This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

23Feb/11

Birds are Quantum Physicists!

Remember a few months back when an article came out describing that ability of birds to see magnetic fields?  Well, here's another chapter in that interesting aviary saga.

As I mentioned in a previous post, scientists have been trying to figure out just how it is that birds are able to accomplish this amazing feat.  Many hypotheses involve the protein cryptochrome, a molecule that seems to be nearly one-of-a-kind as far as biological structures go.

Now, scientists have taken the awesome factor for this mechanism one step higher...they're suggesting that these birds may actually be using quantum entanglement in their navigational systems.

For those uninitiated into the world of really really tiny physics, entanglement basically describes two electrons that are inextricably linked.  Any time you subject an electron to a magnetic field, you affect its "spin",  a quantum property that is too complex to be explained in this short post.  However, if that electron is entangled with another, then any time electron "A" changes its spin, electron "B" will react as well, even though it was never subjected to the magnetic field.

Sounds creepy huh?  Apparently this is a concept that dates back to the good old days of Einstein, who famously described it as "spooky action at a distance."

So might birds use this?  Well, one theory is that in a bird's eye are pairs of these "quantum entangled" electrons.  Occasionally, one of these electrons will move away from the other, causing it to experience a slightly different magnetic field than its partner.  Through some unknown mechanism, the bird measures this change in magnetic field by measuring the quantum state of the two electrons.

If you think this sounds hard to believe, you wouldn't be alone, and scientists are still trying to figure out just what is going on.  There have been many experiments performed on quantum entanglement, but nearly all of them require very specific environmental conditions that are never seen in nature (such as having a temperature close to zero degrees Kelvin).  To see such an effect in a warm-blooded living organism is fascinating.

It's discoveries like this that make me love the world of science.  Quantum physics is a field that has been around for less than a century.  Go back a hundred years, and you would have found a number of physicists who theorized that we were just at the cusp of "figuring out" the entire universe.  Now, we've got an entire new field of physics that almost nobody understands, and yet we're finding creatures that utilize properties of these fields at a fundamental level.  The universe is a strange place, indeed.  Who knows what other mysterious discoveries are out there, waiting to be uncovered.

via The Wired Blog

17Dec/10

The world’s coolest magnifying glass

So I'm tempted to describe this video using a bunch of physics jargon, complete with discussions about how much energy is contained within sunlight and how useful it could be if we were to make more efficient use of that energy, but I think this video can be summed up in much simpler terms.

Really, this video is about setting things on fire with little more than a fancy magnifying glass.  Do you really need more description to want to watch?  How about this: there is currently not a single material we know of that can withstand this kind of heat!  Talk about an untapped power of the universe...

For those who are curious, it comes from the Solar Furnace Research Facility in Southern France.  Unfortunately, the awesomeness of this video makes it almost impossible to find information on them, but I'll keep you updated if any other mind-boggling feats of the sun get unearthed!

via Bang Goes the Theory

12Oct/10

TIYBOA Guide to the Nobel Prizes: Graphene!

Well it's that time of the year again, the verdict is in, and we've got our 2010 Nobel Award winners.  Now, this is always an exciting time for me, because it gives me a great chance to see what kinds of amazing research is going on in the scientific world that isn't solely concerned with Neuroscience or the world of cognition.

Since this website is one of the best ways for me to work information around in my own brain, as well as to tell other people about the cool things going on in the world of science, I figured I'd give a quick explanation of this year's prizes in Medicine, Chemistry and Physics (and I'll resist the temptation to go political and mention China's detained recipient).  First up:

Physics - Graphene

I have to say that this is the discovery that I am most excited about.  The world of materials and synthesis is an oft-overlooked sub-field of physics, but it continues to redefine what structures are possible in the physical world, and to come up with increasingly creative and useful functions for these new materials.

This year, researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester have earned the admiration of physicists everywhere with the discovery of Graphene, a tiny yet incredibly powerful new kind of material.

Graphene's structure is beautifully simple - it exists as a single sheet of carbon atoms, arranged in a honeycomb fashion (think really tiny chicken wire).  Here I want to reiterate - this is essentially the same stuff that exists in the graphite head of a pencil, just an incredibly thin slice of it.  By "incredibly thin," I really mean "inconceivably, unbelievably, amazingly thin," since this bad boy is a mere 1-atom thick.  So small, in fact, that it is invisible to the human eye, despite having all kinds of useful properties.

What makes this material truly amazing, however, is that it has applications for fields ranging from plastics to electronics.  Graphene is a fantastic conductor of heat, which means that it won't succumb to the high temperatures that make nano-computing a problem.  Since it also conducts electricity just as easily as copper, this makes it a prime candidate for the next generation of supercomputers.

For instance, you've probably heard of Moore's Law, a theory that roughly suggests that our technology will increase at an exponential rate (this is the "processing speed doubles every year" thing).  Well, people have been worried for quite some time if this law may be slowly coming to a halt as it becomes more and more difficult to fit more transistors and other parts into our computers.  A big problem with this has been overheating - once you've got really really tiny materials, it becomes increasingly difficult to dissipate and control heat.

However, with Graphene, this becomes less of an issue.  Since it can still conduct electricity quite well, and since it also conducts heat much better than copper, Graphene poses a highly-useful alternative to the stuff we've traditionally included in our microprocessors and circuit boards.  This will allow us to build faster, smaller, more powerful computers for years to come.

In addition, Graphene is extremely strong and stable.  It turns out that the "honeycomb" patterns is sort of nature's optimization for stability, and this gives it all kinds of interesting properties for durability and  stress-testing.  As such, you can expect to see Graphene used to reinforce plastics, increase the stability of structures such as airplanes, and insert into small devices where durability is important, such as touch-screens.  I've anecdotally heard that the breaking point of Graphene can be likened to an elephant standing on a pencil pointed at a sheet of the stuff.  Pretty amazing stuff, huh?

The professors have spent the better part of three decades researching this stuff, so it's still relatively far from being produced for the masses.  However, once released into the wild, Graphene will change our lives in a dramatic way.  I can't wait!

via the Nobel Prize site, but you should also check out its potential applications on its Wikipedia Page