Sci-Fi Movie Review: Gravity

[Gravity. Released October 4, 2013. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Writers Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron and George Clooney. DVD/Blu-Ray not yet released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

As the final credits rolled on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a woman in the row in front of me stood up and swaying slightly, grabbed the back of the seat in front of her. She turned to her companion and said, “That was terrifying.” Indeed. Not since the consciousness altering space scenes in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey have we felt the reality of space so intensely. The technical achievements of this movie are of epic proportions and they serve the purposes of storytelling, which is to say the special effects don’t run away with the movie. That alone is a heckuva an achievement. The editing, directing and acting (what there is of it) are first rate. I’m not surprised that Gravity has become a hit. It will almost certainly be nominated for a set of Academy Awards, including the “Best Picture” category.

That makes my realization all the more unfortunate: I’ve seen too many space movies to enjoy this one like most people. More »

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The IPCC Report 2013: the same and much more

Tuvalu island nation under water
Proposed new colony for climate change deniers – located in the Tuvalu islands.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has assembled another massive research ruction from more than 800 contributors (professionals in various aspects of climatology) and issued its fifth report on the state of global climate change. This has received some attention from the media; you may have noticed it. Long before it came out, the climate deniers were already throwing propaganda spaghetti against the (presumed) wall of evidence. They’re still hurling, with predictable results – an informational mess.

In general, the media leaves the impression that the report is similar to the ones that came before it, but a little worse. This is not entirely false, however by some degrees it is a misrepresentation (literally and figuratively). Most of that impression derives from this report’s elevation of the probability of global warming caused by human activity from 90% (2007) to greater than 95% (2013). To many, especially in the media, this seems like a minor difference. In the real world of scientific evidence, this is a very significant step. As people should know, the last ten percent is the hardest to achieve (in just about everything). In this case, it requires far more convincing evidence to claim that instead of “very likely” humans are causing global warming; it is “extremely likely.” Very likely means that there is room for error in the way human factors are measured. Extremely likely means that only some massive unknown factor could change the assessment. More »

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Sci-Fi Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

[Star Trek into Darkness. Released May 2013. Directed by J.J. Abrams, Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

For those who love fiery explosions, savage thudding beatings, and pacing so fast even the story is expendable – this is the heart of the new Star Trek Into Darkness. It really, truly is a slammer-jammer. For those whose tastes do not run in these directions, or who have fond memories of the Gene Roddenberry inspired Star Treks that have gone before – I think the most trenchant observation of the new way of doing Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams way, is that it is a touch too clever by a factor of, say, 2.718. More »

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Mini-brain or cerebral organoid?

The MINI-BRAIN!
A cerebral organoid with brown pigment spots of retinal development…Credit: OAW

If ever there was a nomenclature to stir up false images and expectations, it’s “mini-brain” (or miniature brain). It’s real enough, a pea-sized structure containing stem cell based neurons that has some capacity to function like brain tissue. Developed by scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Vienna), it seems to have two public faces (if you’ll pardon the expression for a brain thing). One is the whole “mini-brain” shtick, in which various neuroscientists and especially science reporting keep repeating the word “brain” as if the cells in question constitute any kind of brain. The other face is to present the development as a kind of specialized petri-dish, something that can be used to culture and experiment with various kinds of neurons and other brain tissue. One of the faces is reasonably honest and promising; the other is about as trustworthy as a used car salesman’s. More »

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Two big steps forward for quantum teleportation

Few things will tie your cerebral lobes in a knot like quantum mechanics, and even then, fewer things are as astonishing as quantum teleportation – the “transmission” of quantum values (qubits) over a distance – not feet but hundreds of kilometers (or miles). The research into this potential form of communication has been going on for a couple of decades, and advances seem to come with some regularity. (Two SciTechStory articles, one from 2010 and the next from 2012 chronicle this.)

[SciTechStory: Quantum teleportation over 16 km in open air]
[SciTechStory: Quantum Teleportation: Step 4, 150 Kilometers 1280]
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Ambient backscatter: Energy for electronic devices – no wires, no batteries, no solar

Ambient backscatter devices
Ambient Backscatter devices (prototype)…..Credit: University of Washington

It’s true. There is now a way to power electronic devices without plugging them into the electrical grid (no wires), without solar panels, and without installing a battery. Engineers at the University of Washington (Seattle, USA) created a new wireless communication system that can interact with each other, powered by the energy they can absorb from (leach or more accurately piggyback on) the constant flow of TV, cellphone, and other radio frequency (RF) signals that surround us.

The researchers call it ambient backscatter. This means the devices – receiver and transmitter – pick up existing transmissions, typically TV because they tend to be high energy, and after inserting their own information into the signal, redirect or reflect it to another similar device. The antennas in the prototype devices (see picture above) currently tune to UHF TV signals (539 MHz in this case). On-board electronics uses the ambient energy and re-broadcasts it as its own signal. As one of the researchers put it, “We can repurpose wireless signals that are already around us into both a source of power and a communications medium.” Who said there is no free lunch? More »

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Cellulosic ethanol: A production chimera?

