Saturday, December 22, 2007

For a Few Bucks: Your Genome

I am intrigued by the new companies that will read your DNA for $1,000. I was first interested in 23andme - a web-based place that describes the process in a very user friendly way. A company just covered in Scientific American is deCODE's deCODEme. The story says: deCODE Genetics has launched a new service that, for a mere $985, will take your FedExed cheek swab and scan the enclosed DNA for a sprinkling of genetic variations linked with 20 or so diseases, as well as ancestry and physical traits such as eye color (in case you don't have a mirror handy). Not quite ushering in the eagerly awaited era of the $1,000 personal genome, the new service, called deCODEme, will cover less than 0.1 percent of the three billion units of the full genome, which remains a bit too pricey for most people to have sequenced—unless they are geneticist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter. (See News Bytes of the Week—Popcorn lung leaves the factory.) An era it is, though. Hot on deCODE's heels came the Google-backed 23andMe, which offers a similar service for $999 that would cover 35 percent less of the genome, and a third company, Navigenics, is expected to launch a disease-focused scan.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Clarke Legacy: Space Elevators?

I noticed the news today that Arthur C. Clarke is 90, and celebrated his birthday at his home in Sri Lanka. He listed three wishes: for the world to embrace cleaner energy resources, for a lasting peace in his adopted home, Sri Lanka, and for evidence of extraterrestrial beings.

I decided to check out Clarke's best-known accomplishments and was intrigued by a concept called space elevators. His novel The Fountains of Paradise, in which he first described a space elevator, he believes, ultimately will be his legacy, more so than geostationary satellites, once space elevators make space shuttles obsolete.

Wikipedia says that a space elevator is a proposed megastructure designed to transport material from a celestial body's surface into space. The term most often refers to a structure that reaches from the surface of the Earth to geosynchronous orbit (and beyond). The concept of a structure reaching to geosynchronous orbit was first conceived by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who proposed a compression structure, or "Tsiolkovsky tower." Most recent discussions focus on tensile structures (tethers) reaching from geosynchrous orbit to the ground. Space elevators have also sometimes been referred to as beanstalks, space bridges, space lifts, space ladders, skyhooks, orbital towers, or orbital elevators.

The most common proposal is a tether, usually in the form of a cable or ribbon, spanning from the surface near the equator to a point beyond geosynchronous orbit. As the planet rotates, the inertia at the end of the tether counteracts gravity, and also keeps the cable taut. Vehicles can then climb the tether and get in orbit without the use of rocket propulsion. Such a structure could theoretically permit delivery of cargo and people to orbit at a fraction of the cost of launching a payload into orbit, and without the substantial environmental harm caused by some rocket fuels.

Recent proposals for a space elevator are notable in their plans to incorporate carbon nanotubes into the tether design, thus providing a link between space exploration and nanotechnology.
Actual cable-scale technology is currently inadequate to build space elevators, but research is ongoing, and some people believe that technology to do this may soon exist.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Biodiesel: Hope for the Alternative

The story in Scientific American points to work taking place to look at alternative fuels...let's see how easy it could be to switch from an oil economy!

Biodiesel may not become the airplane fuel of the future but it did prove effective enough to recently power a 1968 L-29 Czechoslovakian jet—dubbed BioJet 1—up to 17,000 feet (5,180 meters) over 37 minutes. A three minute, 15-second test the day before was the world's first flight entirely fueled by cooking oil.

"She flew and she flew just fine," says physicist Rudi Wiedemann, president and CEO of Biodiesel Solutions, Inc., whose company provided the fuel for the historic October flight: fresh canola oil refined into biodiesel. "We wanted to show that it was doable by just going out and doing it."

Monday, November 05, 2007

BBC Looks at Science of the Future

I was intrigued by this series by the BBC, so I am sharing an excerpt and a link.

The reporter says, "To get the most authentic, authoritative view of the future, I spent several months travelling with a BBC film crew to visit the labs of the most influential scientists in the world. We began by flying down to North Carolina to drive the computerised "driverless car" that can actually travel on the highway without anyone behind the wheel. We flew to Tokyo and visited Asimo, one of the world's most advanced robots. We travelled to Silicon Valley, and met the gurus of the computer revolution, who envision a future with three-dimensional TV, fantastic virtual worlds, and the internet in our glasses.

Driverless cars: Some science fiction will soon become everyday factWe visited the laboratory in Vienna where physicists are "teleporting" photons and atoms, like in science fiction. We travelled to Dallas, Texas, and met with ranchers who routinely create herds of cloned cattle.
We went to Boston University and saw the "smart mice" which are genetically engineered to have better memory. This could help in the care of patients with Alzheimer's.
But one highlight of the trip was a visit to Dr Anthony Atala's lab in Wake Forest University, North Carolina, where he is unleashing a revolution in medicine: growing entire organs of the body from your own cells.

