Monthly Archives: February 2008

Why scientists love games consoles

Why scientists love games consoles

Reprogram a PlayStation and it will perform feats that would be unthinkable on an ordinary PC because the kinds of calculations required to produce the realistic graphics now seen in sophisticated video games are similar to those used by chemists and physicists as they simulate the interactions between particles ranging from the molecular to the astronomical.
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Such simulations are usually carried out on a supercomputer, but time on these machines is expensive and in short supply. By comparison, games consoles are cheap and easily available, says New Scientist.

“There is no doubt that the entertainment industry is helping to drive the direction of high performance computational science – exploiting the power available to the masses will lead to many research breakthroughs in the future,” comments Prof Peter Coveney of University College London, who uses supercomputing in chemistry.

Prof Gaurav Khanna at the University of Massachusetts has used an array of 16 PS3s to calculate what will happen when two black holes merge.

According to Prof Khanna, the PS3 has unique features that make it suitable for scientific computations, namely, the Cell processor dubbed a “supercomputer-on-a-chip.” And it runs on Linux, “so it does not limit what you can do.”

“A single high-precision simulation can sometimes cost more than 5,000 hours on the TeraGrid supercomputers. For the same cost, you can build your own supercomputer using PS3s. It works just as well, has no long wait times and can be used over and over again, indefinitely,” Prof Khanna says.

Machines ‘to match man by 2029’

Machines ‘to match man by 2029’

Machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence by 2029, a leading US inventor has predicted.

Humanity is on the brink of advances that will see tiny robots implanted in people’s brains to make them more intelligent said engineer Ray Kurzweil.

He said machines and humans would eventually merge through devices implanted in the body to boost intelligence and health.

“It’s really part of our civilisation,” Mr Kurzweil said.

“But that’s not going to be an alien invasion of intelligent machines to displace us.”

Machines were already doing hundreds of things humans used to do, at human levels of intelligence or better, in many different areas, he said.

“I’ve made the case that we will have both the hardware and the software to achieve human level artificial intelligence with the broad suppleness of human intelligence including our emotional intelligence by 2029,” he said.

Scientists Scan Striking Nanoscale Images

Scientists Scan Striking Nanoscale Images

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For the first time, late last year, a team of British scientists filmed the nanoscale interaction of an attacking virus with an enzyme and a DNA strand in real time.

This was the latest breakthrough in the advancement of scanning probe microscopes — the family of nonoptical microscopes researchers use to create striking images through raster scans of individual atoms.

The granddaddy of them all is the scanning tunneling microscope, a 1986 invention that won its creators the Nobel Prize. STMs pass an electrical probe over a substance, allowing scientists to visualize regions of high electron density and infer the position of individual atoms and molecules.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the development of STMs, an international contest — SPMage07 — showcasing the best STM images was founded.

Morgan Goes Back to the Future With 1930s-Style Hydrogen Car

Morgan Goes Back to the Future With 1930s-Style Hydrogen Car

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Morgan Motor Co., the tiny British automaker so old-fashioned it still uses wood frames, is stepping well into the future with LifeCar, a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid it says will prove “a zero-emission vehicle can be fun to drive.”

Morgan will unveil the hand-built aluminum-bodied coupe next month at the Geneva Auto Show, and although there’s no word on whether LifeCar will ever be more than a one-off concept, the company hopes to show hydrogen is a viable – if distant – alternative to fossil fuels. Morgan has spent more than two years working with a British defense firm, two universities and a hydrogen supplier to develop a car it promises will “minimize the fuel cell cost and provide the fuel economy for a 200 mile range.”

As impressive as the LifeCar is, what makes it truly remarkable is a company so small as Morgan built it. The company, founded in 1912, employs 156 people who built 650 cars last year – all of them by hand in a small factory in rural England. Yet it is standing alongside Honda, General Motors and BMW with a hydrogen-fueled vehicle that works.

Turning ‘funky’ quantum mysteries into computing reality

Turning ‘funky’ quantum mysteries into computing reality

The strange world of quantum mechanics can provide a way to surpass limits in speed, efficiency and accuracy of computing, communications and measurement, according to research by MIT scientist Seth Lloyd.

