Had a bunch of really interested folks at the “Hack the Genome, the age of biomolecular cryptography” talk today at Shmoocon. Lots of fantastic ideas and great discussions afterwards with interested hackers. It is great to see how much creative knowledge and energy there is in our community. I was asked to share my slides, so I have put them up on my site over at Radio Free Genome, and you can download the presentation directly from here.
Interesting article over at the New Scientist about the possibility of using supersonic jet fighters to neutralize hurricanes. The concept depends on our understanding of hurricanes as delicately-balanced dynamic systems that depend on that balance for self-reinforcement and building strength. Apparently, the math supports the concept of interfering with this delicate balance using the sonic booms created by a pair of jet fighters weaving in and out of the storm. There are challenges, of course, such as the demands of long cruising at supersonic speeds, but overall the article posits a very interesting (and probably verifiable) theory that would be very interesting to test.
Fighter Jets Battle Hurricane
Therein lies the rub, however. The article is all about a patent. Yes, kids, a patent. I take this to mean that if someone wanted to try and stop a hurricane from ravaging the coastline of some hapless country, they would run the risk of getting sued by the patent holder unless the licensing fees were paid. This seems kind of crazy, especially since lives are potentially involved- are they really going to stop someone from saving lives with this approach? Sheesh.
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!
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.