In the future, we might very well have a "human body shop" that can replace ageing and diseased organs at will.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Scientific American looks at neurotheology

This is from Scientific American - again - but you cannot beat the topics and writing in this publication.

Searching for God in the Brain
Researchers are unearthing the roots of religious feeling in the neural commotion that accompanies the spiritual epiphanies of nuns, Buddhists and other people of faith
By David Biello

Such efforts to reveal the neural correlates of the divine—a new discipline with the warring titles “neurotheology” and “spiritual neuroscience”—not only might reconcile religion and science but also might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at will. Because of the positive effect of such experiences on those who have them, some researchers speculate that the ability to induce them artificially could transform people’s lives by making them happier, healthier and better able to concentrate. Ultimately, however, neuroscientists study this question because they want to better understand the neural basis of a phenomenon that plays a central role in the lives of so many.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Perfect pitch: you got it or you don't

This story caught my eye - so I am giving you a few details because a Scientific American story reports that you don't have to be Mozart to correctly identify a tone as A-sharp or D-flat. In fact, says a new report, perfect pitch may be genetic.

Says reporter Nikhil Swaminathan, "In the midst of recruiting subjects for a genetic study on perfect (absolute) pitch—the ability to discern a note from nearly any sort of sound without a reference tone—scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered several interesting patterns among people who have the skill.

"Among the findings of the study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA : 'Either you've got it or you don't," says senior report author Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at U.C.S.F. She says that data collected from more than 2,000 people aged eight to 70 years old during the study indicates that there is likely a genetic basis to perfect pitch—one she believes is activated by early music training "Absolute pitch almost certainly requires exposure to music at a young age," Gitschier notes. "You need to have some idea of the nomenclature.'"

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Facebook shares photos from the unborn

I was taken with this story, so I am sharing it - let's say social networking, new technology and communications makes it right for WendSight.

Says FOX News, "It already has its own Facebook page and more than 100 people want to be its friend — but Bubba Waring, described by its mother as "the world's most famous fetus," hasn't actually been born yet. Sydney couple Claire Gillis and Luke Waring, who are expecting their first child in three months, initially turned to the social networking site to keep their family and friends updated on the pregnancy. But instead of creating a profile under her own name, Gillis said she thought it would be better to do it from her unborn child's perspective.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Global warming - come on people wake up!

Back to the same ol' same ol' - does global warming exist - you would think we were talking about extraterrestrial life or ET sightings.

SCIAM OBSERVATIONS Opinions, arguments and analyses from the editors of Scientific American: Newsweek denies the existence of global warming covers this this week.

Maybe it's because I don't have the faith in people that I should, but I find this Newsweek cover really irresponsible. Actually, it's due to the polls cited in the article--and those I have seen elsewhere--that suggest that the American public thinks, among other things, that scientists are still trying to determine if global warming is for real and that it's a major issue in the upcoming Presidential election.

Sure, the cover is provocative and gripping, but it also may be doing a disservice to the general public and the people working hard to develop new ways to combat what is realistically the greatest threat to our livelihood: climate change. In fact, global warming isn't just a threat. Combating it will require us to dramatically change the way we live. (But, you've heard this all before.)

Anyway, as a journalist and magazine junkie, I spend a lot of time combing newsstands for new reads, eye-catching designs and little bites of information that can be gleaned from a cover line, a headline or a quick turn through a publication. So, if I am scanning a magazine rack--assuming I am not a science writer--what am I going to think when I see this Newsweek cover.

Probably not much. The Internet hasn't killed all journalism, but it certainly has deeply wounded news-weeklies like Time, US News and Newsweek. Am I going to take the time to read what the asterisk is referencing? Maybe. Another plausible scenario could be: I just read the big print, forget about it and then three weeks later--while I am talking to someone about politics or energy policy or compact fluorescent light bulbs--blurt out, "I read somewhere that global warming is a hoax."

I know I am being a little dramatic, but I think this cover would better serve readers (or, more importantly, casual observers), if it said something like: "Minority Report: The Global Warming Deniers".

Hat tip to Charlie Petit over at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for bringing this to my attention.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Science reporter seeks solar bomb experts

Sometimes you just have to read a story because of its headline: "Does anyone know how to restart the sun with a bomb?"

On July 20, reporter Philip Yam of Scientific American said: Last month, I caught a preview screening of Sunshine, Danny Boyle's sci-fi psycho thriller flick that opens today. After watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder about the premise. The sun's about to die--but not the way conventional astronomy dictates, in which the sun consumes its supply of hydrogen in its core, swells out as a red giant (and boils away the earth's atmosphere), blows off its outer layer and turns into a white dwarf. Sunshine makes no attempt to say how the bomb would restart the sun's thermonuclear engine.

