Science Scanner: 05/12/11

Posted May 12th, 2011 at 3:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Everywhere you look there’s something interesting and exciting in science news.  Here’s a rundown of some science-related stories that have caught my eye recently and may interest you as well.

NASA Sets New Launch Date for Endeavor’s Final Flight

NASA managers have set Monday, May 16 at 8:56 a.m. EDT as the new date for space shuttle Endeavour‘s final liftoff.  The STS-134 mission to the International Space Station is the penultimate shuttle flight and the final one for Endeavour.

At a Monday news briefing from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA officials also discussed the progress of repairs since Endeavour’s launch postponement on April 29.
>>> Read more

The Vatican Issues Climate Change Report

A panel of scientists appointed by the Vatican confirms what climate change experts have been warning for years – that the Earth is getting warmer, causing glaciers to melt. The panel says urgent measures are needed to stem the damage.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a conference last month on the causes and consequences of retreating mountain glaciers. Its final report, signed by independent glaciologists, climate scientists, meteorologists and chemists, was posted on the Vatican website Tuesday.
>>>Read more

Long-Term Use of Acetaminophen Linked to Blood Cancers

Frequent use of over-the-counter  pain killer acetaminophen increases the risk for developing blood cancers, such as Lymphoma, according to a new study.  The risk might be low and it’s still uncertain what role the drug plays.

The study,  published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, focused on 65,000 older men and women in the US western state of Washington. After considering factors like age, whether or not the patient had arthritis and a family history of certain blood cancers, the research indicated that chronic acetaminophen users had nearly twice the risk of developing the diseases.
>>> Read more

Indian Botanists Find Long Lost Medicinal Plant

A rare medicinal plant that hasn’t been seen for 115 years was recently rediscovered by botanists working in India’s Upper Subansiri district of Arunchal Pradesh.

The region’s ethnic tribes believed the “Begonia tessaricarpa” plant had medicinal properties and used it to treat stomach aches and dehydration. Its juices were said to be used to ward off leeches.  People of these tribes often referred to plant as “Buckuchurbu” or “Rebe”.

Details of this finding are outlined in the Indian publication, “Current Science”.
>>> Read more

Purdue University Unveils a New Class of Software

Researchers at Purdue University have defined a new class of software which enables designers and video gamers to more easily change features of complex objects like automotive drawings or animated characters.

The new interactive approach, called surrogate interaction, is being used commercially and in research but, until now, has not been formally defined. Doing so could boost its development and number of applications, said Ji Soo Yi, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University.
>>> Read more

NASA Narrows Future Mission Choices

NASA’s Discovery Program has selected three finalists for a 2016 mission. The possibilities include looking at Mars’ interior for the first time, studying an extraterrestrial sea on one of Saturn’s moons or examining the surface of a comet’s nucleus in unprecedented detail.

Each investigation team now receives $3 million to further their mission’s concept and design.  After another detailed review in 2012, NASA will select one finalist to continue development efforts leading up to launch.
>>>Read more

 

 

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Future Computers May Go Subatomic

Posted May 9th, 2011 at 7:19 pm (UTC-4)
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Imagine the computer of the future – which would process complicated sets of data instantly while also being capable of storing an almost-infinite amount of information.

Physicists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany have taken a significant step toward making that a reality.

By reducing standard computer data down to the subatomic level, the scientists were able to store a bit of the information in just a single atom.   This accomplishment proved that quantum information can also be exchanged between single atoms and photons in a controlled way.  Prior to this finding the ability to store quantum information could only be accomplished with groups of thousands of atoms.

To satisfy our insatiable desire for more dynamic computers, manufacturers have been outdoing each other for years by producing devices that are faster and faster with increasing storage capabilities.

To accommodate faster and more powerful computers, the electronic components stored on its integrated circuits keep getting smaller.  Now, especially given the advances made by those German scientists, it won’t be long before the circuits on a microprocessor are measured on an atomic scale.

Some scientists say the next step in building that fast and powerful computer will be with what has been called quantum computers.

Quantum computers harness the power of atoms and molecules to perform memory and processing tasks and are said to have the potential to perform certain calculations significantly faster than any silicon-based computer.

