Science is the understanding of the universe. Because of science, we can extrapolate the existence of black holes, realize the fact that we’ve evolved from hominids, and learn how to unboil an egg. Science is also essential to one of our favorite literary genres, science fiction—without which we’d be limited to reading/watching fantasy or magical realism. After all, “science” is right there in the name.
Here are five fascinating experiments/projects/realizations that scientists are making right now. And perhaps in the future, these will become the bases for your next favorite film. Or provide inspiration for the Inkshares novel competition we’re currently running. You’re welcome.
There are 3 billion letters of DNA in our four-letter genetic alphabet (ACGT). But with the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) genome editing tool, we’ll be able to edit ourselves: CRISPR uses guide RNA to find the targeted sequence of nucleotides, while CAS-9 scissors the DNA, which can eliminate unwanted combinations, the kinds that cause disease.
The implications are astounding. Snipping away genetic diseases and HIV may eventually become something done at home (according to the scientific journal Nature, CRISPR components can be purchased for a mere $30). No one is saying you can change your eye color yet, but while I’m thinking out loud, yeah, maybe you could.
Be warned: scientists had used CRISPR on embryos, and these embryos did not survive. There are currently no guidelines to keep scientists from performing unethical CRISPR experiments, let alone DIYers. It could be an incredible tool… or a weapon with horrifying implications.
Image credit: Mehmet Pinarci.
Once upon a 1916, Albert Einstein surmised the existence of gravity waves, yet could not prove it. Fast forward one century. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) discovered that Einstein’s prediction was in fact fact.
LIGO’s laser detectors—one in Livingston, Louisiana, and the other in Hanford, Washington—measured the time to return a pulse of light four kilometers. Scientists found what they needed when the pulse came back 7 milliseconds too late in both locations.
Eureka. It was the aftershocks of two black holes folding into each other over 750 million years ago. And you can hear it for yourselves, here.
So why are these waves important? It’s because they give us an alternate way to observe space, rather than radio or X-ray telescopes or plain old visual spectrum. For example, LIGO didn’t just confirm gravitational waves. Its experiments also confirmed the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems. When LIGO builds out other detectors in the near future, perhaps in India, the the unknown fabric of the universe may become knowable.
Image credit: LIGO.
Bad guys wear black not just because it hides the blood of their enemies. It’s because black has traditionally been an expensive color, requiring multiple dyes to achieve the effect. A bad person in black means s/he’s rich and organized.
Now black has become even more dark. Surrey NanoSystems has created Vantablack, a color made from carbon nanotubes that absorbs light so thoroughly that only 0.035% of it escapes. Apply Vantablack to wrinkled tin foil, and it appears as smooth as glass. It’s as if the abyss is staring back at you.
Note that Surrey NanoSystems is a technology company. Vantablack may be craved by goths, but they’re out of luck here. According to the Guardian, Vantablack is intended for military use. Governments will likely purchase it in buckets to coat their stealth jets, to make them extra stealthy to radar.
There’s one exception: artist Anish Kapoor, whose work happens to focus on empty spaces and voids, has been given exclusive rights to paint with the color.
Image credit: Surrey NanoSystems.
COMPUTER BEATS HUMAN AT GO
Shall we play a game? No, not global thermonuclear war. Go. You know, the Chinese puzzle game with more configurations than there are atoms in the universe. And Google’s super computer AlphaGo recently beat Lee Se-dol, the European Go champion.
Computers have beat humans at their own games in the past (Deep Blue beat Grand Master Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997; IBM’s Watson took on Jeopardy champions in 2011). But chess is a question of memorizing moves, and Jeopardy players need to memorize facts. Go, on the other hand, takes abstract thinking to master.
AlphaGo was able to get the jump on Se-dol using not one but two neural networks: one that evaluates the board and the other that makes the move. This is more in line with the way humans think, rather than the brute force maneuvering of Deep Blue.
With this, it seems that computers can beat us at most games. At least Jenga is safe… for now.
Image credit: Wikimedia.
NEURAL ENGINEERING SYSTEM DESIGN
DARPA gave the world the internet. Now it might let us jack into it. The NESD program, Neural Engineering System Design, hopes to close the gap between between mind and machine. NESD has plans for a small, implantable device that takes the biochemical impulses of our brains and turns them into machine language—all in the size of one cubic centimeter.
This will allow people to interface with computers directly from the brain, plus speed up our reaction time with technology, thus closing up a gap in hand-eye coordination and making our interactions as fast as the speed of thought.
Because this is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as the branch of the Department of Defense that develops weaponry, the military use of NESD is a given. Think cyborg super soldiers. Egads.
More benevolent uses of NESD—which will require multiple breakthroughs in science that are still not in our grasp—may include improving hearing and vision and helping those who suffer from, say, motor neuron diseases.
Image credit: DARPA.
Featured image credit: Mehmet Pinarci.