Just in case you’re wondering, I do have some legitimate excuses for taking so long to write and post this. It’s been a pretty crazy few weeks, thanks to a sixteen-day-long sinus infection, (it seemed like a lot longer than that) the demise of my car, and just general life/work things. But I had this blog post almost ready to go two weeks ago, so it’d be silly to just scrap it. So at this point, I’m just posting what I’ve got; I apologize if it’s a little disorganized and inadequately edited. 

Klingon Bird of PreyI’d like to start by pointing out that we are slowly getting closer to living in a universe where Star Trek technology is a reality. Unfortunately, this isn’t about transporter beams. (Although I’ll come back to that in a few paragraphs) It’s about cloaking devices, which isn’t even Earth technology; hence my choice to use a picture of a Klingon space vessel.  Although I’m most familiar with the original series, the internet informs me that the use of cloaking technology would violate the Treaty of Algeron, signed by the Federation and the Romulans in the year 2311. However, our 21st-century earth physicists have been indicating for a few years now that invisibility is plausible. This article,  which is more than a year old, describes some of the more promising developments towards the goal of manipulating light waves to make things invisible. The article references Harry Potter instead of Star Trek, though, which is just silly because the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter is clearly magic. 

This new article also mentions Harry Potter, although the technology that it describes is even less similar to a magical invisibility cloak. This time, instead of blocking light waves, the researchers are working on blocking water waves. It’s a little less exciting, maybe, but it has practical applications. Obviously, it’s useful for anything that has to do with boats. The article quotes one physicist as joking that their work will make it easier to have coffee on a boat, but I’m not sure that’s so much a “joke” as it is a worthy pursuit. What makes this development especially interesting, though, is that it essentially works the same way that a light-wave-blocking cloaking device would. 

So what about the transporter beams I mentioned earlier? Well, as you probably realize, real Star-Trek-esque teleportation technology doesn’t exist and isn’t likely to reach us anytime soon. I only mention this development in the context of transporter beams because of this somewhat clickbaitish headline and the Star Trek references in the article. In actuality, this story is about communication and computer science. (In other words, it has more relevance to Uhura than to Scotty)

MelchizedekUntil now, quantum computers have used qubits, which is basically the same thing as a bit for regular computers. A bit is the smallest unit of computer information storage; it represents a single 0 or 1 in binary code. 8 bits make one byte, which is the amount of computer storage needed for a single letter, (or other character) and most computer files take up at least several hundred kilobytes, (aka KB) each of which is actually 1024 bytes. This random (but adorable) picture of my cat Melchizedek takes up over 102 KB on my computer; it’s 105,404 bytes, which is 843,232 bits. The point of all this is that a bit or qubit is a very small thing. Again, it stores one digit of binary code. The news story here is that now there’s such a thing as a qutrit, which stores a digit of ternary code instead of binary. While binary code has two possible values for each digit, ternary code has three possible values, and therefore, a qutrit is slightly bigger than a qubit or a bit. 

I’ve just about run out of reasonable excuses for Star Trek references, but I do have a couple other things to share that have extraterrestrial subject matter. This first one stays pretty close to home. Astronomer David Kipping has suggested that we could make a giant telescope by essentially using the earth’s atmosphere as the lens. We’d just need a spaceship in the right place and equipped with the right devices; the refraction of the light is a natural phenomenon. You can see Kipping’s paper here.

170613_Jupiter_FullMeanwhile, five of Jupiter’s recently-discovered moons have been named. The names were chosen via an online contest, but the options were somewhat limited, since it has already been established that all of Jupiter’s moons must be named after figures from Greek or Roman mythology who were either lovers of Zeus/Jupiter or descended from him. (While there are some differences between the Greek and Roman myths besides the gods’ names, it’s still fair to consider Zeus and Jupiter to be essentially equivalent from an astronomical standpoint) These five moons each get their name from a Greek goddess who is either a daughter or granddaughter of Zeus. Their names are Pandia, Ersa, Eirene, Philophrosyne, and Eupheme. For a complete (and apparently up-to-date) list of moon names, click here. Just to be clear, the picture I’ve used here is Jupiter itself, not a moon.

