August 7, 2013
A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.
Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.
But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”
This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:
1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.
2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.
3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.
4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.
5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.
6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.
7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.
8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.
9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.
10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.
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March 1, 2013
So, we’re 42 years into the War on Cancer, and while the enemy remains formidable, our strategy is shifting into yet another phase. We’ve been through the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat–surgery–carpet bombing–radiation–and chemical warfare–chemotherapy.
Now the fight is about stealth. Instead of concentrating on blasting away at cancer cells, or poisoning them, you’re more likely to hear cancer scientists talk about “Trojan horses” or “cloaking strategies” or “tricking” the immune system. All are cell-level ploys hatched through nanomedicine–medical treatment gone very, very small. How small? At the nano level, about 5,000 particles would be as wide as a human hair.
We are not the enemy
Okay, so we’re in beyond comprehension territory here. But let’s not get hung up on size; let’s focus on deception.
The latest example of microscopic trickery was laid out last week a paper from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the most appealing aspects of nanomedicine is that it allows scientists to deliver drugs directly to a tumor instead flooding the whole body with chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the immune system sees the nanoparticles as invaders and tries to clear them away before they can go to work on the tumor cells.
The trick was to make the “sentry cells” of the body’s immune system think that the drug-delivering nanoparticles were native cells, that they weren’t intruders. The researchers did this by attaching to each nanoparticle a protein that’s present in every cell membrane. And put simply, it sent out a “don’t eat me” message to the body’s guard cells.
The result, at least in mice, is that this technique dramatically improved the success rate of two different kinds of nanoparticles–one that delivered tumor-shrinking drugs and one filled with dye that would help doctors capture images of cancer cells.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, scientists at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston announced that they had found their own way of letting nanoparticles fool the immune system. They developed a procedure to physically remove the membranes from active white blood cells and drape them over nanoparticles. And that “cloaking strategy” was enough to keep proteins that activate the immune system from doing their job and ordering it to go repel the invaders. The researchers believe it will one day be possible to harvest a patient’s own white blood cells and use them to cloak the nanoparticles, making it that much more likely that they’ll get to their target without being attacked.
As magical as all this can sound, nanomedicine is not without risk. Much more research needs to be done on the long-term impact of nanoparticles inside the body. Could they accumulate in healthy body tissues? And if they do, what effect would it have? Can those tiny particles now seemingly so full of promise, eventually turn toxic?
Still plenty of questions about nanomedicine, but it’s feeling more like an answer.
Here are six other ways in which thinking small is moving medicine forward:
1) But first, remove all jewelery: At the University of Minnesota, scientists are experimenting with nanoparticles and magnets to fight lung cancer. They’ve developed an aerosol inhalant that a patient can draw into his or her lungs with a few deep breaths. And that carries iron oxide nanoparticles to tumors inside the lungs. Then, by waving a magnet outside the body, they can agitate the particles so that they heat up enough to kill cancerous cells around them.
2) A new shell game: A team of engineers at UCLA has developed tiny capsules--about half the size of the smallest bacterium–that are able to carry proteins to cancer cells and stunt the growth of tumors. And the nanoscale shells degrade harmlessly in non-cancerous cells.
3) Gold’s fool: And at Northwestern, researchers say they’ve found a way to use gold nanoparticles to effectively fight lymphoma. They fool the lymphoma cells into thinking they contain high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which the cells need to survive. The gold nanoparticles bind to the cancer cells and starve them of cholesterol.
4) Way better than Krazy Glue: In Germany, scientists have invented a paste made of nanoparticles that they say can makes broken bones repair themselves faster. The paste contains two growth-factor genes that enter cells and accelerate bone healing.
5) Alas, it can’t help you find meds you dropped on the floor: While technically not nanomedicine, a small smart pill that tracks if people are taking their medications correctly could soon be on the market. Approved by the FDA last year, the pill contains a tiny sensor that interacts with stomach fluid and sends a signal to a patch on a person’s body. Taken with a real medication, the smart pill transmits information about the other med, particularly when it was ingested, to a smartphone. But it also sends physiological data, including heart rate and activity level.
6) Body heat gone bad: Along the same lines, firemen in Australia have started taking a tiny capsule to protect them from being overcome by heat. Sensors in the pill are able to take their core body temperatures in real time and relay that data to a smart phone. And that has led to changes in firefighters’ work patterns, including the length of time they are exposed to blazes.
Video bonus: Still not clear on nanomedicine? Here’s a TED talk on how it’s being used to fight cancer by Mark Davis, a leading expert on the subject and a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology.