So I pose this question to all you who know more astrophysics than I: can you envision just how the sun's output might start declining suddenly and precipitously? And how a "solar bomb" might actually work to restart it? The moviemakers do say that the bomb has the mass of Manhattan, but I don't know if that helps or hurts.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Reading minds - scientists get closer

You may have seen the movie Minority Report - think about the special people that the police used to read their minds about past experiences and memories. With today's science closing in on witnessing memories and reading the minds of mice, maybe we are not so far away from this becoming a reality - and you won't need special powers.

Scientific American says: Researchers are closing in on the rules that the brain uses to lay down memories. Discovery of this memory code could lead to the design of smarter computers and robots and even to new ways to peer into the human mind. For decades, neuroscientists have attempted to unravel how the brain makes memories. Now, by combining a set of novel experiments with powerful mathematical analyses and an ability to record simultaneously the activity of more than 200 neurons in awake mice researchers have the basic mechanism the brain uses to draw vital information from experiences and turn that information into memories.

Okay so far this sounds fine. Now think about this: Such understanding could allow investigators to develop more seamless brain-machine interfaces, design a whole new generation of smart computers and robots, and perhaps even assemble a codebook of the mind that would make it possible to decipher--by monitoring neural activity--what someone remembers and thinks.
Read more at Scientific American.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Capillary image opens computer system

From the TechDirt blog - this is interesting so I am pointing you to the web site:

In brief: TechDirt says it's becoming less unusual for devices like laptops, and even mobile phones, to feature fingerprint scanners for secure access.

The idea is that only the owner's fingerprint can unlock the device, so if it's stolen, it will be useless to a thief. This tends to help with most of your garden-variety theft, but as anybody who's watched a few action movies knows, fingerprint-based systems don't pose a problem for the really motivated thief, who can simply cut off their victim's finger and use it to access the device or secret lair or whatever.

Sony has a system that doesn't use fingerprints, but rather an image of the capillaries (via Network Computing) beneath the skin of a person's finger. The pattern in the image can only be captured when blood is pumping through the finger in question, so severing it from the rest of the victim would render it useless.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Scientific American's Best Photos

I am a big fan of the Scientific American web site - check out the photo gallery there for the most awesome photos! The message at the bottom of the page says I cannot provide the photo here - so go to the link and check it out!!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Scientific American looks at baseball

In a Q&A by SA:

Does the length of a baseball player's arm affect the distance of his throw? If so, how?

Mike Marshall, the 1974 National League Cy Young Award winner and an associate professor of physical education, most recently at West Texas A&M University, winds up and delivers an answer to this one.

When baseball pitchers with various length pitching arms apply the same amount of force, the ones with shorter arms actually achieve higher release velocities. The muscles of players with shorter pitching arms apply their force with greater leverage—so, in order for pitchers with longer arms to achieve the same release velocity, they have to apply a greater force.

To understand how this happens requires knowledge of how muscles move the bones to which they are attached.

As with any human movement, an athlete creates a desired motion by first using some muscles to stabilize the position of one of the bones involved in the action. Then when muscles contract, he or she moves the bone, which is to be put in motion, closer to the one that is stabilized in relation to the body.

In baseball pitching, to achieve their maximum release velocity, a baseball pitcher "locks"—or, stabilizes—the bone in his upper pitching arm (the humerus) to the bones in his shoulder. Then, after rotating his hips, shoulders and upper pitching arm as far as possible toward home plate, he contracts the muscles that move the bones in his pitching forearm, wrist, hand and fingers straight toward home as powerfully as he can.

How fast these bones move toward home plate then determines the release velocity of the baseball. Because shorter forearm, wrist, hand and finger bones have less inertia to overcome, a baseball pitcher can move them faster through release. As a result, with the same amount of force applied, a baseball pitcher with shorter bones in his lower pitching arm can achieve higher release velocities.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bats in flight - two vortices

I have always been facinated with bats ever since I saw a large gray bat hanging on a stone wall next to my grandparents' house in Harrodsburg, Ky. This is very interesting from Scientific American:

Bats seem to be adapted for slow speed and high maneuverability in the same way as hummingbirds whereas most flying birds are optimized for high speed. As birds swing their wings upward, the feathers separate like window blinds to let air through, which prevents the lift-reducing currents that the bats experienced. The two creatures also leave different wakes: A bat's stretchy wings churn up two separate vortices—one behind each wing—but a pair of relatively rigid bird wings produces one vortex for the whole bird.

