Voltron, Dinobots, Insecticons, Constructicons: What did they all have in common? OK, yes, they were all toys made by Mattel*, but what *else* do they have in common? They all took disparate parts to form a greater, unified hold, kind of a sci-fi e pluribus unum.
Which is exactly what the students and scientists at the Institute for Dynamics and Systems Control in Switzerland pulled off at the end of the semester last year, when they created the Distributed Flight Array. The devices they engineered look like hexagons made of white plastic, each with a propeller in the center. Alone, each device is autonomous, but pretty dumb, mostly just wandering around the floor and occasionally lifting into unstable flight. But as each device bumps into another, they dock. When they reach a critical number, the collective becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.
“You haven’t seen Sunshine? What kind of self-respecting sci-fi geek are you?” With those words my friend Shelby persuaded, nay cajoled, me into watching the moving Sunshine. I already had the movie on DVD, so I would have gotten around to it… eventually. (Now we’re talking the 2007 movie about a mission to “restart” our dying Sun, not the 1999 movie about three generations of a Hungarian family in the early 20th Century—though the latter featured Ralph Fiennes playing a triple role and was really very good.)
I will admit up front that I found Sunshine quite enjoyable, so put any of my nit-picking in that context. In the DVD commentary director Danny Boyle pointed out that, traditionally, in horror films the monsters attack from out of the darkness. His vision was to create a threat that attacks from out of the light instead. Very clever. At the same time, the movie was far from perfect. Having served as the Science Advisor on a TV series (or two), and having made the mistake of reading too many online fan comments about the shows on which I worked, it’s clear that people, in particular those with science backgrounds, tend to be particularly chagrined when they feel that it is their science that is being maligned or given improper respect. In this sense, apparently I’m no different.
If we were ever to have a game of Survivor, the Trans-Galactic Edition, where all life forms across our local cluster of galaxies competed against each other to avoid getting voted “off the cluster,” there’d be a few attributes that might make us animals alliance-worthy. As we make worried glances toward the Stromulans from J5231, a plasma-cloud form of life with a level of consciousness far beyond our own (but alas, rather picky about what environments they will live in), we might trumpet our ability to form bodies of trillions of cells based on one single starting cell, our fantastic mobility, and the cultural productivity of our human species, which has led to amazing innovations like the George Foreman Grill.
A typical PCR gel.
When you consider the term “open source,” “molecular biology” and “genetics” are probably not the first words to pop into your head. It far more likely evokes images of a bespectacled group of computer whizzes hammering away at their machines or that of the cute Linux penguin. By contrast, “molecular biology” and “genetics” calls images of a busy laboratory with instruments humming in the background and white-coated scientists shuffling around, beakers in hand.
Josh Perfetto and Tito Jankowski, a team of self-styled “biohackers” based in San Francisco, aim to change all of that with their ambitious OpenPCR project. As the name implies, Perfetto and Jankowski want nothing less than to turn PCR (which stands for “polymerase chain reaction”), a fairly complex but crucial tool of molecular biologists, into an accessible hobby by creating a design for a cheap, easy-to-use machine–$400 or less–that anyone can build using just spare parts. (By comparison, a conventional PCR system can easily cost over $5,000.) Researchers use PCR to generate thousands to millions of copies of a single, or several, pieces of DNA, which comes in particularly handy when you mostly work at the cellular level. Read More
What would it be like if the World Cup allowed players to take steroids? Would it change the beautiful game? I’m not suggesting anything like “The All-Drug Olympics” (which remains one of my all time favorite SNL skits), but that scenario seems unlikely, given that most franchises wouldn’t want their hundred-million dollar investments burning out after one game. We know most major athletes use various legal and not-illegal drugs, steroids, and substances to train, perform, heal, and recover as well and as fast as possible. So why is it alright for Olympic gymnasts to get cortisone injections for inflamed joints but wrong for baseball players to take steroids to increase muscle recovery times? Why is it alright for Tour de France riders to refuel intravenously overnight but wrong for them to inject their own blood back into their bodies? Where do we draw the line?
