Brainy Quote of the Day

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Directed Evolution...

© AP The prize was awarded on Tuesday in Helsinki
Topics: Biology, Diversity, Diversity in Science, Engineering, Research, Women in Science

US engineer Frances Arnold has won the Millennium Technology Prize for pioneering "directed evolution".

By driving a sped-up version of natural selection in the lab, the method has created new enzymes for industrial catalysts, household detergents, and even to make rocket fuel from sugar.

The €1m (£0.8m) prize is awarded biennially and Prof Arnold is the first female winner in its 12-year history.

It recognises developments that "change people's lives for the better".

The Technology Academy Finland, which presents the prize, said the deliberations began in November 2015 but that "there was only one outstanding candidate".

Prof Arnold, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), spoke to the BBC before travelling to Helsinki for Tuesday's ceremony.

She said the "basic concept" of using evolution to create better enzymes emerged from her laboratory more than 20 years ago.

BBC News: Evolutionary engineer wins tech prize, Jonathan Webb

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Perching Robots...

D.W.A.R.F.s: Drones Wirelessly Automated to Retrieve Forensics, Marvel Agents of Shield Wiki
Topics: Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics

Researchers have designed a small, flying robot that can perch on a wide range of surfaces before taking flight once more. The development is highlighted in the 20 May issue of Science. Aerial robots can serve many valuable purposes, such as surveying a site after a natural disaster or detecting hazardous chemicals — but the act of flight is energy-intensive. For animals that fly, such as birds and insects, a key way to conserve energy is to find a place to perch. "Unfortunately, today's flying microrobots run out of energy quickly," explained Moritz Alexander Graule of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We want to keep them aloft longer without draining too much energy. For our robot, the perching method we developed requires about 1,000 times less energy than flying, thus prolonging the potential mission time."

AAAS: Bio-inspired Robot Perches, Resumes Flight, Michelle Hampson

Monday, May 23, 2016

Physics Identities...

Image Source: Physics Today home page
Topics: Commentary, Diversity, Diversity in Science, Mark G. Raizen, Women in Science

This was an article that gave me a slight chuckle (the obvious double entendre of superhero secret identities and by inference of the topic trigonometric identities we all used to have to memorize). I can personally attest there are four major epochs (my reference) one goes through in the field:

"I major in physics";
"I 'majored' in physics";
"I work in a 'physics-related' field" also "my physics background helps me in my current field";
"I am a physicist."

Mark G. Raizen, one of the smartest physicist I know doing cutting edge research in atomic physics and quantum optics, was once a theoretical physics grad student under Steven Weinberg before he changed focus to being an experimental physicist. (Trivia: he even has a Wiki page on Mark once wished me a happy birthday on Facebook, referring to me as a "fellow physicist." I was at the time pursuing my Graduate Certificate in Microelectronics and Photonics from Stevens University I've since completed. I start again with the graduate physics department in the fall, as I only have 18 hours to a full Masters degree. With this background and my current industry focus on Implant, I hope to go as far as my preparation takes me.

I admit, I was flattered and honored, thinking my diversions - the military, industry, selling home security systems (long story) and high school physics teacher wasn't a "pure" path, and thus I bounced quite liberally between #2 and #3. Though he said it quite casually, it did knock me for a loop and change my own self-perceptions. Mark and Alicia Raizen's friendship has been inspirational (I met Alicia on an appointment with the aforementioned security company; then Mark who took me on a tour of his laboratory with his graduate students at UT Austin). I admit some evolution had to take place for me to get to and accept the fourth epoch. From that point and ever since, I have been referring to myself publicly, and proudly... as a physicist.

A series of interviews with undergraduates yields some surprising insights into how the students come to think of themselves as physicists.

Are you a physicist? How did you become a physicist? The answers to those questions are not as straightforward as one might think. The routes into physics are as diverse as physicists themselves. The sources of our early affinities for physics range from childhood fascinations with the universe to that introductory physics class that made you ask more questions than you could answer.

Acquiring a professional identity is a fundamental part of any student’s development.1 Students are significantly more likely to persist with a program in physics—or any other discipline—when they identify themselves as students of that discipline.2 However, developing an identity as a professional physicist and member of the physics community is a complicated process that can take a long time and involve overcoming multiple barriers.

