Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Is the universe a 2D hologram? Experiment aims to find out
August 28, 2014

An ongoing experiment could reveal whether or not our full and fleshed-out 3D universe is an illusion, a 2D projection onto a cosmic screen beyond our perception or understanding. The Holometer project, which is based at the Fermilab in Illinois, is now operating at full power, probing the very nature of space-time itself.

The Holometer - short for 'holographic interferometer' - splits two laser beams, sending them down perpendicular 40 metres arms. A system of mirrors then bounces the light back to the beam splitter, where it recombines. Motion causes brightness fluctuations in this recombined light. Holometer scientists are analysing such fluctuations for anything exotic or unexpected - an effect caused by something different than ordinary ground vibration, for example.

Specifically, the team is looking for evidence of 'holographic noise' - a postulated quantum uncertainty inherent to space-time that would make it jiggle, just as matter continues to move as quantum waves even when cooled to absolute zero. These jiggles would be very slight, likely corresponding to a velocity of about 1 mm per year, researchers said.

The experiment is basically gauging the universe's information-storage capacity, searching for signs that locations and time aren't precisely defined, researchers said. For example, all the information in the universe may actually be contained in limited two-dimensional packets, just as images on a TV screen are constructed from numerous 2D pixels.

Full story: Yahoo! / LiveScience Back to top

Schrödinger's picture: Researchers take image without detecting light
August 28, 2014

Researchers in Austria have developed a new quantum imaging technique in which the image - a sketch of a cat - has been obtained without ever detecting the light that was used to illuminate the imaged object, while the light revealing the image never touches the imaged object.

The cat alludes to the famous Schrödinger cat paradox, in which a cat inside a closed box is said to be simultaneously dead and alive as long as there is no information outside the box to rule out one option over the other.

The object is illuminated with light that remains undetected. Moreover, the light that forms an image of the cat on the camera never interacts with it. In order to realise their experiment, the scientists use 'entangled' pairs of photons. In the experiment, a laser illuminates two separate crystals, creating one pair of twin photons, consisting of one infrared photon and a red photon, in either crystal. The object is placed in between the two crystals. The arrangement is such that if a photon pair is created in the first crystal, only the infrared photon passes through the imaged object. Its path then goes through the second crystal where it fully combines with any infrared photons that would be created there.

With this crucial step, there is now, in principle, no possibility to find out which crystal actually created the photon pair. Moreover, there is now no information in the infrared photon about the object. However, due to the quantum correlations of the entangled pairs the information about the object is now contained in the red photons – although they never touched the object. Bringing together both paths of the red photons (from the first and the second crystal) creates bright and dark patterns, which form the exact image of the object.

Full story: Science 2.0 Back to top

Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can't
August 27, 2014

No researcher could read all the papers in their field – but machines are making discoveries in their own right by mining the scientific literature

In May last year, a supercomputer in San Jose, California, read 100,000 research papers in 2 hours. It found completely new biology hidden in the data. Called KnIT, the computer is one of a handful of systems pushing back the frontiers of knowledge without human help.

KnIT didn't read the papers like a scientist – that would have taken a lifetime. Instead, it scanned for information on a protein called p53, and a class of enzymes that can interact with it, called kinases. Also known as 'the guardian of the genome', p53 suppresses tumours in humans. KnIT trawled the literature searching for links that imply undiscovered p53 kinases, which could provide routes to new cancer drugs.

Having analysed papers up until 2003, KnIT identified seven of the nine kinases discovered over the subsequent 10 years. More importantly, it also found what appeared to be two p53 kinases unknown to science. Initial lab tests confirmed the findings, although the team wants to repeat the experiment to be sure.

KnIT is a collaboration between IBM and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. It is the latest step into a weird world where autonomous machines make discoveries that are beyond scientists, simply by rifling more thoroughly through what we already know, and faster than any human can. New breakthroughs could come by analysing scientific literature across disciplines – physics on the scale of cells and molecular biology, for instance.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Modified yeast makes opiates for the first time
August 26, 2014

Genetically engineered yeasts can now efficiently produce a range of opiates, including morphine and oxycodone. With growing anxieties about supplies of opium poppies, it could be just what the doctor ordered.

Opiates are primarily used as painkillers and cough suppressants, and many of the most widely used opiates can be produced only from opium poppies. Demand for these drugs is booming. But of the poppies farmed to supply these drugs, some 50% are grown on the Australian island of Tasmania, so poor growing seasons can affect availability. As drug companies search for new places to grow poppies, researchers from Stanford University have been looking at getting yeast to make these complex drugs from simple sugars.

