Earth, and Bruce Willis doesn’t even have to get out of bed. It’s a bit like attaching a tennis ball to a football – the change in centre of mass would mean even David Beckham would find it hard to score a goal/destroy the planet.

Would such a scheme be practical though? One thing’s clear: we’d need a lot of rope. French estimates using a tether of between 1,000 kilometres to 100,000 kilometres – the latter of which you could wrap around the Earth two and a half times!

Maybe it’s not such a good idea then, but when you compare it to other options it doesn’t seem so far fetched. Alternative proposals for Earth defence include painting the asteroid to alter the effect of sunlight on its orbit, and a cosmic game of snooker which uses one asteroid to knock another off course. As for the nuclear weapons used in the films, French thinks they come with just too many problems:

“Nuclear weapons are an intriguing possibility, but have considerable political and technical obstacles. Would the rest of the world trust us to nuke an asteroid? Would we trust anyone else? And would the asteroid break into multiple asteroids, giving us more problems to solve?”

Looks like the tether and ballast wins out then – if we can work out how to build one. Perhaps the same technology could be used to make a space elevator? Oh, and if you’re still up for a game of Asteroids – enjoy.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 2:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Today may be the Grand National, but I’m more interested in a different type of racetrack. New research in to a new type of computer memory means hard drive failure could be a thing of the past.

Physicists at the University of Leeds, in conjunction with IBM Research’s Zurich Lab, have been working on developing “racetrack” memory which could replace current hard drives. Good news for anyone who has ever lost crucial data thanks to a dead drive.

Existing storage technology works like a tiny record player. Information is stored on metal discs made up of groups of magnetised atoms called domains. These discs spin beneath a “head” to read off your mp3 files, documents, and emails.

Racetrack memory was conceived last year by Stuart Parkin at IBM Research’s Almaden Lab, and uses no moving parts, meaning disks using the technology would be much less likely to break. Instead, the information is moved about by an electric current, which switches the magnetic direction of the domains.

The new research, published in Physical Review Letters, uses an electron microscope that can “see” magnetism to investigate how these tiny magnetic devices behave. The aim is to reduce the electric current required to move information along the racetrack.

As well as being more reliable, racetrack memory could also be much cheaper and faster. The price of iPods and USB memory sticks could fall, with the cost of racetrack memory 100 times cheaper per bit than flash memory. With no moving parts and no time needed to search the disk for information, computers could potentially boot up in an instant.

All this wonderful stuff is still a long way off, however. The next stage in the quest for improved memory is to develop better materials with which to construct the racetrack. It’s expected that the new memory will be available within 10 years.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 27 March 2009 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

It’s happened to everyone. You’re out and about, you’ve got some important calls to make, and you remove your phone from your pocket only to find the battery has run out. Thanks to new research, you might one day be able to give the phone a few shakes and be back in business.

Yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting, scientists described a technique that could do just that. Using nanotechnology, mechanical energy from the movement of the body could be converted into electrical energy for use in our power-hungry gadgets.

A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.
A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.

Using nanowires made from zinc oxide, low-frequency vibrations in the form of body movements, a beating heart, or even just the wind can be converted into electricity. The nanowires are piezoelectric, meaning they generate a current when bent or pressed. They can be grown on many different surfaces, including metal, ceramic, or even clothing fabrics.

Lead researcher Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology worked with his team to develop the most effective way to convert movement into electricity, and found that zinc oxide nanowires fit the bill.

“This research will have a major impact on defense technology, environmental monitoring, biomedical sciences and even personal electronics,” he said.

“Quite simply, this technology can be used to generate energy under any circumstances as long as there is movement.”

Of course, this technology isn’t just going to be used to keep your mp3 player running. The research was part-funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as the military is keen to exploit the nanogenerators. For troops in the field, far from any energy sources, keeping a radio or other sensor equipment charged could mean the difference between life and death.

We won’t be seeing nanogenerators on the battlefield or in our pockets any time soon, however. Wang says the technology still needs work, particular in improving the power output of the generators. Until then, I recommended plugging in your phone before you go to bed!

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 8 February 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Here’s the rest of this week’s roundup.

LED the way!

I’ve always said that CFL light bulbs are only a stop-gap solution until LED bulbs are ready for commercial use. Now, New Scientist report that they could be coming soon. A team at the University of Cambridge have developed a new method for creating LEDs at a fraction of previous costs.