To examine how identities change over time, we studied the experiences of 20 undergraduate physics students (3 women and 17 men) at Kansas State University over six semesters beginning with their modern physics class. Seven of the students remained in the study until the end. We interviewed each student several times, focusing on their developing experiences with physics and their perceptions of what it means to be a physicist. Our methods are described in the box on page 48.

We tracked changes in their perceptions over time as they engaged in more physics practices, such as upper-division coursework and undergraduate research. Students’ experiences with different authentic physics practices changed their perceptions of what it means to be a physicist. We used those changing perceptions as a starting point to investigate the students’ evolving physics identities.

Physics Today: Developing Physics Identities, Paul W. Irving and Eleanor C. Sayre

Friday, May 13, 2016

More Terrifying Than Foreigners...

Image Source:
Topics: Calculus, Differential Equations, Diversity, Politics

I think someone created a meme on Facebook from this incident. A little poking around the Internet revealed this WaPo article:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater – a look he would later describe as “simple elegance” – but something about him didn’t seem right to her.

She decided to try out some small talk.

Is Syracuse home? She asked.

No, he replied curtly.

He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused — perhaps too laser-focused — on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

Skipping further into the article:

And then the big reveal: The woman wasn’t really sick at all! Instead this quick-thinking traveler had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something.

That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering, possibly the details of a plot to destroy the dozens of innocent lives aboard American Airlines Flight 3950. She may have felt it her duty to alert the authorities just to be safe. The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

The curly-haired man laughed.

He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language, or even some special secret terrorist code. They were math.

Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.

Had the crew or security members perhaps quickly googled this good-natured, bespectacled passenger before waylaying everyone for several hours, they might have learned that he — Guido Menzio — is a young but decorated Ivy League economist. And that he’s best known for his relatively technical work on search theory, which helped earn him a tenured associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania as well as stints at Princeton and Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Guido Menzio is a recipient of the prestigious Carlo Alberto medal, given to the best Italian economist under 40.

Did I mention he's Italian (not Arab/Near Eastern)? There are myriad other ethnic groups with "swarthy" complexions on the planet. Besides, here in the US, the threat of terrorism statistically may be of the homegrown and non-swarthy variety.

Majoring in a STEM field yields more than its own stereotypes: dorky, nerdy, socially awkward (I'm talking to you, "Big Bang Theory"), unattractive, but TERRORIST? I admit, the course we all affectionately called "DIFFY Qs" was daunting, but it didn't rewire any of us for violence. Have we gotten this addled in the brain?

So, in the era of not wanting actual experts in government or well, ANYTHING; in the era of racism, xenophobia, bombast, blatant lying, homophobia and misogyny as crass, carnival-barking political tactics (applicable when you've subordinated the processes a republic uses selecting its leaders into "reality TV," from a public caricature having more in common with "A Pimp Named Slickback") appealing to our lesser angels, we are SHOCKED that mathematics has literally become "Thoughtcrime"? Instead of a "shining city on a hill," we've become a dung heap infested with maggots in a junkyard - a joke! "Idiocracy" as a comedy was placed 500 years hence. That Apocalypse is now. All the hand-wringing about this being a strange election cycle is now solved. After telling Gorbachev to "tear down that wall," we're apparently intent on building another more lasting monument in the thick mortar paste of breathtaking stupidity. Sadly, the minions of this effort are PROUD of who and what they DON'T know. For them, ignorance is not just bliss: it's a belief system. And, you cannot explain science, mathematics, history, the economy or climate change... to a cult.

Rising xenophobia stoked by the presidential campaign, he (Guido) suggested, may soon make things worse for people who happen to look a little other-ish.

Washington Post:
Ivy League economist ethnically profiled, interrogated for doing math on American Airlines flight
Catherine Rampell

Blog break for ten days. Back on 23 May.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


ExoMars 2016 liftoff - ESA
Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, ESA, Mars, Planetary Science

This was obviously in March, but we're five months from the actual encounter with the red planet. I'll keep up with any updates and note progress and hopefully, a successful planetary landing.

The first of two joint European Space Agency (ESA)-Roscosmos missions to Mars has begun a seven-month journey to the Red Planet, where it will address unsolved mysteries of the planet’s atmosphere that could indicate present-day geological — or even biological — activity.

The Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli entry, descent, and landing demonstrator lifted off on a Proton-M rocket operated by Russia’s Roscosmos at 05:31 a.m. EDT (09:31 GMT) March 14 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

The payload fairing was released following separation of Proton’s first and second stages. The third stage separated nearly 10 minutes after liftoff.

