Monthly Archives: April 2012

Daily Roundup

This might just be the honeymoon period but I’m astonished at the fact that there’s enough going on in just everyday news for me to write these small blog posts.

For instance, bird navigation — if didn’t think it was a particularly appealing field of study, take a look at these two papers. The first is about how birds might have a heads-up display that could help them literally see changes in the earth’s magnetic field.

Now, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine have identified a group of neurons in the brainstem that actually respond to magnetic fields of different orientations. It would be interesting to see how and if this interacts with the heads up display idea.

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How’s this for tantalizing: a PopSci article today talks about how researchers at Vienna managed to measure particles being entangled, before they were actually entangled by a distant observer. Thankfully, I found this piece on Ars Technica that breaks the experiment down into something more detailed.

There are two lines at the conclusion of the Ars Technica that I’d change:

1. “…there’s no way to communicate faster than the speed of light” — but something is clearly happening here that transcends our knowledge of how information travels. Either a) it’s possible for information to travel faster than light after all, which is highly unlikely right now, or b) we can’t measure anything faster than the speed of light at this point.

2. “…even though there is no mechanism that allows information to travel between them.” Well. No mechanism we know of, right now.

What exactly does this mean for us? It’s obvious cause and effect hold in the macroscopic world. But classical rules break down readily enough in the quantum universe. How does that breakage happen, and even when it doesn’t, would we be able to harness something like this in the real world someday?

PopSci suggests this could help in building a quantum computer. Would we, for instance, receive the result of an answer even before we’ve entered the question for computation? Would that even be helpful?

Speaking of qubits, here’s a nice overview of the field by PopSci again.

Daily Roundup

The more news I read these days, the more I am convinced that there isn’t much difference between science fiction and reality. That might be what a friend recently called chronocentrism, but I’m always astonished at how often this happens.

Exhibit A: asteroid mining.

The asteroids that inhabit our part of the universe are, apparently, often either full of precious metals or water. For some investors, it makes sense to invest in exploratory technology that locates and drills asteroids for platinum and water.

To say that this is an idea that will come to fruition in the distant future is rather an underestimation. First there’s the actual landing on an asteroid; pulling it into orbit around the moon in order for us to even begin to mine it; then the mining itself. According to Mr. Anderson, the investors have about $50 billion together, so they can actually afford to dream big.

On the other hand, I’d like to see exactly when and how this is going to turn profitable. It’s possible that by the time this technology is developed we’ll be desperate for the minerals that the asteroids might yield. On the other hand, if we’re capable of mining an asteroid, one assumes we will also be marginally better at dealing with problems closer to earth.

Then again… we’ve put men on the moon and scoped out black holes at the center of our galaxy, and we still haven’t found anything to deal with the flu I’m about to suffer through.

Edit: PopSci has a nice article here that attempts to explain why this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. The overall tone is still rather… optimistic for something of this sort of gargantuan proportions, and I’m still not seeing any firm numbers. What does interest me is that this focuses our technology efforts into the realm of the interplanetary. We’ll be making an investment towards the future, where we’ll hopefully have the technology to travel and affect what’s in our immediate neighborhood. Whether that’s worth our time and money right now… that’s another question.

Daily Roundup

All right, this hasn’t been very “daily”, but I’m going to pretend this is filling in for yesterday’s post that I should have written. In any case, two items of note:

Scientists have observed an electron splitting into two different components. One of these split electrons carries away information about the electron’s spin, and the other carries away information about orbital momentum. Until recently, electrons were thought of as fundamental particles — that there was nothing else left to them but, well, electron. They are not, for instance, composed for quarks the way protons and neutrons are.

I find it pretty mind boggling that scientists were even hypothesizing the existence of a complicated electron, but there you go. I’m rather excited to find out what kinds of applications this would have. The phys.org article on this is a better read in terms of details and implications.

And today morning, while strolling through the Internet, I came across the Small Science Collective. This group of dedicated science enthusiasts (and they’re not all scientists themselves; some are just interested in the field) produces little zines containing some nugget of information, something they’re interested in, and then distributes the zines in all kinds of locations to simply raise awareness of science. It’s something I would love to contribute to, and in the meantime, I’m reading through their archived works.

Daily Roundup

The downside to being excited about science and sharing everything I can get my hands on is that I don’t remember to collate all the links I have on Facebook. So instead of worrying about how little I’m doing or reading, I’m going to kill two birds, etc, by posting everything I read — and my brief thoughts on them — everyday.

The news about the researchers at Dundee University inventing a real-life sonic screwdriver, for instance, is a little bit of a hoot. I wish more articles about this actually included a link to the paper (or the abstract), but the research might have real uses, besides the lulz factor.

In other — rather more disappointing news — Chilean astrophysicists have mapped out a very large amount of mass near our Sun and have proven that, whatever’s making the Milky Way’s outer edges rotate so quickly might not be dark matter. Or, to put it more accurately, the predicted dark matter can’t be detected from Earth. This is pretty significant, since it seems as though 83% of the matter in the universe is made up of dark matter. It seems to be a rather elegant technique consisting of calculating the mass of the objects in space around the Sun, based on what we can actually observe. If the dark matter actually existed, there would’ve been a severe discrepancy between what we’ve seen and the mass that actually appears to exist.

Things in space are clearly getting more and more interesting.

Spotless Minds

It’s a sobering paradox that memories are simultaneously our most precious and least robust possessions. It’s been shown that, while a majority of people surveyed believe their memories to be perfect, the substance of our memories changes every time we recall them. Recent research has apparently done a lot more: we’ve now identified a gene, a protein and a cluster of neurons that directly affect the way memories are stored and retrieved.

