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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

I’ve always been fascinated by novel new materials especially the recent wave of 2D materials with unique properties that aren’t generally found in nature.  For instance, thanks to one of these new wonder materials, Graphene, we may soon have new building blocks that are light-weight, stronger than steel, capable of conducting electricity, and much more.

However, when it comes down to it my favorite new materials are those based on biomimicry, designs already found in nature that we tap into to create new innovations capable of filling the gaps in our tool kit.  Such as we just did when we recently created snail inspired reversible super glue!

As Phys.Org puts it, “If you’ve ever pressed a picture-hanging strip onto the wall only to realize it’s slightly off-center, you know the disappointment behind adhesion as we typically experience it: it may be strong, but it’s mostly irreversible. While you can un-stick the used strip from the wall, you can’t turn its stickiness back on to adjust its placement; you have to start over with a new strip or tolerate your mistake. Beyond its relevance to interior decorating, durable, reversible adhesion could allow for reusable envelopes, gravity-defying boots, and more heavy-duty industrial applications like car assembly.”

And if we can achieve this incredible feat of engineering we’ll have slimy snails to thank.

“A snail’s epiphragm—a slimy layer of moisture that can harden to protect its body from dryness—allows the snail to cement itself in place for long periods of time, making it the ultimate model in adhesion that can be switched on and off as needed.”

The perfect solution to those sticky situations that we may find ourselves in.

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Is Reversible Super Glue the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I would be remiss if I spend an entire week talking about Black Mirror style sci-fi scenarios and didn’t mention rogue scientists creating new lifeforms.  Or at least entities that exhibit lifelike qualities.  Such as a breakthrough from Cornell University involving what has come to be known as “Artificial Metabolism”.

According to Futurism, “Scientists just got one step closer to creating living machines — or at least machines that mimic biological life as we know it.

A new biomaterial built in a Cornell University bioengineering lab uses synthetic DNA to continuously and autonomously organize, assemble, and restructure itself in a process so similar to how biological cells and tissues grow that the researchers are calling [it] “artificial metabolism,” according to research published in Science Robotics last week.”

While this remarkable biomaterial stops short of being considered an actual living organism it certainly does appear to mimic some life-like characteristics.  Following, or at least appearing to follow, biological imperatives.

“The biomaterial mimics a biological organism’s endless metabolic cycle of taking in energy and replacing old cells. When placed in a nutrient-rich environment, the material grew in the direction of the raw materials and food it needed to thrive — not unlike how a developing brain’s neurons grow out in the direction of specific molecules.  Meanwhile, the material also let its tail end die off and decay, giving the appearance of a constantly-regrowing slime mold traveling around toward food.”

Could this strange biomaterial eventually get to the point where we do consider it to be alive? Certainly anything is possible.  But more troubling is the fact that it may soon be possible to make existing animals as smart as humans by mixing our DNA with theirs.  At least that’s what some Chinese scientists are attempting to do by adding genes suspecting of playing a role in the formation of human intelligence into some macaque monkeys.  Essentially bringing the plot of Planet of the Apes to life.  And shockingly the efforts seem to be working.

As Technology Review puts it, “According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.”

Ethicists are likely going to be concerned with these developments as we continue to play God with technologies that we don’t yet fully understand.  The potential for creating smarter monkeys exists. But so too does the potential for introducing other genetic diseases, birth defects, or cognitive deficiencies into their germ line.  By trying to enhance them in one area we may be weakening them in another.  At this point we just don’t know how things will play out.  What we do know is that from artificial metabolism to smart monkeys the future is likely to resemble science fiction in more ways than one.  Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

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Are we on the verge of creating new forms of life?

 

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I think about death all the time.  Literally, all the time.  Most notably every night before I go to bed. “Welp, I’m now one day closer to dying.” Surviving a car accident that nearly took your life will do that to you.

Unfortunately, this latest new about what happens to the body after we die isn’t going to make me feel any better.  For death in some cases may not be instantaneous.  If you get crushed to death by a falling boulder, then yes probably instantaneous.  Or if Thanos snaps you out of existence, then yes probably instantaneous.  But for everyone else…well, there’s a chance that you’ll remain conscious even after your heart stops pumping, making it so that you’re fully aware of the fact that you just died.  If you happen to die in a hospital you’ll even hear your own time of death announced.

As Outerplaces puts it, “What happens to the body after death? We’ve all heard the stories about how some animals – namely snakes – can still bite after they’ve been decapitated because their brains require less oxygen and thus stay active longer, but what about humans? According to a new study, it may actually take hours for our brains to fully shut down after our hearts stop pumping, which means we are technically dead but may be somewhat aware of what is happening around us.

In studying patients with cardiac arrest both in the United States and Europe, scientists at Stony Brook University of Medicine in New York found that a small percentage of those who were successfully resuscitated after their hearts stopped beating were aware of the room and could remember conversations that the medical teams had around them. Those patients (around 2 percent of the 140 interviewed) shared, in detail, what they remembered even though they were clinically dead.”