In their experiments, the German researchers were able write this information into a rubidium atom and read it out again after a certain storage time.  Scientists are hopeful that this recent innovation will  bring practical quantum computing closer to reality and that this technique could be used in principle to design powerful quantum computers and to network them with each other across large distances.

Want to learn more about quantum computers? Watch this cute but helpful and instructive animated video, “Quantum Computing 101” from the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Here’s where you can read more about the recent findings made by the scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics.

I’d like to know what you think about quantum computers and the potential they offer to those of us who are seeking faster and more powerful computers.  How long do you think it will take scientists and researchers to make this a practical reality?

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

This Week on the Science World Radio Program

Posted May 6th, 2011 at 2:57 pm (UTC-4)
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Do fragile ecosystems send out a warning signal prior to their imminent collapse? That’s one question we explore this weekend on the Science World radio program.

Researchers recently discovered that a remote Wisconsin lake is sending what they believe are complex signals warning of the impending collapse of the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.

Dr. Stephen Carpenter, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison led the research team and says that the implications of this study are big.

The findings suggest that, with the right kind of monitoring, it may be possible to track the vital signs of any ecosystem and intervene in time to prevent what is often irreversible damage to the environment.

Professor Carpenter tells us much more about the study, its findings and how ecosystems from around the world can possibly be saved from catastrophe.  Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we’ll cover include:

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Take a Peek into FBI’s UFO Files

Posted May 6th, 2011 at 1:22 pm (UTC-4)
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It’s just become a little easier to access some of the FBI’s most intriguing files.

The FBI has files on phenomena like flying saucers, Extra Terrestrials and Extra Sensory Perception. And now you can see them for yourself.

The bureau recently overhauled its Freedom of Information and Privacy website.  Among the items that were updated is the bureau’s Electronic Reading Room, which they call “The Vault”.

It contains FBI information on the famous and the infamous. You can read actual FBI records on such luminaries as John Lennon, Al Capone, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe and many more.

Since going online, one section of The Vault has generated news and grabbed quite a bit of attention. It’s the section on “Unexplained Phenomenon” which includes FBI records on topics such as UFOs, extra terrestrials and extra-sensory perception (ESP).

Although it was only occasionally involved in investigating reports of UFOs and extraterrestrials over the years, the FBI says citizens would call them regularly to report sightings of the strange and unusual.

The bureau’s involvement with UFOs began around the time of the legendary incident in Roswell, New Mexico.  The “Roswell incident” centered around reports of a UFO crashing near the tiny New Mexican farming and ranching community on July 1947.

According to the unconfirmed reports, the wreckage of a UFO was found on a ranch with the  bodies of aliens discovered nearby. The Roswell incident boosted worldwide interest in the UFO phenomenon.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the FBI checked into reports of flying objects  shaped like flapjacks, saucers, discs and even a large circular saw blade that supposedly hit a lightning rod on top of a church.  While the US military initially sought the help of the bureau, the FBI soon distanced itself.

It released a statement in 1950 that said, “The jurisdiction and responsibility for investigating flying saucers have been assumed by the United States Air Force. Information received in this matter is immediately turned over to the Air Force, and the FBI does not attempt to investigate these reports or evaluate the information furnished.”

Still it’s quite fascinating to look back at what many would consider the beginning of the UFO phenomenon and to read observations such as one dated March 22, 1950.  Guy Hottel,  a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, sent a brief (and, to me at least, kind of a skeptical sounding) memo about flying saucers to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Mr. Hottel reported that, “An investigator for the Air Force stated that three so-called flying saucers described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter.  Each one occupied by three bodies of human shape but only 3 feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of very fine texture.”

Other entries included in the “Unexplained Phenomenon” section include the Roswell UFO, animal mutilation, extra-sensory perception and the controversial Project Blue Book, an 18-year US Air Force study of UFOs.

See for yourself. Visit “The Vault” at the FBI website.

 

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Mind-controlled computer operation

Posted May 2nd, 2011 at 3:15 pm (UTC-4)
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Mouse and keyboard… that’s how most of us interact with our computer. You either click at or type in your data.  We’ve pretty much have gotten used to operating our PC’s and other like devices this way… for some its become second nature.  But, how about a new way interact with that computer? Can you imagine being able to operate a computer or some sort of robotic device by just thinking about it?  Well, it could be a reality sooner than you realize.

