Volume 10, Number 9
Edited by John L. Petersen
Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11th at the age of 84. He was a man of wisdom who spoke from a unique, and often quirky, perspective. We will miss his voice among us. Here’s a thought-provoking editorial he wrote in 2004. -JLP
- The cause of high blood pressure may be found within your brain.
- The US military believes water shortages will become a major national security problem.
- Ocean levels are projected to rise 4.3 feet by 2080, possibly flooding low-lying cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
- Plastic solar cells are expected to hit 10% efficiency by next year – well above the 8% threshold estimated for such cells to be commercially viable.
Computing as a Natural Science
Human Brain Has Origin in Lowly Worm
The Brain May Use Only 20% of Its Memory-Forming Neurons
Mystery of Oldest Trees Unraveled
Quantum Secrets of Photosynthesis Revealed
Genes Show T. Rex Related to Chickens
Water Found in Extrasolar Planet’s Atmosphere
Computing as a Natural Science — (CACM IT — April 13, 2007)
An interesting position piece, which takes the stance that information processing and computing are not – in fact, were never – strictly ‘artificial’ fields, limited to areas of human technology. The author makes the case that, given the abundance of information processes that scientists continue to find in nature, computing should properly be thought of as a natural science.
Human Brain Has Origin in Lowly Worm — (LiveScience — April 21, 2007)
In a new study, researchers examined the embryos of a marine annelid worm called Platynereis dumerilii, which has a nervous system unchanged for eons. The molecular anatomy of the developing central nervous system turned out to be virtually the same in vertebrates (including humans) and Platynereis. Corresponding regions give rise to neuron types with similar molecular fingerprints and these neurons also go on to form the same neural structures in annelid worm and vertebrates.
The Brain May Use Only 20% of Its Memory-Forming Neurons— (Scientific American — April 19, 2007)
Remember the old myth that people only use 10% of their brains? Although a new study confirmed that bromide to be apocryphal, it did find that we may only use 20% of the nerve cells in our midbrain to form memories.
Mystery of Oldest Trees Unraveled — (SPX — April 23, 2007)
New fossil evidence has offered fresh insights into the world’s oldest trees found in an area cited as home to the Earth’s oldest forest. Located in Schoharie County, NY, the region has yielded tremendous tree trunks from the Devonian era, meaning they’re roughly 380 million years old. The fossil, more than 12 feet long, offered the first evidence of how big and complex the trees were and what their tops looked like.
Quantum Secrets of Photosynthesis Revealed — (Berkeley Research News– April 12, 2007)
Through photosynthesis, green plants and cyanobacteria are able to transfer sunlight energy to molecular reaction centers for conversion into chemical energy with nearly 100% efficiency. Speed is the key – the transfer of the solar energy takes place almost instantaneously so little energy is wasted as heat. How photosynthesis achieves this near instantaneous energy transfer is a long-standing mystery that may have finally been solved, with a new study reporting that the answer lies in quantum mechanical effects.
Genes Show T. Rex Related to Chickens — (LiveScience — April 13, 2007)
An adolescent female Tyrannosaurus rex died 68 million years ago, but its bones still contain intact soft tissue, including the oldest preserved proteins ever found. A comparison of the protein’s chemical structure to a slew of other species showed an evolutionary link between T. rex and chickens, bolstering the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
Water Found in Extrasolar Planet’s Atmosphere — (Space — April 10, 2007)
Astronomers have detected water in the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system for the first time. The finding confirms theories that water vapor should be present in the atmospheres of nearly all the known extrasolar planets. Even planets such as hot Jupiters, gaseous planets that orbit closer to their stars than Mercury to our Sun, are thought to have water.
Blood Pressure is in the Brain
Caterpillar Robot Treats Hearts
Scientists look to Disrupt the Brain Chemistry of Violence
Returning the Springiness to Arthritic Joints
Navigating the Future of Surgery
Artificial Bones Created From an Inkjet
Blood Pressure is in the Brain — (BBC — April 15, 2007)
The cause of high blood pressure may lie within the brain, rather than with problems relating to the heart, kidneys or blood vessels, research suggests. Scientists isolated a protein, JAM-1, in the brain which appeared to trap white blood cells, obstructing blood flow and subsequently causing a rise in blood pressure.
