Recent Interesting Science Articles (June ’11)

Just to prove that this blog isn’t quite dead yet, here are a couple of articles for last month. The first of these is a popular story that has been passing around the net a lot recently. It’s about a scientist’s efforts to make meat fit for human consumption from human feces. The other one is a detailed look by Babbage of The Economist at how Bitcoin works. It’s a new virtual currency that been attracted the attention of economists around the world.

The first article is from Digital Trends and introduces us to Mitsuyuki Ikeda of Japan who has managed to develop steaks that are made from proteins that come from human excrement. Many commentators described the process as eating shit but that isn’t really correct. What the scientists have done instead is to use sewage mud as a base on which to grow bacteria. These bacteria turn out to have high protein content, which can be extracted and processed into an artificial steak. It supposedly tastes like beef.

Leaving aside the question of whether people would actually want to eat it, the artificial meat is also much more expensive than the real thing. This is no surprise given all the research that has gone into it and the fancy processing needed to make it fit for human consumption. Apparently the scientists worked on this in the first place because a sewage company had too much sewage mud and wondered if it could be turned into something useful. But the cost and yuck factor probably makes this a dead end. What’s wrong anyway with the old fashioned way of turning excrement into food, by using it as fertilizer for plants?

The online edition of The Economist has a far more extensive version of their print article on Bitcoin, a virtual currency that all the economists are excitedly talking about. There have been tons of attempts by companies to make virtual currencies of course but many of them has since closed shop because government authorities have perceived them to be the ideal medium for money laundering and to carry out financial scams. What sets Bitcoin apart is that while the other virtual currencies depend on the company that founded them to act their central bank, which means trusting them to be both secure and honorable, Bitcoin has no central monetary authority of any kind. Instead, Bitcoin uses a peer to peer network to regulate its economy.

How this works is a bit complicated but the main thing is that instead of issuing currency and giving each coin a unique identifier, the system has each user in the network maintain a long list of validated transactions. Whenever any user makes a transaction, which can mean minting new coins or transferring coins from one account to another, the updated transaction lists for the users involved are uploaded to the entire network whose computers then process them to ensure that they are valid. If a user tries to forge money by modifying his files to mint money that he wasn’t supposed to mint or to receive money from another user that wasn’t authorized by that other user, then his version of events will be rejected by the consensus of the rest of the network.

The system is set up such that in order for a criminal to successfully subvert the network to impose his artificial log of events he will need to be able to marshal more computing capacity than the rest of the network combined. The Bitcoins themselves are minted automatically at a predetermined rate that is designed to mimic the extraction of precious metals. More coins are minted at the beginning but the minting rate is designed to drop by half every four years. The newly minted coins are automatically given by the network to the users who contribute their processing capacity to verify the integrity of other users’ transactions. This is simply done by leaving the Bitcoin software connected to the network.

Since all of the software used is open source and therefore available for perusal by all parties and no central authority is in charge of the network, the system is supposed to be very secure. But one odd quirk of this system is that due to the way it is set up, ownership of Bitcoins becomes connected to ownership of the physical computer on which your Bitcoin files are stored. Whoever gains control of your computer gets your record of all transactions plus your private encryption keys that tell the network you are who you are. Because there is no central monetary authority to appeal to and no one revoke a transaction once the rest of the network has validated it, you have no recourse if a thief manages to steal your computer with your Bitcoin account stored on it.

The economists are excited about it because of its unique features and no doubt plenty of interesting research papers will be written on it in due course. So far, the new currency seems to have garnered quite a fair bit of success and there are significant numbers of merchants who are willing to accept Bitcoins as payment for goods and services. One thing that does not inspire confidence however is that so far the exchange rate between Bitcoins and real currencies have been extremely volatile, inviting speculators. The worry is that most of the economy is made up of speculators rather than people who actually find it useful as an alternative storage of monetary value.

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