Weird Science News – December 2012 Edition

While I try to be diverse in sources, I have to link to The Atlantic again.  The November/December had a great article/short fiction piece about recent advances in biotechnology.  While I think it borders a bit on the paranoid at times (anyone can get genes!!11!), it also paints a pretty accurate picture of the convergence of molecular biology and computer science that is rapidly defining synthetic biology.  I just think the one thing the author forgets to emphasize is that while we can combine lots of genes, we still don’t understand what many do or the reverse problem, which genes control functions we want to have in synthetic organisms.  And as we learn more about epigenetics, factors that influence development beyond the genome, I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn that many things we want to splice into organisms require more complicated interactions than just inserting gene A into target B.

Our second, more whimsical bit of news for the day is also courtesy of The Atlantic.  Boeing wanted to test how well its in-flight WiFi systems work.  The challenge is that you also need something to account for the presence of passengers if you want to make sure the signal reaches everywhere in a crowded plane.  But it’d probably be hard (and expensive) to recruit a plane’s worth of volunteers to just sit around while you check signal strength.

Forgive the pun!

Not a couch potato

So what makes a suitable replacement? Potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes, arranged in vaguely humanlike shapes.  How does that work?  When dealing with electromagnetism, one of the most important traits of the human body is that we’re mostly water.  And water is dielectric, which basically means the electrons in water atoms align to reduce the electric field in water when it is exposed to an external field, like say the wave from a WiFi router.  So if you want a quick and dirty approximation to people, you can basically model a person as an equivalent volume of water.  This would be difficult to make as a physical experiment.  That’s where spuds save the day.  Potatoes, it turns out, are also mostly water (this is also why you avoid cutting them to make mashed potatoes – it’d be a soupy mess) .  And they’re a lot easier to buy and move around than giant jugs of Aquafina.

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