David Kirkpatrick

December 18, 2010

Science magazine’s breakthroughs of 2010

Number one is the first quantum machine.

From the link:

Physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University of California at Santa Barbara and their colleagues designed the machine—a tiny metal paddle of semiconductor, visible to the naked eye—and coaxed it into dancing with a quantum groove. First, they cooled the paddle until it reached its “ground state,” or the lowest energy state permitted by the laws of quantum mechanics (a goal long-sought by). Then they raised the widget’s energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little and a lot at the same time—a bizarre phenomenon allowed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

and its publisher, AAAS, the nonprofit science society, have recognized this first quantum machine as the 2010 Breakthrough of the Year. They have also compiled nine other important scientific accomplishments from this past year into a top ten list, appearing in a special news feature in the journal’s 17 December 2010 issue. Additionally, Science news writers and editors have chosen to spotlight 10 “Insights of the Decade” that have transformed the landscape of science in the 21st Century.

“This year’s Breakthrough of the Year represents the first time that scientists have demonstrated quantum effects in the motion of a human-made object,” said Adrian Cho, a news writer for Science. “On a conceptual level that’s cool because it extends quantum mechanics into a whole new realm. On a practical level, it opens up a variety of possibilities ranging from new experiments that meld quantum control over light, electrical currents and motion to, perhaps someday, tests of the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality.”

 

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May 21, 2010

Synthetic biology and ethics

Any regular readers of this blog know where I stand on this issue. (Hint: I’m a pretty big fan of synthetic biology.)

From the first link, the release:

Press Release: Moral Issues Raised by Synthetic Biology Subject of Hastings Center Project

Project completes third workshop as news of first synthetic bacterial genome announced

(Garrison NY) A Hastings Center workshop examining moral issues in synthetic biology completed its third meeting as the J. Craig Venter Group announced that it had created the first viable cell with a synthetic genome. “Synthetic biology certainly raises deep philosophical and moral questions about the human relationship to nature,” according to Gregory Kaebnick, a Hastings Center scholar who is managing the project. “It’s not clear what the answers to those questions are.  If  by ‘nature’ we mean the world around us, more or less as we found it, we may well decide that synthetic biology does not really change the human relationship to nature—and may even help us preserve what is left of it.”

Nor is it clear that the questions raised by synthetic biology are new ones. According to Thomas H. Murray, president of The Hastings Center and the project’s principal investigator, “We have come up against similar problems in other domains—most notably, in work on nanotechnology and gene transfer technology—but synthetic biology poses them especially sharply and pressingly.”

The Hastings Center has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research into ethical issues in emerging technology. The synthetic biology project is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation . Project participants include synthetic biologists, bioethicists, philosophers, and public policy experts. The Center’s work is part of a comprehensive look at synthetic biology by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Other participants in the initiative are the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Here’s the release on the Venter Institute’s bacterial cell controlled by a synthetic genome. Head below the fold for the full text. (more…)

February 21, 2010

Feeding the world through biotech, synthetic biology and nanotech

Another release from the AAAS 2010 annual meeting — this covers how cutting edge biology and nanotechnology can help meet the growing demand for food across the globe.

The release:

Biotech, nanotech and synthetic biology roles in future food supply explored

AAAS panel mulls science and public acceptance

SAN DIEGO – Some say the world’s population will swell to 9 billion people by 2030 and that will present significant challenges for agriculture to provide enough food to meet demand, says University of Idaho animal scientist Rod Hill.

Hill and Larry Branen, a University of Idaho food scientist, organized a symposium during the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting Sunday to explore ways biotechnology could provide healthy and plentiful animal-based foods to meet future demands.

Synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and other applications of biotechnology – and the public’s role in determining their acceptable uses — were all addressed by panelists during the session.

The goal for the session, which was part of the nation’s largest and most prestigious general science meeting held annually, was to encourage a dialogue among scientists and the public, said Hill, a Moscow-based molecular physiologist who studies muscle growth in cattle.

“There will be a significant challenge for agriculture and the science that will be required to provide a healthy, nutritious and adequate food supply in coming decades for a rapidly growing population,” Hill said.

A key question, he said, is whether the Earth can continue to provide enough food without technological support. The history of civilization and agriculture during the last 10,000 years suggests otherwise.

“Unaided food production is an unattainable ideal – current society is irrevocably grounded in the technological interventions underpinning the agricultural revolution that now strives to feed the world,” Hill said.

Branen serves as the university’s Coeur d’Alene-based associate vice president for northern Idaho. He also remains active as a researcher working with nanotechnology in a variety of ways, including uses as biological sensors to detect disease or spoilage.

Nanoparticles may be used to target certain genes and thus play a role in genetic engineering of food animals. Branen said, “There’s also no question that nanomaterials may help increase the shelf stability of food products and assure their safety.”

