| Issue no. 19, 2011
Published: May 27, 2011
| Electrons are almost perfectly round, scientists discover|
| Robots invent their own spoken language|
| Engineered antibodies cross blood-brain barrier|
| Mind-reading scan identifies simple thoughts |
| Geothermal without the earthquakes|
| Using microbes to generate electricity|
| US considers open-source software for cybersecurity|
| Physicists find a new angle on blood spatter|
|Electrons are almost perfectly round, scientists discover
|Researchers at Imperial College London have made the most accurate
measurement yet of the shape of an electron, finding that it is almost a
perfect sphere. Experts found that the subatomic particles differ from
being perfectly round by less than 0.000000000000000000000000001cm. This
means that if an electron was magnified to the size of the solar system,
it would still appear spherical to within the width of a human hair.
Physicists from the university's Centre for Cold Matter studied
electrons inside molecules called ytterbium fluoride. Using a laser,
they made measurements of the motion of these electrons, looking for any
distinctive wobbles which would suggest that the shape of the molecule
was distorted - as would occur if the electrons were not perfectly
round. The team observed no such imperfections during experiments
spanning more than a decade.
The results are important in the study of antimatter, an elusive
substance that behaves in the same way as ordinary matter, except that
it has an opposite electrical charge. For example, the antimatter
version of the negatively charged electron is the positively charged
anti-electron, known as a positron. Understanding the shape of the
electron could help researchers understand how positrons behave and how
antimatter and matter differ.
| Daily Telegraph / Nature
May 26, 2011
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|Robots invent their own spoken language
|Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are teaching a
pair of robots to communicate linguistically like humans by inventing
new spoken words, a lexicon that the roboticists can teach to other
robots to generate an entirely new language.
The 'lingodroids' consist of a mobile platform equipped with a camera,
laser range finder and sonar for mapping and obstacle avoidance. The
robots also carry a microphone and speakers for audible communication
between them. To understand the concept behind the project, consider a
simplified case of how language might have developed. Imagine that all
of a sudden you wake up with your memory completely wiped, not knowing
any language. And then you meet another person who's in the exact same
situation as you. What do you do?
What might very well end up happening is that you invent some random
word to describe where you are right now, and then point at the ground
and tell the word to the other person, establishing a connection between
this new word and a place. And this is exactly what the Lingodroids do.
If one of the robots finds itself in an unfamiliar area, it will make up
a word to describe it, choosing a random combination from a set of
syllables. It then communicates that word to other robots that it meets,
thereby defining the name of a place.
From this fundamental base, the robots can play games with each other to
reinforce the language. For example, one robot might tell the other
robot 'kuzo', and then both robots will race to where they think 'kuzo'
is. When they meet at or close to the same place, that reinforces the
connection between a word and a location. And from 'kuzo', one robot can
ask the other about the place they just came from, resulting in words
for more abstract concepts like direction and distance. After playing
several hundred games to develop their language, the robots agreed on
directions within 10 degrees and distances within 0.375 metres. The
robots also created spatial maps that agree remarkably well.
| MSNBC / Discovery Channel
May 23, 2011
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|Engineered antibodies cross blood-brain barrier
|By defying the classical rules of antibody engineering, researchers have
constructed an antibody that is readily shuttled into the brain. The
results suggest that the approach could be used to generate
antibody-based therapies for brain diseases.
Antibodies - proteins used by the immune system to neutralize damaging
foreign substances - are prized both in nature and in the laboratory
because they are highly specific. But researchers are increasingly
striving to make antibodies that bind to more than one target. But few
of those antibodies will be able to penetrate the shield of tightly
packed cells known as the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain
from blood-borne intruders such as bacteria, but also keeps out most
large drug molecules.
But now researchers from US biotechnology firm Genentech report the
design of an antibody that surmounts this obstacle. The antibody targets
two proteins. The first, called beta-secretase 1, is a popular target
for drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease, because it has an important role
in the production of amyloid peptides in the brain. According to the
'amyloid hypothesis', amyloid aggregates are responsible for the
hallmark brain damage and memory loss of the condition.
The second protein targeted by the antibody is the transferring receptor,
which activates a molecular channel that normally imports iron into the
brain. By clinging to this receptor, the antibody is transported into
the brain, where it can act against beta-secretase 1. The double-duty
antibody performed well in mouse models of Alzheimer's disease: a day
after receiving a single injection of the antibody, concentrations of
amyloid-beta in the brain plummeted by 47%.
| Science Translational Medicine
May 25, 2011
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|Mind-reading scan identifies simple thoughts
|A new brain imaging system that can identify a subject's simple
thoughts may lead to clearer diagnoses for Alzheimer's disease or
schizophrenia - as well as possibly paving the way for reading people's
minds. Researchers at Stanford University in California used functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify patterns of brain activity
associated with different mental states.
They asked 14 volunteers to do one of four tasks: sing songs silently to
themselves; recall the events of the day; count backwards in threes; or
simply relax. Participants were given a 10-minute period during which
they had to do this. For the rest of that time they were free to think
about whatever they liked. The participants' brains were scanned for the
entire 10 minutes, and the patterns of connectivity associated with each
task were teased out by computer algorithms that compared scans from
several volunteers doing the same task.
Once the algorithms had established the brain activity necessary for
each task, the researchers asked 10 new volunteers to think in turn
about each of the four tasks. Without knowing beforehand what each
volunteer was thinking, the system successfully identified 85% of the
tasks they were engaged in. It also correctly concluded that subjects
were not engaged in any of the four original activities when it analysed
scans of people thinking about moving around their homes.