Currently LEDs are made from gallium nitride, which cannot be grown on silicon like other similar electrical components because it shrinks twice as fast as silicon when cooling. The solution in the past has been to use sapphire, which of course makes the result LEDs too expensive.

Colin Humphreys and colleagues at the University of Cambridge have figured out a way to grow LEDs on silicon, by adding layers of aluminium gallium nitride, which shrink much slower than any of the other materials, balancing it out. The result is a 15 cm silicon wafer costing just $15 whilst containing 150,000 LEDs – perfect for commercial light bulbs.

The FT likes science

The Association of British Science Writers points out that whilst the Financial Times’ decision to cut its sports coverage is bad news for those losing their jobs, it’s actually pretty positive for science.

Why? Well, unlike CNN, the FT clearly value their science journalists and their reporting more than that of its sports department. It’s a shame that cuts have to be made, but at least it’s not science getting the chop this time.

Time for a swim

More animal pictures from the Daily Mail I’m afraid! This time it’s the turn of polar bears.

Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 1 January 2009 at 12:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

…0! Happy New Year! Sorry if you’re a bit confused due to the reverse chronological nature of blogging, but I’m actually finishing the countdown of the previous post from moments earlier. How exciting. Well, let’s see in the new year with some predictions of what 2009 holds for science. The Telegraph spoke to some leading scientists to find out what’s in store.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge (phew, deep breath) points out that it is both 400 years since Galileo first wielded his telescope, as well as Darwin’s bicentennial. I expect we’ll see a little competition between these two scientific greats in 2009, but Rees hopes that we will gain answers to a question “equally interesting to astronomers and to Darwinians” – is there life on other planets? In 2009 the search for exoplanets will continue, and Rees hopes that we will figure out where we should be looking.

The editor of New Scientist, Roger Highfield, expects that commercial space travel will be big in 2009, with Virgin Galactic beginning their test flights. The space agencies of the US, Russia and the rest will also be looking to increase our knowledge of the heavens, with missions to Mars and the launching of telescopes on the cards. Highfield also looks forward to the publication of the Neanderthal genome, the relaunch of the LHC, and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Colin Pillinger, Head of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, thinks that the credit crunch will scupper any space-based plans, and that most of the year will be spent looking back at past achievements. Pessimistic perhaps, but we shall see. Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, is a little more positive, hoping to see advances in the field of neurodegeneration, including treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences also hopes to see further cures by searching for genetic links using the human genome project. Finally, science minister Lord Drayson had a rather dull and on message prediction:

“My predication for 2009 is that the Government will continue to invest in science despite the global economic downturn.”

Only time will tell. If you’re still not quite ready to let 2008 go, have a crack at the Guardian’s Science Quiz 2008. I’m afraid to say I scored a measly 10 out of 20! Other than that, all I have left to say is happy 2009!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 December 2008 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

With the year wrapping up, science news is thinning out and the last weekly roundup is looking a bit lean. Still, here we go!

It might not be an iPhone, but it can help save lives

Using only a cheap camera phone and some light sensors, scientists at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute have developed a portable blood tester that could monitor HIV, malaria and leukaemia, as well as detecting other diseases.

Super-phone to the rescue!
Super-phone to the rescue!

The work of Dr. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA will cut out the more traditional method of sending blood to a lab and waiting weeks for a result, allowing accurate analysis in mere minutes. Not only will it cutting waiting time, but the phone scanner is a fraction of a cost of the massive machines used by lab technicians.

The phone is the perfect tool for developing countries, with use already widespread in areas without a landline network. Phones that come with both a camera and the ability to run the analysis software provide everything needed to save lives in one tidy package.

Nano-nano vroom-vroom

With oil supplies dwindling, car companies are increasingly developing smaller and smaller vehicles for everyday use. None of them can compare to the latest development of one Prof. James Tour however, who recently picked up the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for the development of a car just four nanometres across.

Pimp my nano-ride.
Pimp my nano-ride.

It consists of a chassis and working engine, a suspension system and rotating wheels made from a special form of carbon known as the buckyball, which forms a sphere-like shape from 60 carbon atoms. Tour hopes that inventions like his nanocar and an accompanying nanotruck, capable of carrying a payload, could one day be used to build large scale objects such as buildings by shunting around atoms.

He’s not expecting such developments any time soon however – he says that such applications are so far off that it isn’t even worth patenting the technology, because by the time it could be used to make money the patents would have expired!

