Category Archives: Cool Stuff

Nanomedicine advance enables medicinal “smart bombs”

New pharmacological weaponeering:

“BIND-014 demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to generate medicines with both targeted and programmable properties that can concentrate the therapeutic effect directly at the site of disease, potentially revolutionizing how complex diseases such as cancer are treated,” said Omid Farokhzad, MD, a physician-scientist in the BWH Department of Anesthesiology, associate professor at HMS, and study co- senior author.”

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Quantum computer research advancing

Science News reports on advances in using diamond in quantum computing, A diamond based device employing a nitrogen nucleus’ spin as one qubit, and an electron’s spin as the other. When the system was used to solve a problem using an unsorted database and succeeded on the first try 95% of the time, when a non-quantum computer should only be successful half the time, it indicated that a quantum effect was taking place.

Other advances announced this week include hacker resistant encryptionand more reliable method of moving qubit encoded electrons.

Navy 4 years away from laser guns

Danger Room reports that the Office of Naval Research is close to having a solid state laser with military value in about 4 years. The article talks to the difference between solid state and free electron lasers. The difference is of great effect because a solid state laser of 100Kw can deal with a few threats, but still has a dwell time on a target of many seconds to nearly a minute, demanding on the target and the conditions. This means you can’t deal with many more targets than you have lasers.

The Free Electron laser, with 10 times the power or more, can deal with many more targets than lasers – the holy grail of shipboard missile defense – a high power “shield” that makes a vessel virtually immune to missile attack. The power for this will likely require going back to nuclear power plants on surface ships to provide the necessary power, and a new generation of power handling equipment to deal with moving several Megawatts of power around a ship.

So in the near term, lasers have the potential to provide defense against a handful or 2 of small boats or a single enemy ships typical salvo of anti-ship missiles. Given that the future is likely going to see a return of Cold war era massive saturation sraids of scores of missiles against a carrier battle group, the SAM will not be made obsolete until an air defense ship has 10 Mw of power and a man battery of 4 to 6 Free electron lasers.

Nevada first to embrace self driving cars

PC Mag reports on a home for testing driver-less cars.

iProgrammer has a couple articles about the science behind it whether it can be “proven” that such cars are “uncrashable” as some want to demand in approval legislation. This gets to issues about “why does software have bugs”and the correlary, why does software that is sold, have any bugs at all?

It comes down to doing things in parrallel with feedback between “lines of operation” – this is the recipe for a “complex system” and raises the spectre of “emergent behavior”.

Then there is the Vebber’s correllary to Godwin’s Law (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”) “The longer a tech thread goes on the probability of a comparison involving Skynet approaches 1″.

“Instant” evolution??? Prions and sci-fi adaptation

The New Scientist reports on a newly discovered ability of simple yeast to overcome hostile changes in the environment by creating a prion from a “quality control” protein known as Sup35.

Prions were discovered as the infectious agents that cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in a variety of mammals, including mad cow diseases and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. These diseases affect neural tissues by causing the misfolding of proteins that accumulate and eventually cause nerve cell death. All forms are incurable and universally fatal.

What makes prions unique is their lack of nucleic acids to direct their replication. Rather than being reproductive in the normal biological sense of assembling copies of themselves, prions recreate mechanically by a normal protein and rearranging its structure into the misfolded prion form. As such they are in effect nature’s own “nano-machines”. There is still debate as to what sort of catalyst “loads the target protein into the prion machine” though the indication is that an as yet unidentified “third-party” protein is responsible.

So what does this have to do with evolution?

To date there are two mechanisms by which genetic change that results in adaptation – mutation, a change in the DNA sequence itself, or epigenesis, or “skipping” parts of the genetic code when it is read. Prions now appear to be responsible for a third mechanism related to epigenesis where instead of blocking the reading of part of the sequence, the entire sequence is read in its entirety, allowing coding of proteins that are typically ignored.

The result is that the yeast generates a hotchpotch of brand-new proteins without changing its DNA in any way. Within that mix of new proteins could be some that are crucial for survival.

Susan Lindquist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first saw this process, which she calls “combinatorial evolution”, in 2004, while studying lab-grown Baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae).

“We’ve been saying this is really cool and a way of producing new traits for years, but other people have said it’s a disease of lab yeast,” she says.