Caterpillar Robot Treats Hearts — (BBC – April 18, 2007)
A robotic caterpillar has been designed which can crawl across the surface of the heart to deliver treatment. The tiny robot, just a few centimeters long, can move at up to 18 centimeters per minute, controlled by “push and pull” wires from outside the body.
Scientists look to Disrupt the Brain Chemistry of Violence — (Physorg – April 22, 2007)
Strides in understanding human brain chemistry and genetics are giving scientists hope they may be able to defuse violent behavior. Clinical research as well as animal testing over some 40 years has shown that there are specific zones in the brain linked to aggression and violence.
Returning the Springiness to Arthritic Joints — (MIT Technology Review – April 17, 2007)
Joints allow us to run, jump, and throw a ball, cushioning our bones from wear and tear with a protective bubble of lubricating fluid. But joints falter with disease and old age, leaving millions searching for ways to keep them healthy. Now researchers have discovered that a protein found in joint fluid acts as a shock absorber, which they believe will yield new ways to treat or even prevent, arthritis.
Navigating the Future of Surgery — (SPX – April 19, 2007)
The world’s first MRI-compatible surgical robot was recently unveiled. Designed to be controlled by a surgeon from a computer workstation, neuroArm operates in conjunction with real-time MR imaging, providing surgeons with unprecedented detail and control, enabling them to manipulate tools at a microscopic scale.
Artificial Bones Created From an Inkjet — (Daily Mail – April 14, 2007)
Scientists are creating artificial bones using a modified version of an inkjet printer. The technology creates perfect replicas of bones that have been damaged and these can then be inserted in the body to help it to heal. The process will revolutionize bone graft surgery, which currently relies on either bits of bone taken from other parts of the body or ceramic-like substitutes.
Nanogenerator Fueled by Vibrations — (MIT Technology Review — April 5, 2007)
Using ultrasonic waves to vibrate an array of zinc-oxide nanowires, researchers have made a tiny generator that can produce direct current. By taking advantage of the fact that zinc-oxide nanowires are piezoelectric – i.e., they can convert mechanical energy into electricity – and by finding a way to collect electricity from multiple nanowires, researchers have taken a big step toward a practical nanoscale power generator.
Natural HIV Blocker Found
Gonorrhea Drug-Resistant Microbe Outsmarts Antibiotics
Bird Flu Genome Study Finds New Strains
Natural HIV Blocker Found — (Guardian — April 20, 2007)
A compound found naturally in blood could form the basis for an entirely new class of AIDS drugs. The chemical prevents the HIV virus from entering human immune cells and it is effective even against strains of the virus that are resistant to other drugs.
Gonorrhea Drug-Resistant Microbe Outsmarts Antibiotics — (Info Zine — April 13, 2007)
Warning of a looming public health crisis, the Infectious Diseases Society of America called for new antibiotics to treat gonorrhea, a common drug-resistant “superbug” that has become increasingly difficult to treat. This followed an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gonorrhea resistance to powerful antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones has become widespread throughout the country. This development means that only one class of antibiotics can now be used to treat gonorrhea.
Bird Flu Genome Study Finds New Strains — (SPX — April 18, 2007)
A study of 36 genomes of the H5N1 virus collected from wild birds in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Vietnam confirms not only that the virus has very recently spread west from Asia, but that two of the new western strains have already independently combined, or “reassorted,” to create a new strain.
Sharing Data Visualization
Scientists Unveil Spray-On Computer
Sharing Data Visualization — (MIT Technology Review — April 11, 2007)
IBM is showing that there’s more to the social Internet than just sharing pictures and video clips. The company has launched a new website, called Many Eyes, with the hope of adding a social aspect to data visualizations like maps, network diagrams, and scatter plots. Many Eyes teaches people how to build their own visualizations so that they can dive into complex, multidimensional data. Since its launch in January, the site has amassed nearly 2,000 visualizations that illustrate, for example, the carbon emission of cars and the nutritional information of food on a McDonald’s menu
Scientists Unveil Spray-On Computer — (Scotsman — April 8, 2007)
Scientists have developed a computer the size of a matchstick head, thousands of which can be sprayed onto patients to give a comprehensive analysis of their condition. Speckled computing – some of the most advanced computing technology in the world – is a technology in which the individual “appliances”, or “specks”, form networks that can be programmed like ordinary computers.
