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The World Has Changed and You Don’t Even Know It

August 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Take a look at this:

That may turn out to be the most important photograph you ever look at.
Let me explain – this is the first time scientists have been able to take a picture of objects on a nano scale, as opposed to a logical artist’s description. To give you an idea of how difficult it was to actually accomplish this, IBM scientists in Zurich had to use an atomic force microscope (quite possibly the coolest-sounding scientific tool ever), along with a silicon microscale cantilever (ridiculously small needle) coated in carbon dioxide, frickin’ lazers (no word on whether or not they were attached to shark heads), and temperatures so cold that they’re not even on the Farenheit scale anymore (5 degrees Kelvin). On top of that, the AFM had to stay absolutely still for 20 hours, only 0.5 nanometers above the surface of the molecule.
Why so long? Ah, here comes the physics. When you’re dealing with sizes and distances in nano-scale terms, you’ve dropped out of the realm of “classical physics” and landed in the world of quantum physics. The quantum world is pretty freaky for a bunch of reasons, but the aspect that’s most notable in this context is the fact that observation alters that which one is observing. So when I say the AFM had to stay absolutely still, it had to stay absolutely still, because otherwise the image would have been completely altered, and so ruined. Because that’s the best part of this picture – the fact that for the first time ever, there’s a (relatively) clear picture of the 3D structure of a real molecule, and how carbon and hydrogen atoms line up in that structure.
Finally, the fact that it was IBM, a computing company, that pulled it off first doesn’t surprise me at all. This simple picture may very well be the first step on the path towards feasible quantum computers, which would arguably be capable for everything from breaking super-codes to one day possibly creating biological computers, and it only makes sense that one of the biggest tech companies in the world is in on the ground floor.

Weird science – Rat Fart Erections?

March 6, 2009 Leave a comment
Yeah, theyre doin it

Yeah, they're doin' it

A little bit shorter than I would like, but the weirdness more than makes up for it. OK, so in case you didn’t know, the penis is essentially a mass of spongy tissue (packed around a tube) that gets stiff when it’s filled with blood. That’s basically how pills like Enzyte and Viagra claim to give people larger erections, or an erection at all – they just cause more blood to pool down there. How that’s accomplished is that they block an enzyme that destroys nitric oxide (NO); since NO relaxes artery walls, this lets more blood in.
However, hydrogen sulphide (H2S) has also been found to relax artery walls. The reason we now know this? Because experiments have shown that H2S can cause erections in rats. Just think about your job description being “I capture rat farts and inject them back into the rats to see if they’ll get boners.” Anyways, Italian researchers have discovered enzymes that produce this chemical in humans, and are preparing to move ahead with human trials, despite the rather large drawback that erections in rats were achieved by injecting H2S directly into the penis. I think most people would prefer to stick with their pills, thank you.

Categories: Science Tags: , , , ,

Weird Science – Teleportation

January 31, 2009 1 comment

As you might have guessed by now, I like it when things can be condensed into series (see here and here); maybe it’s some sort of extremely-lite form of OCD, I don’t know. Something I’d been thinking about for a little while was an occasional science commentary. Only problem was, I wasn’t sure if there would be enough easily-digestible discoveries/inventions that I could expound on, and it’s better for everyone if I don’t try and rely on my natural writing abilities to take a less-than-notable event and make it seem important. Fortunately, President Obama’s arrival seems to have caused a deluge of announcements in the scientific world; all I have to do is keep up. Fair warning, it might take me a little while to find my voice with this, so try and bear with me. On the plus side, though, I’ve got something pretty neat to talk about; namely, that colleagues working at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan succeeded in teleporting a quantum state from one atom to a separate one approximately one yard away.

And yeah, I know, I know, I can’t believe that it the Terrapins and Wolverines were the ones to figure out teleportation. I mean, it’s not like a I had a list of schools that were likely to make some sort of big-time scientific discovery, but if I DID, Maryland and Michigan would not be on it. But let me just be clear about something. I wrote “teleport”, and a lot of you saw this. Others might have seen this. If something along those lines crossed your mind, minimize the window and concentrate on taking a few deep breaths, because we’re not anywhere near that point yet. In fact, the implications in the field of computing, particularly quantum computing, are staggering, much more so than in the science-fiction realm of Star Trek.