Other panelists include University of Missouri Prof. Kevin Wells who believes genetically modified animals will have a future place on humanity’s tables, just as genetically modified plants do now.

Panelist Hongda Chen serves as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national program leader for bioprocessing engineering and nanotechnology. He will explore how scientific methods like nanotechnology may be applied to help meet the world’s growing demand for safe and healthy food.

Synthetic biology, the use of novel methods to create genes or chromosomes, will be explored by panelist Michele Garfinkel, a policy analyst for the J. Craig Venter Institute, which pioneered the sequencing of the human genome.

The public’s acceptance or rejection of new technologies that could determine future food supplies will be the domain of Susanna Priest, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. A communications researcher, she has argued that public debate is essential to public attitudes toward such technologies.

For Idaho’s Branen, the panel provides an opportunity to advance that public discussion.

“I think that’s essential,” he said. “We’ve seen lots of technologies where we didn’t get adoption because we didn’t get consumer acceptance and understanding. Irradiation of food has been possible for over 50 years but we still haven’t gotten to general use because there is still a fear and lack of understanding of it.” Branen added, “To me everything we’re doing today requires an extensive discussion and an interdisciplinary approach. We can’t just focus on the technology but must look at the social and political aspects of the technology as well.”

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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. The university is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For information, visit http://www.uidaho.edu

February 20, 2010

Paper batteries and eTextiles

The 2010 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) annual meeting is going on as I type, so there is a lot of news coming out fast and furious from the conference. I’m going to try and restrain myself and only post what really strikes my fancy, or what sounds like a game-changing advancement in any particular field.

Like I regularly do, this news will presented in the form of the raw press release. Yeah, it’s a bit lazy to drop the release on you with minimal, if any, commentary from me, but I don’t want to be a gatekeeper of the information being put out and I don’t want to spin the news by selectively writing from a release. With a raw release you get all the information the organization/scientist/whoever put the release out wanted to make public and you can use that information as you see fit. Do keep in mind any release is going to have some manner of bias, even science releases, so read them with that in mind, but do enjoy this exciting news as it comes out.

This release is on nanotechnology and how it is allowing for paper batteries and supercapacitors and is creating a new fabric technology called “eTextiles.”

The release:

Nanotechnology sparks energy storage on paper and cloth

Stanford researcher Yi Cui and his team are re-conceptualizing batteries using nanotechnology

IMAGE: Bing Hu, a post-doctoral fellow in Yi Cui’s research group at Stanford, prepares a small square of ordinary paper with an ink that will deposit nanotubes on the surface that…

Click here for more information.

By dipping ordinary paper or fabric in a special ink infused with nanoparticles, Stanford engineer Yi Cui has found a way to cheaply and efficiently manufacture lightweight paper batteries and supercapacitors (which, like batteries, store energy, but by electrostatic rather than chemical means), as well as stretchable, conductive textiles known as “eTextiles” – capable of storing energy while retaining the mechanical properties of ordinary paper or fabric.

While the technology is still new, Cui’s team has envisioned numerous functional uses for their inventions. Homes of the future could one day be lined with energy-storing wallpaper. Gadget lovers would be able to charge their portable appliances on the go, simply plugging them into an outlet woven into their T-shirts. Energy textiles might also be used to create moving-display apparel, reactive high-performance sportswear and wearable power for a soldier’s battle gear.

The key ingredients in developing these high-tech products are not visible to the human eye. Nanostructures, which can be assembled in patterns that allow them to transport electricity, may provide the solutions to a number of problems encountered with electrical storage devices currently available on the market.

The type of nanoparticle used in the Cui group’s experimental devices varies according to the intended function of the product – lithium cobalt oxide is a common compound used for batteries, while single-walled carbon nanotubes, or SWNTs, are used for supercapacitors.

Cui, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, leads a research group that investigates new applications of nanoscale materials. The objective, said Cui, is not only to supply answers to theoretical inquiries but also to pursue projects with practical value. Recently, his team has focused on ways to integrate nanotechnology into the realm of energy development.

“Energy storage is a pretty old research field,” said Cui. “Supercapacitors, batteries – those things are old. How do you really make a revolutionary impact in this field? It requires quite a dramatic difference of thinking.”

While electrical energy storage devices have come a long way since Alessandro Volta debuted the world’s first electrical cell in 1800, the technology is facing yet another revolution. Current methods of manufacturing energy storage devices can be capital intensive and environmentally hazardous, and the end products have noticeable performance constraints – conventional lithium ion batteries have a limited storage capacity and are costly to manufacture, while traditional capacitors provide high power but at the expense of energy storage capacity.

