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#1,035 – Neurofiction

What if a book could read you?

That’s the premise behind a new literary experience designed to up end the traditional way that we consume printed material.  Instead of just reading a story that’s been mass produced for everyone, you would instead get to enjoy a unique tale that changes in conjunction with your emotional state.  Think of it like a literal Choose Your Own Adventure.  Albeit one without conscious choice.

The concept, known as Neurofiction, is the brain child of science fiction author Hannu Rajaniemi and was recently unveiled at the Edinburgh International Science Festival with a twist on a classic Disney story.

As Wired explains, “Volunteers would don the [EMOTIV] Epoc headset, then read the story of Snow White, and the story would branch and change in different ways, depending on whether the volunteer showed more affinity for ‘life’ or ‘death’ imagery.”

In other words, if you wanted a happy ending that’s exactly what you’d get.  This approach to story-telling could be a total game changer for Hollywood.  Instead of force feeding everyone cookie cutter stories that have been engineered to appeal to the largest percentage of people, you could instead tailor stories to individual  viewers and their individual tastes.  No matter how twisted or outside of the norm they may be.

Neurofiction is obviously still in the early stages of development.  There is, after all, only prototype so far.  But personally, I feel like this could be the start of a new form of entertainment.  Truly interactive content that puts you, or at least your subconscious, in the driver’s seat while reading.  Who knows, it may even be enough to get people to stop binge watching shows or playing video games, and, you know, actually pick up a book every once in a while.

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Is Neurofiction the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

#1,034 – TRAPPIST-1

Yesterday NASA held a press conference to announce a major discovery outside of our solar system.  There was a lot of speculation as to what it could be.  Proof of dark matter?!!? Direct observation of a black hole?!!? An explanation for Dark Energy?!?!  As it turns out the announcement was better than all that: the discovery of a solar system with not one, not two, not three, but seven (seven!) Earth sized planets!

As Futurism put it, “scientists working with telescopes at the European Southern Observatory and NASA announced a remarkable new discovery: An entire system of Earth-sized planets. If that’s not enough, the team asserts that the density measurements of the planets indicates that the six innermost are Earth-like rocky worlds.  And that’s just the beginning.  Three of the planets lie in the star’s habitable zone.”

This is a really big deal.  In our search for intelligent life and for other places to call home we’ve found other exoplanets before.  We’ve even found other Earth like exoplanets within the Goldilocks zone before.  But we’ve never found a multi-planetary system teeming with the possibility of this much life before.  If you were going to pick any star to travel to, this star, known as TRAPPIST-1, would be the one.  If for no other reason than the sheer odds of finding life or habitable conditions on at least one of the three planets, if not all three.  Not to mention the fact that the other three rocky planets could contain ice or other natural resources that you could use in your colonization efforts or could themselves be candidates for terraforming.  Oh, and I did mention that TRAPPIST-1 is one of our closest stellar neighbors.  Only 40 light years away!

Of course that’s still too far to reach within a human life span using modern technology which is why some people were quick to dismiss this news.  Sure, it’s noteworthy.  But ultimately, it just doesn’t matter they exclaimed.  What!!!!?!!! This sentiment bothers me.  A lot.  This is really big news.  And it does matter.  A lot.

It may not seem like it but space travel is actually within our reach.  For starters the Breakthrough Starshot project has its sights set on sending gram scale nanocraft to nearby Alpha Centauri within forty years to search for signs of life.  Meanwhile the “impossible” EM Drive could speed up our space travel efforts by pulling the fabric of space time around a ship instead of propelling a ship through it.  All while the James Webb Telescope is set to launch in October 2018, replacing the Hubble Telescope, and allowing for even more precise observations of phenomena across the Universe, including giving us a closer look at the makeup of the TRAPPIST-1 system.  If that’s not good enough for you consider the fact that we’re on the verge of mining an asteroid and that Elon Musk has specific plans on how to get us to Mars.  That is, when he’s not busy landing reusable rockets on floating sea platforms.

But all of that actually pales in comparison to the real reason why yesterday’s news matters: public sentiment.  It used to be that visiting the Moon or living on Mars was all we thought about whether we were a ten year old kid or a science fiction writer.  Now whenever exciting news occurs we shrug our shoulders and go back to scrolling through our Facebook feeds.  A planetary system with 3-7 habitable Earth like planets could change all that.   Could get us to daydream once again about space travel.  Get us to imagine what it would be like to live on one planet and work on another.  Or what it would be like to explore another world while on an exotic vacation.