The million dollar question now becomes how long do we stay conscious for?  Are we talking about minimal lag time here? A few minutes? Maybe an hour?  Or are we talking about hours and hours? Or even longer than that?  Are we essentially getting buried alive?  Cue Black Mirror music.

If this is true then I think we should change our practice on multiple fronts.  Instead of having hospitals declaring a time of death based on when the heart stops beating they should declare a time of death only after all brain wave activity has ceased.  This way no one, not even a dying person in their final moments, ever has to be subjected to the horror of hearing their own time of death being declared.  And secondly we should also use the time immediately after a person has died to talk to them.  To tell them how much we loved them.  To maybe tell them a secret that they never knew.  If they are still conscious and able to hear us then they will be able to process this information and possibly take that knowledge with them to the afterlife, if there is one.  Either away, we should get to the point where we consider just walking away from someone as soon as they die as an act of cruelty.  Even if the person is a total stranger.  Instead, you should immediately go up to someone who has just died and talk to them to comfort them along their final journey.

Personally, I will continue to hope that I never get to the point.  That thanks to medical and technological breakthroughs I am somehow able to reverse the aging process or have my consciousness downloaded into a machine so that I can live forever! For contemplating my own death isn’t something that I want to do again anytime soon.  I’ve already been there, done that.

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What really happens when we die?

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Good news for people who worry about the inhumane treatment of lab rats.  In the near future it may be possible to test for new drugs without the need for animal testing at all.  Instead, new therapies will be tried out on a human brain.  But don’t worry.  This isn’t Black Mirror and we’re not talking about real people.   Instead we’re talking about a “mini-brain platform” that would allow for more humane testing to occur.

Originally developed by researchers at John Hopkins University, and then commercialized by AxoSim, the platform could become a real game-changer in the expensive and never-ending search for new drugs.

As Live Science puts it, “This is your bedbug-size brain on drugs. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are growing ‘mini-brains’ — smaller than the period at the end of this sentence — that may contain enough human brain cells to be useful in studying drug addiction and other neurological diseases.

The mini-brains, grown in a laboratory dish, could one day reduce the need for the use of laboratory animals to conduct this type of research or to test therapeutic drugs, the researchers said.

Labs from around the world have been racing to grow these and other organoids — microscopic, yet primitively functional versions of livers, kidneys, hearts and brains grown from real human cells. The version of the mini-brain from Johns Hopkins represents an advance over others reported in the last three years, in that it is quickly reproducible and contains many types of brain cells that interact with each other, just like a real brain, the researchers said.”

But what if these mini-brains were to develop, um, a mind of their own?!? In that case wouldn’t this research be even more inhumane than animal testing?! In theory, yes.  But, I’ll leave that speculation for the ethicists.  And Charlie Brooker.

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Are Mini Brains the Greatest Idea Ever?

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A quick look at everything that tickled my fancy over the last week:

SABRE Engine

One of my favorite topics to write about are new modes of transportation and this latest idea is a real doozy: a new rocket design with the potential to revolutionize society.

According to Futurism, “The Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) runs partially on oxygen collected from the atmosphere rather than relying on heavy fuel. That means serious weight savings, according to the European Space Agency — such that a payload could be delivered to orbit at ‘half the vehicle mass of current launchers.’”

Weight savings that could be used to transport passengers from London to Sydney, Australia in just four hours! Making near instantaneous worldwide travel a real possibility.

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Horizontal Skyscrapers

I always imagined that cities of the future would resemble The Jetsons with impossibly tall skyscrapers rising about the clouds to escape smog smothered landscapes.  China though had other ideas, deciding to flip the script on its side.  Literally.  By building a horizontal skyscraper.

According to Fast Company, “China is nearing completion of a new architectural landmark. The building is actually four distinct skyscrapers rising above the city of Chongqing. But what makes the project truly impressive is a 1,000 foot steel and glass sky bridge that connects them all, filled with trees, lagoons, observation decks, shops, and restaurants. Its developers call it ‘The Crystal.’”

And while it sounds like something you’d find in a movie starring the The Rock’s it’s entirely possible that The Crystal paves the way for even more horizontal skyscrapers in the future.

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Night Vision

Humans may be one step closer to obtaining night vision and other super powers thanks to a new breakthrough recently tested on mice.

According to Futurism, “In the new research, described in a paper published in the journal Cell today, the researchers injected ‘ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding up conversion nanoparticles’ into the eyes of mice.

The stunning result: after the injection, the mice were able to see normally invisible near-infrared light — both humans and mice are normally unable to perceive light with wavelengths longer than 700 nanometers — effectively extending ‘mammalian vision,’ according to the paper.”

This is exciting research that could one day pave the way for enhancing human capabilities.

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Synthetic Brain

In the future it may be possible to create an artificial human brain or at least a brain that resembles a human one in the way that connections are formed and memories are stored.