Scientists are advising people who build small flying machines to see if the wind tunnel results can help out, giving detailed information about how a small autonomous flying system works. More here.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Experiemental Biology 2007 - Final Coverage

This is my last update from Experimental Biology 2007 - a meeting too vast to cover all, but here are some last snippets getting news coverage:

* Dr. Martha Payne reported as part of the American Society for Nutritionthat elderly men and women who consumed higher levels of calcium and vitamin D are significantly more likely to have greater volumes of brain lesions, regions of damage that can increase risk of cognitive impairment, dementia, depression and stroke.

Dr. Payne and her co-investigators from Duke and the University of North Carolina examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from 232 men and women (79 men, 153 women) between the ages of 60 and 86 (average age 71). All the subjects had at least some brain lesions of varying sizes, including the extremely miniscule ones often seen in even healthy older persons, but those who reported consuming more calcium and vitamin D were markedly more likely to have higher total volume of brain lesions as measured across numerous MRI scans.

“At this point,” says Dr. Payne, “we do not know if high calcium and vitamin D intake are involved with the causation of brain lesions, but the study provides support to the growing number of researchers who are concerned about the effects of too much calcium, particularly among older adults, given the current emphasis on promoting high intakes of calcium and vitamin D.”

* By giving ordinary adult mice a drug - a synthetic designed to mimic fat - Salk Institute scientist Dr. Ronald M. Evans is now able to chemically switch on PPAR-d, the master regulator that controls the ability of cells to burn fat. Even when the mice are not active, turning on the chemical switch activates the same fat-burning process that occurs during exercise. The resulting shift in energy balance (calories in, calories burned) makes the mice resistant to weight gain on a high fat diet.

The hope is that such metabolic trickery will lead to a new approach to new treatment and prevention of human metabolic syndrome. Sometimes called syndrome X, this consists of obesity and the often dire health consequences of obesity: high blood pressure, high levels of fat in the blood, heart disease, and resistance to insulin and diabetes. Dr. Evan’s presentation was part of the scientific program of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

* Being obese increases the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women, shortens the time between return of the disease and lowers overall survival rates. Researchers now report evidence on how leptin, a hormone found in fat cells, significantly influences breast cancer development and progression in mice. This new understanding, says Dr. Sebastiano Ando, establishes a new mechanism for the link between obesity and breast cancer and suggests new targets for drugs that could intervene in that mechanism.

Dr. Ando’s presentation was part of the scientific program of the American Society of Investigative Pathology.

* Recent findings that the widely-used herbal supplement Saint John’s wort could dramatically affect the absorption and metabolism of many prescription and non-prescription drugs raised concerns that other popular herbal supplements might cause similar changes, thus significantly altering drugs’ therapeutic or toxic effects. What, for example, about ginseng and ginkgo biloba, two of the most widely used herbal supplements in this and other countries?

Speaking at Experimental Biology 2007 in Washington, DC, Dr. Gregory Reed reported a study that found daily use of ginseng or ginkgo biloba supplements at the recommended doses, or the combination of both supplements, are unlikely to alter the pharmacokinetics - by which drugs are absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated by the body - of the majority of prescription or over-the counter drugs. Dr. Reed’s presentation was part of the scientific program of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Smelling for the first time

Experimental Biology 2007 update:

New discoveries about the biochemical basis of the majority of cases of the congenital inability to smell any odor, no matter how strong, have enabled their discoverer, Dr. Robert I. Henkin, director of The Taste and Smell Clinic in Washington, DC, to treat such patients, enabling them to smell something for the first time in their lives.

These patients respond with amazement, Dr. Henkin told fellow scientists .

“Until the treatment began to take effect, they had never experienced the olfactory world that surrounds us all, and it is with excitement that they quickly begin to learn what different things smell like and to relate those odors to objects they have known all their lives,” says Dr. Henkin.

His study is the first to characterize the biochemical abnormalities in these patients and the first to successfully treat patients using this new understanding. Dr. Henkin’s presentationwas part of The American Physiological Society.

In the United States alone, there are about 400,000 people who have never smelled anything in their lives. This does not include those who lose their once normal smell function because of illness or accident. A relatively small percentage - 12 percent - of individuals with congenital smell loss have multiple anatomical abnormalities of the brain and other organs. The vast majority - 88 percent - of individuals with congenital smell loss, however, do not have any such obvious organ abnormalities and their olfactory nerves and the brain regions that process olfactory information are intact.

Why, then, have they never been able to smell?

