Comet Dust, Nanolasers & Leica

Leica X1

There is, for me, no question more intriguing than “where did life come from?” We know that, as Carl Sagan reminded us, and as Joni Mitchell put into song, “we are stardust.” The basic atoms and elements that make up everything on Earth and in us were created in supernovae, exploding stars. We’re put together from the debris.

Even so, how did elements combine into complex structures and amino acids that eventually became self-replicating and evolved. Is Earth unique? Scientists have speculated for years that amino acids, the building blocks of life as we know it, could be common in space. It’s one of the things they’re searching for on Mars. It’s one of the reasons the Wild 2 Mission swept through the tail of a comet and returned to earth with what it found there.

One of the things it found was glycine: (Building Block of Life Found in Comet):

The chem­i­cal, gly­cine, “is an ami­no ac­id used by living or­gan­isms to make pro­teins, and this is the first time an ami­no ac­id has been found in a com­et,” said Ja­mie El­sila of NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Center in Green­belt, Md. “Our dis­cov­ery sup­ports the the­o­ry that some of life’s in­gre­di­ents formed in space and were de­liv­ered to Earth long ago by meteorite and com­et im­pacts.”

The dis­cov­ery “sup­ports the idea that the fun­damental building blocks of life are prev­a­lent in space, and… that life in the un­iverse may be com­mon,” added Carl Pil­cher, Di­rec­tor of the NASA As­tro­bi­ol­o­gy In­sti­tute which co-funded the re­search.

At the current end of life’s spectrum, we’re awash in technology and it’s likely that “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Nanolaser technology could eventually make the electronics we have in today’s gadgets look as primitive and bulky as yesteryear’s vacuum tubes. Tiny “nanolaser” could change face of computing:

Re­search­ers say they have cre­at­ed the world’s small­est sem­i­con­duc­tor la­ser, a de­vice that can gen­er­ate vis­i­ble light in a space smaller than a pro­tein mol­e­cule.

“This work shat­ters tra­di­tion­al no­tions of la­ser lim­its, and makes a ma­jor ad­vance to­ward ap­plica­t­ions in the bi­o­med­i­cal, com­mu­nica­t­ions and com­put­ing fields,” said Xi­ang Zhang, head of the Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley re­search team be­hind the work.

The sci­en­tists said their work could help lead to ap­plica­t­ions such as ti­ny la­sers that can probe, ma­ni­pu­late and meas­ure prop­er­ties of DNA mol­e­cules; op­tics-based tele­com­mu­nica­t­ions many times faster than cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy; and op­ti­cal com­put­ing in which light re­places elec­tron­ic cir­cuit­ry, with a re­sult­ing leap in speed and pro­cess­ing pow­er.

Somewhere on the spectrum between glycine in comets and next decade’s technology lies the here and now, with its day-to-day product announcements for the consumer products that seem to be an essential part of current existence.

Apple introduced a new generation of slightly tweaked iPods in time for the Christmas season, but there is so little new about them there’s not much to report. Lower prices, some models include video capture, and lots of colours to choose from.

The big news of the week was Leica’s formal announcement of two new models of digital Leicas, the Leica M9 and Leica X1.  The M9 is the first full-frame digital Leica, giving the RF faithful what they’ve always said they wanted: a digital rangefinder in which a 21mm lens is a 21mm lens. It should be a delectable, but very expensive, machine.

I personally find the X1 more interesting. It’s tiny and offers a fixed 35mm f/2.8 equivalent lens on an APS-C size sensor, similar to the Sigma DP-1. It’s stylishly designed with aperture and shutter speed dials on the top, where they should be. Smart-looking. The perfect little street shooter, again, for those who can afford it.

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