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Top five nanotech breakthroughs of 2006

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Here's an interesting top-something list, from Forbes – nanotechnology:

Top Five Nanotech Breakthroughs Of 2006
This year saw a slew of remarkable nanotech breakthroughs, and narrowing down the top five was no easy task. One major theme of 2006 was the intersection of computing and biology--integrated circuits were used to study everything from neural activity to tissue dynamics, and disposable bio labs-on-a-chip became a reality.

As usual, one can take issue with some of the citations or suggest others. But what's especially interesting here is that in each item, there are actually multiple instances of progress in the same general area. Allow me to illustrate this with several examples.


There are reports on the work in question here, here, here, and here. This work involves constructing nanoscale objects out of DNA molecules. There is, in fact, a whole subfield of nanotechnology centered around the use of DNA. It's called, DNA nanotechnolgy (unsurprisingly). Prof. Ned Seeman of NYU has been a leader in this field. Some of his references are here (with some nice graphics), here, here, and here. Seeman's laboratory most recently reported a "nanorobotic arm" using DNA – see here, here, and here.

And here's some additional news this year related to DNA nanotechnology:


This research obviously has immense real-world importance. But it isn't so much an example of a major area of nanotech activity. Anyhow, here's an overview of the work: Cleaning Up Water with Nanomagnets. The original work was published in Science (November 10, 2006): Low-Field Magnetic Separation of Monodisperse Fe3O4 Nanocrystals.


Nanowires of various kinds have been big news this year. For examples, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Similarly, there have been a number of results with interfacing electronics and neurons, for such things as controling prosthetic limbs and playing computer games. One of the more interesting examples is the recent report of a small robot controled through a neuro-electronic interface. Carbon nanotubes have also been used for neuro-electronic interfaces.

But the work mentioned in the Forbes article, where silicon nanowires only 20 nanometers wide can detect signals at as many as 50 places on a single neuron, is certainly impressive. See here, here, or here for details.

Other research into interfacing neurons and carbon nanotubes: here.


Research involving carbon nanotubes is probably the most active area in the whole field of nanotechnology. The examples are far too numerous to mention individually.

Reports on the research referred to in the Forbes article can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other uses of carbon nanotubes in electronics are reported here, here, here


There's a general problem with uses of advanced drugs as therapeutics, especially for cancer and in gene therapy – delivering the drugs as specifically as possible to the organs or tissues where the drug should be active, while avoiding tissues where the drug could be unnecessarily harmful. Chemotherapy is perhaps the principal example of this problem. It is possible to design nanoparticles which gain entry only to certain types of cells, so encasing a drug inside such a particle may solve the problem.

Research involving chemotherapy for prostate cancer was reported in April of this year, and is a noteworthy example of this approach. Reports about the research can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. An especially long and informative article about MIT cancer research, including the nanoparticle work, is here. Here's a more general overview: Tumor-Seeking Nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles can also be used to deliver imaging or contrast agents to cancer cells in order to make them easier to detect. There have been a number of other research results reported this year involving nanoparticles for drug delivery or imaging. A few recent examples, just since October:


For another review of important nanotechnology results this year, with many links, take a look at: The Year in Nanotech – Dazzling displays, handheld sensors, cancer killers, and nanotube computers.


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Clues to the origins of life

The question of how life originated on Earth is one of the really big open questions for science. Right up there with questions like how the universe itself started and how the human mind works.

Questions about how life began have been asked for a long time, of course. But only within roughly the last 50 years, since DNA and related biochemistry began to be understood, has it been possible to address such questions scientifically.

DNA, and its very close relative RNA, provide the framework for one essential of life: the storage of information, which allows for "blueprints" that describe a living organism to be conveniently encoded, so that individual organisms can be duplicated and, ultimately, evolve into more complex organisms. We now understand pretty well how DNA and RNA work, so one key question now is – how did DNA and RNA, the carriers of genetic information, come about?

DNA and RNA are made up of relatively simple organic molecules – sugars and phosphate groups that can polymerize to form a backbone, and a small number of bases which encode information by the way they are ordered in their attachment to the backbone. The information encoded in DNA details how to make proteins, which are also polymeric organic molelcules, consisting of amino acids attached to each other in a sequence specified (mostly) by the DNA. It is the proteins that make up the bulk of the cellular machinery that constitutes a stand-alone single-celled organism, or by grouping together makes a multi-celled organism. So a large part of the question of life's origins comes down to that of how these various organic chemicals came to exist.