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December 27, 2012
In the spirit of the post-holiday season, allow me to present my final list of 2012: six innovators who are pushing technology in fresh directions, some to solve stubborn problems, others to make our lives a little fuller.
Watch for more from all of them in the new year.
1. Keep your hands off my robot: We’ve all seem videos of adorably cute robots,, but when you actually have to work with one, they apparently can be less than lovable. That’s where Leila Takayama comes in. She’s a social scientist with Willow Garage, a San Francisco area company that develops robots, and her job is to figure out how to get humans to connect with mechanical co-workers.
She’s seen cases where robots have gotten on people’s nerves so much that they park them in a closet. One of the keys, she’s found, is to make robots seem more fallible. Like having them shake their heads when they fail at something. Oddly enough, Takayama says, a reaction like that can make a robot “seem more competent.”
She’s worked on robots designed to help elderly people, recommending that the number of cameras on the robots’ heads be reduced because too many could make people uneasy. More recently, she’s been analyzing a robot called Project Texai, which is operated directly by humans, rather than running on its own. And she’s discovered some interesting things, such as how people who operate the robot don’t like it when other people stand too close to it or touch its buttons. “There comes a point for a lot of people when they feel as if the robot is their body.”
Another key question she’s wrestling with: Is it better to have a robot at eye level with a person when he or she is sitting or standing?
2. One day even lamp posts won’t be dumb: As Chris Harrison sees it, the world is full of surfaces, so why are we spending so much time touching little screens or tapping on cramped keyboards. Harrison, a researcher at Carnegie-Mellon University, has been a leader in finding ways to turn everyday objects–a couch, a doorknob, a glass of water–into interactive devices.
His approach is to use the natural conductivity of objects–or attach electrodes to those that aren’t–and connect them to a controller that responds to different types of signals. A couch, for instance, could be wired to turn on the TV if someone sits on it in a certain spot. Or you could turn off all the lights in your place by twisting the doorknob or tapping on a table. Almost anything with a surface could be connected to a computer and allow you to make things happen with simple gestures or touches.
3. Finally, a tatt for Grandma: There’s no questions that health tech is booming–although that’s not always a good thing considering that health apps don’t always live up to their hype. But Nanshu Lu, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, has created a product that could have a huge impact on how we monitor what’s going on inside our bodies.
She has refined what are known as “epidermal electronics,” but basically they’re electronic tattoos that can track your vital signs, including your temperature, heart beat and brain and muscle activity. Lu has managed to develop ultra-thin, water-soluble silicon patches that contain tiny sensors and can actually bond with skin. No adhesives necessary. They last through showers and exercise, never losing their ability to gather your most personal data. The hope is that one day her tattoos will be able to treat diseases.
4. In phones we trust: When you’re out on the road or on vacation in a new place, it can get frustrating to have to search for info on your smart phone. Really, if your phone is so smart, shouldn’t it be able to anticipate your needs and feed you info as you need it, based on where you are and what time of day it is?
That’s the premise behind the mobile apps software developed by Flybits, brainchild of Hossein Rahnama, director of the Digital Media Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Flybits is already being used at several Canadian airports and Toronto’s transit system to coordinate with a traveler’s itinerary and provide information that’s both personalized and contextually relevant, such as directions to the car rental counters or the gate to your connecting flight after you get off a plane.
The company has also developed software it calls Flybits Lite, which lets you know friends and other contacts who are taking in the same concert or watching the same movie you are.
5. Do you really want to know how many times you’ve ordered donuts?: It would be easy to dismiss the Memoto Camera as the epitome of 21st century self-indulgence. It’s a postage-stamp sized wearable camera that documents your life by taking two photos every minute, or roughly 2,000 pictures a day.
For most of us that’s one big load of digital tedium. Martin Kallstrom, the man behind the concept and CEO of the Swedish startup Memoto, would acknowledge as much. But he also knows how many memorable moments are missed–”the day your daughter took her first step, or that night you laughed the night away with friends.”
Clearly, he’s not alone in believing that a “lifelogging” camera is an idea whose time has come. He and his partners had hoped to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter. By the time the fundraising campaign ended earlier this month, online backers had pledged more than $550,000.
6. And no, it won’t fetch you a beer: For several years now, Steve Castellotti has been all about brain-powered machines. But his latest innovation, Puzzlebox Orbit, is taking the concept to the public. It’s a little helicopter you control with your mind.
