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Shattered Nerves: How Science Is Solving Modern Medicine's Most Perplexing Problem

Physicians are now implanting manmade devices designed to enable the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the paralyzed to move. Each of these seemingly miraculous “cures” are the fruits of a burgeoning field known as neural prosthetics. The immediate goal of this work is to reverse sensory and motor afflictions that heretofore have been beyond the pale of modern medicine. These implants that replace damaged circuitry in the nervous system, also hold the potential to resolve psychiatric illnesses, restore the ability to form memories in damaged brains, and to even endow the able-bodied with superhuman powers by extending the visible and audible wavelengths, and by increasing learning capacity and memory.

Modeling An Earth-Shaking Event

“Earthquakes don’t kill people,” seismologist Arthur Rodgers says. “Buildings do.”

“There are casualties in earthquakes because buildings collapse, freeway sections collapse, and bridges go out,” says Rodgers, a member of an earthquake modeling team at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). In essence, “We are vulnerable to earthquake damage because we choose to build and live near places where earthquakes occur.”

Model Mixes Ice, Heat, Water And Salt To View The Ocean's Future

Within the next several decades, ice over the Arctic will completely disappear during the summer. That’s just one of the clear and dramatic predictions to come from models developed by the Climate Ocean and Sea Ice Modeling (COSIM) program at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Additionally, “The models now predict globally an average surface temperature rise of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years,” says the program’s project manager, Philip Jones. And the oceans account for more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

Waiter There’s a Dye in My Soup

First they turn red, then they die. The cause of death is neither envy, rage, nor jealousy. Rather it is a common drug and cosmetic dye, known by its FDA name, D&C Red 28, 27 (water and oil soluble, respectively). The victim of this substance is the fruit fly, long the bane of farmers throughout the world and almost equally the bane of many citizens in areas where the traditional response to infestations of the flies is large scale spraying of malathion, a controversial pesticide.

The sight of fruit flies sends shivers down the spines of farmers who stand to lose millions of dollars whenever they appear. As a group, fruit flies are true to their name in that they primarily attack tree fruit, including plums, peaches, citrus fruits, apples, pears, and cherries. The Mediterranean fruit fly has also been implicated as a pest in grapes, tomatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers, among others.

Under international agreement, anytime fruit flies, including both the Mexican and Mediterranean flies, are found in an area the produce from that region is quarantined from export to uninfested areas. To get rid of this blight, a costly protocol must be followed. First, malathion, a member of the organophosphate family of pesticides, is sprayed. This must frequently be done in populated residential areas. After the spraying, flies sterilized by radiation are released to further control the population.

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A Chilling Tale Of Nuclear Weaponry

Freezing and maintaining the reliability of the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile would appear to be diametrically opposed concepts. Think of one and the notion of shivering in the cold comes to mind. The other conjures images of an inferno.

But in the world inhabited by Jim Glosli, a staff physicist at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and other members of the Simulations Group, freezing and nuclear weapons mesh perfectly. Their job is to conduct computer simulations of what happens when metals freeze, or change from a liquid to a solid state.

This work is part of the Advanced Simulation and Computing Program managed by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The program is designed to maintain the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing. Modeling metals is particularly important to this program because, as with virtually all metal parts, the metal components of nuclear weapons are formed by converting molten metal into a solid state.

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Made to Order: IBM Makes Sense Out of Unstructured Data

Most of us like to have a certain amount of structure in our lives, yet all too frequently the complexity of modern-day living confronts us with what seems more like chaos than order. When that happens, we strive to regain a level of organization that helps us deal with the complexities of our imperfect world.

Much the same holds true in the inanimate world of computerized data, which is increasingly confronted with confusion merely by virtue of its exponential growth. As a result, IBM researchers are developing a series of complex software systems aimed at bringing this seemingly uncontrollable mass of information, known as unstructured data, into an orderly, usable, structured state.

The growth of unstructured data tracks the evolution of computer utilization. During the 1960s, computing was primarily a backroom, punch-card operation, used for basic functions like billing and tracking inventory. Gradually, computers moved to the front office to handle more people-oriented transactions such as making airline and hotel reservations. Most of these tasks could be accomplished by categorizing and accessing information in ordered rows and columns of numbers, known as relational databases. It is precisely this type of routine "grunt work" that computers were originally designed to handle.

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Detecting Defects

When something you’ve purchased is defective, you usually send it back for a replacement, or throw it out and buy a new one. If you happen to be in the explosives business, however, the opposite holds true, for when it comes to creating explosions, defects are a good thing. In fact, detonation cannot take place without them.

But, as with virtually everything else in life, moderation is the key to desirable defects. Too many defects make an explosive material unstable, and therefore unsafe, while if there are too few, it won’t detonate at all. But with just the right number of defects, the material will explode precisely when it is supposed to, and under just the right circumstances.

The defects in question are pockets, or voids, within and between the grains of chemical explosive materials. Once such a material starts to explode, the resulting pressure attempts to fill in those voids. As the material changes shape to flow in and around the defects, it becomes hotter than material away from them. The process of heating by changing shape also occurs when one bends a paper clip back and forth. The work of flexing releases heat.

In the case of explosives, as the voids are filled in and the nearby material becomes hotter, chemical reactions begin to occur at a faster pace. If the hot spots are big enough and hot enough, the organic molecules in the explosive begin to decompose, forming hot gas, and boom! An explosion takes place.

Housing Lasers

It is as big as a professional sports stadium and will eventually house 192 powerful lasers, all of which will be focused on a BB-sized capsule sitting inside a small tin can-like structure. When fired off in unison, the lasers’ powerful light beams will crunch the tiny capsule, causing the atoms inside to fuse together. The result will be a colossal burst of energy from the same nuclear fusion process that takes place in the Sun, and the other stars in the universe.

In this instance, however, the venue will not be the fiery interior of a star, but the more tranquil surface of planet Earth. The specific location is the National Ignition Facility (NIF), now under construction at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Livermore, California.

The earthbound fusion process that will take place in NIF, which is scheduled for completion in 2008, has been successfully created in smaller, predecessor laser facilities at LLNL, known as SHIVA and NOVA, but more energy had to be used to create those fusion reactions than was created by them. The intent is to reverse that equation in NIF, so that the process produces more energy than it consumes. If the process is successful, nuclear fusion could provide an endless source of energy, since the fuel contained in the target capsule consists of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, and hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.