Archive for October, 2009

Learning to See the Invisible

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Photo via flickr by Sweet J (away)

A new study at Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany reveals that our brains can be trained to consciously see stimuli that would normally be invisible.

Lead researcher Caspar Schwiedrzik from the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany said the brain is an organ that continuously adapts to its environment and can be taught to improve visual perception.

“A question that had not been tackled until now was whether a hallmark of the human brain, namely its ability to produce conscious awareness, is also trainable,” Schwiedrzik said. “Our findings imply that there is no fixed border between things that we perceive and things that we do not perceive — that this border can be shifted.”

The researchers showed subjects with normal vision two shapes, a square and a diamond, one immediately followed by a mask. The subjects were asked to identify the shape they saw. The first shape was invisible to the subjects at the beginning of the tests, but after 5 training sessions, subjects were better able to identify both the square and the diamond.

The ability to train brains to consciously see might help people with blindsight, whose primary visual cortex has been damaged through a stroke or trauma. Blindsight patients cannot consciously see, but on some level their brains process their visual environment. A Harvard Medical School study last year found that one blindsight patient could maneuver down a hallway filled with obstacles, even though the subject could not actually see.

Schwiedrzik said the new research may help blindsight patients gain conscious awareness of what their minds can see, and he suggested that new research should address whether the brains in blindsight patients and people with normal vision process the information the same way.

via and ScienceDaily

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, game designer Will Wright explains that we take in more data than our mind is conscious of—that our brain is a filter— and he wonders how do we get through the filter?

If you look at typical human senses and do a rough estimate of the data coming in through them, the visual sense takes in about 100 million bits per second, auditory is about 10 million bits per second, touch is about 100 thousand bits per second, etc, etc. So our total sensory input, at any given time, is over 100 million bits per second. But yet our conscious stream is something like 200 or 300 bits per second. So there’s something like a million-to-one difference between the total amount of data our bodies are taking in and the amount that we’re consciously aware of and thinking of. It seems from that you can kind of gather that probably 95% of our intelligence is a filtering function. How much of that millions of bits of information are we ignoring? And how are we picking out the bits that are relevant for us to put our attention on? I think there’s a remarkable amount of our intelligence that actually is ignoring the world intelligently. And we’re just noticing very small bits of it at any given point in time. So pumping a lot more information into the person, the fact is, most of it is going to get ignored. That’s what our brain is there for. A lot of our brain is there to, basically, filter out most of this data coming into us. I think what’s almost more powerful is how do we get through that filter?

How do we give the player data that they will determine is relevant to whatever they’re doing at the time? Whatever problem they’re solving, whatever experience they’re in. And then once they get that small amount of data, they can decompress it in their imagination into a vast, elaborate world. So I think a lot of what’s important to keep in mind is that, in games, we’re actually running on two processors. There’s the processor in front of you on the desktop, and then there’s the processor in your imagination. And really what we want to do, for the most part, is program the processor in your imagination.

Tapping Casimir Effect for Levitating Devices

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Photo via flickr by tanakawho

Harnessing the Casimir effect (which takes place between the two metal plates) could help researchers build tiny machines, such as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), that today are hindered by surface interaction.

Named for a Dutch physicist, the Casimir effect governs interactions of matter with the energy that is present in a vacuum. Success in harnessing this force could someday help researchers develop low-friction ballistics and even levitating objects that defy gravity. For now, the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a two-year, $10-million project encouraging scientists to work on ways to manipulate this quirk of quantum electrodynamics.

Hendrik Casimir believed that vacuum pockets of nothing do contain fluctuations of electromagnetic waves. In the 1940s with fellow Dutch physicist Dirk Polder, he suggested that two metal plates held apart in a vacuum could trap the waves, creating vacuum energy that, depending on the situation, could attract or repel the plates. As the boundaries of a region of vacuum move, the variation in vacuum energy (also called zero point energy) leads to the Casimir effect. Recent research done at Harvard University, Vrije University Amsterdam, and elsewhere has proved Casimir correct—and given some experimental underpinning to DARPA’s request for research proposals.

