AAAS 2010: This is your brain on music

In one of the more astonishing demonstrations heard at Saturday’s music and language session, Northwestern University neuroscientist Nina Kraus started by playing the sound of someone saying the syllable ‘da’. Then she showed an electronic analysis of the sound as recorded by a sensitive microphone. It was a short burst of oscillating waves that sudden rose in amplitude, then quickly faded to nothing. Next, she show the electrical signals her lab had recorded in a subjects’ brain stem as he listened to the sound. It looked almost identical. Finally, she played the brain stem recording through the speakers: it clearly said ‘da’, only slightly distorted.  Read more

AAAS 2010: Energy that’s really green

Before too much longer, according to the participants in one of the AAAS press conferences this morning, we could be topping off our fuel tanks with processed pond scum, also known as algae. An algae-based biofuels industry would make the trade-off with food go away: algae will happily grow in ponds built out in the desert, or in other sites not useful for farming. It will thrive in waste water from sewage treatment plants and the like. It will eat up carbon dioxide from power plants, assuming that you bubble the exhaust through the algae pond on the way out. And every one of the intensely green algae cells is bulging with rich, oily lipids that are virtually gas-tank ready. Oh, and the residual solids are useful as fertilizer, or even as food additives.  Read more

AAAS: Darwin the Buddhist

Ordinarily, Paul Ekman is to be found doing rigorous, detailed studies of facial expression, body movement, emotion and deception. And his results are not just academic. These days he is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, but he and his associates still give courses on how to recognize concealed emotions via subtle changes in facial expressions, body language and such—with a roster of students that include police and national security officials, corporate negotiators and health professionals. He’s also the scientific adviser to the FoxTV series Lie to Me.  Read more

AAAS: Synthetic biology soon to go open source?

Stanford University’s Drew Endy is still one of the great enthusiasts for synthetic biology: the visionary field that looks forward to the day in which bio-engineers will create new functions for cells by plugging together synthesized-from-scratch ‘devices’ such as DNA, control structures, and even whole reaction pathways. “Biology is the most impressive platform for manufacturing stuff we’ve ever encountered,” Endydeclared at press conference on Friday. And to fully harness that power, he added, we need to be able to design the inner workings of the cell with as much confidence as electrical engineers now bring to microchip design.  Read more

AAAS: Star Trek Fans Rejoice!

Rocky planets resembling Venus, Mars and the Earth may be as common in our galaxy as any Star Trek fan could hope, according to University of Arizona astronomer Michael Meyer, who announced a new finding from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope at a AAAS press conference today on planetary discovery.  Read more