Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Cure For Male Pattern Baldness: Bears

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Are you suffering from male pattern baldness? Would you like to feel younger, more confident and regain your youthful swagger?

Why not take a note from the majestic bear! Yes, instead of turning to stem cell treatments one Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong, a professor at the University of Southern California suggests we take a page from how our forrest friends regrow their winter coats.

…a treatment could aim at altering the environment around hair follicles, rather than implanting stem cells within them.

These outside signals that are present in animals are missing in people.

“This extra follicle-affecting factor has disappeared during human evolution,” so human hair follicles are activated only by signals internal to the hair follicle, Chuong told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Unconfirmed are reports that such a treatment would involve snagging a fish out of a moving stream with your mouth. But… you know… it couldn’t hurt.

[Live Science]

Do Our Brain Hemispheres Communicate With Electromagnetic Fields?

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Are we moving closer to proving that electromagnetic fields help our brain hemispheres communicate?

Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have made a puzzling finding: people born without a corpus callosum (which links the two hemispheres of the brain) — a condition called agenesis of the corpus callosum, or AgCC — still show remarkably normal communication across the gap between the two halves of their brains.

[Kurzweil AI]

Parasite Empowers Nebbish Wasps To Be Zombie Queens

Thursday, October 20th, 2011


The social hierarchy of a wasp is pretty rigid. But what if a snide little parasite made you a deal. You could live the life of a queen, no foraging for anyone but yourself, living off the fat of the land. All you have to do is become subservient to a macabre march of death that enslaves your brethren and propagates the evil parasite.

For many paper wasps through Europe, the answer is “yes, please!”

The parasite X. vesparum infects the wasp which withdraw from their previous social pattern and instinctively fly away to a meeting point with other parasites. It’s there the parasites mate, with the male hosts disposing of their wasp coats, leaving them to die. But the females remain inside the wasps, turning them into zombie queens which find food for themselves and fatten up while infecting other nests and plants with the parasite larva.

“After that, they start wandering among the colonies,” spreading their deadly larval load, said Manfredini. “They don’t lay eggs. They don’t build colonies. They’re completely anarchic.”

Get your zombie queen paper wasp costume ready for Halloween!



SPICE World: Artificial Volcanos Could Help Cool The Planet

Thursday, September 15th, 2011


Without delving into the debate on how it’s happening, most reasonable people can agree the world is getting warmer.

If we want it cooler, we are going to have to do something about it. Sure, we could all drive electric cars to our self-sustaining farm communes where we split an organic zucchini soufflé with Ed Begley, Jr. Or we can just stick a hose in the air (as if we don’t ca-re) and pump sulfates into the atmosphere, simulating a volcano eruption, cooling the planet in the process.

The latter is code named SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) and will undergo it’s first test this next month when a hose suspended one kilometer in the air will pump water into the atmosphere. Although geoengineering strategies have been tested before, researchers believe this to be the most cost effective option should the results come back favorable.

[Scientific American]

Splish-Splash! Largest Water Reservoir In Universe Discovered

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011


Astronomers have discovered a reservoir containing 140 trillion times the amount of water in all the Earth’s oceans, making it the largest mass of water ever detected in the universe.

“The environment around this quasar is unique in that it’s producing this huge mass of water,” Matt Bradford, a Caltech visiting associate and NASA scientist said in a press release. “It’s another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times.”

Thanks to Weird Things reader Jason for sending this in.

[Huffington Post]

Scientists Create Memory Expansion for Brain

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Well this is certainly a step in the right direction for downloading instructions on how to fly a helicopter right into your brain. Researchers have stuffed chips into rat brains that enabled them to instantly know things. They can also flip the switch off and the rats forget. Fascinating.

After studying the chemical interactions that allow short-term learning and memorization in rats, a group of scientists lead by Dr. Theodore Berger—from the University of South California’s Viterbi School of Engineering—have built a prosthetic chip that uses electrodes to enhance and expand their memory abilities. The chip is capable of storing neural signals, basically functioning as an electronic memory, allowing rats to learn more and keep it in the devices.

Dr. Berger’s description is almost frightening:

“Flip the switch on, and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget […] These integrated experimental modeling studies show for the first time that with sufficient information about the neural coding of memories, a neural prosthesis capable of real-time identification and manipulation of the encoding process can restore and even enhance cognitive mnemonic processes.


