Sunday, April 23, 2006

A constant of nature - can it change?

This is an facinating story I could not resist because I am intrigued with physicists and their contemplations.

According to a story in New Scientist, "Cosmologists claim to have found evidence that yet another fundamental constant of nature, called mu, may have changed over the last 12 billion years. If confirmed, the result could force some physicists to radically rethink their theories. It would also provide support for string theory, which predicts extra spatial dimensions. This is not the first time fundamental constants have been accused of changing over the lifetime of the universe. Most famously, there was controversy over the fine structure constant, alpha (α), which governs how light and electrons interact. Some physicists claimed it is changing while others said it was not."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Device allows man to fiddle with traffic lights

This sounds like a something we would all love to do, but probably wouldn't.

According to an Associated Press story, "a man who said he bought a device that let him change traffic lights from red to green has received a $50 ticket on suspicion of interfering with a traffic signal."

The fellow given the ticket said that the device, which he bought on eBay for $100, helped him cut his time driving to work.

He used "a strobe-like device to change traffic signals because he said he ran late to the office frequently.

The AP continutes, "The device, called an Opticon, is similar to what firefighters use to change lights when they respond to emergencies. It emits an infrared pulse that receivers on the traffic lights pick up."

City traffic engineers noticed repeated traffic-light disruptions on certain intersections and noted the same vehicle when light patterns were disrupted.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Cells talk in pairs - like people at the water cooler

I can't help but admire the public relations/scientist team that came up with this description to help people better understand cell communication:

"When a group of people tries to decide how to carry out an important task, it is sometimes said that the pivotal discussions do not happen in large, well-attended meetings, but in one-on-one conversations around the water cooler. It turns out that among individual neurons in our brains, the same may hold true.

"Likening the process to the sort of casual conversations one might have at a cocktail party, William Bialek and his research team have found that retinal ganglion cells, the nerve cells along the back of our eyes that transmit visual signals to the brain, organize their actions based on communications they have with other individual cells rather than on group-style discussions. The findings, derived from experiments with and mathematical models of groups of 40 cells in the retinas of salamanders, could shed light on how brain cells work as a team."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Robots in unpredictable environments

The National Academy of Sciences is holding a symposium with its annual meeting to discuss robot technology.

According to its web site, "As robot technology advances, we are approaching the day when robots will be deployed prevalently in uncontrolled, unpredictable environments: the proverbial 'real world.' As this happens, it will be essential for these robots to be able to adapt autonomously to their changing environment. This session will present three examples of machine learning on physical robots: Peter Stone of the University of Texas at Austin will present a machine-learning approach to legged locomotion, with all training done on the physical robots; Brian Scassellati of Yale University will present research on humanoid robots that learn to use normal social cues to interact with people; and Ayanna Howard of the Georgia Institute of Technology will present research that focuses on space robotics, in which robust operations must occur in environments that are unknown, unexpected, and uncertain.

For interesting reading about robot technology, go to the BBC's The World and Science Daily.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Bionic man merges biology and electronics

Recently at Experimental Biology 2006 some of the leading scientists in the rapidly expanding field of bionics explain how much of what was once fiction is today at least partial reality – including electronically-powered legs, arms, and eyes like those given TV’s Six Million Dollar Man 30-plus years ago.

The symposium on “The $6 Billion (Hu)Man” was part of the scientific program at the Experimental Biology 2006 meeting. Bionics, a word that merges biology with electronics, means replacing or enhancing anatomical structures or physiological processes with electronic or mechanical components Unlike prostheses, the bionic implant actually mimics the original function, sometimes surpassing the power of the original organ or other body part. Bionics takes place at the interface between bioengineering and anatomy.

