Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advances in Genetics

One of the most fascinating branches of science is the study of Man himself. What are we made of, why do we do what we do, what is our potential, and how can we improve ourselves? The field of genomics (the study of human genes) and the related field of proteomics (the study of human proteins, the basic building materials of cells) are attempting to answer these questions at the molecular level, and rapid strides are being made as new and more powerful tools for genome research are coming into use. The current episode of Future Talk examines recent progress in these fields with two top researchers. Michael Snyder is Chairman of the Genetics Department and Director of the Center of Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, and has a PhD from Caltech. He’s a leader in the field of functional genomics and proteomics, he’s created several new genome mapping technologies,  and is cofounder of several biotechnology companies, including Protometrix, Affomix, and Personalis. Russ Altman is Professor of Bioengineering, Genetics, and Medicine and former Chairman of the Stanford Bioengineering Department, with MD and PhD degrees from Stanford. His primary research is in the use of sophisticated computer modeling to determine how our genetic traits influence the way our bodies respond to medicinal drugs, which could open the way to much more personalized medical treatment. Russ was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Questions addressed on the program include whether the genome contains information for intangible traits such as intelligence and personality, the type of methodologies used to unlock the secrets of the genome, how a person's genome can be used to predict susceptibility to certain diseases, whether it's possible to modify the genome to reduce susceptibility to disease or make general improvements to a person's physical attributes, and how to address possible ethical issues involved in altering the genome. It's quite an interesting program. To view it, click here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Future Talk tours NASA Ames

The Future Talk crew
NASA's Ames Research Center, located at Moffett Field in Mountain View, CA, is one of the top space research facilities in the world, and the home of a lot of cutting edge science. The Future Talk crew recently had the opportunity to take a guided tour of ARC, at the invitation of Pete Wordenthe ARC director, who appeared as a guest on a recent episode of Future Talk. Dr. Worden is a retired Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force with a Ph.D. in Astronomy who's regarded as an expert in almost every area of space research, both civilian and military. ARC's main focus these days is exoplanetary research, which means finding planets circling other stars and studying them to see if they have any earthlike qualities. The Kepler Mission has already found many planets whose surface temperature appears to be in the range capable of supporting life, and the next step is to study the chemical composition of those planets to see if the actual ingredients for life are present.  

Heat shield simulation
Part of our tour included a visit to Rus Belikov's Coronagraph Lab, which is devising experiments to test for the elements of life, especially oxygen. We also visited the NASA Supercomputing Center, which uses some of the most powerful computer systems in the world to solve difficult problems, many of them involving computer simulations. For example, we saw a display showing the heat resistance properties of differently shaped nosecones traveling at different air speeds, something crucial in launching rockets and also returning them back to earth. 

Simulated air traffic control tower
NASA also contracts with civilian agencies to apply its computing power to earthbound problems as well. We visited a simulated air traffic control tower, where we enjoyed a highly detailed 360 degree view of Los Angeles airport, with planes constantly taking off and landing. We observed the airport operations under several sets of conditions, including daylight, nighttime, rain, snow, fog and earthquake. The purpose of the simulation is to define the best runway layouts for airports so they can handle the maximum number of flights with the least possible risk of accidents. 

After a while, the technician pushed a button,  and instead of seeing LA airport, we were seeing a panoramic view of the surface of Mars, the Curiosity Rover in the distance and its tracks clearly visible. Our overall impression was that of very serious people doing very serious work that could ultimately help us better understand our place in the Universe. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

zCon shows off 3D technology

zSpace is a Silicon Valley company that's creating fascinating tools for 3D computing. They've created their own 3D hardware platform, and are now inviting outside developers to create applications for it. In order to promote and expand these partnerships, they recently held zCon 2013, the zSpace Developers Conference, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. The technology was indeed impressive. At one display, putting on a pair of special glasses, I could see a 3D image of the Mars Curiosity Rover. By pointing with a penlike device, I could grab one of the legs and make it move up and down. Or I could grab the entire craft and by rotating the pen, flip it over to see the underside. There clearly seems to be a high demand for this type of technology in many areas of design. 