In addition to the organic chemicals that make up an organism, another necessity of life is the ability to utilize energy that is ultimately obtained from the environment. In most cases, this energy is derived from sunlight, although in a few rare cases it can come from radioactive elements. Either way, an organism needs to tap into the environmental energy in order to drive chemical reactions which power cellular mechanisms that enable reproduction, locomotion, and (in multicellular organisms) growth. (More complex organisms can also derive their energy from "food", in the form of simpler organisms that have stored up environmental energy obtained more directly.) So another key question is: when and how did these energy-management processes come about?

There have been recent research findings that are relevant to various of these questions.

Let's consider the origins of organic compounds first. One line of thinking is that organic compounds were primarily synthesized from inorganic compounds in natural processes here on Earth. The names Aleksandr Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane are associate with this idea. The classic experiment testing the idea is known as the Miller-Urey experiment, after Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, and was first conducted in 1953, the same year that the structure of DNA was identified by Francis Crick and James Watson. As yet, this is still just a conjectural possibility.

An alternative scenario for the origins of organic compounds is that some simple ones formed in space, which is known to happen, and that some of the basic building blocks of life, such as amino acids, were introduced to Earth on meteorites. This possibility has gained more plausibility from the recently announced finding of apparent "organic materials" in a meteorite that fell in 2000.

NASA Scientists Find Primordial Organic Matter In Meteorite
In a paper published in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Science, the team, headed by NASA space scientist Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, reports that the Tagish Lake meteorite contains numerous submicrometer hollow organic globules.

Because the meteorite immediately became frozen in ice after it landed, the possibility of contamination from terrestrial material was minimized. Further, the isotopic composition of hydrogen and nitrogen in the globules is quite unlike what is normally found on Earth. It also appears that the material in the meteorite formed at least 4.5 billion years ago – before the Earth and the other planets themselves.
"The isotopic ratios in these globules show that they formed at temperatures of about -260° C, near absolute zero," said Scott Messenger, NASA space scientist and co-author of the paper. "The organic globules most likely originated in the cold molecular cloud that gave birth to our Solar System, or at the outermost reaches of the early Solar System."

Additional references:

Just about two weeks later, results from a completely different souce appeared that also showed the existence of organic compounds in primorial solar system material. This was from the Stardust mission to retrieve grains of matter from the comet 81P/Wild-2:

Comets hold life chemistry clues
Scientists studying the tiny grains of material recovered from Comet Wild-2 by Nasa's Stardust mission have found large, complex carbon-rich molecules.

They are of the type that could have been important precursor components of the initial reactions that gave rise to the planet's biochemistry.

Unlike the case with the Tagish Lake meteorite, it was possible to identify many of the organic compounds in the returned material:
These Wild-2 compounds lack the aromaticity, or carbon ring structures, frequently found in meteorite organics. They are very rich in oxygen and nitrogen, and they probably pre-date the existence of our Solar System.

"It's quite possible that what we're seeing is an organic population of molecules that were made when ices in the dense cloud from which our Solar System formed were irradiated by ultraviolet photons and cosmic rays," Dr Sandford explained.

"That's of interest because we know that in laboratory simulations where we irradiate ice analogues of types we know are out there, these same experiments produce a lot of organic compounds, including amino acids and a class of compounds called amphiphiles which if you put them in water will spontaneously form a membrane so that they make little cellular-like structures."

Additional information from the special Stardust issue of Science (December 15, 2006 – sub. rqd. for full access):

Although these results indicate that organic material formed in or before the earliest stages of the solar system might have seeded organic chemistry on Earth, there is as yet no evidence that this actually is how it happened. An even more radical possibility is that actual living carbon-based organisms that originated outside of our solar system "transplanted" life to Earth. This idea is known as panspermia, but so far, there's little or no credible evidence for it. Short of that, we know at least that the organic compounds for life either originated on Earth or arrived from outside.

