In the April issue of Chemistry World magazine I wrote about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to improve sanitation in the developing world: by invoking the dark arts of odour masking and the science of something called olfactory white noise – a topic that’s equal parts chemistry, physics and kidology. And the small matter of life or death.
Other clever tech I’ve covered lately elsewhere: Green light helps mitigate feelings of pain, but only if you actually see it visually and it enters via the eye; so what’s going on there?
Two strong projects brewing at Michigan Medicine, written about recently by me: Speeding up brain cancer surgery, by creating virtual stained specimens in a much shorter time than it would take the hospital path lab to produce the traditional kind on a slide. And an endoscope using two kinds of laser imaging to get a better look at atherosclerosis in clogged arteries, without damaging the plaque itself and doing more harm than good.
Also clever: pushing super-resolution microscopy into even more high-res territory, by tackling the background interference that has been stubbornly hard to remove in one particular technique.
If you happen to be in San Francisco, there are two articles by me in this year’s in-house magazine of the annual Photonics West conference going on in The Moscone Center.
One is an interview with Zeev Zalevsky from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, whose research programme has been deliberately built along more diverse and pluralistic lines than many. He’s in the running for a prize at the conference, after developing implants that tackle vision impairment by sending visual information onto the cornea by direct tactile stimulation – Braille for the eyeballs.
The other is a round up of where the hunt for gravitational waves has got to, with the US LIGO instruments warming up again ready to restart after their overhaul, and the Italian facility called Virgo about to join in. Among other things, the overhaul replaced the wires used to suspend the LIGO mirrors, after it turned out that metal molecules jiggle far too much.
Gymnasts and rock climbers both use chalk, for similar reasons but at some distinctly different altitudes. In the November issue of Chemistry World magazine I wrote a short column about how magnesium carbonate and a pioneering climber tie the two activities together, and about the ethical issue arising from the human traces left behind. There’s also a version of the same article online (paywalled, sometimes).
This month’s other clever science: peering into living brains via optoacoustics, something all set to be big news in neuroscience circles once the wrinkles are ironed out. And: optical fibres are usually stiff and brittle, but soft and squidgy ones might be implantable in the human body, to keep an eye on wound healing or the progress of diseases.
For Sight & Sound, a preview of the live-action end of this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. The knotty issue of whether films of any length, or art at all, should be dealing in “explorations rather than solutions, atmosphere rather than answers” isn’t supposed to have an easy answer, although Amos Vogel did the world a favour in 1970 by phrasing it that way as a test of which way the wind is blowing. But at some point British films’ reluctance to stray from one side of the street and inclination to fetishise atmosphere at the expense of all else will have to be prised open for a look inside. The festival subsequently gave its top prize to a British short that felt particularly parochial, neatly summarising the dilemma faced jointly by the filmmakers, the mechanisms they work within, and the festivals which should ideally set about doing the prising.
In the Sight & Sound October print issue I reviewed Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople, which for all its comedy and foreseeable outcome is at least aware of both atmosphere and answers. Anticipation that a director of particular sensibilities will perturb the workings of Marvel’s less than cinematic pre-fab manufacturing operation has been misplaced in the past and may prove to be again; but Waititi seems to be made of sterner stuff, so who knows?
On the Tripwire website, a look at the two-thousandth issue of 2000AD, as an early warm-up exercise for the comic’s fortieth anniversary next year. Anniversary issues usually end up pulled in tight fluffy circles, but as Joe McCulloch pointed out 2000AD has a role as living history over and above whatever it actually publishes. So Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill probably have the right idea, returning to Nemesis and expressing suitable disdain for the power of nostalgia by simply carrying on where they left off several corrupt Archbishops ago.
Clever science: using a thread of spider silk as a focusing lens in a microscope, thanks to the strange things that can happen when light falls on very small cylinders and spheres.
As is: improved diagnosis of potential oesophageal cancer, by modifying both the fluorescent marker that identifies malignant tissue and the endoscope that takes a look – this being the latest from the prolific cancer research efforts emerging from the University of Cambridge.
And also: working out why exactly retinal implants don’t deliver high quality vision to patients by mapping what happens on a cellular level, and then tweaking things so that they might be able to.
A couple of technology stories I had a hand in reporting lately:
The clever way that optoacoustics can “listen” to biological cells – picking up the weak ultrasonic pulse given off when a cell, warmed so gently by a laser that it could hardly be called heating at all, immediately cools back down again – turns out to be particularly good for spotting different oxygen levels in blood. And cancerous tumors have a very complicated relationship with blood oxygen, including potentially stopping growing if the levels are not to their liking. (Or they can have a much less desirable growth spurt instead – it is complicated.) So making optoacoustics into a viable clinical assessment method for cancer is something a lot of people are interested in. For that to happen, ways to crunch the formidable amounts of data involved with have to improve, but they are getting better all the time.
Metamaterials are ingenious too – negative refractive indexes, potential invisibility cloaks and the rest. Most of them are basically metallic, but ones made from non-metals might be better at doing some particular bits of the voodoo that they do. One made from tiny particles of titanium dioxide has been used in a magnifying lens powerful enough to just about pick out nanometer-size patterns of reflectivity in the grooves of a Blu-ray disk – the disk’s actual recorded data itself, a tall order to discern even for an electron microscope.
Some recent technology news stories I had a hand in:
The United States wants to double the pace of research into tackling cancer, and do in the next five years what was shaping up to take ten. Optical imaging will need to play its part, but then so will just about everything everywhere.
Such as: learning more about how oxygen in the blood promotes or chokes tumor growth, an understanding of which is getting better all the time.
Elsewhere: lots of biological materials polarise the light they reflect, so a new lens able to image both left- and right-polarized images at the same time from the same object should make it easier to spot what nature is up to.
Some tech topics I wrote about recently:
Laser cinema projection grabs the headlines, but smaller-scale boardroom and classroom projectors will be a bigger market by far. The technology for both is getting better all the time.
Monitoring brain activity is going to be an entire industry in ten years time, if what happened in genomics is anything to go by. But investigating the working brains of live animals going about their business has been a hurdle – until now.
The rangefinder system in the Google X driverless car uses lidar and costs tens of thousands of dollars; this one from MIT is taped onto an Android phone and does not. Strap it to your wheeled platform of choice.
Drug-resistant bacteria are such a problem that even the scientists working on the issue call it an arms race that we are not winning. So if a project in Colorado is right and tiny particles of semiconductor material can drop the bugs in their tracks, it could be real progress. And when the bugs adapt, as they will, the remedy can be tweaked to keep up. For optics.org I asked the team just how effective the treatment might be, and what else it might reveal about the complex stuff going on inside cells.
If you’re in San Francisco, the in-house magazine at the Photonics West conference contains some stories by me, including a look at where the US moonshot into neuroscience known as the BRAIN Initiative has got to these days, and why the insides of the average DVD player could help to knock a few zeroes off the cost of a clinical tomography system and put it into your phone.
Usual selection of recent technology stories I’ve had a hand in:
Space telescopes are huge, heavy, and vastly expensive, so a fairly radical alternative idea is emerging from the blue-skies end of JPL’s project portfolio: Orbiting Rainbows, a swarm of micron-sized reflective particles in Earth orbit, shaped into a working optical mirror by lasers. Fair to say it won’t be launching tomorrow, but quite a concept.
Established biomedical techniques don’t make the jump into consumer goods very often, but OCT might be about to arrive in smart-phones, tablets, and anything that tries to verify your fingerprint.
One problem with laser brain surgery: skulls are not transparent. Solution: do something about that.