It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.
A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.
My teachers in grade school always said knowledge was power, but who knew they were being literal, if perhaps imprecise. Knowledge, it turns out, is energy, and it converts at a rate of 28 percent, according to Shoichi Toyabe, of Chuo University, and Masaki Sano, of the University of Tokyo.
Their experiment has its origins back in 1871, when James Maxwell proposed a thought experiment: A demon controls the only door in a wall separating two sealed chambers filled with gas molecules. The demon allows only fast moving particles to enter one room, and only slow moving particles to enter the other room. After a while, one room has only fast moving particles, and the other has only slow moving particles. The system has lost entropy, but without expending any energy, creating a seeming violation of the second law of thermodynamics.
Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, offered a key insight into Maxwell’s paradox in 1929: The demon had to expend energy measuring the speed of the molecules, thus the overall system of demon plus gas actually required work and the expenditure of energy. The demon used energy to take a measurement, creating information, preserving the second law, and establishing the idea that information could be converted to energy, and vice versa.
Proving that idea in the lab took another eight decades.
Ever noticed that in the Star Trek universe, no one’s communicator runs out of charge? And Darth Vader never worried about whether he’d remembered to plug in his lightsaber overnight, nor does The Doctor ever dash back into the TARDIS to grab his sonic screwdriver charger. It just never happens.
Possibly we’re to understand that these devices have their own tiny power supplies, but more likely these devices have some other way to get their juice. And wouldn’t it be nice to dispense with the problem of recharging once and for all? In our own local space-time continuum, a number of companies labor to make wireless power possible using a host of technologies, but there are two strategies that show a lot of promise, one using lasers, another using magnetic resonance.
By bringing the field of photovoltaics into medicine, researchers hope to create a far more precise method of drug delivery for fighting cancer. That’s right: this cancer cure involves tiny photovoltaic particles like the kind used in solar cells.
One of the major drawbacks of chemotherapy is that it damages far more of the body than just the malignant tumors it’s used to fight. In order to target just the cancerous areas, and not hit everything on the way there, researchers from the University of Texas in El Paso created a tiny solar cell. They attached model drugs to each side of the cell, one of which was positively charged, the other negatively. Once the tiny solar devices are in the body, doctors would blast the tumor with an infrared laser, causing the pholtovoltaic particles to release the drugs.
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
If the oceans eventually become too acidified to sustain most marine life and the jellyfish take over, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’ll have an abundant source of renewable energy. GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein), the same protein isolated in Aequorea victoria that earned three researchers the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, has found a new lease of life in solar and fuel cells being developed by Zackary Chiragwandi at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Much like the dye found in cutting-edge dye-sensitized solar cells, GFP absorbs a specific wavelength of sunlight—in this case, ultraviolet light—to excite electrons that are shuttled off to an aluminum electrode to generate a current. After giving up their energy, the electrons are then returned to the GFP molecules, where they are ready for another round of stimulation (so to speak).
The cell’s design is simple: two aluminum electrodes are placed onto a thin layer of silicon dioxide, which helps to optimize light capture and energy conversion efficiency, and a single drop of GFP is deposited between them. Without prodding, the protein then self-assembles into strands to connect the electrodes and form a tiny circuit. While cheaper than conventional solar cells, dye-sensitized cells still require some costly materials and are hard to build, making these bio-inspired cells potentially a much more alluring proposition down the line. And because slightly different versions of GFP are found in a number of other marine species, there is the potential for an entire array of more finely tuned GFP cells. Read More
In the fifth season of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons gave the Galactica a kind of spray-on bacteria that could make the walls self-healing. Any race of beings that cold make that work out would surely have commercialized something like the work of MIT researcher Michael Strano who have devised tiny solar-electric generators that can break apart and reassemble. The team published their efforts in Nature Chemistry.
The research solves a significant problem in the shift toward solar power, that of degradation. Even silicon solar panels lose efficiency over time as solar radiation breaks down its components. Yet plants don’t have this problem: they use sugar and minerals to constantly refresh their photosynthetic cells, e.g. leaves. Strano and his colleagues looked at how leaves work to develop their tiny solar generators. Using seven different chemicals the generators will self assemble, even after they’ve broken down, and with no loss of efficiency.
The basic unit requires a synthetic phospholipids, which itself is just a plate to hold the chemicals that react to light. These chemicals release electrons when photons hit them. The phospholipid plates are themselves attracted to carbon nanotoubes. The tubes, which are highly conductive, are lined up in long rows forming a wire to carry the electrons to their destination.
But even through the reaction is 40 percent efficient —- more efficient than standard thin film photovoltaic cells, which capture about 28 percent of sunlight —— that’s not even the impressive part. When the system is damaged, as sunlight is wont to do to solar panels, it will reassemble itself. Strano and his team broke down the system again and again over a 14-hour period and the system consistently put itself back together again with no loss of efficiency.
Take that Cylon Model 6. The humans will have self-assembly without your help.
(picture courtesy of PR Web)
In a recent article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak makes an intriguing claim: SETI should start pointing its telescopes toward corners of the known universe that would be friendly not just to intelligent aliens but to artificial alien intelligence. The basis of his suggestion is that any form of life intelligent enough to generate the kinds of radio signals that SETI is looking for would be “quickly” superseded by an artificial intelligence of their creation. Here, going on our own rate of progress toward AI, Shostak suggests that this radio-to-AI delay is a small handful of centuries.
These artificial intelligences, not likely to have had the “nostalgia module” installed, may quickly flee the home planet like a teenager trying to pretend it isn’t related to its parents. If nothing else, they will likely need to do this to find further resources such as materials and energy. Where would they want to go? Shostak speculates they may go to places where large amounts of energy can be obtained, such as near large stars or black holes.
Stephen Hawking imagines aliens covering stars with mirrors
to generate enough power for worm holes
Stephen Hawking has suggested one reason to go to high-energy regions would be to make worm holes through space-time to travel vast distances quickly. These areas are not hospitable to life as we know it, and so are not currently the target of SETI’s telescopes searching for signals of such life.
Who needs Mr. Fusion if you can draw energy straight out of the air? A team of scientists from the University of Campinas in Brazil worked out a way to draw charge from air in high humidity, going some distance to explaining the origins of lightning, and offering the promise of renewable power for San Francisco and New England, where humidity is abundant and sunshine, not so much.
The study authors, Telma R. D. Ducati, Luis H. Simoes and Fernando Galembeck, found that tubes of aluminum, stainless steel, or chromium acquired electric charge in high relative humidity, and that the charge rose as the humidity went up.
In a few years’ time, recharging your handheld PC may be as easy as just slipping it into your back pocket. That is, as long as you don’t mind having a virus cocktail woven into your pair of slacks. Yes, the humble virus–that tiny protein-coated bag of genetic material that we more commonly associate with global pandemics–could replace graphite and lithium iron phosphate as the material of choice with which to build the next generation of customizable, high-powered, lithium-ion batteries.
Despite what you may think, this isn’t actually such an unusual pairing. By virtue of their simple design (most only contain enough genes to encode a few dozen proteins) and infinite capacity for manipulation, viruses have become the favored go-to tool for scientists seeking to explore cellular systems and tinker with their underlying components. Gene therapists have been infecting bacterial, plant, and animal cells with viruses for years in order to shuttle in new genes and repair malfunctioning ones. In one recent application, a team of researchers led by University of Pennsylvania ophthalmologist Arthur Cideciyan restored sight to two blind individuals by injecting a virus equipped with a retinal gene into their eyes. Read More