Cells of a leaf appear like huge green boulders on an overhead screen at the California Academy of Sciences’ Morrison Planetarium. They’re part of Life: A Cosmic Journey, a multimedia movie intended to show how computers are transforming scientific research. The film draws on a wealth of data to create the effect of looking through a microscope or a telescope. Images range from individual cells of a redwood leaf to the entire forest. They’re created using three separate parallel computing systems, according to the New York Times. Such “macroscopes” connecting scientific instruments to powerful computers enable scientists to find data patterns they might otherwise miss and to pose and answer new questions. Software lets them share findings with colleagues.
– Photo Courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.
Forward into the past? Vanderbilt University physicist Tom Weiler and graduate student Chui Man Ho say that if experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland succeed in finding the elusive Higgs boson, they also could prove that some matter – alas, not humans – can travel through time. Physicists theorize that the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, is what gives particles like protons, neurons, and electrons their mass. If the world’s most powerful atom smasher produces the Higgs boson, physicists say it simultaneously should produce a second particle, the Higgs singlet. Weiler‘s and Ho’s argument rests on another theory, that the universe is composed not of just four dimensions, but 10 to 11, and that the singlet is one of the few bits of matter that can travel among them, including back and forth in time. If the collider produces singlets with signs of decay, that will be evidence the particles jumped back in time to appear ahead of the collisions that produced them. “Our theory is a long shot, but it doesn’t violate any laws of physics or experimental constraints,” Weiler says. There’s no proof that Higgs singlets exist, let alone can time-travel. –THOMAS K. GROSE
Chrome yellow was a 19th-century breakthrough in pigment manufacturing that gave the resulting paint a bright, shiny intensity. Vincent van Gogh used it to great effect on such masterpieces as View of Arles with Irises, and Bank of the River Seine (photo), which featured sunny-looking yellow irises. Over time, some of the yellow paints van Gogh used faded and browned, but not all of them. Now researchers think they have discovered why: a heretofore unobserved chemical reaction triggered, ironically, by light. A four-country team of investigators led by Koen Janssens of Antwerp University, Belgium, used synchrotron X-rays at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility at Grenoble, France, to scan samples of paints similar to those van Gogh used. The researchers found that the paints that faded had been mixed with a lighter shade of yellow paint that contained barium sulfate. The mixture of sulfate and chromate made the paint highly sensitive to light, ultimately darkening it. For now, Janssens’s team recommends that the van Goghs – and other works containing chrome yellow – be kept out of strong or UV light. But they are also planning experiments to see if something can be done to coax the pigments back to their original luminous state. – TG
Touch-screen computers? So passé. Sweden’s Tobii Technology and Chinese computer maker Lenovo recently demonstrated a PC that can be partly controlled with no hands – just eye movements. Open folders, switch between windows, zoom in – all with a mere glance. Eye-tracking isn’t a new technology. But previous systems require cumbersome headgear or special glasses, and are slow and expensive. Tobii’s version shoots low-level infrared light into a user’s eyes, and sensors and software pinpoint where a gaze is directed. A commercial product is still two years away, though Tobii hopes soon to make a clip-on device available for around $200.
Manipulating a computer with your eyes is one thing, but Brown University researchers have developed an implant — dubbed BrainGate — that allows a disabled person to control a PC cursor with the intended movement of her hand. In a recent paper, researchers detailed experiments with a paralyzed female stroke victim, who, for more than 1,000 days, has been able to manipulate a cursor with her thoughts. The device picks up those otherwise-lost neural impulses and turns them into action via a minuscule sensor that’s implanted in the part of the brain that controls movement. It transmits those signals to a plug attached to the scalp, which relays them to a computer programmed to translate them, raising hope for those who suffer spinal cord injuries. –TG
Back in 2004, NASA launched a spacecraft designed to orbit Mercury. In March, Messenger finally got close to the solar system’s smallest planet, and has been sending back snapshots ever since. “We are really seeing Mercury now with new eyes,” Sean Solomon, the principal investigator, told a press conference. “As a result, a global perspective of the planet is unfolding and will continue to unfold.” During the mission, due to last at least a year, Messenger’s camera will take around 75,000 pictures, and its seven instruments will monitor Mercury’s very thin atmosphere, or exosphere. One hope is to determine if craters at the planet’s poles contain frozen water. Messenger’s elliptical orbit will take the probe within 160 miles of the surface, but at other times it will be 9,300 miles away. Despite its small size, Mercury is a place of great extremes: The side closest to the sun can reach temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, while the opposite side can plunge to minus 300 degrees. – TG
AUSTRALIA - Ever rush to a meeting in a strange building only to get lost in a corridor maze? Bryan Huang, a fourth-year aerospace avionics student at the Queensland University of Technology, thinks he has the solution. He’s developed a remotely controlled miniature blimp that can lead visitors through the halls to their destination. The 3-foot-wide, doughnut-shaped device, which looks like an inner tube made of aluminum foil, is moved upward and forward by three small propellers rigged inside the doughnut hole. A pressure sensor, accelerometer, and compass detect height, speed, and direction. Numerous infrared sensors spot walls and other obstacles. A building receptionist types instructions into a computer, and the blimp flies off at walking speed, 5 feet in the air, directed to the appropriate room by the computer, and the building’s sensor network. Phil Valencia, a communications technology specialist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, describes the system as “pervasive computing.” He supervised Huang, 20, during a vacation scholarship. For his part, Huang hopes to interest industry. So one day soon, you may hear, “Welcome to headquarters. Follow the doughnut.”–CHRIS PRITCHARD