Australian Drought Linked to Global Warming
U.S. and Global Water Wars Loom
Millions Face Hunger from Climate Change
Pollution Hits China’s Farmland
Australian Drought Linked to Global Warming — (AFP — April 20, 2007)
An unprecedented drought that has withered Australia’s major food production zone could be a taste of things to come as global warming ramps up. The six-year drought has been so extreme that Australia may have to import food; meanwhile, fears are mounting that supermarket prices will skyrocket if no rains fall within the next few weeks.
U.S. and Global Water Wars Loom — (AP — April 17, 2007)
As the world warms, water – either too little or too much of it – is going to be the major problem for the United States, according to scientists and military experts. It will be a domestic problem, with states clashing over controls of rivers, and an issue of national security as water shortages and floods worsen conflicts and terrorism elsewhere in the world.
Millions Face Hunger from Climate Change — (AP — April 10, 2007)
Rising global temperatures could melt Latin America’s glaciers within 15 years, cause food shortages affecting 130 million people across Asia by 2050 and wipe out Africa’s wheat crop, according to a new U.N. report.
Pollution Hits China’s Farmland — (BBC — April 23, 2007)
More than 10% of China’s farm land is polluted, posing a “severe threat” to the nation’s food production. Agricultural land fell to 121.8 million hectares by the end of October 2006 – a loss of 306,800 hectares since the start of the year. Heavy metals alone contaminate 12 million tons of grain each year, causing annual losses of $2.5 billion.
New Record for Plastic Solar Cell Efficiency
Solar Cells That Work All Day
China to Set Up Strategic Uranium Reserve
Ethanol Cars May Not be Healthier
A New Take on Wind Power
New Record for Plastic Solar Cell Efficiency — (SPX — April 20, 2007)
In order to be considered a viable technology for commercial use, solar cells must be able to convert about 8% of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Two years ago, cheap plastic solar cells maxed out at 3%. As of early 2007, these cheaper cells have surpassed the 6% mark and are expected to perform at 10% or better within a year.
Solar Cells That Work All Day — (MIT Technology Review — April 17, 2007)
Solar cells generally crank out the most power at noon, when the sun is at its highest point and can strike the cell at a 90-degree angle. Before and after noon, efficiencies drop off. But researchers have come up with a prototype that does the opposite. Their new solar cell, whose surface consists of hundreds of thousands of 100-micrometer-high towers, catches light at many angles and actually works best in the morning and afternoon.
China to Set Up Strategic Uranium Reserve — (AFP — April 18, 2007)
China, planning a massive expansion of its nuclear power industry, aims to build a strategic uranium reserve. Over the next 10 years, China will construct as many as three new nuclear power plants each year, resulting in increased demand for nuclear fuels of up to five times its current consumption. The plans for the reserve – China’s third after its strategic oil and grain stockpiles – highlight its concern about long-term energy security and how that can affect the global supply of essential resources.
Ethanol Cars May Not be Healthier — (BBC — April 18, 2007)
Ethanol vehicles may have worse effects on human health than conventional petrol, scientists have warned. A computer model set up to simulate air quality in 2020 found that in some areas ozone levels would increase if all cars were run on bioethanol.
A New Take on Wind Power — (CNN — April 16, 2007)
Conventional small wind turbines only work 20% to 40% of the time due to variations in wind speed. A new type of micro-wind turbine, by comparison, can operate 80% in most wind conditions.
TERRORISM, SECURITY AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE
Global Warming May be Security Factor
Robot Wars — (Economist — April 17, 2007)
War is expensive and bloody. That is why America’s Department of Defense wants to replace a third of its armed vehicles and weaponry with robots by 2015. Such a change would save money, as robots are usually cheaper to replace than people. As important for the generals, it would make waging war less prey to the politics of body bags. Nobody mourns a robot.
Global Warming May be Security Factor — (AP — April 16, 2007)
Global warming poses a “serious threat to America’s national security” with terrorism worsening and the increased likelihood that the U.S. will be dragged into fights over water and other shortages, top retired military leaders warn in a new report. Retired U.S. military leaders, including the former Army chief of staff and President Bush’s former chief Middle East peace negotiator, called on the U.S. government to make major cuts in emissions of gases that cause global warming.
