Save lives for under a buck

A previous student of mine showed me this video, which actually ties in with something I had just found out about a few weeks previously. By combining a cheap, paper microscope that cost about $0.50 to make, and a child’s spinning toy, it is possible to diagnose malaria, which kills millions each year. The microscope is called the Foldscope. It’s printed on a heavy piece of die-cut paper, and then gets cut out and folded into a surprisingly powerful microscope, able to see blood cells. You can preorder these yourself (I have!). The other piece, the spinning toy, replaces expensive centrifuges to separate the blood into components. Coupled together (along with a doctor) you can do the lab work for diagnosing malaria for under $1.

Hour of Code

We did Hour of Code today. There just aren’t enough students learning how to program these days. The US doesn’t have as many programmers as just a decade ago. This is a problem, and exposing students to programming may ignite a spark that will help them decide to learn how to program. The kids had fun seeing how to draw on a screen using commands. Here’s hoping that some decide to learn how to control computers.

The ethics of self driving cars

An interesting article brings up one of my favorite philosophical problems. Suppose Google’s self driving cars become common. You’re riding in one. Then something goes wrong, an oncoming car loses control and is headed right for you. The only alternative to a head on collision is to swerve into the right hand lane, where there just happens to be a full school bus. Swerving will cause the school bus to crash. What should the self driving car do? Should it protect the car’s owner at the cost of a bus full of children?

This is called the trolley problem. There are a number of interesting variants, but just how should the autonomous car react?

Google Maps for the body

Australian scientists have managed to get imaging of the human body at many different levels. This is giving views from joints to the cellular level.

“For the first time we have the ability to go from the whole body down to how the cells are getting their nutrition and how this is all connected,” said Professor Knothe Tate. “This could open the door to as yet unknown new therapies and new preventions.”

This kind of imagery involves terabyte sized data sets, and the Google Maps software helps them use it effectively.

Prototype of Ebola diagnosing on paper substrate

Scientists have developed prototype testing strips that don’t need to use cultures to check for infection. They use paper with genetic material built into the fibers to do cell-like processes that normally take days down to 90 minutes. Some saliva or a drop of blood is all this system needs to work. They already have a prototype that detects Ebola. This is kind of like a computer that uses genes as the program, and paper as the operating system.

Since this is in the prototype stage, there is a lot of work still to be done before this technology can become available.

New batteries use sugar for energy

Batteries use chemical reactions to produce electricity. Classically, a battery is 2 different metals in an acid. Lithium-ion batteries are more complex, and have a high energy density. There is a higher energy density on your breakfast table. Sugar.

Scientists at Virginia Tech have created battery prototypes that use sugar for energy. The battery (really an enzymatic fuel cell) needs to be refilled instead of recharged. But it can store 15 times the energy and last for 10 times as long as a lithium-ion battery.

New brain-like tissue made

Scientists studying the brain have managed to grow neurons on petri dishes for a while, but they don’t connect the way real neurons do because the ones in a dish grow in a fundamentally 2D environment, and regular brains are fundamentally 3D.

Now, researchers at Tufts University in Boston have made a 3D scaffold that allows neurons to connect more realistically. It has grey matter / white matter compartmentalization, which means that the structure is more similar to real brains. It can also last longer, up to two months in labs.

This new tissue can let scientists study brain biology in more detail. They can see what happens to nearby cells when there is trauma. They can also see the effects of administering drugs more easily.

Promising new spaceship drive

NASA has recently tested a new type of drive that may be used in future spaceships. The Cannae Drive is unique in that it doesn’t use propellant. Since propellant (fuel) has mass, normal drives need to move the spacecraft and the propellant for future thrust. This leads to needing lots of mass, frequently as much as the payload.

But the Cannae Drive is different. It uses microwaves instead of propellant. By bouncing microwaves in a specially shaped container, they have managed to create a difference in radiation pressure, generating between 30-50 micronewtons. This is a very small amount of thrust. The only energy that is needed is electricity, which is readily available through solar panels.

This technology is in its infancy, and is a long way from being used in spacecraft.

I love this kind of thing because it appears to violate the Law of Conservation of Momentum (simpler). This means that we’re at the edge where our understanding of the way the universe works may be wrong. Our scientific understanding may have to change to account for this effect.