Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 36, 2011

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Issue 36, 2011

This week's headlines:

Revealed - the capitalist network that runs the world
October 19, 2011

As protests against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters' worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy. The study's assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.

The study by complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs). From Orbis 2007, a database listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide, the team pulled out all 43,060 TNCs and the share ownerships linking them. Then they constructed a model of which companies controlled others through shareholding networks, coupled with each company's operating revenues, to map the structure of economic power.

The work revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships. Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. Although they represented 20% of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world's large blue chip and manufacturing firms - the 'real' economy - representing a further 60% of global revenues. When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a 'super-entity' of 147 even more tightly knit companies - all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity - that controlled 40% of the total wealth in the network.

The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.

Full story: New Scientist / PloS One Back to top

Malaria vaccine halves risk of infection in infants
October 19, 2011

Good news from the world's largest and most advanced trial of a vaccine against malaria. Final stage clinical trial data on RTS,S, also known as Mosquirix, showed it halved the risk of African children getting malaria, making it likely to become the world's first successful vaccine against the deadly disease.

While scientists say it is no 'silver bullet' and will not end the mosquito-borne infection on its own, it is being hailed as a crucial weapon in the fight against malaria and one that could speed the path to eventual worldwide eradication.

The RTS,S trial involves 15,460 children in seven African countries. The new result comes from an interim analysis of 6000 of the participants, aged 5 to 17 months, a year after they received their jabs. The vaccine reduced the risk of developing clinical malaria - when the disease requires medical treatment - by 56%. The possibility of developing severe malaria dropped by 47%. Final results from the trial, including those from vaccinating infants aged 6 to 12 weeks, are due in 2014. The results so far have matched those from earlier trials of RTS,S.

Malaria is caused by a parasite carried in the saliva of mosquitoes. It kills more than 780,000 people per year, most of them babies or very young children in Africa.

Full story: Reuters / New Scientist / New England Journal of Medicine Back to top

Mobile phone brain cancer link rejected
October 21, 2011

Further research has been published suggesting there is no link between mobile phones and brain cancer. The risk mobiles present has been much debated over the past 20 years as use of the phones has soared. The latest study led by the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark looked at more than 350,000 people with mobile phones over an 18-year period. Researchers concluded users were at no greater risk than anyone else of developing brain cancer.

The findings come after a series of studies have come to similar conclusions. But there has also been some research casting doubt on mobile phone safety, prompting the World Health Organization to warn that they could still be carcinogenic.

The Danish study, which built on previous research that has already been published by carrying out a longer follow-up, found there was no significant difference in rates of brain or central nervous system cancers among those who had mobiles and those that did not. Of the 358,403 mobile phone owners looked at, 356 gliomas (a type of brain cancer) and 846 cancers of the central nervous system were seen - both in line with incidence rates among those who did not own a mobile.

Even among those who had had mobiles the longest - 13 years or more - the risk was no higher, the researchers concluded. But they admit there were some limitations to the study, including the exclusion of 'corporate subscriptions', thereby excluding people who used their phones for business purposes, who could be among the heaviest users.

Full story: BBC News / British Medical Journal Back to top

Virus helps build new materials
October 19, 2011

Scientists in the US have used a common virus to produce materials that resemble skin and bone. The work brings synthetic production of tissue in the laboratory closer to reality.

M13 is a virus that attacks E. coli bacteria but is harmless to humans. It is relatively easy to grow and control in the lab because its protein coat can be manipulated by genetic engineering. Researchers from the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have looked at the physical conditions under which different molecular structures would form from genetically modified M13 viruses.

They started with solid plates immersed in a virus-rich salt solution and carefully drew the plates out of the solution, allowing the salt solution to evaporate, leaving a thin film of viruses on the plates. As the concentration of the virus solution was increased, so too did the complexity of the patterns on the plates. At low concentrations the researchers saw a simple alternating pattern of ridges and grooves. However, at a higher concentration the patterns on the plates showed much more complex, long-range order, reminiscent of dried ramen noodles.

The researchers also investigated the effect of extraction speed. They found that the optical properties of these noodle-like structures varied quite distinctly depending on how fast the plate was withdrawn from the solution. Increasing the pulling speed reduced the peak reflected wavelength of one film from 490 nm to 388 nm. The team produced bulk 3D structures by using their films as substrates on which to grow cells. The cells grew differently on different films. On one substrate the team even managed to grow mineralised tissue similar to tooth enamel.

