Monthly Archives: May 2012

Building a Spaceship, Part II

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how we could think about building a spaceship — what the limitations were, what their alternatives could be, and so on.

Yesterday, I came across a cool article from Wired that does something very similar, for similar purposes, titled Could a 21st Century USS Enterprise Really Fly? 

Two things would’ve made me revise my previous assessments: the impracticality of harnessing nuclear energy, and the problems with generating centrifugal gravitational energy.

We’ve got multiple problems with nuclear energy, including the difficulty of wrestling a large one, designed for earth, into space — as well as the issue of remaining healthy while being bombarded by nearby radiation.

“…the radiation shielding and heat rejection system would be a huge design challenge,” said Elliott.

Producing artificial gravity, through the spinning wheel, is also impracticable because of the forces involved:

“To get a sense of this effect, try taking an external hard drive and wobbling it around a bit while it’s running,” said Lee. “It tries to torque you in a perpendicular direction when you tip it.” (On his website, BTE Dan says a second, counter-rotating wheel could solve the problem.)

This guy’s website should afford me several days’ worth of nerdy entertainment. The point is not the building of an actual USS Enterprise in space (which as one of the critics points out, needs to be done in space, because it’s simply impossible to achieve liftoff from earth):

“But there, as improbable and audacious as it seems, you see the value in scoping projects like this,” he continued. “It makes you think, even if it’s to say, ‘That’s a dumb idea, but maybe if we did this here and tweaked these assumptions here….’ That often leads to valuable innovations in other, more near-term developments.”

It’s the what-if, the maybe-we-could, the sort of fruitful speculation that fires imaginations and sparks research and science fair projects.

(Sort of) Daily Roundup

Daily Roundup, alas, has become a misnomer. What with work and my other writing commitments (this sounds grander than it is in real life), I doubt I can create a post daily to track what I’ve been reading. On the other hand, I do want to track what I’ve been reading so far, anyway, so here’s the summary:

Working Brain-Controlled Prosthetic Interface

This was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen this past week, simply in terms of human impact. After some initial training, two paralyzed individuals have been able to use a mind-controlled robot to move and grip objects. No matter that we can’t move paralyzed limbs directly; this is still significant progress in terms of how signals from the brain are being received and comprehended. The video is informative and rather emotional, because the look on one of the subjects’ faces is wonderful.

Nevada Issues Driving License to Google’s Autonomous Car

This is rather old news, but still pretty mind-boggling, if you look at it out of the context of the months of training and driving Google has been engaged in.

Chinese Physicists Teleport Photons

A little beam-me-up-scotty moment. The truly weird thing about quantum weirdness is the lack of a mechanism that explains how entangled particles can instantaneously exchange information across arbitrarily large distances. But we can exploit that when we try to “teleport” information: instead of physically moving objects through space and time, we exchange the information contained in two different places so that it seems as though the particles have “traveled”. This is perfectly possible with photons and slightly less possible with humans, but the photon experiment seems to have worked well. The important thing is that the team corrected for the huge losses that occur when entangled photons spread out and have their entangled states disrupted.

Building Wetware for the Digital Future

Two articles caught my eye recently: one explained how researchers were trying to grow naturally occurring bacteria that ingest iron and spit out magnets, to be used in very tiny futuristic hard drives.

The other focused on building tiny memory storage devices with DNA, with write-erase capability.

Does this sound a little like Schismatrix all over again?

An Eclipse

And just to top it all off, I a few minutes off yesterday evening to watch the moon crawl across the sun in a fairly rare (it last happened 20 years ago) annular solar eclipse. To my utter astonishment, a crude viewing device consisting of two pieces of paper, one of which had a tiny pinhole poked through it, enabled me to actually see the sun disappearing. The pictures from the event were lovely.

The Nature of Science

I recently came across a rather depressing article, about John Stewart and his complete disregard for the way science works (in the context of the particular discussion).

The point here isn’t that he mixes up anti-matter and dark matter (which, come on, isn’t a “minor mix-up of jargon”, it makes for quite a fundamental difference in what happens to the universe). The point is that Stewart dismisses what he doesn’t understand as something that’s clearly absurd, and therefore must be based on “faith”. An acquaintance I met a few weeks ago made the same error in judgement and I could feel my jaw drop in astonished disappointment.

Like Stewart, my new friend said he simply couldn’t understand how traveling at speeds approaching that of light could possibly mean that more time passes in one point of view as opposed to another. “That you spend less time in your spaceship and someone on Earth spends their lifetime waiting for you to get back? That doesn’t make any sense!” he declared, until I’d explained the muon experiment to him to show how this phenomenon had been observed in real life.

This sort of response reminds me of a series of articles produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose Project 2061 aims to “advance literacy in Science, Mathematics, and Technology”. It’s the sort of thing that people like Stewart would do well to take a closer look at, because several parts of the online Science for All Americans report deals precisely with complexity in scientific thinking.

