Science and Tech This Week – Laser fusion, Windows 8 and more…

To start off this week’s editorial, here’s something that may worry those of you who are more liberal with your use of the truth; a team from the Universities of Bradford and Aberystwyth have joined forces with the UK Border Agency to develop a new form of lie detector. The new system works using a pair of cameras; one is a simple video camera and just records your face as it appears, the other is a high-resolution thermal imaging camera that picks up changes in heat across the subjects face.


Using a combination of facial movements, changes in heat (often due to changes in facial blood flow), computer algorithms and documented liars’ expressions/blood flow patterns. Unfortunately the system is only around 66% effective as of yet, but leading figure Professor Ugail claims he can shoot for an obtainable 90% reliability. If used in conjunction with polygraphs or other methods, lie detecting could easily become close to definitive in results – it’s no wonder why the UK Border Agency has shown such interest in this project.


Onto something that in essence seems a lot cooler; lasers and atomic weapons! Well, I suppose that tag line makes this next topic sound a little more interesting than it actually is; the British AWE (Atomic Weapons Establishment), Rutherford Appleton laboratory (Harwell, UK) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (California) have teamed up to develop a cleaner energy source using laser fusion. Now, this sounds like it could get a little complicated, so I won’t delve into the physics behind it much. Basically, nuclear fusion involves hydrogen isotopes (atoms with a dodgy number of neutrons) forming a plasma (kind of like a gas but with a charge ionized i.e. a dodgy number of electrons).


In laser fusion, the plasma is formed and fused (due to intense heat and pressure) breaking down the isotopes into helium atoms, as well as releasing energy and neutrons. The reaction itself literally lasts a few nanoseconds, and is very similar to that found an H-Bomb. However magnetic fusion is a bit different; reactors zap hydrogen atoms with electricity to, as before, form a plasma. A magnetic field restricts the plasma so that fusion can then occur. This restriction is difficult and sloppy, especially when compared to the fact that laser fusion is seemingly instantaneous (a few nanoseconds) so is much cleaner and quicker. Either way, both methods are much less risky and more renewable than Uranium fission (splitting atoms). Unfortunately, it is expected that we have a good 10 years before plants using laser fusion are produced, and much longer before they are optimized.


For a while astronomers have been concerned with what a known as exoplanets, which are simply planets found outside our solar system. Scientists announced this week a good 600 or so have been discovered as of yet. It has long been postulated that other stars would have orbiting planets, but until relatively recently, this was completely unprovable. Stars are just far too bright compared to planets, and so using present day telescopes, it’s impossible to directly see orbiting planets. However, scientists have found ways around this; looking for shadows of orbiting planets sweeping across the face of a star can work (particularly if the planet is large and had a wide orbit), and perhaps the most useful technique is looking for wobbly stars. Yes wobbly stars. I’m sure the majority of people know that gravity from the stars pulls planets in orbit (like the Earth), but also, planets exert a relatively small gravitational pull back at the star, causing is to slightly oscillate or wobble in space. Telescopes can just about detect these wobbles which can be strong evidence for the existence of planets around stars.


A lot of astronomers have taken this as good news on the “Is there life out there?” front, believing the more planets there are, the better chance there is of finding life. Indeed you cannot fault that logic, the more times you role a dice, the higher you chance of eventually getting a six, but is looking for life in outer space like trying to roll a seven?


I admit this has been a rather science heavy edition, so to finish off, I give you something that should have all you techies on the edge of your seats; Microsoft have been showing off the long awaited Windows 8 at the Californian event BUILD (kindly hosted by Microsoft themselves). Windows made sure to show off tablet ease of use with their new “Metro Style”, a simplistic theme for the operating system that is made to work well with a touch screen UI, but fit well with a mouse and keyboard too. The idea seems to be to make the operating system more mobile phone/tablet orientated, as this metro style consists of an entire screen full of apps. Oddly enough, windows said how “metro will fill the screen so there are no distractions”, although a screen full of apps sounds fairly distracting to me.


Windows also showed off a fluid new demo for Internet Explorer 10, as well as claiming the OS could quote “boot faster than a monitor”. Of course they went on to make claims of faster speeds, high levels of security, lower memory usage, high level of hardware and software support and the like as one would expect. I expect good things from this operating system for tablet users, but for laptop use I can’t see any incentives other than general improvements and optimization’s on windows 7.