After determining the family of enzymes to which the growth and death factors belong and defining the biochemical pathway responsible for these factors, Dr. Henkin was able to treat these patients with PDE inhibitors that increase the concentration of growth factors and inhibit the secretion o death factors in nasal mucus. The treatment has been successful in restoring smell function in some of these patients, with the higher the dose and longer the use having the greatest effect.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Runners change faulty gait to reduce shock

Experimental Biology 2007 update:

More than seven out of 10 runners will sustain an injury over the course of a year, many of these injuries preventable without any adverse effects on running distance or performance, according to Dr. Irene Davis, director of the Running Injury Lab at the University of Delaware, and director of Research for Drayer Physical Therapy Institute.

In earlier studies, Dr. Davis identified the specific gait mechanics associated with common injuries. Now, in a study reported at the Experimental Biology meeting in Washington, DC, she explains how she successfully retrained runners to change their faulty gaits in eight half hour sessions, reducing leg shock by 50 percent and completely eliminating pain under the kneecap.

Her Experimental Biology presentation on April 30 is part of the scientific program of the American Association of Anatomists.

In the laboratory, Dr. Davis uses sophisticated biofeedback devices and monitors, but she says she does similar - and also effective - retraining in the physical therapy clinic at the University of Delaware using basic mechanical information, mirrors and advice to listen to the sound of one’s own feet hitting the ground.

The two studies underway in Dr. Davis' laboratory now are with runners who were selected for the study because they were experiencing or had been identified as high risk for one of the two most common running-related injuries: tibial stress fractures (microfractures of the lower leg bone) and patellofemoral pain syndrome (pain under the kneecap).

Coffee linked to risk reduction in some diseases

Today's update from Experimental Biology 2007:

Coffee is among the most widely consumed beverages in the world, and a scientist at the EB meeting says that the preponderance of scientific evidence - some by the panelists - suggests that moderate coffee consumption (3-5 cups per day) may be associated with reduced risk of certain disease conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease. The American Society for Nutrition’s popular “controversy session” was presented at the meeting.

Some research in neuropharamacology suggests that one cup of coffee can halve the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Other studies have found it reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease, kidney stones, gallstones, depression and even suicide.

A second scientist discussed the link between diet and the development of type 2 diabetes. Worldwide, an estimated 171 million persons have diabetes, mostly type 2 diabetes, and an alarming increase to 366 million persons is expected for the year 2030. While increased physical activity and restriction of energy intake can substantially reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, he believes insight into the role of other lifestyle factors may contribute to additional prevention strategies for type 2 diabetes.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Free weight training helps rotator cuff injuries

News from Experimental Biology 2007:

Resistance training, some of it job-specific, was successful in getting 90 percent of workers with severe rotator cuff injuries back to work, the majority (75 percent) at their previous job, after traditional physical therapy had failed to do so. Furthermore, all but one of the 42 employees in the study (98 percent) reported satisfaction with the resistance-training program and its outcome.

Dr. Jamie Stark described this and five related studies of workers suffering work-related rotator cuff and lumbar fusion injuries April 29. His presentations were part of the scientific program of The American Physiological Society.

Participants in the rotator cuff study represent a class of “worse-case-scenarios” of work-related injuries. Rotator cuff injuries involve those muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder and can be caused by pulling the arm out of place, by falls and other accidents. All 42 of the employees had been through surgery to repair their torn muscles or ligaments. All had already gone through weeks of traditional rehabilitation and physical therapy. Even so, none had been judged capable of going back to work and thus were eligible for disability and workmen’s compensation settlements.

Dr. Stark says, “We are at a new era in which we can develop standardized exercise prescriptions that produce desired, achievable functional goals.”

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Experimental Biology 2007 Underway

More than 12,000 biological and biomedical scientists will gather for the Experimental Biology 2007 meeting at the Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC, April 28 through May 2.

This annual meeting brings together scientists from dozens of different disciplines, from laboratory to translational to clinical research, from throughout the United States and the world.

Through thousands of lectures, symposia, research presentations, and exhibits, Experimental Biology provides scientists and clinicians an unparalleled opportunity to step outside the boundaries of their own fields and share information with colleagues looking at similar biomedical problems through the lens of different disciplines. The meeting also offers a wide spectrum of professional development for scientists, as listed below.

The theme of this year’s meeting, “Today’s Research: Tomorrow’s Health,” speaks to Experimental Biology’s mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping future and current clinical advances.

The six sponsoring societies for Experimental Biology 2007 are: American Association of Anatomists (AAA); American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB); American Society for Nutrition, Inc. (ASN); American Society for Investigative Pathology (ASIP); American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET); and The American Physiological Society (APS). Experimental Biology includes the annual meetings of all sponsoring societies.