The Breeze-M upper stage, with ExoMars attached, then completed a series of four burns before the spacecraft was released at 4:13 p.m. EDT (20:13 GMT).

Signals from the spacecraft, received at ESA’s control center in Darmstadt, Germany via the Malindi ground tracking station in Africa at 5:29 p.m. EDT (21:29 GMT), confirmed that the launch was fully successful and the spacecraft is in good health.

The orbiter’s solar wings have also now unfolded and the craft is on its way to Mars.

Astronomy: ExoMars sets off to solve the Red Planet’s mysteries

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nano Thermometer...

Alexis Vallée-Bélisle and his research team have developed DNA-based thermometers that allow the measurement of temperature at the nanoscale. Design: Kotkoa.
Topics: Biology, DNA, Nanotechnology

Researchers have known for more than 60 years now that DNA molecules unfold when heated and refold when cooled down again. More recently they also discovered that living organisms employ biomolecules such as proteins or RNA (a molecule similar to DNA) as nanothermometers thanks to this unfolding and folding. “Inspired by these natural nanothermometers, we have now created various DNA structures that can fold and unfold at specifically defined temperatures,” explains team leader Alexis Vallée-Bélisle.

The team used the simple Watson–Crick base pair code of DNA and the so-called Hoogsteen interactions to create their DNA structures. The good thing about DNA is that its chemistry is relatively simple and programmable, says team member David Garreau. “DNA is made from four different nucleotide molecules, A, C, G and T. Nucleotide A binds weakly to nucleotide T, whereas nucleotide C binds strongly to nucleotide G. Using these simple rules, we were able to create DNA structures that can be programmed to fold and unfold at specific temperatures.”

Nanotech Web: DNA makes tiny thermometer, Belle Dumé

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Image Source: Pics About Space
Topics: Einstein, FTL, General Relativity, Star Trek

For the record: \\//_. Now that my "Trek creds" have been established...

Gedanken is a German word for "thought." It is often colloquially defined along with the word experiment, which is where a lot of the notions of Special and General Relativity took place in Einstein's mind; his innate ability to conceptualize a tough idea.

It is also by definition, an experiment that is impractical to carry out. Part of it being impractical is the incredible energies that would be needed to propel a star ship to even 0.10 c, or in Trek parlance: "impulse." An aircraft carrier is ~64,000 metric tons (I'm using it as my "Enterprise," which is supposed to be pretty big). That's 64,000,000 kilograms. Simply multiply it by 0.10 x 3.0 x 108 m/s2 this will give you the energy output in Joules: 1.92 x 1015. The PLANET in 2013 generated 5.67 x 1020 Joules.

Part of the constant research is that sometimes what you're looking for may not be found, but the techniques you use in any analysis may have an application in areas you may not have imagined. As such, it becomes a part of the research one can reference and build on, thereby increasing the overall knowledge of a subject area.

Warp drives are very interesting configurations in general relativity: At least theoretically, they provide a way to travel at superluminal speeds, albeit at the cost of requiring exotic matter to exist as solutions of Einstein’s equations. However, even if one succeeded in providing the necessary exotic matter to build them, it would still be necessary to check whether they would survive to the switching on of quantum effects. Semiclassical corrections to warp-drive geometries have been analyzed only for eternal warp-drive bubbles traveling at fixed superluminal speeds. Here, we investigate the more realistic case in which a superluminal warp drive is created out of an initially flat spacetime. First of all we analyze the causal structure of eternal and dynamical warp-drive spacetimes. Then we pass to the analysis of the renormalized stress-energy tensor (RSET) of a quantum field in these geometries. While the behavior of the RSET in these geometries has close similarities to that in the geometries associated with gravitational collapse, it shows dramatic differences too. On one side, an observer located at the center of a superluminal warp-drive bubble would generically experience a thermal flux of Hawking particles. On the other side, such Hawking flux will be generically extremely high if the exotic matter supporting the warp drive has its origin in a quantum field satisfying some form of quantum inequalities. Most of all, we find that the RSET will exponentially grow in time close to, and on, the front wall of the superluminal bubble. Consequently, one is led to conclude that the warp-drive geometries are unstable against semiclassical backreaction.

Physics arXiv: Semiclassical instability of dynamical warp drives
Stefano Finazzi,1,∗ Stefano Liberati,1, and Carlos Barcelo2