Previous month:
December 2003
Next month:
February 2004

Smart Dust

The Economist | The World In 2004

An excellent article by Alun Anderson, Editor in Chief of New Scientist

Back in 1965 Gordon Moore laid out his famous law that the number of components that could be squeezed on to a silicon chip would double every year or two...

Moores law still has a long future. But in 2004 the belief that progress means packing in ever more computing power will be seen as far too narrow.

Just arriving is another kind of information revolution, driven by the ability to manufacture billions of tiny, intelligent communicating sensors. Capable of organising themselves into networks, intelligent sensors will make up for their small brains by their immense numbers...

Enter Smart Dust: computers so small that you would not notice if one floated in through your window on the breeze ... [offering] limited sensors, intelligence and communication abilities, but in vast numbers...

Smart-dust advocates have visions of sending billions of these machines into the atmosphere so that the entire planet could be wired. Stupendous networks of communicating sensors would give the earth a digital nervous system accessible to the web and giant search engines, from which we could instantly access anything about the state of the planet, from changing weather to the state of forests.

And here is Rafe Needleman, writing in Business 2.0, February 13, 2003

The motes have radios in them to communicate their sensor readings. This is where things get really interesting. The low-power radios attached to these low-power computers don't have enough range to continuously broadcast back to a central base station. Instead, they wake up once in a while, at predetermined times, and blast their data to a nearby mote, which then collects and retransmits that data to another nearby mote, and so on, until finally the data reaches a central collection node or recording computer.

This is what's known as a self-organizing sensor network, and it's a powerful idea. One obvious application is military: Air-drop a bunch of vibration sensors into the Iraqi desert and they can report vehicle and personnel movement. A similar technique could be used to gather data on seismic activity or monitor highway traffic.

Mesh networking isn't a brand-new idea. And likewise, small computers and sensors are hardly innovative. But combining small sensors, low-power computers, and mesh radios in the manner I've just described makes for a new technological platform that already has important uses and applications.

Nice graphics from The Economist, World In 2004 show the shrinking size of nano-processors.

...can you still see them...

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

New form of matter

New Scientist

A long-sought new form of matter has been created for the first time. The matter, called a fermionic condensate, consists of atoms that are ordinarily forbidden to exist in the same quantum state but have been tricked into it by linking into pairs.

It occupies the middle ground between loosely linked particles that form superconductors and tightly bound ones in Bose-Einstein condensates, another exotic form of matter produced fleetingly since 1995. The creation of the new condensate is considered the crucial first step toward producing superconductors that work at room temperatures.

"This is a tremendous success," says Keith Burnett, a physicist at Oxford University, UK. The University of Colorado researchers who accomplished the feat are "fantastic experimentalists", he says, adding that scientists around the world have been racing to overcome the technical challenges of creating the matter.

Much of the difficulty centres on the nature of fermions. These are subatomic particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons that have half-integer spins (1/2, 3/2, etc) and atoms comprised of odd numbers of the particles.

Unlike bosons, another form of elementary particle that have integer spins (1, 2, 3, etc), identical fermions are prevented by the laws of quantum physics from sharing the same state of being. For example, identical fermions cannot share the same location or momentum. But photons, which are bosons, can - which is why lasers work.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Tea strainer in the neck 'stops strokes'

New Scientist

Hundreds of thousands of strokes could be prevented each year by a simple mesh cylinder that diverts blood clots away from the brain, claims the company that developed the device.

It was implanted in a patient for the first time late in 2003. Strokes are the second most common cause of death in the western world, and those who survive are often left disabled.

The most common cause is a blood clot elsewhere in the body breaking off and travelling to the brain, where it blocks one of the small blood vessels. This deprives cells of oxygen, killing off part of the brain.

Smart. Really smart.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Semantic Social Networking

teknos writes:

If I visit every day, my network has a pretty "strong" connection to that site. If I contribute to that weblog via commenting, the strength even goes higher.

This "connection level" is broadcast through the network via some kind of semantic protocol. and other nodes that have a similar connection strength "catch" the information- and initiate connections with my network of nodes.

Instead of trying to control the structure of the network, you let the semantic content of the network control the structure.

If it is setup correctly, there would definitely be some emergent behavior.

Really smart thinking here by teknos; and nice to see a social network solution that starts 1 step out.

I was naively wondering if we couldn't set up something like this already by using TrackBack data. Tie that in with the soft of linking offered by TouchGraph and we're pretty much there?

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

A Plant that Detects Landmines

Minding the Planet

Danish researchers have developed a plant [that] changes color when its roots come in[to] contact with explosives. They are proposing that this plant could be used to detect buried landmines. Of course that would require that this plant was growing pretty much everywhere in certain regions that are rife with landmines. Not very practical. But interesting.

Except that presumably in known areas of landmines, it would only require one season of "planting" to identify the specific location of each landmine and then deal with them.

Better than leaving the fields untouched for years or, worse, ploughing away until the inevitable happens.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Justin Alexander OR


Did a 3 minute slot on CNN breakfast news, which was my first experience of a TV interview - quite surreal. The lady who called to invite me on the program asked how old I was (25) and then said "not meaning to be rude, but do you... hmm, look you age?" Help, if I was being really honest I should have said that I almost get IDed going into 18 certificate films and when I was in Iraq was frequently asked "how is it that your parents and school have allowed you to come here?" If I had come clean, I wonder if they would have said "thanks but no thanks" - though wouldn't that be age-ist, or appearance-ist or something.

Good to see an Old Radleian using a WebLog to campaign for something useful.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Mars rocks may be 'sedimentary'

BBC Science

Nasa scientists have discovered what might be the most compelling evidence yet of rocks formed in water on Mars.

The Opportunity rover has sent back pictures of rock slabs that appear to contain thin layers, say researchers.

On Earth, this feature is suggestive of sedimentary rocks that are the product of material deposited by water or wind.

The rover's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer should be able to examine the elemental chemistry of these rocks.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston