Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 14, 2010

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Issue 14, 2010

This week's headlines:

Solar spacecraft begins study of our Sun
April 22, 2010

Scientists are seeing the violent and dynamic processes of the Sun in unprecedented detail thanks to a new spacecraft launched by the US. The 'first light' data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is providing extreme close-ups of the Sun's surface, including detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots.

Scientists with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre say SDO will change their understanding of the Sun and its processes. Launched back on 11 February, SDO is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the Sun. Understanding space weather is important because of its impact on communications systems, spacecraft electronics and power supplies on the ground. SDO will also help scientists understand the relationship between sunspot activity and climate change on Earth.

SDO carries a Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, which maps solar magnetic fields. It can also 'look' beneath the Sun's opaque surface using ultrasound. Another key instrument is the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, a group of four telescopes, which will study the Sun's surface and atmosphere in 10 different wavelength bands. The third major component is the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment which measures fluctuations in the Sun's radiant emissions. These emissions have a direct effect on Earth's upper atmosphere.

Full story: ABC News Back to top

UK university ordered to give data to climate sceptic
April 20, 2010

The climate data wars have taken a new turn. A leading British university has been told it must release data on tree rings dating back more than 7000 years to an amateur climate analyst and climate sceptic.

The ruling, which could have important repercussions for environmental research in the UK, comes from the UK government's deputy information commissioner Graham Smith. In January he caused consternation at the height of the 'climategate' affair by criticising the way that the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, handled sceptics' requests for data from its Climatic Research Unit.

Now, following a three-year dispute between banker and climate sceptic Doug Keenan and Queens University Belfast, Smith has told the university to hand over to Keenan the results of its 40-year investigation of Irish oak-tree growth rings. The ruling sends a strong signal that scientists at public institutions such as universities cannot claim their data is their or their university's private property.

Keenan is one of a number of climate sceptics who have submitted freedom-of-information requests to the beleaguered Climatic Research Unit over the past few years. According to the Financial Times, all those who submitted such requests are now being interviewed by police as part of a police investigation into who acquired and published a file of the unit's emails last November, sparking the climategate controversy.

Full story: New Scientist / Dendrochronologia Back to top

Scientists measure atomic nudge
April 19, 2010

By pushing a cluster of just 60 ions with a tiny electric field, researchers have measured the most minuscule force ever. The result, measuring mere yoctonewtons (10-24 newtons), beats previous record lows by several orders of magnitude. The group behind the measurements, based at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, hopes that the technique can eventually lead to new tools for measuring the minuscule features of materials' surfaces.

Tiny force measurements are crucial for imaging atomic surfaces and detecting nuclear spins, but they are difficult to make because of the tiny dimensions involved. To date, researchers have successfully measured around an attonewton (10-18 N) of force by giving small pushes to microscopic paddles or wires and then watching them vibrate. These systems work well, but are limited by factors such as their relatively large size2.

The new technique eschews the paddle-type systems in favour of just 60 beryllium-9 ions. The group flattened the ions into a tiny 'pancake' and suspended this in mid-air using magnetic fields. They then fired a laser at the ions. By carefully tuning the laser, they extracted energy from the atomic pancake until it reached a temperature of just 0.5 millikelvins. The team then nudged their pancake with a small electric field. The nudge shook the ions and caused a discernible change in the reflected laser light. On the basis of the size of the change, the team estimates that it has measured a force as small as 174 yoctonewtons - about a thousand times smaller than previous measurements.

Full story: Nature News Back to top

Quantum broadband becomes reality
April 20, 2010

The first high-speed network link that is so secure it is theoretically unbreakable has been created, thanks to quantum physics. A team at Toshiba Research Europe in Cambridge, UK, has sent encrypted data at over 1 megabit per second along 50 kilometres of optical fibre, fast enough to stream video.

Secure links like Toshiba's involve one user sending a secret 'key' to the other, encoded into the quantum properties of a string of single photons. Quantum mechanics ensures that any attempt to intercept this quantum key will change it, revealing the attack.

Until now, the fastest way to send the encoded photons was through the air, but the best spanned not much more than 700 metres. For quantum encryption to be practical, the photons need to travel further and use existing infrastructure, such as the optical fibre that already forms the internet's backbone.

Unfortunately, optical fibre can only transmit light over long distances when it is of a certain wavelength. Individual photons of that wavelength are difficult to detect, but Toshiba has now developed a detector that can pick them up.

Full story: New Scientist / Applied Physics Letters Back to top

Cat brain inspires computers of the future
April 16, 2010

Electronic devices that mimic how brain cells in a cat work could allow computers to one day learn and recognise information more like humans do. Such brain-like devices might accomplish more complex decisions and perform more tasks simultaneously than conventional computers are capable of, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

Microchips typically rely on transistors, which are essentially switches that can flick on or off to represent data as the binary digits or bits 0 and 1. The devices that Michigan investigators are developing instead employ 'memristors'. These circuit elements, unlike others, carry memories of their past: When you turn off voltage to the device, memristors remember how much was applied beforehand and for how long.

The very nature of memristors makes them act very much like synapses, which connect brain cells, or neurons, together. Synapses serve as reconfigurable switches that can form pathways linking thousands of neurons, and like memristors, they remember these pathways based on the strength and timing of electrical signals they receive from the neurons.

A brain can perform many operations simultaneously, or in parallel. This enables us to recognise a face in an instant, but even a supercomputer would take far longer and consume much more energy in trying. Now researchers have used memristors to link conventional circuits together to mimic the brain. The scientists are aiming toward an electric brain as smart as a cat - for instance, one that can figure out the shortest route from the front door to the sofa in a house full of furniture time after time, even if one moved the sofa each time.

Full story: MSNBC / Nature Back to top

Researchers show how to use mobiles to spy on people
April 22, 2010

Researchers have demonstrated how it is possible to use GSM data along with a few tools to track down a person's mobile phone number and their location, and even listen in on calls and voicemail messages.

Using information from the GSM network researchers Nick DePetrillo and Don Bailey could identify a mobile phone user's location, and they showed how they could easily create dossiers on people's lives and their behaviour and business dealings. They also demonstrated how they were able to identify a government contractor for the US Department of Homeland Security through analyzing phone numbers and caller IDs.

The demonstration showed up inherent weaknesses in the way mobile providers expose interfaces to each other to interoperate over the GSM infrastructure.

The researchers have not released details of the tools they developed, and have alerted the major GSM carriers about their results. In the meantime there is little mobile phone users can do to protect themselves short of turning off their phones. Indications of an attack might include the phone calling itself, or the phone suddenly calling someone by itself, but most attacks would produce no visible signs.

Full story: PhysOrg Back to top