Science Sunday #14
Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 18, 2011
– and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. This week’s top stories:
Words of the Week:
Electroencephalography – the recording of electrical activity along the scalp. EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain.
QR codes – a type of matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code) first designed for the automotive industry. More recently, the system has become popular outside of industry due to its fast readability and comparatively large storage capacity. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be made up of any kind of data (e.g. binary, alphanumeric, or Kanji symbols).
Inorganic compound – Inorganic compounds can be formally defined with reference to what they are not—organic compounds.
Organic compound – any member of a large class of gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical compounds whose molecules contain carbon.
Amber – is fossilized tree resin (not sap), which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Neolithic times.
Amber is heterogeneous in composition, but consists of several resinous bodies more or less soluble in alcohol, ether and chloroform, associated with an insoluble bituminous substance.
When first we feel the pang of pain –
I thought this was interesting because one of the main memes in the anti-abortion mantra is that ‘the fetus feels pain and thus abortion is inhuman’. Those on the pro-choice side have argues that until it’s out of the body, it has no ‘feeling’. As a good skeptic, one must fallow the science and a new study seems to suggest that we ‘learn’ to feel pain around the 35-7 week point (a full term birth is 40 weeks). This means that we only learn to feel pain just before we are given birth to. The study was not intended to settle the abortion argument; its primary goal was to help understand why some premature babies have abnormal sensitivity (either more or less) to pain. Their research point to the theory that ‘painful like’ stimulation during the developmental phase of pain coincides with the ‘birth’ and ‘handling’ of the baby resulting in malformation of the cortical circuits that are to be our ‘pain centers’
SO, what does the study say? (from the articles written)
Infants can’t actually tell you whether something hurts or not, so the researchers relied on recordings of brain activity by electroencephalography (EEG). According to the researchers, recent studies have emphasized the importance of bursts of neuronal activity, both spontaneous and evoked, during the formation of functional brain circuitry. That bursting pattern of activity shifts in development to adult-like responses that are more specific to particular sensory inputs.
EEG recordings of infants between the ages of 28 to 45 weeks gestation show that the brain begins to produce distinct responses to a simple touch versus a clinically essential heel lance considered as painful at about 35 to 37 weeks gestation. (Babies’ due dates are based on 40 weeks of pregnancy, and babies are generally considered full term at 37 weeks).
The results may have implications for the treatment, care, and development of premature newborns, Lorenzo Fabrizi (of University College London and lead author) said, noting that these children can often grow up to be either more or less sensitive to pain than usual.”
“Our finding that [pain stimulation] increases neuronal bursting activity in the brain from the earliest age raises the possibility that excess noxious input may disrupt the normal formation of cortical circuits, and that this is a mechanism underlying the long-term neurodevelopmental consequences and altered pain behavior in ex preterm children.” Said Fabirizi
Invisible tanks gets a QR Code –
QR codes – the fuzzy squares of data that can be scanned with a smartphone – could be projected into the sides of tanks to send covert information, using only heat. Defence firm BAE Systems has developed a technology called Adaptiv, which uses hexagonal tiles that can change temperature to hide or even disguise a tank’s infra-red signature.
BAE demonstrated how input from a tank’s on-board software can heat or cool the individual tiles to either hide the vehicle from enemy infrared sensors. Because each tile can be individually heated or cooled, the system can also project the infrared image of other objects onto the side of the tank; a car for example, or even just a pile of rocks.
BAE’s Peder Sjolund says that because a number of available pre-set patterns can be stored on board the tank’s computer system, the tiles could even be used to communicate by using them like pixels to spell out coded messages in the form of a QR code.
Koomey’s law –
Computers have historically doubled in energy efficiency every 18 months, according to new study. The study, titled “Implications of Historical Trends in the Electrical Efficiency of Computing,” was published in Annals of the History of Computing
“The idea is that at a fixed computing load, the amount of battery you need will fall by a factor of two every year and a half,” says Jonathan Koomey, consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and lead author of the study. More mobile computing and sensing applications become possible, Koomey says, as energy efficiency continues its steady improvement.
Since 1965, Moore’s Law has served as a benchmark for the computer hardware industry, pushing vendors to double the processing power of computing equipment every 18 months or so. It turns out that computers have doubled in energy efficiency at about the same rate, according to a new study co-authored by data-center-power guru Dr. Jonathan Koomey.
The implications of the study, titled “Implications of Historical Trends in the Electrical Efficiency of Computing,” are worth noting: It means we’ll steadily continue to see mobile devices — including sensors and controls — become smaller while requiring fewer watts to pull off greater computational feats. Higher energy efficiency also means lower power bills and, ideally, a widespread reduction in carbon emissions.
In 1985, the physicist Richard Feynman analyzed the electricity needs for computers and estimated that efficiency could theoretically improve by a factor of 100 billion before it hit a limit, excluding new technologies such as quantum computing. Since then, efficiency improvements have been about 40,000. “There’s so far to go,” says Koomey. “It’s only limited by our cleverness, not the physics.”