CONTACT AND THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE
India’s First Commercial Rocket Takes Off
Black Holes May Fill the Universe with Seeds of Life
Russia Eyes Industrial Development of Moon
‘Deflector’ Shields Could Protect Future Astronauts
Making a Mint out of the Moon
India’s First Commercial Rocket Takes Off — (BBC — April 23, 2007)
India’s first commercial rocket has been launched into space. It is carrying a 352kg Italian satellite which will gather information about the origins of the universe. India’s space program also includes an unmanned mission to the Moon due to take place next year.
Black Holes May Fill the Universe with Seeds of Life — (Physorg — April 20, 2007)
New research shows that black holes are not the ultimate destroyers that they are often portrayed to be in popular culture. Instead, warm gas escaping from the clutches of enormous black holes could be one source of the chemical elements that make life possible.
Russia Eyes Industrial Development of Moon — (Reuters — April 11, 2007)
Russia is working on a space transport system that could eventually lead to the industrialization of the moon. Backers of the idea argue that the potential benefits – such as resource harvesting or pollution outsourcing – easily outweigh the risks and necessary investment capital.
‘Deflector’ Shields Could Protect Future Astronauts — (New Scientist — April 18, 2007)
The Earth’s magnetic field protects spacecraft in low-Earth orbits from dangerous space radiation. But astronauts journeying to Mars or living on the Moon would benefit from no such protection. Now, US and European plans for long-term missions to the Moon and Mars have sparked renewed interest in the problem of radiation shielding. One group has just completed a round of experiments investigating one possible approach, using a bubble of charged particles, or plasma, as a deflector shield
Making a Mint out of the Moon — (BBC — April 9, 2007)
From his office in Nevada, entrepreneur Dennis Hope has spawned a multi-million-dollar business selling plots of lunar real estate at $20 an acre. Mr. Hope exploited a loophole in the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty and he has been claiming ownership of the Earth’s Moon – and seven planets and their moons – for more than 20 years.
DEMOGRAPHICS AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Obesity Rising in Europe, Especially in Children
Your Virtual Clone
Perfect Clones, to the Last Computer-Generated Wrinkle
Obesity Rising in Europe, Especially in Children — (Reuters — April 22, 2007)
The number of overweight people in Europe is rising and there is an especially worrying trend of increasing childhood obesity and in the number of people who are grossly obese. Estimates show there are around 1.1 billion overweight people in the world, of whom 312 million are obese, and that in Europe almost half the population is overweight.
Your Virtual Clone — (MIT Technology Review — April 20, 2007)
No one will be fooled into thinking it’s you, but MyCyberTwin, launched earlier this month, does a decent job of acting as your stand-in when you’re not reachable. If you embed your cybertwin in your blog or website, visitors can learn about you through an open-ended conversation. You can program your cybertwin with as much factual information and as much of your personality as you like. If you think visitors to your blog might ask “What are you doing Saturday night?”, you can train it to respond “Going to see Harry Potter with friends. Why don’t you join us?”
Perfect Clones, to the Last Computer-Generated Wrinkle — (New Scientist — April 23, 2007)
The actress sits in a dome-shaped metal cage, surrounded by lights and cameras. She closes her eyes and the lights start flashing. In less than a minute the cameras have captured enough data to create a 3D digital double that can be aged, given a sun tan or realistically illuminated to fit into almost any situation. It’s a glimpse of a future where real and virtual may become almost indistinguishable.
JUST FOR FUN
Minister Stands by Tagging Idea for the Elderly — (Guardian — April 20, 2007)
A British science minister recently floated a suggestion that satellite technology could be used to track vulnerable older people. His comments came amidst a parliamentary hearing on the possible uses of satellite technology. During the ensuing massive public relations fallout, the minister defended the idea, adding that the government had no plans to pursue the concept at present.
“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” -George Bernard Shaw
A special thanks to Bernard Calil, Ken Dabkowski, Neil Freer, Ursula Freer, Humera Khan, KurzweilAI, Sher Patterson-Black, Diane C. Petersen, John C. Petersen, the Schwartzreport, Joel Snell and Matthew W. Sollenberger, our contributors to this issue. If you see something we should know about, do send it along – thanks.