Friday Science Interocitor, September 21, 2012

Hey there science fans! Our science cup overfloweth, so we are going to jump right in without the usual brouhaha. (NOTE : Next week, “Friday Science Brouhaha”. )

First up, a story that almost made it into last week’s column :

Give A Monkey A Brain

This story came to my attention literally mere minutes after finishing last week’s FSW. It seems that those maniacs have finally done it : they boosted a monkey’s intelligence via a brain implant.

Or at least, they think they did. From what I gather from the article, the results are fairly thin stuff. One might even call them sketchy or even dubious if this work had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. So presumably it is at least basically legit.

And hey, any story which features coked up monkeys with brain implants is worth at least a look. But the whole thing seems rather ramshackle and bizarre to me. So they were able to function normally despite the cocaine in their blood (poor coked up critters) after the brain implant. And only after like a zillion trials on a task they learned for two whole years before the surgery.

Too many factors designed to prejudice the results, in my opinion. Moving on.

India’s Next Supercomputer

When was the last time you thought about supercomputers? Ages ago, right? Well, it turns out that people are still making them for some reason, and India has plans to build the next mother of them all.

It is going to cost $870 million bucks, and will be the world’s first exaflop computer, meaning it will be able to do one quintillion (that is a million trillion) floating point operations per second.

And that sounds pretty impressive, but I am forced to ask : um, why?

What exactly is the intended application of that kind of computing power? What are we currently unable to do with other supercomputers that do a mere thousand trillion flops? I am serious, I have no idea what the hell you use all that computational might to accomplish.

I mean, there must be something, right? Otherwise, why spend nearly a billion bucks to build the thing? I am perfectly willing to concede that my lack of ability to imagine something does not mean it does not or cannot exist. But seriously, what do you do with that computer power?

I am guessing…. a really, really, really realistic game of Pong?

Leather in the Lab

Sadly, I am not talking about leather labcoats. Or am I? Hmmm.

No, what I am talking about is one of this column’s favorite subjects, tissue engineering, and how we might be only five years from lab grown leather.

It makes sense that lab grown leather would show up before lab grown meat. As the article says, the regulations for clothing and other leather items are far less strict than that for a food product, and there would presumably also be a lot less consumer resistance to vat grown leather than to vat grown meat.

I mean, just the phrase “vat grown meat” makes me a little queasy, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of the future technology. Other people will be an even tougher sell, I would imagine,

And what really intrigues me about this artificial leather concept is that it could theoretically apply to any sort of leather, not just cow leather, and this could in turn save a lot of endangered species from being hunted for their hide.

Certainly, I would be a lot more willing to buy, say, a snakeskin wallet if I knew no snakes lost their lives in order for it to exist.

And think of how much cheaper it would be!

The Ultimate Mind Map

Astute followers of this column will note two things : I love me some brain science, and I always leave the most awesome science story for last.

So imagine what must be coming next if this story of a publicly accessible map of the human brain called the Brain Atlas is only second last.

It is a product of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and it is the most thorough and detailed map of the human brain ever produced. It took four and a half years, two and a half brains, and $55 million to do it, and it can be viewed and searched right here on the Internet.

The mind boggles when trying to imagine what this kind of extraordinary research tool will do for brain research in the years to come. Truly, with tools like this and fMRI and the recent functional analysis of the human genome, we are entering an era of medical breakthroughs without precedent.

I look forward to the day when we look back to today and say “What crude and barbaric medicine they had way back then! Thank goodness we are beyond that now.”

The Final Frontier

So what is this thing that is big enough to bump such an amazing thing as a brain map to second place in my weekly science hit parade?

Oh, just a little thing about a radical leap in the feasibility of warp drive.

You see, it turns out that there has been a potential warp drive concept floating around for a while called the Alcubierre Drive , named after its inventor, Miguel Alcubierre.

The idea is that your spaceship would rest inside a ring of something (maybe exotic matter) that warps space in front of and behind it. thus moving you by warping space and not by moving you through normal space by normal means, and thus getting around that whole pesky light speed limitation.

The whole rig could go as fast as ten times C, which would certainly making getting around the solar system a lot faster. Small problem : until recently, people thought that this would take a completely insane amount of energy.

Like, the amount of energy you would get if you converted the entire mass of Jupiter into energy all at once. That kind of insane. Kind of renders the whole concept laughable.

But recently, NASA scientist Harold “Sonny” White showed that if you take the warp disc and make it into a more of a rounded donut shape, the energy requirements drop to something like the energy contained in the mass of one of the Voyager spacecraft.

That is WAY more doable. And apparently, if you can oscillate the intensity of the warp fields (??), the energy demands drop still further.

Whatever you say, Geordi. Point is, faster than light travel just took a quantum leap forward in plausibility. It can be done. Not any time soon, but no longer than it be said that faster than light travel is outside the realm of scientific plausibility.

It is entirely valid within all known physics.

And that, my friends, is really fucking cool.

See you next week, folks!

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