On paper, it seems logical that as a source for a replacement to gasoline, woody type material should be ideal. After all, there are a lot of plants with woody material – trees (all kinds of trees), bushes, and reeds – in short, the most visible bulk of plant life on this planet. Then too, a woody source for fuel wouldn’t directly compete with human food supply, which unfortunately is the case for turning corn or sugar cane into ethanol. It seemed so right that scientists worked on the process of converting cellulosic (woody) material into ethanol for decades, many decades. They came up with ‘limited’ success.

The word ‘limited’ is crucial. It turned out that cellulose, which does not contain a readily accessible form of the carbohydrates that convert to ethanol, is exceedingly difficult to break down efficiently. By the year 2000 or so, there were several working methods for converting wood products into ethanol, but each of them had either technical (chemical) problems, or more commonly, practical (production) problems. While the processes could make the conversion they were often too difficult, too complex or simply too costly to be competitive with ethanol production from corn and other food stock materials – much less competitive with refinery produced gasoline. More »

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Pop! goes the Hyperloop

Hyperloop
Elon Musk celebrating his Hyperloop (in the future)…Credit: Elon Musk

If you’re old enough, you might remember a messaging system used in commercial buildings that had pipes or tubes running all over the place. You put paper items in a capsule, popped the capsule in a tube-port and SCHWUPP!, air suction whisked the dingus off to some destination. Banks still use this system to deal with customer transactions in a drive-thru. I bring this up because from appearances, Elon Musk wants to implement high speed transportation with a similar system. He calls it the Hyperloop. You may have seen the hype part of it.

Elon Musk is by all accounts a man of vision, at least where technology is concerned. His name comes up in conversations about the privatization of space (he’s CEO of SpaceX, one of the main competitors). He shows up in controversial pieces in the NY Times (among others) concerning his car company, Tesla Motors. He also chairs a major residential solar panel operation called Solar City. I won’t go into all of his involvements, except to say they establish him with a certain amount of cred when it comes to putting his money where his mouth is located; and it seems his mouth is mostly located in the future.
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A new twist for graphene: Trying to solve the bandgap problem

Although it’s like a sheet of paper (if paper could be only one atom thick), but “Do not bend, fold, mutilate or spindle” does not apply to sheets of graphene. Scientists all over the world are doing all of the above and a lot more to graphene in search of its many surprising properties. From time to time, it’s instructive to dip into this research to see how the saga of graphene is developing since its ‘rediscovery’ in 2004.

As a sheet of pure carbon, graphene has some very tantalizing electronic properties. For one thing, electrons can zip through it at almost the speed of light – about 100 times faster than they can through the usual semiconductor material, silicon. It’s thin, strong, flexible – all the things an electrical engineer would want in an electronics material. Except for one thing, there is no way to stop the flow of electrons through graphene. In effect, there is no on or off switch.

Graphene lacks a bandgap, a range of energy (something like layers) in which various states of the electron flow can exist (from no flow to full speed). A big bandgap is typical of an insulating material – no electron flow. A medium bandgap is a semiconductor, where depending on conditions there may be more or less electron flow (or on/off). No bandgap is typical of a conductive material, which of course, applies to graphene. Without a bandgap – the essential property of semiconductors such as silicon – there is no easy way to control or modulate electron current. It’s kind of a showstopper for a potential titan of electronic materials.

That problem doesn’t stop scientists. It challenges them (especially when fame and fortune might attend a solution). This means that research on simulating, stimulating and otherwise jury-rigging bandgap properties in graphene has proliferated. One such attempt, which seems rather obvious, is to put two layers of graphene together (bilayer) leaving a small distance between them – et voila! Bandgap. Only it didn’t work, and nobody knew why. More »

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C. elegans: Death comes creeping on a blue wave

Blue death of C. elegans
The blue fluorescence marks the path of death….Credit D. Gems

“Death comes creeping” are the opening words of song, poetry and many a sermon. They’re words definitely not associated with science, but science also investigates death. It is, after all, a natural phenomenon. In fact, for the common roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, death comes creeping is not just a metaphor; it comes creeping on a wave of blue light. There is a bit of a story here, having to do with scientific serendipity and what may turn out to be an important insight about the progression of death. It involves a PhD student, Cassandra Coburn of University College London, the roundworm, and blue fluorescence.

The worm, C. elegans, along with fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) is one of the most studied creatures on the planet. That’s mainly because it’s simple (mouth, pharynx, intestine, gonad and surrounding tissue), breeds prolifically (4 days per generation), and can be frozen (live) for storage. This humble worm has already contributed mightily to scientific knowledge, including on the subjects of death or fluorescence: The 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the work of Bremmer, Horvitz and Sulston on the genetics of organ development and programmed cell death; and in 2008 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Martin Chalfie’s work on green fluorescent protein. More »

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