World’s First Living Laser

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Scientists at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have genetically engineered the world’s first living laser. This is a living cell that can emit laser light. Based on previous Nobel winning work on Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) the researchers believe these laser shooting cells can be used in imaging and the targeted destruction of diseased cells.

Now, GFP has been incorporated into living human cells for an entirely new purpose: the production of laser light. Optical physicists in Boston have genetically engineered a cell capable of amplifying light and emitting a bright-green directional laser beam visible to the naked eye. Their research is published in the June 12th issue of Nature Photonics.

“This is the first time that we have used biological materials to build a laser and generate light from something that is living,” said Dr. Seok-Hyun Yun, who, together with his colleague Malte Gather, created the living laser.


Backwards Planets: Reverse Orbits Explained

Monday, May 16th, 2011


They call them hot Jupiters. A series of gas giant planets in far off solar systems that appear to circle their star in two very peculiar ways. First, it swings perilously close. Second, a quarter of them seemingly do it backwards compared to the normal orbit behavior.

But how the so called “flipped hot Jupiters” come to be is fascinating. In essence they begin like our own Jupiter, as a gas giant further out in the solar system. At some point, they come in contact with a larger planet whose orbit is so similar it eventually begins to “interact tidally”:

This tidal squeezing is like friction, dissipating energy and causing the planet’s orbit to shrink.

Sometimes, while this process is happening, the orientation of planet’s orbit can be shifted so it’s not in the same plane as the other planets. Occasionally, the orbit can be changed so much it completely flips around.

“We saw this for the first time because we did the calculation much more carefully than people had ever done before,” Rasio said. “The basic physics is just Newtonian mechanics. All of that comes out naturally of simply calculating these very tiny gradual changes that build on.”



By The Hammer Of Thor! Anti-Matter Found Streaming From Thunderstorms

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

BBC News  Antimatter caught streaming from thunderstorms on Earth

Positrons. They are all around us. Specifically if you are standing naked in the middle of the thunderstorm taunting the Old God’s to strike you down if they indeed still hold sway over this earthly realm.

“Take your sacrifice or wallow in a pit of lies, frauds!” you scream while spittle trains down your chin and mixes with the driving sheets of rain.

Or, you could eliminate everything else and just say that anti-matter has been photographed with a Fermi telescope during thunderstorms.

Such storms have long been known to give rise to fleeting sparks of light called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes.

But results from the Fermi telescope show they also give out streams of electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons.

The surprise result was presented by researchers at the American Astronomical Society meeting in the US.

It deepens a mystery about terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs – sparks of light that are estimated to occur 500 times a day in thunderstorms on Earth. They are a complex interplay of light and matter whose origin is poorly understood.

You know else is poorly understood? Tempting the Old God’s on “public property,” by the police.


Man Named “Iceman” Could Be Scientific Proof We Control Our Immune Responses With Our Brain

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Skitched 20110422 151424

Wim Hof is called the Iceman.

He runs up mountains like Kilimanjaro in only shorts, he sits in buckets of ice for record amounts of time and is genuinely a worldwide, five-star badass. Now, you might be able to add scientific proof that our brains have staggering control over our immune system as part of his resume.

According to Science Daily, initial test trials have shown that Hof’s body indeed suppressed natural immune system response by 50% when injected with endotoxin. Hof applied a meditation ritual during the experiment. The injection normally triggers flu-like symptoms.

Yet not so in Hof, who says the secret to his chilly feats of endurance is being able to turn his own thermostat up by using his brain. Scientists caution not to get too excited yet, we still need to see larger trails. And we need more endotoxin.

[Science Daily]

Physicists Discover New Subatomic Particle? Maybe.

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Physicists have just announced the discovery of something that falls outside the current understanding of particle physics. While zipping particles through Fermilab’s Tevatron collider they noticed that things were getting weird. While creating subatomic particles as a byproduct of these collisions, they can determine the various particles created in these collisions by looking at the energy of the jets. They can also use the Standard Model to predict the expected values created in these events, unless things get weird, and as stated before, things got weird.

“According to project spokesperson Giovanni Punzi, there were around 253 more electrons and muons created than expected compared to a background of about 10,000 such particles. Such jets could be created by a previously unknown particle about 160 times the mass of a proton, although we stress that’s only one possibility.”

