An AI took a crack at decoding the mysterious language of the medieval Voynich manuscript, Chinese scientists used 3D printers to grow new ears for kids suffering from a rare condition, and their peers developed a coating for cellphones that allows scratches to heal themselves. Even in the dead of winter, the world of science is writhing with life.
What is it? Computer scientists from the University of Alberta used artificial intelligence to take the first steps toward decoding a 600-year-old manuscript whose meaning has eluded linguists and cryptologists for more than a century.
Why does it matter? The Voynich manuscript, named for the Polish rare-book collector who obtained it at one point in its history, presents two inscrutable puzzles — a set of unrecognizable letters coded in an unknown language — wrapped into one 240-page book. Computer scientists and cryptologists alike are hoping that the algorithms used to partially crack the Voynich manuscript will also unlock other textual mysteries.
How does it work? First, the AI program studied the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in roughly 400 different languages to identify patterns. From there, AI concluded that the Voynich manuscript was written in Hebrew and then encrypted. Next, the scientists worked off a hunch that the texts used an alphagram (where letters in a word are rearranged alphabetically, e.g., COOLEST is CELOOST) to devise an algorithm to turn each word into real Hebrew. After polishing up the language with Google Translate, the computer scientists came up with this opening gem: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.” It’s a start.
What is it? Chinese researchers used 3D printing to grow ears for five children who suffer from microtia, a congenital condition where the external ear is deformed or completely missing.
Why does it matter? Microtia, which occurs in roughly one in 5,000 births, can impair hearing and is tough to treat. Patients must undergo reconstructive surgery using cartilage from their ribs or wear a prosthetic ear made from plastic. This new procedure could offer kids another option.
How does it work? Scientists took a CT scan of each child’s fully formed ear and used its mirror image to 3D-print a mold for housing biodegradable scaffolding. Then they filled the scaffolding with cells taken from the child’s deformed ear and cultured those cells for three months. Once the lab-grown cartilage began to resemble the patient’s ear shape, doctors implanted the new ear onto the patients. “We were able to successfully design, fabricate, and regenerate patient-specific external ears,” the researchers wrote in their study, which appears in the journal EBioMedicine.
What is it? Researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea have created tiny robots — called hygrobots — that run on moisture. Though they look like primitive animal shapes fashioned out of office supplies, hygrobots can move themselves across surfaces by creeping like inchworms or wriggling like snakes.
Why does it matter? Medical scientists have longed dreamed of using autonomous microbots to treat patients internally. However, no one wants to swallow a device with a battery that might go awry. A bot that runs on moisture is perfectly organic (not to mention gluten-free), and its simple design enables “autonomous yet directional locomotion,” according to its creators. To demonstrate the hygrobot’s potential, researchers loaded it with antibiotics, then placed it in a petri dish full of bacteria. The hygrobot cut a path free of bacteria.
How does it work? Inspired by plants that move in response to moisture, such as self-burrowing seeds, scientists built the hygrobots out of a nanofiber consisting of two layers, each of which responds differently to moisture. When dampened, the first layer will stretch and expand, while the second remains unmoved. That tension triggers an up-and-down movement strong enough to send the bot crawling forward.
What is it? Electrical engineers at Brigham Young University have devised a new laser system that can create free-floating images that, unlike holograms, appear three-dimensional from any angle. That means the ethereal shape of Princess Leia in “Star Wars” could become a reality. Cue the joyous cheers of sci-fi nerds everywhere.
Why does it matter? Holograms may appear three-dimensional, but they are actually created by bouncing light from flat images at angles to create the illusion of depth — one that’s only convincing from the right vantage point. The new images actually occupy a 3D space, appearing right no matter where the observer stands. Hovering 3D images could help heart surgeons hone their skills without cutting open a patient, or Olympic skiers could record their performance and review details as minute as the placement of their pinkies. Advertising would never be the same either. Imagine how enticing a 3D visual of an iced latte would seem on a hot summer day.
How does it work? Researchers trap a single particle of cellulose within a nearly invisible laser beam, which allows them to move it through the air. Next, a second laser swoops in to shine red, green and blue lights onto the cellulose, which “the particle scatters in all directions,” according to Science News. The particle moves rapidly enough through the air to make the shape it traces appear solid at any angle. So far, the new laser system can only generate images the size of a fingertip. However, the researchers expect to scale up very soon.
What is it? Scientists in China recently wrote in the ACS Nano journal that they invented a new “smart” coating for consumer goods that combines the healing property of skin with the wear-and-tear strength of tooth enamel.
Why does it matter? Selling products that can repair themselves has long intrigued manufacturers. The problem is that most “smart” coatings are made of soft polymers that wear out quickly. Harder materials are resilient but too rigid to weave themselves back together. A coating that can do both unleashes a whole new market of consumer devices — like a cellphone capable of fixing its own scratches.
How does it work? Like human skin, the coating consists of layers. The inner layer is supple and dynamic enough to self-heal. The outer layer consists of the same chemical components but includes a dash of graphene oxide to keep it rigid. According to the researchers’ study: “The hybrid multilayers can achieve a complete restoration after scratching thanks to the mutual benefit: The soft underneath cushion can provide additional polymers to assist the recovery of the outer hard layer, which in turn can be a sealing barrier promoting the self-healing of the soft layer during stimulated polymer diffusion.” Aside from healing itself, the new coating can also kill bacteria.