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 26 November 2008 at 5:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

We are well into autumn now, and when it comes to weather there’s one thing you can be certain of in Britain (besides the cold) – rain. Woe betides those who leave home without waterproofs and umbrellas. Even with such paraphernalia you might still get wet if the downpour is heavy enough – there’s only so much water a brolly can take.

Not so with a new waterproof material developed in Switzerland. Researchers at the University of Zurich have come up with a new type of fabric made from fibres of polyester that are coated in millions of minuscule silicone fragments. It’s the most water-repellent material suitable for making clothes ever produced.

Water droplets form perfect spheres on the new material.

Lead researcher Stefan Seeger took their inspiration from examples in nature, such as the surface of Lotus leaves. These biological water-repellents have a particular nanostructure that the new material emulates. Silicone nanofilaments, just 40 nanometres wide, coat the polyester and stop water seeping through.

A stream of water bounces right off.

They also trap a small layer of air that means water never even comes into contact with the underlying polyester. In a demonstration of hydrophobic power, the material was submerged underwater. When it was removed two months later, it was still dry to the touch. Seeger spoke to New Scientist about his creation:

“The combination of the hydrophobic surface chemistry and the nanostructure of the coating results in the super-hydrophobic effect,

“The water comes to rest on the top of the nanofilaments like a fakir sitting on a bed of nails,” he says.

It’s not just polyester that can be protected in this way, although it currently gives the best results. The silicone coating can also be applied to other materials such as wool and cotton. It could even lead to the invention of self-cleaning clothes!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 23 November 2008 at 5:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Four months without a heart

In what is really an amazing story, D’Zhana Simmons, a 14-year-old girl from South Carolina, USA, spent 118 days hooked up to a machine that kept her blood flowing – because her heart had been removed. It is believed that this is the first time such a young person has been kept alive this long without a heart.

On July 2nd of this year Ms Simmons underwent a heart transplant operation at Miami’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, but the operation was unsuccessfully and the new organ had to be removed. Artificial substitute heart chambers were implanted and hooked up to two blood pumps, until she was was strong enough to have another, successful, transplant.

Unfortunately, doctors believe that her troubles are not over yet. Although her prognosis, is good, there is a 50% chance she will need another new heart before she turns 30.

Live longer and prosper

Increased amounts of telomerase, a naturally forming protein, in the body could prevent cells from dying and extend your lifespan, according to a team at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid.

Telomerase protects a cell’s chromosomes, but as we age and cell division activity increases this protection can get worn out, causing cells to die. By increasing natural levels of telomerase, scientists hope to stop this from happening.

The theory was tested with genetically engineered mice, whose bodies produced 10 times the normal levels of the protein, and as a result lived 50% longer than normal mice. Lead researcher, Maria Blasco, was optimistic but cautious about the results:

“You can delay the ageing of mice and increase their lifespan,” she said.

“(But)I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing.”

One problem to overcome is that telomerase can lead to increased risk of cancer, but Dr Blasco believe that this could be overcome by combining the treatment with cancer drugs.

Lost in space

NASA has lost one of its astronauts aboard the International Space Station – but thankfully, it’s not one of the human crew. One of two spiders that were launched into orbit on the Endeavour last week has gone for its very own spacewalk.

After finding it absent from its tank, NASA managers insisted that the spider was not lost; it just couldn’t be found. So says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy space station programme manager:

“We don’t believe that it’s escaped the overall payload enclosure,

“I’m sure we’ll find him spinning a web sometime here in the next few days.”

Efforts to search for the spider in its neighbour’s tank have been scuppered, because the poor creature is so confused by the zero-gravity environment that it has filled it with a dense web, making any search difficult.

The two arachnids had been sent into space by the University of Colorado, who hoped to answer schoolchildren’s questions about spider webs in space. It’s clearly a very sticky issue.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 3:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Spanish surgeons have performed the worlds first transplant using a tissue-engineered organ. A windpipe grown from the patients own stem-cells was transplanted allowing the medical team to return 30-year-old Claudia Castillo to perfect health. Without the procedure, she would have lost a lung due to tuberculosis. Five months later, she is able to lead a normal life once more.