So what are the other possibilities, if it isn’t a new previously unknown particle?

1. Fluke

2. Mistake

3. New, unknown feature of the Standard Model

4. A new fundamental force.


The Strange Case of Life Violating Copyright

Friday, March 25th, 2011

As many of you may remember, last year J. Craig Venter and his team created the first synthetic life form by replacing the genetic code of the bacterium Mycoplasma capricolum with DNA that they created themselves. In order to create and identify thier own DNA, they composed it from two quotes. One quote was from Richard Feynman (and was actually misquoted), and the second quote was from James Joyce’s A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Not long after this announcement Venter received a cease and desist letter from the Joyce estate claiming violation of fair use. So now there is a situation where life was created using information that falls under copyright and is faced with a cease and desist letter. Does this mean that the life must be destroyed? The bacterium has already reproduced and is a viable life form.

“Which brings to mind the question…are we now nearing a point where copyright law can result in the retraction of a life form?”

It will be interesting to see where this case ends up.

[Forbes via Tor]

How Do Humans Respond To Being Touched By A Robot?

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Spoiler Alert: Yeah they don’t really seem to like it that much. They like it even less when the robot warns them it is about to touch them ahead of time.


Scientists Test Electric “Thinking Cap”

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Australian researchers claim that initial results of a “thinking cap” that promotes creativity by passing low levels of electricity through the brain has shown promising results. The thinking cap consists of two conductors fastened to the head by a rubber strap, and in tests it significantly boosted results in a simple arithmetic test. The researchers claim that three times as many people who wore the thinking cap were able to complete the test, compared to those who did not.

“The dream is that one day we may be able to stimulate the brain in a particular way to give you, just momentarily, an unfiltered view of the world,” Snyder said.


Are human brains too complex to replicate?

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Over at his Bottom-up blog (safe for work) Cato scholar and CS PhD candidate Timothy B. Lee makes a case that we’ll *never* be able to copy the human brain in software. He argues that the human brain is too complex and living systems impossible to replicate via mathematics. (I categorize these kinds of articles as the “Sorry nerds, here’s why you’re wrong”, variety.)

While I’d be the first one to point out the futility of arguing whether or not we will or will not be able to do something, I have a little trouble with his arguments (in a later post I’ll offer my own argument as to why it might be a bigger challenge than we realize).

“You can’t emulate a natural system because natural systems don’t have designers, and therefore weren’t built to conform to any particular mathematical model.”

Natural systems like physics and chemistry don’t have designers and we emulate those every day. Our ability to emulate them increase all the time. Starting from the middle ages when we had a very incorrect and non-empiracle view of these things, to today where we’re able to run simulations of what happens inside of atoms and at the point of the big bang.

An airplane wing works a lot like a bird wing in glide and we fly millions of miles everyday on a mechanical emulation of that living system.

Since brains are made of atoms, unless there’s some magical process going on that transcends physics, at some level you should be able to replicate a brain provided you have the right computational power. That computer could even be a jar of neurons (a method I don’t even think Lee considered).

At some point we’ll have computers with a greater number of virtual parts than the human brain. That’s the point that many think we’ll be able to replicate the brain. Knowing what and how to replicate it will be a challenge of course. We’re still figuring out how to make virtual proteins…

Following the graph of computational power over the last decade shows us that we’re nearing a point where the raw power should be possible.

To further make his point, Lee uses weather prediction as an example:

“Weather simulations, for example, are never going to be able to predict precisely where each raindrop will fall, they only predict general large-scale trends, and only for a limited period of time.”

Lee confuses a simulation for a predictive system. I can make a very simple program in just a couple lines of code that will predict with 100% accuracy the probability of a coin toss. It won’t tell you the outcome of a specific coin toss, but its results would be indistinguishable from any particular coin toss and no system could tell the difference between my virtual toss and a real one.

A replicated brain is going to have its own experience from its point of inception and be just as subject to chaos as weather, coins and other brains. It’s going to be no more confined to Newtonian physics than any living system. The fact that it behaves differently than the brain it copied is no more disproof of its utility than the fact that identical twins develop different thought patterns.

He makes his point further by saying that you can’t reduce neurons to transistors. And because they’re different, the difference between a computer and brain is too vast to bridge.

