Science & Technology

Post-It Note

Language: What will the world speak in 2115?

Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel
In 1880 a Bavarian priest created a language that he hoped the whole world could use. He mixed words from French, German and English and gave his creation the name Volapük, which didn't do it any favors. Worse, Volapük was hard to use, sprinkled with odd sounds and case endings like Latin.

It made a splash for a few years but was soon pushed aside by another invented language, Esperanto, which had a lyrical name and was much easier to master. A game learner could pick up its rules of usage in an afternoon.

But it didn't matter. By the time Esperanto got out of the gate, another language was already emerging as an international medium: English. Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark. A thousand years after that, it was living in the shadow of French-speaking overlords on a dampish little island. No one then living could have dreamed that English would be spoken today, to some degree, by almost two billion people, on its way to being spoken by every third person on the planet.

Science fiction often presents us with whole planets that speak a single language, but that fantasy seems more menacing here in real life on this planet we call home - that is, in a world where some worry that English might eradicate every other language. That humans can express themselves in several thousand languages is a delight in countless ways; few would welcome the loss of this variety.

But the existence of so many languages can also create problems: It isn't an accident that the Bible's tale of the Tower of Babel presents multilingualism as a divine curse meant to hinder our understanding. One might even ask: If all humans had always spoken a single language, would anyone wish we were instead separated now by thousands of different ones?

Comment: Meaning and nuance of human diversity: Information gained. Increased complexity and discovery demands the evolution of language and the invention of terminology.

In the beginning there was the WORD. The rest is history.


Galactic CAT scan reveals bubbly interior of supernova Cassiopeia A

© D. Milisavljevic (CfA) & R. Fesen (Dartmouth)
Astronomers have produced a 3D map of the interior of Cassiopeia A, a supernova in our galaxy, using the astronomical equivalent of a CAT scan.

The Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, exploded around 340 years ago and its relatively close proximity to the Earth makes it one of the most well-studied supernovas in our galaxy. Many astronomers still observe the supernova with great interest.

A new study conducted by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Dartmouth College unravels the bubbly interior of the supernova. The findings may shed more light on the way a supernova dies.

"Our three-dimensional map is a rare look at the insides of an exploded star," said Dan Milisavljevic of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Astronomers explain that when a star explodes, it spews out extremely radioactive and hot matter outward from the core of the star. It is complex to model such process even with some of the most powerful computers on Earth.

However, by cautiously studying the remnants of fairly young supernovae such as Cas A, astronomers can examine several key processes that drive such stellar explosions.
Alarm Clock

Researchers investigate link between hydrogen sulfide poisoning and psychological and neurological problems in humans

Ongoing research at Iowa State University is investigating the long-term neurological damage caused by hydrogen sulfide poisoning, a threat to both humans and animals that can originate from sources as varied as swamps to industrial processes to manure pits.

Wilson Rumbeiha, a professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, said the poison targets multiple systems in the human body, including the respiratory and cardiovascular systems and the brain. In high enough concentrations, exposure to the gas can be acutely fatal.

But Rumbeiha's research is focused on the long-term consequences of hydrogen sulfide poisoning in survivors. He said exposure can bring about psychological and neurological problems in humans, sometimes months after the exposure.

"In some cases, survivors can end up in a permanent vegetative state," Rumbeiha sad. "We don't have an antidote, and little is known about the mechanisms behind how it works. It's really a novel area that hasn't been investigated very well."

Rumbeiha recently received a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the long-term risks associated with exposure to the gas and to test a drug that may pave the way to a therapy in humans. Rumbeiha is working with personnel at the University of California, San Diego, to determine if a novel compound currently being investigated as a treatment for cyanide exposure may also have benefits in cases of hydrogen sulfide poisoning.

Comment: Such research may prove highly significant given the increasing number of 'stinky smell' cases all around the world, such as in Moscow recently. See also:

Blue Planet

Stunning time lapse video shows off Earth bathed in infrared light

© Screenshot from
A mesmerizing new video showcases what the Earth looks like in infrared light - something that is invisible to the human eye but that nonetheless radiates from the planet's surface constantly.

