Monday, June 27, 2011

You can't make this stuff up ...

I never expected to encounter a sentence like: "Genetically Engineered Cell Shoots Out First-Ever Biological Laser." 

Do cellular lasers sound trivial? They're not. Consider:
Aside from implying the future possibility of a self-healing laser that requires no battery, this breakthrough could allow doctors and scientists to view the inner workings of individual cells without a microscope. 
I instantly thought of an application not mentioned in the article: laser-based communications among medical nanobots. Visible light spans the wavelengths from about 380 to 780 nanometers -- while cells (and cell-sized machines, once we have them) are of the scale several thousand nanometers. Had cell-based lasers been thought possible a few years ago, I might well have used them for the nanobots in Small Miracles. (Instead I used chemical signaling -- just as natural cells do.)

The next topic is scary, but the headline is ironic: "LightSquared Network Faces Interference of Its Own Making."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hackpocalypse now

Is it only me, or is the world becoming eerily (and scarily) reminiscent of Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and True Names?

That is: is conflict moving from the physical to the virtual domain? Are freelance hackers and ad hoc groupings of same obtaining more and more influence over our daily lives? Is hacking the new, preferred choice in asymmetric warfare? Are we neck deep in a new, scary era?

It sure looks that way. Consider these recent events:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The time has come, the walrus said ...

... To talk of many things.

For shoes and ships and sealing wax, continue here.  For more recent arcana to have caught this SF author's eye, read on ...

"Criminal Minds Are Different From Yours, Brain Scans Reveal." (I like to think that my visitors do not have criminal minds.) I read with interest that:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Antimatter matters ... the hole truth(?)

Follow-up to my January post Antimatter matters ... the talented folks at CERN, who previously brought us the Large Hardon Collider, have learned to store antimatter effectively indefinitely.

(What is antimatter? Take two particles of identical mass and equal but opposite electrical charge. By convention the rarer type of the mirror-image pair is dubbed the antiparticle. When a fundamental particle, like an electron, meets its antiparticle, a positron, the pair transforms into electromagnetic energy. Proton/antiproton encounters also transform into energy -- but since protons and antiprotons are not fundamental particles [they're composed of quarks and antiquarks, which are], the transformation is a multistep process. The bottom line: you can't store antimatter in a regular-matter box.)

Back to the news ... "Ephemeral Antimatter Trapped for Amazingly Long 16 Minutes," reports What makes this story newsworthy is that the antimatter being stored is atoms of antihydrogen. Positrons and antiprotons are electrically charged; suspending them in a vacuum -- so that they don't encounter any normal matter -- is no different in principle than storing electrons or protons in a vacuum. That is a trick routinely managed in particle accelerators worldwide, using magnets to interact with the particles' electrical charges.

Combine a positron with an antiproton (or an electron with a proton) into a simple atom and the electrical charges offset each other. A storage container for antihydrogen must interact with something other than electrical charge, because the atom, being neutral, doesn't have any overall electrical charge.

Interact with what, then? Tiny spinning electrical charges -- and they don't come tinier than charged subatomic particles -- generate tiny magnetic fields. The two spinning particles that comprise an atom of hydrogen or antihydrogen are slightly separated, and that separation creates a magnetic dipole. The CERN antimatter trap interacts magnetically with the trapped antihydrogen atoms.

Per my previous antimatter post, creating and capturing even a single antimatter particle takes some doing (and beaucoup money). Hence, CERN is dealing with only a few antihydrogen atoms at a time. Less science-y articles -- like this, from a USA Today writer -- alas likened the latest achievement to the Dan Brown book Angels and Demons, a present-day novel that employs antimatter in bomb-equivalent quantities.  A wildly exaggerated production level for antimatter is not too egregious as literary license. This is: characters in Brown's novel imbued the antimatter with all manner of theological significance. It was pure (with extreme euphemism) poppycock.