So let's move on and turn to the question of how the earliest organisms managed energy supplies in order to reproduce and move. Every organism on Earth that produces energy from the chemical processing of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins uses, a complex series or reactions known as the citric acid cycle (also known as the Krebs cycle). (There are other energy-producing processes, of course, such as photosynthesis.) The question to be answered is how this complex series of reactions first arose:

New Insights Into The Origin Of Life On Earth

In an advance toward understanding the origin of life on Earth, scientists have shown that parts of the Krebs cycle can run in reverse, producing biomolecules that could jump-start life with only sunlight and a mineral present in the primordial oceans.

The Krebs cycle is a series of chemical reactions of central importance in cells -- part of a metabolic pathway that changes carbohydrates, fats and proteins into carbon dioxide and water to generate energy.

Since the cycle can run backwards, it is possible to identify an inorganic compound that may have kickstarted the process:

Nature's Jump-Starter
Reporting in next week's Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers at Harvard University say they may have found at least one of the original players. Called sphalerite, the compound is a mix of zinc and sulfur ejected from hydrothermal vents and known to have been plentiful in Earth's early seas. Geochemist and co-author Scot Martin says the team's new lab experiments show that when immersed in sterile water and exposed to sunlight, sphalerite can create three of the five basic organic chemicals necessary to start the Krebs cycle in relatively quick fashion. Further research is needed to isolate the other compound or compounds that could have produced the remaining two Krebs ingredients, he notes. If scientists can find their sources, then they will know that the five chemical foundations of the Krebs cycle were being manufactured easily and routinely in Earth's early oceans.

In addition to relatively simple organic chemical building blocks and chemical reactions that can release energy to make an organism that is "alive", there is a third prerequisite for life: some method of storing information about an organism's composition and structure so that the organism can replicate itself, instead of simply disappearing after each generation. In other words, genetic material.

Today, that genetic material consists of DNA and RNA, which in turn are made up of a handful of bases that act as symbols encoding the genetic message and are arranged along a linear backbone of simple sugar and phosphate groups. But are these the only possible chemical entities that can perform this kind of function?

In the past, other possibilities have been suggested, such as peptide nucleic acids (PNAs). A PNA has a backbone formed of simple molecules consisting of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. These are liked together by peptide bonds, which form when H- and OH- units from two molecules combine to form H2O, leaving the original molecules joined to each other. Such peptide bonds also form the backbone of proteins. But unlike proteins, PNAs have DNA-like bases attached to the backbone instead of amino acids. However, PNAs do not occur naturally, so they do not seem to have played a role in life on Earth.

If there are other ways of structuring a backbone, perhaps comparing them to what is actually used in RNA (the sugar known as ribose) and DNA (the sugar deoxyribose) would suggest why the latter proved to win out. That was the idea behind this research:

Uncovering DNA's 'Sweet' Secret
“These molecules are the result of evolution,” said Egli, professor of Biochemistry. “Somehow they have been shaped and optimized for a particular purpose.”

“For a chemist, it makes sense to analyze the origin of these molecules.”

One particular curiosity: how did DNA and RNA come to incorporate five-carbon sugars into their “backbone” when six-carbon sugars, like glucose, may have been more common? Egli has been searching for the answer to that question for the past 13 years.

Recently, Egli and colleagues solved a structure that divulges DNA's “sweet” secret. In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Egli and colleagues report the X-ray crystal structure of homo-DNA, an artificial analog of DNA in which the usual five-carbon sugar has been replaced with a six-carbon sugar.

It was found that homo-DNA is more stable that DNA/RNA and it allows a wider variety of bases to be attached. So why didn't it prevail?
[D]espite homo-DNA's apparent versatility in base pairing and its thermodynamic stability, other features of the molecule's architecture probably preclude it from being a viable genetic system

For example, it cannot pair with other nucleic acids — unlike DNA and RNA which can and must pair with each other. Also the steep angle, or inclination, between the sugar backbone and the bases of homo-DNA requires that the pairing strands align strictly in an antiparallel fashion — unlike DNA which can adopt a parallel orientation. Finally, the irregular spaces between the “rungs” prevent homo-DNA from taking on the uniform structure DNA uses to store genetic information.

The findings suggest that fully hydroxylated six-carbon sugars probably would not have produced a stable base-pairing system capable of carrying genetic information as efficiently as DNA.

