Science and Math Writer
Monday July 23rd 2018

Quantum games aim to demystify heady science

In a video game called Quantum Moves, the players’ goal is straightforward: Move an atom from one place to another as quickly and efficiently as possible while a timer counts down the seconds. Atoms in the game aren’t represented as mini solar systems with electron “planets” moving around them, like those you see in a middle-school textbook. Rather, they’re liquid-like waves sloshing in a roughly U-shaped curve. To move the atoms, players have to move the curve.

 

The antagonists in video games tend to be monsters or zombies, but Quantum Moves pits players against the fundamental laws of nature. The waves represent the changing probability distribution of the atom’s location, showing where it’s most likely to be measured. Players get points when they shuffle the waves into a designated location, and the more waves that get there, the more points players earn. But that’s tricky. The atom-waves slosh around, often high enough to splash out of the curve and disappear.

As levels advance, the atomic waves become less predictable: It’s harder to tell where they’ll move. Other quantum phenomena come into play, such as tunneling, which is the probability that a particle will pass through a solid barrier. On screen, that means the waves might vanish from one curve—and show up in another.

 

Read more in PNAS, here.

 

 

Image: Science at Home

En route to Mars, astronauts may face big health risks

Frank Borman was probably the first person to barf in space.

 

Borman was part of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, which lifted off a launch pad in Florida on December 21, 1968. Over the next six days, the mission made history as it circled the moon and returned home. But Borman, who led the mission, became queasy near the beginning.

“I threw up a couple of times,” he recalled in an interview in 1999. Now 89, Borman is the oldest living U.S. astronaut.

“Nobody likes to throw up,” he said. Still, he insisted, this space sickness “wasn’t a big deal.”

This famous image, called Earthrise, was captured by astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve, 1968.
NASA

In space, gravity is so weak that it might as well not be there at all. The difference between “up” and “down” becomes meaningless. Astronauts can experience nausea and become disoriented. It happens a lot.

Space sickness isn’t the only side effect to accompany the thrill of leaving Earth. A 2015 NASA report identified 30 factors that could make astronauts sick and unable to do their jobs. And there may be more, it said. Until people visit Mars it will be difficult to fully predict what could go wrong.

“We want to make sure we can bring people back healthy, and safely,” says astronaut Jessica Meir, who lives in Houston, Texas, and works for NASA. She has helped NASA design programs to train space travelers for the hazards of space.

 

Read more at Science News for Students, here.

 

Image from Science News for Students.

 

Searching Blood for Cancer Clues

ONCE A MONTH, 40-year-old Kristen Kilmer drives nearly 400 miles from her home in Spearfish, South Dakota, to the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls. On some mornings, she leaves as early as 1:30 a.m. after kissing her sleeping 11-year-old daughter goodbye. Without traffic or inclement weather, it’s a six-hour haul from one side of the state to the other.

Once there, Kilmer, who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in July 2015, meets with her oncologist to discuss symptoms, medication side effects and other relevant issues. Every three months, she gets a PET-CT scan. She also provides a blood sample as part of her participation in a clinical trial to learn more about a blood test known as a liquid biopsy. It’s because of the trial—and Kilmer’s belief that liquid biopsies will ultimately help other cancer patients—that she makes the trek.

 

Read more in the spring issue of Cancer Today, here.

 

The long road to Mars

In most Hollywood movies, interplanetary travel seems fairly straightforward: hop on a spaceship, blast off, fly through space (with or without hibernation that may or may not go awry), land on foreign soil. But throw in the known and unknown hazards of deep space physics, multiplied by the limitations of the human body, and the adventure becomes decidedly more complicated.

Yet something about going to Mars has captivated the space-curious for generations; from scientists who want to build the spaceships and go, to politicians who can approve the spending. “Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea,” said US President George W Bush in 2004, when he proposed spending $12bn to get to the Moon by 2020 as a stepping stone to Mars. Not to be outdone, President Barack Obama announced in 2016 that he wanted to get people to Mars by 2030, and more recently, President Donald Trump signed a bill authorizing $19.5bn to go towards NASA’s quest to have humans visit Mars. (“You could send Congress to space,” one senator quipped at the signing.)