Here’s a line I like in particular:

Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems.

Why does Stewart’s declaration that science can be equated with faith annoy me so? Because it’s an easy, lazy, simplistic solution to the question of what our universe consists of. Billions of dollars are being expended in one of the most staggeringly earnest and ambitious projects to discover the fundamentals of our universe. In the course of that, we’ve uncovered so much more than we already know. And that knowledge can’t be simply dismissed.

It’s also the reason why teaching Creationism or Intelligent Design in science classrooms is completely unacceptable. It’s not a question of what proponents believe, personally; it’s a question of what should be taught as science. Portions of the SFAA report reiterate that science requires evidence to be taken seriously and that even the most far-out hypotheses must make testable predictions. ID and its ilk are incapable of doing so, because, instead of postulating a testable, predictable root cause for the existence of the universe, it makes a single leap to the conclusion that an unknown super-entity created everything. Whence this entity? How was it itself created? There are no answers to these questions, and indeed, none of the proponents of ID even think those questions are important.

This is not the way of science.

Something that occurred today, however, made me a little more hopeful for the future of science education. I had the opportunity to speak with a lovely lady who’s in charge of a small non-profit that conducts workshops to encourage girls to enter the STEM fields. In the course of my interviewing her, she talked about how she hadn’t begun as a science teacher at all, though she’d spent a good many years as an educator in elementary and middle schools. When I asked her how she developed an interest in science and STEM, she said, “Well, I took a scientific approach to teaching children when I was a teacher”. She went on to explain how, when they were studying a particular ocean creature — say, a dolphin — the kids would be required to do background research, look up statistics and measurements, and conduct observations on top of writing stories and learning the vocabulary of the topic.

The point of these exercises was to introduce a scientific element to the way the subject was studied — a way of logically and quantitatively collecting evidence on the subject. The idea is that science isn’t a cold, distant, detached subject that’s reserved for geeks: it’s something we do, consciously or unconsciously, every day, when we apply logic to our decision-making processes and collect evidence to support the choices we make.

Daily Roundup

“We lost,” said my brother despondently, after a gruelling few weeks of prepping for a science fair competition. “We lost to a team that did something about origami!” he added, indignantly.

At the time I commiserated with him; no matter how fun origami is, its applications aren’t as readily immediate as, say, an automated program to help stroke victims recover. So I dismissed the judges as insane, and consoled my brother on his loss.

And then I came across this article today morning, extolling the virtues of folding processes and origami. The thing is, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Some of the most interesting research done recently has been materials- and folding-based; think of the jellyfish that propels itself through water, powering itself by means of hydroelectric reactions. And then there’s the weird, angular shape that folds itself inside out to fly through the air.

Is Origami the Future of Techpoints out one really interesting fact: “folding” problems are incredibly important in a lot of biological research, because proteins — the building blocks for cells and hormones and everything crucial to the biological system — have to be precisely folded in order to be at all useful. The protein haemoglobin, for instance, if bent out of shape, can result in a disease called sickle cell anemia, in which patients’ bodies are less capable of using oxygen effectively because the misshapen protein can’t hold onto the oxygen.

Cool stuff. And potentially extraordinarily useful.

April Is The Cruelest Month

It’s that time of the year again! If you’re under the impression that I’m referring to a joyous event, alas — tis the season for allergies.

I can now be found at my desk at work, looking like something extricated from under an 18-wheeler, sporting bloodshot eyes and surrounded by several empty boxes of tissue. I’m not even certain anymore what I’m allergic to; an early test revealed that amongst other things I was intolerant of pollen and dust and lizard droppings, but since I’ve spent several years in Austin, TX (aka allergy capital) I’m sure the number of things my immune system can’t deal with has risen exponentially.

The thing is, allergies are much less miserable than an actual cold or flu, but so much worse in terms of lingering agony. Anyway, that’s my reason for missing Daily Roundup yesterday — and the reason why I’m focusing on the subject today.

Some people I know are unable to distinguish between a cold and an allergy, because some of the symptoms are similar (runny nose, a general disinclination to continue living). But while colds are essentially viruses attacking the body, allergic reactions are caused by the immune system reacting violently to usually harmless things, and ravaging the body in the process. While with bacteria or viruses you can generally hope for your immune system to gear up and fight it off, allergic reactions are caused by the immune system itself.

This article from the US National Library of Medicine has a nice, brief overview of allergies in general, but what’s frustrating about allergic reactions, to me, is the sheer variety of factors that could be causing them, as well as the abruptness of their development. For years, my father was perfectly fine eating any kind of food — until he developed an allergy to lactose. That’s not unheard of, and he’s not the first case I know, but the span of time it took for that to kick in is bewildering. Why don’t we all simply develop allergies to milk after we’ve been weaned off it onto solid food?