Using images captured by two of NASA's geostationary satellites, GOES 13 and GOES 15, University of Victoria graduate student James Tyrwhitt-Drake pieced them together to create an impressive time lapse. The video covers nearly two months of time, between November 30, 2014 and January 26, 2015.

The resulting footage depicts infrared light as it is absorbed by the planet's clouds and water vapor. The brighter a section looks in the video, the more infrared light is being blasted into space.

New computer, smart phone app would monitor 'mental health' through social media

Researchers at the University of Rochester have developed an innovative approach to turn any computer or smartphone with a camera into a personal mental health monitoring device.

In a paper to be presented this week at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence conference in Austin, Texas, Professor of Computer Science Jiebo Luo and his colleagues describe a computer program that can analyze "selfie" videos recorded by a webcam as the person engages with social media.

Apps to monitor people's health are widely used, from monitoring the spread of the flu to providing guidance on nutrition and managing mental health issues. Luo explains that his team's approach is to "quietly observe your behavior" while you use the computer or phone as usual. He adds that their program is "unobtrusive; it does not require the user to explicitly state what he or she is feeling, input any extra information, or wear any special gear." For example, the team was able to measure a user's heart rate simply by monitoring very small, subtle changes in the user's forehead color. The system does not grab other data that might be available through the phone - such as the user's location.

The researchers were able to analyze the video data to extract a number of "clues," such as heart rate, blinking rate, eye pupil radius, and head movement rate. At the same time, the program also analyzed both what the users posted on Twitter, what they read, how fast they scrolled, their keystroke rate and their mouse click rate. Not every input is treated equally though: what a user tweets, for example, is given more weight than what the user reads because it is a direct expression of what that user is thinking and feeling.

To calibrate the system and generate a reaction they can measure, Luo explained, he and his colleagues enrolled 27 participants in a test group and "sent them messages, real tweets, with sentiment to induce their emotion." This allowed them to gauge how subjects reacted after seeing or reading material considered to be positive or negative.

They compared the outcome from all their combined monitoring with the users' self reports about their feelings to find out how well the program actually performs, and whether it can indeed tell how the user feels. The combination of the data gathered by the program with the users' self-reported state of mind (called the ground truth) allows the researchers to train the system. The program then begins to understand from just the data gathered whether the user is feeling positive, neutral or negative.

Researchers discover environmentally-friendly process for the purification of water

water purification process
© Thor Nielsen/SINTEF
When biologist Netzer (left), who specialises in bioprocesses, met electrochemist Colmenares, whose field is water purification, they came up with the idea of a practical, microbial, energy-generating water purification system. Today their demonstration plant is up and running.
Researchers in Trondheim have succeeded in getting bacteria to power a fuel cell. The "fuel" used is wastewater, and the products of the process are pure water droplets and electricity.

This is an environmentally-friendly process for the purification of water derived from industrial processes and suchlike", says SINTEF researcher Luis Cesar Colmenares, who is running the project together with his colleague Roman Netzer. "It also generates small amounts of electricity - in practice enough to drive a small fan, a sensor or a light-emitting diode", he says.

In the future, the researchers hope to scale up this energy generation to enable the same energy to be used to power the water purification process, which commonly consists of many stages, often involving mechanical and energy-demanding decontamination steps at its outset.

Swedish office puts chips under staff's skin

Want to gain entry to your office, get on a bus, or perhaps buy a sandwich? We're all getting used to swiping a card to do all these things. But at Epicenter, a new hi-tech office block in Sweden, they are trying a different approach - a chip under the skin.

Felicio de Costa, whose company is one of the tenants, arrives at the front door and holds his hand against it to gain entry. Inside he does the same thing to get into the office space he rents, and he can also wave his hand to operate the photocopier.