Getting people to Mars is more than just political hyperbole, however, and that vision is slowly shifting from science fiction into science fact. This summer, the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to pack and ship a 4 m-tall and 5 m-diameter cylindrical space vehicle from Bremen, Germany, where it’s been under construction for the last four years. It will be sent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will become an integral part of the most ambitious plan for space exploration ever hatched by humankind.

 

Read the rest of the article in the February 2018 issue of Physics World here.

 

Targeting brain cancer

Seven years after her brain cancer diagnosis, Liz Salmi decided she wanted to know more about the makeup of the tumor that changed her life.

Salmi had already undergone two surgeries to remove the grade II astrocytoma, an invasive but usually slow-growing brain tumor. After her second surgery, she was treated with Temodar (temozolomide), a chemotherapy drug, for two years. But Salmi, who was 29 when she was diagnosed in 2008, knew her cancer could not be cured. She wanted to be ready when it returned. “I’m living with a brain cancer, and I keep up with what’s going on,” says the 38-year-old communications specialist, who lives in Sacramento, California.
In 2015, Salmi read about powerful genomic sequencing tools that made it possible to analyze tumor tissue—peeking inside brain cancer cells and looking for the genetic drivers of the disease. Many experts were arguing that tumors should be classified not only by their appearance under a microscope—the traditional approach—but also according to the presence of certain genetic changes.
Read more at Cancer Today.
Image © iStock / yodiyim; 123RF / Rostislav Zatonskiy​

How to stop phone apps from spying on you

Many smartphone apps don’t cost anything to download and use. But don’t be fooled: There’s still a price. “Your privacy is what’s paying for it,” says Brian Krupp. He’s a computer engineer at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. Behind the scenes, he says, apps are “leaky.” They may deliberately collect more data than they need. Then they send those personal data to advertising companies — without a user’s knowledge — generating money for the app’s maker.

Krupp wants people to know where their data go. He recently led the development of a new online tool that does just that. He and his students call it SPEProxy. It tells people when their apps are sending data, which can help spot misuse. It also offers ways to better protect personal data. It gives phone users control over where their data go, and which data are shared.

 

Read more at Science News for Students.

 

photo: IGHWAYSTARZ-PHOTOGRAPHY/ISTOCKPHOTO

Everything Worth Knowing About Virtual Reality

 Forget reality: In virtual reality, you can be whomever and wherever you want. VR makes the unreal real, using computer software and hardware that responds to our body’s movements to immerse us in a convincing alternate existence.

There’s plenty of space to roam. VR places can be huge. In Second Life, an early pioneer of virtual worlds, you can attend university, own a blimp, have blue fur — whatever. It includes more than 600 square miles of otherworld existence. The worlds of Minecraft, another digital sandbox, could cover Earth eight times over.

The possibilities are endless. VR movies offer new vehicles for narrative structure. VR classrooms may reach students who don’t thrive behind a desk. Soon, we may have virtual meetings, conferences, classes and parties. According to tech entrepreneur Philip Rosedale, who founded Second Life, “We have an insatiable appetite for communicating with each other. VR is the next medium in that regard.”

Right now, the visual fidelity of these worlds remains somewhat blocky and lacks personal details: In most VR worlds, you can’t see where other people are looking, or what they’re doing with their hands. But while VR is famous for overpromising and underdelivering, Rosedale sees progress being made on these fronts — think eye-tracking sensors, or gloves that communicate gestures. Within a few years, personal VR meetups could be startlingly personal.

 

Read more in Discover magazine. 

 

Photo: fdecomite via flickr, CC2.0

Researchers find history in the diagrams of Euclid’s Elements

The fourth book of Euclid’s Elements, a 2,300-year-old geometry text, includes directions for constructing a 15-sided polygon inside a circle. The first step is familiar to geometry students: Draw an equilateral triangle and a regular pentagon so their vertices touch the circle and the two shapes share one vertex. In addition to text directions, the Elements included diagrams that illustrated the method.

