Sunday, February 19, 2006

Rate of change: physics impresses

I thought I would catch up on a favorite topic of mine: physics and nanotechnology. I am not a scientist, but I like the stretch to understand this and as a communicator I try to imagine the implications for the future. Last November, the federal government created the National Nanotechnology Initiative and authorized $3.7 billion over the next four years for the program with the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office.

Talk about the rate of change going ballistic - everyday breathtaking discovery is reported in the field of nanotechnology especially in an area called spintronics [where the spin of electrons, along with their charge, is harnessed to power computer chips and circuits]. This week the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded scientists who found novel spin effects in semiconducting materials induced by electric fields along the length of the material. In this new field devices are used in the field of mass-storage devices and hard drives and are rapidly increasing along an exponential growth curve known as Kryder's Law. The doubling period for the areal density of information storage is twelve months, much shorter than Moore's Law, which observes that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every eighteen months.

For the first time, scientists [report in Nature] have created a spin triplet supercurrent through a ferromagnet over a long distance. Achieved with a magnet, the feat upends long-standing theories of quantum physics – and may be a boon to the field of spintronics.

And, investigators previously involved with the Center for Spintronics and Quantum Computation [part of the California NanoSystems Institute] say they have potentially opened up a new avenue toward room temperature quantum information processing. By demonstrating the ability to image and control single isolated electron spins in diamond, scientists have unexpectedly discovered a new channel for transferring information to other surrounding spins - an initial step towards spin-based information processing.

Bottom line: “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Gang Xiao, a Brown professor of physics and AAAS award winner. “What we’ve done was considered almost impossible. But physicists never take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Virus implicated in weight gain

I have been following this line of thinking for several years now - it was presented several years ago at the Experimental Biology conference and continues to be studied.

Scientific American reports,"New study results bolster the controversial hypothesis that certain cases of obesity are contagious. Over the last 20 years, some research has suggested that certain strains of human and avian adenoviruses--responsible for ailments ranging from the chest colds to pink eye - actually make individuals build up more fat cells. Having antibodies to one strain in particular, so-called Ad-36, proved to correlate with the heaviest obese people, and in one study, pairs of twins differed in heft depending on exposure to that virus. Now researchers have identified another strain of adenovirus that makes chickens plump."

Read more about this interesting work at Scientific American's web site.

Monday, February 06, 2006

NASA looks for life among the stars

I wanted to spend a few minutes imagining this, so I am sharing it with you!

Picture this: On Aurelia, an Earth-sized planet half shrouded in perpetual darkness, vast floodplains give way to groves of treelike stinger fans that use ambulatory roots to creep across the muddy surface. On Blue Moon, a lunar orb in an adjacent solar system light-years from Aurelia, winged skywhales gulp aerial plankton suspended in the dense atmosphere, while balloon plants float beneath the canopies of massive pagoda tree forests, buoyed by hydrogen gas-filled membranes like miniature Hindenburgs.

Wired says, "Sounds like a pair of scenes ripped from your standard off-world fantasy novel, except the science behind these alien planets isn't fiction. Aurelia and Blue Moon are based on computer models created by NASA and SETI Project researchers to help identify which stars among the universe's 70 sextillion are most likely to support life.

Oxygen levels on Blue Moon are four times higher than on Earth; carbon dioxide levels are 30 times higher. As a result, animals with supercharged muscular strength rule the skies, and plant growth is rampant. Frequent electrical storms ignite fires in the dense, interconnected pagoda tree forests, and massive winged creatures glide through the thick atmosphere on oceanlike currents.

Aurelia is a hypothetical planet that orbits a red dwarf star. Its orbit is gravitationally locked to the star, like the moon's is to Earth. The result is a day side of endless sunlight and verdant forests, and a night side of darkness and packed ice. On the day side, a constant stream of light feeds hearty palm-like flora, while solar flares of intense ultraviolet radiation send fauna scrambling for cover.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Electroconvulsive therapy makes a difference

The reporting on the updated version of ECT treatment for depression in Wired looks credible and sheds light on this sometime helpful treatment today.

Wired says, "Shock treatment for depression is making a comeback, and it no longer resembles a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Electroshock therapy, or ECT (the acronym stands for electroconvulsive therapy) has been used to treat severe depression for decades, but the serious side effects of the procedure, including short- and long-term memory loss, have long relegated it to last-resort status."

Wired quotes one expert as saying, "From the patient's point of view, TMS is really attractive. You're awake, you're conscious, and you feel in control. Instead of having a shock go through you, you're only stimulating the parts of the brain that need it."