Investigators from five institutions—Harvard, Yale University, the University of California, Riverside, and two national labs, Argonne and Los Alamos—received funding. DARPA will assess the groups’ progress in early 2011 to see if any practical applications might emerge from the research.

Program documents on the DARPA Web site state the goal of the Casimir Effect Enhancement program “is to develop new methods to control and manipulate attractive and repulsive forces at surfaces based on engineering of the Casimir force. One could leverage this ability to control phenomena such as adhesion in nanodevices, drag on vehicles, and many other interactions of interest to the [Defense Department].”

Nanoscale design is the most likely place to start and is also the arena where levitation could emerge. Materials scientists working to build tiny machines called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) struggle with surface interactions, called van der Waals forces, that can make nanomaterials sticky to the point of permanent adhesion, a phenomenon known as “stiction.” To defeat stiction, many MEMS devices are coated with Teflon or similar low-friction substances or are studded with tiny springs that keep the surfaces apart. Materials that did not require such fixes could make nanotechnology more reliable.

Under certain conditions, manipulating the Casimir effect could create repellant forces between nanoscale surfaces. Hong Tang and his colleagues at Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science sold DARPA on their proposal to assess Casimir forces between miniscule silicon crystals, like those that make up computer chips. “Then we’re going to engineer the structure of the surface of the silicon device to get some unusual Casimir forces to produce repulsion,” he says. In theory, he adds, that could mean building a device capable of levitation.

via ScientificAmerican

Light from Nano Butterfly Wings

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Photo via flickr by Photoholic1

A team of researchers from the State University of Pennsylvania (USA) and the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) has developed a technique to replicate biological structures, such as butterfly wings, on a nano scale. The resulting biomaterial could be used to make optically active structures, such as optical diffusers for solar panels.

Insects’ colors and their iridescence (the ability to change colors depending on the angle) or their ability to appear metallic are determined by tiny nano-sized photonic structures which can be found in their cuticle. Scientists have focused on these biostructures to develop devices with light emitting properties that they have just presented in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

“This technique was developed at the Materials Research Institute of the State University of Pennsylvania and it enables replicas of biological structures to be made on a nanometric scale”, Raúl J. Martín-Palma, lecturer at the Department of Applied Physics of the UAM and co-author of the study explains.

The researchers have created “free-standing replicas of fragile, laminar, chitinous biotemplates”, that is, copies of the nano structures of butterfly wings. The appearance of these appendices usually depends more on their periodical nanometric structure (which determines the “physical” color) than on the pigments in the wings (which establish the “chemical” color).

Martín-Palma points out that the structures resulting from replicating the biotemplate of butterfly wings could be used to make various optically active structures, such as optical diffusers or coverings that maximize solar cell light absorption, or other types of devices. “Furthermore, the technique can be used to replicate other biological structures, such as beetle shells or the compound eyes of flies, bees and wasps,” the researcher says.

The compound eyes of certain insects are sound candidates for a large number of applications as they provide great angular vision. “The development of miniature cameras and optical sensors based on these organs would make it possible for them to be installed in small spaces in cars, mobile telephones and displays, apart from having uses in areas such as medicine (the development of endoscopes) and security (surveillance),” explains Martín-Palma.

via Science Daily

New Ticks in our Biological Clock

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Photo via flickr by Leo™

University of Michigan mathematicians and their British colleagues say they have identified the signal that the brain sends to the rest of the body to control biological rhythms, a finding that overturns a long-held theory about our internal clock.

The body’s main time-keeper resides in a region of the central brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei, or SCN. For decades, researchers have believed that it is the rate at which SCN cells fire electrical pulses—fast during the day and slow at night—that controls time-keeping throughout the body.

