Beam me up, Scotty!

Using only light, Australian researchers say they are able to move small particles almost five feet through the air. It’s more than 100 times the distance achieved by existing optical “tweezers,” the researchers say.

Not quite a simple grabby tractor beam, the new system works by shining a hollow laser beam at an object and taking advantage of air-temperature differences to move it around.

Moving objects with powerful light is not new — researchers have long been using optical tweezers to pluck bacteria-sized particles and move them a few millimeters. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, won his Nobel Prize for work with optical tweezers. But Andrei Rhode and colleagues at the Australian National University say their new laser device can move glass objects hundreds of times bigger than bacteria, and shove them a meter and a half (5 feet) or more. Rhode says the 1.5-meter limit was only because of the size of the table where he placed his lasers — he thinks he can move objects up to 10 meters, or about 30 feet.

It works by shining a hollow laser beam around small glass particles, as Inside Science explains. The air around the particle heats up, but the hollow center of the beam stays cool. The heated air molecules keep the object balanced in the dark center. But a small amount of light sneaks into the hollow, warming the air on one side of the object and nudging it along the length of the laser beam. Researchers can change the speed and direction of the glass object by changing the lasers’ brightness.

The system needs heated air or gas to work, so in its present incarnation it wouldn’t work in space — sorry, Star Wars fans. But it could be used for a variety of purposes on Earth, like biological research or movement of hazardous materials.

The Titans are coming.

In a simulation, a Titan-like atmosphere produces nearly all of life’s building blocks.

Scientists studying Titan’s atmosphere have learned it can create complex molecules, including amino acids and nucleotide bases, often called the building blocks of life. They are the first researchers to show it’s possible to create these molecules without water, suggesting Titan could harbor huge quantities of life’s precursors floating in its atmosphere. It’s a breakthrough that even has implications for the beginning of life on Earth.

Researchers at the University of Arizona built a simulated Titan atmosphere in a special chamber in Paris and blasted it with microwaves, simulating the effect of solar energy. The reactions produced aerosols, which sank to the bottom of the chamber, where scientists scooped them up for study. What they found was unexpected, to put it mildly: all the nucleotide bases that make up the genetic code of all life on Earth, and more than half of the 22 amino acids that make proteins.

Of course, this doesn’t prove Titan has life — this was a test chamber, not the actual moon’s atmosphere, for one thing — but it’s intriguing, at least.

“Our results show that it is possible to make very complex molecules in the outer parts of an atmosphere,” said Sarah Hörst, a graduate student in the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab, in a UA News story. She led the research effort with her adviser, planetary science professor Roger Yelle.

Titan is one of the most promising places for life elsewhere in the solar system. It has huge methane lakes and scientists recently learned that hydrogen is disappearing faster than it should at the surface, suggesting some sort of chemical reaction is consuming it.

The best data about Titan’s characteristics has come from the spacecraft Cassini, which has tasted some of the moon’s outermost atmosphere in a series of flybys since 2004. But Cassini was not designed to dip below 560 miles above the surface, much too far to really get a sense of what the moon’s atmosphere contains.

To truly test its capabilities, researchers would have to recreate the atmosphere in a lab, mixing the gases found on TItan and subjecting them to radiation. The microwaves caused a gas discharge, the same process that makes neon signs glow, which caused some of the nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide to bond together into solid matter. These aerosols were levitated in a special chamber before they got heavy enough to fall down. The prospect of small floating life forms in the Titanic atmosphere is intriguing enough, but the study also revealed some interesting possibilities about the genesis of life on Earth. Titan’s atmosphere might be chemically similar to that of the early Earth, suggesting that instead of emerging from a primordial soup, the building blocks of life might have rained down from on high.

Hörst said the most interesting aspect of the study was proof that you can make pretty much anything in an atmosphere — a finding with major implications for astrobiology.

“Who knows this kind of chemistry isn’t happening on planets outside our solar system?” she said.

Trees as streetlights.

Taiwanese researchers have come up with the elegant idea of replacing streetlights with trees, by implanting their leaves with gold nanoparticles. This causes the leaves to give off a red glow, lighting the road for passersby without the need for electric power. This ingenious triple threat of an idea could simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, cut electricity costs and reduce light pollution, without sacrificing the safety that streetlights bring.

As many good things do, this discovery came about by accident when the researchers were trying to create lighting as efficient as LEDs without using the toxic, expensive phosphor powder that LEDs rely on. The gold nanoparticles, shaped like sea urchins, put into the leaves of Bacopa caroliniana plants cause chlorophyll to produce the reddish luminescence.

In an added bonus, the luminescence will cause the leaves’ chloroplasts to photosynthesize, which will result in more carbon being captured from the air while the streets are lit. The next steps are to improve the efficiency of the bioluminescence and apply the technology to other biomolecules.

Mark Zuckerberg – Time Magazine´s Person of the Year.

At 26, Mark Zuckerberg is the second youngest person to top Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

Rounding out the top 5 were the Tea party at No. 2, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at No. 3, Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and the Chilean miners.