Dr. William Craelius, Rutgers University, created the first multi-finger prosthesis, combining new understanding of musculoskeletal signaling with advances in human-to-machine communication. In recent years, prosthetic limbs have transformed from the unwieldy designs of the last century into more life-like limb substitutes that give users a more intuitive feel for their adopted limb. The bionic hand system (Dextra) produced by Dr. Craelius and his colleagues uses existing nerve pathways to control individual computer-driven mechanical fingers. Dextra consists of a standard plastic socket and silicone sensor sleeve that encases an amputee’s limb below the elbow. After a brief training period, operating the fingers is biomimetic, that is, it is done by normal volitional thinking, as if the user were commanding his natural fingers.

In Dr. Scott Delp’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Laboratory at Stanford, digital humans walk across the computer screen, their visible musculoskeletal system revealing the complex interplay of muscles, bones, momentum and gravity that makes up human movement. A few alterations to the computer program that controls the form and function of these mechanisms, and the movements of the previously healthy, agile human on the screen change into those caused by neuromuscular disorders such as stroke, osteoarthritis, or Parkinson’s.

Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, University of California, Berkeley, is the creator of BLEEX, a wearable robotic system that turns its wearer into a man or woman of incredible strength, able to carry up to 200 pounds with no more effort or strain than it would take to carry 10 pounds. Dr. Kazerooni started his work by understanding the human gait. Then, through the design of a novel actuation system, a network of sensors, a pair of computer controlled strap-on robotic legs, and an intelligent algorithm, he created the BLEEX to follow the wearer’s gait faithfully while carrying major loads. As the wearer walks and runs normally on ascending and descending slopes and stairs, the embedded sensors and computers in the robotic legs function like an extension of his or her own nervous system, gathering information on the direction being moved and continually redistributing the weight to make it feel like a barely perceptible burden.

Dr. Timothy Marler describes SantosTM, a new kind of complete whole-body virtual (computer-based) human model developed at the University of Iowa’s Virtual Soldier Research laboratory. Santos TM combines a highly realistic appearance, real-time simulations, and a relatively complex musculoskeletal structure. Because he will think, move, and act like a real human, he provides both an unique tool to scientists studying the human body and feedback to engineers who are designing and improving products. Unlike virtual mannequins, Santos actually predicts human motion and behavior based on human performance measures, such as energy, joint torque, or discomfort.

Cinnamon has health benefis

Reported recently are two studies presented at Experimental Biology 2006: They provide new evidence for the beneficial effects (and biochemical actions) of cinnamon as an anti-inflammatory agent and support earlier findings of its power as an anti-oxidant agent and an agent able to lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose, and improve how well insulin functions.

In a related study, extracts of cloves also were found to improve the function of insulin and to lower glucose, total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides in people with type 2 diabetes. The studies were presented at Experimental Biology 2006 and provide the first evidence of these beneficial effects in humans taking the equivalent of one to two cloves per day.

Earlier studies by Dr. Richard A. Anderson, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, United States Department of Agriculture, had shown that the equivalent of a quarter to half a teaspoon of cinnamon given to humans twice a day decreased risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, including glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides, by 10 to 30 percent. These new studies showing cinnamon’s ability to block inflammation extend our understanding of the potential for the spice, says Dr. Anderson.

As an anti-inflammatory agent, cinnamon may be useful in preventing or mitigating arthritis as well as cardiovascular disease. And as scientists increasingly understand the relationship between inflammation and insulin function in Alzheimer’s (causing some to refer to the neurodegenerative disease as “type 3 diabetes”), cinnamon’s ability to block inflammation and enhance insulin function may make it useful in combating that disease as well.

Dr. Heping Cao of the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center and colleagues, including Dr. Anderson, investigated the biochemical basis for the insulin-like effects of cinnamon. Results showed that cinnamon, like insulin, increases the amount of three critically important proteins involved in the body’s insulin signaling, glucose transport, and inflammatory response. Dr. Cao says the study provides new biochemical evidence for the beneficial effects of cinnamon in potentiating insulin action and suggests anti-inflammatory properties for the antioxidants in cinnamon.