Given that this is not something we do every day, it comes enclosed in a protective sphere so the rotor blades don’t chop up the furniture. It also comes with a device called the Puzzlebox Pyramid, which serves as a combination base/remote control unit for the chopper. But since your mind is doing the controlling, the Pyramid’s role is to wirelessly transmit your brain activity from a headset you wear. It also lets you know how you’re doing–a circle of LED lights on the Pyramid’s face is designed to reflect your level of concentration or relaxation.
Thanks to a funding boost from Kickstarter, Castellotti and his chief engineer and partner Hao Zhang plan to start selling the Puzzlebox Orbit for about $90 next year. But Castellotti believes it won’t become just another pricey tool that ends up in the basement. He sees it as teaching tool that can be used in schools to introduce kids to neuroscience and also as a way for people for people to start to become familiar with the potential of biofeedback.
To spur that process, the company will make its source code and hardware schematics available and encourage developers to hack away. For example, says Castellotti, a “motivated experimenter” might hack the Puzzlebox system so his TV would automatically change channels when his concentration level stays too low for too long. Say so long to vegging out.
Video bonus: Take at look at Chris Harrison’s most recent project, called Skinput, It involves the use of an armband with bio-acoustic sensors that can turn a body into a touch screen.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a Puzzlebox Orbit tutorial that was part of the Kickstarter pitch for its nifty brain-controlled toy.
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December 21, 2012
Earlier this week I rolled out the first half of a list of a dozen of the more innovative ideas of 2012.
We’re not talking Google Glass or invisibility cloaks or other flashes from the future. No, these are less splashy things, yet, in their own ways, no less inspired and probably more likely to become a part of our daily lives. They’re the creations of people joined under a common maxim, namely, “There’s gotta be a better way.”
So, muffled drum roll, please…the Fresh Ideas of 2012, Part 2:
7) While you’re at it, can you pick up a paper and some gum: Yes, suitcases with wheels were a big breakthrough, but Madrid designer Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez says why stop there? Why should we still have lug luggage?
So he has invented a new kind of suitcase he calls Hop!. What makes it so special is that it follows you around like the most loyal of pets.
Well, technically it follows your smart phone. The suitcase contains three receivers that communicate, via Bluetooth, with an app on your smart phone and, put simply, it follows that signal. The same controller also directs a dual caterpillar track-type system on the bottom of the suitcase to move it along. If the signal gets lost, the bag locks itself and vibrates its owner’s phone.
Of course, there are issues to resolve–think of the security challenges of an airport full of roaming luggage–but Gonzalez deserves props for giving us hope that we’ll one day break loose from our bags.
8) Anticipation was so overrated: It never really made much sense: In a world increasingly geared to instant gratification, we waited for ketchup. It took forever to come out of the bottle, but we seemed willing to live with that.
Not Kripa Varanasi and his team of MIT engineers. They’ve developed a substance called LiquiGlide, which, when coating the inside surface of bottles, helps ketchup and mustard slide right out. Now this may seem a trivial modern indulgence, but, as the LiquiGlide team estimates, roughly a million tons of food could avoid being tossed in the garbage if it wasn’t getting stuck in bottles. So it’s only right that we go with the flow.
9) Which gives new meaning to “All you can eat”: While we’re on the subject of food waste, let’s give it up for WikiCells. These are the edible membranes created by Harvard professor David Edwards and French designer Francois Azambourg that encase food and liquids. In other words, it’s packaging you can eat.
The membranes, meant to mimic the skin of a grape, are made of food particles, such as cheese or dried fruit, and are held together by calcium or magnesium ions. So far, the pair have conjured up a tomato membrane containing gazpacho, an orange one filled with orange juice, a chocolate version holding hot chocolate. They’ve even created a grape-flavored pouch filled with wine. The goal is to do away with plastic bottles and packaging. Let’s raise our membranes to that.
10) Talk to the glove: Four Ukrainian students have designed gloves that can communicate with a smart phone and, as a result, developed a way for people with speech and hearing disabilities to talk to people who don’t use or understand sign language.
Their invention, which they call Enable Talk, works like this: The gloves are lined with 15 flex sensors in their fingers that can recognize sign language and transmit the message to a smart phone where it’s converted to text. The phone then says the words that the gloves sent.
11) So now we can stay focused on not changing the oil: If you’re like me, you have no idea when you last checked your tire pressure. It’s a blind faith thing. As long as the tires keep rolling, no need to look for that little gauge you bought many tires ago.
Goodyear understands this so they’ve gone ahead and invented a tire that takes us out the equation. It does this by inflating itself. A regulator in the tire senses when the pressure drops below a pre-set point and opens to allow air flow into the pumping tube. As the tire rolls, deformation flattens the tube, pushing air into the tire cavity. And we’ll no longer have to worry about keeping our tires pumped up. Not that we ever did.
