Scientific American April 2013
Science Agenda: The Spies above Your Backyard (p. 12)
Drones based on the technology used for modern warfare are becoming a presence in U.S. skies. But the U.S. government must shield its citizens from the multiplying eyes of surveillance drones, the Editors of Scientific American write in this month’s Science Agenda column.
Presently, Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to set rules by 2015 for how drones can be used in domestic airspace. Though there are promising uses for the technology, such as surveying wildfires and conducting search-and-rescue operations, the government needs to protect the privacy of its citizens from such surveillance drones. “No federal agency, in fact, can be held accountable if drones are not used responsibly and in a way that respects the Fourth Amendment,” the Editors warn, which is why Congress needs to consider enacting laws that will confine domestic drone use.
Special Report: The Future of Medicine: Boosting the Body’s Healing Powers (p. 48)
Regenerative medicine could revolutionize the field, allowing doctors to print blood vessel networks in the lab or coax the body to regrow tissues or organs. A special report published in this month’s Scientific American, discusses how cutting-edge technologies and progress in regenerative medical research may someday give scientists and doctors the tools needed to treat a wide spectrum of health problems.
Two topics explored in this report are building blood vessels for organ transplantation and healing a damaged heart. Technological advances are overcoming some of the hurdles that have been holding regenerative medicine back, such as the problem of how to supply blood to an organ otherwise ready for transplantation. Some researchers are working with 3-D printers to build networks of delicate blood vessels out of lab-grown cells to help with this problem. In another example, damage after a heart attack has been partially reversed in promising human trials where patients were treated with an infusion of their own stem cells. These advancements in regenerative medicine and others are considered in the article.
Energy: The True Cost of Fossil Fuels (p. 58)
As the U.S. considers all the benefits and drawbacks of various energy sources—such as oil from Canada’s tar sands—it should also calculate the energy return on investment, a measure of the energy needed to get energy out. In this month’s Scientific American, Mason Inman shows that it takes a great amount of energy to extract some types of fossil fuels, suggesting it might not be worth the cost to pursue these options.
As Inman explains in his piece, there are few cheap energy sources anymore, especially with the decline of easy oil. By measuring the energy that fuels provide per unit of energy spent to procure it, societies can contemplate how to best use their economic and environmental resources, from exploiting tar sands to working on alternative fuels.
Space Exploration: The Low-Cost Ticket to Space (p. 68)
The advent of for-profit commercial spaceflight will not only benefit potential tourists, it will also likely transform space research, S. Alan Stern writes in a feature article in this month’s Scientific American.
While scientists in the field of oceanography, for example, can routinely visit the deep sea to conduct research, those studying space cannot yet visit their location of study with such ease. One of the main hurdles in advancing space exploration and research has been expense. Stern proposes that the lower launch costs associated with commercial spaceflights—for example, the Dragon space cargo capsule, built and operated by SpaceX, which was recently launched to the International Space Station—will likely alter space research significantly. It will allow scientists far more frequent access to space and the opportunity to personally run their experiments in orbit. He suggests that this reduction in cost may be made possible by flying reusable rather than disposable launchers or piggybacking scientific payloads on commercial flights.
While there are still some restrictions associated with these methods, Stern suggests that these advances will not only help the big space research enterprises in NASA and the Japanese and the European space agencies but will probably make space access affordable to a broad, global base of nations, academic institutions and corporations as well. He also speculates that if the commercial suborbital and orbital ventures already under way succeed, they may open up another path to explore the solar system’s asteroids, planets and moons. Indeed, “science could benefit in much the same way it did from the private expeditions that opened up the polar regions.”
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