Protecting the Seas through Science – The US Navy fulfils a Mission

shutterstock_89290870 (1)The core mission of the United States Navy is to meet America’s global security commitments at sea. In order to do this they are continuously carrying out tests and training, in the major water bodies surrounding the country. These include using sonar technology and carefully monitored underwater explosions. The effects of these tests on marine life are still not completely understood. In order to ensure that the animals are being protected as well as possible the US Navy monitors and reports conditions that might affect them, following guidelines which are outlined under the Endangered Species and the Marine Mammal Protection Acts.

The Navy forms partnerships with other agencies, universities and private companies in order to get the best results. Together they conduct research which shows them the most efficient way to monitor and protect marine life. Many of the scientists are civilian employees, even though the projects that they work on are funded by the Navy. All the findings are reviewed by leaders in the field to determine how accurate they are, before the results are published.

The program that the US Navy has put in place to minimise the harm of at sea training and testing, is the Marine Mammal Research Program. In order to fulfil this objective, the program is divided into 4 main areas of study which work together to determine the possible effects on marine mammals.

  1. shutterstock_85273630Marine Mammal Ecology and Population Dynamics.

This team’s main objectives are to determine the number of species that are located in areas that the navy conducts training. In addition, it aims to understand their seasonal distribution and unique behaviours.

  1. Criteria and Thresholds to Measure the Effects of Navy Generated Sounds.

This area is responsible for concluding what the effects of sound are on the animals’ behaviour, including both manmade and natural noises. The main concern is that the mid-frequency sonar does not reach levels that might affect any of the mammals.

  1. Improving Monitoring Techniques

Properly monitoring a species is the best way to determine how to provide the safest possible environment for them. This department spends most of its time trying to decide what the best way to observe, detect and classify marine life is, in order to help them as much as possible.

  1. Sound Field Characterization

Directly concerned with the results of their sonar experiments, this branch is tasked with developing protocols and models to predict how the sounds will spread in water.

The US Navy has already committed to continuing its research and monitoring of the animals throughout the next decade. This will allow the Navy to meet its national security requirements, by protecting the US as well as our beautiful marine mammals.


Viruses and their Threat to Mankind

Even though we are exposed to viruses in various forms from as early as we can remember, they still remain beyond our control. Many of them such as chicken pox and the common cold have symptoms that are very uncomfortable, while others pose a much more serious threat to humanity. The significant difference between the size of the organism and the amount of damage that it can do to the human population, almost seems to be a mockery of our systems.

shutterstock_210544051Ebola is one of the viruses that is currently associated with many human deaths. It is believed to have originated in bats in West Africa, and is transferred in humans quickly and easily through contact with those that are affected. It is associated with an extremely high fatality rate, as approximately 50% of those that are infected end up dying from the virus. The symptoms are very flu-like in appearance but quickly escalate to include nausea and diarrhoea. In order to find a cure or vaccine to help decrease the amount of people that die from the virus, scientists are continuously studying the survivors.

HIV is another virus that has affected the world population significantly. It is caught mainly from sexual or blood contact, and breaks down the immune system by attacking CD4 white blood cells directly. Different medications, over the years, have made it possible for people to live for very long periods without the virus advancing any further.

shutterstock_248200417Even though the regular influenza virus is responsible for a large number of deaths each year, it becomes even more dangerous when a new strain develops. One example of an influenza epidemic was the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918, where in excess of 40% of the world’s population got sick and more than 25 million people died. Another strain of influenza that has proved fatal in more modern times was the swine flu (H1N1 virus) attack in 2009.

Our battles with these miniscule killers are long and continuous, but there is sometimes a great victory on our side. Smallpox was one of the most deadly viruses to plague us for centuries, leaving at least 1/3 of its victims dead and many survivors permanently scarred or blind. In 1980, it was announced that the world was now free of the threat of smallpox. Virologists, and doctors, took advantage of the distinct symptoms and began treating those exposed to the virus by giving them the ‘ring vaccine’ as soon as possible after exposure, resulting eventually in its complete eradication.

After being affected by certain viruses, our immune system produces natural anti-bodies so they cannot infect us more than once. Getting the full blown virus can be deadly so vaccines are made by introducing weakened forms of the viruses into the body, to allow it to develop its own immunity. This has been very successful in limiting the amount of people certain viruses affect. Virologists and other scientists continue to work diligently at finding ways to make vaccines for the ones that still continue to prove fatal.

