Tag Archives: curiosity rover

Daily Roundup: Blind Mice, Curiosity Check-in

One of the upsides of a complex neurochemical/biological pathway such as sight is that there are many ways of tackling the same problem. Although the complexity makes the solutions complex as well, at the very least it guarantees that there are multiple avenues to explore. Researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College have combined several of these avenues to create a retinal prosthetic for mice that gives them an ability to perceive things around them that is unparalleled.

Previous research had shown that introducing light-sensitive proteins in the retina, which is sometimes damaged in the blind, can enhance vision. The retina, treated thus with gene therapy, is then better able to simulate the output cells — the ganglion cells — to send along the electrical impulses to the brain.

Below is a crude little mockup of the process of vision, as I understand it. Click to enlarge; WordPress isn’t kind to these images. 

How vision works in the eye, as far as I can understand.

But Nirenberg and Pandarinath believed that another crucial piece of the puzzle had to be taken care of for the entire system to operate well: they had to able to replicate the pattern of electrical impulses produced by the eye’s circuitry, and make sure that those impulses correctly simulate the scene that is being observed. Their research into the “code” that needs to be generated between light hitting the rods and cones of the retina, and the ganglion cells sending signals to the brain, revealed that this pattern could indeed be artificially simulated.

In short, they’ve built a system of an encoder, which breaks down images entering the eye into electrical impulses, and a projector that converts the electrical impulses into light impulses. The latter then stimulates the genetically enhanced proteins in the ganglion cells.

How the researchers have augmented this system.

They’ve now gone on to crack the “code” of vision in monkeys, and hope to be starting human trials soon.

Another proposal for restoring vision that I saw recently involved a much simpler, but potentially far less useful technique. Berkeley scientists discovered that regular injections of a chemical called AAQ restored a degree of photosensitivity to mice that were formerly blind, aiding them in converting light to electrical impulses and eventually to images.

Perhaps combined with, or replacing the gene therapy step in the above research from Cornell, vision prosthetics/enhancement might become a reality in the next few years. It’s particularly interesting, to me, to see how the various methods of attacking the problem of sight have resulted in a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted system like this. It’s cumbersome, but it works.

ExtremeTech has an extended article on this, with image comparisons of the enhanced and non-enhanced systems. The differences are quite stunning.

And now for the obligatory Curiosity news!

Everyone’s favorite Mars rover is doing well, as is NASA’s reputation at the moment. I spent most of today surreptitiously reading this Reddit thread (Ask Me Anything) which featured the scientists and engineers from the Curiosity team. And yes — it did include Mohawk Guy.

Some truly fascinating stuff that came out of this included the fact that NASA has a fledgling Planetary Protection Guidelines page. I say fledgling because a) it’s impossible to predict how we should react to alien civilizations when they haven’t been found, and b) we’re still not sure we’re anywhere close to finding them. Most of it is prosaic stuff, like “let’s be very clean so we don’t contaminate anything!” but I suspect directives like “always wait for the alien to introduce itself!” are just waiting in the wings.

A geek can dream.

Brave New Worlds

Curiosity fever is still under way (and with it, a greater appreciation of Mohawks, apparently), and while our plucky little rover is climbing craters and zapping rocks, we’re already beginning to ask: what’s next?

And the answer, inevitably, is: When do we get to go to Mars?

The plan to colonize Mars has a long and sometimes fanciful history. I remember reading the Reader’s Digest and being thoroughly fascinated by the idea that we would create a human colony in Mars by 2020. “I’ll still be alive then!” thought my ten-year-old self. And today morning, my past collided rather oddly with my future when ZDNet published a video by Reaction Engines, chronicling the future of Mars manned exploration.

The idea is thrilling. It gives me goosebumps, literally, to think of ourselves exploring a new planet, dealing with the challenges it’ll present and carving out an ecological niche for ourselves. The sheer knowledge and technological experience we’d gain from the exercise isn’t to be discounted, either. But I think it’s time we remind ourselves what we lack, and all the reasons we shouldn’t be colonizing anything until we’ve taken care of a few main points first.

Planets are not disposable. We cannot leap across the solar systems, colonizing worlds, simply because we’ve exhausted our planet’s resources and it’s time to mine another. If we’re incapable of living sustainably on the planet we evolved on, what makes us think we’ll be capable of doing so on a world we’ve never seen with our own eyes?

We’ll first have to cut ourselves a place on this new planet, finding out what — if any — ecological system exists and how we can fit ourselves in without displacing too much of it. And then we’ll have to figure out how to remain there for a significant period of time without destroying the climate — or ourselves, for that matter.

For instance, what do we really know about how global warming occurs, whether it cyclical, and what the best way to deal with it is? We’ll move to other worlds for many noble reasons, but surely for selfish ones as well, like the extraction of resources. And when we begin to argue over the best way to balance extraction and preservation, whose logic will prevail?

This isn’t Manifest Destiny, by a long shot. The idea of colonization is glorious. Whichever generation does it will be hailed as pioneers and superheroes. We’ll be facing the biggest challenge of our lives, and that collectively, as a species, as a civilization. Which is why it will be so easy to be swept off our feet by the possibility and the power. The stars beckon!

But no.

We cannot do this simply because we can. Even if there isn’t life on other planets, even if the solar system seems as though it’s ours for now, we cannot irresponsibly wreck havoc on worlds. We destroy all chance of learning from our mistakes that way.

Of course we should colonize Mars, and any other planets we can reach and set foot on. But only after we’ve understood the damage it might do, after we’ve considered how best to be responsible, after we’ve learned from our own mistakes.

In other words, we’re not ready for Mars. Not yet, not by a long shot.

Daily Roundup

“When people look at it, it looks crazy.”

Thus begins the YouTube video of the Jet Propulsion Lab, currently engaged in hoping and praying for (and guiding!) Curiosity’s landing on August 6.

It’s rather a magnificent video, enriched equally with facts and details to induce excitement. It’s clear and straightforward, too.

The Tech Museum, where I volunteer, has a lovely replica of the Curiosity, as well as a few videos on the process. There are interviews with the engineers, who all have an almost paternal/maternal attitude towards their creation (as well they should). What I love the most about the interviews and this particular video is the sheer enthusiasm the engineers bring to the table.

It’s energizing in a way that I hope will remind the average layperson what engineering really is: taking a complex problem and breaking it down, solving it creatively. In this instance, it’s the idea of creating several stages to get the rover to land — and finally just lowering it to the surface. The Tech video showed a gigantic thing dropping from the sky like a spider. Dramatic? Yes. Deservedly so.

And in case you thought dropping a ton of complicated sensors on another planet wasn’t sci-fi enough, here’s a news article from PopSci explaining how we can conserve water after the apocalypse.

If that doesn’t remind you of Dune’s stillsuits (without, well, the suits) then I don’t know what will.