Vol. 1 / No. 34 — The Fire Phone, A Not Retraction, and Naming Bridgmanite

Amazon's New Fire Phone, Photo: Amazon.com
Amazon’s New Fire Phone, Photo: Amazon.com

Fire Your Phone

This week’s top tech news was Amazon’s entry into the cellphone market with the new Fire Phone. The basic run down? It’s got decent enough stats to make it a competitor; it has some neat tricks, like four tiny forward-facing cameras to track your face and trick your eyes into thinking it’s 3D inside like a little diorama, and a feature called “mayday” that promises a live video chat with someone to help you out with phone questions within 15 seconds; and finally, it’s fully equipped to make Amazon your one-stop-shop for everything you ever wanted to buy ever (ever), with the new “Firefly” feature, which promises to identify songs, movies, tv shows, and pieces of art (and to instantly show you how to buy them). I’m sure we’ll hear more about it in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

BICEP2 telescope (left), Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Amble, CC BY-SA 3.0
BICEP2 telescope (right), Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Amble, CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s Not A Retraction, Exactly…

After a series of accusations regarding the quality of their data, the scientists who earlier this year claimed to have found strong evidence of primordial gravitational waves left over from the big bang have published their findings, and have taken a few steps back. The problem is with new uncertainty as to how much of the signal can be ascribed to interstellar dust. While not a retraction of their claims, the team admits in a final note that “while [critiques offered since the discovery] do not offer definitive information on the level of dust contamination in our field, they do suggest that it may well be higher than any of the models considered.” The team are now awaiting further data to better refine their models from the Keck Array, among others. Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post has more on the story.

Stephanie Kwolek Dies at 90

Inventor and chemist Stephanie Kwolek died this week, at 90 years of age. If you’re not familiar with the technical name of her most famous invention, poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, you’re almost certainly familiar with its common name: kevlar. Working for DuPont in the 1960s, she and her team were looking for a replacement for rubber in the event of an oil shortage when she discovered that the polymer, when spun, was five times stronger than steel. Over the next decade she further refined it (it improved further when heat treated) and it was eventually marketed as a material for bullet-proof vests. It’s no exaggeration to say that the number of lives she saved was uncountable. Here’s a good obituary of Kwolek at Popular Science for more.

Naming Bridgmanite

The most abundant mineral on Earth is a little hard to come by, as it typically resides between 670 and 2900 kilometres beneath the surface of the Earth, which explains why, even though we’ve known about the mineral for a long time, it hadn’t been named. To name a mineral, the International Mineralogical Association’s Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification requires the chemical composition and crystal structure. And without a sample, that information is hard to come by. But recently, scientists from Caltech and UNLV found a sample: in a 4.5 million year old meteorite. They’ve named the mineral after Physicist Percy Williams Bridgman, presumably because of his work on high-pressure physics. Check out Scientific American for more on the story (and a photograph of the mineral itself).

Troubleshooting Autism

One of the problems of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is that it’s a catch-all term for a wide range of symptoms — and quite possibly a wide range of physiological causes. One of these causes may be a heightened cellular stress response, at least, according to Dr. Robert Naviaux, a geneticist at UC San Diego. He’s conjectured that part of the communication difficulty faced by autistic individuals may lie in a permanent state of cellular stress — possibly in reaction to a heightened level of audio-visual stumuli — in the brain’s neurons. Now he’s had some small successes in testing that hypothesis in mice using a drug currently marketed for African tripanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness. While we’re a long way off, in theory the ability to stop those cells being locked in the stress response really could reduce some of the more severe anti-communicative symptoms found in autism patients. Check out Elizabeth Norton’s article at sciencemag.org for more.

Orange Bananas

With a hat-tip to the GM brilliance that is Golden Rice, researchers working on the humble frankenfruit the banana have tweaked its beta-carotene levels to help stop children in Africa from going blind from vitamin A deficiency. The human trials (which, I’m assuming, involve eating them) start this year in the US, and they’re hoping to hand little orange-banana trees to farmers in Uganda by 2020. That is, if anti-GMO terrorists don’t destroy them all first.

Crossing the Blood-Brain Barrier?

A new study is set to start at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto to see if they can get chemotherapy drugs to the brain using microbubbles and ultrasound. The problem with treating cancer in the brain at present is that it’s a real challenge to get the drugs from the blood and into the brain. The new technique involves putting microscopic gas bubbles into the patents’ blood, then using ultrasound for two minutes to vibrate them, temporarily opening up the barrier. If successful, it could revolutionize the treatment of a wide range of diseases, from cancer to Alzheimers. Check out the article in New Scientist for more.

Best of the Rest

The cool things on the internet this week meter went over 9000, so here’s just a handful of them: scientists are trying to cut down on e-waste by making soluble circuits; the largest video game collection in the world sold for $750,250; solar shingles are now for sale in North Carolina; scientists are getting a better understanding of the flu by modeling it on supercomputers; two British Higgs-Boson scientists have been knighted for their work; The Mary Sue has started a new “geek sex” column; Insomniac Games threw a female assassin into their latest game to show Ubisoft how it’s done; and the Washington Post has a great long-read by Emily Badger about the ins and outs of the taxi business now that Uber and its ilk are in the game.

I’ll leave you with this, the Numberphile’s handy guide to how to cut a cake more scientifically (if you’re a loner and/or can’t eat a cake in a whole sitting by yourself). Have a great week.