I get that there are doubters, but I for one can’t wait to learn more about this planetary system and I especially look forward to tracking our efforts to get there.  TRAPPIST-1 here we come!

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TRAPPIST-1 here we come!

 

 

As expected there’s been a lot of hype surrounding Virtual Reality and as expected it has yet to find widespread mainstream appeal.  There are several reasons for this ranging from the lack of a killer app, to video processing shortcomings, to clunky tethered experiences.  In short, Virtual Reality is never going to really take off until you can achieve the allusion of complete immersion and do more inside the virtual world than just play games.  Thankfully, Mark Zuckerberg may have a solution in the form of gloves for the Oculus Rift that will allow users full use of their hands.

Untethered from the constraints of using a controller users would have a whole new world of virtual possibilities available to them such as being able to type or write or even shoot webs out of their hands like Spider Man.

According to TechCrunch this technology would even open up a whole new array of enterprise use cases for VR:

“Opening up the ability to type in VR could expand the medium from its current center of gaming and entertainment into more business and enterprise use cases. Sources tell me some engineers at Facebook are experimenting with coding in VR, because it offers them essentially infinite screen space, rather than having to juggle windows on one or several monitors.”

There are several other companies that are also working on gloves and other ways to further add to the feeling of immersion.  And according to Engadget, Facebook isn’t done tinkering yet either.

“The Oculus team is also looking at ‘advanced optics, eye tracking, mixed reality and new ways to map the human body,’ Zuckerberg said. The lab’s aim is to shrink the size of the tech and ‘let you interact with the virtual world,’ he adds, giving you the true feeling that you’re in another world.”

Hopefully, Facebook or one of the other companies can design an accessory or figure out a way to fully clear this hurdle of feeling truly immersed.  Because otherwise I fear that virtual reality will never realize its full potential.

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Are the Oculus Gloves the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

#1,032 – KBNNO

First Metallic Hydrogen.  Then Time Crystals.  Then One Dimensional Boron Chains.  Now scientists are at it again creating a new wonder material capable of converting various natural sources into electricity to help power our connected devices.

According to I Fucking Love Science, “The new material, known as KBNNO (based on its chemical formula), can convert heat, visible light, and changes in pressure into electricity. Like other perovskite crystals, KBNNO is ferroelectric. The material is organized into electric dipoles, tiny compass-like needles, and when a physical change happens the dipoles misalign, creating a current.”

What’s unique about KBNNO, compared to other perovskite crystals, is that it can convert heat, light, AND movement and ALL AT ONCE.  Other crystals that have displayed similar properties have only been able to do one or the other.  Now we have a super crystal capable of doing all three at the same time.

According to researchers this remarkable new material could be used to enhance Smart Cities and ensure that Internet of Things infused connected devices can be recharged quickly and easily without the need to be constantly plugged in.  Considering our energy consumption issues having a material capable of keeping us fully powered at all times isn’t just a nice luxury to have.  It may soon become a necessity.

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Is KBNNO the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

Move over graphene!  There’s a new super material on the block with even more impressive properties.  Say hello to one dimensional boron chains!

As Science Alert explains:

“We all love graphene – the one-atom-thick sheets of carbon aren’t just super flexible, harder than diamond, and stronger than steel, they’ve also recently become superconductors in their own right.  But it’s not the only over-achieving nanomaterial out there. Researchers have just simulated a stretched out, one-dimensional (1D) chain of boron, predicting that the material could have even weirder properties than graphene.”

Something that’s even weirder than graphene?!!  Okay, you’ve got my attention.  What kind of properties are we talking about though?!?!  What could possibly be better than graphene?!?!

Well, because the boron atoms are arranged in just one-atom thick sheets they have remarkable abilities related to their stiffness, ability to stretch, and ability to conduct electricity.

According to Science Alert:

“For example, when they’re stretched out, these metallic chains become antiferromagnetic semiconductors – meaning a non-magnetic metal that can conduct electricity with zero resistance. And when they’re released, they fold up back into neat two-atom-thick ribbons.

The material also is predicted to have mechanical stiffness on par with the highest-performing nanomaterials known to science.

And they can act as tiny constant-force springs – a rule-breaking type of spring that exerts constant force over its range of motion (most other springs exert more force the more they’re stretched).”