Eighteen U.S. and international guest societies further broaden the scope of the meeting, adding expertise in biomedical engineering, behavioral pharmacology, veterinary pathology, biological chemistry, informatics and other areas of investigation.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bioscrypt's 3D Device Recognizes Your Face

A blog called Notes from the Digital Frontier says: "Bioscrypt, a Toronto-based company who has pioneered the field of visual recognition and authentication, has developed a new product to use a users’ face as the access control tool.

This new webcam-type device utilizes 3D face recognition technology to authenticate users. So in order to access someone else’s computer, I simply need to make a rubber mask of their face, right?

Maybe it’s not quite that easy. Bioscrypt has developed their system to use 40,000 points of recognition in a 3D mesh. It will also accommodate varying head positions and a wide range of lighting conditions. But just how accurate can this technology be?

I have doubts that this technology could recognize my face on a fairly consistent basis without telling me that I am not an authorized user. And what happens if I my facial expression is different from uninterested and mundane expression that has been recorded in the database? Will the system be able to tell the difference?"

Read more.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Physicist Quantifies Poker Tournament

I enjoy looking at the intersection of physics and everyday matters, such as this story in Scientific American by Christopher Mims:

Clément Sire isn't just a statistical physicist -he's also a champion bridge player. Combining his love of physics and games, he has created a model of the poker variant Texas hold 'em that enables him to do everything from predicting the length of a tournament to figuring out his ranking simply by assessing the average size of his opponents' fortunes.

It may seem like an odd way to spend his time. After all, isn't physics supposed to be about particle colliders and superconductivity? "Physicists," Sire explains, "are now more than ever involved in the study of complex systems that do not belong to the traditional realm of their science."
Poker is an especially attractive subject, because it's one of the few truly isolated systems. Unlike, say, the stock market, which is often governed by factors such as politics, war and weather, poker tournaments are not affected by external phenomena. As a result, even Sire's simplified model of Texas hold 'em appears to mathematically express many features of the game that experienced players would recognize.

It turns out that the distribution of the "stack," or fortune, of the chip leaders across tournaments mirrors the pattern found in the distribution of maximum temperatures during every August in history or countless other natural phenomena where physicists have attempted to predict the nature of extreme values. This pattern, called the Gumbel distribution, means that the frequency with which chip leaders accrue fortunes of any given size is, in a way, a natural phenomenon that arises as much from the characteristics of the game being played as from the dispositions and abilities of those playing it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Memories, past lives and recollection

I like to check out Scientific American every week - it has the most interesting and innovative coverage of science and medicine, and the best writing.

Today's list of stories includes one on memories, so I have pulled the first of it and you can read the whole story at Scientific American.

Says SciAm: Do you sometimes have memories of a mysterious past life? Recall odd experiences such as being abducted by aliens? Wonder where these memories come from and if, in fact, you were really once whisked off in a flying saucer by ETs?

Seems the answer may be simpler than you think—or remember. A new study shows that people with memories of past lives are more likely than others to misremember the source of any given piece of information.

Study author Maarten Peters of Maastricht University in the Netherlands tested patients of "reincarnation therapists," who use hypnosis to help their patients remember "past lives," which the clients believe are at the root of their current problems.

"Once familiarity of an event is achieved, this can relatively easily be converted into a belief that the event did take place," Peters says. "A next possible step is that individuals interpret their thoughts and fantasies about the fictitious event as real memories."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Happiness and the Search

Check out continuing coverage about "happiness" in Scientific American. This is by Marina Krakovsky.

An experimental psychologist investigating the possibility of lasting happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky understands far better than most of us the folly of pinning our hopes on a new car--or on any good fortune that comes our way. We tend to adapt, quickly returning to our usual level of happiness.

The classic example of such "hedonic adaptation" comes from a 1970s study of lottery winners, who a year after their windfall ended up no happier than nonwinners. Hedonic adaptation helps to explain why even changes in major life circumstances--such as income, marriage, physical health and where we live--do so little to boost our overall happiness. Not only that, but studies of twins and adoptees have shown that about 50 percent of each person's happiness is determined from birth.

This "genetic set point" alone makes the happiness glass look half empty, because any upward swing in happiness seems doomed to fall back to near your baseline.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Graffiti's beauty - flickr gives us a look

A day for WendSight to look at graffiti on flickr. Thank you Brian from The Curse of Brian.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Spooky quantum link - photons fly far

The reach of the spooky quantum link called entanglement keeps getting longer. A team has transmitted entangled photons some 144 kilometers (89 miles), reports Scientific American.

The distance achieved is 10 times farther than entangled photons have ever flown through the air. When two photons or other particles are in this state, what happens to one determines the fate of the other, no matter how far apart they are. Physicist Anton Zeilinger compares the phenomenon with throwing a pair of dice that land on matching numbers every time.

