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How to Clean the Gas and Oil Industries’ Most Contaminated Water

Mon, 07/07/2014 - 13:12

A new process can cheaply clean extremely briny water coming up from oil wells.

In a nondescript site in Midland, Texas, an inexpensive new process is cleaning up some of the most contaminated water around—the extremely salty stuff that comes up with oil at wells. By the end of next month the technology is expected to be chugging 500,000 gallons per day, furnishing water that’s sufficiently clean to use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas production (see “Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map”).

Will Virtual Reality Reshape Documentary Journalism?

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 00:00

One documentary filmmaker believes an immersive experience will make a more lasting impression on audiences.

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR in March 2014 for $4 billion brought a resurgence of interest in virtual reality to the mainstream, almost 30 years after the technology first entered the public consciousness. And while Oculus VR’s initial focus has been on video games, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has described the hardware as “the next major computing platform that will come after mobile.”

Startup Lets Offices Know Who Just Walked In

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 17:16

A Boston-based startup is helping companies track their employees around the office using wireless sensor beacons, to improve collaboration.

In the office of the future, you may not so much walk into a room as log into it automatically. That’s what Sam Dunn, the CEO and co-founder of Boston-based startup Robin, thinks. The company is using wireless sensors to make rooms in office buildings aware of the people in them and let employees know exactly where their co-workers are.

IBM: Commercial Nanotube Transistors Are Coming Soon

Tue, 07/01/2014 - 00:00

Chips made with nanotube transistors, which could be five times faster, should be ready around 2020, says IBM.

For more than a decade, engineers have been fretting that they are running out of tricks for continuing to shrink silicon transistors. Intel’s latest chips have transistors with features as small as 14 nanometers, but it is unclear how the industry can keep scaling down silicon transistors much further or what might replace them.

Two-Bladed Wind Turbines Make a Comeback

Mon, 06/30/2014 - 12:15

Wind-turbine designers are warming up to an alternative to the three-bladed rotors that have been an industry standard for the past quarter century.

Several major wind-power companies are testing a departure from the industry’s standard three-bladed turbine design by dropping one of the three blades and spinning the rotor 180 degrees to face downwind.

Weed’s Chronic Energy Use Becomes a Concern

Fri, 06/27/2014 - 00:00

Researchers are discovering ways to grow marijuana more efficiently.

The legalization of marijuana in some U.S. states has energy providers worrying that a boom in indoor growing could put a chronic drain on electricity resources.

The Thought Experiment

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:28

In a remarkable experiment, a paralyzed woman used her mind to control a robotic arm. If only there were a realistic way to get this technology out of the lab and into real life.

I was about 15 minutes late for my first phone call with Jan Scheuermann. When I tried to apologize for keeping her waiting, she stopped me. “I wasn’t just sitting around waiting for you, you know,” she said, before catching herself. “Well, actually I was sitting around.”

What Am I Thinking About You?

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Knowing how the brain deals with other people could lead to smarter computers.

The ability to discern what other people are thinking and feeling is critical to social interaction and a key part of the human experience. So it’s not surprising that the human brain devotes a lot of resources to so-called social cognition. But only recently has neuroscience begun to tease apart which brain regions and processes are devoted to thinking about other people.

The Importance of Feelings

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains how minds emerge from emotions and feelings.

For decades, biologists spurned emotion and feeling as uninteresting. But Antonio Damasio demonstrated that they were central to the life-regulating processes of almost all living creatures.

Malware on the Move

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

As mobile devices are used to perform more financial transactions, cybercriminals are taking greater interest.

Searching for the "Free Will" Neuron

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Gabriel Kreiman’s single-neuron measurements of unconscious decision-making may not topple Descartes, but they could someday point to ways we can learn to control ourselves.

It was an expedition seeking something never caught before: a single human neuron lighting up to create an urge, albeit for the minor task of moving an index finger, before the subject was even aware of feeling anything. Four years ago, Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, slipped several probes, each with eight hairlike electrodes able to record from single neurons, into the brains of epilepsy patients. (The patients were undergoing surgery to diagnose the source of severe seizures and had agreed to participate in experiments during the process.) Probes in place, the patients—who were conscious—were given instructions to press a button at any time of their choosing, but also to report when they’d first felt the urge to do so.