With a little help from new science, the batteries of the future may not look anything like the bulky metal units we’ve grown accustomed to. Nanotechnology is favored as a remedy both for its economic appeal and its capability to improve energy performance in devices that integrate it. Replacing the carbon (graphite) anodes found in lithium ion batteries with anodes of silicon nanowires, for example, has the potential to increase their storage capacity by 10 times, according to experiments conducted by Cui’s team.

Silicon had previously been recognized as a favorable anode material because it can hold a larger amount of lithium than carbon. But applications of silicon were limited by its inability to sustain physical stress – namely, the fourfold volume increase that silicon undergoes when lithium ions attach themselves to a silicon anode in the process of charging a battery, as well as the shrinkage that occurs when lithium ions are drawn out as it discharges. The result was that silicon structures would disintegrate, causing anodes of this material to lose much if not all of their storage capacity.

Cui and collaborators demonstrated in previous publications in Nature, Nanotechnology and Nano Letters that the use of silicon nanowire battery electrodes, mechanically capable of withstanding the absorption and discharge of lithium ions, was one way to sidestep the problem.

The findings hold promise for the development of rechargeable lithium batteries offering a longer life cycle and higher energy capacity than their contemporaries. Silicon nanowire technology may one day find a home in electric cars, portable electronic devices and implantable medical appliances.

Cui now hopes to direct his research toward studying both the “hard science” behind the electrical properties of nanomaterials and designing real-world applications.

“This is the right time to really see what we learn from nanoscience and do practical applications that are extremely promising,” said Cui. “The beauty of this is, it combines the lowest cost technology that you can find to the highest tech nanotechnology to produce something great. I think this is a very exciting idea … a huge impact for society.”

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The Cui group’s latest research on energy storage devices was detailed in papers published in the online editions of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December 2009 (“Highly Conductive Paper for Energy-Storage Devices”) and Nano Letters in January 2010 (“Stretchable, Porous and Conductive Energy Textiles”).

Cui’s talk at the symposium “Nanotechnology: Will Nanomaterials Revolutionize Energy Applications?” is scheduled for 9:50 a.m. Feb. 20 in Room 1B of the San Diego Convention Center.

Video/photos:
Conductive eTextiles: Stanford finds a new use for cloth
http://news.stanford.edu/news/2010/february1/batteries-from-cloth-020510.html

At Stanford, nanotubes + ink + paper = instant battery
http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/december7/nanotubes-ink-paper-120709.html

February 15, 2009

Exploring distant planets

I love news like this.

A release from today:

Exploring planets in distant space and deep interiors

Washington, D.C.— In recent years researchers have found hundreds of new planets beyond our solar system, raising questions about the origins and properties of these exotic worlds—not to mention the possible presence of life. Speaking at a symposium titled “The Origin and Evolution of Planets” held at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two Carnegie Institution scientists will present their perspectives on the new era of planetary exploration.

Alan Boss of Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and author of the new book The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets points out that evidence for all three classes of planets known in our Solar System—ice giants, gas giants, and terrestrial (rocky) planets—has been detected in extra-solar systems. “We already know enough now to say that the Universe is probably loaded with terrestrial planets similar to the Earth,” he says. “We should expect that there are going to be many planets which are habitable, so probably some are going to be inhabited as well.”

Boss expects that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, due to launch in early March and dedicated to searching for Earthlike planets, will put his ideas to the test.

Russell Hemley, director of Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory, studies the fundamental physics and chemistry of materials under extreme conditions. Understanding how the chemical building blocks of planets, such as hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron, and other crucial elements such as carbon, respond to conditions in the deep interior of planets, where pressures can exceed those on the surface by factors of millions, is key to understanding how planets might form and evolve. High-pressure studies can also offer clues to the search for life on planets different from our own. “Our work is uncovering not only exciting new physics and chemistry, but also new findings in biology that are relevant to the prospects for life in whatever form beyond the Earth,” says Hemley. “Experiments are showing that there is viability of life as we know it now under surprisingly extreme conditions.”

 

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The AAAS symposium “Origin and Evolution of Planets” will be held on Feb. 14, 1:30-4:30 p.m. CST, at the Chicago Hyatt Regency Hotel, Ballroom C. A news briefing preceding the symposium is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. CST at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Ballroom D. For more information on this event, contact the AAAS Press Office at 312-239-4811.

The Carnegie Institution (www.CIW.edu) has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It is a private, nonprofit organization with six research departments throughout the U.S. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

Update 2/15/09 — Here’s a BBC News story on this release.

Everquest and social research

My previous blog post was on using the internet for social research, and here is a study using Everquest II for just that on organizing networks in communities. Interesting work in the online social research area already.

The release from yesterday:

Surprising results: Virtual games players stick close to home

In the real world, tracking a person’s social network — which could include hundreds of contacts that serve different purposes — is nearly impossible.

