Category: Top Posts

This High-Tech Floating Laboratory Will Be a Spaceship for the Sea

By David Warmflash | October 29, 2014 2:40 pm
SeaOrbiter

Credit: SeaOrbiter/ Jacques Rougerie

It’s being called a starship Enterprise for the water, and not merely for its futuristic shape. SeaOrbiter, designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie, is envisioned as a high-tech moving laboratory, carrying scientists on long treks through an environment not inherently friendly to human life.

At the moment, the craft is still on the drawing board. Construction is planned to begin later this year, and if funding allows, to be completed in 2016. Initial funding has been provided by the French government, several companies, and a crowd-funding campaign.

When operational, the craft is intended to be a sort of Swiss Army knife of aquatic research. Designers say it will hunt for underwater archaeological remains and new life forms, investigate ocean chemistry, and map vast swathes of the ocean floor while providing unprecedented capability for sending aquanauts continually on deep dives.

But its concepts borrow heavily from a different kind of exploration in recent human history: space exploration. And though it may physically resemble the Enterprise, there’s a more useful comparison closer to home in the International Space Station (ISS). Like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will advance basic science. Like the ISS, technology developed for the ship will improve everyday technology here on land. And finally, like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will allow humans to live long-term in an environment never before possible – effectively expanding human colonization to new places.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What It Will Take to Become an Interstellar Civilization

By Sarah Scoles | October 28, 2014 1:07 pm

starship

The new movie “Interstellar” is set in a not-so-distant future, but distant enough that they’ve managed to build something still elusive in 2014: a spaceship that can travel between solar systems. Such starships have been a technological mainstay in science fiction for decades, but they remain a crazily complicated proposition in everything from propulsion to human reproduction.

Still, that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. Last month, a bunch of rocket scientists, microbiologists and entrepreneurs gathered in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center to discuss—in level and serious tones—how to become a spacefaring civilization. The meeting is called the 100-Year Starship symposium, and it’s brought brains together once a year since 2011 to figure out what we need to do now if we want to have an interstellar spacerocket a century from now.

The group has made progress defining the challenges and pointing their noses toward solutions, but much work remains (like, say, building a starship). To quote Contact, it “sounds less like science and more like science fiction.”

Nonetheless, the 100-Year Starship adherents—backed by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—keep plugging away. At their most recent gathering, 7 major hurdles emerged from their three days of discussion. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Why Most of Your Body Is Younger Than You Are

By Curt Stager | October 23, 2014 4:51 pm

shatteredWhen you take a sip of water it doesn’t just slake your thirst. It literally becomes you. The water that runs down your gullet will, within minutes and without processing of any kind, become some of the dominant fluid in your veins and your flesh. Most of your blood is simply tap water with cells, salts, and organic molecules floating in it. Some of the rubbery squishiness of your earlobe poured out of a bottle or a can just a short time ago. And much of the moisture in your eyes only recently fell from rainclouds.

Your mouth is the portal through which water normally enters your body, but you are quite a leaky vessel. A hydrogen isotope study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that the sedentary men under examination consumed and lost about seven pints of body water per day, with four pints leaving through urine and two or three pints through sweat and breath moisture. Vigorous exercise can boost non-urine water losses to one or two pints per hour.

Now let’s see what logic can do with those facts. Nearly two-thirds of your weight comes from water, and your body is an eddy in a stream of that common fluid. Surely the liquid that you slurp from a fountain is not alive, and you don’t consider it murder to stomp on a puddle of water. Therefore most of you is not alive at all, nor is it even permanent or unique enough to merit a personal name.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

Is Thalidomide the Next Big Cancer Drug?

By Victoria Forster, Newcastle University | October 20, 2014 1:18 pm

pills-question cancer drug

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Innovative new drugs to treat cancer frequently make the headlines, either due to great success or controversy, as pharmaceutical companies get lambasted for selling the drugs at too high a price for state systems to afford.

But alongside this high-budget pharmaceutical research is a different tactic being quietly waged in the background: investigating old, inexpensive drugs, originally designed for a variety of maladies, to see whether they might be able to treat cancer – essentially, repurposing old for new.

