Archive for September, 2009

Walking Straight Into Circles

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Photo via flickr by gavinrobinson

Common belief has it that people who get lost in unfamiliar terrain often end up walking in circles. New research in the journal Current Biology suggests that, in fact, people do tend to walk in circles if they do not have a reference point such as the sun.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany recently tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles.

“Walking in a straight line is a complicated process when you think about it from the perspective of the brain,” said Jan Souman, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics.

Their hypothesis is that the longer people walk, their errors in relation to a straight line build up by chance to the left or right. This may result in a zigzag pattern. Over time, the tendencies to the left or right may take the person in a circle.

The researchers tested various explanations for this walking behavior by assessing the ability of people to maintain a fixed course while blindfolded. Under these conditions, participants walked in often surprisingly small circles, though rarely in a systematic direction. These results suggest that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.

via Current Biology and CNNhealth.com

The Universe-all Truth

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Photo via flickr by kevindooley

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
—Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), English humorist & science fiction novelist

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku explains that perhaps universes are born all the time:

Quantum gravity gives us a new paradigm, and this paradigm is: that in the beginning was nirvana – hyperspace, emptiness. But hyperspace was unstable. Because of quantum fluctuations, bubbles began to form within nothingness. These bubbles began to expand very rapidly giving us the Big Bang. So, in other words, our universe is probably a quantum fluctuation in nothing. It’s a bubble, just like boiling water, with universes being born all the time. Which means that there perhaps are other universes out there, other bubble universes. We live on one bubble, there could be other bubble universes out there where perhaps life is possible.

Cells ‘Feel’ Their Shape

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Photo via flickr by PROYECTO AGUA**

Johns Hopkins scientists, working with the simplest of organisms, have discovered the molecular sensor that lets cells not only “feel” changes to their neat shapes, but also to remodel themselves back into ready-to-split symmetry. In a study published September 15 in Current Biology, the researchers show that two force-sensitive proteins accumulate at the sites of cell-shape disturbances and cooperate first to sense the changes and then to resculpt the cells. The proteins — myosin II and cortexillin I — monitor and correct shape changes in order to ensure smooth division.

“What we found is an exquisitely tuned mechanosensory system that keeps the cells shipshape so they can divide properly,” says Douglas N. Robinson, Ph.D., an associate professor of Cell Biology, Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Faulty cell division can put organisms, including people, on the pathway to diseases such as cancer, Robinson notes, and a better understanding of how cells respond to mechanical stress on their shapes could present new targets for both diagnosing and treating such diseases.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the National Science Foundation.

via Science Daily

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, biologist Donald Ingber explains why shape/structure is important to developing healthy tissues.

I don’t think we’ll ever see no disease, but we’ll see new types of therapies. Maybe ways of predicting diagnosing and reversing, rebooting, types of treatments for disease rather than having to cut out and replace with artificial parts. I think understanding how cells and tissues are built and how mechanical forces are into play, how structure contributes to healing and development of tissues, will allow us to develop artificial materials that truly have the physical properties and the biochemical processing properties in one that would smoothly mesh with our natural materials as opposed to right now where you have a hunk of titanium or artificial plastic or polymers that you put in and there’s a compliance, a flexibility mismatch – they’re basically a dumb material next to an incredibly brilliant, multifunctional material. So I think that, at one level, understanding complexity, physical and information processing complexity, will allow us to build biologically-inspired materials that will interface with the body and be able to, for example, create the right physical and chemical environment so that stem cells that are already in your body don’t have to be taken out, grown up and put some place – they give the right cues to say, come here and multiply and then turn into this cell type and in this pattern.

Superscanner Sees Through Solids

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Photo via flickr by ashe-villain

From soils and sediments, to chunks of pavement, archaeological remains and chocolate bars—the Nanotom, the most advanced 3D X-ray micro Computed Tomography (CT) scanner in the world, will help scientists at The University of Nottingham literally see through solids. The machine will make previously difficult and laborious research much easier as it allows researchers to probe inside objects without having to break into them.