According to Futurism, “Gimzewski and his team found that a grid of tightly-packed copper posts, when treated with silver nitrate, grew nanowires out in seemingly random directions that mirror the branching, interconnect neurons found in a brain.  On the atomic scale, the connections among the silver nanowires resemble synapses, which are the junctions at which two neurons meet up and transmit signals among with each other. The way that the nanowires organized themselves mirrors the sort of structures that would pop up during an MRI of a brain as it stores memories, according to ZDNet.”

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Squid Teeth New Material

I’m a huge fan of materials science and especially of biomimicry but this next idea has me feeling a little bit squeamish.

As Science Focus explains, “A newly-discovered material made from squid teeth could one day replace man-made fibers like nylon and polyester, according to a review by scientists at Pennsylvania State University. This would help to reduce microplastic pollution in the oceans, as well as paving the way for new possibilities such as self-repairing safety clothing, or garments with built-in, flexible screens.

The smart materials in question are made from a material found in the suckers on a squid’s tentacles. In some species, these suckers have a ring of ‘teeth’ to help the squid grip onto a surface. These are known as SRTs – squid ring teeth – and it’s the proteins they’re made of that have scientists excited.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The creation of plastic in 1907 was a revolutionary breakthrough that changed society in the decades to come.  To appreciate just how big this impact was just think about how many things there are in our daily lives from silverware to toys that are made from plastic.  Modern airplanes include plastic.  About half of your car is made from plastic as well.  Tennis rackets include it.  So too do stents given to heart attack patients.  They even make up most pairs of eye glasses.  Suffice it to say plastics are everywhere.

This may not seem like a big deal on the surface.  A versatile material that can be used in a variety of ways would typically be seen as a good thing.  But there is an environmental impact to our excessive plastic consumption habit.  Especially when you consider that it takes 400 years for a piece of plastic to degrade and that a whopping 91% of plastic isn’t even recycled! That according to a recent scientific study that National Geographic reported on.  A statistic so mind-boggling that Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society named it as their statistic of the year in 2018.

As the New York Post puts it:

“We’re surrounded by plastics for much of our lives. Plastics are cheap and easy to make, they’re often incredibly durable and they last just about forever. Unfortunately, those upsides are also terrible news for the environment, as plastic waste continues to pile up despite recycling efforts and public awareness campaigns.

One of the biggest problems with the popular material is that even recyclable plastics aren’t always able to be broken down and used again. In fact, less than one-third of recyclable plastic is repurposed after the recycling process, with the rest being tossed along with other non-recyclable waste…”

Thankfully, there is some good news on the way.  A new kind of plastic that may be 100% recyclable and reusable in a variety of ways.

According to ABC News, “Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have designed a plastic that can be recycled over and over again, and turned into new materials of any color, shape, or form. They are calling it polydiketoenamine or PDK, and this new plastic can be disassembled all the way down to the molecular level.”

This is a potential game-changing technology that could revolutionize society (once again) and help us to clean up an environment that has been ravished by human activity, in particular our penchant for plastics.  PDK may even find a home in the future as a filament for 3D printing, giving that fledgling technology the boost that it needs to finally go mainstream.

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Is PDK Plastic the Greatest Idea Ever?

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We all learned in school that there are three phase of water: solid, liquid, and gas.  However, that may not be entirely true.  As it turns out there be another, more exotic, phase of water and it may be extremely abundant throughout the Universe.

As Wired reports, “The findings, published this week in Nature, confirm the existence of “superionic ice,” a new phase of water with bizarre properties. Unlike the familiar ice found in your freezer or at the north pole, superionic ice is black and hot. A cube of it would weigh four times as much as a normal one. It was first theoretically predicted more than 30 years ago, and although it has never been seen until now, scientists think it might be among the most abundant forms of water in the universe.”

But what if there’s more to it than that? What if superionic ice isn’t a new phase of water at all?

“Depending on whom you ask, superionic ice is either another addition to water’s already cluttered array of avatars or something even stranger. Because its water molecules break apart, said the physicist Livia Bove of France’s National Center for Scientific Research and Pierre and Marie Curie University, it’s not quite a new phase of water. ‘It’s really a new state of matter,’ she said, ‘which is rather spectacular.’”

A new phase of matter? As astonishing as that would be, it’s not the first time that a new state of matter has been discovered.  About a month ago National Geographic reported on another new type of matter.

“Now, a team has used a type of artificial intelligence to confirm the existence of a bizarre new state of matter, one in which potassium atoms exhibit properties of both a solid and a liquid at the same time. If you were somehow able to pull out a chunk of such material, it would probably look like a solid block leaking molten potassium that eventually all dissolved away.”

And these discoveries are likely just the tip of the iceberg.  As our instruments and the tools at our disposal continue to improve we may discover even more exotic forms of matter.  Meaning it won’t be long before we have to rewrite the textbooks once again.

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Is Superionic Ice the Greatest Idea Ever?

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