Catching Up on Science

They got that right!
They got that right!

It’s been an interesting week. With the Cubs in the playoffs, and a World Series win predicted by Back to the Future II (i.e., what passes for science education in Texas), a large portion of the media spent an incredible amount of time trying to figure out what the movie got right or wrong. Side note, in Norway the word texas (all small letters) is slang for crazy and/or stupid. In line with that comment I should let you know that one right wing blog claimed that the movie proved there is a liberal oligarchy in Hollywood since there was no mention of Benghazi. No I am not making this up but nor am I linking to them. This site doesn’t promote stupid. For the most part though it was harmless fun. If you want a complete list of every prediction in the movie and how each panned out just click here and feel your work day slip away. Before you fire off the angry email about the article saying there are no flying cars, there really aren’t. There are several in various stages of production but none commercially available. The one upshot of all this is that it got people thinking about real science too.

So let’s take a look at some of that.

Leukemia is the disease that killed my mom so I tend to carefully read any articles on it. And, no, grapefruit doesn’t cure it. Quit reading your emails. Anyway, Robin Andrews says there is an unlikely new candidate to kill leukemia cells, leukemia cells themselves.

No, she’d not drunk.

Leukemia, a group of cancers affecting the bone marrow and blood, is notoriously difficult to treat, often relapsing and becoming resistant to treatment. But a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could offer hope, revealing that it’s possible to make leukemia cells kill each other.

More accurately, the researchers from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have construed a technique that convinces the leukemia cells to transform into leukemia-killing immune cells, rewriting their biological programming. The key, so to speak, is an extremely rare human antibody. But where did the researchers find it, and how does it work?

Antibodies are proteins produced naturally by the human body’s immune system. They act as the “handcuffs” to the white blood cells’ “police,” sticking to foreign invaders like microbes and either directly neutralizing them or tagging them for destruction.

Recently, the scientists were attempting to find antibody therapies to treat people with immune cell deficiencies in which the bone marrow doesn’t produce enough white blood cells. They hoped that they could find antibodies that would activate receptors on immature bone marrow cells that would cause them to change into mature cells. Over the last few years, they have succeeded in doing this. What they didn’t expect to see, however, was that a handful of these growth-induced antibodies turn immature bone marrow cells into completely different types, such as cells normally found in the nervous system.

Speaking of mysterious stuff in your body, have you ever had the feeling you lived in a previous time? Maybe that you were reincarnated? The World News Desk over at Soul Surfing says there might be a very logical reason for that. It appears that memories can be transmitted genetically.

New research from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA. During the tests they learned that that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences – in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom – to subsequent generations.

According to the Telegraph, Dr Brian Dias, from the department of psychiatry at Emory University, said: ”From a translational perspective, our results allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations.

Such a phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential intergenerational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This suggests that experiences are somehow transferred from the brain into the genome, allowing them to be passed on to later generations.

Obviously there needs to be a ton more research conducted but many scientists are calling this early evidence compelling and are willing to look into it further. Some even think that we may, one day, be able to access our ancestors’ memories. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. What if you could only access the sexy time your grandparents had?


Another thing that sounds kind of crazy but could be a real boon for mankind, not a cancer curing boon but still cool, is a material that can’t get wet. Caroline Reid has the story.

Objects that are kept underwater eventually succumb to the inevitable decay associated with being submerged – metal rusts, wood rots and human hands go all wrinkly. These effects could be delayed in the future by a new type of rough coating that “deflects” water.

The material uses the same strategy as water-walking insects such as water striders. Both bug and material take advantage of protrusions on their rough surfaces to resist water and stay dry. As long as the gaps between the grooves on the material (or hairs on the insect) are less than a micrometer apart, then it has the ability to stay dry when in contact with water.

The team exploited the fact that water can be prompted to evaporate using the right combination of surface roughness and chemistry. The little pockets of water vapor that form are trapped in the framework of the material. They act as a first line of defense against liquid water drops, deflecting them to keep the surface dry.

In fact, the rough surface kept material samples dry for up to four months when constantly submerged in water. It could be longer, but the test will have to run for a longer period of time to know for sure what the time limit is. The research can be found in Scientific Reports.

The commercial possibilities are staggering. Bridges could last hundreds of years as long as they were structurally sound. The same for water pumps, sewage plants and anything else that needs to work under water.

Oh, and of course, you’d never need to worry about your Versace getting ruined by that nasty old weather stuff.

In another cool development, not foreseen in BTTF II, you may soon get your internet service from a lightbulb. Pavlos Manousiadis, Graham Turnbull and Ifor Samuel tell us all about it and, no, none of them were drunk either.

Visible light spectrum has huge, unused and unregulated capacity for communications. The light from LEDs can be modulated very quickly: data rates as high as 3.5Gb/s using a single blue LED or 1.7Gb/s with white light have been demonstrated by researchers in our EPSRC-funded Ultra-Parallel Visible Light Communications programme.

Unlike Wi-Fi transmitters, optical communications are well-confined inside the walls of a room. This confinement might seem to be a limitation for Li-Fi, but it offers the key advantage that it is very secure: if the curtains are drawn then nobody outside the room can eavesdrop. An array of light sources in the ceiling could send different signals to different users. The transmitter power can be localised, more efficiently used, and won’t interfere with adjacent Li-Fi sources. Indeed the lack of radio frequency interference is another advantage over Wi-Fi. Visible light communications is intrinsically safe, and could end the need for travellers to switch devices to flight mode.

