Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 34, 2010

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Issue 34, 2010

This week's headlines:

'Analogue Hawking radiation spotted in the lab'
October 22, 2010

It was one of Stephen Hawking's finest insights: the 1974 prediction that black holes are not totally black, but emit a steady stream of radiation. Unfortunately, no-one has been able to detect a black-hole signal because it would be so faint compared with the universe's background radiation. But now, Italian physicists at the University of Insubria describe what many believe to be the first measurement of Hawking radiation from a black hole 'analogue' in the lab.

Hawking's theory stemmed from the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, which tells us that pairs of particles are continually popping into existence, even in a vacuum. Most of the time these particles annihilate one another almost as soon as they are born, but this would not be true at the edge of a black hole, known as the event horizon, where gravity becomes so strong not even light can escape. If a particle pair is born straddling this point, one particle would have to be sucked in while the other would escape - and this latter one would become Hawking radiation.

Because Hawking radiation is currently impossible to observe for real black holes, physicists have recently been looking to black hole analogues in the lab. One type of analogue employs lasers to simulate an event horizon, because intense light can alter a medium's refractive index, which governs light propagation speed. The team placed a photon detector and spectrometer at right angles to the direction of the laser beam passing through the glass to catch any photons born spontaneously at the simulated event horizon. Amid noise coming from fluorescent defects in the glass, the group was able to pick out a signal of photons with wavelengths between 850 and 900 nm. Because there is no known fluorescence emission in this window, the researchers claim these photons must be Hawking radiation.

Full story: PhysicsWorld /Physical Review Letters (forthcoming) Back to top

US lab clears Higgs hunt hurdle
October 26, 2010

An expert panel has recommended extending the lifetime of a US 'particle smasher' by three years. This will allow the Tevatron accelerator in Illinois to continue its hunt for the elusive Higgs boson particle.

The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) proposes the facility continues operating until 2014, pitching it against the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in the race to find the Higgs. The Higgs is a sub-atomic particle crucial to current theories of physics. HEPAP reports to the US Department of Energy and is the highest panel in the US making recommendations on future particle physics projects.

The Tevatron is operated by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). The US machine and the Europe-based LHC are competing to be first to identify the Higgs. But extending the lifetime of the US accelerator is a potential game-changer. Some physicists say the LHC may not be in a position to detect the Higgs for two to three years. But the two accelerators could also work in a complementary way - measuring different properties of this particle.

HEPAP also recommended more funds be allocated to the Tevatron. But the extension will not receive the full go-ahead until the Department of Energy's next budget is finalised. It is expected that Fermilab will need an extra USD 35m per year to operate the Tevatron into 2014.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Brain link lets people choose images by thought alone
October 28, 2010

Imagine being able to manipulate images on a screen by thought alone. That's the tantalising prospect raised by a brain-machine interface that lets you control which of two competing images you can see on a screen.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, recruited 12 volunteers who had electrodes implanted in their brains to record epileptic seizures. That meant the team could record activity in the normally inaccessible medial temporal lobe. The MTL houses the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in memory and emotions.

The researchers first talked to each person about their interests and recent experiences - the concepts making up their recent memories. They then created a database of images to correspond to those concepts, such as a picture of the Eiffel Tower for a person who recently visited Paris. Next each person had their brain activity recorded as they looked at 100 of those pictures six times. The team could then identify the individual neurons that fired in response to each image.

The team chose two images for each person that caused firing in different individual neurons. The two pictures were superimposed, and the person asked to control the strength of each image by focusing on the concepts related to each picture. A brain-machine interface translated the neural activity related to an image so that it was portrayed more or less vividly on the screen. In 70% of tests, volunteers were able to bring one image to the fore.

Although humans can already control the movement of a robotic arm via the brain's motor cortex, this is the first time anyone has been able to tap into the neurons associated with individual concepts.

Full story: New Scientists / Nature Back to top

EU project tackles energy use in phones, laptops and TVs
October 27, 2010

The EU is funding a major research initiative that aims to lower the amount of energy used by electronic devices and extend battery life. Scientists at European universities, research institutes and technology companies plan to use nanotechnology to reduce the power consumption of devices such as mobile phones, laptops, televisions and supercomputers.

The EU said that the scientists will focus on tunnel field effect transistors and semiconducting nanowires to achieve the improved efficiencies. The end goal of the Steeper project is to reduce the operating value of the devices to less than 0.5V, which would represent a tenfold increase in energy efficiency.