Computer games are so much a part of the fabric of life these days they’ve become classroom tools. But heavy game-playing may have an unwelcome educational impact. New research from Oxford University found that teenagers who are frequent computer-game players are less likely to get a college education. The study by sociologist Mark Taylor followed a group of 17,000 people born in 1970. Computer games were much less popular when this cohort reached its teen years than they are today. Regular game-playing reduced a boy’s chances of gaining a degree from 24 percent to 19 percent, and a girl’s from 20 percent to 14 percent. But the study showed a bright side.Britain’s universities educate a smaller proportion of the population than America’s, and many young people enter the workplace without a degree. When they do, heavy teenage video playing doesn’t dent their career prospects, Taylor determined. Frequent gamers were no less likely to be in professional-level or managerial jobs at age 33 than non-gamers. Still, his study also found that avid teen readers were more likely to not only attend college but to excel in the workforce. “There is something special about reading for pleasure,” he told a recent conference. –TG
A gallon of water, placed in direct sunlight with a leaf floating in it, could cleanly and effectively produce enough electricity every day to power a house in a developing country. The catch? Well, the leaf is not from a tree but from a lab. It’s an “artificial leaf” that mimics photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunshine to energy. Developed by MIT energy and chemistry professor Daniel Nocera, it is a piece of silicon about the size of a playing card, coated in inexpensive, everyday chemicals. Activated by sunshine, the chemicals serve as catalysts to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then used in a fuel cell to create electricity. Nocera isn’t the first researcher to come up with a way to fake photosynthesis, but previous efforts were costly and unstable. His leaf remains robust for 45 hours, and it is 10 times as efficient in converting sunlight to energy as nature’s own. Nocera has a contract with Indian multinational Tata to use the leaf technology to build, in about 18 months’ time, a refrigerator-size power plant. His leaf may not be green in color, but it’s powerfully green in concept. – TG
Just-in-time inventories and ordering components in bulk from sole suppliers were central to lean systems-engineering principles that American companies learned from Japanese manufacturers in the 1980s. But the 9-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11 have provided a new lesson: Globe-spanning supply chains are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Shortages caused by manufacturing disruptions in Japan rippled across the computer, aerospace, and automotive industries. Domestic production for Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan, and Honda was particularly hard hit, but lack of supplies also had a domino effect on their overseas operations. Detroit’s automakers weren’t immune to the aftershock of supply shortages, either. Beyond that, the disaster put yet another question mark over the delivery of Boeing’s 737 Dreamliner, a next-generation aircraft that’s already three years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Thirty-five percent of the plane’s parts come from Japan. Luckily for Boeing, most of the manufacturers it relies on are based in southern Japan. For now, Chicago-based Boeing is saying the 737 remains on target for a first delivery in the third quarter. Ironically, the first recipient is set to be All Nippon Airways. – TG
America’s high-tech industry regularly claims that there’s such a shortage of domestic talent it has to hire top engineers and technical workers from overseas, primarily Asia. Baloney, says Norman Matloff, a University of California, Davis, computer scientist. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Matloff said data prove that immigrants are no more innovative or productive than American researchers. He noted that IT industry “salaries are flat,” which wouldn’t be the case if jobs were going begging. Matloff says the industry wants to fill jobs with young Asians to keep costs down. The result is that many highly talented Americans are displaced because they’re older and demand higher salaries. Accordingly, a lot of smart American students are avoiding science and tech careers, creating an “internal brain drain.” Research shows that immigrants do have high publication rates in peer-reviewed journals, but Matloff — who also publishes a website and e-newsletter devoted to this subject — says that being good at churning out papers isn’t the same as being innovative. – TG
Forget Noah’s ark. Few engineers can top the feisty fire ant for extraordinary life-raft construction. When in danger of drowning, colonies link together in living, crawling clumps and float to safety. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers studied this rafting behavior closely for the first time, gluing ants to a glass slide to test their strength and encasing an entire raft in liquid nitrogen to scrutinize its formation. They discovered that the hairy surface of the ant’s rough exoskeleton traps air, making it difficult for water to penetrate; by locking legs and jaws, a colony becomes one big, buoyant bubble. The findings could lead to more advanced waterproof materials or the development of collaborative robots that might one day explore sewer lines or clean up oil spills. –ALISON BUKI AND JOSEPH HORNIG
Summer temperatures in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar can soar to a super-sweltering 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine playing soccer in that kind of heat? Neither can FIFPro, the union representing professional soccer players. It wants the 2022 World Cup in Qatar moved from summertime to winter. Qatar officials say there’s no need to change the schedule. They have plans to make use of all that sunlight by cooling the stadiums with solar-powered air conditioning. And now mechanical and industrial engineers at Qatar University say they’ve invented a further way to beat the heat: an artificial robotic cloud. It’s actually a large, flat hovercraft made from lightweight carbon materials and filled with lighter-than-air helium. As it floats overhead, it’s directed via remote-controlled solar-powered motors. The “cloud” can be angled to follow the sun’s trajectory, thus keeping stadiums and practice fields under constant, protective shade. Associate Professor Saud Ghani tells CNN it could potentially drop the temperatures on the pitch by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Cost? A cool $500,000 each. No sweat in oil-rich Qatar. – TG