Monday, July 6, 2009

More Science

More from More Science High!  Continuing the cornucopia of interesting things....

I'm on the BBC World Service yet again, this time commenting on "geo-engineering"... or proposals to cool the Earth artificially and compensate for global warming.  I'll announce the posted podcast site.  Till then, read this background article:

A GIANT inflatable tower could carry people to the edge of space without the need for a rocket, and could be completed much sooner than a cable-based space elevator, its proponents claim.  he team envisages assembling the structure from a series of modules constructed from Kevlar-polyethylene composite tubes made rigid by inflating them with a lightweight gas such as helium.My colleague Jeff Hecht has a cool article on this in the New Scientist.  Of course, I described this system in SUNDIVER, back in 1979 -- the "Vanilla Needle" - named after my friend, Ron Finnila, who first mentioned the idea to me.  I even have extensive notes for a way-cool graphic novel that would have featured Jacob Demwa saving the huge, inflated needle.  

Ah, but priority is difficult to establish.... Still, will someone add this to the Brin Prediction wiki, please?  Anyone know how to contact the authors? ;-) 

Breakthroughs in understanding how memories form in the brain.

“unpleasant memories are stored by the persistent action of the enzyme PKMzeta, a form of protein kinase C,” and that “these memories can be rapidly erased by injecting a PKMzeta inhibitor into the brain.” Researchers confirmed that by using ZIP, “unpleasant long-term memories in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for storing spatial information, are rapidly erased.”  This raises many questions. If human memory can be erased like a computer's hard drive, what happens to the “overwritten” memories? Is there a biochemical equivalent to disk restoration software?

A girl who looks and acts one or two years old is actually 16 years old.  In an almost perfect real life version of Harlarn Ellison's famous short story "Jefty is Five," she seems not to suffer from dwarfism.  Albeit with some uneven dysfunctions, she has simply stayed two.  Science (performed gently of course) is going to learn a LOT from this special person.

More intelligent people don't have more connections, but they have more efficiently placed connections (??) Other studies have shown that physical connections between brain regions via white matter that doesn't contain neurons are also related to intelligence. 

It seems the particles that Enrico Fermi dubbed neutrinos, meaning "little neutral ones", might stretch across billions of light years. The big bang produced huge numbers of "relic" neutrinos, which are quantum-mechanical superpositions of three different mass-energy states. In the early universe, all of these states would have moved at close to the speed of light. But according to calculations by George Fuller and Chad Kishimoto of the University of California, San Diego, as the universe expanded, the most massive of these states slowed down in the relic neutrinos, stretching them across the universe. This raises the possibility that only one of the neutrino's states could fall into a black hole. It's unclear what would happen to the others if this occurred, says Fuller. Wow. 

A cell phone that never needs recharging might sound too good to be true, but Nokia says it's developing technology that could draw enough power from ambient radio waves to keep a cell-phone handset topped up.  Ambient electromagnetic radiation--emitted from Wi-Fi transmitters, cell-phone antennas, TV masts, and other sources--could be converted into enough electrical current to keep a battery topped up. Hey, my sons just built crystal (diode) radios.  They were excited to hear a station, clear as a bell, without battery or wall power!  That is, till they found it was K-Praise Fundamentalist station... and no adjustment of the variable capacitor or coil would change it!  How can that be?  It appears that the diode, itself, is tuned to one station!  Help!

The three researchers published a manifesto in Nature in 2001, declaring that the way to make a synthetic cell was to get a protocell and a genetic molecule to grow and divide in parallel, with the molecules being encapsulated in the cell. Simple fatty acids, of the sort likely to have been around on the primitive Earth, will spontaneously form double-layered spheres, much like the double-layered membrane of today’s living cells. These protocells will incorporate new fatty acids fed into the water, and eventually divide.

Living cells are generally impermeable and have elaborate mechanisms for admitting only the nutrients they need. But Dr. Szostak and his colleagues have shown that small molecules can easily enter the protocells. If they combine into larger molecules, however, they cannot get out, just the arrangement a primitive cell would need.  

Nucleotides consist of a sugar molecule, like ribose or deoxyribose, joined to a base at one end and a phosphate group at the other. Prebiotic chemists discovered with delight that bases like adenine will easily form from simple chemicals like hydrogen cyanide. But years of disappointment followed when the adenine proved incapable of linking naturally to the ribose.

Last month, John Sutherland, a chemist at the University of Manchester in England, reported in Nature his discovery of a quite unexpected route for synthesizing nucleotides from prebiotic chemicals. Instead of making the base and sugar separately from chemicals likely to have existed on the primitive Earth, Dr. Sutherland showed how under the right conditions the base and sugar could be built up as a single unit, and so did not need to be linked.

Another big breakthrough: Researchers l at Imperial College London have discovered that a mixture of left-handed and right-handed molecules can be converted to just one form by cycles of freezing and melting.

See a review of a book about the subtle ways even the simplest life forms "compute." 

Political side note.  See Russ Daggatt's excellent compilation of views about events in Iran.

Heck while I'm at it: these are the best of the old Outer Limits:  Now available on Hulu!

"The Architects of Fear" is the episode that inspired the graphic novel WATCHMEN.  I hope soon they'll post season two... with the incredible Harlan Ellison story "The Demon With The Glass Hand."


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