Eavesdropping on Neurons

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

A new automated version of one of neuroscience’s most important techniques, patch clamping, makes it much easier and faster for scientists to tap into the inner workings of brain cells.

Several new tools for exploring individual neurons allow scientists to probe the workings of the brain in great detail. Optogenetics makes it possible to turn specific neurons on and off in lab animals to determine how those brain cells are affecting activity. Patch clamping lets scientists record the electrical activity of neurons inside a living brain, a process that has now been automated.

The Promise and Perils of Manipulating Memory

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Fundamental discoveries about the nature of memory could lead to new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and anxiety.

When it comes to the study of memory, we might be living in something of a golden age. Researchers are exploring provocative questions about what memory fundamentally isand how it might be manipulated. Some scientists are tweaking the brains of lab rats in order to implant false memories or remove specific memories. Others are looking into how memory might be enhanced. Such research often sounds creepy, but it could lead to ways of staving off dementia, neutralizing post-traumatic stress disorder, reducing anxiety, treating depression, or curbing addiction.

Shining Light on Madness

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Drugs for psychiatric illnesses aren’t very effective. But new research is offering renewed hope for better medicines.

At Novartis’s research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a large incubator-like piece of equipment is helping give birth to a new era of psychiatric drug discovery. Inside it, bathed in soft light, lab plates hold living human stem cells; robotic arms systematically squirt nurturing compounds into the plates. Thanks to a series of techniques perfected over the last few years in labs around the world, such stem cells—capable of developing into specialized cell types—can now be created from skin cells. When stem cells derived from people with, say, autism or schizophrenia are grown inside the incubator, Novartis researchers can nudge them to develop into functioning brain cells by precisely varying the chemicals in the cell cultures.

Neuroscience’s New Toolbox

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

With the invention of optogenetics and other technologies, researchers can investigate the source of emotions, memory, and consciousness for the first time.

The hypothalamus is a small structure deep in the brain that, among other functions, coördinates sensory inputs—the appearance of a rival, for example—with instinctual behavioral responses. Back in the 1920s, Walter Hess of the University of Zurich (who would win a Nobel in 1949) had shown that if you stuck an electrode into the brain of a cat and electrically stimulated certain regions of the hypothalamus, you could turn a purring feline into a furry blur of aggression. Several interesting hypotheses tried to explain how and why that happened, but there was no way to test them. Like a lot of fundamental questions in brain science, the mystery of aggression didn’t go away over the past century—it just hit the usual empirical roadblocks. We had good questions but no technology to get at the answers.

The Cross-Section of Memory

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

Neuroscientists at MIT’s Picower Institute have demonstrated that optogenetics can be used to place false memories in the brains of lab rodents.

Can you install a false memory in the brain? Researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have shown it’s possible in lab animals. First they locate where in the brain the memory is formed; then they use optogenetics to manipulate the memory neurons. One day such techniques could be used to help people with debilitating traumatic memories.

Cracking the Brain’s Codes

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 00:05

How does the brain speak to itself?

In What Is Life? (1944), one of the fundamental questions the physicist Erwin Schrödinger posed was whether there was some sort of “hereditary code-script” embedded in chromosomes. A decade later, Crick and Watson answered Schrödinger’s question in the affirmative. Genetic information was stored in the simple arrangement of nucleotides along long strings of DNA.

A Search Engine for the Era of Apps

Sun, 06/15/2014 - 12:00

A new kind of search engine will make it possible to search inside the apps on your phone.

Once upon a time there was the Web, a vast universe of information and services that were tangled together by hyperlinks but easy to explore using search engines. Then smartphones came along. Now people are spending less and less time on the Web and more in mobile apps, convenient but isolated packages not open to links or visible to any search engine.

For One Baby, Life Begins with Genome Revealed

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 00:00

How a California father made an end run around medicine to decode his son’s DNA.

An infant born last week in California appears to be the first healthy person ever born with his entire genetic makeup deciphered in advance.

A Plan B for Climate Agreements

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 00:00

U.N. negotiations are going nowhere, and greenhouse-gas emissions are soaring. It’s time to move on.

In 2007, just before he accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, the organization’s leader, declared that the world was running out of time to prevent catastrophic global warming. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” Pachauri told the New York Times. “What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”