Four articles this month, one on the extremely exciting findings by the Cassini-Huygens mission to Enceladus, one on a somewhat weird life form found inside the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and finally two somewhat similar cases of emerging risks to people with medical conditions, one due to the use of implanted medical devices and the other due to exploits on Internet web browsers.
The Cassini-Hugens mission to Enceladus, the sixth largest of Saturn’s moons, not only confirmed the presence of liquid water beneath the icy surface of the moon, but also discovered, from a sampling of the brew vented out by a geyser the spacecraft flew past, that the moon is extraordinarily active and contains a surprising mix of organic chemicals. As the press release notes, heat, water vapour and organic compounds are the basic building blocks for life. As a science geek, I’m also impressed by the technical achievement of flying so close by a small moon at extremely high speeds, successfully intersecting a venting geyser without crashing on the moon with the whole thing carefully planned and coordinated on Earth.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Mar’08)
I tend not to write gushy posts about the latest tech toys because I don’t care for devices looking sleek or fashionable. To me, function matters a lot more than form. However, I’m writing about this latest interface device from OCZ because it’s cool enough to make for an exception. It’s called the Neural Impulse Actuator and it’s a headband that can “hear” your thoughts and allow you to use it to interface with a computer, replacing the traditional mouse and keyboard.
Devices like this aren’t exactly news at this point, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of something like this outside of an experimental setting with specially designed software. OCZ’s device has already been demoed at a computer show to play a commercial FPS game, Unreal Tournament, and apparently will soon be in normal production with an estimated retail price of US$300.00. The makers also claim that since the device bypasses the muscles, response time for gamers will be much better. Essentially, instead of your thoughts going to your fingers and from there to the computer, they’ll pretty much go directly from your brain to the computer.
We’ll have to wait a while yet to see how much of this is true and how sophisticated an input device it proves to be. It seems to me that an important factor will be the communications bandwidth that it allows between your brain and the computer. If the bandwidth is large enough, it would cause a revolution in games design since it would allow games with many more options and controls to be designed than would normally be possible given the physical control limits of traditional interfaces.
Four articles this month, one on how behavior in robots can “evolve”, one on a new way of using stem cells, one on a controversial device to disperse teenaged loiterers in the U.K. and a last one on the creation of a material blacker than any previously known.
In the first article, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have created learning robots outfitted with light sensors, light rings and a neural circuitry of 30 “genes” that together determine their behavior. These robots were then placed in a specially designed habitat with designated areas containing either “food” or “poison” that charged or drained their batteries respectively. The “genes” from the survivors of each round, together with some randomness to simulate mutation, were recombined to form a new generation of robots that were again set loose in the habitat. By the 50th generation, some of the robots had evolved the ability to communicate with each other, lighting up to alert other robots to the presence of food or poison and even learned to cheat by signaling food where there is really poison and quietly “eating” the food by itself.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Feb’08)
I’ve previously read that China intends to make sure that nothing, not even rain, will get in the way of its coming out party that is the 2008 Olympics at Beijing, but even I’m surprised to learn to learn of the colossal scale of their plans. The purpose built stadium for the Olympics, the Beijing National Stadium, is open to the elements, so the Chinese government has decided to implement weather modification technology that reduces the size of the raindrops over the stadium so they won’t condense and fall to the earth until after the clouds carrying them have passed by the stadium. In order to accomplish this, China is marshaling the full resources of its 37,000 strong bureau of weather modification together with 30 aircraft, 4,000 rocket launchers and 7,000 antiaircraft guns to get the necessary chemicals into the air around the stadium.
The science geek in me is amazed by the audacity of the Chinese government to impose their own weather according to their will but I’m also concerned about the possible environmental consequences of such drastic actions. Needless to say, this sort of thing will never be possible in Western countries for it’ll quickly whip up a firestorm of environmental protests and liability lawsuits over even imagined ailments from the fallout.
Three articles all on the subject of biology for this month. Science news website LiveScience had an article this month with a controversial angle: it cites a new study published in Psychopharmacology which found that male mice liked to fight for no reason other than to fight. The experiment involved first placing a male and a female pair of mice in a cage, then removing the female one and introducing another male “intruder” mouse. After the initial fight, the scientists arranged for the cage to be rigged such that when the mouse nose-poked a specific trigger, the intruder mouse would be able to return to the cage. They found that the resident mouse would actually do this often, suggesting that it regarded fighting as a sort of reward. The scientists then treated the mice with a drug known to block the effects of dopamine in parts of brain involved in rewards and found that this had the effect of reducing the mice’s tendency to nose-poke the trigger.
The controversy in this case comes from the researchers’ argument that the results would be equally applicable to humans as the reward pathway in humans and mice are similar and that aggression is highly conserved in vertebrates in general and mammals in particular. I believe that this remains to be proven but would not find it surprising if true. In any case, if indeed this were proven true, it would reinforce the usefulness of activities like sports and games to vent the natural aggression of human males.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Jan’08)
The biggest death is the news today might be that of Heath Ledger, whose performance I must say that I enjoyed in Brokeback Mountain, but the most intriguing ones for me are in this new article in Wired magazine that goes into the details behind the suicides of two pioneers in the field of Artificial Intelligence within a month of each other in 2006. Both persons, Chris McKinstry and Push Singh, were each brilliant in their own way and incredibly obsessed with AI. McKinstry clearly had suicidal tendencies all along but Singh had seemed to have a stable disposition. It’s sad to think that Singh might have been influenced by McKinstry.
I also found the fact that MIT has a reputation for high suicide rates among its students interesting. In a way, I guess that this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Driven, intelligent people can be prone to sudden mood swings, add a highly competitive and demanding environment into the mix, and suicide can seem like an easy way out for stressed individuals. Given that Ledger’s death today will probably turn out to be a suicide as well, we should all take this as a lesson to take a little time out once in a while. Life is short enough as it is, and we should all enjoy it while we can.
Probably the most talked about scientific issue that’s been making the rounds recently is the news is that not only has human evolution not stopped since the advent of modern technology, a previously popular view, but has in fact actually accelerated. As this article in ABC News notes, in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, researchers discovered that by comparing the DNA of humans and chimpanzees since the two species diverged six million years ago there were not enough differences between the two sets of DNA to account for the currently observed rate of change. Therefore, they take this to mean that human evolution has substantially accelerated since the appearance of modern humans 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Moreover, they find that different populations of humans have been evolving in different ways. The lighter skin colour of Asians and Europeans compared to Africans is one example, as an adaptation to allow more absorption of vitamin D in areas with less sun. Another example is the disappearance of the lactase enzyme that allows digestion of fresh milk in China and most of Africa where dairy farming is less common than in Europe.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (Dec’07)