In an interview with Time, Zuckerberg once again opens up about The Social Network, which earned multiple Golden Globe noms Wednesday, including best motion picture, drama.

“I found it funny what details they focused on getting right. I think I owned every single T-shirt that they had me wearing,” says Zuckerberg. “But the biggest thing that thematically they missed is the concept that you would have to want to do something—date someone or get into some final club—in order to be motivated to do something like this. It just like completely misses the actual motivation for what we’re doing, which is, we think it’s an awesome thing to do.”

Zuckerberg says the next five years will be a time for growth for Facebook.

“It’s about the idea that most applications are going to become social, and most industries are going to be rethought in a way where social design and doing things with your friends is at the core of how these things work,” he says. “If the last five years was the ramping up, I think that the next five years are going to be characterized by widespread acknowledgment by other industries that this is the way that stuff should be and will be better.”

Zuckerberg also defends the site’s privacy policies and its reluctance to provide the government with information when asked:

“We feel like it’s our responsibility to push back on that stuff, so oftentimes someone will come with a subpoena, and we’ll go to court and say, ‘We don’t think this is enough.’ Ultimately I think this stuff gets used for good.”

He doesn’t think Facebook lowers the quality of people’s relationships.

“That’s been a criticism that people have had for a while,” he says. “But this isn’t zero-sum. I think what we’re doing is enabling you to stay in touch with people who you otherwise wouldn’t. When I’m at home and I want to talk to my girlfriend, I don’t IM her. I walk downstairs, and we talk.”

Mother nature hates WIFI.

Studies on the effects of wireless radiation on humans are all over the place, with no clear results. But a recent study on the radiation effects on trees indicates that our woody friends are way more vulnarable than us. And the trees can´t even enjoy the benefits of WiFi, it´s so unfair.

The study, conducted by Wageningen University, investigated findings that trees in areas with high Wi-Fi activity (urban areas, especially) were suffering from symptoms that couldn’t be tied to typical bacterial or viral causes. The symptoms included bleeding, fissures in the bark, the death of parts of leaves, and abnormal growth.

To test the hypothesis that the mystery illness was caused by radiation poisoning, the researchers took 20 ash trees and exposed them to various kinds of radiation for three months. Sure enough, the ash trees exposed to Wi-Fi signals showed telltale signs of radiation sickness, including a “lead-like shine” on their leaves, indicating the oncoming death of those leaves. In the Netherlands, a whopping 70% of urban trees are suffering from radiation poisoning, up from only 10% five years ago – understandable, considering the explosion in Wi-Fi use in the past five years.

Of course, trees in rural or even simply non-urban environments are pretty much unaffected, but theoretically, all deciduous trees in the Western world could be affected.

The researchers are planning several more studies to figure out the precise effects of radiation on plant life. In the meantime, they don’t really offer any preliminary solutions.

China pursuits fusion power and teleportation.

It’s no secret that China is beating up on America and the West in everything from infrastructure to technology investment, but news of exactly what the People’s Republic is up to is often scarce. So while the diplomatic establishment continues to reel from the stink of its own dirty laundry in last week’s Wikileaks document dump, cables coming from the American Embassy in Beijing are also shedding light on the strides Chinese scientists are making in far-out fields like nuclear fission, biometrics, and even quantum teleportation.

One confidential diplomatic cable sent from the Beijing Embassy to Washington in February suggests China is doing big things at the small-scale. For one, China is aggressively expanding its nuclear energy resources, with plans to open at least 70 nuclear plants in the next decade. More interestingly, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is pouring research funding into its Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) to conduct ongoing research into nuclear fusion.

Apparently China has been hard at work on its Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor, which is designed to sustain a controlled fusion reaction that can go on indefinitely at high temperatures. In 2009, researchers apparently sustained a 18-million-degree reaction for 400 seconds, and a 180-million-degree reaction for 60 seconds. Their goal for 2010 was to sustain a 180-million-degree reaction for more than 400 seconds, though it’s unclear if they achieved that. Moreover, IPP is apparently conducting research on hybrid fission-fusion reactors, though details are slim.

Perhaps most interesting: China doubled the IPP budget in 2009 over 2008, and the diplomatic chatter suggests 2010’s budget saw a significant boost as well. Amid choppy economic waters, such funding bumps indicate a real commitment on China’s part to figure out the fusion energy puzzle.

China’s sci-tech ambitions don’t stop there. While the evidence is anecdotal, the embassy seems to think the Chinese are pulling ahead in fields like quantum communications and even teleportation. To quote one diplomat’s description of a trip to the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei:

“A cursory walk through their labs seemed to indicate they had already succeeded in single-particle quantum teleportation and are now trying to conduct dual-particle quantum teleportation.”

Then there’s the Big Brother tech that we’ve come to expect from China. The same cable says the CAS’s Institute of Intelligent Machines (IIM) in Hefei has created a biometric system that identifies individuals through their pace and gait.

“The device measure weight and two-dimensional sheer forces applied by a person’s foot during walking to create a uniquely identifiable biometrics profile,” the cable says, and can be installed covertly in a floor to surreptitiously collect biometric data.