Repurposing Drugs in Oncology (ReDO), the international organization aimed at promoting work in this area, defines repurposing as “the use of existing and well-characterized non-cancer drugs as new treatments for cancer.” ReDO believes that such drugs “may represent an untapped source of novel therapies.” Current candidates include diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory pain relief medication; clarithromycin, an antibiotic; and cimetidine, an antacid prescribed for stomach ulcers.

Cancers are increasingly being treated on the basis of the mutations that cause them, rather than where they are located. Seemingly distinct and unrelated cancers can arise due to the same genetic defect. Developing new drugs that target these mutations in a way that largely spares healthy cells is far from serendipitous and involves complex mathematical modelling and tens of thousands of laboratory hours to achieve even a prototype drug. All of this costs time and money.

Some researchers are shunning this process and instead turning to well-established drugs to improve cancer treatment. And it is an approach that is paying dividends.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Why Do Volcanic Eruptions Come in Clusters?

By Robin Wylie | September 25, 2014 3:29 pm
Bárðarbunga Volcano in Iceland erupting on September 4, 2014. Credit: Peter Hartree via Flickr

Bárðarbunga Volcano in Iceland erupting on September 4, 2014. Credit: Peter Hartree via Flickr

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The Earth seems to have been smoking a lot recently. Volcanoes are currently erupting in Iceland, Hawaii, Indonesia and Mexico. Others, in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, erupted recently but seem to have calmed down. Many of these have threatened homes and forced evacuations. But among their less-endangered spectators, these eruptions may have raised a question: Is there such a thing as a season for volcanic eruptions?

Surprisingly, this may be a possibility. While volcanoes may not have “seasons” as we know them, scientists have started to discern intriguing patterns in their activity.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

How Close Are We to Star Trek Propulsion?

By David Warmflash | September 17, 2014 8:30 am

warpdrive

It’s popular to talk about how the original Star Trek, set in the 23rd century, predicted many devices that we’re using already here in 2014. It started with communicators that manifested as flip-open cell phones that many already consider too primitive, moved through computers that talk and recognize human voices and provide instant translation (all of which are constantly improving), to medical applications such as needle-free injection, anti-radiation drugs, and a medical tricorder.

But looking at the more exotic Star Trek technologies, it’s harder to find credible reports that we’re close to a Trek-like world. This is true for Star Trek’s transporter: Despite some success in “quantum teleportation,” which could have applications for computers and possibly communication technology, no experts are saying that this is about to lead to a technology for beaming humans or any other objects from place to place.

It’s also true for space travel. Star Trek depicted a world where people would move between planets and star systems (at least nearby systems) frequently and very swiftly. The United Federation of Planets contains worlds separated by dozens of light-years, which ordinary Earthlings regularly traverse over time periods measured in days to weeks.

Clearly that’s one aspect of Star Trek technology that is far from being a reality in the present day. But the topic isn’t just in the realm of sci-fi: Scientists are taking various approaches to try to create the next generation of space propulsion, beyond the chemical rockets that require most of the mass of the ship to be fuel.

If we want spaceflight to become routine for humans as aviation did, we’ll need major innovations. Are any just around the corner?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Instead of Poppies, Engineering Microbes to Make Morphine

morphine

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The past few decades have seen enormous progress being made in synthetic biology – the idea that simple biological parts can be tweaked to do our bidding. One of the main targets has been hacking the biological machinery that nature uses to produce chemicals. The hope is – once we understand enough – we might be able to design processes that convert cheap feedstock, such as sugar and amino acids, into drugs or fuels. These production lines can then be installed into microbes, effectively turning living cells into factories.