Full story: PhysicsWorld / Nature Back to top

Turning wood into oil, in two simple steps
October 18, 2011

Efficiency and simplicity have long eluded renewable-fuel researchers, but Clay Wheeler from the University of Maine has developed a two-step process he says can make oil from the cellulose in wood fibre. This process, far less complex than competing methods, creates an oil that can be refined into gasoline, jet fuel or diesel and removes nearly all oxygen - the enemy of fuel efficiency.

In heavily wooded Maine, logging produces a lot of scrap tree stumps, tops and branches that are unusable for making lumber or paper. While additional research is needed, if Wheeler's process is ultimately able to be commercially developed, it could help forest-rich states generate their own fuel from that scrap.

In the first step of Wheeler's process, wood is bathed in sulphuric acid, isolating the sugars in cellulose and producing an energy-intense organic acid mixture. That mixture is then heated with calcium hydroxide in a reactor to 450 degrees Celsius, a step that removes oxygen. What drips out is a hydrocarbon liquid that chemically mimics crude oil.

For every ton of cellulose processed, Wheeler is able to make about 1.25 barrels of oil equivalent, a unit of energy comparable to the amount of energy produced by burning one barrel of crude oil. The acids and calcium hydroxide are recycled at the end of the process, cutting costs. The most expensive part is the wood itself, Wheeler said. At current wood biomass prices, he acknowledged his process is not economically competitive with traditional crude oil refining.

Full story: Reuters Back to top

DARPA wants to recycle space junk into new satellites
October 18, 2011

The US Department of Defense is looking for ways to repurpose space junk thousands of miles above Earth back into valuable satellite parts, or even completely new spacecraft. The military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has started a program called Phoenix, which seeks to recycle still-functioning pieces of defunct satellites and incorporate them into new space systems on the cheap.

The Phoenix program aims to use a robot mechanic-like vehicle to snag still-working antennas from the many retired and dead satellites in geosynchronous orbit - about 35,000 km above Earth - and attach them to smaller 'satlets', or nanosatellites, launched from Earth.

The Phoenix program envisions launching a 'tender' vehicle, the mechanic-like satellite servicing system, into geosynchronous orbit. The tender would be equipped with grasping mechanical arms and remote vision systems. The satlets would then be launched separately as extra payloads hitching rides into space aboard other satellites.

The tender vehicle would cruise over to a satlet, pluck it out of its housing and ferry it to the appropriate defunct satellite. The tender would then switch the antenna over from the retired satellite to the satlet, creating a 'new' and relatively cheap, satellite using previously useless space junk.

Full story: Yahoo / Back to top

More Facebook friends linked to bigger brain areas
October 18, 2011

Scientists at University College London have found a direct link between the number of 'friends' a person has on Facebook and the size of certain brain regions, raising the possibility that using online social networks might change our brains. The four brain areas involved are known to play a role in memory, emotional responses and social interactions. So far, however, it is not possible to say whether having more Facebook connections makes particular parts of the brain larger or whether some people are simply pre-disposed, or 'hard-wired', to have more friends.

The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of 125 university students, all of them active users of social media site Facebook, and cross-checked their findings in a further group of 40 students. They discovered a strong connection between the number of Facebook friends and the amount of 'grey matter' in the amygdala, the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex. Grey matter is the layer of brain tissue where mental processing occurs.

The thickness of grey matter in the amygdala was also linked to the number of real-world friends people had, but the size of the other three regions appeared to be correlated only to online connections. The students, on average, had around 300 Facebook friends, with the most connected having up to 1,000.

Full story: Reuters / Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Back to top

Control a touchscreen with raps, taps and flicks
October 20, 2011

Swipe the screen with your finger to bring up a menu. Rap it with your knuckle to select an object. Flick with your fingertip to close. That's the idea behind TapSense, the latest smart interface idea from Carnegie Mellon University researchers which uses the sounds that different parts of your hand make when tapped on a touchscreen to differentiate between them.

Attaching a microphone to a touchscreen lets the user assign different actions depending upon which part of the hand is used to strike the screen. It can tell the difference between a fingernail, knuckle, fingertip and pad of a finger. The researchers say the system is able to distinguish between the four types of finger inputs with 95% accuracy, and could distinguish between a pen and a finger with 99% accuracy.

The system can also tell the difference between the sound made by different materials, such as wood, plastic or metal. This would allow users with a stylus made from the different materials to work together with each contribution appearing in a different colour on the screen, for example.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top