More Science: Biology and… Singularity news


Time for another science roundup!

==  Toxins, Viruses and Parasites ==

By some estimates, your body houses ten times more bacteria than cells.  But that is only the start of our humiliation! DNA surveys now suggest that humans have thousands of viral species in and on us. Most of them likely coexist within our gut in peace and harmony. This notion – of relatively harmless viruses that therefore have escaped notice by science – has been around a while. It features prominently in my short story “The Giving Plague.

AfterManyLikewise, the importance of the micro-biome – the vast array of symbiotic bacteria living in human bodies, especially the gut, was portrayed vividly in a 1930s novel by Aldous Huxley — After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. But only now are we truly dialing into the importance of what Huxley then called “intestinal flora.” Now read how scientists are at last uncovering hints of huge communities of viruses that lurk below our notice, possibly affecting our health. We have a lot to learn.

You can have  your personal microbiota tested at companies such as uBiome. Seems that that engineered probiotic bacteria (“friendly” bacteria like those in yogurt) in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. “Of course it’s hard to speculate from mouse to human.”   In fact, we are finding ever more longevity-related mouse results that have no bearing on humans! Still…

(BTW Huxley’s novel is very good, if perhaps placid by modern tastes. And it turns out on the last page to have been science fiction, all along!  In any event, it should be required reading for singularity-immortality guys and gals.)

== More biology! ==

Shocking” news about electric eels and other voltage producing fish“They’re using the same genetic tools to build their electric organs in each lineage independently.”

Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasite that has infested many modern human societies that keep cats, and as many as 60 million americans. Its subtle effects may include warping personality! (And sometimes physical illness.) Now some researchers claim that TG may be a good model for stimulating the immune system against cancer. Okay. But don’t go rushing to sniff your cat’s litter box. As I said, TG may be doing humanity vast harm by affecting our personalities, exacerbating our rising inability to negotiate and solve problems.  In any event, we see no correlation between TG sufferers and reduced cancer levels. Still, maybe there’s a usable connection. Let’s hope this pans out. Go science.

Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees. And sure, there’s a chilling aspect — which the Greenpeace site very cleverly and chillingly conveys with this creepy satire, reminding us that cautionary criticism is the only way to expose possible errors….

Still, those who deride any and all forms of technological remediation as inherently bad, e.g. that it might reduce the imperative to save real bees, have got something wrong with their perception of human nature. It is possible to move forward in many directions, at once, toward the goal of saving the world. And yes, while top priority goes to reducing our impact-damage and preserving the natural ways. (I am taking part. Having provided bee swarms with makeshift shelters in the past, up on the hill… I’ve now set up a real hive box. If you’ve got a little land… why not?) Still, our worst problem is single-minded monomaniac prescribers, who declare that there is only one, zero-sum, answer to anything. We need to move on all fronts, at once.

amphibians-extinctionYou will spend some time exploring this interesting — and disturbing — graphic: A Disappearing Planet, charting genuses and species bordering on extinction. Amphibians are in real trouble. Heck we all are.

Do offshore wind farms create fecund artificial reefs? Seals who cluster and forage seem to think so.

== Ah… more singularity stuff ==

Hacking-matterAn excellent background article on Programmable Matter, this piece nevertheless commits the typical flaw of ignoring the role that excellent hard science fiction has played in enhancing, exploring and drawing attention to a potentially groundbreaking field. In this case, I highly recommend the works of my colleague Will McCarthy, such as Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages and the Infinite Weightlessness of Programmable Atoms.

Google Glass hack allows brain wave control. An EEG headset can be used to measure when certain parts of the brain show a greater level of activity. Within Google Glass’s “screen” – a small window that appears in the corner of the wearer’s right eye – a white horizontal line is shown. As a user concentrates, the white line rises up the screen. Once it reaches the top, a picture is taken using Glass’s inbuilt camera. So much for the claim that people will always be warned by: “OK Glass, take a picture” – or by seeing the user tapping and swiping on the side of the device. But seriously, you expected that to last? This is the future.

A tech forecast of mine from 20 years ago is coming true today at MIT… a needle table that responds to the user’s motions and emulates him/her in moving objects around.  We aren’t yet at the exercise floor I portrayed in my short story, “NatuLife.” But clearly it is coming.

Smart roofs to help NYC Cops fight crime, via ShotSpotter sensors.

Microsoft Research introduced “Project Adam” AI machine-learning object recognition software at its 2014 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. The goal of Project Adam is to enable software to visually recognize any object .

A California startup is developing flexible, rechargeable batteries that can be printed cheaply on commonly used industrial screen printers.

== And yet more from space! ==

Under ideal conditions, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) should be able to detect two kinds of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmospheres of alien worlds, if atmospheric levels were 10 times those on Earth. In other words, if aliens are self-destructive fools, we might catch them during the brief window of time. But only if it is orbiting a very dim star.

UNIVERSE-BUBBLE Is the Universe a Bubble? If two pocket “universes” make physical contact, there are several possibilities. M-brane theorists think the collision would release so much energy that the resulting bang would wipe out any galaxy-style realms that existed before. On the other hand, researchers at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, think the interaction could be mild and show up in the maps we are now making of the microwave background. “We start with a multiverse that has two bubbles in it, we collide the bubbles on a computer to figure out what happens, and then we stick a virtual observer in various places and ask what that observer would see from there.”

Want more about the multiverse? See the Exploring the Multiverse — a talk given by astrophysicists Brian Keating and Andrew Friedman and me, covering the NINE different ways (that we have thought-of, so far) that this cosmos we observe may be just one of many! It took place at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD on July 29.

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