Part of a new project in the School of Biosciences to scan soil samples for research into soil-plant interactions, the Nanotom by GE Sensing and Inspection Technology is a very powerful tool that allows us to see the internal structure of an object that might be otherwise hidden from view.

The first project of the Nanotom will be to examine the sensing ability of roots to grow in the best direction for the health of the plant through the soil. It aims to provide evidence of how the root reacts and adapts to soil stresses like drought and compaction by adjusting the genetic information in the tips of the root as it grows. The Nanotom will allow researchers to follow the progress of the root growth and soil structural development for the first time without disturbing the sample of the plant growing in the soil.

The eventual aim of research like this is to contribute to worldwide efforts for food security and sustainable food production by preserving and improving the vital but finite soil resources of the planet. It will enable scientists to come up with a recipe for the best soil composition and level of compaction, as well as informing plant breeding programs. Accurate soil structure measurement will be also be essential in changing farming practices to cut CO2 which is released into the atmosphere during traditional ploughing of agricultural soil.

via Science Daily

Is Smell Vibrational?

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

Photo via flickr by Ben Scicluna

Quantum vibration theory of smell is gaining credibility. Physicist Marshall Stoneham at the University College London is putting scientist Luca Turin’s controversial theory to the test. In Turin’s model, receptors are cued by the vibrational frequency of the odor molecule. This differs strongly from the leading theory, which supposes that the shape of the odor molecule allows it to fit like a key into the appropriate lock-like receptor. But while the shape theory is the one most accepted by scientists, it has not been proven. Shape still has a role in Turin’s model, however, being part of what determines the molecule’s overall vibrational frequency. Using quantum mechanics, says Turin’s model, an electron “tunnels” through the odor molecule, distorting its electrical field. Stoneham’s study supposed that an odor molecule sits between an electron donor and an electron receptor, while the electron “tunnels” its way to the receptor, thus activating it. The detailed structure of the receptors is unknown, but the calculations made by Stoneham and his colleagues came out favoring Turin’s mechanism.

via Air Sense

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, biophysicist Luca Turin explains the theory and history of smell as vibration:

0:00:35:00
Q: Please explain your theory that smell is vibrational.

It’s actually not my idea, I wish I could say it was, but it was first proposed by a remarkable man named Malcolm Dyson in the ‘30s. He was a very brilliant chemist, and among other things he is responsible for a lot of the notation that we describe molecules with. He devised a way of naming molecules, but that was only a side activity of his. His main thing was just straight-up chemistry. But he was also interested in how we smell, and he was the first guy to suggest that maybe what we smell in molecules is their vibrations. In 1929 and in the ‘30s when he put it forward it was politely received, I would say, rather than enthusiastically. And nothing very much happened. The idea just died a death and was revised in the ‘60s by a very remarkable man called Robert Wright, and then died again in the ‘70s.

My version of it is new and improved and it is the third incarnation of this idea. The biggest difficulty was in imagining a way in which proteins, normal components of living things, could do the job. And that’s what I have done. So mechanism was everything, and that’s my contribution to the story – figuring out a way in which organisms could detect the vibrations of molecules.

0:02:46:00
Q: And how do organisms detect vibrations of molecules?

Well, you see, the wrong assumption that was always made was that there was only one way to do spectroscopy and that was optical – you shine light of a particular frequency, infrared light of a particular frequency, at a molecule, and if the molecule absorbs the light it means the molecule has that particular frequency of vibration. And so optical equipment and infrared is hard to imagine in biology, people just thought it was rubbish. But it turns out there is another way of doing spectroscopy which is electronic. Essentially, solid-state device. And it lends itself very nicely to being a tiny size of a protein. It’s an intrinsically nanotechnological thing, this electronic spectroscopy. And that was discovered in the ‘60s, and the people who discovered it, strangely enough, John Lamb and Bob Jacklovich at Ford Motor Company, the first thing that came to their mind, and I must say that I admire them for that, was that it had to do with smell.