As I mentioned earlier, Lee seems to ignore entirely the premise of just creating a computer out of actual neurons. We can do that to a small degree today. There’s no reason to think that it can’t scale. Obviously a bunch of unstructured neurons are not the same as a living human brain, but the fundamental parts are similar and that’s a good start.

I think the biggest problem Lee has with this is in seeing a computer and a brain as a one-to-one analogy where the aforementioned transistors act as neurons. This of course would not work. A human neuron has way more complexity than a simple logic gate. That plus the other parts of the brain we’re just grasping their function, make it a complex task. Nobody is saying that it isn’t.

What AI researchers and people interested in the Singularity believe is that a living system isn’t irreducibly complex. At some level it’s made of the same kinds of atoms as everything else. And starting from that point you can write software that emulates the function of molecules, proteins and even cells. From there (giving enough computational power) you can replicate living systems. Brains should be no different.

Futurism: Why Atom Lasers are Awesome

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Technological advancement moves in strange ways. It’s often the technologies that come from just outside our mainstream field of vision that change things the most radically.

The properties of semiconductors were well known decades before anybody thought they’d be a great way to shrink vacuum tubes into transistors and then microchips. The implications of a really big network where everybody you know is plugged into it with PCs and mobile devices was a hard concept for anybody to fathom.

I’d like to tell you about a technology on the horizon that could be bigger than anything else we’ve seen before and make possible all sorts of crazy things like Doctor Who-like Tardis boxes that are bigger on the inside, matter replicators and line-of-sight teleportation.

It’s a technology that’s already been proven in small forms in the laboratories and now faces the challenge of finding out if it can scale without ridiculous amounts of energy.

The concept began with a theory by Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein about what happens when matter gets really, really cold. Quantum physics informs us that we can never know the precise position and velocity of a particle. This means the more you know about one, the less you can know about the other. If you slowed down a particle enough and looked at it under some special microscope it would look like a blur. The act of slowing it down means that its exact position has to become literally fuzzy.

In laboratories we can see this fuzziness by creating a Bose-Einstein condensate; a bucket of atoms supercooled to the point that they behave like one uber-atom and quantum effects are magnified. One of the cool applications of this is the atom laser (it’s called a laser even though it’s not made of light).

An atom laser works by using a Bose-Einstein condensate to cool a group of atoms and then using a technique like magnetic fields or an actual laser to propagate (emit) the matter in some kind of beam. In the image you can see what a beam of sodium atoms looks like when emitted from a magnetic trap.

The potential for this is immense. It’s very much in its infancy and hard to tell what will actually become of it, but when you can reliably get matter to behave like light, amazing things are possible.

An awesome particle beam
You could use this to create an incredibly powerful particle beam that would be even more precise than a laser and create smaller microprocessor components and be used to etch out things like nano-scale devices out of solid matter.

Tardis boxes
The fact that you can change matter’s position to such an indeterminate state means that you could theoretically have two particles in the same space. This could allow for matter compression where you could squeeze a large amount of matter into a confined area. Like Doctor Who’s Tardis, this would give a box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Keeping molecules and complex structures from falling apart would be very big challenge however.

The ability of a matter laser to “project” beams of atoms means that a form of line-of-sight teleportation is theoretically possible. The image of the atom laser above shows a kind of crude form of that. If you could contain the beam over long distances through some other means or use a matter equivalent of a fiber optic cable, you could shoot atoms at near the speed of light from one point to another. At the receiving end the atoms are returned to a high temperature and reassembled, er somehow (see below).

Matter replicator
A Bose-Einstein condensate also makes interesting chemistry possible. You can cool down two different types of atoms and merge them to create molecules. You could theoretically do the same with an atom laser. Crossing beams could be used to create molecules and maybe even assemble more complex structures and build things out of scratch like the matter replicators on Star Trek.

It’s anybodies guess how far off any of these things are or even if they’ll ever happen in a way that makes it into day to day use. The biggest complications are often the unseen ones after you’ve proven what you thought was the most difficult part. That said, when the first laser was fired off in a laboratory, people could think of only a few applications for what was at that time an unwieldy technology. Decades later we can mass produce lasers for pennies apiece and use them in everything from Blue Ray players, to satellites to key chain toys.