7 Nerds That Make Science Freakishly Cool
Despite what hours of memorization for Bio 101 taught you, science isn't boring. In fact, it's mind-blowingly cool. These seven scientists are working on projects that would make Bill Nye proud.
1. Bin He is refining mind-controlled flight
Bin He's lab has demonstrated that they can control a flying robot using nothing but thoughts. In this non-invasive system, the electrical activity of the brain is measured by a skull cap and converted into commands which are communicated to the robot. The person wearing the cap imagines performing actions such as making a fist, but doesn't physically do it. That particular neural activity is converted into a very specific command, like "turn right," which is in turn relayed to the robot. This technology has huge implications for those suffering from paralysis or loss of limbs to control prosthetics.
2. Jennifer Healey is giving your GPS feelings
What if Siri could get sassy with you when you ask her annoying questions? Would it change how you use this software? Emotions are the cornerstone of human interaction, but are largely absent from our interactions with increasingly present avatars designed to assist us in our daily life. Jennifer Healey is exploring the effects of smartphones and computers able to respond to human emotions on user experience. In her recent study, Healey looked at how people responded to an in-vehicle infotainment system with a neutral, snarky, or encouraging personality. Interestingly, snarky was found to be more trustworthy.
3. William Freeman is exposing "invisible" motion
We don't notice, but there are many different types of movements and color pulsations happening around us that aren't seen by the naked eye. Through software created in William Freeman's lab at MIT, it's now possible to see the invisible. This video analysis works by focusing on an individual pixel, monitoring changes in movement and color, and amplifying those changes. This freakishly cool science could be used to measure abnormalities in blood flow, monitor the breathing of babies in intensive care, fine tune search and rescue missions or to develop more sensitive lie detector tests. Really, the applications are endless; it's the re-conception of the microscope. He also gets bonus nerd points by making the source code available to the public.
4. Craig Venter is dabbling in synthetic life
After taking a lead on the Human Genome Project, Venter has moved on to creating synthetic forms of life. This field of study builds new organisms out of the known code of DNA. If you think of DNA as Lego's, knowing how the pieces fit together allows you to build whatever you'd like. Venture founded a synthetic genomics institute which aims to create lifeforms designed to efficiently and cheaply produce resources like bio-fuels, medicines, and plastics.
5. Baile Zhang is looking into making you disappear
Ok... so it's not as seamless as Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, but it's pretty good. By making use of prisms and light refraction, Baile Zhang and his team have created an invisibility box which scatters light to hide objects. There are some drawbacks, like it only works from one direction and you can see the cloak, but this technology is well on its way. The next step towards perfect cloaking is synthesizing and testing metamaterials. These are synthetic materials that bend light in unnatural ways making the cloak invisible, as well as work from different angles. This technology has implications for security and surveillance.
6. Karl Deisseroth made the brain see-through
One of the biggest challenges currently facing Neuroscience is understanding the complicated connectivity of neurons throughout the brain. This has spurred large scale initiatives such as the Human Connectome Project. At present, brains are sliced into very thin pieces and studied in a series, sort of like flip book animation. As you can imagine, this is tedious and information is lost, but Karl Deisseroth and collegues' work creating a transparent brain through chemical treatment allows scientists to look at large sections of the brain in great detail, particularly when paired with techniques like Brainbow, which colors individual neurons.
7. John Rogers is tinkering with cyborgs
Working to build an interface between biology and technology, Rogers and his group have made a wearable circuit for human/machine integration. This circuit is similar to a temporary tattoo; it's small, thin, flexible and sticks to the skin. This device can monitor heartbeats, muscle contractions, brain waves and it can also detect speech. Along with all this data gathering, it can also transmit data to a doctor, your computer or even another device. Rogers envisions health care applications for this device, like helping people laryngeal diseases communicate or monitoring premature babies, though there are certainly commercial applications.