The findings suggest that patterns for thousands of mental states might
serve as a reference bank against which people's thoughts could be
compared, potentially revealing what someone is thinking or how they are
feeling. The researchers hope that it could one day be used in
Alzheimer's and schizophrenia to help identify faults in the connections
needed to perform everyday tasks. The system might also be useful for
gauging emotional reactions to film clips and adverts.
| New Scientist
May 26, 2011
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|Geothermal without the earthquakes
|A startup in Connecticut says it has a way to improve the reach of
enhanced geothermal energy, without the financial or geological risks
associated with such projects.
Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) represents a promising source of clean
power generation in geographies that lack the ideal combination of
underground heat, water, and rock permeability needed for conventional
geothermal. But with EGS, developers have to engineer the conditions
they require, and this involves fracturing solid rock by pumping fluids
into wells at high pressure, an approach that has raised concerns about
the potential to trigger earthquakes and contaminate aquifers.
GTherm, founded in 2008, says it has come up with an approach that does
not require any fracturing or water cooling. It uses a kind of
solid-state heat exchanger or 'heat nest' at the bottom of wells. The
nest draws heat away from the surrounding rock more efficiently, with
the help of a highly conductive grout that encases the heat exchanger.
To generate power, fluid travels the length of the well in a closed loop
and carries the heat from the nest back to the surface, where a
secondary fluid within a separate closed loop is turned into gas to
drive an electricity-generating turbine. To further enhance heat
recovery and increase power output, thin bore holes about 30 metres long
and lined with heat-conducting material can be drilled off the main
| Technology Review
May 17, 2011
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|Using microbes to generate electricity
|Using bacteria to generate energy is a significant step closer following
a breakthrough discovery by scientists at the University of East Anglia.
The research demonstrates for the first time the exact molecular
structure of the proteins which enable bacterial cells to transfer
The discovery means scientists can now start developing ways to 'tether'
bacteria directly to electrodes - creating efficient microbial fuel
cells or 'bio-batteries'. The advance could also hasten the development
of microbe-based agents that can clean up oil or uranium pollution, and
fuel cells powered by human or animal waste.
In earlier research published by PNAS in 2009, the team demonstrated the
mechanism by which bacteria survive in oxygen-free environments by
constructing electrical wires that extend through the cell wall and make
contact with a mineral - a process called iron respiration or 'breathing
In this latest research, the scientists used a technique called x-ray
crystallography to reveal the molecular structure of the proteins
attached to the surface of a Shewanella oneidensis cell through which
electrons are transferred.
| PhysOrg / PNAS
May 23, 2011
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|US considers open-source software for cybersecurity
|The US Department of Homeland Security sees open source software as a
possible tool for defending government networks from both online thieves
and professional cyberspies. A new five-year, USD 10m program aims to
survey existing open-source software to find those that could fill 'open
security' needs. Called the Homeland Open Security Technology program,
or HOST, it also may plant seed investments where needed to inspire
innovative solutions that can fill gaps in cybersecurity defences.
Open-source software often gives users the right to change its code to
suit their purposes, as well as to share or give away copies. That does
not make for bad security. On the contrary, having such transparent
innards means that a big open-source community of savvy programmers can
root out any weaknesses.
The open-source perk also means that the US government is not at the
mercy of companies that hold the license for proprietary software. If
bugs crop up or an exploiter penetrates the cybersecurity defences,
programmers can dive right into open-source software to fix it.
The Homeland Security effort has already begun comparing existing
open-source products with the needs of government users, so that it can
decide where to invest seed capital to encourage innovative solutions to
meet those needs. But any open-source solutions for cybersecurity must
ultimately stand on their own commercial success or they will die.
| Yahoo / LiveScience.com
May 26, 2011
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|Physicists find a new angle on blood spatter
|If you are a fan of forensic-investigation TV dramas, you could be
forgiven for thinking that all the minute details of a violent crime can
be deduced simply by looking at the pattern of blood spatter. The
reality, however, is that investigators are often unable to work out
important details like whether the victim was standing or sitting when
attacked - a distinction that can be crucial to a claim of self-defence.
Now, though, physicists at Washington State University have devised a
new technique for analysing blood spatter that - under certain
conditions - gives the height at which the blood emanated from a victim.
That information could, in principle, be used to conclude that a person
was sitting, standing or lying on the floor when stabbed or shot.
Forensics investigators study the elliptical shapes of blood stains,
which reveal the angles at which blood droplets impacted the floor or
other surfaces. By tracing back from several different stains, it is
possible to conclude where on the floor a person was standing when they
were shot. However, finding the height from which the blood emerged is
more difficult because the velocity of the blood is not known and it may
have been launched in one of many vertical trajectories.
The researchers have been able to work around this problem by
considering the Newtonian equations of motion of the droplets under
gravity and simplifying the problem by assuming that the blood spurts
out of the body over a narrow range of polar angles - the angle between
the horizontal and the initial trajectory of the blood. They calculated
that the tangent of the impact angle, should vary linearly with 2/r,
where r is the horizontal component of the distance that that the blood
has travelled. When the tangent versus 2/r is plotted, the slope of the
graph is equal to the height at which the victim was shot.
| PhysicsWorld / American Journal of Physics
May 24, 2011
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