The true signaling mechanism is very different: The timing signal sent from the SCN is encoded in a complex firing pattern that had previously been overlooked, the researchers concluded.

The SCN contains both clock cells (which express a gene call per1) and non-clock cells. For years, circadian-biology researchers have been recording electrical signals from a mix of both types of cells. That led to a misleading picture of the clock’s inner workings.

But the researchers at the University of Manchester in England were able to separate clock cells from non-clock cells by zeroing in on the ones that expressed the per1 gene. Then they recorded electrical signals produced exclusively by those clock cells. The pattern that emerged bolstered the audacious new theory.

The researchers found that during the day, SCN cells expressing per1 sustain an electrically excited state but do not fire. They fire for a brief period around dusk, then remain quiet throughout the night before releasing another burst of activity around dawn. This firing pattern is the signal, or code, the brain sends to the rest of the body so it can keep time.

Understanding how the human biological clock works is an essential step toward correcting sleep problems like insomnia and jet lag. New insights about the body’s central pacemaker might also, someday, advance efforts to treat diseases influenced by the internal clock, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders.

“This work also raises important questions about whether the brain acts in an analog or a digital way,” said Dr. Mino Belle of University of Manchester.

via Science Daily

Bananas for Plastics

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Photo via flickr by puropei

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast are pioneering a new technique for the use of banana plants in the production of plastic products.The Polymer Processing Research Centre at Queen’s is taking part in a €1 million study known as the Badana project. The project will develop new procedures  to incorporate by-products from banana plantations in the Canary Islands into the production of rotationally moulded plastics. In addition to the environmental benefits, the project will increase the profitability of the plantation owners and help job security for those working in the area.

Once the fruit has been harvested, the rest of the banana plant goes to waste. An estimated 25,000 tonnes of this natural fibre is dumped in ravines around the Canaries every year.

According to Mark Kearns, Rotational Moulding Manager at the Polymer Processing Research Centre in Queen’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the natural fibres contained within the plants may be used in the production of rotationally moulded plastics, which are used to make everyday items such as, oil tanks, wheelie bins, water tanks, traffic cones, plastic dolls and many types of boats. The banana plant fibres will be processed, treated and added to a mix of plastic material and sandwiched between two thin layers of pure plastic providing excellent structural properties. The project gives a whole new meaning to ‘banana sandwich.’

via Science Daily

DNA Manufacturing

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Photo via flickr by net_efekt

Ginkgo BioWorks, a new synthetic-biology startup, aims to make biological engineering easier than baking bread. Founded by five MIT scientists, the company offers to assemble biological parts—such as strings of specific genes—for industry and academic scientists.

While companies already exist to synthesize pieces of DNA, Ginkgo assembles synthesized pieces of DNA to create functional genetic pathways.

“Think of it as rapid prototyping in biology—we make the part, test it, and then expand on it,” says Reshma Shetty, one of the company’s co-founders. Assembling specific genes into long pieces of DNA is much cheaper than synthesizing that long piece from scratch. For example, a very simple project, such as assembling two pieces of DNA, might cost $100, with prices increasing from there.

via Technology Review

In an interview with Sputnik Observatory, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson discussed the possibilities of designing with DNA:

Every biochemical lab has these machines that you just press the buttons and you make a piece of DNA according to whatever particular sequence you want. Then you run it through the PCR and you have a trillion molecules of that kind. Then you can manipulate those, clone them into a bacterium or whatever you want to do. So you have a colony of bacteria carrying this particular stretch of DNA that you want. They will then manufacture the proteins that you can design yourself. So that’s what makes it so promising – that you can start at the bottom with a single molecule and produce a whole colony of bugs doing whatever chemistry you want them to do. It looks like the right way to go. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to make tiny little tools and mechanically construct things. You’re using God’s technology rather than ours.

Brain2Brain Communication

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Photo via flickr by jmsmytaste

New research from the University of Southampton has demonstrated that it is possible for brain-to-brain (B2B) communication through the power of thought— with the help of electrodes, a computer and Internet connection.

