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Dec 21

Reported by Michael Reilly and Niall Firth, in New Scientist, 21 Dec. 2011.

It’s been an astonishing year, packed with technological wizardry. A computer has bested the top human minds on the Jeopardy! quiz show. Thousands upon thousands of mind-blowing apps – not to mention Apple’s super-smart, artificially intelligent Siri software – have remade our relationships with our cellphones. And new developments in green technology have given us a glimpse of a future unburdened by fossil fuels. Most of these stories mark beginnings, meaning this list of our favourite stories of the year is more than a look back – it’s a reminder of all the exciting things yet to come.

Inside the race to crack the world’s hardest puzzle
DARPA’s crowdsourced efforts to reconstruct shredded documents – which was solved two days early.

Yacht attempts to smash sailing’s ‘sound barrier’
The Vestas Sailrocket 2 is based on an 40-year-old design but could be the first boat to ever sail at 60 knots.

How innovative is Apple’s new voice assistant, Siri?

Users of the new iPhone 4S can just speak to book restaurants or make appointments – or adjust your thermostat. How has Apple done it? Continue reading »

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Dec 17

Reported by , Ars Technica, 16 Dec. 2011.

How do groups of animals make collective decisions? Last week, we learned that bees reach consensus by headbutting those with opposing views. But in many other species, the decision-making process is a bit more democratic. In cases where social animals are unrelated and have different self-interests (such as our own), contrasting opinions are common. But it can be just as common for individuals to either be uninformed about the options, or simply not care much about the decision.

Researchers have long wondered how the dynamics of decision-making work in these cases. Some evidence suggests that those who are ignorant or naïve are subject to manipulation by a loud, opinionated minority. If this is true, uninformed individuals are detrimental to democratic decision-making, since they can turn over power to a minority. However, a new study in this week’s Science shows that, under certain conditions, uninformed individuals actually shift the balance toward the majority, enabling a democratic process where the majority rules. Continue reading »

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Dec 16

Reported byPeter Reuell, PhysOrg, and Harvard Magazine, 15 Dec. 2011.

What do you think of when you hear the word “robot”? If you’re like most folks, you probably imagine something like Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — a lumbering metal machine designed to resemble a human.

When the “body” of the robot is inflated, it arches; when the “legs” are inflated, the robot stands up. Sequential pressurization and depressurization of the legs allows the robot to walk to a barrier (a glass plate). Deflation of the body decreases the height of the robot, and a different sequence of actuation of the legs gives it a kind of undulatory motion, and allows it to wiggle under the barrier. Once on the other side, re-inflation of the body allows it to resume its walk. Image courtesy of George Whitesides

Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, and his research team have developed an array of “soft” robots based on natural forms, including squid and starfish. Whitesides envisions using the pneumatically powered robots to aid disaster recovery efforts by squeezing into the rubble left by an earthquake to locate survivors, or as a way to free up a surgeon’s hands in the operating room. The work is described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month.

“If you look around, most robots are things that either look like humans, or like parts of humans,” Whitesides said. “The robots that work on automobile assembly lines are just the upper half of a human being that’s bolted to the ground.

“There are all kinds of animals, however, that do things in very different ways, and those creatures have not been looked at carefully because we have gotten fixed on a particular point of view,” Whitesides continued. “The key to this research is that we asked the question, ‘Why can’t we do something that’s squidlike?’”

Inspired by natural forms, Whitesides’ team went to work, eventually building starfish- and squidlike robots capable of surprisingly delicate operations such as picking up a raw egg without breaking the shell.

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Dec 15

Reported by Jennifer Ouellette, in Scientific American BlogsCoctail Physics Party, 6 Dec. 2011.

So, last night Jennifer sent out the official notifications to all the finalists selected for this year’s Open Lab anthology, and within the hour, Twitter was aflutter with folks sharing their excitement at the news. Which is great — she loves bringing good news to good people — but the original plan was to make a formal announcement sometime in January. She had this post all ready to go, however, and there doesn’t seem too much point in waiting until January now, is there?

