Nanomedicine: Particle physiology

Device Could Harvest Wasted Energy From Wi-Fi, Satellite Signals.

A wireless device developed by researchers at Duke University that converts microwaves into electricity could eventually harvest Wi-Fi or satellite signals for power, according to its creators. It could also one day be built into cell phones to let them charge while not in use, they say.

Its energy-harvesting capabilities come courtesy of a metamaterial, a synthetic material engineered with characteristics not found in nature, like the ability to bend light the wrong way or shrink when you stretch it. In this case, the microwave-harvesting metamaterial that acts kind of like a solar panel, converting microwaves into up to 7.3 volts of electricity, enough to charge small electronics. It can scavenge stray signals, like from appliances or satellites, to improve efficiency and make lost energy usable.

“It’s possible to use this design for a lot of different frequencies and types of energy, including vibration and sound energy harvesting,” according to Duke graduate student Alexander Katko, one of the inventors.“Until now, a lot of work with metamaterials has been theoretical.”

Dyson Award for wearable robotic arm

A battery-powered robotic arm that boosts human strength has won the 2013 James Dyson award.

The Titan Arm, designed by four mechanical engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania, could help people with back injuries rebuild and regain control of muscles.

Man wearing Titan Arm raised aloft

It can also be used by people to lift heavy objects as part of their work.

The team, who spent eight months creating the exoskeleton, will share a prize of £30,000 ($48,000).

“Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling,” said Sir James Dyson.

“We are ecstatic,” team member Nick Parrotta told the BBC. “It was totally unexpected – just incredible.”

‘Inexpensive aluminium’

Team wearing titan arm
The University of Pennsylvania team shows off its award-winning Titan Arm

The team produced its prototype for £1,200, which they say is a 50th of the typical cost of similar exoskeletons currently on the market.

“We wanted Titan Arm to be affordable, as exoskeletons are rarely covered by health insurance,” said Mr Parrotta, 23, currently studying for a masters in mechanical engineering.

“This informed our design decisions and the materials we used. Most structural components are machined from inexpensive aluminium.”

Academic and commercial interest in wearable robotics is growing according to Conor Walsh, Professor of of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

But costs will have to continue falling if robotics are to feature more often in daily life, he said.

“Reducing cost will be critical for commercial systems, however the total cost is not just the cost of the hardware but also the added cost associated with research and development, quality assurance and regulatory compliance.”

The Titan arm incorporates a rigid back brace to maintain posture, a shoulder featuring rotational joints, and sensors that can track motion and relay data back to doctors for remote prognosis.

It can augment human weight-lifting strength by 40lbs (18kg), say the inventors, while the batteries can last for up to eight hours, depending on intensity of usage and workload.

Electrical signals

The current prototype is operated by a separate joystick, but future versions may incorporate electromyography technology, said Mr Parrotta, which picks up electrical signals produced by muscle tissue, thus allowing users to operate such prosthetics almost without thinking.

Photo of prosthetic hand
Handie, a prosthetic hand with sensors that can read brain signals, won second place

All of the inventors who took part in the competition used 3D-printing to develop and produce their prototypes much more cheaply than would have been possible before.

“Prototyping technology, previously reserved only for companies with big research and development budgets, is enabling young inventors to develop sophisticated concepts at university,” said Sir James.

“They can revitalise industries on a small budget – it is a good time to be an inventor.”

The second prize went to a Japanese team who created Handie, a prosthetic hand with sensors that can read brain signals.

A 3D-printed plastic cast for broken limbs, invented by a team from New Zealand, took the third prize.

The James Dyson Foundation runs the annual award across 18 countries with the aim of encouraging problem-solving inventions.

Build-your-own toy robots unveiled

A US company has unveiled build-your-own toy robots that can drive, wiggle and react to the world around them.

The modular system, called Moss, uses magnetic balls as joints and hinges, has no external wires, and works without the user having to write any computer code.

By attaching a Bluetooth module, players can control the robots remotely using a smartphone or tablet.

The system has been developed by Modular Robotics in Boulder, Colorado.

The company launched the toys on crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

But chief executive and design director Eric Schweikardt told the BBC: “We’re already making Moss so we don’t need the Kickstarter funding. But in 2013, it seems like the place where people look for cool new tech products.”

The final version of the robot kits would “begin shipping in January or February”, he said.

“We’re at the very beginning of an exciting time for consumer robotics.”

