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Nov 27

Reported by Matt Nixon, University of Michigan News, 22 Nov. 2011.

Research conducted at the University of Michigan College of Engineering may lead to the use of insects to monitor hazardous situations before sending in humans.

Professor Khalil Najafi, the chair of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects, and take the utility of the miniature cyborgs to the next level.

“Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” Najafi said. “We could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.”

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Nov 26

Reported by B. Rose Huber, in University of Pittsburgh News, 20 Nov. 2011.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have made advances in better understanding correlated quantum matter that could change technology as we know it, according to a study published in the Nov. 20 edition of Nature.

W. Vincent Liu, associate professor of physics in Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Hamburg in Germany, has been studying topological states in order to advance quantum computing, a method that harnesses the power of atoms and molecules for computational tasks. Through his research, with more than $1 million in funding from two consecutive four-year grants from the U.S. Army Research Office and a five-year shared grant from the DARPA Optical Lattice Emulator Program, Liu and his team have been studying orbital degrees of freedom and nano-Kelvin cold atoms in optical lattices (a set of standing wave lasers) to better understand new quantum states of matter.

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Nov 24

Reported by  Dave Mosher, in Wired Science, November 11, 2011.

A remote colony of birds kept flying away before anyone could count them, so a team of ecologists built a do-it-yourself aerial drone to spy on them from above.

The team made their drone out of a 4.6-foot-wide radio-controlled airplane, two cameras and a GPS tracking unit, all for less than $2,000.

It was the first time scientists have used an unmanned aerial vehicle to inventory a remote bird population, said ecologist and project leader Francesc Sardà-Palomera of Centre Tecnològic Forestal de Catalunya Solsona in Catalonia, Spain.

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Nov 17

Reported by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office, 15 Nov. 2011.

New computer chip models how neurons communicate with each other at synapses.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For decades, scientists have dreamed of building computer systems that could replicate the human brain’s talent for learning new tasks.

MIT researchers have now taken a major step toward that goal by designing a computer chip that mimics how the brain’s neurons adapt in response to new information. This phenomenon, known as plasticity, is believed to underlie many brain functions, including learning and memory.

With about 400 transistors, the silicon chip can simulate the activity of a single brain synapse — a connection between two neurons that allows information to flow from one to the other. The researchers anticipate this chip will help neuroscientists learn much more about how the brain works, and could also be used in neural prosthetic devices such as artificial retinas, says Chi-Sang Poon, a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.
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Nov 16

Reported by Kim Krieger, Science Now, 14 Nov. 2011.

Numerical trees. The image on the left shows the variables Eloy's numerical model used to calculate trees to test his wind-force hypothesis. The image on the right shows a skeleton of a tree before the simulation calculates diameters of the branches. Credit: C. Eloy et al., Phys. Rev. Letters (2011)

The graceful taper of a tree trunk into branches, boughs, and twigs is so familiar that few people notice what Leonardo da Vinci observed: A tree almost always grows so that the total thickness of the branches at a particular height is equal to the thickness of the trunk. Until now, no one has been able to explain why trees obey this rule. But a new study may have the answer.

Leonardo’s rule holds true for almost all species of trees, and graphic artists routinely use it to create realistic computer-generated trees. The rule says that when a tree’s trunk splits into two branches, the total cross section of those secondary branches will equal the cross section of the trunk. If those two branches in turn each split into two branches, the area of the cross sections of the four additional branches together will equal the area of the cross section of the trunk. And so on.

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Nov 10

Reported by John Timmer, Ars Technica, 10 Nov. 2011

Credit: Randy Wind/Martin Roelfs

Utopian visions of the nanotechnology revolution suggest that one day we’ll be able to put tiny machines inside our body to perform routine screening and maintenance. But we’re a long way off from that future, as most of the nanoscale “machinery” we’ve created requires extensive intervention or carefully prepared conditions in order to do anything. But a report in today’s Nature describes an impressive feat of molecule-scale engineering: a four-wheel-drive “car” that can run across any conductive surface, powered by electrons.

The whole thing is a single molecule. Its core is formed by two hubs that have a five-ringed structure at their core. The hubs are connected by a rigid rod formed from carbon atoms, held together by triple bonds. Each hub is flanked by two “wheels,” each consisting of a three-ringed structure. The bulk of the molecule is a carbon backbone, with a small number of nitrogen and sulfur molecules thrown in.

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Nov 09

Reported by ScienceDaily, 8 Nov. 2011.

In the world of engineering, “noise” – random fluctuations from environmental sources such as heat – is generally a bad thing. In electronic circuits, it is unavoidable, and as circuits get smaller and smaller, noise has a greater and more detrimental effect on a circuit’s performance. Now some scientists are saying: if you can’t beat it, use it.

Engineers from Arizona State University in Tempe and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) in San Diego, Calif., are exploiting noise to control the basic element of a computer – a logic gate that can be switched back and forth between two different logic functions, such as AND\OR – using a genetically engineered system derived from virus DNA. In a paper accepted to the AIP’s journal Chaos, the team has demonstrated, theoretically, that by exploiting sources of external noise, they can make the network switch between different logic functions in a stable and reliable way.

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Nov 07

Reported by Jesse Emspak, New Scientist, 4 November 2011.

Chalk up another security measure that hackers can break.

The encryption protocol called Triple-Data Encryption Standard, or 3DES is  supposed to be unbreakable – at least not without a lot of computing time and power. Because of this, lots of contactless smart cards – London’s Oyster Card, as well as cards used to store money and passes for mass transit systems in Chicago, Seattle and elsewhere – rely on 3DES to protect users’ accounts.

But Christof Paar at Ruhr-University Bochum has led a team that hacked 3DES using a low-cost system to break in with just a few hours of work.

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Nov 07

Reported by ,, 04 Oct. 2011.

Science isn’t about authority, or white coats, it’s about following a method!

Ben has got to go and finish a book: He’ll be back in six months, but in case it kills him, here’s what he has learned in eight years of writing this column.

Alternative therapists don’t kill many people, but they do make a great teaching tool for the basics of evidence-based medicine, because their efforts to distort science are so extreme. When they pervert the activities of people who should know better – medicines regulators, or universities – it throws sharp relief onto the role of science and evidence in culture. Characters from this community who wonder why people keep writing about them should look at their libel cases and their awesomely bad behaviour under fire. You are a comedy factory. Don’t go changing.

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Nov 01

Reported by Meera Lee Sethi, Scientific American, 27 Oct. 2011.

According to the American Museum of Natural History, a total of 42,473 spider species, belonging to 110 different families, have so far been described worldwide. Within this spinning, many-eyed, predatory multitude, an astonishing 4,401 species—or over a tenth of the total diversity of the order—are accounted for by the members of a single family, the Linyphiidae.

Also known as sheet-weavers, because their webs consist of horizontal skeins of silk that seem to hang in the air like taut white bed linens being grasped by invisible hands, these marvelous creatures are a cosmopolitan lot. They have been observed occupying all manner of different habitats, virtually all over the world: on seashores, in deserts, hidden among the vegetation of forest floors, and even burrowed under the blankets of mountain snowfields. (Darwin himself wrote that he had seen “vast numbers” of them lashed to the rigging of the Beagle). And they’re often encountered in almost fantastic profusion: nearly two million individuals, laments one guide to agricultural contaminants, can occur within a single acre of farmland.

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