For the last 10 to 15 years, scientists from around the world have been hard at work on  a new form of technology called the Brain Computer Interface (BCI).  The BCI is a piece of equipment designed to oversee and interpret the electrical impulses of the user’s thoughts. It then converts that information into some kind of machine control – which in turn, can operate those computers and robotic devices.

A number of experiments conducted over the past several years have produced results – in both animal and human subjects – where such machine control is accomplished with brain signals alone.

According to a new study published in the Institute of Physics Journal of Neural Engineering, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, recently demonstrated that humans can control a cursor on a computer screen using words spoken out loud and in their head. This could lead to the development of a variety of applications for those who may have limited physical ability but also those who lost their speech through brain injury.

Scientists found that by directly connecting a patient’s brain to a computer via a technique called electrocortiography (ECoG) – which involves placing electrodes directly onto a patient’s brain – the computer could be controlled with up to 90 percent accuracy, even when no prior training was given.

The trials involved patients sitting in front of a screen and trying to move a cursor toward a target using predefined words that were associated with specific directions. For instance, saying or thinking of the word “Ah” would move the cursor right.

The researchers hope that, at some point in the future, they can permanently insert implants into a patient’s brain to help restore functionality and, even more impressively, read someone’s mind.

“This is one of the earliest examples, to a very, very small extent, of what is called ‘reading minds’ — detecting what people are saying to themselves in their internal dialogue,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Eric C Leuthardt from the Washington University School of Medicine. “We want to see if we cannot just detect when you’re saying ‘dog,’ ‘tree’, ‘tool’ or some other word, but also learn what the pure idea of that looks like in your mind. It’s exciting and a little scary to think of reading minds, but it has incredible potential for people who can’t communicate or are suffering from other disabilities.”

Watch a video featuring Dr. Leuthardt on this topic – “The Emerging World of ECoG Neuroprosthetics”

 

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

This Week on Science World

Posted April 29th, 2011 at 6:12 pm (UTC-4)
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Endeavour’s Mission and the Matter of Antimatter

Scientists hope to learn more about the origins of the universe once a sophisticated particle detector arrives at the earth-orbiting International Space Station and starts searching for antimatter and dark matter. Researchers explained their goals for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the upcoming Shuttle Endeavour mission at a NASA mission preview briefing in late March.

 

US Space Program Goes Commercial

While current attention is focused on the Endeavour mission, on June 28, Atlantis will become the last space shuttle ever to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center, marking the end of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. NASA is getting out of the business of sending astronauts on missions using its own spacecraft. Instead, the US space agency will rely on privately designed and owned rockets to ferry cargo and crew to the orbiting International Space Station.

 

Global Organizations Make Push for Vaccinations

Preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea are among the leading causes of childrens’ deaths in the developing world. This week, people around the world are taking action to put an end to deaths from these diseases by promoting vaccination campaigns for children and adults.

 

India Aims to Calm Nuclear Power Anxiety

India’s prime minister says he will soon submit legislation to parliament on establishing a new organization to supervise nuclear safety in India. It is one of several steps by the government aimed at calming public anxiety over a planned coastal nuclear complex some fear could produce a repeat of Japan’s nuclear catastrophe.

 

US to Supply Healthier Food to World’s Hungry

A new report from US Agency for International Development suggests significant changes should be made in the content of foods the United States delivers to the world’s hungry. The recommendations are intended to make US food aid more nutritious. Steve Baragona fills us in with the details.

 

One on One: Physicist Dejan Stojkovic

When many of us think of the beginning of the universe, the so called “big bang” we think of just that…  one huge explosion that created the universe into the three-dimensional existence we live in today.  In our “One-on-One” segment this week we ask… is it possible that the universe began as a single line or even a dot and evolved into “3D”?  Is the evolution of the universe continuing into the fourth, fifth and even eleventh dimension?

Last year, physicist Dejan Stojkovic and colleagues theorized this to be so. Now, in a new paper that appears in “Physical Review Letters”, Professor Stojkovic and Loyola Marymount University physicist Jonas Mureika describe a test that could prove or disprove what has become known as the “vanishing dimensions” hypothesis.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.