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Alt-week 2.24.13: Mapping the brain, discovering dark matter and our inevitable, grizzly end


Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

The discovery of what is hoped to be the Higgs boson was an exciting time for anyone with a curious mind. It turns out, that the price of knowledge is often a heavy one. Without putting too much of a negative spin on it... that teeny-weeny boson could predict bad news. On a lighter -- or is that darker -- note, other areas of science and technology bravely march ever-onward with the goal of a better understanding of life, the universe, and tattoos. This is alt-week.

The announcement that the Higgs boson had, indeed, probably been found was surely a day for smiles in the scientific community. Now, new calculations frame the particle as not only cause for frowns, but an indicator of the end of the universe as we know it. Joseph Lykken, a physicist at Fermilab in Illinois, warned that based on the physics we know (and the details of the Higgs) things don't look good for the cosmos. Figuring out what will happen to the universe isn't a new area of research, but the math becomes a lot more telling once you have the approximate mass of the Higgs boson. The result? An alternative universe will appear within ours, and start expanding at the speed of light, destroying us as it goes. Scary stuff for sure, but with the ETA of our demise said to be tens of billions of years in the future, don't go cancelling that pricey TV subscription just yet.

Perhaps a more upbeat story is the news that in about two weeks, a scientific paper could provide the first evidence of dark matter -- the mysterious substance said to account for much of the mass of the universe. The tease comes from the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science, and relates to results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (an instrument mounted on the ISS) that are soon to be published. While no details of the findings have been revealed, MIT physicist Samuel Ting hinted at the importance, saying "it will not be a minor paper." But, as with the Higgs, big news often comes from small steps, so it's likely that a true understanding of dark matter is still a long way off. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer can observe electron and positrons that emerge from possible dark matter "annihilations" in the Milky Way. If the AMS has detected a specific peak in positrons, it's believed this could be a good indicator for the existence of the elusive dark stuff.

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With so many new discoveries to enjoy, it'd be good to get a better understanding of where they come from. Perhaps that's part of the motivation behind a new initiative to "map" the human brain -- in a similar fashion to the unravelling of the human genome. And while the genome project might not have delivered upon some of the lofty expectations initially put upon it, President Obama revealed that it returned 140 times the amount of money invested in it, as a result of the new jobs and treatments resulting from it. Not bad. The new Brain Activity Map project hopes to understand and classify every signal from every cell in our grey matter, identifying where everything from thoughts, feelings and inspiration originate -- at a level beyond anything currently underway. Of course, nothing can happen until funding has been outlined, but with a ten-year timeframe on the cards, and work potentially starting as soon as March, we might not have to wait long before we see the project yielding preliminary insights.

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The oft-maligned QR code was originally pitched by some as a taste of the future. In reality it's a handy way to link from print to web. But, that's not to say it doesn't have other merits. We've seen them made out of cookies, and integrated in art, but a cunning tattoo studio repurposed one as a clever way of pre-vetting job applicants. The advert -- part of which you see below -- shows the faint outline of a QR code, the contents of which lead to the application details. The job-seeking artists are asked to demonstrate their steady hands by carefully filling it in, making it bold enough for it to be recognised by a reader application. Cunning, and a good test of an artists ink-based handiwork, or -- call us cynics -- photoshop skills.

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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.

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