Robot car The blocks can be put together in many different ways to create unique robots

Hod Lipson, professor of engineering at Cornell University, New York State, said: “Modular robotics have been around for decades, and we’ve always believed they could be cheap, robust and versatile. In practice, they’ve proved to be expensive and fragile.

“Modular Robotics is one of the first companies putting in the effort to mass-produce these things.”

He believes such toys could help make robotics accessible to young children and interest them in engineering from a young age.

Although he used to teach Mr Schweikardt, Prof Lipson stressed that he had no financial interest in the company.

In October, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed off cube-shaped robots that can flip, jump and assemble themselves into different shapes.

The small robots, known as M-Blocks, have no external parts but can move using an internal flywheel mechanism and stick together using magnets.

Social Symptoms In Autistic Children Could Be Caused By Hyper-connected Neurons.

The brains of children with autism show more connections than the brains of typically developing children do. What’s more, the brains of individuals with the most severe social symptoms are also the most hyper-connected. The findings reported in two independent studies published in the Cell Press journal Cell Reports on November 7th are challenge the prevailing notion in the field that autistic brains are lacking in neural connections.

The findings could lead to new treatment strategies and new ways to detect autism early, the researchers say. Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting nearly 1 in 88 children.

“Our study addresses one of the hottest open questions in autism research,” said Kaustubh Supekar of Stanford University School of Medicine of his and his colleague Vinod Menon’s study aimed at characterizing whole-brain connectivity in children. “Using one of the largest and most heterogeneous pediatric functional neuroimaging datasets to date, we demonstrate that the brains of children with autism are hyper-connected in ways that are related to the severity of social impairment exhibited by these children.”

In the second Cell Reports study, Ralph-Axel Müller and colleagues at San Diego State University focused specifically on neighboring brain regions to find an atypical increase in connections in adolescents with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. That over-connection, which his team observed particularly in the regions of the brain that control vision, was also linked to symptom severity.

“Our findings support the special status of the visual system in children with heavier symptom load,” Müller said, noting that all of the participants in his study were considered “high-functioning” with IQs above 70. He says measures of local connectivity in the cortex might be used as an aid to diagnosis, which today is based purely on behavioral criteria.

For Supekar and Menon, these new views of the autistic brain raise the intriguing possibility that epilepsy drugs might be used to treat autism.

“Our findings suggest that the imbalance of excitation and inhibition in the local brain circuits could engender cognitive and behavioral deficits observed in autism,” Menon said. That imbalance is a hallmark of epilepsy as well, which might explain why children with autism so often suffer with epilepsy too.

“Drawing from these observations, it might not be too far fetched to speculate that the existing drugs used to treat epilepsy may be potentially useful in treating autism,” Supekar said.

Hubble Spots Odd Asteroid With Six Tails.

Silly asteroid, tails are for comets! Around five months ago, an asteroid called P/2013 P5 was seen to be kicking off dust, making it look like it had a tail like a comet. Use of more detailed imaging would show that the asteroid actually has an unprecedented six tails.

In August, researchers had noticed P/2013 P5, an asteroid with a nucleus 1400 feet (427 meters) long, looked somewhat blurred through the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). Traditionally, asteroids appear as a sharp point of light, and this anomaly piqued the curiosity of the researchers. They figured that it might have begun rotating extremely quickly, causing it to kick off some of its surface dust and look like a comet.

On September 10, the team used the Hubble Space Telescope to get more detailed images of the oddball asteroid. The results completely dumbfounded the researchers: the asteroid had six tails that jut out in all directions, like spokes on a bicycle wheel! Even more amazing was the fact that when the team looked at it again less than two weeks later, the tails looked completely different.

After extensive analysis, it was determined that the tails are most likely the byproducts from six different dust-ejection events that were pulled out like tails by solar radiation pressure. That pressure is also believed to be what caused the asteroid to begin spinning so quickly in the first place, in a phenomenon known as radiation torque. If an asteroid is spinning too fast, its small amount of gravity is not enough to hold itself together and the dust goes flying off. Because the dust pattern does not suggest that a lot of material was ejected from the asteroid at once, the researchers are currently discounting the idea that these tails are the products of a collision. The results were published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

So far, only a small percentage of its mass has been sloughed off into the tails, but this could be the beginning of the end for the asteroid. Future analysis will show if the dust is being ejected around the asteroid’s equator, which will be the best evidence that the asteroid is in the process of a rotational breakup.

While this is the first six-tailed asteroid that has ever been documented, researchers are confident that if there is one, there are probably many more waiting to be discovered.

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Is the Universe Unnatural?

