All posts by Tom James

The Matter of Mind

It is always difficult to predict the next big revolution in science and technology. However it seems extremely likely that the scientific and technological history of the next thirty years will be dominated by discoveries and revelations about that most complex of organs: the human brain.

The latest discovery by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh reported in The Guardian concerns how words are encoded in the brain. The scientists have developed a device that can read a person’s mind from brain scans.

Once it has been trained on an individual subject’s thoughts, the computer model can analyse new brain scan images and work out which noun a person is thinking about – even with words that the model has never encountered before.

The model is based on the way nouns are associated in the brain with verbs such as see, hear, listen and taste. The research will inevitably raise fears that scientists could soon be able to read a person’s mind without them realising.

Unfortunately prospective telepaths are going to be disappointed: first because the device needs to be “trained” for each individual and secondly because the person as to be lying perfectly still in an MRI scanner.

According to one of the researchers, computer scientist Tom Mitchell:

“…the brain represents the meaning of a concrete noun in areas of the brain associated with how people sense it or manipulate it. The meaning of an apple, for instance, is represented in brain areas responsible for tasting, for smelling, for chewing. An apple is what you do with it. Our work is a small but important step in breaking the brain’s code.”

Meanwhile in Japan a paralysed man has been able to manipulate a virtual Internet character:mind

The patient, who has suffered paralysis for more than 30 years, can barely bend his fingers due to a progressive muscle disease so cannot use a mouse or keyboard in the traditional way.

In the experiment, he wore headgear with three electrodes monitoring brain waves related to his hands and legs. Even though he cannot move his legs, he imagined that his character was walking.

The potential in this research is mind-blowing. Imagine a video game controlled by thought. Imagine the educational opportunities of fully immersive and fully interactive virtual worlds. Many people already live a large part of their lives in virtual relities of one sort or another. And if they can respond to your merest thought they would become ever more compelling places.

[First story from The Guardian and PhysOrg][Second story from Physorg][image by Redvers]

That Smoke Ring Thing

Fans of Larry Niven’s superlative Integral Trees series will recognise the gas torus surrounding the red supergiant star WOH 64, located in everyone’s favourite neighbouring dwarf galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. From The Scientific Frontline Observers Gallery:

Comparisons with models led them to conclude that the star is surrounded by a gigantic, thick torus, expanding from about 15 stellar radii (or 120 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun – 120 AU!) to more than 250 stellar radii (or 30 000 AU!).

Everything is huge about this system. The star itself is so big that it would fill almost all the space between the Sun and the orbit of Saturn,” says Ohnaka. “And the torus that surrounds it is perhaps a light-year across! Still, because it is so far away, only the power of interferometry with the VLT could give us a glimpse on this object.

In The Smoke Ring, as in much of Niven’s work – the environment is as big a part of the story as the characters. Niven describes a group of humans living within a vast “smoke ring” surrounding a neutron star.

smoke ringA gas giant orbiting the star has had it’s atmosphere stripped off by the tidal forces of the neutron star, leaving a long, ring-shaped trail within which organisms have evolved to live in a weightless, three-dimensional world, where the only meaningful direction is “out”.

There are some beautiful artists impressions of WOH 64 – unfortunately there is no suggestion that the gas cloud would be anything less than monstrously uninhabitable, like almost everywhere else in the universe.

That said, it is splendid that the VLT Interferometer is working out so well. [via PhysOrg] [image by R’Yes’]

Hello Everyone!

My name is Thomas James, I am 19 years old and as such have the rest of my life ahead of me.

I love science fiction. I love it for it’s escapism and sense of wonder. I love it for the quirks and eccentricities of the characters and storylines. I love the marching Martian war machines, the stellar sweep of the Vault of Heaven, the dead-channel sky, the nine billion names, Source Victoria, the crushed-coral sands of new beaches and the mysterious pools and endless horizons of this most bountiful of genres.

You get the idea.

What I don’t like is pedestrian plots, cardboard characters, and glaring implausibility. This is why I read Futurismic, and why I’m honoured to be allowed to blog here.

As I mentioned, my biographical details are scant: I was born 19 years ago. I went to school. I dropped out of university (chemical engineering is an extremely difficult subject – plus I was bored).

Now I am trying to decide if I want to go back to university, get a proper job (at the moment I’m working in a call centre – everything you’ve heard about those places is true, a rich seam of science fictional material methinks…) or become a penniless hippy.

My blog is TJ’s Place. It mostly consists of rants about this and that.

Um. Peace out ya’ll!

OMFG Nanotubes Cause Cancer!

asbestosIn typical Daily Mail style I begin with the ever-dependable “X Causes Cancer Shock” blog post. [image by shaymus]

That’s right! The Magic Molecules of the Future or carbon nanotubes – shortly to be used in every worthwhile human pursuit from watching pornography to curing cancer – may in fact cause cancer themselves.

That is to say: a couple of studies, one published in Nature Nanotechnology and another published by The Japanese Journal of Toxicological Science suggest that certain kinds of carbon nanotubes induce lesions and mesothelioma in a manner similar to another wonder-material, asbestos.

The report in Nature suggests that nanotubes longer than about 20 nm micrometers are the chief culprits:

Carbon nanotubes that are straight and 20 micrometers or longer in length–qualities that are well suited for composite materials used in sports equipment–resemble asbestos fibers. This has long led many experts to suggest that these carbon nanotubes might pose the same health risks as asbestos, a fire-resistant material that can cause mesothelioma, a cancer of a type of tissue surrounding the lungs. But until now, strong scientific evidence for this theory was lacking.

Fortunately in order to be as thoroughly unpleasant as asbestos, carbon nanotubes would need to become airborne and and be inhaled, something that carbon nanotubes are apparently not inclined to do.

As ever, more research is needed.

From a science fictional perspective: what will be the tabloid healthcare-stories of decades hence?

The problem with things like asbestos and thalidomide is that their terrible side-effects only come to light after millions of lives are damaged. And these tragedies are by definition black swans, inherently unpredictable and devastating with it.

Where is the next hubristic-but-unpredictable human-derived disaster going to come from? Carbon nanotubes? Quantum computing? Could it be something so boringly innocuous that you use it every day without thinking, whilst it eats away at every cell in your body?

I’m not talking about global warming or bird flu – I mean really out-there, mind-blowingly awful stuff we haven’t thought of yet. Stuff that’s affecting us right now that we don’t know about.

Anyway, less gloom and more cheer. Here is a funny story about a crazy luddite!