There was also a very interesting talk by Hollywood producer Jon Landau, whose film credits include Titanic and the 3D hit Avatar, and who gave a fascinating behind the scenes look at the creation of Avatar. For the technically minded, there was an interesting presentation by Mark Flynn, zSpace's Director of Displays, who explained how zSpace's specially made display screens work with zSpace glasses, using circular polarization of light to get the 3D effects. I think we can expect to see this technology popping up in many places in the near future.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Israeli group seeks Google Lunar X Prize

The Google Lunar X Prize, an attempt to promote private exploration of space, will pay $20 million to the first privately funded organization to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, have that craft travel at least 500 meters across the lunar surface, and send back television pictures. To make it even more challenging, the mission has to take place before the end of 2015. 

An Israeli group called SpaceIL has accepted the challenge and is hoping that its unique approach will enable it to beat out the other 25 registered competitors. Speaking in Silicon Valley the other night, Yariv Bash, the founder and CEO of SpaceIL, explained their approach. First, they won't design their own rockets from scratch. Instead, they'll rent space on a commercial rocket that's already scheduled to lift a satellite into orbit about 22,000 miles above the earth. The very small size of the SpaceIL robot, named "Sparrow", makes this arrangement feasible. It will weigh about 100 kilograms (220 pounds), about 2/3 of which is fuel. Once it's in Earth orbit, it will use its own power to get to the Moon. Rather than traversing the lunar landscape in a wheeled vehicle which is complicated and expensive to build, it will achieve its motion by "hopping" in the light lunar gravity. According to Bash, advanced nanotechnology and high quality electronics will be the keys to its success.

SpaceIL was launched by a tiny group of friends with no real resources or expertise, but because of their inspiration and determination they've gained the support of many of Israel's leading high tech companies and agencies as well as Israel's president Shimon Peres. Still, Bash says the effort will probably cost more than the prize is worth, but even if they don't win the prize, they'll still continue their work until they achieve a lunar landing. He says the real goal is to inspire young Israelis to seek careers in science, as well as to make Israel the third nation, after the U.S. and the (former) Soviet Union to plant its flag on the lunar surface.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Can social networking technology bring peace?

Pakistani and Indian students
getting along
Can social networking tools such as Facebook advance the cause of peace? In order to find out, I recently interviewed two researchers from the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University. Margarita Quihuis is the Director of the Lab, as well as a social entrepreneur, mentor capitalist, and former head of a Silicon Valley technology incubator for women entrepreneurs. Mark Nelson is a co-founder of the Lab, and head of the EPIC Challenge, which promotes positive social interactions across conflict boundaries. The goal of the Peace Innovation Lab is to create grassroots contacts between people on opposite sides of conflicts in the hope that this may eventually tip the balance of power from war to peace. In addition to discussing the work of the Lab, which includes significant support from Facebook itself, we also touched on the underlying causes of conflict, whether peace or war is the natural condition of Mankind, and whether fostering a global consciousness  can overcome the many divisions pushing the world toward armed conflict. To view the program in its entirety, click here. To see it broken down into three shorter segments, click here.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What's new in neuroscience?

An early conception of the brain
The human brain is one of the most fascinating objects in the universe, and one of the most important to understand, but also one of the most difficult to study. However, a lot of new research is taking place which is opening up our understanding of the mind like never before. The latest Future Talk features a discussion of the latest developments in neuroscience with two guests. Michael Merzenich is a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco who has won many awards and honors for his work, and who is especially well known for his research in brain plasticity. Simon Tan is a clinical neuropsychologist at Stanford Medical Center who also maintains a private practice in neuropsychology.

The discussion includes the differences between "brain" and "mind", common mental impairments and untapped mental potentials. We also talked about the nature of thought, consciousness and intelligence. Although these latter topics are far from understood, just discussing them seems to be a worthwhile exercise in itself that can conceivably lead to new insights.

To watch the show in its entirety, click here, or to watch it as a series of three shorter segments, click here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

How to create a mind

Ray Kurzweil
I went to an interesting talk at the Commonwealth Club a few days ago by Ray Kurzweil, the well known author, inventor and futurist who has spent decades studying human intelligence and machine intelligence and trying to enhance them both, and who is especially known for his work on the "technological singularity". He was discussing his latest book, "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed", in which he attempts to reverse engineer the human brain to figure out how it works, and then find ways to apply that knowledge to make both men and machines more intelligent than ever before, perhaps merging the two to create a new kind of being altogether. Although he has his critics, Kurzweil's past predictions have proven to be surprisingly accurate, and he's certainly one of today's most interesting and stimulating futuristic thinkers. I'll have more to say when I finish reading his book.