But in online virtual games like EverQuest II, where tens of thousands of people leave digital traces as they chat with one another, perform quests together, form groups and buy and sell goods, researchers have found a gold mine of networking data.

That’s where social scientist and engineer Noshir Contractor comes in. Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, and his collaborators are studying nearly 60 terabytes of data from EverQuest II, a fantasy massive multiplayer online role-playing game where players complete quests and socialize with each other.

The researchers analyzed this data along with a survey of 7,000 players — making it one of the largest social science research projects ever performed, Contractor said.

Contractor will discuss their surprising results in a presentation titled “Social Drivers for Organizing Networks in Communities,” which will be part of the “Analyzing Virtual Worlds: Next Step in the Evolution of Social Science Research” symposium from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Chicago. The symposium will be held in Columbus GH, Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 East Wacker Drive.

The group has mined the data logs from the game to look for “structural signatures” that indicate different kinds of social network configurations.

“We can see whom these players talked to, whom they played with, and all the other interactions and transactions they had,” Contractor said. “In many ways it’s a microcosm of our existence in the general social world.”

The researchers found that many players underestimate the amount of time they spend playing the games, and the number of players who say they are depressed is disproportionately high. They also found that women don’t like to play with other women but are generally the most dedicated and satisfied players. And players aren’t just teenagers — in fact, the average age of a player is substantially higher.

But what most surprised Contractor was that even though players could play the game with anyone, anywhere, most people played with people in their general geographic area.

“People end up playing with people nearby, often with people they already know,” Contractor said. “It’s not creating new networks. It’s reinforcing existing networks. You can talk to anyone anywhere, and yet individuals 10 kilometers away from each other are five times more likely to be partners than those who are 100 kilometers away from each other.”

Worldwide, nearly 45 million people play massive multiplayer online role-playing games like EverQuest II, and the amount of real-world money associated with virtual worlds would make it the seventh largest country in the world according to gross domestic product.

“This is not a trivial issue,” Contractor said. “Now that we have the computing power to study these networks, we can explore different theories about social processes on a scale that was never possible before.”

 

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The internet and social research

I’ve blogged on this topic in the past, and I find the idea and practice of using the World Wide Web for research purposes very interesting. It seems there would be some significant hurdles in terms of scientific rigorousness, but it’s still pretty cool and very possibly a very powerful tool in the social research toolbox.

A release from yesterday:

Internet emerges as social research tool

Panel discusses use of the Web in social science study

IMAGE: This is Thomas Dietz, Director, Environmental Science and Policy Program and Assistant Vice President for Environmental Research, Michigan State University.
Click here for more information. 

CHICAGO — For the past two decades, the Internet has been used by many as an easy-to-use tool that enables the spread of information globally. Increasingly, the Web is moving beyond its use as an electronic “Yellow Pages” and online messaging platform to a virtual world where social interaction and communities can inform social science and its applications in the real world.

“Although social scientists, engineers and physical scientists have studied the World Wide Web as an entity in and of itself for some time, there is now a growing group of social scientists who are learning how to use the World Wide Web as a tool for research rather than as a subject of research,” said Thomas Dietz, Michigan State University researcher and director of the university’s Environmental Science and Policy Program.

Today, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago, a panel of scientists organized by Dietz planned to examine various aspects of using the World Wide Web as a tool for research.

University of Michigan political science professor Arthur Lupia was to kick off the session by discussing how new virtual communities are improving surveys and transforming social science.

“Lupia is one of the world’s leaders related to survey research on the Web,” Dietz said. “His focus is on learning to use the Web as a way of soliciting people’s opinions and getting factual information from them via online surveys.”

Adam Henry, a doctoral fellow in the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University’s Center for International Development, was scheduled next to discuss measuring social networks using the World Wide Web.

“Henry is developing very innovative ways to identify networks that are actual face-to-face relationships by tracking evidence streams on the Web,” Dietz said. “In other words, it’s not simply about who’s connected to whom on Facebook or Twitter, but who’s doing research with whom in the real world. It’s using the virtual world to identify things that are going on in the real world rather than using the virtual world simply to look at the virtual world.”

William Bainbridge, program director for the National Science Foundation’s Human-Centered Computing Cluster, was to rounded out the presentation with a discussion on the role of social science in creating virtual worlds.

“Bainbridge is studying group formation and social change over time in virtual worlds such as ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘Second Life’ to inform and build on what sociologists have studied for 150 years,”

Dietz said. “He contends that virtual worlds are excellent laboratories for observing and prototyping new social forms that can later be applied to the outside world.”

Following the presentations, National Science Foundation sociology director Patricia White was to discuss implications of this research related to the future of social science.

 

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— by Val Osowski

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

For MSU news on the Web, go to news.msu.edu.