News for Nerds - August 19, 2011

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 8/19/2011 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - August 19, 2011

Welcome into another week's worth of News for Nerds. This week we reveal the smartest insect in the world, we talk about the future of light bulbs, and we puzzle over the darkest planet ever discovered. But first: this is going to sting a little.

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Forget the little butterfly above your ankle or the 'I Love Mom' on your biceps -- the next hot trend in the world of tattoos might be inked-up nanosensors that track levels of sodium and glucose in your blood.

The technology comes from a research team at Northeastern University, which is developing the 'subdermal sensors' in an effort to help diabetics do a better job of tracking important blood level information. If it catches on enough to become mass-produced (and therefore affordable), wireless devices worn on the body could tell a diabetic exactly what food or medication they need in real-time.

It works like this: a set of sensors 100-nanometers wide gets embedded under the skin, like tattoo ink. The sensors are encased in an oily substance to keep it all together. Within that implant, certain nanoparticles will bind exclusively to specific blood contents. An additive makes the particle charges neutral, so that the presence of a target (like sodium or glucose) triggers an ion release, which produces an actual fluorescent change.

And of course, the iPhone is involved as well. A grad student involved with the project has developed an attachment that works with the iPhone's built-in camera. This attachment reads the change in color of your 'tattoo' and translates the results. So in essence, whenever your 'tattoo' changes colors, you pull out your iPhone -- or whatever other similar device is subsequently developed to work with this same technology -- and you snap a picture of it. Within seconds you know whether you need insulin, or a cookie, or whatever.

According to the Wired article linked above, testing is still in the early stages, and an actual commercial application is probably a few years away. But if the end result is an effective, minimally-invasive diagnostic tool for the millions of people who suffer from diabetes, it'll be worth the wait.

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In other 'Science Changes the Way We Live' news, an ordinary light bulb might soon power your wireless network.

Labs and startup tech firms have been working for years on producing custom-built LED prototypes capable of transmitting high-speed data. But now it appears that German researchers have successfully converted your average, ordinary light bulb for the same purpose.

The German team, led by a guy named -- I'm not making this up -- Anagnostis Paraskevopoulos made only a slight change to the LED circuitry by inserting a modulator that allows the device to transfer data optically. The light bulb flickers a little, but it happens so fast that the human eye cannot even detect the flicker. They were then able to transmit data from ordinary ceiling lights fast enough to send four high-definition videos to four laptops simultaneously.

As happens every so often with a News for Nerds item, I'm drawn to this story because it's so incredibly cool, but I'm a little fuzzy on exactly how it works. Even after reading a few articles about it, I'm not sure I feel qualified to explain the mechanics of it all.

But what I do know is that the experts seem to think this is an "approach to data transmission that is viewed as a sustainable form of communication that doesn't create electromagnetic interference at low frequencies, like current wireless networks do." I also know that they are considered better for the environment, they won't smash when dropped, and they have the capacity to last for tens of years.

And I also know that I got a kick out of one specific question posed in the article linked above -- a question that hasn't been entirely answered yet: 

What happens when you turn the lights off?

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Astronomers using NASA's Kepler telescope have found a planet blacker than coal in our home galaxy. Indeed, it's the darkest planet ever discovered. One scientist describes it as being less reflective of light than even the blackest acrylic paint.

For now they're calling it TrES-2b. Rolls right off the tongue, right? It's a Jupiter-sized gas giant that is a balmy 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and orbits at a relatively-close three million miles from its star. It's roughly 750 light years away from Earth.

Says astronomer David Kipping, "If we could see it up close it would look like a near-black ball of gas, with a slight glowing red tinge to it -- a true exotic amongst exoplanets."

But aside from that slightly creepy description, TrES-2b appears to be a genuine mystery. That's because it defies everything we thought we knew about gas giants that orbit so close to their stars. Current computer models tell us that these so-called 'hot Jupiter' planets should still reflect at least 10 percent of the sunlight that hits it, which is roughly how much reflective power Mercury produces.

TrES-2b, however, reflects only one percent of the starlight that hits it. Which means that the current models for these types of planets could be about to change in a big way.

So then it has to be asked: why so dark? Nobody's quite sure just yet, but the spectrum of possibilities range from ho-hum to downright exciting. It could be that there are unheard-of abundances of elements, like gaseous sodium and titanium oxide. Or it could be, as Kipping puts, that "there is something exotic here that we have not thought of before." Possibly even a whole new class of exoplanet. Now we're talking!

You can bet that astronomers will continue to work on this intriguing new puzzle, but in the meantime, let's hope someone comes up with a slightly catchier name, eh?

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And finally, let's talk about bumblebees. Did you know that they are now considered by some scientists to be the world's smartest insect?

Don't hold it against the poor bumblebee that his brain is the size of a poppy seed. Apparently it doesn't prevent him from being able to solve navigational problems that vex even the toughest supercomputers. And these are just the sort of problems that traveling salesmen contend with all the time.

The Buff-tailed Bumblebee flies from flower to flower searching for nectar and pollen. The challenge is that each flight costs both time and energy, so minimizing the distance of the total route is of the utmost importance. It's like an SAT problem in a way: how many flowers can Bumblebee X visit in the shortest possible amount of time?

Turns out there's really no surefire way to solve that problem -- which any salesman, accustomed to visiting customers all over town or all over the country, would gladly tell you. The only perfect solution is trying out every possible route and then comparing them, but that could take many years.

It's long been assumed that bees used the most obvious solution -- that you always move to the next closest flower. But that isn't remotely the most efficient way of doing it, and it turns out that bees don't use that method. Instead, it appears that they are able to think critically -- or else to somehow intuit in a way we don't understand -- the same way that humans do. Most humans solve the problem by mentally drawing a line around the outermost dots, and then using that path as a guide, taking detours into the interior of the 'dot field'. Bees seem to do that, too, and they are shockingly good at it.

A British study gave a pack of bumblebees an array of artificial flowers, and let them navigate it 80 times, recording the route they took each time. Over the course of the trials, the bees halved the distance they flew from 65 meters to 38 meters. What's more, after just 26 foraging trips, they'd already come up with the optimal route. How they're able to do that without the benefit of our giant human brains and our Darth Vader navigation systems is anybody's guess, but somehow they manage.

I'm sure there's a joke here about how the male bees never stopped to ask for directions, but I'm just going to let it go this time around.

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That's all for now! But be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month!

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