Science on the (Beneficial) EdgeScientists have been known to take some goofy and destructive directions–not surprising for people who often believe they are intellectually superior to the rest of us–but some studies lately show themselves to be clearly beneficial for humanity.
You and Your Superpowers
Have you ever wished you had superpower strength like comics stars Superman or Iron Man? Even if your strength is not what it used to be, super strength potential may be only a few years away.
Researchers at Raytheon Sarcos in Salt Lake City, USA, have developed a wearable exoskeleton that not only won’t weigh you down, it will give you extra strength.
Raytheon developed the suit for the military so that one soldier can hoist a 200 pound missile into a plane or shove obstacles out of the way in pursuit of the enemy. It’s not bullet-proof or explosion-proof yet, but that’s in development as well.
The exoskeleton consists of an upper and lower suit so that a person can climb into it as easily as getting dressed. As it requires a minimum of training to operate, eventually it will be offered to people who have various weakness disabilities and to the elderly who lack the strength and agility they had in their youth but still need to climb stairs and move furniture.
Hydraulically powered joints not only mimic human movements, they sense movements of the wearer and assist with that very same action. If a wearer wants to lift something heavy, for example, the suit will act like a set of outside (the “exo” part) muscles and make the lifting job easier.
Developed by University of Utah mechanical engineer Stephen Jacobsen, with funding from the US Department of Defense, the suit should be ready by 2015.
Rebuilding Yourself from the Inside Out
MIT materials chemist Angela Belcher was always different, even as a child. She would try to invent things in the family garage, out of scrap materials. Trouble was, everything she invented had already been made. Then she grew up.
In college she “fell in love with large molecules.” She found that she could manipulate them to build things. She wrote her doctoral thesis on how the abalone uses the same proteins to build a rough outer shell as well as a pearl-like inner shell. All the gastropod had to do was shift the sequence of the proteins to create the different textures. She thought it pretty amazing. “If organisms like the abalone have precise control at a genetic level, I realized it might be possible to program an organism to grow other kinds of material. Why not use genetic information to build a protein that can grow a semiconductor?”
Along with about 30 students and postdocs at MIT, Belcher has now programmed viruses to grow various inorganic materials such as nanoscale semiconductors, solar cells and magnetic storage devices. Returning to her earlier love of biology, she has also used yeast cells as scaffolding to build other living cell components. She envisions one day being able to rebuild a human body cell from the inside, using much the same methods as our bodies already use when they are working properly.
The National Cancer Institute is currently funding her to find peptides that can enter the body through the bloodstream, then go to target areas and specifically identify cancer cells. From there it would be a relatively small step to ridding a body of cancer through internal warfare.
If You’re A Bad Guy, You Won’t See It
Gilles Brassard, of Canada’s Université de Montréal, takes a radically different approach to computer security from most people. While Albert Einstein would have been comfortable with most aspects of today’s computers, he wasn’t too thrilled with quantum mechanics. He particularly didn’t like the fact that some things at the nano level could be in two different places at the same time, and especially that if you looked in one place they would be in the other. Brassard thinks that’s exactly what computer security needs.
The professor of computer science uses exactly that feature in quantum cryptography to ensure that if the wrong person–or an unintended person–views an encrypted message, it will say something different from what the intended receiver is supposed to read.
Brassard also works with others, such as Christopher A. Fuchs of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Canada, to determine how quantum physics might fit into the structure of the universe. He suspects that the universe behaves not according to waves and particles as most physicists believe now, but according to information theory axioms.
Maybe if you look at the universe from the right point of view, it’s not as weird as it seems.
Medical Nanobots with Sperm Power
Though reproductive biologist Alex Travis doesn’t collaborate with Angela Belcher, they work along similar lines. Travis wants to build nanobots–mechanical rather than biological–that can go into the body to repair whatever is needed. But what could power something so small?
Travis became fascinated with the power utilized by sperm cells that support each other and compete with each other on their way from the female vagina, through the uterus to the fallopian tubes. He knew he could engineer a nanobot to do stuff like clear a blood clot or repair damaged organs from the inside if he could only duplicate whatever powers those sperm.
It turns out that sperm use a process called glycosis to make a biological fuel called ATP from the same glucose that powers the rest of the body. That’s the simple version of the explanation. Travis plans to use a 10-enzyme glycosis chain within the tails of mouse sperm–what makes the sperm’s tail flail back and forth so vigorously–to power a nanobot.
He will have to modify the enzymes a bit so that the nanobots will continue to work once they reach their destinations. Unlike sperm that die of exhaustion once they achieve their goal. So far he has modified two enzymes on the chain so that the mouse sperm does what it’s supposed to do with a nanobot stand-in. Now he wants to modify the other enzymes so they will perform other functions in the process.
When it all comes together, medical nanobots will use the body’s own fuel–plain old sugar/glucose–to power themselves to specific body locations to complete tasks such as killing cancer cells or repairing faulty heart valves.
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to know what children need, not just what adults believe they need, to grow into balanced and competent adult citizens of a better world. It’s not what most adults think.
Learn more at