Wednesday 12-29-04

A sense of space

A lot of science and technology has to do with the very large or very small. There is an enormous amount of both. The universe is many orders of magnitude beyond easy perception, and there is a vast span of nature that resides from just beneath our perception to many orders of magnitude smaller.

A single hydrogen atom is one angstrom in diameter, an angstrom is 10,000 times narrower than an E. coli bacterium, an E. coli bacterium is 75 times narrower than a human hair, and a human hair is 13 times smaller than a millimeter. An angstrom is to a millimeter as a millimeter is to 6.2 miles.

It is 238,855 miles to the moon, 92,955,807 miles from the earth to the sun, and 24,792,710,570,270 miles, or 4.22 light-years, to the nearest star -- Proxima Centauri.

On the smallest side of things, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory microscope-computer system makes it possible to see down to 0.6 angstroms, and researchers at the open University in England have found a way to image the path of an electron around a nitrogen atom

Meanwhile, astronomers using the Hubble space telescope have spotted a galaxy 13 billion light-years away. The galaxy is so far that the light the astronomers observed was generated when the universe, an estimated 14 billion years old, was a mere 750 million years.

Thirteen billion light years is to the distance from the earth to the sun as the distance from the earth to the sun is to 1.8 centimeters.

Monday 12-20-04

Beyond our sense of time

Much of science takes place beyond the outskirts of time and space as we perceive them. Humans perceive time only as finely as a few hundredths of a second. Molecular reactions occur in millionths of a billionth of a second, or femtoseconds. The difference between a hundredth of a second and a femtosecond is the difference between one second and 317,000 years.

A femtosecond is slow, however, compared to the time it takes an electron to revolve around the nucleus of an atom -- billionths of a billionth of a second, or attoseconds. And this is slow compared to the time it takes a nuclear reaction to happen -- trillionths of a billionth of a second, or attoseconds.

Researchers can measure reactions with a precision better than 100 attoseconds and are working on a method whose precision is a matter of zeptoseconds.

On the long end of the time scale, the average human lives about 75 years, modern Homo sapiens have existed for about 120,000 years, mammals have been around for about 200 million years, the first animals to live on dry land emerged about 350 million years ago, life first showed up on earth as single-celled organisms about 3.5 billion years ago, the solar system formed about 4.5 billion years old, and scientists estimate the age of the universe as 14 billion years. The difference between 75 years and 14 billion years is the difference between one second and just under six years.

The life of the universe is 44 million trillion times greater than one hundredth of one second. One hundredth of one second is 100 trillion times greater than the smallest amount of time scientists can measure. A lot can happen in a single second.

Next up: a sense of space.

Friday 12-17-04

Biometrics bottleneck?

It looks like an October 2005 deadline set by the U.S. Congress may be too soon for the state of biometric passport technology. In general, biometric passports contain digital images of a passport holder's face, iris and/or fingerprints, and these images would be automatically compared with the passport holder. The U.S. mandate calls for passports to contain a digital image of the holder's face. Security experts from England have warned that the technology may not be ready in time. A UK trial of biometric passport technology started in April has turned up problems with practical implementation, including speed.

Wednesday 12-15-04

It runs through a river

If you find yourself near Lake George in New York, don't be surprised if you catch a glimpse of something strange in the water. Researchers are experimenting there with a solar powered underwater vehicle that senses water quality and can operate for months by itself. Solar power is doubly appropriate for the dingy-size machine -- the self-sufficient, nonpolluting nature of the power source fits the robot's mission of monitoring fresh water contamination.

Monday 12-13-04

Big pictures

Scientists and artists are collaborating on a super-sized camera and display that will allow artists to show more digital detail in large images like landscapes and scientists to extract more information from high-resolution images like satellite pictures. The Big Picture Summit held last week kicked off plans to improve a 2.6 gigapixel camera originally designed by an artist and enlarge a Sandia National Laboratories large-screen display to 320 million pixels. The resolution of a 2.6 gigapixel camera is 433 times higher than today's high-end, 6 megapixel consumer digital cameras.

Modeling Babel

The number of languages in existence has to do with the rate that changes occur in language as it passes from generation to generation. A group of German physicists is using a computer model that simulates biological evolution to track the rise and fall of languages. The model results match real-world data that shows that languages have high rates of change, and the results show that these high rates are necessary to keep any one language from dominating.

Friday 12-10-04

Blast from the past

What does the Eiffel Tower look like to a mathematician? Researchers have found the mathematical model that yields the profile of the Eiffel Tower. The trick was digging into the historical record to find that Eiffel was concerned about wind load on the tower. The tower sports curves chosen to ensure that it would stand up to the wind.

Simple is smart

It turns out that in the brain, less structural variety means more functional diversity. Scientists have found that networks of biological neurons have fewer types of structural elements, or motifs, than randomly-formed artificial neural networks. The neural connections of these structural motifs function in several different ways. When the researchers ran an evolution simulation designed to maximize structural motifs' functions the result looked like biological neural networks, including a small world network arrangement that allows for efficient integration of information.

Wednesday 12-8-04

Warming up to Sterling and solar

A climate research review shows strong scientific community consensus that human activities are largely responsible for global warming. Meanwhile, on the ground, a Sandia National Laboratories pilot project is using the heat of concentrated sunlight to power Sterling engines. And on the photovoltaics front, promising advances include ways to convert a broader spectrum of sunlight, generate more electricity per photon and tap ambient light.

Tale's telltale signs

UK researchers have tapped automated text analysis, known for identifying authorship and untangling the origins of languages, to show early signs of Alzheimer's disease in a novelist's work.

Monday 12-6-04

Cells and magnetic fields

Magnetic and electric fields affect animal behavior like bird migration and the way sharks sense prey, but exactly how the fields interact with living beings is not yet well understood. Oxford University researchers have unearthed a clue in the biochemical reactions of bacteria, and Finish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) researchers have found a new effect in human cells.

Learning doesn't have to be so hard

The magnetic resonance imaging machines commonly found in hospitals are also making it possible to observe what happens where in the brain as people learn. A UK-German research team has proved a bit a conventional wisdom correct by showing that it is entirely possible to try too hard when learning new tasks.

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Page One

Light clock promises finer time

Physics model predicts book sales

Silicon ring boosts light chips

Molecule harvests water's hydrogen

Virtual ring eases scrolling
DNA makes nanotube transistors
Scheme simplifies quantum chips
Aligned nanotubes accommodate bone
Light writes info into atoms
See-through circuits speed up

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