Using a laser, the researchers created entangled pairs of photons on La Palma and fired one member of each pair to a European Space Agency (ESA) telescope on Tenerife, which had to make rapid, small adjustments to receive the photons, Zeilinger says. In another presentation, physicist Richard Hughes of Los Alamos National Laboratory described recent experiments in which his group fired a series of nonentangled photons 185 kilometers down a conventional optical fiber.

In both cases, researchers demonstrated that they could transmit randomly oriented, or polarized, photons, which are suitable for sending messages that cannot be intercepted without garbling the information. Called quantum keys, such transmissions could allow users to scramble messages in a way that is potentially unbreakable.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Shortcut communications in today's world

A press release says that particularly among close associates, sharing even a little new information can slow down communication.

Some of people’s biggest problems with communication come in sharing new information with people they know well, newly published research at the University of Chicago shows.
Because they already share quite a bit of common knowledge, people often use short, ambiguous messages in talking with co-workers and spouses, and accordingly unintentionally create misunderstandings, said Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

"People are so used to talking with those with whom they already share a great deal of information, that when they have something really new to share, they often present it in away that assumes the person already knows it," said Keysar, who with graduate student Shali Wu tested Keysar’s communication theories and presented the results in an article, "The Effect of Information Overlap on Communication Effectiveness," published in the current issue of Cognitive Science.

"Sharing additional information reduces communication effectiveness precisely when there is an opportunity to inform—when people communicate information only they themselves know," the researchers said.

On a professional level, brief e-mails between colleagues can cause miscommunication, Keysar has learned from personal experience. "I once was scheduled to speak and had gotten the day of my talk mixed up. I received an e-mail from the host asking me if I was ok. I wrote back and said I was and didn’t find out until later that what he really wanted to know was where I was, as they were waiting for me to talk," Keysar said.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Intelligent design under scrutiny

I have taken this from a press release on Eurekalert, issued by the University of Chicago - it was so interesting I am posting the whole release.

In a thought-provoking paper from the March issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology , Elliott Sober (University of Wisconsin) clearly discusses the problems with two standard criticisms of intelligent design: that it is unfalsifiable and that the many imperfect adaptations found in nature refute the hypothesis of intelligent design.

Biologists from Charles Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould have advanced this second type of argument. Stephen Jay Gould's well-known example of a trait of this type is the panda's thumb. If a truly intelligent designer were responsible for the panda, Gould argues, it would have provided a more useful tool than the stubby proto-thumb that pandas use to laboriously strip bamboo in order to eat it.

ID proponents have a ready reply to this objection. We do not know whether an intelligent designer intended for pandas to be able to efficiently strip bamboo. The "no designer worth his salt" argument assumes the designer would want pandas to have better eating implements, but the objection has no justification for this assumption. In addition, Sober points out, this criticism of ID also concedes that creationism is testable.

A second common criticism of ID is that it is untestable. To develop this point, scientists often turn to the philosopher Karl Popper's idea of falsifiability. According to Popper, a scientific statement must allow the possibility of an observation that would disprove it. For example, the statement "all swans are white" is falsifiable, since observing even one swan that isn't white would disprove it. Sober points out that this criterion entails that many ID statements are falsifiable; for example, the statement that an intelligent designer created the vertebrate eye entails that vertebrates have eyes, which is an observation.

This leads Sober to jettison the concept of falsifiability and to provide a different account of testability. "If ID is to be tested," he says, "it must be tested against one or more competing hypotheses." If the ID claim about the vertebrate eye is to be tested against the hypothesis that the vertebrate eye evolved by Darwinian processes, the question is whether there is an observation that can discriminate between the two. The observation that vertebrates have eyes cannot do this.

Sober also points out that criticism of a competing theory, such as evolution, is not in-and-of-itself a test of ID. Proponents of ID must construct a theory that makes its own predictions in order for the theory to be testable. To contend that evolutionary processes cannot produce "irreducibly complex" adaptations merely changes the subject, Sober argues.

"When scientific theories compete with each other, the usual pattern is that independently attested auxiliary propositions allow the theories to make predictions that disagree with each other," Sober writes. "No such auxiliary propositions allow … ID to do this."

In developing this idea, Sober makes use of ideas that the French philosopher Pierre Duhem developed in connection with physical theories – theories usually do not, all by themselves, make testable predictions. Rather, they do so only when supplemented with auxiliary information. For example, the laws of optics do not, by themselves, predict when eclipses will occur; they do so when independently justified claims about the positions of the earth, moon, and sun are taken into account.

