Space

In the Search for Alien Life, 'Everyone Is an Astrobiologist' (scientificamerican.com) 41

Mary Voytek, NASA's senior scientist for astrobiology, likes to tell other researchers that "everyone is an astrobiologist; they just don't know it yet." From a report: What she means is that answering the question currently at the heart of astrobiology -- Does life exist beyond Earth? -- requires input from an incredibly wide range of disciplines, including astrophysics, geology, exoplanet science, planetary science, chemistry and various subfields of biology.

On the plus side, that means astrobiologists have a lot of resources to draw on. But it also means that people like Voytek have to deal with a flood of relevant information coming in from all of those scientific fields and figure out how to get scientists from those disciplines to work together. Voytek and other NASA representatives discussed how they are dealing with that information influx, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field, at the Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe meeting, hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, here at the University of California, Irvine this week.

Science

Engineers Design Artificial Synapse For 'Brain-on-a-chip' Hardware (mit.edu) 108

Researchers in the emerging field of "neuromorphic computing" have attempted to design computer chips that work like the human brain. From a report: Instead of carrying out computations based on binary, on/off signaling, like digital chips do today, the elements of a "brain on a chip" would work in an analog fashion, exchanging a gradient of signals, or "weights," much like neurons that activate in various ways depending on the type and number of ions that flow across a synapse. In this way, small neuromorphic chips could, like the brain, efficiently process millions of streams of parallel computations that are currently only possible with large banks of supercomputers. But one significant hangup on the way to such portable artificial intelligence has been the neural synapse, which has been particularly tricky to reproduce in hardware.

Now engineers at MIT have designed an artificial synapse in such a way that they can precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses, made from silicon germanium. In simulations, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy. The design, published today in the journal Nature Materials, is a major step toward building portable, low-power neuromorphic chips for use in pattern recognition and other learning tasks.

Medicine

The Second Coming of Ultrasound (wired.com) 61

Ultrasound, which works on the principle of piezoelectricity, is finding a second lease of life in medicine, Wired outlines. Applying voltage to a piezoelectric crystal makes it vibrate, sending out a sound wave. When the echo that bounces back is converted into electrical signals, you get an image of, say, a fetus, or a submarine. But in the last few years, the lo-fi tech has reinvented itself in some weird new ways. From a report: Researchers are fitting people's heads with ultrasound-emitting helmets to treat tremors and Alzheimer's. They're using it to remotely activate cancer-fighting immune cells. Startups are designing swallowable capsules and ultrasonically vibrating enemas to shoot drugs into the bloodstream. One company is even using the shockwaves to heal wounds -- stuff Curie never could have even imagined. So how did this 100-year-old technology learn some new tricks? With the help of modern-day medical imaging, and lots and lots of bubbles.
Medicine

Vaping Can Be Addictive and May Lure Teenagers to Smoking, Science Panel Concludes (nytimes.com) 229

A national panel of public health experts concluded in a report released on Tuesday that vaping with e-cigarettes that contain nicotine can be addictive and that teenagers who use the devices may be put at higher risk of switching to traditional smoking. From a report: Whether teenage use of e-cigarettes may lead to conventional smoking has been intensely debated in the United States and elsewhere. While the industry argues that vaping is not a steppingstone to conventional cigarettes or addiction, some antismoking advocates contend that young people become hooked on nicotine, and are enticed to cancer-causing tobacco-based cigarettes over time. The new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is the most comprehensive analysis of existing research on e-cigarettes. It concluded the devices are safer than traditional smoking products and that they do help smokers quit, citing conclusive proof that switching can reduce smokers' exposure to deadly tar, numerous dangerous chemicals and other carcinogens.

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