The computer chips that are delivering these words to you work on a simple, binary, on/off principle. There’s either a voltage, or there’s not. The ‘bits’ encoded by the presence or absence of electrons form the basis for much of our online world.
Now, physicists and engineers are working to create systems based on the strange rules of quantum physics—in which quantum bits can exist simultaneously in a range of possible states, and two separated bits can be linked together via a phenomenon known as entanglement.
If practical quantum computers can be constructed, they have the potential to solve difficult types of problems—like finding the optimal route connecting a list of a few hundred cities, for instance. However, vast engineering challenges remain. A. Douglas Stone, deputy director of the Yale Quantum Institute and Carl A. Morse professor of applied physics at Yale University, joins Ira to give a primer on the disruptive technology of quantum computing, and where this research might lead.
Diving Into The Strange World Of Xenobots
Just under two years ago, Science Friday reported on the strange world of ‘xenobots’—structures designed by an algorithm and crafted out of living cells taken from frog embryos. Those tiny constructs could slowly wriggle their way across a petri dish, powered by the contractions of frog heart cells. Now, the researchers behind the bots have created a new generation of structures that can swim—and, if provided with additional loose frog skin cells in their dish, organize those cells into clumps that eventually begin to move on their own.
Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and a member of the xenobots research team, joins Ira to talk about the advance in what he likens to living wind-up toys. The work was reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bongard and colleagues say that they were interested in learning more about self-replicating systems, and the various factors that go into either speeding up or slowing down a system’s ability to self-replicate. They’re also interested in exploring whether such cellular systems might be able to do useful work. However, fear not—Bongard explains that without a ready supply of loose frog skin cells, these bots peter out.
What We Do—And Don’t—Know About Omicron
This week, the Omicron variant was detected in the United States, with the first case identified in California.
The announcement joins a rush of news about the latest coronavirus variant: Last week, South African researchers first identified and then sequenced the variant. Since then, scientists all over the world have been working overtime, trying to understand this heavily mutated new strain.
Omicron has 32 mutations in the spike protein alone. But more mutations don’t necessarily mean it’s more contagious than the Delta variant, or more likely to evade the vaccine. Scientists still need a little more time to figure out what these genetic changes might mean for the pandemic.
Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor in the University of Texas School of Public Health talks with Ira about how scientists are compiling data on omicron, both inside and outside of the lab. Jetilina is also the author of the newsletter, “Your Local Epidemiologist.”
A 30th Anniversary Edition Of SciFri Trivia
We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this week—and with 30 years of radio comes more than enough material for a round of trivia. SciFri Trivia extraordinaire and host Diana Montano quizzes Ira on how well he remembers some of the stories he’s covered on SciFri during its last three decades.
Want to join the fun? Diana hosts virtual SciFri Trivia every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT on Youtube and you are invited! Play by yourself or with a group and, if you win, enjoy the honor of naming one of the many plants in the SciFri office—and more!