Taking a leap in that direction, researchers from Stanford University have created a version of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that contains genetic material of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), bringing the morphine microbial factory one step closer to reality. These results published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology represent a significant scientific success, but eliminating the need to grow poppies may still be years away.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Forget Mars. Here’s Where We Should Build Our First Off-World Colonies

By David Warmflash | September 8, 2014 11:05 am

off-world colony on mars

The collective space vision of all the world’s countries at the moment seems to be Mars, Mars, Mars. The U.S. has two operational rovers on the planet; a NASA probe called MAVEN and an Indian Mars orbiter will both arrive in Mars orbit later this month; and European, Chinese and additional NASA missions are in the works. Meanwhile Mars One is in the process of selecting candidates for the first-ever Martian colony, and NASA’s heavy launch vehicle is being developed specifically to launch human missions into deep space, with Mars as one of the prime potential destinations.

But is the Red Planet really the best target for a human colony, or should we look somewhere else? Should we pick a world closer to Earth, namely the moon? Or a world with a surface gravity close to Earth’s, namely Venus?

To explore this issue, let’s be clear about why we’d want an off-world colony in the first place. It’s not because it would be cool to have people on multiple worlds (although it would). It’s not because Earth is becoming overpopulated with humans (although it is). It’s because off-world colonies would improve the chances of human civilization surviving in the event of a planetary disaster on Earth. Examining things from this perspective, let’s consider what an off-world colony would need, and see how those requirements mesh with different locations.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars, space exploration

How Advanced Are We Earthlings? Here’s a Cosmic Yardstick

By David Warmflash | September 2, 2014 4:44 pm

eclipse

Updated 9/16/14 10:15am: Clarified calculations and added footnote

We humans like to think ourselves pretty advanced – and with no other technology-bearing beings to compare ourselves to, our back-patting doesn’t have to take context into account. After all, we harnessed fire, invented stone tools and the wheel, developed agriculture and writing, built cities, and learned to use metals.

Then, a mere few moments ago from the perspective of cosmic time, we advanced even more rapidly, developing telescopes and steam power; discovering gravity and electromagnetism and the forces that hold the nuclei of atoms together.

Meanwhile, the age of electricity was transforming human civilization. You could light up a building at night, speak with somebody in another city, or ride in a vehicle that needed no horse to pull it, and humans were very proud of themselves for achieving all of this. In fact, by the year 1899, purportedly, these developments prompted U.S. patent office commissioner Charles H. Duell to remark, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

We really have come a long way from the cave, but how far can we still go? Is there a limit to our technological progress? Put another way, if Duell was dead wrong in the year 1899, might his words be prophetic for the year 2099, or 2199? And what does that mean for humanity’s distant future?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, Top Posts

Like GPS? Thank Relativity

By C. Renée James | August 29, 2014 1:42 pm

gps-device

In 1971—16 years after Einstein’s death—the definitive experiment to test Einstein’s relativity was finally carried out. It required not a rocket launch but eight round-the-world plane tickets that cost the United States Naval Observatory, funded by taxpayers, a total of $7,600.

The brainchild of Joseph Hafele (Washington University in St. Louis) and Richard Keating (United States Naval Observatory) were “Mr. Clocks,” passengers on four round-the-world flights. (Since the Mr. Clocks were quite large, they were required to purchase two tickets per flight. The accompanying humans, however, took up only one seat each as they sat next to their attention-getting companions.)

The Mr. Clocks had all been synchronized with the atomic clock standards at the Naval Observatory before flight. They were, in effect, the “twins” (or quadruplets, in this case) from Einstein’s famous twin paradox, wherein one twin leaves Earth and travels nearly at the speed of light. Upon returning home, the traveling twin finds that she is much younger than her earthbound counterpart.

In fact, a twin traveling at 80 percent the speed of light on a round-trip journey to the Sun’s nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, would arrive home fully four years younger than her sister. Although it was impossible to make the Mr. Clocks travel at any decent percentage of the speed of light for such a long time, physicists could get them going at jet speeds—about 300 meters (0.2 mile) per second, or a millionth the speed of light—for a couple of days. In addition, they could get the Mr. Clocks out of Earth’s gravitational pit by about ten kilometers (six miles) relative to sea level. And with the accuracy that the Mr. Clocks were known to be capable of, the time differences should be easy to measure.

Hafele and Keating with their Mr. Clock on their initial flight.

Hafele and Keating with two Mr. Clocks on their initial flight.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, Top Posts
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