Genetic Engineering – The Human Quest for Perfection

The human genetic composition is what determines our health, personal traits and even our behaviour. Genes are passed on to us from our parents, and can also be the source of many imperfections as well as hereditary diseases. As humans we are always trying to make everything better, including ourselves. This has resulted in the desire to modify the genes in embryos, and foetuses, in order to improve our genetic make-up. The biggest controversy associated with genetic engineering is whether or not it is an ethical practice and should be continued, or even advanced.

shutterstock_133184528‘Gene therapy’ is currently as far as human genetic engineering has extended, meaning that the process is applied to non-reproductive cells. Doing this has facilitated the ability to find cures for certain diseases. As a result, it has become a revered application in the medical field.

These advancements have made also it possible for us to clone entire species, and in 1996 the first ever fully cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, was ‘born.’ She lived for six years and, even after her death, is still the cause of much speculation about whether this is a procedure that should ever have been undertaken because with the ability to clone another mammal comes the ability to ‘make’ a human. This is a possibility that comes too close to playing God for the majority of society to handle.

Europe, for ethical reasons, has a ban on the cloning of human embryos. There is no limit on what many other countries can experiment with, however, and China has recently genetically engineered embryos with the intention of modifying the gene responsible for thalassaemia (a fatal blood disorder). The embryos used in their experiments were non-viable and obtained from IVF banks where they had been fertilised by two sperm, and had no possibility of a live birth. There has still been public demand that action be taken to stop this from continuing, due to the fact that nobody can be certain whether or not the embryos used will remain non-viable.

shutterstock_26340893China isn’t the only country experimenting with human genetic engineering, and in the western world there is a lot of development in the field as well. In the United States, James Grifo has found a way to transfer cell nuclei from eggs of older women to younger ones with the aim of overcoming infertility. The infants that will be born, from these eggs, will genetically have three parents.

The search for perfection has always been a fascination for humans, and James Watson conducts seminars promoting of the use of genetic engineering for enhancing ourselves. He is adamant that as soon as the technology is available people should be able to add genes to themselves, to improve who they are. There has also been the suggestion made by French Anderson, a US gene therapy pioneer, that we do gene therapy on foetuses to treat genetic conditions. These modified genes will then continue to be passed on to all future generations, stopping the undesirable genes from returning altogether.

Human genetic engineering does bring with it the possibility of becoming ‘perfect.’ The question that arises from this, however, is whether this should really be our aim? It is quite possible that our imperfections are what actually make us human in the first place.

Nanotechnology Today – Remarkable Feats Achieved by Miniscule Technology

Nanotechnology, being conducted at such a small scale, was once thought of as beyond our capabilities. The microscope that allows us to see Nano particles has only been available in the last 30 years, so all of the relevant advances have taken place since then.  With the constant developments in the field, nanotechnology has been integrated into our lives without us even being completely aware of when it happened. The way in which nanotechnology works is by controlling individual atoms and molecules, and as technology increases its uses are guaranteed to expand.

One of the areas where nanotechnology is currently making the biggest impact is in the medical field, helping to revolutionise the way we detect and treat disease. It is currently used in wound dressings to cease excessive bleeding, to help in early recognition of plaque build-up in arteries, and gold nanoparticles can detect Alzheimer’s in its early stages. Other big achievements in the field include:

Artificial Muscles
– Made from billions of microscopic, straw-like carbon nanotubes which have been twisted together, these muscles move in a similar way to an elephant’s trunk and squid’s tentacles. They are able to change their shape in response to stimuli, and with this there is great potential in terms of propelling medication throughout the body.

shutterstock_275643833Targeted Drug Delivery Capsules – Developed with the aim of getting medication straight to the targeted cells, it is hoped that these capsules transform the way in which we treat cancer patients. The drugs are transported in nanoscale capsules and move through the body towards the sick cells. When they are within the correct range they will release the medication, which attacks and kills the cancer cells but doesn’t harm the rest of your body.

Nanotechnology is also being used in other areas, and some of the ways that it is creating a difference are with:

Self-healing Plastic – Made to respond to damage in the same way as human skin, by bleeding and then healing (much like the terminator does), this material will be able to fix itself in the case of any damage. It won’t be very long before this technology is being used on vehicle fenders and the outside of aeroplanes.

shutterstock_314299358Electricity Generating Viruses – Scientists have discovered that when pressure is applied to certain viruses, they are able to convert it into electricity. This concept means that in the near future we will be able to start powering our kitchen appliances by stepping on a mat made of viruses on the floor, or similar methods.

Like all other technological advancements, there is more that is surfacing about nanotechnology every day, and within a short period of time other methods that include it will be employed to make our daily lives easier. The feats that have already been accomplished using this technology are proof that objects don’t need to be big in order to make a gigantic difference in our world.