Scientists in Bristol grew the organ for transplant, tailoring it to Ms Castillo’s immune system. This means that the transplant is also the first to not require anti-rejection drugs. They began with a donor windpipe, or trachea, and then used chemicals to wash away any traces of the original cells, leaving only a framework of fibrous protein. Adult stem cells, which can be grown into many other types of cells, were taken from her bone marrow, and encouraged to grow on the framework which was placed inside a rotating bio reactor.

In conjunction with cells from her original organ, these cells coated the new trachea in just four days, ready to be implanted. Professor Paolo Macchiarini of the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona performed the operation last June:

“I was very much afraid. Before this, we had been doing this work only on pigs.

“But as soon as the donor trachea came out of the bioreactor it was a very positive surprise.”

He was not the only one to be afraid. As is understandable with a never-before performed procedure, the patient had some nerves as well:

“I was scared. I had the illness for four years and in January they told me they had to operate,” said Ms Castillo.

“He told me that it was a trial that had never been carried out before and that this would be the first in the world.”

The resounding success of the operation put all fears to rest, however. Ms Castillo encourages the team to continue the work, and help others in the same way as her. Professor Martin Birchall, who helped grow the new trachea and is professor of surgery at the University of Bristol, certainly plans to. He believes that in 20 years time, nearly any organ for transplant could be grown in this way:

“This will represent a huge step change in surgery.

“Surgeons can now start to see and understand the potential for adult stem cells and tissue engineering to radically improve their ability to treat patients with serious diseases.”

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

[This post was meant to go up yesterday, but due to technical difficulties with Virgin Media my internet access is currently limited. Blog updates may be unfortunately sporadic this week.]

Conservative MPs are to be made scientifically literate from the next election, The Times is reporting. Newly elected members will be taught about scientific method and other concepts, in a move to address concerns about the lack of scientific knowledge in Parliament. Existing MPs and peers from the House of Lords will also be offered the chance to attend the induction sessions.

The plan is being spearheaded by Adam Afriyie, the party’s spokesman for science and innovation. He does not have a scientific background himself, but, sees the importance of a basic scientific understanding for politicians. Speaking to The Times, he said:

“The evidence-based scientific approach extends well beyond subjects like embryology or GM crops. It is also critical to social policy and criminal sentencing, and it cuts across all areas of government.”

Be it climate change, GM food or stem cell research, science is increasingly entering in to the political sphere. Despite this, the over whelming majority of politicians and civil servants come from a humanities background. According to the Times, both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have just one member each with a science related degree; John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who studied chemistry; and Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary and a medical doctor.

I have to congratulate the Conservatives on this new initiative, and can only hope that Labour and the Lib Dems will follow suit. The Tories are acknowledging that science plays an important role in our society, and that basic understanding of the facts is a necessity in navigating the issues arising from that role. Hopefully their MPs will now avoid phrases such as “humanzee” and “minotaur” when discussing hybrid embryos, for example, and debates can be carried out in a more reasoned manner. One can only hope.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 October 2008 at 6:33 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics, Yes, But When?
Spec-tape-ular: visible light is generated in this 30-second exposure of peeling tape.

A paper in the latest issue of Nature has revealed that peeling sticky tape can produce X-rays.

It has been known since 1939 that tape can produce visible light when peeled. This is called triboluminescence, and is due to the energy released during the breaking of the chemical bonds between the two layers of tape.

The research by a group of scientists at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of University of California in Los Angeles found that in addition to this visible light, tape could also produce X-rays and radio waves, both forms of electromagnetic radiation but with different wavelengths to that of light.

The equipment used in the experiment

They used an interesting looking set-up (left) to search for the X-rays. An automated peeling machine removed the tape with a measurable force, whilst a detector looked out for an X-rays that were emitted. All of the equipment had to be placed in a vacuum, as the X-rays cannot normally be generated otherwise – which means that you’re safe when reaching for the office supplies.

The X-rays are produced as electrons jump from the main roll to the sticky side of the peeling tape. When they hit the other side they slow down, losing energy in the process. This energy has to go somewhere, and it just so happens to come out as X-rays.

It’s not all fun and games however, as the X-ray tape could have useful applications. Medical X-rays are made using costly and bulky equipment, but with some refinements the team believe that inexpensive X-ray machines could be produced for use by paramedics, or places where access to electricity is limited – all you need is a bit of tape. The researchers have applied for a patent on the concept. They were able to produce an image of one of the team’s thumbs:

An X-rayed thumb, produced using tape.
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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 October 2008 at 11:43 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Better luck next year

Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the highest achievements a scientist can win, but what about the Ig Nobel Prize?