They discovered this electronic way of doing spectroscopy and they thought, “Maybe this is how we smell?” And what do they do? They went down the corridor and asked a chemist, “What do you think?” And the guy said, “Nah, it’s all molecular shape.” And they gave up. When they told me that, I was stunned. Because if they had only realized that Robert Wright, at the same time, was proposing that smell was due to vibration, all it would have taken was one phone call from Detroit to Vancouver and the whole field would have been completely different.

Hearing is clearly vibration. Hearing is vibration, as it says in all the ads for speakers, from 20 to 20,000 Hz. Actually, at my age 16,000 would be pushing it. And, of course, color vision is vibrations of light. The fact that smell is vibration as well, I should say, is attractive if you have a philosophical frame of mind. “Oh, it’s all wonderful harmony of nature, everything is vibration.” I personally think that it could be attractive and still be wrong. So that’s not an argument in its favor. Ultimately, it could be that it could be something else. Nature does what it likes and doesn’t care about whether Goethe would like it. But how’s it changing the industry? The answer is, “It is going to.”

Radiotelepathy: Freeman Dyson & Edge Foundation

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Photo via flickr by cyborgsuzy

“What will change everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” That was The Edge Annual Question—2009 posed by the legendary John Brockman, Editor and Publisher of the Edge Foundation established in 1988 as an outgrowth of a group known as The Reality Club, whose informal membership includes some of the most interesting minds in the world. The following answer, “Radiotelepathy”, was shared by physicist Freeman Dyson.

“RADIOTELEPATHY”, THE DIRECT COMMUNICATION OF FEELINGS AND THOUGHT FROM BRAIN TO BRAIN
Since I am 85, I cannot expect to see any big changes in science during my life-time. I beg permission to change the question to make it more interesting. What will change everything?  What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect your grandchildren to see?

I assume that some of my grandchildren will be alive for the next 80 years, long enough for neurology to become the dominant game-changing science. I expect that genetics and molecular biology will be dominant for the next fifty years, and after that neurology will have its turn. Neurology will change the game of human life drastically, as soon as we develop the tools to observe and direct the activities of a human brain in detail from the outside.

The essential facts which will make detailed observation or control of a brain possible are the following. Microwave signals travel easily through brain tissue for a few centimeters. The attenuation is small enough, so that signals can be transmitted from the inside and detected on the outside. Small microwave transmitters and receivers have bandwidths of the order of gigahertz, while neurons have bandwidths of the order of kilohertz. A single microwave transmitter inside a brain has enough bandwidth to transmit to the outside the activity of a million neurons. A system of 10^5 tiny transmitters inside a brain with 10^5 receivers outside could observe in detail the activity of an entire human brain with 10^11 neurons. A system of 10^5 transmitters outside with 10^5 receivers inside could control in detail the activity of 10^11 neurons. The microwave signals could be encoded so that each of the 10^11 neurons would be identified by the code of the signal that it transmits or receives.

These physical tools would make possible the practice of “Radiotelepathy”, the direct communication of feelings and thoughts from brain to brain. The ancient myth of telepathy, induced by occult and spooky action-at-a-distance, would be replaced by a prosaic kind of telepathy induced by physical tools. To make radiotelepathy possible, we have only to invent two new technologies, first the direct conversion of neural signals into radio signals and vice versa, and second the placement of microscopic radio transmitters and receivers within the tissue of a living brain. I do not have any idea of the way these inventions will be achieved, but I expect them to emerge from the rapid progress of neurology before the twenty-first century is over.

It is easy to imagine radiotelepathy as a powerful instrument of social change, used either for good or for evil purposes. It could be a basis for mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation of humans all over the planet. Or it could be a basis for tyrannical oppression and enforced hatred between one communal society and another. All that we can say for certain is that the opportunities for human experience and understanding would be radically enlarged. A society bonded together by radiotelepathy would be experiencing human life in a totally new way. It will be our grandchildren’s task to work out the rules of the game, so that the effects of radiotelepathy remain constructive rather than destructive. It is not too soon for them to begin thinking about the responsibilities that they will inherit. The first rule of the game, which should not be too difficult to translate into law, is that every individual should be guaranteed the ability to switch off radio communication at any time, with or without cause. When the technology of communication becomes more and more intrusive, privacy must be preserved as a basic human right.