It’s interesting that these various researchers attacked the problem of memory from such different angles and arrived at such startling, definite conclusions. Also worthy of note, to me, is that three major players of the pathway between genes and cells were involved.  There are apparently several stages between our genetic code and the more directly measurable neurons where we could potentially fiddle with our minds, and I fully expect that sentence to strike anyone with terrified excitement.

The Neuron

I’ve come across several fascinating pieces on this lately. The one that first caught my eye was this study by MIT researchers, who used light pulses to stimulate a memory of a fear in mice. That technique — called optogenetics, the process by which genes are engineered to respond to light — will need to be the subject of a whole new article by itself, but in the meantime, we’ll focus on the fact that specific sections of neurons in the hippocampus were triggered directly. This article in ExtremeTech and this other one in CNet both include some speculation about the ramifications of this technology, but considering that a laser needs to be pointed directly into the skull (and therefore a hole needs to be drilled into the subject’s head), it’s not quite at the level of Matrix kung-fu learning yet.

Just today, while trying to find those articles, I came across some research that sounds even more interesting, with techniques that are certainly more “programmable”. Researchers think that an “information storage lattice” could be what’s preserving memories inside neurons. Apparently these lattices could be holding anywhere from 64 to 5281 bits of data, and could be performing operations based on well-known logic gates like AND, NOR and so on.

The Protein 

The March issue of Wired featured the “forgetting pill” — a chemical that could directly alter or even erase specific memories. Neurologist Todd Sacktor, in the 1980s, had discovered that an enzyme called PKMzeta facilitates the remembrance of long-term memories. It apparently increases communication between neurons, causing them to excite each other more easily and therefore preserve memories. By injecting a relatively common inhibitor, Sacktor could temporarily halt the production of PKMzeta, and, therefore, destroy the memory itself.

The same article mentions that a previous scientific study conducted by Karim Nader in the 1990s showed how inhibiting all protein synthesis could permanently delete a memory. Sacktor had more than confirmed that hypothesis. What’s particularly fascinating is that basic premise behind these experiments: that the memories we hold so dear are basically a function of protein processes, that when we recall, the memory has to be regenerated each time. Wipe out the crucial part of the step — protein production — and the memory is essentially irretrievable.

The Gene

Another article from ExtremeTech (this one isn’t particularly well-written; knocking out the memory gene doesn’t just have implications for fearlessness) describes how disabling the gene controlling for the Npsa4 transcription factor disrupts the memory consolidation process. The MIT press release is far more informative about how Npsa4 plays a role, but the message is still the same — genetic engineering that affects the whole process of remembering is entirely possible. It’s not just fear; researchers believe Npsa4 could be just as important to other forms of learning.

The last part of the press release provides a particularly tantalizing link back to the Wired article: can Npsa4 be used to erase memories, instead of just preventing them from being formed?

Evaluation

With this plethora of studies focused on the process of memory, how do we decide which is most viable (leaving the question of ethics for later)?

Stimulating sections of the neurons with light would be instantaneous and effective, and possibly would leave less long-term or chemical impact on the body. On the other hand, the stimulation would have to be incredibly precise so as not to damage any other memory. The researchers, according to the CNN article, stimulated parts of the hippocampus which were active when the mice were learning a new environment. The hippocampus, however, is just one of the areas involved in memory storage. And it might be an easier feat to distinguish which specific memory to target in mice, compared to humans. It’s probably also significant that the researchers observed the changes in the brains of the mice as they went through the experiment, but if we were to delete a memory in the human brain we would have to first discover where the memory was situated. We could conceivably ask test subjects to recall the memory as precisely as they knew how and detect changes in brain activity by using an fMRI.

On the other hand, chemical means of deleting a memory might be more feasible and less frightening to those undergoing the procedure; we’re weighing drilling a hole through the skull against the ingestion of a simple pill. With complicated protein pathways, however, there’s a possibility that disrupting the protein that encodes long-term memory could have side effects that may make the procedure too risky. I would have wished for the Wired piece to have more information about the physiological risks involved in a procedure like this, but it’s possible the researchers haven’t had the opportunity to explore that.

Of the three, the genetic trigger in the form of the gene controlling Npsa4 seems to be the most wide-ranging and least specific. It’s clear now that the gene is tightly coupled with the process of long-term learning and memory, but we wouldn’t be able to, for instance, wipe out a specific memory. We could, perhaps, prevent memories from forming during a specific time period, but that would imply a lengthy process of genetic engineering. This, however, might be able to shed some light on the difference between fast and slow learners and how we absorb information — perhaps this will be useful in studying development and growth in children and what would disrupt that process.

The Ethics

There’s something very irresponsible-sounding about the idea of simply erasing select bits of our memory. After all, don’t we take it for granted that our experiences make us who we are? No matter how terrible the trauma or breakup or pain, we reason, the incident must have played a crucial role in our development.

But the Wired article makes a reasonable case for “curing” certain kinds of memory, or at least erasing the debilitating effects of them. Ecstasy, for instance, was used to help patients deal with traumatic events by helping them associate the memory with the positive feelings that the drug created. If these methods for erasing or reducing the longevity of memories could be employed to help severely mentally disturbed patients, I could see the point in research like this.

Whether we should erase memories wholesale, simply because we can, is another argument entirely. Some might point out that our brains are already capable of suppressing or distorting memories as a coping mechanism, and therefore that we’re simply speeding up a naturally occurring process; opponents of that view might say that we just don’t know enough about the side-effects, not only of the chemicals involved in forgetting, but in the psychology of it. Who would we be, if we knew we had large blank holes in our memories? Would we also attempt to remember the rationale behind wanting to forget those incidents? What if the very act of forgetting endangered our mental stability?

Disturbing, but ultimately important and interesting questions.