Steeper also aims to eliminate power consumption when devices are in passive or standby modes, as standby power already accounts for about 10 per cent of the electricity used in homes and offices, according to EU estimates.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

Superhero suit to strengthen astronauts' bones
October 28, 2010

With its stitching clearly visible and reference lines drawn in marker pen, the stretchy superhero-blue suit at MIT's Man Vehicle Laboratory doesn't look like much. But it could offer orbiting astronauts a replacement for something they are sorely missing: gravity.

The microgravity of orbital flight is tough on the bones. An astronaut can lose 1.5% of the mass of some bones in the hips and lower back in just one month. To combat the problem, Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station wear suits designed to mimic gravity. Bungee cords on the suit's arms and legs exert a force that simulates the body's weight. But these suits are difficult to wear for long periods, and it is not clear how effective they are in preventing bone loss.

The MIT team has designed a suit that is more comfortable. Made of an elastic material, the suit is deliberately cut too short for the wearer, and has stirrups that wrap around the feet so that it stretches when the wearer puts it on. The elasticity of the stretched material then pulls the wearer's shoulders towards their feet just as gravity would.

In normal gravity a person's legs bear more weight than the torso. The suit mimics this using vertical ribbons of inelastic material, each stitched into the suit in a series of caterpillar-like loops. The size of the loops limits how far the suit's elastic material can stretch. The more it stretches, the greater the force it exerts, so by allowing the suit's legs to stretch more than its torso the wearer's legs are subjected to the strongest force.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Complex mathematical problem solved by bees
October 25, 2010

Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London have discovered that bees learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers even if they discover the flowers in a different order. Bees are effectively solving the 'Travelling Salesman Problem', and these are the first animals found to do this.

The Travelling Salesman must find the shortest route that allows him to visit all locations on his route. Computers solve it by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. However, bees solve it only using a brain the size of grass seed.

The team used computer controlled artificial flowers to test whether bees would follow a route defined by the order in which they discovered the flowers or if they would find the shortest route. After exploring the location of the flowers, bees quickly learned to fly the shortest route.

As well as enhancing our understanding of how bees move around the landscape pollinating crops and wild flowers, this research has other applications. Our lifestyle relies on networks such as traffic on the roads, information flow on the web and business supply chains. By understanding how bees can solve their problem with such a tiny brain we can improve our management of these everyday networks without needing lots of computer time.

Full story: PhysOrg / The American Naturalist Back to top

Toughest body armour developed by scientists
October 22, 2010

Scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel have developed the hardest organic material known to man. Tougher than stainless steel and even the previous record holder, bulletproof Kevlar.

The new material could make steel tougher and may also lead to cheaper and lighter body armour. It is similar, but not identical, to the brain plaque linked with Alzheimer's disease. Dozens of amino acids form those beta-amlyoid proteins. The new synthetic proteins only have a fraction of those amino acids and are covered with an additional protective layer to create super-strong spheres.

The spheres are microscopic, ranging in size from about 30 nanometres to two micrometres. The material itself is transparent and easy to manipulate and manufacture. It is also incredibly tough. Only a diamond-tipped probe could penetrate the material and to make a dent the probe needed twice the pressure of what it would take to make a mark in Kevlar. The new material could be used in a range of applications, from bulletproof armour to stronger, lighter steel.

Full story: MSNBC / Discovery Channel Back to top

Humans mastered tool making earlier than thought
October 28, 2010

A group of prehistoric people mastered a difficult and delicate process to sharpen stones into spears and knives at least 75,000 years ago, more than 50,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to researchers at the University of Colorado, the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and the University of Bergen in Norway. This technique, known as pressure flaking, allowed for the more precise shaping of stones to turn them into better weapons for hunting.

The new findings show pressure flaking took place at Blombos Cave in what is now South Africa during the Middle Stone Age by anatomically modern humans and involved the heating of silcrete - quartz grains cemented by silica - used to make tools. Pressure flaking is a process by which implements previously shaped by hard stone hammer strikes followed by softer strikes with wood or bone hammers are carefully trimmed on the edges by directly pressing the point of a tool made of bone on the stone.

Prior to the Blombos Cave discovery, the earliest evidence of pressure flaking was from the Upper Paleolithic Solutrean culture in France and Spain roughly 20,000 years ago. The authors speculated the pressure flaking technique may have been invented in Africa and used sporadically before its later, widespread adoption in Europe, Australia and North America.

Full story: Reuters / Science Back to top