There has been some significant progress in engineering our favorite yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, (brewer’s yeast!) to produce n-Butanol rather than ethanol. This is particularly interesting from a fuel production standpoint, since there are major advantages of n-Butanol over ethanol for fuel. From a recent Green Car Congress post:
Butanol has a number of advantages over ethanol for use as a biofuel—it is more hydrophobic; has a higher energy density; can be transported through existing pipeline infrastructure; and can be mixed with gasoline at any ratio.
As someone who spent a lot of time genetically engineering organisms, this is an important milestone. There remains a lot to be done, but at least the beginnings of an approach as been outlined by this research. The paper (available open access here) has a lot of follow-on information about likely approaches to improve the process and/or yield. This is where hackers can jump in and possibly make a contribution- a lot of the basic stuff can be based on computational approaches and dynamic simulation. Let a million flowers (or yeast) bloom!
Since I am in Boston today, I am sharing one of my favorite places to socialize there- a major hacker hangout right on the edge of MIT. The place is Miracle of Science, and is always filled with interesting people and equally interesting conversations. There are very few bars where the guy on your right side is talking about number theory and the woman on your left is showing off a tiny autonomous robot that she built. The counters are all black laboratory soapstone, and the menu is in the form of a periodic table on their blackboard. Too cool, and not to be missed! Given my crazy schedule, I will try to keep posting fun hacker hangouts from the cities I visit- if you have one that you particularly enjoy, drop me an email or post to the HacDC mailing list, and I will post it, too!
The menus at the Miracle of Science are in periodic table format
The search for alien life just got even more interesting. A fascinating paper just went up on the arXiv server. It represents the results of a comprehensive analysis of satellite IR data, searching for evidence of Dyson Spheres going out to about 300 pc – about a million starts in total. Dyson Spheres are a theoretical construct which would be built by a civilization that had progressed to the point where they have the need to harvest the total amount of their sun’s energy. Basically, a Dyson Sphere completely surrounds a star with a multitude of structures that can collect and store solar energy, and would thus have a very characteristic astronomical appearance. The nice thing about looking for advanced civilizations this way is that you don’t need to depend on their interest/willingness to shine a radio/laser/etc. signal on you.
The results of the survey were interesting- only a few possible Dyson Spheres were identified out of the million or so stars, and all of the possibles have other potential explanations. I don’t know what is more interesting, the result of the study or the existence of the paper itself. The researchers are from a very respected academic center (Fermilab) and the paper itself is very well reasoned and written. It is pretty cool that this kid of study can be taken as seriously as it has been. I certainly will keep watching to see how the proposed analysis with data from new satellites (and correlations with SETI data) comes out…
There is a good general post over at Discover Magazine, too.
For more on Dyson Spheres, the article on Wikipedia is great (as usual!) and has solid references. Hopefully, Katie will have more insightful comments than mine!
Regardless of your political leanings, for most of us with scientific/technical training and/or leanings, the trend over most of the last decade in government towards science has been challenging. From the way that global climate change science has been treated to how evolution and ecology are handled in the classroom, politics has been placed over science in a way that has significantly inhibited the ability of the government to leverage scientific approaches to solve the problems of our time. There is a great op-ed piece over at the NY Times by Olivia Judson (an evolutionary biologist herself) about the phenomenon, and what will need to be done to turn it around. See here to read.
Science itself … is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.
Funny how the same exact qualities of informed skeptiscim and an interest in validating the world around us by evidence, analysis and disputation are also hallmarks of the hacker culture. I wonder how groups like HacDC, NYCResistor, CCCC, et al. can act as a postive force in facilitating this sea-change. I have been repeatedly impressed with the folks at HacDC and their willingness to get involved with both the local and the global community to address some of the technically-oriented social needs of our society. Perhaps by continuing to serve as a place of education and scientific/technical inquiry, we can inspire others around us to positively and intelligently challenge the status quo(s) of our community and make things better for everyone.
My family and I recently visted the Historical Electronics Museum (see http://www.hem-usa.org/ ) in Linthicum, Maryland. Along with an amazing treasure trove of defense electronics is a case containing several very interesting cryptology artifacts from the World War II era, including an Enigma machine. Pam thought it was the coolest thing in the museum, and we all spent quite some time admiring it, along with some other contemporary artifacts.
Enigma Machine from the Historical Electronics Museum
I you haven’t had the opportunity to vist the HEM, it is certainly worth the trip- it is very near BWI Airport right outside of Baltimore. It is free and open to the public, but be sure and check the hours carefully on the website, since they are a bit irregular. If you have kids, there are lots of great hands-on exhibits that explain electronics science and techology, which both my 11-year old and 8-year old daughters really enjoyed. Given that they wanted to go back again almost immediately, it is certainly a fun place for them.