That's all because he has a tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip, about the size of a grain of rice, implanted in his hand. Soon, others among the 700 people expected to occupy the complex will also be offered the chance to be chipped. Along with access to doors and photocopiers, they're promised further services in the longer run, including the ability to pay in the cafe with a touch of a hand.

On the day of the building's official opening, the developer's chief executive was, himself, chipped live on stage. And I decided that if was to get to grips with this technology, I had to bite the bullet - and get chipped too.

Skin patches to turn people into batteries

© National University of Singapore
In the sci-fi classic The Matrix, one of the film's most bananas moments reveals that futuristic machines are using cocooned human bodies as a kind of bioelectric power source. Those rascally science fiction writers - always with the crazy concepts.

Well, it turns out the people-as-batteries scenario is actually well on its way. A new device unveiled last week at a European research conference is designed to do just that - tapping the energy of human body to generate power for wearable computers and devices.

The postage-stamp sized generator, developed by researchers at the National University of Singapore, actuall y leverages the power of static electricity. When certain kinds of dissimilar surfaces are put in close contact, an electrical charge builds that can be harvested when the surfaces are flexed or pulled apart.

The phenomenon is called the triboelectric effect, and the new device radically miniaturizes the approach by using nanoscale elements - plus the wearer's skin itself as one of the opposing surfaces. The research was presented at this year's IEEE MEMS 2015 conference in Portugal.
Eye 1

Psychopath's brain structurally different - can't understand punishment

Psychopathic violent offenders have abnormalities in the parts of the brain related to learning from punishment
, according to an MRI study led by Sheilagh Hodgins and Nigel Blackwood.

"One in five violent offenders is a psychopath. They have higher rates of recidivism and don't benefit from rehabilitation programmes. Our research reveals why this is and can hopefully improve childhood interventions to prevent violence and behavioural therapies to reduce recidivism," explained Professor Hodgins of the University of Montreal and Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal. "Psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways. Regular criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered and aggressive, while psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their aggressivity is premeditated," added Dr. Nigel Blackwood, who is affiliated with King's College London. "Evidence is now accumulating to show that both types of offenders present abnormal, but distinctive, brain development from a young age."

Comment: The vast majority of psychopaths never get in contact with the criminal system, but still leave a trail of psychological and economical destruction behind. The criminal psychopath is a "failed psychopath".

To learn more about this eminently important topic, see:

Ponerology 101: The Psychopath's Mask of Sanity


Spider able to weave nano-scale filaments

A spider commonly found in garden centres in Britain is giving fresh insights into how to spin incredibly long and strong fibres just a few nanometres thick.

The majority of spiders spin silk threads several micrometres thick but unusually the 'garden centre spider' or 'feather-legged lace weaver' Uloborus plumipes can spin nano-scale filaments. Now an Oxford University team think they are closer to understanding how this is done. Their findings could lead to technologies that would enable the commercial spinning of nano-scale filaments.

The research was carried out by Katrin Kronenberger and Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University's Department of Zoology and is reported in the journal Biology Letters.

Instead of using sticky blobs of glue on their threads to capture prey Uloborus uses a more ancient technique -- dry capture threads made of thousands of nano-scale filaments that it is thought to electrically charge to create these fluffed-up catching ropes.

To discover the secrets of its nano-fibres the Oxford researchers collected adult femaleUloborus lace weavers from garden centres in Hampshire, UK. They then took photographs and videos of the spiders' spinning action and used three different microscopy techniques to examine the spiders' silk-generating organs. Of particular interest was the cribellum, an ancient spinning organ not found in many spiders and consisting of one or two plates densely covered in tiny silk outlet nozzles (spigots).

'Uloborus has unique cribellar glands, amongst the smallest silk glands of any spider, and it's these that yield the ultra-fine 'catching wool' of its prey capture thread,' said Dr Katrin Kronenberger of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, the report's first author. 'The raw material, silk dope, is funnelled through exceptionally narrow and long ducts into tiny spinning nozzles or spigots. Importantly, the silk seems to form only just before it emerges at the uniquely-shaped spigots of this spider.'