So that variation didn't work out. But what about the possibility of using a different set of bases than the purines and pyrimidines which actually occur? That was investigated in this study:

Origin Of Life: The Search For The First Genetic Material
To find the right track in searching for the origins of life, the team is trying to put together groups of potential building blocks from which primitive molecular information transmitters could have been made. The researchers have taken a pragmatic approach to their experiments. Compounds that they test do not need to fulfill specific chemical criteria; instead, they must pass their “genetic information” on to subsequent generations just as simply as the genetic molecules we know today—and their formation must have been possible under prebiotic conditions. Experiments with molecules related to the usual pyrimidine bases (pyrimidine is a six-membered aromatic ring containing four carbon and two nitrogen atoms), among others, seemed a good place to start. The team thus tried compounds with a triazine core (a six-membered aromatic ring made of three carbon and three nitrogen atoms) or aminopyridine core (which has an additional nitrogen- and hydrogen-containing side group). Imitating the structures of the normal bases, the researchers equipped these with different arrangements of nitrogen- and hydrogen- and/or oxygen-containing side groups.

Unlike the usual bases, these components can easily be attached to many different types of backbone, for example, a backbone made of dipeptides or other peptide-like molecules. In this way, the researchers did indeed obtain molecules that could form specific base pairs not only with each other, but also with complementary RNA and DNA strands. Interestingly, only one sufficiently strong pair was formed within both the triazine and aminopyridine families; however, for a four-letter system analogous to the ACGT code, two such strongly binding pairs are necessary.

The conclusion was that the critical factor affecting the composition of modern genetic material was the structure of the bases rather than the structure of the backbone. It was necessary to have only certain bases which are capable of pairing up in specific ways, as occurs in double-stranded DNA and DNA-RNA combinations.

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Nature's review of 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Nature is one of the world's two premier science journals, the other being... Science. Sadly, their review of this year's science developments is, to this observer at least, simply underwhelming.

Oh, they mention Perelman's work on the Poincaré conjecture, and a couple of developments in biology (stem cells, and genetics). But as far as fundamental science is concerned, that's about it. Their emphasis is predominantly on stories that made big newspaper headlines for social/political reasons, such as global warming and natural disasters.

Sure, that stuff is very important for its human impact. No argument about it. But it's been covered endlessly in the popular media. Does Nature think they've added much to what you could read in, say, the New York Times? Or Newsweek, for that matter.

My advice to Nature, not that they've asked: Put the main emphasis on the fundamental science – in some serious depth we can't find elsewhere – instead of the yakety-yak one can hear from any talking head on the news shows.

That said, if anyone reading this still wants to read a little more from Nature's editors about what they considered scientfically important in 2006, here are some of their top 10 lists:

Editor's choice stories
A "vegetative" patient who showed signs of consciousness. That was number 1! A social scientist who could glibly discuss gravitational waves. (Number 3.) The world's smallest vertebrate. (Number 4.) Demise of the world's "most infamous" iceberg. (Did you know there was one?)

Reader's choice stories (most clicked on)
This list is better than the editor's choice. But not by much. Example: "Sexy pictures and lacy underwear take men's minds off getting a good deal."

Most commented on stories from Nature's news blog
This is probably the most interesting list. Lots of good arguments here, if you care for that sort of thing. Does gender matter? Islam and science. Delusions of faith.

Longer news features
Ranges from the genuinely important (climate change) to the "why did they bother?" category. And you'll have to buy a subscription to read most of them. Betcha no one does.

For the record: here's the home page for Nature's "review of the year's top stories and pictures".

Science's top 10 "breakthroughs" of 2006

Science Magazine's selection of the top scientific developments of the year is basically the grand prix of scientific competition. And the editors usually make pretty good calls, though in truth there are many, many important scientific developments over the course of a year. Recognizing only 10 just leaves out too much. But it seems like a limitation we have to live with. Fortunately, there are other, if less prestigious, commentators who offer similar lists on science in general or on specfic fields. Taken all together, we get a more comprehensive picture of what happened during the year.

Anyhow, you can find an index of Science's articles on the top 10 (from the December 22 issue) here. (Access is free, though you will have to register at the site.)