Now she’s proved the sceptics wrong by demonstrating beyond doubt that the same process happens in nature too. She has seen it at work in 255 of 700 natural yeasts she and her colleagues have studied

The result is that yeast that Lindquist grew in hostile oxygen depleted or acidic environments was able to adapt and thrive over time. Unless succeeding generations were exposed to prion destroying chemicals. Without the prions, the colonies of yeast withered and died off.

A host of questions are now being raised about what triggers prion creation, whether changes can become “permanently coded” into the genome (theoretically possible, but not observed yet) and what the implications are for higher forms than fungi.

The idea that a prion could be an “evolution accelerator” makes you look at a bunch of sci-fi plots in a whole new light.

Alcohol and creativity…science goes there!

This Science News article sounds like an episode of “mythbusters”. College in particular lead most of us to muse whether we got a little extra kick of creative energy with that bit of a buzz on, and now a study claims to confirm that men who were “tipsy” (as we used to say “had a glow going”) scored 50% higher on a word association test (thinking of a “linking word” that connected three given words, e.g. given peach, arm, and tar, giving the response ‘pit’.)

The test group was divided into two groups of 20 who were given the word test and performed comparably. Then, while watching an animated movie, one group was given enough vodka cranbery drink to reach an average of .075 BAC, just below the legal limit of intoxication (.08). They also ate a snack. The other group ate and drank nothing. Doing another test, the tipsy group completed an average of nine problems correctly averaging 11.5 sec to come up with a response, while the sober group only averaged 6 taking 15.2 secs.

I know, it was the snack, not the booze, right.

3D printing body parts

CNET reports on a Belgian company that used a process that uses a laser to melt additive layers of titanium powder to create a solid object from a CAD drawing. In this particular instance, the object is a human jaw bone, replete with integral screw threads and myriad nooks and crannies to foster supporting muscle and nerve growth. All precisely accurate to 1/33rd of a millimeter.

This technology takes what has been a rapid prototyping technology materials like wax, plastics and resins to finished end products of the highest durability (doesn’t get much more durable than titanium…). One can imagine that this process combined with recent regenerative advances to narrow the divide between prosthetic and “replacement” limbs.

Fun with Quadcopters

Though it is probably hastening the day of our subjugation by robot overlords, this video of swarming behavior by a large group of small four rotor UAVs is just too cool!

video here

from CNET article

Might future ships run on…seaweed??

This paper in the journel SCIENCE reports on discovery of a process that uses a genetically engineered e coli bateria to metaolize sugars in seaweed to achieve a .281 weight ethanol/weight of dry seaweed (macroalgae).

The question is, can sufficient seaweed be harvested to make a dent in fuel prodution. Might not solve the energy challenge writ large, but seaweed aquaculture off of major ports could provide supplemental fuel for Navies. the question would become how large an aquaculture enterprise would environmental concerns allow?

Computer memory advances – Moore’s Law safe for at least another 2 decades

ON the heels of last months Racetrack memory development, IBM announced that it achieved a proof of principle test of anti-ferromagnetic theory that allowed the reliable encoding of a bit of information using 12 atoms. Typical magnetoelectronic drives require on the order of 1 million atoms per bit encoded.

2008 saw graphene matrix technology achieve milestones that could see 3D data arrays with extremely low “leakage” rates (‘offs’ turning ‘on’ by proximity) and very low maintenance power.

2007 saw phase change memory take off as the follow-on memory to NAND (Flash-drive) and possibly DRAM (the current memory tech in PC RAM chips).

The rapid advances on these many fronts has disrupted some plans for industry wide memory standards, with companies hedging investments in near term advances like PRAM, with mid term investment in graphene and now long term R&D into anti-ferromagnetics. This could lead back to ‘bad old days” when companies had individual, proprietary memory solutions. This will likely shake out into a well-ordered progression over the next 15-20 years, but as long term alternatives present themselves, companies will retreat from going “all-in” on near term solutions, likely delaying their introduction.

The good news is that reports of 10nm being the limit of Moore’s law are being smashed, with a tech pathway for short term “universal memory” – technology that eliminates the need for separate “active memory” (ie RAM) and “storage memory” (ie hard drives) and long term “distributed computing” where CPUs and memory on a fast network are all available as needed to support processor tasks and memory allocation tasks.