September’s Fascinations of the Month

6 | By Michael A. Robinson

Microscopic materials are extremely hard to work with.

It’s not like you can just use tweezers to pick up two items you can’t see with the naked eye and glue them together.

But soon, we may be able to “program” tiny substances to work like materials “ants” that build their own colonies once someone flips a switch.

At least, a team at the University of Delaware just demonstrated that a group of microscopic particles could be guided to form specific structures at the nanoscale level.

The researchers started with materials as wide as a small fraction of a human hair – materials that became magnetic once an outside source was applied. Team members found that by using the right frequency and strength, they could see the particles change from a random substance into highly organized structures. This breakthrough could help clear a major nanotech hurdle.

Imagine: Computer chips that can build themselves.

If this emerging field of the future sounds out of this world, it actually is. The team got help from NASA so it could watch the process aboard the International Space Station to figure out how gravity affects self-assembly of these cutting-edge materials.

This was far from the only fascinating high-tech advance I came across this month.

Take a look…

Your Kids and Grandkids Will Love This

Scientists are hard at work to perfect pain-free shots and injections.

One team at MIT believes doctors will soon use non-invasive ultrasound technology to give shots. Most people know that doctors use ultrasounds to image the human body, including giving pregnant women an exam to check the health of their babies.

But the MIT team members say ultrasound tech can increase the permeability of skin by lightly wearing away the top layer. The effect only last a few seconds and causes no pain. By combining both high and low frequency sound waves, they can increase the number and amount of drugs that can be delivered using this approach.

But that’s not the only needle-free breakthrough to be excited about.

A team in South Korea has just come up with a new laser-based system that blasts tiny jets of drugs into the skin. Researchers installed a small adaptor that contains the liquid drug to be delivered. It’s designed to make getting a flu or other “shot” as painless as a puff of air. If nothing else, it’s a high-speed process – each laser pulse lasts one-250 millionth of a second.

Look What Robots are Doing Now

Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest human, has nothing on the Cheetah.

No, not the animal.

I’m talking about the four-legged robot built by the research division of the Pentagon known as DARPA. Their Cheetah robot recently clocked in at 28.30 miles per hour.

To be sure, the bot had a slight edge – it ran on a treadmill. Bolt was running on a track when he set the speed record for man at 27.78 mph.

Still, researchers say the Cheetah’s new speed record shows that robots are becoming ever more agile. DARPA wants to use the bots to traverse tough terrain, like debris, ditches, and rocks.

Meantime, remember how I told you back in July about the robofish that could help save the oceans? Next up are “coralbots.” These diving ocean bots are designed to work in “swarms,” like bees or ants. They may sound menacing but are being put to good use – saving the coral reefs.

Reefs are underwater living organisms essential to healthy life in the oceans. They make up some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and do a lot to protect our shorelines. And they are in danger, not only from pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but from overfishing, disease, agricultural runoff, a rising sea temperature, and ocean acidification.

That’s why researchers in the U.K. are programming the bots to work in swarms to find coral fragments and re-cement them to the reef, restoring the structures. They will start work in the cold, deep waters off Scotland – a stretch often too challenging for humans.

Coming Soon: An Electric Two-Wheeled Car

Yes, that’s right – an eco-friendly auto that’s a cross between a car and a motorcycle.

Lit Motors recently unveiled the C-1, the world’s first gyroscopically stabilized, two-wheeled, all-electric vehicle.

“We aim to be the future of personal transportation,” Danny Kim, the firm’s founder, told the media at a recent San Francisco event. As Kim sees it, Lit will take the C-1 mainstream by storm in 2018 – when the car reaches critical mass – and will sell it for about $12,500.

California is ready to jump on the robotic car bandwagon now. The state just became the second (after Nevada) to grant licenses for driverless cars.

Under the new law, the state will have to set rules and standards for these vehicles by January 2015. Car makers will have to get their fleets approved by the state. After that, licensed drivers would apply to become backup operators of the cars.

A High-Tech Helmet Dials 9-1-1 for You

This little yellow dot could save lives.

I’m talking about an innovative little wireless sensor in the shape of a small yellow disc. You can mount it to your bike helmet. In the event of a crash or accident, the sensor detects the force of the impact, then automatically connects to the user’s smartphone, which in turns sends a request for emergency help with information about the crash. It also triggers the phone to send a text message – including your GPS coordinates – to your wife, son, or any other emergency contact you want.

As a skier who likes to go off trail, this breakthrough really appeals to me. I believe it’s also a great product for people who ride bikes or motorcycles.

A safety group known as ICEdot is partnering with SenseTech LLC to bring the sensor to market early next year at a cost of about $200.

And another new advance will help you if you get lost inside a big building or on a large campus. Smartphone GPS signals often fail to work in such places.

Not to worry. A German college has devised a very cool work-around. Users simply snap a picture of a stairwell, hallway, or sign. Then the app searches a database to find where the person is. Once it locates you, the app then displays a map. In 3D, of course.

This New Model Shows How the Brain is “Wired”

I recently told you about three new brain breakthroughs that could have a wide impact on the human race.

Turns out a fourth team has made huge progress in solving one of the great riddles of science: mapping out how brain cells connect to synapses. This is important because synapses are tiny structures that allow signals to flow from neurons to other cells.

Members of the Blue Brain Project in France used a Blue Gene supercomputer to “place” 10,000 virtual neurons into a 3D space to match how they should fit in a real brain. When they compared it to a mammal’s brain, team members found they were correct 75% to 95% of the time.

“This is a major breakthrough, because it would otherwise take decades, if not centuries, to map the location of each synapse in the brain,” said team leader Henry Markram. He said he believes the work will result in more accurate models of how the brain really works, which could help us understand disease and lead to better drugs.

I hope you enjoyed September’s Fascinations of the Month. Don’t forget to share what’s fascinating you by leaving a comment below or writing to me at

6 Responses to September’s Fascinations of the Month

  1. Harold says:

    I am in my young nineties and won’t be around to see all these wonderful things but am fascinated to see what my grandkids and great grandkids might see.
    Fantastic articles

  2. joan walsh says:

    My brother once sent me an email detailing the changes in our lifestyles that occured over a 100-year period. if interested I will forward it to you. Now we see such changes in months. I remember learning of email back when it was restricted to college employees — probably the late ’70’s, and now 6-year-olds use it. My son just had an interview for a job in China, by Skype. I track my investments twice a day — does anyone even know what “ticker-tape” was? Life sure is interesting, and I look forward to the next 20 years.
    I am a 78-years young retiree, as of this January, from a position as head of a body with 300 employees and a $53 million budget. My Mother lived until 98, her sister until 99, my sister and i plan to break the 100 year mark. She, by the way, is still teaching and advising at a major University. Her classes are fully booked! Life is not only for the young —

  3. Kathy says:

    I am a retired nurse – like to read your stuff, especially the health care related things that my kids (middle aged adults) and grandkids will maybe get to enjoy or benefit from or even invest in. Thanks for your succinct info.

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