Thursday, September 20, 2012

Science and SF Tidbits: September 20, 2012

Recent science and science fiction-related links:

• NASA | MAVEN: Mars Atmospheric Loss (YouTube)
The NASA MAVEN probe will study the atmosphere of Mars.
Maybe they can figure out why the Atmosphere Plant broke down so the Barsoomians can return home!

• Peek inside the anatomies of Gremlins, Predators, and Martian Invaders »
If you dissected an alien xenomorph or a mogwai what would its anatomy look like? These drawings by Brad McGinty give an inside look.

• 'Blue Brain' project accurately predicts connections between neurons »
The Blue Brain Project is trying to better understand how the circuits in the brain form and to virtually model them "in silico". While it sounds like this is a major advance, we are still a long way from being able to upload our brains into a PC. From the article:
"Each neuron in the circuit was reconstructed into a 3D model on a powerful Blue Gene supercomputer. About 10,000 of virtual neurons were packed into a 3D space in random positions according to the density and ratio of morphological types found in corresponding living tissue."
That represents a tiny fraction of the total neurons in a human brain.

• Monkey Brain Booster | The Scientist »
Monkeys cognitively impaired with cocaine had their cognitive skills restored with carefully placed electrical impulses through an array of electrodes implanted in the prefrontal cortex of their brains. Interesting result, but I don't think we are going to see this used in humans until it's both a less invasive and also shown to boost brains from a wider range of cognitive deficits.

• Prehistoric "Movie Monster" Mollusk Re-created With 3-D Printer »
This is very cool: a team of scientists created a 3D model from a fossil multiplacophoran mollusk then used a 3D printer to make a physical model. It's not just for show:
"The new model also reveals that P. spinicoronatus was more heavily armored than other mollusks living at the time, and in fact resembled some modern chitons, which live in shallow, exposed environments where there are a lot of predators—as the team believes was the case for the prehistoric mollusk too"
• SETI Astronomer Jill Tarter Recalls ‘Contact,’ 15 Years On »
Jill Tartar was part of the inspiration for Ellie Arroway, the SETI researcher in Carl Sagan's Contact (played by Jodie Foster in the movie version). Tartar consulted with Foster and on the set of the movie, which had a couple of glaring scientific errors:
"There is a scene when Ellie gives a modified version of the Drake Equation, which calculates the odds of intelligent life who are capable of communicating with other life forms, and the calculations are all wrong. “It’s really infuriating,” Tarter said. "
Read the article for more. And if you'd like to become involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, you can participate in helping analyze potential signals here:

• The Birth of the New, The Rewiring of the Old | The Loom | Discover Magazine »
Richard Lenski's lab has been watching evolution in real time. Over the course of 24 years, the descendants of an E.coli bacterial line have been continuously cultured and watched for interesting changes. On branch of descendants have evolved an entirely new trait: the ability to flourish using citrate, rather than glucose, as food. And now they've started to unravel what happened on a molecular level to re-wire the bacteria. Very cool - and a hint as to how evolution works in more slowly reproducing critters.

Image: Artist's depiction of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. Credit:NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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