Two world-class minds–Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics, and John William Devine, with the Oxford Center for Bioethics–will be debating the resolution “Performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in sport.” Savulescu is an absolute titan in the bioethics field (check this 2005 Guardian interview) and a huge proponent of human enhancement (he edited a book by the same name) so Devine is a brave man for taking him on. Given that Devine’s PhD thesis was on the “Challenges to Virtue in Political Office,” a pretty thorny topic, I believe he will rise to the occasion. The debate will consist of three parts, and the opening salvo has already occurred. Savulescu’s case for allowing drugs is quite convincing.
Elsa and Dren playing hide-and-seek.
If you had the tools to manipulate DNA and produce new hybrid species in order to obtain potentially life-saving drugs, would you do it? This question lies at the core of “Splice,” a new science fiction/horror mash-up starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as two young, hotshot biologists who create a human-animal hybrid, with–wait for it–unfortunate consequences.
The movie’s title, of course, refers to the technique of “gene splicing,” in which segments of different organisms’ DNA, their genes, are deliberately shunted together and/or moved around to alter their genomes and impart new traits. While not necessarily universally embraced by the public at large, this method has been in use for a while and is therefore not exactly controversial.
Intuitively, there just shouldn’t be any way for something wind-powered to move directly downwind faster than the wind itself. It’s impossible: Release a balloon, and the wind blows the balloon as fast as the wind is moving, and that’s as fast as any wind-powered object can go, before the wind. Sure, sailboats can win a race against the balloon by moving diagonally across the wind, but moving in a straight line down a 10 kph wind, and the balloon moves at 10 kph. End of story.
Or, start of story.
Rick Cavallaro and John Borton have built a cart that moves 2.86 times the speed of the wind, moving straight downwind. That may seem impossible, but after a year of tinkering and some financial assistance from Google and Joby Energy, they did it. Don’t believe me? Check out the video. Keep a weather eye out for the green flag at 0:35. Notice how it’s blowing the exact opposite direction of the orange wind socks on the cart? That’s because the cart is going faster than the wind.
How is it possible?
If you have even a passing interest in science, it was hard to miss the big, bold headlines splashed across newspaper front pages and websites a few weeks ago: “Scientists Create New Life.” I’m talking, of course, about Craig Venter’s latest research breakthrough, which, as most of you reading this may already know, consisted of inserting an artificial genome into a bacterial cell and coaxing it to life.
More specifically, his team of scientists replicated the design for an existing 1,080 base pair bacterial genome and had Blue Heron, a firm based in Bothell, WA, construct it by stitching together chemically synthesized oligonucleotides (the building blocks of DNA). The 1,080 bp genomes, also known as cassettes, were grown in yeast cells and, following a series of steps in which the intermediate assemblies were checked for errors and compatibility issues, inserted into the hollowed out recipient cells.
While much has been said about whether or not this feat constitutes the creation of a “new” life form (and, like many far more illustrious individuals, I happen to think it doesn’t), what is clear is that there is still much more work to be done before we get to the point when we can easily build cells and boot them up with specialized “software” to produce fuel, anti-malarial drugs or any number of biological derivatives.
Jonathan’s big smile and those of his happy parents are brought to you by the marvel of cochlear implants. That the above video is blowing up all over the tubes is a pretty good indicator that external, visible augmentation is moving steadily toward mainstream acceptance. Jonathan is joining the nearly 200,000 people world wide who’ve received a “bionic ear.” Buzzfeed has a bunch more videos of people hearing for the first time and I dare you to watch and not get a little weepy. At 8 months, the little guy should have no problem integrating into hearing society. Like anything that we aren’t born doing–be it walking, talking, or hearing with a bionic ear–we have to learn and practice. With cochlear implants, research confirms that the more time a child like Jonathan has to practice, the better he’ll be able to hear, understand, and speak.
The technology that lets Jonathan hear is the best we have right now, but a lot more options for the hearing-impaired are on the way. Amir Abolfathi, one of the minds behind Invisalign (the clear, plastic aligners that fix your teeth without obscuring your smile) has used his dental knowledge to create the SoundBite for single-side deafness. The Soundbite is a bone-conducting hearing aid that can be easily snapped onto or off of the molars on the same side as the deaf ear. It’s easier, cheaper, and safer than the current invasive technique.