Fast Friday Four (July 9)

Vortex Nanodomains and Such

In typical computer memory, information is stored digitally in the binary language of ones and zeroes. The question of how to store a one or a zero, however, can be varied. Again, traditionally this is done by a microscopic wire, transistor and capacitor. If the capacitor is storing a charge, it’s a one, and if not, it’s a zero.

Pretty simple, no?

There are, of course, problem with this setup. Every time a bit of information is read – i.e. every time the computer looks to see if there is a charge in a storage spot – it drains the charge. So if there was indeed a charge there, it must be replenished. Additionally, charges are lost over time and must be recharged now and then.

However, there is another option called ferroelectric memory. In this setup, ones and zeroes are stored as magnetic moments, which can be flipped when tiny electric fields are applied to each storage cell. The advantage is that charges don’t disappear when read, charges don’t have to be constantly maintained, more memory can be stored and the write speed is faster.

Xiaoqing Pan at the University of Michigan worked with researchers from Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University (the Ivy League had Big Ten envy) recently teamed up to make this type of memory even more efficient and bring it closer to common use.

They basically discovered a new way to store these magnetic moments that takes less energy to switch from a one to a zero. I’d go over it more, but the explanation uses words like “nucleation sites” and “vortex nanodomains” and I just don’t feel like going through all that at the moment.

Women Pay Attention to Friends, Family; not Scale or Self

New research from the Ohio State University shows that there are a lot of crazy women out there.

Okay, so it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of those they love and the rest of society.

The results show that the way a woman eats and the way she perceives her body has absolutely nothing to do with her BMI, a simple calculation based on height and weight. If they feel support from loved ones, then they’ll like their body, even if they’re 100 pounds overweight. Conversely, if a woman doesn’t feel supported, she’ll hate her body even if she’s 100 pounds period.

The findings are based on surveys conducted with 801 women aged 18 through 65.

There were a few more things in there, too. Women who focus on the inner workings of their body – e.g., how amazing it is that they can have a baby or how they function and feel – are more likely to appreciate their bodies. This affects whether or not women eat intuitively or not, that is, if they listen to their bodies hunger and fullness cues.

Which brings me to my final point. The study showed women over 26 with a higher BMI were less likely to listen to their internal hunger cues. The author points towards dieting; eating according to schedule and plan rather than feeling. I point to unhealthy habits on the other side of the spectrum – eating emotionally, out of habit or from boredom.

Either way, it’s not healthy. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t when you’re not.

Algae Hold Key to Cleaning Nuclear Waste

Once again, science is turning to nature to help deal with a problem. This time, it’s finding a way to clean and store radioactive waste produced at the world’s nuclear power plants.

In particular, they’re looking at algae called Closterium moniliferum that has a unique ability to soak up strontium. Why is this unique? Because both strontium and calcium are alkaline earth metals and sit on top of one another on the periodic table. And if you forget your high school chemistry, their close proximity means they have nearly identical chemical properties. This makes it difficult for biological processes to distinguish the two like, I don’t know, say your bones soaking up calcium instead of the radioactive strontium-90.

That would be bad.

The algae in question, though, can tell the difference and actively soak up strontium and store it in solid crystals. By studying this process with the powerful Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, scientists at Northwestern University were able to trace where the element goes in the cells, how it becomes sequestered and where it ends up.

Derk Joester and company now faces the challenge of either seeing if they can simply use the algae to remove the radioactive material from nuclear waste or if they can learn from their example and develop their own technique. The obstacles are, of course, whether or not the algae can survive the radiation. The tests used a chemically identical but non-radioactive form of strontium.

And then, of course, there’s the 13 other medium-to-long-lived radioactive isotopes present in nuclear waste to deal with. The strontium makes up just 4.5% of the dangerously radioactive portion of the waste.

But it’s a start.

 Genetic Variation Increases Alcoholism Risk

Scientists often find links between certain gene variations and behavior, such as one’s risk for alcoholism. However, sometimes they go the extra step, as Margit Burmeister and a team of researchers from the University of Michigan recently did.

The team isolated a variation of the gene GABRA2 and – through surveys of 173 families, 129 of whom had at least one member diagnosed with alcohol dependence or abuse – determined that the gene played a role in one’s susceptibility.

Next, they took 44 young adults and put them in an fMRI machine to determine what it was exactly that the gene variant was doing. According to the study, the gene affects the level of activation of an area of the brain called insula, which has been associated with addictive behavior, impulsiveness and response to distress.

In particular, it seems those with the variant of the gene have a higher activation of the insula, which can cause greater levels of impulsiveness in response to distress. The subjects were scanned as they played games where they could win or lose money. Those with the genetic variation showed higher insula activation levels and responses to anticipation of winning or losing money.

Of course, genetics alone don’t predict becoming an alcoholic. Simply having a few genetic variations just implies risk. Many other factors are involved.

Like how much of a dumb ass you are and how much money you have to burn.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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