It’s impossible to know what Euclid’s original diagrams looked like, but the surviving manuscripts reveal surprising variations in the representation of geometric shapes such as the pentadecagon. To modern eyes, these variations look like errors: In some medieval versions of the text, line segments measure the wrong length. In the oldest copy of the Elements, a ninth-century manuscript housed in the Vatican library, segments have been drawn and erased. Another ninth-century text at Oxford University displays the sides of the pentadecagon within the circle as erratic and curved, not straight. A 12th-century copy in Paris also uses curves, but they’re slightly less curvy than in the older version at Oxford. In Vienna, one can find a text from the 11th or 12th century in which the original lines were the right length and straight, but someone later added curved segments.

The Elements gets a lot of attention, but it’s not the only historical scientific text with these diagrammatic issues. They turn up in copies of works by Ibn al-Haytham, Archimedes, Aristotle, and Ptolemy. Variations include parallel lines that aren’t, mislabeled shapes, equal lines or angles drawn unequally, or unequal angles that might be shown as congruent. A 10th-century manuscript of the Archimedes Palimpsest uses an isosceles triangle to represent a parabola, for example. These may seem like little more than quirks of history, but some researchers see intriguing clues amongst drawings, hints at how math has evolved over millennia.

 

Read the whole article at PNAS. 

Fighting Fire with Fire

Robert Kremens fights fire with fire. No, really – that’s his job. Kremens sets fires in a host of locations across the US. In April he drove 18 hours from his home in Rochester, New York, to Tall Timbers, a research station in Tallahassee, Florida, to set three or four fires.

In mid-May he travelled to Wisconsin with the US Fire Service, again setting blazes, keeping his distance and watching how they burned. This summer, he’s back in New York, setting more fires closer to home. Most of us break up the year by months, seasons or semesters; for Kremens, it’s divided by his burning schedule. Kremens, a physicist and a trained firefighter, also seeks out fires he didn’t set. On 31 July 2015 lightning struck a tree a few miles north of Hume Lake in central California’s rugged Sierra National Forest, igniting a devastating forest fire that raged for weeks, ultimately consuming more than 600km2 . The blaze, named the Rough Fire, began in a steep and hard-to-reach area and climbed uphill, boosted by the warm, windy, dry conditions. Most people at the time avoided the location. But a week after it broke out, Kremens caught a plane from New York to California to join a fire-monitoring team with the goal of measuring and analysing the wildfire in real time. They weren’t there to fight the fire; they were there to understand it.

 

Read more in this Physics World feature, here.

Vaccines: Looking Within for Cancer Treament

It’s been 10 years since Tom Liebert received an experimental cancer vaccine to treat his multiple myeloma, and he still wonders: Did it work?

The question nags at him, but not always. After all, he’s still alive and singing with a barbershop quartet in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee. And while he knows multiple myeloma is currently incurable, it is treatable. “The definition of a cure for me is that I die from something other than myeloma,” says the retired electrical engineer and computer scientist, now 60.
Read more at Cancer Today, here.

 

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Latest Topics

Quantum games aim to demystify heady science

In a video game called Quantum Moves, the players’ goal is straightforward: Move an atom from one place to another as [Read More]

En route to Mars, astronauts may face big health risks

Frank Borman was probably the first person to barf in space.   Borman was part of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, which [Read More]

Searching Blood for Cancer Clues

ONCE A MONTH, 40-year-old Kristen Kilmer drives nearly 400 miles from her home in Spearfish, South Dakota, to the [Read More]

The long road to Mars

In most Hollywood movies, interplanetary travel seems fairly straightforward: hop on a spaceship, blast off, fly [Read More]

Targeting brain cancer

Seven years after her brain cancer diagnosis, Liz Salmi decided she wanted to know more about the makeup of the tumor [Read More]

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