First, she would like to reiterate something Ed Yong said on Twitter. This is an anthology comprised of a selection of 51 OF SOME of the best blog posts in 2011 — not THE 51 “best” posts. It’s a critical distinction because, let’s face it, there’s likely many gems out there that didn’t even get nominated, and there were several posts we would have loved to include but had to cut to get the count down to 51. Also, some things work great in blog format but don’t translate well to print. (Jennifer has high hopes for what might be possible with e-books in the future, however.) Continue reading »

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Dec 14

Reported by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office, 13 Dec. 2011, indicated by Prodromos Chatziagorakis.

By using optical equipment in a totally unexpected way, MIT researchers have created an imaging system that makes light look slow.

MIT researchers have created a new imaging system that can acquire visual data at a rate of one trillion exposures per second. That’s fast enough to produce a slow-motion video of a burst of light traveling the length of a one-liter bottle, bouncing off the cap and reflecting back to the bottle’s bottom.

Media Lab postdoc Andreas Velten, one of the system’s developers, calls it the “ultimate” in slow motion: “There’s nothing in the universe that looks fast to this camera,” he says. Continue reading »

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Dec 12

Reported by Brandon Keim, in Wired Science, 6 Dec. 2011.

Physicists have found the strongest evidence yet of quantum effects fueling photosynthesis.

Multiple experiments in recent years have suggested as much, but it’s been hard to be sure. Quantum effects were clearly present in the light-harvesting antenna proteins of plant cells, but their precise role in processing incoming photons remained unclear.

In an experiment published Dec. 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a connection between coherence — far-flung molecules interacting as one, separated by space but not time — and energy flow is established.

“There was a smoking gun before,” said study co-author Greg Engel of the University of Chicago. “Here we can watch the relationship between coherence and energy transfer. This is the first paper showing that coherence affects the probability of transport. It really does change the chemical dynamics.” Continue reading »

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Dec 10

Reported by Denise Brehm, MIT news, 8 Dec. 2011.

Analogy could help engineers develop materials that make use of repeating patterns…

Using a new mathematical methodology, researchers at MIT have created a scientifically rigorous analogy that shows the similarities between the physical structure of spider silk and the sonic structure of a melody, proving that the structure of each relates to its function in an equivalent way.

The step-by-step comparison begins with the primary building blocks of each item — an amino acid and a sound wave — and moves up to the level of a beta sheet nanocomposite (the secondary structure of a protein consisting of repeated hierarchical patterns) and a musical riff (a repeated pattern of notes or chords). The study explains that structural patterns are directly related to the functional properties of lightweight strength in the spider silk and, in the riff, sonic tension that creates an emotional response in the listener. Continue reading »

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Dec 08

Reported by McGill University News, 07 December2011.

Scientists have engineered one of the world's smallest electronic circuits. It is formed by two wires separated by only about 150 atoms or 15 nanometers (nm). (Credit: Image courtesy of McGill University)

A team of scientists, led by Guillaume Gervais from McGill’s Physics Department and Mike Lilly from Sandia National Laboratories, has engineered one of the world’s smallest electronic circuits. It is formed by two wires separated by only about 150 atoms or 15 nanometers (nm). This discovery, published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, could have a significant effect on the speed and power of the ever smaller integrated circuits of the future in everything from smartphones to desktop computers, televisions and GPS systems.

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Dec 02

Reported byBy Brandon Keim, in Wired Science, 28 Nov. 2011.

A new photograph-analyzing tool quantifies changes made by digital airbrushers in the fashion and lifestyle industry, where image alteration has become the psychologically destructive norm.

“Publishers have legitimate reasons to alter photographs to create fantasy and sell products, but they’ve gone a little too far,” said image forensics specialist Hany Farid of Dartmouth University. “You can’t ignore the body of literature showing negative consequences to being inundated with these images.”

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