The organisers say they honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – and winners have certainly come up with some of the strangest discoveries in science. This year, the 18th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held last Thursday at Harvard University.

Highlights include Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse who discovered that fleas on a dog can jump higher than those on a cat, and Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Douglas Smith of the University of California who mathematically proved that a heap of string will inevitably tangle into knots. You can view the full list of winners here.

It’s the freakiest show snow

It’s not quite “Life On Mars”, but maybe David Bowie would consider changing the chorus of his classic song – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars. Using a laser sensor from the planet’s surface, the plucky little probe detected snow 4 kilometres above its landing site. Whilst the snow evaporated before hitting the ground, scientists think it might be possible to find signs that snow has reached the surface in the past.

Another experiment that analysed soil samples has also found suggestions of calcium carbonate (which makes up chalk) and possibly, clay. These substances tend to form only in the presence of liquid water here on Earth, giving further evidence that Mars had a “liquid past”.

Could future cars be used for electric storage?

The popularity of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius continues to increase as drivers become more environmentally concious – so much so that the Prius actually goes up in value, as hybrid enthusiasts are prepared to pay over the odds for a second hand car.

Hybrids work by using a traditional petrol-based engine in combination with a recharging battery that captures energy from wasteful actions such as braking, but plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) take this one step further, allowing you to hook up the car to a socket and charge from the National Grid.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a cunning idea to use PHEVs as overnight batteries, storing excess energy in your car whilst you sleep, and then releasing back into the gird when it is needed. Storing electricity until it is needed can often be costly and inefficient for power plants, but using this distributed model would allow the electric companies to keep up their supply without wasting energy. They’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your car’s battery – if the system ever takes off, that is.

Round ‘em up boys – it’s the carbon capturers

Carbon, carbon, carbon. Life as we know it could not exist without carbon, but this poor little element has a bad reputation these days. Really, it’s only when carbon gets together with two of it’s oxygen friends to form carbon dioxide (CO2) that the trouble starts. Now, a team of climate change researchers at the University of Calgary have invented a machine that pluck CO2 straight out of the air.

Although CO2 only makes up around 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is the main contributor to global warming. Removing CO2 molecules from the air would help slow down climate change. The new machine uses less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity to remove one tonne of CO2 from the air, and can capture the equivalent of a US citizen’s average yearly emissions – around 20 tonnes CO2 per annum – on one square metre of scrubbing material. Team leader David Keith is optimistic about the technology’s prospects:

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,”

At the moment, however, the machine is still in its early stages. The current cost of capturing CO2 is too high to make it commercially viable, but work continues on bringing the technique to market.

Tiny pictures, big prizes

You can now vote for your favourite entry in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. Some stunning pictures of the very small have been entered, so I encourage you to take a look. Winners will receive thousands of dollars worth of Nikon photography equipment, and personally I’m going for this strange looking chicken embryo.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 26 September 2008 at 9:36 am by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

If you’ve ever been to the Empire State Building, or any other similarly tall structure, you may have found yourself taking a rather long ride in a lift. Imagine then how long riding a lift into space might take. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi nobel, and indeed the concept of a “space elevator” (sorry for the Americanism, but “space lift” just sound a bit naff) was popularised by the great Arthur C. Clarke in his book The Fountains of Paradise.

A space elevator - it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'lift-off'!

Here’s how it works: a satellite is launched into a geostationary orbit at a height of 35,786 km above the Earth’s equator. This orbit is so-named because at this exact height the satellite appears to remain stationary above a fixed point on the surface of the Earth, making it perfect to run a space elevator up to. The main problem is producing a cable strong but light enough to send anything up. Scientists at Japan’s Space Elevator Association believe that they are close to producing such a material, and building a space elevator.

The JESA is holding an international conference in Japan to try and lay out a timetable to construction. They believe that carbon nanotubes could hold the key to making the all-important cable. These special particles are much thinner than they are long, meaning they can be woven to incredibly strong fibres whilst also remaining relatively light.

Yoshio Aoki, director of the JESA and professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University thinks that the cable would need to be four times stronger than current nanotubes, but is confident that this can be achieved since improvements of around 100-fold strength has been made in the past five years.