Moving on to a different scientific field, I’m happy to report that science has confirmed that chocolate is good for you, especially dark chocolate. This cross-sectional study of over 13,000 participants indicates that eating some dark chocolate every other day could reduce the likelihood of having depressive symptoms by 70 percent. (Google Docs put a squiggly line under the phrase “every other day” and suggests that I meant “every day”. Maybe Google knows something that the rest of us don’t.) In other nutritional news, the flavonoids found in apples and tea evidently lower the risk of cancer and heart disease.  And this pilot study has suggested that pregnant women would do well to drink pomegranate juice or consume other foods high in polyphenols (a category of antioxidants) in order to protect their prenatal children from brain problems caused by IUGR, (intrauterine growth restriction) a very common health issue which often involves inadequate oxygen flow to the developing brain. A larger clinical trial is already underway.

A recent study indicates that there could be a genetic link between language development problems and childhood mental health problems. Educators have noted in DNAthe past that kids with developmental language delays are often the same kids with emotional or behavioral problems, but as the article says, it’s always been generally assumed that the reason for this is causal; the idea is that the frustration or confusion that comes from language difficulties causes (or exacerbates) emotional issues. But this study used statistical analysis of participants’ genetic data to evaluate the correlation, and researchers think that both types of problems could be caused by the same genes.

Interestingly enough, another potential cause of childhood mental health problems is strep throat. This article isn’t really new information; clinicians have been studying PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections)  for a couple decades, and there is still debate over what is actually going on in the patients’ brains, whether PANDAS should be considered a form of OCD or a separate disorder, and whether PANDAS is even a real thing. The article linked above describes one specific case and describes some of the questions and research. 

Here’s another one about child development. A researcher in Australia developed a preschool program based entirely upon music and movement. The idea is that these kinds of activities are such effective tools in early childhood education that they can help to close the achievement gap between children from different socioeconomic situations. This is one of those cases where common knowledge is a little ahead of official scientific research. As a children’s librarian, I can verify that virtually anyone who works with kids knows that singing and dancing helps kids learn. There are several reasons for this, ranging from “it activates numerous brain regions at the same time, thereby forming connections that aid both memory and comprehension” to “it burns off excess energy and keeps the kids out of trouble”. For these and other reasons, most preschool programs (and, of course, library storytimes) involve a lot of songs, most of which have their own dances or hand movements. Besides that, school-age kids who take classes in music and/or dance tend to be more academically successful than those who don’t. As far as I know, nobody has ever done the research to officially confirm that, but lots of people in education and the arts are aware of it. (If there’s anyone reading this who has the academic background and the means to do such a study, I’d like to request that you pursue that. Please and thank you.)

ReadingThe next two studies I want to mention are so closely related in their subject matter and findings that I initially thought that these two articles are about the same study. But they aren’t. Although they both involved using MRI technology to watch what someone’s brain does while they read, this one from scientists in England was looking at how the brain translates markings on paper into meaningful words, while this study from the University of California, Berkley compared the brain activity in subjects who read and listened to specific stories. The most conclusive finding from that particular study was that, from a neurological perspective, listening to audiobooks or podcasts is essentially equivalent to reading with your eyes, which almost seems to contradict the England study, which obviously showed that visual processing is the first neurological step in reading. That’s not really a contradiction, though, when you stop to think about just how busy the brain is when reading.

Neurologists have always known that reading is a complex cognitive process that doesn’t have its own designated brain region; it requires cooperation between several different cognitive processes, including those that process visual input, those that relate to spoken language, and higher-order thinking. (That is, our conscious thoughts) But these recent studies have given neurologists a clearer map of written language’s path through the brain. Both of these studies also indicate that the exact brain activity varies slightly depending upon what the participant is reading. In fact, in the study from the University of California, researchers could predict what words the person was reading based upon brain activity. It would seem that our brains associate words with each other based both upon how that word is pronounced and what it means. These studies have some very useful potential applications, such as helping people with dyslexia or auditory processing disorders. In the meantime, they provide us with a couple new fun facts. As far as I’m concerned, fun facts are pretty important, too.