Their choice for top breakthrough of 2006? It's the proof of the Poincaré conjecture. It is rather unusual for a development in mathematics to rate so much attention, but then this is no ordinary breakthrough. Something like this comes along in mathematics only every 10 or 20 years. It was written about on this blog here, here and here. (And in a few other articles besides, which you can find by searching the archives.)

Science's choices for runners-up were interesting too, of course. Among those are some that have been discussed here, such as macular degeneration (this), memory (this, this, and this), and small RNA (this). There's a steady stream of developments in the latter two areas, in particular, so stay tuned for more.

Just as interesting as the list of this year's breakthroughts were Science's list of areas to watch in 2007. Prominent in this list are the areas of planetary science (both our own solar system and others) and genome mapping and comparison.

It's also interesting to note areas that are not on the list, for either this year or next. Where, for instance, are topics in cosmology, astrophysics, and extragalactic astromomy – such as dark matter, dark energy, black holes, the cosmic microwave background, and gamma-ray bursts? Some very fundamental results have been obtained this year, with more surely to come in 2007. They've been discussed extensively here – search the archives for plenty of examples. Just goes to show how much has to be left out of a "top 10" list.

Additional references:

Maths solution tops science class – from the BBC

Beautiful politicians win more votes

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

This is sort of in the same vein as a recent post here:

Beautiful politicians win more votes: study
Beautiful politicians win more votes, according to Australian National University research released today that asked an independent group of ‘beauty raters’ to assess the looks of 286 major party candidates who ran in the 2004 federal election.

The study, conducted by ANU economist Dr Andrew Leigh and University of South Australia student Amy King, found that voters tend to opt for the better-looking candidate.

“Compared to the average-looking political candidate, a candidate at the 84th percentile of the beauty distribution, as judged by our independent raters, receives an extra 1½ to 2 per cent of the vote. In some seats, this is the difference between winning and losing,” Dr Leigh said.

And it isn't really news, is it? After all, people learn at an early age to treat elections as popularity contests. And who is it that wins student elections in high school anyway?

Unfortunately, that's not a good way to judge competence or good government policy. Never has been, but now that televised coverage of politicians and elections is so pervasive...

Perhaps it's worth thinking about the value placed on "beauty" and "good looks" for elected public officials. Here's one thing that Wikipedia says about physical attractiveness:
Prototypicality as beauty

Besides biology and culture, there are many other factors determining physical attractiveness. It is seen that when many faces are combined into a composite image (through computer morphing), people find the resultant image as familiar and attractive, and even more beautiful than the faces that went into it. One interpretation is that this shows an inherent human preference for prototypicality. That is, the resultant face emerges with the salient features shared by most faces, and hence becomes the prototype. The prototypical face and features is therefore perceived as symmetrical and familiar. Apparently, this reveals an "underlying preference for the familiar and safe over the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous"

In other words, people who are considered attractive within a population are those who are most "typical" or "average". Or inversely, least atypical, least different from the largest number of people in the population. People who are considered less attractive have facial features that vary a lot from the norm, such as lips that are too thin or too thick (compared to the average), eyes too far apart or too close together, eyebrows that are too sparse or too bushy.

And what makes these "unattractive" is that they are "unfamiliar and potentially dangerous".

Surprising? Nope. Just not a good way to judge things like competence, ability, common sense, etc. Funny thing is, our culture has sensible maxims like "you can't judge a book by its cover."

But everyone has some tendency to judge by the cover anyhow. It's a decision-making heuristic based on understandable factors.

Just not a good heuristic, because it's based on unanalyzed assumptions that aren't appropriate.


Do carbon nanotubes present a health hazard?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Perhaps not:

Nanotubes Tracked In Blood And Liver: Study Finds No Adverse Effects
In the first experiments of their kind, researchers at Rice University and The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center have determined that carbon nanotubes injected directly into the bloodstream of research lab animals cause no immediate adverse health effects and circulate for more than one hour before they are removed by the liver.

The findings are from the first in vivo animal study of chemically unmodified carbon nanotubes, a revolutionary nanomaterial that many researchers hope will prove useful in diagnosing and treating disease.

Of course, there needs to be much more research than that. Like long-term exposure, for example. But this is a promising start.