Another set of opportunities and responsibilities will arise when radiotelepathy is extended from humans to other animal species. We will then experience directly the joy of a bird flying or a wolf-pack hunting, the pain of a deer hunted or an elephant starved. We will feel in our own flesh the community of life to which we belong.  I cannot help hoping that the sharing of our brains with our fellow-creatures will make us better stewards of our planet.

via Edge Foundation

The term “radio head” definitely has a brand new meaning. For further exploration and discovery:
-Sputnik Observatory theme on the Twenty One Senses
-Sputnik Observatory theme on Interspecies Communication

Ideas are energy.
Your brain is a satellite.
Out there is your mind.
—Sputnik Observatory

Radiopharmaceuticals

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Photo via flickr by teo_ladodicivideo

The Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs advisory committee of the FDA has voted to recommend DaTSCAN, (Ioflupane I 123 Injection). If approved, GE Healthcare’s DaTSCAN™ will be the first radiopharmaceutical agent available to detect DaT (dopamine transporter) distribution within the brain. The proposed indication for DaTSCAN™ is for the visualization by single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging in patients presenting symptoms or signs of dopaminergic neurodegeneration.

via Reuters

Non-sentient Meat

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Photo via flickr by art makes me smile

Molecular biologist Bernard Roelen of Utrecht University is working on making pig embryonic stem cells into a slice of sausage.

Placed in a nutrient bath, the embryonic cells divide and grow, changing along the way. Some are just motionless blobs, but others pulse to an eerie rhythm, having spontaneously transformed into heart muscle despite Roelen’s desire to keep them in their undifferentiated state.

Unfortunately, Roelen’s cultures only survive a few months before they fail to reproduce because of genetic problems—their chromosomes become deformed or cells end up with too many copies.

In the future, meat-growers may forgo the dish and culture stem cells on an edible, three-dimensional scaffold, and, with the right chemical signal, they would transform into sumptuous fibers of skeletal muscle protein. Roelen’s colleagues at the Eindhoven University of Technology are even working on ways to “exercise” tissue through electrical stimulation to give them a more natural texture.

Molecular microbiologist Klaas Hellingwerf of the University of Amsterdam believes that a suitable substitute lies in a medium based on yeast or algae. He has done preliminary experiments to get genetically modified algae to produce a growth factor that will encourage Roelen’s stem cells to multiply.

via Scientific American

Biophysicist Lee Silver, from a conversation with Sputnik Observatory:

If it happens someday that we can pick muscles off of trees, that would actually be very good for the environment. It would greatly reduce the amount of land used to grow meat. And lots of people in the world have an instinctive desire to eat meat, so this would be a way of satisfying. [Would it be organic?] [he laughs] What’s organic? But I think the biotechnology in the future, whatever you value, and society has to determine what values can be incorporated into biotechnological innovations – so if a society says, “We value non-sentient meat and we are willing to put money into the research to develop this,” then that’s how they can use biotechnology. Society says, “We value creating plants that are less polluting and don’t use pesticides, and we know it’s going to be more expensive but that’s the value we put into it that society pays for,” then that’s how you use biotechnology.
—Lee Silver, Biophysicist, Sputnik Observatory

A Place With No Frequency

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Photo via flickr by Pulpolux !!!

In Docket No. 11745 in the year 1958, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established The National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) bounded by NAD-83 meridians of longitude at 78d 29m 59.0s W and 80d 29m 59.2s W and latitudes of 37d 30m 0.4s N and 39d 15m 0.4s N. The vicinity encloses a land area of approximately 13,000 square miles near the state border between Virginia and West Virginia for the purpose of minimizing possible harmful interference to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, WV and the United States Navy in Sugar Grove, WV.

The NRAO is a state-of-the-art radio telescope facility for the international scientific community.

via The National Radio Quiet Zone