Friday, June 12, 2009

Shared Google Reader Items, 6/12/2009

Hey, remember when I used to post about the cool things I'd read in my RSS feeds from Google Reader? I miss that. I think I'm going to do that again. I'm picking my favorites for the week, rather than failing to post it daily. Let's see how that goes.

Since I'm only posting about my favorites, I'll try to say a little more about them. We start with a guy who's waaaaaaaaaay geekier than I am, which makes me very jealous.

I've mentioned my fascination with mecha (walking vehicles controlled by a pilot inside of them, often mimicing the pilot's motion) before, but this guy has me beat by a lot. It took him 4 years and $25,000, but this guy really built an 18-foot-tall robot vehicle. I'm just blown away that this thing is real. The scary part: he lives in Wasilla, Alaska. That is probably the last town I would like to have access to a mecha army.

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka the government organization that funds all of the crazy cool research) is working on "programmable matter," materials that can change shape on command. Right now it's only "self-folding origami"--materials that fold along macroscopic-level, defined lines--but the idea is to eventually get it down to a molecular level. In other words, DARPA is funding creation of the T-1000. Assuming they don't combine it with a malevolent artificial intelligence, that's just awesome.

I've seen poorly reported stories in New Scientist before (such as their story about SETI finding a signal from an alien civilization, to which the SETI researchers involved replied (paraphrasing) "We did what now?" (I think this is the story, but I also think they've toned it down from the original). That said, this story about research into the structural basis for intelligence is very interesting. If the story's true, we might not be far from pills that make us smarter. The pills won't fill up our better brains with information, but making everyone more capable to learn and reason seems very interesting.

Bose-Einstein condensates are strange states of matter, made up of a very low temperature gas of bosons. Strange things can happen in Bose-Einstein condensates. A strange thing that had been predicted for a while but not yet observed was the ability to create an accoustic equivalent of a black hole--in other words, a thing that is to sound waves and "phonons" (the particle equivalents of sound waves) what black holes are to light waves and photons. A team in Israel has made one. Don't worry, this thing isn't going to suck the world into it or anything (not that normal black holes would do that, either). But it very possibly will allow us to observe Hawking radiation. That's the stuff predicted to be given off by black holes, the prediction that made Stephen Hawking famous enough among physicists that he could become famous to non-physicists. Confirming that prediction gets us another step toward understanding how the universe works. Neat.

Nokia is developing a wireless phone that can charge off of ambient electromagnetic fields--all of those waves broadcast all around us, such as the stuff the wireless phone itself runs off of, or television and radio transmissions. It isn't much yet, but it only needs to be a little. The goal is to make it produce more power while idling than it uses to idle. If it can do that, its charge will go up when it's sitting in your pocket, rather than draining. To me, that's unbelievably awesome. It's using power that's there already, that we currently waste. So very cool, and such an amazingly awesome idea.

A boy claims he was hit by a meteorite [the only skeptical version of this story on the interwebs, thanks to the Bad Astronomer]

There's a good chance a kid got injured by a meteorite. There is no chance he got hit by a meteorite traveling at 30,000 mph, though. If he did, 1) that meteorite would not be behaving like meteorites behave, and 2) he'd be dead. But on the assumption that he's just getting some facts wrong, and journalists are doing their regular bad job of finding out what actually happened. But hey, he probably at least got hit by shrapnel from a meteorite, and walked away with just a scratch. Neat. For his sake, I kinda hope it leaves a scar. That's a hell of a story.

Warp Drive Engine Could Suck Earth Into Black Hole [, via Holly on Facebook]

Let's hope 1 plus 1 equals 3. If the universe behaves like it seems to behave, some Italian researchers think a warp drive would incinerate the ship using it and suck observers into a black hole. Hmm, I should probably back up.

In the 90s, a physicist named Michael Alcubierre figured out, in theory, how to make what's now called an Alcubierre warp drive. Nothing can move faster than light. Well, no thing can move faster than light. But Alcubierre figured out that spacetime can move faster than light. So if we could move the spacetime around a ship, we could go faster than light. And there might even be ways to make that happen.

But now researchers in Italy have figured out that, once the ship ran out of energy, the bubble of fast-moving spacetime would rupture, the inside would rise to a temperature hotter than the temperature of the core of the Sun squared, and then squared again, and then multiplied by the temperature of the core of the Sun again for good measure. The warp drive might then collapse into a black hole. That might not be the most convenient mode of transportation.

However, if string theory is correct (described by the author of the article as "a universe where 1 plus 1 equals 3"), there might be a way to make a stable warp drive. We'd need to convert the entire mass of Jupiter into energy to power it, which might be a bit inconvenient, but maybe the Nokia guys can come up with something a bit less destructive by the time we work out all of the other details of how to make the thing.

That's it for this week. As always, leave any comments on these or any of my other shared items below.


Libby Hickson said...

Very interesting stuff! That thing in Wasilla is scary though, as is making a T1000. :-)

Die Anyway said...

Yes, cool stuff Jon. I go out to the garage and repair a bicycle innertube while some other guy builds a $25,000 walking combat machine.
And I wonder if that wireless power idea could be used to make a "perpetual motion" machine?

Jon Harmon said...

Well, it could be used to *simulate* a perpetual motion machine, but of course that machine would stop running if you, say, put it in a Faraday cage.

The power one is definitely the one I find to be the coolest. It's not *really* free energy, but it's close to it, since the power to broadcast those signals through where I'm sitting would be spent whether I was leaching it to charge my cell phone or not.