Carbon nanotubes - one 50,000th the width of a human hair, but several millimetres long

A space elevator would be an amazing sight to behold, and perhaps the greatest ever feat of human ingenuity. Who could not fail to be moved by the sight of a cable reaching from the ground, far into space? Not I, for one. A space elevator would have many other (and more practical) benefits: easy and cheap access to space. Solar-powered generators could bring cheap electricity down to Earth, whilst rocket ships such as the inefficient Space Shuttle could be completely replaced. In their stead, space ships could be built with parts sent up into orbit on the elevator, and then launched from there.

Its all impressive stuff, but can the Japanese pull it off any time soon? I’d love to say yes, but I fear their November conference might be a bit too ambitious. Still, if they can build it, I can’t wait to ride it – even if it does mean hours upon hours of muzak!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 September 2008 at 2:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Education, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

In our increasingly technological world, scientific understanding is a vital skill for any modern day politician. Our leaders need to know how to tackle problems like climate change and manage controversial research such as stem cell research. Science is becoming politicised more and more, and for the past eight years the President of the United States has been extremely anti-science. George Bush has vetoed bills on stem cell research – a technology that could be used to save millions of lives – and also refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which required signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In less than two months time, on November 4th, America will elect a new “leader of the free world” in the form of either Barack Obama or John McCain. A self-styled “small group of citizens” decided in November 2007 that a presidential debate on science was required. They formed Science Debate 2008.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and others agreed with the need for debate, and submitted over 3,400 questions for the candidates. These were whittled down to 14 key topics, and submitted to the presidential hopefuls. Obama submitted his answers a few weeks ago, and now that McCain has provided his as well, we can compare the politicians views on science. You can read the full answers, or stick with me for a summary. Quotes are attributed to [O]bama or [Mc]Cain where appropriate.

Head to head on science.

Innovation: Both candidates were concerned with America’s slide from being a leading scientific nation. Obama pointed out that the US is 17th among developed nations for science and engineering degrees – down from third place 30 years ago. He promised increased funding for both research and teachers. McCain also promised more money for researchers and education reform, as well as the defence of American intellectual property around the world. He sees the nurturing of technology, particularly in communication, as key to solving “critical problems” [Mc] like climate change.

Climate change: Speaking of which, both candidates saw climate change as an important issues. McCain said it demanded “urgent attention” [Mc], and Obama believed “there can no longer be any doubt” [O] of human influence on the climate. They were also in agreement on policy: a carbon trading system would be put in place to reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels for McCain and 80% for Obama.

Energy: The candidates agree on the need for a sustainable energy policy. Both favour an increased reliance on nuclear power, in addition to renewables such as wind energy. Obama also highlighted the importance of a “more efficient use of energy” [O], utilising new technology to reduce waste.

Education: Obama and McCain both want to increase learning in science and maths by recruiting more teachers in the subjects and paying them more. McCain also spoke of encouraging private corporations to help “identify and maximize” [Mc] potential in students, whilst Obama promised tax credits for higher education in science.

National Security: McCain credited the military for driving forward technology that we all use today: the internet, GPS and Teflon, to name a few. He promised increased research funding for American forces, as did Obama.

Pandemics and Biosecurity: Both candidates emphasised that the US was not fully prepared to respond to attacks by bioweaponry, and pledged money for research into vaccination and detection technology.

Genetics research: In line with the general American attitude to GM food, both candidates favoured research into crops that could lead to higher yields, though Obama stressed the need for “stringent tests” [O] and “stronger regulatory oversight” [O]. They also agreed on genetic modification in humans, stating that whilst gene therapy had the potential to change lives, care had to be taken to avoid “genetic discrimination” [Mc].

Stem cells: An extremely controversial issue in the US, the candidates were divided on stem cell research. Obama “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells”, [O] and would lift the ban laid down by President Bush in 2001. He suggested that the “hundreds of thousands of embryos” [O] stored (unused) in fertilization clinics could ethically be used for research, because they would eventually be destroyed anyway. In comparison, McCain refused to “sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” [Mc], hoping that adult stem cell research would one day rendered the debate “academic” [Mc]. Obama views adult stem cells as falling short of the “gold standard” of embryonic stem cells.

Ocean Health: Both candidates waxed lyrical on their love of the ocean (McCain was a former officer in the US Navy) but had little to say on actual policy. Obama is in favour of ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which in part refers to ocean conservation.