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Is pot a gateway drug?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Apparently not:

No 'Smoking' Gun: Research Indicates Teen Marijuana Use Does Not Predict Drug, Alcohol Abuse
Marijuana is not a “gateway” drug that predicts or eventually leads to substance abuse, suggests a 12-year University of Pittsburgh study. Moreover, the study’s findings call into question the long-held belief that has shaped prevention efforts and governmental policy for six decades and caused many a parent to panic upon discovering a bag of pot in their child’s bedroom.

Of course, as we just noted here, cannabis doesn't do any good for your memory.

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Top 10 Health Stories of 2006

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Having recently posted a note on physics stories of 2006, I guess I should do health/medicine news next. So there's this: The Top 10 Health Stories of 2006.

I won't quibble with inclusion of any of the choices, but I do have comments on some of them (numbers keyed to items in the article):

  • 1. HPV vaccine – This isn't exactly a vaccine "against cancer". Cancer vaccines are under active development, but they're a different animal. This is a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), which is responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers. I've written about it here.

  • 4. Treatment for macular degeneration – Since macular degeneration is caused by misplaced and uncontrolled growth of blood vessels in the eye, any drug that can inhibit angiogeneisis may be a potential treatment for the problem. It just so happens that anti-angiogenesis drugs are also possible treatments for solid cancers, since the drugs can inhibit blood supply to a tumor. Such a drug, with the trade name Avastin, was approved by the FDA in 2004. Avastin is a monoclonal antibody developed by Genentech, and may become a blockbuster drug for many types of cancer.

    Not coincidentally, the new macular degeneration drug, Lucentis, that the FDA approved this year is also from Genentech. It consists, essentially, of a portion of the Avastin antibody. Avastin has actually been used off-label to treat macular degeneration, and there is some controversy about the fact that Genentech hasn't run clinical trials of such use, even though Avastin is sold for a considerably cheaper price than Lucentis.

    Both Avastin and Lucentis target a protein called vascular entothelial growth factor (VEGF). A number of other drug companies are working on anti-angiogenic drugs that target VEGF. Some of them may be much more powerful than Avastin and Lucentis, such as one called a VEGF trap, from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. (More information about that.)

  • 6. Vaccines – Vaccines are of two kinds: preventive and therapeutic. Both types work by conditioning the immune system. The former, more familiar, type wards off infectious diseases by stimulating the immune system to attack the agent of infection (usually a virus). Therapeutic vaccines are designed to mobilize the immune system in order to treat an existing disease condition. Of course, vaccines of both types are aggressively being sought to combat AIDS and cancer. But there's also a lot of research and development going into vaccines for conditions you might not expect, such as nicotine addiction and alcoholism. See this news article for an example dealing with nicotine.

  • 10. Vitamin D – The article mentions reports of beneficial effects of vitamin D for cancers of the breast and pancreas. This has been suspected for some time, as this story from 2004 indicates. Other studies have shown beneficial effects in prostate cancer (see here, here, here), ovarian cancer (see here, here), and colon cancer (see here, here).

There's one thing I think that the article misses. Even though it discusses cancer in relation to HPV and vitamin D, there has actually been an absolute flood of new research results on cancers of all types. Much of the research has dealt with the basic biology of cancer, such as the roles played by many different genes, the process of metastasis, and the involvment of stem cells in the onset of cancer. Although such research hasn't yet led to clinical trials of new drugs and therapies, I see this as a very important sign for the future. I'll try to write about "top stories of 2006 in cancer biology" some time after the new year.

Also related to cancer, there have been some new drugs approved for bone/blood cancer-like diseases such as multiple myeloma and myelodysplasia (e. g. Revlimid).

There has also been a lot of progress in understanding the biology of Alzheimer's disease. Not enough, yet, to fully understand the disease mechanism, but quite a lot is being learned. There may be some breakthroughs here before too long.

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Holiday gifts for science folks

Sorry to mention these so late, but I just came across this site – Bathsheba Sculpture – from a talented artist. I won't violate the artist's copyright by putting some pictures here or hotlink them – just have a look at the site. The artist, Bathsheba Grossman, does sculptures of mathematical forms using 3D printing technology, and also creates images laser-etched inside glass. The technology is quite interesting too.

For folks who are more into biology than math, the artist also does protein models etched in glass, shown at her other site: Crystal Protein. If you happen to have a PDB code for a favorite protein of yours, you can even get a custom model made.

