MrSeb writes: "Researchers at Cardiff University in the UK have found algae-like fossils in meteorite fragments that landed in Sri Lanka last year. This is the strongest evidence yet of cometary panspermia — that life on Earth began when a meteorite containing simple organisms landed here, billions of years ago — and, perhaps more importantly, that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. These findings aren’t a slam dunk, though. There’s a possibility that the fossils aren’t actually biological in nature — they simply look biological. There’s also the fact that the research was published in the Journal of Cosmology, a peer-reviewed journal that has come under critical scrutiny numerous times since it was established in 2009. The journal faced a lot of controversy when it published a paper by NASA engineer Richard Hoover claiming to have found fossils “similar to cyanobacteria” in meteorites. One thing’s for certain, though: For this to actually become science — for Chandra Wickramasinghe’s dream of panspermia to become a reality — this work will need to be replicated by many other groups around the world. It would be very, very exciting indeed if biological fossils have been found on an extraterrestrial meteorite. It would be proof that there’s life on other planets — and essentially a guarantee that the universe is full of life. But, as always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
MrSeb writes: "Researchers at MIT have discovered a new state of matter with a new kind of magnetism. This new state, called a quantum spin liquid (QSL), could lead to significant advances in data storage, superconductors, and long-range quantum entanglement communications. Generally, when we talk about magnetism’s role in the realm of technology, there are just two types: Ferromagnetism and antiferromagnetism. Ferromagnetism has been known about for centuries, and is the underlying force behind your compass’s spinning needle or the permanent bar magnets you played with at school. In ferromagnets, the spin (i.e. charge) of every electron is aligned in the same direction, causing two distinct poles. In antiferromagnets, neighboring electrons point in the opposite direction, causing the object to have zero net magnetism. In combination with ferromagnets, antiferromagnets are used to create spin valves: the magnetic sensors used in hard drive heads. In the case of this new state of matter, quantum spin liquids, the material is a solid crystal — but the internal magnetic state is constantly in flux. The magnetic orientations of the electrons (their magnetic moment) fluctuate as they interact with other nearby electrons. “But there is a strong interaction between them, and due to quantum effects, they don’t lock in place,” says Young Lee, senior author of the research. It is these strong interactions that apparently allow for long-range quantum entanglement."
MrSeb writes: "If you’ve not been tracking the thorium hype, you might be interested to learn that the benefits liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) have over light water uranium reactors (LWRs) are compelling. Alvin Weinberg, who invented both, favored the LFTR for civilian power since its failures (when they happened) were considerably less dramatic — a catastrophic depressurization of radioactive steam, like occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, simply wouldn’t be possible. Since the technical hurdles to building LFTRs and handling their byproducts are in theory no more challenging, one might ask — where are they? It turns out that a bunch of US startups are investigating the modern-day viability of thorium power, and countries like India and China have serious, governmental efforts to use LFTRs. Is thorium power finally ready for prime time?"
MrSeb writes: "An international team of engineers, physicists, and chemists have created the first fiber-optic solar cell. These fibers are thinner than human hair, flexible, and yet they produce electricity, just like a normal solar cell. The US military is already interested in weaving these threads into clothing, to provide a wearable power source for soldiers. In essence, the research team started with optical fibers made from glass — and then, using high-pressure chemical vapor deposition, injected n-, i-, and p-type silicon into the fiber, turning it into a solar cell. Functionally, these silicon-doped fiber-optic threads are identical to conventional solar cells, generating electricity from the photovoltaic effect. Whereas almost every solar cell on the market is crafted out of 2D, planar amorphous silicon on a rigid/brittle glass substrate, though, these fiber-optic solar cells have a 3D cross-section and retain the glass fiber’s intrinsic flexibility. The lead researcher, John Badding of Penn State University, says the team has already produced “meters-long fiber,” and that their new technique could be used to create “bendable silicon solar-cell fibers of over 10 meters in length.” From there, it’s simply a matter of weaving the thread into a fabric."
MrSeb writes: "A team of material scientists from Wake Forest University in North Carolina have developed plastic light bulbs that are shatterproof, flicker-free, and seem to last forever. Furthermore, these plastic bulbs are about twice as efficient as fluorescent bulbs, on-par with LED bulbs, and — perhaps best of all — they produce a color and quality of light that “can match the solar spectrum perfectly.” These new bulbs are based on field-induced polymer electroluminescent (FIPEL) technology, with a twist. FIPEL is a fairly old technology that involves running electricity through a conductive polymer called poly(vinylcarbazole) to produce light — but not enough light to be used as a light bulb. Now, by doping the polymer with carbon nanotubes, Wake Forest has increased the polymer’s luminance by about five times — and voila, we’re into light bulb territory."
