The flying car is here!

If you’ve got a driver’s license, a light-aircraft license, and about $230,000 in spare cash, you can put in an order for a Terrafugia Transition, which is supposed to be available by late 2012 (supply delays have pushed this date back from the planned 2011 roll-out date).

You won’t be able to use it to fly out of traffic (or back in time), but you can drive it to the airport and take off from there. A particularly nice feature is that it runs on plain old unleaded gasoline whether you’re driving it or flying it.

Final voyage of Atlantis marks the end of the shuttle program

Space Shuttle Atlantis roared into space at 11:30 EDT this morning, marking the final launch in a program that started three decades ago.

This pretty well sums up my sentiments on this day:

“It’s kind of a letdown knowing we now have to rely on foreign interests” to launch American astronauts into space, said Terry Deguentz, a firefighter from St. Louis who said he was friends with one of Atlantis’s astronauts, mission specialist Sandy Magnus. “American ingenuity has been downplayed in the last decade. Once we let it go, I wonder if we can get it back.”

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Liquid metal pen allows hand-drawn circuits

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a liquid metal “ink” that, when used in a ballpoint pen, allows circuits to be hand-drawn. Circuits can be drawn on flat surfaces, like paper, as well as irregular surfaces. In the photo above, researchers used the pen to hand-draw circuits that connected to LEDs (light-emitting diodes) powered by a battery connected to the paper. During testing it was shown that a circuit drawn on a piece of paper using the liquid metal ink could survive intact even if the paper was folded thousands of times.

The practical upshot:

“Pen-based printing allows one to construct electronic devices ‘on-the-fly’,” says Jennifer Lewis, one of the engineering profs who came up with the new pen at Illinois uni. “This is an important step toward enabling desktop manufacturing (or personal fabrication) using very low cost, ubiquitous printing tools.”

Physicists untangle process involved in Parkinson’s disease

The protein alpha-synuclein in its normal state (above) and misfolded after the attachment of copper (below)

A team of physicists at North Carolina State University — led by my very good friend, Frisco Rose — has published the results of their study of the process that leads to Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder that affects the nervous system, manifesting in tremors and difficulty controlling motion. Actors Katherine Hepburn and Michael J. Fox are well-known sufferers of the disease.

The work involved simulations using the most powerful supercomputer in the world, the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to understand the way in which a protein associated with Parkinson’s gets tangled. The protein, called alpha-synuclein, is normally long and straight, but it becomes tangled, or misfolded, in patients with Parkinson’s (see figure above).

Proteins are the basic building blocks of life. They are comprised of long chains of molecules called amino acids that regulate biochemical reactions in living things. The shape of a protein — the way in which it is folded — dictates its function. Amazingly, these biochemical machines assemble, or fold, themselves1.

Most of the time this self-assembly proceeds without error. However, when a protein misfolds, it becomes tangled and clumped together with other protein strands, and this is believed to cause a number of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Mad Cow, cystic fibrosis, and some forms of cancer. In order to devise treatments for these diseases, it’s important to understand how certain proteins misfold.

Study of protein folding may sound like a job for biologists, but it has been an increasingly popular topic of study in physics, because the different ways in which a protein can fold are determined by equations involving forces and energy. For a typical protein, these calculations would normally require hundreds of thousands of computing hours, far more than is feasible. To get around this problem, Rose’s team devised a new tactic: focus the simulations only on the part of the protein where the tangling occurs. By reducing the region of study, they were able to successfully carry out simulations, and discovered that certain metals, such as copper, affect the folding by binding to the protein in a way that accelerates tangling.

“We knew that the copper was interacting with a certain section of the protein, but we didn’t have a model for what was happening on the atomic level,” says Frisco Rose, Ph.D. candidate in physics and lead author of the paper describing the research. “Think of a huge swing set, with kids all swinging and holding hands—that’s the protein. Copper is a kid who wants a swing. There are a number of ways that copper could grab a swing, or bind to the protein, and each of those ways would affect all of the other kids on the swing set differently. We wanted to find the specific binding process that leads to misfolding.”

The tactic allowed them to identify the most likely way in which copper binding to the protein leads to misfolding. This is a significant step toward finding a treatment for Parkinson’s.

Other researchers studying protein folding are getting around the computing problem using a different tactic: using thousands of volunteered home computers — your computers — to perform the calculations. If you’d like to get involved by donating some of your home computer’s run time to help these scientists do their work, check out Standford University’s Folding@home project.

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A final roll-out for Shuttle Atlantis

And a final roll-out for the shuttle program. From Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), which you really should be checking out every day:

In the final move of its kind, NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis was photographed earlier this month slowly advancing toward Launch Pad 39A, where it is currently scheduled for a July launch to the International Space Station. The mission, designated STS-135, is the 135th and last mission for a NASA space shuttle. Atlantis and its four-person crew will be carrying, among other things, the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Raffaello to bring key components and supplies to the ISS. Pictured above, the large Shuttle Crawler Transporter rolls the powerful orbiter along the five-kilometer long road at less than two kilometers per hour. Over 15,000 spectators, some visible on the right, were on hand for the historic roll out.

Click on the link to get the beautiful hi-res version of the photo.

“God particle” detection in doubt

Remember that rumor a couple of months ago that the folks at Tevatron may have found the Higgs boson, aka the “God particle”? Well, turns out probably not. The Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) reportedly discovered a signal that was consistent with the Higgs boson, but the experiment could not be replicated with Tevatron’s other detector, DZero.

That’s how science works, folks. Keep trying, but if your results can’t be replicated, it’s back to the drawing board.

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