Part Human, Part Machine – Cyborg Technology already among us

The idea of making ourselves superhuman via technological advancements used to be a hypothetical concept. Becoming a cyborg has always been supported by a part of the population but considered taboo by others. Regardless of personal beliefs and opinions it is a concept that has started becoming a reality, much quicker than anybody really expected. Even though it is normally portrayed as ideas that will make our species more advanced, in reality they are also allowing people with disabilities to enjoy doing the things that the rest of us consider normal.

As this technology increases our cyborg prospects will expand rapidly, and eventually there may be full body enhancements that will be accepted as the norm. Until then, let’s look at some of the ones that have already begun to change our lives.

Prosthetic Limbs – One of the first set of experiments with cyborg technology included attempting to make artificial limbs that work as well as our human ones do. This gives amputees the opportunity to move in the best way possible.

The BeBionic limb is taking this goal to new heights. It is a prosthetic hand that’s connected to the wearer’s skin and muscles in their upper arm. It is operated via muscular movements, and each individual finger joint can be moved separately. This means that it enables amputees to do some of the things that other prosthetic hands don’t allow, such as being able to tie their own shoelaces.

Eyeborg – Designed by Neil Harbisson, an artist who was born completely colour blind, the eyeborg is a one of a kind invention. Harbisson wears a colour sensor that is mounted on an antenna on his head and then connected to a microchip in his skull. The sensor turns colours into sounds which he hears via bone conduction. This means instead of seeing colours he is actually hearing them. It took him a while to differentiate the different sounds each colour makes on the spectrum, but he is now able to recognise many more than the average person shutterstock_143005078can see. After a battle between Harbisson and the British government, the eyeborg is now acknowledged as a part of his body.

RFID – Meaning radio frequency identification, these are chips that are imbedded between the index finger and the thumb. They allow the wearer to connect to Android devices, open doors, turn on lights and other useful every day activities. The surprising thing about having an RFID implanted is that it can be done anywhere, by anybody. There are even DIY kits available online for those that are daring enough to undertake the process themselves.

Terminator Lens – We all know about the terminators’ ability to zoom in on any object. As implied by its name this contact lens will do the same for the person wearing it. Even though it is not yet available for public purchase, it has been proven to work well. The terminator lens allows an individual to magnify their vision up to 2.8 times instantly, by using a liquid crystal shutter that is located in the lens itself. It works well in 3D glasses, but the manufacturers are still trying to come up with a way to put the crystal shutter in the softer plastic that is used to make normal contact lenses.

The human race has finally become advanced enough to begin to transform themselves. Let’s hope that with greater knowledge comes the acceptance of the added responsibility of using it wisely.

Surena III – humanoid robot

If you think that smart robots are a thing of the future, you need to meet Surena III. At 6 feet 3 inches tall, and weighing 216 lbs, Surena III is the closest thing the scientific community has ever had to a perfect humanoid robot. Equipped with sensors, 3D vision, powered joints and a sleek casing with LED lights, this robot can climb a ladder, stand on one foot, and can now walk at a faster pace than its predecessors at 0.2 m/s.

Robots like Surena have been in development for years, and some similar models were used at Fukushima.

The humanoid robot, funded by the Industrial Development and Renovation Organization of Iran, can walk up and down stairs, take hold of objects, kick a ball and can even adapt to different terrain. Video footage has shown the robot standing upright on uneven ground. It is the third robot in its series and has significant upgrades over its predecessors. Iranian researchers upgraded the robot’s sensors and actuators over the previous version. The vision system now allows the robot to detect faces and objects and track a person’s motions. A speech system can recognize some predefined sentences in Persian. Encoders embedded on all joints, six-axis force/torque sensors on the ankles, and an IMU on the torso help the robot remain stable. To power Surena’s hips and legs, the researchers used a combination of Maxon brushless DC motors, harmonic drives, and timing belt-pulley systems.

Image: CAST (Center of Advanced Systems & Technologies)

It took over seventy students, engineers, and professors from Tehran University and five other Iranian institutions to design and build Surena III. Local companies developing robotics software and speech systems also contributed to the project, and experts expect that some of the technology developed for the humanoid could find applications in manufacturing, healthcare, and other industries.

Scientists are now working to make the robot more autonomous and are working to help it increase its ability to interact with humans. Recent studies have also claimed that the level of AI shown in science-fiction movies can never actually happen. If consciousness is based on the integration of lots of pieces of information, computers can’t be conscious and capable of experiencing emotions like humans.