Robo-linguistics – AI creates a ‘natural’ language –
When robots talk to each other, they’re not generally using language as we think of it, with words to communicate both concrete and abstract concepts. Now Australian researchers are teaching a pair of robots to communicate linguistically like humans by inventing new spoken words, a lexicon that the roboticists can teach to other robots to generate an entirely new language.
Ruth Schulz and her colleagues at the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology call their robots the Lingodroids. The robots consist of a mobile platform equipped with a camera, laser range finder, and sonar for mapping and obstacle avoidance. The robots also carry a microphone and speakers for audible communication between them.
What they are trying to do is to put the robot into a situation of a person who has lost all memory (including language) and what would happen if they met someone in a similar condition. The theory is one would spontaneously create ‘random’ words to describe thinks…like where or what ‘HERE’ is or who or what ‘YOU’ are. You them communicate this to the other in an attempt to communicate. Over time and with practice the two of you develop a vocabulary and communications is possible. This is what the researched did to the ‘Lingodroids’.
If one of the robots finds itself in an unfamiliar area, it’ll make up a word to describe it, choosing a random combination from a set of syllables. It then communicates that word to other robots that it meets, thereby defining the name of a place. After playing several hundred ‘games’ to develop their language, the robots agreed on directions within 10 degrees and distances within 0.375 meters. And using just their invented language, the robots created spatial maps (including areas that they were unable to explore) that agree remarkably well.
In the future, researchers hope to enable the Lingodroids to “talk” about even more elaborate concepts, like descriptions of how to get to a place or the accessibility of places on the map. Ultimately, techniques like this may help robots to communicate with each other more effectively, and may even enable novel ways for robots to talk to humans.
Birth of inorganic life? –
Professor Lee Cronin, Gardiner Chair of Chemistry in the College of Science and Engineering, and his team say they have taken their first tentative steps towards creating ‘life’ from inorganic chemicals potentially defining the new area of ‘inorganic biology’.
Prof Cronin said: “All life on earth is based on organic biology (i.e. carbon in the form of amino acids, nucleotides, and sugars, etc.) but the inorganic world is considered to be inanimate. What we are trying do is create self-replicating, evolving inorganic cells that would essentially be alive. You could call it inorganic biology.”
The cells can be compartmentalized by creating internal membranes that control the passage of materials and energy through them, meaning several chemical processes can be isolated within the same cell — just like biological cells.
The research is part of a project by Prof Cronin to demonstrate that inorganic chemical compounds are capable of self-replicating and evolving — just as organic, biological carbon-based cells do. “Bacteria are essentially single-cell micro-organisms made from organic chemicals, so why can’t we make micro-organisms from inorganic chemicals and allow them to evolve?” said Cronin.
Dinosaur Feathers Discovered in Canadian Amber –
Not long ago, extinct dinosaurs were considered by most as scaly and dull. All the known fossils of primitive birds could easily fit on a desk and our only look at Mesozoic feathers was Archaeopteryx, a theropod dinosaur considered by most to be the most primitive bir).
How things have changed—now it would take a warehouse to store all the feathered Mesozoic stem birds and nonavian dinosaurs that have been collected from global deposits. Feathered animals abound and extend deep into nonavian history—even, perhaps, to the base of dinosaurs themselves. Now, instead of scaly animals portrayed as usually drab creatures, we have solid evidence for a fluffy colored past.
A fascinating illustration of this has now been discovered in feathers trapped in amber, found in Alberta. Dr. Ryan McKellar, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, found 11 different feather samples, frozen in amber more than 70 million years ago. At the time of their inclusion into the amber, Alberta was quite different, it was then near sea level in what would have been a wetland covered with conifer forests. The discoveries include primitive proto-feathers, presumably from dinosaurs, as well as complex feathers indistinguishable from modern birds.
“These lovely specimens of significantly older, smaller dinosaurs from China have got some sort of covering about them. But you can’t tell if it’s hair or feathers because the fossils have undergone the ravages of time,” said paleontologist Alex Wolfe of the University of Alberta, a co-author of the new study. “Those fossils don’t preserve the kind of detail that we have in amber, which doesn’t fossilize but entombs an object.”
Removing the need for Veganism – Grow Meat in the Lab –
Many technology components are now coming into place in order to realize the concept of cultured meat. This includes a cell source that is possible to use, several alternative processes to turn these cells into muscle cells for meat, and nutrients free of animal components which can be produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide..
In addition, a life cycle assessment of cultured meat compared to traditionally produced meat was recently published. It shows that the environmental benefits of cultured meat are very large. For example, compared to the rearing of cattle, cultured meat would entail dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.
At a workshop in Sweden an interdisciplinary group of 25 scientists who all have special interest in cultured meat met. Some of them where environmental scientists, ethicists, social scientists and economists. All of these areas have been discussed during the workshop. The result is encouraging regarding the possibility to actually be able to supply consumers with cultivated meat in the future, and the scientists have not found any crucial arguments against cultured meat.
“On the contrary, several ethical problems would be solved, especially concerning animal welfare issues,” says Stellan Welin, Professor in Biotechnology, Culture and Society, one of the convenors of the workshop.