Brains, walls and oil

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Oct 21 2011, 06:58am hrs
A social brain

Heres yet another study that shows that the use of computers isnt as bad for health as its made out to be. A number of studies have already shown that computer games can help improve hand-eye coordination and cognitive ability, and now researchers at University College London have found a positive correlation between a persons friend network on Facebook and the amount of grey matter in their brain. Basically, the researchers found that people with more friends on Facebook had more grey matter in certain regions of their brains (the amygdala, right superior temporal sulcus, left middle temporal gyrus and right entorhinal cortex) than people with fewer online friends.

What they found was that grey matter in the amygdala was linked to the number of real friends people had, while the grey matter in the other three areas was only affected by the number of online friends they had. These other three regions are associated with creating memories of names and faces and how people interpret social cues such as gaze and body movement. Further research is needed, however, to properly establish which is the cause and which is the effectdo people with lots of online friends have more grey matter, or is the large amount of grey matter a driver for accumulating online friends

Oils wooden dream

So far, the only economical way to get crude oil is to dig for it and, as far as we know, theres a limited supply. At some point, were going to run out of oil and all our engines and machines are going to have to switch to alternative sources of fuel. But a chemical engineering professor from the University of Maine could change all that. Clay Wheeler claims to have developed a two-step process that makes oil from cellulose in wood fibre. The process, which involves bathing the wood in sulfuric acid, isolating the sugars in cellulose and producing an energy-intense organic acid mixture, which is then heated with calcium hydroxide in a reactor to 450 degrees celsius, is far less complex than competing methods.

The process seems to be pretty efficient, too, with every tonne of cellulose producing about 1.25 barrels of oil equivalent. The oil from the process, though not exactly the same as that drawn from the earth, can be refined into gasoline, jet fuel or diesel. For countries with a lot of loggingwhich produces a lot of scrap, waste woodthis process, if made commercially viable, could be the path to energy self-sufficiency.

Superman, here we come!

One of Supermans coolest powers is his X-ray vision, allowing him to see through walls (in the movie, he first exhibits his power by telling Lois Lane the colour of her underwear!). It may seem like a super-power, one that humans will never possess, but once again, science has shown that machines can be built to do pretty much anything. Two scientists from MITs Lincoln Lab have developed a machine that can see through walls from a distance away, giving an instantaneous image of whats happening behind it.

The device itself isnt too complicated, with a total of 21 antennas (13 transmitting, 8 receiving) and a computational device mounted on a movable cart. Its pretty powerful, too, being able to see through four- and eight-inch thick concrete walls. Quite obviously, the device has tremendous potential in the military. What makes this device truly extraordinary is not that it is able to penetrate such thick structures (as one of the scientists said, signal amplifiers are cheap) but that it can provide a real-time video of the activity on the other side of a wall 60 feet away. As the scientist said, an image once every 20 minutes (which is that all similar machines can offer) isnt very practical. It seems Superman isnt as far away as we thought.