I don't know whether Bathsheba's work is unique, as I'm not very familiar with the art world. All I can say is that I'd certainly feel proud to give this kind of gift, or surprised and fortunate to receive such.

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Physics Story of the Year

Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Tis the season for articles with titles like "Story of the year," "Notable achievements of 2006," and so forth. Here's the first one I've seen so far. And with almost 4 weeks to go (from when it was posted), it's jumping the gun a little. Who knows what might happen on the remainder of our world line before the 2007 mark?

The Physics Story of the Year
The physics story of the year 2006 was, we believe, the new high precision (0.76 parts per trillion uncertainty) measurement of the electron’s magnetic moment by Gerald Gabrielse and his colleagues at Harvard University. Then in a second paper the same experimenters used the new moment in tandem with a fresh formulation of quantum electrodynamics (QED) provided by theoretical colleagues to formulate a new value for the fine structure constant (denoted by the letter alpha), the pivotal parameter which sets the overall strength of the electromagnetic force. The new value has an uncertainty of 0.7 parts per billion, the first major revision of alpha in 20 years. A comparison between this new value and values determined by other methods provides the best test yet of quantum electrodynamics (QED).

OK, that one didn't get much play in the general press, but some additional physics stories did achieve more prominence. Here are some of my favorites, with links to additional information:

  • The observation of many more supernovas at redshifts of 1, thus establishing the idea that dark energy was around even in the early universe. [More: here, here, here, here, and here. I wrote about it here.]
  • New WMAP measurements of the cosmic microwave background, including polarization information, help to sharpen cosmological numbers such as the age or the flatness of the universe. [More: here, here, here, here, here, and here. I wrote about it here.]
  • Advances in plasmonics, or "two-dimensional light". [More: here, here, and here.]
  • Advances in the study of graphene, including the discovery of a new form of the Hall effect. [More: here and here.]
  • Progress at several labs in modeling gravity wave transmissions from black hole mergers, the kinds of events which LIGO or LISA would possibly detect. [More: here.]
  • Measuring the presence of virtual strange quarks inside protons.[More: here and here.]
  • Heaviest baryons discovered. [More: here, here, here, and here.]
  • Investigating whether the electron/proton mass ratio changed over time. [More: here and here]
  • Telecloning. [More: here, here, here, and here.]

Whew. Quite a list. But I think it leaves a lot out, too. There have been a number of interesting discoveries related to black holes. I've written about some of them. There have also been many advances in the related fields of spintronics, quantum information, and quantum computing. (I still haven't written about those.) Some other areas where there's been quite a lot of progress: carbon nanotubes, dark matter, and laser wakefield accelerators. And that's not the end of it.

Perhaps, if Santa puts an abundance of time under the tree for me this year, I'll tackle writing about what's happened in some of those areas.


A starburst galaxy

Sunday, December 10, 2006

VLT Image of Starburst Galaxy NGC 1313 (11/23/06)
This FORS image of the central parts of NGC 1313 shows a stunning natural beauty. The galaxy bears some resemblance to some of the Milky Way's closest neighbours, the Magellanic Clouds. NGC 1313 has a barred spiral shape, with the arms emanating outwards in a loose twist from the ends of the bar. The galaxy lies just 15 million light-years away from the Milky Way - a mere skip on cosmological scales. The spiral arms are a hotbed of star-forming activity, with numerous young clusters of hot stars being born continuously at a staggering rate out of the dense clouds of gas and dust. Their light blasts through the surrounding gas, creating an intricately beautiful pattern of light and dark nebulosity.

But NGC 1313 is not just a pretty picture. A mere scratch beneath the elegant surface reveals evidence of some of the most puzzling problems facing astronomers in the science of stars and galaxies. Starburst galaxies are fascinating objects to study in their own right; in neighbouring galaxies, around one quarter of all massive stars are born in these powerful engines, at rates up to a thousand times higher than in our own Milky Way Galaxy.

NGC 1313 - Click for 1280×1157 image

Philosophia Naturalis #4 has been published

Friday, December 8, 2006

Daniel Collins at Down to Earth has posted the 4th edition of Philosophia Naturalis. It's your gateway to interesting science reading, right here.

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