There is a question that is beginning to haunt the world of science; it’s been rearing its ugly head for the last several decades. The question is simply, “is the universe unnatural?”


As most of you are aware, particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced in July of 2012 that they had finally discovered the elusive Higgs boson – that discovery has since been confirmed. The confirmation of the Higgs’ existence was one of the greatest triumphs of science in 2012, confirming the nearly 50-year-old theory that aims to explain how elementary particles have mass. Arkani-Hamed from the Institute for Advanced Study explained, “the fact that it was seen more or less where we expected to find it is a triumph for the experiment, it’s a triumph for the theory, and it’s an indication that physics works.”

This discovery, however, was a double edged sword.

The Higgs has gotten all of the media attention; however, quantum theories also suggest that scientists should have found a host of other particles along with the Higgs in order to really show that the whole theory makes sense. Thus far, these particles haven’t been found. That might not sound like a big deal, but without these accompanying particles, using our current understandings of quantum theory, the Higgs’ mass in reality is exponentially different than what is predicted by the modified theories.

Image Credit: ATA Wolerian Walawski

Of course, something somewhere is wrong. It could be that we are missing a piece of the puzzle that allows a Higgs boson with a mass 126 giga-electron-volts to exist (in contrast to 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 giga-electron-volt Higgs our math currently says should exist due to its interactions with other particles), or it could be that somewhere our math is fundamentally wrong, or the universe could simply be unnatural.

Naturalness” is a term coined by Albert Einstein, and it is used to describe the elegantly intricate laws of nature. In a natural universe, absolutely everything can be explained with the aid of mathematics. All of the constants of nature are refined by the physical laws of nature and the entire puzzle makes perfect sense. In a unnatural universe, the horrible idea that some of the fundamental laws of nature are an arbitrary byproducts of the random fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime becomes a reality.

The LHC has been nothing short of a revolutionary force in advancing our understanding of the cosmos. Many times, revolutionary understandings present uncomfortable truths; because the LHC did not find the particular zoo of particles scientists were looking for, it’s forcing a large number of physicists to grapple with the idea of an unnatural universe. Hope is not lost for a natural order though. The LHC will start smashing protons together again in 2015 in a final search for answers and naturalness. If the search turns up empty handed, what will happen then?

Image Credit: <a href="">XKCD</a>

Firstly, it’s very probable that the multiverse theory will take center stage as one of the most plausible models explaining our universe. If the universe is unnatural, and contains arbitrary constants that allow for conditions in our universe perfect for life to arise, physicists reason that, in order to balance out the improbability of such a universe, there must be other universes with differing laws of physics. One such hypothesis containing a multiverse construct, string theory, theorizes about 10^500 multiverses exist. With so many universes, it is extremely likely that this random chance would eventually produce a life-favoring universe, and the rest is history.

String theory is an extremely polarizing hypothesis. You either love it or hate it. Edward Witten, also a physicist at the Institute of Advanced Study, said, “I would be personally happy if the multiverse interpretation is not correct, in part because it potentially limits our ability to understand the laws of physics.”

All of the weight of what happens next rests with the scientists at the LHC. Whatever they find (or, don’t find) in the next decade will fundamentally shape our understanding of absolutely everything. Scientists will probe the very heart of physics in an attempt to determine whether we live in an overly complicated standalone universe or if we simply exist in a very friendly bubble in a larger multiverse.

In case the doors of unnaturalness and naturalness both seem unfavorable, some physicists have envisioned a third door for a modified naturalness. The main proponents of this model are Joe Lykken of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois and Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa in Italy. The basic premise of this hypothesis suggests that scientists are misjudging the affects of other particles on the mass of the Higgs boson. Their idea is far from airtight, when additional particles are thrown in, such as dark matter, the model falters.

Image <a href="">source</a>

Strumia has said that he isn’t an advocate of the modified naturalness hypothesis, but he wants to open a discussion for the consequences of such a theory. Even though it has problems now, the same line of thinking could help to resolve some of the problems of seemingly arbitrary constants. Modified naturalness, and naturalness for that matter, has a much larger problem standing in the way. Neither can adequately explain why the universe didn’t annihilate itself in the big bang.

Is the universe natural, unnatural, or does it have a modified naturalness? The most exciting thing about that question is that we are on the brink of having an answer. Whether the answer is comfortable or uncomfortable, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable, we are poised to head into a new era of scientific understanding.

Giant fast-moving huntsman spider with a nasty bite lands in UK

Stowaway! Giant fast-moving huntsman spider with a nasty bite lands in UK .