Similarly, ID claims make predictions when they are supplemented by auxiliary claims. The problem is that these auxiliary assumptions about the putative designer's goals and abilities are not independently justified. Surprisingly, this is a point that several ID proponents concede.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Intel heads the pack on fast computing

Business Week reports that computing took a leap forward when chipmakers started putting more than one core, or central brain, on a single chip.

Chipmaker Intel says it has successfully produced a chip capable of processing 1 trillion calculations a second. The chip, which Intel claims is the fastest ever made, could start being used commercially in five years.

The huge processing power each chip would provide will dramatically change the the way we work and how we spend our leisure time. Financial analysis that takes days to perform in back offices could be done in seconds at a trader's terminal on Wall Street - says Business Week.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Wired explores what we don't know

Is the universe actually made of information? I am taking the intro to this sub-section of Wired Magazine's wonderful section this month called "What we don't know" - check it out.

Humans have talked about atoms since the time of the ancients, and ever-smaller fundamental particles of matter followed. But no one even conceived of bits until the middle of the 20th century. The bit is a fundamental particle, too, but of different stuff altogether: information.

It is not just tiny, it is abstract - a flip-flop, a yes-or-no. Now that scientists are finally starting to understand information, they wonder whether it’s more fundamental than matter itself.

Perhaps the bit is the irreducible kernel of existence; if so, we have entered the information age in more ways than one.

Wired says the quantum pioneer John Archibald Wheeler, perhaps the last surviving collaborator of both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, poses this conundrum in oracular monosyllables: “It from bit.”

For Wheeler, it is both an unanswered question and a working hypothesis, the idea that information gives rise, as he writes, to “every it - every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.”

This is another way of fathoming the role of the observer, the quantum discovery that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. “What we call reality,” Wheeler writes coyly, “arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.” He adds, “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Nanotechnology gets spicy

Nanotechnology research is always intriguing - here are some Indian researchers working on helping deliver tumeric via nanos... I guess we will be using this technology for everything in the future!

From an article on nanowerk: The Chemistry Department at Delhi University has developed a nano-particular vehicle for helping turmeric get absorbed in the body.

“The nano-particular vehicle for turmeric which is being developed by experts at Delhi University is under testing in different in-vitro culture and animal modules and will finally be used for human trials,” said Dr. A.K. Dinda.

Turmeric has a therapeutic effect. The medicinal properties of turmeric, a spice commonly used in curries and other South Asian cuisine, have for millennia been known to the ancient Indians and have been expounded in the Ayurvedic texts. It is only in recent years that Western scientists have increasingly recognised the medicinal properties of turmeric.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Times Square - ever facinating to see

itsNano - Never Sleeping

Photos of Times Square are always amazing to look at - like a jigsaw puzzle with 1000 tiny pieces assembled into a beautiful picture.

Theory of gravity and quantum field theories compared

I thought this meeting looked interesting - I am intriqued by the scope of it and new questions raised to understand Einstein's theory of gravity vs quantum field theories.

A press release says, "More than three dozen leading physicists and astrophysicists will convene for the conference, "Rethinking Gravity: from the Planck scale to the size of the Universe."

Scientists will meet to discuss their common goal - to probe and test gravity at all scales, from the subatomic level to the entire universe.

"Scientists have understood for several decades that Einstein's theory of gravity, which describes our universe at astronomical scales, is incompatible with quantum field theories, which describe phenomena at atomic scales," says physicist Dimitrios Psaltis. "Despite numerous efforts, scientists have yet to come up with a satisfactory quantum theory of gravity. But our quest has become intensely exciting for two reasons. First, new ideas are challenging our previous notions of how the gravitational force works and pervades spacetime itself. And second, it is astonishing to realize that even though most of these ideas were unheard of a mere decade ago, they can be tested using present-day astronomical and cosmological observations."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Scientists look at a fifth force of nature

Read on the Scientific American blog about the conference of the American Astronomical Society and hints of a fifth force of nature, on top of: electromagnetism, gravity, and the two forces that govern atomic nuclei. The idea of a fifth force has a checkered history, and experiments seem to rule it out. But those experiments apply only to ordinary matter. They say nothing about dark matter.

Dark matter is the unknown substance that provides the gravitational glue holding together large cosmic structures such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The poster child for dark matter, which got a lot of attention last summer, is the Bullet Cluster of galaxies. It is actually a pair of clusters that have rammed into each other. The center of mass of each cluster (pinpointed by seeing how the cluster affects light from bodies in back of it) is offset from the bulk of the ordinary matter -- so most of the mass of the clusters must be un-ordinary.

But its source could be vastly different -- the result, perhaps, of a property akin to electric charge which only dark matter possesses. Proposed new theories of physics such as string theory predict new energy fields that might generate novel forces, but in the past physicists have generally supposed that these forces would make themselves felt only over sub-subatomic distances.