Week In Review: From Virtual to Actual

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: November 7, 2013
From Virtual to Actual

Whenever you read something about how scientists predict that the planet will warm by X degrees in the next 100 years, or that earthquakes will happen at place Y, we know that they did not travel to the future to make that measurement. Scientists often use computer models, based on the best data they have to make predictions in the future.

Computers and virtual simulations provide scientists with extremely powerful tools to explore our world, look at the past and the future and even to heal. This week, North Carolina researchers found some creative ways to use computers to join the virtual world of computers to the physical world.

Computers Fighting Paralysis
Roughly 5.6 million Americans live with some type of paralysis, but new research from Duke University may provide those Americans with a chance to move again.

A paralyzed patient doesn’t have the ability to send commands to his or her muscles. The brain can send commands, but the muscles do not receive them. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has spent the past few years working on a method to harness the brain’s circuits. 

He monitors hundreds of neurons in apes’ brains as they move. Then, he puts the apes in front of computer screens and teaches them to control monkey arms on the screen with a joystick. Every time they move the monkey arms to a specific spot, they get a treat.

Next, Nicolelis removes the joystick and implants electrodes into the apes’ brains, and the apes learn to move the virtual monkey arms by thinking about it. Nicolelis then swaps out the computerized arms for robotic ones. This week, Nicolelis published a paper in the journal Science Translational Medicine, describing how the apes controlled two robotic arms at the same time.

The application for this research is that by using the same electrodes in a human brain, a paralyzed person could control a robotic exoskeleton, which would move their body for them. Nicolelis’s goal, by the way, is for a paralysis victim to kick the opening kick at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil next year.

Computer That See the Past
If you’ve ever read a history book and wondered what the past actually looked and sounded like, you should visit professors John Wall and David Hill at NC State University. By studying the acoustics of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the 17th century, they believe they modeled exactly what it would be like to listen to a sermon from poet John Donne.

The Virtual Paul’s Cross project offers a 270 degree view of the courtyard with high fidelity acoustics and is viewable at NC State’s Hunt Library, and online here.

Using historical documents, computer models and architectural science, Hill and Wall say their simulation will serve as a powerful tool for visualizing important events in history. Also, if this story interests you, check out Frank Graff’s story on NC Science Now about using visual technology to find Abraham Lincoln in historical pictures of Gettysburg coming up on November 20, 2013.

Appalachian State Students Working on Earth and Beyond
Three physics students from Appalachian State Univeristy will be working with scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to work on credit card-sized data gathering tools called spectrometers.

The spectrometers are intended for use in CubeSats, small cube-shaped satellites that weigh less than four pounds. CubeSats gather data mainly on natural events on Earth, but some investigate near-space as well. The Appalachian State students will use high-powered microscopes to search for tiny imperfections in the spectrometers, and then test the spectrometers with lasers.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.