A further advantage of Li-Fi is that it can use existing power lines as LED lighting so no new infrastructure is needed.

This technology could hit the market sooner than you think. If it does the only change in your home system, or business, would be to have a line run from your router to each room so it would have a dedicated signal. It would also eliminate the need for a password since no one outside of a room could access the signal.

I should also note that it will be cheaper than the current methods.

Speaking of light, Michigan State University has developed transparent solar panels. You replace your windows with them and you have free power forever.

Here’s what it looks like.

It’s not commercially available yet but could be in a year or so.

Here’s an interesting bit for you to chew on; Paul Devaney posits that humans may not be the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Before you laugh think about how we define intelligence and how it could be defined.

Cetologists observe, document, and decipher evidence that points to a profound intelligence dwelling in the oceans. It is an intelligence that predates our own evolution as intelligent primates by millions of years. – Paul Watson

I had a profound experience while kayaking in Hawaii this past winter with friends. We were visited by a whale and there is no doubt that this majestic being was coherent, aware of us, and enjoying our company as much as we were enjoying his. We put our snorkeling masks on and jumped in and could easily see the whale gently make eye contact with each of us. With one thrust of his tail he could have left in an instant but he stayed with us for over an hour. A mammal with a brain bigger than ours and complex migration songs that change every year, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of thoughts could be going through his mind. The recent piece by Dawn Agnos on UPLIFT about a conversation with a horse shows that emotional intelligence and empathy are a language that many animals understand. It was only recently that terms like emotional intelligence emerged and it is interesting to consider that there are many different kinds of intelligence. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd makes a good argument in a recent Facebook post that perhaps humans concept of intelligence is anthropocentric and lacking in breadth.

Watson starts early in his essay with the bold assertion that, “Biological science is provoking us to shatter our image of human superiority.” Though indigenous wisdom has always considered humans a part of the circle of life rather than above it, that sentiment has almost been completely destroyed by generations of colonial indoctrination. The very roots of colonial indoctrination not only conclude that humans are superior to all other life forms, it also considers some humans as superior to others. Social Darwinism, a myth, was an effort to use science to validate the behavior of employing superior weaponry to oppress other humans. Though we owe much respect to western science we must also understand the cultural and religious backdrop from which this discipline emerged. We must also be willing to explore the assumptions within science if we are to evolve it.

If technology is not the true measure of intelligence then our search for life in the cosmos just got more interesting.

And it is with that thought that I bring you this one.

Have we already discovered an alien civilization?

The short answer is “maybe” with a high probability of “no.”

LA Blake over at ABC television has the story.

Take it away LA!

A recent conundrum about a star 1,500 light years away discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope has extraterrestrial enthusiasts crying “alien” as an explanataion, but scientists studying the star are saying “not so fast.”

The strange nature of the star, KIC 8462852, was brought to public attention by the citizen scientists of the Planet Hunters program, ABC News reports. The program enlists the public’s help in studying dips in light from the 150,000 stars discovered by Kepler, usually caused by planets passing in front of them. With KIC 8462852, though, the light pattern has irregular, large dips — not like those of a planet– and scientists aren’t sure why.

The explanation that some jumped to? Large alien spacecrafts. The dips in light are caused by the alien megastructure periodically crossing between Kepler and the star, the theory goes.

The alien theory fire was further fueled when Jason Wright, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, mentioned that aliens might provide a possible explanation in a paper, saying that “Kepler would be able to detect large alien megastructures via anomalies like these.”

After the theory went viral, Wright wrote a blog post to clarify that “we didn’t have anything ready to show our professional colleagues so that they can give reporters informed takes on it” and recommending, “You should reserve the alien hypothesis as a last resort.”

Instead, Wright says he’s pondering the theory of Tabetha Boyajian, who published a paper about the star in the Monthly Notes of the Royals Astronomical Society. Though the Yale University astronomer said the star had her scratching her head, she said the most likely scenario was that the strange light pattens could have been caused by a group of comets from a nearby star.

“I would put low odds on that being the right answer, but it’s the best one I’ve seen so far,” Wright wrote, “(and much more likely than aliens, I’d say).”

Yes, logically, the answer should be that the results are caused by an array of comets caught in a gravity well or the remains of a planet that was destroyed.

But hundreds of stationary solar panels fueling a planet as it passes by also works. That’s why they’re looking into it more deeply.

And how do we do that?

We hang out in China.

Tom Hale tells us why.

China is in the final stages of building the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The state-owned China Central Television has released drone footage showing their progress, as well as the vertigo-inducing size of it.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is being built deep in the misty mountains of Pingtang County, located in the Guizhou Province of southwest China. Construction has been going on since 2011. When completed in 2016, the FAST will become the largest radio telescope on the planet – at 500 meters (1,640 feet) in diameter, its dish will trump Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, which is 300 meters (984 feet) wide.

Wu Xiangping, the director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, said to Xinhua News, “Having a more sensitive telescope, we can receive weaker and more distant radio messages. It will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe.”

Here’s a look at this sucker.

The fact is that searching for alien life in space is hard. A civilization too advanced for us may be undetectable. Likewise, anyone that’s evolved but not past its industrial age may as well be invisible. Keeping in mind that any such detectable transmissions will have to travel for hundreds or millions of years to get to us and you see the problem. They might be our equals now but a million years ago they would have been excited by pointy sticks.

CYMATICS: Science Vs. Music – Nigel Stanford from Nigel Stanford on Vimeo.

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