After cosmologists account for ordinary matter and dark matter, what’s left is... dark energy, which appears to make up 72% of the universe. Astronomer Andy Howell, who collaborated with one of the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, studies thermonuclear supernovae as a source of measurements of dark energy. Some of these are caused by “zombie stars,” white dwarf stars that suck matter from companion stars, roar back to life and explode. He’s helping to build a new global robotic network of telescopes to study supernovae and find extrasolar planets.
By circumventing the weather and rising sun, it will enable months-long continuous observations for the first time. New results are expected this year from other measurements of dark energy, and if NASA can redeploy two spy satellites for science, those observations will help the hunt. “We’ll have two more Hubbles,” says Howell.
Research projects such as the Framingham Heart Study and Nurses’ Health Study, by tracking subjects over decades, have provided a wealth of surprising insight into human health. Now, by following more than 1,000 babies born in a New Zealand town in 1972-73 through their lives, Terrie Moffitt and her collaborators have begun to elucidate the links between childhood experience, crime, stress, premature aging, chronic illness, psychiatric illness, substance abuse and many other maladies of human life.
One analysis showed a connection between childhood self-control and success in early adulthood. As the study population approaches 40, many are in poor health and aging prematurely. The research team is asking whether the explanation might lie in chronic psychiatric illness, often originating in childhood but undiagnosed.
Miguel Nicolelis is a neuroscientist best known for his work in neuroprosthetics, tapping signals from “neural ensembles” to control robotic limbs that may be half a planet away. In experiments with monkeys, he has shown that the brain can learn to think of an electronic appendage as its own; his subjects watch a virtual robotic limb respond to mental commands and incorporate the visual and sensory feedback into their thoughts, getting better and better at controlling the avatar limb merely by thought.
Nicolelis, who’s negotiating to have a prosthesis-aided paraplegic athlete deliver the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo, says these achievements offer more than progress toward mobility for victims of spinal-cord injury: They reveal details of the computing power of the human brain and suggest other ways that brain power can be tapped.
A prolific chemist and inventor, Joe DeSimone wondered whether the manufacturing techniques that have given us cheap and ubiquitous electronics might have a use in medicine. The answer is yes. DeSimone has invented a roll-to-roll method for customized manufacturing of micro- and nanoparticles for pharmaceutical use. DeSimone’s lab has used the method, called PRINT (for Particle Replication in Non-wetting Templates), to create experimental particles including “Trojan horse” nanoparticles that can accumulate in tumors before releasing drugs, and polymer cells that mimic the size, shape and elasticity of red blood cells. A seasonal flu vaccine is the first PRINT-made product to enter clinical trials.