Then again, culture, dietary habits and even race apparently play into allergic reactions. If you’ve been brought up in a society where half your intake consists of diary products, it might be more likely that you’re simply more used to that kind of food. I came across this abstract that discusses briefly the racial/cultural factors that play into lactose intolerance; interesting stuff.

While I was growing up and battling a dust allergy of monstrous proportions, my parents tried everything in their power to stop me dropping used tissue all over the place — inhalers, special bedsheets that would keep out dust mites, whatever. But the inhalers were annoying and the special sheets felt too slippery to sleep on, so I rebelled (circumspectly). These days it’s all Zyrtec and Claritin while I’m back home, and I’m sure the humidity doesn’t help either. The thing is, drugs are expensive and unpleasant and I’m sure it would be far more attractive to either simply cure allergies or treat them with home remedies rather than shell out the big bucks. I had a curious introduction to the latter yesterday, when my room mate claimed that eating locally produced honey could increase tolerance to the local pollutants. At first, this makes a vague kind of sense. But when studies were conducted with local honey, non-local honey and a placebo, researchers found that local honey didn’t give participants any benefits. It could be that the pollen, and therefore allergens, present in plants and those spread by air are just very different, so you’d be developing a tolerance for the wrong thing.

Sadly, I haven’t found any interesting research lately to do with suppressing allergies. Curing them, of course, is out; unless you remove yourself entirely from a natural environment and keep yourself dust free, or somehow niftily manipulate your own genes, your allergies are here to stay.

In the meantime, of course, I shall invest in boxes of tissue and a lot of tea. And the cold comfort that there’s nothing I can do about this state of affairs.

Daily Roundup

At the beginning of this month, I cam across some fantastic sounding news regarding cancer treatments. It’s been known that cancer cells arm themselves with a flag — which the Stanford team persists in calling the “don’t eat me” flag — the way some healthy cells do. If I remember this correctly, red blood cells work with the same antibody.

This meant that the Stanford team that conducted the research could use a protein to mask the expression of this flag, called CD47, thus taking down cancer cells’ defense mechanism. Astoundingly, the cancers implanted in mice either disappeared or reduced significantly. The red blood cells would be targeted as well, since their CD47 flag would be masked as well, but it didn’t seem to leave any lasting damage. In fact, the Stanford study indicates that CD47 is expressed about three times more in some cancer cells as compared to healthy cells. That would mean that the lion’s share of defense-destruction happened with the cancer cells.

Now, I’ve been pointed to an article of a study that suggests that a common virus could be used to target and kill cancer cells. This is incredibly late — by a few years! — which I didn’t realize, but it would be interesting to see why it hasn’t been followed up on.

Other fun stuff, in a completely different field — remember how graphene was meant to be the next big thing in semiconductor technology? And then it… wasn’t? The trouble is that, apparently, even though graphene conducts extremely well, it’s impractical to use for anything requiring switching applications, like transistors. Semiconductors require something called a bandgap, a range of energy during which the they go from being unable to allow any current through to letting current through easily (there’s a much better explanation in Wikipedia, regarding the physics behind it).

And then there was molybdenite, which is very similar to graphene but which actually does have a bandgap in the right spot. Now, researchers in multiple groups have reported being able to synthesize silicene, which is a structure whose existence has been verified through a scanning tunneling electron microscope. It has a unique structure that lets electrons travel in a way that resembles the switching mechanism that transistors need. The trouble will be adapting silicene to the current transistor creation process.

It’ll be fascinating to see which of these alternatives gets developed the most rapidly and efficiently over the next decade, which is when silicon’s limits are predicted to be reached.

Daily Roundup

It figures that just when I’m congratulating myself on discovering exciting news that I happen not to read any, or have the time to write about it, over the weekend.

No matter; now I’ve caught up. And the first fascinating thing I read today was that researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have created a way to simulate the behavior of hundreds of qubits working together. There’s a more detailed SciGuru article here.

This is a little mind-boggling, mainly because I don’t have the background to grasp the physics behind this. I’m not sure how modeling the qubits in this fashion would produce an accurate prediction — this line, in particular: “Although the two systems may outwardly appear dissimilar, their behavior is engineered to be mathematically identical. In this way, simulators allow researchers to vary parameters that couldn’t be changed in natural solids, such as atomic lattice spacing and geometry.” How would these parameters help in the building of qubits?

The article also mentions that NIST uses weak interactions between their atoms: “In the NIST benchmarking experiments, the strength of the interactions was intentionally weak so that the simulation remained simple enough to be confirmed by a classical computer. Ongoing research uses much stronger interactions.” How would this difference in strength affect the accuracy of the predictions? Unless, of course, the mathematical predictions of the system allow the entire thing to act like a black box, where the parameters are input, tuned, and then the final mathematical result is verified by a classical computer.

Hmm. More research (on my part) might be called for.