Now,¬† the article itself does a great job of breaking down the specifics of the experiment, so I’m going to try and sum up the basic science behind all of it. So: people are made up of organs, organs are made up of cells, cells are made up of a bunch of small bacteria-sized things, and those things are essentially made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Still with me? OK, now here’s where it gets weird. This whole time, we’ve been working with what everyday people would call the “regular” world, or what a physicist might describe as “classic mechanics”. Basically, you’ve still got gravity and thermodynamics, all that good shit that we like to think of as normal. But once you get past that first ‘tron level, all hell breaks loose, and you have to start messing with quantum mechanics, which is something like walking away from your house, turning the corner and finding yourself inside a cartoon. You ever hear about how light acts like a wave AND a particle? Well, that happens on the quantum level. In fact, it’s one of the least weird things that happens on the quantum level (check it out).

Another thing that happens on the quantum level is teleportation of energy between entangled¬† atoms. To understand what that means, you have to know that one of the key precepts of quantum mechanics is that at the quantum level subatomic materials exist in a state of “uncertainty”, and that only by observation do these materials take on measureable dimensions. Basically, at this level everything both exists and doesn’t exist. Unless you’re looking at it. Then it exists. But for some time now, scientists have noticed that occasionally they’ll see information (like the degree of spin on an atom) go from one particle to another instantaneously, over huge distances and without going through a physical medium. Naturally, this confused the hell out of physicists, until experiments showed that this phenomenon occured whenever two particles became entangled. In case you’re wondering how any of this is helpful since you can’t measure the quantum state of a particle without removing it from said quantum state (and if that is what you’re thinking, thank you for paying attention), entangling particles also means that when you feed info into one particle, the opposite can be inferred in the partner particle. Naturally, this confused the hell out of physicists even more. Eventually, however, the physicists just chalked it up as an indelible feature of the universe, and chose to move on from the “discovery” phase of science experiments, to the next phase: let’s see if we can do this shit too!

Which brings us up to the current. Now that we’ve learned that we indeed CAN do this shit too, it shouldn’t be long before the technology is procured or duplicated by computer chip makers in the great race to build the first quantum computer. Why? Modern computers, as fast as they have become, are still binary computers, dealing in bits that recognize only two states, on and off, or ones and zeroes if you like. But quantum computers are capable of being in both states at the same time, until the correct answer is found. To get a general idea, imagine taking an oral math exam, where someone asks you a question, and immediately upon answering it someone else asks you a question. Seems difficult, right? Now imagine 12 people asking you math questions at the same time and answering them. That’s the difference between a modern computer and a quantum computer. But if you’re still dreaming of being able to “shimmer” off your couch directly into the bar downtown, don’t get discouraged. The human body encapsulates a mind-boggling amount of information, terabytes and terabytes, that no current computer could be able to process. A quantum computer, on the other hand…

Apparently, life really is an illusion

January 26, 2009 1 comment

This theory has been kicking around since the early 90’s, but recent experiments in Germany may provide evidence towards the theory that we are all in fact living in a hologram. You should actually read the article to get the full idea of what’s being discussed, but the basic distillation is: black holes (stars which have collapsed under their own weight and have become gravitational singularities) actually give off something called Hawking radiation, and eventually dissipate and disappear. However, Hawking radiation doesn’t give off any information, which is known as the black hole information paradox. Scientists since then have shown that microscopic quantum ripples at the event horizon (the theoretical limit of no-return) can encode the information inside the black hole, explaining the strange lack of information. This led to another insight, that “the 3D information about a precursor star can be completely encoded in the 2D horizon of the subsequent black hole – not unlike the 3D image of an object being encoded in a 2D hologram”. There’s a lot more to it, but again, I highly recommend the article.
The real question here, is what does this mean concerning our conception of the physical world around us? It’s traditionally taught that we exist in dimensions of height, weight and volume; if in fact volume is an illusion created by our minds to better process the sensory information around us, and everything in volume is an expression of a two-dimensional plane of information, what does that mean concerning the relativity of light? Also, this is all dependent on the theory that the foundation of the universe isn’t matter or energy, but information.
And here’s another interesting aspect; current computer theoreticians already claim that the next step in data storage is holographic storage. The reality is far more technical, but the results would be something like 100 terabytes on an old-school 3.5 floppy. But what’s the difference between a unit using holographic storage methods to hold immense amounts of data, and this theoretical view of reality? How does this lend itself towards the idea of 2D realities stacked on each other like hard drives? The theory that we’re all just unwitting NPC’s in some sort of higher-level MMORPG has been making the rounds for years; is this just helping to prove that? It’s all just fascinating.

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