A speedy seven inch spider with a nasty bite gave workers at a British warehouse a fright after it arrived from Asia.

The huntsman spider, described as an arachnophobe‘s worst nightmare, reached East Sussex after stowing away in a shipping container packed with BMX parts in Taiwan.

Stunned staff at Seventies BMX Distribution in St Leonards-on-Sea were unpacking the delivery boxes when they caught sight of the arachnid, which would have been locked up for around six weeks as it travelled thousands of miles.

Warehouse manager Joe Woodburn said: “My mate saw it on the box I was holding. He froze and couldn’t get his words out fast enough.

“It was as big as the palm of my hand. We managed to get it into a big plastic container where we kept it while we called the RSPCA.

“I thought it was plastic at first as it wasn’t moving, but the minute it was in the sunlight it started to warm up and it was running around and jumping up the side of the box.

“We get containers like this all the time and we have always joked that one day we’d open one up to find some kind of ferocious animal in there, but I never expected to find a spider as big as this.”

RSPCA inspector Zoe Ballard, who was called out to deal with the animal, said she had never come across anything like it before and admitted she was not the biggest fan of the creepy-crawly.

“I got the call through as collection of a tarantula, but as soon as I saw it I knew it wasn’t a tarantula,” she said.

“I managed to secure the spider in the container and took it to the RSPCA’s wildlife centre nearby, but I must admit I was worried all the way that it would get out and escape in my van.”

The spider has now been rehomed at Drusillas Zoo Park in Alfriston, near Eastbourne, but RSPCA inspector Tony Woodley said it does not generally pose a big threat.

“Huntsman spiders can give you a nasty bite, but they aren’t likely to cause too much harm unless you suffer an allergic reaction,” he said.

“However, because they are so big and they run around so quickly, they are probably an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare.

“Spiders can survive a long time without food and water. The cold is going to be the main problem for them, but it probably survived the journey because the weather has been fairly mild.”

It’s time to listen to the voices in your head.

Voice-hearing is no longer seen merely as a psychiatric disorder, and could teach us a lot about how language operates in the brain.
eleanor longden

Eleanor Longden delivers a TED talk on voice-hearing.

Hearing voices in your head when there’s no one around … that’s a sign of madness, right?

In the popular imagination voice-hearing is often viewed with fear and suspicion, frequently reified as a chaotic, corrupted symptom of illness. But that is changing, with a growing acceptance of voice-hearing as a profoundly human experience that can no longer be reduced to a mere symptom of psychiatric disorder. The work of Intervoice: The International Hearing Voices Network, and the enthusiastic response to Eleanor Longden’s 2013 TED talk, which recounts her own journey to recovery from a demoralising psychiatric diagnosis, indicate the growing possibilities for people living with the experience to raise their voices with a sense of power and pride.

This movement towards a better public understanding of voice-hearing has been mirrored by an increased interest in the scientific issues it raises. In recent years, academics from such diverse disciplines as psychology, philosophy, medical humanities, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, theology and cultural studies have begun to reclaim it as a rich, diverse and complex human experience – one that offers abundant possibilities for scientific inquiry.

Take, for example, the idea that voices often relate to trauma or adversity, particularly those suffered in childhood. This view, which has found expression in the personal stories of many voice-hearers, has been supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. But why should traumatic experiences early in life lead many years later to the experience of hearing a voice, or what psychiatrists call an auditory verbal hallucination?

Recent investigations suggest that voice-hearing may provide fresh insights into traumatic memory, and how real-life conflicts become embodied in voices via dissociation (a defensive psychological response to trauma in which thoughts, emotions and memories become disconnected from one another). In turn, the experience that many voice-hearers describe – that of a disembodied “other” dynamically interacting with and intruding upon one’s sense of self – invites exploration into how representations of selfhood are generated and maintained.

Another approach that has proved fruitful is the idea that voice-hearing relates to one very ordinary aspect of people’s experience: their inner speech. Most of us report talking to ourselves silently in our heads as we go about our business, and it has been proposed that voices result when a person generates a bit of inner speech but, for whatever reason, doesn’t recognise it as their own. This view has received support from numerous studies with voice-hearing psychiatric patients, including findings that similar networks in the brain are activated when people hear voices as when they produce inner speech.