Quantum mechanics is the set of physical theories that explain the behavior of matter and energy at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. It includes a number of strange properties that differ significantly from the way things work at sizes that people can observe directly, which are governed by classical physics.

“There are limits, if you think classically,” said Lloyd, a professor in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and Department of Mechanical Engineering. But while classical physics imposes limits that are already beginning to constrain things like computer chip development and precision measuring systems, “once you think quantum mechanically you can start to surpass those limits,” he said.

Lloyd will be speaking about this research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, on Saturday, Feb. 16, in a session on Quantum Information Theory.

“Over the last decade, a bunch of my colleagues and postdocs and I have been looking at how quantum mechanics can make things better.” What Lloyd refers to as the “funky effects” of quantum theory, such as squeezing and entanglement, could ultimately be harnessed to make measurements of time and distance more precise and computers more efficient. “Once you open your eyes to the quantum world, you see a whole lot of things you simply cannot do classically,” he said.

Among the ways that these quantum effects are beginning to be harnessed in the lab, he said, is in prototypes of new imaging systems that can precisely track the time of arrival of individual photons, the basic particles of light. “There’s significantly greater accuracy in the time-of-arrival measurement than what one would expect,” he said. And this could ultimately lead to systems that can detect finer detail, for example in a microscope’s view of a minuscule object, than what were thought to be the ultimate physical limitations of optical systems set by the dimensions of wavelengths of light.

Grand Engineering Challenge: Reverse-Engineering The Brain

At engineeringchallenges.org we find a number of engineering challenges, the most important of which is perhaps the one of reverse-engineering the brains.

For decades, some of engineering’s best minds have focused their thinking skills on how to create thinking machines — computers capable of emulating human intelligence.

Why should you reverse-engineer the brain?

While some of thinking machines have mastered specific narrow skills — playing chess, for instance — general-purpose artificial intelligence (AI) has remained elusive.Part of the problem, some experts now believe, is that artificial brains have been designed without much attention to real ones. Pioneers of artificial intelligence approached thinking the way that aeronautical engineers approached flying without much learning from birds. It has turned out, though, that the secrets about how living brains work may offer the best guide to engineering the artificial variety. Discovering those secrets by reverse-engineering the brain promises enormous opportunities for reproducing intelligence the way assembly lines spit out cars or computers.

Figuring out how the brain works will offer rewards beyond building smarter computers. Advances gained from studying the brain may in return pay dividends for the brain itself. Understanding its methods will enable engineers to simulate its activities, leading to deeper insights about how and why the brain works and fails. Such simulations will offer more precise methods for testing potential biotechnology solutions to brain disorders, such as drugs or neural implants. Neurological disorders may someday be circumvented by technological innovations that allow wiring of new materials into our bodies to do the jobs of lost or damaged nerve cells. Implanted electronic devices could help victims of dementia to remember, blind people to see, and crippled people to walk.

Synthetic Black Hole Event Horizon Created in UK Laboratory

Synthetic Black Hole Event Horizon Created in UK Laboratory

Researchers at St. Andrews University, Scotland, claim to have found a way to simulate an event horizon of a black hole – not through a new cosmic observation technique, and not by a high powered supercomputer… but in the laboratory. Using lasers, a length of optical fiber and depending on some bizarre quantum mechanics, a “singularity” may be created to alter a laser’s wavelength, synthesizing the effects of an event horizon. If this experiment can produce an event horizon, the theoretical phenomenon of Hawking Radiation may be tested, perhaps giving Stephen Hawking the best chance yet of winning the Nobel Prize.

So how do you create a black hole? In the cosmos, black holes are created by the collapse of massive stars. The mass of the star collapses down to a single point (after running out of fuel and undergoing a supernova) due to the massive gravitational forces acting on the body. Should the star exceed a certain mass “limit” (i.e. the Chandrasekhar limit – a maximum at which the mass of a star cannot support its structure against gravity), it will collapse into a discrete point (a singularity). Space-time will be so warped that all local energy (matter and radiation) will fall into the singularity. The distance from the singularity at which even light cannot escape the gravitational pull is known as the event horizon. High energy particle collisions by cosmic rays impacting the upper atmosphere might produce micro-black holes (MBHs). The Large Hadron Collider (at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland) may also be capable of producing collisions energetic enough to create MBHs. Interestingly, if the LHC can produce MBHs, Stephen Hawking’s theory of “Hawking Radiation” may be proven should the MBHs created evaporate almost instantly.