Space: McCain questioned “whether we can afford not to” [Mc] continue exploration of space, and pointed out that “space activities have contributed greatly to US scientific discovery, national security, economic development and national innovation” [Mc]. He pledged to make space exploration a “top priority” [Mc] and to minimise the gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the launch of its replacement. Obama promised NASA “will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration” [O] and would help confront challenges such as climate change and energy independence.

Scientific integrity: The candidates took a swipe at George Bush as they agreed that “government decisions should be based on…scientifically-valid evidence” [O] and that “denial of the facts” [Mc] will not help solve “critical problems” [Mc] for the country. They both promised to appoint science advisers as key parts of their administration.

Research: Both candidates promised increased funding in basic research which they view as “the foundation for many new discoveries” [Mc], with Obama pledging cash “at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade” [O].

Health: Understandably, the candidates focused mostly on the cost of the provision of healthcare, rather than the science, but both praised the “scientific and technological developments” [Mc] of US medical research.

Honestly, when it comes to scientific policy, it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference between the two candidates. The only clear difference of opinion I can see is on stem cells, with the candidates following the party policy that you would expect. Does this render Science Debate 2008 pointless? I think not. Their answers to the questions raised in the debate total over 10,000 words – words which have no doubt been put through the wringer of PR and policy making. Even if the debate doesn’t help choose a President, it has certainly got the candidates (and hopefully the nation) thinking about science again.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 September 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Evolution, Getting It Right, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

Would you like to share you home with 1 million other people? A Dubai-based firm Timelinks has announced plans to build a gigantic futuristic pyramid, designed to hold an entire city whilst only taking up 2.3 square kilometres. The Ziggurat, as it is known, is the latest in a series of wacky developments in Dubai. What’s more, Timelinks claim the whole thing will be carbon neutral. I’ll believe it when I see it – and not just as a rendered mockup:

Home of the future?

An evolving education

Here’s a great article from the New York Times we learn what it is like to teach evolution to highly religious students in America. Richard Dawkins could stand to learn a few things from high school teacher David Campbell, who starts his classes with the “evolution” of Mickey Mouse, from Steamboat Willy to the present day. A highly recommended read.

I’m not sure if I should say “Aww” or “Urgh!”

Finally, we have a video of Tan Tan, a giant panda giving birth to the first baby born as a result of artificial insemination in Japan in the past 20 years. It’s both cute and disgusting at the same time.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 29 August 2008 at 12:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

A team at MIT have created microscopic batteries built with viruses. The tiny batteries are half the size of a human cell and could have many applications such as powering implanted medical devices such as a pacemaker.

Microbatteries, each only four micrometers in diameter.

They could even be spun into fibres and then woven in to your clothes – although the researchers are still working on that, according to team leader Angela Belcher:

“We definitely don’t have full batteries on those [fiber architectures]. We’ve only worked on single electrodes so far, but the idea is to try to make these fiber batteries that could be integrated into textiles and woven into lots of different shapes.”

The batteries are made by genetically engineering viruses to form wires from individual molecules of materials such as cobalt oxide. The viruses have been specifically engineered to make them ideal for working at room temperature and pressure. They also can’t reproduce by themselves, and will only infect bacteria. They form a wire 17,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper that is packed together to make part of the battery.

The teams next goal is to work on applying thee batteries to curved surfaces, as well as looking at integrating the batteries with other biological organisms.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 August 2008 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Going, going, found!

A new species of insect was found this week – on eBay. Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK’s Royal Entomological Society, paid £20 for a 40-50 million-year-old fossilised insect trapped in amber. After struggling to identify it he sent the purchase to Professor Ole Heie, an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed it was a previously undiscovered type of aphid.

Professor Heie named the insect Mindarus harringtoni after its purchaser, but Dr Harrington himself had wanted to go for something slightly more unorthodox. “I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi,” he said. “Unfortunately, using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days.”

Because you can’t just have one…

If you are trying to lose weight, going for a small bag of crisps rather than a larger one might seem the obvious route, but researchers from the Technical University of Lisbon and Tilburg University in the Netherlands have found that this may not be the case. Participants in a study were asked to complete a questionnaire on body satisfaction and dieting, then weighed and measure in front of a mirror in order to active their “dietary concerns” – in other words, to get them to watch their weight. Along with a control group who had not had their “dietary concerns” activated, they then watched episodes of Friends (aside: why Friends? Perhaps due to its constant looping on E4…) and were asked to evaluate the adverts.