Many problems remain however, including the fact that we know very little about the phenomenal properties of ordinary inner speech, such as whether it has the qualities of a dialogue or a monologue, whether it is fully expanded like ordinary conversation or whether it sometimes has a compressed, note-form quality. Voice-hearing itself comes in an even more baffling array of varieties, from experiences that have the full perceptual force of listening to a person speaking to those that are much more ephemeral and thought-like.

Perhaps most importantly, the view of voices as disordered inner speech does not ring true with many voice-hearers’ experience. And yet, at some level, an explanation of voice-hearing must have something to do with how language operates in the brain. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing research in this area is to try to link, and draw on the relative merits of, the trauma and inner speech models. How can adverse experiences early in life, perhaps through the complex, multifaceted mechanisms of memory, lead to alterations in the way words are processed in the brain, and in turn to the sense that one’s self has been overtaken by other selves? Whatever the future for research in this area, it will require a continued focus on voice-hearing as a complex, heterogeneous phenomenon with many scientific secrets to reveal.

This is a fleshy, naked emergency – pop stars are too sexy for our kids.

Singers such as Miley Cyrus have left Netmums parents up in arms about sexualisation. I have a simple solution to the problem.

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus performs during the iHeartRadio music festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Nevada. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The parenting website Netmums has polled its members and found that more than 80% of respondents have seen their children sing or repeat sexual lyrics without realising their meaning. A third also said their child had copied the overtly provocative dance moves they had seen pop stars perform. As someone who appreciates the comedic moment in which a child swears unknowingly in front of an assembled audience of elders as unparalleled in its hilarity, I’m tempted to welcome this result. A younger cousin of mine once asked my dad, in front of everyone, if he “liked it hard and rough or smooth and tender”, something he must have got from the media, and I still have to take deep breaths when I think about it a decade later. But I realise that for most people, the results of what the Daily Mail calls a “disturbing survey” means we are now living at the end of times.

That’s not to say that pop stars haven’t become too sexy. They have. They’re so sexy, in fact, that Britney Spears has been reported as longing for the days when, rather than having to troupe around in thigh-high boots, a metallic bikini and fishnets, she could keep it real like she did in that video for Baby One More Time, which was “about the dance” and nothing at all to do with indulging the older male generation’s filthiest schoolgirl fantasies. But at least Britney kept her clothes on. Nowadays you don’t exist unless you’re maniacally twerking while dry-humping yourself with a foam hand left over from the last time they tried to revive Gladiators. Quick! Get them some of those metallic blankets that they give you when the swimming pool has to be evacuated. Or at least a cardigan. This is a fleshy, naked emergency.

While the sexualisation of female pop stars is an ongoing saga which will, much like the women who dressed up on Halloween as a naked person, reach its logical zenith any day now, we must take account of the fact that all this scaremongering wholly buys into the “devil’s music” narrative of pop being damaging to young people, and, in that sense, this generation is no different to those previous. While my disco-dancing ditty of choice, Destiny’s Child’s Bootylicious, may be tame by today’s standards (and if the thought of a 12-year-old belting out “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly” fills you with horror, take comfort in the fact that I thought they were referencing an intolerance to the E-numbers in Rowntree’s), back then the big worry was nu-metal and goth music, a genre which disturbed my school so much that they sent a letter home to school asking that parents not allow their children to wear hooded tops bearing slogans such as “deviant” and “Cradle of Filth“. I’d like to see Miley Cyrus take on Mortiis, I really would.

In other words, music has always been held to be a corrupting influence on young people and a threat to the establishment, and it’s important that we bear that in mind when we’re questioning whether it has now gone too far, as 87% of Netmum parents polled believe it has. And let’s not forget, it’s not just the girls, either. A quarter of parents said that boys thought women wanted men to be “into violence and gangsta culture” – presumably they are just as impressionable as young girls, and are thus taking it upon themselves to rub up against those “bitches and hos” in the playground à la Robin Thicke. They certainly seem to be expecting women to have the kind of bodies that rarely exist in real life.

The solution to the problem is simple: don’t let them watch music videos. I didn’t know these oiled-up sex robots and their pimping boyfriends even existed until that joyous two-year period when my mum got Sky. And if you must let them watch music videos, while I fully accept they have become much, much worse and are practically porn now, perhaps use it as a chance to discuss what’s happening with them in a non-judgmental way? Siobhan Freegard, a founder of Netmums, said in reference to the survey: “It’s toxic to tell young kids that casual sex and violence are something to aspire to,” and she’s not wrong about the violence. But the fact she places it hand in hand with casual sex in terms of toxicity reveals more about our society than Miley and Robin’s frottage ever could.