Reasons For Optimism 1-3

A few days ago I talked about my determination not to become overly pessimistic about the future based on current trends, mainly and simply because current trends have a way of surprising those who expect them to continue. So when I came across a handful of news articles about new medical and technological discoveries, I thought it would be appropriate to kick off a new occasional series called “Reasons For Optimism.”

1. First, we have an article (hat tip to Tyler Cowen) about a potential new virus-killing super-drug:

In a paper published July 27 in the journal PLoS One, the researchers tested their drug against 15 viruses, and found it was effective against all of them — including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, a stomach virus, a polio virus, dengue fever and several other types of hemorrhagic fever.

Tyler’s commenters make jokes about I Am Legend or talk about how only zero-point-whatever percent of potential drugs from labs and research papers actually make it through to approved production for real, living human bodies, but, hey, it still sounds pretty revolutionary.

2. Also on the medical front we have an article about a new therapy that may help beat leukemia:

Scientists for the first time have used gene therapy to successfully destroy cancer tumors in patients with advanced disease — a goal that has taken 20 years to achieve.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania engineered patients’ own pathogen-fighting T-cells to target a molecule found on the surface of leukemia cells…

Two participants in the Phase I trial have been in remission for up to a year. A third had a strong anti-tumor response, and his cancer remains in check. The research group plans to treat four more patients with CLL before moving into a larger Phase II trial.

Of course, this therapy is not free from the complicated tradeoff between the simplicity of many health solutions and the expensive amount of work it takes to discover those solutions:

All of the funding for the University of Pennsylvania’s gene therapy work has come from the academic community, but the work is expensive.

“We are looking for corporate partners as we head into Phase II trials,” Kalos said.

To the medically uneducated layperson like myself it sounds like scientists have discovered a major breakthrough for the first time ever, even if the details turn out to be murky or it takes years and billions of dollars to figure it all out. But might as well be optimistic for now.

3. Finally, on the technology side, we have a report about “Atoms entangled using microwaves for first time.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, it has do with quantum computers, which themselves have to do with quantum physics, which I won’t try to explain here, but it basically has to do with the fact that sometimes tiny things like electrons do crazy things that seem to break the normal rules of our universe (I highly recommend Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos to learn more). As engineers begin to approach the physical limits of making transistors ever tinier and ever more powerful, the weird properties of quantum physics may hold the key to not only continuing to make technology more powerful, but to do so at a level of unimaginable magnitude. At least, that’s what I sort of understand from the limited amount of reading I’ve done on the subject.

Anyway, back to the entangled microwave atoms:

NIST physicists  have for the first time linked the quantum properties of two separated ions by manipulating them with microwaves instead of the usual laser beams…

The team integrated wiring for microwave sources directly on a chip-sized ion trap, and used a table of lasers, mirrors, and lenses that is only about one-tenth of the size previously required.

“It’s conceivable a modest-sized quantum computer could eventually look like a smart phone combined with a laser pointer-like device, while sophisticated machines might have an overall footprint comparable to a regular desktop PC,” says NIST physicist Dietrich Leibfriedr.

“These components are well developed for a mass market to support innovation and reduce costs. The prospect excites us.”

Quantum computers would harness the unusual rules of quantum physics to solve certain problems—such as breaking today’s most widely used data encryption codes—that are currently intractable even with supercomputers. A nearer-term goal is to design quantum simulations of important scientific problems, to explore quantum mysteries such as high-temperature superconductivity, the disappearance of electrical resistance in certain materials when sufficiently chilled.

And like the medical breakthroughs, this one isn’t guaranteed yet, either:

The use of microwaves reduces errors – but the technique needs to be improved to enable practical quantum computations or simulations. The NIST researchers achieved entanglement 76 percent of the time, well above the minimum threshold of 50 percent defining the onset of quantum properties, but not yet competitive with the best laser-controlled operations at 99.3 percent.

But, hey, with some practice, maybe they can get that entanglement quotient up! You don’t have to completely understand what it means to know that they’re doing something awesome.

And that’s all just from this morning’s news! Who knows what untold advances await us! And now, back to your regularly scheduled fretting about the American stock market and European debt crisis