The Shifting Sands of Society

A Guest Post for Curious Meerkat by Leon Vanstone.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Comp-Sci.

Imagine you were alive thousands of years ago. Technology is primitive. Food is scarce. Life is tough. Wi-Fi signal is terrible. You spend most of your time foraging for food and what little spare time you have when the sun goes down is spent essentially doing science. Now this isn’t very advanced science, I’m talking about bashing rocks together, discovering fire, making spears, but nonetheless this is science and progress is slow.

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Lighter than a Feather:
Aerogels

Frozen smoke, the world’s lightest solid material, is hard at work powering supercapacitors, insulating space ships, firefighters, surfers and rockets, thickening paints and cosmetics, performing classified roles in nuclear weapons, collecting interstellar dust… It is one of the lightest, most expensive substances on Earth, and we are surrounded by it.

Aerogel005Aerogel, also known as frozen smoke, solid smoke or solid air, is an ultralight synthetic material produced from a gel. Composed of 99.98% air, it looks and feels like very light polystyrene, with a slight blueish tinge. First developed in the 1930s as the result of a bet, aerogels are incredibly light, strong and flexible, and are being applied to everything from home decor to aerospace engineering.

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A Holiday Amongst the Stars

Travel around the world has become increasingly affordable with technological improvements over the past few decades. For the middle-class, few places are still out of reach. The obvious candidate for a new frontier of tourism is therefore space – a travel destination that is still vastly unaffordable for all but the richest people in the world. But the allure of space is powerful, and for those of us with an adventurous streak, the idea of one day being able to leave Earth and see the world from a different perspective is extremely enticing.

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How to Read a Mind

Mind reading no longer exclusively belongs to the domain of science fiction writers and mediums. Over the last 50 years, researchers around the world have been working on a system known as the brain-computer interface (BCI) which allows direct communication between the brain and an external device such a computer or a robotic limb. The main goal of this research is to develop technology capable of restoring sensory function to the blind or deaf, and restoring movement to patients suffering from paralysis. Major strides have been made in this endeavour over the last decade, and BCI technology is now even being adapted to commercial purposes such as gaming.

BCI technology is possible because of the way in which the brain transmits messages within itself and to other areas of the body. The brain is composed of around 100 billion cells called neurons. Messages are sent from neuron to neuron as an electrical impulse, created by ion imbalances in neuronal membranes. Neurons are insulated by a coating known as the myelin sheath, which prevents most, but not all, of these electrical impulses from escaping. The tiny portion of the electricity which escapes from the myelin sheath can be detected and this signal can be interpreted by computers. A second feature of the brain is also key to the success of BCI: neural plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt to new situations. Patients suffering with brain damage illustrate neural plasticity; in many cases patients are able to, over time, adapt other areas of their brain to perform the tasks of damaged regions. Neural plasticity also enables the brain to adapt to interpret new input, such as that provided by the brain-computer interface.

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