In fact, the researchers were watching their consumption of the crisps that had been provided. Available in large or small packaging, the study found the “dietary concerns” group given large packages at the fewest number of crisps. The conclusion was that large packages made participants think of overeating and dieting, but small packages were “innocent pleasures” that did not trigger dieting concerns. My conclusion: I now want some crisps.

Power adaptor tyranny could soon be over

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few gadgets. When ever I travel anywhere I have to take a mess of power adaptors to feed my phone, mp3 player and Nintendo DS – I’m just thankful I don’t have a laptop to add to the mix. It’s also easy to forget to plug the damn things in, leaving me to play the “do I have enough battery life to make this call?” game. I’ve often thought of a solution – a “power pad” on my desk, where any electrical device would charge simply by being left there and forgotten about.

The technology exists – your electric toothbrush is charged not by wires, but by magnetic induction. Flowing electrons in a circuit generate a magnetic field which in turn induces electron flow in nearby circuits – bam, wireless electricity. I had assumed that the process was too slow to be of use with general electronics, and left it at that.

Turns out I should have got to work on a prototype, because MIT and Intel have found a way to make it work – and not just in close contact. They demonstrated a 60-watt light bulb powered by an energy source three feet away, with no wires in sight. The technology is at least five years away however, especially one-quarter of the energy is lost in transmission. In a world increasingly looking to improve energy usage, 75% efficiency is pretty unacceptable. Still, I can’t wait to get rid of those chargers.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 15 August 2008 at 1:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

I love hearing about an idea so good that I can’t help but think “why hasn’t anyone though of this before?” – in this case, using hot roads to generate electricity.

Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been studying ways to extract energy from asphalt, a material used to cover roads which is extremely good at storing heat from the sun. They discovered that when asphalt is exposed to direct sunlight it reaches its highest temperature a few centimetres below the surface. Placing a heat exchanger (such as copper pipes filled with water) at this point would extract the maximum possible energy. The hot water could then be used “as is” for heating purposes, or sent to a generator to produce electricity.

One of the major problems with solar energy is where to put the panels. With this solution, we can effectively reuse existing land. Great Britain has over 3,300 square kilometres of road. Even if only half of this was used for electricity generation, it would be equivalent to demolishing the entire of London and using that instead. That’s quite a lot of spare land!

The building of wind farms is commonly blocked by local residents because they “spoil the view”, but no one will be able to complain about aesthetics in this case because the solar collectors would be underground. Locals would actually benefit in the case of dense urban areas as the extraction of heat cools the asphalt down, reducing the surrounding air temperatures in the process.

I think this an extremely elegant solution to the problem of energy generation – a problem that is becoming increasingly more important. One sticking point could be the question of efficiency. It’s great having all this spare energy generating land, but if it can’t produce enough energy to replace a few power plants then there isn’t much point. The WPI haven’t published any figures on the energy generated, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for what could be a great future technology.

It could be that in 20 years time we all drive electric cars powered by the very roads that they drive on. What a great idea.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 2 August 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Yes, But When?

Imagine being able to “exercise” whilst sitting on the sofa with your feet up. It sounds too good to be true, but researchers at the Salk Institute have found two drugs that could allow you to do just that. The first, known as AICAR, allowed mice given the drug for four weeks to run for 44% longer than those left untreated – and without any exercise at all.

For the slightly more energetic amongst you, the second drug GW1516 lead to a 77% increase in endurance amongst mice who ran for up to 50 minutes on a treadmill whilst undergoing the treatment.

The scientists were looking for a way to active a genetic switch known as PPAR delta, which had previously been flipped in mice through genetic engineering. These engineered mice became super-runners, and also became resistant to weight gain. Dr. Ronald M. Evans who led the team at the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory said “We wanted to know whether a drug specific for PPAR delta would have the same beneficial effects.”

Performance enhancing drugs are always a temptation for athletes, not just those looking to avoid exercising, but Evans is one step ahead of anyone attempting to use his research to gain an edge in sporting competitions. He has developed a technique that will detect both AICAR and GW1516 in blood and urine, and is working with the World Anti-Doping Association who hope to have a test ready for the Olympics in Beijing which are due to start next week.

So, if (and it’s the usual if) the drugs turn out to have no nasty side effects, one day you could be working on your muscles whilst relaxing in front of the TV. If only…

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