Some opiates, like morphine, are made naturally by poppies. Others, like oxycodone, are produced by chemically altering one of the plant's natural alkaloid chemicals – in this case thebaine. Back in 2008, the Stanford team inserted a number of genes – including some from the opium poppy – into yeasts, and got them to turn simple sugar molecules into a complex precursor of opiates: salutaridine. Now, in their latest work, they have solved the other end of the pathway, engineering yeasts to take complex precursors like thebaine and synthesise the finished products, including oxycodone. T

he researchers think that when the system is finished, a 1000-litre tank could produce as much morphine as a hectare of poppies.

Full story: New Scientist / Nature Chemical Biology Back to top

Social sciences suffer from severe publication bias
August 29, 2014

When an experiment fails to produce an interesting effect, researchers often shelve the data and move on to another problem. But withholding null results skews the literature in a field, and is a particular worry for clinical medicine and the social sciences.

Researchers at Stanford University in California have now measured the extent of the problem, finding that most null results in a sample of social-science studies were never published. This publication bias may cause others to waste time repeating the work, or conceal failed attempts to replicate published research.

The team investigated the fate of 221 sociological studies conducted between 2002 and 2012, which were recorded by Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS), a US project that helps social scientists to carry out large-scale surveys of people's views.

Only 48% of the completed studies had been published. So the team contacted the remaining authors to find out whether they had written up their results, or submitted them to a journal or conference. They also asked whether the results supported the researchers’ original hypothesis.

Of all the null studies, just 20% had appeared in a journal, and 65% had not even been written up. By contrast, roughly 60% of studies with strong results had been published. Many of the researchers contacted said that they had not written up their null results because they thought that journals would not publish them, or that the findings were neither interesting nor important enough to warrant any further effort.

Full story: Scientific American Back to top

A gel that stops bleeding in 10 seconds
August 26, 2014

What began as the idea of an entrepreneurial 17-year-old may end up becoming a key life-saving mechanism in emergency departments and makeshift trauma rooms across the globe.

Now equipped with a master's degree and his own company, Joe Landolina's invention 'Veti-Gel' - a gel that stops bleeding almost instantly - has been approved for clinical veterinary trials in the United States.

Landolina first pitched the idea to a business competition while a student at New York University after realising that the best medicine could offer someone whose injury could cause them to bleed out in three minutes was often just a gauze bandage.

After hours of study, Landolina devised a prototype using plant polymers which would replicate the surrounding tissue to which it is applied. The idea won first place at the 2011 NYU Polytechnic competition, which saw Landolina and his co-creator, Kenny Mai, pick up a cash prize and a provisional patent.

Landolina's company Suneris will soon begin distributing the gel to 1600 veterinarian clinics enrolled to use samples in a clinical trial. Although the gel is still in its early trial stage, Landolina has confirmed that the US military is watching its progress.

Full story: Sydney Morning Herald Back to top

China developing its own OS to take on Windows and Android
August 27, 2014

China really is serious about shrugging off the shackles of Windows and other Western operating systems, as the country is apparently developing its own OS which is free from the security misgivings the government has about foreign software.

The Chinese government is looking to boost its domestic software industry and develop alternatives firstly for desktop operating systems , and then it will follow those footsteps in the mobile world with an Android usurper, according to Ni Guangnan, head of an OS development alliance. which was put together back in the spring.

In May, China banned Windows 8 as a security hazard, and just a month ago, Microsoft had its offices in China swooped upon by officials in an apparent antitrust investigation. This flak follow concerns about the extent of cooperation of Western tech giants with the NSA.

The new Chinese desktop OS, which is Linux-based, will be launched by October supporting app stores, according to Guangnan.

Full story: TG Daily / Reuters Back to top

Charging a phone battery with music
August 19, 2014

There are any number of research teams trying to build alternative power sources for your cellphone. Do you want to put tiny windmills on it? What about plugging it into a solar-powered charging bench? Now, at the Queen Mary University of London, a group of scientists has created a prototype panel capable of charging a cellphone off environmental vibrations like music or dinner conversation.

Researchers call the device a 'nanogenerator'. It is a flat plastic plate sprayed with a sheet of tiny zinc oxide rods that generate electricity when squashed or stretched - as they would be in the presence of everyday background noise.

The group is building off previous research that found solar cells became more efficient when exposed to acoustic vibrations, especially the high-pitched tones of pop music. This time around, there's no solar component, just what's known as piezoelectric energy generation. The research team, which worked in partnership with Nokia, says that these sheets can be produced cheaply and generate five volts of electricity, the same as most phone wall chargers.

Full story: The Verge Back to top