This experiment goes a step further from Brain-Computer Interfacing (BCI) that captures brain signals and translates them into commands, says Dr Christopher James from the University’s Institute of Sound and Vibration Research.

It involved one person using BCI to transmit thoughts, translated as a series of binary digits, over the internet to another person whose computer receives the digits and transmits them to the second user’s brain through flashing an LED lamp.

While attached to an EEG amplifier, the first person would generate and transmit a series of binary digits, imagining moving their left arm for zero and their right arm for one. The second person was also attached to an EEG amplifier and their PC would pick up the stream of binary digits and flash an LED lamp at two different frequencies, one for zero and the other one for one. The pattern of the flashing LEDs is too subtle to be picked by the second person, but it is picked up by electrodes measuring the visual cortex of the recipient.

The encoded information is then extracted from the brain activity of the second user and the PC can decipher whether a zero or a one was transmitted. This shows true brain-to-brain activity.

via ScienceDaily

Powering Human Outposts on Moon or Mars

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Photo via flickr by Vattenfall

Three recent tests at different NASA centers and a national lab have successfully demonstrated key technologies required for compact fission-based nuclear power plants—the size of a trash can— for human settlements on other worlds.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., offers a one-of-a-kind test facility which, without using nuclear materials, enables engineers to simulate the nuclear power process of heat transfer from a reactor to a power converter.

“The recent tests bear out that Fission surface power system could be an important source of energy for exploration on the moon and Mars,” said Mike Houts, project manager for nuclear systems at Marshall. “This power system could provide an abundant source of reliable, cost-effective energy and may be used anywhere on the lunar surface.”

For this particular test series, the Marshall reactor simulator was linked to a Stirling engine, developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which converts heat into electricity. The testing may well be a key factor in demonstrating the readiness of fission surface power technology, and could provide NASA with an efficient and robust system to produce power in the harsh environment on the moon and Mars.

NASA’s current plan for human space exploration is to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 on expeditions that could lead to a permanent outpost for exploring the lunar surface and testing technologies that could aid a manned mission to Mars.

The space agency has been studying the feasibility of using nuclear fission power generators to support future moon bases. Engineers performed tests in recent weeks as part of a joint effort by NASA and the Department of Energy.

The next step for NASA’s fission power project is to combine its radiator, engine and alternator successes into a single non-nuclear power plant demonstration. That test is slated to begin in 2012, NASA officials said.

via ScienceDaily and NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, explained how nuclear power will support our galactic missions for decades:

As time goes on and, especially, as we try to go out to the outer planets we need to have new power supplies than simply solar converters. The reason for this is the farther away you go from the Sun, the less the intensity of energy hitting the solar panels, the less electricity is generated. And, at some point, you need too large solar panel to be feasible to deliver to some place out near Jupiter, or Saturn, or Uranus or something. So we need to reinstitute use of nuclear power, typically isotopic generators, using some radioactive material to generate electricity. Perhaps, in the longer term, we could even consider using nuclear reactors onboard these spacecraft in the same way we have used nuclear reactors onboard ships at sea in the Navy. I know that there are environmental concerns about the use of nuclear power in space, partly because during the launch phase, if anything goes wrong, people are concerned that if you crash you may splatter radioactive material around, and that would cause a lot of trouble. There are reactor designs that are quite robust when it comes to inhibiting the presence of radioactive material until after the reactor has actually been started, which we wouldn’t start until long after the launch was successful. So there are reasonable ideas, in my view anyway, to ultimately be able to use nuclear reactor power in space and, certainly, isotopic generators. The importance of that is they last longer. So we can be talking about missions with enough power to support them for decades as opposed to months. And where it is, the side effect of that is that as time goes on, if we follow that path, there will be more and more spacecraft in operation concurrently throughout the solar system. That’s not too different than what we have experienced here on Earth.