Hawking predicts that black holes emit radiation. This theory is paradoxical, as no radiation can escape the event horizon of a black hole. However, Hawking theorizes that due to a quirk in quantum dynamics, black holes can produce radiation.

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Genetic breakthrough supercharges immunity to flu and other viruses

 Genetic breakthrough supercharges immunity to flu and other viruses

Researchers at McGill University have discovered a way to boost an organism’s natural anti-virus defences, effectively making its cells immune to influenza and other viruses.

The research was conducted by post-doctoral fellows Dr. Rodney Colina and Dr. Mauro Costa-Mattioli, working in collaboration with Dr. Nahum Sonenberg, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Scholar at McGill. They worked with colleagues at l’Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) and the Ottawa Health Research Institute (OHRI). Their results are to be published February 13 in the journal Nature.

Their process – which could lead to the development of new anti-viral therapies in humans – involved knocking out two genes in mice that repress production of the protein interferon, the cell’s first line of defence against viruses. Without these repressor genes, the mouse cells produced much higher levels of interferon, which effectively blocked viruses from reproducing. The researchers tested the process on influenza virus, encephalomyocarditis virus, vesicular stomatitis virus and Sindbis virus.

“People have been worried for years about potential new viral pandemics, such as avian influenzas,” Dr. Sonenberg said. “If we might now have the means to develop a new therapy to fight flu, the potential is huge.”

Stanford researchers make first direct observation of 3-D molecule folding in real time

Stanford researchers make first direct observation of 3-D molecule folding in real time

All the crucial proteins in our bodies must fold into complex shapes to do their jobs. These snarled molecules grip other molecules to move them around, to speed up important chemical reactions or to grab onto our genes, turning them “on” and “off” to affect which proteins our cells make.

Recently, scientists have discovered that RNA-the stringy molecule that translates our genetic code into protein-can act a lot like a protein itself. RNA can form loopy bundles that shut genes down or start them up without the help of proteins. Since the discovery of these RNA clumps, called “riboswitches,” in 2002, scientists have been striving to understand how they work and how they form. Now, researchers at Stanford University are looking closer than ever at how the three-dimensional twists and turns in a riboswitch come together by grabbing it and tugging it straight. By physically pulling on this loopy RNA, they have determined for the first time how a three-dimensional molecular structure folds, step by step.

The researchers used a machine called an “optical trap” to grab and hold the ends of an RNA molecule with laser beams. Based on technology developed by Bell Labs researchers in 1986, the machine was designed by a team led by Steven Block, the Stanford W. Ascherman, M.D., Professor and a professor of applied physics and of biology. The optical trap allows them to hold the ends of the RNA tightly, so they can pull it pin-straight, then let it curl up again. In the Feb. 1 issue of Science, their paper, of which Block is senior author, describes the development of every loop and fold in one particular RNA riboswitch, and the energy it takes to form or straighten each one-an unprecedented achievement that opens the door for equally thorough studies of other molecules and their behaviors.

Nanowires Could Turn Your T-Shirts Into Nano-Power Stations

Nanowires Could Turn Your T-Shirts Into Nano-Power Stations

A nanotech invention by a US research team offers an intriguing glimpse of the future: slip on some nanowire-embedded clothes, plug your MP3 player or cellphone into them, and as you dance or walk around, your outfit generates enough power to run the gadget. More details on how the fabric works, and some nano-imagery after the jump.

Professor Zhong Lin Wang and team of the Georgia Institute of Technology coated kevlar strands with zinc oxide nanowires, protecting the bushy wires with a polymer and adding gold to other fibers to act as a conductor. The piezoelectric power-generating action comes when the nanowires bend as two fibers rub together, translating bending of the material into electricity which flows along the gold fibers.

Professor Wang says that across several square feet of fabric the nanowire fibers can generate power adding up to tens of milliwatts, which is not a huge amount, but is certainly enough for a dribble top-up charge for your portable devices.

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