I have no idea what any of that means and scientists aren’t even sure what practical applications there may be.  Although, just like with Time Crystals the early presumptive favorite is that the use case will center around quantum computers.  All I know is that if something’s weirder than graphene that’s something worth exploring further.

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Are one dimensional boron chains the Greatest Idea Ever?

It may sound like something you’d find on an episode of Dr. Who but Time Crystals, matter that repeats through time the way regular crystals repeat through space, are, in fact, very real.  At least as real as an abstract physics concept can be.  And now that their theoretical existence has been proven there could be very some very real and possibly game changing implications for physics and the world at large.

As Popular Mechanics explains:

“Crystals are structures in which a pattern of atoms or molecules repeats in space. Now, two teams of researchers have figured out that crystals’ repeating patterns can also exist through time. These ‘time crystals,’ detailed in a new paper in Physical Review Letter, are an entirely new kind of matter, one that can never reach equilibrium.

To create the time crystals, researchers at University of Maryland hooked together 10 ytterbium atoms and hit them with two lasers multiple times to keep them out of equilibrium. Though the atoms did settle into a pattern, they could not reach equilibrium, meaning that the crystals perpetually remain in motion, though they don’t contain any energy. Almost all of physics is based in studying matter that is at equilibrium, so the ability to create these non-equilibrium crystals is a huge deal for the future of physics.”

Why is it a big deal?  Well, as of now no one knows for sure.  But in theory, having matter that moves in perpetuity without using or losing any energy is going to be extremely useful whether that use case is just helping to further our understanding of the Universe or in more practical applications.  Such as bringing quantum computers to life.

For now though we’ll just have to take solace in the fact that we’ve even proven that time crystals exist, five years after they were first proposed by Nobel-Prize winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek in 2012.  Only time will tell if they become part of our quantum computers or not.

 

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Are Time Crystals the Greatest Idea Ever?

Lost among all of the alternative facts, fake news claims, and political wrangling of the last week was the news that scientists have finally achieved the holy grail of chemistry, creating a metallic form of hydrogen, 80 years after its existence was first theorized.  How big of a deal is this?  Well, considering that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe and a metallic version could be used as a fuel source for long range space travel, among other uses, I’d say that it’s a very big deal.

As the Independent put it:

“For nearly 100 years, scientists have dreamed of turning the lightest of all the elements, hydrogen, into a metal.  Now, in a stunning act of modern-day alchemy, scientists at Harvard University have finally succeeded in creating a tiny amount of what is the rarest, and possibly most valuable, material on the planet…for metallic hydrogen could theoretically revolutionize technology, enabling the creation of super-fast computers, high-speed levitating trains and ultra-efficient vehicles and dramatically improving almost anything involving electricity.  And it could also allow humanity to explore outer space as never before.”

That last part is what really grabbed my attention.  Revolutionizing space travel and making it so that we can travel to the far reaches of our galaxy within the span of a human lifetime?  Um, yes please!

The key to making that happen is to figure out a way to reverse the incredibly rare process that scientists only just created for the first time.  No easy feat.   Especially when you consider that the amount of pressure needed to create metallic hydrogen is greater than the amount of pressure found at the center of the Earth.  So great in fact, that the diamond anvils typically used to crush elements in high pressure experiments, couldn’t be used in this instance since the diamonds themselves would not have survived the high pressures involved.  Instead synthetic diamonds coated with alumina were used.

Here’s why that matters.  Since metallic hydrogen is formed at such high pressure, turning around and breaking it apart would create more energy than any other known catalyst that we currently have at our disposal.  Meaning that if we can harness this process we can use it in place of rocket fuel as a way to power our space craft and propel us to where no man has gone before.

There are some scientists who remain skeptical of the findings from Harvard University so it remains to be seen if metallic hydrogen is just a pipe dream or our future savior.  But if the science turns out to be viable and the process repeatable, then we could be looking at a legitimate world changing super material that would truly have the power to revolutionize society.

So far the early results are promising with the metallic hydrogen proving to be stable at room temperature, just like how diamonds remain stable after getting formed through a similar high pressure process.  Hopefully, the next wave of tests show equally promising results and that over time scientists can figure out exactly what else they can do with this new wonder material.

Until then let’s just marvel at the fact that metallic hydrogen was even created at all.  And remind ourselves that sometimes, the best news, isn’t on the front page.

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Is Metallic Hydrogen the Greatest Idea Ever?