12) No longer will a charger come between you and your phone: A few years ago the 11-year-old daughter of Wake Forest University scientist David Carroll wondered aloud if a cell phone could be charged solely by human body heat. Good question, thought Carroll, and earlier this year he and his team came up with an answer.
They unveiled Power Felt, a fabric that uses nanotechnology to convert heat into electricity. It’s still in the early stages of development but initial results suggest they’re on to something big–an inexpensive material that could use the heat from your car’s engine to run its AC and radio and the sun to power your home’s appliances and yes, your own personal warmth to keep your cell phone alive. Thanks, Dad.
Video bonus: While we’re talking about nifty ideas whose time is about to come, it’s pretty certain that Samsung will come out with a bendable phone next year. As you can see in this video, it passes the hammer test.
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December 18, 2012
Within the next week or so, the year-end reviews will start rolling out like strips of prize tickets in a games arcade.
Most will revisit events that we’ll all remember, albeit some we’d rather forget. My own list is a little different. I want to look back at ideas that haven’t received a lot of attention, but struck me as being particularly clever and ripe with potential. Chances are you haven’t heard of many of them. But chances also are you will.
Here’s Part 1 of my list of a dozen ideas whose time is about to come:
1) Sadly, it does not say, “You’re getting warmer.”: Are you flummoxed by how often you lose things–your keys, your TV remote, your glasses. Have I got an invention for you. It’s called Stick-N-Find and it works like this.
You attach one of the Bluetooth-powered stickers to whatever object you’re tired of losing, then download the Stick-N-Find smartphone app. The app will tell you how far away you are from the missing item–it has a range of 100 feet–and you can set off a buzzer in the sticker. If you’re in the dark, you can trigger a blinking red light. Where has this been all my life?
2) Will it do nails? It may be a while before we see it in action, but Dyson, the British company that makes those high-powered Airblade hand dryers, has filed a patent for a tap that would wash your hands with water, then dry them without you having to move an inch. Put your hands under the tap and sensors release water. Move them slightly so that they’re under two connected tubes and warm, dry air shoots out. You’re wet, you’re dry, you’re outta there.
3) All hail plastic: Using nanotechnology, a team of researchers at Wake Forest University has developed a plastic material that glows like a soft white light when an electric current is run through it. Its inventors say it’s as efficient as an LED light and twice as efficient as a fluorescent bulb. But what makes it so innovative is that because it’s plastic, it can be made into any shape. Imagine a soft glowing ceiling panel replacing those hideous fluorescent lights above your head.
4) And all hail fewer jerks on planes: Gemma Jensen used to be a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic so she has seen more than her share of airline passengers doing the jerk. I’m talking about that moment during long flights when just as you’re starting to nod off, your head tips forward. End of snooze.
So Jensen has invented the J-Pillow. It’s a step up from the familiar U-shaped pillow that keeps your head from falling from side to side, but can’t stop it from dropping forward. Her pillow comes with a “J-hook” that goes around the neck and under a person’s chin. Doctors seem to like it because it keeps your spine aligned while you’re sleeping on a plane. Which explains why a panel just chose it Great Britain’s Best Consumer Invention of 2012.
5) Cause that’s how they roll: Two former MIT students have designed a camera that bounces and rolls. Who needs a bouncing camera, you ask? How about firefighters who have to see inside a building or a swat team looking for hostages? That’s what Francisco Aguilar and Dave Young had in mind when they invented their ball-shaped device outfitted with six wide-angle cameras packed inside a rubber casing.
The idea is that first responders could toss it into a space they need to survey. Its cameras could snap pictures every second as it rolls, then send them wirelessly to a smartphone where they would be stitched together to provide a 360-degree view.
6) Can I make Kit Kat bars in that thing?: There’s nothing new about 3D printers, but Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has come up with a novel way to give its students access to the nifty replicating devices. It has set up something it calls DreamVendor, which it has described as a “vending machine with infinite inventory.” What it is is a station of four 3D printers where engineering students can load in their designs and wait for the printers to do their magic. It’s free for the students, but it’s not hard to imagine some entrepreneur refining the idea of vending machines that print stuff.
Video bonus: And under the category of an idea whose time is still coming, there’s the LuminAR lamp system invented in MIT’s Media Lab a few years ago. Still being refined, it allows you to screw a LuminAR device–it’s combo projector/camera/wireless computer–into a standard light socket and turn your desk into an interactive surface. See for yourself.
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