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Alt-week 11.17.12: freestyle brain scans, hovering moon base and robot dolphin replacements

James Trew , @itstrew

Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

This week we're all over the place. Sorry about that, but it's all for the greater good. We start things off right down at the quantum level, then head to the oceans, before a quick jaunt into space before landing back deep inside your mind. All in the name of science, of course. Science and hip-hop that is. This is alt-week.

It wasn't all that long ago that CERN made headlines with its Higgs-related findings (work that still goes on), but it's not all about the Boson. Tiny pulses of light created in atomic nuclei in colliders such as the LHC could lead to new levels of timing accuracy. Currently, ultra-short laser pulses can be used to measure with an accuracy of attoseconds (one billionth of a billionth, 10-18th, or if you prefer, a quintillionth of a second) but, these atomic-level pulses created in collisions, are potentially a million times shorter once again. So brief, in fact, that they are currently undetectable with the typical tools. There is, however, another way of spotting the fleeting flashes of light, and it's the same method used to measure the diameter of stars. The method relies on the Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect, and uses the correlation between two detectors to observe changes in light data with the minutest of detail. Why is this good for science? Well, timing accuracy aside, quantum physics experiments often use light pulses for state change, and observation. Being able to do this at such a detailed scale could allow experiments in areas previously unobtainable.

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According to a BBC Worldwide report, it could be time for a few long-serving members of the US military to enjoy a comfortable retirement. Speaking with beeb's Future section, the US Navy advises that after more than 50 years of using sea mammals, such as dolphins, for mine detection, it will be phasing them out. Instead, the role will now be performed by sonar-enabled torpedo-like drones, such as the Knifefish pictured below. These new underwater unmanned vehicles, or robots, can be deployed for mine sweeps of up to 16 hours, and while not 100 percent as effective as the creatures they replace, represent substantial monetary savings. The new recruits won't be able to take over from the dolphins just yet, but are expected to be ready by 2017. In the meantime, our smart, ocean-faring friends will have to hold out just a little longer for that army pension. We're not kidding about that last part, either.

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A few weeks back we covered an idea for a supercomputer on the moon. The fanciful notion caught our imagination, but seemed a little out of reach. News this week that NASA might be planning a floating moon base, however, is just real enough to get us pretty excited. The rumors started a few weeks ago when the Orlando Sentinel claimed to have seen papers describing such a thing. Well, they've resurfaced again, and a few people with knowledge on the matter are suggesting it has every chance of being possible. The details are short at the moment, but essentially it would be an outpost located in the Earth-moon Lagrange point 2 (EML-2). This is a spot where the moon and the Earth's combined gravity would be balanced, just enough, to keep the satellite in a fixed position -- no fuel required. As EML-2 is beyond the point of existing human-based missions, and doesn't enjoy the earth's protection from radiation, it could be the ideal "testing ground" for longer term exploration into deeper space. The suggestion is, that if this is a reality, NASA might let more details slip once the federal budget gets announced early next year.

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You might think that spittin' lyrics was all about practise making perfect. And likely that's a large part of it. Researchers at the -- decidedly non-rhyming -- voice, speech and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) wanted to better understand the creative process, and decided to look at the brains of rappers while in "flow" to do so. The same team did previous research involving improvising Jazz musicians, which was then spotted by hip-hop lover Daniel Rizik-Baer. He thought that the freestyle dialog of rappers would be an even better fit for such studies, and got in touch with the NIDCD. The team agreed it was a great idea, and so it came to pass. Several artists were subjected to fMRI scans while both free-forming, and using rehearsed lyrics. The findings? Increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex but a decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal region. The area of the brain that lit up is responsible for self motivation, and compiling information, while the area that saw a decline in use is what provides attention and self monitoring (criticism etc). The outcome suggests that this is the cerebral recipe for the "flow" state, where information is dealt with as it comes, without passing critical judgement on it, or being distracted by over analysing. There were also increases in the areas associated with language, action and emotion, which were seen working tightly together. The work doesn't end here, however, with the same team wanting to continue the research, to see how the brain operates in what they believe is phase two of creativity -- where people refine, or improve what they have just created.

Altweek 111712 freestyle brain scans, hovering moon base and robot dolphin replacements

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credits: BBC, NIDCD]

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