Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

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Hello and welcome to the first installment of Science Saturday! This week’s stories range from amateur mapping of dark matter  to smartphone integrated prosthetic limbs (and also go back a little beyond the last week since this is my first entry). Along with a link to each article I’ll provide a little “reaction” blurb describing my thoughts on it.

How a Team of Enthusiasts Are Mapping Dark Matter
Dark matter and dark energy combined are estimated to account for over 95% of the mass-energy of the universe (dark matter ~23%, dark energy ~72%), so obviously any attempt to truly understand the structure of our universe must include the mapping of dark matter and dark energy. The fact that scientists from a variety of fields are already working on ways to do so is quite exciting, and this contest was an amazing move by JPL, but even more exciting to me is the methodology used by the winning entry.

While mapping the universe’s mass-energy distribution is fascinating, the near-term usefulness to us here on Earth is questionable. The methodology Kirkby and Margala used, however, is quite interesting in its novelty. Combined with the July news of an artificial neural network created out of DNA, it isn’t a huge leap to imagine truly intuitive artificial neural networks mapping out vast swaths of our universe in the not-too-distant future

Astrophile: Undead stars rise again as supernovae
No, this isn’t an article about a zombified Noel Gallagher. Rather it discusses one possible progenitor of type 1a supernovae, the brightest and most violent explosions we know of in the universe. A single type 1a supernova can outshine an entire galaxy. If the hypothesis of these scientists is correct, observing one in progress would be huge step forward in our understanding of dark energy and, paired with the above article, could really help us begin to understand the true make-up of our universe.

Things were so much simpler when we thought the universe was only made up of things we could actually observe directly, huh? Now in order to solve one mystery we must solve a dozen others, with no guarantee that solving those will lead to a solution to the original mystery.

New Measurements Size Up Distant Dwarf Planet Eris As Pluto’s Twin
Sorry “Pluto is a planet” crowd but I’m on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s side of that argument. The measurements taken last year reveal Eris to be approximately 1,445 miles in diameter (compared to Pluto’s 1,432), making it Pluto’s virtual twin in many respects. Eris is also one of the brightest objects in the solar system, much brighter than scientists initially thought. While all of that is interesting, most interesting about the article to me is the way they took these measurements. As the quality of our telescopes continues to improve, I’m excited to see what else we can learn about the planetary and sub-planetary bodies in our solar system via stellar occultation and other methods.

Shaken, Not Stirred: Scientists Spy Molecular Maneuvers
I’ll be honest: this article is mostly over my head. However I’m truly fascinated by the emerging field of nanotechnology and these peptoid sheets seem like they could be a real step forward in developing workable nanotechnologies. My first real exposure to nanotechnology as an eventual “next step” in personal computing came with the neural nanonics of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, and I can’t help but think that is one area where he got our future absolutely right. If these peptoid sheets are the first step toward that, they are a truly exciting development.

Programming Cells to Home in On Specific Tissues May Enable More Effective Cell-Based Therapies
This article fascinates me primarily in relation to the one immediately preceding it here. Assuming that the peptoid sheets above are the first step toward viable, large scale use of nanotechnology, then the ability to program “homing beacons” into these nanotechnologies will allow for direct targeting of injured tissue for repair or, in the case of the neural nanonics mentioned above, graft onto existing tissue to improve their function. We truly could be on the verge of one of those science fiction “holy grails” that seemed impossible only a few decades ago: nano-bots repairing and reordering our cell structures in order to combat aging, illness, and a host of other things.

Planet search finds lots of little guys
I remember reading the news of the first exo-planet to be discovered orbiting a main sequence star with breathless excitement. It didn’t matter that it orbited far too close to the star to support “earth-like” life, it was beyond exciting to my ten year old imagination.

Reading this article brought back that same prickle of excitement. Long ago I made the assumption in my head that other relatively earth-like worlds MUST exist, it’s just a mathematical eventually. With this study’s suggestion that more than 50% of sun-like stars have planets around them, coupled with their findings that lower mass planets are apparently far more common than Jupiter-mass worlds, I can’t help but imagine some (if not most) of those worlds harbor life. Is there really any question that we aren’t alone in the universe? Mathematically, I don’t see how there could be.

UK Man Gets Prosthetic Limb With A Smartphone Dock Built In
So, Robocop or Bionic Barry he ain’t, but Mr. Prideaux is nonetheless on the cutting edge of prosthetic technology and, as the article says, one can’t help but imagine the possibilities for advancement upon such technology. This article struck me particularly due to my own disability (quite a few of the nerves suffered full avulsion in my case), because I have to be honest in saying there are times during my childhood where I wondered if I’d have been better off just having my arm lopped off and replaced with a prosthetic.

Even though a surgery in 2000 gave me a bit of use of my arm, if this technology advances to the point of true cybernetic limbs in my lifetime I may be forced to reconsider at some point in the future. We could be only a few short leaps away from that technology, especially if some of the technology in the articles above ends up panning out.


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