MrSeb writes: "A group of neuroscientists and software engineers at the University of Waterloo in Canada are claiming to have built the world’s most complex, large-scale model simulation of the human brain. The simulated brain, which runs on a supercomputer, has a digital eye which it uses for visual input, a robotic arm that it uses to draw its responses — and it can pass the basic elements of an IQ test. The brain, called Spaun (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), consists of 2.5 million simulated neurons, allowing it to perform eight different tasks. These tasks range from copy drawing to counting, to question answering and fluid reasoning. The neurons are broken down into a bunch of simulated cranial subsystems, including the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and thalamus, which are wired together with simulated neurons that very accurately mimic the wiring of a real human brain. The basic idea is that these subsystems behave very similarly to a real brain: Visual input is processed by the thalamus, the data is stored in the neurons, and then the basal ganglia fires off a task to a part of the cortex that’s designed to handle that task. As for the ultimate end goal, Eliasmith is excited about Spaun’s prospects. “It lets us understand how the brain, the biological substrate, and behavior relate. That’s important for all sorts of health applications,” he says. In testing he has “killed” synthetic neurons and watched performance degrade, which could provide an interesting insight into natural aging and degenerative disorders."
MrSeb writes: "What could possibly be cooler than graphene or carbon nanotubes? Rice University’s new material that consists of forests of carbon nanotubes grown on sheets of graphene, of course! This graphene/nanotube hybrid is as awesome as it sounds, too; we’re talking about a material that might be the single best electrode interface possible, potentially revolutionizing both energy storage (batteries, supercapacitors) and electronics. This new material basically consists of a sheet of graphene, with carbon nanotubes up to a length of 120 microns (0.12mm) growing off it, which is really rather impressive at this scale. If we scaled it up to actual trees, they would rise into outer space. Most importantly, though, is that the bonds between the graphene and nanotubes are completely seamless — as far as electrons are concerned, there is absolutely no resistance when transitioning between graphene and nanotube. Why is this important? Because this hybrid material has a ridiculously vast surface area: A single gram of the new material has a surface area of 2,000 square meters (21,500 sq ft) — half an acre of the most conductive material in the world. When it comes to energy storage, there is a direct correlation between energy density and the surface area of the electrodes — this new graphene/nanotube hybrid could result in significantly smaller batteries, or larger batteries that can do more work. In testing, Rice University created a supercapacitor with the new material that matches “the best carbon-based supercapacitors that have ever been made,” which is impressive because “we’re not really a supercapacitor lab, and still we were able to match the performance because of the quality of the electrode.”"
MrSeb writes: "Engineers at Caltech and the University of Victoria in Canada have smashed their own internet speed records, achieving a memory-to-memory transfer rate of 339 gigabits per second (5.3GB/s), 187Gbps (2.9GB/s) over a single duplex 100-gigabit connection, and a max disk-to-disk transfer speed of 96Gbps (1.5GB/s). At a sustained rate of 339Gbps, such a network could transfer four million gigabytes (4PB) of data per day — or around 200,000 Blu-ray movie rips. These speed records are all very impressive, but what’s the point? Put simply, the scientific world deals with vasts amount of data — and that data needs to be moved around the world quickly. The most obvious example of this is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider; in the past year, the high-speed academic networks connecting CERN to the outside world have transferred more than 100 petabytes of data. It is because of these networks that we can discover new particles, such as the Higgs boson. In essence, Caltech and the University of Victoria have taken it upon themselves to ride the bleeding edge of high-speed networks so that science can continue to prosper."
MrSeb writes: "The dream of faster-than-light travel has been on the mind of humanity for generations. Until recently, though, it was restricted to the realm of pure science fiction. Theoretical mechanisms for warp drives have been posited by science, some of which actually jive quite nicely with what we know of physics. Of course, that doesn't mean they’re actually going to work, though. NASA researchers recently revisited the Alcubierre warp drive and concluded that its power requirements were not as impossible as once thought. However, a new analysis from the University of Sydney claims that using a warp drive of this design comes with a drawback. Specifically, it could cause cataclysmic explosions at your destination."
MrSeb writes: "Scientists at Duke University have created the first invisibility cloak that perfectly hides centimeter-scale objects. While invisibility cloaks have been created before, they have all reflected some of the incident light, ruining the illusion. In this case, the incident light is perfectly channeled around the object, creating perfect invisibility. There are some caveats, of course. You didn’t really think you’d soon be sneaking away with Ron or Hermione (delete as applicable) into the woods, did you? For now, the Duke invisibility cloak only works with microwave radiation — and perhaps more importantly, the cloak is unidirectional (it only provides invisibility from one very specific direction). The big news here, though, is that it is even possible to create an invisibility cloak of any description. It is now just a matter of time before visible-light, omnidirectional invisibility cloaks are created."
MrSeb writes: "Two European theoretical physicists have shown that it may be possible to build a near-perfect, entangled quantum battery. In the future, such quantum batteries might power the tiniest of devices — or provide power storage that is much more efficient than state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery packs. In a quantum system, some quantum states have energy that can be extracted, reducing the system to a passive, neutral energy state. Robert Alicki of the University of Gdansk in Poland, and Mark Fannes of the University of Leuven in Belgium, theorize that it should be possible to build a quantum battery that is full of energy-rich quantum states — and then, somehow, recharge it when you run out of juice. Better yet, the physicists also theorize that quantum entanglement could be used to create an even more efficient quantum battery. In essence, Alicki and Fannes say that you can link together any number of quantum batteries, allowing you to extract all of the stored energy in one big gulp. Their research paper goes on to say that with enough entanglement, these batteries would be perfect — with no energy lost/wasted during charge or discharge."
MrSeb writes: "Felix Baumgartner has successfully completed his stratospheric skydive from 128,000 feet (39km), breaking a record that was set 52 years ago by Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger — that much we know. From the balloon, to the capsule, to the gear that Baumgartner wore during his 730 mph (1174 kph) free fall, the technology behind the scenes is impressive, and in some cases bleeding edge. ExtremeTech takes a deep dive into the tech that kept Baumgartner alive during the three-hour ascent and (much shorter) descent — and the tech that allowed us to watch every moment of the Red Bull Stratos mission live, as captured by no less than 15 digital cameras and numerous other scientific instruments."
MrSeb writes: "Scientists at Yale University have discovered a nearby super-Earth that is a “diamond planet” — a planet that has a mantle made of graphite and diamond. The planet, called 55 Cancri e, is just 40 light years from Earth and orbits the binary star 55 Cancri, which is located in the constellation of Cancer. When the planet was first observed last year, it was originally thought to be a water planet, similar to Earth, but new information has allowed the scientists to infer that the planet is much more likely to be a diamond planet. The Yale scientists estimate that as much as one third of 55 Cancri e’s mass is made up of diamond — the same as three Earth masses, or roughly 18×1024kg. This is a few trillion times more diamond than has ever been mined on Earth. The identification of just a single diamond-rich planet is massive news. In recent years we have identified hundreds of rocky, Earth-like planets — and until now, we had assumed they had similar make-ups. It is now fairly safe to assume that there are millions of diamond planets in the universe."
MrSeb writes: "A few hundred million miles away on the surface of the Red Planet, Mars rover Curiosity has discovered an unidentified, shiny, metallic object. Now, before you get too excited, the most likely explanation is that bright object is part of the rover that has fallen off — or perhaps some debris from MSL Curiosity’s landing on Mars, nine weeks ago. There is the distinct possibility, however, that this object is actually native to Mars, which would be far more exciting. It could be the tip of a larger object, or perhaps some kind of exotic, metallic Martian pebble (a piece of metal ore, perhaps). Close-up imagery will now be captured and analyzed, and within the next few days we should know if it's simply a piece of Curiosity — or something a whole lot more exciting indeed."
MrSeb writes: "A team of quantum engineers in Germany have created the first air-to-surface quantum network, between a base station and an airplane flying 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) above. The researchers, led by Sebastian Nauerth of the Ludwig Maximilian University, performed the experiment at an airport near Munich using a specially-equipped plane. The airplane is outfitted with a a photon source (a laser), and a system that can alter the spin (polarization) of the photons very exactly to encode data using the BB84 quantum key distribution protocol. Once the plane is aloft, the base station (a telescope) tracks the plane using a motorized mirror, which is quite difficult as the plane is moving at 300 kmh (200 mph) and is 20 kilometers up in the air. The telescope picks up the transmitted photons, bounces them through a few more mirrors, and then uses a very sensitive photodetector to turn them into qubits. All told, the plane/base station were able to maintain a stable link for 10 minutes, transmitting 145 qubits per second, with a quantum bit error rate (QBER) of 4.8%. This might seem like a small amount of data, but it’s more than enough to securely transmit an encryption key that can then be used to encrypt normal data that’s sent over standard, classical networks."